Occasionally it becomes necessary to buy new underwear. Elastic frays, fabric thins, straps break, and finally one’s listless little heap of lingerie seems sad and barely functional. This observation prompted me to take a trip to Macy’s last week, where I ascended a narrow escalator and found my way to Intimate Apparel strategically located upstairs and to the rear.
When I was a child, Macy’s was a classy store. In those years before shopping malls and discount chains and the unimaginable phenomenon of sitting in front of a computer at home and procuring merchandise online, department stores were important destinations. We went to the one on Flatbush Avenue, pictured to the left. As mundane as that building may seem, the photo confirms my memory of a wall of windows on the upper floors, where shafts of sunlight entered and cast a kind of spell. Bicycles gleamed, china sparkled, and there were mysteries in unpacked cardboard cartons.
Indeed the place was an emporium of worldly goods, including an actual toy department upstairs, and model rooms displaying furniture where you could pretend you lived, and lamps you could click on and adjust and decide for yourself which warm glow of light you would choose to cast upon the space if it were yours. There were thick drapes and sheer curtains, men’s neckties in bright colors fanned out on tables, and circular racks of summer dresses, better and casual, and white pleated skirts, and pin striped seersucker blazers. There was jewelry, fine and costume…and millinery, oh, how I loved millinery, hats adorned with nets and ribbons and feathers and flowers and tiny birds and bees…and there was even a section called notions.
I’ve read a lot about the economic and cultural shifts that have led to the demise of department stores. Times change, people adapt, and we don’t need more hand-wringing. That said, it was strange to enter Macy’s last week, because it felt like an abandoned ship. Instead of displays, clumps of stuff were crammed on racks, everything looking shopworn, and signs announced price slashing, 40-percent off lowest price, shouting deals, deals, deals. There were vague scents of perfume by the cosmetic counters, but it mostly smelled like cheap goods, some intangible synthesis of polyester, plastic, and insouciance. A few weary customers browsed. I felt suddenly sleepy.
There were a lot of Intimates. I had no idea there were so many variations of panties, bras, or camisoles, and such clever garments for the squeezing in and smoothing out of girth. I noticed groupings of items up to 70% off, took a quick look at those, and understood why they were there. I went over to a normal-priced rack and selected a few pairs of panties in boy cut, hi-cut, French cut, brief….no sense even looking at thong or string bikini. I narrowed these down to six pairs, and made my way to the register. Alas, the woman who had been idly standing there a few minutes earlier informed me unapologetically that she was just about to start her lunch break, but I could go anywhere else. Theoretically this was true, but most of the stations appeared to be un-staffed.
Finally, I noticed a desk where a thin young man with wire-framed glasses was working the register. Six customers stood in line awaiting their turn, and I took my place at the back. Apparently there were no simple transactions. The line moved slowly. The woman in front of me griped in equal parts about the tacky merchandise, poor service, and the bad music being piped in at this moment. She recalled going to Buffum’s or Bullock’s with her mother for back-to-school shopping when she was a kid. She talked about how everything had gone downhill. I was getting depressed.
But department store memories were uncorked now and pouring into my head. I remembered myself as a little girl in Macy’s, going to the ladies’ room all by myself. Everything was shiny, all tile and metal, and the room had echo potential, as bathrooms often do, which I imagine is why so many people sing in the shower. I entered a stall, unrolled a strip of toilet paper and set it on the toilet seat before sitting, as my mother had taught me to do, then hoisted myself up to take a pee.
The echo potential, combined with a misguided illusion of privacy in the little stall, and sparked by that old department store magic, caused me to break into song. The song was one I used to hear on the radio. The lyrics went like this:
Sing, everyone sing.
Sing, everyone sing.
All of your troubles will vanish like bubbles.
Sing, everyone sing.
I was belting it out. My voice took on a vibrato I didn’t even know I could produce. I sounded great! I sang it over and over, my troubles vanishing like bubbles, my vocal stylings sophisticated beyond my years, my voice ringing out from the toilet stall and bouncing back from the tile walls, an instrument of pure exuberance.
It’s hard to say how long the concert continued, but eventually I flushed and made my exit. Three women who had been standing there by the sinks, shopping bags at their sides, were watching me step out. One of them applauded me indulgently. One of them just stared at me and said, “Wow. All of that was you? That was a lot of singing to be coming out of one little girl.”
I was mortified. So thoroughly mortified that here I am remembering it, sixty years later.
But what really amazes me sixty years later is the realization that I had so much capacity for unbridled joy that I would spontaneously break into song in a public restroom and think nothing of it. Where does it go, all those unfiltered impulses and undiluted wonder? Must maturity imply shutting down so much of it?
Maybe there’s still a bit of magic even in the Macy’s, something in the parking lot worth singing about, stories worth hearing from the people in line eyeing their cellphones and worried about what they’re missing. I’m going to try to open up, re-see, be defiantly naive.
Maybe the thing that changed the most was me.