Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Remembering The Village

This past weekend my hometown celebrated the 23rd edition of  “Port Chester Day” and for a village that’s about 143 years old, at least in name, I’d say we missed a few along the way.
But who’s keeping track…?
While the forecast was not favorable to any sort of day, the festivities went on without a hitch, albeit one day delayed, with plenty of unexpected but welcome sunshine.  Z even won a basket of wine in the band raffle!

Port Chester Day really is a great idea—mostly because to celebrate “Greenwich Day” would have been silly, not to mention frowned upon by those Connecticut snoots up the street.

It’s also a time to celebrate the present with neighbors, good food, fireworks and that crazy bouncy thing with the polar bear I so look forward to every year.

But taking a day to celebrate your hometown, wherever that may be, is also a good time to look back and remember where we’ve been; to see how we measure up against the test of time.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about a site on Facebook that has people writing in and reminiscing about where they grew up. Apparently this is big in a lot of towns around the country right now.  I haven’t seen it myself since I’m not a Facebook guy.

Not that I have anything to hide; at least anything that I haven’t buried under 15 feet of concrete in my garage.  I just don’t like the idea of coming down stairs one morning and finding that odd little Zuckerberg guy nosing around in my refrigerator, checking to see if I’ve made the switch over from Sam’s Summer Ale to Octoberfest.  I’m very protective of my beer choices. 
I’m not really sure what that means, but I’m hoping you don’t either and will think it’s supposed to be funny and laugh, or at least chuckle.
Anyway, this got me thinking about my own memories of growing up in this hardy blue collar town, which some will say is still an ongoing process.  I’m only 57, which I would like to think is still considered to be on the young-ish side of old...or the old-ish side of young, depending on how you want to look at it…if you want to look at all.  So it may seem a little odd for me to wax nostalgic—or even to wax my car, which is an even rarer occurrence—but I guess coming of age in the late 50s’ and early 60’s, I did know PC, in what might be considered the waning days of its golden age as a true village.

Not that there’s anything wrong with its current face of eclectic restaurants and rising condominiums, but there’s something disconcerting about driving into old Liberty Square, what many used to consider the heart of PC, and being confronted by an assortment of retail and entertainment monoliths that, at least to me, serve only to block out the sun, which used to illuminate our proud little village.  Not to mention block out our proud little village from the shoppers in search of shoes, art supplies and beyond.

When I was a kid, that’s what I remember my grandmother calling downtown…the Village 

“We’re going to the Village. Want to come?”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  

Does anyone say that anymore?

Long before there were any shopping centers, it’s where you went when you needed just about anything. Shoes, clothing, school supplies, furniture, hammers or even a quick sandwich at the lunch counter in Neisner’s 5 & 10. 

And speaking of the movie theatres, the Village was where you went on a rainy Saturday afternoon to stand in line at the now defunct Embassy, where its grand marquee, now long removed, announced the appearance of Herman and Grandpa Munster, live and in person, or perhaps in their case, dead and in person, right there on Main Street. 

No kidding…actual Munsters…in PC.

Scary, huh?

And speaking of scary, down the street from the Embassy and directly across from Neisner’s, which was a kids delight, with all its cool toys, was something that was far from delightful, at least to this kid…Kaplan’s Department Store, now the home of the Salvation Army thrift store.

To a kid like me, Kaplan’s was like stepping back into the 1920’s…and not the “Roaring 20’s”…the “Boring 20’s”.

All a little kid, especially a little boy, took away from Kaplan’s was an image of a musty, dusty, dark array of endless display and clothing cases, scattered over what seemed like a hundred floors, serviced by this old elevator, circa 1900, with an iron grate that was opened and shut by hand by this scary guy, straight out of the Twilight Zone, who asked “floor please” and wouldn’t let you ride, unless you were with an adult. And since riding the elevator was the only fun thing happening in Kaplan’s that kind of left you to sit on the dirty old steps, day dreaming of all the toys you were missing at Neisner’s, or John’s Bargain store or even Delson’s Shoes with its vast selection of Buster Browns, while your mom looked at an assortment of foundation wear…whatever that was.

I’m not even going to mention the old ladies who wore those funny little glasses around their necks and who I believe made pudding out of little kids, just for fun.

That’s only a small slice of my PC early Day memories. I haven’t mentioned the scent of butter scotch or peppermint filling the air, all over town as the daily run of Life Savers was coming off the line.

Pizza at the Square Tavern, or watching my first color TV in one of the original old Caldor’s, that had just about every appliance and TOY that you would ever need...all neatly tucked away in the smallest of spaces in what is now, partly, Tandoori-Taste of India.  

Or Al’s TV, across the street, where Al would actually come to your house with this giant old tool box filled with all sorts of magical tubes and get your old TV back up and running just in time for the Flintstones.
Rocky’s Hardware store, where your dad would go to buy something that resembled some sort of hand cranked implement of torture from crusty old men that knew exactly where to find it; hidden in the back, in a dark smelly corner, on the top of some shelves, covered with about 50 years of dust. 

The sweet smell of raisin bread wafting up from Arnolds Bakers on Brick Oven Road.  

Picking up the early afternoon newspaper at The Daily Item building, where Superman was said to frequent as he passed through town…maybe.

All of this and so much more are my earliest memories of my hometown.

So I consider myself lucky, me, on the young-ish side of old...or the old-ish side of young, to be able to celebrate Port Chester Day, and remember a time when the Village was really, just that…a village.

Then came the shopping centers, and downtown— the Village—like so many small towns across the country, changed. 

Sure, things are on the rebound now…a bit, after a long time coming. There are a lot of new places that have taken over for the old places, and some say we’re the restaurant capital of Westchester, which I guess is kind of cool.

But like a lot of folks—many who were here a long time before I was, who remember way more than I do—I miss the sight and the “feel” of a village alive with shoppers—hometown shoppers—strolling up and down a busy Main Street, chatting with neighbors, grabbing a sandwich, taking in a movie or just enjoying the warmth of the day on a sunny corner bench.

Port Chester…the Village…there’s a real history here; in its buildings, it’s streets and its people.

. Now, all we have to do is to get the people out from behind the walls of “The Waterfront” and rediscover it…before it’s too late

Old PC Post Cards from PCH class of 64

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