all of the selves we Have ever been
During my youth,
American suburbs were growing and expanding.
By the time I was a teenager, my family lived in such a development just outside of Pittsburgh. Our suburb was home to the first enclosed mall
in the state of Pennsylvania. The Northway Mall opened in 1962, but I did not get familiar with it until the 1970s when I was in high school.
The mall was my alternate universe. Once inside, there were no reminders of my life on another planet.
Sometimes on a Saturday morning, my mom or dad would drop me off at the mall where I would meet a friend. I usually entered the mall through Woolworth’s, the original five-and-dime store. Woolworth’s had a counter that sold frozen Cokes and giant, soft, salty, pretzels. I would come back later and call that fare my lunch.
Once I caught up with my friend, Spencer Gifts was our first stop. Spencer’s never disappointed, and we spent a significant percentage of our mall-time there. Spencer’s Gifts sold novelty items and gag gifts among other things. As teens, we were pre-occupied with the outrageous novelty items. We found them hilarious. While lava floated and morphed in the lamps all around us, and psychedelic posters glowed on the walls, we howled with laughter over the fake vomit, whoopee cushions, and the crazy expressions printed on t-shirts. Spencer’s definitely had the What?! Factor. The merchandise was generally inexpensive and nothing we needed, so we rarely made a purchase, though I still regret not buying the t-shirt that said, “Dear Auntie Em, Hate you. Hate Kansas. Taking the dog. Dorothy.” I don’t know why that shirt tickled my funny bone back then, but it sure did—enough to remember it to this day. Hanging out in Spencer’s was so much fun that the store could have charged admission, and we would have paid.
Next on our agenda was the National Record Mart. If we did buy something on a mall-Saturday, it was most likely a record album. There were hundreds of albums to flip through. We studied the jackets and the song lists comparing notes about our favorites and judging whether or not there were enough good songs on the album to merit a purchase. We could pick up a 45 RPM if we decided the album wasn’t worth it.
Waldenbooks was nearby and our next stop. It was a tiny shop compared to the giant Borders and Barnes & Noble stores that came much later, but it was books. Never a waste of time! It was an opportunity to find something good to read like Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, William Blatty’s The Exorcist, or Richard Bach’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull. It was also an opportunity to set eyes on the controversial adult book titles of the times: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, The Sensuous Woman, The Joy of Sex, and The Total Woman. Of course, we were discreet, taking these books to another section and remaining on the lookout for any parents who might recognize us. I learned then that living a lie can be exhausting. While I didn’t learn much about sex, I did learn to walk the straight and narrow.
We wandered the rest of the mall making shorter stops in the big department stores like Joseph Hornes. Those were usually too pricey for teenagers. We might try on clothes at Marianne’s or shoes at Bakers, but we made few additional purchases.
The most exciting, life-transforming mall event happened when a company advertised in the newspaper that it would be at the mall to do ear piercings. Pierced ears were a privilege reserved for teenage girls back in that day. The company would come into the mall, set up a kiosk, and pierce ears. It took about two seconds and cost $7.95. Good bye clip-ons! After a couple of days, the company would close up shop and return again in four weeks. After our ears were pierced, we received a post card in the mail asking us to come back and have our piercings checked. Each customer received a pair of tiny gold ball studs with instructions to turn the post, and clean the earlobes with alcohol until healing was complete. We returned when the postcard advised us to. Ever after that, mall shopping involved every store that sold earrings.
For the first generation to grow up in the suburbs, malls were a big deal. Teenagers could safely have some freedom and develop adult consumer skills. The opportunity motivated us to take on small jobs and to save our earnings for the things we wanted. Those shopping-Saturdays allowed us to see items that others talked about so that we could be “cool” too. The mall was a place where teens shared experiences and cemented friendships. It was a great way to pass a quiet Saturday.
The suburbs continued to grow. And grow. The traffic increased and the malls became crowded. Merchandise became more expensive, and the next generations of teenagers had packed schedules that rarely left them with a leisurely Saturday. Increasingly, their world became the internet and shopping was done on-line.
In the years since I first slurped frozen Cokes at Woolworth’s and giggled with girl friends at Spencer’s Gifts, the Northway Mall has gone through several re-inventions, and so have I. But I have stayed true to my brick-and-mortar stores. My earlobes remain pierced. Inside my jewelry box are inexpensive but precious earrings purchased on one of those quiet Saturdays long ago. I continue to giggle with a dear high school friend who wandered those wide corridors with me. I still love books and old record albums. And if I find that t-shirt with the note to Auntie Em, I’m buyin’ it!
Every teen needs an alternate universe, a place that is her own, an out-in-the open space where she can be both cool and safe. We didn’t spend much money at the Northway Mall, certainly not enough to keep it in business. Thankfully, memories didn’t cost much. And they were built to last.
That’s not a name you hear often.
The only Madge I ever knew was Madge the Manicurist. She surprised her customers by revealing to them that their hands were soaking in Palmolive, the product that “softens hands while you do dishes.”
Madge became a familiar face to me at a time in my youth when I did not know any real women who went for regular manicures at nail salons. Madge was ahead of her time!
I’ve been thinking of Madge during this pandemic. My hands are regularly soaking in dish detergent, liquid Lysol, Clorox Wipes, and a variety of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers. I wouldn’t say that any of these products are “gentle.” And I would not say my hands have softened while soaking. In fact, the flesh around my fingernails is dissolving right along with the microbes being killed by my inventory of sanitizing products. Where is Madge when you need her?
Perhaps she’s hooked up with Mr. Whipple in that heavenly supermarket in the sky, the one with the well-stocked, orderly toilet paper aisle. I assume they must have met when Mr. Whipple was a store manager and Madge was shopping for her Palmolive.
With toilet paper returning to the shelves and nail salons re-opening, I have been thinking about both Mr. Whipple and Madge. I have been thinking of them because of toilet paper shortages and raggedy fingernails and because of a certain lesson their lives contain about re-invention and unexpected outcomes.
In this time when the future seems so uncertain, especially as it pertains to work and the economy, I think about Madge’s lengthy and real life career as Jan Miner the stage actress, and Mr. Whipple’s true identity as Dick Wilson the actor who played in 38 films. Without research, I cannot name a single play that starred Jan Miner or a single film in which Dick Wilson played a role, but I will never forget Madge or Mr. Whipple. Their longest running gigs and greatest celebrity came from those commercials—selling soap and toilet paper. Mr. Whipple starred in 500 Charmin commercials. Madge was a regular in our lives softening hands from 1966 until 1992.
We are living in an uncertain time, a time of re-invention. Maybe what we’ve prepared for, what we’ve always done will continue to work out. Maybe it won’t. Sometimes life takes a turn and leads us to a supermarket aisle or nail salon. There are times when what seems minor or unimportant becomes essential, even extraordinary. Humble jobs can become exalted positions. And we never forget life’s teachers, the people with familiar faces who provide us with reassuring, consistent, and reliable messages even if the message is about how to handle toilet paper or soften our hands while we work.