Yesterday I talked with a young Muslim man who recently spent two weeks as a volunteer in Haiti, helping with the ongoing relief efforts from the hurricane that devastated Haiti. Recall if you will that Haiti is already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere having endured years of dictatorship, corruption as well as grinding poverty. In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake destroyed much of the island nation, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands of more people homeless as well as jobless. The recent hurricane was yet another blow to the struggling nation. My friend described cities and towns in chaos but yet proud people determined to rebuild. Help poured in from around the world including the USA but clearly Haiti cannot be forgotten. Their needs are many. Suffering is widespread around the world as well. The Syrian people are battle weary from five years of civil war with no end in sight. At least half a million innocent civilians have perished. Millions more fled their homes to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Lucky ones resettled in foreign nations, often facing discrimination and even violence. The unrest and violence doesn’t end in Syria. It goes on around the world. There are too many places to name. The USA is besieged with poverty, hunger, and homelessness too. I don’t have an answer to end it all. I wish I did. You probably wish you did too. Don’t lose hope for a better world because hope and prayers right now may be all we have. Most government leaders have failed to deliver peace so it’s up to us, each one of us, to deliver peace among ourselves. War sucks the life out of all living beings, including people, animals, and the environment. According to Surah 3, verse 159, God loves those who put their trust in Him. Have faith in God and faith in each other to bring peace and salvation to our world. War solves nothing. Peace is priceless and benefits all mankind.
Every Christmas season, PetSmart, the pet food chain, sponsored pet photos with Santa. They provided the Santa suit, the camera, frame and film (that was before digital photography took off). Rescue groups and shelters supplied volunteers like me. PetsSmart and the rescues/shelters split the fee, which was usually $10.00 per photo. Over the years, I volunteered for numerous pet photo sessions. Sometimes I wore the Santa suit. Other times I squeaked toys in front of squirmy dogs and cats so they posed for their pictures. The sessions rewarded my heart because I met pet owners who genuinely cared for their pets. Owners often shared touching adoption stories that boosted my spirits because animal rescue was often so darn depressing. I witnessed many incidents of cruelty such as disfigured dogs used in fighting rings, skeletal dogs intentionally deprived of food, and unwanted cats poisoned to death. To be among such kind and caring people was worth sitting inside a hot stifling costume with a fake beard scratching my face.
A fuzzball of dog with curly tail lifted his leg on my Santa shoes. I just had to laugh. A fluffy gray cat clawed my beard like it was a scratching post. The owner pulled the nervous cat off me and calmed her down. A freckle faced boy wanted to pose with Santa, even though I was a ‘girl’. A big hairy black dog was so nervous that he pulled me off the bench. Most dogs, however, took the process in stride and posed nicely with me. Sometimes the entire family posed with their beloved pets. I was particularly moved when a family showed up for a photo after just adopting a pet from a shelter. At the end of picture sessions, owners then proceeded into the store to pick out Christmas toys, snacks, leashes and new beds for their pets. That always brought smiles to my face.
One day, we snapped a dog’s picture and the female owner said, “I should’ve brought my horse. Maybe I’ll come back.”
“This Santa can’t do horses,” I said, gesturing towards my chair. “I’m sorry. Maybe someone else can.”
One woman did show up on horseback. We were in a part of the city where horse ownership was common. Santa and crew went outside for the photo. I posed next to the horse while my colleague snapped the photo.
The sign in the store lobby advertised three consecutive weekends of pet photos with Santa. Most people showed up with dogs, a few with cats. Late one afternoon, a woman arrived with a small carrier. I assumed it held a cat, or maybe a rabbit. My mouth felt like chalk when I saw a large white rat. I grew up in New York City and to me, rats were unwanted guests. I would’ve screeched if I ever saw a rat of any color in my apartment. Fortunately, I only had mice. Still, as Santa I acted proper and posed with the white rat, even though I squirmed inside.
A couple showed up with a turkey aptly named Tom. About six weeks before, Tom was supposed to be Thanksgiving dinner. Neither husband nor wife however could butcher Tom. So Tom became a pet. Fittingly, they wanted a pet photo with Santa. We were glad to oblige.
