Oriental Drugs: A Family of Chance

by Vince Bushell

“Oriental Drugs,” that’s what the sign said… and it was not the place to score some hash, although one had to chuckle at the thought. But you could buy film, hardware, contraceptives, candy, and a myriad of other stuff. It was open late, if not all night. In an era before AIDS, when STD might mean something as serious as crabs, you could go and buy pesticide shampoo to rid your naughty bits of the creatures. Oriental DrugsIts windows were broken by rioters protesting the war (Vietnam, that is), or the loss of Watertower Park as a place to congregate. Some thought that was dumb. The Oriental was our friend. It was commemorated in a movie, Death of a Corner Drugstore, by Brook Maroldi after it closed in 1995. The lunch counter with patrons and staff has been immortalized in sculpture by artist Adolph Rosenblatt. The counter was the soul of the place. Soul-speaking, I found a Thanksgiving, 2002 sermon by the Reverend Linda C. Loving from from the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The sermon tells it better than I can, The Oriental Drugs Lunch Counter:

“One Thanksgiving for me held a family of chance. I had worked the holiday at the hospital, and because of an emergency had to stay several hours longer, and it was too late and too snowy to drive to family gathered in Illinois and I was too exhausted to join nearby friends, so I stopped at one of the only open places on my way home – the slightly seedy Oriental Drugstore on the corner of Farwell and North – back in the 70’s, one of the only places open 24 hours. “I sat at the counter to eat an order of mashed potatoes and gravy and coffee, joining a very eclectic group of individuals, as you might imagine. Loners, gypsy teen-agers, street people, drunks, lost souls – me in my white uniform. Perhaps I was the “sparrow girl” that day, as if God tapped my cheeks with two paper-dry fingertips and reminded me of Jesus’ words from Matthew: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.’ “The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner, and the people gathered at the counter of the Oriental Drugstore one night in 1973. The Shepherd gives the gift of compassion… In your mind’s eye, imagine who sits now at the counter of the Oriental Drug Store: people brought forth from all nations, all walks of life, gathered in need of paper-dry fingertips tapping a cheek in awakening to the merciful and full embrace of all-believing, all-hoping, all-enduring love. God alone is their judge.”

The price of admission was a cup of coffee. Egalitarian was the word.

Adolph Rosenblatt,

Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 7 – July 2003
Oriental Drugs

“Compass,” a sculpture by Gail Simpson, at the east end of the North Ave. bridge reminds us of the neighborhood’s past.