HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 5, 2007
From Moldy Folders

Just Girls, or What?

John Turner


Over the years I've written hundreds of short pieces which haven't found any use other than to lie in old notebooks and file cabinets.  I thought I might occasionally dig one of these out and add a brief comment to it about how it strikes me now. If nothing else, they may serve to remind us of some features of recent history.


March 1980

Here's a sociological problem for you. I offer it to show how hard it is to decipher the world around us and to indicate how inept our procedures of investigation are.

I'm referring to certain department store employees, the young women who occupy what appear to be the prestigious, or showy, positions -- salesgirls at cosmetic counters, receptionists in upstairs restaurants, clerks in chic clothing boutiques.

In observing them I've discovered they all have the same manner. It's identical all across town and in the other towns I've visited lately. A mincing, mask-like frostiness seems designed to suggest that just below the surface lies a deep chill born from unalterable conviction of personal superiority.

In their minds, it's an expression of sophistication. They maintain it diligently and hint at hostility if anybody tries to break through, though never dropping a facade of courtesy. The effect is android-like, as though they had been designed originally as mannequins but got dropped by mistake onto an assembly line at Westworld.

If I thought these girls were as artificial as they seem I wouldn't much care how they got that way or what's going to become of them. But now and then, you can see signs of humanity breaking through. Occasionally, when one steps into a stock room, she giggles, and sometimes when one assumes she's not being seen a look of languid, genuine boredom comes across her face.

Truth is, the closer I observe, the more convinced I become that they have mothers, and fathers, and little brothers, and boyfriends, that they may dream of holidays in London or Paris, and that they sometimes even take pleasure from a picnic or an ice cream cone on a Sunday afternoon. Something, or somebody, has wrapped them up in a silly cover, and though they're not struggling to get out -- they're probably too innocent to know what's been done to them -- they suffer nonetheless. Nobody enjoys being programmed, even if she doesn't know it has been done to her.

If I had a conspiratorial mind I might conclude they're being shaped by soulless corporations toward a drone-like standard to make control easier. But minor investigation quickly undercuts the suspicion. I ate last week in a department-store restaurant where the receptionist was the epitome of the type. I asked the waitress, a pleasant girl, how receptionists got their jobs, if they had to go for advanced training. She said no, that there weren't any special qualifications. I asked her if she, herself could get a receptionist's position and she said she probably could, but that she made more money waiting tables. I decided that the corporate villain is too simple an answer to this problem.

A second explanation which would suffice but is too uncharitable for me to accept is deep, deep stupidity. I mention it for the hardhearts among my readers who may otherwise think I'm too naive to have thought of it.

Rejecting stupidity and corporate evil obliges me to poke around for another reason. It's thus I'm brought to an explanation that's hard to analyze and impossible to document but which, I'm convinced, is close to the answer. It comes from that murky region where social scientists fear to go, the place where profound forces of life get hooked to everyday habits and manners.

Might it be that the young ladies of the department stores are evincing, in an exaggerated form, the psychic disease that's attacking all people who are coming to adulthood now, a malady which argues that life is no good, that there's not much positive to be got from it, and that the most likely satisfaction is a defensive one-ups-manship which proves that one can't be taken in by anything? It's what has come to be called "cool" and might better have been named frigidity.

Why this shows itself markedly in department stores isn't hard to guess. They are institutions of the moment. Whatever's in has to provide the ambience of a department store because what's in is the itch driving people to buy. It's natural there would be an affinity between them and a rootless philosophy that's required to reject history, family, or anything that allows for hope.

Getting this far-fetched tells me it's time to stop. But, still, I say that even if this hypothesis can't hold water there's something ominous in the girls' manner, that it mashes down on full humanity. Seeing them sometimes gives me the shivers.

Note twenty-seven years later -- this no longer strikes me as adequate analysis. Maybe it's because department stores don't now function as they did a quarter-century ago. But there may be a little something in it. I was trying to get at a condition I now think of as an approaching nihilism. It's no less a problem now than it was then and may be worse. And we, as a society, are no closer to solving it than I was, jotting down an awkward essay as I wandered through a big shopping mall in Tampa, Florida.


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