An Afternoon at Saks



Neighborhood: Manhattan

I love Saks. It’s just like Bloomingdale’s, only bigger and the people don’t spray you as much; they just ignore you. 

There was an open book in the Saks window called Sample. I stood there looking at it. Two pages were filled with fashion sketches of models with the Polaroid of the actual model next to them. I thought that I could do that with my own work, take a Polaroid of my little cards then sketch them and put them in a book just like this one.

I walked in and asked the lady dressed in red at the door. “Where is that book in the window? Do you think I could see that book?”

“Eighth floor, miss.”

I wove through people and the make-up counters and stole a Q-tip and some tissues before stopping at a perfume counter where I saw Opium. I sprayed it all over myself to smell like my mother. She used to wear it when I was little. Then I went up.

“Sorry, sorry.” Everyone in the elevator was mad at me with my bag. I had it on my back like a camper and was denting some girl’s head with it. Then I had to lean through the people with my finger to get to the button, except I missed it and hit someone. “So sorry, sorry.” They were all glaring at me, but I was too tired and too hungry to care. I was thinking about the ice cream cone I had wanted to get on the way to Saks and smelling my wrist and coat. Opium. It smelled strong and good. There is a terrible smell on my clothes lately, and I can’t stand it.

The doors finally opened onto eight; hardly anyone was there. I walked in circles for a bit in the Home section. It all looked cheap and ugly. Everything today looks the same; it’s why antiques are so great and why when I get rich that is all I’m going to have.

“Excuse me,” I said to the tall lady behind a counter who was ignoring me. “I adjusted the straps on my backpack.

“Can I help you,” she said, without looking up at me.

“Hi, I’m sorry,” she was typing numbers into her calculator. “I was just wondering, that book I saw outside in the Saks window, Sample. The lady on the first floor said I should come up here to see it.”

“Sample,” she looked up, hello. She waved her wrist, “That way.”

I hurried through plates and dishes to where it said Bridal Registry, no comment here…just back, back, back, to the fat and jolly Andy Warhol type man wearing thick round glasses and a polka dot suit who sat behind another counter.

“Just one minute,” he was cutting ribbons and folding cards. I thought about my own cards. I couldn’t wait to get home and cut up some more book covers. “One day sir you’ll see my book,” I wanted to say.

“Yessss,” he finally acknowledged me.

“Hi, how are you, I was just wondering, that book Sample—”


He really did look like Andy Warhol.

“Well, I was wondering if I might see the book.”

“See,” he paused. “Or buy?”

Good lord.

“Well is there any way I could see it, then decide?”

“No,” he stated, affirmatively. “The books are sealed and we have to keep them sealed,” he inched his voice up. “For buyers only, it is an amazing book though,” he added, “the most beautiful photographs you have ever seen, oh the photographs…”

“Oh really?” Did he have to say that? “How much is it then?”

“Eighty-five dollars,” the man said at the same time he was ringing up the purchase of whatever was in the box of the gentleman next to me. I glanced at his credit card slip. Twenty thousand dollars. The man made a little initial on the slip and folded up the bag. I thought about Barbara, my dishonest friend, who found a credit card on the floor of Soho House last week, kept it, and the next day went from store to store to store, buying all the things she said she deserved, until the card was declined at a subway station and she threw it out.

“Missy,” the man abruptly yelled. “Could you bring out Sample.  You know we’re having a party tonight for the book,” he turned to me, “this is the first day.”

“A party, really?” I leaned on the counter, “What kind of party? A dinner party?”

“No,” the man looked annoyed. “Just drinks and it’s invitation only. Thank you, Missy,” he handed me the sealed book, but then I wondered, why? Did he think I was going to buy it? Didn’t he hear me when I said I couldn’t buy it.

“Are you a designer,” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, instantly.

“Oh, well,” he lowered his glasses. “What have you designed.”

I paused as I stared at the names on the back of the book, not one of which I knew.

