Friday, November 26, 2010

The Day After...

See, the thing of it is this: when I was a child, the day after Thanksgiving had yet to become known as "Black Friday". In the mid 1960s, the Philadelphia police department used that moniker for the day due to the bizarre yearly chaos of midtown traffic. The term began to be promoted around 1968, 1970. After another 7 or 8 or so years,  tv news reporters during  this season would  explain (with pious intonations) that it was around the day after Thanksgiving that most large stores began to turn their yearly profit, a.k.a. "in the black". All of that was bullshit, of course, but it made for a neat little story.

In Philly, it was easy to respect stores like Gimbels and Wanamakers: their intentions were clear up front. They were both on Market Street. So, when my family would venture forth from southern New Jersey on the blessed Day After, we headed for Center City Philadelphia. There weren't any malls then.

One year, we parked somewhat away from downtown, and got around by using the trolley. The trolleys had a sort of cream and green color. They ran on tracks embedded in the street through and around the city by use of electricity - collected  from an overhead cable/wire by a metal rod and connector called a pantograph. The Philly streetcars used a single arm version.

After yesterdays' comments on the Gimbels parade, you'd think that since they had the real Santa to tell your secrets to (while a photographer snapped your picture) that I'd be impatiently waiting to get to their store. In reality, I wanted to go to Wanamakers.

Wanamakers was one of those huge old fashioned department stores with a central atrium soaring up and up 9 stories high. When you entered, you'd see this huge bronze eagle, the "meeting point" for lovers and children separated from their parents.

The eagle had been purchased from a World's Fair held in St. Louis. Mr. Wanamaker also acquired the fair's giant pipe organ. After the organ was installed in the store, people complained that the sound wasn't loud enough to "fill" the atrium space! So, Mr. Wanamaker and his heirs expanded it until it became the world's largest pipe organ.  Starting around 1956 or so, it was used as a lynch pin of a short holiday show performed every hour.

A super huge Christmas Tree would be all lit up and turn colors, and there were fountains of water that turned color too. It grew in size and scope for years until the show became famous around the world, and a tourists' destination in itself. But none of was there in my day. I only have slight memories of the show starting, staring at it in wide eyed glee, as I was pulled away - time to go. It didn't really matter much, it didn't have anything to do with my purpose there. The epiphany of my childhood, the object of my unbridled subconscious, was a ride on the Rocket monorail attached to the ceiling. You'd get into the shiny chrome cars (two of them - and no adults allowed) and take a ride around the store, descending to the eighth floor, meandering by a camera counter before traveling over what had to be the largest toy department in the world, in the universe! One exited, needless to say, by Santa's throne.

After it was all over, kids were left a quivering mass of jelly, eyes glazed over, mouths wide ope with an awed and silly kind of grin which betrayed the knowledge of enough material to furnish dreams and daydreams for at least a week if not all the way to Christmas, New Year's or maybe even to Easter.
There probably isn't anything like it now, a grand store with a splash of a futuristic fantasy extravaganza executed with the greatest of simplicities. (Sigh.) Gimbels' is gone. Wanamakers got bought and sold a couple of times by a series of wealthy men who tried to save it. Eventual corporate ownership closed off all but three stories, and sold off just about everything else - including Mr. Wanamaker's office, kept preserved as it was when he he was last there in 1920 something. The brass eagle and the sadly stationary Rocket monorail are now in a children's museum. One whole side of the building became part of high rise offices.The bargain basement in now a parking lot. The rest of the building is still a store space, now run by Macy's. In a current newspaper story, someone who is selling a book about the store pushed aside a blue colored smurf and moved a drape hanging on a column to reveal an engraving, a part of the store's past days of glory.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Doing the gobble gobble

While watching the Macy parade on tv... I grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey, an hour away from Philadelphia. (WAIT - what the... a marching band with a Black Eyed Peas medley?)  Our Thanksgiving Parade was the one from Philly. And that was the Gimbels Parade, which was the first, back in 1920. It would start somewhere around the art museum and end at their Philadelphia Store.

Why Philly instead of their main store in NYC just across the street from Macy's I don't know - but it became important as any kid from the 1950's would tell you : Gimbels had the only real Santa Claus. Santa arrived on the last float, and would then use a fire truck's ladder to climb into a window on the 8th floor, right into Toyland. God, in those days we had such great department stores: Strawbridge and Clothier, Lit Brothers, Kresges,  Wanamaker's (genuflection)(sigh).

So the thing is this - over the years, Macy's became the Big parade. And I lived in NYC for 15 fuckin' years without ever being there in person. (Hmmm. Feels nice to let go of that anger.) No, I always had to go to my small town in New Jersey - family you know. Now, living here in Vermont, I can tell you one wonderful thing about Thanksgiving - starting a few years back I don't have to go down there anymore. I've outlived them.

I love these Victorian postcards.
Please remember that they reflect another time.
I'll probably post more of these tomorrow...

Monday, November 22, 2010

When the quiet started

It barely seems possible that it has been fourty seven years. It was a Thursday, and we had it and the next day off from school due to a teacher's conference being held at our new shiny modern Regional High School. Well, high school with grades 7 thru 12 anyway. I was in its first 8th grade class. But that morning and early afternoon I was at at our new home on Lakeview Drive. I remember switching channels trying to find something to watch. And then Walter Cronkite broke in with a news bulletin. TV images were black and white then, and now it feels like so long ago instead of just yesterday or maybe last week.

I remember getting tired of the constant coverage of what they didn't know, so I took a walk outside to return a book to Kathy Penrose. Turn the corner at the end of our street, past the haunted looking building which had once housed the American Legion and where we still held -was it weekly or monthly?- dances for us kids. There was an apartment on the top floor and the folks there had a mean nasty dog chained up outside. One day, it would break free and firmly chomp into the back of my leg, making me have rabies shots - oh, I detested and feared needles. Past the lake where we used to swim, and where kids at that point still occasionally found arrow tips made by Indians. I walked past the John Deer place shoehorned into a corner lot,and up the hill until I reached the two family house where my friend Lyle Eastlack lived on one side, and Kathy lived on the other. I knocked on her door. Her mother opened it, and whispered, "Don't you know what is happening?", and after a quick look from side to side closed the door. I walked the half a block or so Main Street, which had several businesses on it back then. There was no one to be seen. No cars, no people, no one going in our out of the news shop, or the library (housed in what had been the local Bank and Trust company before they built their new place in the 1920's or so). No one goes swimming at the lake anymore - first insurance rates and then contaminated water stopped that. There are no more dances at the old Legion building - just about the time it was ready to fall down someone bought it and turned it in a mini-mansion. In the few times I've been there since the late 1960's, the only thing which seems to have stayed the same is the quiet from that day 47 years ago.

and it's all just a fading memory now, a world gone by