by Nancy Gendimenico
The summer between junior and senior years of high school, I worked at a state home for people with special needs. My job came through a ‘70s era government program that helped disadvantaged teens. I did not want anyone to know my family was barely making ends meet. But it was hard to hide this in our small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, an area once known for coal mining. The industry dried up in the ‘50s and ‘60s hitting Hazleton hard and the downturn cost my father his job as a driller’s assistant. We moved to Baltimore where he found work at Bethlehem Steel. Three years later the plant closed. When we returned to Hazleton, he was often unemployed, and the year I began third grade my father had a nervous breakdown. After that he wasn’t the same.
The thought of caring for residents sicker than my father was not my idea of a summer break. “Don’t turn your nose up at the White Haven job,” my mother said. “It’s only for two months.” We disagreed on everything, from my reading racy novels, like Couples and Valley of the Dolls, to the Weejun loafers and Shetland sweaters I’d splurged on, to my diet of toast and plain hamburgers. But we agreed on one thing. It was good to have money.
“Okay, I’ll take it,” I said, thinking about the long stretch ahead. I hoped this would stop my mother from repeating stories about her pressing shirts in a broiling factory as a teenager. She dropped out of school because she had to help support eight brothers and sisters after her parents passed. My five siblings and I were not expected to do the same because my mother believed in education. I knew school and saving money would be my way out of Hazleton, even at age eight.
I’d been babysitting since I was 13. At 16, I sold lingerie at a department store downtown and did typing and filing at a public school. Soon after I started working, my mother opened a passbook savings account for me. I loved seeing my balance grow each time I made a deposit.
With my own money, I could go to the pool at Angela Park with friends, eat barbecue sandwiches at our nightly hang out, the Knotty Pines, and buy my own clothes. Fitting in was key. I did not want to look or act like the poor kid I really was.
For the White Haven job, I had to wear a cotton candy pink and white polyester uniform. I associated pink with good memories, like the angel costume I wore for a First Communion procession in second grade. It also reminded me of pink garbed cloistered nuns whose order I’d once aspired to join. To make the uniform acceptable to my taste, I hemmed it several inches above the knee, much to my mother’s consternation. In my work outfit, with white stockings and wedge soled shoes, I looked like a nurse or a waitress, the latter, I’d discover to be lucrative during my college years, thanks to the cash tips. The only downside was wearing another uniform because I hated being told how to dress. Entering Hazleton High as a freshman, I was glad to be rid of plaid skirts and white blouses, my uniform for nine years of parochial school.
My daily transportation to White Haven was on a yellow school bus. I remember the uncomfortable 18-mile ride, no springs in the seats, the only scenery, green forest for long stretches on Route 80. Squirming the whole way, I tugged at the skirt of my uniform, too snug around my hips and thighs. At age 15, I’d deemed my 115-pound weight too high for my 5’ 2” frame. Dieting soon became an obsession. Dramatic weight swings continued throughout my thirties. The scale, like the clothes I wore, became another measure of my worth.
At the state home, the patients’ worth was barely considered. Children and adults were housed together in a one-story building. Some were deaf, others confined to wheelchairs or wore heavy metal braces on their legs. As I recall, I did not receive any special training to do the work. When the residents needed something, they shouted, their words incoherent. “Naannncy,” some of the older men would call out in unison. They slobbered over me as I propped them up for meals, and sprayed more food on me than they put in their mouths.
“Are you still hungry?” I’d ask, trying to clean off my uniform and show some patience, little that I had as a teen. It upset me to see the extent of their disabilities and dependency on others, like the way my father depended on my mother to ensure he bathed, ate and took an array of pills for his depression.
Lunch time at the home was a respite. But I’d lost my appetite and couldn’t eat the tuna or salami and provolone sandwiches I’d packed each day. I was afraid if I did, I’d throw up and wouldn’t be able to finish my shift. By the afternoon break, I was ravenous. I snacked on vending machine peanut butter crackers and Tab, which sustained me during the ride home.
At dinner, I picked at my food. “I hate it there. I’m quitting,” I said. My father sat listening, but didn’t say a word. Ever since he came home from the hospital, he barely talked. Silent and shrunken, and no longer able to work, he was a shell of the robust man I’d known as a little girl. I thought about Danville, the state mental hospital with bars on the windows, where he was sent after his breakdown. When we visited, I noticed the men on my father’s ward talking to themselves, staring into space or watching us as we tried to act like a normal family.
