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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Part Two: When Doubt Faded into Fantasy

Not far from that Federals parking lot, you could look south on Gratiot Avenue and, on a clear day, see the skyscrapers of Detroit about ten miles away.

Downtown Detroit had been a distant but integral part of my family’s life ever since 1960 when my father took a job and an apartment in the city while Mom and her four stair-step kids stayed 90 minutes away in Port Huron, living in the unfinished “dream house” Dad was diligently building on weekends. The next year we sold that beautiful house on its large wooded lot and moved to the tightly-woven world of Detroit’s east-side suburbs. Dad often took us downtown to “Friday Family Swim Night” at the old YMCA building. Having lived there alone those months and worked there now for four years,he knew downtown Detroit like the back of his hand.

Mom was less familiar with Detroit and reluctant to venture there without Dad. The last time she did we took a wrong turn on a one-way street and drove a few blocks against the flow. She wondered what all the honking was about but figured it out before bringing the Motor City to a screeching halt. In fairness to Mom, it took courage that Saturday to load up the car with four kids and give it another shot, but Hudson’s Department Store was worth the risk.

The mid-Sixties was the peak of the J.L.Hudson story. I say story and not “store” because when it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Hudson's was not only the world’s tallest retail building—it was a winter wonderland among city sidewalks and silver bells. The windowed wall on Woodward Avenue was decked to the sky with 72,000 lights in the shape of a tree, and inside all 25 floors were tastefully festooned.

This store had five basements, 51 passenger elevators, 706 fitting rooms and 2 million square feet. But most remarkable of all were the display windows that wreathed the building. Each was a holiday scene with life-like animatronics interacting with the merchandise available inside. Kids from 1 to 92, were mesmerized at each stop. I remember one showed a family singing at the piano with the family dog lying on the floor. I laughed when I saw that the furry sides moving in and out. “Mom, that dog is breathing!”

There were little details like that at every turn. It took a good hour to weave in and out of the gawking shoppers that circled the building, and then we went up to the 12th floor to see the Midwest’s largest toy department. It, too, was alive with mechanical elves, costumed clerks, and thematic characters directing the endless lines of kids who had come to see Santa. [Click here to find a link to rare footage of Hudson's Santaland.] It was commonly held that while the suburb stores were assigned Santa’s helpers—the Hudson’s Santa was St. Nicholas himself who had come in for the Thanksgiving Day Parade and stayed.

There was one item on my list that we could not find at Federals or any other store in our area, but there it was on the 12th floor of Hudson’s: a Pinocchio string puppet. (It was actually my brother Dave's idea--We’d seen that Disney classic the year before and were big fans of the Saturday supermarionation shows like Diver Dan and Supercar [“Varm up shupacah."]. So we both wanted one.)

“Well, be sure to tell Santa that they have them here at Hudson’s.” That was Mom’s way of the maintaining the mystery. We never saw her purchase a gift—and when we opened them on Christmas morning, she acted just as surprised as we did that Santa had come through. My brothers and sister were not in line to see Santa, but Kathy stood with me as Mom disappeared for about a half an hour. Finally, it was my turn.

Compared to my most recent experience with the Federals “Santa,” the Hudson’s Santa was the best I’d ever seen. He responded favorably to everything on my list and appreciated my telling him where each item could be purchased for the best price.

“You have been a good boy—and a good shopper," he laughed. His "Ho-Hos" were mixed with a regular laugh that sounded quite genuine.

I was happy to see Mom and everyone at the Santa room exit. Sometimes I got lost in big stores and it wasn't a good feeling. In fact, I think being lost in a store is beyond a doubt the most desperately forlorn feeling a child can know. [Years later, I learned it’s also the worst feeling a parent can have.] But there they stood, waving me toward them.

"So how was Santa?" everybody asked.
"Great!" I smiled around a candy cane, as if the fear of not seeing them there had not just stumbled in slow motion through brain, like in a dream when you can’t run away from the bad man.

I spared them from my more accurate review of the Hudson Santa. Secretly I was disappointed that he was so clearly not the real Santa. His fine flowing beard was clearly not his own and his patent-leather boots and belt showed no signs of use or ware, but I was certain that he was a very high-ranking “helper.” I did not tell anyone of my doubts; and I deliberately asked no questions about the bags Mom and Kathy carried to the car.

(Continued above)


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