Christmas at Sears & Roebuck

Going to church on Christmas Eve - a 1911 vint...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

“The Sears catalog serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living. The roots of the Sears catalog trace back to the Homestead Act of 1864 and are as old as the company. By the early 19th century, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as ‘the Consumers’ Bible’. In 1933, Sears, Roebuck and Co. produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the “Sears Wish book”, a catalog featuring toys and gifts and separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. In the days of outhouses, the pages of the mass-mailed catalog were often used as toilet paper.” Wikipedia and Sears Archives

In a time before mailboxes vomited forth daily streams of mass-marketed catalogs, Sears stood mightily as the most evolved holiday mass marketer.  The Sears Christmas Catalog’s arrival heralded the first day of an Advent season teeming with material wants.  Any hope of a deeply spiritual holiday experience was defiled by the arrival of the Consumer’s Bible. One had to merely open the first page of this Domesday-sized registry and immediately fall under its mistletoe spell. Each page of the journal was jammed with adult gumdrops and candied children’s gifts – each sweeter and more contemporary than the next. It was an age of inventions, innovations and space exploration. In material America, the Sears catalog offered an adult primer on how one might improve their circumstances and with each purchase you moved more comfortably into a cocoon of creature comfort. To a kid, it was literally an inventory of every item warehoused within St Nicholas’ bag.   

Each December, my mother would award us a different colored pen with instructions to circle items in the Sears catalog that we felt might best capture Santa’s imagination. The guide pushed everything from guns to garden hoses.  Sears even sold elevated pools that one could fill up with water straight out of a garden hose.  My father dismissed the pools as “tacky.”  If tacky meant awesome, then I agreed.  I quickly circled the 10’ by 20’ plastic monstrosity replete with its heavy duty, micro-resin safety ladder and pool skimmer.  The children playing inside of the pool seemed to be having so much fun. They were not attempting to drown one another or disable the pool skimmer by tying its flickering tail into knots. They were playing with a bright, overblown beach ball – – the kind of ball we owned for perhaps a total of 12 seconds – before it was bitten by an animal or burst under the weight of an overzealous kid. Swimming pools? This was California at Christmas.  The temperature outside was stretching up to 75 degrees on Santa Ana winds.  I would be swimming by New Years.

Christmas shopping was indeed a burden on the entire family.  My parents fought over who would brave Bullocks department store or the chaotic parking lots of Sears. There were no formal Black Fridays but December still meant a tidal wave of yuletide commercialism that swept over every family.  Glowing televisions barraged children with images of toys and games. “ I want that for Christmas, I want that for Christmas…” my younger brother would repeat as a dull mantra while Mattel and Milton Bradley streamed images of toy ovens making real chocolate cakes and rockets that would fire 1000 feet into the air and float harmlessly – avoiding every tree branch – to land safely back in your postage stamp garden. The world was drunk on Christmas cheer and American materialism.  Cherry red garlands stretched across city streets while residential pines, magnolias and oaks transformed into colorful beacons that whispered,” buy, buy, buy”.

There were no malls.  Department stores dominated the retail landscape and were the epicenters of consumer spending. Bullocks, Sears, Fedco, JC Penny, Woolworth’s and a host of ancient forgotten family run enterprises competed for the hearts and minds of America’s mothers.  These matriarchs of merriment shouldered the role of Mrs. Claus along with other thankless indignities borne in the waning days of 60’s chauvinism. Moms got the short end of the candy cane – getting to purchase the shirts, socks, sweaters, and practical items that were opened and rapidly discarded into detritus mounds of paper and boxes.  Given that fathers were rarely present during the week, mothers were responsible for consolidating the myriad irrational requests into a practical Santa list that would guarantee surprises but not sink a fledgling family into the darker waters of consumer debt. Armed with the Sears catalog, she outfitted my father with the requisite shopping list and shoved him out into the confused mayhem of Sears.

