Tomorrow is my sister's birthday, and despite the twenty-three years of sisterly torture she has given me, she did also give me a birthday present this year, so I had to get her one, too.

Fine. Easy. Latte cups, freshly ground organic coffee, biscotti from a local bakery and for presentation... a wicker basket that she can use for magazines in her new apartment when she takes the other gifts out. Having obtained all but the basket, I wandered into the Marshalls department store in my home town.

I worked in this store, starting at the age of 16, just on the weekends, and it taught me a loathing of retail and shopping that I carry to this day. I get frantic when caged in malls and stare up at the skylights like a bird whose wings have been clipped. Okay, that part is melodrama, sure, but I do get dizzy. I was working on the weekends and full time during two summers, initially this was to save up enough for a school trip to Europe, and later it just became habit.

When I was working there in high school, almost ten years ago now, my principle lunch buddy was a twenty-something guy named Jim. Jim was maybe not so brilliant, but a genuinely cheerful and personable guy, always chatting with the customers and remembering their names and particulars. Exceedingly good at his job. He stood ouside with me at night while I waited for my parents to come pick me up after 2nd shift. We ate lunch together when we could manage it with the rest of the store. He never once acted inappropriately towards me in any way, falling gracefully into some strange older brother role.

When I went to college I avoided that Marshalls, even when I was back in my hometown on term break. I have to admit, I was embarassed to be associated with them, I thought that I was going to make it, to not get stuck in the retail trap forever. I was a snooty privileged teenager. When I did go in, Jim was always there, and he always said hello to me and asked how things were going. I figured he was a lifer.

So I went back, today, to find this perfect wicker basket, and snuck in through the opposite door from the registers (he always worked the registers). And something seemed wrong. I made it to the back of the store with the housewares and gifts before I realised that the off-putting thing was a man's voice, yelling. And even more upsetting that it really sounded like Jim was emitting the loud but unintelligible noise. I peeked around one of the aisles to look at the registers and saw that Jim's normal, slightly unkempt shock of sandy hair was missing altogether, and the shine on his skull indicated clearly that it was an unintentional baldness. I could hear him now, in between outbursts, speaking normally, as if he only lost control when he allowed emotion into his voice.

It scared me.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time inspecting baskets, even after I'd picked one out, and then moved on to shoes. Men's, Women's, Children's, sneakers, and the next item on the back wall was lingerie. Then handbags. Then I was getting close to the registers, so I went back through the handbags and held my breath.

Well, fuck.

What was I doing? Sneaking around, pretending to be interested in things that I hate to avoid talking to this guy with whom I spent so many bored evenings at work, talking about what we thought of life. Of the shitty job. Of my parents. Of growing up.

So I sucked in my breath, fought the urge to ditch the basket right there in the ladies' socks and bolt. I sucked in my breath and got in his cashier's line, right after a guy with a radio flyer full of kids. Maria (I know because they called her on the loud speaker), opened up another register and called for the next customer just as Jim said, haltingly, "Hey, Rugg!" I told the guy in back of me that he could go over, I didn't mind waiting, and he hesitated, gave me disbelieving look and said "You sure?"

I told him that I was working on the North Shore now, making ink for printers, I told him what I was doing back in my hometown again, and I didn't ask what had happened to him. Turns out he was training a new girl on the register and yes, making complete sense when he could keep control of his voice. It just got so loud and loose when he couldn't. I got done with my order, wished him well and got out of there...

A man, unremarkable except for his good manners, made drawn and haggard by ten years of... what?

I feel like I am still shaking, or dreaming. How does this happen?

New York on a Sunny Day

Have you a restroom?

The thrift-store cashier said "er, no, but there's a Starbucks a block thataway (points)."

Bye-bye Beloved Spouse, (whom only last week was exposed to the addictive practice of thrift-shopping the "Society" stores). Up until now, she'd thought thrift stores were strictly Salvation Army.

Nature's calling, and the charitable people at the "Project: Housing for Life" (or whatever) were finding apartments (with toilets) for others, but weren't charitable enough to allow me access to their own toilet.

Views down an East-Side street, off 2nd Avenue:

Someone either moving in or out, their belongings sitting in the truck and on the sidewalk, bits of a life/lives exposed, if momentarily, for for all to see (good taste in bedroom furniture; chintzy dining room set, a frosted-glass coffee table to die for).

An old woman standing on her stoop, watching the world go by. I bet she's on rent control and pays about $500 a month for an apartment in a building filled with one-bedrooms for $3,500 and up. Reminds me of my Grandma.

A utility truck (the phone company) and all they were doing was going down a manhole, but the crowd of workmen above-ground wore hardhats, too. One of them yelled "get a job!" to a passing taxi driver who'd leaned on the horn. Driving a taxi in New York City, especially at night, is a far more life-threatening occupation than splicing wires for the telephone company. In fact, more cab drivers are murdered while working than policemen every year.

Turn onto 1st Avenue; there's Starbucks. A homeless man was parked at a table, his somewhat filthy belongings (obviously most or all of what he owned in the world) neatly stacked around him. He uttered "there's someone in there right now." Was there? A short wait proved that indeed there was. That was all the excuse needed to offer a $5 bill for preventing the embarrassment of door-handle-jiggling an occupied restroom. The guy might've been homeless, but he was performing a duty: restroom watcher. He said "thank you" for the $5.

Ironically, on the way out of Starbuck's, the young lady behind the counter who was obviously in a supervisory position (and quite caffeinated, given her loud, rapid-fire voice) cried out "oh, sir, the bathrooms are for customers only." Fought the urge to say "I've been a customer at your other stores for years, and frankly hate your coffee and would rather have Dunkin' Donuts put the sugar and cream in for me, at these prices." Bought a fancy-schmantzy root beer for $2.19. Told 'amphetamines incarnate' to drink more root beer and less "Grande" espressos. And to have a sparkling day. So there.

Down to 87th Street and 1st. So many restaurants, so little time. The tiny news store smelled delightful; tobacco, chewing gum, and newsprint.

Back across a block and headed north, back to the world of slightly-worn women's apparel (in the chic-est, hippest setting, mind you).

More restaurants. Plenty of sidewalk tables, today. The temperature was 73. Ah, Spring is here (but not a crocus nor daffodil to be seen on an eight-block stroll).

Flagrantly violated the "no food or drink in the store" sign and walked in. There was Beloved Spouse with two arms-full of stuff. I told her to ditch one of the scarves and two of the skirts; but that the rest were fine. Paid for her treasures (all of $65.00) and as we were leaving, heard the clerk say "oh-I'm-sorry-I-didn't-think-you-were-a-customer."

Did I look ratty? Slacks, oxford shirt freshly pressed (light starch) and not a hair out of place. I'm fat, but not enough to break the toilet seat. What could have possessed her to think that perhaps, I'd sully her restroom? Or use it for free.

On the way out I howled: "Customer, customer?! You haven't seen me shop when one of my female personalities emerges, have you honey?!"

Beloved Spouse hit me. Hard. But then she bought lunch.

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