by Kirstin Cheers
With a dollar in your back pocket of the khaki Dickie pants that your mama bought from Southland Mall and a few coins that lay hiding in the crumb-filled corners of your backpack – your mission after school is to find the nearest Candy Lady to get as much food for as little money as possible.
“Aye, mane. I’m going to the Candy Lady after school.”
“Yeah, me too, foo.”
She doesn’t live far. Possibly between the school and your house or across the street from the school.
Maybe on the corner of your street or a few blocks away.
There’s no “OPEN” sign outside the door, but everyone knows she’s fully in business.
It’s the Candy Lady’s house.
In neighborhoods where access to grocery stores are scarce, the Candy Lady is an alternative for kids who may have missed breakfast or needed a “meal” after not being able to afford lunch at school. She may be a little scary or have an attitude, but she’s the main hustler on the block, flipping everything from candy to chips to nachos.
Her living room is stocked to the accent wall with snacks, and if you catch her on a good day, she’ll have Circle B’s or real pizza from Papa Johns or Dominos.
She’s the real hustle and flow. She’s the plug.
Now & Later
Gummy Bears (no edibles)
Fruities and Chews
If you had $3.00 in your pocket, you could buy a full meal.
“I went as often as my mama gave me money,” says Kanesha Johnson, a native Memphian and now attorney who graduated from Raleigh-Egypt High School. “When we got report cards, I really showed out because my mom would award me for good grades, and I was happy to spend my money with the candy lady.”
The candy lady is a staple for kids growing up in Memphis and hoods around the country. There is no other place where you could find two bags of Frooties for $0.50 or a Big K can soda for $0.75.
In the Summer months when the Memphis heat is beating your back after playing a game of four-square, she had cups of red Kool-aid, frozen in the depths of her deep freezer in the back of her house. In Memphis, they’re beloved known as freeze-cups. Either styrofoam or plastic, they are the summertime staple that kept the Candy Lady in business and one of the most loved women in the community. Either you enjoy them by sucking the top of the frozen, pint-sized iceberg, or flip the cup over and start your way from the bottom to the top.
Hot pickles and peppermints are a delicacy.
Hot chips with nacho cheese and jalapeno peppers and a Tahitian Treat is a combo meal.
She will sometimes set up shop across from the school nearest her home. Principals and teachers know her well and trust her presence near their students.
“Our candy lady was posted outside of our school most days,” says DeAndra Kelly, a graduate of Whitehaven High school. “I’m not sure where she stayed, but I would go right after school and straight home. She was my only stop.”
The Candy Lady is more than a woman who wanted to make an extra few dollars off the petty change of kids. This history of the Candy Lady evolves from a love of Black people and the pride in their communities. A woman who was often perceived as a motherly figure did more than supply candies and small snacks: she stands as a pillar in the community and a figure of love, justice and protection for Black children and their parents who needs extra eyes and hands to join the village that would participate in the development of their children.
She is a watchman. She stands as a sort of neighborhood watch. You know her by name and she knows you by face (because she was old and her cataracts were acting up). She’s children’s first introduction to entrepreneurship. She’s the precursor to the teen selling chips and juice throughout the halls of his highschool. She can count money backward so there’s never any getting over on her. She’s a trusted community resource and is well aware of who belongs within the boundaries of her neighborhood, who is visiting for the summer, and those who are red flags to the safety of those babies.
“My mom was a Candy Lady when I was growing up,” says Mysharee McKinney, a graduate of Wooddale High School and a Social Services Counselor with Shelby County Juvenile Court.
“I remember kids from the neighborhood really flocked to her. She owned a daycare, too. A lot of the neighbors trusted her and our family. The kids really loved her, but she didn’t play either. She was a safe space for a lot of kids.”
Many of us owe our local Candy Lady. For watching us as we walked across busy streets to letting us slide on paying when we were short a quarter to knowing us by name and stepping in when our parents had to work overtime – or weren’t working at all. She’s a great example of what community activism looks and investing in our communities looks like from even a small gesture of love like selling snacks out of your house. She’s grit and grind. She’s love personified.
Give your candy lady a shoutout! Let us know if you know of any Candy Ladies in your neighborhood. We may just pull up on them one day this summer.