We called him the “Candy Man.”
The first time I saw him was just after we moved to south Minneapolis. He shuffled along the opposite side of E 50th St, from my parents’ house. It was summer, but the old man still wore a suit cloaked in an open overcoat. Upon his head was perched a gray fedora.
I thought he looked kind of creepy. I stopped doing whatever nine-year-olds did and watched him for the span of time it took him to traverse our block. As he passed the halfway point of the block between 36th and 35th, I found other distractions. I was nine, and it was a nice summer day.
Then some time later, from the windows above our console TV, I saw him again, heading in the other direction. “What are you doing old man?” I mumbled to myself as I sipped a cool glass of Kool-Aid. I decided that I would stay clear of him if he appeared again. I was sure he was a child abductor.
A few weeks go by, and I am playing with my newfound friends. Friends I made in school. Its fall now, but its still warm. We are playing in the vicinity of E. 50th St. when I hear my new friend Brad call out, “Candy Man!”
Brad takes off, Chris soon follows, while I search around for this “Candy Man.” There, just like a few weeks ago is an old man, dressed in a dark suit, open overcoat hanging from his shoulders, fedora shading his eyes. Brad and Chris are running towards the creepy looking old man at full speed.
I run cautiously after them, certain that my new friends would soon become my old friends. They run up to him, calling “Hey Candy Man!” Over and over. He stops and buries his hands deep in his overcoat pockets. I feel a lump form in my throat.
“Candy man, do you have any candy?” Chris calls out, stepping from foot to foot excitedly before this gray figure.
The old man nods and extracts his massive hands from his coat pockets. His left hand opens to reveal a pile of splendid colorful wrappers. Wrappers that hid the sweet succulent sugary treat called candy. He plucks a lime green piece from his palm and hands it to Chris. “Thank you, Candy Man,” he says and darts off a few feet, greedily unwrapping his prize. Brad holds out both hands, his eyes gleaming as the old man drops a red wrapped piece of candy in his hands.
The old man locks intense dark eyes on me, the corner of his mouth twists up, not in a smile, but more of a pained smirk. As though he’s seen to many horrors, lived to many painful moments, to really smile. He holds the large hand out showing me I too could have some candy.
I step up tentatively, both hands cupped, the lump lodged firmly in my throat. Like he did with Brad and Chris, he selects a piece of twist wrapped candy from his palm. Mine is tan, he drops it in my outstretched hands.
I swallow hard to move the lump, but it refuses to budge. Those gray eyes bore into my soul. I try again to swallow, but again, it refused to budge. Finally, I croak, “thank you Candy Man.”
He affords me one curt nod, fists the remaining candy, and shoves it back into his pocket with the slowness only age worn joints can allow. He takes a step forward and I step out of the way. I watch him resume his shuffling gait, heading to I have no idea were.
My mind reals. My new neighborhood has a Candy Man? Why does he give candy to little kids? Where does he come from? Where is he going?
“We think he comes from the Old Soldiers home,” Chris later says when I ask.
I can count on one hand how many times I encountered the Candy Man as I grew up in that south Minneapolis neighborhood. Sometimes, if you caught him too far east of Zips Pharmacy, he would be out of candy. That only happened to me once. I was alone. I ran up to him, did the customary, “Hey Candy Man,” call, and politely asked him for a piece of candy.
He stopped, like he always did, but grumbled something under his breath and held out an empty palm to show me I was too late. I thanked him anyway and let him get on his way. By then, I knew he would walk the remaining blocks to Hiawatha Avenue. There he would cross at the light, walk the block or so along Hiawatha to the Old Soldiers Bridge, our name for the old bridge, and cross Minnehaha Creek to the Minnesota Veterans home.
My home now. Some seventy-five years later. Shortly after landing here, I started retracing the Candy Man’s steps. I hoped I could bring the same joy to children, that that nameless old man brought to me and my companions.
The Old Soldiers bridge was rebuilt back in the nineties, but you couldn’t tell that now under all the graffiti. I cross Hiawatha at the same intersection, always with the light. To old and slow to outrun the commuter train that wasn’t there in the Candy Man’s days. The train platform is littered with homeless and meth’d up kids looking for a free ride to the old Mall of America. It’s vacant now, but the city of Bloomington cannot afford to tear it down. It is a megaplex of drugs, prostitution, and death.
As I cross the tracks, a Minneapolis Department of Public Safety car pulls up. I see the female officer slinging her Narcan pack. Someone must have called in an overdose. I do what all good citizens do in this city when there is a crisis, I pretend I didn’t see it.
As I continue my own arthritic gait along E. 50th St., the signs of decay make my heart hurt. This was such a vibrant neighborhood when I was a kid. Making the transition from the old people who established the neighborhood to the baby boomers who were replacing them.
Both sides of the broad avenue are littered with boarded up and burned-out homes. The few store fronts the eastern stretch of the avenue offered were gutted years ago. I pass my old house on the left. A white stucco bungalow. Its blackened windows offering the hollow look of the dead. Its covered porch long torn off by a stiff wind. It’s chain link fence twisted and orange with age and neglect.
Next to it, an abandoned retirement home. One of its seven story towers collapsed into rubble. It replaced what was supposed to be my junior high. Instead, I took a bus across town to Sanford Junior High. I couldn’t tell you if it still existed. Most of Minneapolis schools were shuttered for budgetary reasons.
I reach what used to be Zips Pharmacy. The building still sits on the corner of E. 50th and 34th Ave. it is now a marijuana dispensary. Free to anyone without the ability to pay, courtesy of a broke city.
If children approached me for candy, I would turn left, walk the three more blocks to the Speedway. It used to be a gas station, but now it sells milk and cigarettes to what few residences remain in this part of the city. Those that can afford cars don’t need gas. They just plug them in.
I turn, face east, and resume my shuffle. Nope, no children run up to me and ask me for candy. Sometimes a homeless person will ask for a smoke. One kid did run up to me, offered to carve me up if I didn’t give him some cash. I gave him what I had. I wasn’t going to die over twenty bucks.
I used to love this city. Not sure why I returned. Actually, I do. The last thing on my bucket list was to be the Candy Man.
I guess this old soldier will go to his grave, bucket list unfulfilled.