For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
Summer after third grade was spud games in the street, wandering by myself along Congdon Creek, trips to the neighborhood library and occasionally after much begging, to the awesome Carnegie Library downtown, where thousands of books basked in the golden light from the glass dome, reflected back by a floor of pale yellow glass bricks.
A few weeks before school started, my mother, my sister, and I made our annual shopping trip to Minneapolis, the big city, staying downtown at the Radisson or the Dyckman Hotel. On one of these trips the elevator doors at the Dyckman opened to reveal my Aberdeen grandmother, dolled up in a jaunty hat, a fox stole, and too much rouge. We were astonished to see her: grandma had left Duluth three weeks before, but was in no hurry to return to the charms of South Dakota and had settled in at the Dyckman indefinitely without telling us.
We had two main shopping destinations: Dayton’s, which was scented with eucalyptus and had rackety but thrilling wooden escalators (escalators were unknown in Duluth) and the dull as dishwater Donaldson’s, the other big department store. These trips were never on a weekend, as stores were closed on Sundays.
I wasn’t interested in clothes unless they were Barbie-sized. My mother loved clothes; she would sigh when I came down to breakfast in a flowered shirt and plaid skirt and send me back upstairs to puzzle out what a suitable combination might be. Lani and I played hide-and-seek in the racks of dresses in Dayton’s Girls Department while my mother searched for appropriate school clothes that were also on sale in August. Before moving on to Better Ladies or Shoes to do her own shopping, my mom would send my sister and me off to wait for her in Dayton’s Toy Department. Once riding the wooden escalator up to Toys, Lani clutched my hand so hard and looked so unhappy that I was certain she had to poop. An enormous man in faded blue jeans jeans and plaid flannel shirt had followed us up three flights of escalators, positioning himself directly behind my six-year-old sister and rubbing her buttocks all the way. We didn’t say a word to my mother. A few months later, when my mom dumped me in the toy department at Goldfine’s so she could look at carpet samples in peace, a man snuck up and began fondling me as I stared pop-eyed and slack-jawed at the extensive display of Barbie outfits. I sidled away to the baby doll section and didn’t report that incident either: it seemed too shameful, like Lani and I had done something wrong. Pedophiles must have come out in droves to toy departments the weeks before Christmas, waiting for parents to drop off new victims.
I loved the exotic eating adventures Minneapolis offered. We lunched at Dayton’s Skyroom, perched loftily on the eighth floor with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the modest downtown and the Mississippi River. The Skyroom was the most lady-like restaurant imaginable and to me the height of sophistication. I don’t think I ever saw a grown man there. Glamorous models strolled through the restaurant, stopping at each table and displaying cards identifying the designer. There was a separate children’s menu, with each dish named after a nursery rhyme character; fitting, as it was all nursery food, with no flavoring, not even salt, food that you could swallow without chewing. I always had the Little Boy Blue, creamed chicken on mashed potatoes. It was delicious. The Skyroom also had that heaven on wheels, a dessert trolley. We were allowed one dessert to split; my sister and I would fight over whether to get chocolate cake or apple pie until my embarrassed mother would pick something else entirely (“Not the rice pudding! Not the rice pudding!”), which we would sulkily share.
When the department stores closed we dined on bland corn, starchy chicken with almonds and piles of white rice (the only Chinese food my picky eater sister would tolerate) and almost too sweet almond cookies at the Nankin restaurant, and then returned to our hotel room with a big bag of warm caramel corn to snack on while we reveled in the wonder of four TV channels.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the Forum, an art deco cafeteria. My mom doted on their fried corn meal mush, a dish whose appeal escaped me. We did a bit more shopping at Dayton’s or Donaldson’s or at Harold’s, a snooty upper end dress shop, where Lani and I were strictly forbidden to tear through the racks. We waited while my mom tried on clothes, sprawling on tastefully upholstered armchairs and kicking each other. We then got back on the train and consolidated our few purchases into one or two shopping bags so my father wouldn’t be able to tell how much we bought. It was never all that much.
