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.

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