In those days there was a scale. A mortar & pestle, an ointment slab
and always a torsion balance scale. A drugstore was unimaginable without
it, like a barber without scissors or a shoemaker without nails in his
mouth smelling of glue.
my father place weighing papers on each side, adjust the bar until the
sides balanced, then tap powder from an apothecary jar; sometimes it was
crystalline granules, sometimes more powdery or it could have been black
and gooey like ichthammol. I saw him finesse the spatula, remove a smidge,
add back a half-smidge.
On the other side he placed weights, grains and scruples. The apothecary
system, before metric, was still in use. It was a vestige from ancient
times when pharmacists were sorcerers, bark and berry-pickers, shamans
and alchemists, when potions bubbled in smoky cauldrons, eye of newt,
feather of finch.
When he opened any jar a breath of the old world escaped. Flowers of sulfur
bloomed. Ammonia mingled with camphor, aloe with fennel. There were leaves
macerating, volatile oils in the air. They would cling to his smock and
his pores. I inhaled a lungful and it is lodged in my memory vault safe
from this deodorized world.
My father weighed and measured everything and not only when he presided
between globes of colored water. He calculated benefits of doing against
risk of refusing, as if the scale was there in front of him. I dont
know if that deliberation was an extension of his pharmacy, or if he brought
it in with him.
In his quiet passion he ground Nazis into dust with his pestle. He carried
immiscible voices inside himself, vehemence and containment, unsayable
curses and hummed songs. With an enormous silence he balanced the scale.
There was an incoherent complaint addressed to the world bellowing from
my mother which he swallowed. He converted it to a hidden fist against
racism and the ruling class. Yet he could neither overthrow the government
or my mother. The effort to keep the scale at equipoise was his special
The air he gave off was equal parts resignation and the assertion of a
low decibel rage with competing vapors from elixirs and fluidextracts.
It was as if fetid rhizomes and pungent roots were vying against odiferous
buds and intoxicating herbs, having reached some conciliation.
That indefinable drugstore smell may be the exhalation of natural forces.
Dank, serpentine shoots that live unseen in deep soil, cut, dried and
triturated with sun-soaked tendrils ever-climbing and their stored breath
The full measure of the man was the scale of social justice he carried.
When the FBI knocked at our door he stood steadfast and close-mouthed
as they asked for names. They knew about our subscription to the Daily
Worker and the meetings in our apartment. He refused them and that silence
was his spine.