Here I am in Bergdorf Goodman

by

08/24/2007

W 57th St & 5th Ave, NY, NY 10019

Neighborhood: Manhattan

Here I am in Bergdorf Goodman, and not for the first time, holding up the left half of a pair of $900 boots with the kind of delicacy usually reserved for fine antiques and newborn babies. It’s an exercise in frustration, a form of self-inflicted torture: I barely have $900 in the bank, let alone the kind of expendable income that allows for such a frivolous purchase. Plus, I tell myself, as I place the boot back on the display case, spending that kind of money on shoes is wrong. People are dying. And I haven’t even made my annual contribution to public radio.

It is a beautiful boot, though—Marc Jacobs, in black pebble leather with pinstriped suede trim and a small heel—and for a second or two I wonder what it would feel like to go into credit card debt for the sake of fashion. I glance around at the well-heeled women in the shoe department and try to conjure up a feeling of righteousness to ward off the sense of shame that kicked in as soon as soon as I passed through the revolving door downstairs. Shame over being trespasser, a class tourist in a rich-person’s department store. Shame over caring what rich people thought of me. And shame at what my mother would think about the whole episode.

When I was growing up in New York City, my mother never took me into stores like Bergdorf’s. We went shopping for shoes and nice dresses to wear to synagogue on the Lower East Side. That was where Jews went for shoes and nice dresses, even as late as the 1980s and even though the shoe store was next door to an empty lot piled with bricks and dirty needles.

The rest of my clothes came from Conway or other discount stores in Herald Square, or Macy’s, if they were having a sale. My mother would go shopping on her lunch break and come home with bagloads of outfits for me to try on at home, returning what I didn’t want the next day. I would model them for her in the living room and agonize over the prospect of offending the manufacturers of the items I had rejected. I must have known, through the fog of child-logic, that my feelings of guilt were completely misplaced, that what I was really afraid of was hurting my mother. That is how I ended up with a pair of pleated acid-washed jeans in the style of A.C. Slater from “Saved by the Bell,” worn once and then stuffed into the back of my closet.

A common refrain in my family, at least one spoken by me and my father, was, “We’re not going to the poorhouse!” This was usually met with indignation by my mother, who would snap back, “You don’t understand how little we live on. You don’t pay the bills!” And both my dad and I would have to let it go since she was right—certainly about the bill-paying part.

Still, I was resentful, and felt downright deprived, when in the fifth grade she refused me a pair of metallic spandex leggings, which were deemed too expensive. As a consolation prize, I got some ribbed pseudo-leggings from Conway that were barely tight enough to fit into my slouch socks. (The socks were not quite right either.)

I should say here that we lived in a comfortable pre-war apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I grew up in relative privilege. We had a car, a dog, and went on the occasional family vacation. I went to private school, which was paid for by my grandmother. But money was always tight, and spending it was fraught with anxiety.

The department stores on the east side—Saks, Bendel’s, Bergdorf’s, even Bloomingdale’s—were off-limits. They were the bastions of the rich and insouciant, with snooty salespeople and spoiled customers, easier to scorn than to risk their rejection. My parents, liberal stalwarts in a time of Reagan-era excess, wore their fashion cluelessness like a badge of honor. They rooted for the downfall of junk bond king Michael Milken, and cheered when Barney’s was tarred by charges of racial discrimination.

I had expensive taste, my mother liked to tell me, and not without a hint of admonition. The daughter of a rabbi, her wardrobe as a teenager consisted of hand-me-downs from her father’s congregants. When owning a cashmere sweater was all the rage in 1950s Baltimore, she had to wait until some other girl got tired of hers. My mother didn’t have many stories about growing up, but this was one of them. Somehow, I sensed that the sweater trauma was somehow connected to the other iconic story of her childhood, in which my mother spent most daylight hours after school alone, in the public library.

My father had not known such want as a teenager. His disdain for fashionable clothes was less an embrace of frugality than it was a rejection of his WASP upbringing. One summer during high school his parents had sent him to a tailor for a custom-made suit to wear to all the Louisville debutante parties and he came back with a jacket and pants made of mattress ticking. He dismissed my material longings with the casualness of someone who had never coveted a cashmere sweater.

In the ninth grade, when I transferred to a fancy private school on the Upper East Side, my own fashion sense went a little haywire. Realizing there was no way I could keep up with my wealthier peers, I turned to buying all my clothes at the Salvation Army. I thought I had special skills when it came to spotting the best T-shirts—soft and worn, with some sort of ironic slogan or nonsensical text on the front— from among the rows of musty closet detritus. This, to my mother, was more economical and thus better than shopping retail, even though I went through most of high school wearing a hot-pink ski jacket as an overcoat.

That all changed once I had my own place in New York and a small, but independently earned sum of money in my bank account. Shopping in New York is like a drug: the more money you spend, the more you want to spend. And once you pass your limit of what is an appropriate price for, say, a perfect black cotton top or a really, really great pair of flip flops, it is hard to go back. Instead, I justify any extravagances with the argument that, for people like me, with no innate style, expensive clothes make us look better.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t immediately call my mother to confess when I spend too much money on a pair of shoes and then refuse to tell her how much they cost. When she asks me, with an innocence that verges on poignant, “Were they more than $75?,” I realize that if she knew just how much more she might think less of me.

This is a woman whose own mother, two generations out of the shtetl, washed and reused tin foil—and not because she was an environmentalist. I am pretty certain my mother, who has lived in New York for four decades, has never seen the inside of Bergdorf’s, the ultimate gatekeeper of the upper caste lifestyle. Bergdorf’s radiates posh. It has soft, flattering lighting, and etched mirrors in the escalator shafts. It lacks the crushing din of manic shoppers looking for the sale rack. Even the shopping bags—lavender with indigo text in deco font and a graphic of figures who look like they’re on their way to a Jay Gatsby party—are a paradigm of high-class understatement. And although many of the customers are teenagers and women in their twenties wearing oversized sunglasses and skinny jeans, the whiff of old money in Bergdorf’s is pungent.

Walking through the ground floor, past rows of jewels that cost as much as a car, I can’t help but feel that being here is a small act of betrayal. This is a place where it is acceptable, in fact encouraged, to spend $900 on a pair of boots. Not that I ever have spent $900 on a pair of boots. But I plan to someday. Then I will call my mom.

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