The White Haven patients were more animated. “They cling to me, they yell and get upset when I have to leave,” I whined. “I don’t want to be around disabled people,” I said.
My mother slammed her hand on the table, still wearing a smock like apron over her knit top and pants. “Then you’re saying you don’t want to be with your own father.” She used the word disability to describe my father’s condition, rather than mental illness.
“Stop complaining. You’re healthy and you have your family right here. They need you. You’re not leaving that job,” my mother said, picking up the dishes. She had the last word.
I hadn’t yet grasped what she’d sacrificed to take care of my father and the six of us.
I wondered what had happened to the White Haven residents to put them there.
My father had a younger step sister named Romania who was deaf. As a grown woman, she wore frilly dresses and anklets, the clothes of my childhood. She was assigned to the kids’ table at family gatherings and if anyone provoked her as we were likely to do, she’d moan, or try to talk making guttural sounds. Sometimes she’d hit whomever was nearest, punching and slapping us. My grandmother treated Romania as if her condition was Romania’s own fault. Grandmother Mary had left my father’s real father for a different husband, the man with whom she had Romania and four more children. How had Romania come out so wrong? I wondered if my father’s condition and Romania’s were connected. But in recalling my father’s patience as he taught me how to ride a bike or drove all six of us kids to the state park for Sunday outings, there was no sign of Romania’s volatile behavior. It was after he’d been worn down from the pressures of finding and losing work that everything changed. He retreated into himself and rarely left the house. Years later, I would learn Romania died at a home. It could have been a place like White Haven.
I stuck it out at White Haven for the rest of the summer. I continued to take my lunch every day, but my appetite didn’t return. My uniform got looser. Five pounds disappeared without my trying. I made the best of walking, feeding and reading to my charges. I decided I was not cut out to be a nurse, social worker, or counselor. I’d work with things, like clothes, not people.
After college, I got my wish and was offered a spot in the executive training program at Lord & Taylor. Waitress tips earned over two college summers funded my move to the city. I was mesmerized by the fancy Fifth Avenue emporium, floors filled with scrumptious dresses, suits, coats and lingerie. Mink clad customers were served coffee before store hours on a main floor of marble, crystal chandeliers above.
Behind the scenes, my assignment in a women’s sportswear department meant working in a basement stockroom with a row of makeshift desks. Merchandise was crammed on double hung racks from floor to ceiling.
“A tinder box,” a stockman said about my new office, “and those ladies smoke like chimneys.” I started checking the ashtrays and doused any smoking embers as I made my rounds from the selling floor to receiving and back to the stockroom. I learned how to snake my way through the narrow aisles while steering rolling rods. I made friends with the elevator operators who helped me with heavy boxes.
Now I was wearing a different uniform. My new clothes consisted of blazers paired with wide-legged trousers or A-line skirts that hid my curvy bottom. I’d chucked the matching sweater and skirt I’d worn for my interview. I decided it looked cheap and would not do when I was in the midst of my well-dressed colleagues and customers.
My first week on the job I learned the company had one primary goal each day — to meet sales plan and beat last year’s numbers across every department. This included women’s apparel, which filled several floors, to accessories, cosmetics, children’s wear, men’s clothing and home décor.
It was now the mid-1970s, effects of the recession still deep. The difficult business environment created a tense and competitive atmosphere throughout the store. Buyers lorded over their staff. They threw tantrums over an item arriving in the wrong color, incorrect price tickets or missing purchase orders. The senior assistant buyer, Miriam, whom I reported to, seemed pleased to have a new trainee to order around. She assigned me the dirtiest tasks — one was organizing, packing and returning imperfect goods to the vendors. I was also expected to search the receiving area for shipments while trying to ignore cat calls from the all-male crew, set up merchandise on the selling floor, and write purchase orders. Our department generated a high volume of sales, though not up to management’s expectations, and several racks of damages, some items worn and returned by customers, accumulated in a few weeks’ time. Clearing out this unwanted inventory freed up stock room space and the budget to purchase new goods. An empty damage rack meant avoiding the buyer’s wrath.
