Cars

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Probably because I have been thinking a lot about my father recently, a memory of the beloved Matchbox cars of my childhood has pushed its way to the top of mind. One of my earliest memories was racing these cars with my father on the wide expanse of a bare wooden floor in a house we lived in when I was a toddler. Dad would get on the floor with me and my sister and we would choose cars and push them – Ready, Set, Go! and see which would go furthest. Some cars were favored as being believed to be faster and some were just cooler than others.

So stubborn and persistent is this renewed memory that I began to think about purchasing these cars again. There are toy collectors who are largely preoccupied with repurchasing their childhood – a glorified version of their childhood or exactly what they owned, or perhaps what they never had. I, of course, am generally a sort of extreme version of the last, assembling the childhood of an extremely wealthy if somewhat odd British-American child of the 1920’s and 30’s. Other than a few books (posts on some of these can be found at The Cricket in Times SquarePush Kitty and also The Story About Ping) I have not attempted to replace any toys of my own past.

However, I was gratified that images of my favorite cars were immediately and easily found. A child of the early 1960’s Lesney’s Matchbox cars (founded in Britain in 1957) had probably only reached our shores a few years before, the true explosion of these models just taking hold. Unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of fan sites and Pinterest pages devoted to collecting Matchbox cars. Photos of my favorites were readily found online, leading also to discovering others I have owned. These very cars are in fact also available, in a wide range of condition, for sale on eBay – albeit not inexpensive and frequently necessitating the purchase of several cars along with the ones I want, ones that I have no interest in. Therefore, I have not yet pulled the trigger.

For some reason I was shocked to discover that my very favorite car, the white converible with the red seats as above, was a Mercedes Benz – expensive taste even as a child! It was the favorite and fastest. Another prized one was the Mercury Couger below. In researching this I was reminded that we also had an ambulance (that blue bit on the roof slides back and forth and I was crazy about that) and a beloved double decker bus, both special, but slower when racing.

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This Mercury Couger was usually in competition with the Mercedes Benz above

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Matchbox Ambulance, Studebaker Wagonaire, we’d race this one, but not the fastest

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Also slower was this double decker bus

 

The detail on these cars is what you remember, the doors opened, some you could pop the hood open; sometimes there were trailer hitches on the back. I can’t seem to find one we had where the exposed engine wiggled up and down when it ran – it made a slight ticka-ticka sound as a result – and it was fast! These details made them memorable and wonderful. Cast in metal, they had a bit of heft to them. It turns out that the series was founded by a man who was a co-owner of the nascent toy car company, Jack Odell, who designed the first tiny model car for his daughter. She was allowed to take a toy no larger than a matchbox to school. Frankly, I had never realized that it was a British company and was surprised to realize this – I had always associated them with the much later purchase of the company by Mattel in my mind.

My dim memory of purchasing our Matchbox cars is that they were in a display or bin at the supermarket near the register where you could convince mom of a last minute impulse buy – they were designed to be extremely affordable and this ploy worked. Meanwhile, I do not believe my parents were making any significant unisex statement with the fact that my sister and I played with cars, and we had electric trains too. I seem to remember the occasional baby doll, although admittedly they were not high on my or my sister’s list. (I did have a lovely metal baby carriage that I used to coax the cat into and would occasional try to dress him in some doll clothes however.) Barbie later ranked very high with me and certainly there are those who say she epitomizes a sexist toy. (I adored my Barbies, more about that another time.)

By the time my brother was in the picture, my mother’s toy politics profile was raised and she was marginally disapproving of guns and war toys. However, my Barbie dated a GI Joe purchased instead of the lunkhead Ken sold for that purpose. (GI Joe was full posable with articulated joints, Heidelberg dueling scar and all, and was the optimum date; Barbie also had an off model doctor doll – Dr. Bob maybe? – she deigned to hang out with occasionally.) My brother had water pistols and at least a nominal few GI Joe’s as well so mom wasn’t maniacal about this. However, I think it was largely the availability and affordable nature of Matchbox cars that got mom to pop a new one in the shopping cart occasionally to quiet us kids down. Dad brought home what may have been a rip off by Esso of a gasoline truck at one point, purchased at the gas station or given as a premium. I was entertained and pleased to learn that Mr. Odell designed them originally for his daughter.

