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Jerry’s Ink: Condoms and Life Savers

On Feb. 27, Conan O’Brien opened his show and said, “As of tomorrow, Rick Santorum will be assigned Secret Service agents. Did you know that? Yeah, this is historic: It’s the first time Santorum has agreed to use any kind of protection.”

Which brings me to my great marketing insight as to how over-the-counter sales of condoms made Life Savers the most successful and profitable candy brand of the 1950s.

In 1957, when a 15- or 16-year-old boy would go into a pharmacy to purchase a box of condoms, it was the most tension-provoking, frightening purchase a young man could make.


On one side were his raging hormones. On the other side was the church, the Legion of Decency (a powerful Catholic group), his family, society, censorship—a quietly repressive political climate that sanctimonious politicians used to win votes. It was a world of shame and guilt that Rick Santorum wants to bring back when he’s (don’t laugh) elected.

Unlike the giant megastores of today, pharmacies in those days were tiny stores and there was a good chance the proprietor knew your parents. So one would slink in when the owner was out. Head down, you would make it to the front to where the condoms were kept behind the counter. You would look at the floor and mumble.

A voice from behind the counter would say, “WHAT?” You then would look up into the eyes of a girl from your school who sat four seats away from you in your social studies class; this was her part-time after-school job.

“What would you like?” she would say in a voice so loud you knew your mother sitting in her living room a mile away could hear.

“I would like er … er … er … A PACK OF LIFE SAVERS!”

I bought hundreds, thousands of packs of Life Savers. I was responsible for a full share point of their national sales.

Sexual thoughts and hang-ups in Brooklyn started for a boy with his first kiss. I remember as if it were yesterday. It was summer. I was 12 years old, the most awkward child ever put on this Earth. I took my date (her name was Rose) to the Kingsway Theater on Kings Highway in Brooklyn.

Nervous? My body felt like it had a temperature of 106 degrees. My hands and feet felt 70 degrees colder.

I was also nauseous because in preparation for this first “date,” I had brushed my teeth about 20 times and was in danger of dying from an overdose of Colgate toothpaste.

Rose thought I was the strong, silent type. Actually, I couldn’t talk because I had a mouth full of Life Savers. I had consumed two packs of Wintergreen Life Savers from the minute I had picked her up at home.

We sat in the balcony and I was too shy to put my arm around Rose so I put it around her seat instead. I spent the two hours in pain. My arm had cramped up in this awkward position and then it went to sleep.

At one point I realized that I couldn’t move my arm and probably would never be able to move it again. I wondered if it would have to be amputated. This made me giggle hysterically to myself.

Unfortunately, I had this thought during a love scene between Esther Williams and Howard Keel. Rose then said her first word of the afternoon to me: “Shuuuussssssh.”

Finally, I decided to try to kiss Rose. My dead right arm, which I had counted on for foreplay and balance, was useless. So I had to try to move my body and sort of lurch at the same time. It put me off-balance and, even though I was aiming for her lips, I missed and sort of kissed her on the bridge of her nose and on her right eye.

She sort of summed up what my sex life was going to be like forever when she said, “Stop that. We’re gong to miss the good part of the movie.”

I may have been 12, but being thrown over for Esther Williams didn’t do much for my sense of self-esteem. It was then I decided to retrieve my right arm, but in order to do that I had to reach over Rose’s head with my left hand and pick up my dead right arm and swing it over her head. My hands were dripping wet with perspiration and I wound up dropping the arm and accidentally hitting her in the top of the head with my dead arm.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said, thereby becoming the first person to ask a question that I’ve been asked many times since.

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