Photo: Lori Van Buren
A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook of F.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime, a now defunct low-cost chain store that was established in 1878 and finally went under in 200. I loved shopping there, and the picture reminded me of one of many Woolworth experiences in my life.
When my youngest son was 3, I was newly in love with my second long-term partner, Dick. We had taken a day trip to the Catskills on a Sunday to go hiking on a beautiful warm late spring day. On the way home, we passed a little church fair and decided to stop and let my son go on a few rides. As we strolled through the fair, he spied one of the many games and started clamoring to be given a dime to toss on the plate and win a goldfish. The last thing in the world I wanted was a goldfish and said so. As we watched all the dimes slide right off the slippery plates, Dick turned to me and said, “What’s the harm in letting him try once? He’ll never land it on the plate anyway.” Looking at my son’s crestfallen face, I reluctantly relented then watched in horror as his one and only dime landed right in the middle of its intended target. Ugh, we walked back to the car with him clutching this plastic bag with one sickly looking goldfish.
On the ride home, Dick lectured him about pet responsibility cautioning that, if not card for properly, the goldfish would surely die. I kept insisting that it would probably die anyway given the fact that the pet stores were all closed, we had no food or bowl for this fish, and it didn’t look very healthy to me to begin with. I had previous experience with goldfish that were won at fairs, which one of many reasons I didn’t want to give him the damned dime in the first place. We got home well after dark and put the fish in a jar. As we left for school the next day, the fish was still alive, and Dick once more cautioned about pet responsibility.
As you can imagine, when we returned, the fish was floating on top of the water and my son burst into tears. He was wracked with guilt, saying repeatedly that it was all his fault for not taking better care of his fish. I was furious but decided, forgetting for a moment how much cleaning is involved with a goldfish, that the best solution to this dilemma was to get another fish with the proper equipment and give him a fair chance at raising a pet, so we drove off to Woolworths.
As luck would have it, the store was closing with everything marked down to almost nothing. We managed to get two goldfish, one of which died within a couple of days, a tank that came with gravel and filter, decorations and extra replacement filters, water purifiers, a light, net and food for under $1.00. I couldn’t believe it. They were giving everything away. We went home and settled our new pets, hoping that we would finally have success and a good lesson learned about pet responsibility.
The one surviving fish started to grow, and grow, and grow. Before long, he could barely swim at all in the tiny tank I’d bought. Dick, always soft-hearted about animals, started pestering me to buy a larger tank. I asked if he wanted to take that on since it was his fault we had this silly fish in the first place. He wanted nothing to do with it, insisting it was my fish and my responsibility. I was getting really sick of hearing that word but, bought a larger tank. Before long, the fish grew into that tank and I had to get another and another. Since we had such a large tank, we tried other tropical fish in there with him, but he ate them.
Goldfish are dirty fish and require their tanks to be cleaned often. It was a huge job now that we had such a big tank, but I grudgingly did it, my son being too young to take that on. That fish grew to be over a foot long and lived in a 50-gallon tank. Eventually, we were able to introduce catfish and bottom feeders in there with him to keep the cleaning down a bit. As resentful as I started out, we all grew to love the fish, and he was a source of much oohing and aahing by visitors. He would even let us pet him, though he was slimy, and I wasn’t interested in touching him much. He lived for over 10 years, and we all cried when he died.
That’s what I think of whenever I think about F. W. Woolworth’s, that damned fish that eased his way into the hearts of many including my own so rigidly hardened against him.