A car accident changed everything for Debra White. After a long recovery, she re-invented herself through volunteer work and writing since her social work career ended. An award winning free-lance writer, Debra has written for the Bark, Animal Wellness, the Arizona Republic, the Sierra Club's magazine, the Latham Letter, Animal Sheltering, the Phoenix Business Journal, Social Work, Fostering Families, East Valley Tribune, Airports of the World, Dogs in Canada, American Jails, Psychology Today, Landscape Management, Back Home, and others. She reviewed books for Animal People, contributed to Dogs and the Women Who Love Them, reported for the AZ Muslim Voice and wrote a book for TFH Publications.
Shopping then and now
Shopping malls were as rare as lush green lawns in my New York City youth. Neither one existed. I grew up in a neighborhood of old, decrepit and cramped apartment buildings, minus the front lawns. I’d never heard of a mall. New York City was jam packed with multi-level department stores stocked with clothing, furniture, toys, linens, hats, and appliances. Some NYC department stores like Bloomingdale’s were high end for the upscale shopper. Bloomie’s, as we New Yorker’s called the store, was located on the posh Upper East Side. Other stores like E.J. Klein’s, further down on what was then the grungy East 14th Street, was for the more cost-conscious shopper. These are the other stores I can remember: Macy’s, Alexander’s, Gimbel’s, Arnold Constable, Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Abraham and Straus, B. Altman, Orbach’s, Lord and Taylor, Bonwit Teller and May’s. There could be others yet only a few of the big names still exist such as Macy’s, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. The rest collapsed into bankruptcy, merged with larger stores, or just closed down due to changing tastes and on-line competition that allegedly saves time and money. COVID-19 nailed the coffin for other struggling chains like the storied Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue where all the corporate types shopped for cotton button down shirts and wool suits. New York City is constantly changing and it’s a far different place today from the one I left in 1989. Shopping on-line isn’t the same as a hearty walk with your friends, starting at Bloomingdale’s, headed down Fifth Avenue to W. 34th Street and ending in Macy’s.
Price comparisons were done by reading inserts in the Sunday paper. Stores were closed on Sunday and generally open only on Thursday nights until 9 p.m. A typical Saturday was spent walking from one store to the next, lugging bulky paper shopping bags filled with purchases. There was no on-line shopping. Instead, we thumbed through thick, colorful catalogues that came in the mail. We either mail ordered or ordered at the store. There was also something known as “lay away” where you paid a certain amount towards a product each week, without interest. Imagine that? No interest. In-person shopping was the most popular. All the strolling, talking and trying on clothing worked up our appetites. We stopped for lunch or coffee along the way in diners known as greasy spoons for the lack of healthy offerings. Nothing could deter a hearty New York shopper, not rain, blistering heat, icy cold weather or gusty winds. Shopping was also a form of female bonding. Men rarely shared our zest for shopping. We ladies poured out our problems, joys, hopes and dreams on the walk, in the dressing room or waiting on cashier line. Even after a tiring afternoon and emptying out my wallet, I always enjoyed the camaraderie among my friends.
My dear friend Maryann, her sister and her mom enjoyed female bonding in the furniture department at Macy’s during a cold snap in New York way back when. Presumably the salesman was eager to see them leave because it was evident they weren’t there to buy the couch. He asked my friend’s mother if she needed help. She said coffee and a bun would be lovely. I don’t think that’s what he meant.
Department stores in my day hired high school students, an abundant source of cheap labor. In New York City it was legal to work at age sixteen with parental consent and easily obtained working papers. Who handed out working papers? I honestly don’t remember. In high school, it was a rite of passage among boys and girls my age to work after school. Classmates without jobs were looked upon as lazy or shiftless. Nearly everyone I knew, male and female, worked after school starting as high school juniors. I was no different, landing my first job in the now defunct department store, Alexander’s. In 1970, at the tender age of 16, I earned $1.85 per hour, proud to be among the workforce. I chopped of price tags attached to garments like sweaters, pants, blouses, and coats. The cashier entered the cost on a mechanical register then handed the item to me. After the customer forked over the cash (no checks or credit/debit cards back then) I neatly folded garments into paper bags. Plastic bags were not yet available. Supervisors instructed us to always smile at customers and to say thank you. Mostly I adhered to store policy unless a customer was unduly fussy or cranky. Honestly, it was hard to crack smiles at customers with bad attitudes.
