Confessions of a soda jerk; or life’s embarrassing moments

Being a soda jerk could be educational.  Well, at least it was for me, a rather naïve teenager who spent three school nights a week and every Saturday and Sunday working at the neighborhood pharmacy, Whipp Drugs.  (For those familiar with the Milwaukee area, it was located at N. 72nd Street and W. North Ave. in the same building now occupied by the Chinese Pagoda.  The exterior looks much like it did in my teen years.) 

imagesI started in 1944, the summer I turned fifteen, when the mysteries of women and sex were still a fearful wonder, partly due to my mother who raised us under the strictest rules a Catholic child of the era could face.  She had lost her own mother at age eleven and by her high school years she had been shunted off by her father and stepmother to a convent to instill her with every rule in the Pope’s religion.  Thus, for example, under penalty of sin, you were not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the Sunday when you were to receive communion . . . and then, you couldn’t eat anything after receiving the host until you drank a glass of water.  God was watching and would penalize. 

Also, Waldemar Whipp, who owned the drugstore and lived above it with his wife, believed in the same strict rules of the Church. 

As excited as I was about being a soda jerk (and particularly with Mr. Whipp’s astounding suggestion that I could eat as much ice cream and drink as many Cokes as I wanted), I quickly learned that I was also a clerk, stocker and floor cleaner.  Usually I was the only employee in the store with Mr. Whipp; occasionally, he’d leave me alone while he went up to eat dinner with his wife.  (I even filled simple prescriptions!) 

My lack of understanding about sex was tested early on when a man aged about thirty asked for a strange item I had never heard of before.  My ignorance was testing his patience and he asked for the pharmacist; he was disappointed when I said he was not available (he was eating dinner).  Finally, he leaned over the counter and said, “You know, rubbers.”  Finally, thanks to boy talk at school, I knew that “rubbers” had something to do with sex, though I wasn’t sure what.  I knew it wasn’t something the Lord would approve.  Nor would Mr. Whipp who refused to stock them due to his Catholic beliefs. 

I told him we didn’t stock such things.  “You’re sure,” he thundered.  “I never heard of a drugstore not selling rubbers.”  He stormed out of the store. 

One dinner time, I was again alone in the store, jabbering at the soda fountain with a buddy who was enjoying a lime phosphate.ii  In walked an older lady, tiny and shy-acting.  She looked furtively around the store and I greeted her at the counter where we had the cash register. 

“I need a box of sanitary napkins,” she said. 

I pictured paper table napkins; I swear I’d seen a package of such dinnertime use labelled “200 Sanitary Napkins.” 

“Oh ma’am, we haven’t had those since Pearl Harbor,” I replied.  (Paper goods of all sorts were largely off the shelves by the early years of World War II.) 

The woman couldn’t have been more shocked.  “No, they can’t be.  I’ve bought them here before.” 

“You couldn’t have.  We can’t even get them from our supplier.” 

In the corner of my eye, I could see my friend (who was more knowledgeable in the mysteries of life) snickering. 

The woman leaned over the counter and in a very soft, almost whispery tone said, “Kotex.” 

“Oh Kotex,” I said out loud, causing her no end of embarrassment I’m certain.  My buddy bursted into outright guffaws. 

I knew Kotex, of course.  Mom had boxes of the stuff; also, one of my chores at the store had been to put the Kotex and Modess boxes into special brown paper bags made specifically for the purpose off hiding these female items from the public eye.  (I always wondered how they could find paper for such a purpose, when goods like toilet paper and facial tissues were always in short supply during the war.) 

Whipp Drugs – even though the strict Catholic Waldemar Whipp might not have wanted it that way – helped educate a simple boy into the ways of life.  – Ken Germanson.  Aug. 26, 2017. 

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50 years later: Any progress on ending racism in Milwaukee?

Is Milwaukee less racist than it was 50 years ago when the disturbances in the summer of 1967 ended up with three deaths, many injuries, looted storefronts and put the city in a weeklong curfew?

As one who has lived in Milwaukee for nearly all his 88 years and has seen change occur, you’d hope I could say it has. Unfortunately, the answer is neither a yes or a no.

In a few ways, of course, racism is less apparent. Our neighborhoods, including those all-white enclaves of the 1960s that flushed up nasty demonstrators to taunt the open housing marchers, are now racially mixed, though some to a far lesser extent than others. Every previously white neighborhood has at least a smattering of families of color. In every area the presence of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples is common.

Some of the north side neighborhoods, however, have become nearly 100% African-American with the appearance of a white citizen almost as rare as albino animals in a deer herd.

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Racism took a graphic form in months leading up to August 1967 riots in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area is still perhaps the most segregated in the United States. Nearly all of our suburbs are solidly white, the exceptions being Shorewood, Glendale and to a lesser extent Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay.

In the 1960s — and continuing through the 1980s — many of my black friends would be fearful of crossing Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line (the Menomonee River valley) to enter the South Side. Now that has changed with African-Americans freely coming south. On the other hand, many whites are afraid to enter many of our North Side wards, while many of our suburban friends are even afraid to come downtown.

In 1967, Milwaukee a child’s school was determined largely by his or her neighborhood, resulting in many all-white and all-black schools and others with severe imbalances in the races. Now, even with school-busing, little has changed, thanks to the flight of many whites to the suburbs (less than 30% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Caucasian today) and the creation of voucher and charter schools in which parents have chosen to send their kids to schools that best match their own racial identity. (Of the 76,856 students in MPS schools in 2016, some 88% were students of color and 80% of all students were economically disadvantaged, according to district statistics.)

And there’s no evidence that children are generally better educated in voucher or charter schools than in the highly unbalanced MPS schools.

We repeatedly hear evidence that there’s little progress in making Milwaukee less racist. It’s been well-reported that Milwaukee’s incarceration rate for black males is the highest in the nation with more than half in their 30s and 40s having served time. Zip Code 53206 on the near North Side has been shown to have the highest rate of homicides of any zip code in the U.S.

Nationally, the income gap between whites and blacks remains largely what it was in 1967, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households in the middle income levels earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s likely the gap may even be greater.

Also, note that Milwaukee has had a number of police shootings, with the one in Sherman Park in August 2016 setting off disturbances reminiscent to those in 1967, though with few deaths and injuries.

Despite that, in many ways Milwaukee is working to becoming less racist. Though the mayor and county executive are both white, minorities are well-represented on the Common Council and County Board; both executives are sympathetic toward programs to end racism (some would argue they may be too timid, however). There are numerous public and private efforts aimed at reducing the disparities in the community, as well as public-private strategies. The church community, most major businesses and the media tend to be supportive.

There is a spirit of hope in the air, but regrettably, there’s a lot of inertia and apathy to overcome. There’s some downright opposition, mainly from suburban and out-state sources. The state government shows little inclination to help the city; in fact it is working to undercut many of the efforts through its starvation of funds.

Meanwhile, within the community there must be continued and even greater involvement in ending the racism that still rests within too many of us. — Ken Germanson, August 1, 2017