Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Parking-Lots & Memories

My wife doesn’t drive (a car) and I despise shopping, avoiding stores – maybe just the crowds – at all costs, so I spend a good deal of time in parking lots while she does the shopping. Stores frustrate me, anyway, because no matter how many times I walk past what I’m looking for I don’t see it and ultimately have to ask for help, which I should have done in the first place. Out in the freedom of the parking-lot, I mostly read, with musical accompaniment via a CD, but sometimes go for parking-lot walks or maybe even do a bit of people-watching. Sessions in parking-lots at locations of doctors and hospitals widen the range for people-watching to include even more people-predicaments to observe…crutches, wheel-chairs, canes – lots of old codgers, like me.

Frankly, parking-lots have always been a sort of anathema. I grew up in a small town in the 1930s, when even in the cities parking-lots were unusual, at least to any great extent since there were no shopping centers or malls. There were no grocery carts, either, no check-out lines, no multitude of plastic bags (when a couple would do even then, to say nothing about now) and no waiting around. My parents simply told the clerk what was needed and the clerk did the rest, retrieving the items, totaling the cost and “charging it” or actually making change without the good services of a computer, and then bagging the purchases.

In the small nearby city, there was at least one parking garage in the middle of the business-district, and it was fun to listen to the gear-shifting and screaming (bias) tires as the attendant headed around the sharp curves toward the upper floors and, later, headed down. No driver was allowed to park his own car.

The bags in all stores were made of heavy brown paper in the 30s and in the grocery-stores (so-called then instead of just groceries) were carefully packed to full capacity. There was an art to it, with canned goods at the bottom and lighter things above them. Admittedly, a heavily loaded paper bag was harder to handle than today’s plastic bags with handles, especially for a youngster, and in even a slight rain could become quite problematic, absolutely disastrous in a heavier downpour.

The live chickens on the floor in the rear of the store, with their incessant cackling, were a constant bother and an absolute horror when purchased, even though their legs were tied together. Carrying them by their scratchy, scaly legs, with their heads dragging the floor but terrorizing with the constant threat of a good pecking, was a task to be shoved off on an unsuspecting sibling. Freezing-compartments were reserved almost exclusively for things like ice cream. Frozen food was virtually unthinkable, much less available.

Other refrigeration was mostly for dairy products and meats, although some meat products were hung from the ceiling, already preserved – at least for a time. When a parent paid the butcher, the small son expected a wiener, to be consumed on the spot, never mind if the flies had tasted it first. Meat was not removed by the customer from a freezer but sliced by a butcher and wrapped in white heavy paper, often blood-soaked by the time its contents were ready for cooking.

Parking was almost exclusively on-street, sometimes parallel, other times diagonal. There was even one time in my town when the cars were parked in the middle of Main Street. All transportation of goods was accomplished on a two-footed basis, with the distance from store to auto always a factor. Some folks would drive to town early on a Saturday morning, park the car in the best available spot for all enterprises and just leave it there, working in and out of it as the hours went by.

Without TV and the plethora of little leagues and other distractions, “going to town” was a big deal anytime but especially on Saturday. Men even wore ties and coats and ladies managed to look almost as “right” as on Sunday. For a small boy, a trip to the barbershop could take hours of fidgeting since a lot of men (especially begrimed railroaders) would go for a shampoo, straight-razor shave, haircut, shoe-shine, and all-around conversation, of which there was a great deal during the Great Depression. Besides the pleasing aroma of after-shave/shoe-polish, the air was full of tobacco smoke but nobody thought anything about it. Barbers and clients alike were careful not to swear in front of small boys.

Yeah…parking-lots trigger memories of a much simpler time, even though my birth year of 1930 was only 12 years beyond the end of the “Great War” and catastrophic flu epidemic of 1918. All of the old ways had to go if only because of the demographics. Today’s U.S. population of 314 million is 155%, more than two-and-a-half-times, that of the population of 1930. Kentucky’s has grown by 69% to 4.4 million. The average expected life span at birth in 1930 was 59 years and in 2012 is about 78 (women – 80) and counting upward.

The constant advancement of technology has made the changes between the 1930s and 2012 almost unbelievable. The result: huge big-box stores in which buyers must find the products, just swipe a card to pay for them and cart them out to acres of parking lots. Somehow, I miss the 30s, though not the grocery-store chickens of the Great Depression, a reprise of which might be just around the corner (Depression, not the chickens).

And so it goes.
Jim Clark

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