“This is better than Saks Fifth Avenue,” quipped the well-heeled older woman when the two of us bumped elbows examining rustic pottery mixing bowls and honey pots. One look at her and you could tell she’d seen the inside of Saks and probably others of its ilk, and many times.
“Anyway,” she went on, “you know if you cain’t find it here, you didn’t need it to begin with.”
“Yes,” I giggled, wondering what the folks at Saks made of this delightful Southern matron, and hoping someday to be as worldly and colorful.
‘Here’ was Parker Bros. Hardware in Knoxville, Tennessee—the old store in its original location, the one with creaky, oily wood floors and horribly limited parking out front, the kind where you had to back dangerously into traffic when you pulled out. At one point its place on the map would have been considered the far reaches of ‘suburban’ West Knoxville, but by that time, in the early 1990s, was more accurately midtown. (These days West Knoxville has just about reached the outskirts of Nashville. I exaggerate only to indicate just how sprawly this city with a metro population of about a million has grown since its founding in the late 1700s—a mini-Atlanta, my kiddo calls it.)
Funny thing about that hardware store. Right behind it stood what amounted to, more or less, a grass and dirt field with the remains of an old drive-in theatre. You could still see the huge screen at one end of the field, missing big sections by then, and situated squarely in the middle of the lot, the little hut where you would’ve gone to get your popcorn and Coke (or Co-Cola, as the locals more accurately might have called it back in the day). There it stood, empty, languishing, vandalized all to heck, awaiting its fate, but still an interesting snapshot of life at that particular provenance once upon a time.
And as fate would have it, a developer did finally snap up that prime real estate, right at a busy intersection on Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s main east-west thoroughfare, more formally US 11/70. (Or in the vernacular, Thunder Road, as popularized by Robert Mitchum’s 1958 moonshine-themed namesake hit song and movie.) But instead of ripping down the small building in the middle of the field, the developer instead trucked in fill dirt on top of fill dirt and simply covered it up. As a young student of archaeology at the time, I found this fascinating: what would an archaeologist make of this find a couple of centuries hence? Would there be a paper trail somewhere explaining it, or merely a bunch of scientists standing around scratching their heads?
A decade or so later, round numbers, Parker Bros. Hardware moved out of its original building and into an abandoned Shoney’s eatery not a mile up the road—‘Thunder’ Road, in fact, where it continued to purvey more or less its same inventory, but also really started trumpeting its affiliation with Ace—as Parker Bros./Ace Hardware. It was still there to serve all our honey pot (and epoxy, and picture hanger, and measuring tape, and step stool, and garden hose) needs. And of course duplicate keys—there is always somehow a need for duplicate keys, in every human’s life. But the shopping experience at Ace-née-Shoney’s was wanting. Gone were the oily wood floors, replaced instead by the familiar oily terra cotta tile floors you once found in every Shoney’s. The perimeter walls were outfitted in pegboard and shelving, and the rows and rows of shelves between them were illuminated by the unforgiving glare of fluorescent tubes above them instead of the distinctly warmer glow of incandescent bulbs I seem to recall in the old store, or at least in parts of it.
In short, Parker Bros. lost its ‘Saks’ appeal. And not long before I moved from Tennessee to Vermont, another makeover transformed even the ‘new’ shopping center that had taken the place of the late drive-in theatre. Ace/Parker Bros.—minus the family’s moniker—moved into the new center, ironically only a few yards from where the old store once stood, but now completely sanitized of any mom-and-pop charm it once possessed.
What has any of this to do with high-waisted trousers or sensible boots? It’s the romantic appeal of another time, gentle reader, only now we’re talking couture and not concrete. When I was a kid my mom sometimes invited me to stay up way past my bedtime to watch old movies on the telly, like the kind people might have seen at the drive-in theatre behind Parker Bros. Hardware. A certain generation will understand by ‘old’ I don’t mean silent picture relics like Nosferatu, but instead movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age—the ‘talkies’ made from roughly the 30s to the 50s, with Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, et al. as headliners—movies my mama would’ve seen in the theatre for a quarter when she was a child. Those women captivated me, with their painted-on eyebrows and deep ruby lipstick (sure, the film was black and white, but you could just tell), and fancy hats and sparkly jewelry. But I especially loved their clothing: the silk blouses with huge shoulder pads, neatly tucked into pleated, high-waisted—‘Hollywood’ waisted—trousers. Sometimes they spoke in hokey, affected dialects, and dramatically raised and lowered their eyebrows. Mom and I would parrot them to each other from opposite ends of the sofa under our shared blanket, and then collapse in giggles.
And the next day at school I would keep on thinking about those glamorous women and their clothing. Once when mom took me shopping for a new fall wardrobe she had a hard time convincing me to try on two pairs of tailored gabardine slacks, until she reminded me they were similar to what those glam ladies wore in some of our favorite movies. Sold.
Tragically, these days I defy anybody to find a pair of high-waisted trousers on clothing racks anywhere. Nope, we’ve all made our peace with pants that sit at the hip (they’re called ‘low rise’ now, but back in the 70s, young folk, we called them ‘hip huggers’ and we wore snap-crotch shirts with them to keep our middles covered—I know, but we still had a shred of decorum). Allow me to be blunt: low-waisted pants are flattering on nobody. Nobody. They shorten the leg line, and should you happen to possess any extra ‘flesh,’ as one of my yoga instructors says, diplomatically, it comes spilling right over the top. Hence, ‘muffin top,’ although I think this sounds way too benign to describe this unfortunate fash phenomenon.
By contrast, a high-waisted trouser—especially if you’re wearing a blouse or jacket with shoulder pads—has precisely the opposite effect. It lengthens the leg line and defines the waist—and wide shoulders help create lovely head-to-toe proportions. I am no fashionista. But as an erstwhile ballerina I know a thing or two about the human form. Trust me: this is a fashion convention we’ve been missing in our lives for too long now. The world needs more shoulder pads and high-waisted trousers, just as it needs more mom-and-pop hardware stores with incandescent lighting and oily wood floors. I feel certain the folks at Saks Fifth Avenue would back me up on this.
But life in Vermont is messy, especially now, as we dive headlong into a chilly fall and whatever winter has in store for us. There are precious few occasions up in these parts where one could wear a silk blouse with shoulder pads and high-waisted trousers, without looking downright silly. Which is too bad. But joyously, I’ve discovered the local Tractor Supply, which in its own corporate way has a little of the old Parker Bros. appeal—it’s not a hardware store, per se (although you can buy power tools at Tractor Supply, so there’s that), but it is possible to walk into the store empty-handed and leave it with a box of suet for the birdfeeder, some sensible (if a bit Proletariat) wool socks, a few die-cast toys for a little so-and-so you know, maybe a sweet-smelling candle or two, a bag of dog food, and come Christmas time, no end of ornaments—and even the tree itself. Just a few days ago I finally bought the boots I’d been eyeing there for about a year (as you might surmise, the inventory does not really turn over often), to replace my old Hunter Wellies, which finally breathed their last gasp back in the spring. They are sturdy, waterproof boots, with an ‘aggressive’ tread pattern on the sole, and they’re even made in America and not by slave laborers in some faraway sweatshop. I paid $25 for them—about a sixth of what the familiar green Wellies cost, even a couple of decades ago.
Yeh, I don’t really look at all like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, wearing those sensible boots (never mind that I don’t look like Audrey Hepburn at all). But when in Rome, I suppose. Vermont elegance, though: thanks to the folks at Tractor Supply, I’ve got it in spades, and the high-waisted trousers and shoulder pads will have to wait. For now.