I kind of liked the idea of hunkering down to a good book that morning and looking out the window from time to time, just to gaze at a flake or two, but my family had other plans in mind. That meant squeezing out every available minute of shopping time, on this occasion, the mightyGreenwich Avenuewas on the agenda. I discouraged that proposal on the basis that the snowy conditions outside my turn our drive down the avenue into a kind of uncontrolled slide into Long Island Sound. That was a totally impossible scenario but they didn’t have to know that. My next argument was more persuasive from my standpoint.
“Closed? How can they be closed? In America?”
There was no fighting it. Shopping was shopping. Who was I kidding? Plus stores would be closed the next day and that would mean a travesty for a society which saw no need to defend the once untouchable day of rest.
“All right, what the hell,” I thought, “I might as well turn it into a visit to old Greenwich Avenue, to see what the heck was going around there.”
Not much, I can tell you. Things couldn’t have been quieter, as you would expect on a snowy New Year’s Eve morning. As you would expect onGreenwichAvenuebut that was what it was like.
I really don’t know what people who have never been here would have in mind when they think of Greenwich Avenue, but my guess is that they conjure up imagery of boutiques galore, fancy cafés at every corner, dog walkers dragged by a dozen pooches of all sizes shapes and hairdos, and chauffeur-driven town cars gliding up and down the street. They couldn’t be farther from the truth, at least in part.
To begin with, Greenwich Avenueis a one-way street and it only goes down.
Physically speaking, Greenwich Avenue as purely a street has hardly changed over the years. Really. It pretty much looks the same it did when I was a tot. And when you look at old turn-of-the-century postcards, it all looks very familiar.
What has changed are the stores themselves; quite a bit too. These locales were once mostly unassuming, unpretentious shops that sold the basics: toys, shoes, stationery, sports goods, records, books, bread, corduroys. Simple places with signs that read Quinn’s Market, Meads Stationary, Roger’s, Favourite Shoe and Bestever Dry Cleaners adorned the tops of the windows. You could hand in your painted model at theYellow Brick Roadtoy store for a contest, or eat a grilled cheese sandwich in a Woolworths booth, or get your haircut in a tiny floating fire engine by an Italian named Mike at Subway Barber. The Greenwich hardware store had those characteristic creaky wooden floors you find in places that sell rakes, hoes and nails, and Baskin Robbins was about as sophisticated as our ice cream got. When you wanted a real treat, it was the soft ice cream at Dairy Queen in Cos Cob. The kitsch interior decorations. They pastel colors. Sitting at those school desk-like chairs and lapping up rainbow sherbet before anyone dared venture further into the world of flavors at a time when people still called sherbet “sherbet” and not sorbet.
Maybe I am being a little nostalgic, a little too gentle with the town’s former image, but I somehow feel I’m not. Not in the sense that there was a time when downtown Greenwich looked a lot like downtown New England anywhere. Does that make it special? Does that make it worthy of praise? Should we win a prize for ordinariness? Or do you have to come from an affluent community to be insecure enough to strive to make your town look like all the rest? Don’t think I haven’t given some thought to this. Oh well, back to what I was saying.
Intermingled were a few luxury stores, but they were minority. When a person wanted to do some real shopping, they had to go into the city. By the early 80s, the chains began to arrive and by the time I was leaving forSpain, people wondered whether the old-town feel would endure the changing times. It wouldn’t. The 1990s made that clear.
If you ask me, no other moment in recent history has so succinctly summed up the transformation that was to rock this street than when Woolworths was bought out and replaced by the upscale retail storeSaks Fifth Avenue. That, my friends, said it all. Greenwich had lost what little remained of its plain small-town charm. Plus, I really liked that old Woolworths. You could get just about anything you wanted there and the food was the kind comfort crap kids loved. It was there me and my friends did all our candy shoplifting.
If there had been any hope of the older, humbler, simpler Greenwich staving off the encroaching arrival of top-notch stores, this signaled pretty much the final nail in the coffin. Starting then, it was just a matter of time before the others vanished. They are all gone and replaced by theRugbystore, Ralph Lauren, and such. Barely a remnant of the street I knew as a boy, except for Bestever Dry Cleaners and Hoaglands Jewelry store. And the Knapp funeral home, naturally, still has plenty of business to tend to. But that pretty much summed it up. Don’t get me wrong. None of this has really gotten me choked up. I guess it’s a shame, butAmericahas changed in so many ways and in so many places. But it didn’t really bring down and I really can’t explain why.