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Posts Tagged ‘1972’

Everybody caught up on their Christmas shopping? Done your part to feed the great American retail beast?

(No? Good for you.)

Personally, I do my holiday shopping online. I cannot stand malls — absolutely can’t stand ‘em — especially at this time of year.

Plus, my family is transitioning away from pure stuff for Christmas, so my gifts more and more tend to be gift certificates and charitable donations.

That wasn’t how my grandparents and great-grandma would have done their holiday shopping, of course.

So this week, in honor of the plastic-wielding hordes, we’re taking another ghost-shopping trip (this was the first) to a store that once stomped across the retail landscape like a woolly behemoth:

February 17, 1972.

February 17, 1972.

The Great American Department Store used to be something to see around this time of year, done up in its shiniest, most beckoning seasonal plumage.

Department stores were special places then — sprawling one-stop destinations, dazzling in their sheer range of stuff, not to mention the frills and entertainment they dreamed up to go with it.

People in the Allentown, Pa., area, where I live now, still talk about getting dressed up and going into the city with their parents or grandparents for an afternoon of shopping at Allentown’s legendary Hess’s. A visit to Hess’s might involve a slice of strawberry pie at the store restaurant, a glimpse of the latest fashions, an autograph from a visiting celebrity or athlete, or even — on one occasion — a high-wire walker crossing Hamilton Street.

My childhood retail memories, few as they are, involve going to downtown Rochester, N.Y.’s Midtown Plaza around Christmastime to see the Clock of Nations and ride the temporary seasonal monorail.

The anchor stores at Midtown were the McCurdy’s and B. Forman’s department stores, both gone. Located nearby was Sibley’s, also gone.

(For people of a certain age — including mine, barely — talking about department stores is like pulling down a family photo book and remembering the distant relatives in the faded color pictures. You remember seeing them when you were younger, and you vaguely remember — within a couple of years, give or take — when they went away.)

I remember Gimbels, too. Not the actual interior of the store or anything like that, just the name, rounded and resonant.

I don’t think Rochester had one (how many department stores could one mid-level metropolis support?) but I must have heard of it somewhere … perhaps through its sponsorship of a major Thanksgiving Day parade. I’d also heard of Saks Fifth Avenue, which grew to national prominence under Gimbels’ ownership.

There aren’t a lot of references to Gimbels on my grandfather’s calendars. I’m guessing the clock bought in February 1972 was a special purchase, though I don’t know what for. My aunt was out of grad school but not yet married, so it wouldn’t have been a gift for either of those events.

Bridgeport is about 25 miles up the coast from Stamford, too. There must have been a closer department store to my grandparents’ house; I wonder why they chose Gimbels for this particular errand. I can only assume Gimbels had something they didn’t feel they could get anywhere else.

1972 would be the Gimbels chain’s final full year under the ownership of the founding Gimbel family. The family sold out to corporate ownership the following year. In 1986, the well-known brand disappeared.

It would be easy to blame the new corporate owners for mismanagement. But the national decline of the traditional department store had already started by then, as other retail concepts stole the allegiance of the American shopper.

The Sibley’s name disappeared around 1990, and Hess’s and McCurdy’s followed in the mid-’90s. Others — Strawbridge’s, Hecht’s, Hudson’s, Horne’s and many more — went the same way. (Some of the buildings that housed the old giants, like Midtown Plaza, are also gone or going.)

Where I live, the suburban mall that helped kill Hess’s starting in the 1960s still has a dogged pair of traditional department-store anchors, Boscov’s and Macy’s.

On the rare occasions when I go to the mall — I was dragged there just the other week, on an errand not my own — I walk through them to get somewhere else.

I do not stop.

Not for Justin Bieber’s scent at the perfume counter, not for rows of misses’ sweaters, not for boxes of chocolates, not for diamond rings, not for smartly casual shoes, not for any of the other thousands of consumer goods so painstakingly gathered there in vain hopes of gaining my approbation.

