I’ve been cleaning out, with the faint hope of consolidating, hundreds of old files from my laptops in anticipation of booting up a new computer. I’m trying to figure out what to save, and what to toss (dozens of job application letters, all unsuccessful, from a previous decade?). Buried deep in a sub-file of a sub-folder of a mega-folder in a remote hard drive, I came across some columns I wrote when I was editor of the Puget Sound Business Journal. I had saved some of my favorites, out of hundreds written over 10 years. A few are timeless — such as the one that follows. It originally appeared in the Feb. 2, 2001, edition of the Business Journal, and was titled “Shopping for more than memories.” I hope you don’t mind traveling back in time with me:
Place is the anchor of memory. Joy, triumph, regret, embarrassment, grief — all our accumulated emotions are linked with settings that, in recollections, are always the same.
In the temporal world, though, places change — and then become the trigger of memory.
So it was that a news item last week jolted me back 40 years and compelled me to drive 20 miles.
My nostalgia mission took me to the doomed J.C. Penney store in downtown Kent. The little store on Meeker Street — historically the heart of the city’s commercial area — is a small-town-era relic soon to be shuttered by the big retailer. Its closure will end one of the town’s links between the early 20th century and the early 21st.
I did most of my growing up in Kent, from second grade through high school. When we moved there in 1956 it was a rural burg on the verge of suburbanization. We lived on a sparsely populated country road near Lake Meridian. The open field I played in is crowded with split-level ramblers now.
Going to town was always an adventure, sometimes a heartbreak. Too many afternoons my siblings and I sat in the car waiting for Dad to finish his beers at the little tavern on Main Street. There were a lot of beers over the years.
Saturdays were the good days. After catechism classes at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, we would run across the street to the city library and check out as many books as we were allowed. If we had time and a few coins in our pockets, we’d hit the Ben Franklin store on Meeker, a kid’s treasure trove.
The J.C. Penney store across the street from Ben Franklin was for special occasions, like buying underwear or socks — and once in a while something more important.
I bought my first sport coat at the J.C. Penney store, for my first date at my first high school dance. It was agonizing because I wanted to look good — the way a pimply, gawky, socially impaired teen-ager wants to look good.
Mom tried to help, but I was determined to be independent. The coat I chose wasn’t too bad — it was sort of brown, with some kind of houndstooth pattern — but the slacks I insisted on didn’t match at all. I think they were more or less green. Even now, in the prom pictures I saved, you can see how my ensemble clashed.
I thought about that last week when I read that the J.C. Penney store would be closed, and decided to visit it for the first time since high school. While I waited for the store to open, I had coffee at the Starbucks a few doors down. Across the street, a bank has replaced the movie theater where I watched “Shane” — the only movie I recall seeing with my father.
Then I drove around town a bit, past the church and library, past buildings that hadn’t changed in 45 years, past businesses that had replaced the ones I knew in my childhood, past the building where my father got his first job in Kent — and past the site of the tiny house where he lived his last years, long after the beers had busted up his family.
It wasn’t a weepy tour through gauzy recollections. Sentiment doesn’t have to knock the edges off reality. But it wasn’t until I started writing this article that I understood the powerful need that had really drawn me back to those childhood places, and it only had a little to do with a department store.
I wandered into Penney’s a few minutes after 10. A handful of customers were already poking around. I could see the entire store from just about anywhere I stood. There wasn’t any reason to dawdle, but there was one more thing I had to do.
I bought underwear and socks.