The Tale of Goldie Fishbein

I never met Tante Goldie, but I’m proud to flash her moniker from time to time.

Little Estelle had a beloved aunt named Goldie, her father’s sister. Since Estelle lost her mother at a very young age, the other female adults in her life made great efforts to spend time with her. Estelle and her Tante would go to the beach in Brooklyn in the summer. Goldie was a very strong swimmer and she and Estelle would swim way out past the wave breaks, lock legs and float in the sea. It was magical — until the time Estelle broke their leg chain and tried to stand up. She realized that they were so far out in the ocean that she couldn’t touch the bottom and she panicked. Goldie brought her back to the beach, but Estelle was too frightened to go back into the ocean. By the time I met Estelle she proclaimed she didn’t care much for the beach — all that sand, but she did allow that early experience made her afraid of the water, too.

I’ve never seen a picture of Goldie at any age, but in my imagination she is tall, statuesque with a formidable bosom.  She has the large Spegiel cranium and curly blond hair.  I have seen photos of her brother — the Guitar Man resembles his grandfather to a great degree.  But rather than taking the lazy (and humorous) way out and imagining Goldie resembling G-man in drag, I think of her as an athletic woman.  Tan, fit and strong, but she’s also brainy and confident.  I can see her playing tennis and then going for a refreshing swim.  Then I see her in reading glasses, and I can imagine her having robust arguments with anybody trying to limit her (or any woman’s) freedom.

The story, or family party-line, is that Goldie was a communist, and she was ostracized by the family because of her political leanings. I have no way of verifying this, but Estelle told me that she did reconnect with Goldie herself as an adult. She didn’t keep the reunion a secret but she didn’t broadcast it to the family either. Despite her communist leanings, Goldie did all right for herself. She even gave Estelle a hand-me-down fur jacket that in turn was handed down to me. It’s a short, mink jacket that is almost too warm to wear. And there is the whole moral issue over wearing fur that always loops though the back of my mind.

So “Tante Goldie,” the communist vintage fur coat, usually only comes out on very cold occasions of high importance.  Bless you, Tante Goldie, and the warmth of your spirit.

Tanta Goldie


Normcore: Or the Fetishization of No Fashion

I’ve spent my career working in the rag trade.  I’ve worked with designers and merchants, knock-off artists and pattern-makers.  I’ve worked sample sales until my feet felt like bowling balls.  So I know that anybody can buy Fashion at the highest price, but I learned that a real fashionista knows where to get it cheap.  (And the biggest mavens of all are the ones who get their fashion for FREE.)    But what I can’t fathom is this weird, ironic hipster fetish to name everything, including basic stuff that isn’t meant to BE fashion.  Stuff like white tee shirts and grey sweat pants are now referred to as “normcore.”    In the biz we call these things basics, or commodities.  We plan and produce them in the unit of measure called “dozens.”

Now let’s look at the word fetish for a minute.  A fetish is defined as an object that inspires an irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.  Fashion may be your fetish, but you take it one step too far when you have to name every article of clothing you wear as fashion.  The elasticized-waist clothes you put on when you roll out of bed on Saturday and fart down to the corner for a bagel are NOT “fashion.”  They are sweats.  I love them; they are comfy and serve the purpose of keeping America beautiful, and that’s a noble-enough purpose, but they are neither “norm” nor “core.”

I’m dating myself here, but back in the early 90’s Kurt Cobain created a market run on flannel shirts.  I was working for a men’s sportswear company at the time, and that fall season we sold out of men’s flannel shirts ~ especially size small.  This created a double whammy problem:

1.  We missed business because we didn’t have enough to satisfy this huge demand and

2.  How the heck were we going to plan the following year??

Nobody called these garments anything but flannel shirts.  They were a was a nice business when we sold them to your grandpa, and it was a nice blip when we sold them to the aspiring grunge rockers who preceded this group of ironically name-happy hipsters.  But we didn’t kid ourselves into thinking we were redefining the shirt.





Denim Jean PocketIs there anything more iconic than blue jeans?    Indigo dye is what makes our denim look as good as it feels the older it gets.

Some quick and dirty facts about indigo:

  • The word indigo is from the Greek, meaning “from India.” 
  • Indigo is insoluble, color-fast and can last for centuries – even millennia!  
  • Indigo comes from the plants of the genus indigoferaThe leaves are fermented in a steeping vat, and the liquid that’s collected is extracted and oxidized.   The blue solid that remains is collected and dried.  A dirty and smelly process that sounds like both art and science. 
  • It is said that African slaves brought the knowledge of indigo cultivation to the New World.  (Or more likely, there is no documentation of slaves bringing the technical know-how of indigo cultivation and production to the New World.)   
  • In 1775 South Carolina exported 1.1 million pounds of indigo – over a third of the colony’s income. 
  • Indigo was an extremely valuable commodity.  Catherine McKinley’s book,  Indigo:  In Search of the Color That Seduced the World, tells us that at the time of the American Revolution indigo cakes were used as currency as the dollar had no strength.   

