In 1942, the year I turned four, my father was a $17-a-week salesman at Blue Star Auto Supply on Milwaukee Avenue. And although he felt lucky to have a job since he never went to high school, let alone college, my father -- Irving Eugene Shapiro -- hungered for more: He wanted to be his own boss. So when he spotted the For Rent sign that was scotch-taped to the plate glass window of the grocery store downstairs of our apartment, Dad took it as an omen that his fortunes would change.
It was an early evening in March of that year, and I was sitting in the kitchen of our three-room-flat watching my mother cook dinner, when Dad burst through the door and proclaimed, “Let’s buy the grocery store downstairs!” My 33-year-old father must have taken the steps two-at-time for his face was flushed and he was starving for breath.
“It’ll be perfect," Dad said, "Our very own business just one flight down. We can run it together -- a mom-and-pop operation. I can see it now, Min and Irv’s Finer Foods.” He slid his palm across the air in front of him as if he were unfurling a banner with the store's name in neon. I followed his fingers, certain I could read the title, too. “We can be together all day,” he said. “I won’t have to see you just in the evenings and weekends. It’ll be terrific!”
He plucked a Camel from an open pack in his shirt pocket, lit it and inhaled deeply. Then resting the glowing cigarette on the ashtray’s lip, he turned to me and said, “You’d like me around more, wouldn’t you Princess?” He scooped me up in his strong arms -- a lift-up I loved because I could feel Dad’s biceps. When I would comment on the hard rocks stored on his upper arms, Dad would tell me how he got those muscles. “Swimming laps at the Division Street Y, the very same pool as Johnny Weissmuller.”
Although Dad may have had the strength of Tarzan of the Jungle, he had the build of a wrestler. He was short -- about 5’4” -- with a broad chest, big belly, and his legs bore black-and-blue markings. Along with my nightly ride up to his chest, I also loved that my Dad called me “Princess,” for the pet name made me feel special, unlike the ordinary “Elaine” my mother used, or “peanut” from my older brother Ronnie. “Princess” -- dainty, pretty, protected -- that’s how I felt in my father’s eyes, and in his brawny arms.
With my small arms around his neck, I brushed my fingers against his black hair -- which he wore slicked back like the movie star George Raft -- and kissed his rough cheek. “Yes, Daddy, yes,” I said, meaning every word, “I’d love to have you around more.”
"Think about the store, that’s all I ask,” Dad said, and Mom agreed to do just that. I sensed my father had his heart set on owning the store, and I hated the thought of his being disappointed. Looking back, I must’ve believed -- and perhaps Dad did, too -- that the grocery store was his big chance to prove himself to Mom, to his kids, and to himself.
So that’s how one balmy Sunday in April, 1942, two uncles on my mother’s side, and her father accompanied my family as we toured the vacant space at 2505 W. Division St., in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, that was to become the centerpiece of my childhood.
"Say yes, honey, please say yes. I know we can make a go of it," Dad said.
My mother sighed and looked at the eager gang who were hanging on her decision. “Okay,” she said softly.
“Hurray!” Dad yelled. “What should we call it -- Min and Irv’s Finer Foods? Shapiro’s Grocery? What?”
“Irv’s Finer Foods. It’s your idea, your dream," Mom said. "The store should have your name on it.”
Dad hugged Mom, then pulled Ronnie and me into their embrace.
“Yea! This is our store!” I shouted.
"It’ll be wonderful,” Dad said, drawing my mother closer to him, “just wonderful, I promise.”
Like a fox escaping a trap, Mom slipped out of Dad’s embrace and turned to watch her overjoyed family. She spread the fingers of her two hands on her thin hips and scanned the store. In a voice that did not match ours, she said, “I hope to God you’re right.”