I might as well have been an only child. My baby sister was far too little to be much fun, and my across-the-street neighbor Danny, the singleton son of my godparents, only wanted to play “Exploring,” a game consisting of walking to streets adjacent to ours, making large chalk marks –arrows, circles, mysterious symbols that only we understood—on the street or sidewalk, then retracing our steps home. Aside from Danny, Oakcrest Avenue was a playmate wasteland. There were a couple of teenagers, like the boy (to me, he seemed a man) who washed and waxed his car on Saturday mornings before he headed to his part-time job as an usher at the Colony Theater. Where our city street met the county line a half block away lived a high school girl who sometimes babysat for me. She brought an armful of school books and did her homework after I went to bed. Though I fussed a little when my parents went out, I didn’t really mind being left with the sitter, who taught me to say, “Bonsoir, Maman” so that I could speak French when my mother called to say good night.
Because there were so few children in the neighborhood, I thirsted for other diversions. Daytime television, in those days a mere three channels of soap operas and game shows, held no interest for me. I could only read so many beginner books before I yearned to move around. Our yard was spacious enough, but the empty swing set did not beckon me. So I embarked on regular strolls to Parkville, five blocks up the Harford Road—alone. I prepared for these outings by invading a stash of old coins in the writing desk while my parents were at work. I informed our housekeeper, Miss Burnell, that I was off to the photography shop to buy film for an old black box camera I had discovered at the bottom of the walk-in coat closet. So long as I stayed on our side of the big road, I was permitted to ramble. “But only up to the five and dime,” my mother told me, giving me that stern schoolteacher look she had perfected.
From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it seems I was given far too much liberty. But nothing bad ever happened. Parkville was full of people who knew me or my family. In those days, before Daddy bought his own business on the other side of town, he and Uncle Bernie ran a neighborhood bar. It was so near my house that if I stood at the end of the cement walk right where it met the city sidewalk, I could look across Harford Road and see the sign for Mike Bauer’s Café. It had a steady clientele, all regulars from up in Parkville to down the road in Hamilton. Mr. Menninger, his face deeply lined from years in the sun, did carpentry for us, and he seemed to be here and there in the neighborhood all the time. Mr. Swanbeck, with his horn rimmed glasses and straight dark hair that had a habit of falling onto his forehead, drove a taxi for the Blue & Gray Cab Company. Whenever he saw me walking by the Parkville taxi stand, he honked his horn and waved. I made my way up Harford Road past the big white mansion that had been turned into apartments, then past the camera shop, where I might stop in to buy film. I hardly knew what I was doing, but the man behind the counter showed me how to thread the film into the box camera, and told me to hold it steady whenever I snapped a picture. Most of my shots were dismal underexposed blurs, and I soon lost interest in photography.
The shoe and watch repair was another of my favorite stops. I could peer into the large window of the shop and see both the shoemaker and the watchmaker in neatly pressed tan work coats. While one Mr. Rossi was occupied in his section of the shop replacing worn down leather heels, the other Mr. Rossi sat in his small cubicle, absorbed in repairing a watch. I had never seen adults who looked so much like each other, and never stopped marveling at this phenomenon of nature.
But the best treasures of all were at Schulte and Treide’s Five and Ten Cent Store, which drew me like a magnet pulls iron filings. Goldfish, scores of them, swam back and forth in the enormous tank. I disobeyed the sign telling me not to touch the glass, and pressed my nose up against it. Over several months, I bought at least a dozen goldfish, asking for the ones with a black tail or fins. This made the shopgirl’s task harder, but I insisted on the unusual, not the plain orange goldfish. I brought them home in small white paper cartons of what I thought was special fish tank water, but never had luck keeping the fish alive more than a week or two.
In the toy section, small puzzles and games were laid out in tidy rows. There were balsa airplane sets and paddles with little rubber balls attached with thin elastic strands. I loved the sewing notions—odd things for a young girl to be interested in, because I had not yet been taught to sew— ric-rac, bias tape and facing in every conceivable color, spools of thread lined up meticulously by some conscientious shop girl, the colors descending from white to lemon to orange, and darker and darker, to indigo and black. I opened and closed paper books of sewing needles and envelopes of pins, needle threaders, Singer sewing machine accessories, and tape measures. Nobody ever shooed me out or questioned me, except to ask, “May I help you, little girl?”
Best of all was the counter full of hair notions and makeup: bobby pins, combs, brushes, hairnets, curlers, crimpers, rinses for the blue haired set and peroxide for would-be Marilyn Monroe or Kim Novak blondes. There were rows of Tangee lipstick, red plastic boxes of Maybelline cake mascara with tiny applicator brushes, powder puffs, and oval boxes of loose powder. This was not the expensive cosmetic arsenal of my mother’s dressing table, the DuBarry rouge and Chanel No. 5. But it was the enticing stuff of grown up ladies. I could not wait for Christmas shopping time—my mother would be thrilled, I thought, to unwrap a tube of that orange Tangee lipstick. Occasionally I’d engage in brief conversation with one of the sales clerks, when I had a questions about something. ”What’s this?”or “What is this used for?” often sparked a short discussion. I learned much from those blue haired ladies.
Across Harford Road lay unknown and forbidden territory—the Dor-lin dance studio with its signage, cutouts of a man and woman in evening dress gracefully waltzing, the children’s clothing store, and sandwiched between the bank and the pharmacy, Jack and Van’s Newsstand, where a blind man in dark glasses sold newspapers, cigarettes and candy, his German Shepherd seeing eye dog at his feet. The streetcar loop lay on the opposite corner from the news stand. The yellow cars circled around, emptying out ladies with their shopping bags and men with newspapers who jumped off and lit up, cigarette smoke trailing as they walked home.
Parkville’s shopping district remains, though some storefronts are faded, and others are now garish. The taxi stand and filling station have been replaced by a steamed crab operation. The Parkville bank is now a gun shop. Mr. Jack the blind newsman retired and moved to Florida years ago and has likely gone on to his eternal reward with his loyal dog Van. The photography store disappeared, and the five and dime and Sunny’s Surplus went out of business. On a visit home I drive by, slowing down to see the spot where the sidewalk used to meet concrete stairs leading up to an elevated walk at Parkville Shoe and Watch Repair. The afternoon sun slants through the picture window, and I imagine Mr. Rossi once more, turning his tiny screwdriver slowly and methodically, making everything in the old watch work like new.
Thanks to Donna Rossi Hardesty for her help clarifying historical facts about her father and uncle’s watch and shoe repair business, Parkville Shoe and Watch Repair, a neighborhood fixture from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s.