Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wondrously Multicolored

Once in a while childhood memories of Saturday afternoons in Baton Rouge float to the surface and I think back to those strolls down Third Street after a showing of Old Yeller or Jailhouse Rock at the Paramount, that aimless drift that sometimes carried us to the open doors of Woolworth’s. A store long gone, its aisles and smells are still anchored in some part of my brain awaiting the next spur.

The spark this time was a poem stumbled upon in one of the three Garrison Keillor anthologies, Good Poems for Hard Times, a poem by Minnesota poet Mark Irwin. It comes from Irwin’s 1996 collection, Quick, Now, Always and is titled “Woolworth’s.”

By way of introduction to readers unfamiliar with the name, Woolworth’s was one of the original American five-and-dime stores and one of the largest retail chains in the world during the twentieth century. It was one of the first American stores to put merchandise out for shoppers to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. From 1913 until 1930 the Woolworth Building in New York was the tallest building in the world.


Everything stands wondrously multicolored

and at attention in the always Christmas air.

What scent lingers unrecognizably

between that popcorn, grilled cheese sandwiches,

malted milkballs, and parakeets? Maybe you came here

in winter to buy your daughter a hamster

and were detained by the bin

of Multicolored Thongs, four pair

for a dollar. Maybe you came here to buy

some envelopes, the light blue par avion ones

with airplanes, but caught yourself, lost,

daydreaming, saying it’s too late over the glassy

diorama of cakes and pies. Maybe you came here

to buy a lampshade, the fake crimped

kind, and suddenly you remember

your grandmother, dead

twenty years, floating through the old

house like a curtain. Maybe you’re retired,

on Social Security, and came here for the Roast

Turkey Dinner or the Liver and Onions,

or just to stare into a black circle

of coffee and to get warm. Or maybe

the big church down the street is closed

now during the day, and you’re homeless and poor,

or you’re rich, or it doesn’t matter what you are

with a little loose change jangling in your pocket,

begging to be spent, because you wandered in

and somewhere between the bin of animal crackers

and the little zoo in the back of the store

you lost something, and because you came here

not to forget, but to remember to live.

Currently teaching at the University of Southern California, Mark Irwin divides his time between California and Colorado. He has published six collections of poetry, the latest in 2008.


  1. Good poem and is certainly evocative of being in Woolworth's and made me remember McCrory's, another five-and-dime on Third Street much like Woolworth's with shoes and clothing and housewares and penny candy and toys. As a kid it was exciting to have "a little loose change jangling in your pocket" while shopping for just the right pocketknife to whittle away the days.

  2. Oh did that bring back memories. I started working for Woolworth's in Richmond Hill, NY when I was 15. I began my "career" personalizing chocolate Easter bunnies. I then progressed over my High School years to hardware, making keys - pets, getting fish from the tanks and catching escapee parakeets -- to working behind the lunch counter making sandwiches. Wow, that was a long time ago. Thanks for the memories!

  3. Oh how I remember this street! The tall building use to be the Louisiana National Bank Building and I worked on the 10th floor during the time I was waiting for Ben, my husband of 1 yr. to return from Korea. Funny remembering back then.....I parked in a parking lot which was simply a vacant lot about 2 blocks from Third Street and I didn't have to pay to park. I don't know who owned the lot, but he sure did miss the opportunity to collect parking rates from all of us who parked on his property. This post took me back in my memories. I enjoyed it.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America