All in all, volunteering at PetSmart was a wonderful experience. The owners I met cherished and adored their pets. The dogs, cats, etc. were respected members of their families. Many were rescued, some were strays and a few obtained from breeders. The personal stories I heard were uplifting and special. Every week was fun and I loved my experience helping out. That counteracted the grief and stress that I experienced at the shelter where unwanted dogs and cats arrived by the dozens every day, each with a sad, sorrowful story. Some were in pitiful shape; others bewildered at losing their homes. We couldn’t save them all but we treated them with dignity and respect.
During my volunteer tenure in animal rescue, I also served as a pet therapist with my rescued dog Luke at Gabriel’s Angels, an organization that provides healing pet therapy to abused, abandoned and at-risk children. For seven years (2001-2008), Luke and I visited homeless children. Every Christmas, generous friends donated toys for the children. I wrapped each child’s gift in holiday paper and a bow. As the children ripped open the presents, they treated them as if they were gold. As an added bonus, I borrowed Christmas music CD’s from the public library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke added his own canine crooning by howling at various parts of the songs. Children cracked up at Luke’s silly antics. Christmas at a homeless shelter instead of your own home was a sobering experience, one that I’ll never forget. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible with extra snacks and hugs. I always wished I could do more. Sometimes, I felt so inadequate.
Wherever all those children ended up, I hope they remember our messages about kindness, compassion and love that we tried to impart. My dog Luke, adopted from a shelter, may have been considered worthless but he developed into a champion. Luke never strutted around the show ring but he was always my best boy. He was top dog. All those homeless kids molded me into a better person. For that I will always be grateful.
Luke died on January 23, 2010. I still miss him terribly. During his short time on this planet, a once abandoned shelter dog brought hope and joy to hundreds of lives, especially to mine. And as for PetSmart, thank you for hosting an annual event that benefitted homeless animals and the people who worked so hard to save them. That’s true corporate responsibility.
Shopping malls were as rare as lush green lawns in my New York City youth. Neither one existed. I grew up in a neighborhood of old, cramped apartment buildings, minus the front lawns. I’d never heard of a mall. New York City was jam packed with multi-level department stores stocked with clothing, furniture, toys, linens, hats, and appliances. Some NYC department stores like Bloomingdale’s were high end for the upscale shopper. Bloomie’s, as we New Yorker’s called the store, was located on the posh Upper East Side. Other stores like E.J. Klein’s, further down on grungy East 14th Street, was for the more cost conscious shopper. These are the other stores I can remember: Macy’s, Alexander’s, Gimbel’s, Arnold Constable, Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Abraham and Straus, B. Altman, Orbach’s, Lord and Taylor, Bonwit Teller and May’s. There could be others yet only a few of the big names still exist such as Macy’s, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. The rest collapsed into bankruptcy, merged with larger stores, or just closed down due to changing tastes and on-line competition that allegedly saves time and money. New York City is constantly changing and it’s a far different place today from the one I left in 1989. Shopping on-line isn’t the same as a hearty walk with your friends, starting at Bloomingdale’s, headed down Fifth Avenue to W. 34th Street and ending in Macy’s.
Price comparisons were done by reading inserts in the Sunday paper. Stores were closed on Sunday and generally open only on Thursday nights. A typical Saturday was spent walking from one store to the next, lugging bulky paper shopping bags filled with purchases. On-line was perusing a thick, colorful catalogue that came in the mail. We either mail ordered or ordered at the store. In-person shopping was the most common. All the strolling, talking and trying on clothing worked up our appetites. We stopped for lunch or coffee along the way in diners known as greasy spoons. Nothing could deter a hearty New York shopper, not rain, blistering heat, icy cold weather or gusty winds. Shopping was also a form of female bonding. Men rarely shared our zest for shopping. We ladies poured out our problems, joys, hopes and dreams on the walk, in the dressing room or waiting on cashier line. Even after a tiring afternoon and emptying out my wallet, I always enjoyed the camaraderie among my friends.
