We went into Calypso, on Madison Avenue and 69th Street. The first thing I noticed upon entering the store was a young woman paying for something at the register while she distractedly texted. Then, as she texted, she got an actual phone call. She picked up and announced her coordinates and her purchase, “A gray cashmere sweater!”
And then a moment later, as she signed the receipt and then fumbled with the credit card, her eyes rose to the glass doorway where she saw a young man and a young woman poking their heads into the shop, beaming. The girl screamed, “Oh My God! I have to go!” and without leaving enough time for a reply snapped the phone shut.
Into the store marched a pretty girl, shorter than the one on the phone, and a tall guy wearing a Ramaz Varsity basketball T-shirt, smiling his head off. I stood and watched while they all kissed and commiserated. Then the guy in the Ramaz Varsity Basketball T-shirt — he was kind of tall, there was no way anyone would wear a jacket like that unless they actually played Varsity for Ramaz, I thought. I wondered if Ramaz was any good, and who they played — he began an effusive grin-and-chat-a-thon with the purchaser of the cashmere sweater, while the other girl, who was wearing a skirt that looked like a school-girl kilt, which was probably cashmere, started to peruse the merchandise. I was by then being led, or rather was following, a pair of women upstairs, and so only glimpsed the curious shift of affect that came over this girl’s face as she went from being someone walking down the street with a guy who plays Varsity Basketball for Ramaz, and then rushing in excitement into a store to see her friend, all effusive and full of words, to the silent, pensive, and whimsical but also severe and judgmental mode of a shopper.
In New York there are more flavors of anxiety than there are flavors of ice cream, and each person is drawn towards his own anxiety of choice, which is both a torment and a balm. This young woman’s brow furrowed, her lips pursed, clearly there was something reassuring about this mode she was suddenly in, even if it wasn’t exactly pleasurable. Upstairs, I took the men’s chair. I love these chairs, especially if I have a newspaper. Invariably it is very comfortable — they don’t want the men rushing the women — and it feels like you’re at the theater. I sat there and read about the Knicks’ first game of the season, a loss, while my wife went over to a pair of shoes that caught her eye and began to enthuse over them to the sales lady, only to have the slender French woman who stood above them, trying on a different pair of shoes, murmur, in a lovely French accent, “Those are my shoes.”
A flurry of apologies, throughout which it never was made clear if she meant that these were the shoes she had left the house with, or if these were shoes she was thinking about buying, and so temporarily off limits. Meanwhile the sales lady arrived holding the dress, “A wrap — they say you can tie it a hundred different ways, that’s the thing about this dress,” and pointed to the dressing room, into which my wife vanished.
Then the sales lady, a sparkly blond in a leopard print dress with black tights and boots, went over to the French woman, who for a whole minute had been trying to get her foot into a shoe, though not one of the shoes that were “mine.”
“I don’t understand,” said the French lady, exasperated, and she swiveled her leg back and forth like she was doing a one-leg version of the twist, trying to get her foot into the slipper.
“You’re kidding,” said the sales lady. “Really? This one too?”
They stared to discuss the profound mystery of the ill-fitting shoes. Then another woman came up the stairs, and another and another. Everyone up there, all the shoppers, was old enough to be the parent of those kids downstairs, possibly their grandparents. They were all astonishingly slender, and their clothes were intricate simulations of carelessness and weathered old things, while at the same time exuding a just out of the box newness. One woman had this ankle-length white cashmere coat with little slits and rips here and there as though she had torn it on a barbed-wire fence while rustling cattle. Another woman had this Yeoman/Robin hood vibe going on with black tights, flats, and a short black dress… all different women, different clothes, ostensibly different bodies, and yet all very slender, skinny, both youthful and not, walking contradictions to the adage that you can never be too rich or too skinny.
What struck me as I sat there with my newspaper on my lap was they all had the same dissatisfied expression, as though they were waiting for the shopping muse to speak to them. In fact the expression was that of a person who has been waiting — for a bus, a proposal, a death — for far too long, and has given up the pretense of seeming indifferent, and was now wallowing in being flat-out annoyed. They were all caught up in that exciting narcotized state of pondering whether to want something and then rejecting it before they could begin to want it though at the same time trying to be very open to the feeling of wanting while being annoyed that they didn’t want anything or only wanting what they couldn’t have which was a problem because to judge from what they were wearing they could have just about anything. Each woman was enclosed in her own private nirvana/hell of decision making, oblivious to the others, or just practiced at ignoring anything that threw them out of their trance, such as someone just like them going through the same exact process.
Then they all left. One two three four, as though a bus was leaving and they were all on it. My wife was now changing back into her own clothes. I was alone. It was as if the ocean had smashed against a rock and left a pool of turbulence that had now receded. There was stillness. Soon another wave of turbulence would crash against the rock and reach this upper enclave, but now, as we descended the stairs, my wife explaining that we would think about it to the saleswoman below, I looked back, and the upstairs room was empty and still, waiting for the next little flurry of discrimination to sweep through.
Thomas Beller is the author of How To Be A Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood, and editor of Open City magazine and mrbellersneighborhood.com.