Are You Being Served?

One problem with living in New York is that shopping is a much more complicated process. I’ve written about the troubles facing the humble grocery shopper, but on Saturday, I went with my girlfriend on an infinitely more daunting proposition: women’s clothes shopping. That is, I was helping her go women’s clothes shopping. Well, maybe not helping. I accompanied her while she went women’s clothes shopping.

I don’t wear women’s clothes.


Girlfriend and I both grew up in the suburban Midwest, which meant shopping malls, shopping centers, and box stores spread in irregular conglomerations throughout town. As you might expect, box stores aren’t as prevalent in New York, as real estate prices run just slightly higher here than in Dublin, Ohio. Sure, there are a ton of stores, but there’s no way to know what the inventory is like, besides an angry Yelp review or physically looking in the window. About the one thing you can count on is that it will cost more than you want to spend.

But there are some familiar stores here, usually in areas popular with tourists. And sometimes, no matter how much you don’t want to, you just have to go to those areas. You know, like the week before you and your girlfriend go to a wedding. So we hopped on the A train and headed down to Herald Square. The first stop was the Manhattan Mall, which occupies about half a block between 6th and 7th Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Street. The target destination?  JC Penney’s.

JC Penney’s. I wore a lot of clothes from Penney’s—in fact, I still do. They weren’t the most fashionable duds, but they were better than Wal-Mart, and they weren’t much more expensive. But the last time I went to a JC Penney’s was at least two years ago, and it seems a lot has changed. I know there’s a lot of business junk going on, what with the falling revenues and the sales-related missteps, but actually being in the store was kind of sad.

The Manhattan Mall is a very strange structure, to me. The mall itself is tall and narrow. The top two tiers of the mall are dotted with familiar—miniature—mall stores: Aeropostale, The Limited, GameStop. The lower two levels belong to JC Penney’s, and they’re pretty depressing. We spend about thirty minutes looking through the dresses, and the majority were very disappointing. As girlfriend put it, “It’s no wonder they’re going out of business. All their clothes are ugly.”

Our second stop was much more iconic—and much larger. Anyone who’s watched Maureen O’Hara on Christmas Day surely knows which store we visited, sitting between 6th and 7th Ave. and 34th St.  Yes, that 34th Street, the one with that miracle. Get it? No? Really? It’s a Christmas classic, people. Jesus, fine. It’s Macy’s. The store I’m talking about is Macy’s.

My experience with Macy’s before New York largely involved two things. One, there was a stand-alone store in Columbia, Missouri, built in the same commercial development where the Wal-Mart parking lot got swallowed by a sinkhole. And two, the Mall at Tuttle Crossing in Ohio had two.  In the same mall. The second had been a Lazarus, but became a Macy’s after the two companies merged. Why they kept both stores, I can’t say. Maybe they thought it was better to have a store at each end of the mall, so lazy people would still go. Your guess is as good as mine.

This Macy’s is unlike either of those two things. Or rather, it’s like both of those things, plus about ten more. I mean, the store is fucking huge. It’s nine stories tall, with a lower level and a half floor, and it takes up an entire city block. I mean that literally: this store is the entire block. The fact that there are restaurants is not a money grab; it’s a necessity, since you might literally walk more than a mile in the store. The layout is strange too, with areas and rooms set apart by brand. Of course, walk half a block and this system breaks down, becoming separated by garment type. Oh, and there are at least three floors of women’s clothes. My overall impression is that the store is entirely too big. Too many choices, too many people, too much division, and all of it overpriced.

This is not to suggest that we didn’t still look for a dress. Macy’s reminded me of all my favorite things about women’s fashion. Dress categories read to me like some arcane text that I can’t quite decode. What is the difference between Juniors and Petite? What qualifies as an evening dress? Is that different than a cocktail dress? And girlfriend told me a house dress isn’t even really a dress. What is that?  My favorite category was “Social Dresses.” Does this refer to the dress itself or to the person wearing it? Does it make the wearer more social? Is this a dress that likes to spend time with other dresses? And where is the Anti-social Dress section? Off to the side trying not to draw attention, I’d guess.

I also like the strange mannequin configurations peppered throughout the store. Some have heads, others don’t. Some have arms, while others are torsos with legs. Others are just torsos, and some of these are attached to hangers and hanging on the end of a rack. Just about the only constant among these mannequins are the disquietingly prominent nipples that I’m pretty sure would show through a poncho.

