May 24, 2008

My Uncle Ted

Mt Carmel is a small town in Pennsylvania that you've never heard of. Actually, it's probably too small to even be considered a town. Maybe it's a township. What's smaller than a township? A hamlet?

Mt. Carmel is a charming little hamlet.

Hmmm...makes it seem like hobbits emerge from mushroom shaped abodes and waddle around cobblestone streets in their pointy-toed shoes, don't it? But trust me, there is nary a hobbit in Mt. Carmel. I know, I spent a bunch of time there in my youth.

Mt. Carmel is located smack dab in the middle of the antiquated coal mining region of Pennsylvania. It's a depressing area, where enormous piles of black soot lean like tired old men against the rusted iron of the broken down ore elevators. As you drive by the abandoned mines, the ghosts of history stare intently with their dirtied blank faces and fading flashlights. I was in awe of those coal mines when I was a child. It represented a profound emptiness that at once scared and intrigued me. And amidst it all, was Mt. Carmel.

Mt. Carmel was my oasis.

Once or twice each year my parents would ship my sister and I off to Mt Carmel to visit the “fun relatives”, as we liked to call them. Uncle Ted and Aunt Lynn. I remember staying in Ted and Lynn’s house, running up and down the stairs, banging on the piano and carousing about town.

A walk through the town of Mt Carmel was a very short event. The entire town seemed to fit within my line of sight. After walking out the door, I could take a right and meander the few blocks to where the town ended at an unused baseball diamond muddled with overgrown grass. Or I could take a left and, after passing by “downtown”, reach the other end of Mt Carmel in but a few short blocks.

Nothing seemed to happen in Mt. Carmel. It was almost too small for anything to happen. Then again, perhaps I was too young to have a proper memory of the enormity of the town. Or maybe I was simply too short to peek over the fence and see the sprawling, emerald-glowing metropolis that was the “real” Mt Carmel - the place where things happened. My guess, though, is that no such oasis existed. I was, in fact, seeing the “real” Mt Carmel and the only glowing metropolis was from the distant abandoned mines that were still ablaze, burning up the neighboring towns like hellfire from below.

But I was proud to go to Mt Carmel. I was proud because I was a Madden. Walking through Mt Carmel with Uncle Ted was like walking with the President. People waved, people stopped and talked, everybody knew and loved Uncle Ted. And though I was barely pushing four feet tall and miles from even getting a glimpse of adulthood, I felt like a giant among men as I walked with him through the town. If there were a red carpet down the center of Main Street, lined with royal trumpeteers announcing our arrival, as rose petals were scattered in front of our feet, the feeling would be no different.

Not only was I a Madden, but I was related to the great Ted Madden of Mt Carmel. Sir Teddy. Teo The Magnificent. Teodore del Monte Carmela.

I was a Madden, and we were the ruling dynasty of Mt Carmel. Our family stores lined the streets of downtown. There was my Aunt Mary's children's clothing store, my Uncle Martin's lingerie store (for which I was too young to even be allowed in) and, of course, Madden’s – the pride of the coal mining region.

Sitting in Madden’s as Ted worked was like sitting with the King – it seemed that everybody in town entered the store each day to pay their respect. King Ted. I was amazed. I was proud. I was six years old.

Somewhere in my teen years I stopped visiting Mt Carmel with such frequency. Perhaps because I saw the family at so many other functions throughout those years. But it didn't matter that I didn't go back as much – I was already instilled with the Mt Carmel-Madden pride that had so deeply affected me in my youth.

Years later I went to Cornell University to see my friend Keith graduate. The evening before graduation, I went out to dinner with Keith and a few of his friends, including his then-girlfriend Karen. In my conversation with Karen I learned that she grew up in Pennsylvania.

“A small town that you’ve never heard of,” she said (words I’d heard many times before in describing towns in which my family lived).

“Really?” I replied. “Try me.”

