My first car resembled a dinosaur in several ways: it was enormous, ancient, dark green, and loud. But it was definitely cool. Its features included push-buttons instead of a stick shift, and I loved the roomy bench-style, fabric-covered seats. The Newport's main drawback was that you had to dry off the distributor caps by hand every time you went over any sort of substantial puddle or it would stall, a manufacturer's defect which, I later learned, was common. Minor inconveniences of that sort don't bother you when you were previously carless, and besides, that car represented freedom from a public bus schedule.
Even though I was attending college on a full scholarship, there were expenses that were not covered. Money for books, clothes (which I could never get enough of), make-up, and lunch had to be earned. For this reason, I signed up for the work-study program at the college.
My first day of work began bright and early on the day after I graduated from high school. The 8 AM start time meant, much to my chagrin, skipping some of my classmates' parties. But I showed up for work at my small private Catholic college decked out in my new red-and-white polka dot mini-dress and white patent leather clogs. I looked wonderfully tacky.
That long, hot summer was spent working in a boring position at one of the college's offices, which could only be reached by entering another office and climbing a steep staircase. The head of the office was a man who, I later heard through the grapevine, was secretly married and had a small child. "Mr. Love" also had a penchant for watching me - and the other student aide - ascend the staircase whenever one of us wore a short skirt, which was the only type of skirt anyone under thirty-five wore in those days. It didn't take long for my comrade and I to catch on to the boss's tricks and from then on we wore only pants.
My immediate supervisor was a scowling female of late middle-age who had worked at the college for as long as anyone could remember. Miss Fox wore her hair short, dyed it red and, oddly, really did resemble the animal whose name she bore. She frequently complained about taking care of her very old mother. She seemed to resent her young female student aides. But we felt she resented Mr. Love even more: he was younger than her and I deduced, after many months, that she'd been passed over for his position not because of her work experience but because of her lack of a college degree. I tried to stay out of both of their ways.
My days were spent typing out triplicate forms and hiding (from Miss Fox) the ones laden with mistakes. There were quite a few! I was transferred, thank God, to another office in the fall, when I began my classes. The months flew by as I worked part-time, attended classes full-time, and gradually adjusted to the delicious newness of being a college student.
It snowed heavily on December 23rd of that year. The Christmas vacation for students had begun the day before and the dormitories and classrooms were abandoned. However, the administration building, where I worked, was far from empty. Offices were bedecked with the festive smells, lights and sounds of Christmas. Staff and faculty were officially on-duty until 4:30 PM but no one was working. Rather, we passed the time by floating from office to office where we sampled homemade cookies, drank punch, and wished each other "Merry Christmas". Some of the old-timers exchanged small gifts.
The magic of Christmas made us all equals that day. Administrators and heads of departments stood side by side with lowly work-study students and took turns gazing out the floor to ceiling windows at the rapidly falling snow. By quitting time the campus was covered in a white blanket. Each of us cheerfully called our final "Merry Christmas", wrapped ourselves in coats, scarves and hats, and gathered our little Christmas bundles before we headed for home.
My favorite place to park the car in those days was on a little side street only two blocks from the edge of my campus. I'd discovered the parking spot quite by accident one morning when I'd taken a wrong turn. Darling Street was a narrow, long residential street which had hardly any thru-traffic even though it ran parallel to the busiest street in the city.
Darling Street certainly seemed to live up to its name: the modest but well kept woodframed or aluminum-sided two-story houses were snuggled very close to each other in the fashion which was typical for post-WWII middle-class homes. These humble dwellings were well-kept and cared for and did not need the cutesy-country hand-carved welcome signs and other artifices that are so popular today in our latch-key society. The warmth and coziness was, during that era, embodied within a home.
The sun had begun to set when I reached Darling Street. Christmas lights were just coming to life: red, green, yellow and blue oversized bulbs glowed brightly around door frames just in time to greet the fathers and husbands who were already beginning to return home from a day's work. Many were on foot: there was a large shoe factory, Heavenly Shoes, at the end of the street and I assumed many of the men who lived on Darling Street were employed there. Others pulled up in front of their homes in mid-sized, well-used family cars. No doubt the evening meal was waiting and their children, jubilant with anticipation at beginning their long, Christmas holiday, were already gathered around the table. I exchanged waves, holiday greetings, and niceties about the weather with a few of the men who had come to know my car and my face over the past few months.
The Newport was, of course, covered completely in snow. A feeling of happiness swept through me as I opened the heavy door, set the plate of Saran-wrapped Christmas cookies on the green plaid bench seat, and started the engine. The wipers came to life despite the snow which threatened to impede their motion. I didn't bother to flip on the heater because it hadn't worked in years: the engine's warmth sufficed to keep the windshields frost-free. While the car warmed, I searched around in the back of the car for the brush and scraper my father had placed there and, having found it, climbed back out to begin the job of clearing the windshields. The melodic mantra of the wipers seemed to say "let's go let's go lets go..."
As the narrator from A Christmas Story would say, "All was right with the world."
It didn't take long to swoosh, scrape and brush the loose flakes away from the glass. When I was satisfied that I could see well enough to drive home, I crunched back through the snow towards the driver's door and curled the red-mittened fingers of my right hand under the silver handle of the driver's door. But the door did not open, the handle snapped back into place, and the surprise resistence threw me butt first into the snow.
To this day I haven't figured out how the door got locked. Perhaps it had frozen shut? Maybe I had bumped the button as I climbed out? No matter. What followed was 15 minutes of me pulling at the driver's door (the other three were always locked), praying it would open, and when my prayers went unanswered, finally kicking the door ever so gently in the hopes of undoing whatever had been done.
