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Prom Gown Shopping For Men

I don't know any of these kids--it's just a another random photo I pinched off the interwebs.
I don’t know any of these kids–it’s just a another random photo I pinched off the interwebs.

When I realized that the day of shopping for prom gowns my wife had scheduled with my daughters was not a much-anticipated day of mother-daughter bonding, but a drudgery to which my wife was looking forward with all the eagerness of shoeless pilgrim standing before a road of broken glass, I grimaced and stepped into the breech.  Maybe it had something to do with the disgust in her eye when I presumed I wouldn’t be part of the expedition–or maybe I’m just a great husband and dad.  Pfft.

“Of course I’ll go with you,” I said, my soul sighing miserably from the depths of each individual cell.  She brightened considerably not, I suspect, with glee for the chance to spend a few hours in my delightful company, but at the prospect of sharing the pain.

This would be no quick jaunt down the block.  We would be embarking on a 2-hour drive to the dismal, post-industrial remnants of the town of Sharon, PA–a once vibrant steel town ln062997bthat is, well, surviving “despite all that.”  Our particular destination; a store called “The Winner,” a three-story former department store filled with tens of thousands of dresses that bills itself as “The world’s largest off-price fashion store.”  I don’t think they’re exaggerating, at 75,000 square feet of historic charm, the place was a bit overwhelming.

I have to admit that I was dubious about the whole endeavor.  It sounded too good to be true–a treasure trove of deeply discounted formal gowns set a city for which the term “post industrial wasteland” is a compliment?  Have you seen that movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?”  Well, welcome to the Thunderdome.  The last time we’d been through Sharon they had been using stop signs wired to barrels in the center of the downtown as substitutes for broken traffic signals, and while the lights had been fixed this time around, we found that the streets had been only partially cleared of snow after a storm several days before, and had become uneven obstacle courses of packed ice and slush. I expected to see a sign on the outskirts of town that said: Welcome To Sharon. We’re Well Past Trying.

The sidewalks in the business district were no better–some were clear and some were treacherous.  Nevertheless, we reluctantly parked our new car on the streets–would it be there when we returned?–and found our way to the store.  It wasn’t difficult to find–along with the well-kept diner next door, and a dodgy-looking Army Navy store, there’s just not anything else going on in the downtown.  It’s got the feel of a place where folks have just given up.On our last visit there had been a decent used book store, but it was gone, replaced by some sort of off-brand tax preparation storefront.

Special-Occasion-Dresses-The-WinnerInside The Winner, however I began to be convinced.  You walk inside and the first thing you see is a vintage Jaguar E-type that belonged to the owner of the store, in front of which is stationed a genteel matron at a small desk who welcomed us and politely explained the layout of the store.  And what a good thing that was: the place is huge, filled to the gills with thousands upon thousands of gowns.  I followed my kids around for about twenty minutes before I ambled back over to the lady by the Jag and cracked a joke at one of the clerks, “you guys should open a sports bar next door, you’d make a killing.”

The pleasant, distinguished woman leaned in close and said, “haven’t you visited our men’s lounge adjacent to the fitting rooms?”

Why no, I hadn’t.

I glanced at my wife, who nodded indulgently.  I’d already become an anchor despite my good intentions, and both she and my daughters were eager to have me out of their hair.  With some trepidation I found my way down a narrow hall, past a knot of women outside the fitting rooms, and around a corner.  I half-expected to find a door with of those little slide-open peepholes like you see in speakeasies in the movies, but what I found instead was brotherhood.  Well, maybe not brotherhood–but there was a TV set to ESPN, a half dozen la-z-boy recliners, a sofa, and one of those cute “theater style” popcorn cart poppers and…a keg of Rolling Rock on tap.

Genius.  Free beer and popcorn!  I settled in to watch Tennessee versus Auburn, but soon enough a bunch of us–mostly dads but also a fiance, two boyfriends, and a “family friend.”  Given the date and location (western PA, the day before the superbowl) we talked a lot about football, but also a little about shopping,  a bit about women, and–to my surprise and delight–our mutual admiration for regional hero rogers_esquireFred “Mister” Rogers, which was unanimous. 

Of course, it’s not uncommon for even the hardest among us to wax misty-eyed over Mister Rogers–there’s a true Pittsburgh story, in fact, about how Rogers’ car was stolen from outside the WQED studio.  The story was quickly reported on the local news, and the car showed up back in front of the studio in short order, with a note on the dash that said something like “If I’d known this was your car I never would have taken it.”

But I digress. My children are smart, efficient shoppers–they found beautiful dresses in little more than two hours, for a grand total of about $300 (if you’ve shopped for these formal gowns, you know we got off light).  I bid my compadres a reluctant adieu, lingering in the main gallery to listen to the pianist stroking the keys of baby grand piano–talk about atmosphere!–and we were gone, with a brief stop at a local hand-made candy shop.

