The Montgomery Ward Bargain Basement was a frequent destination in my early childhood. My father was a repairman for Wards at the time – one of those guys who drove a van, wore a smart uniform, and pleasantly fixed your television while your chihuahua chewed on his trouser leg. It seemed like an awfully glamorous existence to me, getting to see the insides of all of those houses owned by rich people who could afford repairmen and frozen orange juice.
His social life overlapped with his job. I don’t remember any friends of my father’s during that time who weren’t Wards employees. Most were repairmen. They’d meet for lunch and tell funny stories about their customers. My mother took me to meet them for lunch now and then. With the repair vans lined up neatly in the parking lot and the uniformed men crowded around a table, it all seemed so manly and cool. I couldn’t have been prouder if my father was a cop, or a soldier.
Manliness was important to my father. I could never quite reach the bar. Once he caught a frog for me while we were fishing. I named it Kermit and made him tie a piece of fishing line to its leg so that I wouldn’t have to touch it. He called me a pansy. For my sixth birthday he took me to the Bargain Basement to buy a wristwatch. “You can have the one with the clear face so that you can see how all of the gears work, or you can have the Mickey Mouse watch.”
“I want the Mickey Mouse watch.”
“That figures,” he said.
Nowhere was my pansiness more apparent than during the annual showing of “The Wizard of Oz.” Annual televised events were a big deal in my childhood. Christmas specials, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” anything Rankin-Bass, even the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was appointment television. We knew they were special because the networks were kind enough to put a “Special!” graphic before the show. Oz ruled them all. Judy Garland? MGM Musical? Maybe my pops had a point on the whole pansy thing.
That’s an anachronism, though. At least among kids, there was no hint of homosexuality in Oz. It was just a great movie, and it had the scariest witch ever. This was the crux of my pansacity in my father’s eyes. As much as I loved the movie, I was terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West. The sight of her guaranteed nightmares for weeks. What to do? I didn’t want to miss this once a year event due to my witch phobia. The solution was fairly simple: I holed up in a swivel chair and spun myself 180 degrees at the first hint of a cackle.
I don’t know how many times I managed to execute the no-witch chair spin, but it must have been a lot. Eventually my old man just couldn’t take it anymore. “Goddamnit if you’re not going to watch the movie then get out of here,” he said. I didn’t leave, I just manned up and stopped spinning. A few nightmares weren’t going to get in the way of lively Oz debates during tetherball tomorrow.
My favorite friend of my father’s was Mr. Bryson. He was one of those rare adults who noticed children, not only noticed them but talked to them like human beings. He looked like Johnny Carson, which added definite cool points. Because Mr. Bryson ran the Montgomery Wards Bargain Basement, I was sure he was a very important man. Visiting him was always fun, but shopping there was a little bleak.
Wards’ main floor was bright, new, colorful. The barbecues had plastic T-bones on them, just in case shoppers weren’t sure what to do with a barbecue. The canister vacuums ran continuously, their hoses hooked to the exhaust ends of the canisters and pointed toward the ceiling. Beach balls hovered over their hoses, twirling slowly in the vacuums’ exhaust. This is where the rich people bought all of the cool stuff that they dispatched my father to fix. Our stuff was in the basement with Mr. Bryson.
The Bargain Basement was the Island Of Misfit Toys. This is where three-legged pants went to die. Appliances, clothes, electronics, furniture – anything that Wards sold that was flawed, returned, or dropped off the back of a truck ended up in the Bargain Basement and could be had for a steep discount. You could always tuck that extra pant leg into your britches, nobody’s going to know. And Mr. Bryson always threw us an extra discount because he was friends with my dad.
All that shiny stuff upstairs. I wanted shiny stuff, too. I wanted something brand new that was entirely mine. Not pre-owned, not glued together, not dented or stuffed into the shopping bag by Mr. Bryson when he was sure that his boss wasn’t looking.
And so I took my birthday money with me on one of our Bargain Basement trips and I begged my mother to let me spend it upstairs. I think she got it. She was pretty good about picking up on these things. My sisters went downstairs with my dad, no doubt to find a good deal on tube socks that were stitched closed at both ends, and my mother and I stayed upstairs with the plastic T-bones and the floating beach balls. We walked the aisles, looking for anything that met my two criteria: A birthday money price, and kid appropriate. This left out snow tires, leisure suits, and furniture made from wine barrels. Eventually we found our way to the record department.
This was perfect. Not only could I afford a 45, but I would be starting my very own record collection, just like my dad’s. The only problem was that I didn’t know any music made after 1965 or so – my father’s and aunt’s record collections were my only musical frame of reference. So I flipped through the singles with absolutely no idea what I was looking for other than a place to burn my money. There it was, finally: A black label with a rainbow streaking diagonally across it’s middle, and over the rainbow the song title: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Are you kidding me? Oz on record? I could listen without having to deal with that freaky witch? Game, set, match.
On first listen I was disappointed by my purchase. This had nothing to do with “The Wizard of Oz.” The singer didn’t sound anything like the actors in the movie, and whatever he was talking about it didn’t have anything to do with the story. Regardless, it was my first record, and I was committed to making this relationship work. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before – the voice, the tempo, the instruments. Everything was unique. For some reason it made me think of space, or the future, or some world other than mine. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” couldn’t have been more different from “The Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” or any of the other records in my father’s collection.
I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.