Try as hard as I can, I do not remember the cat, Snoopy, chasing these when we raced them although he must have. (I think Cookie and Blackie would assume this game was meant just for them.) Memory tells me that eventually we had a case for our cars and this one below strikes a familiar chord. Mom and Dad probably just got tired of constantly stepping on them. I seem to remember that too!

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Cookies and Ice Cream

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is a tempestuous red and blue dawn on a lovely, cool July morning in the aptly named Fair Haven, New Jersey. I am sitting in bed eating a bagel and drinking cold coffee accompanied by my father’s cat, Red, with Dick Powell as The Singing Marine on TCM to keep us company. The bagel is a very reasonable one, although it has a vegan spread on it instead of butter – mom didn’t know I would be coming so only her own vegan offerings are available. I have a miserable chest cold, but despite that this would be a perfectly lovely perch if it wasn’t for the fact that I am here because my father is dying.

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Red, my father’s constant companion, is my host cat when I visit

 

Most of my experience with dying has been of the fast and furious kind, starting with people dying young, mostly in accidents. Then when my sister Loren died of breast cancer, the actual end was upon us suddenly somehow, even after seven years of struggle. Dad on the other hand, is going by inches – slipping just perceptibly more one day or week, but then finding a new plateau. It is painful to watch and not the way anyone would really chose to go. After an especially bad dip I came on Friday, despite the chest cold. I found him mostly lucid, but falling into unconsciousness.

The nurses and hospice folks are gentle with me, preparing me for the obvious. They are all very nice people – as I said to a friend yesterday, the nicest people you never want to have to meet. First spring then turning to summer weekly visits to see him and his slow, but steady decline, and offer support to my mom. It is sad and difficult, but undeniably inevitable in a way my sister’s death at 40 was not.

My early visits home were accompanied by chocolate for Dad. I brought whatever I thought might tempt him a bit, sending chocolates online, bringing chocolate bickies from London after a trip. As he transitioned to in-patient hospice care I shifted to a favorite of his since childhood, black and white cookies. I remember being introduced to these first from my grandparent’s house in Mamaroneck, New York. Those visits were spotted with the large black and white cookies with slightly sticky frosted icing, and slices of marble cake, bottoms wrapped in yellow paper – the taste of either brings me back to long Sunday afternoons of my childhood. Dad remained a life long fan of the black and whites (a friend in college called them moon cookies which entertained me) and Penn Station offers a reasonable, if packaged, version that he likes and I pick up on my way through to NJ Transit.

***

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My father has always loved ice cream. It was an open family secret that you could almost always talk him into an ice cream junket. If you were driving on a trip, pulling off at an exit for a Howard Johnson’s sundae was always an option, and more successful ploy than asking to stop for the bathroom. In our New Jersey town, an evening trip to the local Dairy Queen was an easy coax.

As spring turned to summer his condition worsened. Father’s Day approached and he had asked for ice cream (something more satisfying than the little cups offered with his lunch and dinner daily as per my instructions). A good friend frequently picks me up at the train to take me to visit him, I knew that week she could not. While it wasn’t at all logical it kept scratching at my brain that there must be a way to get ice cream from Manhattan to him somehow, but I failed to figure it out.

Kim has been devoted about accompanying me on most of these weekends to offer moral support. However, on that particular weekend I was traveling alone and hopped a cab at the train station. For those of you who live in suburbia you may understand that a local cab is nothing like one in Manhattan. Instead, it was a broken down Chevy sedan, driven by a guy about my age in cutoffs and flip flops. (I have frequently found myself in a cab with  someone I went to school with – while this was not the case, but could have been easily enough.) The cab had torn upholstery, hemorrhaging stuffing where I installed myself in the backseat.