Today we think of denim apparel as “work clothes” —  rough and tumble, casual and broken-in.  Nothing is as quintessential in American fashion.  I have a vintage denim jacket from 1984 that despite its funky “Members Only” vibe I still wear.  I can’t get rid of it now, and I’m guessing you have at least one pair of favorite jeans that evoke such strong feelings you couldn’t get rid of them either. 


Penney For Your Thoughts?

Anybody catch JCPenney’s new commercial asking you to “come back?”

If you are reading this blog from anywhere in the continental US the chances are good that your closest department store is a JCPenney.   I’m also going to make the assumption that if you are reading these words you also have some sense of Apple products.  The products and stores of both of these brands have as much in common as an apple and a penny.

About eighteen months ago with great fanfare, JCP hired Ron Johnson, the former guru of Apple’s retail stores, as the new JCP CEO to direct the venerable retailer on a new, modern path.   This was at the urging of a JCP board member, hedge fund manager, Bill Ackman.   While I would wager Mr. Ackman is a pretty smart guy, I would say that in this case neither he nor Mr. Johnson did his homework.

The first thing task of any job candidate (or change agent) is to visit the environment and learn all s/he can about the target customer.  In Mr. Johnson’s case it’s fine to come from a point of view, such as his great success at Apple and its futuristic retail model of glass and “genius bars” showcasing a handful of products, but did he spend any time shopping in his local mall-based JCP?

JCPenney is as old-school a retailer (111 years-old) as they come: a national retail chain with big stores in locations that were built when indoor malls revolutionized leisure time for Americans.  I’m talking about the “Big Bang” 1960’s and 70’s before retailers began gobbling each other up.  I challenge any Nappers reading this blog to tally up the number of local retail chains from your “Wonder Years.”  I’ll give you a few to jog your memory: Stern’s, Hahne’s, Bradlees, Caldor, Jamesway, Gold Circle, Lazarus, Rich’s, The Bon Marche, Gimbel’s, Abraham&Straus, Two Guys.  Like another local employer, the high school cafeteria perhaps, the folks who worked in these stores were the parents of your friends (or maybe you had a part-time job yourself).  Whole families shopped there for everything:  clothing, shoes, soft home goods, even furniture.  And then you could get a haircut in the beauty salon before getting your family portrait taken!    There was  something sweet and non-ironic about it.   In the JCP of my youth, there was even a little coffee shoppe.

If you visit your local JCP today you might notice that the big footprint of the store is little changed.   Mr. Johnson’s ambitious goal was to carve up the selling floor into multiple “stores within a store” – more of a boutique approach.  What he failed to realize was that moms with strollers and elders who have to make every step count don’t want to troll from “store” to “store” to find what they need.  (That’s why they came to a DEPARTMENT store in the first place.)  They want to find the color/size of their choice right there in a stack or hanger they can reach without a pole.  Or a friendly sales associate to help them get what they need and get on their way.

In his effort to streamline product assortments Johnson and his new team eliminated brands that had generated huge volume for the chain, but no longer fit this new paradigm.  Customers  used to seeing these familiar labels became confused and frustrated that they were no longer available and ultimately walked out of the store.  Tied to this confusion over product was a new strategy to stop promoting with deep discounts and sales by adopting a “Fair & Square” pricing strategy.  Unfortunately, this customer  has been trained to believe that only a fool would pay the ticketed price; “I’ll just wait until it goes on sale next week.”    All these conditions created a “perfect storm”  of lost sales to the tune of over $4 Billion, and a -55% drop in JCP stock.

So what makes this business tale compelling blog fodder?    Because you don’t need an MBA or fancy hedge fund pedigree to see the difference between an Apple and a Penney.   I’m not belittling the job of a retail chain CEO when I say this.    You need a broad skill set and the ability to see both short and long-term consequences.  You have to take some heat and at times apply some in ways that keeps the operation moving but doesn’t burn it out.   But it sounds to me like both Mr.  Johnson and Mr. Ackman thought this was going to be an easy “A.”  For some reason they didn’t factor in the locations of these stores, the cost of renovating them, or the reasons people chose to shop there.   Mr. Johnson recently left the firm and the CEO he replaced, Myron “Mike” Ullman, has returned.  

I like JCPenney, and I tried shopping there over the past year.   The inserts in my Sunday paper were bright and cheery, but when I went to the store I had a hard time finding those products.  Or I could find them, but not in the size I needed.  And the only sales associates I could see were at the register doing the best they could to tame a line of folks waiting for check-out.   I wish the management of JCP all the best, but hubris, or taking your customer for granted, is not a successful business strategy.  So when you say you want us to come back, be ready to show us that you’ve done your homework.