The department store seems as outdated an institution to me as the ethnic social club. It’s just not where I spend my time or my money. There is no dazzle there, at Christmas or any other time. It’s just another in a million ways that my world differs from that of my grandparents.

Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Are you being served?

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After almost three-and-a-half years writing this blog, it doesn’t feel like there are many areas of my grandparents’ life I haven’t retroactively invaded.

This week I’ll stick my nose into a place I’ve mentioned before but have never said much about. There’s no big historical reveal this week, just a snapshot of my grandfolks going about their daily business.

Or, more accurately, their Sunday business.

September 1 and 2, 1972.

September 1 and 2, 1972. The Yanks are still in the pennant race; the Mets aren’t.

I know my grandparents and great-grandma attended the Springdale Methodist Church across the street from their house, but I don’t remember religion ever seeming like a defining part of their lives.

There was no Bible on the coffee table, no chapter-and-verse in their conversation, and no crosses or pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls. There was low-key grace before big holiday meals, but that was about it.

My other grandparents, who were Catholic, would sometimes seek out the local Catholic church when they were visiting us, so they wouldn’t miss Mass.

I don’t remember my dad’s folks ever doing that. I’m sure they visited the church my family attended in the Rochester area, back when we attended one. But I think they were there to meet my family’s friends, hear my dad play organ and generally get a glimpse of our lives, not because they felt like they couldn’t miss a week of worship.

When my dad’s folks moved to Rochester, I think church took even less of a role in their lives. I remember my grandma’s funeral being conducted by a rented padre, which suggests there was no priest in town who knew her well.

(I should be warmer of heart. The man of the cloth did the best job he could given the circumstances. It was clear he was working off a hastily acquired Cliff’s Notes on Corine Blumenau, not from any deep personal acquaintance.)

But I’m getting well ahead of myself here.

My grandparents, while not drum-bangers for the Lord, were regular churchgoers during their years on Hope Street. And this week’s calendar entry finds them taking care of a classic bit of church business — arranging for flowers for the altar.

According to the calendars, my grandparents were responsible for dealing with the flowers throughout September and October 1972. It doesn’t look like they had to buy them, more like they had to get them on the altar before services and dispose of them afterward.

My grandma took extensive and detailed notes on that responsibility, probably to my grandpa’s chagrin. She barely left him room to squeeze in the daily weather, much less any notes on anything else that happened that day.

My grandparents might have climbed Mount Washington on the 1st and held a backyard nudist party on the 2nd. I’ll never know, because there was no room on the calendar to mention it. Thanks, Grandma.

The name “CARRIE” is my grandpa’s other contribution to these entries; it appears to be in his hand. I don’t know who she was. Perhaps she was the “Mrs. Bachman” mentioned in my grandma’s note.

(It wasn’t Stephen King’s Carrie; she was still taking shape in her creator’s head in the fall of 1972. And anyway, my grandparents weren’t horror buffs.)

This fragment of family history, while not fully sketched out, fits my image of my grandparents to a T.

Disposing of flowers or baking oatmeal squares for church gatherings are just the kinds of low-key things they would have done to support the church community — and, by extension, worship the Lord.

I’ll imagine them, then, in their modest Sunday best, each with a vase in both hands, putting the flowers gently on the rear floor of Mrs. Bachman’s Rambler American.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

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With unrepentant and oddly zombie-ish expressions, the two young lovers (or the two young actors hired to portray lovers) sit on the coffee table at 1107 Hope Street, as uncomfortably as if they were there in person.

They are here — like others in their space, before and after them — to tell the straitlaced elders of the Blumenau family about a problem they didn’t know they were supposed to be concerned about.

From the other side of the generation gap they stare, their blank faces promising little in the way of explanation or enlightenment.

But they must have something to tell the world:

They’re on the cover of Time.

August 21, 1972.

August 21, 1972. The young man, in particular, looks like Scorpio Murtlock.

On some levels, there is nothing about the August 21, 1972, cover of Time to set it apart from hundreds of other red-bordered covers from the same time period. I’m shamelessly using it because it’s attention-getting.

(Which, I imagine, is the reason Time created it in the first place.)

