Wednesday, September 28, 2011

friendship in the time of consumerism

What you are about to read began as a love letter. Perhaps it is still a love letter of sorts—it’s definitely an ode, to someone who is all at once fleeting and everlasting. Her name is Whitney. I’ve known her for a couple years now, but I don’t even know her last name. She is a salesperson in the handbag department of the Barneys in San Francisco. I’ve always thought of her as “my” salesgirl but perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am “her” buyinggirl.

I first thought about writing something about Whitney while I was preparing to come back to the East Coast from my usual summer in San Francisco. As I was packing my summer loot, I was suddenly struck with the thought that over the last few years, the friends I’ve had in the Bay Area have kind of faded into a distance that feels sadly like the past (This is mostly my fault—self-enclosed solitude is an easy instinct for me). Aside from my dearest sister, I was really not going to miss anyone in San Francisco. Except Whitney. But if this strikes any of you as a pathetic admission (“You think your salesgirl is your friend?”), I don’t care. It is true that Whitney is not my friend. But Whitney and I do have an intimacy.

Whitney is a young woman, probably in her mid twenties. She is tall, and in the teetering stiletto pumps she favors, she’s even taller. Chicly, her limbs are about the width of a toothpick. All of this, combined with the fact that she has a cute, doll-like face, makes her a shoo-in for America’s Next Top Model. Her long black hair is usually middle-parted and styled in soft waves that make you think ever so slightly of Farrah Fawcett, but pulls you back right at the moment of full-on 70s retro nostalgia. Of course she is always dressed perfectly, a femininity that seems simultaneously strict and floral. Maybe it’s the fact that she wears glasses (black Ray-bans) and resin earrings in the shape of roses in bloom. Her voice makes me think of raspberry peppermints.

Last summer, Whitney sold me my first Proenza Schouler PS1 bag. In the couple weeks leading up to my finally settling on (of course) plain black leather, Whitney welcomed my obsessive stalking of the bag with salesperson perfection: she encouraged me to test the tactility of various models (urban environment is rough in suede), try swinging various sizes off my shoulders, offered handbag camaraderie as a customer (she herself ownd the Givenchy Nightingale and we bonded about the inability of boyfriends to understand the primacy of expensive handbags). Whitney guided me through my investment with the strategic focus of a general and the soft leniency of a psychotherapist. And unlike a lot of snooty bitch salesgirls old and young who regularly ignore me in high-end shops, Whitney indulged me sweetly week and after non-purchasing week, even though I was wearing a cracked-out Danzig t-shirt and raggedy rolled up jeans.

And out of that came a familiarity that became, this summer, a kind of intimacy. A week before leaving San Francisco, I dropped by to check out the pre-Fall wares, and while we were doing our usual loose small talk, she impulsively (it felt like impulsiveness to me) revealed: “I got engaged this summer!” We hugged and hopped up and down. I felt so happy for her I felt emotions gushing out of every pore. We grabbed each other’s forearms while she told me all the details of how her man proposed to her, when and where the wedding will be, showing me her ring. We were acting like old girlfriends, and so lost in our moment that Whitney almost lost sight of the unhappy-looking old woman waiting to be shown a bag. “See you at Christmastime!” she chimed in that inimitable raspberry peppermint voice as we parted for the summer.

But what is this intimacy between a buyinggirl and a salesgirl? Our relationship is predicated upon the capitalistic system of purchase and exchange. She is the employee of a corporation of consumption and I am a consumer who keeps that corporation going. It could be argued that her friendliness to me is fake, a performance necessary for her job and function. But if she began her friendly overtures to me as the performance of “salesgirl,” is it necessarily so that that friendliness remain “fake”?

Obviously, I don’t believe so. A couple weeks ago, I actually had a discussion about this subject of performing friendliness with my boyfriend (My boyfriend refers to it as an “argument”). We were talking about urban affects, specifically the difference between New York and San Francisco affects. Being a boy who escaped from the South, my boyfriend prefers the bluntly abrasive affect of New Yorkers to the gliding-the-surface niceness of Californians: he found the post-hippie affect of San Francisco to be “fake,” on par with fakey Southern so-called charm, whereas New York aggression may not be nice, but it is always the truth. But my argument (OK Roddy it was an argument) was: performance is always performative. That is, you begin acting a certain way, knowing that the act is a fiction necessary for a certain kind of survival, but do it long enough and you find that you have become the fiction. You have turned yourself into the embodiment of the fiction, you have turned the script into an emotion. You have crafted fact out of fiction.

I believe that the affect of aggressive bluntness is a performance, too. If you are mean or abrasive to strangers, you are communicating a desire for, and in fact, effecting, a basic foreclosure of any desire for future friendship. (No matter how probable or fantastical that future may be.) On the other hand, You may begin “acting” friendly as an act, perhaps because your job requires you to, but if you are any kind of human at all, you do it long enough and you find that the friendliness becomes you because the feeling has actually produced real happiness, detached from the original context of the performance.

This is the way I think about the intimacy between Whitney and me. Behaviors that produce contact points between humans have a tactility. I just prefer that it be soft. Whitney and I bonded over an outrageously expensive handbag. Our intimacy was negotiated and produced over the barrier of a brass-edged glass counter with a discreetly hidden cash register of which we were always acutely and silently aware. So the original form of our “friendship” was, quite simply, hierarchical: salesperson and customer. But with her consistent California salesgirl affect, Whitney pulled me down from the perches of customer and made me instead a baggirl—like her. Her wedding is set for next summer, and of course I do not expect an invitation. But I don’t need one; I’m giddy enough envisioning her as the radiant young bride I know she will be. Even if we never see each other again, Whitney will always be my friend, my California.


Christopher said...

I was right up with you up until the space about California and NYC. But perhaps because I love it here and feel finally at home. So I'm biased.

But I find NYC to be the most honestly (or less nuanced) friendly city I've ever lived in. SF (just like my midwestern home) uses niceness as a mask. A defense mechanism that says, "please leave me alone" or "let's end this quickly."

It's a dismissive nice. A nervous nice. There's a whole scale of nice, actually. That haven't mapped out but I know it when I feel it. Regardless, it's almost never a nice that says "I want to be your friend." It's about lubricating the social interaction in hopes of ending it quickly. 'I don't want any trouble here."

I've never found it so easy to make friends as I have in NYC. Sure NY is impatient, but it's never not genuinely friendly. And you know when it is friendly that the intention is to be actually friendly. There's no scale of nice to wade through. People are either nice or not nice.

lexie said...

Joon I relate to this post so much. Just today I went shopping on Melrose St in LA and i stumbled into this trashy/draggy store called FLASHER and this older gay named Cosmo literally threw me in a dressing room, guessed my size perfectly, and give me a leopard top, black pants, an orange glittery tiered tutu, leopard pumps, and a black sunhat with a leopard sash. We just played dress up. I felt like his doll!!

andres m said...

I love lexie's comment. Joon you should show up at the salesgirl's wedding in your tee shirt and rolled-up jeans with this post printed up as a present.

joony schecter said...

christopher: i guess i love california BECAUSE it has a nuance of niceness. i'm not sure its niceness is a "mask" as it it is so much a language. i actually believe there IS a scale to niceness. i believe you about new york, of course, but i would question that "it's never not genuinely friendly." but hey, i'm someone who likes to wade through muck of all sorts. :)

joony schecter said...

lexie: you are irresistible to queens. kindred spirits cannot be bound by the cash register. xoxoxo

joony schecter said...

andres: oh jeeze i LOVE your suggestion...what an image of me at whitney's wedding. i'll hold on to this fantasy for a while. xoxoxo