Sears was the epicenter of our retail activity.  The massive store had no windows and seemed to devour you once you entered its massive doors.  The Chicago merchants that once sold mail order buggies and horse feeders were now focused on bricks and mortar discount pricing and in a time of economic uncertainty, the store was constantly overrun with shoppers.  My father loathed shopping.   It was if God, himself, was testing him like Job.  He would make a line for an open counter only to be cut off by an ancient do-it-yourself handyman who could not understand why the nice young lady at the bedding register could not help him find a number 6 Allen wrench. As my father squirmed restlessly waiting to purchase some pink hand towels, my brothers and I were melting into clothes racks, jumping on beds, snapping towels and chasing one another with throw pillows.

Occasionally, my father would come unglued and hiss for us to stop the “grab-ass”.  Grab-ass was a highly technical term to describe any anti-social behavior worthy of punishment.  Grab-ass usually preceded the spanking of one’s ass – – which was not a pleasant experience.  In the 1960’s, you could publically whack your child.  Another father might even come over and congratulate you on your technique. However, the nuclear option of spanking also meant a howling child which invited derision from sympathetic mothers. To avoid this disapproval, a father might surreptitiously squeeze your arm until it was purple while reprimanding you with a withering, whispered scream.

The cash registers were crowded like airline counters after a flight cancellation.  My father would stand shifting in place, absentmindedly gripping the arm of my youngest brother who was squirming to get free so he might join us in our Lord of The Flies adventure.  He finally gave up, making an exaggerated sigh and whistled at us like cattle to start moving westward across a crowded appliance department.  My brother immediately opened a refrigerator and attempted to climb inside.  The appliance section was perhaps our favorite place to misbehave with its freestanding toilets where one could mimic the act of urinating – hoping to appall the little old blue haired lady that was perusing the latest innovations from General Electric.  

Inevitably, my father would attempt to purchase items for my mother. She was still hoping like a condemned prisoner that he would clue in to her interests and fashion sense.  It was a losing cause. He was an ex-soldier – pragmatic and utilitarian. He did not realize that many of his “useful” gifts were in fact, symbols of indentured servitude. The new vacuum, the mop, measuring cups and towels might as well have come with a ball and chain.  He was one of a long line of pathetic elves attempting to articulate his love and appreciation for his spouse through the act of gift giving.  It would take him decades to discover that the only thing she wanted was to be left alone with a good book and an old movie.  This was unfortunately not for sale at Sears.  It was simply not in his DNA to understand that women hailed from a different galaxy and tended to attach equal value to the smallest of gestures and the grandest of gifts. They did not shiver with excitement at the sight of a new rolling pin.  

Christmas morning would arrive with a thump like the tumbling of snow off a gabled eave. We descended to a warm living room, crackling fire and Santa gifts that had been artfully hidden from our prying eyes.  We would begin opening presents with civility with the most emotionally mature child agreeing to distribute presents.  Within minutes, protocol was abandoned and fighting would break out as the all powerful gift distributor had morphed into Mussolini and was now refusing to distribute to his siblings because of their attitudes.

My mother would open her gifts last – appliances, towels, night gowns, kitchenware and perhaps an Ann Taylor blouse that was now two sizes too small.  Each boy would watch her with earnest eyes as she would feign wonder at our self-serving offerings – – boxes of See’s Candy (she was dieting), $2 perfume (it was French), Harlequin paperbacks or perhaps a handy item like a penknife or hardboiled egg cup. She would smile and profusely thank us, winking at my father as he proudly displayed yet another hideous tie. She would rise and begin to gather up the paper and clothes cast into selfish heaps as her progeny consumed themselves with toys that would be broken, swapped or disregarded within the week.

She would hesitate, listening to Mel Torme croon of ski hills, snow and romance in far off alpine chalets. She recalled that last December trip to Lake Tahoe with friends – – before she broke her leg skiing, before her husband, before her four boys – a distant star when she was eighteen years of pure anticipation. So long ago, like the echoes of carolers as they turn the corner to serenade another street.

