Monday, December 27, 2010

The Solitary Shopper

I am one of those people to whom many stories are told.

From dusty tales of Mexican laundry folders who drink too much on Saturday nights to one very nervous cop aiming his gun at me as I exited my apartment to dispose of recyclables, to my traveling companions on overstuffed M100 buses, to under appreciated and aggravated secretaries, public school teachers with unruly students, to Wall Street workers coming off an exhilarating trade, the shopping bag of disclosure is open and ready for unpacking.

It happens most often while I shop. From tomatoes to turtlenecks, the hordes corner me like some sort of exalted celebrity when I’m preoccupied with finding the right size, shape or shoe. Dapper shoe salesmen complain about women who spend their weekends being waited on hand and well, feet, and who send these hard working men scurrying to the storeroom; chubby cashiers at Target, Saks and Duane Reade point out their swollen ankles; and the chic who shop at the Gap and Henri Bendel invite me into the operating room as they describe gallbladder and appendix removals. I’ve listened to tales of cheating boyfriends, sloppy husbands and dirty landlords from the minions who purchase and pander at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; epics reveal painful shoes, poor diet, bad bosses, and badder day as my bunions and I stand on line to pay in the world’s most remote shop or tugging on a too small skirt in a dressing room separated from the sales floor by a curtain. I keep thinking that if I set up a series of couches near cash registers I can get the chats and complaints over all at once.

Move over, Dr. Phil. I’m hanging out my shingle for retail therapy.

So here I am, the queen of sound bite confessions. The fascination of speaking with me is no more evident than alongside of sales racks from Manhattan to Minneapolis, and in front of cash registers from 7-Eleven to Saks Fifth Avenue. And nowhere is my expertise more in evidence and my patience tested than when I shop at Lord & Taylor, a calmer, more soothing shopping experience without the hordes and gaggles of gigglers, fluorescent lights, and the hamster mazes of aisles of its more flamboyant sister, Macy’s.

The lineage of women among the sales racks can be traced back, I’m convinced, to the early days of hunters and gathers. Women waved goodbye while their mates went after dinner, and this communal commiserating, companionship and co-parenting kept the community alive. And thus began the origins of the group shop. I know there’s a shopping bag from the Ice Age hidden deep in the core of our planet just waiting to be carbon dated.

In the evolution of women, torched bras and nylon stockings have been replaced by Spanx, spandex, and credit cards. Women still gather but they also hunt; two or three women in a department store with big game in sight, from Manolos to sequins to sassy skirts and scarves, descend on department and specialty stores everywhere in the world. This portion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is still with us. A few women, like myself, mutate from this genetic claim and strike out on our own to go shopping. Others require my validation.

How do I look?
Fabulous!
How does this make me look?
Fabulous!
I’m a size 14 and this dress is a size 6. Do I look good or what?
Fabulous!

My intersection with the shopping sisterhood creates a Venn diagram of dialogue to the point where I’ve considered wearing a wig and glasses and hiring a bodyguard. Let me serve up a taste of my shopping life.

Shopping can be divided into several categories: in the name of bargains, camaraderie, the boredom pack, the curiosity group, “I wonder what size I am now” collection, the triage trio, the demanding duo, or let’s get it over with, I can’t stand the crowds for another minute – and let’s face it, shopping with friends can be a frightening phenomenon. When I shop with friends, I buy clothing I would never, in my wildest dreams, consider bringing home, like the plaid linen dirndl skirt or grape poncho with tassels. A straight line can be drawn from the manufacturer, to the shop, to my wallet and to my closet and then slam dunked into the thrift store donation bin.