The Balm Upon My Palm

photograph of logo and can

This is a shameless plug for a hero product necessary to anybody with either hands or udders.  Truth be told, this is not the post I’ve been fiddling around with for the last two weeks.  Rather, I was inspired on the fly as I was scrubbing the down the shower with my unique spray mix of Oxy-Clean  and hot water.  As you might imagine, shower scrubbing does a number on your digits.  (yes, yes, I should wear the rubber gloves, but since I was running the shower while I was scrubbing, it seemed counter-intuitive to be wet everywhere EXCEPT my paws)  I just kept thinking, “My hands!  They will be so chapped and rough!”  Then I remembered my soothing friend in the green tin, and I felt better (The shiny shower tiles also contributed to my sense of well-being). I use this stuff after gardening, cleaning, all year-round, and heartily recommend it to anybody who works with their hands.   Please remember the skin on our hands is thin and needs protection all day.  Like teeth, our hands need to be productive for an entire lifetime.  So give them a teat, treat!

I could not do a better job highlighting the features and benefits of Bag Balm than the charming, no-nonsense website of the Bag Balm folks so I’ll link it here for you to amble over at your leisure.


Isn’t That Cute? A Bracelet With a Little Clock On It

I think this is a generational thing, but find somebody who can tell you the time by looking at his/her wrist.   I’ve made the observation that youths don’t wear watches to tell time and elders don’t need to know the stinkin’ time anymore. Actually, the younger folks I know do wear watches as jewelry — or with so many doo-dad features on them you’d think they were preparing for either deep space or deep-sea diving.  They use their phones to tell time.  My friends who are either close to or in retirement don’t feel compelled to conform to any temporal timelines.  Most figured they earned the right to call their time their own and rise and set with their own circadian rhythms.

Me?  I have a couple of watches, but since the advent of the watch battery I find that all of them need to go to the either the jeweler to have the battery replaced or I have to coax G-man (in this case let’s call him Geppetto- Man) into breaking out his tools and magnifying glass to replace them.  Of course, each watch takes a different size battery so tack on search and acquire time to the exercise.  So I think it was about a year ago that I gave up wearing a watch full-time.   I’m not retired, but I’ve noticed the time is everywhere…. on my car dashboard, on my computer in either the top or bottom right corners, on my old-lady cell-phone, on every kitchen appliance.   I haven’t missed an appointment or shown up late either.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t admire timepieces as either ornamental or functional, but I do chuckle a little at the advertising for them.  Seems celebrity (particularly athlete) endorsement is still the preferred pitch for high-end watches, yet I doubt my purchase of this fine timepiece will improve my serve or shave a few nano-seconds off my “personal best.”

I’m not advocating we return to the days of the sun-dial…. or heaven-forbid those funky digital clocks that flipped the numbers (immortalized in the movie Groundhog Day), but time is a man-made concept.  The world continues to spin and sun rises and sets whether we mark it or not.  Enjoy your bracelets with little clocks on them — or not, but do remember to carve out some time for the people and activities you love.  Because it is true we can’t make any more.


Unfinished Business Or You Are Never Too Old

Stories like this make me want to be a better woman, or at least embrace the future with optimism.  It’s the story of Kathy Martin, 60, record-breaking elite runner.  Forgive my inelegant link, but it’s an inspiring story of a “real” person with a job and obligations in the day-to-day world who is just quietly breaking records in the master class of athletes.


I am not an athlete although I do enjoy and appreciate movement and have a special admiration for natural athletes and folks who are experts in their sport.  Being the devious and lazy thinker that I am, I thought I might have a lock on becoming a “late in life” athlete.  You know, those folks who get the biggest rounds of applause at 5K races just because they look “old”  but can still pass the out-of-shape?  My thought was that if I keep up with speed walking all I need to do is survive to age 70 and I’ll be the medalist in my class.  Well, folks like Kathy Martin are making that harder for under-achievers like me to recognize my late-in-life athletic dreams.

Or maybe not.

Because we’re finding out that the human body is capable of incredible things, and if we put a some effort and energy into ourselves we have a pretty good shot at maintaining, or even improving, our fitness level.   Our beloved Aunt Belle broke a hip in her 80’s and still went to physical therapy to regain her strength.  Well, a funny thing happened from all the upper body work her did to regain her stability:   she got a rock hard set of biceps at age 89!  OK, so she couldn’t hear all that well, but she sure could hear us when we asked to her to “Show us your guns!”  And she would proudly flex for us…. wearing her lovely short-sleeved “model coat.”  For those of you who have no clue what a model coat is, please see below.

But there was another aspect to Aunt Belle that may have played a part in her stellar recovery.  She was one of the most optimistic, forward-thinking (in both personal philosophy and in how she viewed time) people I ever met.  Her apartment was always the gathering place in her neighborhood.  And it has been documented that elders with social connections retain more of their cognitive skills and suffer less depression than solitary elders.  All of these things give me hope that I can age with dignity and humor…. unless I start wearing these model coats.  Well, at least I’ll have the humor part covered.

Image Courtesy of national.com
Model Coat: Partner to Men's Banded Bottom Polo Shirt