The Back Room

Reply Sun 29 Jan, 2006 04:31 am
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Reply Sun 29 Jan, 2006 04:31 am
I had been a cute child, but by the age of seventeen, that fact had vanished like a dream. I had become a skinny, flat chested, frizzy-haired, late-developing teen-ager. I wore glasses and felt myself to be "afflicted" with acne. I could have been the poster child for the condition of loss of self-esteem in the adolescent girl. Making it doubly difficult was the fact that my older sister was the clear-skinned, smooth haired, early developing, large-breasted antithesis to me. (She was also smart, and an excellent student and had twenty-twenty vision). Her name was Laura, and being a good big sister, she helped me out in whatever way she could. So when I was sixteen, she got me a job where she worked at the Marriott restaurant at Exit 8A on the New Jersey Turnpike. Laura has that quick, competent and amazing (to me) type of intelligence that enables one to be an ace waitress, as well as ensuring success in other pursuits, (which she went on to prove). She could work six tables of four and keep every detail of every order straight. She made it look like an art. From the initial order through serving, clearing and ringing up the check, it all just flowed for her. When they hired me, I think they thought they were getting another Laura. That was not the case. Three weeks into the job, the manager called me into the office and gently fired me, saying, "You have a lovely personality, but I don't think waitressing is for you." I was devastated, and if it had not been for the fact that I hated waitressing, and sincerely agreed that it "was not for me", I probably would have felt like a complete failure and given up where the working world was concerned. But as it happened, I ventured back out and actually found another job the very next day.
A friend of mine who worked at Loehmann's had told me they were hiring. Loehmann's was a chain of stores which sold designer labels at a discount. Our customers tended to be well-heeled older women who knew and loved a bargain. The store was nothing fancy- no more than a large, linoleum-floored, fluorescent lighted warehouse, with a row of vinyl covered chairs at the back on which exhausted husbands silently and endlessly read the New York Post or Daily News while waiting for their wives. It was filled with racks of womens' clothes designed by Cacherel, Oleg Cassini, Christian Dior, and Diane Von Furstenberg (her wrap dress was huge at the time) among others. There were two communal dressing rooms, large square spaces lined with benches and mirrors. There was a clothing rack in the middle of the room and a "girl" to man each room. Her job was to pick up the rejected clothing and hang it on the rack to go back out onto the floor. A sales associate also worked each room. Her job was to make suggestions as to appropriate colors and styles for each individual woman, measure them for size and generally encourage sales by whatever means necessary. Carole, the sales associate in the first room, was a short, stocky, dark-haired Jewish woman with a loud and ready laugh and a no-nonsense attitude. She wore a tape-measure around her neck and did not hesitate to tell anyone when something looked abysmal on her. "No, no, no, - no good on you at all," she would say. "In fact, that's absolutely wretched on you, "she'd continue, taking the woman by the arms and turning her backside to the mirror. "See how it rides up on you? Let me go out and find something more fitting. I promise you, we can do better," she'd continue, scurrying back out onto the floor.
Ariadne, the sales associate in the second room, was Greek and blonde and beautiful, and possessed an air of mysterious and foreign elegance, akin to Eva Gabor. "Dahling," she would murmur, moving close and almost whispering into a woman's ear, "that is so stunning. That is so you," she would say as she found the woman's eye in the mirror, and they'd join each other in a smug and satisfied smile. Funnily enough, despite their hugely differing methods, Carole and Ariadne had an equal number of disciples and were both loved and successful in their jobs.
There was a definite hierarchy at Loehmann's. Mr. Wojohowski, the manager, occupied the top slot. He was a tall, raw-boned, doughy man with acne pitted cheeks and a distracted attitude. His curly hair and suits were always slightly mussed and his glasses askew. Despite these and several other characteristics which might have made another man unattractive and negated him as an object of fantasy, Ted Wojohowski possessed a low, resonant, mellow speaking voice, which seemed to act as nothing less than an aphrodisiac on his female workforce. When he spoke, women, young and old, stopped what they were doing and listened. He was never inappropriate that I know of, although he did seem very fond of Marci, the most mature and striking of the teen-agers amongst us, and it was rumored that he had an ongoing relationship with Marla, the prettiest of the three twenty-something cashiers. The rest of us were green with envy, but satisfied ourselves by simply basking in the warmth of that dulcet, honey-toned voice.
