Monday, December 22, 2008

Going Downtown

As a youngster on 27th Street, the way to the shops was via the Number 10 bus that stopped right in front of Nanny's house before turning the corner onto Howard Street. I'll write about the trials and tribulations of having a city bus stop just outside your front door another day. Just know, it's not generally a good thing...

I loved riding the bus. Since they ran on a pretty tight schedule, it wasn't unusual to know the bus driver. And, having the chance to say hello to a familiar person, made it seem almost as though you had your own driver.

Going Downtown was not a casual event. When shopping in the large department stores, you had to dress for the occasion. For Nanny, The World's Meanest Woman, that meant a black pillbox hat with a slight bit of veiling in the front. A hat pin was necessary to spear it to the bun of silver hair. Her good dress-but-sturdy, black shoes tied with little bows. Slight heels making her an inch taller, but still well under 5'. White or black gloves, depending on the season, completed the ensemble.

If it was cold, she wore her black wool coat with the collar of fox pelts whose little heads had hinged mouths to bite the next piece until a completed circle was secured about her shoulders. I was fascinated by that bit of fur. Who made those little fox heads? And how did they think to use the onyx beads as eyes so they'd shine so brightly? Creepy but interesting and incredibly soft.

We'd head to Howard & Lexington where the huge, and I do mean huge, department stores awaited. They were staffed by individuals who thought of themselves as privileged professionals. All said, "Good day," when you caught their eye. If they happened to know you as a regular customer, you would hear, "Mrs. Dietor, so nice to see you again, is there something I may help you find?" I always felt important being with Nanny, especially at Hutzler Brothers, because they all seemed to know her there. She was treated with equal deference at Stewart's, Hecht's, and Hochschild Kohn's.

After her selection, the question was, "And, will you be taking you purchase with you today, Mrs. Dietor, or shall I have it sent?" If it was something for me, I'd say, "I can carry it on the bus, Nanny," because what child can wait to get something new home? Often Nanny would direct, "No, just send it." The package then went to Baltimore Parcel Service, a courier for the large stores. Sometimes if you were lucky, the package would arrive later the very same day-no charge!

While she shopped, with her permission I'd go to the notions department where the most beautiful things awaited examination. Gold compacts with bright mirrors tucked inside. Cigarette cases with decorations on top. Jeweled hat pins. Sewing boxes with matching pin cushions. Nail filing kits. But, my favorite? The sparkling tiaras resting on velvet pillows simply begging to be placed on my head. I thought those tiaras where the most exquisite things that Hutzler's could sell! Even in those days I must have recognized that I am the Queen of The Universe. I still lust for a tiara, but I never purchased one. Probably just as well...what would the UPS man say if I opened the door wearing my regalia?

The massive fronts of all of these stores occupying the four corners of Howard & Lexington were entered through revolving doors. Some had uniformed doormen to help you when arms were loaded with packages. The elevators had uniformed operators. The lead attendant stood at the elevator banks scanning up and down to note which car was full enough to leave. Once identified, she used her 'clicker' and a nod of her head. With that, the doors clanked closed and you took the ride, hearing, "Second floor, men's wear; Third floor, ladies and lingerie...," and so on till you reached your destination. I thought that must be the hardest job of all, remembering where all the stuff was kept.

The stores invested mighty sums of money to decorate the sales floors and windows at Christmas. I'm sure they must have been in friendly competition, attempting to outshine each other and capture the most business. The decorations had themes and changed each year; not like now when you see the same things hanging in the mall for years. Automatons, lights, puppets, huge Santas. One year much to my amazement, in Stewart's front windows, Santa- the real, live one, dressed in gorgeous red velvet, sat on a gold throne all day waving to everyone rushing by! All displays beautifully rendered. Nothing cheap or tacky. Now, the only chance you're likely to see window displays like them, will be in New York City. I'd highly recommend that you do before you leave this earth. Truly amazing and beautiful.

When I was old enough to ride the bus alone, and by that I mean nine or ten since we lived in a kinder, gentler time when you could let a kid go safely Downtown on her own, I'd take my saved-up money, augmented by Dad's infusion of $20, to shop for Christmas gifts. Starting at Hutzler's, I'd walk to the counters with which I was most familiar. The clerks all greeted me and offered help. I'll never forget the one who said, "Well, hello little Miss Dietor! Is there something I may help you find today?" I thought I was the most special girl in the entire world. She walked with me making suggestions. And, even though I probably spent about $5, she wrapped it and treated me just as professionally as she did the society women she would wait on that day.

The gentleman who waited on me in Men's was the same. He helped me pick out the perfect handkerchiefs with a blue embroidered J for Dad, along with very expensive Gold Toe Socks. I remember him saying, "I am sure he will be delighted, Miss."

With my remaining money, I went to Reed's Drug Store to buy chocolate covered cherries for Dad and Nan. And, since Dad had given me money for lunch, I sat at the counter where waitresses dashed about wearing aqua colored aprons and matching waitress-points in their hair. A smile, "What can I get for you today, Hon?" My usual downtown lunch, "Grilled Cheese sandwich with a Coke, please." I still like grilled cheese sandwiches. But, none that I've ever had since taste as good as the ones while shopping on Howard & Lexington streets.

Shopping complete, tired, I'd wait with all the people at the bus stop; pigeons bobbing around pecking at the sidewalks. Adults generally made sure I got safely on the bus, first. I'd say hello to the driver as I dropped my 15 cents into the coin box. And, sit just behind him as directed by my father. He'd chat with me about my day in between calling out the upcoming stops, and 20 minutes later, I'd be dropped off at home.

Shopping in Downtown. Christmas on Howard & Lexington. Who could beat it and who doesn't miss it now that it's all gone? Merry Christmas, Baltimore. Merry Christmas.

Namaste' Till Next Time,


LionKing said...

What a great telling of "growing up in Bawlimer!" Reminiscent of times and social graces past. "Miracle on Howard Street," and Y es Virginia , there is a Santa Claus!"

jkc said...

This was one of my favorites...I had this little running movie in my head the whole time I read it. I don't think I could meet those standards today though. I am sometimes lucky to get out of the house looking reasonably decent.

Linda said...

I so enjoyed your memories. I too rode the bus downtown but it was in Providence, RI. I just can't remember the street or store names except for Cherry & Webb's!

Merry Christmas!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin

My Previous Musings