Yom Kippur at Saks Fifth Avenue
It’s 8:30 in the morning, Yom Kippur in New York. In the subway I look around a strangely empty car and note that no one “looks Jewish”. Up the stairs and into the early morning light I see that the streets are merely crowded, not jammed, and I walk toward the department store where I am a “Sales Associate,” what we used to call Salesgirls. Am I the only Jew out and about today? I wonder. As I enter the building and walk through the jewelry department and past my co-worker, Brandon’s counter he looks up from counting his stock.
“Hi there. Why are you here? I thought everybody was supposed to take off.”
“I don’t observe,” I tell him.
“Why? Your mother wasn’t Jewish?” Brandon comes from the mid-West, another planet as it relates to New York Jewishness.
“No, she was Jewish, I just don’t observe.”
He pauses and then, as this is a new idea, says, “Okay, I hear you. Maybe I could be an honorary Jew.”
“Oh,” I tell him, “this holiday is not a celebration, it’s to atone for your sins. You can’t eat or drink all day.”
“Well, then, never mind,” he says, “I’ll pass on honorary Jewishness.”
His phone rings, he answers it and walks away. I then reflect on the upsurge in religious practice. I wonder for the tenth time that day if I am the only non-observant Jew in New York. When I was a kid that wasn’t so unusual. My parents, themselves the progressive offspring of their own immigrant parents who only observed a few times a year, just didn’t stress it. When did it become like the McCarthy era for any non-religious people to be hounded or looked on with disapproval? Apparently there are some Christians (my co-workers: Lonny, Christo and Denny) who proclaim they sympathize with the religious and have taken this Jewish holiday off. To be more accurate, they knew it would be slow on the sales floor. In fact, traffic is at a stand-still, not even an early morning rush as we stand around waiting for customers. It’s mid-morning now and I do a few sets of Kegel exercises and think about Windexing the already clean countertops.
A woman approaches my Watch Counter while holding out a handful of papers and printouts from the Internet. Good, I think, she’s done her homework and is ready to buy.
“Hi,” I say brightly, “can I help you?”
“Yes,” she starts looking over the case of Michelle watches. “I’m looking to get one of these.” She looks up at me and holds out the papers which, I see, have pictures of several Michelle watches.
I take her papers, recognizing two watches and pointing to two images. “We have this one and this. Do you want to see them?”
She drops her large handbag on the counter between us and places her coat over it. I know we’re not allowed to let customers put anything on the counter as it makes shoplifting easier but I let it go. She’s a potential sale and could be my only one today. Anything I can do to make her comfortable. She peers down through the glass of the showcase.
“Yes, and there are a few more down there I want to see. Can I try them on?”
“Of course.” I pull out my key and start unlocking the case. “You should try them on.”
We start with a $2,500 watch with a diamond bezel which I put on her wrist. A half an hour later I am still entertaining her, showing her every other watch she points to as a possible choice, changing the bands from red crocodile to pink lizard to wine suede to black satin to gray leather to prove how versatile they are.
“You know, after all this, I really like this one,” she says, pointing to the first watch. “What do you think?”
“I thought it looked really good on you when you tried it on.” There are watch bands and watch heads all over the counter. One of the security guards is now standing by, watching us. I am conscious of the fact that we have been told not to take too much merchandise out of the cases for a customer at once. Another rule broken.
She sees the security guard move closer to the counter
“Yes, that’s the one,” she says, reaching for her coat and handbag. “But I have to consult with my fiancée.”
I’m slightly shocked and mildly annoyed, knowing that it would be worse if we were busy and I lost out on other sales. “Should I put it aside for you?” I start putting everything away. “No, just write the style number down on your card.”
I know this request is either what she thinks is a graceful way of getting away from a sales person or a way of obtaining a style number so she can get the watch from another source, Ebay, a friend in the business, who knows?
I ignore a flash of irritation, pull out my card, write down a number which I make up as I write. Small revenge for wasting my time when I wasn’t doing anything else.
She puts on her coat, hoists her handbag over her shoulder and as she leaves I think: Next Yom Kippur I will definitely observe.
Rosanne Ehrlich’s work has appeared in Persimmon Tree, Panoplazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Voices Project, and Vine Leaves Press, among others. She has worked in retail from her first job at F.W. Woolworth at 16, to Alexanders Department Store, to Arader Art Gallery and, finally, Saks Fifth Avenue. It was what went on “behind the scenes” in Retail that was the most fascinating.