Friday, January 02, 2009

Adieu to Woolworth's

When I was around seven years old, almost invariably on Mondays, I used to pretend I had a really bad stomachache and couldn’t go to school. My mom would look at me contorting in bed, like Professor Zovek in a straightjacket, and with mischief in her eyes, she would inform my father that I was sick and could not go to school that day. Then my dad, suspicion written all over his brow, would mutter about how expensive the tuition and how I have to go and learn whether I like it or not, and would finally leave for work. “Feeling better now?” Mom would say. “Wanna come with me to Woolworth’s”?
It never ceased to amaze me: she always knew when it was fake and when for real.
That was joy. Just me and my mom, hand in hand, walking to Woolworth’s at the corner of Insurgentes and Durango, Mexico City.

First stop: the record section. I would spend hours looking at Ziggy Stardust’s metallic painted face and the blond hairy naked women climbing a hill for Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention. I would stare at the dreamscapes of Yes and Pink Floyd. I had an inkling that one day, I too would understand what it all meant. It would be revealed to me and I would finally SEE. But I wasn’t too sure about that. Chances were that those album covers with scary, hypnotic names like Uriah Heep and Blood Sweat and Tears were going to remain a mystery that was not meant for me to ever crack. Somehow I knew there was nothing mysterious, arcane or taboo about Johnny Mathis or Shirley Bassey, though she scared the hell out of me. But I always looked over my shoulder when standing in front of Stones records. Their shaggy, unkempt hair, their skinny, menacing gait, Mick Jagger's satyr lips; I knew they were forbidden. The Stones scared the shit out of me too, probably for the same reason as Shirley Bassey: an intimation of feral sex. My mother used to boast that I made her buy me my first Beatles record at Woolworth's at the tender age of 3 (together with an olive green soldier's helmet that used to get caught in my hair, the very first toy I ever asked for). The record was Meet the Beatles and I had her playing it incessantly, scratched out of recognition, until it occurred to her that she could buy another one and defer going crazy until the next one came out. The last one they bought for me was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By then I was 7 and after that I picked my own. The Beatles were my religion for a while. I mean religion in the sense of awe and faith and companionship. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such prolonged ecstasies and mysteries than when buying, opening, listening and re-listening, dancing and making up words to the records of the Beatles. I was mesmerized by the music. I was moved by its playful energy, by the urgent vibrancy of the young male voices. When songs were sad I knew their sadness was honest and simple, not twisted and heavyhanded like Mexican telenovelas. I could understand most of what the first records said: love, girl, you, me, honey, dance and so on. No mystery there. But Sgt. Pepper was like the Rosetta Stone. Something had definitely changed that made my spine tingle. That album cover! It looked like a Mexican Day of the Dead altar. My dad sat with me and explained who some of those people were at that funeral of the electric guitar. I recognized Marilyn Monroe and Chaplin, but that little kid sitting there slumped in the corner with his striped shirt, he gave me the creeps. There were people even my dad didn’t know, and he knew everything. There were lyrics in the inside jacket. That was new. And why were the Beatles wearing those silly lollipop-colored satin jackets and alarming facial hair? What happened? I think I asked my dad and he said: “drugs”. I could read but I had no idea of what the songs meant. And that made it all the more arcane and mysterious. A song like “For the benefit of Mr. Kite” fired up my imagination with strange, almost apocalyptic images, perhaps because the only words I understood were “fire” and “horses”. The word “handkerchief" in “She’s Leaving Home” was the object of almost Talmudic speculation. I had no idea what it meant, but I was sure it was esoteric.