I gave the address and the name of the facility which has sufficed to get me to there previously as this is a relatively small town. Having lived there most of my young life I know the area well, but he took me in a direction I didn’t know, a fact that dimly registered in my distracted mind as I settled into my own thoughts,  preparing for my visit and what I would find.

When I snapped to attention I realized that I was at a strange intersection, and as I was formulating an inquiry to get us where we needed to go, the driver turned around and asked me in a cheery voice, “Would you like to stop for ice cream?” You can imagine my amazement. I said, “Excuse me?” Him, “Yeah, there’s a great place for homemade ice cream just about 200 yards from here.” “Well, yes, actually I would love to, but your a cab driver, are you sure you don’t mind?” “Naw, it’s fine.” Me, as we pull into the empty parking lot next to a tiny white building that houses what turns out to be a family owned business, “Can I get you something?” Him, “No, I’m good.”

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Ryan’s Ice Cream, Tinton Falls, NJ

 

So off I go, into this small white box of a building which has evidently been here for decades, attended by a high school student in summer job mode, the wares – more than a dozen large containers of homemade ice cream, taking up the length of the store. I purchase a medium order of chocolate chocolate chip for my father and a small cookies and cream for myself. Dad’s medium size ice cream was a bit unreasonably large, but happily he ate every bite much to my surprise. He hasn’t been able to eat nearly as much subsequently, but I keep bringing it. He’s partial to chocolate on chocolate, but likes vanilla with bits of Heathbar in it too, a blatant rip off of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Clearly ice cream will be more or less the last thing to pass his lips.

****

Part Two: I think we may have passed through all the possible good stages, these are the last days I guess. Dad is uncooperative, stubbornly blatantly so, refusing to take his medication or talk to me. Gone is the gentle joshing of a few days ago about who is bossiest in the family and maybe the tiniest mouthfuls of ice cream. He will only take a few sips of this or that. Dad, a few weeks shy of 88, has fought his death, with every fiber – blood clot in the leg, a raging infection, congestive heart failure all topped off with N Stage COPD – he has worked his way through nine lives in the last few weeks alone, rising again and again like an unlikely phoenix.

Just two days ago he was telling me he was thinking about getting up with his walker the next day. (This extremely unlikely given the state of his leg, but who am I to be discouraging at this point?) So, I sit, with the stubbornness he has willed to me, at least equal to his own – I always say doubled by that I inherit from my mother. I play early jazz on my computer, then classical music. He’s never been a fan of music in particular, but I think it is a nice change of pace for him and he might as well hear something other than the tv if we aren’t going to talk. Or rather if he doesn’t want to listen to me prattle on as our conversations have been one-sided for some time now. I have given up on reading to him from the New York Times.

As for me, if I am not here I am fretting about not being here, when I am here I worry about my inability to do much, to engage him. I have foolish thoughts about how other people are probably better at this than me – my self-inflicted burden for being competitive in every aspect of life and finding my own perceived inadequacies when left alone to my own devices. I reflect on how my father has actually always been good at just being there – never too chatty, but always willing when called upon to drive or sit somewhere he would do it, if silently, but without restlessness. I tell him stories about this now.

There are other things to be said about my father, but for now I will just say a few. A camera man for ABC News for his entire career, honored with two Emmy’s, nominated for a third, he was a man who loved his job and deeply embodied it, staying with it despite the physical nature of it, camera rig on his shoulders, until he was almost 70. By no means perfect, his current illness brings out an periodic belligerence – hard although I think it unfair to expect someone in his current situation to have be perpetually cheerful. His 6’5″ frame has long been folded into this bed, still massive, but shrunken. Always a silent man, he once joked that it tickled him to intimidate the occasional man I brought home. Perhaps in the future I will write more about him, the good and the bad, but for now these are the things I think about.

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Dad died on August 11 and I sent six pints of ice cream to the hospice, with his and my thanks.

