Providing for six kids required shopping, lots of shopping. While Ridgewood offered several upscale clothing stores within walking distance, the real bargains were just a short drive away. The Garden State Plaza, the Fashion Center, Paramus and Bergen Malls, as well as several New York City designer outlets—in less than designer locations—all beckoned. If and when jonesing for a sweet deal, she could score relief in minutes. It was all too tempting for Mom and her addiction.
To her credit, she excelled at finding bargains, in or out of season. However, winter steals bought in July were often too small by December. So, those “no return” super deals were anything but.
Raising a large family on his chemist salary caused Dad plenty of concern. Mom’s habit only added to it. To ease financial tensions, she worked odd jobs by day and at Alexanders, a large retail store, at night. But like an alcoholic tending bar, that proved to be too risky. Returning to proofreading full time at The Record seemed like the perfect solution. However, the graveyard shift left her days free to shop. That, coupled with advance notice of upcoming sales, made it a mixed blessing at best.
We kids took turns struggling to keep up with Mom on her shopping marathons. She’d return from work early in the morning, grab one or more of us, and off we went. She never seemed to tire. My Aunt Flo accompanied her once, and only once. No one could match her drive or stamina, certainly not me. I got bored early and often, more so as a teenager, though Mom tried her best to spark my waning interest. “We have to go to this designer outlet. Ali MacGraw’s ex-husband owns it.” I thought Ali was sexy, so I took the bait. No doubt my raging hormones influenced my decision. Mom drove through the Jersey swamplands—aka the resting place of many mobsters—to a dark, dank, derelict warehouse on Newark’s south side. There we met a dark, dank, derelict clad in a tight paisley shirt and plaid polyester pants. Perhaps his fashion choices, among other things, were why Ali left him. Mom, however, insisted I follow the same recipe. I settled for half and became the only kid who wore plaid “wonder fabric” pants throughout middle and high school. If I stayed in Catholic school, where uniforms were the norm, I could have avoided that embarrassment. I was, however, the first seventh grader to wear bell-bottoms. And though plaid, they still ratcheted up my “cool factor.” So, it wasn’t all bad.
There were other times I went more as Mom’s bodyguard. Mornings began innocent enough outside Pergament, a local home improvement center. A cordial crowd of like-minded bargain-hunters gathered hours before the store opened, making small talk while secretly salivating and jostling for position. But as soon as that sign flipped from “Closed” to “Open” and the door key turned, all hell broke loose. It was life or death for any man, woman or child caught between the elbowers and the tramplers and their 40% off linoleum floor tiles. Mom relished these melees, evidenced by her regular participation. I did not. Leading the way like a fullback fending off all of Mom’s would-be tacklers was no fun. She, unlike me, kept her cool, and by doing so, lost out of some of those do or die bargains. But we both survived, me battered and bruised yet happy in my role as protector. And she, energized and excited to try again another day.