My Spectacular Odd Job: Selling Dresses at I.Magnin

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At 23 I was selling dresses at I.Magnin in San Francisco. This was the store for Ferragamo shoes and Louis Vuitton handbags. There were seven other ladies on Fifth Floor Dresses. Each of them had been there at least 20 years (Miss Lee had been there 40 years). I was an irritation to them, the sole American, and a non-professional who, they knew, wasn't in it for the long haul.

A friend in Jesus

Miss Lena, who was from the former Yugoslavia, was the only one who was friendly to me. She liked to talk about Jesus, the homeland, and Tito (in that order). Her thick gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and she had the smooth sun-sheltered skin of a nun. Her eyes were bright blue and she wore no makeup or jewelry. When we made a lot of sales, Miss Lena would clasp my hands and say, "Jesus has blessed us today!"

And when the customers weren't coming, Miss Lena went into a fitting room, closed the three-way mirror, got down and prayed. I don't know if this proves there's a God or not, but sure enough, once Miss Lena started praying, customers would rise up on the escalator and walk straight into our department. I'd take them to the fitting room beside the one Miss Lena was in and tap on the door to call her out. When I bent down a little I could see Miss Lena's tiny knees on the ground, her stockinged feet sticking out behind her.

"You take the sales, dear," she'd say, "I'll just pray." We were on commission, so I tried to alternate between punching in my own sales number and Miss Lena's. Sometimes, if it were an enormous sale, like a newly svelte woman who was redoing her entire wardrobe, I'd ring up the sale for myself, out of turn. This gave me tremendous guilt, of course, so I'd try to ring up the next three sales for Miss Lena. It never worked out, though. I was always at least a couple hundred dollars ahead.

All dolled up

One day Miss Lena was praying, but the customers weren't coming. I opened the drawer below the register, took out the cardboard hold tags and began coloring paper dolls of the ladies of Fifth Floor Dresses. For French Miss Yolanda, I put a bulging cheek to show the candy she always sucked on. On Chinese Miss Lee, I drew hordes of jade jewelry. Greek Miss Gina had a tear on her cheek to show her frustration every night when she tried to close out the new cash register. Canadian Miss Terry wore a crown. She hated being mistaken for an American and liked to point out her allegiance to the British Commonwealth.

Miss Lena came out of the fitting room and examined the hold tags. On the Miss Lena doll I had drawn a halo, and a giant cross at her chest.

"They're paper dolls," I said.

"Oh, I love paper dolls!" Miss Lena said. She picked up the Miss Yolanda doll and pranced her around the counter as she imitated her French accent. I picked up Miss Lee and we played like this until we were bent over laughing, Miss Lena wiping tears from her eyes.

Neither of us had touched the Miss Lena doll. And then Miss Lena stood the doll up, and said in an exaggeration of her own Yugoslavian accent, "I'm going to pray for customers." She stuck the Miss Lena paper doll in the drawer and sure enough, just at that moment, a crowd of customers rose up on the escalator.

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