The El over my head thundered just as it did in that early New York of the Oliver Optics; there were signs hung above the roofs, gold letters on a black field, advertising jewelry, Klein’s Special Size Suits for Fat Men, pawnshops.
Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City
As I walked the streets of my childhood again, it struck me that they were just the same as they had always been: Brownsville, that forthright neighborhood, so unlike the ones in which They, the Others, The Protestants lived. They were reticent, evasive even, about what went on inside their commercial establishments. Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, Tiffany & Co. What did Lord & Taylor make? What were the Brooks Brothers first names? Who was this “Co.” that so many of the Eastern Establishment had taken into their partnerships, and why did he get a period at the end of his name? In their striving for discretion, they left a walker in the city confused, in the dark, constantly questioning.
Not at all like Brownsville, where every store shouted out its wares, and–if you were a likely customer–insulted you in the process. Klein’s Special Size Suits for Fat Men. Sarah’s Fine Fashions for Single Women Who Aren’t Getting Any Younger and Could Do Worse Than Marry an Accountant. Cohen’s Baked Goods That Maybe You Shouldn’t Eat So Many Of You’re Getting a Little Broad in the Beam, You Know.
How did the WASPs live their lives of quiet desperation, constantly reining in their emotions, instead of letting them fly free, like the pigeons from their wire cages on the roofs of our apartments. Yes, our merchants had chutzpah, and our pigeons would relieve themselves on your head, but isn’t that better than becoming an alcoholic and having your brother-in-law forge your name on a power of attorney and transfer your gilt-edge bonds to a blind trust for the benefit of his sister’s poodle? What was it with the descendants of Puritans and their testamentary gifts to little yipper-dog house pets?
No, we lived in a different world. In Brownsville, every day after school we boys would pummel each other with fists and with words. “Your sister shops at Chubby Girls Clothes by Lola!” we’d yell, then when our antagonist was reduced to tears, throw in the coup de grace: “Your mother wears army boots from the Canal Street Shoppe for Big-Footed Women–ha!” Then we’d run home to do our homework, all in the hope of pleasing our forbidding Protestant teachers so we could rise in the world.
Even our door-to-door salesmen and women possessed an edge that you didn’t see or hear in the Presbyterian streets just a subway ride away. Over there, it was “Ding, dong–Avon calling!” Among us, it was “BZZZZT” on the door buzzer, then “Ruth’s Oily T-Zone Cosmetics for Women Whose Foreheads Look Like the Ghawar Oil Field in God-Forsaken Saudi Arabia!” But that’s the way we lived, that was the way we were; a neighborhood without euphemisms.
Should a little goy boy who’d eaten too many Twinkies wander our way with his mother, looking for a bargain at a “Chubby Children’s Clothing Emporium” or a store with a “Portly Boys” department, we’d give them the gimlet eye, cluck our tongues and say “Excuse me, I think the place you are looking for is Farnsworth’s Fat Boy Duds, over on Houston Street.”
The mother would recoil all June Cleaver-like, give us a “Well, I never!”–then spin on her low-heeled pumps and head back to where she belonged.
To those mean streets where everything was full-price, no discounts, no haggling. All very decorous–and expensive. We could have said “We don’t want your kind around here!” as they high-tailed it out of Brownsville, but no–we were tolerant. We understood that God made all clothing customers, and that he made WASPs with a very special purpose in mind:
Somebody’s gotta pay retail.