Category Archives: Fashion

Queen for a Day

There is a lot of hurry up and wait for an arborist working on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, catch basins and pipes go into the trenches and the equipment doesn’t brush a tree. In the meantime I people watch.

The folks here are diverse. There isn’t money for Park Avenue designers, but some of them dress like queens. A big African contingent, mainly from Gambia, awes me.

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I’m in my dowdy fluorescent vest and hard hat and they’re flying by in gold embroidered hijabs. Even the little girls have their heads covered. Adolescent girls – princesses, I’m sure – wear the same. I see one hurrying to the first day of school, her head wrapped in a cocoa-colored scarf, pink Converse All Stars on her feet.

A dirt-covered beggar spends his crumpled dollar bills at Dunkin Donuts.

Two Beastie Boys, brims in reverse, cross in the middle of the avenue. A mustachioed older gent in a Navy suit with a light green ascot steps out of the dollar store. A woman crosses the street to get a bottle of water, leaving her chihuahua on the sidewalk, unleashed but waiting patiently for her return. There are turbans in all colors, for one man a pristine light lavendar. Self propelled wheelchairs zoom by, dozens of them. Dreads abound, a head of magenta, another woman with black snaking down her back and a clutch of rings in her nose.

In a store display I see clothes I could wear on the job if I was really daring.

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Their only interaction with the white woman in the hard hat is to ask where the bus stop has been moved to.

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As Beautiful as a Day Can Be

…when the calendar page flips over and suddenly you’re older by a year.

But let’s take stock. Here on West Street there is a tumbling breeze and the sky is robin’s egg blue–what a cliché, let’s just call it cliché blue –with streaky white clouds and sunlight that bakes us all but perfectly.

The men frame up curbs by laying boards vertically in a trench, a long pink string stretched taut. Everyone is already dirty, first thing in the morning. The backhoe hauls up chunks of the old pavement.

A movie shoot has come to Greenpoint today, The Deuce, for HBO, and the little old factory streets are crammed with orange cones and film trucks. Kids go by carrying styrofoam shells of gourmet commissary food. They wear skinny T’s and skinny jeans on their skinny little bodies and clipped to their clothes are the tools of the trade, buckskin gloves, walkie-talkies.

Our commissary is a quilted metal truck  with spigots built-in for hot water and coffee. It’s 8:30, time for “coffee” which really means a sandwich. When you work this hard you need two lunches. These guys wear rawhide toolbelts hung with hammers and wrap their heads with bandannas like pirates.

Standing to the side I am ignored by the youngsters for whom my age and vest make me invisible, and by the laborers, for whom my sex makes me a cipher. What am I doing here anyway? On this birthday I float in the middle of everything. The millennials,  the laborers, the sunshine, the breeze.

A young man leaning against the same wall asks me what is going on with the construction. He is perfectly adorable, adorably perfect, dark blue eyes and wavy hair. Smoking a cigarette, badly. His name is Adam. Adam tells me about the rentable green space in the building, the CrossFit club and the mega storm that hit the city at 5 o’clock yesterday. With a small trace of pride he mentions that he left his motorcycle parked up the street.

In his company I forget all the skinny minis and instead admire the  thudding, wide-eyed, all-inhaling heart of youth. I’ll never be there again, sure. But I can see it better than ever.

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All This and a Cow Face Too

It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.

Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.

I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone.  It’s amazing.

The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.

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Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.

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What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.

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I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.

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I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.

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And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.

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The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.

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The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.

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There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.

Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.

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Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.

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A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.

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I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.

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Goodbye to All That Merchandise

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.

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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.

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Scutwork

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.

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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.

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Skipping History

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.

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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.

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You’re Not Doing Great. Really.

“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?”

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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.

 

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