The brouhaha must have alerted the people of Darling Street to my plight. First one Woolrich jacketed middle-aged man sauntered out and asked "Need some help?", and then a few more. Tots in knit-hats and brightly colored winter jackets watched their fathers assist a long-haired, snow-covered shivering stranger from the safety of their front porches. Moms and old women peeked out from parlor windows.
The Good Samaritans of Darling Street tried everything to get that door opened. One man ran back into his house for a wire coat hanger, bent it into a curve with a looped end, and attempted to jimmy the window and pull up the lock button if it was, indeed, pushed down. But the lock was smooth as a bullet tip and that tactic didn't work out. Someone else tried spraying something or other on the door. The engine continued to run and the wipers clipped-clopped back and forth, but the door would not budge.
Finally, after about an hour of brainstorming and effort, it had grown dark. The snow continued to fall, and many suppers were growing cold. Someone asked if I would like to call home for a ride. Visions of my father, who was retired on disability, driving over the snow-covered and by now very slippery and hilly roads did not appeal to me, although I knew he would come. A policeman who had arrived on the scene suggested we break the driver's window as a last, desperate measure before the gas tank emptied. It seemed like the only solution, and so I agreed.
After the glass had been swept into a brown-paper grocery bag, I thanked everyone, waved good-bye, shouted a last "Merry Christmas" from my glassless driver's window, and headed down the one-way street past the brightly lit homes and, finally, the towering brick Heavenly Shoes factory. Hundreds of small, square windows, which were nestled amongst the weathered red bricks of the factory, glowed warmly yellow. Smoke curled mightily from the chimneys. I slowed down to a near crawl and admired the unexpected beauty for just a moment before I turned right and headed towards my hometown.
Just around the corner from the factory I looked up and saw the imposing edifice of a Catholic grade school. The building was huge and sturdy: four floors of dark, carved stone with a multitude of windows. "St. John's School...for God and Country" was carved into the dark stone above the arched oak entranceway. What a wonderful, safe and secure family life these people have, I thought. Living on Darling Street, working at the Heavenly Shoe factory, and sending your children to the religious school just down the street sounded like the ideal life to a then-naive, lower middle-class teenager.
I have no other memories of that day.
Since that December day many years ago, I have not driven down nor walked on Darling Street: when Christmas vacation was over and the new semester started that year, I was granted a space in the student parkade and decided to take it. My days of parking on Darling Street had ended. The memory of that hour spent with the people of Darling Street was tucked away safely for the time being only to be trotted out, on one or two occasions, as a story to tell friends and family when the subject of car trouble or snowy days came up.
But a few weeks ago I happened to be back in my old college town, as I very frequently am. For some unknown reason, I decided to take a little detour from the beaten path and revisit Darling Street.
Some memories should be left alone. As I drove down the little street, I was shocked to see that many of the houses were in varying degrees of disrepair. Siding was dirty, paint was peeling, and there was an overwhelming feeling of working-class poverty. Many young families obviously occupy the houses: toys were scattered on the front porches and upstairs windows displayed the traditional firemen's alert that a child sleeps in that particular room.
I hurried to the end of Darling Street to see if the shoe factory was still intact. Perhaps a dozen or so years ago I'd heard that it was still operating. But today the Heavenly Shoe Factory is just a large, abandoned brick shell. Hundreds of the tiny windows which had glowed yellow on that snowy, long ago December evening were now broken. Loading docks were abandoned and their metal reinforcements had rusted. Doors were boarded up. Empty boxes, broken glass, discarded cups and papers and other litter dotted the huge, empty parking lot. Despair and desolation were dripping from the rusty chain link fence which surrounded the property.
Sadness washed over me at what I'd just seen. An entire lifestyle had eroded.
I hurried away from Darling Street by taking the first right and stopped at the red light. The school. I'd forgotten about - St. John's School - with it's proud "For God and Country" slogan carved into the entranceway. The school building and the slogan was still there. But there was an enormous large red, white and blue banner hanging to the left of the oak doors: Coming Soon! St. John's Apartments, a project of the __________ County Redevelopment Project
Somehow, seeing the abandoned school disappointed me even more than the downfall of Darling Street. "For God and Country" no longer seems to have the impact on our greed-driven society that it once did long ago when men worked all day, came home, ate supper, and then worked long into the night to help build, for no pay, their neighborhood churchs and schools. That generation of men, and their sons and grandsons, have become extinct.And the nuns and priests who taught and ran the religious schools without pay are nearly extinct, as well.
I should not have been surprised at how the passage of time has changed Darling Street. The Heavenly Shoe Factory was, no doubt, the victim of the great influx of imports which began to sweep into the country in the late seventies and has never since stopped, and of the takeover epidemic which was prevalent in business during the nineties. The current household heads of Darling Street no doubt work just as hard as did the previous occupants of that little street. But in this day and age, hard physical labor no longer guarantees enough money to keep food on the table, a decent and well-kept home, good health care, and modestly stylish clothes on our children. Money only goes so far, and the money made by non-professionals today is often not enough to provide for the most basic needs of the average family of four.
And yet, when I really think about it, I realize that perhaps Darling Street has not really changed beyond the surface and, therefore, has not changed in the most important way. Surely, hope still exists on Darling Street. And in those homes there are children, and parents, and perhaps just as much love and neighborliness as there once was all those years ago. Front porches show signs of use, and maybe many a summer night is still spent with tired but happy mothers chatting back and forth with their neighbor over a shared pitcher of lemonade while fathers cut grass and trim hedges on the modest properties. Perhaps a few of the Good Samaritans of Darling Street, a lot older now but still just as warm-hearted, who came out of their homes at suppertime to help a stranger those many years ago, still live there in contentment.
In my heart, I want to believe that.
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