Remembrances of lost pleasures

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A few months ago, I began this column with a lament for some of the pleasures of life that are now gone, like rolled beef and Benny’s, and with happy memories of some of the good in the old days. Today, I am adding more laments to that list.

Have you tried to purchase needles and thread lately – a small packet of sharps and a spool or two of mercerized cotton thread in the colors you want? Or even needles and thread packaged in plastic containers with colors that you don’t need? Back in the day, such a purchase was easy at 5-and-10-cents stores.

But it’s not really the Woolworth’s or Kresge’s or Grant’s that I miss. These big chain stores did business in downtown Providence. What I miss are the family-owned 5 and 10s that furnished a neighborhood with the small necessities of life, like needles and thread, inexpensive fabrics, Simplicity patterns for doll clothes, Purim costumes, and puzzles, simple toys and craft items to keep children occupied on a rainy afternoon. Not to mention shelf paper and oil cloth, birthday party needs, bags of valentine cards for distribution to all classmates, and cosmetics like Tangee lipstick and Cutex nail polish, which were often a teen’s introduction to beauty aids.  

All of this and more was housed in a store within walking distance or a very short drive. There was no need for a trip downcity or to a mall.

Once, prominently placed in libraries large and small, was a group of cabinets, usually made of wood. In these cabinets were drawers upon drawers holding cards 3 inches high by 5 inches wide with information about authors and books. It was the library card catalog, a treasure trove of information – and the bane and blessing of my searches of its contents.

Now, the card catalog is either absent altogether or relegated to an obscure place as a secondary resource. It is no longer kept up to date. Mainly, historical associations and libraries, the keepers of manuscripts and print treasures from the past, maintain them as a key to their older holdings. The library cooperative that printed and distributed the cards has ended operations and been replaced by the Online Public Access Catalog. Information about authors, subjects and the location of books is now stored in “the cloud.”

I miss the card catalog. I miss checking the little white cards attached to the front of each drawer that indicated the range of its alphabetical contents. I miss sifting through the individual cards – impaled on a rod to hold them in place – to find what I wanted. Herein lies the bane as well as the blessing. A word on a card, a name, a glimpse of information previously unknown and an unusual title, were byways waiting to be explored, paths tempting me away from the task at hand. My planned search was often put on hold.

Today, a computer immediately pulls up the exact information needed; efficient, but gone is the pleasure of serendipity.

I’m also missing the hot, freshly baked bagels from Frager’s, the 5-cent Milky Way and Rigney’s ice cream. 

Of greater importance is the loss of the freedom and independence tweens used to enjoy: walking to school with a friend or a cluster of classmates, walking to the home of a friend or a relative several blocks away, or simply hanging out with other tweens in impromptu get-togethers. These once essential pleasures have long since been replaced by the formality of a scheduled play date – and are now being replaced by yet another new “normal.”

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.