SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Bobbi Russell

Beverly Hills...The Ultimate in Borders
A Story in 3 Voices

The world was a different place in 1972. For one thing, the only Saks 5th Avenue store outside of New York, was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Today you can find them in nearly every shopping mall in every city in the world. Rodeo Drive itself was a different place, open only to those of privilege who lived in either the surrounding neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and BelAire, or came from that type of exclusive setting in other parts of the country and the world. To enter a store on Rodeo meant that you were accustomed to that world and all the money, fame and trappings that go along with it.

 Enter into this world a little family from the suburbs whose only prior experience with this type of wealth was an accidental upgrade to a first class airline ticket, and you may see how this entire incident evolved. A border doesnít have to be between countries. Borders may exist in your own neighborhood, only you donít know theyíre there until you try to cross them and find out you are not welcome.

Until I was 19 years old, the fact that my family did not have a lot of money didnít really effect me. My friends at school had more ìthingsî than I did, but since I was popular in my group and was usually the leader, I never felt inferior or that I was lower class than anyone. It just never occurred to me. That all changed with the simple act of returning a Christmas gift that didnít fit. A relative in Chicago had sent my sister a pair of jeans that were too small. These jeans had been bought at Saks Fifth Avenue, and in the 1970ís the only Saks stores in California were in Beverly Hills. On Rodeo Drive, to be exact. When we realized we were going to have to go to the store to exchange them, we were all really excited! It was like a little vacation to an exotic destination! So off we went; my mom, my sister and I in my little Volkswagen Beetle, to Rodeo Drive to exchange a pair of jeans.

When we reached Beverly Hills and finally found the storeís parking lot, I pulled in without a second thought. The parking lot actually had an attendant, which impressed us all at first. But suddenly this attendant would not park my car, and directed me to a public parking lot about 7 blocks away. To this day, I cannot remember the reason he gave me, just that I felt humiliated and couldnít wait to leave. But I justified it with saying at least I wouldnít have to tip him!

When we got to the front doors of the store, we were met by a doorman wearing gloves and a hat, like you see in movies! I gave him a big smile and was surprised when he would not return our friendly hellos, and quite literally looked down his nose at us. I seem to remember he wore eyeglasses and put his head down to see over them while he did not respond or smile. I remember feeling that the rest of this trip was going to get worse and I wished we could leave right then.

I saw them as soon as they stepped off the elevator; three people who were clearly out of their element and would not be helping my sales commission today. I knew immediately that they had never been in a Beverly Hills store before today. I could tell they were ill at ease and a bit intimidated by the luxurious surroundings we have in our store. I donít normally have customers who look up at the lighting fixtures and go ìooh, look at that!î They were all dressed in what was clearly clothing of discount store quality and carrying handbags straight from the weekend swap meet! When they began to inspect price tags and mutter among themselves, I knew my impression was correct and proceeded to put them out of my thoughts. I was quite sure they would not be purchasing anything, so I did not believe they would be requiring any services or attention from me.
 The store was beautiful and I kept thinking that they sure did not have very many clothes for such a big store. It seemed to be all about decoration and ambiance. I forgot about the lot attendant and the doorman and just looked around in awe. This went on for about 30 minutes while we found the department we needed. And then the waiting began. The salespeople in the store completely ignored us until I finally got angry enough to go and interrupt two women having a conversation and demand that they help us. Upon asking them why they were not helping us, I was told that they just assumed we were ìtourists seeing what it was like on Rodeo Drive and not able to afford to buy anything.î When I told them they were wrong and that we needed to exchange something, one of the women sniffed and said îoh, a gift, right?î implying to me that meant she was right, and we couldnít afford to purchase anything.

I returned to the business at hand. I was still quite excited about the sizeable commission I had made on a sale earlier that day to a prominent Hollywood actress. My co-worker and I were deep in  conversation about the purchasing habits of various well known people in our town. I confess, I completely forgot those people were even in the store. Imagine my surprise at being rudely interrupted by the teenager and asked with no uncertainty in her voice if I was ever going to help her? She informed me that she knew I had seen them and felt she had waited long enough to be helped. She and her family felt that they were being ignored.

These people were clearly not Beverly Hills shoppers so why would I think they needed to be waited on? We get tourists in the store at times and I assumed these people were ìlooky louísî, so to speak. And when it became clear that this was an exchange and not a sale, I have to admit I might have been a bit condescending to them, but this type of person does not pay my salary! I seriously doubt if they will ever be making a trip to a store on Rodeo Drive to go shopping. To tell the truth, I was a bit surprised they didnít just ask for a refund and then go buy 5 pairs of jeans at K-Mart, or wherever they normally shop! It was a relief when they finally left the store. There were a few times when I wondered if there was going to be a scene. Thank goodness these people had manners, even if they donít have money. Does this make me a snob? Perhaps. But some people should just know when they are out of their element.

