A few years ago I screwed up my courage and called up customer service at J.Crew. I had decided it was time to cancel my subscription to their glossy, beautifully orchestrated visual paean to richness. A very helpful young woman, named Violet, answered the phone and asked me what she could do to assist me. I said, very sheepishly,
“Yeah. I was just calling to ask you guys to stop sending your magazine to my house.”
“Oh, I am so sorry, we normally don’t send our magazine to an address unless the resident has specifically asked for it. I’m not sure how we made that mistake.”
“Um, no, you guys didn’t make a mistake. I did ask for the magazine at one time, but I no longer want to receive it.”
“You no longer want to receive our magazine?” she chirped, sounding a little like a confused bird. “Um, yep, that’s right.”
“Ms. Allen, will you permit me to ask why?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why would you prefer to be taken off our mailing list?”
Longer pause. Palpable unease rarified the air. Tension zipped like lightning bolts back and forth across the telephone wires.
“Do you really want to know?” I whispered. I noticed that my hands were shaking.
“Well, yes, I do.”
I let out a huge sigh (I’m pretty sure this was the first breath I had taken in like, sixty seconds).
“Well, your clothes are just beautiful. They really are—the lines, the symmetry, the artistry, the attention to every beautiful detail—they’re amazing. But I noticed that you guys are selling a skirt for $600.”
“Yes, ma’am. That would be our taffeta bell skirt. It comes in crimson or spruce.”
“Yep. That sounds like the one.”
Another pause. My voice is now so quiet and high pitched only animals can hear it.
“It’s just, when I see skirts in your magazine for $600, I think about all the people in the world who don’t have any clothes or even food or medicine and to tell you the truth, I feel pretty disgusted with myself for salivating over $600 skirts. And there’s another thing. The skirt really is beautiful. It’s well designed. The colors and fabrics are lovely. But it just can’t possibly be worth six hundred bucks.”
Then came the longest pause of all. I sat watching the stubble on my legs grow, listening to the perky representative on the other end of the line trying to pull herself together. “Damn it, J-C,” I thought, “Why do you have to open your mouth? Why do you say stuff like this?”
Then I heard a teensy whisper, which sounded as much like a whimper as anything.
“Ms. Allen, these telephone conversations are recorded, so I shouldn’t be saying this, ‘cause I could lose my job, but I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Then a very polished and exquisitely professionally voice spoke firmly back into the line.
“And thank you for calling us Ms. Allen. I will take care of that for you. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”
“No, thanks, Violet.” I said, my facing burning. “That’s it.”
That was a few years ago. My relationship with J. Crew and beautiful clothes in general is an ever evolving universe. Sometimes I get sucked into the fashion vortex, sometimes I stumble back out (looking much better than I did before I stumbled in). I am a bit of an odd duck, which most of us human creatures are and which I think is a lot of our charm. I am a strange mixture of girly-girl and scholar. I use the term scholar lightly, but I have, after all, spent way more years in school than any person should ever consider doing. So I suppose the term may be accurately, albeit grudgingly used.
But there it is. I am drawn as if by magnetic compulsion to anything beautiful while, at the same time, I am definitely what my friends would call a nerd—except they are way too loving to ever say it (to my face, though they have to be thinking it).
There it is. My Doc. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde existence. I am the girl who reads The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and any magazine even remotely related to pretty dresses. What the…? I am a high-heeled walking paradox. There are times when I don’t emerge from my house for weeks. I am ashamed to say that I sometimes forget that there are things on planet earth besides books. Then there are times where I pour over the latest technology in face scrubs and pore reduction techniques. I’ll spend an hour in a department store mesmerized by the meticulous hand-stitching on a designer leather handbag. I am embarrassed to admit all of these things, and if I had to look my reader in the eye as I confessed any of them, I would never have the chutzpah to do it.
So, today, I stumbled and fell. I went to a shopping mall where only the very rich can afford to shop. I like to go there and just smell the rich people. They smell so clean and fresh and they’re so very tan and they never have acne or freckles or bad haircuts. It’s uncanny. I like to go and be near them and bask in the glow from their…tanning beds?
I took a deep breath and dove through the front door of J.Crew. For about a half second I was disappointed in myself, but they had the prettiest cardigans I had ever seen. My son and I strolled down the aisles. I was trying very hard to look as if I belonged there, which of course I didn’t, and this truth was written in large, sloppy letters across my forehead. The women who worked there were lovely, as were the gay men. And they did smell fantastic, just like I knew they would; I could imagine them taking tiny bites of the s’mores they would roast on the gray pebble beaches of the cape (oddly enough, I could also imagine them frantically treadmilling it off several hours later).
The dream was so intoxicating; I just had to go in, though I knew perfectly well that I stuck out like sore (poor) thumb. My son thought mommy would look more decorative with blueberry-smoosh on her tank. He had just taken care of that when we stepped in. Neither my hair nor my underarms were particularly clean and they were certainly not Martha’s Vineyard material. A pleasant faced and startlingly tan woman called Joy instantly sized me up and plunged in to see if she could mop up some of the damage of my life.
“Let’s see, this would look good on you and this and this. Oh, you have a good eye for color. Yeah, I like that one on you. Look at that nice small waist. Don’t you look lovely?” She was playing me like a Victrola and I knew it and Joy knew it, but I was wading delightedly knee-deep into all the fantasy, taking in deep gasping breaths of jet-fuel pretension, swimming in it like so much pinot grigio.
