Friday, September 12, 2014

The Passion of Herbert Eccles

This here bit is chapter three of a purported 39-chapter severum opus that I will finish someday, having thirteen chapters completed. It follows the life of one Hebert Eccles, his boyhood in the fictional neighborhood of Park Terrace ... and beyond. This chapter chronicles young Herbert's early days (eighth grade) in an unremarkable career of entrepreneurship.

Herbert's unremarkable parents own the Bayview Market. That's about all you need to know. Yes, I know it's gloomy, offbeat and unremarkable. Just as I am.


Chapter 3

Herbert Eccles's last year at St. Dymphna's School was unremarkable. He started the grow a bit; the rosy Campbell's-Soup cheeks began to melt away.

Although Herbert was never the object of teasing anymore, he still didn't blend in with most of the crowd. During the previous summer, Herbert's sole friend, Nipper Clarity, suffered a major setback in his life. He withdrew from everyone, even more than Herbert Eccles did.

Tina Vargo never returned to St. D's. Her mother, citing bullying from classmates, placed her in the tony Bayfield Country Day School, a rich-kids' enclave in a neighboring suburb.

Herbert's bottle-return business thrived, however. He hired three younger kids from the neighborhood. Each was assigned a list of customers and a single store to bring returns. One went to Bayview Market to redeem the bottles; Mr. and Mrs. Eccles never caught on.

Herbert Eccles would give the kids a third of the net profits. He even allowed them to establish their own clients, keeping careful records, so that none overlapped.

But Herbert, a burgeoning businessman, saw there was a ceiling to his business. He looked into a newspaper route, but knew he wouldn't like the cold weather, especially delivering the Despatch on Sunday, when the paper was the fattest and the mornings frigid.

None of the merchants on the Ave would take him on, citing Herbert's age as a deterrent.
Herbert Eccles decided to open a savings account at Park Terrace Bank and Trust. In order to do so, he trod into a gray area: lying. When the officer at the bank said Herbert needed a parent present to sign for the account, he wove a simple story, which he told with an open face and innocent, somewhat sad voice.

Herbert Eccles said that his father was ill and unable to come to the bank. Would it be alright if he brought the form home? The man seemed to take pity on Herbert and assented.

It cost Herbert Eccles two Yoo-Hoos and a pack of Sen-Sen to get Tommy English to sign Mr. Eccles's name. His friend was a tad reluctant, since his father was a bigwig at the bank.

Herbert said that Tommy shouldn't sweat it. Why should his father pay attention to a small bank account opened by a kid?

In a few months, Herbert Eccles had amassed close to two hundred dollars. He rarely withdrew any funds but would leave a couple of dollars out for himself after his weekly runs, documenting all transactions in a notebook.

This financial security led to a nascent independence for Herbert Eccles. One his favorite indulgences was to take the bus downtown. The ride from P. T. would normally cost a quarter, but Herbert found out that any kid could get a student bus card. Even though he never took a bus to school, he didn't see why he shouldn't shave a dime off the fare on the Maroon Line.

All this happened just has the first mall in the area was under construction. Ergo, downtown was still bustling. Department stores like Rowland's and Meade's. Count Graf's music store, where you could pick out records and actually play them in soundproof booths. Even though he had no record player, Herbert would buy singles every now and then, as long as they had pictures of the band on the sleeve. He'd take them home and wrap them in cling film. Later, when he bought albums, he'd keep them in the package. He would buy monophonic records when he could because they were a dollar cheaper.

Herbert Eccles discovered real food, too. He would have the occasional BL&T at Woolworth's lunch counter, but his favorite place was Chad's Steaks. For $1.89, one could get a gristly steak, a lump of iceberg lettuce and a wooden piece of garlic toast. Herbert always drank ice water with his meal, thus saving a quarter on soda.

On his first visit, he was amazed at the flames leaping from the grill and that he had to take a tray and slide it down rails to pick up his food. When arrived at the grill, the owner, a burly man with hairy forearms and a stained apron, asked him what number steak he wanted.

Herbert Eccles hesitated, then looked at the backlit menu behind the grill. He said Number One, because that was the cheapest. The word sirloin sounded wonderful to him.
Then the man asked him how would he like it cooked. No one had ever posed Herbert Eccles this question. He began to stammer. Chad smiled at him beneficently and told him medium would be good. Herbert just nodded.

Then a second person plopped his “salad” on the plate. Further down was a series of chilled metal vats of various dressings. This was also untrammeled ground for the boy: He had to both choose what type (each had a labeled ladle) and serve himself.
Settling in his seat, Herbert Eccles discovered in one bite that meat didn't have to be gray—or hard to stomach. His steak knife parted the cheap sirloin handily. The juicy, fatty steak was actually pink on the inside, another first. Instead of having to chew it vigorously, Herbert cradled the meat in his mouth. It was so alien, so juicy that he was reluctant to swallow.

