New York Encounters: At Bergdorf Goodman

Over the weekend, a friend with expensive taste visited from Philadelphia.

“Take me shopping,” she said.

Bergdorf Goodman,” I suggested, not because I’d ever purchased anything there, but because once, I had afternoon tea there with my cousin and, over a tier of rather bland cakes and scones, observed such a medley of people: from the rich to the superrich to the not-so-rich pretending to be rich – all rather idle – that I thought my friend ought to see the same. For purely anthropological reasons if nothing else.

We went on a Saturday afternoon and as per the average price tag of most items hovering around $3,000 (perhaps a Bergdorf merchandiser will stumble upon this blog and laugh at how off the number is), it was decidedly less crowded than say, Macy’s or Forever 21. I picked up crocodile clutches and put them back down. My friend, her mother having raised her with different material standards than mine (who proudly shops at T.J. Maxx and boasts how everything, regardless of what or when she bought it, costs “around seven dollars”) pointed at a few two to three thousand dollar handbags.

“I have that. I love it. Oh I have that one too. It’s great. Very functional.”

There was a Balenciaga I really liked. I tried it on and then looked at the price tag. $1,670.

“Ah.” I smiled the “just looking” smile at the sales woman who was coming closer and closer and put the bag down. “Perhaps another time.”

“That’s actually a really good price for a bag that quality,” my friend said with kind earnesty.

I marveled at how two young woman could be shopping in the same very real place, each operating in their own fiscal realities.

“I want to see Moncler,” she said, citing an expensive maker of down jackets and winter wear. We had already seen a small selection of Moncler at the Barney’s in the Upper West Side, but the styles were not “outrageous” enough, as my friend put it. She is a small, thin girl with big, fat style, and a budget to match the latter. I shrugged, “Sure,” and asked a rather bored young man wearing a Barney’s lanyard around his neck what floor.

“Six,” he said, nodding towards the escalators.

The day was getting late and I wanted to head home after Moncler. I had to do some reading for class and thought it better to let my friend shop in her natural state, that is, without a less budget-sensitive friend hovering around. I suspected my friend was holding back many a credit card swipe.

“Let’s take the elevator,” I said.

We waited but two minutes at the elevator bank before the door furthest to the right dinged. A moneyed young couple stepped out, like walking mannequins from a Brooks Brothers window. Seeing no one else, we started towards the open door.

As I stepped in, an elderly lady wearing an enormous, blonde fur coat emerged, as suddenly as a woman her age could.

“Oh,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. She looked dazed, and had one foot out the elevator and a tentative look about her creased face, which was poorly made up. Her lips and cheeks were too pink and the complexion around it nearly grey, as though the foundation had expired some decades ago. There was, above the deeply creased lips a thick mustache which she decided to leave three, four shades darker than her hair, which was too blonde. I wondered if it was a wig. It had a plasticky sheen to it. Her recently manicured nails, the only fresh thing about her, were painted a ghastly shade of teal.

She looked at me without really looking at me.

“Is this going down?”

I looked up and saw that the down arrow was lit.

“It is,” I said, and took a step back, expecting her to do the same.

“Can you get in?”

I cocked my head, wondering if she’d heard me wrong.

“We’re going up,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, putting one wrinkled hand up on the doors to keep them open and waving the other at me towards her, “Just get in will you. I hate riding alone in these things.”

My friend looked up from her phone, “What’s going on?”

I did what I felt was the obvious thing and motioned for her to get in.

“It’s going down,” she said.

“Just get in,” I said, switching to Chinese – my friend is from Taiwan – “This lady is a bit senile and she doesn’t want to ride in the elevator alone.”

My friend raised an eyebrow, said nothing else, and followed me into the elevator.

In the short ride down, I snuck glances at this strange, old creature, though I doubt she would have noticed even if I had ogled her, so rapt was her attention to the lights indicating which floor the elevator was on. She tapped her fingers against the fur coat, which my limited experience with such luxe materials prevents me from describing accurately, except I can say with confidence that it was real – perhaps an heirloom piece from another time. Her perfume was very strong, (equally inadequate is my sense of smell. I cannot describe perfume any other way but to say, “It was strong,” or “What? She was wearing perfume?”) and I saw now that the lipstick was not just on her lips, but all around them too.

For the ten seconds we rode in the lift together I wondered about her life and her fears and, as I usually do with women her age who are out and about alone, if her husband was still alive. I also wondered whether in God’s name her house had any mirrors. I imagined her living in a dark, unaired, unkempt, formerly glorious Park Avenue penthouse like a New York cousin of Miss Havisham, and was beginning to mentally squint my way through its musty dark halls when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open to reveal, almost incongruously, the glossy white floor of the spotless beauty department.

In keeping with her fear of elevators, the old woman practically jumped out with surprising lightness of foot as I stood slightly slack-jawed in the middle of the elevator.

“Thanks,” she warbled, lifting her hand and tossing a breezy wave in my general direction, “Bye.”

The doors began to close and I, amused the second time that day by a discrepancy in realities, watched the blonde head on the blonde coat make a beeline for La Mer.

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