Our head buyer, Ms. M, whose office was one floor above ours, had a no-nonsense style. She wore trim suits, carefully applied red lipstick and her brown hair in a short pony tail pulled so tight she seemed to strain while talking. Or was she emulating the Upper East Side lockjaw of our customers? When she smoked, she pursed her lips, face taut as she dragged on her cigarette until it was reduced to another lipstick marked stub. Ms. M rarely smiled, her manner brief and brusque, except when I heard her speaking to a VP. “We are having a fabulous day”, she’d remark to one of her male bosses when they visited our selling floor. Only moments before she’d complained to Miriam and me, “Business is terrible. How are we going to make our numbers?”
Ms. M would call me over while she was inspecting the merchandise.
“There are missing sizes on that pant. Move these blouses to the front T-stand. Maybe they’ll sell better if somebody can see them,” she said. “Do it quick, while we have the lunch traffic.” I’d scurry around the floor in heels shifting the products and filling in stock. Then, I’d check the sales reports the next week to see if her suggestions had made a difference. I’d point out the successes to Ms. M when I saw her next. I learned how to set up the floor by color story, “making it flow”, and displayed an outfit at the end of each rack to encourage customers to buy multiple items. I enjoyed this part of the job and I was good it.
But I struggled to understand the mixed messages from Miriam and Ms. M when they bickered over what had to be done next. They talked about me as if I wasn’t standing right in front of them. “Have Nancy finish marking down those God awful striped sweaters for Saturday opening,” Ms. M said. “But the vendor returns have to go out and she has to track down Sunday’s ad shipment,” Miriam insisted. “Get a stockman to help,” Ms. M said. Then she turned away and walked towards her office.
Miriam, the senior assistant buyer, was all angles, her 5’8 frame towering over Ms. M and me. She had a Mia Farrow pixie haircut, ala the Rosemary’s Baby character, and rarely smiled. I’d heard her talk about wanting to be promoted to buyer, but I sensed something was wrong because she’d been Ms. M’s assistant for four years. I decided the permanent scowl was limiting her future.
Every Friday afternoon, Miriam checked my damages rack. “You have to finish these today,” she said, gingerly touching the garments as if they were lab specimens. “I don’t want to look at them when I come in on Monday and neither will Ms. M. Be sure you lock the stockroom when you leave tonight. That is, after you get all this out the door.” Then she pointed towards my desk. “Don’t forget to file the purchase orders I left for you.”
How would I get everything done when my work day stretched beyond eight hours? I worried about getting stuck in trainee hell forever. I started getting nosebleeds at work. I’d hide in the back of the stockroom surrounded by racks of print blouses, pants, and jackets trying to stanch the bleeding. I stuffed damp tissues up my nose. I knew not to put my head down and where to apply pressure with my thumb and forefinger. I was careful not to drip blood on my clothes and the merchandise, creating even more damages.
Sally, our clerical, who also worked in the basement office, noticed the wad of dirty tissues I’d tossed in the trashcan between our desks.
“What’s the matter with you? If you’re sick you’d better go home,” Sally said.
“I’m not sick. It’s only a nosebleed. I know how to stop it, when I have a minute to sit down,” I said.
“Listen here. Don’t let Miriam push you around. She’ll keep going at you if you don’t stand up to her.” Sally said this in a soft Southern twang, her tone calm. “I’ve got a big brother in the Bronx who’ll come right down here and make her stop.”
I was glad to have Sally on my side. I observed how she spoke to Miriam, Ms. M, and our vendors, with the authority and confidence I’d lacked at age 22.
“How can I talk to Miriam like you do?” I asked Sally. “I’ll get fired.”
“I’m in a union. They’d have a parcel of trouble if they tried to get rid of me,” Sally said crossing her arms. “No one is going to fire you, you’re only a trainee. When you get to Ms. M’s place, then you have to worry. Especially with the new management coming in.”
I thought of my patients at White Haven. They weren’t subjecting me to their whims and demands to ruin my day. They weren’t trying to sabotage me. They were innocents – left at the state home because their loved ones could not care for them. The residents had no say over their own lives, like my cousin Romania. I was free to make my own decisions. At work, I realized certain things were in my control. If anyone was holding me back, it was me.
