Remembering Gimbel’s

by

08/04/2005

150 e 86th st ny 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

My first after-school job was delivering the long-defunct Long Island Press but I really entered the working world when, at the age of seventeen, I started as a temporary summer worker at Gimbel’s department store (my Dad knew someone there…lucky me). I eased my way into the good graces of the bosses until I got into the union. Ultimately, I maneuvered myself into a Sunday-only work schedule. This arrangement enabled me to work only seven hours a week at a union-enforced double-time wage and thereby garnered me enough cool cash in seven lousy hours to easily finance my youthful existence. Still, being the anti-authority type of fellow I am, I wasn’t satisfied and I soon figured out a way to sign myself in and out at lunch time and spend most of my time across the street in Macy’s, watching football in their crowded television department after a terribly un-nourishing lunch at the Blimpie’s on 32nd Street (I didn’t even know what a vegan was yet).

At Gimbel’s, I got to spend a lot of time with some older guys who did this kind of menial work for a living and I gained some valuable insight into the typical worker-employee relationships I could look forward to in my future enslavements. Also, it was via such co-workers that I garnered my first-ever homosexual propositions.

The employee bathrooms were overflowing with gay-inspired graffiti (this was the late 70s), and a provincial teenager such as myself found this fascinating. I read it all and often wondered if men were actually hooking up in these bathrooms. It seemed probable to me. Inevitably, being the youngest employee in the store, I was approached.

First came a fellow stock worker named Willie. An unobtrusive black man, Willie was quite open about his sexual preferences and appeared to have no difficulty with the other demonstrably hetero stockmen. One afternoon, Willie and I were assigned to the same area to straighten out. So, there we were, re-attaching hangers to over-priced women’s blouses when he asked me if I was a student. Stunned to learn I was still in high school, Willie further queried me on my plans for college. Not sure yet what I planned to do, I told him I was thinking about attending a particular school in Manhattan. His eyes lit up.

“Oh, I live right near there,” he smiled. “If you’re ever stuck late or the weather is bad, you can always stay with me.”

This had never happened to me before. I have to admit it, I was a little flattered, but also flabbergasted. Politely, I promised to keep his offer in mind and then moved on to a different rack. Willie never pressed the point. In fact, although I ran into him often, it never came up again. Hey, you can’t blame him for trying.

Another time, I was sneak-watching a football game in the sixth floor TV department when I happened to glance to my right into the piano department (yes, piano department). The piano salesman–a lanky white guy–smiled at me. I smiled back and returned my gaze to my game.

After a spell, I decided to head into the back corridor to hit the employee bathroom/lounge and peruse the Sunday papers. Traipsing across the floor, I glanced around to make sure none of my innumerable bosses had scoped me out and that’s when I noticed Piano Man was also headed to the powder room. We inadvertently made eye contact before I entered. Mr. Piano strolled past me into the locker area as I found a seat to relax and read. Forthwith, he joined me. After a beat, he leaned towards me and inquired, “Are you looking for action?”

Still naïve to the ways of the world, I was bewildered.

“No,” I replied.

“Well,” he stuttered, “I just thought…”

However, I was intrigued. Did he really mean what I thought he meant? Well, there wasn’t anyone else around, so I opted to find out.

“What kind of action?”

“You wanna get done?”

Now, I wasn’t that green. I knew what he was proposing. The pianist wanted penis. He said it so coolly and assuredly that I did not respond right away.

“There’s a small stockroom in my department,” he continued. “I’m the only one with a key. We won’t be interrupted.”

I replayed the sequence of events in my head. A shared smile by the TVs that patently meant more to him than me, a presumably knowing look back at him as I entered the washroom, and now I’ve de facto acknowledged his advance. With nothing in my meager life experience to call upon, I chose politesse.

“No thank you,” I said softly.

He stood up with a grin that screamed: It’s just a matter of time.

“Well, if you ever change your mind, you should check me out.” He paused for effect. “I’m really good.” With that, he initiated his departure.

“Okay,” I mouthed in a throaty voice, and from that moment on, I was conscientious to view the TVs while standing in a position where he could not see me from his piano perch. Still, he’d occasionally catch sight of me and leer: It’s just a matter of time. Not too long after that, Gimbels stopped selling pianos and my suitor was history.

I was working at Gimbel’s during the 1977 blackout. Coincidentally, it occurred on inventory night, the one day of the year when overtime was mandatory. I dragged my tired body all over the building, counting things: bed sheets, pots, rugs, footballs, books, shirts, spoons, shoes, and more things I can’t remember.

If Kafka worked with me at Gimbel’s, he’d have another novel.

Somehow, I managed to get myself released before the others (I’ve always been good at stuff like that). Miraculously, this allowed me to get off the old RR train before the lights went out. As I stepped off the last step down from the Ditmars Boulevard station, the lights went out. For a millisecond, it seemed my foot did it. Then I realized what had happened and smiled. I missed getting stuck on the train by seconds.

I got home and everyone was out on the street. A guy who lived across the street was drunk, but that didn’t stop him from trying to direct traffic. Being the analytical sort, I figured that the power would be restored and I’d still have to get up for work early the next day…so I didn’t hang out to take in the blackout madness. Instead, I ate and hit the sack at my regular time.

Power was restored, but I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I spent that day kicking myself for being such a practical teenager and missing out on all the blackout fun because I was worried about getting enough sleep.

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