July 25 , 2011
I’ve been in New York City a month. My unlimited 30-day Metrocard expires tomorrow. I can now get most places I want to go without consulting HopStop and writing down all the details on a card. The daughters at the Turkish market on the corner know my preferences (“We have coconut yogurt again!” “Good cherries today!”) I’ve been to landmarks, museums, parks, libraries, literary shrines, historical shrines, cemeteries, four different churches, and a playground where I ran afoul of the law. I’ve walked through the East Village, Chelsea, SoHo, Times Square, and Battery Park.
Today, I opened my New York Walks and decided, this is the day for “A Shopping Spree: Madison and Fifth Avenues.” The guidebook promises that “[t]his tour around the upper section of Fifth Avenue allows you to blitz the highlights of the undisputed shopping capital of the world in a morning. . . . This stretch of shops . . . screams sophistication.” The tour included Bloomingdale’s, Barneys (no apostrophe), F.A.O. Schwarz, Bergdorf Goodman, and Tiffany and Co. [sic], where I could have my purchase popped into a “highly prized” blue paper bag. (I have several of them, obtained at the Tiffany & Co. store in The Plaza at King of Prussia, a shopping center 90 minutes from where I live which has appeared twice in my fiction.)
I came up out of the subway across the street from Bloomingdale’s. I could see the 59th Street Bridge beyond, and remembered that I’d walked past this store when I went out to said bridge in 2009 to sing. I decided to skip Bloomingdale’s and go instead up to 61st Street, intent on visiting Barneys.
I have to say, I had never heard of Barneys before it was mentioned on “Friends.” In one episode, Phoebe and Rachel take possession of a phone left behind at Central Perk by an attractive man, and argue over who should contact him and perhaps establish a relationship.
“He’s got Barney’s on his speed dial!” exclaims the fashion-conscious Rachel.
“So you don’t know that’s Barney’s the store! That can be y’know his friend’s house, or a bar. Who has Barney’s the store on their speed dial?,” says Phoebe.
I would learn that Barneys is hip, haute couture, and caters to the luxury shopper. I know someone who had a coat, described as “gorgeous,” bought there as a gift, albeit at the store’s first warehouse sale, when they were on 7th Avenue in Chelsea and not 61st Street near the zoo. That coat has appeared twice in my fiction, along with a pair of Burberry gloves. Maybe I wanted to feel like one character’s mother, who buys the coat and gloves for her son when he starts work as an apprentice funeral director. Or maybe I wanted to feel like a different character, who acquires the coat at the Barneys in Chicago, and watches it, and its recipient, walk away from her and into a life without her, a life she has insisted he undertake, because it’s what’s right for him.
The guidebook said that weekday mornings were the best time to visit these stores. It was just after opening when I arrived. Some people were peering in the windows, taking pictures of the very minimalist displays that could be seen from the street. Uniformed guards stood at each door. I kept catching glimpses of myself in the sparkling plate glass windows. I was wearing a light blue Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference t-shirt, my WRITER hat, my purple polka-dot Nike sneakers. I had a black messenger bag slung across my body and my camera case dangling from a strap.
Looking at myself, I thought, oh my. I am so so shlubby. I am just not pretty enough to go into that store.
I walked over to the park, had a Wafel & Dinges (a Belgian waffle with strawberries and bananas, some of the dinges [toppings] you can choose — $6), sat for a while and watched the pedicab operators trolling for customers. Then I got up and walked back 61st Street, intending to continue on to DKNY, F.A.O. Schwarz, and Tiffany.
As I passed Barneys, three women came out. They looked like a 50-something mother and two late teens/early twenties daughters. Although all three were slim, with attractive haircuts and professional color jobs (I have that too), they were wearing t-shirts, casual pants, flip-flops (OK, designer flip-flops, not the kind you can get for 99 cents at a Duane Reade). All three were carrying a Barneys shopping bag. They’d all bought something in there. They looked no more suitable for shopping at an elegant luxury department store than I did. In fact, one of the girls was wearing a t-shirt that said something equivalent to “Party till you puke.”
I pulled on the heavy glass door and walked in.