When the words “Mt Carmel” came out of her mouth, I felt myself go flush. The adrenaline in my veins quickly pumped up to maximum capacity until the enormous pressure that had built inside my body was suddenly released in an explosive burst of energy.

“I’M A MADDEN!!!” I screamed, probably with a bit too much enthusiasm.

Silence befell the entire restaurant. Patrons slowly and discreetly turned to look at me – slightly nervous to come face-to-face with the crazy man, lest I jump up and assert my Madden-ness to all who lie in my path. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I was still proud. I looked back at Karen to see a look of fear on her face.

“You’re a Madden?” she asked hesitantly. “As in Madden’s Men’s Clothing? As in Ted Madden?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, I am.” And, with my chest pushed out in a proud warrior stance, I proudly declared, “I am Ted’s nephew.”

When I inquired about whether she knew of all the other Madden establishments that ruled Mt Carmel, I was certain, of course, that she knew them all. That she respected them all. That she was in awe of me, simply because I was a Madden.

“Yeah,” Karen said. “Whatever.”

* * *

After college graduation I moved to Los Angeles and started trying to become an adult. I got jobs. I paid bills. I learned to cook. I bought clothing on my own.

One day I decided I needed a new suit. I jumped in my car and drove to my favorite uber-hip men’s clothing store. Due to my frame-size, I frequently had to order custom suits and this day was no different. After picking out the fabric and style, I gave the store manager my name. “Madden,” I said, spelling the last name for him. He laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I inquired in my least paranoid voice.

“I used to know a Madden family,” he silently responded.

“Oh yeah?" I asked. "From where?”

“Oh, in Pennsylvania,” he answered. “A small town you’ve never heard of.”

“Don’t tell me,” I responded, with a slight chuckle. “Mt Carmel?”

He was in awe. His face lit up as he asked, “You know Ted Madden?”

“Do I know Ted Madden?!” I responded, as that familiar burst of adrenaline started revving its engines. “I’m his nephew!”

He laughed a hearty guffaw. "No kidding?!" he bellowed. And soon we were led into the depths of discussion about Mt Carmel and Madden's. We shared anectdotes about my uncle and my cousins and Main Street and the overgrown grass of that lonely baseball diamond on the edge of town.

As we stood in front of the mirror and he measured me for the suit, the manager began to laugh again. “Who would have ever thunk,” he confessed, “that I would be measuring a Madden for a suit. That I would be measuring TED Madden’s nephew for a suit! A Madden!” And he laughed again as both of our minds wandered into long lost thoughts of a Madden childhood.

After leaving the store, I quickly contacted Ted and told him about my encounter with a true Mt Carmel native. Amused and flattered, Ted sent me a box of Madden's clothing labels. When I returned to the store weeks later to pick up my suit and presented the Madden’s labels to the store manager, he looked like a kid on Christmas morning. He smiled so wide I thought his cheeks would fall off. He looked down at the Madden’s labels in his hand, battling to fight off the tears. I could practically see the Mt Carmel memories scroll like a billboard across his face.

Now, whenever I go into the store, I am treated like royalty. I am Prince Madden. And every time I walk in there I get that feeling of me, running to keep up with Sir Teddy, as we stroll down the red carpet of downtown Mt Carmel, with the royal trumpeteers blasting our arrival, and rose petals falling from the sky.

[Editor's Note: Names have been changed to protect the people who aren't already in witness protection]


Robin said...

You captured your small town so perfectly here I can almost see it! I grew up in a very small town too, but my dad was the sheriff. So people either loved our family or hated it, depending on which side of the law they generally lived on... LOL.

Anonymous said...

Every suit I own is from "Madden's"!

6 degrees of separation from Mt. Carmel can be played (in fewer than 6 degrees) in every town I've worked (well outside of Mt Carmel)!

What a great post.

Anonymous said...

Every suit I own is from "Madden's"!

6 degrees of separation from Mt. Carmel can be played (in fewer than 6 degrees) in every town I've worked (well outside of Mt Carmel)!

What a great post.