Don’t remember when my mom first told me about Tiffany’s second floor. I had already moved into my apartment in the 60’s off Fifth, handpicked by my doting dad who when he wasn’t driving me crazy was my favorite person. I must have needed a wedding gift. In the 1970’s people still gave gifts instead of money if they were young, not relatives or parental best friends.
My mom told me that this was a secret passed on from mother to daughter. I believed her because I believed everything that my mother said, though her mother was an immigrant. She was sophisticated and had good taste, so this might have been true. Several years before my mom died I asked for dispensation to tell other people. My mom couldn’t stop laughing at my amazingly gullible nature–only where my parents were concerned.
Tiffany’s second floor was a place where you could pick up cheap(er) wedding and hostess gifts, and they were always in good taste, and welcomed because of the blue Tiffany box. The gifts weren’t original, but I have a huge multi-faceted crystal paperweight that had been given to my parents, and they gave to me as I collect glass and crystal. Know it’s from Tiffany’s because I then bought a much smaller version–for my fave gift recipient–me.
I stopped going to Tiffany’s in the early ’80’s when many unique gift stores opened on Lexington Avenue that were much more funky and to my taste. Once my last fiancee and I brought champagne, crystal glasses, and strawberries to Tiffany’s so that we could have breakfast at Tiffany’s as the sun rose. That’s my idea of a great date.
Alexanders, oh how do I get from Tiffany’s to Alexanders?
Well the Manhattan Alexanders was just a three block walk but it was a world apart. When fave sis and I were young, every year the night before school began our family would drive to the Alexanders in Rego Park. There would be a five mile back-up on both sides of the Long Island Expressway. I never understood this ritual, nor liked it, but the parents seemed to love it.
This family trip might have something (or everything) to do with my hatred of shopping in department stores. Alexanders had everything: from school supplies to winter coats. I thought that everybody bought their clothes there.
When we moved to real Long Island, as opposed to the edge of Northeast Queens, I quickly found out that fave sis and I dressed all wrong. The girls in our new school had worn clothes from Best & Company in elementary school, and now, in Seventh Grade, wore Villager clothes and Papagallo shoes from The Miracle Mile in Manhasset. We begged and begged for our mom to buy us clothes from some store other than Alexanders but she refused. But I was allowed to buy my own clothes the next year so it wasn’t as much of an issue as I made it into. My decades of black and purple began, and yes I’m personally responsible for beginning the black clothes trend in New York. Sure!
Later, in the 1970’s when I moved just off Fifth, and my parents had seen much of the world, my mom finally realized that the depression was over and had been over for sometime. As in, long before I had been born!
“So, why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t want clothes from Alexanders?”
“No you didn’t.”
This was a long oft-repeated conversation that went nowhere but was fun. It was also amusing to see how many “so’s” my mom could get into a ten sentence conversation.
When I moved into the city I found that there was no place like Alexanders for pocketbooks, pantyhose, underwear, and some clothes. It was worth the half hour wait on line. No matter how many salespeople there were, and how few customers, the wait was always half hour. Think they hired from the Howard Johnson interstate hiring hall. But in Alexanders defense they did hire people nobody else would.
However, I did form many friendships while waiting on line at Alexanders. The lines were so slow; I could know a woman’s life story and she could know half of mine before even reaching the register. When I wasn’t in a good mood, and was crazed over the lines, I could scream like a crazy woman at the sales people and the assistant to the assistant assistant manager. This was considered normative behavior at Alexanders. At any one time half the line would be screaming:
“What’s going on?
“That girl’s so stupid…”
“I could be halfway to Europe by now…”
“Do they only hire retarded people here?”
“Why am I standing here with 20 pairs of pantyhose, 30 pieces of underpants, a pocketbook…”
The voices would all be on top of each other. I thought that were I to decide to have a nervous breakdown, I could have one at Alexanders and nobody would think anything of it. It was a good safety valve.
In the world before designer bags became the norm, Alexanders had exceptional pocketbooks that looked like they cost a fortune, were unusual, and so great, rich women would stop me on the street and ask where I bought my bag. Other girls would lie, not me:
“No it can’t be from Alexanders. Look at the detail on the leather and the velvet. So intricate.”
“But I want that pocketbook, and, well you know, Alexanders….”
“I know but it’s worth it.”
“Oh dear, I’ll have to send Laverne.” (Or whoever the housekeeper was.)
This was one of my favorite street conversations with rich East Side women I didn’t know. While I was in many ways a recovering hippie, I had a look that could fit in anywhere. My inner soul didn’t want to be accepted as a young woman who lived on the East Side and looked it; my less inner soul was screaming with joy: “I can fake it; I can really fake it.”
Took me many years and a move out of Manhattan to realize that I had never faked it; I was the real deal. It’s just that when you spend your childhood shopping at Alexanders-well, that ended up costing my father a lot more in therapy bills than if they had just gone to Best & Co., like the rest of Long Island.
When I was 26, in 1977, Fred the Furrier had been opened for a year. This was before PETA, and the animal rights movement. So give me a break, okay?
My then best friend Shelby had a raccoon coat from Fred’s. Because Shelby had bought a raccoon coat most of our other girlfriends bought one also. Never one to follow the crowd, especially my best friend, I wanted something more luxe, something that signified I had arrived and was no longer a hippie. Though to be honest at night I was a post glam rock punk princess which did entail much black, lurex, and makeup.