To get to work, I rode the Steinway Street bus, a two block walk from our apartment building in the Astoria section of Queens. The bus dropped riders off at East 59th Street and Second Avenue, the last stop and just a few blocks away from Alexander’s Department store. I felt so grown up traveling into Manhattan on my own. As the crowded bus with rush hour passengers inched its way over the 59th Street Bridge, a major connection between the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan, I gazed out the window at the dazzling Manhattan skyline. What would it be like to live there, I thought? It seemed so sophisticated, so much more refined, than my dumpy Queens neighborhood where housewives often ventured outside in hairnets, rolled down stockings, and house slippers. On lunch hours, I strolled around the neighborhood passing by a Rolls Royce dealership, pricey apartment buildings with suited door men and chic women’s boutiques. All this of course was way beyond my $1.85 earnings and my working class upbringing. But it was still OK to dream. And dream I did about living in more classy surroundings. (PS I never have.)
During that summer, I worked full-time and met new, intriguing people at the store. I remember a hippie named Jane who had hitchhiked to the famous Woodstock concert in upstate New York the summer. Always in sandals, loose fitting blouses and long skirts, Jane had a relaxed attitude and was easy to get along with. She told me all about the wild and crazy three-day rock concert that made history around the world in 1969. I loved her easy smile and laid back ways. One day, she stopped coming to work. Evidently, Jane called up and said she was moving to California to live in a commune. I always hoped life was good to her. I felt sorry for John, the sad-faced stock boy, whose brother Richie was beaten to death by a deranged neighbor during his sophomore year of high school. I didn’t know what to say other than how sorry I was.
School resumed that fall and I reduced my hours at the store to one afternoon after school and all day on Saturday. So did most of my classmates who worked in department stores. Some boys and girls branched out and worked for grocery chains like Key Food, Grand Union, Bohacks, Red Apple, Gristedes, or Waldbaums. But we all worked hard to earn our meager checks. Nearly all of us came from low-income families who struggled to make ends meet. Public assistance known as welfare was considered shameful. No one accepted handouts even if they qualified. If we wanted new clothes and what sixteen year old girl didn’t, then we had to work. Boys needed money to take out girls on dates. So they hustled at part-time jobs too. That’s just how life was back then. If you wanted something, you worked for it.
In 1971, my senior year, I switched jobs at a friend’s suggestion leaving Alexander’s to head for Macy’s in Herald Square with an increase in salary. I now earned $2.10 an hour, plus tips. At the time, the Macy’s flagship store had a basement restaurant called the Dutch Treat. I worked there as a waitress. Boys toiled away near the kitchen washing dishes. We were paid weekly in cash. Imagine that. Old and decrepit locker rooms were separated by sex. Now and then, as I changed from my waitress outfit into street clothes, I glimpsed a tiny gray mouse scamper across the floor. I was used to the vermin but other women were not. Laughter erupted when I heard loud shrieks, a sign someone spotted a mouse.
Most customers tipped with small change, such as a dime, fifteen cents or a quarter. I rarely received a dollar bill, which I considered big bucks. I took home about $35 a week in coins, which for a high school kid was a lot of money. I interacted with our customers during each shift because talking to people was fun for me. Some tipped well, a few stiffed me yet others were excessively picky and demanding about the cheap food Macy’s served. There was one middle aged woman who came in almost every Saturday morning. She rarely spoke but was polite. I called her rye toast because she placed the same order every week – plain rye toast and black coffee. Her bright red lipstick smudged her empty coffee cup but she always left a quarter for a tip.
