Rather late one weekday evening, I saw a very attractive woman struggling to pull a huge suitcase up the subway station stairs.
“May I help you?”
She gave me the onceover, and after concluding that I did not appear to be an axe murderer, she thanked me. Ten minutes later, we were standing in front of her building. I was about to ask her for her number when she handed me her card. She was an assistant buyer for a major department store.
“You must be very important.”
She laughed. “Yeah, right! If you’d like — if you can spare the time — I could tell you all about my … quote unquote … wonderful job.”
“You really hate your work!”
“That would be the understatement of the year!”
“I’ll tell you what. How about dinner at Fifth and Fifth this weekend?”
“Well, if you don’t mind dinning with a very tired boring person, how about nine o’clock on Saturday night?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Fifth and Fifth obviously took its name from its location on Fifth Ave. at the corner of Fifth Street, in what had long been the slummy part of Park Slope, now one of Brooklyn’s most desirable and expensive neighborhoods. I waited for Zoey in front of the restaurant, and she was fashionably late.
When she finally arrived and began to apologize, I waved her off.
“Zoey, trust me…, you are well worth the wait!”
“That’s very nice of you to say, but after the day I just had, I’m not sure I’ll be very good company.”
“I would rather be with you on one of your bad days than with most of my friends on their good days.”
“You may want to re-evaluate after tonight.”
“We had our quarterly assistant buyers’ day sale. The store advertises about how this is a great opportunity for its assistant buyers to show off their talents. We get to pick out the items that go on sale, and then we’re on our feet for ten hours getting pinched in the ass, propositioned, and even worse things that I can’t even talk about. And worst of all, since we get fixed salaries, we don’t even get paid for the day!”
“Well, why don’t we go inside and sit down? Your feet must bekillingyou!”
“Yeah, but the rest of my body feels even worse!”
“You know, I do give decent massages.”
She smiled. “Well, maybe later. Right now, I’m starving.”
We began seeing each other most weekends and occasionally during the week as well. Zoey worked in a five-story building across the street from the store. I waited for her in the lobby.
I noticed the guard checking the shopping bags, pocketbooks, packages, and carrying cases of the people leaving the building. That seemed kind of weird, because virtually everyone coming out of the building was an employee of the store across the street. So, the guard must have been assuming that they pilfered stuff from inside the store perhaps at lunchtime, and then brought it into thisbuilding –didn’t make much sense.
Maybe the third or fourth time I was waiting for Zoey, I causally asked the guard why he was searching employees as they leftthe building.
“Well, some of them steal stuff from the store during their lunch hour, and then bring it back in here when they come back from lunch.”
“That’s pretty dumb! Especially since they must know that you’re going to check them when they leave.”
“Listen buddy, we have some pretty dumb employees!”
Just then, Zoey came out of the elevator. “Hey Jimmy, yuh gonna do another strip search?”
“Nah, you’re clean! Have a nice evening.”
We walked a few blocks to a restaurant she liked. “Do you bring all your beaus here?”
“Only the ones who make me split the check.”
“Hey, I’m old enough to remember when we had to pay full freight.”
“Yes, Steve, even I remember those good old days.”
“Hard to believe!”
“Why just the other day a kindly young man asked if I’d like him to help me cross the street.”
“Sounds like a pick-up line.”
“You want to hear a real pickup line?” She paused. “Can I help you with that suitcase?’”
We both burst out laughing. Then I leaned across the table and kissed her.
The kiss seemed to last and last. Finally, both of us sensed a growing silence, and then we noticed the waitress standing near us, a big smileon her face.
Then she asked, “Where do you guys think you are? … In Paris?”
“You mean, we’re not? I asked in faux disbelief?
“Actually, “added Zoey, “we really did come here to eat.”
“Well, I’m happy to tell you that you came to the right place.”
“Thank you!” said Zoey, “Could we start off with a couple of glasses of white wine?”
“And what are your specials this evening?” I asked.
We quickly ordered, and then Zoey said, “Steve, I want to ask you a question, but you can definitely feel free to say ‘no.’”
“Great!! …But aren’t you curious what my question is?”
“OK! Would you like to come to wedding with me?”
“Does this have anything to do with a heavy suitcase?”
She gave me a strange look. “Actually, it does!”
“Well, if the outcome is the same this time, then I’m definitely all in.”
“Great! Then sit back, young man. This is going to be a long story.”
It took almost an hour to fill me in on all the details. I would be just a bit player in a complicated morality play. Most of the action would take place in “the store.”
Zoey and virtually all of her fellow employees referred to this very large and well-known department store as “the store.” The pay was lousy, nearly all of the women working there were disparaged, and management was at best “clueless.”
The assistant buyers – all of whom were young women — felt especially put upon by management, since they were forced to work long hours for relatively low salaries, and were periodically called upon to do rather unpleasant tasks. Assistant buyers’ days were perhaps the worst of these. There was also the unpaid overtime, the strict dress code, and the blatant sexual harassment by their “superiors,” who were all males.
“Let me tell you about one especially obnoxious term that is commonly used to describe the women over thirty…. Are you ready for this, Steve?”
“They call us ‘career girls.’”
“But that’s not all. folks! Almost everybody working there is treated badly, one way or another.”
“Jimmy had mentioned that there was a big problem with employee pilferage.”
“Jimmy doesn’t even know the half of it.”
“Since I love listening to you, you can tell me the other half.”
“Well, you are about to become indirectly involved in this. But, on the bright side, I think a good lawyer would be able to get you off without you having to do any prison time.”