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Reply Sun 29 Jan, 2006 04:33 am
So it was that I found my niche at Loehmann's, along with the other eight or ten teen-aged girls who worked there part-time. That niche was at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ours was an ever changing rota of menial tasks that varied from manning the coat room, to keeping the floor neat, to working the fitting rooms, to restocking the floor from the stock room. Hangers were almost always involved. The crème de la crème of the lower level duties (the only ones available to those of us who worked after school and on Saturdays) was to man the Back Room. The Back Room was a separate space tucked into an unobtrusive corner of the store where the more expensive and exclusive merchandise was kept. It also doubled as a fitting room, so was lined with mirrors and benches, although this fitting room was carpeted and fitted with wall sconces which provided low-level and soothing lighting that enhanced a woman's appearance, no matter what she chose to wear. Being given duty in the back room, especially on the part-timers' longest shift, a Saturday, was akin to being given a given a gift by Mr. Wojohowski. The back room was quiet, it was soothing, and its walls were lined with beautiful clothes, which, when it wasn't busy, the more brazen of us dared to try on. So I was exceptionally pleased that particular Saturday when the schedule was posted and I saw my name next to that magic phrase: Back Room.
That morning Mr. Wojohowski met me at the door of the Back Room as I entered and putting his arm around my shoulders leaned down from his vast height (he was at least 6'4) and whispered in my ear, "I need to talk to you." I immediately blushed.
"We're having our special visitor today. You know who I mean?" he asked and I simply nodded.
"Are you okay with being alone in here? You okay with everything?" he asked and winked at me.
I blushed furiously and nodded again. "No problem," I said and smiled reassuringly at his back as he strode back to the front of the store. I entered the room and took my seat on the padded bench, leaned my head back against the mirror and closed my eyes. "Oh God," I thought hating myself, "why can't I talk like a normal person to him?" My cheeks still burned. But I didn't have time to dwell on it. At that moment, my first customer entered the room.
"Hello doll, how are you today?" he asked, taking my hand and kissing me on the cheek. It was Dana, the special visitor Mr. Wojohowski had been referring to.
"Dana, hi, I'm fine. How's Fifi?" I asked scratching the head of the toy poodle he carried in his arms.
"She knows she has to be a good girl, don't you Fifi? I have a lot of shopping to do today."
" Looking for anything special?" I asked. "Here let me hold her, while you take off your jacket."
He handed me the dog and took off his jean jacket. He was wearing pressed, cropped jeans with a canvas belt, a crisp white sleeveless shirt and tan espadrilles.
"Yeah, I need a gown, among other things and some elegant evening wear. We're going on a cruise."
"Oh, that sounds fun. I see you already have your tan. So is this stuff for your mother again?" Dana's mother was frail and elderly and though she accompanied him at times, there were many times he came shopping alone.
Dana looked at me with raised his eyebrows. "How long have we known each other now- what's it been - about a year, right?"
I nodded in agreement.
"So I'll tell you - this stuff is for me. But you already know that, don't you? We don't have to keep pretending, do we?"
"No, yeah, I mean what's the point in that?" I asked. "I …whatever you're comfortable with Dana," I stuttered.
I sat back down and watched as he absently flicked through some dresses.
"Can I ask you something, doll, honestly?" he asked, holding a red sleeveless number up in front of him. He raised an eyebrow quizzically, wordlessly asking my opinion.
"Sure," I said while shaking my head indicating my lack of enthusiasm for the particular dress he was holding.
"What does a girl like you think about someone like me?" he asked, turning back to the clothes. I watched his face in the mirror for a second before I answered.
"I think you're nice," I answered.
"But what do you think about the clothes that I wear?" he asked quietly.
"I love your shoes. You know, you're the one who turned me on to espadrilles," I said holding out my foot and showing him my own navy pair that tied around the ankles.
"And you've got the feet for them too," he said, "small and narrow with a high arch. They look hideous on women who have big, wide, flat feet. But that's not what I meant." He paused for just a second, scrutinizing another dress. "What do you think about the way I look?"
"I think you're handsome," I said. And he was. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, was compactly built, muscular, with tanned skin, dark hair, striking hazel eyes, and white teeth.
He didn't wear a wig or make-up, although I could tell he tweezed his eyebrows.
