Monday, December 1, 2008

Criminal Mastermind

As you may know, I spend a fair amount of energy saying bad things about Williamsburg and the people who frequent Williamsburg. (For readers who aren't familiar with New York City, let me clarify: I am talking about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where everyone is so hip that they don't even need no book on hip, yo, not Colonial Williamsburg in my home state, the Old Dominion. Though, come to think of it, the two places are equally likely to be populated by those wearing knee breeches and/or vintage petticoats.) The funny thing - the dirty secret, I guess - is that I actually really love going to Williamsburg. The buildings are low, so you can see the clouds move through the sky, and there are lots of little shops (lots and lots and lots of little shops) to wander in and out of, meditatively fingering a smartly-tailored ersatz army jacket here or a clever little photo-print pillow there. There are lots of cafes to duck into for a cup of tea or a beer, and there are mussels and overstuffed falafel sandwiches and unexpectedly delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies, and for special-er occasions, there's absolutely anything you eat here.

Over the last few months home with the baby, I have become addicted to slipping into Williamsburg every couple of weeks or so. In the early afternoon on a weekday, when there are not hordes upon hordes of youngsters traipsing back and forth wearing willfully ugly, ironically squalid 1980s-style clothing, Williamsburg can even feel like a quiet, slightly backwaterish neighborhood. Sometimes I bring a bag of clothes to sell at a great loss at Beacon's Closet or Buffalo Exchange - this furnishes the pretext for the 45-minute trip. After selling the clothes and once again feeling humiliated at the pittance I got for them after the hours of pained effort it took to decide to buy them in the first place, the baby and I meander through the streets around Bedford Avenue (sometimes avoiding Bedford itself, because even on a weekday it's a little de trop, mes amis). We eat lunch with the clothing money, and if it is not a desperately poor week, I buy a little something - a second-hand dress, a new pair of shoes, a toy for the baby - that I probably oughtn't but that always makes me unreasonably happy.

Usually, these jaunts are rambling, uneventful, picaresque (quixotic?), full of little pleasures and minor adventures, none of which I even remember for long enough to recount later. But a few weeks ago, when the baby and I made one of our little trips, I had a strange encounter that momentarily jolted me out of my usual Williamsburg reverie. It was an uncommonly slow day, and all of the stores were nearly empty. Exploring the various high-end kid boutiques, the baby and I considered a hand-crocheted taxicab with a bell inside and a little jointed pull-doggie for him, settling finally on a pair of brightly-painted maracas. Passing American Apparel, I suddenly remembered that I had a gift-card for that store with eighteen dollars on it, from a return that I had made months ago. Delighted - free money! - I slipped inside and made a bee-line for the kids' section. (Like Williamsburg, American Apparel is a place that I badmouth ruthlessly but actually rather enjoy. I can do without their trailer-park-slacker-chic pitch and joylessly "edgy" ads, but I do find myself relying on their T-shirty staples as well as their solidly-constructed, adult-looking baby clothes.) Halloween was a couple of days away, and I wanted a brown shirt to complete the baby's "costume" - really just his winter hat, which happens to have bear ears on it. (I am not a good-enough mother or a creative-enough person to conceive of, construct, or purchase anything more elaborate than that, though I must say that I always get really good ideas for Halloween costumes right on Halloween day when it's too late to do anything about it, and I always promptly forget them until the next Halloween day, when it is again too late.)

Like every other store we had been in that day, American Apparel was nearly empty - just one or two other browsers - but for a phalanx of employees. Unlike the blank-faced youngsters that gave me such a turn in the Harlem branch, though, all of these shopgirls and shopboys seemed calm and cheery and well into their twenties and thirties, and they left me alone to browse happily amongst the baby things. After considerable thought, I selected a shirt, had a long discussion with one of the shopboys as to which size I should get, and made my way to the register. It was at this point that things took a sudden turn for the absurd.

After swiping my store-credit gift-card, the shopgirl at the register - her nametag said MANAGER - gave me a quizzical look. "This doesn't have any money on it," she said. "In fact, it's been cancelled."