On the drive home, my wife decided she had a hankering for a Primanti Brothers sandwich, so that was dinner, a satisfying end to a relatively painless day.  Heck, I didn’t even have to drive, with two learner’s permits in the family: one daughter drove north in the morning, one drove south in the evening–all in all a painless day.

Journal Uncategorized

What I Did On My Summer Vacation Part 3: Reading, Rain & Raccoon!


Tuesday started well.  I woke around 530 and thrashed around a while, finally dragging my sluggish butt, a camp chair, and my stack of pulp science fiction novels down to the beach–David Weber’s take on the old Keith Laumer “BOLO” stories, which was pretty cool, and an old Sci Fi Book Club anthology of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes: Lieutenant of the Survey Services stories.  I’m enjoying both immensely–the Bolos are super-powerful sentient battle tanks that lend themselves to some heavy duty metaphorical thoughts about the nature of service, sacrifice, and war while the John Grimes stories are just good old fashioned testosterone-addled space adventures from the days when writers imagined rocket ships landing fins-down on strange and distant worlds.  A lot of people don’t get that good speculative fiction, whether it’s space opera or fantasy or whatever, is rarely just about what it looks like it’s about on the surface, and I love that.


The family joined me a little later, and we spent the increasingly cloudy morning swimming in the still-welcoming waves, drying off, and reading.  Around noon it began to look like rain, and an hour later we were safely at an Outlet Mall in OCMD–if by safely I mean that we fought out way into the parking lot and found a space.  Actually, my wife followed a guy back to his car and begged him to wait for a few minutes until I navigated the gridlocked lot to take his place–how about that for some bold points? I was suitably impressed–things were getting very Darwinian in that lot, more cars than spaces circling like vultures and approaching a state of gridlock.  I smelled anarchy and trembled–my wife never flinched.


Outlets…shopping…I try to be a good sport about it, and did pretty well in the first place we went, holding things that the women in my life may or may not want to try on at some distant, foggy point in the future, but after a couple of these store visits I relegated myself to the row of husbands and fathers leaning against walls and posts on the sidewalk in front of the stores.  We made some good bonds out there, commiserating and reassuring each other that this, too, would pass.  I talked to a young man with a couple of small children–one about 3 in a stroller, enraptured by a handheld electronic game, the other a baby in his arms, and mused about the obvious thing these outlets need: a sports bar for men.  At one point, he shook his head and said, “I was 18 when I went to Bosnia.  Three trips to Iraq, twice to Afganistan–you think it couldn’t get worse, then you come home and your wife takes you to the outlets.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that one, then he cracked a big smile and laughed. “Nah, this isn’t like war.  It’s just as boring, all the waiting, but in a war you at least get to fight back, eventually.” Then he kissed his little baby on the forehead and said, “This isn’t so bad, though.”

No, it wasn’t–and when my family finally emerged it was with demands that I find something to buy for myself, but they never have my shoe size–14–at these places, and I just got some new shirts about 8 years ago.  There’s nothing I need, short of one of those $400 stand mixers, and the truth of the matter is that my vintage Sunbeam does everything I need.  Since it looked like the rain wouldn’t be stopping, my wife suggested an alternative….

“Let’s go see that movie you want to see.”  She said. “The raccoon movie.”

The raccoon movie!  I didn’t need to be asked twice–we had a daughter use her magic telephone to get movie times and split, heading inland to Salisbury, MD because we were confidant that 26 miles of highway driving would be faster than crossing the gridlocked bridge and driving through 107 blocks of rain-day Ocean City traffic.

As we headed east, the rain increased from sprinkles to drizzle to wall of water that seemed like a fire hose was aimed at our windshield.  We tried not to think of our tent back on Assateague, where we’ve been driven off the island by storms and flash floods twice before over the past decade.  We had several days on reservations left and weren’t going anywhere.

Our denial was made easier by “the raccoon movie,” Guardians of the Galaxy, the perfect matinee–funny, exciting, plenty of tongue-in-cheek–just the kind of thing to will-the-guardians-meet-the-avengers-guardians-of-the-galaxy.jpegcrawl into and disappear for a few hours on a rainy day, which is what it’s about, right?  I would have sat through it a second time, absolutely.

Eventually, we had to face the inevitable–our campsite back at Assategue had been pummeled by the storm.  A small tear in the rain fly and been wind-twisted into major damage, and the rain made it’s way inside, soaking all of our sleeping bags and pillows.  We agonized even as we tightened the guy lines and replaced the loose spikes, should we give up, suck it up, or retreat to a motel–if we could find one–and deal with it in the morning.  Consensus favored the latter, and we actually struck out on a search only to stop about 2 miles from the campground.  “We’ll never find a room,” I said.  “We should suck it up, deal with this, whatever–worst case, we’re awake all day and we sleep on the beach in the sun tomorrow.”

