On Macy’s and Marta

With my grandma and dad, circa 1995ish.
With my grandma and dad, circa 1995ish.

Read a story a few moments ago about Macy’s closing up 14 of its stores and laying off more than 1,300 employees.

Generally, this sort of news probably wouldn’t grab me. Stores come, stores go. I’m not hardened to unemployment (it sucks), but jobs appear and vanish all the time. Unless the transactions involve people I know, well, I suppose I rarely notice.

Macy’s, however, is different.

Macy’s matters.

My Grandma Marta came to this country from Germany in the late 1930s, one of thousands of Jews to arrive here in an effort to avoid Hitler’s evils. She came with my Grandpa Curt, and they lived with relatives in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Neither spoke English. They found work cleaning a movie theatre, took language classes, slowly became Americans. Eventually, Grandpa became a bookkeeper. And Grandma took a job at Macy’s.

Where she stayed for, like, 40 years.

Grandma had a million Macy’s stories, and I loved hearing them. On one of her early days, working as a clerk, she tried helping a customer over the phone. Her accent was thick, and the man yelled, “I need to talk with someone who speaks English!” Grandma went to the back room and cried. A co-worker found her there and said, “Marta, you’re better than him.” Later, Grandma was asked if she wanted to march in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The salary would be a free turkey. For some reason, she turned it down.

Grandma took me and my brother David to see Santa in the store’s long, winding, magical Santa’s village. When the big man asked what I wanted for Christmas, I said, “Nothing—I’m Jewish!” Grandma loved that. Made her laugh and laugh.

I don’t know why I recall this, but Grandma once took us to the employee’s cafeteria, and she let me have chocolate milk. I was dazzled and wide-eyed, and thought the behind-the-scenes glimpse was breathtaking. Grandma showed me the monument for the store’s founders, who died on the Titanic. She took me up the old wood escalators, which were installed in 1924.

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 12.12.34 AMTo this day, whenever I walk past that Macy’s on 34th Street, I walk in, glimpse around, ride the old escalators, think of my beloved grandmother, who passed at age 87 in 1999.

To me, that’s the store’s legacy. And why, in my heart, Macy’s still matters.