Buying is much more American than thinking and I'm as American as they come. In Europe and the Orient people like to trade—buy and sell, sell and buy—they're basically merchants. Americans are not so interested in selling—in fact, they'd rather throw out than sell. What they really like to do is buy—people, money, countries.
Saturday is the big buying—or "shopping"—day in America and I look forward to it as much as the next guy.
My favorite thing to buy is underwear. I think buying underwear is the most personal thing you can do, and if you could watch a person buying underwear you would really get to know them. I mean, I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote. I think the strangest people are the ones who send someone else to buy their underwear for them. I also wonder about people who don't buy underwear. I can understand not wearing it, but not buying it?
Anyway, one Saturday morning I called a B who knows me pretty well and asked him if he would like to go underwear-shopping with me at Macy's.
"Macy's?" he grumbled. I guess I woke him up but think of all the buying time he was losing. "Why Macy's?"
"Because that's where I get my underwear," I told him. I used to go to Woolworth's but now I can afford Macy's. Periodically I stop in at Brooks Brothers to look at their fancy old-fashioned boxer shorts but I just can't bring myself to give up Jockeys.
"I wouldn't mind buying some underwear," B said, "but I buy mine at Bloomingdale's. They have pure cotton. Pima cotton." This B is like that. He finds something he likes, Pima cotton for example, and he acts like he discovered it He gets completely attached to it. He won't buy anything else. He has extremely definite taste. Which I think is bad because it limits his buying power.
"No, let's go to Macy's."
"Saks is nice," he whimpered.
"Macy's," I insisted. "I'll pick you up in an hour."
I need about an hour to glue myself together, but when I make an appointment I always forget about the phone call interruptions so I always show up a little late, and a little unglued. B was waiting for me on his corner.
"You're fifteen minutes late," he said, climbing into the taxi.
"Herald Square," I said to the driver.
"It's going to be hell on Saturday," said B.
"I was on the phone," I said. "Paul Morrissey called. Ingrid Superstar called. Jackie Curtis called. Franco Rossel-lini called. Oh look, who's that? Is that someone we know?" A four-foot-two old lady was crossing Park Avenue at 65th Street. She had frizzy red hair and was wearing black gloves, a pink sweater, a black dress, red shoes, and she was carrying a red bag. She was hunchbacked. I don't know why, but she seemed like someone we would know. But B didn't recognize her so I didn't bother to roll down the window and wave.
I asked B once and for all if he was going to buy any underwear and he said no, not at Macy's because he only liked Bloomingdale's Pima cotton or Saks Fifth Avenue's own brand. This B is really stubborn.
"Do you think Howard Hughes wears underwear?" I asked B. "Do you think he washes it or throws it away after he wears it once?" He probably throws new suits away. What I've always really wished I'd invented was paper underwear, even knowing that the idea never took off when they did come out with it. I still think it's a good idea, and I don't know why people resist it when they've accepted paper napkins and paper plates and paper curtains and paper towels— it would make more sense not to have to wash out underwear than not to have to wash out towels.
B said he might consider buying a couple of pairs of socks, because "socks just disappear." He doesn't wash his own, of course, he sends them to a very fancy East Side French dry cleaner's and they still come back with one missing. It really is a law—the diminishing return of socks.
The reason I hate regular underwear—and socks, too—is that if you send twenty pairs of shorts and twenty pairs of socks to the laundromat, you always only get nineteen back. Even when I wash them myself, I get nineteen back. The more I think about it, the more I can't believe the diminishing returns on underwear. It's unbelievable. I WASH MY OWN AND I STILL GET NINETEEN BACK!
I wash my own, and I put them in myself, and I take them out myself, and I put them in the dryer myself, and then I go through the dryer feeling around all the holes and ridges looking for the missing sock, and I never find it! I go up and down the stairs looking for it. thinking it fell, but I never find" it! It's like a law of physics . . .
I told B I needed some socks too and at least thirty pairs of Jockey shorts. He suggested I switch to Italian-style briefs, the ones with the t-shaped crotch that tends to build you up. I told him I'd tried them once, in Rome, the day I was walking through a Liz Taylor movie—and I didn't like them be-cause they made me too self-aware, It gave me the feeling girls must have when they wear uplift bras.
