Monday, December 19, 2016


December, 1965


It’s not that I’d never been shopping before, but now, following a divorce, I suddenly found myself involved in the intricacies of cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. At the supermarket, I had to choose cereals and detergents from a bewildering range of offerings and select produce that I was capable of cooking. Laundromats posed new problems. I vaguely recalled the dictum of separating the white from the colored. Was this a holdover from segregation? Watching my laundry go round and round in the washer, I fantasized about meeting a beautiful girl who was an accomplished laundress, a gourmet cook and a nymphomaniac devoted only to me.
Despite these challenging homemaking activities, I was still left with boring evenings. Eventually, I thought of Bloomingdales on 59th and Lex.  Thereafter, I spent every Thursday evening wandering through the aisles of that great emporium, seldom making a purchase, but perusing the offerings in Housewares, Men’s Wear and Linens.
         I like good coffee as much as the next guy, and so, when I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a coffeemaker, my interest was whetted.  Bloomingdales was offering the Instabrewer for $29.95, purported to make super coffee. The ad called to mind an excellent cup of coffee I had enjoyed years before at the old La Fonda Del Sol Restaurant in the Time-Life Building. The waiter had prepared the coffee tableside and when I complimented him on its flavor, he displayed the coffeemaker.
“It’s called the French Press,” he said with a Castilian accent. “Forty-four beans per cup.”
 The Instabrewer in the ad looked like the French Press.  I decided I would go down to Bloomingdales that very evening.
         Arriving at the Housewares Department on the 6th Floor, I showed the ad to a clerk.
“Does it really make good coffee?” I asked. Of course, I realized that the question was akin to asking a waiter if the fish was fresh. 
         “Oh, yes,” he assured me.
         “How does it work?” I inquired.
         “It’s easy,” he told me.  “You just put some ground coffee in it, pour in boiling water, wait 5 minutes and then push the plunger down. The plunger has a filter, and you know, it pushes the grounds to the bottom. That’s all there is to it.”
         “And the coffee is really good?” I persisted.
A small group of shoppers had gathered around us, listening to our conversation with the innate curiosity typical of New Yorkers.
         “How about making me a cup of coffee with it?” I asked.
         The young man’s eyes widened with shock. “I can’t do that, sir. I’m—”
         “Sure you can,” I interrupted.
         The Floor Manager, carnation in buttonhole, approached. “What seems to be the problem?” he inquired blandly.
         “This gentleman asked me to make him a cup of coffee,” the salesman said.
As if I had asked him to cook a gourmet meal.
         “I just wanted to try some coffee with the Instabrewer,” I explained.
         The manager smiled. “Of course. By all means.” Turning to the salesperson, he commanded in an imperious manner, “Make this gentleman a cup of coffee.” The manager nodded graciously to me and the onlookers and strode away. Nearby, several clerks pointed at me whispering “company rep.”
As the salesperson scurried off, several of the shoppers asked me what was going on. I said that I was interested in the Instabrewer and wanted a demonstration.
         “Does it make good coffee?” a man asked.
         “Yes,” I said with a conviction I had yet to feel. “It makes terrific coffee.” I explained how it worked.
         “I think I want one, too,” the man said.
         “So do I,” several of the women chorused.
         I was amused by the situation. What’s going on here? I’m a college professor, not a salesman. But apparently I’m now selling Instabrewers.
         The salesman returned with an Instabrewer full of coffee and a cup. He filled the cup for me, apologizing for the lack of cream or sugar. I tasted the coffee as a connoisseur would savor a vintage wine. I was tempted to extend my pinky. The group watched in expectation.
         “Excellent,” I declared. At least three of the group enthusiastically besieged the salesman with orders for Instabrewers. I bought one, too.  

         Another evening found me back in Housewares seeking to buy an electric can opener. I waited patiently while the clerk, not the one who makes coffee, was helping a customer select some wood stain. He produced a stained sample for her inspection. 
         “This is the walnut,” he said.
The woman studied it carefully for a moment. “It’s nice,” she said hesitantly, “but . . .”
The clerk showed her another sample. “And this is the oak, again.”
         I could see that he couldn’t help adding the “again”.
“That one’s nice, too,” she wavered.        
What followed next were samples of chestnut, ebony, cherry, rosewood and maple.
The clerk sighed struggling to suppress exasperation. “These are all I have.”  
“I just don’t know,” she said.
This interchange continued for fifteen minutes. The woman picked up one of the samples, studied it, sighed and put it down, as the salesman waited. But I was growing impatient. I turned to the woman and asked, “What are you trying to stain?”
“It’s for my kitchen,” she said.
“And what’s your kitchen like?” I asked.
“It has this wooden part, sort of like a big board with copper pans hanging on it and I want to stain it.”
I had noticed some copper pots and pans displayed at a nearby counter. I grabbed a number of stain samples, took her arm, and gently led her to the display of copper pans. I held up one of the stain samples near the pans, examined it critically and then tried another. The woman watched me eagerly. When I tested the oak sample, I nodded sagely and pronounced in a judicial tone, “This is the one you want.”
The woman seemed pleased with my decision and together we marched back to the clerk where she resolutely ordered a can of oak stain and departed.
This is absurd. Now I’m selling wood stain.
The clerk thanked me profusely. “That woman has been trying to get me to make up her mind for at least two weeks. She stops in, I show her the samples and she leaves without buying anything. Thanks for helping.”

My boring evenings came to a welcome end when the departmental chairman sent Laura, an attractive young graduate student, into my laboratory for training. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love.
 Christmas came around and one Thursday evening Laura suggested, “Let’s go down to Bloomies. We can shop for each other’s Christmas presents and then meet for dinner.”
After half an hour, having considered a myriad of perfumes, baubles, bangles and beads, I made my way into the Lingerie Department. It was crowded and I stood at a counter waiting to be helped. A young woman about ten feet away was standing at the same counter. She was in her early thirties, very pretty. A counter-top rack displaying half a dozen pairs of panties caught her attention. Small lacy things. I watched as she selected a white pair and held it up for a closer look. She doesn’t look like the type for white lingerie, I mused. She turned her head towards me aware of my presence. In that instant, our eyes met and I slowly shook my head. She dropped the panties like a small child who had been caught touching a forbidden thing. She selected another, this time a black pair, held them up and deliberately looked at me, her eyes questioning. Uh-uh, she’s not the type for black either. Again, I shook my head. Dropping the black ones, she now selected a pink pair and looked directly at me, obviously wanting my reaction. Neither of us smiled. This time I nodded approval. A salesgirl approached her and the woman bought the pink pair. She quickly walked away without another glance in my direction.

I bought the black ones.

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