A Shaker Heights Vignette

It was 1968.  I had just graduated from high school in Kent, and was going to be off to school in Boulder in the fall, and I needed a job.

My pop had just had a second heart attack, and needed to be closer to Cleveland than Kent for his job; so my parents moved to an apartment in Shaker Heights.

It was a queer sort of apartment, with the dusky smells of old people in the hallway, an oval elevator, and just about the only other soul I remember ever seeing there was Haywood, the limousine driver in the basement garage.  It was spooky enough to generate some dark fantasies in me.  It was my first time at apartment-dwelling; to burn off my agitation, I would run wind-sprints up and down the halls; it was silent except for my breaths, since the carpets were so thick, and almost unused by human feet.

My mother was cranky that summer; life was turbulent for us, so it was a small wonder, and she pressured me every night to find a job, find a job.  So I beat the pavements for work: shops, restaurants, even the local loony bin (what the hell, yeah?).  Nope, nada, zip.

I kept going back to one place, and I swear the Devil made me do it.  I bugged the manager so many times that she finally relented, and hired me.

It was The Shop for Papagallo, satellite to the Mothership in New Yawk City.

The store sold shoes: split calf’s leather that felt like buttah on your feet, and for Special Dress, satin pumps that could be died to match your dress by Francine, who plied her craft in a damp grotto in the basement eight hours a day.

I think of myself then, an early hippie/war protester working in The Shoe Emporium to Debutantes and their Mums; good grief!

We wore medium-sleeved linen pinnies in candy colors over our dresses, were required to buy a pair of Pappagallo shoes, and were taught how to serve customers.  “May I bring you some coffee or tea?  What would you like in it?  Care for a cigarette?  Winston or Salem?  What shoes may I show you today?  I’ll run and get them; what size do you wear?  Oh, you wear a six, but a seven-and-a-half feels a little better?  I’ll be right back!”

It turned out that I was the only shiksa working there, and not all the other employees were ecstatic about that, but the manager liked me and ran interference for me, I think.

And boy, could I sell shoes!  I learned the stock numbers on the shoeboxes: coded for color, style, fabric or leather, and other distinctions: bows, rosettes, buckles, etc.  And I had worked for lots of summers at the country club behind our house in lots of capacities, waitress, life-guard, swimming instructor, so I knew how to schmooze with some wry self-deprecation.  It was fine.

Over the summer I grew to be accepted, if not adored by my fellow employees, and I grew more at ease, and even a little playful sometimes.  When a new boutique was added, with almost avante garde dresses and other paraphernalia, a fancy record player was added.  Now this was trouble.  The girls brought in records, and some weren’t half bad.  We kept it low, and it made a more festive atmosphere, and maybe even loosened up the Mums spending the big bucks on their daughters.

During lulls, we’d go play in the boutique and try on the dresses and hats and jewelry, and most importantly laugh and giggle.

The manager–damn, I can still see her face, but her name is gone–lived in fear (as we all did, by extension) of The New York Owners Dropping In!  They, of course, seldom announced their impending visits.

The air in the store could get stuffy from all the Winston-Salem smoke, so I had taken to asking permission to open the door.  So it became a bit of a thing; you can understand why, I’m sure.  Let The Stuffiness Out?

One day toward the end of summer, I was standing on the top step of the boutique, the door was open, and one of us (shut up–it might have been someone else!) had Stoned Soul Picnic kinda blaring, my hands in my pinny-pockets, and in walked the New Yawk Dames.  Oy.  And Vey.

They were furred and bejeweled and coiffed and hatted and they glared at me, and closed the front door; they probably heard the music all the way down the block at F.A.O. Schwartz!  I edged over and turned down the music; they hustled to the manager’s office.

They finally emerged after maybe thirty minutes, and left.  The manager came toward me.

Knowing I was about to be fired, my face must have looked ravaged and red.

“Were they mad?  Did I get you in trouble?  Am I fired?” I quavered.

Mrs. Wonderful smiled, and told the story.  She had pointed out to them how many of their Shoes Like Buttah I sold for them, and explained away the music and the door.  But what they were fuming about was my shoes!  I had long since given up the de rigeur Pappagallos; my big galoot feet just tortured those puppies into pretzels, and I’d taken to wearing some decent strapped Mary-Janes instead.

She saved my job, and I swear to God I can’t remember if she made me change back to the Prissy Pretzels.

Can you surrey, can you picnic?  Come on, come on, and surrey down…to the Stoned Soul Picnic…

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