Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Devouring Hand of Time

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to have been born in a different era. When I was in high school, I remember wishing that I had grown up in England, sometime between the 1880s and 1920s. I think my reasons had mainly to do with the possibility of wearing of posh frocks and attending swanky parties and balls. (Clearly, I didn’t spend much time thinking about what my life might have been like if I hadn’t been to the manor born.)

I’ve gotten over that. But ever since I returned from our trip to eastern Oregon, I’ve been sort of wishing I could go back in time maybe 30 or 40 or 50 years. Some of the itsy-bitsy towns we visited seem to have escaped the devouring hand of time. The downtown business districts with their family-owned shoe stores and stately old banks brought back nearly forgotten memories of the the downtown in the community I grew up in. It was always an event to go “downtown”—it was only about three square blocks but it seemed glamorous to me. There was an expensive (compared to Sears where we shopped) children's clothing shop, a shoe store that billed itself as a "bootery," a bookstore owned by people we knew, a funky store that sold blue jeans and similar items like overalls and painters pants, a guitar store, a hardware store that hadn't changed its window display since the Depression (they sold washboards!), a ballet studio, and a paint and wallpaper store that I found oddly mesmerizing.

I remember walking downtown to do my Christmas shopping when I was like 9 or 10 and then using up most of my allowance to buy myself a sundae (for some reason referred to as a “Tulip Sundae”) at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. I felt so grown up! A few years later they built a mall on the edge of town that stabbed the business district right in the heart. Most of the shops closed their doors within a year. I think the only things that survived were a Baskin Robbins and the movie theater, although the theater was given a catastrophic makeover—the classic mid-century facade was ripped off; the quirky baroque details on the wall were draped over with fake velvet; and the balcony was divided into several characterless screening rooms. Very sad.

Of course, the mallification of America (and much of the rest of the developed world, I’m sure) has been going on for decades at this point, and until our trip, I had thought it was pretty much a done deal. To tell the truth, I had sort of accepted it. For most of my life malls, rather than downtown business districts, have been the norm (I’ve never lived anywhere rural or I’d probably have a different perspective). But visiting eastern Oregon gave me some hope, (probably false) that not all of it has slipped away forever.

Part of all this nostalgia, I’ll admit, is totally superficial. I just think a downtown business district is more aesthetically appealing than a bland, beige indoor shopping mall. But I also know that one of the reasons I want to fire up the Tardis and go back a couple of decades (as long as it doesn't plop me smack dab in the middle of the McCarthy Era) is that it seems to me that life was less hectic, scary, and uncertain. Clearly, I’m romanticizing to a certain extent. There was no Osama Bin Ladin or George W. Bush, but people were probably just as scared of getting nuked by the Soviets or of contracting polio. (Hmmm. What’s worse? Spending your life in an iron lung or enduring two terms under President Bush? Tough call.) In addition, I’d probably be slaving away in a pink kitchen, wearing a torpedo bra, and baking meatloaf for a husband named Frank. So, yeah, I guess I wouldn’t want to go as far back as the ‘50s.

But what about the ‘60s or the ‘70s? Having not experienced these decades as an adult, I’m bound to have a somewhat inaccurate impression of them. But I suspect that the individual character of communities was still pretty much intact.* More importantly, I think the people were less driven by greed and selfishness and more united on what the nation’s ideals should be. There were galvanizing leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. They inpired a tremendous amount of hope and, of course, an equal amount of grief when they were assassinated. I don't think there's been another U.S. leader with that sort of sweeping influence since. Sure, there was plenty of conflict--race riots, the Vietnam war, Kent State. Still, somehow—despite all the turmoil—defining pieces of legislation were passed during the ‘60s and ‘70s—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. There just can't have been the same degree of vicious acrimony between Democrats and Republicans that there is today--and the accompanying sense of despair.

I don’t know. I always get myself into hot water whenever I try to be analytical (I’m not so good at identifying and weighing all sides of an issue or argument), and I know I’m probably viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles (such as might have been worn by Elton John)—ignoring things that are best forgotten like vertically striped bell-bottoms, AMC Gremlins, the BeeGees, wide neckties, and chia pets.

*One of the many reasons I love living in Portland is that it has a very definite identity. Its citizens value that identity and we fight to retain it. Keep Portland Weird! So many communities seem to place little value on their history or culture. Chicago, for example. When I moved away from Chicago one factor that made me want to leave was that Chicago’s personality was eroding rapidly. Every time I go back, I’m depressed by how many more old buildings and longstanding independent neighborhood businesses have been leveled to make way for expensive condos, townhouses, and corporate shopping developments. Chicago was once a city of neighborhoods. They are starting to all look the same—even my old neighborhood, which was, until recently, fairly immune to development. No more. My sister just broke the news to me that one of my favorite haunts, a Mexican restaurant called El Tipico (I loved that name), has been demolished. B and I spent many a Friday night there, unwinding from the workweek over a couple of Margaritas and a plate of chile rellenos.


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