One day I had occasion to visit a beautiful, upscale mall in sunny southern California, The Costa Mesa Mall. Sprawling over several acres, it was a shopper’s paradise. A favorite phrase,”eye candy,” coined while strolling the cobblestone streets of Venice, seemed just as applicable at this retail complex. Anchoring this shopping mecca, were giants Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Sak’s, and Sear’s. Sprinkled in and around them were other name stores, Gap, BCBG, MaxMara, Mango, Barney’s New York, Abercrombie & Fitch, and a seemingly endless list of other brands. Rolex caught my eye. I’d not seen it in any other mall I’ve visited. In fact, I’ve never seen its storefront before.
My first stop had to be Bloomingdale’s. Our first “introduction” was at 53rd and Lex in NYC in 1976. Several years ago, my daughter and I visited a branch in Soho, New York. There’s a distinct vibe to the retail icon. It’s upscale with a contemporary, youthful flavor. New York is culturally diverse, with Chinatown and Little Italy as neighbors, deli workers commuting alongside doctors on subways, and homeless setting up house across the street from Trump Tower. As a result, Manhattan’s Bloomingdale’s caters to customers from all walks of life. Everyone is treated equally. When you enter the store, whether you browse or buy, you’re a BFF (best friend forever).
As I wandered through Costa Mesa’s Bloomingdale’s, the mood was the exact opposite of its “sister” in the east. I felt invisible as I made my way through different areas of women’s wear. Several of the saleswomen were young and Asian. None approached to assist me, instead greeting and speaking with Caucasian shoppers. I took notice because I’m half-Chinese. Perhaps I didn’t appear to have the money to spend. No matter I thought, I’m just browsing. If something “grabbed” my attention, I would’ve made myself known.
In lingerie, I looked at a selection of bras displayed on a table. While fingering one in particular, a lovely, black, young saleslady approached saying “Isn”t that nice!” I replied that it was, but couldn’t find the price. She checked one like it nearby. It too had no price, so she left to make inquiries, indicating she’d be right back. Upon returning with the price, she pointed to another bra that was on sale. Following her to the “sale” rack, I explained that I had been searching for one that I had seen more than a year ago at Free People. The saleslady quickly informed me that the store had a branch in the mall. I was pleasantly surprised that she referred me to a competitor. Her recommendation reminded me of the Santa Claus in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” If an item was not in stock, he sent customers from Gimbel’s, where he worked, to Macy’s where he thought they’d find exactly what they were looking for.
Leaving Bloomingdale’s I pondered what had just happened to me. I was ignored by my own ethnic “sisters”, and treated kindly by a black woman, who reached out in true sisterhood. On my way out of the store, I saw BCBG, a retailer of expensive, designer wear. Stepping inside, I strolled about, stopping to more closely inspect items that were of interest. The 3 young, Asian, sales help never acknowledged my presence. Interesting, I thought. As I made my way from the back towards the exit at the front, I stopped to allow one of the sales women to pass. I noticed a half-smile on her lips as she walked by. Continuing towards the door, I saw a Caucasian customer enter and heard one of the sales ladies call out “Hi! How are you?”
In my 20’s I perceived such affronts as there being something wrong with me. Almost 40 years later, I find such experiences curious. On its face it might seem that the Asian women thought I was “beneath” them and their Caucasian clientele. I was dressed well, but not anything like their regular customers. By contrast, the young, Black woman treated me as an equal or better, since I was a potential consumer. But setting aside what might seem like the obvious, it may be that the Asians were behaving according to stereotype, quiet and shy. And the black woman was, perhaps, more outgoing by nature. Murmuring to myself, I continued on my way.
My next encounter, more pleasant than those previously, added another dimension to the racial question. Sylvia, in DKNY, greeted me with a pleasant smile and “Hi! How are you?” As I wandered from table to rack, looking at Donna Karin designer digs, Sylvia’s eyes followed me. Stepping closer, she commented that I should let her know if I needed any help. I thanked her. When I finally spied a long, grey, sleeveless dress that might fit my daughter nicely, I asked for Sylvia’s assistance. We talked a little about the details of the dress, its fit, its color, its multiple use. I shared a picture of my daughter. Sylvia complimented my daughter’s beauty and her pursuit of dancing as a career. I learned that Sylvia was of Korean-Polish ancestry. I expressed my feeling that marriages between easterners and westerners, can produce attractive offspring. My husband and daughter who are Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese are proof-positive. I left in a very good mood, promising to return later that day, my daughter in tow.
Before heading off to get a bite to eat, I stopped in at Free People. Immediately inside the doorway, Ashley greeted me with a huge smile and friendly manner that wrapped around me like a warm blanket. We chatted continually while I moved hangers aside to better inspect each piece of clothing. I couldn’t stop staring at her, wondering who she looked like. After a few moments playing charades, we arrived at the conclusion that she bore a close resemblance to the youngest of the 3 protagonists fighting the “good fight” against the witches in “Hocus Pocus,” a Halloween favorite on the small screen. Throughout the boutique, Ashley met up with me to comment on an item that I’d hold up for a better look. A native Californian, she was the friendliest I’d ever met, and I told her so. She laughed, and thanked me for the compliment. To better explain myself I told her of my experience in Bloomingdale’s. “Oh!” she exclaimed, eyes rolling, “They need an attitude adjustment!” Well, I just loved her absolute candidness. She was too precious, I thought.
It was so refreshing to make small talk with a young person, so totally unimpressed with outward trappings. She was Caucasian, but it didn’t matter. She was a resounding reminder that it’s what a person is like on the “inside” that matters, not skin color, or social status, or age. Because of her innate skills for serving customers, Free People made a tidy sum when I returned with my daughter to make a number of purchases. I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I wanted to return to Bloomingdale’s and BCBG to say “I was the one you wouldn’t help. Big mistake! Huge mistake! Huge!”
best not judge a book by its cover…hugmamma