Boys and Girls
As a teenager who grew up inside the thrumming pulse of the 1970’s Bronx, I was vaguely aware that local businesses along West Fordham Road offered employment for first-timers, old-timers, and everyone in between. There were shelves to stock, registers to ring, dishes to wash, tables to buss, and bars to tend. Delivery boys navigated streets and stairwells, plastic-wrapped dry-cleaning slung over shoulders as wire hangers dug into fingers and palms. Hustling young men lugged cardboard boxes filled with alcohol and cigarettes to customers who too often lived in an upper floor apartment.
A pageant of high school girls worked behind glass bakery display cases, exchanging numbered slips for white paper bags filled with assorted pastries or kaiser rolls. Square cardboard boxes, expertly tied with red and white twine, sheltered a chocolate layer cake or a pound of cookies. Large vibrating slicers noisily turned fresh-baked rye bread into perfect portions, the short, crusty end pieces given to teething toddlers while older folks enjoyed a more civilized chew. It was hard work, especially on Sundays when Mass let out and parishioners lined up out the door. But boy did it smell great, and even the most downbeat patron couldn’t help but smile at the counter girl as she handed over the treats.
Watch The Rack!
On the corner of Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue stood Loehmann’s, the legendary women’s fashion discounter that drew sharp-eyed shoppers from near and far. It provided me with my first real job and a meaningful introduction to people from different ethnicities and social backgrounds. It was a place where my romantic heart and raging hormones tried to figure out how to get along with each other.
Loehmann’s sold women’s high-quality clothing at reasonable prices. In keeping with the discount business model, the company removed the labels from many garments, but astute buyers identified noted brands by look, texture, and fit.
The sprawling multi-level store filled thousands of square feet with chromed racks of blouses, dresses, slacks, and suits. Cashier stations lined both ends of the upper level. An additional row of registers on the lower floor ran perpendicular to the massive plate glass windows facing Fordham Road.
Tucked into the rear of the second floor, the high-end “Back Room” awaited the sophisticated and perhaps better-off bargain hunter.
Off to the side, away from the main sales floor, long-faced spouses found a bit of solitude in one of the “husband chairs.”
The workforce featured scores of part-time employees from across the borough. A good number of them were high school and college students. A team of older women acted as supervisors, assisting shoppers in selecting the right ensemble for an upcoming event, trip, or job interview. The proper and stern Mrs. Schultz ruled over the lower level.
I joined a group of mostly high school boys who worked in the stock room. We endlessly cycled clothing from the fitting rooms to plastic hangars, placing them onto rolling racks that we wheeled out to the showroom floors, accompanied by the call of “watch the rack!”
The best stock boys had the hand/eye coordination of a surgeon, the nimbleness of a shortstop, and the soft skills of a well-seasoned diplomat.
The last thing anyone wanted was a collision between a garment rack and a customer. Still, the caution to “watch the rack!” acted as an alert to shoppers that “more stuff was coming out,” teasing the potential appearance of an elusive Pierre Cardin sweater or a St. Laurent skirt.
Often, I turned back to my cart, dismayed to see the carefully hung and sized clothing ravaged by bargain seekers. When the garment’s actual size didn’t match the shopper’s aspirational vision, it landed, rejected, atop the closest display.
With final selections made – and all sales were final – customers trundled over to one of the register stations and dropped their prizes on the long counter. A cashier grasped the blue tag affixed to each garment, read the price, slid it into the register, rang up the transaction, then inserted the ticket halfway into a metal guillotine and gave the padded handle a quick strike. With a solid “thunk,” the bottom half fell into the metal box while the top remained affixed to the clothing. Experienced cashiers developed a smooth rhythm born of a thousand repetitions. The outstanding ones kept a pleasant dialog going with the customer, with an approving smile that conveyed the sense that a bargain, indeed, had been found.
Faces and Voices
I was familiar with many of my co-workers, while others were new to me. They traveled to work from far-away neighborhoods with names like Soundview, Norwood, Pelham Parkway, and Gun Hill Road. The Catholic Academies – Saint Catherine’s, Mother Butler, Mount Saint Ursula, and Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus – were well represented.
Many of their surnames ended, rather than started, with vowels. First names were also different, not conforming to the Irish Catholic practice of honoring a Saint. Miriam, Sarah, and Ruth came from a whole other part of the Bible. Puccini gave us a girl named Tosca.
Crucifixes, horn-shaped pendants, and finely crafted stars swayed on delicate gold and silver chains. The iconic Bronx accent carried traces of exotic flavors from far away places. It was all quite intoxicating and distracting to a teenage boy.
One particular girl, an Italian twin from an unfamiliar neighborhood, totally captivated me. Over time the girl, the street, and the world of the Italian family became very familiar. Goodbye Ragu, hello Sunday gravy.
Cultural historians agree that Hip-Hop sprang from the streets of The Bronx. I heard a very different rhythm within the walls of mid-1970’s Loehmann’s.
The soundtrack sat atop the click of metal hangers hitting chromed display bars. The pulsing hi-hat sweetness of swooshing fabrics sliding against each other, punctuated by the pop of round numbered plastic rings sitting between the twos and the fours. Loaded trolleys rumbled on rubber wheels, cueing the relentless call and response of “Watch The Rack – What’s On That Rack?” while a disembodied voice paged for a hangar pickup at register five. Status stood, invitingly, at the velvet-roped entrance to The Back Room.
I shared the energy of every boy and girl who came to their part-time jobs, looking to bring home a paycheck that rarely broke sixty dollars.
A Different Lens
When I looked outward, I saw a seascape of shoppers who represented a world I hadn’t experienced in my short life. Women of all ages and backgrounds roamed the store, each looking for the common threads of value and quality. Mothers and daughters from Riverdale wrangled dresses and skirts alongside sisters and aunts from Arthur Avenue. The racks didn’t favor one over another, and everyone was equal in the harsh light of the communal dressing rooms.
Every month or so, Orthodox Jewish women traveled on busses from Brooklyn to The Bronx store. Their clothing, customs, and manners were alien to me. Looking back, I recognize that I and others who grew up in insolated enclaves looked at these women with a mix of mistrust, scorn and bigotry; part nature, part nurture, and an outsized portion of ignorance.
That attitude was part of who I was until I found my way clear of the neighborhood and discovered the rest of the world.
More valuable, though not quite realized amid the rush of a hurried life, were the seeds of awareness that took tender root. I just had to learn what was weed and what was flower.