Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shop Girl






Much like Donald Duck, who is pictured in the comics as everything from an industrial gherkin vat skimmer to a sea captain, I have held a wide variety of jobs in my life thus far. I've been a waitress, a college professor, a receptionist, a domestic violence counselor; sorted mail, edited poetry anthologies, dipped ice cream, written encyclopedia entries, sold books, typed letters, taught Hebrew School. I've had temp jobs and careers. But looking back now, I would have to say that my favorite incarnation was as a shop girl in a high-end NYC soap shop.

Of all my many vocations, I was probably best suited to this. I love fancy soap. Love it, use it, and am well-acquainted with its many scents, properties, and varieties. No used-car salesman I, my regional manager once held me up as an example: "Leah has a certain quiet elegance [let's be honest, I was code-switching]. She doesn't use hard sell, but she sells!" High praise, and I've never forgotten those words.

Indeed, I sold. My specialty was the befuddled wealthy young gentleman, who often wandered into this foreign territory in pursuit of a gift. His unease was apparent, the heady floral scents overwhelming his common sense and reason, the boudoir appearance of the place rendering him rather incapacitated.

I had an advantage here in the merchandise for, in addition to the pretty shell-shaped soaps and rose-y creams and talcs and perfumes, we carried a very old and venerable men's line. And chief in my arsenal was the flat glass case containing, like an exhibit in a natural-history museum, the finer implements of consummate masculinity: boar-bristle shaving brushes, straight razors, and leather razor strops. If he seemed especially uncomfortable upon entry into the shop, it was to this case that I would lead him first, before we advanced to the inner sanctum. He, self-effacing; I, murmuring sweet nothings about that manliest of all ventures, the shaving ritual. Once I had wielded that gleaming and dangerous straight razor in my neatly manicured hands, he was usually all mine.

Never mind that his own home habits tended toward a Gillette safety razor and a can of Barbasol. The merest hint that he was the sort who could handle the treacherous task of naked razor against naked skin, could competently sharpen that razor to deadly glint against naked leather, when the need arose...this was enough to bolster his compromised maleness and give him the courage to forge forth.

More than once, the gentleman left the shop with an overflowing basket of pretty ablutions for his lady, in addition to the entire very expensive shaving kit that, in neophyte hands, might end an otherwise humdrum workday morning in severed carotid artery and Italian-tiled bourgeois bathroom re-painted in pint or three of fresh Hedge Fund blood...so easily I conjured the cheerful scene in my imagination as I wrapped the purchases and sent him on his way, hundreds of dollars in the old wooden till, a simple exchange of money for happy delusion. Though as far as I know we never had any true casualties of that razor, for perhaps there was a lesson in its proper use offered by a knowledgeable father or grandfather, or perhaps the wife or girlfriend stepped in at the last moment to save a life...

I will say in my defense that I never lied. I always gave a respectfully delivered caveat: "...but do remember, even for the most dextrous, it takes a little practice..."

41 comments:

Martin H. said...

I too have a list of jobs that reads like the 'situations vacant' column of a newspaper. Among them all, my favourite was working a for a small independent brewery. Say no more!

What was your technique when someone like myself, who has been a stranger to a razor for almost 40 years, walked into your shop?

Leah said...

Ha! the bearded men you mean?

I'd show them the moustache-grooming kit...just kidding. Although we did have old-fashioned moustache wax. No, we would've gone straight for the fancy soap, no fuss no muss!

Independent brewery was your favorite? See, the heart wants what it wants.

nick said...

What a wonderful insight into the psychology of making a sale! I obviously missed a trick or two when I was flogging books. I love the image of the blood-soaked shaving novice! Very evident that you loved the job and the footwork with the customers.

Such a deft description of this particular episode in your life, you bring it all alive perfectly.

Baino said...

Alas an allergic daughter prohibits the use of soap no matter how fragrant and alluring. No we're not stinky malinky but we have to use non soap based cleansers like body wash.

I know a young man, a very young man who rewards himself after University exams with a close shave even though he can barely grow a beard. Must be like us having a pedicure or a facial. Hot towels and a slight dice with death.

kylie said...

wow! you have had some jobs!
impressive

i love this story and the way you tell it

and i can barely believe that you were a shop girl

fantastic

subby said...

I never did learn how to shave with one of those but I'm glad my barber does! Too many jobs for me to list but you've sparked an idea in me( uh-oh! ) And my favourite was prob'ly as a ranch-hand. Charming story it is, Leah :)

mapstew said...

What a great story! (I can smell it from here!)

My favourite was also in a shop, a butcher shop! I loved nothing better than carving up one half of a pig on the big counter of a Monday morning! (I WAS a teenager!)

xxx

Hunter said...

I really enjoyed this one, Leah. And I'm sure that wealth of experience is valuable in your writing.

I found myself strangely drawn to quiet elegance and Hedge Fund blood. What an interesting dyad to start the day.

mago said...

