I went to Union Square today. We had no particular purpose for our journey from the suburban east bay. My Mom and I walked the block from the parking garage to the Square. We were walking in the shadow of the ancient brown brick of the commanding Westin St. Francis, where I once had tea with my preppy boarding schoolmates, towards Saks Fifth Avenue. I knew I was invisible to the moneyed classes floating along the sidewalks. As I walked into the department store, we were greeted, quite heartily – I might add – by the employees. Perhaps, they wanted to celebrate our moving up the socio-economic ladder, however irregularly we shop there. Perhaps, they recognized their fellow working class comrades. Perhaps, they wanted to remind us we do exist because we can see you. As I noted their excessive friendly demeanor to my mother’s ear, she simply said, “It’s San Francisco, you never know who has money around here.” I thought this was a rational enough explanation, yet insufficient somehow.
While my mother bounced around the circular counter trying to decide which perfume to purchase, clearly impressing the employees with her long history and familiarity with such finery, I gazed into the interior of the department store. It is still and only a department store. They are a bit outmoded, anyway. Or maybe it’s the mall that’s outmoded. I noted the names on the wall, well, initially only the names that I was familiar with from flipping through Vanity Fair, W, and other Condé Nast high fashion magazines. I noted the Prada sign and the Jimmy Choo sign. I took in a few new ones such as Narciso Rodriguez. As I watched the customers peering, chirping, and ultimately annoying the employees – I noticed their uniform was head to toe black. Silly to think that black connotes the color of definitive sophistication and class. Yet, it seemed the most popular ensemble for the employees, I guess it’s supposed to be little more than a nod to its origins of “stylish swank urbanity,” a.ka. New York City.
Once we were released, we walked by a black man in a bold royal purple tuxedo, sealed together with a top hat and white bow tie. He was singing ‘70s soul songs. However knowledgeable I thought I was of this particular genre, thanks to thirteen years of educational listening peppering my long commutes to and from school, I did not recognize his song, or maybe I was not listening. I was distracted because I was humiliated. I felt naked. I put as much as distance as possible between he and I on that sidewalk. I could see the man, with his khaki pant white polo yellow sweater wrapped around his neck, briefly allow purple tuxedo to enter his realm of existence only then to flick his eyes over to my Mother and I with a smile shutting us out again. I felt like Terrence Howard in the film, Crash, when he told the character that Ludacris was playing, he was an embarrassment to him, himself, and to all of us. I wondered if he traveled around San Francisco donning his interpretation of the appropriate attire for each locale. Did he wear the striped and suspendered turn of the century bathing costume on Ocean Ave. by the beach? Did he don rain boots and galoshes at Pier 39? I, then, thought about how infrequently I see black people in San Francisco, then a horrifying thought occurred to me – what if purple tuxedo is the only one? I never see them. Well, especially not in Union Square, the capital of upper crust consumerism in the city, self assuredly flanked by Saks Fifth Ave and Tiffany’s on the north side, the Westin St. Francis hotel on the west, Macy’s on the south side, and Neiman Marcus, Jessica McClintock and Gucci on the eastern side. If I do see one in San Francisco, the experience is the same as if I were looking at any other wealthy white person.
As we crossed the street, I thought, the name Union Square. Ironic. As if any of the people working at these department stores actually belong to a union. But, most importantly, is this the site where unions make, or made, their voices heard? I do not know. I think most of the unions are dead these days. Perhaps, the name union is some code for the wealthy clientele: “You are in a safe zone. There is no riff raff here, only your kind.” Even though many manage to infiltrate their safe protective union, as my mother and I did today, I know that the regulars are the ones who know and understand the code. As we rounded the corner of Macy’s to head back to the parking garage I saw that Barney’s New York was being erected in the old FAO Schwarz building. As a tinge of nostalgia tugged at my tear ducts, I contemplated the fact that Union Square’s exclusivity was starting to leak out of its secure bubble into the surrounding upper crust copy cat consumer areas intended for the middle class.
Contemplating the last time I saw FAO Schwarz with its open doors, I wondered about the last time I was in Union Square as I gazed across the street into Neiman Marcus’s glass reflection of myself. Each year, during the Christmas holiday, my parents would bring my sister and I to the grand Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Square. The department stores would annually add their version of seasonal cheer in their display windows. People would come from far and wide to gaze into the aforementioned stores to glimpse at the wealthy consumerist Christmas. It was a friendly, yet fierce battle to have the privilege to plaster your face against the window in order to be up close and personal with the finely dressed Saks mannequin holding the gold foil wrapped gift topped with the extravagant bow of sheer green ribbon. The Macy’s buildings were always the best, perhaps, because their appeal and audience is broader reaching. In addition to amusing ground floor display windows, their ten story women’s clothing building facing into the Square would have wreaths framed with twinkling lights in each window. The men’s store a block away also furnished entertaining displays, more evenly distributing the viewers along the sidewalks. I tell you it was a sight to behold, no doubt, but a curious activity. Yet, year after year, I never saw any black people looking into these windows the regulars would not even glance towards. The regulars did not pay any mind to these windows because it was in their homes on Nob hill, Pacific Heights and Sea Cliff. Only if we would come over the bridge, if we could put two and two together; maybe some of us who weren’t already reading, would pick up an extra book or two to get a step closer to acquiring such fine things. Not the tasteless bunk black entrepreneurs often sell, cloaking black people in a sort of ghetto chic, meant to be positively “fabulous” on our own terms.
I went to Union Square today. I will be back. I will return to smile back at someone like myself, inwardly mystified by its splendor, but outwardly acting like it is all an immense bore. I will smile for her, understanding her.