Monday, March 20, 2017


Just the other day, I was playing the game Hanging with Friends on my phone, and as it happened, my best word to offer up to my challenger at the time was "gratis." That's a word you don't hear every day. Growing up, my dad used it all the time, and I wasn't sure what it meant, so one day, I asked him. His definition was simple: "free."

We didn't pay for lots of stuff in those days. As you may have read elsewhere on this blog, my dad managed a grocery store, and in that position, one benefited from many gratis deals. Food brokers gave away free promotional materials to merchants if they sold a certain level of goods or maintained a particular level of stock for an item, and my father was rather gifted in the art of grocery marketing. He would mark cans of peas that had been selling for 29 cents at three for a dollar, and they would fly off the shelves. Things like that always amazed me.

One way Dad increased sales was with his outstanding hand-lettered promotional signage. Many Sunday evenings, he would make signs at the dining room table. I admired the sleek way he drew 9's, like an elongated oval that fell back on itself. Sometimes I helped make them, and even though mine didn't look nearly as symmetrical or colorful as his, he displayed them nevertheless. Sign making was an art of sorts, and his were very eye catching. So sales were good, and we got free stuff.

Thinking back on the dizzying array of gratis items we received, I realize that we had all bases covered. Here are a few samples of gifts that were bestowed upon our family during the 1960's:
  • Cutlery - This seemed to be a very popular item. We had knife sets "of the highest quality" from faraway places like Japan. (Come to think of it, we had lots of things from Japan.)
  • Flatware sets - We received a few of these, the most notable being a 24K gold electroplated set that was stored in a rolled-up moss green plastic sleeve. This set was reserved for fancy dinners like Easter or the times when someone would bring a new boyfriend or husband over for dinner.
  • The Teem Rabbit - This was an incredible chartreuse and yellow stuffed beast, standing over five feet tall, which my Dad brought home to me one Easter. (Teem was a 1960 Pepsi product, the equivalent of the recently-introduced Sprite from Coca-Cola.) Years later, the rabbit deteriorated somewhat after we had stored it in the attic and birds had nested in its stomach. But that wasn't enough to keep our inventive, packrat neighbor Kyle Davis from asking for it, to which we generously obliged. What he did with it, I have no idea.
  • Dented cans - We received many dented cans of food, many of which were unlabeled. My dad would write the contents in grease pencil on the sides of the cans. My mom could not stand this, because a) she felt that she had no clear idea of what was really in the cans, and b) she did not want us to get botulism from breached can contamination. I shared her concerns.
  • LP's - Occasionally, we would receive gratis records. The one that stands out in my mind is a two-album set of the Chase and Sanborn 102nd Anniversary Edition radio program featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which I later found online as an MP3 (you can find anything out there). I still have those LP's.
  • Gum machine toys - It is inevitable in the operation of an urban grocery store that candy machines will be violated and will break, spilling their contents on the floor. The vendors would come and replace all the gum and toys, and in those rare cases, my dad generally scooped up some of the escaped toys and brought them home. I had several boxes of these and played with them ad infinitum.
None of this was very expensive, but oddly enough, I have kept many of the items. My mom had stored the cutlery and flatware at her house, and when she passed away several years ago, we packed them up and brought them home. Our girls are now acquiring the cutlery piece by piece as they set up their respective households.

I know I'll be fine with eventually disposing of all the gratis items except for one, and that's the moss green sleeved 24K gold flatware set. When I see that, I remember how we used it when Aunt Ida brought her boyfriend Mack and later, her new husband Herbert over for dinner. Come to think of it, just like that flatware, Herbert was a keeper.