It is one of the pleasantest things about childhood, going back to the same places and doing the same things, year after year, as if the world would never change. It didn’t seem possible that all that could disappear: the wooden escalators at Dayton’s, the little silver domed dishes scattered about our white clothed table at the Nankin, the Forum’s black and silver mirrored paneling and the pleasure of resting my chin on the cafeteria tray as I pushed it along the endless railing and never once being allowed to get one of the gleaming sundae glasses brimming with cubes of Jello and topped with a dab of whipped cream (“We have Jello at home.”). But they’re all gone now.
We would make another trip to Minneapolis, usually with my father, in early December. This trip was not as strictly choreographed as our fall visits. We drove, instead of taking the train, always beseeching dad to stop at Tobies in Hinckley for cinnamon rolls the size of our heads. My father hated interrupting the trip; he liked to travel straight through, fueled by chain-smoking Old Golds. Once a decade we got a single cinnamon roll to share (always eaten in the car). Mostly we sped past the crimson and white Tobies sign, whining “Tobies! Tobies!” until requested to shut up. In Minneapolis my father would go to a Vikings game, or take us to the Cinerama where I gave myself a headache trying to look out of the opposite sides of my eyes to take in the enormous movie screen. We’d stay at the Ambassador Motel, a glass-domed two-story building that enclosed a huge indoor amoeba-shaped pool ringed with dozens of half dead palm trees. The air inside was steamy, with the slightest tang of tropical mildew beneath the pucker of chlorine. The pool was ridiculously overheated; swimming in an indoor pool, especially when you could see snow landing on the glass roof above, was pure luxury. Lani and I would spend as long as possible in the hot greenish water, until we were scooped out before our bodies melted into primordial soup.
Our chief destination in Minneapolis on those trips was Dayton’s Winter Wonderland in their seventh floor auditorium. We had Santas in Duluth, sad specimens ringing bells on the street, or somebody’s drunk dad in a fake beard and red suit giving away crappy gifts at the Elks Club Christmas party. Dayton’s Santas were naturally endowed, with fluffy white beards, and they didn’t smell. The ordeal of waiting to sit on Santa’s lap was transformed into a thrilling trip to the North Pole. Who wouldn’t stand for hours in a slow, snaking line, when surrounded by acres of enchantment: set against sparkling snowy hills were dozens of miniature mechanized elves, hammering and sawing away in the toy workshop, hitching Rudolf to the sleigh, and packing wrapped gifts in bags. And there was Mrs. Santa in her kitchen, pulling a tray of gingerbread men out of the oven again and again. We were a polite if closely packed line of moms and kids, at least half of whom would be squirming the other way, in desperate need of a bathroom (“I told you to go before!”). Finally we would reach Santa’s inner chamber, where my sister and I, in matching coats, were hoisted onto Santa’s lap; a sadder but wiser photographer quickly snapped our photo in the millisecond before my sister started screaming. I had to quickly convey to Santa the importance of receiving every single item in my exhaustive list, before being handed a Made in China plastic trinket, and herded offstage to where my mom was ordering Christmas cards.
Imagine my horror when in 1964 we arrived at Dayton’s to find that Santa had been shunted into a corner of the Toy Department and the auditorium had been taken over by the Dickens’ London Towne. Gone were the elves, replaced by life-sized automatons of Dickens’ characters, in scenes that faithfully reproduced 19th century London, complete with antiques sent over by the crate from England. Grown-ups oohed and aahed over the elaborate Victorian dresses and hairdos, Lani and I yawned and hit each other. All I knew of Dickens was Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. But over the years, Dickens’ London Towne grew on me, its insane attention to detail and authenticity luring me in, and I was saddened when Dayton’s finally realized they didn’t need to spend millions of dollars to get people to come to the store to buy Christmas gifts. Dickens’ London Towne was no more.