Monday, December 13, 2010

Wealthy, poor, and terribly out of place

Hands folded primly on the smooth glass counter, she stood waiting, shifting from one sensibly-clad foot to another, waiting for a customer. She sold jewelry every weekend at a luxury retailer in a tony nearby town, supplementing her teacher salary with a pittance of a commission when a rich person added a shiny bauble to his wife’s collection. She helped wealthy women pick out gifts for themselves and others, rich teens pick out $800 bracelets for their friends, and men make terrible mistakes, despite her guarded guidance, like picking out heart necklaces for 50-year-old girlfriends. This was her Saturday.

She herself wore fancy gems while working, in hopes of selling more amethyst rings and citrine pendants, but they sat atop her cheap blouses looking ridiculous and out of place. Even without her sad smile, she knew she wasn’t fooling the hedge fund wives. Ballet flats from different worlds collided: Tory Burch versus Payless, sharing only a color.

Unlike her colleagues, who sold jewelry full-time, she had the surreal experience of teaching public housing children on a Friday afternoon, then selling $9,000 bracelets (her rent for almost an entire year) on a Saturday morning. It actually mattered when they made a big sale: a juicy commission and the knowledge you made happy a customer who'll be back for holiday and christening gifts. But her commission was tiny, and she couldn't tell the wealthy people, who moved about and shopped anytime they wanted, that she'd be happy to help them next Saturday, when she worked again.

It made for a long day. 

When she was younger, she worked for a caterer on weekends since she made no money as a first-year teacher. Her Saturday nights were filled with ritzy cocktail parties at Gatsby-like homes on the water, and those parties often came to mind these days: There too, she was a means to an end, her hand becoming one with the tray holding the crab eye contact or polite pleasantries, with verbalizations limited to "Oh, I love shrimp!" or "Wait" as the women handed over soiled napkins or food remainders.

Whether showcasing canap├ęs or pearl bracelets, she was invisible.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Where you don't want to be

I sat in my car in the liquor store’s parking lot, digging through my purse for the pain pills I’d been on for about two weeks. Tears were streaming down my face as fast as the raindrops hit my windshield. You’re about to toss this back with a tiny bottle of rum at 4pm before you skid back into the office just 100 yards down the road...seriously? I asked myself. Did this make me an alcoholic? In college, I found out my mom’s father was a raging alchie who made life miserable for his kids. Maybe I was about to fall in line. Mmmmmm...this would push Mom over the edge.

I wasn’t really worried. I didn’t have the discipline to be a serious drinker. My laziness would result in me not keeping booze in the house, and I wouldn’t make the effort to leave and visit a bar or liquor store. Sloth would keep me sober.

But my lazy streak won't stop a mental collapse, and when your meltdown occurs between meetings which take you past a liquor store in the afternoon, airplane bottles are not far behind. 

Rap rap rap! My heart, which has almost stopped anyway with the realization of how stupid and extreme my actions are, seizes completely and sits like lead in my chest. If I turn my head and see a cop, what will I do? Is it a moving violation if I'm not moving? Will the sobbing help or hurt?

But it's the cashier with the bad dye job who's run my scarf out to me. As the window slides down slowly, she eyes my tear-stained face and pill bottle and pauses a moment in the rain. She's not one to get involved, her face tells me. Still, her hand grabs mine a moment as she passes my scarf to me. I stare as she trots away, feeling sorry for myself, and my heart starts beating again. I regard the pill bottle in my hand and feel stupid and self-indulgent.

Screw itI'm not wasting perfectly good self-pity just because a stranger gave me a kind lookand I unscrew the tiny bottlecap.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alsace, Nancy, and animal heads

Of all the places I’ve traveled in Europe, France’s Alsace and Loire Valley regions tie for the places I’d most like to rent a car and just putter around for weeks on end. The city of Nancy in particular is a great base from which to explore diverse places like festive Strasbourg, Saarbr├╝cken, Luxembourg, and the great champagne town of Epernay. Alsace is a magical place to celebrate Christmas, if that’s your chosen holiday—and even if it isn’t. Small, jolly cabins fill various squares and parks in Strasbourg, where afternoon shopping turns to evening cups of hot, spiced mulled wine (vin chaud) enjoyed whilst watching bad ice skaters near the cathedral. Cross the border into the village of Kehl, Germany, to both say you did and visit the bakery near the bus stop on the main drag for treats to munch as you wander down the avenue toward the town’s park.

But it’s Nancy that’s the crown jewel. Here, finally, is a French city (that is not Paris) with decent Christmas decorations. (Honestly, I have always been pretty underwhelmed, and I’m not alone.) A stroll down the wide boulevards surrounding the stark but beautiful Place Stanislas turns up sheets and halos of white lights draping streets. On nights thick with potential snow, they seem to hover, the cables holding them aloft invisible. You should walk down Rue Saint-Catherine and take in the colorful storefronts. You should stop for a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) at the art deco Excelsior and sit in the front window near a rickety heater. And you should, without a doubt, eat at the taxidermy-filled, Snow White-meets-TGIFridays-meets-cartoonish saloon Taverne de Maitre Marcel, where you’ll have beer and a tarte flambee and be served by an attentive waitress, to whom you'll be faintly rude since you can’t take your eyes off the stuffed pheasant behind your date’s head.

After dinner, you’ll head down to Place Stanislas again for the evening’s holiday performance, a dreamy affair featuring acrobats floating around on wires and stilts with lights on their tights and wings on their backs. There’ll be fake snow, heckling, cheering, classical music, and fireworks. And then you’ll take your date’s hand, head over to that very hip bar on the corner, notice there’s a white rhinoceros head on the wall for decoration, and wonder what’s in the water here that makes the citizens of Nancy display animals instead of, oh, paintings or non-furry sculpture.