Thursday, April 10, 2008

New York Shopping Memories

Illustration: Bob Schulenberg.
By Pia Savage

I can’t remember when but my mom told me that Tiffany’s second floor was a secret passed on from mother to daughter. I believed her because I believed everything that my mother said. While her mother was a not-poor but not affluent immigrant she had incredible taste and always knew what to do, so she might have told my mother.

Tiffany’s second floor was where you could pick up less expensive wedding and hostess gifts. They were always in good taste, and welcomed because of the blue Tiffany box. The gifts weren’t original, but I have a huge multi-faceted crystal paperweight that had been given to my parents, and they gave to me as I collect glass and crystal.

I stopped going to Tiffany’s in the early ’80’s when many unique gift stores opened on Lexington Avenue that were funky and more to my taste.

Then there was Alexander's, oh how do I get from Tiffany’s to Alexander's? Well the Manhattan Alexander's – across 59th Street from Bloomingdale’s where the Bloomberg building is today. It was just a three block walk from Tiffany but a world apart.

When my sister and I were young, every year the night before school began our family would drive to the Alexander's in Rego Park. There would be a five mile back-up on both sides of the Long Island Expressway.

I never understood this ritual, nor liked it, but our parents seemed to love it. Clothes were of great importance to my parents. So was the physical act of being in a store

Alexander's had everything: from school supplies to winter coats. I thought that everybody bought their clothes there.

When we moved to “real” Long Island, as opposed to the edge of Northeast Queens, I quickly found out that my sister and I dressed all wrong. The girls in our new school had worn clothes from Best & Company in elementary school, and now, in Seventh Grade, wore Villager clothes and Papagallo shoes from The Miracle Mile in Manhasset. We begged and begged for our mom to buy us clothes from some store other than Alexander's but she refused.
Alexander's in the 1950s. Lehman College Library, CUNY.
I was allowed to buy my own clothes the next year so it wasn’t as much of an issue as I made it into, and my decades of black and purple began. My mother loved black but my father thought that it looked all wrong on a thirteen year old. There were rules then about age appropriate clothes. Fortunately they were beginning to be broken.He would moan about his daughter in perpetual mourning. I thought that was such a Catholic thing to say, and he was so culturally Jewish.

Later, in the 1970’s when I moved to the East 60s just off Fifth, and my parents had seen much of the world she said, I found that there was no place like Alexander's for pocketbooks, pantyhose, underwear, and even some clothes. It was worth the half hour wait on line. No matter how many salespeople there were, and how few customers, the wait was always half hour.

I did form many friendships while waiting on line at Alexander's. The lines were so slow; I could know a woman’s life story and she could know half of mine before even reaching the register. When I wasn’t in a good mood, and was crazed over the lines, I could scream like a crazy woman at the sales people and the assistant to the assistant manager. This was considered normative behavior at Alexander's. At any one time half the line would be screaming:

“What’s going on?” “That girl’s so stupid…”

“I could be halfway to Europe by now…”

“Do they only hire retarded people here?”

“Why am I standing here with 20 pairs of pantyhose, 30 pieces of underpants, a pocketbook…”  The voices would all be on top of each other.

In a world before designer bags became the norm, Alexander's had exceptional pocketbooks that looked like they cost a fortune, were unusual, and so great that rich women would stop me on the street and ask where I bought my bag.

Other girls would lie, not me: Uh, Alexander's?

“That can’t be from Alexander's. Look at the detail on the leather and the velvet. So intricate.”

“Really. Alexander's.”

“But I want that pocketbook, and, well you know, Alexander's...

“I know but it’s worth it.”

“Oh dear, I’ll have to send Laverne.” (Or whoever the housekeeper was.)

While I was in many ways a recovering hippie, I had a look that could fit in anywhere.
When I was 26, in 1977, Fred the Furrier at Alexander's had been opened for a year. This was before PETA, and the animal rights movement.

My then best friend Shelby had a raccoon coat from Fred’s. Because Shelby had bought a raccoon coat most of our other girlfriends bought one also.

I wanted something more luxe, something signifying that I had arrived and was no longer a hippie -- though at night I was a post- glam-rock-punk girl which did entail much black, lurex, and makeup. I had a watch made out of huge sterling safety pins, and wore it everywhere.

One day my dad and I met at Fred’s so that he could buy me my birthday present. I was 26 and half way to 27. This was not only expected but accepted in our family that after 25 we would get much more lavish presents such as a trip to Europe, or in this case, a fur coat. I wanted Sable but would accept Mink.

We began looking at coats. It took us less than two minutes to realize that neither of us knew anything about fur.

