This was retail pharmacy in the 1970s. Before there were drug chains, and managed care, and 17 different brands of the same oral contraceptive. Before there was HIPAA. And before the owner of the business became some faceless board of directors, hundreds of miles away from the pharmacy counter. I don’t offer much in the way of facts. I offer a guy’s story and its not balanced. It is an honest taste of the human side of pharmacy. And a sometimes tasteless one at that.
In the 1970′s, all the druggists at the pharmacy where I worked happened to be men. The hair was long, the moustaches were handlebar, and the sideburns were like runways. There was yards of denim, but there were NO lab jackets. It was the ME decade, not the patient decade.
How many of the hours did my boss work? I’d say ninety percent. Thats just how pharmacy was in the seventies. Eventually his marriage suffered. The end came during a matinee showing of ”Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice”. He caught his wife making out with one of the ushers. And the guy who operated the popcorn popper. .
***THE DELIVERY CAR***
OK, this wasn’t our store’s delivery car. This is what my boss bought himself after his divorce was final. It was during this period that he actually volunteered to make a few select deliveries for me. Typically to one of the lonely, single, lady customers that lived in the garden apartments behind the store. He would say, “Don’t worry Refills, I’ve got this one”. It was always the last delivery of the night. I never asked if he got decent tips.
This was the store delivery car. It had a unique safety feature: the driver-side door could only open from the outside. Its air conditioner usually quit by mid-June. During winter, I would mount a lit Sterno can on the dash to keep the windshield defrosted. In 1977 the car lost its reverse, which, according to the boss, was always an over-rated gear.
***THE JARS OF BLUE WATER***
My grandma worked in the drugstore. Some of my earliest memories were of her dusting the giant apothecary jars in the store window. She worked a feather duster over those glass bottles so they would sparkle from the sun. The jars held a mysterious blue liquid, which was a source of endless fascination for me. When I was finally old enough, my grandma got me a job there. I was hired to make prescription deliveries. A “beat-nick looking” guy, who also worked there, trained me. One day he took me to the side and whispered, ”Hey Refills, I see you keep staring at the big jars. I’ll tell you a secret. They’re filled with the same blue shit that the barber next door soaks his combs in”. Some time later he was fired under mysterious circumstances.
***THE STORE SECURITY SYSTEM***
This tiny little bell above the front door was the store security system. It jingle jangled whenever a customer walked through. My grandma was the second part of the store security system. ”Just let any of those little bastards TRY to pull some shit on me”, she would announce. ”And God Help them if they ask me where the rubbers are. I know all their mothers”.
There wasn’t a lot of variety when it came to prescription medication back then. And, like I said, the pharmacists were all guys. So whenever a prescription for Ovcon had to be filled, it was a small event. But that was nothing compared to the diaphragms. Those moments were like side shows. They were ordered by size, so the boss and the beat-nick literally had the customer’s number.
I was pretty near-sighted as a kid and could barely see out by the cash register from where I stood in the pharmacy. I had only the reactions of those two guys to rely on.
***THE SECRET CODE AND THE GREASE PENCIL***
When I wasn’t making deliveries I had to check in the drug order. It wasn’t much of a task. A typical order consisted of a few strengths of Inderal and some Ovcon. Here is how it worked:
When filling a prescription, the pharmacist needed to mark up the price that a customer would pay. It was a secret formula that started with the cost of the item charged to our pharmacy. This cost amount was also a highly guarded secret. So it was marked on each drug package with a code, by me using a black grease pencil.
This was our code:
The letters spelled out “DRY-MUG-LEVI”, so it would be easy for the staff to remember. One year, it was rumored that the code had been cracked by some German customers. So the boss was forced to changed the code to “WET-MUG-LEVI”.
***THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY***
New prescriptions were entered into the latest information processing technology:
It was fairly reliable, except once in the summer of ’77. it went down when half the metal keys got jammed together. For a few minutes we were forced to use the back up system, which was a BIC pen.
***HOW IT ALL CAME TOGETHER***
On a smoldering heatwave of a day in the summer of 1977, I was marking bottles of Inderal in secret code with a grease pencil. The boss was reading about some controversy over in the city in the afternoon edition of The New York Daily News. Our little bell above the door went jingle-jangle and a few minutes later, beat-nick was taking a prescription from a customer. He flashed the script at us, so we could see it was a prescription for Ovcon. Everything stopped. We all looked up to see one of the lonely ladies who lived in the garden apartments behind the store, standing by the register. She wanted the prescription delivered. My grandmother cursed in Italian and went up front to look for her duster.
The customer turned to reverse out of the store, but I could only make out her shape, which was Corvette. My boss, the beat-nick, and lonely lady all seemed to be members of the same club, and it didn’t include me. I watched Corvette move down the card aisle but was distracted by the apothecary jars standing in the display window. Summer light shone through them, splashing the front end with waves of sunny blue.
The typewriter started its clack clack as my boss typed the label, and the door jangled goodbye. After he deciphered the price from my tiny grease handwriting, the boss turned to me and said, “don’t worry Refills, I’ve got this one”. That was fine with me. I would rather not worry if I would be able to back the delivery car out of the parking lot.
How many of my summer pharmacy days played out like this one? I’d say ninety percent. Thats just how pharmacy was in the seventies.
by lastrefills on June 16, 2011 (Bloomsday).