I was a simple store clerk, a sensitive young woman far from home and going
through a painful divorce. By night and on weekends, I was a dangerous politico, a rabid anti-war protester, a hippie, a radical feminist, an enemy of the
If my co-workers suspected me of leading a secret life, it was probably one
more in line with their experience. On the second floor of Penney's, women
did not leave their husbands for trivial reasons, and certainly never within the
first eighteen months of the marriage! I am sure they assumed I was covering
some shameful and traumatic episode when I gave my pitifully naive and inadequate explanation that I had simply grown tired of being married. It would
have gone without saying on the second floor that I was protecting my shame
at having discovered some adulterous affair—either that or I could not bring
myself to name the horrors my brute of a spouse had inflicted during one of
his periodic bouts of drunken debauchery.
difficult. I left, because I could no longer bear who I had become in comparison with this consistent, earnest, successful, conscientious, and nice man.
Nor would my co-workers have understood my desire to escape the confines
of home and family. Far from wanting a house of my own, I was actively engaged in eliminating every possession of mine that I could not fit into a backpack— with the exception of my sewing machine, bought on that second floor of J.C. Penneys and resting, even as I type this memoir, not ten feet from the computer.
There was not a man who worked on the entire floor.
Irene Manther ran the piece-goods department. She had moved with her husband from Wyoming to Colorado in a horse-drawn wagon, which gives you some idea of her age, and our age, and the speed at which global technological colonization was advancing. And yet, for all her pioneer crossing in the shadow of the Great Divide, in nearly fifty years of service, Irene had been unable to traverse that gulf that lay between management and staff, between men and women in the corporate world. Her lack of promotion was considered a scandal, a source of whispered rage in the no-man's-land of the second floor.
The section "Men and Boys" in the pattern books was modest, statutory even, and always toward the back. It was the elegant gowns, the riotously bright sundresses, the voluptuous loungewear sashaying and strutting across the pages that courted our attention when we stood before the long counters with the pattern books as large as Manhattan phone directories.
Irene had seen the skirts ascend from the instep to the ankle, then shimmy up the knee. She had seen them plummet to mid-calf, only to scramble up again, this time boldly cresting the knee to establish various base camps along the thigh, in anticipation of a final bid for the summit. Irene had seen shoulders go bare, then shoulders go square; bustlines puffed out like powder pigeons, then flattened down like pancakes, then nosed out like torpedoes, and now assuming the anatomically correct, if sartorially nondescript, contours of human breasts at long last out of harness. Irene had witnessed waistlines cinched in with corsets, then dropped loose to the hips, then smoothed over with girdles, then gathered in with waistbands, then raised up to the breasts, and now riding back down on the hips with bell-bottom jeans.
I felt safe in Irene's matriarchate, and safety had been rare in my experience. Raised in terror, I have spent most of my life trying to prevent what had already happened. Now, at twenty-one, I was in the process of going through a divorce, and on the verge of having to take responsibility for my life—a staggering proposition for someone whose whole prior focus had been resistance. J.C. Penney's provided a refuge for me, an oasis of pure sensory experience in a post-traumatic world where every experience seemed freighted with the moral weight of a life-or-death decision, and yet which was, at the same time, eerily unreal.
I had my own game that I played as a keeper of the spools. I would try to see how many I could sort by color without checking the dye number stamped on the end. As many of the hues were similar, especially the blues, this posed something of a challenge to my powers of discrimination.
On the nights when I closed the register with Bobbi, she would insist on examining all the nickels and all the pennies. She was a coin collector, and in those days buffalo nickels were still fairly common. She would always buy them from the till. I was never clear exactly what markings Bobbi was looking for on the pennies, but in her methodical way, she would turn and look at them all. In what appeared to me to be the constricted stream of Bobbi's life, she was clearly panning for gold. Still expecting to stumble across the mother lode, I could not appreciate the ritualistic value of Bobbi's actions, which lay entirely apart from the capture of precious metals.
Women who considered themselves not clever enough to work outside the home, would stand at our counter and perform split-second mathematical calculations in their head as they figured for selvedge, for nap, for shrinkage; making allowance for alterations, customizing patterns by combining features from other patterns. And some of them, the old-timers like Irene, worked without patterns at all, using old newspapers or no paper at all.