But on other levels, it makes a fine launching pad for a consideration of my grandfather’s relationship to mass media in general, and America’s largest news magazine in particular.

I’ve mentioned a few times that my grandpa worked as a draftsman at Time-Life in Stamford for many years.

He didn’t have any connection with the editorial side of the business; it wasn’t his job to rush off to Haiphong or Paris or Milwaukee on Henry Luce’s behalf to take the world’s ever-changing pulse.

Still, he was a faithful reader of the magazine. In fact, he held a lifetime subscription, courtesy of his longtime connection to the company.

(Time-Life arbitrarily canceled his “lifetime” subscription in the final year or two of his life, which was a rich source of black humor for a couple of weeks there.)

His grandson, in contrast, does not read the slimmed-down, dumbed-up mag that passes for Time these days.

For one thing, I have a very limited tolerance for Joel Stein. For another, I’ve discovered The Economist, which seems considerably more informative, comprehensive and adult than today’s Time.

And for a third, big trend stories — like “Sex & The Teenager” — tend to draw out my BS antennae. I rarely get very far into one before I start mentally punching jagged holes in the research, supporting evidence and conclusions.

It makes me wonder what attitude my grandpa took when he sat down to read stories like that in his latest copy of Time.

I think my grandpa trusted authority more than I do, and if an institution like Time magazine told him something, his default setting was to believe it — especially if he had no firsthand evidence to the contrary.

(There were no teenagers, sexy or otherwise, at 1107 Hope Street in the summer of 1972.)

But, he was not a stupid or credulous person. He had the analytical mind of an engineer, a tinkerer and a shade-tree mechanic, and I have to imagine he turned it to things beyond the merely mechanical.

When he sat down to stories like “Sex & The Teenager,” I wonder if he asked himself some of the base-level questions every consumer of mass media should ask themselves:

Who is telling me this?

Why are they telling me this?

What is their interest in telling me this?

How much of their evidence is one-off anecdotal, as compared to systematic study?

Do they answer opposing arguments with substance, or do they shrug them off?

Are they trying to influence me about the story’s importance through play and space? Is this subject truly as important — to me, and to society — as the story’s prominence would indicate?

And so on.

(Unfortunately, past cover stories from Time are only available to subscribers, so I can’t apply these questions to my own critical read of “Sex & The Teenager.” It might have been a decent story, for all I know … though I doubt it, kinda.)

The proper approach to mass media was just another of a million topics I never really covered with my grandfather.

So I can’t muster an honest guess on how he responded to lusty teenagers, or campaign finance, or the rise of skiing, or the troubled state of the Jesuits, or the bucolic joys of Minnesota, or any one of thousands of stories his favorite news magazine fed him over the years.

Perhaps he swallowed them all whole and unquestioned.

But I’m sure he read them with a decent degree of attention and concentration, anyway, which is a necessary prerequisite for critical thinking.

So I’ll leave him sitting in a comfortable chair in the front room … with the sound of traffic on Hope Street buzzing everpresent through the open window on a humid late-summer evening … furrowing his brow a little bit as he gets the word about Sex & The Teenager.

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We all know what happens to a dream deferred — or what might happen to it, anyway.

This week, we’ll use up some words (it’s cool, they’re free) asking the same question about dreams that get abandoned.

What happens to a wedding anniversary after the divorce?

It’s supposed to be a date dearer to us than any other, except for children’s birthdays. We put effort into rendering it indelible.

And then, the change comes.

Perhaps an uncelebrated anniversary chafes and stings its principals all day. Or maybe it only raises its head once or twice, a minor irritant, like a cough stuck in the gullet or a passing cloudstorm.

Perhaps, given enough time and will, it disappears entirely.

I imagine there are always reminders, though. Too many pictures get taken, and too many words get put on paper, to ever be fully excised.

June 19, 1972.

June 19, 1972. The Mets get one-hit.

This is the second straight week I’ve mentioned my cousin Bob, and the second straight week I’ve mentioned his (long-ago) divorce.

