a literary review
One of my first jobs, as a college student in the mid-nineteen eighties, was selling soap at a Crabtree & Evelyn store on New York’s Upper West Side. Across the US, the chain, then less than twenty years old, sold botanically-based soaps, lotions, oils, and powders, all in pretty boxes and containers meant to convey the pleasures of an English garden. By stepping inside one of Crabtree & Evelyn’s cottage-style stores, customers could imagine they’d exchanged familiar malls and streets for another time and place: an Americanized fantasy of Victorian English life, lavender-scented, sheep-filled, and in some inchoate way, better. For some, there is nothing more American than a wish to seem faintly European.
My Crabtree & Evelyn, on Columbus Avenue, was owned by a guy named David, a tall, thin nervous man of about fifty. David was something of a tyrant, sitting in his back office clutching his head as he went over the numbers. As a gesture of goodwill, he regularly employed teenage boys who’d just been released from juvenile hall, and they gazed at us with hope and sullenness as they carried boxes up the steep stairs from the basement to our street-level store. We were not permitted in the basement; the boys were not allowed to linger in the store.
Periodically, David emerged from his office to yell at us about the way we arranged things, about carelessly leaving open boxes on the floor while we stocked the shelves with new inventory. For David, the boxes disrupted the narrative that our products were crafted in some nearby pasture, brought in by horse and carriage.
The store manager was a former opera singer named Ethlouise. She was probably in her forties, a black woman with a creamy voice and a calm demeanor. She wore elegant suits with silk shirts and pearls, as if she were hosting a tea. She, more than anyone, was the person who best embodied the Crabtree & Evelyn brand.
I worked alongside Julio, a young Puerto Rican man with asthma so bad, he perpetually took steroids that left his face enormously bloated and difficult to wax, which was his preferred method of facial hair removal. Julio referred to himself as a cross-dresser. Back then, I wasn’t aware of more precise language for his gender identity, which I imagine he would refine today. At work, Julio dressed in traditionally male clothes, but on weekend nights, he dressed as a woman. Julio ordered his women’s clothes from the conservative Land’s End catalog and had them shipped to the store. On David’s days off, Julio tried on his purchases in the back room and modeled for us. We never told him that, in his mid-calf length skirts and tailored jackets, he looked like a granny headed to church. On Mondays, he told us stories of straight men he’d picked up in bars over the weekend and how close he’d come to being beaten when they realized, at delicate sexual moments, that Julio had a penis. Some days he leaned his chin onto his hand and gazed out at the men working on the scaffolding outside our store. “I wish a brick would fall on my penis and knock it off,” he’d say. “That would solve all my problems. Except that I love my penis, too.” Then, he’d sigh and we’d go back to work.
We were a team. We sold our soaps. We adopted, in a way typical of retail sales people in New York, an air that conveyed, ever so subtly, that perhaps our customers were not worthy of our soaps and could only prove their worth by buying our wares. At that time, Crabtree & Evelyn sold food, too—jams, tins of cookies—that they called comestibles. I asked Ethlouise what that word meant. “It’s food that fine people eat,” she said. She was my authority on everything elegant and a model of calmness. She soothed our angry customers who’d stood in line waiting for their shrink-wrapped gift baskets. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsey, she moved among us, leaving an inspiring grace in her wake.
Recently, my husband and I sold our house near downtown Denver. It was a historic house with wood molding and decorative stone work from the 1920s. It had pretty arched windows and a painted ceiling, and the realtor told us the style was ‘Beaux Arts.’ Nearby, there were fancy coffee shops, yoga studios, and small restaurants. It was, as they say, charming, a place with tulips in spring and red velvet ribbons at Christmas—and yet, with two of our four kids grown, and the youngest ones off at college, the house was unnecessarily big and costly. So, we moved fifteen miles west to a smaller house in a less expensive town. Our new neighborhood is a different sort of place altogether: to the west are gravel and stone yards, numerous family Mexican restaurants, a trailer park. There’s also a correctional facility, which necessitates signs every couple miles along the highway: WARNING DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS. The houses in our new neighborhood are modest in style—mostly, brick tract homes from the 1960s—and generally well kept. Despite the expensive, quiet elegance of our old neighborhood, I do not miss its leafy streets or specialty shops. I know now that charm is nearly always part of a nostalgic fantasy—a harkening back to a time and place we haven’t experienced firsthand, in the belief it is somehow better and more authentic than our reality.
