Throngs of tourists, shoulder to shoulder, slog along Fifth Avenue in New York City as workers unsuccessfully try to weave in and out or find alternate routes to get to the office in time. During the early morning rush, Penn Station and 34th Street are packed with tourists and commuters, and so is Grand Central Station. At the airports — LaGuardia, JFK and Newark — travelers wait impatiently on long checkout lines for flights due South or West.
People are fleeing the city as others are trying to make their way in. Good luck finding a cab. Maybe there’s an Uber available. Maybe not. Hungry? Good luck finding a table, too. At peak hours, even the pizza joints are standing room only. Out on the streets, the food vendors can be equally busy. Hot dogs (aka “dirty water dogs”) and pretzels are gobbled up along with roasted chestnuts — and gyros — all washed down by Diet Coke and Mountain Dew. Finding a food cart is easy. Just follow an endless trail of wrappers, napkins and straws [author’s note to self: When is New York City banning single-use plastic? Jan. 1?].
Welcome to the holiday shopping season in Gotham, and I can’t imagine it being any other way.
Late last week, on the eve of the biggest shopping weekend of the season, people were jamming into stores along Fifth Avenue and at Herald Square. It was busier than it had been since Black Friday. Bryant Park was serving up its annual holiday pop-up shopping venue to enthusiastic consumers who stopped to watch figure skaters at the seasonal rink. But the real Mecca for the holiday experience is Rockefeller Center with its famed rink and Christmas tree. There was a one-hour wait for people to skate on the rink.
Across the street from Rock Center, people steadily streamed in and out of Saks Fifth Avenue (despite the first floor renovations going on). St. Patrick’s Cathedral was equally busy. The overall mood was festive. And everyone was taking pictures — mostly selfies.
Growing up in Queens as a child, Christmas was my favorite time of year. My fraternal twin brother Alex and two older sisters, Vickie and Tina, were all crammed into a small bungalow with Mom and Dad right on a canal on West 11th Street in Broad Channel — which is located smack in the middle of Jamaica Bay and near the Rockaways as well as Idlewild Airport (later known as JFK International).
One Christmas Eve night, when we were 5, Dad woke up Alex and me to “see Santa and the reindeer — flying!” Without coats and in our pajamas (and to Mom’s vocal protests), we were hustled outside to stare bleary-eyed into a pitch-black nighttime sky. Dad pointed to something in the distance. Yes, there was a red light — Rudolph? And other lights. And it was noisy, but we swore it was Santa on his sleigh.
Years later we figure out it was just a flight from the nearby airport. Didn’t matter, though. It was Dad’s infectious enthusiasm that made the moment real.
And it was this same enthusiasm that fueled our holiday visits to Gertz, Gimbels and Macy’s — and other stores across the city — in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Visiting Santa at Gertz and seeing the animatronic elves and reindeer were astonishing to me. It was like another world. As I grew older, trips into Manhattan, in particular, continued to provide an air of magic and awe. We’d spend time walking circles around Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music hall — taking it all in: lights, tree, oversize ornaments.
As we grew older, and the city seemingly got more crowded, we headed east out toward Long Island during the holidays. Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream was a favorite. Just over the border from Queens, the mall had the best Santa set up. And Mom loved the anchors there, which included J.C. Penney and Sears, and A&S. With the latter, she’d said it long and slow and with a sing-songy rhythm: “Ab-ra-ham and Stra-us De-part-ment Sto-re….” because it was a fancy department store, after all.
In 1969, sister Vickie and her new husband Joe moved out to Port Jefferson Station, further east on Long Island. It was the same year a new type of shopping experience opened in Nesconset, which was a few miles away. The Smith Haven Mall was designed to be a jaw-dropper. WWD noted in an article that year that the mall spent $250,000 to create a permanent art exhibit inside. “The works of eight top artists and sculptors are dispersed through the mall amidst a setting of lush tropical gardens,” WWD noted. Wow.
The exhibit included a sculpture by Alexander Calder, and a mural by Larry Rivers titled “Forty Feet of Fashion.” The mall owner also spent $165,000 on landscaping, which went over budget, according to the WWD report. The mall was unprecedented in cost and scope, and in its attempt to fuse shopping and culture. To me, as a kid, I just wanted to know where Santa was going to set up shop.
The Smith Haven Mall and Green Acres, were big places. Enclosed malls were relatively new at the time. And because they were enclosed, we could walk and shop along long interior promenades without our coats while it was freezing outside. At the time, it was startling to me and my family. I recall my sister saying something like, “This is how people shop at Christmas in Florida.” What was also notable was how clean everything was. And not because it was new, but because we were inside. No hot dog stands or roasting chestnuts to be seen. And no streets littered with wrappers, and broken glass — or melting, gray and soiled snow. What a miracle.
Oh, and Santa, it turned out, was in a sunken, circular amphitheater located in the center of the mall. He had live, cheery and bright-eyed elf handlers. And like the mall itself, his suit was clean. Spotless, really. The elves’ suits were clean, too. Not a patch of dirt to be found anywhere.
Malls haven’t really changed since. Sure, they’ve been renovated and reimagined. But the concept remains the same: all-season shopping. Two weeks ago, I took my teen daughter shopping at the Poughkeepsie Galleria in the mid-Hudson Valley. The Galleria is a large, two-story enclosed mall anchored by Sears, J.C. Penney and Target. And it is big and clean. For the holidays, festive decorations and glittering lights adorn the mall and its stores.
Santa was there, too. He looked the same as the one from my childhood, at the Smith Haven Mall: bright red suit, white furry trim, floppy hat. All spotless, red and white.
“I love Christmas!” my daughter said in a more hushed tone than she would have yelped at age 8 or 9. I told her I loved the holidays, too. Loved to go shopping and see how everything is displayed and decorated. But I told her this is not really the true holiday experience. For that, you need to go to New York City. To Rockefeller Center or to Herald Square. You need to bump into other tourists. And eat a dirty water dog while watching people spill out on the ice while skating.
“Yes, let’s do that,” she said. So, on this Christmas Eve, that’s where you’ll find us. Strolling somewhere along Fifth Avenue or at Lincoln Center, catching an afternoon showing of “The Nutcracker” before muscling our way onto a crowded train at Grand Central Station, tired, hungry and happy.
But we’ll be sure to pick up our spent straws and trash.