Department stores in my day hired high school students, an abundant source of cheap labor. In New York City it was legal to work at age sixteen with parental consent and easily obtained working papers. Who handed out working papers? I honestly don’t remember. In high school, it was a rite of passage among boys and girls my age to work after school. Classmates without jobs were looked upon as lazy or shiftless. Nearly everyone I knew, male and female, worked after school starting as high school juniors. I was no different, landing my first job in the now defunct department store, Alexander’s. In 1970, at the tender age of 16, I earned $1.85 per hour, proud to be among the workforce. I chopped of price tags attached to garments like sweaters, pants and coats. The cashier entered the cost on a mechanical register then handed the item to me. After the customer forked over the cash (no checks or credit/debit cards back then) I neatly folded garments into paper bags. Plastic bags were not yet available. Supervisors instructed us to always smile at customers and to say thank you. Mostly I adhered to store policy unless a customer was unduly fussy or cranky. Honestly, it was hard to crack smiles at customers with bad attitudes.
To get to work, I rode the Steinway Street bus, a two block walk from our apartment building in the Astoria section of Queens. The bus dropped riders off at East 59th Street and Second Avenue, the last stop and just a few blocks away from Alexander’s Department store. I felt so grown up traveling into Manhattan on my own. As the crowded bus with rush hour passengers inched its way over the 59th Street Bridge, a major connection between the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan, I gazed out the window at the dazzling Manhattan skyline. What would it be like to live there, I thought? It seemed so sophisticated, so much more refined, than my dumpy Queens neighborhood where housewives often ventured outside in hairnets, rolled down stockings, and house slippers. On lunch hours, I strolled around the neighborhood passing by a Rolls Royce dealership, pricey apartment buildings with suited door men and chic women’s boutiques. All this of course was way beyond my $1.85 earnings and my working class upbringing. But it was still OK to dream. And dream I did about living in more classy surroundings. (PS I never have.)
During that summer, I worked full-time and met new, intriguing people at the store. I remember a hippie named Jane who had hitchhiked to the famous Woodstock concert in upstate New York the summer before. Always in sandals, loose fitting blouses and long skirts, Jane had a relaxed attitude and was easy to get along with. She told me all about the wild and crazy three day rock concert that made history around the world. I loved her easy smile and laid back ways. One day, she stopped coming to work. Evidently, Jane called up and said she was moving to California to live in a commune. I always hoped life was good to her. I felt sorry for John, the sad-faced stock boy, whose brother Richie was beaten to death by a deranged neighbor during his sophomore year of high school. I didn’t know what to say other than how sorry I was.
School resumed that fall and I reduced my hours at the store to one afternoon after school and all day on Saturday. So did most of my classmates who worked in department stores. Some boys and girls branched out and worked for grocery chains like Key Food, Grand Union, Bohacks, Red Apple, Gristedes, or Waldbaums. But we all worked hard to earn our meager checks. Nearly all of us came from low-income families who struggled to make ends meet. Public assistance known as welfare was considered shameful. No one accepted handouts even if they qualified. If we wanted new clothes and what sixteen year old girl didn’t, then we had to work. Boys needed money to take out girls on dates. So they hustled at part-time jobs too. That’s just how life was back then. If you wanted something, you worked for it.
In 1971, my senior year, I switched jobs at a friend’s suggestion leaving Alexander’s to head for Macy’s in Herald Square with an increase in salary. I now earned $2.10 an hour, plus tips. At the time, the Macy’s flagship store had a basement restaurant called the Dutch Treat. I worked there as a waitress. Boys toiled away near the kitchen washing dishes. We were paid weekly in cash. Imagine that. Old and decrepit locker rooms were separated by sex. Now and then, as I changed from my waitress outfit into street clothes, I glimpsed a tiny gray mouse scamper across the floor. I was used to the vermin but other women were not. Laughter erupted when I heard loud shrieks, a sign someone spotted a mouse.
Most customers tipped with small change, such as a dime, fifteen cents or a quarter. I rarely received a dollar bill, which I considered big bucks. I took home about $35 a week in coins, which for a high school kid was a lot of money. I interacted with our customers during each shift because talking to people was fun for me. Some tipped well, a few stiffed me yet others were excessively picky and demanding about the cheap food Macy’s served. There was one middle aged woman who came in almost every Saturday morning. She rarely spoke but was polite. I called her rye toast because she placed the same order every week – plain rye toast and black coffee. Her bright red lipstick smudged her empty coffee cup but she always left a quarter for a tip.
