Odd #7: Just a Little R-E-S-PECT…

by teresalaynebennett

photo of nylon stockings in box, circa 1950s

Très élégante, don’t cha know?

Coming of age was only marginally easier 50-some years ago than it is now. The limbo years of pre-teens and early teens are just plain hard. But whether it’s the 1960s or 2010s, it helps immensely when all the adults in the drama know how to behave.

Here’s a 1960-ish era-rich example, and I’m just warning you younger readers: you will find it awfully hard to believe.

There was a time when shoppers could be expected to have the undivided attention of a knowledgeable and impeccibly dressed sales clerk – in every department of a store. (Yes, every.) Dressed as if she were popping out for high tea on her afternoon break, her apparent sole purpose for being was to help you find just the right _____.

See? I said you wouldn’t believe me. Nevetheless, this is so. I know because I came of age during the fading elegance of this Golden Era of Shopkeeping.

When I turned 13, Mother finally gave in to my wheedling about being old enough for stockings. My curve-less, very white legs needed help, and I was certain stockings in just the right hue would do the trick.

What’s the big deal? you’re thinking? Simple. Pick up a package at Walmart after tossing the yogurt and toilet paper into your cart. Next.

Not so fast. That isn’t how
we did things in 1961.

For starters, old Sam wouldn’t open his first Walmart in the Arkansas backwaters till the next year. In 1961, we Hoosiers had never heard of Walmart (and wouldn’t for several years) – or any other discount department store, for that matter. Second, this era predates pantyhose. (For you readers who don’t even know the difference between stockings and pantyhose, look it up.)

Nope. If you wanted stockings, you went to a nice clothing store, walked sedately to a glass-topped counter in the lingerie department, and waited till the fashionable lady behind it acknowledged your presence. Behind her were ceiling-high shelves amply stocked with tantalizingly thin (quarter-inch-thick), often glossy-white, paper-covered boxes, each containing a single pair of stockings. Salivating yet? You should be because you, poor thing, will never know the thrill of this coming-of-age experience.

One momentous day in 1961, mother and I waltzed into Prevo’s and followed protocol. The elegant lady behind the glass lingerie counter did not disappoint. Acting as if she were waiting on an adult and speaking directly to me (and not to my mother), she asked what I had in mind.

Listening carefully and nodding seriously, she unlocked the glass doors on her side of the counter and reaching in, gently lifted out four or five samples of gossamer-thin nylon stockings – the ones over which I had been drooling seconds earlier. They were samples, so I was encouraged to slide my hand inside one to experience firsthand just how high-quality they were: heady stuff to a 13-year – very odd – farm girl.

Right about now would be a good time to explain that in this era and in this type of department store, patrons were most definitely NOT permitted to place their grubby paws on certain merchandise. One could, however, touch samples. Not until AFTER it was clear one was serious about BUYING, would one be allowed to touch the goods. See? Did I not say you’d find all this hard to believe?

After Miss Keeper of the Stockings and I had agreed upon shade, style, and size (and she had sized up my Mother and was certain she could afford to buy them), she gracefully pivoted to the shelving behind her to find MY stockings.

Pulling out the correct box, she lifted the lid, gently opened the gauze-like tissue paper flaps to reveal the delectable stockings inside (so that I could be certain these were exactly what we had agreed upon, of course). Well, if I hadn’t been convinced before then, that tissue-paper-elegant-white-box combo and the accompanying theatrics would’ve done the trick.

Now we were ready for the next move
in this elegant dance: payment.

You couldn’t be expected to know this, but there used to be a very strict class system inside upscale department stores: store manager, department manager, department sales clerk, money-taker, money-counter, box boy, and on down the food chain to janitor. Not as rigid as Britain’s system of social ranking, it allowed a worker bee, with hard work, to move up into a higher class. Conversely, you could lose your place in one class and be demoted to a lower one; again, not exactly like Britain where aristocracy is aristocracy is aristocracy no matter how badly they behave.

Our Miss Keeper of the Stockings was in the Department Manager class and as such, did not sully her hands by handling cash (you remember – $1 and $5 bills, dimes, quarters, and such?). No, we went to another counter for that, where the lowly Money Taker took my mother’s cash, inserted it into the same kind of case you use at your bank’s drive-up, and pressed a hidden button. With a giant sucking sound, it flew straight up to another floor where an even lowlier Money Counter handled the disgusting stuff, made change, and sent it careening back down its chute to our waiting Money Taker.

Now even though I was an odd little farm girl, I wasn’t naïve. I well knew Miss Keeper of the Stockings’ motives were designed to initiate me into the world of womanly shopping AND groom me for future Prevo’s purchases as an adult. I didn’t care, as most of us don’t when our emotions trump our logic.

All I knew was that the effect of the classy shop lady, my mother, and I all acting as if I were already an adult was positively intoxicating. The respectful attitude of that nameless shop lady and my mother made me feel that I was, indeed, inching closer to womanhood.

But you know it for sure when you walk out of an upscale department store as a 13-year-old, clutching your very own white paper bag with a small “Prevo’s” understatedly printed on one side (not pathetic plastic with garish advertising plastered all over it). You know it when that bag contains a pristine, thin, white box containing gratifyingly grown-up stockings. Oh, yes. There are some things you just know, regardless of how odd you may be.

Is there a pay-attention point
to all this nostalgia?

Oh, way better than that. I have three pay-attention points.

  • Excellent quality? Absolutely vital.
  • Dramatic presentation? Equally vital.
  • Respectful attitude? Priceless!

We all want to be treated with respect, don’t we? How about being the first to give it?

Check out Odd #8 for another pay-attention point, learned in spite of my supreme oddity.

© 2014, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.” – Jesus, Luke 6:31, New English Translation

Keeper of the Stockings’ plan: respect others