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A Fool and His Bottlecaps

Beating “The System” at the Rosetta Theater
Little River, Florida, 1957

By John Troesser

In the year of 1957 I was uprooted from an idyllic childhood in what was just beginning to be called a “suburb” into a neighborhood that city planners now call “light industrial.” It was like taking a plant from the fertile loam of a nursery and transplanting it into thick clay soil. It was Nietzschean in that if the experience didn’t kill me, I would emerge stronger than my pampered contemporaries in Biscayne Gardens.

My new environs came complete with a two-track railroad spur, an eerie abandoned opened-air theater (circa 1928), a canal with manatees and a castor-bean “forest.” For a ten year old boy, it was a paradise.

My father had bought a 1920s-era two story hotel with rooms above and two storefronts below. Suddenly my “interface” with adults increased from simply meeting teachers (and an occasional parent) to a Runyonesque world of working-class men and societal castoffs. It was an unusual world where ne’er-do-wells were often looked upon as “success stories.”

Among the scores of men that I met there were itinerant sign painters, retired newspaper press room operators, milk men, ambulance drivers, short-order cooks, concentration camp survivors, a Greek veteran from WWI, a lone “beatnik” from Coney Island (slightly ahead of his time) and a full-blooded Indian from Oklahoma named “Chief.”

It would’ve been difficult to assemble such a motley collection of humanity outside of a federal prison, but these were all honest and moral men – which, if you think about it; goes a long way in explaining their common poverty.

The “hotel” was directly across the street from a bottling plant of Borden’s Dairy and tenants either got used to the cacophony of 150 trucks being loaded with bottled milk all night long, or else they found other quarters. After hours of clinking and occasional bottle crashes, about 5:00 AM, the open-door milk trucks with the drivers perched on pedestal seats (or standing) would pour out of the parking lot like the opening credits of Hill Street Blues.

The two storefronts of the pale yellow stucco building were both occupied in 1957-58. One by “Ralph’s Italian Grocery,” which was run by a “displaced” Italian woman named “Libby.” Ralph was her war-disabled husband that we rarely saw. The other store was a television repair shop run by a man named Criswell. He was a friendly guy with me, but then again, I was the landlord’s son. Since Criswell was always behind in both his work and rent, he felt obliged to open his shop at night so that the other guests could watch television. I think it gave him a sense of immunity against eviction.

On Monday evenings (Gillette Fight Night), lawn chairs would be set up facing the plate glass window and we would gaze at three or four separate televisions screens. The reason for multiple screens was to insure against sudden screen blackouts – or “crap-outs” as the men called them. If you’re old enough to remember people watching TV through the windows of furniture stores, it was something like that – except our place looked as if the store had been looted by an angry mob.

The odds of the televisions keeping their horizontal or vertical holds throughout the show were low – after all, the sets were all there to be repaired. Sound would come from televisions with blank screens while pictures might come from naked picture tubes sitting atop detached chassis with their eviscerated electronic “guts” draped over the side.

My job was like a ball boy at a tennis match. From my stool in the doorway, I followed the directions given to me by the viewers – and went from TV to TV adjusting the controls. I felt like one of those plate-spinners on the Ed Sullivan show. The men seemed to enjoy seeing my frustration and I know there were times when I was more interesting than the fights. Considering that the show was free, the audience was pretty demanding.

The far-sighted members of the group (and the term is used literally) kept moving their chairs further away from the window and I recall one evening when a passing police car had to remind the offenders that they were actually sitting in a lane of Second Avenue. The traffic at that time was so light (in that part of town) that it was an easy mistake to make. I do remember the cops (two to a car back then) waiting until the round was over before moving on and then returning later to learn who had won.

Libby’s store was not unlike any small town grocery – down to the red Coca-Cola buttons on either side of the white enamel sign that read Ralph’s Italian Grocery. Young people today might not recognize the cashier’s counter. First, there was no Plexiglas shield and the cash register was one of those solid brass jobs that took three men to move. Libby’s chair held two phone books to raise her to counter level.

Seven-Eleven stores (that were then just making their appearance in the late fifties) reported bread, milk, eggs and beer as their best-selling items. At Libby’s the most frequently sold items were beer, razor blades, lighter flints, sen-sen, hair oil and plastic combs. Liquid offerings included half pints of Old Grandad, Old Crow, Four Roses or quarts of Italian Swiss Colony wine. Libby also stocked a few bottles of Manichewitz for the occasional slumming connoisseur or the wino who wanted to keep Kosher.

