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OPENING A DOOR

Fifteen minutes," he says, unlocking the store's front door as cars whiz by.

A brisk walk. Perfect timing. Mom's trip to California means 40-year-old Kenny Chizmadia has The Candy Box to himself this morning. Waffles, chocolate milk and bananas powered him up for the hard ramble to work.

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Too sweet?

"Nope!" he says.

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He left the house at 8:35 wearing pressed blue shorts, an unwrinkled red T-shirt and white Reeboks, covered the mile stretch, scaled one of the biggest hills in Catonsville and arrived without breaking a sweat.

He checks his watch again - 8:50 on the dot.

"Yep!" he says.

He switches on the lights, looks at the thermometer, then checks the clock on the wall. He writes down his arrival time on a calendar in the back room.

At 8:50 a.m., it is 67 degrees in here. Good enough.

The shop can open at 10:00 - 10:00:00, if he stays on top if it.

Kenny unloads coins from his bellypack into the cash register, then stuffs his bagged lunch - two plain hot dogs, two plain slices of bread, bottled tea - in the cooler. He washes his hands and lifts the cotton cloths covering the old candy cases. Row after row of rich, cool chocolates. He peers down at them through oversized spectacles like a near-sighted jeweler admiring a display of precious stones.

Stainless steel parts from the ice cream machine are laid out on towels like surgical instruments. Kenny will clean the machine and lubricate each part before installing it. He will skim the fat off the chocolate ice cream mix. He will fill the yogurt machine. He will make sugar water ...

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"Uh-oh," he says. People in the apartment upstairs are tromping around. Could be trouble if they start taking showers now. He needs the hot water to make snowball syrup.

When he glances at his watch again it is 9:06.

Eighteen years in the biz, Kenny still runs the morning routine like a precision drill.

A sign on the door says, "Mary's on twin duty," which means Kenny's mom has left for the West Coast to help while her daughter-in-law gives birth to her second set of twins.

Kenny may be learning disabled, but he can run the shop all by himself now. He doesn't need Mom. Did he say he was actually glad she's away?

"Yep!" he says.

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He installs silver blending arms on the ice cream machine, pops open the top and goes to fill it with a silky ice cream mix. The cardboard mouth of the milk carton resists. He tugs; it rips. "This brings back memories," he says, recalling the same torment back in grade school 30 years ago. "I hate these things with a passion."

It is 9:35 when the phone rings.

"Kenny Box!" he chirps. (That is, "Candy Box" in Kenny's fast-paced lingo.) "Hi, Mom!"

Mary Chizmadia is calling from California, where it is going on 6:40 a.m.

"I'm making ice cream as we speak," he tells her. He does not mention that the supply of ice cream mix for the rest of the week has not arrived yet. Mom does not need to know everything.

It is 9:48 when he stops to clean the yogurt machine, then rushes to the back for a bag of clean towels.

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"Here he comes now," he says, without looking up.

Kenny has heard the squeal of bad brakes. Moments later a short, heavy man comes through the front door rolling a dolly loaded with 12 cases of ice cream mix.

"Here she comes now," Kenny says, still in the back folding towels.

A moment later, 16-year-old Allison Hedden, his assistant for the day, steps through the front door.

It is 9:58 when he slips past Allison and dodges tall stacks of ice cream mix now deposited around the cash register. He flips the "Open" sign on the front door, and hangs another under the peppermint-striped pole by the road.

Coming back inside, he faces a predicament: He has 72 one-gallon cartons of ice cream mix boxed up and lying on the floor by the cash register - they are waiting to be fit into an already crowded cooler; Allison still hasn't mixed the snowball flavors; and somebody must stir the sticky pail of marshmallow cream for parfaits. It is 9:59. The signs indicate the Candy Box is open. But Kenny is suddenly a long way from ready now.

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"Hmmm," he says, pausing over the unexpected dilemmas. He hesitates, then heads for the back room to the phone.

"Call Mom," he mutters, dialing California.

In 1968, when Kenny was 5, a doctor told Dick and Mary Chizmadia that their little boy would be a vegetable by the time he was an adult. He had a brain injury called cranial stenosis. Medical books defined it as an infant disorder of the skull, where one or more of the sutures of the skull fuse too early. Kenny's brain could not expand normally and his head grew elongated, resulting in serious cognitive problems that the doctor did not know how to fix.

The Chizmadias would not be deterred.

"I tell people not to listen to doctors," Mary says today. "We just decided it didn't make any difference what the doctor said, and we'd just go on so Kenny could be the best person he could be."

