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The Great Eagle Stamp Expedition
by Amy Kenneley

Was ever a trip so full of hope and dreams as the day we redeemed our Eagle Stamp book? Transferring twice from two busses and a trolley, Mother and I would blow in from Public Square through the doors of the May Company, the icy pellets born by Lake Erie winds biting our cheeks like winter mosquitoes.

Clutched in my predatory fist was my passport to fantasyland: a 30-page stapled newsprint booklet the size of a small hymnal, now stiffened by green Eagle Stamps into a plump ruff, richly crackling.

The Eagle Stamp book, promotional mainstay of the store, represented family purchases over many months. For each dime of purchase, one Eagle Stamp was received. When filled and surrendered, the book would translate into three whole dollars' worth of items for sale. With profligate abandon, I daydreamed over the possibilities.

Mother and I stuffed ourselves into an elevator. The operator could always squeeze latecomers in, like lettuce pushed into a bologna sandwich. Eyeball-to-backside of a lady in a coat smelling of mothballs, I fought for breath, the air a potpourri of Evening in Paris cologne and old cigars.

SWEET REDEMPTION

The Redemption Center was a tapestry of colorful shoppers winding in and around the cashier windows. A babble of voices--foreign tongues, drawls and twangs, whiney mewls of children--echoed off the cream-colored plaster cornices of the high ceiling.

Behind raised counters, perched on high stools, were tired-looking older women, their fingers mechanically counting pages of stamp books. I envied them their seats as I stood fidgeting in leaky galoshes. The line moved achingly slow.

At last! Our turn. The woman pinioned the book spine with the edge of one hand, as a child might be held down for ear-washing, then with a moistened finger from the opposite hand, she began to flick, examining each stamp-filled page. Sometimes the hastily licked stamps fell out, and the woman would sigh impatiently, run the loose stamps across a red sponge in a dish, and slap them into their proper places.

If stamps were missing from any page, the book was shoved back, and you would slink away in embarrassment. The looks from others in line confirmed you were some kind of dolt, or worse--a cheat. I bit my lip. Surely MY book would pass muster!

"Okay, " she intoned. Passport approved. Having served its purpose, the book was tossed into a bin, and we were handed several perforated cardboard coupons, worth three dollars.

THE BUYING SPREE

One didn't, you see, get REAL money for months of stamp licking. Heavens, with real money you might go to another store, defeating the promotional intent. You had to spend the coupons in THIS store.

But ah, what a place to plot expenditures! Would we go to the topmost floor where china and glassware pinged and chimed? We could float down the escalator to Furniture, where damasks and velvets flowed over carved woods. Oh yes, Lingerie! Corsets laced up plaster torsos like pastel suits of pre-Women's Lib armor, and gossamer robes floated, festooned with ribbons and bows.

On the toy floor, whole zoos of stuffed animals waited, along with science kits promising noxious experiments, cap pistols with matching holsters, or black plastic doctor's satchels with candy pills.

Down we floated, gliding into ever-new wonderlands of treasures. Cosmetics featured perfumed salesladies sashaying with pencil-drawn lips and Gothic arches for eyebrows. Tantalizing displays held fingernail polish so red the Dragon Lady herself would drool.

But we passed all the upstairs wonders, all the fantasies, all the wishes. Down we went, and Mother pulled my dragging feet into the bargain basement. The bargain basement was final home to post-seasonal clothing, cotton underwear seconds, household clearances and cheap shoes.

IF THE SHOE FITS OR DOESN'T

Under the large sign "Budget Shoes" no one waited on you--it was cat-scrabble and devil-take-the-hindmost. Thousands of shoes of all styles, tied with heavy twine through pierced holes in each arch, were piled mountain-high on large square tables with raised edges.

We headed directly to the Ugly Oxford table. There, a choice of three colors seemed to prevail: black, brown, and a shade I called Paintbrush Rinse Water.

Mother began to pick and throw, dodging shoes being thrown back into the pile by other women pushing and elbowing around the table. Finding an approved pair, she pulled me to the perimeter of the shoe area to sit in theater-like seats.

There were two methods of trying on these Siamese shoes. With both feet into the set, you could do the Bunny Hop around the rug while Mother pursed her lips, watching.

The second option was to put only one foot into one shoe and parade up and down while the empty twin swung back and forth like a bola, attacking first one ankle then the other, an angry Oxford Terrier nipping at your heels.

Mother pinched and pushed at the stiff toes. The shoes were always two sizes too big. Perfect! I would grow into them. The three dollars of coupons were surrendered and the ugly shoes were shoved into a matching ugly bag.

In consolation for this mundane if necessary purchase, I was allowed to go to the nearby frosted malt stand.

COLD CONTENTMENT

At the malt and hot dog stand in the bargain basement, the beige-colored frozen treat snaked out the spigot of the machine in a fat rope, folding back and forth in the long narrow neck of glass and rising, oh-so-slowly, up to the flared rim. The operator dipped the glass as she closed the spigot, producing a tiny curlicue--exquisite!

I walked up the steeply-pitched ramp to the nearby rug department, settling down between a rose-flowered roll and a blue cut-pile roll, hoping the carpet salesman would not find me and glower. I cautiously rotated the cold glass like a carousel, working my way around the top, a real tongues-on operation.

The last eensy bit always stuck to the bottom, necessitating a vertical tipping of the glass accompanied by a resounding bang on the bottom. (The possibility of cracking the rim against your teeth while engaged in this delicate finale was part of the adventure.)

Mother wiped off my mocha mustache, and handed me the single Eagle Stamp she had received for the frosted malt--the tiny beginnings of a new stamp book to fill.

Upwards we trudged, and dashed through revolving doors to catch the trolley for home. As Mother tucked the muffler around my nose and mouth, I fingered the curling, sticky stamp in my linty pocket. Wonderful! Only 2, 999 more to go.



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