Tuesday, January 7, 2014

sittin' downtown in a railway station

When I was in high school, my dad had a pretty good job in the corporate office of Pantry Pride, a chain of supermarkets. Just after his discharge from service in World War II, he started out as an apprentice butcher in a Penn Fruit supermarket and worked his way up to manager of the meat department. From there he was made store manager and then, after Penn Fruit went belly up, he found employment at rival Pantry Pride. Despite his knowledge of all things meat, he was made Corporate Egg and Dairy Buyer for the chain of nearly 500 stores.

My dad's job required infrequent travel, but he did make a few trips to Sanford, Florida, when striking union employees were temporarily replaced by representatives from corporate (my father being one of them). He also traveled to New York every couple of months to visit and assess the stock and displays in stores.

After a full day of inventory and observation, my dad set out for majestic Grand Central Station to catch a train back to Philadelphia. As was my dad's modus operandi, he arrived at the station several hours before his train's time of departure. He grabbed himself something to eat, a newspaper to read and looked for a bench to settle on for his lengthy wait. Grand Central was jammed that evening and, although the concourse offered a great many benches (this predated the removal of said benches by twenty years), there was not a single one available that was not occupied by at least one person. My dad gathered his snack, his paper and his briefcase and headed over to a bench where a small elderly lady was seated. He dropped his belongings, sat down and snapped open his newspaper, politely nodding at his senior seatmate.

"Traveling home?," she asked in a dry, but sing-songy voice. My father bristled.

"Yes. Yes, I am.," he replied, glancing in her direction. She was wrapped in an open-knit shawl over her flowered dress. She was wearing way too much make-up for a woman of her advanced age — unblended, overly pink rouge accentuating every wrinkle in her sunken cheeks, dark red lipstick streaked haphazardly across her withered mouth, her hair pulled back into a tight bun with a few wispy strands of limp white hair falling in weak ringlets around her ears. She sported an overabundance of gaudy (most likely costume) jewelry — clinking bracelets, a carved cameo pin, tarnished rhinestone clip-on earrings.

"Oh," the woman smiled, "That's nice." 

My father was in no mood to make conversation. My father was never in a mood to make conversation. He tried to concentrate on the headlines, but the woman insisted on furthering the dialogue.

"I was in movies when I was young.," she said loudly, "Would you like to see a photo of me when I was a movie star?"

Oh jeez!, my dad muttered to himself, but then cordially answered, "Um... sure."

She reached into her purse and produced a large gold locket. She fumbled briefly with the latch until the lid popped open, then she proudly displayed the photograph within. It was a monochrome picture, tinted blue, of a pretty woman with full lips, wide eyes and light, curled hair.

My dad immediately recognized the woman in the picture as Alice Faye, the singing star of many Hollywood musicals in the 30s and 40s and wife of comedian-bandleader Phil Harris. He also identified the photo as being cut from the waxed cardboard lid of a Dixie single-serve ice cream cup, a popular promotion that ran for several decades. Dixie and its licensees featured pictures of the day's top movie stars on its product's lids as a bonus for film fans. He easily concluded that this woman on the bench was not Alice Faye.

The woman silently admired the photo in the locket and smiled as she kept it held high, inviting additional admiration from my father.

My father fake-glanced at his watch. "Oh, my train's here!," he said as he grabbed his stuff and slid off the bench. He found another bench well out of the line of vision of the delusional old woman. He once again snapped open his newspaper and Oh jeez!-ed under his breath a few more times.


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