“So, do you like that one?” (Any conversation with my parents involved many “so’s.” For a long time I thought that it was really a Yiddish word and the only one my parents would use in conversation with us.)

Yick, it’s too fluffy, and I don’t know, there’s something…let’s look at the minks.”

We began looking at the minks. My father started asking the sales people questions. He had an amazing shtick that always worked: (this was pre PC days, too.)

My dad did what he always did when he was confused: he would run to me or my mom. Since I was confused also, he went to the nearest pay phone and called my mom.

“So she wants a mink…”

“So is it full skin?”

“Uh, what’s full skin…”

“Wait right there. I’m coming in,” she told him. She was on Long Island.

Of course we couldn’t wait there while she drove to the train station, took the next train, then a cab because it was a special occasion, and went up the slowest escalator in the world to Fred the Furriers at Alexander's. Yes even the elevators and escalators were slow at Alexander's.

So we went to a restaurant next door in Bloomingdale’s to wait. My father had an unnatural love for department store food. He insisted that the food was better, fresher and that there were less calories.I was always meeting him for lunch in one department store or another.

Orbach’s on 34th Street was his personal favorite. It was even less classy than Alexander's, didn’t have as good stuff, but did have better lines. All the waitresses knew him by name:

Actually a walk through many department stores with my dad was an incredible experience. Wherever we went, the sales people knew him by name and would rush from their customers to greet him.

My dad was a successful CPA with an office at home, and one in the city. I could never figure out where he had the time to meet so many sales people, in every store from the old Barney’s to Bergdorf’s.

“Well, Pia, in life you should always take the time to meet as many people as possible.” Then he would make a facial expression that was somewhere in between a grimace and a grin. “Look, most of them don’t make much money, and people treat them so rudely….”

“Oh, Max, you just love the attention they give you.” I never called him “dad” or “daddy” in public, as he insisted that my sister and I call him Max.

By the time we finished lunch at Bloomingdale’s, my mom was waiting for us at Fred’s. We spotted her deep in conversation with Fred himself!

“So where did you eat lunch?” she asked  (translation: “I told you to wait for me here.”) My mom was nothing if not sweet and blunt. She held the patent on sweet and blunt; I have somewhat mastered it but could never be like Marian.
Supposedly Jewish girls are taught about full skinned furs in the cradle. This was another part of my education that my mom had overlooked. She had been too busy teaching us values, and why people like my parents should be called “progressive,” and never “Communist” or the dreaded “Socialist.”

My mom’s family had been Communists; my dad’s had been Socialists, which is why it was the dreaded word, though she did love most of my dad’s family. By now my dad was a neo-con while my mom was becoming progressively more progressive. I thought that the mink would be an easy sell as my mom’s had cost $10,000 and had been especially made for her at a furriers. Fred’s minks averaged around $2,500.

She looked at me bluntly and said: “You can’t buy a mink coat.’

“Why not?”

“You have to be 35. If you’re under 35 you have to be married with children.”

“But I’ve been married. I never want to be married again.’

“Don’t say that.” We weren’t religious but knew every superstition. I could hear a silent Kinehora. (A Yiddish term like “knock on wood”)

“Minks are classy. They always look good.”

“You’re only 26. People will think the wrong things if you wear one.”

“What things?”

“You know, things.”

“Ma, uh Marian, I live off Fifth. People already think the wrong things. Do you know how many doormen at the hotels ask if I’d like to earn some money?”

She shot me a look filled with both disdain and pride. My mom was short and cute. I wasn’t tall, but everybody thought that I was. In the dressing room at Loehman’s she was always making people admire my breasts, waist and hips. I wanted her legs. She still wore mini skirts, and looked darn good in them.

“So, you see?”

I knew when to accept defeat. My always talkative father remained silent throughout this exchange. Fred kept on smiling. We fit his target market: successful parents; young daughter on her way up. He told me that a pretty girl like me would be back with my next husband within a few years to buy the most expensive Mink or even a Sable.

I finally settled on a dyed Nutria with a huge Opossum collar. Nutria’s are swamp rats found in some Southern States and in South America. It was a beautiful coat. I wore it with everything for the next fifteen years. It looked especially good with straight legged jeans. Though I hated winter, I loved being able to throw the coat on over my jeans and sweater, put on some lipstick, sunglasses, and walk around looking all high cotton.

People who didn’t know fur thought that it was a Mink. My Nutria was, of course, full skinned.

When I moved out of Manhattan for awhile in 1991, I gave the coat to a neighborhood homeless woman. If it didn’t make her as happy as it made me, I hope it kept her warm.