Herbert Eccles felt like was having the first meal of his life. He didn't have to rush and didn't miss the droning backdrop of boring store talk. The bleu cheese dressing mesmerized him. He tried some of the various condiments on the table. He could add as much as he wanted—at any time—without having to ask permission. He even found a newspaper on a nearby table, looked around, and appropriated it, reading the comics, feeling very grown up. He didn't realize it, but he stayed nearly an hour. As he ate and read, Herbert didn't notice the restaurant staff, nodding and smiling at him. Finally, Herbert Eccles reluctantly finished his last bite of steak. It was a meal he didn't want to end.

Before he left, he saw a paper cup at the register marked “TIPS.” A little unsure of himself, he decided to throw caution to the winds and deposit a quarter into the cup.

A nearby waitress smiled and said thank you, sir. Sir. The word sang in Herbert's head all the way home. He was sated; he had been the recipient of fine service and an outstanding meal. He felt a remarkable, totally new sense of well-being.

When he arrived home after dark, his parents didn't ask why he missed dinner. They had their trays and Swanson's in front of them. Jack Benny was on.


On subsequent trips downtown, Herbert Eccles would occasionally try another restaurant. But Chad's remained his favorite. He now ordered confidently; sometimes he would splurge thirty cents on a slice of cheesecake: another new treat that Herbert adored.

One day in March, Herbert Eccles did his homework during one of Sister Hilda's boring lectures. Sister Wilt had been reassigned. Hilda was even more stern, her voice a reptilian hiss. And she favored the girls.

The afternoon turned unseasonably warm. Unencumbered with books, Herbert hopped on the Maroon Line on the Ave, only two blocks from school. He had no plans, certainly not a steak stop; it was too pricey for him.

Hard next to Meade's department store was Goldstein's Deli. Herbert had entered just once. They had a variety of sandwiches, most of them three dollars or more. A staffer told him he had to order or move on. This was a business.

Ashamed, Herbert asked for a ham-and-cheese sandwich. The clerk practically snarled when she said they didn't have that. Her baleful stare followed him out the door.
On this day, Herbert Eccles stumbled into a man right near Goldstein's door. Herbert excused himself immediately.

That's okay, said the man. Herbert took a look at him. He was a grownup, but not old like the Eccleses. The man looked tired; his shoulders sagged; they looked to Herbert as if they bore an extreme weight.

Herbert found himself inquiring what was wrong.

The man shrugged and said business. It was all about business. His mouth turned slightly upward into a wry grin.

Herbert Eccles said that he was a businessman and then answered questions about his bottle route.

The man motioned Herbert over to a nearby bench. He reached into a plaid, insulated bag and withdrew a rectangular cardboard carton. It was pure white, with no labeling. Opening a plastic spout, he poured a white liquid into a Dixie cup. Try this, he said, offering it to Herbert.

It was milk. Plain old milk. The man asked Herbert how he liked it. Herbert said it was just fine.

The man then explained that two hours ago, this milk had been at room temperature. It was the first milk that didn't need refrigeration. Shelf-stable, the man kept repeating. But the stores weren't going for it. Even though he could make it more cheaply and stores could save on electricity, customers didn't like the look of milk on a shelf.

Herbert said well, there's nothing wrong with it.

The man said his name was Kurt Sauglings. Herbert introduced himself, and they shook hands. Herbert made sure to use as firm a grip as possible.

The Herbert told Sauglings about his father's store. He asked if he could take some milk home to show. The man grinned, gave Herbert Eccles a business card and a warm, quart-sized container.

Herbert asked if he could call Sauglings sometime. The man just smiled and said sure. Herbert Eccles was already brewing his first Big Idea.


It just happened that the Eccles threesome ate dinner together that night. Herbert's parents were celebrating a new line of cereal called Poppin' Clusters. It tasted like popcorn, and kids were begging their moms to buy it.

Loretta Eccles even trotted out some slightly stale, leftover cupcakes from the store for dessert. Her son saw his chance. He said, I'll get the milk. No one had noticed the plain white carton that Herbert had hidden in the fridge after he arrived home.

Herbert Eccles returned from the kitchen with three glasses of the “new” product.

Hmmmm, said George Eccles, nothing like ice-cold milk with cake. Herbert hustled into the kitchen and returned with the carton.

Herbert's parents looked at the box as if it were radioactive. Loretta actually shrank back. George asked what it was.

Herbert answered that it was what they were now drinking, that it had been warm just two hours ago. He dared to say that he had met the manufacturer and that the product should be vended at the Bayview Market, since it could be stored on the shelf.

Herbert Eccles sat there, awaiting the reaction he knew would come. No one will buy milk off a shelf, his father said. We have a contract with Beechtree Dairy. Did Herbert know what a contract was? And who did he think he was, trying to suggest how his parents should run their store. He was a child, not a businessman.

Herbert endured the speech, trying to act sheepish. He apologized with ersatz fervor and promised to never make such suggestions again. All the while he was thinking of something on a grander scale.

