What I am about to tell you is absolutely true. I have changed only the names of those involved. The events depicted occurred in the Year of Our Lord 2011, during the month of April. But the road that led me here had been paved six months earlier, in the lobby of a hair salon.
“That’s an awesome jacket!” the receptionist said as she carried my battered, vintage, leather pea coat to the closet. “Where’d you get it?”
“A place on Broadway and Houston in New York City,” I told her. As I waited for my designated appointment time to roll around, I poured myself a cup of coffee and added, “What was really cool was that I walked in the door to buy a black blazer like all the men in New York are required to wear, but the guy at the register wouldn’t sell it to me. He told me to go with brown, and even picked out a shape that matched with my body.”
“Those places are really cool,” she agreed. “You know the one down the street called ‘An American in Paris’?” I shook my head. She prodded, “Just down the street?” I shook my head again. She asked, “An American in Paris?” I shrugged.
“Anyways,” she continued on, regardless, “they’re a high-end boutique, so you don’t really get to pick anything out for yourself. I went in there for a dress, and the woman who owns it—she’s French …”
“… and you tell her a ballpark of what you’re looking for, and she finds exactly what you need. Only for girls, though.”
“That sounds really nice,” I said sincerely. I love women’s clothes. Part of that is my artist’s sensibility; I love color, shape, personality, and the mixture of all three. Yes, you can find these in the men’s department—and yes, the artist in me appreciates the smooth, masculine subtlety therein. However, men’s fashion is missing one important detail: women. I just love looking at women. It’s biological.
And so, the following spring, I pointed to a gentle, hand-painted, pastel sign and said to my walking companion, “We should go here.”
My friend Noel had never been to the DC area before. In fact, she had never been to an East Coast metropolis before. She had recently finished an undergraduate education at both a liberal arts college near her hometown and a university in western Europe. The sirens of her future are singing to her of riches, knowledge, love, and more if she would just follow them. She wants to follow her own damned song, though, and so she has taken a week to clear her head, consider her options, and goof around in the sandbox of our nation’s capital.
And if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s goof around. And, as I said, if there’s another thing I love, it’s shopping.
“Let’s do it,” she said with a smile and a nod.
Since that day, we’ve told and retold the tale, trying to ascertain what exactly went wrong. Noel believes we should have left well enough alone when she pushed on the door, only to find that it wouldn’t budge.
I told her, “The sign says to …”
She shoved again.
“… to knock,” I continued, “and they’ll …”
With a click, a deadbolt slid open. She frowned, shrugged, and ducked inside; I did the same.
Soft sunlight drifted in from the street through enormous display windows, illuminating row upon row of dazzling, yet somehow muted dresses, coats, and suits. The overall space was minimal, but somehow everything fit together without feeling remotely crammed. The shop, like the sign, was kind and inviting. We soaked it all in with a sigh and set immediately to investigating.
Noel’s style tended toward vintage and soft, and as soon as we found a dress that matched these criteria, as well as her personal palette, she pinched the skirt and pulled it away from its companions for closer inspection. Her pose at that moment matched that of a simple cartoon figure in a bright orange sign on the wall that suddenly barked at me from the corner of my eye. The sign announced that Noel was committing a cardinal sin.
“Um,” I started to tell her.
Now, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate carefully on the events that occurred next, yet I still cannot comprehend them. The corner we occupied had boxed us in, surrounding us with two floor-to-ceiling windows and the row of clothing. That left the entrance.
I am by no means a small man. Though my mass has decreased by about 25 percent over the past year, my shoulders are still wide enough to clog the only means of access to this particular corner. Not even vision could get past me.
And yet, with nary a gust of wind, temperature fell, Noel froze, and a crooked old crone appeared before us the tape measure around her neck flapping about. Without violence, but with extraordinary menace, she eased Noel away from the rack and spoke with a thick, Gallic accident. “You should probably read signs before you try to shop.”
Both Noel and myself were prepared to offer up an apology, but that was not to be.
“This is not how you look,” shopkeeper told us, pulling on the skirt like Noel and figure on the sign had done. “No!” Holding onto the dress’s padded wooden hanger, she lifted it from the rack. “You look like this.” With great specificity, she returned it to its proper place. “And leave three-fingers’ space between articles. They get wrinkled if you don’t.” She repeated the offending motions. “Not like this.” She lifted the hanger. “Like this.”
Noel and I made eye contact with each other.
“This is not a secondhand store,” the shopkeeper explained. “This is not some mass-produced cloth. “This …” Again, she tugged on the skirt. “… is very delicate fabric. When you do this …” Tug. “… You damage this very delicate fabric. Do you understand?”
She might not agree, nor might she even care; but Noel did, in fact, understand. More importantly, she wanted to escape. She believed, as did I, that conceding the crone’s point would enable that. She opened her mouth to do so.
Unfortunately the question had merely been hypothetical. The woman gestured around the entirety of the shop. “This here? This is France.”
Believing still that freedom meant following along, we nodded.
“You?” She pointed to Noel. “You are American.”
This we could all agree on.
“That is why this store is called ‘An American in Paris.’” She examined both of our faces for any sign of comprehension. Luckily I was an English major and Noel is a Fulbright scholar, so we did grasp the metaphor. “American,” the crone repeated, “in Paris.”
Certain that all of these basic facts had been absorbed by her audience, she advanced the lesson by combining them. “This is how an American shops.” She yanked on the dress. “This is how you shop in France.” She removed the dress and replaced it. “America.” She tugged. “France.” Finally, she concluded the lesson. “You are not in America. You are in France.”
Noel and I looked at each other while the shopkeeper regarded us carefully. The concept of being an American in Paris was a tricky one, and the ability of folks like us to get it might elude us.
She pushed through me, reminding us one more time as she passed, “Not America; France.”
Once we were in the clear, Noel whispered, “Think she can hear us right now?”
“I don’t know what to think,” I whispered back.
“Let’s hang out for a little while so she doesn’t think we’re scared of her,” she said, “and then get out of here and go someplace less traumatizing.”
That place turned out to be the Holocaust Museum.