My people are from Texas. They are the kind whose stories you’d recognize right off: My great-grandfather, with only a high school education, managed to get into the oil business at the right time and went from burning gas off the wellheads in East Texas in the 1930s to golfing with President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He and his wife were described as “no dancing, no drinking, no cussing Baptists.” By the time my mother came along, she had both a sense of entitlement, as person from a family of means, and a great unspoken anxiety about whether she was classy, old-money, or flashy, Texas new money. My mother’s anxiety on this point lent itself to an interest about all things European: she spoke French and traveled annually to Paris and London where she bought the art and antiques that filled our home and gave every impression of old money. This is a typical move for the status-anxious: go buy old stuff. Antiques and things with charm evidence social status. When now, thirty years later, I think of Ethlouise, I see she had the kind of innate elegance my mother aspired to.
I have been trying to sell some of the things that my mother bought on her travels and gave me years ago. Long story short, they’re all fakes. The Rembrandt head study wasn’t drawn by Rembrandt; the authentic Velasquez painting is actually in the Prado, and the one in my guest room a poor imitation. And so on. The lesson: You cannot buy your way to history and heritage, whether through art or soap. You are what you are. For this reason, I find the proximity of gravel yards, trailer parks, and corrections near our new neighborhood a relief, like a dark secret that’s been finally told. Once, I was as much of sucker for an acquired Euro-history as anyone, having worked retail and been on the supply side—a dealer, if you will, to status dopers. But I wonder if, in late capitalism, the danger of buying a past is the way it mythologizes the past and keeps us from creating our present and future.
Crabtree & Evelyn was not, as I’d thought, an English company. Instead, it had been started by Cyrus Harvey, a Jewish American guy who also started Janus Films, a distribution company that specialized in bringing foreign films to the US. Headquartered in Connecticut, everything about Crabtree & Evelyn, like another lifestyle 80’s brand, Ralph Lauren, was a fantasy of English living manufactured by Americans. The workers in Connecticut who packed the boxes of inventory were developmentally disabled, and they often drew crooked smiley faces on the invoices, one of my most treasured memories of the place.
Julio was best at shrink wrapping gift baskets. They wouldn’t let me shrink-wrap because I took forever and the result—the crumpled, bulging plastic, the dispirited bow—impressed no one. I was twenty-one, possessed of a couple slim Ann Taylor skirts and faux-silk shirts and long ropes of cheap Coco Chanel-imitation necklaces that jangled when I walked. Once, I sold room freshener to the actor Tony Randall, and wrapping paper to a woman who looked exactly like Meg Ryan, except this woman was thin and exhausted-looking, with mascara underneath her eyes and dark roots. It turned out she was Meg Ryan, filming When Harry Met Sally a few blocks over. When I saw the movie, a year or so later, it was nearly impossible to reconcile the robust, enviably sparkly actress on screen with the woman who’d been my customer.
Because I could not shrink wrap or make change correctly, I worked hard at selling product. I made up what I thought people wanted to hear. I need something for my dry skin, a customer would say. And some earnest but false part of me would open up and begin to lie, to dissemble: Goat milk soap has special moisture-giving properties, from the particular chemical makeup of fats in the goat’s milk. It cured my eczema. And so on. They believed me. After a while, I believed myself. I bought the stuff I lied about, and my face broke out as a result, but I wanted to believe. In this, I was my mother’s child, always willing to trade reality for a fantasy.
Around the winter holidays, there was a particular desperation. The tiny space grew crowded with a damp dog smell as customers filled the aisles in their long coats, shopping bags banging against their knees. At that point, they’d buy anything. The Nantucket Briar basket with toilet water and scented powder for mother-in-law? Check. Room freshener with matching hand soap for a hostess? Sold. People got mad at Julio when he took too long to shrink wrap. “Get over yourself,” he’d say. “It’s a gift basket.’
