The Stations of Downtown Ithaca

12 Sep

Dewitt Park

Today I attended a funeral for Hank Murphy, a faithful member of my Rotary Club, at the Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Ithaca. I immediately thought of my friend Jeanne Greenleaf and our many visits to the downtown area when we were teenagers. We would often end our shopping trips with a stop at said Catholic church, where Jeanne would attend confession and I would generally busy myself moving from one Station of the Cross to another. I was brought up Methodist and these stations that represent Jesus’ steps as he carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion and his death thereon were novel to me.

We were big on walking then; it became my main exercise once I got over anorexia. The walk was about 3.5 miles and we thought nothing of it since we did it so often. Of course, we wore jeans or corduroys. Shoes that looked like ballet slippers were popular then too, and since we walked downtown so often we didn’t worry about wearing sturdy shoes for our feet. Jeanne lived on one of the cigarette streets–Winston, that was surrounded by several more, including Tareyton and Muriel, while I lived on Kay Street. The houses on the cigarette streets were notorious for being attractive, but flimsily-built. We would hike from our houses in mainline suburbia in the northeast section of town through Cayuga Heights, the upper crust area in the Town of Ithaca. On the way we would often buy a rose at Harings, a florist shop at the Community Corners. We would then deposit it at a baby’s grave at the cemetery that hung on the hill over Ithaca High School. (For more on the baby’s grave see my post on “Obituaries and Perpetual Care”– For some reason this was particularly embarrassing to my brother.

Meanwhile we made the most of what we had. One of our many Stations was Dewitt Park and the granite war memorials in the center of the park. Now there is a low metal fence in front of the World War I Memorial, but back then we felt comfortable hoisting ourselves up on one of the stone abutments to either side of the list of names of the World War I soldiers who died in Europe. We were at that stage of life where one tends to be romantic about death, which, combined with the fact that there were many men dying in Vietnam, made us maudlin. I was later to vote for Nixon, so I was not yet a liberal, but everyone was tired and sad about Vietnam, even Johnson. We sang two war songs: “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” a song written by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, and “Blowing in the Wind,” a popular Dylan song. Both songs were made even more popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The main destination downtown was Rothschilds, the city’s main department store. Jeanne was later to work there, but back then we did a lot of window shopping and buying of material to make dresses. We grew up at a time when girls were still expected to learn how to sew in seventh grade. Our mothers did much of the work, but we helped by flipping the pages of Seventeen and finding dresses that we would later match to patterns in the Simplicity and Butterick catalogs on the fourth floor of the store. A fabric that one does not often see now is kettle cloth, a material from which the dresses of many Ithaca girls were fashioned. It was manufactured from a poly/cotton blend and comber noils waste. Highly popular at the time, it is no longer available. Jeanne and I also loved to try on hats in the women’s department. The wearing of hats was out of fashion then, but we still loved to vamp in front of the mirrors and laugh. I suppose we looked immature to the store clerks, but for some reason I remember the trying on of hats as one of the happiest times of my life.

We also did errands for our mothers; my mother would often ask me to buy something at Holley’s, a small women’s store, or at J.C. Penney’s, where the clothes were more affordable. Nearby was the Home Dairy where I bought our family’s weekly sugar high–chocolate cupcakes with chocolate icing and sprinkles or fried cinnamon buns. They would be packed carefully in a box and wrapped in string. Bakeries no longer seem to have that personal touch; moreover, I hate to admit that I buy most of my baked goods at grocery stores now. Down a windy, rickety staircase in the bakery of the Home Dairy was one of the bathrooms in town. I was always aware of the location of all the bathrooms in the city, because we spent so much time there.

At Woolworth’s, which was located where the library is now, we found an odd assortment of things that interested us. I may have been the one who pushed for us to buy balloons–still hanging on to those last few years of childhood, I guess. They were large and full of helium. Long ribbons were attached to the ends and I liked to walk though town with my balloon floating high in the air. Once, in what I thought was a tender moment, I bought my brother a gold-fish from Woolworth’s. He fed it to his bass in his small aquarium in his basement bedroom.

It’s hard to explain Woolworth’s to those who never knew it. Woolworth’s had a restaurant, a pet shop, multiple paper goods, including school supplies, hardware, and miscellaneous bric-a-brac. It was attractive in a way that Target has never been, partly because of its random nature. Woolworth’s was, to use a word popular at the time, funky.

At the end of our shopping day we would proceed to the Women’s Community Building, a building that was recently torn down. Many people used it for a myriad of reasons; some groups rented it and single women sometimes lived there. For the two of us it was our pick-up spot, a convenient place from which our parents could scoop us up as they drove their way down Seneca St.

Jeanne and I were not particularly popular, but we didn’t care. Looking back, I’m proud of us. We created our own little world out of what we were given. In junior high we both found out that we were gifted in intelligence. Despite the fact that teachers sometimes find the designation a problem, it was very freeing to us. It meant that we were like about a third of the people in Ithaca. But that also meant that wonderful things could happen to us. We just had to get out of Ithaca.

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