First, of all, I am rarely “lovely.” Now, of course, my husband would disagree, but I would promptly slap him if he didn’t, so we know he can’t be trusted. I am “lovely” on exceedingly rare occasions, and only after a great deal of time, money and hunger has gone into it. Secondly, I don’t have a particularly slim waist. It’s not too bad, but I just had a kid…what can you do? Usually, I am on the thinnish side (post-baby, more on the “ish” less on the “thin”). I am very tall and with an hourglass shape, and when I work my butt off I can look really good in clothes. Since my son was born, I consider myself lucky to actually be wearing clothes—and that’s about as far as it gets.
“Look at that stunning bone structure.” Joy coos.
I’m eating it up. My bone structure is perfectly respectable, but nothing that could be called “stunning,” unless you work on commission, in which case, why not?
“Your haircut is perfect with that jacket. You look so chic.” I am standing in the dressing room wearing Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes and a beautifully tailored jacket and my hair hasn’t been coiffed or even washed in…let’s call it three days. And I look about as French as Peter Sellers. So of course, Joy, who continues to smell of lavender and peonies and martinis and mink, is lying through her teeth. But I nod and smile, acknowledging my perfect figure, gorgeous face and impeccable hair. Of course. Of course.
I am, by now, having the time of my life. My son is somewhere in the store pulling over a tall tower of something very expensive and I am admiring my “small” waist and “impeccable” haircut and just generally thinking about how great I am. Then I (curses!) happen to catch a glimpse of a price tag (curses!) and it’s like a right hook to the jaw. And I hear a siren in my mind going off and a voice screaming, “Get out J-C, before they have you joining The Daughters of the American Revolution (which I couldn’t join anyway, because I am a poor, white trash mick). Suddenly, the “real” J-C has taken over. The one with implacable principles and an immutable resolve that usually only exists in comic books.
“Ninety-eight dollars for a simple button down shirt? Am I taking crazy pills?!” I berate myself. “Take your kid and run!”
“But the pretty clothes.” says girly-girl.
“Target has pretty clothes.” says would-be the political activist.
“But not that will last for years like these.” says Barbie.
“But at least you’ll have a clear conscience.” says my inner Gandhi.
“But I want be able to show off my unbelievably, disproportionately small waist and my positively Parisian haircut to best advantage.” whines the fashion-whore within.
Eventually my fear of God and my husband when he sees the credit card bill take over and little boy and I run out into the sunshine. Out into safety. Or so I think.
I pack up a million and one baby articles into our minivan (I used to swear loudly that I would never own one, but they’re just so freaking comfortable). I hop in to the get away car, silently congratulating myself on being so much better than all those WASP bastards that work at J.Crew. I put the key in the ignition. Turn it.
Nothing. I got nothin’.
I have, once again, left on my headlights and sucked the life out of my battery. Sigh. I unpack a million and two baby things, put my son in his stroller (my God, how he hates that thing), and head for mall security. It is a small swanky building set in a flowered courtyard in the middle of an equally swanky out door mall. I explain myself. A young woman, while managing to preserve her look of utter boredom, gets on the phone and calls the head of security. He says he can’t get involved for “liability reasons.”
Now, I am my father’s daughter, and I find it unacceptable to refuse to help a person in need because of your fears for your own ass. I explain this with, I believe, both patience and kindness to the bored chick behind the counter. She gets back on the phone. Same conversation. Same answer.
I then politely say, “But ma’am, what’s the point of having “Guest Services” if you guys won’t give service to your guests?” She shrugs, not at all interested.
My shoulders slump, I walk away. At least I’ve made an attempt at bringing about justice for the oppressed, but apparently this is all I can do.
We head back to the van, and for a long time I just stand there, not wanting to call my husband away from work and remind him that his wife is an idiot. After a while, I realize that the time on the meter has run out and I have no more coins. Great, now they’ll tow me on top of everything else.
Then I hear a familiar voice from behind, accompanied by the smell of honeysuckle and gardenia and day lilies and a whole garden of other flowers. “Need these?” Joy has stuck her head out of the door of J.Crew. She’s holding a handful of quarters in her beautifully tanned fingers. Her French manicure is divine. She smiles invitingly. I am startled by the practically phosphorescent glow emanating from her white teeth. I could have cried. I wanted to hug her, but I was afraid I would get blueberries on her cashmere. We feed the meter and I explain what happened.
“Well.” She says, when I tell her about the mall’s firm ‘no involvement for liability reasons’ policy.
“We’ll just see about that.”
First she makes a phone call. I watch like an urchin from the sidewalk. Next her manager makes a phone call. Then Joy gets back on the line. Ten minutes later she comes out, looking rich and energetic and most of all, triumphant. She smiles. “The security truck will be here in just a minute and they will help you get home.” She waves at little boy and goes back inside. A very ungracious and monosyllabic security person jumpstarts my car. I profusely thank my fellow every-man. He does not respond, gets in the old truck and drives away. Joy waves from that shimmering pantheon of the effortlessly well-dressed. And for just a moment I think about going back in and buying one of their casual button-ups in majestic purple for $59.90—you know, out of gratitude.
But just for a moment.
Working-for-Justice-in-the-World-J-C lives to fight another day. But I just can’t get that button-up shirt out of my head. I wonder absently if Joy owns it. It would look so stunning with her tan. She could wear it to a clambake on the cape—with one of the lightweight cashmere cardigans, if the evening got cool. The one in chartreuse would be such a striking contrast color. Maybe if I owned that outfit, someone would invite me to go along, too.