Odd #3: Getting Over It
Perhaps my epiphany about being a city girl cruelly dropped in the smelly country had something to do with a repeatedly experienced gut instinct. Every time fields gave way to city concrete, I intuitively knew something special was about to happen.
You know that as you pay attention to the roadsides and notice roadside litter is no longer silly, useless corn husks, but bits of flying paper covered with the printed word – literate litter, as it were. It was just further proof for this bookworm-ish little girl. Even city litter – package wraps, shredded newspapers, and such – had value. After all, it was readable. One never knew; one might learn something – even from litter.
Literate litter aside, I knew I would either learn something new or buy something new. Which one didn’t really didn’t matter. I was in for a special treat and could hardly stay seated on my backseat perch of my parents’ Ford.
Often, we were heading into the city to visit my father’s city relatives, some of whom lived in seemingly ancient, brown-brick row houses. Others could afford brand-new, post-World-War-II, suburban houses with every modern convenience, on the outskirts of the city.
Still others (the really smart ones, in my mind) had opted for high-rise city apartments with, gasp, elevators – all light years from our humble Victorian house set in the middle of cornfields. I figured people who lived so grandly must surely know something we didn’t.
I was right.
Sitting on the floor in an inconspicuous spot, so as not to be noticed and sent outside to play (an ignominious fate I tried to avoid at all costs), I eavesdropped on their adult conversations. As a result, I became odder and odder. When children try to understand things beyond their level of maturity, it forces them into a position of interpreting an adult world for which they’re not quite ready. It subjects still-forming brains to serious brain-drain and inevitably produces oddness. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
My city relatives’ conversations had a different flavor than the adult conversations I heard among my country relatives. Not only was the flavor different but the information was different, and I reveled in it. Aha. New information. They did know something we didn’t know, though I wasn’t sure exactly what it was.
Even more special were our three or four shopping forays into the city each year. There are some things you just can’t tell from The Sears and Roebuck Catalog, you know. There are some things which must be seen firsthand and, more importantly, touched, and even more importantly, tried on.
Early spring reconnaissance trips meant paying very close attention to the newest summer fashions and drooling over the delicious prospect that I might soon own those aqua pedal-pushers in Lerners’ window. There was the thrill of trying on bone-colored dress flats destined for spring and summer wear, when all around us was brown-crusted snow and the last dreary, dying gasps of winter.
Early fall trips meant modeling L.S. Ayres’ thick, wool coats, while sinking into thickly padded carpet in front of its extravagant, three-way mirrors. And then there was the delicious easing of my skinny little frame into stitched-pleat, wool plaid skirts in the more modest changing rooms of Three Sisters.
Early December trips were, of course, the best by far. This, I thought, is how Christmas is supposed to be done up:
- plenty of glittery tinsel,
- perennial Christmas-carol music blaring over loud speakers (the louder the better),
- red and green lights covering everything that didn’t move, and
- gaudily wrapped packages sticking out of department store bags, carried by bustling, ever-so-clever, city shoppers.
Was I overly influenced by Jay Livingston’s and Ray Evans’ “Silver Bells” (written in 1950), or did they really have their finger on the pulse of the nation’s cities at Christmas time during the fifties? I think they did.
By now you may be suspecting we were really rubes. After I share this next bit, you’ll be certain, and then I can stop this ridiculous coyness.
Eating at the Woolworth Five & Dime
This extremely rare experience of “eating out” was all part of the exciting, big-city package. Those of you in the Millennial Set will find this almost unbelievable. But it’s all true, and it explains a lot about my odd attitude toward eating out even today. Ordering:
- a sandwich cut into cute little triangles (which my mother never had time or patience for), held in place with toothpicks topped with shredded red plastic (the pinnacle of class on my 10-year-old AestheticsMeter),
- cole slaw (which my mother hated and rarely prepared),
- commercially prepared French fries (poison straight from the Devil according to my Prevention-reading father),
- a seductively shaped glass of Coke (a witch’s brew seldom allowed inside our fridge)
seemed the epitome of worldliness. No, make that sheer luxury. After all, the little Woolworth in our county seat had no lunch counter. Only the really big Woolworths had lunch counters – the ones in CITIES.
The only downer to this fine dining experience was my mother’s paranoia. She, having been correctly dropped by Mr. Stork in the country, did not trust city dwellers. Furthermore, she was taking no chances they might be honest. She did not want our precious purchases stolen while we indulged in Woolworth’s culinary delights, so she insisted we pay close attention to them as we carefully seated ourselves at the counter.
Always, it was the same. We crammed smaller packages onto the shelf under the counter in front of us and squeezed larger packages between our knees. As we savored the subtle flavors of the day’s Blue Plate Special, we tried (valiantly though not always successfully) to avoid dribbling mayo or Coke down our fronts while practicing this distracting balancing act. (As I’ve said, my Mother’s paranoia was indeed a downer and to this day, I have a deep aversion to being frustrated while I eat.)
Even the city’s mass transit smelly diesel odors appealed to me. (SO much oddness. Today, I can barely stand the smell of diesel. Go figure.)
The bus terminal, with its forever-running and totally incomprehensible announcements, was our standard meeting place – where Mother and I reconnected with my patient father. I thought it had a certain, citified sophistication to it, validated by all those city dwellers rushing around, people who obviously understood the mumbly announcer and knew where they were going.
Even using the station lockers to stash our carefully selected purchases, when our arms tired of carrying too many bags, seemed so in-the-know. While my father was quite happy to leave my mother and me to our clothes-and-shoes extravaganza, he reveled in spending his precious hours in the city browsing through bookstores and office supply stores. As his minuscule haul didn’t require a pit stop at the station lockers, the poor man missed out on all that station-locker sophistication.
At the agreed-upon time, we would meet at day’s end at a specified spot in the smoky terminal. Since no one in my family or extended family practiced such decadent behavior – at least not in our presence – even the smell of cigarette smoke was a sophisticated smell. For many years, it was exclusively associated in my sensory command center with glamorous city life. Now? Hmm, not so much.
Almost always, my father beat us there. Once in a great while, we’d arrive first. By that time, a day’s worth of city stimulation had just about done in my poor little country mind. Even in my shopping-induced stupor, though, I sat numbly and tried to pay attention to the city folk briskly striding from Point A to Point B.
I wanted to be like them: I longed to live in the city. But by then, though there was still a deep longing, I’d pretty much gotten over my disappointment and bitterness. In fact, I rarely thought about blundering, bungling Mr. Stork. I mean, really, with:
- packages filled with delightful new things piled all around me,
- Woolworth’s Blue Plate Special still sitting comfortably in my tummy, and
- enough citified mental images to tide me over till our next city foray,
how could I be bitter?
The Pay-Attention Bit
Even though I should have been living in the city – not just visiting it every few weeks – I was getting over it. I was learning how to pay attention to – and savor – its rich pickings, when given the chance. Copious helpings of appreciation can dilute the mind poison that results from unmet expectations – especially ones we have over the hand we were dealt.
If you’re beginning to think of children you know who seem every bit as odd as I was, you’ll find the pay-attention tip in Odd #4 most helpful for decreasing future embarrassment – your embarrassment, not mine, as that train’s already left the station.
**You Millennials have no idea what this is, do you? A “five-and-dime” store, the forerunner of today’s discount department store, truly did sell items you’d want to buy for a nickel or dime (or more) back when a nickel and dime bought something of worth. They had a variety of departments, just as our Targets and Walmarts have today, but were usually far smaller, stocked with products made in the USA, and blessedly free of that made-in-China smell.
©2014, Teresa Bennett