Written by Roger McCredie
Merchants recall strange happenings of the ‘Joyous Season’
“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time… as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The Ghost of Christmas Past paid me a visit the other night. Only it wasn’t the one from Dickens’ imagination, not the androgynous figure in the luminescent nightgown. It was Max Marks.
In my youth, Max was the CEO of Greenwald’s, Spartanburg’s oldest and most upscale men’s store. He looked the same as ever. Not a strand of his iron-gray hair was out of place, and he regarded me through his horn-rims with his usual half-smiling expression of urbane goodwill. Always his own best advertisement, he wore a cashmere sports coat in a muted black and white Glen plaid and a pair of charcoal flannel slacks with a crease that could have cut tungsten. His shirt was a pink oxford cloth button-down, worn with a black and red foulard tie; on his feet were black tassel slip-ons that gleamed like obsidian.
“So good to see you.” Max’s standard greeting to one and all.
“You too, Max,” I found myself saying, “only not to put too fine a point on it, but haven’t you been dead these many years?”
When he shook hands with you, Max had a way of stepping in close, gently laying his other hand on your elbow and lowering his voice, as though you were the most important person in the world and he had something vital to impart to you in confidence. He did that now. “I’ll tell you something” he murmured, “this death thing is highly overrated.”
His grip, which was warm and dry and fully corporeal, tightened just a bit, the half smile widened to a full one, and he gave a conspiratorial wink. As he did so there was a faint rushing sound. Things got blurry for just a second and when they refocused Max and I were standing in the sportswear department of Greenwald’s, Inc., Gentlemen’s Clothiers and Tailors, Est’d. 1886.
At Christmastime, Greenwald’s had a custom of hiring a select few (usually from among its best customers) of Spartanburg’s young bloods as extra salesmen. These positions were highly sought after, as they offered a guaranteed salary plus commission, a discount on all merchandise, and a great opportunity to meet girls. (True, a girl might be shopping for a present for an existing boyfriend. Making that detail irrelevant was a matter for one’s own skill and initiative.) I was lucky enough, for a couple of my college years, to be an extra salesman at Greenwald’s. It was a formative experience.
I looked around the cavernous store with its warm wood paneling, its worn and friendly floor, its enclaves of shelves and polished glass counters, and its magnificent double staircase that led to the stock room and the upstairs domain of Mrs. Youngblood, head of alterations, and her minions. At the foot of the stairs was an old-fashioned cash stand where purchases were rung up. On a post behind it, a calendar informed me that it was December, 1961. Through the glass storefront a car with tailfins went past on Morgan Square. The sales pad in my hand was spanking new.
“Your first day on the job,” Max Marks nodded. “And here comes your very first customer.” The half smile widened to a grin. “You remember Bobby Tatum?”
“Aw, Max, not – “
“Got to run,” said Max. “Get back to being dead, you know. Go wait on your customer, Rusty.” He gave me a farewell pat on the back. “So good to see you,” he said again. I turned around and, sure enough, bearing down on me was a rail-thin man in a wheelchair pushed by a rail-thin, anxious-looking woman. I took a deep breath. “Yes sir,” I said. “How can we help you?”
“He wants some pants,” the woman said. The man did not speak. In fact there was a disconcerting stillness about him. His wife made up for it; she was downright twitchy. And while I showed him some trousers and pondered how I was going to measure his inseam, she steered me behind a rack of sport coats and whispered urgently, “He don’t want them pants.”
“He don’t want no pants. I think he’s working up to have a spell. I brought him in here till he’ll settle down. Listen: You know Dr. Kilgore?
“You got to call him,” she whispered. “Tell him it’s about Bobby Tatum. Ask him what I need to do. Please,” she murmured urgently.
What to do? The senior staff were all busy; I’d have to act on my own initiative. Extra salesmen weren’t allowed to use the courtesy phones up front. Thinking quickly, I ambled up to the front door, opened it, and sprinted three doors down to the drugstore, where I grabbed the phone book, checked the number, thrust a dime into the pay phone, and called Sam Kilgore’s office. They put me straight through to him (that actually happened in those days). As soon as I panted that I was calling about his patient, Bobby Tatum, Dr. Kilgore cut me short.
“Is he violent?” he asked
Moments later, armed with reassurances for Mrs. Tatum, (“Tell her he’s probably okay and to call me when she gets home.”) I sprinted back to Greenwald’s and slunk in the door just in time to see the Tatums departing. I noticed Bobby had a package in his lap. They were being waved away with a “Merry Christmas!” by Greenwald’s partner Jack Cobb, who was in charge of extra salesmen and who glared at me reprovingly.
