In my memory, the holidays and downtown are inseparably entwined. Every trip downtown, whatever time of year, brings the song “Silver Bells” to mind:
For me, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” will always be a Christmas carol:
My grandfather drove a Yellow Cab, and I began riding with him as a preschooler. During the holidays, Papa (known to some as “Corn Willie”) and I would make the rounds together to share holiday cheer with his many friends of all classes and colors (and sometimes deliver a little bootleg liquor). The entire city was decorated inside and out; crowds were bustling everywhere from the train and bus stations to the downtown stores and restaurants. On cabstands and in his (numerous) favorite neighborhood bars, I’d sing Christmas carols in return for loose change, Cokes, and sweets.
My mother ran (was!) the back office for the big flagship store of the Raylass Department Store chain on East Broad Street until just before I went away to college. For many of those years, my brothers and I watched from the store’s fourth floor windows to see The Real Santa Claus arrive downtown at the end of the Christmas Parade. Later, as a Boy Scout, I marched in the parade dressed as a holiday clown, carrying one end of a big banner announcing the next float or band. My favorite Christmas movie will always be (the 1947 original) “Miracle on 34th Street.”
At age thirteen, I became a weekend “change runner” between Raylass and the other stores during the Christmas rush, leaving our store with my coat pockets stuffed with big bills and returning weighed down with rolls of coins and much fatter due to bundles of small bills as we all helped each other out on Saturdays when the banks were closed. The first presents purchased with “my own money” for family and friends came from Broad Street’s five-and-dimes.
At fifteen, I got my first “management job,” running Raylass’s toy department. That year, and for the next three, I waited on Christmas Eve with the store manager until long after all the stores were closed, hoping that every last toy and gift layaway would be picked up, then nearly cried as I walked to my car because some never were.
The department stores and movie theaters are gone now, but after some sad years, the arts and entertainment are bringing downtown alive again. Holiday lights twinkle from outlined office buildings to apartment windows above the old storefronts.
In the midst of your busy holiday schedule, treat yourself with a trip downtown. Visit with the reindeer at the James Center, take in a play, shop the galleries, have a great meal, or just stroll the streets listen for the sounds of the season. “The lights are much brighter there…”
Thomas Singleton Driscoll
4200 Stuart Avenue
Richmond, Virginia, USA 23221-1943