As an almost 16 year old there wasn’t much I didn’t know. I set out on a journey one late November morning to the place were everyone shopped in those days—downtown and the big department stores.
I can’t remember who told me perfume was a great gift and I’m sure I never thought about what it might cost. As a teenager I was past the allowance stage and into the making money at odd jobs period of my life. Don’t recall how much was in my wallet that day, other than the change I needed for the streetcar to get downtown.
I shivered in the cold northeast morning air, waiting for that telltale loud scraping sound of steel wheels fighting steel groves in the cobblestone roads of Carrick, the next little borough in Western Pennsylvania. I’d walked the mile to the streetcar stop so much that I never gave it a second thought, finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk and thinking that I’d get in trouble for keeping it—which I did of course.
The ash and snow-covered streetcar arrived and waited at the turnaround. I got on, wishing these things had real heat. The bench seats were painted wooden slats, the kind that you feel even with layers of clothes on. The trolley lurched forward, bell clanging as we headed toward downtown, Pittsburgh, the steel city, the one with the renaissance, whatever that was.
Forty-five minutes and about 20 stops later we crossed the rail bridge. I waited until I could see the marquee of the big department store, Kaufmann’s, gleaming through the soot-covered window. I got off, making sure no cars hit me—it happened to my aunt and she spent about three weeks in the hospital with two broken bones. Safely off the street I entered the large store and, for the first time since leaving home, I was warm enough to take off my coat and scarf.
Department stores put perfume counters at the main first floor entrance, although at the time I didn’t know that. Confronted with row on row of glass shelves and women bustling to and fro behind the counter, I waited, hoping to get noticed. Finally, a woman about the age of my grandmother approached me, seeing that I might be a customer not just a looker.
“Yes,” she said in that “May I help you young man since you’re lost” kind of voice.
“I, er, well, I was wondering about perfume and…”
“Gift?” she asked, cutting me off.
“Yes, for a special person, a really nice kind, you know.”
“Of course,” she said, turning to the counter behind her and surveying the rows of tiny boxes and bottles. “Do you have a price range that you’d like to see?”
“Under five dollars is my limit,” I said, moving my hands against my hanging scarf, trying to remove the sweaty wrinkles.
“Well, let me see, maybe we can find something nice. Do you have a preference for any particular kind, any special brand?” She reached for a large bottle on her left.
“Actually, I never bought any before, so one might be as good as another. But a friend told me that Shalimar, I think that’s the name, that it was good.” I fumbled in my coat pocket for a folded piece of notepaper on which a friend, Pete Widowitz, had written the name and something that started with a G.
“Oh yes, Shalimar by Guerlain is a wonderfully exotic blend of things; exquisite for any occasion,” she said. It was a speech meant for boyfriends and husbands, not me.
I asked the price and found that it was 18 dollars. I thanked her, turned to leave.
“Wait,” she said, “we’re having a special, just today, unadvertised.” She peeled a small price sticker from the bottom, placed the perfume bottle in tissue paper, then a gift box, and handed it to me. “Five dollars please,” she said, smiling.
I thanked her again, rode home on the streetcar clutching that package tightly. My mother opened the little box Christmas Eve and was almost crying as she thanked me, telling me that no one had ever given her this kind of fancy perfume before.
I told her that I was the one who got the gift, once from a total stranger in that department store, and now from her.
A postscript: Mom is now 88 and her ability to recall things from even yesterday is fading all too fast. This one sticks in both our memories--and is the essence of giving and recieving for me and for her.
What a great story. How ironic to read this tonight....I opened a Chrsitmas card at work this morning that had a scene of old downtown Pittsburgh with the outside of Kaufmanns decorated and the "meet me under the clock" theme. I never look at the millions of cards we get this time of year, but this one caught my eye. My husband remembers riding the trolley down to Islay's with his grandma as a child (who lived in Dormont) to get Chipped Chopped Ham. We went downtown and stayed at the Marriott City Center for light up night last month, it was quite spectacular. We have had some seriously cold weather in Pittsburgh the last several days. But, hey, 'tis the season. Merry Christmas! Enjoy!
Yep, the next year I had an unsuccesful career at Gimble's department store over Christmas where I wrapped packages for delivery (very poorly) and found that "retail" was not my thing.
Merry Christmas and Go Steelers!!!!!