I tried to emulate other assistant buyers a level or two above me. In Chanel-like sling back pumps, wrap dresses, and pearls, they were true professionals – products of good schools and from families who knew about the New York business world, which I’d entered as a novice. They cast a sympathetic ear when I spoke of my difficult bosses. I noticed how they kept their cool on the job. One co-worker, a former flight attendant, walked through the selling floor as if she was commanding an airplane. She sang in the stockroom when she got upset, her way of diffusing tense moments. I knew I needed to cultivate calm, rather than running to the ladies’ room to cry when I got a scolding from the two Ms. M’s.
Work at the store was grueling, yet I was entranced with retailing. The arrival of crisp new merchandise was the highlight of my day. I made a game of selecting the styles I believed would sell best. Sometimes I was right. When Ms. M was in a good mood, she’d show us samples and ask whether she should buy the items. I readily gave her my opinion. I observed our customers and what appealed to them. They were decades older than me, and few were perfect size 8’s, unlike the models at lunchtime fashion shows. It was our business to help the customers look good. I enjoyed doing this because I saw how clothes made a difference in how I felt about my own appearance, despite the extra pounds.
During those early days at Lord & Taylor, food was my solace. I indulged in bagels slathered with cream cheese for breakfast, bacon cheeseburgers for lunch, and butter cookies in between. I remembered my White Haven weight loss and wished I’d lose my appetite again.
My closet was filled with size eights, tens, and twelves, worn or not, depending on my weight. A generous employee discount meant a significant portion of my $8,000 annual salary went back to the store’s coffers when I shopped. There was a favorite Evan Picone navy velvet skirt and a herringbone riding jacket that covered up my pear shape bottom. Still, I yearned to be in sleek knit dresses and separates like my thinner and considerably more fashionable co-workers. My Fifth Avenue clothes became a suit of armor. When I’d decided to work with beautiful things, I’d hadn’t expected people to get in the way. If I wanted to make it in the tough business of retailing, I’d have to be prepared for combat.
After I officially graduated from trainee to assistant buyer, I was assigned to a different buyer who replaced Ms. M. She was transferred to the blouse department, clearly a demotion. My nosebleeds stopped and I was no longer relegated to a basement desk. My new boss was an up and comer in his thirties hired by the new CEO. He said I had strong business instincts and the “right” taste level, later recommending me for a promotion to department manager and a move to Washington, D.C.
Several jobs later, when I was in my early-thirties and had made it to buyer level, I ran into Ms. M at a coffee shop in the Garment District. By then I was responsible for a growing casual sportswear business at another department store. I traveled to Asia frequently to oversee the product development ahead of each season. Now a slimmed down version of my trainee self, I wore a wrap top and long slim skirt I’d purchased in Tokyo. The city was a must stop shopping destination for those in my business. I was thrilled to fit into fashions meant for diminutive Japanese women.
Ms. M was in a simple black jacket like she’d worn when I worked for her. Where was her shoulder-padded ‘80s power suit?
“I barely recognized you, Nancy. You’re so thin,” she said, sizing me up as if I was a customer she was fitting. “What are you doing now?”
I picked at my cottage cheese and fruit as I told her about my growing business, the travel, and hectic pace. Back when I was a trainee, we spoke only of the job at hand. Now we talked like peers. “How about you?” I asked.
Ms. M worked at a buying office. It was considered a sleepy place, behind the times.
“I don’t suppose your company is hiring? I really miss my department store days, though
not the management,” she said with a small laugh. I noticed a fray on her jacket cuff when she took out a cigarette. Had I heard her right? The imperious Ms. M was asking me for a job?
“I’m not sure. I can check with our personnel department,” I offered. But I knew our VP decided on hiring for any new positions. Given Ms. M’s downward steps, I knew it was unlikely she’d be considered.
Ms. M and I were in different places. Our uniforms said it all.
About the Author:
Nancy Gendimenico is a writer and marketing consultant based in Manhattan. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Stony Brook University in 2015. Her personal essays and business articles have been published in various newspapers and trade magazines. Nancy is currently at work on a collection of personal essays. These include her experiences growing up in an Italian American blue-collar family in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the challenges of creating self-made success while pursuing a retailing and fashion career in New York, and reflections on moving from one life stage to another.