The candy store was my second favorite department at Woolworth’s. I loved ambling down the aisles and taking in the salty smell of rancid “fresh” popcorn and warm nuts mixed with the cloying smell of citric acid and glucose. I used to marvel at the shapes and wrappers and flavors and colors. I’d buy chocolate covered white marshmallows or sour green apple or grape lollipops that sometimes made my gums and tongue bleed. They don’t make them anymore. I used to buy every flavor of a bubble gum called Motitas, that kept adding more and more flavors, in a growth spurt of imaginative marketing. They had fruit (red wrapper), banana (yellow, I hated it), grape, mint, coconut (blue) and orange. I once had a dream that there were endless flavors and colors of Motitas, yummy, excellent flavors like chocolate and vanilla and cajeta and honey and tangerine and watermelon. It was a wonderful dream. I tried to re-dream it many times without success.

Then I would visit the toys department, most of which exasperated me to no end. There were many toys that required children to be careful and industrious. They came in big boxes: erector sets, cake baking sets, the spirograph (my mom got me that when I was older, it lasted a couple of weeks). Glitter paint sets. Got that one too. Mom regretted ever buying it, since our TV room looked like Ziggy Stardust’s bedroom after I was done with it. When I was younger, mom used to get me coloring books and crayons -- Carmen -- the red and white box, with the ones that are sharp and dry and smooth, and the ones that melt and sweat and break in your hands, reeking of wax. I liked coloring books, trying to never get out of the black line. I used to get impatient with filling out the tiny details (crayons would always be too chunky for those) as well as the big open spaces, where you had to fill out the sky or the grass, and you always had to work one crayon to death to achieve that. Frustrated with my appalling lack of meticulousness and my impatience, I would not finish the drawing, plus, I would be hard on myself for never staying inside the borders. Yet I preferred coloring books to dolls. I got the requisite Barbies, but they always ended up armless, legless, hairless, truncated, with their head twisted back a la Linda Blair, or wires coming out of their knees, all in the interest of science. My neighbor Tete had both Barbie and Ken and she was scrupulous with them, their clothes, and their dollhouse. She would bring Ken up to play with my Barbie and at first they would run towards each other and kiss and hug with their clothes on. I suspect that later on we started undressing them and putting Ken on top of Barbie. I’m not sure I knew why we did that or what it meant. I don’t remember having asked.
I also got Crissy, the red-haired doll with the orange lace mini-dress and hair that grows out of a spout on her back. Since braiding and combing her hair turned out to be monumentally boring, I gave her a shampoo and rinse -- immersing her totally in the bathroom sink. Her body orifices; the crevices between the arms and the shoulders, and the junctures of the legs leaked water like teapots. Then I gave her a very stylish haircut. She looked like Ziggy Stardust’s little sister. It would have left her in tears, had she been one of those dolls that can cry.
Tete was one of those industrious children who took good care of her toys and got the baking set that my mother refused to get me claiming 1) a waste of perfectly good food, 2) a fire hazard. Perhaps this explains my current aversion to the kitchen. One day, Tete brought over her new “Mi Alegría” chemistry set. So we parked ourselves on my studio carpet and experimented with transparent red and blue liquids and test tubes. She went to the kitchen for matches, and all I remember is that the carpet caught fire. We left a small black hole in the carpet and a huge black hole of worry and fear in me, for when my mom came home. I blamed it totally on Tete, after listening to my mother giving hell to the maid who was supposed to be checking up on us, instead of reading stories of babies born with toad legs in Casos de Alarma. After that incident, I acted as if matches had bad faith of their own, and would not get near one if I could avoid it. This proved particularly embarrassing on Friday nights when we used to be invited to Tete’s house for Shabbos dinner and her dad would give the honor of lighting the candles to a different woman every time. My mom had to light the match for me because I could never muster enough strength to flick the match so it would light. I did it as if I was running my hand through the fur of an animal with rabies.

