Up The Down Escalator
Every Dec. 31, when the hype of New Year’s sequins and resolutions threaten overload, I escape. I become 5 again, my family newly emigrated from Europe and our first celebration in America.
Jewish New Year is a pensive time; a time to search deeds and thoughts and cleanse oneself of the year’s wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. America’s party hats and countdowns to midnight were as alien to my parents as hair shirts and self-flagellation, but as new arrivals they so wanted to be American.
So, when their friends, the Tschewicks, mentioned New Year’s Eve, my parents listened. After all, the Tschewick family had arrived in the States a year before us.
“All Chicago goes downtown to State and Madison,” Mr. Tschewick explained. Midnight was spent under the Marshall Field & Co. clock with thousands of strangers. Eager to be real Americans, my parents agreed.
My 18-year old brother had better things to do. But, my second brother, sister and I embraced our initiation into Americana. On Dec. 31, 1952, we rode the subway to meet our friends and their children under the clock. Fortunately, the spirit that protects the innocent accompanied us that night. Despite the masses converging on that intersection, we found each other. The streets teemed with families bundled against the bitter cold, women in glitzy dresses, high heels and flimsy wraps, and packs of American teens. But, it was the sailors in their pea coats, bell-bottoms, and rakish caps atop crew cuts that got me. These boy-men radiated exuberance and I adored every single one as I clung feverishly to my parents’ hands.
Our first priority was the lavish department store windows. One featured Santa checking lists as Mrs. Claus directed a cadre of mischievous-looking elves. The elves built, hammered, wrapped, doors opened and closed, and activities repeated for as long as one could bear the cold. I stared intensely for a missed cue or break in routine. Eventually my eagle-eye was rewarded by a juggling clown whose hands moved tirelessly although the balls had fallen off their track into the ersatz snow drift.
Some windows dazzled with old fashioned tableaux of tinseled evergreens, blazing fire places, cheerful mannequins attired in period clothing and wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked kids amid mounds of presents. A frosty window scene revealed a sleigh drawn by a herd of reindeer, suspended high in an azure sky. What a world! Our first floor Chicago apartment had no such magical visitations.
After much freezing window-gazing the adults decreed it was time to warm up. The luminous Walgreens’ Drug Store beckoned us into its wonderland of trinkets, tempting aromas, and a miraculous waterfall of moving stairs. Never had I seen such a contraption and my tentative steps onto the escalator set my heart racing. Could I be sucked into the metal teeth? How could one return from stairs that only moved down?
The daunting voyage proved worthwhile as we descended into a shimmering stainless steel and pastel-hued formica futurama: Walgreens’ basement cafeteria. Impossible as it seemed on so august a night, we were this fine eatery’s sole patrons. My eyes devoured the exotica of creamy potato poufs adrift in brown sauce, precise squares of meat and vegetables, identical salads crowned with paper cups of orange goop.
And the desserts! Meringue-tipped pies, brobdingnagian black and white cookies, rainbow-cubed gelatin, and layer cakes so tantalizing they paled my beloved Hostess Twinkies. Tugging desperately at my mother’s arm, I begged and cajoled for one of these visions. Instead, I was led wordlessly toward the drinks. Daunted but not bowed, I snatched victory from defeat, choosing a carton of chocolate milk and a straw that bent in the middle.
As we settled ourselves into adjacent booths my mother glanced around. Then she reached into her omnipresent red-leather shopping bag and retrieved a giant bakery pound cake. Our celebration was to continue after all! Using her wooden-handled kitchen knife, my mother cut us enormous slices of pound cake.
Once we kids inhaled our milk and cake we set out to investigate this deserted playground. We investigated bathrooms, hid in stalls, perched atop toilets, pondered the mysterious urinals.
Gradually we found our way back to the staircase rapids, and the counterpart that returned upstairs. Gingerly, we rode to the first floor. Then we rode down again. Having survived that, our daring grew and our caution morphed into hot pursuit. My fear of untimely consumption by yawning metal teeth disappeared.
Somehow, our yelps went unheard by the parents as they chatted in their corner booth. But Walgreens noticed. First, the lights began flashing, a surreal aura that only increased our zeal. We slid down banisters, played tag up the down staircase and down the up. We trailed toilet paper from the bathroom stalls, the streamers taking flight behind us, tangling in our shoes, the stair treads, and low-hanging signs and fixtures. A joyous American New Year!
Suddenly, the lights ceased flashing and the escalators halted. Looking around for the cause of this disruption we heard ear-wrenching crackles and static. Then, a voice announced that Walgreens would close in five minutes and asked customers to bring their purchases to a cash register.
As our parents drew near, we five kids huddled together fearfully. But the adults seemed oblivious as hasty shutdowns were de rigueur in local family businesses. We kids brought an emporium to its knees!
All innocence, I clutched my mother’s hand as our little group climbed up the now-still metal stairs. Not until we were out in the cold air did I relax…and deflate.
Downtown Chicago was still thick with revelers, but our adventure had exhausted us kids. We trudged to the subway, the adults flush with companionship and coffee, the children tempered by fear and over-excitement. On the train, despite the stuffiness and screeching rails, I collapsed into dreams of escalator adventures and narrow escapes.
In the decades since, I’ve spent New Year’s in celebration, in denial, at home, on the road, and at work. Yet, I always revisit that night of Walgreen’s, family and friends, my mother’s pound cake, and my first escalator in America.
Sara Nuss-Galles has been a commentator on Public Radio’s MarketPlace, and written restaurant reviews, features, humor and a collection of illustrated short stories.