Larry Penkava Column: Shopping in the city

Published 3:12 pm Saturday, September 22, 2018

Summer vacation was glorious when I was a boy. But there was always a dark specter that grew larger and darker as the days went by.

That shadowy apparition was the tacit approach of the first day of school. As much as I enjoyed the freedom of summer, lurking in the back of my mind was the knowledge that all good things must come to an end.

Larry Penkava

The end of summer was made even more stark on a Saturday in late August of each year.

That’s when my parents took me and my brothers to shop for school clothes and supplies.
But what could have been a morbid exercise was mollified to a degree when we drove to the big city of Greensboro to do the shopping. It was always exciting to see the top of the Jefferson Standard building pop into view, the tallest skyscraper in the state at that time.

Daddy would find a parking place on Elm Street, where we began our search for quality clothes at a good price. For that reason, we didn’t remain downtown for very long, slipping in and out of Ellis-Stone with just enough time for Mama to check a couple of price tags. But what I remembered was meeting Mr. Peanut outside on the sidewalk. He spooned me a handful of roasted goobers.

From there we went to Sears, Roebuck & Co. on Eugene Street. There were three floors and the stairway walls were adorned with giant photos of local attractions.

For a while back in the ‘50s, some shoe departments, such as the one at Sears, used X-ray machines to aid in fitting youngsters with the correct sizes. I recall trying on a pair of shoes, sticking a foot into the machine and peering through a screen at the resulting image, which showed how much room my foot had inside the new oxford.

Still not sure why they did away with the X-ray machines, unless it was a rash of glowing feet.

From there we went to the Big GI 1200 on Bessemer Avenue. It was more of a discount store with tables piled high in denims, flannel shirts, underwear, clunky shoes, and assorted jackets, windbreakers and heavy coats.

As you can imagine, the farther we got from downtown, the less fancy were the stores. Big GI was about as basic as you would expect from a business whose specialty was macho.

Later in the ‘50s, Greensboro was invaded by its first big-box store. Clark’s was a renovated tobacco warehouse that was large enough to hold nearly six football fields.

For Mama and Daddy, it was like entering heaven. The deprivations of the Great Depression and the shortages of World War II were seared into their psyches, after all.

Clark’s had 76 departments, all of them filled to the gills with consumer goods. And the store’s slogan, “Everything for less,” meant bargains galore.

Meanwhile, my parents’ motto, “shop til you drop,” should have been “shop til the boys drop.”

I can look at a couple of shirts or a pair of jeans and I’m ready to head for the cash register.

Meanwhile, Mama and Daddy were checking out kitchen appliances, outdoor furniture and hardware. While Mama was comparing electric mixers, Daddy was going through nuts and bolts, seemingly picking up each one individually and giving it the eye.

“Mama, can we go now?” I would plead. “I have five new shirts, three pairs of pants, a pack of undies and enough socks to last three school years.”

“Stop whining,” she responded. “We haven’t even been to the grocery department yet.”

After a couple of hours that seemed like a fortnight, we loaded our shopping bags into the back of the station wagon. Then Daddy did something that made being dragged through numerous store aisles worthwhile.

“Who wants to go to the airport?” It was more of a declaration than a question. That was answered by a chorus of “I do!”

The relatively long drive out to Greensboro’s commercial airport was rewarded by the sight of the Eastern Airlines logo on the tail section of a DC-6. We hurried onto the observation deck in time to see passengers climbing the staircase and disappear into the big bird.

Once the doors were closed, a man on the tarmac signaled the pilot. Soon, one by one, the four propellers began turning as trails of smoke burst from the exhausts. Faster and faster, louder and louder.

As the plane spun around toward the runway, we had to grab our hats to keep them from being blown away by the draft. We watched as the plane taxied to the end of the runway, turned and revved its engines til I thought the props would spin away.

Then the plane lurched forward oh so slowly. Picking up speed, it trundled along the runway until, finally, the wheels left the ground and flight had been achieved. I watched the plane until it disappeared into a distant cloud.

It was almost worth having to go to school the next week. Almost.

Larry Penkava misses going to the airport — but not the shopping.