 

The Boys and Felix

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have periodically opined on how much fun it would be to have your photo taken with a nice Felix the Cat doll and this one looks like a third child in the photo. Felix is such a handy size I wonder if it is a prop (probably) or actually belongs to these youngsters. I know if it was I as a tiny tot, I’d have been bellowing for him to come home with me; greedy, thankless child that I was. These two kids look quite jolly, the older one downright debonair – perhaps best not to meet him as a gent (or cad) around town later in life. The younger one appears to be trimmed out in fur which seems all odd from today’s standards. Even in our own decadent times – fur trimmed outfit for your toddler?

This photo seems like the sort of studio shot taken for the purpose of eventually ending up on grandma’s table of treasured family photos. My mother’s mom had studio portraits, large ones, of my mother and her brother, both in graduation cap and gowns, as I remember. The one of my mother had hand colored tinting, and it was the first time I ever saw that in a photo. As a kid I was endlessly fascinated by it. I can see it in my mind now, hanging in the dining room (housing a table which occasionally held food, but we absolutely never ate at – that was done in the kitchen with a table and space which both somehow magically expanded to fit an infinite number of family members as required) on a flocked print wallpaper, gray with a green design. The photo did not look like my mother, mostly because her nose was broken and not set properly shortly after high school when the photo was taken. I didn’t know that until I was older and wouldn’t have thought to ask for an explanation for the transformation. My uncle looked exactly the same – his Howdy Dowdy resemblance following him into adulthood and beyond. As the younger brother his photo was true color and his bright red hair and freckles stood out.

When my grandmother moved out of her house and into a nursing facility, much was disposed of and a small number of things were absorbed by my mother and uncle – who by that time was living down south, but collected a number of things. I do not know what happened to the photos, my mother was not overly fond of hers so she clearly did not claim them. I do not know if my uncle did. I must think to ask my mother when I call her later today.

 

Crown

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This card also from the El Dorado of the postcard show last week. It is a bit more curious than good, although I think it is compelling. I don’t know for sure what it depicts, although my first thought was that it was some sort of traveling show, I have changed my mind. The tents are sizable, but appear more for living and sleeping-in than for come hither attractions. They are somewhat complicated, as I think tents mostly were at that time, set up by a series of ropes and poles. (I am glad I wasn’t charged with figuring that out. I don’t think I would have been good at it.) The one to our right shows an accumulation of grime near the flap from much use. I guess it is a roadside camp, Crown being the name, the brick building perhaps bathrooms and an office? Or a gas station? There is the pile of wood in front of these folks, and a fair amount of trash scattered about. It is weedy and they have set the tents up in the only clear space.

I like this group, family of some kind I assume or family and friends, with their two dogs – one wriggling into a blur here. The one woman and young girl are in neat, but comfortable cotton house dresses, the other woman a bit more dressed up. While this appears to be a somewhat down at the heels locale, they seem chipper enough having their photo taken this way. The card was never mailed and there is nothing written on it so we don’t know anything about them, which I regret.

I do not hail from a camping family and in my life I have only ever done it on a few occasions. As I remember, I was unremarkable at best as a girl scout camper for a single trip at approximately age 12. (I recall a messy experiment with making pancakes in a skillet over a fire – pancakes are actually a tad tricky even at home I find in retrospect. An even more dismal attempt at using a compass and map to find our way back to camp in a test of sorts. I seem to remember finding the road and using it to return.)

Subsequently, many years later and on the other end of the spectrum, I camped while hiking around Mt. Kailash, a sacred mountain in Tibet. I don’t fool myself – the success of this venture was entirely due to some extremely capable sherpas who set up our tents and cooked our food. I only credit myself with having been smart enough to have engaged them. It was July, but we woke up to several inches of snow one morning which was a shock, (it was cold and we slept in layers of clothing, coats and sleeping bags) and another evening heard something skulking, scratching and growling outside our tent which we chose not to investigate. Otherwise, it was in every way preferable to staying in awful, mostly empty and decaying hotels in the small enclaves of Tibet which I had done on a previous trip. All appeared to have been built in 1970 and with an eye to a tourist industry that the Chinese government imagined, but never materialized.