“Well, nothing you’d have heard of, I’m working on a series.” I had no idea what to tell him, except that I would hate to work in retail and stand around in a suit like that all day, dealing with people like me.

“Thank you so much, I’ll think about it.”

On my way out at cosmetics, first floor, some man in a white lab coat saw me trying to get the lid off a perfume. He ran over and started showing me how the top worked. It’s amazing, I feel like Rip Van Winkle and I’ve been asleep a hundred years. Everything is changing, the buildings, the perfume bottles. I mean, what was with this pump? “See,” he pointed to the bottle, “there is an automatic lever that moves the pump for you,” the man watched as I tried.

“No,” he took it away from me. “Watch,” he said like I was two years old. “You have to wait then let the pump come up on its own.”

“Oh, wow,” I put the bottle up to my nose, “Thank you, it smells so good.” He brought out another bottle, then another. In fact, I was so enthusiastic (the man really thought I was going to buy) he gave me the whole package speech, what comes in the gift bag, what he could do to bring down the price if I bought four.

“I love them all,” I told him.

“Come with me,” suddenly I was being whisked through Saks. “I’m Marcus,” he said, running, “Phoebe,” I called from behind until we got to the Chanel counter all the way in the front, where THANK GOD, the door, I was almost out.

The next thing I remember from the afternoon is wanting to go up the Empire State Building. A group of ladies dressed in black was going through the revolving doors. I followed them and thought about dolls, the kind you split open and then pull out a smaller doll and then open up the smaller doll and pull out an even smaller doll.

Once inside the lobby, I saw small souvenir statues of the Empire State Building everywhere. They reminded me of the Washington Monument. When I was little, we always went to Washington because my godparents lived there. I’d be asleep in the car, and know we were almost there from the lights of the capitol building, which were so bright they would wake me up.

“Fourteen dollars to go up? Really?”

“Yes,” the man behind the desk.

I walked out.

More ice cream trucks. The day was slowly disappearing. I looked in store windows at sneakers, feeling the pain in my feet. It was three years since I had bought shoes. Around 20thh Street, I saw benches outside this little park off Broadway and stared at the people sitting on them and just watching the day and enjoying the sun. Sit down, Phoebe! Can you believe I’ve lived in this city for over ten years and I’ve never sat down on a bench just to sit? Only for a minute, I said to myself so that I can see what the people sitting are experiencing. Twenty seconds later I was sitting, ah, my feet started to feel good, and then there was this loud noise. A giant tourist bus pulled in front of me with the motor running. Its black fumes were blowing in my direction, so I got up and headed south toward Whole Foods where it was so busy I almost had a breakdown. They didn’t have my special salt. I left feeling more irritated than ever. The biggest health food store in New York and they didn’t have my salt. Where were the Dulse flakes? In this whole damned city, no one had them.


Elizabeth Schoettle is an artist and a writer, living in New York City. She is currently working on her first memoir about her life as an artist. 

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§ 2 Responses to “An Afternoon at Saks”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    This is wonderful. I love the way you use slightly-off cues to let us know your true situation. Beautifully done.

  • TSB says:

    This is what New York City life is, what it means. The horrible insults connected to the price of things. The horrible exhaust and construction sounds that invade public space. The sheer assault of daily life. And also the drama. The vague sense of terror that accompanies the contemplation of that other, non-New York, life, where people sit in cars by themselves surrounded by other people in cars, and swarm over cast concrete intersections, and into vast concrete parking spaces. And then traipse into the same Whole Foods in search of salt. Or figure out that it is easier to order online, and so traipse with their cardboard boxes, now empty, to the recycling bin, or whatever one does with those boxes.

    My appreciation of the piece was greatly enhanced by the fact that I just visited Saks and Bloomingdales, both for the first time in ages. Saks, I found disturbing. Of course it has always been a fancy expensive place, but it felt unbalanced to me, the prices. Bloomingdales was also alarming, but it was more human, in terms of price, and it was familiar and comforting, in comparison.

    Anyway, I loved this.

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