austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Right down Santa Claus lane

[ Posted late due to Livejournal's server glitches and completely not my fault this time. ]

For Saturday with bunny_hugger our rough idea was to go up to Manhattan to see the Macy's Christmas window displays, and to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and to see what might happen beyond that. This would be our first chance to see Manhattan outside the Port Authority, and while my car was in reasonably normal working order it seemed easier to take the bus up. It was probably cheaper than parking all day. We were also just in time for the bus, by which I mean I was buying the tickets from the automated vendor when the bus pulled up at the stop, and I felt the need to leap onto the bus with bunny_hugger rather than wait for my receipt. Probably the driver would have waited. I just worry too much that I'm taxing the driver's patience.

The ride up wasn't particularly exceptional, and I took the time to talk about my odd little biography since my parents' homes have been moving almost directly south and just off of the highway towards New York City. Some of this was repetition or slight variations of things we'd talked about in July, but it wasn't all. For example there was identifying just where to find the Drug Fair which had won such positive feelings from me thanks to having hydrogen peroxide. There was also a Burger King nearby.

I have to admit that I had to look up ahead of time just where Macy's in Manhattan was. The answer: 34th street. Yes, just like in the movie. Walking down from the Port Authority I thought the best route was to plunge over to Broadway and walk south from there, but that takes you to the Times Square area and there was a protest going on about the crisis between Palestinians and Israelis which was proving that the groups could be very loud in Manhattan when they tried. Without wanting to appear indifferent to human suffering we looked for less crowded routes to get downtown and my brain tripped on some of the street names to the story of Charles Becker, a New York City police officer working the Tenderloin who about a century ago was given the electric chair for murder. (In a cascade of ironies, while Becker was corrupt and probably did order the murder for which he was electrocuted, he was also given an unfair trial with a biased judge and fraudulent witnesses.) Some belated part of my brain suggested maybe tales of New York Police Department corruption and violent crime and the killing of a police officer (something one Mayor of New York City --- I think but am not sure it was William Jay Gaynor, but I know where to look it up --- advocated as justifiable for his citizens; they were very different times) were maybe better not discussed around packs of police looking for anything that sounds threatening at a tense scene.

From the angle we came in we didn't see any of the window displays but then we figured we could go inside and warm up and maybe even find the Santa's Playland if that was still open to the public. I have been there, but as a child, so thirty years on I hope I may be forgiven for mostly knowing it was in there ... somewhere. The first level and a half of Macy's there is familiar to people who've seen the Marx Brothers in The Big Store, with an enormous ceiling and a little promenade around that and plaster fixtures and stuff hung far from the ceiling and the very clear spot where the older building fused to the new.

Somehow we did get into wandering through the jewelry department, which shows off great-looking pieces that cost more than my car did. (I grant that's not a high barrier.) It's a most sparkly section of store. We did need to gently fend off a few sales clerks, including one who suggested that I might be looking to buy a ring for bunny_hugger, or offered that she should stop giving her ideas. Well, it was a sweet thought.

We started off really properly exploring Macy's with the basement, which we reached by a side stairwell that I remember from thirty years ago or so when I was probably here last. It's amazing what forms long-term impressions in my mind. Since the store was built in 1884 or something stairwells and escalators and such exist, but they're also extremely narrow, about half the width of the average shopper in the United States today, but they were at least mostly passable, for the most part. The basement floor seemed to promise places where we might find sample waffles, but we didn't actually locate any. We did find a table of battered plush dolls which one could interact with by pressing various buttons; they had clearly worn their batteries and the nearby-stationed clerks' nerves down in the time since Christmas shopping began.

It's a little different going shopping in a department store that has real, proper, separate departments, divided so much that the floors even have different styles. On one floor we might get lost in looking at the ceiling and figuring out not just where the current lights are hung, but also picking out the spots that clearly used to be light fixtures. Some of them were used to hang Christmas decorations; others were just left as is I suppose on the theory that most people weren't looking too much at the ceilings. One dinner table display proved to be a vicious lie as the drinking glasses looked like they were nearly filled with some clear fluid. Actually it was just horizontal rims cut in the glasses so that they looked like they had something in them. We were able to prove there wasn't anything in there without actually touching anything.

It may not surprise you that I was able to get interested in the escalators, given that they still had the old-fashioned wooden structures and a variety of different post patterns designed to catch things that were dropped by the side and spoil the fun of kids sliding down the edges. But bunny_hugger was interested in them too. The escalators even still had, in part, wooden steps with the quarter-inch thick, quarter-inch raised grills, and my brain was able to suppress thoughts of blathering on about the King's Cross station fire. We also noticed many of the steps had three distinct sections, with a light center and dark rims or vice-versa. It appears that these steps are made of three separate pieces, and obviously they can be taken out or placed back together with different amounts of wear.

As we wandered towards the upper levels we came across, as an example, a McDonald's tucked away inside a replica of a banyan tree or something suitably rainforest-like; or in a women's clothing section a couple of mannequins that had been turned into collage art. Really: they'd been covered with shards of comic books. One was covered with pieces of various DC comic books, such as the new Scooby-Doolines of things. The other was done entirely in Archie. It brought to my mind the curious mannequins at West Mall that I'd seen wrapped in aluminum foil. It's interesting to see and I suppose it made a nice change from the normal workday for whoever was doing it, but ... why? And did they volunteer or were they assigned it?

