A Garmento’s Nightmare

by

10/28/2007

1330 Broadway, NY, NY

Neighborhood: Midtown

It was a garmento’s worst nightmare–not that I consider myself typical of the type who hustles through life working in the apparel industry. But there I was, literally trapped in one of the notorious bargain stores located in the heart of the Garment Center in New York City. I was in Conway’s on 35th and Broadway wedged between three circular racks strategically placed to lure shoppers in and hold them there, jammed between the clothing. It was a type of Venus Fly Trap–and I was the fly.

Having worked nearby for a children’s dress manufacturer for the past 21 years, I considered Conway’s one of the area’s landmarks. But it was unusual for me to shop in the no-frills chaos for which the group of stores was famous. Not that I was a shopping snob, by any means. I loved a bargain just as much as the next person. But to shop at Conway’s required a special skill set I wasn’t convinced I possessed. It took patience, guts, and the skills of a contortionist to maneuver through the myriads of merchandise crammed onto the three floors. On some of my few lame attempts in the past, my anxiety and claustrophobia got the best of me as shoppers, mostly women, aggressively navigated through the clothes, many of which lay strewn about the dingy black and white linoleum floor that probably hadn’t been uncovered or washed since the Nixon administration.

I felt taunted by co-workers coming in from their lunch hours with the familiar bright pink shopping bag.

“You have to see what I picked up at Conway’s,” one time Liz, my twenty-something-year-old assistant said. Liz prided herself on her shopping prowess. She pulled out a half dozen stretchy knit camisoles that were perfect for layering. “Only $3.99 a piece! I got one in every color. But you better hurry; they’re going fast.”

This urgency, of getting the merchandise before the next person grabbed it out of your hands, was the normal vibe at Conway’s. It was fitting–the Garment Center thrived on stress. Why would shopping here be any different?

So there I was, on my way home from work, on a Friday evening. I was looking for a cheap gag gift to give to my friend Sameer for his birthday. He was a serial dater who said he was disappointed when one of his latest girlfriends failed to enclose a pair of her panties with her present. As a rebuttal to his obnoxious comment, I went in search of a pair of the largest cotton bloomers I could find. I wanted these underpants to accompany the chic white voile shirt I purchased for him during my lunch hour at The Armani Exchange in the Flatiron District.

I was loaded down with a knapsack stuffed with the gym clothes I carried with the intention of stopping by the gym; my tastefully grey, understated Armani Exchange shopping bag looped over one shoulder and my purse was tucked under the other. It wasn’t wise. Even at 5’2”, I was too bulky for the store and I should have known this going in. But I just wanted to simply get in there, find the bloomers, and get out. In hindsight, I can see the ridiculousness of the mission, but one has to have hopes and dreams–having just finished reading “The Secret,” I was visualizing an easy accomplishment.

What I didn’t know was that contrary to what I thought possible, Conway’s had elected to run a sale–which seemed a bit of an oxymoron in and of itself. Could the prices be any lower? It gave new meaning to the word “clearance.” The store was extremely crowded with shoppers, their arms laden with clothing, unfazed by the lack of space, shopper shoulder to shoulder with shopper. I tried to look above the horizon of racks in search of underwear but was met instead by the exposed armpits of a neighboring woman as she reached up to the rack above my head, jolting me into the realization that sweaty cardio workouts come in many different forms.

But then, off in the distance, I spotted a sign that read “Women’s Lingerie.” Getting over to it was going to be tough. I should have changed into my gym clothes because my work attire, including low heels, was slowing me down. My knapsack was heaving into people. In spite of my efforts to avoid the clothing that was strewn about the floor, I found myself wading through an assortment of summer tees that was ankle deep. Just beyond the imitation Crocs selling for $5.99, I saw racks of panties. I pushed forward.