I think the scent of that saleswomanís perfume is forever imprinted in my nose and on my brain. I clearly remember that it was a very powdery scent, and that it was almost overpowering. She definitely was not frugal with the application of her perfume, even if she was frugal with dispensing common courtesy. To this day, if I am in a crowd and I smell that particular scent (which I have never been able to identify with a brand name), I find myself looking around for that woman. I am immediately nineteen years old again and reliving the incident. Thankfully, not too many people seem to wear that scent anymore so it doesnít happen very often. Still, part of me would like to recognize her and let her know that 30 years ago she was not very nice to me and I have never forgotten her. Not only do we remember the people who were kind and special to us, but it seems we also tend to remember those who were not.

We finally got the jeans and left the store. I had been made to feel less than another person simply based on my appearance and my obvious delight in being in a fancy store. I was feeling inadequate and angry at the same time. I clearly remember leaving the store and going back to my car. I could not wait to get out of Beverly Hills and back to where I felt comfortable. It was as if I had crossed into another country or landed on another planet for that matter, and these residents clearly did not like aliens! As we got into my car and drove away, Janis Joplinís recording of Mercedes-Benz came on the radio of my small, wonderful, practical, little car. Janis began to sing to me; ìOh Lord, wonít you buy me a Mercedes-Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.î  I started laughing and singing along. The song sort of broke the anger inside me and let me laugh. I still sing along whenever I hear this song. Whereas the scent of the perfume brings back unpleasant memories of the incident, the song makes me smile.

I find it sad that until a snobbish saleswoman, for heavenís sake, pointed it out so clearly to her, this teenager never thought of herself as different or less worthy than anyone else. Or perhaps she did but because it was never re-enforced by anyone else, she was able to examine those feelings and work through them. Oh, I am sure that she knew of her limitations when it came to money, but I doubt that she ever expected to be treated as less than another person based on that. How sad that the she crossed that ìborderî into another personís world and found herself not a welcome guest.
For a little while, I actually started to think that there was something wrong with my family because those salespeople treated us as if there were. I toyed with the perception that wealth makes you better than the average person . After discarding that as a non-truth, I vowed never again to allow someone else to make me doubt my self-worth. Not too long after this happened, I was listening to a Beatles album and heard Iím Looking Through You. I donít know what made me start relating this song to that saleswoman. At first I tried not to let the song remind me of her because I thought of how she really was sort of looking through me. But then I decided it meant that I was looking through her. ìIím looking through you, where did you go?î I assigned the insignificance to her  that I felt she deserved. Sadly, after writing this paper, I see that she was not insignificant in my life at all; she is still there today.

Has this episode had a lasting effect? Absolutely. I believe it forever damaged the self-esteem and confidence of this young woman. Prior to this she rarely felt ashamed or lacking. She was comfortable in her skin and proud of her background. With one careless conversation a saleswoman stripped away that cocoon, leaving a young woman to question herself and her modest background, and find them wanting. I donít mean to say that this small episode was a major player in her mental development, but it truly played a part. From then on she was never able to enter a room without looking around to see how she fit in. Sad thing is, she never felt that she did. She repeatedly found herself lacking. Thirty years have passed and this now mature woman finds herself still considering those limitations. She will cross the border repeatedly, rather than let it keep her out, but she never feels at ease on the other side. I donít think she ever will.

This probably wouldnít happen today, or if it did I doubt the results would be the same. For one thing, someone would scream discrimination and sue the pants off the store and the saleswoman! People from all walks of life and all levels of income are readily seen and waited on in this same store. The ìborderî surrounding Beverly Hills has been breeched and you no longer need a passport to enter. Oh sure, there are still those exclusive places that require a ìsecret passwordî to enter but for the most part Beverly Hills is now open to the general public and spectators are expected and welcomed. I doubt, however, that our ìyoung ladyî will ever be exchanging a pair of jeans there, no matter how welcome they might make her feel. Beverly Hills will forever be the border to the Neverlands for her.

I have never been back to Rodeo Drive again, even though there were periods in my life where I actually could have afforded to buy something there. Itís amazing how clear and sharp this memory is. I donít think about it until something triggers it and then it all comes back like it was yesterday. I allowed someone to make me feel ashamed because I had less material possessions than she deemed necessary to be anyone of any worth. If there is still a border to cross in order to enter Beverly Hills, then I donít think I will apply for a visa!

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