So, here I am, the solitary shopper, armed with coupons and credit cards, a bottle of tap water, toothbrush, and toothpaste as I make my descent into Lord & Taylor on a foraging mission to supplement my collection of blue jeans and t-shirts with a few snappy skirts and tops.  Doors swing open at ten sharp at the Fifth Avenue flagship store. Like a prizefighter prepared for swift punches, dubious ones, and a knockout blow, I have trained for the markdown, the misplaced belt, the search for the right size, and the dedication to come out a champion with more than a few dollars saved. Down for the count means nothing fits and I’m waved out of the store with no shopping bags. For the record, this has only happened once and only because I sailed through the shoe department to check on winter boots which hadn’t yet arrived.
Three minutes into my adventure, I am spotted, much like Brad or Angelina attempting to blend with the crowd.

It began on the escalator, next to the sign indicating that we have ascended to the third floor.

“Is this the fifth floor?” Two woman with over processed blond hair and Bermuda shorts inquire.

I give this some thought.

“Could be,” an answer designed to throw them off my trail and to discourage any lingering conversation. I rappelled to the fifth floor and spotted a familiar sign, 40% off, which means that swiping the bar code on my coupons would net me an additional 20% off. I’m cookin’.

Racks overflow with marked down Ralph Lauren, Tommy Bahama, Eileen Fisher, Lord & Taylor’s house brand, Kate Hill, Liz Claiborne and the labels of others who cloak and cover our bodies from a size 0 to a size 24 plus, from extra small to three times as large. A number of women like me envision themselves a lot smaller, holding up what should fit and then being disappointed. You can blame it on the manufacturer for poor sizing but a three way mirrors holds no illusions.

My shopping companions poked through the racks and a few poked me with their purses. Now, mind you, the floor was loaded with idle saleswomen. I was hoping to leave via early decision but not today.

“What do you think of this color?,” asked one woman who looks like a model, holding up a yellowish-brown sweater with orange stripes.

“I’ve never seen this shade before,” I admitted.

“How much is this with markdown? Is this too much for me to pay,” a woman carrying a briefcase checks in, holding up a Ralph Lauren skirt with the priced mowed down from $200 to $119.

“I think it’s worth it,” I replied. Well, not really, but a little encouragement can go a long way.

“What do you think my husband would say?” asked another woman, already wielding enough shopping bags to incite a hernia, and armed with a vertical valance attached to a denim skirt.

“I think he’d love it,” I offered with conviction; although I’d never met the man, I was convinced he would be overwhelmed.

“I just had a tummy tuck. Do you think I can fit into this?,” inquired an older woman with a flat stomach but enormous hips, thrusting a pair of hip huggers at me.I had to think about this one.

“Why not give it a try?,” I suggested diplomatically.

“Do you think this sweater will match my skirt that’s hanging in my closet at home?,” demanded one woman with a large perm and even larger purse.

“Absolutely.”

The floor seemed to close in on me.

“Where’s the ladies room?,” demanded a woman in a pink tracksuit (they seem to be everywhere).

“By the elevator but not on the 6th floor,” I answered mechanically, digging into my purse for my water.

“Can you zip me up?,” asks one gray haired woman with her back hanging out of a white blouse.

I put down my water.

“You may want to inhale,” I noted. “And go back into the dressing room.”

After inching my way toward the center aisle, I was almost free.

“I’m going to a wedding. Do you think the bride’s mother will like this? She’s really quite particular,” wonders one woman holding up a black and white dotted dress.

“She’ll love it,” I yelled, waving my water.

“Why are you wearing that?”

Two women stopped me, looking at my denim blouse with disdain. They may have noticed that it’s wrinkled and has white stain from toothpaste but I can’t be certain.

“When a gun is pointed, I’ll put on anything,” I snarled.

I slip into an empty dressing room and lock myself in. I grunt and groan getting in and out of too tight blouse that gets stuck under my armpits and cuts off my circulation. It’s a bit like wrestling with a bear until it finally pops off and I pop out, able to catch my breath again. I look around. There I am, at all angles. My hair appears to be windswept in the airless cubicle and, is my behind really that large? A suspicious mole comes off in my hands; it’s just an M&M from an earlier snack.  I tune in to the sisterhood.

