Every December 31, when the hype of New Year’s sequins and resolutions threaten overload, I escape. I become five again, my family newly emigrated from Europe and our first celebration in America.
Jewish New Year is a pensive time, a time to search deeds and thoughts and cleanse oneself of the year’s wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. America’s party hats and countdowns to midnight were as alien to my parents as hair shirts and self-flagellation. But, as new arrivals they so wanted to be American.
So, when their friends, the Tschewicks, mentioned New Year’s Eve, my parents listened. After all, the Tschewick family had arrived in the States a year before us.
“All Chicago goes downtown to State and Madison," Mr. Tschewick explained. Midnight was spent under the Marshall Field & Co. clock with thousands of strangers. Eager to be real Americans, my parents agreed.
My 18-year old brother had better things to do. But, my second brother, sister and I embraced our initiation into Americana.
On Dec. 31, 1952, we rode the subway to meet our friends and their children under the clock. Fortunately, the spirit that protects the innocent accompanied us that night. Despite the masses converging on that intersection, we found each other. The streets teemed with families bundled against the bitter cold, women in glitzy dresses, high heels and flimsy wraps, and packs of American teens. But, it was the sailors in their pea coats, bell bottoms, and rakish caps atop crew cuts that got me. These boy-men radiated exuberance and I fell for every single one as I clung feverishly to my parents’ hands.
Our first priority was the lavish department store windows. One featured Santa checking lists as Mrs. Claus directed a cadre of mischievous-looking elves. As long as you could bear the cold the elves built, hammered, wrapped, doors opened and closed, and activities repeated. I peered intensely for a missed cue or break in routine. Eventually my eagle-eye was rewarded by a juggling clown whose hands moved tirelessly although the balls had fallen off their track into the ersatz snow drift.
Windows dazzled with old fashioned tableaux, too. Tinseled evergreens, blazing fire places, cheerful parent mannequins attired in period clothing, and wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked kids amid mounds of presents. A frosty window scene revealed a sleigh drawn by a herd of reindeer, suspended high in an azure sky. What a world! Our first floor apartment had no such splendid visitations.
After much window gazing and freezing the adults decreed it was time to warm up. The luminous Walgreens’ Drug Store beckoned us into its wonderland of trinkets, tempting aromas, and a miraculous waterfall of moving stairs. Never had I seen such a contraption and my tentative steps onto the escalator set my heart racing. Could I be sucked into the metal teeth? Would my perennially untied shoelaces imprison me? And how could one return from stairs that only went down?
The daunting voyage proved worthwhile. We descended into a shimmering stainless steel and pastel-hued formica futurama: Walgreens’ basement cafeteria. Impossible as it seemed on so august a night, we were this fine eatery’s sole patrons. My eyes devoured rows of exotica, creamy poufs of potato adrift in brown sauce, precise squares of meat and vegetables, and identical salads crowned with paper cups of orange goop.
And the desserts! Meringue-tipped pies, brobdingnagian black and white cookies, rainbow-cubed gelatin, and layer cakes so tantalizing that even my beloved Hostess Twinkies paled. Tugging desperately at my mother’s arm, I begged and cajoled for one of these visions. Instead, I was led wordlessly toward the drinks. Daunted but not bowed, I snatched victory from defeat, choosing a carton of chocolate milk and a straw that bent adorably in the middle.
As we settled ourselves into adjacent booths my mother glanced around. Then she reached into her omnipresent leather shopping bag and retrieved a giant bakery pound cake. Our celebration was to continue, after all! Using her wooden-handled kitchen knife, my mother cut us each an enormous slice of pound cake.
Within minutes we children inhaled our milk and cake and set out to reconnaissance this deserted playground. We investigated bathrooms, hid in stalls, perched atop toilets, pondered the mystery of urinals.
Then we found our way back to the staircase rapids, discovering the counterpart that returned upstairs. Gingerly, we rode the escalator to the first floor. Then we rode down again. Having survived that, our daring increased and our caution morphed into hot pursuit. My fear of untimely consumption by yawning metal teeth disappeared.
Somehow, our yelps went unheard by our parents as they chatted in their corner booth. But Walgreens noticed. First, the lights began flashing, adding a surreal aura to our chase. The dancing lights increased our zeal as we slid down banisters, played tag up the down staircase and down the up. We trailed toilet paper from the bathroom stalls, the streamers taking flight behind us, becoming tangled in our shoes, the stair treads, and low hanging signs and fixtures. What a joyous American New Year!
Suddenly, the lights ceased flashing and the escalators halted. Looking around for the cause of this disruption we were punished by ear-wrenching crackles and static. Then, a voice announced that Walgreens would close in five minutes and asked all customers to bring their purchases to a cash register.
As our parents drew near, we five kids huddled together fearfully. But the adults seemed oblivious. Did they not realize that we had brought this great store to its knees? Then again, hasty shutdowns were de rigueur in the local family businesses they patronized.
All innocence, I clutched my mother’s hand as our little group climbed the now-still metal stairs to the first floor. Not until we were out in the cold air did I relax…and deflate.
Downtown Chicago was still thick with revelers, but our adventure had exhausted us kids. We made our way to the subway, the adults flush with companionship and coffee, the children tempered by fear and over-excitement. On the train, despite the stuffiness and screeching rails, I collapsed and dreamt of escalator adventures and narrow escapes.
I’ve spent all sorts of New Years in the decades since, in celebration, in denial, at home, on the road, and even at work. Yet, that night of Walgreen’s and family, my mother’s pound cake, and my first escalator in America are always with me.