Suddenly B said, "There's your first Superstar."
"The Empire State Building." We had just turned into 34th Street. He laughed at his own joke while I fished around my boot for a couple of singles to pay the taxi.
At Herald Square people were pouring into Macy's from all over the world. At least they looked like they came from all over the world. But they were ail Americans and though they had lots of different color skins they all had buying in their blood and minds and eyes. People look so determined entering a department store. B, naturally, turned his upturned nose up and began to go straight to the men's department.
I was getting annoyed. I don't come to Macy's that often and I wanted to take my time shopping through it. "Don't rush me, B." I wanted to check out the price tags on the plastic bags and see if they had gone up much since last time. I hear all this talk about "inflation" and I wanted to see for myself if it was true.
"It's so mobbed," B whined.
It was crowded, especially for a Saturday in summer. "Shouldn't all these people be away?" I asked.
"These kind of people don't go away," B said, very snot-tily I thought.
I stopped and watched a Japanese lady in a kimono make up an American lady in a jumpsuit. They were starring in "Shiseido Presents Exotic Makeup Artist for Free." Then we walked past the big Charlie promotion, past the Famous Maker Ties, past the candy department—which took a lot of willpower on my part. I walked past the Raspberry-Cherry Mix-Max, the Licorice All-Kinds, the Jelly Beans, the Rock Candy, the Chocolate Pretzels, the TV Munch, the Petit Fours, the Mon Cherry, the Lollipops, the Nonpareils, I even walked past the Whitman Samplers. The smell of chocolate was driving me nuts but I didn't say a word. I didn't even sigh or moan. I just thought of my pimples and gall bladder and kept on walking.
"Where is the men's department, B?" I finally asked. We were entering Cigars.
"This is the World's Largest Store," B said, as If I didn't know. "We have to walk all the way from Sixth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. But we're getting closer—here's Men's Sunglasses."
Men's Sunglasses led to Men's Scarves which led to Men's Pajamas and then—then!—Men's Underwear. I quickly found the brand I usually use, Jockey Classic Briefs. They were three for five dollars which didn't seem too inflationary. I read the label on the plastic bag they came in, just to make sure they hadn't changed any of their famous "Comfort Features"—"Exclusive Tailoring for Proper Fit to Support a Man's Needs; Contoured Designed Arch Gives Added Comfort No Gaps; Support Waistband is Smoother Fitted Heat Resistant; Stronger Longer Lasting 'V No Chafe Leg Openings; Soft Rubber at Either Thigh Only; Highly Absorbent 100 Per Cent Highly Combed Cotton." So far so good, I thought. I checked the "Washing Instructions"—"Machine Wash Tumble Dry." Everything was fine, the same as always. I hate it when you find a product you like that fits a particular need of yours, and then they change it. "Improve" it. I hate "new, improved" anything. I think they should just make a completely new product instead and leave the old one alone. That way there would be two products to choose from, instead of half an old one. At least the Jockey Classic Briefs were still Classic, but before I committed myself to buying them I decided to ask the saleslady to show me what else was available on the underwear market. This saleslady was pleasantly plump in her neat navy-blue shirtwaist dress with a red-and-white scarf tied around her double chin. She had a nice smile and eyeglasses with rhinestones sprayed around the frames. She looked like the type you could feel comfortable talking about underwear with. "Do you have BVDs?" I asked.
She pushed her eyeglasses further up her nose, right up to the ridge, and she said, "No, we don't carry BVDs."
"Does Macy's make its own brand, like Saks?" B piped up. Who was he trying to impress? The saleslady?
"Certainly. We have Macy's Supremacy right here." She lifted a package to show me. "They're two for five dollars."
"Two for five dollars! These are three for five dollars," I exclaimed. I had some Jockeys in my hand.
"Well, Supremacy is the better line. They fit better. We also have Macy's Kenton. They're three for four-fifty."
She handed me a package of Kentons. "This is all cotton too," I said.
