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Downtown on a Monday night

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column appeared previously in The News.

Once upon a time, before Meijer, before Walmart, even before Kmart, there was the Black & White Grocery, Tony & Norms menswear, Pickett’s pharmacy, Doctor Burkholder, and Vaughn’s department store.

Adam’s bookstore was there, the Lyric Theatre, the Dallas cafe, and Doyle’s Standard Service. Michley’s shoes and Alpena Sporting Goods were there, as well. A&P, Deschamps, Alpena Printing Studio, Thomas News Agency, Montgomery Ward, The Alpena News, Townsend Coal — all these businesses were downtown.

All the doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, insurance agents, and banks were there. The bars and churches were there, as well, as were the car dealers: Doyle/McCoy Pontiac & Cadillac, Garrison Chevrolet, Reichstein Buick, LeBlanc Oldsmobile — all were downtown.

The retail businesses were open every weekday until 5:30 p.m. and a half-day on Saturdays. Only one night a week — Monday nights — did they stay open until 9 p.m. You had to be able to plan ahead back in those days.

On Monday nights in summer, onto the stage of downtown Alpena would enter a full cast of our community’s characters, with middle-class shoppers assuming the leading roles. Store-owning producers, sales managing directors, and salesperson actors were scattered about the production, together with understudies and miscellaneous stage crew. Undirected adolescents could be seen loitering around the production, most prominently at Scott’s Ice Cream Parlor and “Wayne’s Place.”

Always, there was spectacle downtown on a Monday night.

Into this diverse assemblage would wheeze a 1949 Pontiac Chieftain automobile filled with teenage boys. I say wheezed because that was the sound its homemade muffler made during deceleration — a state that occupied approximately 45% of the old Pontiac’s time. Another 45% was spent in acceleration — the sound then was a high-pitched whine. Only about 10% of its time did the old Pontiac move at a steady pace issuing an eccentric rumble.

Not only did the old car have its unique sounds, it also had a chromed Indian chief hood ornament.

But the most unique thing about the old Pontiac was not its sound or its chromed chief — it was the bell. Under the old car’s formidable hood, a bell was mounted on its engine block. It was a very fine bell, with a heavy-gauge wire running from its clapper to and through the firewall into the Pontiac’s interior. No fancy electrical switch here — the bell’s operation required the finesse of a human’s touch.

When the old Pontiac would wheeze to a stop at a downtown traffic light on a Monday night, all its occupants would strike a practiced pose of cool indifference. We were skilled at projecting a “Who? What? Us?” demeanor, allowing our innocence to blend with the traffic.

Then one of us would pull the wire that rang the bell.

Some harried lady running late, burdened with too many packages and herding her children before her, would stop, straining to determine where that sound was coming from and what it portended. Others would follow her lead. Soon, everyone on the adjacent sidewalk and in the crosswalk would be paused, listening — puzzled.

As abruptly as it started, the ringing would stop — just in time to preserve the illusion of our non-involvement. The pedestrian traffic flow would resume until the light changed. Then, a whine would be heard, soon followed by a wheeze, and, once again, the ringing of a bell.

It was a unique downtown Alpena shopping experience.

Why did the ringing of that bell provide our teenage senses with such grand entertainment? I’m afraid to attempt an analysis. I’m not at all confident that, in today’s world, my conclusions would be understood, our lack of “sophistication” well-received.

But I know this: I’d love to pull that wire again.

I’d love to hear the ringing of the old Pontiac’s bell one more time.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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