Coming of Age at State and Packard
In 1965, it had everything a young man needed.
by Neil Haldeman
From the December, 2019 issue
You can look it up. Twenty dollars in 1965 equates to about $150 today. And in 1965 you could walk into the Campus Corner pharmacy at State and Packard and cash a check for $20, night or day, with just your driver's license. I did it countless times. This was before ATM's and a credit card in every wallet.
A corkboard behind the counter displayed dozens of bounced checks. They would make sure you didn't already have a check up there before they would cash your new one. That happened to me once. But after I paid off the bad check I was good to go again. I could cash a check the next day.
I wish I'd known who owned Campus Corner then, because it provided an amazing service. With $20 you could take your date out to dinner and a movie and maybe pick up a bottle of Boone's Farm for later. Condoms were kept behind the pharmacy counter. You had to tell the pharmacist what kind you wanted, never a comfortable task. But it was all there at Campus Corner, everything a young man needed.
Except for reading matter. Luckily, across the street at the Blue Front, Ray Collins would sell you the New York Times, Playboy, or a copy of Wuthering Heights. Collins never seemed to move from behind the cluttered counter. He was always in a shadow, like Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker.
I developed a love for reading in my first couple of years in Ann Arbor, and the Blue Front had a lot to do with that. It seemed like Collins had a paperback of every novel in the English language. They weren't well organized--many weren't even unpacked--but he knew where they were. You could wander in at ten on a Sunday night and ask for Look Homeward Angel, and he would point and mumble, "Yeah, back in the corner over there, 'bout halfway down in that big stack."
After getting my
cash, booze, and books, I'd stop at Ralph's Market, next door to the Blue Front, to pick up some Dinty Moore beef stew or a few cans of Campbell's soup. Ralph was a city councilman, always ready with an opinion on local matters. In those days I wasn't much interested, but I thought of Ralph a decade later, when I went door-to-door to register voters to help elect our first black mayor, Al Wheeler.
Ralph probably considered me just another ignorant student, and I was--but I wasn't the typical college freshman. I was twenty-two and just out of the Air Force. I had written letters to two colleges in each state (100 total) seeking a combination of work and school--I was an experienced computer programmer. A guy at U-M's Data Processing Center was the only one in the country to ask me to come for an interview. He said if I would work full-time for a year he would then let me go half-time while attending classes.
I took the job, and a year later, I applied to U-M. They laughed at me. I had had no idea that Michigan was a prestigious place.
So I went up to the admissions office and begged. A nice guy there said if I took two classes in the summer half-term and got a 'B' average, they would let me in. I took the classes, got my 'B' average, and entered LSA in 1966 on the G.I. Bill.
Soon after I got to town, my brother, a Coast Guard officer, had stopped in Ann Arbor to leave his '55 T-bird with me while he went to Vietnam. I had been lucky enough to find an efficiency apartment on White St. for $80 a month, and, with that T-bird, I was off and running in my new life.
While my brother was here, we walked over to the football stadium and bought tickets at face value from some guy on the street for the Ohio State game. The stadium was only about three-quarters full. This was a few years before they hired Bo.
The next day my brother flew out of Willow Run. He came home safely two years later, after patrolling Vietnamese rivers.
Ann Arbor was pretty much a backwater in those days. It's hard to imagine, but there were few fine restaurants downtown. To celebrate a wedding or a graduation, you would go to Weber's or the Lord Fox in Dixboro. If you had some pull, you might use the Michigan League or the Michigan Union. Near campus were the Brown Jug, Thano's Lamplighter (pizza), and the original Cottage Inn. Pizza Bob's had great sub sandwiches in addition to pizza. And, of course, Ralph's had a bottomless supply of bachelor food for home dining. But State was mostly bookstores, and Main mostly clothing stores, with one or two bars.
So, there I was--living on White St. just down from Campus Corner, a student/employee of one of the great institutions of the world. I was a smoker, because in the military everybody smoked (cigarettes cost twenty cents a pack in the post exchange store). You could smoke anywhere in those days, even in class. There were ashtrays in every classroom in Angell Hall.
Being a little older than most students, I was sometimes asked by guys standing outside Campus Corner if I would buy a bottle for them. I always obliged. That store, and the Blue Front, Ralph's, and Pizza Bob's were pretty much my social center for the next few years.
I eventually quit smoking. I moved away from State and Packard, the Blue Front and Campus Corner became altogether different enterprises, and Ralph's Market disappeared. But I still live on Ann Arbor's west side, and every time I go through that intersection something deep in my soul tightens up a bit. That little neighborhood was where I grew up, starting at the age of twenty-two.
And, thanks to the Blue Front and Ray Collins, I never lost my love of books. I married a librarian. But browsing at the library will never match my happy hours in the dark back corners of the Blue Front late on Sunday nights, looking for the one John Steinbeck I hadn't yet read.
[Originally published in December, 2019.]
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