Shop Around

by

01/09/2022

Neighborhood: Gramercy Park

My mama told me, “You better shop around, (Shop, shop)
Oh yeah, you better shop around” (Shop, shop around)

— Smokey Robinson & Berry Gordy, Jr.

The store on East 23rd was my favorite Salvation Army Thrift Store, although there were several I visited often. 

Most Saturdays I spent the whole day walking the streets of the city. I would wander idly as I headed north from my apartment, weaving back and forth along side streets to pass a tucked-away park or a market where the smell of Indian spices drifted to the sidewalk. 

After the workweek, I liked the freedom of no plans. I didn’t want to be at a certain place at a certain time. Usually, I didn’t eat all day, preferring to keep moving until I was bone tired. Maybe I’d stop for a quick coffee, and a glance through the afternoon New York Post, but other than that I was on my feet for seven or eight hours.

The clothes were in the basement of the 23rd Street store. The street-level floor was chaotic; over the years bored or ambitious workers had attempted to impose order on anarchy. Such impulses rarely lasted, and the broken blenders, coffee makers, toasters and paintings migrated back to wherever they’d come from. I always looked at the artwork, just in case, but too often there’d be sadly familiar posters in bent metal frames, advertising the musical Hair or movies with Charles Bronson.

The small rickety elevator was the only way to get to the basement. The numbers under the buttons were completely worn off, but someone had put up a sign on a piece of cardboard, so you wouldn’t panic. Push Here to Exit. Someone else had scrawled beneath that in a red magic marker, Or Else!

The elevator opened into the basement about 10 feet from the counter with the cash register. I’d look quickly to see who was working. It was almost always Omar, his bronze head gleaming under the fluorescent light tube that swung on uneven chains from the ceiling. If he saw me come in, he’d say “Hey, baby.” 

There’d be music playing, great music that was a large part of the pleasure I soaked up while I’d spend the next few hours working my way through the racks. The Miracles, Aretha. Or early soul-tinged disco: Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.

While in the store, I was engaged, connected. I lived on a secret sensory plane, tuned precisely to all the inanimate objects around me. When I touched a blouse or a jacket, felt the fabric, pulled it off the rack to check the color in a better light, that was all that I was looking at, all that mattered.

Each item of clothing held a history for me that skittered across the tips of my fingers, shivering from nerve ending to nerve ending, until a microsecond later I had the correct answer: silk, linen blend, rayon, cotton, wool, gabardine, dotted swiss.

My mother had a blouse like that one, lavender with thin stripes the color of crème de menthe. I burned it when she asked me to iron it for her, sizzled it up in a burst of acrid smoke. Polyester. Aunt Helen wore a skirt like this one at Christmas, that slow, sad Christmas, when my brother was in the hospital. Long and full, a crimson and green taffeta plaid. Taffeta was a fabric I could get interested in, but not these bold primary colors.

There were other women in the store. We would inch past each other in a narrow corner, murmuring “sorry” in unison if we met in the middle of a rack and had to switch sides. It was important not to lose your place; you couldn’t just feign disinterest and move to another rack, and start pawing through the jackets when you hadn’t finished with the blouses. What if I missed that one flawless, black silk shirt, not thin, cheesy silk, but the good stuff, the silk that’s dense and heavy, that drapes off the hanger in lush, velvety folds. That was the nightmare: I’ll miss it, and she’ll find it.

I’ll never get over the Norma Kamali dress, dewy gray, soft as a kitten, beautiful lines, the perfect Kamali that I let slip though my fingers. And then I saw another woman pull it out, triumphantly sway by me to get to the mirror, hold it up to her waist and preen like the peacock that she was. “Nice,” I said. I couldn’t help myself, “I think it’s a Kamali. It’ll look great on you.” She threw me a gorgeous smile, and we soared high together, the closest of friends.

Sometimes I’d wish that we were real friends, the other women in the store and me. That the glow would last a little longer, and we’d walk out arm in arm, our huge bundles floating light as down pillows as we sauntered down the street. We’d have our coffees and linger for a cigarette or two before going our separate ways, back to our apartments and all the riches a Saturday night in New York City could hold.

I’d gather a good-sized armload of clothes, and move over to a secluded aisle and tuck in somewhere nobody would bother to poke around, and sort through my pile carefully. I’ve got to decide if the leather skirt at the high price of $12.99 is something I really need. Compared with the beautiful, and practical, mohair sweater at $4.95? The skirt has to go. I make my selections, and put the ones I don’t want on a rack with other unsorted odds and ends so I don’t mess up the system too badly.

My last stop before paying is the glass case near the cash register, where real treasures can be found. There’s a short line at the register, and Omar is giving a foul-talking woman a hard time, refusing to sell her a jacket that’s missing a tag. There’s a sign right over the counter, on the shelf next to the two Smurfs and the jar of buttons that says No Tag, No Sale, No Exceptions!

Inside the case, I spot a bracelet that might be silver, and a gem-like ivory elephant. I know immediately that the elephant’s not plastic, and start to want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything. I push around the eyeglasses that are piled in a pathetic-looking Easter basket on the counter. For the first time in two hours, the dinginess of the place starts to sneak up on me. My feet are achy, my shoulders are cramped and I am tired, ready to move on.

Omar looks up, sees it’s me, but doesn’t say a thing. Just takes my pile of clothes and starts ringing things up on the cash register. He’s a Black man, bald and round and sturdy, but not what you’d call fat. He’s about 45, and I think he’s from the West Indies, with that lovely lilt in his voice. Omar radiates joy from a deep, bottomless place inside him, a place that I have no access to except during the short period of time when he will grace me with his attention. When he looks up, he’s holding the dark brown skirt I’ve found, made of a wonderful old-fashioned fabric. It’s something you might see in a museum, a relic from a French tapestry of an earlier century. He says, “Baby, you got good taste.” He draws out the word good like it has three or even four syllables. And he hits me with a beam, a beacon, a lighthouse of joy, that bursts from every muscle in his body.

“Thanks, Omar,” I say. “Listen, how much is that little elephant over there?” “Oh, that old thing. Baby, for you, it’s two bucks.” And he throws it in with my other stuff, doesn’t even ring it up, and hands the whole bag over the counter to me. I count out my total, give him the cash, turn toward the elevator, and press the button to leave. “Have a nice evening, Omar,” I call over my shoulder. But the moment’s gone, he’s dimmed his light, pulled it back inside the confines of his mortal shape, and he’s ringing up the next sale. I ride the clanking metal deathtrap up to street level, move out the door and head over to Second Avenue to see what’s new at the Goodwill.

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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