In addition to the Eccles parents being unremarkable, they were equally incapable of change.

Herbert went to bed thinking, but I am a businessman.

Herbert Eccles didn't hone his Big Idea until the next day. Just before lunch, he saw the Beechtree truck pull up. Two men loaded wire cases of cold, half-pints of milk into the large refrigerator in the basement of the school. The delivery came every day in the same fashion.

At lunchtime, Herbert received his carton of Beechtree milk. It came in a cube-shaped wax-paper container. At one corner, he had to remove two foil strips that sealed the product. As often happened, the foil would work its way under the fingernails, causing a sharp stab of pain.

Ignoring his lunch (and his milk), Herbert's brain was roiling. After school, he sped down to Macaulays Pharmacy and used his change to make a call to Cranford, some 20 miles down the line. It took him a while to get Mr. Sauglings on the line.

Herbert dived right in to his Big Idea. He ran out of change, but Sauglings called him back. Finally, after hearing Herbert out, he gave him an okay to proceed.

Herbert Eccles ran back to the school. He knew Father Socks Molloy would be coming out soon to read his breviary. Herbert accosted the priest before he could open his prayer book. Still out of breath, Herbert told the cleric that he had a plan to save the school money.

Father Molloy was a remarkable man. And kind. He smiled at Herbert and asked how. Herbert didn't want to give anything away, so he asked the priest of he could use pen and paper in the rectory while Father prayed. Shaking his head, he showed Herbert into his office and set him up. Herbert asked how many students were at St. Dymphna's and the priest said about four hundred fifty. Then Herbert Eccles went to work. He didn't pray as he scrawled numbers on a sheet of paper.

Herbert Eccles figured there were one hundred eighty days in the school year. He also knew the Beechtree price was twelve cents a carton. Undercutting that by two cents, Herbert went to work.

When Father returned, Herbert Eccles had littered his paper with numbers. The priest asked what this was all about. Herbert answered that he could save the school $1620 per year.

The pastor asked what he had to buy. Herbert answered that it was something the school already bought. Then he gave Father Kurt Saugling's business card and said all he had to do was call.


Early in the next week, someone knocked on Sister Hilda's classroom door. She was in the midst of a stern philippic on how slow dancing was a mortal sin. She marched to the door and spat angrily at the student who gave her a note. She came back, breathing fire, telling Herbert Eccles that he was wanted, forthwith, in Father Socks Molloy's office.

Herbert nearly danced over to the rectory. Sitting in the office were the pastor and Mr. Sauglings. Each had a beaker of milk in front him. On the desk were two milk packages, just like the one Herbert had brought home. Only smaller, about a cup each.

Father clapped Herbert on the shoulder and praised him for his idea. He announced that the Sauglings company would have a month's trial run at St. Dymphna's. After a cluster of handshakes, Herbert and Sauglings left.

Kurt Sauglings seemed to be walking straighter, shoulders back. As he thanked Herbert, he said how this could rescue his company. He offered Herbert a commission of a half-cent per unit.

Herbert Eccles had already done some math on this and, knowing that the price of milk would eventually rise, demanded ten percent of profits, for all schools. Herbert said that there were other schools out there.

Sauglings cupped his chin in his hands, grinned, shook his head, then shook hands with Herbert Eccles. He said that Herbert probably already had a plan.
Herbert shook back and said he did.


The new milk program began two weeks later. Mr. Sauglings had a truck deliver a month's worth of milk, which was stored in the basement. Father Molloy hired Herbert Eccles to supervise two other students to unload the proper number of units per day and place them in the refrigerator before school in the morning. Herbert picked Tommy English and Dark Mark Longeuil to help him. Each student received a dollar a week from the pastor.
Some of the pupils were surprised to see the milk cartons, but relented when they realized the milk was easier to open, colder (because it was chilled that day and didn't ride on a truck), and, well, tasted like milk.

Even the nuns liked it, because straws were no longer necessary. This was Herbert's idea. When kids flipped the lid up, a small drinking spout emerged from the package. With the Beechtree product, resourceful boys would take the foil and fold into tiny triangles, which they then shot through the straws, making for painful little projectiles.

Mr. Sauglings began to visit Park Terrace more often. After two weeks of the new program, the man caught up Herbert after school. He told Herbert that Father Molloy had signed on for the rest of the school year—and the next. He gave Herbert an envelope and told him to open it. Inside was a check for $52.48. It was the first check Herbert Eccles had ever received.

Then the pair turned to see an odd sight. Parked by the rectory were a Beechtree truck and a long, black Cadillac. A driver and a man in a rich-looking suit. They seemed to be shouting at Father. He just shrugged his shoulders and strode into the rectory, leaving the men behind.

To celebrate, Sauglings took Herbert downtown to Chad's Steaks.

Herbert Eccles had the $3.99 ribeye. Medium. And cheesecake.

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