Of course soft drinks were also hot-selling items and they were kept ice-cold in actual chipped ice. (What a concept!) By the end of each business day, the box mounted bottle openers would be overflowing with bottle caps. Once a day at closing, Libby would sweep up and throw away the bottle caps from the opener’s detachable base. The caps were then thrown in back of a billboard that sat alongside the building. This practice had evidently been going on for sometime because when I found it, one could literally sink to ones knees in the morass of caps. It was a quicksand of cork, cleft steel and chipped paint.

While Monday Night Fights was the high point of the week for the tenants, Saturday mornings was mine.

The late 50s was the era of Saturday Morning Movie Matinees all over the country. Actually it was an unspoken national conspiracy to allow husbands and wives to enjoy some time together without the kids. Every theater had their own variation, but usually the presentation was a double feature with up to ten cartoons and a drawing for prizes — the winner to be determined by his or her ticket stub. The prizes were usually boring board games but on occasion there would be something serious like a bicycle.

Even if the kids paid the full price of twenty-five cents — I didn’t understand how the theater made money. Concession prices, unlike today, were rooted in reality and fair dealing. It was at the Rosetta Theater that I learned the term "volume" was more than a dial on a broken television.

One day I was shown an ad in the newspaper. I believe it was shown to me by “Jerry” our one and only ex-con who was sort of the hotel’s mascot. He was the “bad-boy” that they others weren’t. He had a low mumble like Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol. He pushed the paper at me and pointed with a nicotine-stained finger. I'll never forget his life-changing words. He said: “Here, kid, lookit this.”

The ad stated that “selected” theaters would “honor” six Pepsi-Cola bottle caps in lieu of the .25 cent admission. I immediately checked to see if the Rosetta was one of the theaters and (hallelujah!) it was. I figured that Pepsi was running short of bottle caps and they were bending them back into shape to be reused. Or perhaps the United States treasury had finally allowed bottle caps to be used as currency. There I was – sitting on the mother lode of bottle caps – a good many of them from Pepsi.

I immediately gathered up over a hundred bottle caps. Like countries measure their future in oil reserves, I measured mine in bottle caps. By my calculation, I could attend free matinees until I was thirty-five.

My solitary existence in a playmate-deficient part of town didn’t make it easy to make friends. Outside of school, I rarely saw other kids other than at the matinees and most of them were strangers.

The next Saturday, I cautiously approached the cashier’s booth, half expecting a trap. The offer seemed too good to be true. I had a quarter in my other hand just in case I had misunderstood the ad.

The “woman” ticket-taker (who was actually about sixteen) didn’t miss a beat. She took my six bottle caps as if they were nickels. Now, if this idea was to catch fire and apply to other consumer items, I could easily buy a car or a house with the Comstock lode of bottle caps I had access to.

Having more than I needed, I passed a few out to other kids. I soon became a ten-year old Diamond Jim Brady – treating a group of newfound friends to free admission. I’d meet them on 79th Street and count out six bottle caps to each one. I got smiles and thanks but after we were in the theater, I wasn’t invited to sit with any of my new “friends.” The group increased in size week by week and for awhile, I was the prince of Little River. I could spot the gathered group from a block away and as I approached, I would hear someone say “There he is!” No one had bothered to ask my name.

The demand for caps grew more and more and I was having to dig deeper into the Bottle Cap Swamp. Soon, the “woman” at the box office started rejecting rusty caps. I think she suspected something was “up” and I wasn’t really drinking all that Pepsi.

The pressure on me was growing each week and one Saturday I decided to just quit. I took a detour and skirted the crowd, entering the theater from the north. I could see my opportunistic friends waiting for me on the corner while I smugly went inside. I saw a boy I knew – one who paid his own admission (with cash). It felt pretty good. I would’ve felt “unburdened” had I known the meaning of the word back then.

The promotion was discontinued soon afterwards. I think my scam might have lowered Pepsi stock or caused layoffs at the factory. But for a few brief Saturdays, I learned that popularity comes with a price – and its not always worth it. I also learned that it’s much better to sit with one “old” friend who knows your name than to pay for the privilege of not sitting with a lot strangers.

August 17, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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