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Silver Threads: shopping and selective service

One day, about fifty-something years ago, when I was supposed to be writing a story in the newsroom of the States-Item but was, instead, visiting with the entertaining gals in the Women’s Section, one of the local socialites came in. She was a woman who’d probably been queen of three or four high-end Carnival balls during her debut year; who'd come from a notable and wealthy family; and who'd ,clearly, just been highly insulted.

But she laughed as she told her story to the women in the office: she’d double-parked and dashed into one of the city’s Canal Street emporiums for a quick purchase. She had been on her way from some activity she hadn’t “dressed up” for that had left her a bit sweaty and soiled (Country club tennis, anyone?).

She raised some eyebrows, and the salesclerks weren’t lining up to wait on her. Therefore, she  went home, cleaned up, and dressed in more appropriate clothing for a trip to New Orleans’ then-premier shopping district. She even added a hat and gloves. (I’m not kidding; this is what it took to be respected in those days.) Needless to say, upon her return to the store, she was waited on quickly and oh-so-courteously.

I got to thinking about this the other day, when news broke about Oprah Winfrey’s insult from a salesclerk in the handbag department of a store in Zurich. It seems the woman told her she “couldn’t afford it” when she asked to be shown a $38,000 handbag (It boggles the mind; what amenities could this product possibly offer to be worthy of such a price tag?).

Ms. Winfrey, whose income was estimated at $77 million last year, attributes the clerk’s insulting behavior to the fact that she is a black woman. But I’m not so sure. I have thought the Swiss to be snooty since my first trip to that country 40 years ago. The U.S. dollar had gone down a bit in value, and my husband's and my tour guide  informed us that she was “happy to see Americans so poor.”

And perhaps Ms. Winfrey was not wearing a hat or hadn’t cleaned up after  fishing at a mountain stream or hiking a trail among the glaciers.

At any rate, the obtuse salesclerk could’t have watched very much American TV, could she have? (One wonders whether or not she is still behind her counter, but given the attitude of the aforementioned Swiss tour guide, the affront to an American cannot have held much sway).

My experience with the snootiness of those employed in the better departments of better stores in our own country goes back to when I was in my early twenties and working for my first after-college newspaper.  One of my roommates was employed as a buyer-in-training, in the venerable Kennington’s in, yes, better dresses. At the end of the day, I would go there to accompany her on a bus ride home and was invariably treated with disdain. No hat; printer’s ink on the short sleeves of my dress -- I had, once again, leaned on the type lying on the makeup tables in the newspaper’s composing room.

Even today, with years of shopping experience and certainly no proximity to printer’s ink, I would not be heartily welcomed in some stores and/or departments, being old(er) woman that I am. Here‘s the list:

- Victoria’s Secret: the whole store. I wouldn‘t even dare to go in.
- Computer, tablet and cell phone stores and departments: Not unless I can explain quickly that I’m searching for gifts for my grandsons. Clerks still look at me as though I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing, and they’re often right.
- Fast food restaurants: I would need binoculars to see all of the menu items listed high behind the counters.
- Almost any sporting goods store.
- Not to mention most car dealerships.

I wonder if wearing a hat would help?

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]