Monday, August 24, 2009

Back Again

This time "back to home," in the phrase from my childhood, I insisted on not being entertained by my elderly parents. When I've been back in the past few years, it has been in the company of my sister's family, up from Texas, and or, with the crowd of my brother's more recently acquired step-family. Sister stayed in Texas this year, travel home to Pennsylvania being beyond her means just now. My brother's new grandchildren, sadly, were lost to us in his recent separation from his wife. (They are much missed.) Without grandchildren to be entertained and indulged, I saw no purpose in having any elaborate outing included in the week's agenda. My folks are getting old. Better we simply planned on going almost daily out to eat.

At some point in the late 70s, right around the time I became the last child left at home, my mother announced that she would no longer be cooking on Fridays. This was her none too subtle way of telling my father, after twenty some years or more together at the time, that he'd better get used to the idea again of taking the lady out. Not quite the kind of date they went on while courting, which would probably have meant a coke and a ride in the car, ending in a bit of parking -- which meant more in that generation than it does now -- but out instead to a proper dinner, in a nice change of clothes, to someplace with an actual menu rather than a board above the counter. He didn't kick. I went along.

In those early days, we went to places like the restaurant downstairs at the big J. C. Penney's, in I think, Sharon, PA. This place featured an "all you can eat fish fry" on Fridays. It made up for a certain lack of atmosphere by serving good fish, and even better french fries. That was a popular choice with me, at the time.

After our meal, we were likely to wander the mall, still something of a retail innovation in those parts back then, and I was happy being dropped off until called for at the little B. Dalton bookstore. I'd never seen so many new books in my life! I remember the excitement of selecting a new paperback from the rows and rows of mass market fiction, of browsing the tables full of big, bargain picture books, and boxed sets of paperback trilogies. It was a wonderland.

I remember once being sternly warned by a clerk that I was to put back "and let alone" the big book of Bridget Bardot photographs I'd innocently opened. No idea who she was at the time. I need hardly add, the poor blushing clerk had quite misjudged the browser's interest. I did think she's made those peignoirs look awfully glamorous, working with very little material, at that.

Going out to eat with my parents now, we are as likely as not to go after for a drive. Neither walks as well as they did. But we did, just once, almost by chance, go again to the little mall in Sharon. At last, there, I had the common experience of seeing a scene from childhood reproduced, as it seemed, in miniature. What an unimpressive, even shabby little place it was! Even my parents could walk from end to end of it before they had to sit. And I went back into the little chain bookstore as well. It was small enough almost to fit behind my buying desk on the sales floor of the bookstore where I now work. The endless rows of mass market paperbacks are largely gone now, replaced by the larger, more expensive "quality paperbacks" that have done so much to undermine the reading of contemporary fiction. (What kid has sixteen dollars to spend on a new novel? Disgraceful greedy shortsighted and snobbish -- that just about summarizes my opinion of the "upgrade" to "quality.")

The bookstore, like the mall, like not a few of our meals out, was a dispiriting occasion. So much that once seemed expansive and new, now seemed rather tired, cramped and just not very good. I could not bring myself to buy a single book from that store, despite being determined to do so, for old time's sake, when I went in.

But I did not leave the place entirely discouraged. While I turned the sad, sparse spinner of Dover Thrift Editions, a small, bespectacled boy of eight or nine, rather shyly interrupted my gloomy meditations, and plucked both Treasure Island and Kidnapped from the rack. Forgetting for a moment both my resignation to the decline of western civilization and the contemporary rule that single gentlemen are never to speak to unaccompanied minor children in public, I asked the kid if he intended to read both books this summer.

"Won't take me that long!" he piped, before taking his books and his rather wilted cash to the register, paying me not the slightest mind thereafter. I watched him carry his books, without even a bag, out into the mall, where he dropped down on a bench, presumably to wait for his parents, and opening Treasure Island, began to read.

Best evening out I had this trip.

Seems you can go home again, after all.

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