Sometimes I arrived early for work and wandered around the store looking for bargains. As employees, we received hefty discounts. Theft or violence weren’t significant issues so there were no security cameras or guards. The try on room was a breeze. Carry in garments, try them on and then leave. Easy peasy. Department supervisors wore small plastic red flowers and the head honchos wore white ones. Some employees aspired to work in the fashion or garment industry and used Macy’s as a stepping stone to further their careers. To me, I was just a kid and Macy’s was an after-school job that gave me a few bucks. I enjoyed working there, however.
I goofed off with my co-workers, most of whom were high school students like me. We didn’t always take our jobs too seriously. As sixteen and seventeen year old girls we were more interested in dating and the latest fashion than in careers at Macy’s. The store provided free food, even if it wasn’t too appealing. I ate it anyway, especially if I was hungry.
Our evening and weekend supervisor, Mr. Heyon, had a day job so by the time he arrived at Macy’s he was stressed out exhausted and an evening of work awaited him. Shortages might include menu items, clean uniforms, or staff. Mr. Heyon’s smudge stained glasses always hung down on his nose and his shoulders often slumped as he dealt with these problems and many more. He treated us well, even if he seemed aloof.
On Saturday, our work day ended around 5 p.m. After changing clothes, I left the store by way of the cosmetics department. For free, make-up artists applied face powder, eye-liner, lipstick and mascara on women for their hot dates later that evening. Now and then, I watched ladies leave, looking fine and fancy. At one point, I dated one of the bus boys but I never looked as gorgeous as the women in the make-up section.
As Macy’s employees, the waitress staff belonged to a union. In my senior year of high school, the union called a strike, probably over wages, working conditions and benefits. One of my neighborhood friends worked full-time at Macy’s and urged me to join the picket line after school. She said it was my civic duty as a union member. The weather was blustery and cold so I bundled join with other workers. Honestly, I don’t recall how long the strike lasted. I don’t think it was for very long. I rode the subway into Manhattan after school, picketed in my school uniform and carried a sign saying we were on strike. I felt proud of myself. That was my first introduction into the American labor movement, which was already beginning to lose strength in the USA.
On-line shopping may be convenient. In some cases it’s cheaper unless an item doesn’t fit or is damaged. Returns can be expensive, time consuming and even annoying. It may be impossible to reach a human being through on-line shopping. Nothing can replace human interaction, however. Malls get crowded and lines grow long. Selfish people cut in front of you. Parking may be scarce especially at holiday time. But at the mall, unlike on line, you can try on clothing and ask your friends, “Do I look good in this outfit?” Shopping with friends has other advantages. Walking around the mall or downtown is great exercise. There’s no way to try on clothes on-line. If you’re out shopping, maybe you’ll run into friends or family you haven’t seen in a while. That presents the chance to talk and catch up on what’s new in life. After shopping for hours, you break for lunch and relax over a fresh salad or a juicy burger. If you’re in a bookstore, you thumb through books, chat with customers, or ask the clerks for recommendations. Bookstores also host noted authors who read from their books and answer questions from the audience. Amazon.com simply cannot compete with that what humans offer. Some bookstores accept donations for local literacy programs or public libraries. A neighborhood bookstore is a treasure. So is a mall or a downtown area. That’s where the humans are. On-line shopping can’t replace them.
On-line shopping may bump off more bookstores and department stores as it becomes more efficient and as consumer tastes change. That’ll be humanity’s loss because technology has no human qualities like the clerk at the check-out line who smiles at each customer. A computer cannot greet customers when they enter the store or ask if they’ve had a nice day. A computer cannot glance at the outfit a customer tried on and say wow girl that looks great. And a computer cannot ask what’s wrong if a customer is crying in the try on room. Maybe the customer experienced a death in the family and the employee extends her condolences. What computer can do that? Before you make Amazon.com your first choice to shop, consider the wonders of the mall, the joy of the bookstore or the pleasure of a stroll downtown. That’s what makes America great – the simple things in life. Enjoy them while they still exist.