Teehee ... for me it's the safety razor and nothing else.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

What's amazing is that a business can sustain itself on selling soap and doo-dads. And New York rent is a killer! I love a straight razor shave but am always nervous. Always.

The Girl from Lokhandwala said...

Wow! Reading this post made me wish I could have seen it! I am seriously in love with your writing.

MJ said...

I wish more people would use soap.

Leah said...

nick: I think selling books is different, and I did that too in not one but three different bookstores. I remember people coming in all the time and asking, "I'm looking for a book, it's older, about a girl. I think it has a green cover..." the funny thing was, sometimes I even knew what they were talking about! But I think books do sell themselves, or they don't. There's no flim-flam that can help that along...

Baino: non-soap-based soap is probably better for you anyway! Less drying, I think. Some men do like that barbershop straight razor shave--as you say, the hot towels and brush with death! It is probably marvelous, in the right hands.

Kylie: sometimes I wish I were still a shop-girl. But "girl" being the operant word there, perhaps it would be less charming now as I stare down the number 40.

Subby: Oh, are you going to write about your many jobs? That would be fantastic, I would love to read it (ranch hand?? you've got my curiousity piqued. Maybe it should even be a meme. I bet a lot of people have held down some odd and varied jobs!

Ponita in Real Life said...

What a fabulous insight, Leah! I, too, have held a variety of odd jobs over the years, before the advent of my nursing career.

I have to say that my fave, above *all* else, was being a vet's assistant almost 30 years ago. Working with animals is the best. I knew all of them by name but always had to ask the owners their last name so I could pull the files.

Although having a 3 lbs Chihuahua try to eat me alive was an experience! Good thing they are easy to pin down. The big ones were always the good ones. :-)

Wish I had that sales technique of yours...

Leah said...

map: butcher?? how interesting! Now there's a worthwhile skill set, I bet that has come in handy around the kitchen. The smell of raw meat makes me feel funny, so I'm not sure I could handle it. But perhaps you get used to that smell?

Although I'm a decent cook, I know absolutely nothing about butchering, or really even cutting smaller parts of meat. Sometimes I'll stare at the beef chart in my cookbook, though.

Hunter: hedge fund blood might not be red after all, now that I think of it, but sort of silvery. I've never seen it so I'm not sure...all of that varied experience can be useful in my imaginings, it's true.

mago: yes, I could well understand. If I were a man, I would certainly be all about the safety razor...

UB: this particular shop is a very long-lived NYC institution, so they probably owned their flagship space. However, some of their other little satellite shops were forced to close. And I have always wondered about how a straight razor shave would feel, it seems kind of sexy. Sarge can give himself one, I guess he learned from his dad who used a straight razor, but he prefers not to. That hot towel sounds grand.

Girl: thank you thank you! What an amazingly ego-boosting thing for me to hear!

MJ: Oh, me too. If I could, I would hand out geranium soap to pretty much every third person on the subway.

Leah said...

Ponita: that's really a neat job, I imagine, especially for someone who loves animals as much as we both obviously do. All those different animal personalities and all the owner's personalities, it must have been fascinating!

It's funny about the big dogs versus little ones. I've been bitten several times by testy little dogs...although I've got nothing against them of course. But I'm a little bit scared of 'em!

nick said...

I remember that well, the impossibly vague requests for books and our intuitive homing-in on the correct title! An Idiots' Guide to Shaving might have sold well....

Brian Miller said...

there is nothing like a wet shave at teh barber with a straight razor, mind you i'd never try it at home...i'd probably lose a nose or an ear...what cool jobs...

Liza said...

Variety is the spice of life!
Straight razors make me cringe.

subby said...

Leah, I wouldn't go all out for a meme type thing on this. More of a discussion deal in general, wot? I did allude to some of the jobs, way back when I did my A-Z thing; but this will put it all to-gether. And hugs!

Ronda Laveen said...

I see the same looks of "somebody please help me" when my new male clients walk into the salon. And, of course, I am there for them, for their every need, to bolster their confidence. Soon, they cross through those trecherous waters on their own.

"...might end an otherwise humdrum workday morning in severed carotid artery and Italian-tiled bourgeois bathroom re-painted in pint or three of fresh Hedge Fund blood..." I just love anatomy and what you've done with it here!

Great piece! You made my day.

Jimmy Bastard said...

So many memories of my own days with the chib. However, I will not lower the tone with my own less than fragrant recollections, especially as this post was born of a very different track.

Frothy, light, sophisticated, and most of all very much Leah.

Brilliant, I loved it.

Karen ^..^ said...

Such an enjoyable post! I used to work in a gift shop, and we had similar shaving kits... I'd tell them of how I learned to shave with a straight edge, and never once nicked a balloon, sending spatters of shaving cream everywhere. (we practiced on balloons)

I love the way you told this, too. So well written, and very entertaining. Fantastic that these men's senses were so overcome when they entered the shop, but then you handed them a life raft which would bring them back to some semblance of masculinity. I love it.