Back then, the Chizmadias were told that medical science had little to offer Kenny. The local schools did not have classes for learning-disabled children. They were told to put Kenny in a special school that combined incorrigibles with Down Syndrome children. They were told to put him in a school for retarded children. When the Chizmadias found a brain clinic in Philadelphia that offered a kind of experimental surgery to help children like Kenny, the family doctor in Baltimore scoffed: "Too many kids have too many holes drilled into their heads," he had said.

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But Mary and Dick made their own decisions.

Kenny had brain surgery when he was 9, wore a protective helmet for two years and started all kinds of cognitive and speech therapies. Every three months, the Chizmadias took their son to Philadelphia for testing. Meanwhile, with their other three children in school (Kenny is the second of four), Mary decided to train herself for a challenge that many of the "professionals" in her community simply seemed unprepared to help her with. She went to Towson University for a degree in elementary education, then got a master's degree in special education at Loyola College. She had decided that she could figure it out, if no one else could. She would help Kenny and, if possible, all the other Kennys in the area, too.

Mary Chizmadia became a special education teacher.

Kenny's IQ jumped 10 points, his cognitive skills improved, he attended the public schools in Catonsville and he always tried his best. But by the time he graduated from Catonsville High School, at 21, there were still no jobs for people like Kenny Chizmadia.

A high school woodworking teacher told his parents the young man would never be able to do anything too productive with his hands and, by all means, keep him away from machinery. Kenny was trained to shelve books at the local libraries, underwent job evaluations at a nearby cafeteria and an insurance company. He even tested for a low-level job at the National Security Agency. He scored well enough, but his poor eyesight, his parents were told, made him ineligible to work.

No one would hire Kenny. He couldn't drive. He couldn't even get an interview.

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So Dick and Mary Chizmadia decided to create their own opportunity for Kenny. They decided what their son needed was a sort of college education, something unique, bold and challenging, a matriculation in life that only they could offer.

"He is not going to sit around the house for the rest of his life!" Mary declared. She was angry because she knew the truth. Her son was capable of a lot more than people realized.

The Chizmadias decided to buy Kenny his own business. They looked all over Catonsville and discovered an old feed and grain store on Frederick Road that had been converted into a sandwich shop and then, more recently, a candy store.

"Of course, we don't know anything about how to run a business," Mary would tell people.

Then they borrowed $10,000 from the bank, bought the store and on June 22, 1985, opened the doors to the Candy Box.

It was perfect. Mary quit her job. Dick kept his job as an electrical engineer at Westinghouse. Kenny walked to the shop every day. The Chizmadias suddenly had created their own customized, intensive, graduate-level training ground for the Kenny's new life's work.

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Only one problem: No customers.

By 2 o'clock, Kenny has sold a pound of Australian crystallized ginger to an old lady wearing a pink scarf; $1.17 worth of Fireballs and Bubblicious to a breathless 11-year-old boy with a skateboard and a pocket of change; a strawberry snowball to a ferocious-looking dude wearing a Yankees baseball cap backward; cherry snowballs to a couple of sweaty cyclists; a cone of soft ice cream blended into a chocolate/vanilla twist to a reading teacher from Hillcrest Elementary School; five candy fruit slices, a quarter-pound of almond bark and a bag of bon-bons to a smartly dressed professional woman; a large egg custard snowball to the mailman; and a bag of Gummy Frogs, 10 Cowtales, three Peanut Smoothies, a half-pound of Red Swedish Fish and an orange parfait to a woman who said she suddenly got a "sweet tooth" on her way home from work.

People were also buying paste-on Fourth of July tattoos, candy tins, the latest edition of The Catonsville Times, stacked by the front door in a gift-wrapped cardboard box and many boxes of hand-packed chocolates.

Kenny's dad is in the back room entering receipts on the computer. Allison is mixing the marshmallow cream. Two more of Kenny's assistants - high school girls like Allison - are helping customers. Kenny, who managed to get all the ice cream milk packed away and the yogurt machine cleaned before the first customer arrived at 10:17 a.m., barely had time to eat his two hot dogs and check his blood sugar at lunch (he's diabetic). But finally, around 2, there is a break in the action, and he puts his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels.

For a moment, he daydreams about dinner. Mom told him that he and Dad could eat out six times while she was gone. Tonight would be one of those nights. The Country Buffet! Lasagna, Caesar salad, country-style steak!

"Snowballs," says a voice across the counter.

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Four weary, sweat-stained, sun-toasted men are staring at him. They have been in the neighborhood for hours cutting lawns.

"What kind?" Kenny asks.

"Frappe," the weary man says.

"You want the parfait," Kenny says.

"Yes."

"What kind - vanilla?"

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"Yes."

"Ice cream?"

"Yes."

"What flavor - strawberry?"

"Yes."

"How many - two?"

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"Yes."

"OK."

A woman asks for a gift-wrapped box of chocolates.