It seemed like we just needed someone to say it–back we went, sleeping under a few old blankets, jerry-rigged pillows.  I slept in my fleece jacket instead of a blanket–fleece stays warm despite being damp.  In the morning, the sun rose into a clear blue sky–draw what conclusions and lessons you may, but we stuck it out and were rewarded.



Only One Shopping Week Until Valentine’s Day


I never do a great job with this one, I suppose the right gift idea falls somewhere between a house plant and some ridiculous lingerie.  Any ideas?


Christmas Chraziness Chontinues

The Real Santa

We’re already squeezing juice from the season.  Sunday morning we had a big old brunch: 9-grain bread french toast with maple syrup, bacon, sausage, and home fries, then we saddled up and went over the hill to the Westmoreland Mall, where THE REAL SANTA hangs out with average folks like us.  None of us are big shoppers–this is the only visit to a big mall I’ve made since last Christmas–but it’s become a tradition.

Okay, I made it a tradition. When I was a kid, living in a rural town with few retail options, my family would do the Black Friday thing, although it was a lot different 35 years ago. Namely, we didn’t go at 4am, there wasn’t a frenzy, and nobody died. Back in the day we went to the Monroeville Mall, which is sort of famous if you’re into Zombies, and reveled in the elaborate decorations (do they still have the Christmas tower clock and the animated elf workshop?  I bet not.). It was a lot of fun–I’ll be writing about it in detail for a later post, but it’s relevant now in that I love to get out in the crowds for a few hours, listen to the mall music versions of Christmas songs, see the kids visit Santa, and just enjoy the hustle and bustle–as the phrase goes–in a seasonal atmosphere.  I’m intensely nostalgia-driven, and the internet makes indulging in my holiday fetish stress-free: I don’t worry if I can’t find what I want, I can always go home and order it online. I also like being out with the kids, buying “pick-up” gifts for my wife–smaller things that weren’t on our list, spontaneous selections.

Our big score was something for my wife, acquired with the help of a complicit store clerk, we bought right under her nose, in a devious method reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job.  Well, maybe not that cool, but one daughter distracted my wife, I grabbed it (the last one in stock, and 30% off) off the rack, and handed it off to my other daughter, who slipped it to the clerk.  The clerk quickly scanned the item and hid it inside another item my daughter was buying, so when my wife turned around there was no hint of our trickery. (and I know you’re reading this, so all I can say is: HA!) All that remained was to slip some bills to my daughter, who passed them to the clerk.  It was a bonafide caper.  We were out of the mall in 3 hours, including my first Orange Julius since 1985, and after a quick stop at Barnes & Noble were on our way home.

Here’s a shout out the residents of Derry, PA–a dismal little town along the railroad tracks that has some of the finest Christmas displays around–and I’m not talking about those catalog-bought figurines of the “threw some money at it” variety, but old-school, out-on-the-ladder mad-minded strings of lights displays.  Kudos.

We bought our tree–a 9′ Fraser Fir we knocked back half a foot or so from Johnston’s (in the parking lot of the The Meadows ice cream stand, if you’re local) at a very reasonable $45–well shaped and fresh on Sunday night.  On the way home we stopped off at China King and gorged on some Asian diner food–way too much, in fact–then made our way home. We cranked up the Ella Fitzgerald, got the tree standing straight in it’s stand, and wired it to the wall, lest the cats become too ambitious, an excellent head start for the next day’s tree decorating.

The Monday after Thanksgiving is a holiday in Westsylvania–in case you’re unaware, it’s called Deer Day, because it’s the first day of deer hunting season.  We still get mail, and the banks stay open, but most public schools stay closed–half the kids wouldn’t come if they were opened, so why not have a long weekend.

Christmas Tree 2009
Christmas Tree 2009

We don’t hunt, preferring our meat to come as God intended: on a Styrofoam tray, wrapped in cellophane.  As avid gardeners, of course, we favor the wanton destruction of these evil creatures by whatever means necessary–rifle, shotgun, muzzle-loader, pistol, bow and arrow, knife, club, bare-handed strangulation, automobile fender, pungi-stick pit, snare, snare drum, squashed by falling space debris.  Ed Abbey referred to free-ranging livestock as “hoofed locusts”–and those cows had nothing on the deer in my yard.  Still, I don’t hunt. We have traditionally made use of this noble holy-day for the acquisition and erection of the tree.  This year, we had that head start, and headed right to the hard work of carrying all those boxes of stuff down from the attic. We decorated the tree in a concentrated blitz, and marveled at how nice it looked when were done.  I’ve only ever had one tree that I didn’t ultimately think was lovely, and this was the nicest one we’ve had in years–just about perfect.  Nothing left to do, then, but turn off the houselights, crank up the carols, watch the twinkling tree in the dark, and relax.