Text and pics by Rosalie Tirella
… I am really itchin’ to go and patronize … the old THE MART of Main South! Right now! Even though it went out of business decades ago and is now a neighborhood grocery store. I want to buy things like: Bengay arthritis cream!, ladies polyester underwear briefs (white, medium)!, Vicks Vapo Rub!!, a beige pet mouse and mouse supplies!!, a packet of Sea Monkeys!!!, a pair of flannel pajamas!, a small pot and a big pot!, gold spray paint!, a Kinks lp or, most likely if we’re talkin’ The Mart, a Kinks knock-off lp. And a bag of Baby Ruths!
THE POLAR OPPOSITE of the Canal District boutiques and shoppes that have now moved into my old poor world and would never sell things like suppositories, ladies girdles, Q Tips and “dusters” – those polyester/cotton-blend snap-up house coats you bought for your granny every Christmas. You know, clothing, supplies, items and personal care products that REAL PEOPLE NEEDED AND USE – still need and use! – every day. But the Canal District is a kind of upper-middle-class fantasy land, streets where everything – greeting cards, shoes, sweaters – is in such good taste that no one would ever need to use a suppository! The Mart and the Green Island/Kelley Square stores and shops of my childhood and teen years were gritty reality-based. Driving down my old Green Island streets, once criss crossed by winos, kids, dogs (no leash laws), cops, slumlords, Mrs. White with her 1-foot-high black-dyed bouffant hair do, an old sunbaked window washer/popcorn salesman, drunk hairdressers, Polish immigrant Bapies now feels surreal! Everyone these days is usually female, young, attractive, artfully dressed, middle-class and white! The meals at the eateries are so aryfully arranged – they look like paintings! $90 linen blouses. Locally sourced carrots! $8.50 artisan loaves of bread. Artisan. It’s like passing through a Julia Roberts movie … the ones where she has great gal pals, journals, does yoga, finds her better self.
At the old Mart we all wore pink polyester Mart pants and vests – hot pink. Everything was made in Hong Kong!! Sometimes we farted! Sometimes we Mart shoppers were ahead of the curve and bought Mart shoes that were “vegan” – not made of leather (a cruel industry) but a kind of shiny black heavy vinyl material. My uncle wore his big black shiny Mart shoes (with white cotton ankle socks – also bought at the Mart) to church every Sunday morning. Then he’d drive down to Widoff’s Bakery on Water Street to buy a dozen of bulkies. At Widoff’s many of the workers were also wearing Mart shoes with white ankle socks – reflections of our city’s once modest, hardworking and thrifty working class. A working class that owned or was saving up$$ for their own three deckers!
Everything BOUGHT FOR A SONG at The Mart brought you closer to home ownership! Snatched from one of the scores and scores of Mart sales bins parked smack dab in the middle of the store, contents changing every week. Bin after bin after bin filled with sale items like: navy blue or black knit winter crew hats, dishwashing liquid, facecloths, Kotex pads, writing pads, shelf paper. … Remember shelf paper?! … and the sometimes decorative trim that came with it, self-adhesive tape at the top? If you wanted to, you could use thumb tacks to really secure the trim – thumb tacks also for sale at The Mart. White or red. Lined up in 10 rows, punched in a white notepad sized piece of cardboard.
… and let your imagination run wild! You only needed $5 or $10 to buy your treasures. The handwritten sale signs written in red or black magic marker font and plastered all over the store’s utilitarian beige walls pointed you to stuff that was NEW. CHEAP. LAYAWAY AVAILABLE, if you needed it. And I loved it all: board games like TROUBLE, CANDYLAND, CHECKERS or LIFE in their big toy department downstairs, across from the pet section: golden hamsters, white mice, turtles, gold fish, yellow canaries, blue and violet parakeets … all so colorful and lively, beautiful and innocent, chirping, eating, sleeping under those harsh Mart fluorescent lights.
And The Mart ramp – that little stretch of bumpiness you felt as you walked down a kind of grey carpeted ramp down to yet another Mart section, but on the same floor – the first floor. The Mart had just one floor – the first floor. But it was long and winding, making left and right turns. Then there was the basement, home to the toy/pet department. Maybe the lamp section, too.
I remember being in the 7th grade and walking into the lamp department – three aisles of lamps, stacked on shelves that practically reached the ceiling – and picking out a huge white ceramic lamp, its base the shape of an old fashioned country milk bottle – a big rooster painted on it – for my mom. It was her birthday. I bought it for our used living room end table, given to us by my aunt, my mother’s big sister, after her husband, my Uncle Mark, an elementary school principal, bought his wife a brand new matching living room set from O’Coins. The rooster lamp, huge and probably meant for the kitchen, was proudly placed on that two-shelved, glass-water-stained, slightly wobbly maple, hand-me-down end table by my mom. Then we walked into the kitchen where we sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU around the candle-lit Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cake my mother baked for herself a few hours before – knowing that was my favorite cake! Then I shouted – couldn’t help but crow to Ma – “I bought it for you at The Mart, Ma!” We all smiled.