I headed to Hampden's main street this week in search of a holiday seasonal experience, a rip-roaring commercial Christmas bazaar along West 36th Street.
Admittedly, my holiday expectations would be difficult to satisfy. What I really wanted was an old-fashioned night out, one reminding me of a December night along Howard Street in 1958.
This was a personal journey, to be sure, but I wasn't the only one taking it. I settled into a window seat at a restaurant and watched a street filled with people, many pushing strollers, passing in and out of shop doors.
This street is a thoroughfare of store windows with silvery icicles, cotton snow, silk ribbons and touches of neon. Night comes on early these days, and the brilliantly lighted windows conquer the darkness.
The many pedestrians seemed, like me, to want something you can't find in a mall or at a big-box store. Many of the Hampden shops are small in size — and content to be that way. This is a place where small rules.
The more I walked along 36th Street and adjacent Falls Road, the more I realized why I was not alone. There are dozens of independent shopkeepers seeking my attention, offering goods in their own styles.
It took me days to realize this is a place that lacks a Starbucks or Chipotle. A resident reminded me that the national chains don't bother with 36th Street — they look to the nearby strip centers.
On 36th Street, the result lends a homemade purity to the neighborhood's old heart.
Merchants compete to showcase their wares, often in the confines of narrow rowhouses. The displays and their settings reinforce the impression that you are visiting more of a living room than a commercial shop.
"There's a Royal Farms. But the rest of the of shops here are one-off," said Craig Flinner of Millbrook Antiques. "They are originals. It's a mix of interesting things.
"It reminds me of Fells Point years ago," said Flinner. "It's not all antiques shops. It's not all restaurants. It's not all clothes."
At some point in my journey, I thought of old Hampden — that unadorned place where there was no luxury shopping and the merchants sold only what you really needed.
I thought of the old Ye Eat Shoppe, Cavacos candy shop, Benson's hardware, Hankin's clothes, and the New System Bakery — which I so miss. No matter how many cookies, cakes and rolls I bought there at this time of the year, I always also walked away with a box of sticky buns and a couple of iced raisin buns.
Those recollections triggered a sugar craving, and I surrendered to it with a rye whiskey eggnog-flavored ice cream cone at the Charmery, at 36th and Chestnut. I dared it to be as good as the old Hendler's eggnog ice cream of the 1950s.
It was not as good. It was superior — and different.
I kept walking along Chestnut Avenue. At some point, if you are in Hampden, there's a requirement to walk along East 34th Street to take in residents' fantastic light displays.
I found myself looking not so much at the displays as at the engaging faces of my fellow visitors, many of whom seemed to be there for the first time and had trouble containing their enthusiasm. It really is that good.
Of course, equally legendary are the traffic jams it can cause. I was glad to be walking.
I noticed the pleasantly cracked sidewalks and the old streetcar tracks popping through the street asphalt. This ancient village has a personality all year long, but during the holidays its spirit seems to warm all those who come calling.