I was working at Alexander’s Department store in the late 60′s. I was hired for the men’s department, actually, the Tomorrow Shop. I didn’t realize it then but The Tomorrow Shop was where the good-looking, young, hip people were put to give the store a trendier look. I didn’t know I was young and hip or good looking. Me trendy? One day the VP of marketing came into the shop and looked at me, “What are YOU doing here?” And she pulled me downstairs to where the men’s fashion show was being held. She grabbed a suit off the rack, threw it at me and said, “Now get out there”. She thought I was one of the models. “Ma’am, I’m a salesman.” She took a beat, looked me up and down and said, “Not any more.” And she put me in the show and used me to model in their catalogue until I left for California.
I actually liked working at that store. It was like a family. We fought, we loved, we talked about each other behind our backs. It was just like a family. And here’s a funny side note. No one in that store had a last name. Like, I was Steve from Tomorrow, made me sound like I was from Disneyland. There was Rosie from receiving and Gail from dry goods and Phil from shoes and Nancy from Jr. Petites and Arnold Goodman, the coat king. Arnold worked in coats and looked like Eddy Munster, was as masculine as Ellen DeGeneres and as funny as Joan Rivers. He had the thickest New York Accent ever and was a fixture in the store. He was the coat king then but today he works in Furs and is the prince of pelts.
We all would eat lunch together in the cafeteria Arnold, Rena, Gloria, Steve Leest, Rosie, me. Over the years we experienced deaths and weddings and bar mitzvahs and firings and rehiring sitting around that cafeteria table. It was the strangest collection of people ever… we came from all over and yet we were one. I remember once we had a party at a restaurant after work. People would look at our group trying to figure out what the connection was…why was that black woman sitting with that white boy and why was the skinny Puerto Rican girl talking to the fat Russian lady. We were an odd mix but it was the oddity that kept us together.
I remember one woman in particular, Evelyn. She sat by herself and wasn’t part of our group. She was short and frail and worked in children’s wear. She was Evelyn from Children’s wear. Most of the women in the store were fashion conscious, Evelyn wasn’t. Most had their hair colored. Evelyn wore hers grey like a badge of courage. When she would come into the café it would grow silent and I never knew why. Then, one day as she passed, I heard a whisper, “She lost her son. 24 years old. Viet Nam.” Now I understood. They were giving her space to grieve.
Some time later I remember Evelyn coming into the cafeteria and seeming out of sorts, more distant than normal…more alone. I watched her as she peeled her orange. She slit it from the top to the bottom in four sections like a beach ball, and then she would peel back the skin to reveal the untouched meat inside. “I wish I could do that,” I said almost not knowing I was talking aloud. “It’s simple, come here, I’ll show you.” And she produced another orange and peeled it for me. When the rind was off, she shoved it across the table, “Nuh” (Jewish for “here”.) It was then I noticed the tattooed numbers on her arm. I had never seen them before she always wore long sleeves. I had lived a very sheltered life in Boston. She saw that I saw and she just tugged at her sleeve. I wanted so desperately to reach out and take her hand but I didn’t dare. She was a very private woman. Suddenly she burst into tears. “One year… one year today.” is all she said. I knew she was referring to her son. It made me feel guilty. I was alive her son was dead. I had no reason to feel that way… but I did. I slid over to a seat next to her. “I’ll be your son.” She took my hand and squeezed it just a little… just enough to say thank you.
We never spoke of that moment again. I was too embarrassed to mention it. I think she just wanted to forget. But it created a silent bond between us. She’d bring me a cookie or peel me an orange. I would always make her laugh. “Stevie, such a funny boy.” I had always considered her frail but she showed me how strong she could be one day when Gertie came in and had a nervous breakdown.
We were seated around our table in the café. They were long tables all lined up like a prison dining room. Their yellow Formica tops were discolored with years of misuse and half-hearted attempts at cleaning. I was with a group talking about an impending sale when Gertie runs in and plops in a seat. She announces to no one. “I need to talk. I’ve got to throw her out.” “Who?” “My Judy” (her daughter) “Why. What happened???” We all knew Judy was Gertie’s pride. The first to go to college she was Gertie’s trophy, the reason she worked, the sun rose and set in that girl. And now she was throwing her out?? And then she tells us that the night before her beloved Judy had taken LSD. Gertie came home and Judy was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor stark naked, sitting in a box of kitty litter, playing with it like it was water. Gertie told the story like each word was a knife cutting into her throat, “I screamed at her. WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? And she laughed at me. She just laughed.” And with that Gertie broke down and began to sob. This was not like Gertie; Gertie was a tough cookie. Gertie was the one you called when your ad merchandise was stuck in receiving and you couldn’t get it out. Gertie was the one you called when the buyers were giving you a hard time. Gertie was not a crier… Gertie made YOU cry. My heart broke for her as she pleaded with us to tell her what she should do. We sat there like dummies, what did I know I was 23. Opinions were being offered left and right. Suggestions were a dime a dozen and then quietly, from her table, Evelyn gingerly raised her hand. “Gertie, go home and hug your daughter.” “What?” “Go home and hug her. She needs it.” Then, without saying a word, she picked up her tray, walked over to the trash and dumped her milk carton. “Hug her, Gertie. There may not be a chance tomorrow.” She slid the dirty tray into the slot to be washed. “I know.” And she left to go back to the selling floor shaking her head all the way to the swinging doors by the long line of time cards.
The group was hushed and stunned. Then Rena said, “You know, she’s right.” Gertie sat there staring out into space, not crying, not blinking. I think she was processing the information. The next day Gertie couldn’t wait for our group’s gathering at noon. She was the first one sitting at the table. She had good news. She had talked to Judy. She had laid down the law. No more drugs. Evelyn walked by and Gertie yelled. “Evelyn did ya hear?” Evelyn nodded as she sat by herself peeling an orange. She looked at me and winked!
I loved those people at Alexander’s. There were a million stories in that store. A million? Ten million. I never thought I would ever think of them again. But I guess it all went into the computer between my ears. I’m sure I’ll think of other stories… funny ones… but when I thought of Alexander’s and New York and my life back then, the first thing I thought of was Gertie and Judy and the day she told us about the Kitty Litter. Funny, huh? What your mind let’s you remember.