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Lipovenko: A story of “coming up” in 1960s Montreal

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(Pixabay photo)

The male voice on the other end of the phone was specific. “Come up after 5, when the buyers go home.”

A few more words were exchanged and my mother hung up, triumphant. Yes! We were in!

Like the team from Mission Impossible, we’d been given our instructions. “Come up” was the ticket for admission to a clothing factory – the defining shopping experience for many Montreal Jewish families in the 1960s, when the city’s garment industry was still vibrant.

At 14, I coveted admission to a factory more than early acceptance to McGill University, and not just because we were paying wholesale, or at least getting a discount. Factories were the ultimate “fulfilment centres,” 50 years before online retail behemoths co-opted the term for the digital age.

Running through the city’s central corridor, the mid-century factory scene resembled one big extended family, with surnames often involving sportswear – never mind that the most popular sport its off-hours clientele engaged in was dancing at weddings and bar mitzvahs. (Most “come up” factory business was conducted Saturday mornings, but those unable to go then, as in my case, made other arrangements.)

For a high school student with only a few dollars in her pocket, the factory purchase would be my first lesson in money management. Cash on the table, no credit.

So on a glorious April day that finally gave winter the boot, we shlepped to unfamiliar territory at the height of rush hour, with the tantalizing prospect of finding me a new dress for Passover. In the front office, save for echoes of bonsoir among staff heading out, the building was quiet. We were met by the head shipper, who earlier had taken my mother’s cold call, and were ushered to the rear.

The head shipper is memorable all these years later because he was that special pedigree of Jewish male who was the backbone of the shmatte business: a good-natured family man who went by Izzy, Sol or Sam, likely grew up in the old neighbourhood of Mile End during the Depression, and if one was lucky, might even be a cousin or other relation. (Having factory connections through mishpachah was a big leg up.)

My young fashionista’s closet relied on his goodwill, as well as my choosing right from the dozens of dresses bunched like cars on Highway 401.

It was, quite literally, a moving experience: on rotating racks suspended overhead, the garments inched forward, their pretty flowers, paisley prints and pops of neon colours visible under protective plastic, each beckoning, “Choose me, choose me.”

It was a tough call. Only one dress could go home with me. But I had trained well for this mission.

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What today’s marketing strategists refer to as the “shopping experience” was, back in the day, similar to a military operation: part reconnaissance, part psy-ops. First, I scoped out the latest trends in teen fashion magazines, then headed to stores downtown to check out the cute outfits in real-life size 12, not the fantasy camp on glossy paper of svelte co-eds farpitzed for a date.

I browsed the stores for inspiration and tried on dresses to see what looked good. More than likely, the outfits were locally made, so if I could get into the factory, in the words of the late comedian George Carlin, “bing bong” – I’d have hit the jackpot. Then, the psychological operations took over, which was trying to convince one’s mother that the lime green dress was a showstopper. That’s what’s known now as a teachable moment.

I’ve tried to unearth, from the clutter of memories, which dress muscled to the head of the pack on that April outing. The name of the manufacturer, street location, the contours of the front office, they all easily spring to mind. If memory serves me correct, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated later that evening.

The new dress for Pesach that cost $10? It eludes me.

But this purchase laid the groundwork for a lifetime of shopping habits: frugality, selectivity, sticking to a budget. This may seem antiquated in the digital era, when big eyes and a smartphone make spending easy and fast, and one can shop the world at 3 in the morning in pyjamas.

My factory experience taught me to be discriminating, to consider the difference between want and necessity, comfort versus appearance. Dismay, thy name is itchy fabric that consigns a new sweater to the back of the closet.

The old garment district is now the stuff of museum tours, but its rich, energetic history lives on in local exhibits and in the recorded stories (available online at the Museum of Jewish Montreal) of those with an affiliation to it. But for those of us who grew up in Montreal in the industry’s heyday, the anticipation of “going up” to the factory, and the excitement of making that special purchase, are the artifacts we can claim as our own.

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