Saturday, August 12, 2023

The Basement at Gimbel's

Gimbel's department store, Philadelphia, 1905.

When the calendar turns to August, my mind always goes to the back-to-school days of childhood -  to days when summer boredom mixed with creeping anxiety about the impending school year.  On the plus side, there would new Saturday morning cartoons.  On the minus side, another year of to St. Mary Magdalen School, sadistic nuns, and Fr. McGarvey, who molested altar boys (no lie!). 

Come mid-August, we'd pile into Mom's Chevy Nova for an hour-long trek from our tiny backwater town in South Jersey to the City of Brotherly Love to get new school clothes.  It was a long, boring ride through miles and miles of farmland and woods, finally opening up to crazy fast traffic on roads that split off every which-way.  At this point, Mom would turn off the AM radio and make us shut up so she could think.  Get in the wrong lane, and we'd never be heard from again.

Crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge, I was amazed by its size and length, and terrified by its height and the traffic racing past our car on both sides.  We were entering a world I only knew from TV.  Where our town center was two blocks of boarded up buildings,  Philly was packed with old colonial brick structures to modern glass towers and grey brutalist eyesores.  Turn a corner, more buildings, turn another corner, even more buildings, all swarming with people.  And parking garages!  I had never seen a parking garage before, but here we were heading up and up and up a steep spiral driveway just to find a parking spot.  

It all seemed so fast and dangerous and loud.  And it smelled like hot pretzels and vomit. 

Mom hit the big department stores: Strawbridge & Clothier, and Gimbel's.  They weren't just stores, they were multi-level shopping mansions, complete with restaurants.  The scale, the displays...they even had moving stairs!  This was not our local Woolworth's, or even Two Guys.  This was downright fancy. 

We did a lot of hanging around while Mom browsed floor after floor of clothes. We'd amuse ourselves by hiding in the racks or making faces in the mirrors, as if there was some universal pamphlet from which every kid in America learned these shenanigans.

The last stop was the bargain basement at Gimbel's.  It was a step down in every sense of the word.  No escalator, just plain stairs to a windowless room with harsh florescent lights and generic tables with piles of clothes dumped on them.   Mom would rummage through the school uniforms for our requisite white sport shirts and blue pants - enough for a week.  Loaded with bags, we'd say bye to Philly for another year.  I don't recall Mom ever buying anything for herself.

Today would have been Mom's 94th birthday.  Sadly, she long gone, as are Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbel's and St. Mary's.  Fr. McGarvey is in Hell now.  But Philly's still there, smelling of hot pretzels and vomit - the bittersweet scent of nostalgia.