Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.

Lounge…

Looking out the kitchen window into the inky blackness of 6AM, while I was waiting for the coffee maker to quit dripping, I got smacked in the head by a memory of a place where I haven’t set foot in over a decade. The old Honors Lounge was a half-subterranean affair stashed just off the boiler room in Guild Center. It had the benefit of not just being secluded, but also of being close to almost all your classes if you happened to be a social science major. Though the furniture was of suspect cleanliness, it was comfortable in that beat to hell kind of way that hand-me-down furniture tends to have. On most days it was a great place to find a conversation or an argument and it beat walking all the day down the hill to Lane Center or Cambridge if you needed to kill an hour between classes. More important than any of that, though, the Honors Lounge had a coffee pot and usually a giant drum of Maxwell House in the fridge. Sure, if you went in too early on a Monday morning there might have been mold growing in the filter or scorched sludge in the pot if someone left it on over the weekend, but the important part was that it was there at all. Fresh, hot coffee on demand. That was living big. As long as you liked your coffee black that is, since your chances of finding creamer or sugar stashed somewhere were nil.

I don’t know what made me think of that this morning. Maybe it was the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting up at me. Maybe it was the last exasperated gurgle the machine made before giving up its piping hot wonderfully caffeinated beverage. Since I’m not a fancy big city psychologist, I’ll probably never know what exactly triggered that particular memory, but for a few seconds this morning, I was standing right there in Frostburg looking out the window towards Old Main waiting to pour a fresh cup before walking down the hall to class.

Banned…

I saw a Facebook post yesterday morning from my alma mater proclaiming a smoke free campus. Personally it’s sort of a “whatever” moment for me as it doesn’t impact me one way or another. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back on campus since I walked across the stage at the PE Center. Plus, there’s the whole quitting thing so I won’t be strolling campus jonesing for a fix any time soon. Still, it got me thinking about the old stomping grounds a bit.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here on the internet, but some of my best memories from college are the times sitting on the wall in front of Cambridge Hall smoking and joking with whoever happened to show up. Those were some great late night conversations and friendships that were bonded in the face or driving snow, wind, and rain. Of course it was always nice that if you jumped inside the wall, you could find a few feet of dry space and keep the conversation going? I could rattle off a few names, but for their sake a decade later I won’t. If you’re reading this, chances are you know them or might even be them. Standing in front of Dunkle? Yeah, I was there too. Or if I was lucky, I got one of the coveted benches at Guild Center between POSCI classes. It was a golden age… and as much as the anti’s would have me feel ashamed of it, I enjoyed every puff.

Look, I know the health risks of smoking. You’d be hard pressed to find a current or former smoker who doesn’t. We’ve lived them and will continue to live with the repercussions for the rest of our lives, but that’s the choice we made. I’ll direct you to the ill-fated experiments of Prohibition and our ongoing War on Drugs as an example of how “banned” substances come back and ruin your day with unintended consequences. The only thing this kind of ban does is force those intent on continuing an activity to find alternative ways and places to do it. They’ve moved the behavior across the street and declared victory because it isn’t happening “on campus.” That’s some victory they’ve got there.

Goddamn wine in a box…

One of my personal favorite phrases and one that doesn’t get enough use once I left Frostburg, is the venerable “Goddamn wine in a box.” The phrase was coined when a friend blamed the consumption of, not surprisingly, a box of wine for sleeping with a girl we all affectionately called “Dumpy.” As best I can remember, she sort of looked like a bullfrog. What can I say, young adults can be a cruel lot when they’re traveling in a pack. And when the inevitable question “how could you sleep with Dumpy” was asked, I suppose the only natural response could be, “I don’t know, man… it was that goddamn wine in a box.” To this day, when I see a box of wine, I smirk and then laugh. *sighs* Thanks for the memories.