Like others or at least like oldie others, I had not purchased any new clothing, not even online in fifteen months. Living alone I wore the same shirt and jeans for a month. The only people my scruffy appearance might bother were the shoppers at Safeway and Walgreens who found my appearance pre-covid nothing to look at and anyway they weren’t dressed for a job interview at Goldman Sachs.
But this morning I’m getting spruced up. Took my first shower in a week. (Big drought here.) I’m busting out of covid jail tomorrow on a United flight East, three weeks of new old sights. I’m a meticulous packer maximizing every inch of my mid-sized, two wheel Eagle Creek carry-on. Thinking of twilight time with friends and family: cocktails poolside in Connecticut and Long Island and a screened-in porch in Atlanta, I’d need a cotton sweater. I knew where to look.
On a shelf in my bedroom closet I found one forgotten and frayed, faded frayed blue with a country club insignia I didn’t recognize. Not good but it may have to come along. I tried it on. Having gained undisclosed pounds since March 2020, the sweater wore tight, freakishly tight said my honest mirror. (That weight gain. How could I have stopped it? With restaurants closed for a year plus I cooked all my meals, and dining alone every night I failed to resist the temptation of having another helping of this or that, and finishing that bottle of Pinot Grigio.) I left the sweater where I found it. If and when the town’s thrift store reopens I’d take it there.
With no time to receive an order online, I recalled there was a Macy’s store in a nearby shopping center. Maybe it was like so many other Macy’s stores: closed or everything must go. Its website said its Corte Madera store opens at 10AM. Maybe I’d find a sweater there but if not there was a Nordstrom’s on the same shopping campus which for probably twice the price I could find a nice summer sweater.
* * *
Macy’s Incorporated was founded in 1858 in New York and expanded over the decades by new store openings and acquisitions. By the middle of the twentieth century it owned over one thousand stores in 45 states and was an American icon revered in the same breath as Chevy, Burma Shave, and our national pastime, MLB. On Thanksgiving Day Macy’s was synonymous with family, turkey and cranberry and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. National television, Millions of people at home, thousands more following the action in the streets of New York.
As the new century arrived Macy’s had suffered from emerging online competition, crippling debt service, staid products failing to attract and retain new demographic shoppers, and management turnover. Today it owns about 500 stores.
I drove to the Macy store in the nearby Corte Madera shopping center. This vast shopping center on 2500 acres was the home of 60 shops, several eateries, a batch of clothing boutiques plus a cool Apple store and a Tesla showroom. Macy's store was located at one end of the center with Nordstrom's at the other. As the two largest stores each had a large parking lot. I pulled into a space near the Macy store entrance. The two door openings required a hefty pull, unusual since my recollection was department store doors opened electronically as one entered and departed. Was that a sign of Macy’s problems?
Inside I saw one or two shoppers at the cosmetics and fragrances area in conversation with an employee behind the counter. There were two floors of merchandise and the sign read Men’s on the Main Floor. Good that’s where I was. However it took me about five minutes of wandering to find it; the store footprint was about the size of two football fields. There I could find only one employee and she was standing on a step ladder stacking denims at the Calvin Klein section. I asked where I could find sweaters. At first she didn’t understand me but I prevailed by brushing my hands across my chest and arms adding a brief shiver motion. And saying men’s sweaters, sweater, sweater. Ah, her eyes lit up but her face showed frown. “No, think we have no.”
I didn't like the idea of walking a half mile to Nordstrom’s so I decided to look at every men’s clothing module which included stops at Tommy Hilfiger’s, Calvin Klein, Docker’s and Lacoste. Not a sweater anywhere. Not a sales clerk. Two, maybe three other shoppers passed by silently. As I was about to give up I saw one more clothier, POLO RALPH LAUREN. Finger’s crossed. There were shelves of short and long sleeve shirts, hanging slacks, shorts, jeans and hoodies. Not a sweater in sight until I noticed in the Coats and Jackets area at a floor level shelf, near buried from sight, and lo and behold there were four cotton sweaters, two red, two black, three XL and one L which was black. With no employee or shopper in sight I decided to try it on right there, no need to find a changing room. It fit. The quality seemed good.
The price on the tag read:
Now how to buy. I hadn’t seen a check out clerk in the men’s section so I found my way back to the women’s section where I saw a woman behind a counter busily scanning a dozen or more clothing items. The shopper, an Hispanic woman with three kids, watched intently. Finished, the clerk bagged the items and looked at the computer screen and said, “One hundred eighty three dollars.” No please, no smile. no give a fuck. The Hispanic mother, the three kids had her face, produced two one hundred dollar bills which the clerk placed on a small screen device beside the screen. Then with proof the bills were real US Government printed bills the clerk returned the woman’s change and receipt.
My turn now. The clerk, languid and expressionless with a hand held device scanned the sweater price tag. The computer screen read item $43.73 and $5.22 California state tax. Gotta be helping the state’s current $74 billion budget surplus. While inserting my credit card, I said, trying to get a little life out of the clerk. “That nice shopper lady before me got a great deal. Lots of good clothing for $183 dollars.” That drew an apathetic nod.
“No bag, please. Not good for the environment. Have a nice day.” Response: a limp stone face thanks.
* * *
I thought about the long ago, once majestic elegance and the hustle and bustle of customers at Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan. I could see the Thanksgiving Day Parade with its dozen floats with Looney Tunes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Barbie characters bigger than life. I could hear exuberant music of the marching bands, was that Stephen Foster here and there? the rolling floats sprinkled with flowers of the rainbow, and the overhead balloons of all sizes and colors. I could see row after row of cheering spectators, mommies and daddies with their little buckaroos frolicking and bopping with joy on both sides of the Avenue as the parade marched north.
I felt sorry for Macy’s. I felt bad for America. Another national icon biting the dust. In the jukebox of my mind I heard Bye, bye, Miss American pie. I thought of the long ago national pastime: Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio. I could see the six consecutive wooden signs on West Virginia country roads with rhyming Burma Shave advertisements. Train approaching / Whistle squealing / Stop / Avoid that run-down feeling / Burma-Shave.
I got in the Jeep with its screen featuring many driver-friendly applications. I touched the Sirius symbol and tuned in to the Fifties Channel. Stopped at my favorite pizza place, had an IPA and headed home to my Mac computer to write this story and email it to you. Things were good back then in the Fifties. They’re better now.