I am 10 years old. It is somewhere between 1972 and 1978. We are driving to the Sears on Main so Grandma can get a new pair of support hose. I normally hate this sort of thing, but today the trip is not about the destination—the second-floor “Foundation Garments” department—but the journey, specifically Sears’s gleaming 1939 brass escalators, the first in all of Texas. Grandma and I make our way through the Deco-elegant main floor to that contraption both magnificent and terrifying, even as we are bombarded by the smell of hot, freshly popped popcorn. I board the escalator, though not before instinctively casting my eyes downward and checking that my shoes are tied.
Over the years, Grandma has told me several versions of the story of the little boy who didn’t check his shoes. In one, the unfortunate lad gets caught in the comb at the top of the escalator, dragged under the floor plate, and ground to a pulp in the return. In another, the great machine simply shreds his foot like a mandoline. In no versions does the boy just get off the escalator and buy support hose.
It is 2015. I am in my study. As my mind lingers over the foregoing snapshot of past preciousness, it suddenly occurs to me that I have misremembered all of it. The Sears on Main was already on the decline in the ’70s, and I have never had a study. Furthermore, Grandma was on the hunt not for foundation garments but the housewares department, where she hoped to find an exact copy of a skillet lid she’d broken, and then slip it discreetly into her purse, which was fine because Sears would want us to take it since the other one was obviously defective.
All of us romanticize our youthful shopping experiences, I guess, which may be one reason why throngs of Sears preservationists have for years been holding secret meetings in the comments section of houstonarchitecture.com. Perusing their correspondence, which dates back to 2006, is fascinating. First, there is the obligatory lamenting of days gone by, then impassioned calls for the removal of the metal siding encasing the building. Eventually, an elaborate plot is hatched wherein the group will hire homeless people (“plenty of them call Sears home”) to parade around the store’s exterior carrying giant photos depicting its former glory. This, the group believes, will garner media attention, particularly from the Houston Press, whose existence depends on good-versus-evil “corporate boogeyman” yarns, as one of them puts it. Eventually, they conclude that the Sears story, being more complex than a cartoon, permits no easy answers, and therefore the Press will not be interested. The group briefly considers concocting “some good ol’ fashioned slander” to pique the tabloid’s interest but soon abandons the plan altogether.
My point? Factual accounts—be they of the past, Sears, escalator maiming—can often elude us, vulnerable as they are to competing agendas, prejudice, ignorance, and an unwillingness to let truth stand in the way of a good story. Which is to say that if accuracy is one of your foundation garments, it pays to be a discriminating shopper.