February 24, 2016 · 3:13 pm
Today was my last shift at The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store. No, I was not fired. My tenure as seasonal sales associate concluded in the same way it always does, at the end of winter, with the bright smocks and palazzos of spring entering the shop in dozens of boxes, and fewer and more pennypinching customers visiting to plump up their wardrobes. I am now extraneous.
So goodbye to fringed wool jackets, lace-edged tops and “girlfriend jeans”. Goodbye to daily sales goals and meeting the weekly plan. So long, Swiffer lint and the glint of bobby pins in the rug. Adios, the mask of makeup. Certain customers, I’m glad to see the back of you. You know who you are. On the other hand there is the man yesterday with wavy grey hair, kind eyes and a nose on him, who, passing by, saw the striped blouse in the window and knew it would look great on his wife. It would be a surprise. Husbands do the darndest things, I learned at the store. (Mine recently baked me a welcome-home cake, so there.)
I bought too many clothes with the seductive employee discount. Didn’t need any of them. The store was itself seductive, an explosion of color and texture that sometimes felt like a riotous dream. I felt trapped there sometimes, bored out of my skull, and at other times deeply fascinated by the intricacies of selling that dream to women and the rhythms of commerce. I think I learned more about modern American reality (something I usually do my best to avoid in my writerly life) from working there than any other experience I’ve had.
Today I left with one purchase, deeply discounted. A pair of earrings.
Why do I like them so much? Well, what do they resemble? Nothing so much as glitzy acorns. A pair of earrings, a minimum wage souvenir, a transition, a talisman.
I’m going to prune trees in Queens tomorrow, the start of another season. Lipstick will not be mandatory.
Filed under Arborist, Clothing, Culture, Fashion, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, New York City, Trees, Writers, Writing
February 8, 2016 · 3:57 pm
You should see how I look in summer, he told me. Not from the beach. Dark just from being up in the branches.
Today there were driving snow showers in Queens. The tree pruner and the arborist hid from the cold for a while in the cab of the landscaping truck. He chainsmoked Newports, I warmed my fingers in the blasts of warm air from the windshield vents. He smokes up in the bucket too, wielding his saw at the same time.
When you prune a tree, you write your name across it, he told me. You have to be able to stand by that name. Out the window we could see those crazy old maples, the ones whose bark glints chartreuse with moss in the sun, now outlined in fresh snow. He had trimmed trees in much worse conditions, he said.
Sitting there, we listened to a radio show that scolded about climate change. The tree pruner never studied his art, he said, he learned by observation. Was I a Republican or a Democrat, he asked. He thought the two were basically identical, that the system was rigged. Was I a 9/11 truther, he asked. He was.
I was bundled like an Eskimo. He wore a windbreaker. He knew all the trees by their bark alone. He called london plane trees l.p.’s. After 25 years in the business, he had no pension to retire with.
Sometimes he looks back on his tree climbing days, he said. He was hired to scale mammoths, reporting back on infestations of Asian Longhorn Beetles, in Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens. Sometimes he misses going up with the other guys, way high up, above it all, where they would play cards in the branches and drink soda and joke around, hitting each other with things.
He hopped out of the cab. A woman had come from her house in the snow to get his attention. He spoke to her briefly then hopped back in. She told me she was ninety-two years old, he said. That’s a life, said the pruner.
January 28, 2016 · 11:28 am
Working in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store can be tedious. I fold sweaters. Process returns, a mental challenge that is only getting slightly easier. Size the merchandise, meaning make sure the clothes go in the proper order on the rack. Take outfits off mannequins. Put outfits on mannequins. Wait for customers. Where are the customers? The mall is dead today. Adults are absent, home shovelling. The teenagers are all here, of course, haunting American Apparel and tussling. They would never come in to our store, which sells to ladies of a certain age. Mature. Silverhaired. Tasteful. Kind of like me.
The glass doors shut at night and I become the low woman on the totem pole. The manager closes out the books. Someone has to clean the store. That someone is moi. 9:00 at night, my toes pinch me, I’m swiffering the length of the floorboards. It’s not surprising the amount of lint to be picked up, but somehow I’m surprised that the job falls to Jean Zimmerman.
I always think of the portrait Barbara Ehrenreich drew of her experience with a cleaning company, examining the minute and disgusting structure of dust castles under the furniture. When I was sixteen I farmed myself out as a housekeeper one day a week to neighbors, but ran in horror when I realized I had to clean their toilet bowls.
Now here I am. Me, the successful writer, whose fingers usually only touch a keyboard or a Uniball pen, wiping up the dust kicked up by customers. I write books, does anybody know that?! Of course I swiffer in my own home, but there is something different about cleaning up after strangers at the store. Now comes the vacuuming of the dressing rooms, crouching to pick up the detritus women leave behind – hair pins, clothing tags, bits of paper. Shoppers can bomb a dressing room in 10 minutes flat, explode the clothing inside out and every which way, after which I have to restore order.