I don’t think he reads this; but if he does, I assure him it’s coincidental and not personal.

I was trolling the archives for blog-fodder, and this old mention of his anniversary brought to mind thoughts of faded dreams, frustration and resignation.

Not his faded dreams, specifically — I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t repeat them to the world if I did.

I’m thinking more generally of the hopesĀ  of millions of people who pledged their futures together and then, for any combination of reasons, turned away again.

Think of all those unopened (maybe even trashed) wedding albums, and all those promises, and all those shared memories that seem in retrospect like they couldn’t possibly have been that happy.

(Think, too, that walking away from each other is in some cases the correct decision. The intent of this is not to lecture those whose dreams change course on them, but to ponder what the old ones mean after they run out of steam.)

I am no authority on divorce, and neither were the Blumenaus of Hope Street (married almost 60 years) or their children (each past 40 years).

But an uncounted number of Americans — hundreds? thousands? — will, at some point today, remember what this day was supposed to mean to them.

Everything put together falls apart, as the song says. There is no single answer to how we all learn the lesson, or what it means to each of us after we do.

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Last week, the mayor of Stamford and the U.S. Representative representing the city made a cameo appearance.

This week, we’re going to circle back to a prominent public figure of a different sort who showed up on my grandpa’s calendar:

September 1972.

September 1972. Please don’t call the number; God only knows what it connects to these days.

Don Russell, born Rustici, got in on the ground floor of television in the 1940s and seemed poised to make a big-time career of it.

He worked for the DuMont network, served as Jackie Gleason’s on-camera announcer, and anchored the first national broadcast of a presidential inauguration in 1953. He hosted early TV news programs in New York, and produced broadcasts of the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.

But, having made his mark on a larger stage, Russell apparently decided he preferred the comforts of home. For the last few decades of his professional life, Russell split his time between WSTC-AM — Stamford’s local AM radio station — and the local daily paper, the Stamford Advocate, where he wrote a column about current and historic local events.

It strikes me that — with the decline in newspapers and local radio — the likes of Don Russell may be on their way out. The local media celebrity may be an endangered species.

On the other hand, the media outlets I worked for in the ’90s and 2000s were eager to create their own local celebrities, crafting ads that promoted reporters who had no deep ties to the local area and were likely to be gone in two years’ time.

(I worked for one such chain of papers in Massachusetts in the Nineties. I left the chain just as it was about to promote me; but I know it advertised others whose attachment to the company was just as short-lived.)

Perhaps the issue is not that Don Russells do not happen any more, but that they do not happen organically.

You can’t really fake a connection to a community, nor can you douse it with Miracle-Gro and hope it develops overnight.

“He loved this city like few people have, and while he was not afraid to criticize it, he always looked for the best in Stamford, throughout its history, up into our time of momentous change,” Stamford Advocate editorial page editor Tom Mellana is quoted in Russell’s obit (linked above).

Every city needs a Don Russell to tell its stories. And while Russell’s coverage probably seemed provincial at the time, it probably looks deeply informed and sincere by comparison to whatever passes for commentary these days.

I have no way to know what my grandpa called Don Russell about. Perhaps the great man did a news item about one of my grandpa’s local art exhibitions. Or maybe he wrote a scathing column about dirty water in the Springdale neighborhood, using my grandpa as a source.

Either way, I give Russell credit for knowing who Bill Blumenau was. A truly top-class local columnist or reporter can’t just rely on their own experience. They have to have a network of townies willing to pass on the scoop from their neighborhoods.

The truly great local reporters have to have an amicable relationship with City Hall, but must also be able to rip open its poses and bluffs using the word of real people. If my grandpa was one of those real people, it’s a credit to Don Russell that my grandpa felt he could pass along information and get results.

Don Russell died in 2010, nine years after my grandfather. The old WSTC disappeared a year later, when the station was sold to a nonprofit organization broadcasting National Public Radio programming.

I have no idea what means a Stamford resident might use nowadays to get publicity for a local story. They probably have to call some twentysomething reporter who’s already busy covering three events at once.

Good luck to them both.

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