Therefore, for the most part I have decided that for me camping is more of a means to an end than something I do for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. I would happily camp again in Tibet if it meant seeing things I couldn’t see otherwise, but am unlikely to pitch a tent in the wilds of upstate New York any time soon. Meanwhile, these folks may have take a broader view of camping – or they may have been doing it out of necessity as well, to get from here to there – but stopping to have their photo taken along the way.

 

 

Happy Hollow Special

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Today marks the beginning of delving into a nice big pile of photographs I purchased last week at a postcard show here in New York City. Way back in college, I remember an art professor, Maureen McCabe, saying she loved this show because she bought things like vintage paper dolls for her work constructing collages. That was a few decades back and I suspect that the sale has changed over time. It was small, but sincere, and for me a happy hunting ground. This bi-annual sale is provided by the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York (more about them here), which evidently meets monthly largely for the purpose of buying, selling and trading postcards. I noticed a mention of them in the New York Times recently and made a note of this sale a few months ago.

I may have purchased enough postcards to keep me from needing to drop into a meeting before their next show in November, but we will see about that. The process of looking through physical cards is quite different than the sort of internet searching I do and I stumbled across some interesting, non-cat affiliated cards, this being one of them. Kim patiently waded through postcards with me last Saturday afternoon, after traveling to and from midtown in a deluge, so a shout out to him.

I would love to know more about these folks, posing here in front of this striped carnival background. These lucky little girls are riding in high style, drawn by this large goat. Goat carts were popular in this period and below I include a photo I grabbed of a goat cart in Central Park in the 1870’s. I always thought they used smaller goats, but this photo and the others I found show big goats. The Central Park goat cart is quite high-end compared to our friends posed with this more humble affair in Hot Springs.

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I recently read about Goat Yoga online which seems, touchingly, to simultaneously combine yoga and admiring, frolicking goats. I have a general fondness for goats – in Tibet you see these small ones that look like Scotty dogs everywhere and I always wanted to scoop one up – however I resisted the temptation. In addition I spent many years doing yoga and, while I have found that cats can take a real interest in yoga (they generally try to out-yoga you, and they usually can as they are flexible little critters), I admit I never thought about doing it with goats. Clearly, my lack of imagination. Anyway, I see online that there was an attempt to bring said Goat Yoga to Brooklyn, but the Board of Health put an end to it so we here in the five boroughs will never know the pleasures of it I guess.

Getting back to our postcard, I would say that the donkey sticking his head in and the stray arm to the other side of the frame, sort of frame this photo compositionally. I myself wouldn’t have minded seeing more of that donkey fellow with his big furry ears. Mom and Dad and the kids are in their best bib and tucker – Mom sporting a splendid hat and is especially dressed up for the occasion. As carnival photo opportunities go, this one is decidedly lower end than most however – certainly not as luxe as posing with Felix at the beach (see for example my post Felix Mugging), but it has its own charm.

The cart is labeled Happy Hollow Special, Hot Springs and below, somewhat mysteriously, 21, is also painted. If you look very closely, you realize that this “cart” is propped up on a small stand and isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps this guarded against a rogue runaway goat. Goats are known for their independent natures, after all. Although this card was never mailed, written in pencil on the back is Sal & Birdie with their daughters Dorothy & Marion. A quick look online reveals that Happy Hollow, Hot Springs is a vacation destination in Hot Springs, Arkansas and perhaps that is our photo locale, a very long time ago indeed.

All in the Family, cont.

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Continuing the family theme from yesterday, I have one of those photos that just got better and better for me the longer I looked at it. This is a very celebratory group and unfortunately they, like yesterday’s family, failed to note anything about the nature of or participants in this photo. It is my thought that this celebratory group is a wedding party, bride’s family to her side – although the little guy peering through could also be of that clan, since I am already making assumptions about family features.

