Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Vacation and Downtown

Wouldn't it be grand if we could all get two weeks for Christmas vacation, same as we did back in our school days? I guess those who work for school districts still do (although they don't call it "Christmas" vacation anymore, bah humbug).

Every year, when I was little, I'd look forward to our annual trip to go Christmas shopping in Downtown Los Angeles.

I loved riding the streetcars. I think the one we took was referred to as the "J" car, although the "P" car rings a bell, as well. The letters referred to the different routes they took. My vague memory tells me "J" stood for Jefferson and "P" for Pico but I could be wrong.

For those of you who don't know, the streetcars ran on rails, like trains. Above the cars was a large rod that connected them to overhead wires from which, I assume, they got their electric power. I was fascinated by the complex grid of wires stretched along the route and how intricate they were.

The ritual involved my mom, sister and I getting on the streetcar and riding it to Broadway in Downtown where the major branches of all the department stores were located: May Company, Robinsons, The Broadway and Bullocks. Were they really as huge as I remember them? In my mind they dwarfed today's department stores at the malls but I was just a little thing back then so maybe that's why they seemed gigantic.

I liked the book departments. I was always looking for books about insects (weird me). I hated when my mom and sister looked at clothes patterns because they seemed to take forever, perusing the Butterick and McCalls and other pattern company catalogs, then looking for the right material. Bratty me would insist that they just buy anything and be done with it. "Just get that one! That one looks good! Can we go now??"

Normally we'd take the escalators. I found that fun, too. At the beginning of every escalator was a panel with a warning to hold the handrail. The panel was off on one of them (or maybe I took it off) and underneath were a couple of buttons. I pushed one. The escalator stopped. All of the people above us looked down at my mom and me, wondering what happened. My mom panicked. "What did you do???" Everyone continued to stare. "What's the matter with you, Rickie? What did you do?"

Cool as a cucumber, I pressed the other button and the escalator promptly started moving again. My mom was soooo mad. "If you press one and it stops, the other one must make it start," I calmly explained.

"I've never been so embarrassed!" she hissed through clenched teeth. "Don't you ever do that again!"

As we rode up the escalator I was wondering what was the big deal.

Did you ever notice in those department stores that there were round gold circular plates embedded in the floor? I used to wonder what those were for. I still wonder. And did you ever notice how periodically a soft-toned bell would ring, sometimes once, sometimes two or more times? I would wonder what that was for, as well.

I thought if I stepped on the gold disc that would make the bell ring. It didn't. Except once. Every time I stepped on the disc, the bell would ring. I thought I was on to something. I did it a few times with success but then it didn't work anymore. I've always thought that an employee must have seen me doing that and rang the bell just to humor me. And probably got in trouble when their supervisor saw them. "What the heck are you doing???" Then the employee would sheepishly point at me and offer a feeble explanation.

Eating at Clifton's Cafeteria was also part of the ritual. I loved the way it was decorated with its indoor waterfall and forest-type atmosphere. Every year I would order the same thing: the roast chicken plate and jello for dessert. I don't know why I ordered the jello since I never finished it. I think it was because it looked like cubes of rubies and emeralds in the glass. It looked better than it tasted.

No streetcar on the way home. We took a Yellow Cab. I don't think there were any other cab companies back then. With all the bags from shopping, it was easier to hail a cab and have them deliver you to your door instead of walking from the streetcar stop.

I was so sad when they retired the streetcars. Riding the bus was a disappointment. Not long after that our Christmas Downtown sojourns ended; the end of an era. It was such a fun day for me and, like Christmas, it came but once a year.




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