Yes, it was another Christmas.  In the corner by her chair was a tired and torn Sears catalog. It had seen more action than a tree house Playboy magazine and was now merely an artifact of yesterday’s dreams – wishes that would lay dormant for another year.  She secretly made an early new year’s resolution. Perhaps this year, she might get her own colored pen.

Ask Jack

Male model looking pretty relaxed (IMG_7726a)
Image by Alaskan Dude via Flickr

Ask Jack

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde

It was a cloudless September Saturday full of Indian summer promises. I had emerged from my closet ready to pace the sidelines of two football fields.  I had my usual ensemble – white cargo pants, black tee shirt, flip flops, backward facing baseball cap and retro Ray Bans.

“Oh, oh, oh”.  At first I thought my partner was talking to the dog.  It was that same lilting expression one utters when chastising a pet for coveting the food on the counter.  “ Are you going to wear that today? “I heard from the opposite closet. “It’s after Labor Day.  Time to wind up the white shorts.”

This was not the first time I had been rounded up by the fashion police.  Over twenty years of marriage, I have been picked up more times than a Hunts Point streetwalker.  I was feeling defensive knowing that in 47 years I had made little progress against my style disability.

“Who made that rule up anyway?” I retorted. ” It was probably started by some New England pilgrim who thought their rear end looked too big in white.”  Or maybe, I thought, it was a concession to mothers sick of scrubbing summer stained white garments.  The color white did seem to attract stains, marks and dirt.  Although my mother always appreciated white as it was an anthropologist’s road map to what we had eaten and where we had been over the past 12 hours.   I asked around town.  People shrugged.  “ It’s just the way we’ve always done things.” It seemed everyone had been living by this ancient code, perhaps secretly afraid that some punctilious maven might assail them on Elm Street for their complete disregard of fashion etiquette.

Growing up in California, white clothing was an essential year round accessory.  There was no Labor Day rule.  There were three types of men’s fashion styles – surfer, casual and preppy.  As a third child, I was a fashion orphan condemned to battered hand me downs and out-of-date clothes.  I was not allowed to have an opinion about clothes and as such, my fashion sense was stunted from an early age. To complicate things, I was cursed with the physique of a squat Irish peat bog worker while my older brothers were blessed with continental European metabolisms and the builds of clothing store mannequins.  I was meant to wear an animal skin not light-weight, cotton chinos.

As my mother attempted to foist the secondhand clothes on me, I was further dehumanized by the inability to fit into pants too slender, shirt collars too tight and belts missing one critical belt loop.  Given my unique physiology, any trousers that actually did fit would inevitably rip in the crotch, often at the most inopportune times – revealing my tightie-whities and furthering my public humiliation.  No less than five times, did my Mom have to come to school to airdrop replacement pants.  We finally came to the collective realization that only denim was strong enough to endure my thunder thighs.

My older brother was elegant and slender – resembling a youthful Cary Grant.  He possessed instinctive élan and style actually enjoying clothes shopping with my mother.  He did not get his apparel at any old department store.  No, he purchased his wardrobe at a Men’s Store called “ Atkinsons”.

Atkinsons was very posh.  The attractive girl behind the counter that you would never get to meet because she went to a “private school” boxed your purchases in bright red boxes sealing them with a canary yellow ribbon. The salesmen were a natty, sartorial charm of thirty-something ex-USC frat boys who would coo and fawn over my elegant sibling.  They would then turn their disappointed gazes on me, frowning to my Mom,  “ I am not sure we have anything in his size.”   At that point, I fully rejected the superficial uniform of the preppies and the posers and dressed like a jock.  If I went out with a girl, perhaps, I would turn my baseball cap around to be more formal.