"There are different grades of cotton, you know," she said.
I was confused. I looked at the Supremacy package more closely. "What's this? 'Swiss Rib Side Panels?' Does that make it better?"
"That," said the saleslady, "and the quality of the cotton."
"But what are 'Swiss Rib Side Panels'?" "How do I know? It makes them fit better," she said grimly. "What brand do you generally use? BVD?" "Jockey."
"Jockey!" There was a note of triumph in her voice now. "Supremacy is cut longer than Jockey. It's a longer brief. But if you like the Jockey cut I would suggest you stick to it."
"How many pairs should I get?" I mumbled to B. There was no point asking the saleslady to show me anything else. She had made up my mind when she made up hers. "I need about twenty-eight."
"You can't get twenty-eight if there are three in a package," B explained. "You can get twenty-seven or thirty but not twenty-eight."
"Okay then, I'll take fifteen."
"Cash or charge," said the saleslady.
"Cash," I said. I don't like charging. It feels more like buying if you pay with money. The saleslady went off to ring the sale up. Another saleslady, who looked a lot like her, came up to us and asked, "Are you together?"
"Are we together?" I asked B.
"Yes," B said, a bit annoyed. The second saleslady walked away. "Look at these Jockey Thoroughbred Nylon Briefs." B pointed to an adjacent rack.
"Are they better?"
"You can use them as a bathing suit," B said. The saleslady returned with my change. "We have one over here," she said, "that's supposed to be used as a bathing suit. Let me show it to you."
We followed her down a narrow aisle lined with more kinds of underwear than I knew existed.
"Here," she said, handing B a package of Pucci-looking bikini underwear.
"Are they Jockey?" I asked.
"Do they come in any other colors?" "They come in a print called Balloons," she said, handing me a package of blue-and-green JockeyLife bikinis.
"Don't they come in white?"
"No they don't but we have these others over here by Jockey—Jockey Skins. Now they come in white, but they are not as brief."
I examined the package, trying to Imagine myself in Jockey Skins instead of Jockey Classic Briefs. But I just couldn't, so I handed the package back to her and thanked her for her help.
As we walked through the further reaches of the Men's Underwear department, it hit me that B and I were the only men in the whole department. And it wasn't empty. There were women everywhere. At first I wondered if women now were buying men's underwear just like they buy men's jeans and men's sweaters but then I saw that these were all middle-aged married-looking women shopping for their husbands. I guess that's what marriage boils down to—your wife buys your underwear for you.
B had detoured into the exotic underwear aisle—the mesh g-string aisle—and was having a good time reading the labels. "Look at this one," he said. "It says 'Horizontal fly for easy access.' "
"Strange," I said. "Why do they have a pocket in the pouch?"
"That's the horizontal fly for easy access." B chuckled. "Here's one that says 'Exclusive for easy convenience.'"
"Come on, let's go, I have to buy some socks," I said.
The Men's Socks department was bustling with women too. Maybe that's what's wrong with America. The men don't buy.
"Where are the SuppHose?" I asked B.
"You wear SuppHose?" B said. "Do you have arthritis?" I don't have arthritis but I want to be ready for it when it comes. I also like SuppHose because they are very tight and that leaves more space between my leg and my boot for money. I found the SuppHose rack and read the label on one of the boxes—"New No-Static Anti-Static All-Nylon." I was a little disturbed by the "New." I asked B to call for a salesman. He found one around the corner, straightening out the Camp socks rack, and brought him over to me. The salesman was very tall, his hair was very short, and he was wearing a three-piece dacron-polyester olive-green twill suit, a bright-green Rooster tie, a yellow wash-and-wear shirt—more worn than washed—and Hush Puppies. His cologne smelled like Hai Karate but it could have been Jade East. He smiled tentatively.
"Why does it say 'New' on this package?" I asked him.
"Those are two-tone, sir, something new SuppHose has come out with." His smile was still pretty tentative.
"No," I declared, "I want solids."
"All right, sir. in solids we have a choice of four colors— black, brown, navy blue, and medium gray."
"May I see the navy blue, please?"