What I like best is the wild array of accents added to dresses, blouses, whatever. Fake pearls strung up in a zig-zag across the front of a sweater, which with the smallest movement would make you sound like a maraca. Glitter and rhinestones strewn with wild abandon anywhere there’s an open field of fabric. Or better, sequins stitched to express one’s inner self, like “Slut” or “Glitter Bitch.” My personal favorite are the extraneous zippers that show up in strange places, on shoulders and stomachs and breasts, zippers that aren’t functional because the paired sides have been separated. Zippers! Glorious zippers!

Of course we didn’t find a dress at Macy’s. Instead we took our Penney’s bag (girlfriend found a dress that I think looks really nice on her), and hopped on the train to head uptown for dinner. Ah, dinner. There was where we came out winners. But I’ll have to save that for later. Let’s just say fried pickles, beer, and a burger with mac and cheese on it will pretty much make any trip outside the house worth it.


The Rain Room

RainRoom5The Rain Room was a MoMA art installation, built in a temporary building adjacent to the museum, and from its opening in May, it drew huge crowds. Inside this temporary building was a room where it is constantly raining. Constantly, that is, except for the sensors in the room that detected people and “paused” the rain above them. In effect, you’re walking through a downpour but coming out entirely dry.

It sounded neat. But girlfriend and I had put off going because of the long, long wait. People had been standing in line for between 4-5 hours with no guarantee that they’d actually get in. But with the exhibit closing in less than a week, we decided to brave the crowds.

We arrived at MoMA at 10am bearing the free Snapples some overeager teens in Snapple t-shirts handed us. The best decision we made all day came when I bought a MoMA membership. We were able to bypass the general admission line and jump right in with the members. Even better, girlfriend got herself a $5 ticket, saving us about $20. Best of all, for the next year I get free access to MoMA. For all that, fifty bucks didn’t seem so bad.

RainRoom7The members’ line didn’t seem that long. It was a winding queue, and we were only four rows deep. Of course, I had no idea how “fast” the line would move. While the museum asked guests to keep their visit to under 10 minutes, the artists had insisted that no set time limit be imposed, meaning that people could stay in the rain as long as they liked. So we were in for a wait, which wasn’t exactly unexpected. I pulled out my Harlan Coben book, while the girlfriend tried to get into the two books she brought with her.

There was a Dutch mother with her two small daughters waiting just in front of us, and they were hilarious. One girl refused to wear her Crocs, leaving them behind several times as the line inched forward. It seems she really just didn’t want to be in clothes at all, as she tried more than once to pull her dress over her head. Her older sister, being very older-sistery, would chastise her, then weave around strangers and take off her own shoes.

The girls behind us were the first people in the general admissions line. They’d gotten up at 2am and gotten in line at 6. By the time they’d gotten behind us, they’d already been waiting for more than four hours. Yes, I felt bad for them. I also felt smarter than them, not just for buying a membership, but for not having to take four hours to get up and get ready to stand in a line.

Around 12:30, the sky opened up with a downpour of irony. Girlfriend and I tried to share an umbrella—more or less successfully—while we and everyone around us laughed at the silliness of trying desperately to stay dry while waiting to go into a building full of rain. Thankfully, the rain didn’t last very long, and the sun came out in full force for the last hour and a half of waiting, which finally ended at 2:30.

RainRoom6Inside the Rain Room building, the first thing you notice is the sound of the rain. The second thing is the *&$# second line. It was much shorter, though, and it offered us the chance to watch other people in the rain. The gallery assistants explained that to keep dry, you need to move slowly, advice that was immediately disregarded by the two little Dutch girls. The younger girl immediately started running through the rain. She would get wet, freak out a bit, then run to her mother and cling damply to her leg. The older one chided her sister, then immediately got just as wet, until they were simply dripping as they left.

RainRoom3It was finally our turn. The Rain Room was, as I had hoped, neat. Being surrounded by rain but staying (almost) entirely dry ended up being more interesting than I had expected. It got even more interesting when the entire exhibit stopped working. A few clunks, a hiccup, and the roar of the room became silence peppered with groans. The gallery assistants moved us all to the sides, and we had to wait for the rain to start again.

Honestly, if we hadn’t waited for five hours just to get into this rain room, we might have left. But after the waiting, the sun, the rain, and the membership, I think we would have stayed overnight. I passed the time coming up with alternate names for the Rain Room, like the Drizzle Space or the Moist Cubby. Luckily, the water came on after only about ten minutes, as those were the only two names I came up with.

A few more pictures, and we left the rain room and made our way back home. The experience did take most of the day, but there was a lot of fun to go with it. The room itself was a unique experience, and we got some great photos. The other people in line were fun too, especially the dripping-wet Dutch girls and the marathon line-standers from Jersey. It was another one of those experiences that living in New York gave us the opportunity to enjoy.

Plus, we got gyros on the way home!