This is honest work, I tell myself. Someone has to do it. Someone has to empty the garbage pails. My old feet hurt. Putting in new plastic trash bags. Can I go home now? My television and beer await me. My youngish manager counts the cash and calmly takes a look over at silverhaired, stooping me. Her menial days are past. Mine have just begun.
I wanted this job. I wanted a brainless break from writing, to make a buck or two, before tree season kicks in. I didn’t count on making the classy, intellectual person I thought I was into a maid.
Filed under Arborist, Clothing, Culture, Fashion, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Trees, Writers, Writing
January 15, 2016 · 4:34 pm
A girl I knew in college used to tell me she had a crush on the subject of Anthropology, in which she had taken so many wonderful courses. She like to say she was having an affair with Anthro, until she came to her senses and settled down with Economics as her major.
I know what she meant. I feel as though I fell in love with history early in my writing career, that it was exciting and wild and soulful, everything I wanted in a subject. (It never disrupted my marriage, however.) As I continued to write, I got deeper into history – I never jumped to economics! – with forays into different periods, especially colonial New York and Gilded Age Manhattan. I was thinking about how the lure of the past grabbed me when I re-shelved some of my research books the other day. I came across a thick, illustrated book about the world of historic textiles, then a compilation of maps dating back to when New York wasn’t yet New York. And I felt a thrill about being connected to all the lives led in the past and being able to access meaning through calico and vellum… yes, and pot shards and iron nails and beaver pelts and all the material goods you get to commune with as a historian.
Now, however, I am discovering the sometimes jarring beauty of something else – How We Live Now (a literary reference, to Anthony Trollope’s most famous novel). Working as a seasonal sales associate in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the mall has brought me up close to retail, and retail is unremittingly of the present. Especially the glimpse of the fluorescent, perfumed corridors in the moments after the stores close, when each storefront is a goldfish bowl that shows the private lives of the people who work there. When the doors are locked, I walk past the Godiva store, where two young men dunk strawberries for themselves into the milk chocolate goo that is usually reserved for the paying customers. I’m fatigued, my feet are sore from pacing the floor and rehanging merchandise, but I can’t help but be struck by relationships between these and other sales associates, like me, with the imagined David Mamet flavor of their interactions. At Ann Taylor, a shoplady sullenly pushes her swiffer around the linoleum. Behind the Apple façade, kids in red logo’d polos bob like maraschino cherries around the Ipads and watches, laughing and loose after their hours serving patrons. I feel wide awake, taking it all in.
But in the morning, before the stores open, I also get an infusion of non-historic pleasure. Of course we have mall walkers, a sizable number of them, in pairs and threes and fours, deep in conversation as they motor past my store before it opens. I am constantly amused, though, by the gaggle of about a dozen young mothers with strollers, exaggeratingly skipping as they push their babies, all in a line. This, my friends, is today, when legging-attired women drive themselves to be their best first thing in the morning, burning calories as they go, only to consume those same calories with their venti soy lattes at the Starbucks around the corner, the one that is just getting ready to open its doors. You don’t need a history book to appreciate that scenario.
January 8, 2016 · 4:55 pm
“You’re doing great,” said the customer, her three big bags of returns flopped open on the counter between us.
Snarl, snarl, I said. Inwardly.
“Really,” she said.
“Why, you are too,” I beamed sarcastically, as I knew I shouldn’t.
She called out to her friend, who was waiting for her. “I can’t believe my husband got me these things,” she said. Her friend called back, “Isn’t this top the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen?”
I feel defensive about The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store, now that I’ve been here four weeks. My sister-in-law came in and I tried to sell her on a sweater. And I’m good at helping women buy outfits. But there are things I’m bad at.
Ringing up returns, for example, at which I am fumble fingered and slow, peering at the various icons on the terminal screen like the foreign language that they are. Don’t get me started on store coupons.
I’m also lame at “putbacks,” dealing with the mountain of merchandise that has to be returned to the proper racks. I’ll walk around the store three times to find where a given pair of black pants lives. There are at least ten nearly identical kinds of black pants in the store, and I have no idea where to stash one in a timely manner.
Then there’s clearing out the dressing rooms, something you’re supposed to hop to as soon as a customer vacates the premises. Well, I have already moved on to something when they leave (struggling with returns at the register, for example) and the explosive mess of garments left behind falls to a more responsible sales associate to clean up.
I am bad at things. I have never done them before. Don’t hate me because I am ignorant. That I am at midlife somehow makes it worse. I know my accomplishments in the fields of writing and research — but retail is another universe.
This has been an instructive experience. When I go into Starbucks and the service lags, I’m not the one tapping on my watch and frowning. Mellow out, let the sales clerks make their grande flat whites at their own pace. It’s only their due with the money they make.
And maybe it’ll come back to me as a karmic blessing behind the cash register.