They were small and brightly colored in hot pink and neon green, boycut legs, sexy thongs–but no bloomers. Not having patience to look, I was starting to feel panicky by the crowds of clothing. But then out of the huddled masses, as if sent specifically in answer to my prayers, was a Hispanic woman in a red pinny. I couldn’t believe my luck! An angel working the floor! I accosted her immediately, “Excuse me but could you tell me where I could find underpants for older women?”

She looked at me only briefly, not making much eye contact, and motioned to the assortment of nylon and spandex thongs to my left. I tried to picture my grandmother outfitted in an orange lace thong. Perhaps I needed to be more specific. Would it help if I provided an age bracket? Maybe then she would get more of an idea of what I had in mind. But as quickly as she appeared, she was swallowed up by the sea of people and I realized I would have to go it alone.

Pressing on, I found a rack of some Hanes panties and pulled out the largest pair in white that I could find. They were perfect! I looked up, trying to find the cashiers. They were along one wall about 20 feet away. I followed a lady with a cart who was also looking to pay for her purchases. She was dragging a gold, printed satin blouse that was stuck under one of the wheels of her cart but it didn’t seem to slow her down. I was learning that getting caught up in trivialities here was a recipe for disaster. One had to remain focused.

I lined up behind her, noticing the sign that read, “Form a line behind each cashier.” Did they actually believe that a semblance of order was possible amidst this madness? I clutched my Armani bag and waited patiently, trying to distract myself and remain calm. I thought about how they sold this stuff so cheaply, foregoing a certain degree of quality in favor of huge volumes. Quality wasn’t the main priority for most of these shoppers. It was value–something related, yet different. Working for a manufacturer of better girl’s dresses, my mind was geared for a different customer. It seemed like I was having an out of body experience, watching the tumult going on around me, as I waited more than twenty minutes to purchase my panties.

The Indian woman in front of me unloaded her cart with what seemed like an endless supply of printed gauze skirts. All the skirts, on sale at $2.00 a piece, came to $22.00. When the cashier finally finished ripping the skirts from their plastic hangers and announced the total, the woman turned to me as if she had just won the Lottery. “Only two dollars a piece,” she said.

“It’s crazy,” I agreed. They had to be losing money on that deal. It simply wasn’t possible. Could I use a two dollar skirt, I wondered? I had to get out of here quickly.

Finally my turn came, I paid my $1.99 and took my pink bag holding my white grandma bloomers and headed toward the exit onto 35th street near the subway. I was almost home.

I followed another woman who seemed to have the same destination in mind. I was close behind her, squeezing behind the racks, trying not to pull off merchandise as I pushed through. I tagged along until I found that she was targeting a rack of women’s shorts in a corner of the store, where she stopped and proceeded to pick though the clothing. When I realized my mistake of relying on a fellow shopper who was still in the throws of the experience, I tried to take a left. But having no space, I moved about three inches. I knew I was about halfway to the door but there was no visible aisle and I was wedged in between racks. I was stuck without any alley, no area of clear space in sight. I started to get sweaty. I thought about waving the white underpants over my head as a sign of distress but figured no one would notice.

There was no time to waste. I made my own aisle by plowing between the children’s denim shorts with rhinestones and tee shirts that read, “Glam Rocks.” I didn’t care at that point what I was taking down. I was appalled at my shopping behavior but I had become a victim of my environment. I wasn’t like this when I got here but after forty minutes, I had the disposition of a trapped animal. I would chew off my own foot to get out of this trap–okay, maybe that was extreme but you get the idea.

Tossing out a few “excuse mes” to compensate for my rudeness that no one seemed to be paying much attention to anyway, I made it to a clearing. Amidst the people talking on cell phones as they pulled and tugged and examined clothing, I saw the doorway in front of me. It was open and I felt a breeze–inviting me, reassuring me that freedom was mine. I was almost there.

I nearly fell forward onto the sidewalk as if I had been spit out–a shopping adventure I won’t repeat. No gag gift is that funny. But it was good training. If I ever want to try out for Survivor, I’ll probably come out a winner.

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