“Where did you go?” he demanded. “You missed a sale. I sold him a pair of pants. The house gets the sale, so you missed a commission, too. You’ll have to do better than that.”
It was my earliest personal encounter with a phenomenon I’ve noticed often ever since: That where human nature, retailing, and the holiday season intersect, there is a sort of twilight zone where strange things happen. (My mild-mannered former son-in-law, for instance, told me how he had fended off a savage attack from a female shopper who tried to wrest from his bosom the hunting vest he had just picked out for me.) Avarice, desperation, and aggression all surface in this netherworld. Fortunately, so do patience, generosity, and compassion. Even misplaced compassion.
Cut to: present day Asheville, North Carolina. Alicia Rathbone, site manager at a Merrimon Avenue retail store, remembers one Christmas when “a gentleman came in the store and said he had run out of gas in our parking lot, that he didn’t have any money on him, had his children with him, and he had to get them home.
“It sounded perfectly plausible,” she says. “To forget that you don’t have much gas; forget that you don’t have any cash, all while traveling with kids in the car. It’s hard not to sympathize with that. I was young and hadn’t been here long, and this man seemed believable, so I said, ‘Hang on just a second.’
“I had three twenties in my coat pocket. I was planning to go shopping for my three nephews when I got off work. But I took one twenty dollar bill and gave it to the man. He thanked me and thanked me and said he’d be back as soon as possible to pay me. I never saw him again. But I believed then, and I still believe, that being kind pays off in the long run.”
For instance, she says, “There was a man that was in here one Christmas when the store was packed and he got really angry when he was checking out. It had to do with something that was incorrectly marked. It happens. The cashier apologized and I came over and made the adjustment, but he kept on yelling. Have you ever seen a whole store get completely quiet all of a sudden? Well it did, except for him; everybody was listening, waiting to see how this would turn out, and meanwhile he’s hollering that he’ll never set foot in this store again.
“So we decided to kill him with kindness. The clerk at the register never lost her cool, even with a bunch of Christmas shoppers backing up, and finally I offered him twenty percent off of his pick of any item in the store. He acted like he still wasn’t happy, but he picked something and got his discount. And you know what? He came back a couple of months later, all sweetness and light, like it never happened, and was a regular customer for years.”
Pharmacist and convict William Sydney Porter, who wrote stuff under the pseudonym “O. Henry” and is a permanent resident of Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, published his most famous short story in 1906. “The Gift of the Magi” tells of a financially strapped young couple, each of whom sells a treasured possession for enough money to buy the other a Christmas present. Seven years after that story was published Harry Finkelstein opened his pawnshop on Pack Square. It’s still in business and Joel Parker, the manager, has been there 28 years. He says business always spikes during ‘The Joyous Season’ because for some it’s far from joyous.
“People are particularly worried they won’t have enough money for Santa Claus to pay their kids a proper visit,” he says. “We’ll see folks coming in here looking to pawn things that you know have to be important to them – tools, nice watches, wedding rings, things like that – and you can tell they hate to do it because they don’t know if they’ll be able to get them back later, but they want to give those children a merry Christmas.
“I tend to get involved with my customers,” Joel says. “I can usually tell when they need some extra help, so I’ll stretch a point if I have to. I’ll loan money on things that we ordinarily wouldn’t consider valuable enough, or I’ll try to be real easy with payment arrangements, that sort of thing. Actually I think we do that all year long, but during the holidays we try to be extra flexible.
“We used to have, every year, what we called ‘The World’s Biggest Christmas Stocking’,” Joel recalls. “It was a big package of gifts and toys, enough to make a real good Christmas for three or four children. Folks would come in and register for it – no purchase, no business necessary – and we’d hold the drawing a couple of days before Christmas. I’ve seen it won by families I knew really needed it, and it always did my heart good.”
Some historians have established that the census/taxpaying time established by Augustus Caesar, as mentioned by St. Luke, took place in the summer, probably in the month we now call July, but that the observance of Jesus’ birth was shifted to December for convenience. It fit nicely within the time frame of the old Roman Feast of Saturnalia, not to mention the winter solstice and Hanukkah. However it got to where it is, there Christmas is. And as Scrooge’s nephew said, along with its companion holidays it’s a time for shared humanity and reflection. The veil between worlds is thin, and it’s easy to slide into a long winter’s nap and find oneself in another holiday-land, maybe of long ago. If that happens to you, don’t fight it. And if you run into the Tatums, tell them Merry Christmas for me.
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