Oh, boy, Kenny thinks. He loves gift wrap. Even better than working the credit-card machine.

"How much?" he asks.

"A quarter pound."

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"Creams or nuts?"

"Creams."

"Light or dark?"

"Light."

"Strawberry? Raspberry?"

"Mixed."

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When he's boxed it, Kenny sets it on the scale: 0.27 pounds.

"Shoot," he mumbles, taking it to wrap. Missed by 0.02.

A man asks for 2 pounds of jawbreakers. Kenny spoons them out and weighs the bag: 2.01.

"Shoot," he says.

A man with a face like a basset hound asks for 1 1/2 pounds of mixed licorice.

Kenny misses again: 1.52.

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A woman in red capri pants wants "anything coconut." Two pounds.

He boxes it. Weighs it: 2.0, on the dot.

"Yes!" he whispers, clenching his fist in victory.

Sometimes Kenny finds that life at the Candy Box can be true perfection.

Eighteen years have flown by at 1810 Frederick Road.

The first year, they made $7 selling snowballs; the second year, a $4,000 ice cream machine saved the day.

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Dick built new counters. Mary tried new candies. Kenny was joined by his youngest brother and his sister. Then 15-year-old high school girls came to work - first at night, then on weekends and, eventually, for entire summers. Before you knew it, the high school girls graduated and their 15-year-old sisters came to work, too, and soon the Candy Box work force was like an extended family.

Mary also made a practice of hiring learning-disabled children part-time, which led to Kenny's finding a girlfriend named Melanie, who helped around the shop one summer.

"Miss Chatterbox," he calls her. She's learning disabled, too. When he turned 40 on June 2, she sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Her mother became Mary's bookkeeper and close friend.

The kinship patterns at the Candy Box now would challenge a Harvard anthropologist.

Today, the little shop offers licorice from Finland, fancy chocolate truffles for $16.75 a pound, old-fashioned penny candies, Mexican-style party piM-qatas, all kinds of fancy mints, sugar-free chocolate and sugar-free soft-drinks, Gobstoppers and Boston Baked Beans, Turkish paste and pralines, Fudge Meltaways, toasted coconut, Jordan almonds and all kinds of sugary suckers. It stays open seven days a week from Easter to the last week of September, six days the rest of the year. The Chizmadias work nights, weekends and holidays, and have only closed the shop twice in 18 years - once, one January, when they painted and wallpapered, and again this past winter during the big snowstorm. Dick and Mary and Kenny take separate vacations so the show will always go on.

The business has endured a ceiling collapse (when someone left the bathwater running upstairs), a couple of armed robberies (no one's been hurt), and an accident on Frederick Road when a car hit Mary while she was working along the narrrow space in front of the building (she walked out of the hospital a few hours later). They have paid off the bank loan, Dick has retired, all their children, except Kenny, have married and produced grandchildren, and in the candy biz, the Catonsville shop is now known as a "destination store" - customers don't just drop in, like they would at a mall; they will drive for miles to shop exclusively at the Candy Box.

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"We don't owe anybody a dime," Mary says, proudly. "People tell me, 'You should really have a business plan.' I say, 'What's that?' and they say, 'So you'll know where you'll be in five years.'"

She only laughs. She doesn't know where she'll be tomorrow, much less in five years.

But she does know one thing: Kenny will be here.

He has learned to manage nearly every facet of the business - he runs the cash register, counts the money, orders supplies, wraps the candies, makes snowballs, cleans the machinery, takes out the trash, mixes syrup flavors, answers the phone and remembers everything his parents can't about their customers - names, favorite candies, even children's birthdays.

Kenny has become a local celebrity, of sorts, recognized on the streets - "I can't go anywhere without people knowing who I am," he says, matter-of-factly - and a model of work ethic devotion that wins admirers in this old-fashioned, middle-class town.

"I'm learning disabled," he will sometimes say, proudly.

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He is also, officially, vice president of the Candy Box, and fully capable of running the store while Mom's away.

At 4:59 p.m., Kenny straps on his bellypack and leans back on a counter.

"Almost time," he says.

The high school girls have taken over, handling a late-afternoon crowd that will grow more dense and demanding tonight. Dad's still balancing accounts on the computer. Mom hasn't called in a few hours.

At 5, the chime over the front door jingles, and Kenny starts his power-walk home, stopping once to say hello to neighborhood dogs Gizmo and Butch, and waving to a guy named Mike, who has big tattoos on his arms and is starting to water his lawn after arriving home from work, too.

Another successful day?

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"Yep!" Kenny says, already dreaming about dinner out - lasagna, chicken-fried steak, a large Caesar salad - and an evening in front of the TV.

There are, in fact, many rewards for a working man, each distinct and fulfilling, every one sweeter than sugar candy.


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