When Lynn worked in retail at Bed, Bath & Beyond, she learned that store personnel greeting customers helped to curb shoplifting, as it created a sense of being among friends instead of an anonymous corporation. I was greeted almost incessantly as I walked through Barneys. I was the only customer around, and I have to say I felt self-conscious, not only because I was feeling shlubby again, but also because I knew I had no intention of buying anything.
I strolled into an area of women’s clothing where everything seemed to be in shades of black and gray. A pair of ballet flats in a shiny fake snakeskin was $495. White crepe trousers were $350. I was drawn to a coat (ooh, I thought, maybe my own gorgeous coat from Barneys!), a gray lamb suede with a silver fox lining and trim. I reached into the pocket for the price tag. $5,590. (That’s a comma between the 5s.) Actually, I didn’t really like the industrial-style zipper, even though it was hidden by a placket.
I went downstairs to the cosmetics area. (The cosmetics floor, it should be noted.) I actually do need a product in the Clinique line that I have used for more than thirty years. Barneys didn’t have Clinique. I had never heard of any of the lines that they did have, except Clarins and Sheseido. I wondered if I should make an appointment with the eyebrow expert. I wondered how much a lip and brow wax ($27 back home, from a true artist) might cost.
I thought of going up to the housewares section, but in the elevator, I suddenly realized that I was bored. Not frustrated because I couldn’t afford any of the things I was looking at, not tired from standing in crowded subway cars and pounding dirty, unforgiving pavements, not sad because all the expensive cosmetics in the world are not going to make me look like a fashion model in that almost $6000 coat. I was bored. Bored with the whole “shopping spree” idea. I got on the subway and made my way back to my brazen tower in Yorkville.
Tonight, I opened my notebook and began writing about the day’s events. I remembered my own experience in retail. My first job was as a checkout clerk in the basement of Woolworth’s on Market Street in Harrisburg in 1963 ,the summer after tenth grade. Six years later, the summer that I graduated from college, I worked at Pomeroy’s, then Harrisburg’s smartest downtown department store. (It’s the Bon-Ton now, and the downtown store is gone.) I was assigned inventory work, checking numbers on tags against a book full of pages and pages of handwritten entries, in an airless, windowless office that I shared with an older man (he was probably the age I am now), some department head, I think, who smoked cigars and talked to his mistress, and sometimes his wife, on the phone as if I weren’t there.
After inventory was finished, I worked as a fitting room checker in a department called “Mod Dresses.” Maybe it was “Modern Dresses,” and the young saleswomen I worked with called it “mod dresses” ironically. It wasn’t the Pacesetter department, where the really chic clothes were. I used my employee discount (20% on black or navy blue dresses with sleeves that were suitable for work, 15% on everything else) to acquire conservative, professional-looking things to begin my teaching job. I remember a dark green shift with a belt by Donald Davies of Dublin, and a John Romaine bag that I still have.
I established a somewhat lasting friendship with one of the young women who worked there. She was hip and smart, fashionable, fun, but also possessed of a certain depth of soul and sensitivity of spirit. We continued to see each other even after she married and moved away. She came to my wedding in 1975. I haven’t kept many souvenirs of that event, but I do have a picture of her taken that day. And then, gradually, the contact lessened, and she and our time together became a memory.
As I worked on the notes, fashioning something of a scene in which my character buys that coat for the man she will push out of her life, I began to see my old friend as the chic and helpful clerk who will sell it to her. And then, for reasons I can’t explain, I typed her name into Facebook.
And there she was, her smile as warm and as welcoming as I remembered it.
I wrote a note, and sent her a friend request. Which she accepted.
Our lives have changed a lot in the 41 years since we met, in the more than 35 years since we’ve seen each other. We’ve had ups and downs, happy times and sad ones, as might be expected. “Whatever made you find me?” she asked, and added, “I’m glad you did.”
I had been thinking, on my way back from Fifth Avenue this afternoon, that maybe the foray to Barneys was the least satisfactory aspect of this whole trip, that I had wasted the better part of a day with nothing but boredom to show for it.
Now I’m thinking, maybe this was the best thing that happened this month.