“With that guarantee, it appears to be a win-win situation. I’ll get to play a small role in advancing the cause of social justice, and get a free lunch as well.”
“Actually, it’s going to be a free dinner,and you will also get a free suit that will be yours to keep.”
I tried to figure out where this was going. But just then, the waitress arrived with our food. We decided to save this discussion for later.
It was nearly midnight when we left the restaurant and headed toward my apartment. I had begun to wonder if Zoey had been a little reluctant to talk about the goings-on at work where she might be overheard. I could certainly understand how working at that place could make you a little paranoid.
As we walked up Fifth Street toward the park, Zoey squeezed my hand, which usually meant she was about to say something that required my full attention.
“Let me start at the beginning. Stores like ours receive huge shipments of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Before they are put on the floor for sale, each item is checked for any defects. Many have moth holes, quite a few are torn or stained, and occasionally, some even smell bad.
So, the manufacturer issues a credit on the defective garments. Now what do you think ‘the store’ does with this damaged clothing?”
“Sends it back to the manufacturer?”
“Good guess, Steve!”
“But not good enough!”
“That’s right! Why bother going through expense and trouble of shipping back these damaged goods to the manufacturer? It’s much easier for both parties if we just toss them.”
“That makes sense!”
“Of course! But “the store” then gives the clothing to charity and takes a tax write-off.”
“So ‘the store’ gets a credit from the manufacturer and a tax write-off from the IRS. In effect then, the more damaged goods, the more profitable it is for ‘the store!
Now I get it! You’re going to treat me like a charity case and provide me with a damaged suit to wear to the wedding.”
She squeezed my hand again.
“The suit won’t actually be damaged – and it will be yours to keep.”
“I actually do own a couple of suits, so if you’re worried about my attire…”
“Oh, I forgot to ask you: Would you be willing to be in the wedding party?”
I had to think about this. Zoey waited patiently.
“Will you be in the wedding party?”
“Of course!” she answered. “You’ll be an usher and I’ll be a bridesmaid.”
“No more questions, your honor.”
Zoey smiled. “OK, here’s the deal: About half the wedding party will be store employees. And ‘the ‘store’ has recently been providing the wedding parties of employees with suits and dresses.”
I just stared at her, my mouth wide open.
“Careful, Steve. If you keep your mouth open like that much longer, you may begin to attract flies.”
“OK, I’m going to make a great intellectual leap here. Something tells me that the provision of these suits and dresses by ‘the store’ is not voluntary – or even intentional.”
“Why don’t you come right out and say it, Steve? We are stealing this clothing from ‘the store.’”
“Yeah! But how do you do it?”
“Well, we make it look as though we’re giving them to charity. There’s a big dumpster in the corner of the loading area behind ‘the store.’ All the
damaged clothing is brought down a freight elevator and thrown into the dumpster.
“Then, in the late afternoon, one or two small trucks from the Salvation Armyor another charity picks up the garbage bags of clothing, and hands the guard a receipt.”
“Zoey, I can follow this so far. So, I’m guessing that you guys have arranged for your own truck to pick up your suits and dresses.”
“Exactly. We even give the guard a receipt from a real charity.”
“But wait! There’s more!”
“Let me guess! How will your guys know which bags to pull out of the dumpster?”
She waited to see if I could guess the answer to my own question. It took me several seconds, and then I smiled.
“The bags must be somewhat different from the regular garbage bags, so your guys will know which ones to fish out of the dumpster.”
But then I was stuck. They couldn’t put signs on the bags, “Not for charity.”
Zoey waited. Finally, she decided to put me out of my misery.
“We paste big yellow stickers all over the bags. And on each sticker, in big black letters, it says, ‘CAUTION! HAZARDOUS WASTE STORAGE.’ And just in case anyone can’t read, there’s also a skull and cross-bones.”
“The bags are carried down to the dumpster by two or three maintenance guys, accompanied by one of our own people who makes sure they wear gloves and hold the bags away from their bodies. Anyone who gets on the freight elevator gives them a wide berth.
The hazardous waste bags are placed in a corner of the dumpster as far as possible from the other bags. When our guys arrive, they hand a receipt to the guard, pack up their truck, and the next time those suits and dresses are seen will be at the wedding.”
“I am honored to play a minor role in this grand plan. Oh! Just one more question. How will you know what size jacket and pants I wear?”
“If you’re not too shy, I can take your measurements when we get to your apartment. I brought along a tape measure in case you don’t own one.”
It was a beautiful wedding! My suit fit perfectly, and Zoey actually caught the bride’s bouquet! One of the highlights was the last of more than a dozen toasts – “To ‘the store!’ Without it, this wedding may have never taken place!”
Many of the guests yelled, “Hear, hear!”
As the noise died down, we overheard an older woman, who spoke impeccable Brooklynese, raise an interesting question with her neighbor.
“I thought everyone hates ‘the store!’”
Her neighbor replied, “Tillie, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship, if yuh get my drift.”
“Well anyway, it’s nice they gave my Rosalind a lovely dress to wear to the wedding.”
“Yeah, and my Barry: they gave him a beautiful suit!”
“So, Milly, lemma ask yuh: “What’s not to like?”
“Well, maybe the next time that one their workers gets married, ‘the store”’could spring for a better caterer.”
“You’re telling me! The food tastes like poison! … And such small portions!”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. The third volume of his short stories, To the City, with Love, was recently published.