Letting go of department stores


“I’m going to visit my mother,” I’ll say, then catch myself: “My parents.” An easy mistake. Because while my mother, 87, is alert, attending concerts, reading the paper (hi Mom!) my father, 91, is well along his slow retreat from the world. I’ve come to think of him not so much as my father as the box my father came in. A bit cold? Perhaps.

Here, yet not here. A sad state, and common. I visited Macy’s downtown this week, inspired by Lynn Becker’s elegy in the Sun-Times last week, headlined “The long decline of Macy’s in Chicago, now a shell of a once-great department store.”

A shell it is. The store is still open, still here. But also not here, the physical place without its essence. The still-grand Marshall Field’s box with crumbs of Macy’s rattling around inside.

I entered into the vast women’s fragrance department. It wasn’t deserted. A few customers, contemplating bottles. A few clerks. I moved toward the men’s department — Macy’s covers a city block. An enormous, neck-craning atrium, with a Tiffany glass dome. We’ll miss that splendid bigness, like the waiting rooms of long-demolished train stations.

Nature tapped me on the shoulder. A quick detour into the basement, and its vista of carefully folded towels, large platters, gifty housewares. I didn’t notice any china. My wife and I picked out our wedding pattern here; now china is a shunned, outrageous, indulgent affectation.

No one to ask. I searched for a sign. Finally, in Barbara’s Bookstore, a clerk, who pointed.

Book department. Stamp department. Stationery department. Did a young man really once order dove grey personal stationery, the address, 2948 N. Pine Grove Avenue, embossed in glossy black letters, because fans writing an author deserve something classy in return? I must have been insane.

I did have a mission Tuesday. Handkerchiefs. I’ve been meaning to freshen the supply, and headed upstairs to the men’s section. Handkerchiefs. Yet another antique practice. I remember being at the newspaper office, back when people did that, and using a handkerchief to dry my hands. Passing a young colleague, Janet, who burst into laughter.

“My grandfather uses those!” she guffawed. I froze, dying inside, my entire self-estimation shifting, taking an elephant step toward joining my dad on that sofa.

Second floor, men’s furnishing. I moved through the suit department. Where have all the suit salesmen gone? Those dapper men of a certain age, ties perfectly knotted, soothing your confusion with assurance and respect, making their patient, informed suggestions. What do they do now? Design websites? I doubt that.

No handkerchiefs presented themselves. No one to ask. I looked around. Shirts. Shoes. Finally, there, on a little display beside a cluttered, unmanned register, a couple boxes of Club Room handkerchiefs, three for $15. I peered through the glassine window. Basic. But they would do. I looked around for someplace to pay — nobody. I’d have to track down a clerk. Suddenly that seemed like enormous effort, too much for cheap handkerchiefs. I tossed the box back and fled the store as if it were on fire.

It’s a mistake to visit these dying places again. Better to let them exist in memory. The chess table in the eighth floor furniture department, a gorgeous Italian table, with maple with walnut drop leaves. But it was expensive. I’d go visit it on my lunch hour, check on my table. I remember tucking it behind a screen, worried someone would snatch it up. “Oh, buy it already,” I told myself, and did. But I wouldn’t let Field’s deliver it, didn’t want anyone manhandling my treasure. I carried it myself, proudly, through the revolving doors, out into my car. It’s sat in my office for nearly 40 years.

I always thought I’d pass that table on to my older son, the chess player. As a boy, he’d sit there with his Russian chess tutor, banging pieces down, slapping the wood and brass German chess clock, bought at another long-vanished department store in Cleveland.

I always thought he’d want the chess table, that someday I’d give it to him, to teach his son chess on, the way I taught him. But he doesn’t seem interested. It’s too brown. Values change. Times change. All we can do is change with them. If we can. If we can’t, well, the thing to do is to let go of the world, like releasing a balloon, and let it float off without us.


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