They are posing with a single symbolic celebratory drink for toasting, each sporting a lavish corsage or elaborate boutonniere. Of course, the reason I love this photo is that they have rounded up the family dogs and this nice black cat to be in the picture. The beagle seats himself willingly on the one side while the other fellow is being held in check, collar or short leash stretched ready to tear madly off in some sort of get away. My friend the black cat is somewhere between patient and not as he considers his next move. He appears to be a rare all black kitty, although perhaps there is a patch of white on that tummy some place hidden from the camera, nonetheless I am glad these don’t appear to be superstitious folks and he is beloved enough for a place next to the bride.

We document special occasions with photos of family and pets often make up part of that family. How often do you see a photo of someone, an author photo or just a newspaper photo of someone posed at home, where they have scooped up the family cat or grabbed the pup? While it is said that you choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, in a sense we do. We marry and join families and we declare that the people closest to us in a variety of ways are family, defining it for ourselves in many ways. Clearly our pets make up part of that family for many of us, and I love to see that it goes back this far, to the early days of photography.

 

 

Comics

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today my mind is on comics – the ones of my childhood. Recently I realized that oddly enough, I have a distinct memory of my father reading me Peanuts, but no other strip – surely he didn’t literally only read that one and let the others go begging, but that is what I remember. I assume it started when I was very small and couldn’t read at all, but I do recall that as my nascent skills evolved, I was able to read along with him. Peanuts was a pretty easy read, although Nancy, as we all know, was the easiest and the first you could puzzle out on your own – often no words at all. (The miracle of story telling solely through pictures – the silent film of comics.)

However, for all of that, it is Peanuts that I associate with my Dad and Sunday morning childhood. (Saturday morning was Roadrunner cartoons, but we will discuss that another time perhaps.) I have chosen a Sunday strip from 1970 below, which would have put me at age six. It is one featuring Snoopy and Lucy and somehow I remember those as the ones he was partial to.

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As a career long cameraman for ABC News, my father traveled constantly and often for long periods, so I know it certainly wasn’t something we did every Sunday and, although I certainly remember my mother and father both reading me bedtime stories, I never remember Mom reading me comics from the paper, nor did I ask her to. Presumably my sister Loren was right in there as well, although I don’t remember that either, and perhaps with a two year age difference between us it mostly really was me alone, sitting on my Dad’s lap and looking at the comics. (Apologies to my brother Edward, but at almost seven years younger he was not yet in the picture.) Dad would read the strips and we would have a good chuckle. Perhaps at my insistence, in homage to the strip our first cat, a cow-spotty black and white one, was christened Snoopy.

Many years later, when I was launched into my first job at the Metropolitan Museum and living a commuting distance away from home, fax machines were suddenly in vogue. My father developed the habit of faxing me the strip Mutts. I had briefly met Patrick McDonnell in the mid-90’s (as well as the cat and dog who appear to have inspired the strip) and he seemed like an extraordinarily nice person. I loved the strip which was in its infancy. It did remind me just a bit of Peanuts and it was easy to see why it appealed to my father too, although I don’t think we ever discussed that aspect of it. I did not get a daily paper with comics and so, out of the blue, my father initiated a comprehensive campaign of faxing them to me, several on a page, a couple of times a week. I bought a few of the compilations and shared those with Dad, but I think he liked the dailiness of finding them in the paper and the self-appointed task of sending them.

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I was reminded of all of this recently when, on my trip to London in February, I found myself warming up and drying off in a comic book store near Leicester Square. After tending to the family business of checking on the Kim Deitch selection (yes, I do that in comic book stores Kim – you probably didn’t know that, but you do now) I found some Mutts and Peanuts compilations and was briefly tempted to buy one for Dad. After coming to my senses and realizing that they were of course more easily bought at home without stuffing them into and already bursting suitcase, I did not. However for a lovely moment I was transported back to those years of sharing comics with Dad.

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