On dressing mannequins

Ann Taylor occupies two floors in Boston’s Faneuil Hall historic shopping plaza. On the second floor, there are narrow shafts for window displays that are only wide enough for my 23 year-old petite body to stand very still. Problems ensue when I am tasked with dressing one of the mannequins (size 2, all of them, because when have you seen a mannequin holding a hamburger?). My managers at Ann Taylor never say, “Oh, Kendra, can you go simply drape this fetching scarf around the neck of a mannequin upstairs?” They never ask, “Could you be a dear and quick like a bunny change out the broche on that one’s blouse up there?” They are prepared to exploit me for their big window dressing asks, like a child with tiny fingers taken out of school to sew sequins onto gowns. Only I am being paid a fair wage. And am not denied an education. (Forget the child labor comparison. I was being hyperbolic.) My managers see that I am scheduled to work and order the full rack of tweed blazers steamed and for the mannequin in the upstairs windows to don the new angora turtleneck and wool pants with no zippers.

Photo by  Fancycrave  on  Unsplash

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

I am a visual assistant at Ann Taylor in the hours before the shop opens. Except I am not assisting anyone, per se, besides the mannequins out of their naked Barbie doll ignominy and into the season’s latest couture. This early shift is an absolute idyll for an introvert. It’s so peaceful up in the window shaft. I get to watch the cobblestone paths of this Boston tourist destination come alive. From the second floor window, I see a queue of New Bostonians preparing for their citizenship swearing in outside of Quincy Market. I observe flocks of pigeons pecking at last night’s stale popcorn. I wrestle the mannequins and watch the sun come up. The best and worst part is: not a soul bothers me.

So when I get stuck in the window, no one can hear me banging. The door to the window shaft has suddenly swung shut and I cannot seem to bump it open. I knock on the window, but no one looks up from below on the cobblestone because it is mainly just pigeons and a hungover security detail. Actually, no. That guy doesn’t work security. He’s a leftover from Cheers last night. No one inside the store can hear me yelling, because it is just the manager and I and she is a volunteer gospel choir director, so she is most likely opening up the cash wrap downstairs and practicing, “I Surrender All” while I am upstairs singing, “Here I Am, Lord!!” and hoping that a merciful god/manager lets me out of here soon. I begin to think about how little air there really is in this window shaft and how sad that I may spend my last Christmas on earth with the Madame Tussaud’s rendering of my junior high nemesis and just as I begin to feel tears pooling, Nestor, the custodian, just happens to be swapping out a broom upstairs and hears my plight. Nestor does not speak much English and my Spanish is mostly garbage, but!! That day, Eso dia! He heard my cry for help and answered the call perfectly. I won’t be spending Christmas as a mannequin in rigor mortis after all. Praises be!



Chronicle of Valentine's Past

1987 - I remember room 1B, the desks aligned in rows with each student’s handmade mailbox scribbled in crayon. Danny B. includes candy in his valentine envelopes, something more exotic than the chalky conversation hearts, and he is the coolest kid in Mrs. Ferry's room. 1990 - My parents leave us little valentines at our breakfast plate, including sponge toffee from Sell’s and a kite for each of us. Hockey Boy gives me a cardboard valentine with a devil and a pitchfork that says, “You’re Hot.” I don't know how to describe the tingling feeling up and down my spine.

1992 - My bestie and I go ice skating and we see Hockey Boy who asks us to couple skate but we turn him down. I am wearing overalls with one of the straps unhinged. I am obviously too cool for Hockey Boy.

1994 - I slow dance with Morgan S. at the Student Council Valentine’s Dance. I totally drag him onto the floor, the lights are totally on, I am totally wearing a red flannel shirt with my uniform skirt.

1995 - The boys’ high school send over carnations to be distributed in homeroom. I receive one from my friend’s boyfriend, J.R. Yeah, it's not like that. It's more like a self-esteem valentine for him plopped on a thorny pity stem for me. Like, Please worship at the altar of my chivalry, as there is plenty to spread around, since I, the magnanimous boyfriend of your friend am happy to have so very many young ladies to enchant with my oft-desired carnation in the homeroom mail.

1998 - I am in Indianapolis with Big Pops and TP, on a college tour. I am finding this is so not the school for me, even though they have offered me a very handsome scholarship, and I am freaking out about it.

1999 - Freshman year of college, in love with Goldenboy. I make a comic book by hand and send it to him as a valentine. I receive a letter from him the next week indicating that he already has a girlfriend. I am numb for at least a year and a half. Whenever I find the Xeroxed copies of that comic book, I am amazed at how much free time I had in college.

2000 - After stalking a particular member of the football team for all of first semester, he shows up at my RA room while I am on duty.  I am wearing pajama pants with stars and a ’70s cardigan and Doc Martens, an ensemble that should have told him this wasn't really going to work out. Alas, he corners me in a stairwell that smells like dirty snow and Bath & Body Pear Glace body spray, and he says, Let’s give this a go. This sort of thing does not happen to me, so I am unable to absorb what is happening.  He is mashing my face and I am paranoid the entire time that, since I am on RA duty, there is a 99% chance that freshmen on a bender are rolling multiple kegs down the hall upstairs and I am totally going to lose my job, lose my scholarship, lose out on college because I am missing this round to smooch a boy. By the next week, it's clear he's not that into me and I feel a mix of relief and dread because we are supposed to go on a spring break trip together and ugh, why didn't he just turn back when he saw the pajama pants?

2001 - I am interning in DC and have dinner in Dupont Circle with my roommates. We go back to the apartment and my future husband is waiting inside, having driven from Meadville, PA to DC that afternoon. Best Valentine's Day ever.

Retro valentine

2002 - My future husband surprises me at the Safari Bar where Lori S. and Celia N. are stalling me until he shows up, Megan W. having picked him up at the Pittsburgh airport just hours before. Ben in a Box gives me a rose, which is the icing on the cake.

2003 - I am clinically depressed and think my future husband is going to break up with me any day now. My future husband and I have a subpar dinner at Harvard Square and are given a bootleg CD of Jason Mraz by some guy at a shoe store. We go back to my future husband’s apartment and dance to bootleg Jason Mraz. I can barely get out of bed the next day, I am so depressed.

2005 - I am engaged to my future husband. I have no memory of this year’s V Day.

2008 - I give my husband a valentine “from the two girls who love you the most.” We bring our 2 week-old daughter out for sushi. She does not partake.

2009 - Baby Girl and I attend the funeral mass for Uncle Kevin. Uncle Joe gives one of the most eloquent and moving eulogies ever. I am happy to be with my family, but sad to leave my valentine behind in Boston.

2010 - I receive my first handmade valentine from Baby Girl with her handprints shaped like a heart and the feeling is not unlike the tingles of Hockey Boy in the fourth grade, except these ones radiate all around my heart.

2017 - My husband sends me a box of cupcakes to my work at the all-girls school which send a very strong message that I am loved and also that I married well.

2018 - I am helping son prepare his valentines for class when we receive the memo that his school disallows food and candy being brought to school for Valentine's Day. Son walks around in a huff, referring to Friendship Day in air quotes, and proceeds to write his name backwards on all his packs of Fun Dip in the hope that they won't possibly know the source of the offending candy, stealth candy dealer that he is.

The most expensive T-shirt I own

image I didn't buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it's the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don't treat it as such. I don't handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don't wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don't quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn't know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn't bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn't so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, "The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah." I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn't have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor's Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn't stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn't sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn't see how the kids would grow. I wouldn't know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn't hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn't have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl's heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn't understand his goals; I didn't understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer's silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I'd probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor's Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I'd never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.