We kept climbing and looking for signs of the Santa's Playland, although when we got to a floor made up wholly of suitcases and furniture it was getting to look like we were completely off base. Well, it gave me the chance to learn about the luggage-naming habits of bunny_hugger's family. It's not a tradition around my parts.

Finally, though, on I believe the seventh floor, we found first a cute little display of children's toys, many of them marked down, and ornaments that were sort of tempting but also looked pretty fragile considering what we expected to go through the rest of the day and getting back home. They also had stuffed animals larger than I am, including an elephant which was enormous and repeatedly touched by people posing for photographs. I posed for a photograph too, as I also took the fabric blinder off from the elephant's eye. Thanks to me, it could see, if it were anything at all. Also among the toys were 1950s-style brass Sheriff's Stars, just as if kids these days played Western Sheriff. I was tempted to pick one up for my father.

It was just past this toy department that the Santa's Playland was decorated, and on seeing it I realized that I did remember the look of the entrance, and that the entrance was closed until next Christmas-shopping season. The sign was apologetic and the mural of people in line for these cheery, but we had missed it and that was that. We did look around for other entrances or anything by which we might get a glimpse, and the most we found was a metal door with upside-down logos that seemed to be from whatever company manufactured the door in the first place. We tried to rub an etching of this, but we didn't have a pencil to work from, and the patterns were indented rather than raised, and all we had to etch with were some of my cash machine receipts I fold and put in my wallet in case I need scraps of paper to note something.

Although it may seem like we had gotten to Macy's and not seen any of the things we wanted, we didn't feel disappointed. The goal was looking, after all, and we saw many things, some of which we understood. By this time we were both hungry so we went back to the basement to one of the restaurants. At that time we were expecting to eat somewhere properly in not too much longer, so we just got snacks --- freeze-dried apple and apricot chips, with a marzipan Ritter chocolate bar --- which we ate through a long time sitting and letting people come and go around us.

All this still hadn't got us to seeing the window displays, though, and I had found online newspaper articles asserting they were running through at least January the 4th. The logical thing to do was step outside and start looking, and so we stepped out of the Men's department on the first floor to the generally west-facing side, where we found nothing interesting. That's all right; we walked up to the mostly north-facing side which takes up most of a city block and which similarly didn't have anything all that interesting. The generally east-facing side offers the views of Herald Square, and there were some lovely lighting strands dangled from the trees which gave the illusion of falling snow, but there weren't any window displays which were all that interesting. So you can guess where the window displays were.

Their theme, this year if not every year, was based on the movie Miracle on 34th Street, which may be cited as an extended tribute to themselves but why not? They had a quartet of windows with bits of animation in them based on scenes from the movie, such as the rather famous courtroom scene as lawyers look on despairingly as the whole case about proving Santa Claus is who he says he is leads to the Post Office being relied on as arbiter of existence, or earlier scenes in the apartment of that woman and the kid who are important in the story somehow and the Thanksgiving day parade. In a charming bit of self-absorption the last window (or the first, depending on which way you started looking) is the storefront of Macy's, complete with miniature versions of the windows.

As ever my mind was drawn to absurdly irrelevant details. One of them is that the various scenes featured figures who were waving tiny replica newspapers. The thing is the newspaper they waved were copies of the International Herald Tribune. Now, I like the Trib, but the thing is that in 1947 it didn't really exist. It was just the Paris Edition of the New York Herald Tribune, the New York branch of which went out of business in 1966 or 1967 depending on just how you want to count things. In 1967 it became the international edition of The New York Times (which had never had luck getting overseas editions going under its name) and the Washington Post (the Post dropped out of it a few years ago). The miniature International Herald Tribune pages had 1947 dates in them, apparently matching when Thanksgiving of 1947 would be so ... maybe the Herald Tribune appears in the movie? (I've never seen it, although I've heard the Lux Presents Hollywood radio adaptation.)

In a further, inexplicable detail, their mock International Herald Tribune featured a subheading proclaiming it the international editions of the New York Mirror and the Washington Review, which suggests an attention to detail since that's how the Trib masthead did read until recently, yet a desire to obscure this tiny detail away from the names of the actual newspapers which would have appeared there (there was a New York Daily Mirror in 1947, although not a New York Mirror, and as far as I can determine there's never been a newspaper Washington Review), and the volume number was given as ``XLXIV'' which as far as I can make out identifies it at the 54th year of production which neither matches the ages of the New York Herald (founded 1835), the New York Tribune (1841), the merger of the papers (1924), nor the Paris Herald (1887).

And all of this was to produce a perfectly crafted newspaper detail that's anachronistic in every one of its visible details if you look hard enough for those details. It's a baffling bit of work. How can it be all that exact and so uniformly off, unless it's meant as a joke? But if it's a joke why one that you have to be uniquely well-versed in the newspaper histories of New York City and Washington, DC, of sixty years ago, and into studying the fine print to get? They can't have been making that joke purely on the hopes that I would happen to be there to see it, would they?

Clearly there are things going on here I can't begin to understand. I'd told bunny_hugger I meant to find out more about this weird icon but kind of let it slide.

Trivia: In 1835-36 James Gordon Bennett (Sr) initiated the practice that advertisements in the New York Herald could run no longer than two weeks without changing copy, as opposed to the common practice of leaving advertisements unchanged for as long as a year. Eventually Bennett would insist on an alteration in the advertisement every day. Source: The Paper: The Life And Death Of The New York Herald Tribune, Richard Kluger.

Currently Reading: The Age Of Gold: The California Gold Rush And The New American Dream, H W Brands.


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