A contributed perspectives piece by Anna Rose Geary
It was the winter of 1927 and twenty-two- year- old Nenzi, my mother, wanted a dressy coat to wear to church and to special occasions. She asked her mother, my grandmother Teresa, to accompany her to some stores to look at the styles and to help her make a decision on what to buy. There were a few places in Harlem that carried coats, but grandmother wanted to go to the garment district in downtown Manhattan where the fashion showrooms exhibited and sold many choices of clothing.
On a slow day in her own shirt-making factory, grandmother Teresa told Nenzi that the two of them could go shopping downtown for coats. Because she didn’t have time to change from her frumpy work clothes, grandmother looked a bit shabby. But Nenzi didn’t care. She was elated that she was going to get a new coat!
The 1920s were a time of prosperity in the United Sates and New York was a prosperous microcosm of the nation. My grandparents made a lot of money with their small shirt and blouse factory, which employed almost two dozen full-time workers. Men came home from World War I and were buying new clothes. They wanted to leave the drab army khaki colors behind. The women wanted lovely, colorful printed blouses. Demand was very high for wearables and both large and small clothing factories were humming with activity.
Grandmother Teresa grabbed some money from an empty pasta jar on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, the place for keeping quick cash, and she and Nenzi hurried to the Third Avenue elevated trains and traveled to lower Manhattan. As they roamed about on their trek through the garment district, Grandmother saw many beautiful coats on display. Both eventually wandered into the fur district, right next to the garment area. Grandmother stopped at a shop that had some unusually rich-looking fur and cloth coats on display in the window; one particular coat caught her eye. She told Nenzi this was the store they would shop.
A salesman came over and offered them a seat on one of the couches. He asked what they were interested in and grandmother did all the talking in her broken Italian-English. She described the coat in the window, a grey cashmere wool with thick silver fox fur on the collar, wrists and the hem of the coat. The salesman, quickly glancing at grandmother’s wrinkled work clothes, brought her and my mother two plain cloth grey coats to look at. My grandmother shook her head and said: “No, No, meester, I wanna the grey coat widda the silva fur.” The man told her the coat in the window was very expensive and that the cloth coats were better for her. Grandmother bristled and said: “Where sa the managa.” Nenzi, by this point, was getting very nervous because, knowing my grandmother’s volatile nature, she was afraid a verbal fight was going to take place. She knew her mother would staunchly hold her position and not give up on the coat. She whispered to her mother, “Let’s go,” but grandmother held her ground and told Nenzi to be quiet because they were staying.
While they were exchanging words, the manager arrived and asked if he could help the two ladies. The salesman, standing beside the manager, explained to him that the women wanted the grey coat with fox trim that was in the window. The manager waved his hand about in the air and informed the salesman he would take care of the situation.
“Ladies, ladies, I have two beautiful cloth coats here that would look perfectly lovely on the young lady. Let me show them to you.” Grandmother Teresa looked the man in the eye and said: “No, I wanna da one ina da weendow.” The manager then patiently explained that the coat in the window was very expensive because of the silver fox trim; the cloth coats were less expensive yet still attractive, even though they didn’t have fur.
By this time, Nenzi was very agitated because she sensed that this contest of the wills would not end well. She stood up. “Please, ma, let’s go,” she begged grandmother Teresa. Grandmother grabbed her hand, pulled her arm and forced her to sit down. Then she said to the manager: “You wanna make a sale? Bringa thata coat here.” Trying to keep the peace and to prevent an unpleasant scene, the manager acquiesced, and indicated to the salesman to get the coat from the window. In the meantime, the manager asked my grandmother how much she thought the coat was. My grandmother didn’t answer but said: “How mucha you wanna for thisa coat?” He responded, eight hundred dollars. Grandmother Teresa then told my mother to put the coat on. She inspected the coat carefully, felt the fur, and examined the lining and the seams. Then she put her hand in her brassiere and pulled out one thousand dollars. “Here,” she said, “isa your money. One thousand dollars for an eight-hundred -dollar coat and a two-hundred-dollar tip.” The money was all in twenty-dollar bills. She counted it in front of the manager but instead of putting it on the table by the cash register, she threw the money on the floor of the showroom. The manager gasped, stared at her and the money on the floor, and after a tense moment, ordered the salesman to pick it up. Grandmother told my mother to walk out of the store wearing the coat, and while she was leaving she said to the manager: “I a beesanessa (business) woman. I own a factory. I treata my customers right. I no judgea who they are by how they dress. You thinka I poor and no can afforda thisa coat? You no wanna helpa me buy the coat. Now, you takea the money, but geta on your knees to collect it and learna lesson. Be nicea to alla your customers, not justa the richa ones.”
And then Teresa left the store, looking over her should, watching the money being gathered up and counted.
Anna Rose Geary is a retired teacher of social studies and a reading specialist for Staunton City Schools. She has lived in Harrisonburg since 1971, but is originally from Brooklyn, NY.