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Melchiorra Gentile, who lived with her four sisters and widowed mother in a flat expanse of East Cleveland, ironically known as Mount Pleasant, went shopping one afternoon in 1950.
For the occasion, she wore a red coat trimmed in fur. The Gentiles lived on the fringes of poverty, but when it was time to go shopping, they donned hats and gloves and high heels — the cosplay of socialites. A trip to downtown Cleveland was more about the excitement of the trip itself than the goods acquired. The streetcar system heaved with passengers, pulsing around the city, delivering them to offices and monuments and hundreds of shops: Halle Bros., Taylor's, Bond’s. Higbee's department store had bronze-tiled ceilings and glorious colonnades. A downtown mall was walled by magnificent public buildings in the Beaux-Arts style, perched on a lake that sometimes glittered in the afternoon. Paris in Cleveland.
Mel might have bought face powder or new shoes for work — she had pursued a secretarial career soon after graduating from high school — but it’s more likely she just browsed. She stood outside the record store that overflowed with music. She went on dates. She got married. More than two decades later, when her daughter Karen graduated from high school, Mel took her downtown to the Arcade — a grandiose mall with wood-paneled storefronts — and bought her a pair of pearl earrings. If you had been able to look closely into Karen's eyes, you would have seen electricity glittering along her pleasure centers: Karen's first taste of pure materialism.
While more financially comfortable than her mother was when she was a child, Karen still had to clean classrooms every afternoon to afford her Catholic school tuition. But then something astounding happened to the daughter of Melchiorra Gentile: She became impossibly glamorous.
Her bloodthirst for fashion developed, slowly at first, at Higbee's. (If you have seen A Christmas Story, you have been inside Higbee's at Christmastime. You have climbed its Christmas mountain and ridden a candy apple-red slide down to the accessories floor.) By 25, Karen was a buyer in the handbags department. She was excellent at her job, which paid a little over $10,000 a year. If there was money left over in the month's markdown budget, she might have been inclined to lower the price on a damaged Fendi bowling bag until it sat comfortably within her own budget. Not long after leaving retail for a secretarial job that paid more, Karen got married and had kids. She watched from a suburban distance as downtown Cleveland fell into disrepair. The Higbee's building eventually became a casino.
So Karen shopped elsewhere. Having developed a taste for refinement, she went to Chicago and New York to find clothes and shoes and lipsticks that people weren't typically wearing in Cleveland's western suburbs. Dog-eared magazines were her treasure maps. In 1991, Bobbi Brown's original lipstick collection was one of her discoveries, and Karen dragged two of her snot-slick children through Bergdorf Goodman to catch a glimpse of all 10 shades. She was tiny and polite, which helped her disappear into the labyrinth of racks at Zara. She liked to tail stylish women around the stores, like a puma, just to see what they were buying.
Karen's hunger increased when her youngest son started writing for a magazine in New York City. Now, at least once a week, she calls him to talk about a marked-down sweater she's eyeing or a candle he read about. When her son tells her about a new-to-market face oil she might like, Karen becomes so excited, with so many questions charging up her throat simultaneously, that she descends into a coughing fit.
Against all odds, Karen's youngest son endures a series of cosmic happenings, lucky encounters, and straight-up bizarre breakfast meetings to find work dispensing beauty information to the American people by way of Allure magazine. Me! A beauty editor! Somewhere in Italian heaven my Sicilian ancestors are laughing, if confused by the language.
Melchiorra, my 90-year-old grandmother, tells me there were two jobs for a kid in Cleveland in the 1940s: One was looking after children and the other was working in a grocery store. Not much had changed by the 2000s, when I bagged groceries and looked after babies. And then I took my fat, little Velcro wallet to Urban Outfitters, where I blew my money on skinny corduroys in every color of autumn's rainbow.
Shopping is in my bones. As a kid, I knew I wanted things far too much. At a garage sale, I remember being smitten by a huge and unwieldy coffee silo, the kind frequently seen in church basements. So big and so shiny. A steel obelisk. It was less than five dollars and I hugged it all the way home, where my mother looked at it curiously.
In college, as my student debt mounted, I worked at a women's clothing store in downtown Manhattan. It was cavernous, filled with ruffled cardigans and jeans that were made for models and priced for oligarchs. Most of us who worked the floor did not work on commission. In lieu of a financial imperative, the company and our managers relied on stoking a vast mythology about the magic of shopping. "Make her day," was something they would say to us at the beginning of a shift. Once, a supermodel bought five pairs of $150 pants from me, and when I asked her if she was redoing her wardrobe, she said she was vacationing in a far-off savanna and needed pants that she wouldn't mind getting dirty.
I recently asked my mom if she thought she'd shop as much now if she had never worked in retail. She thought for a minute, and then said, "No, probably not." Perhaps I was doomed to be a materialist. Really, the only salient shift in my personal shopping habits during these past 2.6 decades is that the act, which used to occur in or near the store where I worked (grocery, women's clothing), now occurs almost exclusively while I'm sitting at my desk, where I am all of the time.
There are people who see online shopping as a malevolent influence, probably because it flourishes under conditions not dissimilar to a toxic relationship: boundless manipulation. Showing up uninvited ("Did you leave something in your cart?") and doling out flattery ("You have great taste, Brennan.") in exchange for cash payments ("…and here are some items that go with what you checked out."). I get it. Personally, I also love it. Only lately have I begun to worry that shopping might not be the most productive use of my time.
Sure, there are brief, crystalline moments of introspection that occur when we shop, in the solitude of a fitting room or via the zen-blank processing screen of a PayPal transaction. But why, as a teen, pockets rattling with grocery store wages, did every purchase feel more urgent and statement-making than now, in adulthood, when it just feels like something to do? By acquiring more things, am I somehow making myself less of a person, exchanging precious resources for candles that make my home smell like somewhere else? Do my things amount to any… thing?
But then an email arrives in my inbox, alerting me to a credit card promotion for 10 percent cash back at Uniqlo, and the moment of reflection passes. I continue my endless scroll for the pair of jeans I definitely, absolutely, probably need.
This is hypothetical. I don't know if I'll have a kid. But this is for sure: Even if he somehow manages to wrestle himself free of our capitalist society, Melchior will learn to naturally covet things that are knit in Japan or mixed in Italy and available for free shipping on orders $150+. He'll have more credit cards than any Kilbane before him. He will also have his father's pink cheeks and blue eyes. I can see his gaze staring back at me, and it burns like ice on skin with a longing for stuff.
It will happen at least once a day: Melchior's heart will tug him toward his bedroom. He'll plug his body into his ethernet bed, through a microchip embedded in him at birth, and upload the synapses of his brain to Amazon. First, he'll choose his preferred avatar settings — a simple, sculptural, pink suit and matching blush, with an adorable baby panda to ride around on his shoulders — and then wait the customary loading time as his thoughts and desires are converted into shouts of electricity.
Melchior will page past worlds at a time — the arid desert bazaar of Post-Exotic Plants, the lunar lagoons of Alternative Teen Fashion, Gucci, Gap Plus. He'll stop in the metropolis of Sunguard to pick up an SPF 20K visor. Payment is soundlessly deducted from his wages and the visor will arrive by drone at nightfall.
He remembers when he was a child, before the advent of these seemingly utopian internet spaces, standing in the middle of a vast, terrestrial mall, with his feet on solid ground and no panda to accompany him. Then again, he might be thinking of a story his grandmother told him once.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.
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