Tuesday, May 2, 2017

But the clocks come with it, right?

     My grandmother was a proud employee of The May Company in Cleveland. Growing up, we bought my clothes there, at the employee discount or, if need be, at Higbee's or Halle's, the other two legs of of the triumvirate of department stores that made up respectable society.  
    To go elsewhere was to slum. I can still feel the cringing humiliation I felt when my mother, no doubt economizing, took me to J.C. Penney's to buy a loathsome polyester black suit suit at one point in the late-1970s. I couldn't have been more horrified had she given me a tambourine and told me to dance for coins in Public Square.
     As an adult, I clung to that mentality. I shopped at Marshall Field's, at Carson's if I were desperate. Toward my late 20s, I grew adventurous, and would buy clothing at Mark Shale. My wife's inclination toward discount stores I put off to a baffling cheapness.
    Then in May, 1999, I was about to leave on a six-week trip, needed certain necessities -- a lightweight tropic sports coat--and had no time, so popped into the Filene's Basement on Broadway. I still remember returning with an armful of purchases, babbling to my wife, "The prices are ... so low." 
    Ever since that epiphany, like many middle class shoppers, I haunt discount outlets like Nordstrom's Rack and T.J. Maxx, with occasional trips to Suits 20/20. Which is why the former Carson's downtown, with its ornate Louis Sullivan frou-frou, is now a Target. Or Macy's, which used to be good at running this sort of thing, announced they'll be selling off the top seven floors of its flagship downtown store to become condos or offices, or what have you.
    This, the latest step in the Great Department Store Die-Off, which will no doubt be melancholy to us folks of a certain age. 
    The spin was that the Walnut Room will remain, and that might provide cold comfort to some. But the Walnut Room never did much for me —a place where grandmothers rested their feet and ate pot pies.
     Looking to see if I ever wrote anything about it, I came upon this, about how Macy's got ripped going in the door a dozen years ago. Maybe not so savvy after all. 

"The Clock Mender" by Norman Rockwell
  Did you ever buy a house? What do you do if you really like the chandelier in the dining room and want to make sure the former owners don't take it with them? You write that into the contract. Because people are people, unfortunately, and left to their own devices, they'll pry off the 19-cent light plates on their way out the door. Maximizing their advantage.
     So no sympathy for Federated Department Stores, owner of Marshall Field's, which expressed "hope" that Target Corp. will give them the famous Norman Rockwell painting of a man setting the Great Clock in front of the State Street store.
     The store owned the painting for more than half a century, and Federated seems to have thought it was buying the artwork along with the 60-store chain and was surprised to find a copy hanging in the store's seventh-floor "museum."
     Out with the contracts! Either the painting was included or it wasn't. My understanding is that Target cannily made the swap—shipping the original back to its headquarters in Minneapolis—in spring of 2004, about the time it put Field's up for sale.
     In other words, the chandelier was gone long before Federated bought the place.
     Target does a brisk business in Chicago—my wife makes her second home there, and she offers Target this elegant solution: Donate the Rockwell to the Art Institute. Target gets a tax write-off and is spared any PR unpleasantness. The Art Institute will no doubt cringe away from displaying a painter as proletarian as Rockwell, and happily loan the painting, long-term, to Field's—er, Macy's. And the obscure seventh-floor museum, whose visitors seem to largely consist of Walnut Room patrons looking for the bathroom, will have its $5 million worth of original art back, and there will be joy in Chicago once more.

                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 21, 2006

    Postscript: The Target Corporation, no doubt coincidentally, did indeed donate "The Clock Mender' to a museum: not to the Art Institute, but to the Chicago History Museum, which proudly has it on display, where I noticed it during a visit earlier this month.


  1. You're too modest, Neil. Claiming credit where credit might be due is the zeitgeist. And the way I understand it, if the store refuted your claim for credit and made a big deal of it, that would just reinforce the conviction among your disciples that your claim was valid. It worked, and is working for those on high. Why not for the "totus teres atque rotundus," as Trollope described members of the press.


  2. Rockwell was either the world's worst successful fine artist or its best hack illustrator (a phrase he once applied to himself).

    Fun fact, at least for me: This immortalizer of all that is schmaltzy about small-town America was born and raised in New York City.


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