"Jesus, I know you don't have rocks for brains. I'm asking what you think about a person like me, a transvestite."
I had never thought much about it. Dana was treated like a fact of life at Loehmann's. He'd been coming there as long as I'd worked there, and I was always happy to see him. But I knew he needed me to be honest. I knew he needed to know how other people saw him. And I could understand needing to know that. "I guess I think you're brave," I answered. "I know you're much braver than I am. You do what you want to do and tell the world to shove it." I lowered my head, and patted the dog in my lap. "That's more than I have the courage to do." I could feel the flush creeping up my neck and over my cheeks again.
"Why, what do you have to be ashamed of?" he asked, sitting down beside me.
"I'm ugly," I almost whispered it. I had said it to myself, many times, every time I looked into the mirror, in fact. But I had never said it out loud to anyone else.
He was silent for a moment. "What do you think is ugly about you?" he asked, taking the dog from my hands and holding her on his own lap.
"I hate my skin. My hair is frizzy. I'm flat as a board. My brother has this joke he tells about me: what do me and pirates have in common?
Dana shrugged his shoulders indicating he didn't know.
"We both have sunken chests," I answered.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and saw him bite his lip to keep from laughing. I smiled, "Go ahead, laugh, it's funny. I can admit it."
"Okay, so we can admit it; it's a joke, it's funny, big deal, right?" But I'll tell you the truth. Clothes always hang better on small-breasted women. Why do you think they use those flat-chested models on the runways? Turn sideways in the mirror and look at yourself." We both stood up and I turned sideways while he stood behind me. "I see a nice, slim, neat silhouette. I like that, and so do most men if you want to know the truth. Don't you ever pad your bra," he said as he handed Fifi back to me and moved to the rack to pull out a dress.
"I was thinking about this for myself, but it would look great on you," he said, holding up an apple green sleeveless linen shift. He handed me the dress to hold in front of me and standing behind me, gathered my hair in his hands. "Look how putting you hair up lengthens your neck, and controls the frizz. You have a long, graceful neck, like a swan. It's one of your best features. You should highlight that."
I looked at my neck in the mirror. It was long. I'd never noticed that before.
Dana took Fifi from my hand placed her in his canvas bag and set it on the bench. She watched out of the top of it as Dana removed my glasses.
"You have great eyes. And good bones. Can you get contacts? And you just need a little blusher right here," he touched me gently, "on the apples of your cheeks. That will help define your cheek bones."
He watched me in the mirror. I looked right back at him and held his gaze as tears streamed from my eyes and my skin turned red and blotchy, but I didn't lower my head or cover my face.
He walked to the bench and pulled a tissue out of the pocket of his bag. Handing it to me, he said, "I know you don't believe it now, and maybe you never will, but someday you'll be beautiful. You need to understand though that you'll never be perfect. No one ever is. We all have flaws we try to find a way to hide." And sighing wearily, he lifted Fifi from the bag and handed her to me. "Here, now you hold my baby. I need to find something to wear."
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Reply Sun 29 Jan, 2006 05:20 am
A snippet from your life? Definitely something I'm glad I paused to read. It's so nice when people point out your strongest assets instead of the faults that are so easily seen.

Dana is someone I probably would've gotten along with.
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Reply Tue 31 Jan, 2006 02:24 am
Yeah, just remembering- thanks for your positive comment.

I agree, you'd probably get along with Dana. If your signature is any indication - you're laid back with a sense of humor- that's all it takes.
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Reply Wed 1 Feb, 2006 08:28 am
Hi Aidan

I've read through this a couple of times now.
I think your writing style is smooth, humorous and very poignant.
As for the content - well, despite it being a very feminine theme (so far) I was moved by the ending and Dana's sudden, unexpected kindness and understanding.
It really made me think of times in the past when a stranger or someone you hardly know, does or says something that changes your life forever and for the better.
It's the ones that go out of their way to help someone else with their life - while expecting absolutely nothing in return. That's what made it so moving for me. And it's about bravery, isn't it.

I'm encouraged to write.Very Happy

peace, Endy
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Reply Wed 1 Feb, 2006 11:45 am
Endy - What a nice thing for you to say. Thank you.
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