"Here's navy blue. It looks dark but the light is different here than outside."
"Maybe I should stick with black. How many pairs do you have here?" I poked around the rack looking for stray pairs of black, size small.
"Sir, we have eight here, but I can get you as many as you'd like."
"Eight's enough." I didn't want him taking a cigarette break in the stockroom on my time. "And, please take them out of the boxes. They're hard to carry."
His tentative smile faded. "Sir, they're on cardboards."
"That's okay. Just take them out of the boxes. You don't have to take the cardboards out."
"The only thing I would say, sir, is if for any reason you want to return them you can't if they're not in their boxes."
"No, I won't return them." I never return anything. That's worse than not buying.
The salesman began to take them out of their boxes. When he was on number seven, I asked, "Is there any other brand?"
"There's one other brand we carry, sir—Mandate. It's not as effective. But it is less expensive." "No," I said.
Just then B came back from buying a bunch of socks for himself in various dark, respectable colors—navy, brown, forest green, charcoal, black.
"Why do you buy different-color socks, B?"
"So they're easy to separate when they're washed."
"But if you get all the same color you can put any one with any other one."
We paid for our socks and walked on through Macy's. It really was crowded and noisy and much less like a museum than Bloomingdale's. I suggested a little lunch somewhere in the store.
"Lunch in a department store?" B was absolutely horrified, as if I had suggested sending out to a sewer or something. He really is a spoiled brat, a product of postwar affluence.
"Okay B, we'll have lunch in a hotel uptown." B smiled; he was as pleased as he could ever be pleased. "But first let's go to Gimbel's. They might have some old jewelry. They buy estates."
Outside it really hit me that New York isn't Paris. Thirty-fourth Street was crawling with potential muggers, potential rapists, potential degenerates, potential murderers. There were very few potential victims in sight.
"Let's cut through Woolworth's to 33rd Street and Gimbel's," I said. I used to buy my underwear at Woolworth's so I have a sentimental attachment to it. The first thing you notice when you enter Woolworth's is the smell of fried chicken frying. It smelled so good I almost bought some even though I don't like fried chicken. In high-class stores they sell through "display," in low-class ones they sell through "smell." B of course had his nose wrinkled up and was rushing right through.
"Why are you rushing, B?"
"That buzz is driving me crazy."
"What buzz?" I listened and there was a buzz, probably a faulty air-conditioning system, but for me it was completely drowned out by the smell of roasted peanuts. "Aren't you glad you were born rich, B?" B is just not the five-and-dime type, so he's lucky he wasn't born into a five-and-dime family.
We were almost at the 33rd Street side of Woolworth's, where they have those 3-0 postcards of the World Trade Center and the Spanish-speaking greeting cards. We exited and crossed the street and entered Gimbel's. It was as crowded and noisy as Macy's. B groaned. "Can't we look for old jewelry at Cartier's?"
"Cartier's!" I was really getting angry with B. "Listen, B, I think we should do this every day, it would do you a lot of good, coming out into the world and seeing what life is all about. It doesn't start at Saks and end at Bloomingdale's. It's not a YSL boutique. Maybe you should spend more time getting underwear and socks and going to the dime store." B grimaced. "This is what real life is, B!" I turned away from B in disgust and noticed two little girls, about ten and twelve, rustling through a drawer of tee-shirts. "Those little kids are shoplifting!" I shouted.
"That's how much you know about the real world," said B. "Didn't you ever just open drawers when you were a kid to see if they had different things from on top of the counters?" "No."
"I used to open drawers and find different colors and sizes and styles. Anyway, what's wrong with shoplifting? Didn't you ever shoplift?"
"No." I couldn't be bothered with B. I had just discovered the In and Out Shop—Gimbel's version of a "head" shop. I was contemplating buying it out—every last piece of fake stained glass, every Mexican silver bracelet, every Kama Sutra poster, every daisy-decal mirror, every peacock feather. This is what people will probably be collecting in the 80s. Art-a-Go-Go. The 60s Plastic-Psychedelic look. There won't be any 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s stuff left.