One day my dad and I met at Fred’s so that he could buy me my 25th birthday present a year and a half a year late. This was not only expected but accepted in our family as it meant we would get much more lavish presents such as a trip to Europe, or in this case a fur coat. I wanted Sable but would accept Mink.
We began looking at coats. It took us less than two minutes to realize that neither of us knew anything about fur.
“So, do you like that one?” (Any conversation with my parents involved many “so’s.” For a long time I thought that it was really a Yiddish word and the only one my parents would use in conversation with us.)
“Yick, it’s too fluffy, and I don’t know, there’s something…let’s look at the minks.”
We began looking at the minks. My father started asking questions of the sales people. He had an amazing shtick that always worked: (this was pre PC days, too.)
“Pretend that I’m retarded and no nothing about fur.”
Okay it usually worked. My dad did what he always did when he was confused; he would run to call me or my mom. Since I was confused also, he took out the dime collection, went to the nearest pay phone and called my mom.
“So she like a mink…”
“So is it full skin?”
“Uh, what’s full skin…”
“Wait right there. I’m coming in.”
Of course we couldn’t wait there while she drove to the train station in Hicksville, took the next train, a cab (because it was a special occasion,) and went up the slowest escalator in the world to Fred the Furriers at Alexanders. Yes even the elevators and escalators were slow at Alexanders. We went to a restaurant next door in Bloomingdales. My father had an unnatural love for department store food. He insisted that the food was better, fresher and that there were less calories. I was always meeting him for lunch in one department store or another.
Bach’s which was on 34th Street was his personal favorite. Orbach’s! It was less classy than Alexanders, didn’t have as good stuff, but did have better lines. All the waitresses knew him by name:
“Hey Max, you haven’t been here for two days. That your daughter?”
Actually a walk through many department stores with my dad was an incredible experience. Wherever we went the sales people knew him by name and would rush from their customers to greet him. My dad was a successful CPA with an office at home, and one in the city, but he would go to his client’s offices. I could never figure out where he had the time to meet so many sales people, in every store from the old Barney’s to Bergdorf’s.
“Well, Pia, in life you should always take the time to meet as many people as possible.” Then he would make a facial expression that was somewhere in between a grimace and a grin. “Look, most of them don’t make much money, and people treat them so rudely….”
Omigod, he’s heard about me in Alexanders Then I would remember that I had learned my shouting techniques from my dad. Though he tried to limit his shouting to bank and airline employees.
“Oh, Max, you just love the attention they give you.” I never called him “dad” or “daddy” in public. He insisted that my sister and I call him Max.
By the time we finished lunch, my mom was waiting for us at Fred’s. We spotted her deep in conversation with a salesperson. Oh no, it wasn’t a salesman. It was Fred himself.
“So where did you eat lunch?” translation: I told you to wait for me here. We finished the chit chat that had many layered meanings and went onto the business at hand. My mom was nothing if not sweet and blunt. She held the patent on sweet and blunt; I have somewhat mastered it but could never be like Marian.
Supposedly Jewish girls are taught about full skinned furs in the cradle. This was another part of my education that my mom had overlooked. She had been too busy teaching us values, and why people like my parents should be called “progressive,” and never “Communist” or the dreaded “Socialist.” My mom’s family had been Communists; my dad’s had been Socialist, which is why it was the dreaded word. Though she did love most of my dad’s family. By now my dad was a neo-con while my mom was becoming progressively more progressive. I thought that the mink would be an easy sell as my mom’s had cost $10,000 and had been especially made for her at a furriers. Fred’s minks averaged around $2,500.
She looked at me bluntly and said:
“You can’t buy a mink coat.’
“You have to be 35. If you’re under 35 you have to be married with children.”
“But I’ve been married. I never want to be married again.’
“Don’t say that.” We weren’t religious but knew every superstition. I could hear a silent Kinehora.
“Minks are classy. They always look good.”
“You’re only 26. People will think the wrong things if you wear one.”
“You know, things.”
“Ma, uh Marian, I live off Fifth. People already think the wrong things. Do you know how many doormen at the hotels ask if I’d like to earn some money?”
Oh god, why did I say that? Why did my mom have a singular ability to make me say many things that I would regret in the morning?
She shot me a look that was filled with both disdain and pride. My mom was short and cute. I wasn’t tall, but everybody thought that I was. In the dressing room at Loehmann’s she was always making people admire my breasts, waist and hips. I wanted her legs. She still wore mini skirts, and looked darn good in them.
“So, you see?”
I knew when to accept defeat. My always talkative father had remained silent throughout this exchange. Fred kept on smiling. We fit his target market: Successful parents; young daughter on her way up. He told me that I would be back with my next husband within a few years to buy the most expensive Mink or even a Sable. A pretty girl like me
I finally settled on a dyed Nutria with a huge Opossum collar. Nutria’s are swamp rats found in some Southern States and in South America. It was a beautiful coat. I wore it with everything for the next fifteen years. It looked especially good, I thought with straight legged jeans. Though I hated winter, I loved being able to throw the coat on over my jeans and sweater, put on some lipstick, sunglasses, and walk around looking all high cotton.
People who didn’t know fur thought that it was a Mink. My Nutria was, of course, full skinned.
When I moved out of Manhattan for awhile in 1991, I gave the coat to a neighborhood homeless woman. If it didn’t make her as happy as it made me, I hope it kept her warm.