Remember when you’d find a penny on the sidewalk and it wasn’t just a penny? It was more than that. It could actually buy something, like a Swedish fish or a gumball. Now if you find a penny heads up, you place it in your pocket and hope that luck leads you to a five dollar bill. Let’s face it, you can’t buy anything for one penny anymore, except for maybe your thoughts.
Penny candy made its big debut around 1908 at Woolworth’s Five and Dime. The candy of choice? Tootsie rolls. They were so popular that Woolworth’s adopted an entire penny candy aisle, and children everywhere rejoiced.
Candy buttons, Atomic Fireballs, Mary Janes, circus peanuts, Bazooka Joe, root beer barrels, non-pareils...they were all there waiting to be scooped. Of course, you’d have to sneak a few samples while the cashier wasn’t looking. A jellybean here, a gum drop there...she’d never notice. And if she did? Chances were she wouldn’t care.
By the time you stepped up to the cash register, your paper bag was full.
“That’ll be one dollar,” the cashier would say, and with a big, toothless grin, you’d hand over the four quarters the Tooth Fairy had left under your pillow earlier that week.
The bag wouldn’t last long, a couple of days at most. You’d take it home and barter with your siblings, “I’ll trade you two Bazooka Joes for three butterscotch!” which was a good deal if you were headed out to the baseball field. Next, you’d take it to the pool and spread some candy across your towel, the taste of sugar mixing with sunscreen. Later that afternoon, you’d pull and stretch some gummies while reading comic books in the backyard. And when empty, you’d lick the bottom of the bag where the folds had collected crumbs. When it was all said and done, you’d swear you felt another tooth loosening and fight to wiggle it free with your tongue.
Of course, you can still buy candy in bulk at the farmer’s market, on the boardwalk, or the occasional grocery store, but it’s just not the same. The fluorescent lights of the store are harsh and bright and seem to expose the fraud. See, they can call it penny candy, but it costs five bucks a pound. You’ll begrudgingly fill your plastic bag and take it up to the cashier, and she’ll place it on the scale like it’s a newborn baby.
“Nine pounds...I mean, dollars,” the cashier will command and you’ll hand over a ten that’ll come back to you as a single buck.
Immediately, you’ll be taken back to that day that turned to dusk at the top of Penny’s handmade Ferris wheel, when you reached into your pocket for that small bag of penny candy to pass the time. A small voice asks for a piece, and when you look down, it’s not your cousin asking for a piece, but your daughter. She tugs at your sleeve and looks up with those eyes that could tame a lion. Her front tooth dangles from her smile, and you know that with one Tootsie Roll, that tooth will a goner. Thank goodness you have that dollar bill to sneak under her pillow tonight as she sleeps. You smile back and hand over the bag of candy. Sure, it may cost more, but every penny is still worth it.