Sometimes I arrived early for work and wandered around the store looking for bargains. As employees, we received decent discounts. Theft or violence weren’t significant issues so there were no security cameras or guards. The try on room was a breeze. Carry in garments, try them on and then leave. Easy peasy. Department supervisors wore small plastic red flowers and the head honchos wore white ones. Some employees aspired to work in the fashion or garment industry and used Macy’s as a stepping stone to further their careers. To me, I was just a kid and Macy’s was an after-school job that gave me a few bucks. I enjoyed working there, however.
I goofed off with my co-workers, most of whom were high school students like me. We didn’t always take our jobs too seriously. As sixteen and seventeen-year-old girls we were more interested in dating and the latest fashion than in careers at Macy’s. The store provided free food, even if it wasn’t too appealing. I ate it anyway, especially if I was hungry.
Our evening and weekend supervisor, Mr. Heyon, had a day job so by the time he arrived at Macy’s he was stressed out exhausted and an evening of work awaited him. Shortages might include menu items, clean uniforms, or staff. Mr. Heyon’s smudge stained glasses always hung down on his nose and his shoulders often slumped as he dealt with these problems and many more. He treated us well, even if he seemed aloof.
On Saturday, our work day ended around 5 p.m. After changing clothes, I left the store by way of the cosmetics department. For free, make-up artists applied face powder, eye-liner, lipstick and mascara on women for their hot dates later that evening. Now and then, I watched ladies leave, looking fine and fancy. At one point, I dated one of the bus boys but I never looked as gorgeous as the women in the make-up section.
As Macy’s employees, the waitress staff belonged to a union. In my senior year of high school, the union called a strike, probably over wages, working conditions and benefits. One of my neighborhood friends worked full-time at Macy’s and urged me to join the picket line after school. She said it was my civic duty as a union member. The weather was blustery and cold so I bundled join with other workers. Honestly, I don’t recall how long the strike lasted. I don’t think it was for very long. I rode the subway into Manhattan after school, picketed in my school uniform and carried a sign saying we were on strike. I felt proud of myself. That was my first introduction into the American labor movement, which was already beginning to lose strength in the USA.
On-line shopping may be convenient. In some cases it’s cheaper unless an item doesn’t fit or is damaged. Returns can be expensive, time consuming and even annoying if you have to wait on line at the post office. It may be impossible to reach a human being through on-line shopping. Nothing can replace human interaction, however. Malls get crowded and lines grow long. Selfish people cut in front of you. Parking may be scarce especially at holiday time. But at the mall, unlike on line, you can try on clothing and ask your friends, “Do I look good in this outfit?” Shopping with friends has other advantages. Walking around the mall or downtown is great exercise. There’s no way to try on clothes on-line. If you’re out shopping, maybe you’ll run into friends or family you haven’t seen in a while. That presents the chance to talk and catch up on what’s new in life. After shopping for hours, you break for lunch and relax over a fresh salad or a juicy burger. If you’re in a bookstore, you thumb through books, chat with customers, or ask the clerks for recommendations. Bookstores also host noted authors who read from their books and answer questions from the audience. Amazon.com simply cannot compete with what humans offer. Some bookstores accept donations for local literacy programs or public libraries. A neighborhood bookstore is a treasure. So is a mall or a downtown area. That’s where the humans are. On-line shopping can’t replace them.
On-line shopping may bump off more bookstores and department stores as it becomes more efficient and as consumer tastes change. As long as COVID-19 hangs around, on-line shopping will remain popular. But in the end, the loss of brick and mortar stores will be humanity’s loss because technology has no human qualities like the clerk at the check-out line who smiles at each customer. A computer cannot greet customers when they enter the store or ask if they’ve had a nice day. A computer cannot glance at the outfit a customer tried on and say wow girl that looks great. And a computer cannot ask what’s wrong if a customer is crying in the try on room. Maybe the customer experienced a death in the family and the employee extends her condolences. What computer can do that? Before you make Amazon.com your first choice to shop, consider the wonders of the mall, the joy of the bookstore or the pleasure of a stroll downtown. That’s what makes America great - the simple things in life. Enjoy them while they still exist, even now in these challenging times of COVID-19. I hope the mall and shopping centers never die. What will become of America if they do? I hope I never find out.