(Note on top of the note: I can’t believe I misnamed this post. Farewell, my Lovely is what I meant to call this. Not my beloved, who is alive and well, if 7 time zones away as I type. Sorry to those of you who thought something really unfortunate was going to be posted here!)
I grew up with one of these in our barn. It only got driven in the Lobster Festival parades, until it was too cranky for that. Then it gathered dust, then it got sold and paid for part of my senior spring semester of college. Farewell to my lovely family Model T Ford!
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One of my favorite E.B. White essays is an ode to both automotive ingenuity and changing times. “Fairwell, My Lovely!” begins with a small observation—White remarks on the disappearance of the Sears-Roebuck catalog section devoted to Ford Model T accessories—then unfurls into an homage to the world’s first affordable automobile, the loveable and inscrutable “Tin Lizzie.” In its heyday, White informs us, the Model T “add-on” section of the Sears catalog took up more pages than men’s clothing, and almost as many as household furnishings. Alas, by the time his essay appeared in the New Yorker, nearly a decade after the last Model T rolled off Ford’s assembly line, Lizzie’s halcyon days had faded. Which meant no more Model T safety reflectors or fan belt guides or patch kids for sale at Sears, or anywhere else. The adventurous era that had been defined by the Model T was disappearing before E.B. White’s eyes, and a piece of his youth, he sadly surmised, was disappearing along with it.
I was reminded of that essay the other day as I walked by Hollywood Express, a longtime movie rental outlet in my hometown. Much to my dismay, I found its front door papered over with Going Out of Business flyers. Everything Must Go, was the stark message. Hollywood Express would be closing forever at the end of the month.
Farewell my lovely, indeed! And with its passing, farewell to a little sliver of proof that once upon a time, I was the mother of small boys who snuggled on the sofa with me, in their striped PJs, with their stuffed bears and wolves and lambskin loveys, to watch the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine over and over again. Those were the days when Hollywood Express mattered most to me—back when we were regular customers. Farewell to a life stage, to a parenting era, to the days when my sons were pink-cheeked and tow-headed, back when I could fix all their boo boos with a kiss.
It’s not like I hadn’t seen this coming. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I rented a DVD from Hollywood Express. Perhaps not since I needed to catch up with the first season of Breaking Bad, back when that drama was just getting going. But still—gone forever? It’s like losing an old friend.
I know I’m late to this phenomenon. I get it, that most people lost their brick-and-mortar video/DVD suppliers ages ago. The fact that my little movie rental haven stuck around as long as it did was nothing short of a miracle. From its beginnings as a quirky alternative to Blockbusters, Hollywood Express was a place I always felt lucky to have in my back yard—long before Netflix was around to mail you all the movies you could possibly want to see, long before streaming movies on laptops and smart phones became a thing, long before TV shows were reduced to YouTube highlights or On Demand options.
Hollywood Express had a darn good run, that’s for sure. They catered to their Cantabrigian regulars with offerings you couldn’t find elsewhere—a robust foreign film collection, obscure documentaries, complete director oeuvres, and classics from the days of Charlie Chaplin. It was that golden oldies section that got me through our grade school family movie nights, after my kids had outgrown the Thomas the Tank Engine toddler fare. Once our Saturday night selections marched into the PG-13 realm, we alternated Star Wars episodes and Jurassic fare with Buster Keaton’s stunts, and Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” banter, and The Marx brothers, well, their everything. We watched old westerns and crazy anime and yes, from time to time, I inflicted my favorite old musicals on my kids. Which was useful—how else would they have appreciated The Simpson’s version of “Paint Your Wagon,” if they hadn’t seen the original?
Oh, and did I mention, Hollywood Express came with a coffee shop upstairs, cool and hip and with goodies galore, aptly named Hollywood Espresso? I mean, seriously, was there ever a more wonderful marketing matchup? When it first opened, this fabulous café had little TV screens with movies constantly playing: movies on mute, since the soundtrack of that place was jazz, movies you remember so well, you didn’t even need the sound to know what was going on. The Graduate, Annie Hall, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Movies you just instinctively knew when to look up from your latte, to catch the scene you liked best. Blessedly, the coffee house will live on. Sadly, it will have no after-hours return slot for late DVDs, no more movies on mute, and the name, dang it all, has already been changed.
I’ve found that being grateful for the things I’ve had when I most needed them makes the heartache at their departure a little bit more tolerable. Along with Hollywood Express, there was that consignment shop that offered upscale maternity clothes to rent—how else could I have gone to that soiree at the Gardner Museum, just days before my first son came into this world, without shelling out a for a sparkly tent I was guaranteed to wear just once? And would I have ever opted for cloth diapers, had there not been diaper service guys with an ecological bent to make the smelly bucket disappear and supply me with a tidy pile of cotton nappies, every Wednesday for three years? Later on, we survived family dinners at our favorite Chinese restaurant entirely because there was the bagel place of the gods nearby, which gave our older son a ‘just in case’ dinner option. And never mind the playgrounds all over town that were fantastically dangerous, much to my kids’ liking, which have since been safety-proofed to the protective standards of the typical 18 month old, thus making anyone over 2 feel gypped for the lack of monkey bars truly worthy of the name. There’s an impressively long list of things now gone that existed just when I needed them. Almost all of them have to do with being a mother. Farewell, my lovely little boys! Is what these disappearances seem always to say to me.
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I try to maintain some “I’m sad to lose it, but I was lucky to have had it” balance around lots of things that have disappeared from my life, I really do. But sometimes the things that fall away turn me into a curmudgeon. And I’m a Luddite curmudgeon, which is the worst sort. Things were better, back in our day. Well, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. But seriously, did the one music store in Harvard Square that sold everything from J.S. Bach to Eric Clapton, in both audio and sheet music offerings, have to close? Is my world really better for having five more banking options and four fewer bookstores than it did in the day when my kids were small? Again, I’m glad we had what we had when we needed it. But I miss the serendipity that my favorite places offered—the movies on the employee recommendations shelf that I never would have rented, the sidewalk overstock fiction I bought on a whim, the article in the New York Times that I only read if I’m actually turning pages. Heck, I’m the person who has a dictionary in my kitchen, on the counter, always open to a random page. Yes, the cats love sitting there, but it also serves me as well, just happen upon a noun, a verb, a photo in the margin, a meaning I wasn’t familiar with, always noted when I’m checking the spelling of something else. I’m all for learning by serendipity.
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There is a glimmer of hope for my future, just around the corner. It’s something that I would have paid extra taxes for, had it existed when my kids were small. But it’s here now, in all its glory: our library has the most lovely, most inviting, most fantastic new children’s section in the history of public libraries. I wept when I went to its opening, sad at the stark realization that my kids were far too grown up to ever set foot in this new treasure. But yes, I confess—not anytime soon, but someday down the road—I can see myself walking my grandkids to that happy place. And once more, I’ll have what I need, right when I need it.