By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — His name was Pop. At least that’s what we called him growing up in the neighborhoods of Somerville, where Armenians mixed with Jews and Greeks toughed it out with Germans.
Just Pop. Could have been shortened from Popowski, since the guy claimed to be Polish and it was a word a lot easier for us kids to manipulate.
He ran a corner variety store on my street, somewhere near our school and playground. It was the place to go for a popsicle or a candy bar treat with pennies jingling in our pockets.
One day he made the ultimate admission.
“You kids know where the popsicle came from? Yup. I invented it. Sure thing. I put some flavoring in water and stuck it in the ice box. Once it stiffened up a bit, I added a stick and presto! The popsicle appeared.”
The man was a classic. At a time when neighborhood stores would give way to larger conglomerates, Pop’s Variety held its sacred ground. It was the place to go for a loaf of bread or a pound of gossip.
Money a little tight this week? No sweat. Pop would run you a tab and you could pay in more opportune times. Money played a secondary role to kindness.
We hung out on his corner with our portable radios and basketballs. He could have given us the boot, but didn’t. He was everyone’s Pop, even those who didn’t have one.
Pop had certain rules of the house. No profanity. No fighting. Be honest and upright. And keep a clean face.
On report card day, whoever made the honor roll would be rewarded with a treat. All they had to do was show their report card to Pop and he’d honor his pledge. It was like some scene out of “West Side Story.”
“In my country, we couldn’t afford to go to school,” he would tell us. “I lived with poor people. We had all we could do to survive the war and help support our families. America was good to me — good to a lot of other people, too. So be good to America.”
Life couldn’t have been better for Pop until one day when some hoods entered his store right before closing. They wanted his cash register emptied. The weasels threatened him with a gun and, when he resisted, they pistol-whipped him.
They ransacked his store and caused bodily harm. Thieves in the night had raised havoc in our peaceful neighborhood and bullied a friend to all.
Word got out the next day that the variety store had been violated and its affable owner hurt callously. Police were called. The neighborhood had been put on alert.
Who would do such a thing to Pop? It was enough to cause you to lose your faith in humanity. America — the land of opportunity — had suddenly turned into a quagmire of hostility.
Days passed and Pop had not returned to the shop that was once his haven. A sign was placed in the window. “Closed until further notice.”
The crowd hung out at an empty store. We put our heads together and decided to cheer up our hero who stood up to those renegades. We would organize a neighborhood basketball game for Pop and have him seated on our bench.
He lived in a modest apartment above the store and answered the door, his head bearing a tourniquet dressing his wound. There was no refusing “his boys.”
On the day of the big game, everyone showed up and cheered for Pop. He took his special place rather reluctantly, but was proud to be back with the gang.
A week later, Pop reopened his store and it was business as usual. The soda pop was back chilling its way inside the machine. The popsicles were again up for grabs. The popcorn was being consumed again. And Pop was more pop-ular than ever.
They never did catch the culprits, but somewhere out there, they had to live with their crime. The neighborhood was back together again.
Today, I drive by that locality and see the mega changes that have transpired. Pop’s Variety is no longer there. In its place is a Stop & Shop with a parking lot for 150 cars where our basketball court once stood.
The neighborhood school I attended has been leveled. They combined it with another across town. Many of us went to the high school and excelled scholastically and athletically. We still brought our report cards to Pop for approval.
Then, one day the shop closed for good. Pop had gone off to a better place. We held court for him and said a little prayer for the man. He lived with us and inside us.
Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.