Friday, November 22, 2013

Thirty-Five Years Ago


San Francisco Clothing, Lexington Avenue

In November 1978,  the day before Thanksgiving, I was on mid-day duty, behind the counter of a small, thriving clothing store at 975 Lexington Avenue called San Francisco Clothing (it is still there). A lot of customers must have gone away for the long holiday weekend, because I distinctly remember that the morning had been slow, which was why I was alone at the counter, the owner, manager and a saleswoman being in the back of the shop, probably seeing to inventory.

A woman in a long, hooded, loden-style coat came to the door and I reached under the counter to buzz her into the shop. I recall that she kept her hood on at first and I could not see her face well, since she also wore sunglasses. She told me that she was looking for a Christmas present for her daughter, wondered if our sizes ran small in women’s clothing, and thought that a tweed riding type jacket might be a good idea.

As it happens, our ladies’ tweed “riding” jackets, made in England, and tucked considerably at the waist, were a huge hit, and so we proceeded to the rack where they hung. At this point, in order to be more able to inspect the tweed while she held it out in front of her, she pushed back the hood, briefly removed the glasses, and I suddenly realized who she was. Right about the same time, someone else came from the back of the store, saw what was happening, and abruptly disappeared again in back.

Meanwhile, my customer continued to ask questions about the jacket. She wondered if a young woman might be available try it on; so I went in back to get someone and was confronted by the owner, who wondered nervously if everything was OK. I said it was and asked the young saleswoman, who was studying ballet, to model the jacket.

By now, you may have realized they were in a tizzy over the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was buying a jacket for her almost equally famous daughter.

Looking back over the years, I’ve realized that she must have had these kinds of everyday (for her) encounters dozens of times a day, and I am still amazed by how matter-of-fact and gracious she was, knowing full well that I’d remember the encounter forever, and she would forget it in minutes.

She decided to purchase a brown-gray tweed jacket for her daughter, who was a student at the time. But, while doing so, an extraordinary thing happened. Well, two things actually.

First, she handed me her credit card, embossed with the famous name, and said in her soft, polite voice, “ I’m having lunch next door at La Petite Ferme. Would you wrap it up for me please and I’ll come back later to pick up the coat and the card.”

With that, the hood went back up and she strode out the door, turning left, since the restaurant, which had opened to serve the chicest of the chic at 973 Lexington in 1977 was literally next door.

And there I stood holding one of the wealthiest women in the world’s credit card in my still-shaky struggling writer’s hand.

But, before I had a chance to explore the possibilities surrounding this opportunity, another thing struck me as I filled in the date on the sales slip: It was November 22. I had just spent a few minutes with the woman whom millions of people were thinking about on that day, the 15th anniversary of that horrible day in Dallas.

You can’t make these things up, or at least shouldn’t, and I’m not.

Fifteen years before, in 1963, I had been 54 blocks south at Xavier High School’s ancient gym, where we had just finished JV basketball practice. I was watching the varsity taking their layups, when I first heard about what had occurred in Dallas. Early reports were vague, but the impact was immediate. On the subway, headed home to Queens, I saw the headlines in the evening papers held by riders boarding at the 34th Street IND station. It was eerily quiet, except for the steel wheels grinding away below our car.

We had no way of knowing what we would all share in the days ahead and that the memories of those days would last throughout our lives.

I’ve often wondered who was at lunch with her. Absolutely none of our business, of course. I do not mean this report marking the 50th anniversary as an intrusion, merely a personal recollection on a solemn occasion.

A couple of hours later, Mrs. Onassis, for that is whom she was at the time, returned for her package and her card, said a courteous “Thank you,” and was gone as quietly and quickly as she had appeared.

Last week, her daughter became our Ambassador to Japan.

Postscript: A couple of months later,in early 1979,  a BMW pulled up in front of the shop and the young driver got out and buzzed the door. She wasn't happy, wanted to return the rumpled jacket she tossed on the counter, and asked to see the manager. The owner came out; he refused to take what he called a well-worn item back. Words were exchanged. She left with the jacket, clearly miffed. Guess they really did run small.

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