I worked at Crabtree & Evelyn for a year and then left New York for Colorado. After a few months, I missed everyone at the store so I called. Ethlouise answered the phone. I asked how everyone was. She began to cry. “Oh, honey,” she said. “David was murdered a week ago.”
I could picture her there among the pretty painted shelves and boxes of product, her lovely face streaked with tears. “Was he killed in the store,” I asked. Like a child who can only envision her teacher in a classroom, I could only imagine David at work.
“No,” she said. “At home. One of the boys from the store killed him.”
How could someone do that? I thought. “But he gave them jobs and a place to stay.”
“Honey,” she said, “he was also having sex with them.” The store would close, she told me, and she and Julio were looking for work.
I hung up the phone. I thought of David, the way he—a former actor—had gestured with such precision, extending a practiced arm and pointing dramatically: The product goes there. I thought of his quavering voice, the way he could be imperious and ill-tempered, but as easily be joked out of a bad mood. He’d worked hard to make our store a place where anyone could effortlessly connect to a simpler, better life by buying soap. At the same time, he’d recognized it was all a game, a play, a stage. He’d taught me how to convey the notion that our products would make our customers’ lives better, even as he ridiculed them after they left for succumbing to our merchandising. It was hard to imagine he was dead. It was also hard to imagine him, at fifty, having sex with teenage boys. Our time at the store, I thought, had been the golden time: We unlikely three—me, the pale, pimpled Texas girl in cheap jewelry, an African American former opera singer, and a Hispanic cross-dresser—had sold the dream of English country life to our customers. We’d been good at it, while at the same time, we’d been party to something awful. I never did work retail again. My first job in Colorado was teaching reading and writing to kids in juvenile hall.
This year—our first holiday season in the new home—our neighbors started putting up holiday lights and decorations with great enthusiasm and dedication the day after Thanksgiving. Our streets were lit with displays from the simple—multicolored lights strung along the gutters and perhaps around a tree in the yard—to the breathtaking: those with lawns crowded with every kind of inflatable creature. By 4 pm each day, the timed generators started up and the neighbors’ decorations trembled as they inflated to full height. My favorite display had nearly twenty characters, among them a twenty-foot-tall, somewhat lascivious Rudolph peering over the back fence.
As my husband and I drove around, we were in awe of the displays. “Where do they store this stuff all year?” he asked. I imagined he was mentally cleaning out our garage while I fretted about next year, and what our theme might be–except we’d never had a theme: we were agnostics who each year did nothing more than put up a wreath. I have spent my life in places that conjure history and past tense, and in doing so, evidence some deep ambivalence about being American, about our present time. But here was joy! Here was holiday spirit! Here was a sense of personal expression! And here were our neighbors, out in their yards with extension cords. No one was trying to recreate Christmas of yore like our former neighborhood—in fact, it was just the opposite. The neighbors were doing the most modern, truly American thing possible: they’d hustled over to Walmart and bought stuff made in China, plugged it in, and blown it up. If it was deeply commercial, it was also vividly human.
Toward the end of our drive, we came upon a sight. The block was the brightest we’d seen so far, and on a lawn with buoyant Santa, reindeer, and sleighs, were inflatable Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus. The twelve foot tall air-filled parents gazed wondrously at their plastic savior son, flanked by a puffy donkey and goat. For all the desperate longing of my Texas people to appear old-money rather than new, I told myself my Baptist great-grandfather would have been overjoyed to have a blow-up Savior in a manger on his Texarkana front lawn. And as we sped out of sight, I thought how glorious a thing it was to have escaped the narrow dictates of charm and instead witness the celebrations of people looking not backward, but forward.
Emily Sinclair is an essayist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, The Pinch Journal, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Empty Mirror, Third Coast, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. Best American Essays has recognized her work (2012). She holds an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and teaches for Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado. She and her husband live on an apple orchard west of Denver. She tweets @SemiEmily.