Mike129 said...

Great blog!

You make it sound so ... enticing. I'd have been putty in your hands ... and then a bloody mess in the ER. :)

Alan Burnett said...

With Christmas coming on and with presents still to get for the Good Lady Wife, how I wish that you still worked at that soap shop and that it was over here in Yorkshire. I would happily come away with a bag-full of shaving soaps and a new razor blade as well. What a delightful post.

willow said...

Mmm, I can smell the unique soaps in my mind. Those straight razors conjure thoughts of Johnny Depp, of course, as the demon barber.

Cinnamon said...

You almost sold it to me as well!

Great post :)

otin said...

I have only had 3 jobs in my life!

I would never let someone shave me with a straight razor. I would have a panic attack!

Karen ^..^ said...

I used to shave my legs with a straight edge razor... I might just try it again. Quite a nice close sensual silky shave, that is.

Karen ^..^ said...

It posted twice.

Megan said...

I have to go read this again.

Leah said...

nick: those requests were always funny. I liked working in bookstores, although the monotony on a slow day was pretty intense...and you couldn't just stand there reading. I always felt like Tantalus.

Brian: Sarge tells me that many barbers now use safer straight razors that are almost like safeties, so possibly it's less dangerous than it used to be? I still have my doubts about the whole operation...

Liza: it's hard not to think of them as a weapon (re: Jimmy's comment below)...scary, I agree.

subby: I can't wait to read it, I hope you do it!

Ronda: I'm glad you enjoyed it! Possibly we both have a similar gallows sort of humor at times. The best kind of humor there is!

Candie Bracci said...

Wow I admire you!

lol at Brian's comment and Willow I thought of that great movie too when I saw the razor!lol

Leah said...

Jimmy: you'd never lower tone anywhere, it's not your style even when remembering the more grim aspects of the past. Anyway, I'm the one with the cheerful abattoir scene, and I'm glad you found it light because I was worried that people might think me one toke over the line here--as in, just a little bit evil.

Karen: interesting, I'd always heard people practiced on balloons! Sarge learned to do it himself, and he says he went through a phase of shaving with straight razors, but says it was always just a little horrifying.

Mike: thanks! and let's hope that you would have gotten home with the straight razor, taken one look at it, and regifted it to some other lucky man!

Alan: wait, now that you describe it, I wish that I worked in a fancy soap shop in Yorkshire! I think you've just created a new fantasy life for me. Now I just have to imagine my little house.

willow: I thought of that too--Johnny Depp with the razor, too swoony. And that even had my love Alan in it! It was the perfect movie!

Cinnamon: thanks, high praise when I've made an imaginary sale of a totally inappropriate implement of danger, all through a blog post! ; )

otin: the fact that you've only had three jobs means you're secure and stable, I'd wager! I guess at least I haven't gone through as many men as I've gone through jobs, uh oh, or have I??? Ah well, youth.

Karen: I might be game to try that. Maybe I'll practice on the balloon first.

Megan: one more time through the rose soap and severed jugular? ; )

Maria said...

I have never in my life been told that I had quiet elegance. I have been called "quite a gal" once. And one of my med school profs called me a "camera brain."

Oh, and once when I worked at a Hallmark card store in college, I was told that I had "such lovely shiny hair!"

But, quiet elegance? Never.

mago said...

I sent you an email in connection with your previous post about a conference in Berlin. Do not be afraid it's my real name. :)

Poetikat said...

One of your very best, Leah! Funny, yet understated. Forget what I was going to say now. Oh yes! Ever see "Mississippi Burning"? There's that scene where Hackman (how apros pos) holds one of the Klan members hostage in a barber's chair with a straight razor at his neck. Brilliant!!!
We've got the Gillette and Nivea over here!

Got something for you over at Keepsakes. Please pop in when you get a moment.

Merely Me said...

Golly! Leah as a Shop Girl could/would have any one of us savoring sh*t on a shingle. I tell you, someone with your way with words, written and verbal, could really sell it!
Awesome post. Makes me want to take a shower even though I am clean!

e said...

That razor brought to mind Sweeney Todd! Great post.

Leah said...

Candie: now I have to watch that movie again. I loved it, it was SO gruesome.

Maria: "lovely shiny hair"? I'd trade "quiet elegance" for that in a heartbeat. Besides, the quiet elegance was all play. I'm a balaboostah.

mago: thanks sweetie, and I was thrilled to see that name. It makes sense now. ; )

Kat: thanks! and you know, I've never seen that movie. Must do. Will be over pronto.

And it's Gillette and Noxzema over here.

MerelyMe: love your new avatar, very much. What a cutie.

e: Now Sweeney Todd is in my netflix queue. I've got to see it again and fixate on the straight razor!!!

Stephanie said...

Ahhh, great post. I really enjoyed your venture into selling soap.