My first string of jobs in NYC was waitressing, from Flushing to Manhattan, from Brooklyn to Greenwich, CT. I was fired constantly, because I knew nothing about serving, its culture within the culture. I was terrible at counting money. I often forgot to get clients to sign their credit cards. I didn’t understand why my boss called me a “whore” when I sat down to chat with a client upon his invitation. Finally, a friend took pity and found me a job in a Flushing law office.
Mr. Manzie hired me right away, $5 an hour, 24 hours a week, cash. His girlfriend Phillis wasn’t too happy. She wanted me to get some “normal” clothes to meet the office “dress code.”
I grew up with handed down clothes from my mom and aunt. If I wanted new clothes or shoes, I made them myself. Before I arrived in NYC, I stopped at HK and bought some skirts and shirts. I found them stylish and beautiful, but not Phillis. She wore heavy makeup, gold rings, earrings, necklace, bracelets, anklets. With her blonde hairdo, she looked like a Barbie.
“Go to Macy’s and get yourself something nice,” she told me, when she handed me an envelope on Friday, my first week’s salary. It had $120 inside.
After $20 for rent, $20 for food and $20 for saving, I would have $60 to spend at Macy’s.
I’d never heard of Macy’s. In 1986, there was no internet. So I walked across the hallway and asked my friend May, a realtor secretary, to take me to Macy’s.
May was from Mainland China, young and pretty, married to a Chinese merchant in Flushing two years prior. She dressed and talked as if she were a real American. And she loved to show me around to melt me into the American dream as fast as possible.
We took the 7 Train from Flushing to Elmhurst and walked into Macy’s.
My mouth dropped when I stepped inside. What hit me first was the perfume. I’d never smelled such thick fragrances in the air. A woman, dressed like Phillis, sprayed something on my face.
I sneezed violently. May laughed and told me I’d get used to it. She said she sneezed “like a country bumpkin” herself during her first visit. When I got my breath back, I looked up and saw the cosmetic counters under bright lights, women sitting on stools like penguins, waiting to be attended to by beautiful girls.
“Want to try my lipstick?” May asked. She picked up a dark cherry tube and smeared it on my mouth. “Take a look!”
The black lipstick looked lovely on rosy-cheeked May, but dreadful on my malnourished face.
“Phillis would hate it,” I said, wiping my mouth clean. I picked up a pink sample, and placed it against my lips. I didn’t dare to put it on. I was for the first time in my life holding lipstick in my hand. Nobody had used it. Was it waiting for me? Or was it simply not as fashionable as May’s dark cherry?
May made a face and sighed. I was being a “country bumpkin” again. She sat down on a stool, closed her eyes, and let a sales girl put “shadow” on her eyelids.
I looked around, my fingers turning the lipstick round and round. This was the world I’d tried to imagine before I came to America, and it was vastly different. I was born in Shanghai, China’s most fashionable city, then moved to an island on the East China Sea. Whenever I visited my grandma, my aunt would take me window-shopping on Huaihai and Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s fashion center, with the oldest and largest department stores. My only memory was the crowd, so thick that we never got close to the counter. After the window shopping, my aunt would get some fabric and make beautiful clothes from what she remembered. She was an engineer by trade, but she was also a talented singer, dancer and tailor.
Macy’s was spacious, shiny, fragrant, and busy, bustling with people and merchandise, from cosmetics and jewelry to hats, bags and clothes, counter over counter, space within space, goods upon goods. I looked at the price of the lipstick on the counter: $19.99. That was the cost of a whole week’s food and transportation! The shadow May was sampling cost $36.99. The two items alone would wipe out my $60 budget. And Phillis made it clear that I must get some dresses more suitable for her office. Her office? It was Manzie’s. And I just discovered that his girlfriend was Rosemary, who had showed up today looking for him. I didn’t tell her about Phillis, but my heart ached for the lovely Puerto Rican lady who had been living with my boss for 12 years.
Maybe I could buy a dress this week instead of cosmetics? I ventured over to the clothes section. A yellow jumpsuit caught my eye. The skinny mannequin looked sassy and lovely. Would that pass Phillis’ dress code? Perhaps not, because she never wore pants, only skirts and dresses. But the bright yellow would match her hair! It cost $45, but it was one-for-two, top and bottom together. I picked a size small off the rack, and walked to the mirror.
“Hmm, it’s definitely not for the office,” May said behind me. The gray shadow on her eyelids and dark lipstick made her look like a lovely witch.
I let the jumpsuit drape from chin to feet. Without trying it on, I knew I’d look sassy, just like the mannequin.
“What did you do with the sample lipstick?” May asked suddenly.
I froze, feeling the tube burning against my thigh. I must have pocketed it when I picked up the jumpsuit. What should I tell May? It’s in my pocket? I had meant to return it? Would she believe me?
The contempt in her eyes said I was not only a “country bumpkin” but also a “thief.”
“I got a headache. I need to go home and make some ramen,” I whined. Since I couldn’t return the lipstick to the counter now, under May’s watch, I could return it tomorrow, on my own.
She nodded and walked to the exit with me. As we were about to get out, she dashed back to the cosmetic counter. I knew she was checking to see if the sample was still missing. She came back with a big frown. She couldn’t even look at me. My heart sank.
We parted our ways in Flushing. That was the last time I ever spoke to May, my first friend in NYC.
I went back to Macy’s on Saturday. A new sample lipstick stood there like a pointing finger. I left the old, untouched sample on the counter. Would the sales girl even notice or care? Macy’s was having a giant sale that day. I bought the jumpsuit at half price, and a down coat for $59. It wiped out my savings and half of the food money for the week. But the coat would keep me warm in my little room since my landlady kept the house just above the freezing point. I had a feeling Phillis would hate the jumpsuit and she’d be disappointed to see my naked face on Monday. But she’d have to wait.
I walked out of Macy’s in my new clothes, the first “big” purchase I made with my first paycheck in America. Deep in my heart, a question kept gnawing: Is this why I left everything behind for America? To make money and then spend it all on a jumpsuit and coat?
I stopped a passerby and asked her to take a picture of my first “American Dream” outside Macy’s, for my parents, siblings and friends in China.
Wang Ping was born in China, and grew up on an island in the South China Sea. Teaching briefly after getting a B.A degree from Beijing University, she came to the U.S in 1985 to study. She earned an M.A from L.I.U, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University. She has published multiple volumes of poetry and is the recipient of numerous literary awards. She is also a photographer and multi-media artist. Prof. Ping is a Professor Emerita at Maccalaster College in Minnesota, where she has taught for twenty years and resides, and is the founder and director of the Kinship for Rivers project.