I secretly envied those tailored Trojans and wanted to be like them.  A very cute blond named Kathy Kelly once told me when I was wearing a periwinkle blue shirt that I had nice eyes.  “ It must be the shirt” she cooed.  Ok, blue it is! My poor mom had to find me light blue everything for the next year.  Admittedly, I had never really understood or paid attention to fashion. Perhaps, it was that straight legged jeans, tight Euro shirts and funky tennis shoes seemed not to be made for sons of Irish and German immigrants who eat like they are anticipating a famine.  I just could never really pull off the latest look and I seemed to have a bent antenna when it came to understanding that madras shorts and a striped button down shirt don’t go together unless you are trying to find out which of your friends has epilepsy.

As I got older, I picked up a few sound bites that only distorted my narrow understanding of fashion. “ If you have a larger physique, you should wear black.  It is a slimming color.”  I was all for “slimming “ and proceeded to buy black everything until someone asked me if I was Johnny Cash’s brother or perhaps a devil worshipper. When someone suggested that all black meant that I vacationed with Satan, ate bats heads and listened to Ozzie Osbourne, I abandoned my mono-color scheme. If I was, as my mother suggested, what I wore, then I was a Crayola box with only two colors.

It got worse when I left the cocoon of my Southern California suburb and went to college.   I recall going to party and seeing guys from the east coast who wore their polo tee shirts with collars up, jetty red shorts and cordovan penny loafers.  I did not even know how to begin to belittle this bizarre uniform that made them look like emasculated, metro-sexual vampires.  Yet, they looked at me like I had just gotten off work from my construction job and to add insult to injury, the girls seemed to naturally gravitate toward their “sofisticatezza”.

I would learn more painful lessons about fashion and its fickle, unpredictable life expectancy.  Clothes could actually go out of style before they were too worn out to use.  It was as if the garment industry was trying to force you to replace your perfectly good clothes with new ones by convincing you that you were out of step with men you would never possibly look like.

As with many things, marriage and a spouse determined to sandpaper my rough edges began to polish my rough exterior.  However, I was often caught attempting to leave the house with clothes that were out of season, too short, too long, stained, torn, garish, brutish or just plain, pathetic.  I started receiving clothes as “ gifts.”

That’s when you know you are officially an adult – you get clothes for Christmas and your birthday.  They are not clothes you would pick out.  They are the clothes purchased by someone trying to turn you into an accidental fashionista.  Dark shirts with weird flaring collars, jeans with meticulously fake faded spots – not a pleat seen for miles, and funky euro shoes with long elfin tips….If I actually wore all of these clothes, I would surely not be able to walk five feet.  I broke down and finally tried them on.  I suddenly noticed other husbands that were also being dressed up as reluctant mannequins.  Who said that little girls eventually stopped playing with dolls?

I had to take back control of my wardrobe but I knew I could not make it alone.  I needed a wingman.  And then one day while roaming the web I stumbled upon my Jack,  J. Crew’s Style confidant.  I bored deeper into cyberspace and found a treasure trove of trend setting websites – all promising to cure me of my lifelong disability like a Miracle Worker.  It seemed that there was now a safe place to go for the garment geeks. The legions of the challenged and style-less could now ask those embarrassing questions like,  “what can I wear to a beach wedding?” , “What are the do’s and don’ts of sandals?”, “How do you dress for winter without looking like a tool? “

Can I wear a tank top to the gym?  Answer from, “ If you must show off the guns, please wear a sleeveless shirt.  ‘A shirts’ – tank tops associated with domestic abuse – are not really recommended anywhere (except the bleacher section of a Yankee game).  What about those guys wearing spandex?, “For women, spandex is a privilege, not a right.  For men, it is neither.  It is a very, very bad mistake.”

The websites challenged me and probed. Did I want to be a Trend Setter, Preppy, Hipster, Rocker, Classic or Sporty Chic?  Actually, I just wanted to know whether it was ok to wear my cargo shorts into October.  Ask Jack hesitated and then answered. “White or wheat denim long pants work year round.”

Huh ?

Screw it, it’s 80 degrees and I’m wearin’ the white shorts.