B was rushing off to the school-supplies department. "Did you used to get a new lunchbox and briefcase and looseleaf and pencils every September? That was my favorite time of year. It was really exciting dividing the looseleaf into different sections with a different color for each subject. I could never decide which bookcover look I liked better, the shiny Ivy League covers from the drugstore or the plain brown paper-sack covers you made yourself. Did you have book covers, A?"
I asked a passing salesgirl for directions to Used Jewelry and she told me it was right past Cosmetics. We walked on. "Shiseido Presents Exotic Makeup Artist for Free" was also playing at Gimbel's.
At the first-floor jewelry department, a sign said, "End of the Season Gold Clearance—20 to 50% off." I wondered which season was the Gold season. The single salesman there was helping a customer try on a ring. "How does that one feel?" he asked.
"Tight," said the customer.
As much as I hate to cut in on a purchase, I did. "Where's your used jewelry?"
"The used jewelry would be on the fifth floor."
B and I headed for the escalator. On the way up I noticed Robert Redford on the way down. "Look, B, there's Robert Redford." Maybe it wasn't Robert Redford. But he was wearing a white suit and had sandy blond hair and a big smile.
"My sister saw Robert Redford on Madison Avenue the other day," B said.
"I saw him the other day too. He must be in town."
"My sister followed him up Madison."
"I followed him in a cab."
"He lives on Fifth Avenue."
"I followed him on Park Avenue, from 64th Street to 65th Street. He was walking too slow for my cab to keep up with him, so I lost him."
"My sister said nobody recognized him."
"I know, I was the only one following him on Park Avenue . . ." We were just arriving at the third floor and there was a seersucker suit on a mannequin that looked like Robert Redford.
"I come out of a department store," B was saying as we headed up to four, "feeling like I've been hit over the head. I only like small shops. Big stores take too much out of you."
"But you can get bargains in big stores."
"If you have the patience to look. But just think of the time it's costing you."
At the fifth floor the used jewelry department was right near the escalator. There were two counters, sparkling with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, gold, silver. On the first counter everything looked new. I asked the salesman if he had any jewelry from the 40s. He said no. "Do you have an old counter?" I persisted. "We have nothing there, either," he said.
I approached the salesman behind the second counter. He saw me coming and looked down and pretended to be writing in his order book.
"Excuse me." He didn't look up. "I'm looking for used jewelry. Do you have any?" He still didn't look up. "I read your ad." He finally looked up and said, "No."
"Well, you have an Estate Sale, according to the ad." I never had to work so hard to buy in my life.
"What we have is all mixed up," he said. "We don't keep everything in one case." He waved his arm across the counter. I looked down through the glass. A very simple three-color gold cigarette case caught my eye.
"How much is that?" I asked. "Is it on sale?"
"It wasn't advertised."
"Well, what else is there? I'm looking for something with a big stone. A big, big stone."
"There are some rings over there. You might see something you like."
"Remember," B said, "how big that amethyst we saw in Paris was. How purple. It was Siberian, not South American. It belonged to the Imperial Family." As B talked the Gimbel's jewels looked smaller and smaller.
There was one gold-and-diamond brooch in the 40s style I liked because it reminded me of the good old days.
"May I see this one?"
"This one?" said the salesman, picking it up as if it were a black widow spider.
"Is it signed by any name?" "No."
"Is this a good diamond?"
"Is it a good diamond?" Suddenly the black widow was a butterfly. "Yes, sir. This is a very good buy. This is an Estate Piece. There are two carats of diamonds in here."
"Let's go, B," I whispered. "This guy is awful." As we headed toward the escalator I overheard a customer ask the salesman at the other counter, "You mean you might not have another one for three years?"
"That's right. Come back in three years."
"But will the price be the same?"
"I don't know if the price'll be the same tomorrow."
I stepped on the escalator, frustrated that a salesman had kept me from buying.
"How come you like jewelry so much, A?" B asked.
"I don't like jewelry that much. Let's go buy some Dr. Scholl's Footsavers. Jewelry will never replace Dr. Scholl's."
"I'd rather have jewelry," B said.
"Because a diamond is forever," B said. "Forever what?"