Published on November 19th, 2021 | by Jennifer Baum


Shoplifting at Bloomingdales

When I was 13, my mother started a master’s degree in Library Science at Columbia University, twenty blocks north from our West 96th Street apartment. This was in 1976. So, I became a latchkey kid. Often after school, I went to my best friend Nina’s apartment on the other side of our subsidized, integrated cooperative. “You alright?” asked any neighbors and workers I encountered on the elevator expedition downstairs, across the fluorescent-lit basement, and up to Nina’s. Her place was a refuge from private school insecurity, a return to normalcy, to our public school days, and especially consoling after my father’s sudden death. Though a discontented feminist, Nina’s mother, Kaela, was still at home, growing avocado plants, playing Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” and cooking us pot roast with onions.

I’d come back in the evenings to my mother studying at her upright teak desk crammed into the corner of her room, the shelves bursting with modern art books from MOMA. Crawling onto the off-white wool bedspread covering her bed, I propped a pillow against the cherrywood headboard and kept her company, trying not to interrupt with chitchat.

She never got mad at me for disturbing her; she just did the work, popping tums and downing TAB along the way. Years later she said: “You were so unhappy back then. I tried hard to hide my anxiety. I was juggling being a mother and studying with no set schedule and finding a job.”

At the time, I didn’t register my mother understood my misery or connect her busyness with my loneliness. It was just the current state of affairs.

But then Nina moved away, and my aloneness became acute. Sometimes after school, instead of going home, I went to Bloomingdales and shoplifted.

I’d begged my mother to shop at Bloomingdales, where all the other girls in my posh new school shopped, and—incredibly—she relented. Previously we’d gone to Macy’s, the store for the masses, or we’d ride the subway to Natan Borlam, a discount clothing store in Williamsburg run by orthodox Jews. We made the long trek there by bus first east through Central Park on the 96th Street crosstown, then down Lexington Avenue to 59th Street.

Photo by Nik Korba on Unsplash

My private school friend Tammy’s mother was a personal shopper at Bloomies. With big platinum blond hair stiff from hair spray, bright blue and lavender eye shadow, and rouge painted onto her Modigliani-shaped face, Lorraine was ungapatchka, as my aunt Molly would’ve said—Yiddish for overdone. In contrast, Tammy had boyish square features and a large Jewish nose. Tammy and I related through shared self-loathing, mine precipitated by my father’s death, hers from Lorraine, who would pick at her: “If only your nose were a bit narrower…”

Tammy took me to visit Lorraine in her hideaway for the fabulous and well-heeled. The soft and cushiony pillows, plush wool cream carpet, silky clothes, and scarves resembled the inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle. Rumor was, at that time in the 1970s, Bloomingdales was the hottest pick up joint in town. According to 60 Minutes, the Men’s department, Active Wear, and the cheese counter were the places to cruise. Who knows what went down inside that bottle.

With Nina gone, I took the same bus route to Bloomingdales to shoplift. I didn’t consciously think to myself, I’m going to Bloomingdales today to steal. I thought, I’ll go to Bloomingdales to kill time before my mother comes home. Maybe I’ll run into Tammy’s mother, maybe she’ll invite me into her Genie’s bottle. Maybe I’ll drink champagne with Cher.

I rode the escalator to the Juniors section and wandered around, dazzled by the glitz, the glass mirrored disco balls, the child mannequins, posing like Charlie’s Angels with feathered hair, halter tops, bellbottoms, and platform shoes. When I was little, in happier times, my sister and I posed too, staying still, trying to fool passing shoppers. Now, I held up expensive designer jeans, brushed my hand against hanging polyester blouses, tried on brown suede clogs, mouthing along to Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi… Ce soir, Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi on the sound system.

I came to the lingerie section, and stopped by stacks of soft cotton, solid colored Bloomies underwear, the round lettering, overlapping circles and straight lines reminding me of posters in my parents’ Bauhaus book. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. That’s when I thought, I can get away with this, can’t I? I grabbed a bunch, slipped them into my backpack and left.

I only got caught once. A Black security guard approached, wagged his finger at me, grabbed me by the elbow and took me took to an office on the same floor in the back, where a white man, behind bullet proof glass, admonished me through a little hole for stealing. “There’ll be severe consequences if you try it again, young lady.”

I never did.

Of course, it doesn’t escape me now the leniency granted white teens in those hallowed halls of commerce.

Trembling, I went home. Danny, a friendly, brown-skinned maintenance man opened the lobby door for me: “Alright. Howya doing? Give me that gorgeous smile of yours.”

Things weren’t so bad. The building provided a ballast, a stable community to return to, in subsidized cooperative housing. We paid maintenance according to our income, which diminished after my dad’s death, enabling my mother to go to school.

Before she died, I told my mother about my shoplifting escapades. She responded in her typical offhand insouciant manner. “Oh really?”

It’s as though she’d expected me to make the right decisions. Ultimately, something inside prevented me from falling deeper into an abyss. Like the building we lived in, my mother was solid, industrious. She didn’t probe psychologically into the causes of my actions. This was not her style. She led by example.

In many ways her approach worked. But not entirely. I got away with shoplifting. But I never fully got away from my grief.

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About the Author

Jennifer Baum is a filmmaker turned writer. Her writing has been published in New York Daily NewsGuernicaJacobinThe Village Voice, The Phoenix Jewish News, Canadian Jewish Outlook, The Jewish Observer Los Angeles, MUTHA, Hip Mama, and NewFound, which nominated her essay, A Different Set of Rules, for a Pushcart award. Her full-length memoir, Just City, is based upon her Pushcart-nominated essay. Baum teaches composition at Mesa Community College and occasionally works as a freelance editor, most recently for a series of reports for the World Bank on poverty in Ghana.

She graduated from NYU’s Gallatin Division, majoring in film and history, and won “Best Short Documentary” at NYU film school for Mothers in Labor, about single teenage mothers being trained in manual labor jobs. She also holds an MFA in Filmmaking from University of British Columbia. Her short films have screened in Havana, Seattle, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, and Ottawa.

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