Sunday, February 10, 2008

New (Banana) Republic

Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been totally left behind? Like you’re on this train and none of the stops sound familiar because the city’s had a facelift and a name-change and a makeover and all of your cool landmarks have been replaced with a mall? I rarely have those innocent New York dreams where you open one of your inadequate closets and there is a room… another apartment… a loft with a view… light…not a dream-sized room but a room-sized dream. I now have this recurrent nightmare like a vintage Twilight Zone episode where all the streetsigns are no longer anything you might recognize. And you get off and instead of Louis Sullivan, you get Frank Gehry or some hologram of architectural space. I need parallels, perpendiculars. I need 90 degree angles. Tic-tac-toe. Avenues and streets. Not roads that turn into snakes and rivers and bridges. I need blacktop and sidewalks, double white-lines. Parking meters. Tenements and skyscrapers lined up like books on library shelves. Urban order. Otherwise I get nervous.

Maybe it’s true that older people just resist change. And when did I get old? Resistant and unreasonable? Like some old coot demanding white-bread-with-crust at Whole Foods. The truth is I haven’t shopped in years. I can’t stomach the perpetual overlit Christmas-vibe of department stores and I can’t abide the ever-watchful eyes of judgmental salespeople in small shops. Even the helpful ones. When they approach me I feel like a librarian at a surfboard convention. And they are all well-dressed. Stay calm, I tell myself. These people get paid to fold and hang up clothing. I am a customer and they are my handmaids. But they look at me like I am scum or worse, and doubt that I have the money to afford anything from the looks of my vintage wool man’s overcoat. Plus they cannot actually help, or I would be at a therapist’s office, and when they recite this offer, it comes out like platitude, not a question.

I ventured into the Banana Republic to spend a giftcard some kind friend sent me for Christmas. I had no clue what I wanted or what the selection could even be like. The pants on sale seemed harmless…but were sized according to a name-coded system of low, lower, lowest and hipless. I seemed to need a size zero Ryan style, according to the salesgirl. Anyway, she offered me something reasonable in black velvet which looked like a bad version of pajamas once I put them on. Banana Republic. I can normally afford nothing… the cash… and now the gift card thing… but besides the sale items which seem to be unwearables, $100 buys me a T-shirt or 4 pairs of boxer shorts. A pair of Victorian wrist cufflets with which to dress up a sweater. I hated it all. The fitting room girl gave me a little tilted head as I returned all garments after a respectable interval staring at my newest wrinkles in the fitting room mirror, wondering whatever happened to real hooks…to those velvet benches they used to have when I was a kid, to those three-part mirrors so you could observe your rear end without emerging and asking a salesgirl to give her educated point-of-view.

I left feeling pissed off and humiliated, felt my face flush when the security guard on the way out stopped me. Have a nice day, he said, when I started to open my purse like a suspected shoplifter. On the street I wanted to place my Banana Republic giftcard into the cup of a blind panhandler but didn’t want to come off smug and ironic or subject him to store humiliation. And what’s up with the name? I thought a Banana Republic was a small tropical country being taken for fools by some pretentious exploitive generalissimo. I want no part of it. Like Urban Outfitters. Years ago you could find vintage cargo pants in this place— camouflage, workclothes…remaindered grunge stuff. Now it’s overpriced T-shirts and college-room lamps made out of Barbie dolls. Hand-dyed undershirts selling for designer prices. Crap. Expensive crap. Stuff you will see in your thrift shop in less than 2 weeks because it is so trendy it looks stupid by the time you get it home.

I do sound like an old coot. Oh well, I’ll save it for the kids for a birthday. Use it as a bribe. At least I can spend my Starbucks card to buy a coffee for the ride home. They can’t mess up a large black too badly. At least there are no fitting rooms, no dress code.

But outside the corner store is a homeless guy I recognize. He is standing in front of the Starbucks window like an urban mannequin, voguing conspicuously. He is tall and wild, intimidating and menacing. He sometimes likes me. He carries a boombox and makes noise when he is pissed off. Men in my hood give him money. Plenty of it. They fear him and he knows it. He can humiliate them when he feels like it, when he is unmedicated which is most of the time. Anyway, here he is, voguing outside the window, with his middle finger extended to the sky. It is Ash Wednesday and he is now doing Jesus, with a white ash cross-sign on his forehead, arms outstretched, giving the double massive straight-up finger, entertaining the Starbucks customers, no charge.

I change direction and decide to make my own brew at home. No wonder they say retailers make an extra 30 percent on giftcards no one cashes. The homeless guy-- I swear to God-- still in Jesus pose, is now singing in full voice, as though I'd personally scripted this little Ash Wednesday musical, an old-time song I used to hear on cartoon soundtracks, but never understood until now. Yes, we have no bananas, he sings.

Some of the worst dressed people still have pride. A sense of irony. Style. Bananas.

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