After doing my rounds at the store, I would come back to the wonderful, undulating red Formica lunch counter, with matching red vinyl stools where my mother sat with her friends smoking Kents and drinking coffee. This was before the time that some marketing genius decided to update the corporate colors of Woolworth from that wonderful blood red to a ghastly combination of cream and blue. I never forgave them for that. The lunch counter was like a slightly more cheerful version of Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks". My mom and her friends always sat at the very end of the counter, near the toys. La señora Ofelia, la señora Amalia, la señora Estrella, la señora Yudes (what a name!), sometimes my aunts Dora and Clara.
I loved sitting at that counter. They had cakes adorning each counter. The cakes were always thick with waves of white or brown or pink icing a la Wayne Thibaud (every time I see his paintings of cakes, I want to eat the canvases). Many times a slice had been carved off, giving us a glimpse of the disappointing dry yellow dough divided in half by a line of either more icing or strawberry jam. The inside never looked as good as the outside. I thought the cakes should have been made of icing only. They sat on shiny stainless steel pedestals protected by see-through plastic covers. I never saw anybody eating them so I suspect that the triangular carvings were there to entice the customers. They also used to serve humongous ice cream treats, things with silly sounding names like Banana Split and Tres Marías (Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry with whipped cream and hot fudge and a cherry on top). The most I was ever able to get out of my mother was one single scoop of pedestrian lime ice. It was served on a surgical looking stainless steel cup with a delicious vanilla wafer stuck on top. They also served mounds of red or green Jell-O in tall sundae glasses with a dollop of whipped cream. Why would anybody want to order that was beyond me.
But the main reason to sit in that counter, (besides hanging on to mom and listening to the gossip and being fawned upon by all the nice middle aged waitresses, with their starched red and beige uniforms), was to eat Woolworth’s famous vegetable soup. Now, my mother, who suffered torments worse than those of Joan of Arc at the stake when it came to making me eat fruits or vegetables, saw in this soup our redemption. This was the only way, in fact, that I could stomach eating any vegetable whatsoever. She always ordered a cup for me, not a bowl -- probably thinking that my love affair with the soup would end as soon as she changed the size. The soup arrived from an invisible kitchen via a dumbwaiter, the doors of the mini-elevator rising like curtains on stage to reveal a little beige diner cup accompanied by a hot, delicious roll with a square of melting, salty margarine beside it. I have never since seen my food come down from the skies in an elevator. It was heaven.
At Christmastime, I would marvel at the rows of decorations at Woolworth’s, with their perfect silver spheres that mirrored me and the tinsel and foam. I loved playing around with the fragile colored balls, knowing full well they weren’t meant for me.
Then they started changing the store. They moved the departments around, they took away the pizza man, who had been preparing those awful ersatz pizzas that I loved, from a little cart like in an amusement park. They got rid of the red Formica and the red vinyl, and I became jaded of the toys and the records, and started exploring the lingerie and perfume and make up departments. I will never forget that late into the eighties, Woolworth's still carried ancient rice blotting paper and make up that seemed to have been designed with spinsters in mind. At the lingerie aisles, they had bras with cups the size of salad bowls, made of cumbersome, stiff white lace. To my recollection there were only four possible colors or underwear: white, beige, black and pink. The store detectives were always hovering near the ladies’ panties.
Then around high school, I stopped going with my mom to Woolworth’s. I wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with either one of my parents if I wanted to be cool, which of course I wasn’t. However, when I started going to college (UNAM all the way down Insurgentes Sur), and before my dad finally gave in and bequeathed me his old Datsun, I would take a bus up Insurgentes from school and my mom would be waiting for me at Woolworth’s to give me a ride home. We had moved to Polanco by then, which also had a Woolworth’s but it was not the same. The only thing that stuck around in my favorite Woolworth's was the smell of popcorn and warm nuts. The fifties charm was gone. Only one of the old time waitresses remained. Some of my mom’s friends still used to congregate around the lunch counter and schmooze. Their hair was grey now, their children married, grandchildren on their laps.
Years later I walked into Woolworth’s to buy soap and they had destroyed the lunch counter to make more room for retail.


  1. conchis11:25 AM

    Hey jude, it really transported me! Whatever inspired this reverie?

  2. Conchis! They are closing Woolworth's down forever all over the world.
    I'm very sad.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Anonymous1:15 PM

    Whoaaah!! I live actually just in front of that store, if you need some pictures or something to refresh your memories, just let me know