"Cancelled? But it should have eighteen dollars on it," I said, suddenly unsure. "I got it when I returned a T-shirt, and I'm pretty sure I haven't used it?"

She typed and clicked for a moment, gazing at her computer screen. "It says the balance was transferred to another card," she said. "And that card was used at..." type, click, type, click "the American Apparel branch on the Upper East Side."

I goggled at her, flabbergasted. "But...I've never been to the American Apparel branch on the Upper East Side," I said, frantically trying to remember if I have ever been to the American Apparel branch on the Upper East Side. "I don't think I have. No. I haven't. I'm sure I haven't."

"Well, it says here you transferred the balance of this card to another card and used it at the American Apparel branch on the Upper East Side."

I goggled at her some more, stalling for time, trying to remember if I had perhaps performed these actions while in a fugue state. "But I really don't think I did that."

Click, type, click, type. "It was a purchase of, like, over one hundred dollars."

"But I didn't do that. That didn't happen," I said uneasily. "I got this store credit when I returned a T-shirt at the Columbia branch. And I haven't touched it since then." I was beginning to panic - did I have an alter ego that buys T-shirts? "Really. I've never even been to the American Apparel on the Upper East Side."

"Well," she said, "that's what the computer says happened."

"No," I said, "it isn't what happened. That didn't happen. I didn't do that. Unless" - I decided to just come out with it - "maybe I have a boring alter ego who goes around buying T-shirts for me while I'm in a fugue state?"

She looked at me, her face blank and unamused. "Okay," she said, "let me make a phone call. Have a seat." She indicated one of the two mid-century-chic leather chairs a couple of yards from the register. I sat, baby in my lap and diaper bag at my feet, feeling as though I had been banished to the Naughty Chair. The baby, seeming to sense the gravity of the situation, nursed quietly while we listened to an endless inter-manager conversation that sounded like this times twenty: "...But she says she didn't use the card. She says she's never been to that branch. Yeah. Right. Eighteen dollars. I don't know. But she says...right. Mmmhm....yeah...mmmhm...okay."

Finally, she hung up and beckoned me back from my Naughty Chair. "Look," she said, firmly but not entirely unkindly, "you got this store credit, then you went to another store and lied and said you lost it, then you got it transferred to another card, then you used that card, and now you're back trying to use the original credit. That's what it looks like. There's no other explanation for what happened. That's it. I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say."

The baby had fallen asleep in the carrier, and I gazed at the manager helplessly over his sweaty, lolling head. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn't - it would be too ridiculous, a mom with a baby crying over eighteen dollars at American Apparel. I wanted to say, "Okay, look, whatever, I don't care, forget the store credit, I'll just pay for the stupid T-shirt," but I couldn't bring myself to do that either. It was just too galling - the manager thought I was a petty grifter, and I couldn't stomach doing anything that might confirm her suspicion. I could just imagine her telling the story to the other employees later - "And then, would you believe this, she practically admitted to it! After telling me so many times that the credit was good! And she was there with her baby! Crazy, huh?!" My chest constricted. "But," I tried to control the choking whine in my voice, "what does that mean? Does it mean I just lose my money? I mean...that sucks." I tried to laugh a little. "I mean, don't you think?"

"Okay," she said, "okay." She picked up the little brown thermal-knit T-shirt - fifteen dollars -and began ringing it up. "Look, I can't give you the change on this card, because there isn't any money on the card in the first place. So, I'm gonna ring this up, and you can have it, and that's it, okay?"

"Okay," I mumbled, "whatever. That's fine." I took the bag from her hand, feeling ashamed the way I sometimes do when I finally get my way after making a scene, and feeling angry that I had been made to feel ashamed.

Outside, on the sidewalk, it took me a moment to catch my breath. What had just happened? And why did it have to happen to me? I gazed disconsolately down N. 6th Street towards the river. The day felt grey, turned on its ear, maybe ruined. "Let's go home," I murmured to my still-sleeping baby. On the way back to the train station, though, I came across and purchased a pair of little woolly winter baby boots on sale, and then I got two of my favorite chocolate chip cookies to eat on the trip home, and it was hard not to think that things were looking up after all.