These shorts are gorgeous, comes from the room to my right.
Mom, why are you buying that? cries a embarrassed teenage voice that could have been my own from years ago.
Because I want to.
I don’t want to be seen with you wearing that.
Fine. Don’t look then.


There’s a rap on my white shutter-like door. Doorbells and a peephole, anyone?

“Do you think this costs too much?,” inquires an older woman with glasses holding a poodle and a v-neck t-shirt with a $49 price stag.

“Yes,” I said. “ff you have to ask.”

“Does this make me look fat?,” demands a woman who says she’s a nurse. She turns around twice in a pleated skirt that makes it look like there’s air under her skirt. But those are her hips.

“What about my hips?” She smoothed down the pleats but they don’t move.

“What about them?” I raised my eyebrows.

After closing the door and putting on my own clothes, a Ralph Lauren sweater tossed over my head.

The petites are one floor up and I quickly ducked behind three slinky mannequins. A couple of women haven’t discovered me - yet. Both petite, with white hair, overdressed for a day out shopping, and smelling of mothballs, stale perfumes, and general decay, they push their way through jumbled racks of marked down clothing.

“It isn’t beautiful?” cooed the taller of the two, holding up a dirt colored sweater. “It was made just for you.”

After following them for about 20 minutes, I hit the lottery. A black skirt made of silk and wool carried a price tag of $86 down to $49.97. I quickly did the math – 40% off would be close to $25 minus an additional 20% off would be about $20. Or so I thought. The friendly saleswomen looked at me over her glasses and scanned in the tag. The skirt was reduced to $9.56 not counting the 40% off and 20% discount coupon. My grand purchase accumulated to $3.99. The saleswomen said that her son just graduated from college and that someone must have coded the tag improperly in the computer. This never happens to me.

A woman carrying four bags stopped me.

“How do I look in this?,” she demanded

I looked her over and asked her to turn around. And turn around the other way. And the other way. She started to topple, her black and white polka dot dressed swirling in a hypnotic pattern.

“I’ve never seen you look better,” I gushed. “I would buy two.”

Time to move on.

A shopper came my way on the third floor.

“What’s that thing?,” she asked, pointing to the scanner near the sale priced Dana Buchman outfits.

“It checks radioactivity.”

I hustled on another dressing to try on a very expensive skirt by Ellen Tracy. The dressing room was larger than my living room. I tossed my jeans onto the upholstered chair, dropped my handbag on the floor, draped my blouse on the table, and examined my cellulite from all angles.

I bought the skirt with my coupons.

I have yet to wear it.

My day is almost over. The few men I’ve seen shop early and leave furtively even when they are in the men’s department. I decided to check out the handbags. I wasn’t in the world of purses, clutches, and carryalls more than five minutes when three saleswomen asked me if I needed help. I began to get annoyed.

My friend, Ruth, told me that I should go shopping in dark glasses or with an entourage to throw off the scent from the sisterhood. On my next visit, I wore my hair in a ponytail and a t-shirt with hood. It didn’t help.

One woman confronted me.

“How do I find the sizes?,” she asked.

“Look for S-M-L-XL,” I growled. “Those are clues.”

An older woman leaned against the racks. I gently tilted her so that she stood upright with her cane.

I prepared myself for the rest, as they waved clothes at me from one end of the store to the other.

How does this look on me?
This is the most fabulous thing I’ve even seen you in. Run to the register before someone else picks it up.
Does emerald green go with red?
A
bsolutely! Go stand next to the elves.
Does this make me look young?
B
y at least 30 years.


Ms. Jones, one of the saleswomen on the 5th floor, spotted me in my disguise. My ruse was up.

“What do you think of this jacket?” I held up a blue Tommy Bahama cotton jacket.

“Fabulous.” she whispered. “You couldn’t have made a better choice.”

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