Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Leopards Need to Change Their Spots

There are people out there who should not be allowed to open their mouths. Ever.
Like the hairdresser I once overheard say to an elderly woman who had arrived for her appointment pushing a walker: "I'm not running a hospital you know, this is a business."
Or the taxi driver who shouted "You shoulda calledl Medi-Transport!" before speeding off when a gentleman in a wheelchair had flagged him down.
There but for the grace of God, go anyone of us.
Recently, on a shopping expedition with a close friend, a woman who shows exemplary courage in her daily struggle to live a normal life, we encountered an insensitivity so acute it made our jaws drop.
It had been decided that we would give a particular store that we have been boycotting for years, one final chance to redeem itself. The reason for our long boycott was that we've both had bad experiences there. My friend was made to feel unwelcome years ago when she tried to exchange an item while my beef goes back to the time just after my son was born. Sleep deprived and with what felt like a very lumpy body, I had decided I needed a pick-me-up on that long ago January morning. I should have just gone to the corner and bought a coffee but instead, I had been drawn to that dress shop. 
The owner had wasted no time in showing me her newest arrivals. I had tried on a few but, although she had sworn that I looked wonderful in all of them, I had resisted. As a last resort, she had brought me a pink knit mini dress with long sleeves and a cowl neck. With a conspiratorial whisper about soon losing my post baby weight, at which time I would want something this sexy in my closet...she had left me to struggle into the tight, pink number.
I remember having looked into the mirror and thinking that I looked like a sausage without its casing. I had begun to chuckle. But as I had stepped out of the dressing room, ready to share the joke with anyone who might have wanted to laugh with me, I had been met by the store's owner plus her assistant, both of whom had seriously declared with a dramatic intake of breath that I looked like a million bucks. "Stunning," was the word I remember coming out of their lying mouths.
Incredulous, I had taken another look in the mirror, sucking in my gut in the process. Maybe they were right, I had thought. Maybe I'm too tired to see myself in a kindly light. "Are you sure?" I had asked. "Oh, absolutely!" had been the reply.
It is not the boutique owner's fault that my self-confidence was so low that day that I fell for her lies and paid good money for this ridiculous dress. But to this day I blame her for having taken advantage of my hormonally charged, sleep deprived vulnerable mind-set. It was my sister, bless her, who after taking one look at me in the new dress had quietly said: "You must never be seen in that."
These kind of experiences do not turn women into loyal customers. On the contrary. While we're at it, a store that declares it has a 'no refund' policy is also dimly viewed by those of us who do not have perfect size 4 bodies. But I digress.
When my friend declared last week, that she needed an outfit for an upcoming event,  I knew she would want  to avoid crowds and the hassle of going downtown. Scanning potential stores in my head that had parking and easy access, I realized with chagrin that the boutique in question would actually be a good option. My friend reluctantly agreed.
We went early Saturday morning and were greeted by a blonde with very red lips whose icy demeanour almost made us turn around and leave again. She looked down at my friend's cane and back up at her face. "What can I do for you?" she asked with a hint of a sneer. I was tempted to say that we were looking for organic carrots. Instead I informed her that we were looking for an outfit. Duh.
Blondie began to rummage systematically through her racks and pulled out jackets, skirts, pants; each time murmuring "this is lovely/beautiful/perfect." My friend who struggles with a weak left side but has a wicked sense of humour, said that she would like something that wouldn't make her look like a sausage.
The owner of the store arrived while we were making some choices. She was dressed from top to toe in leopard spots. Yes, even the shoes. She walked right up to my friend whom she clearly recognized and loudly said: "Oh my goodness, what happened to you??"
Without missing a beat my friend replied: "Oh, I have MS."
"Well, yeah, we're all a mess but what HAPPENED to you?"
Incredulous, I stepped forward and said: "Excuse me, my friend has multiple sclerosis" hoping this would shut her up. But no, she looked down at my friend's feet and declared: "Oh, I thought you had twisted your ankle or something."
As I said, my friend has a good sense of humour. Like the trooper that she is, she shrugged it off and went to the dressing room to start the process of removing her leg brace so she could try things on. The owner's old trick of standing outside the dressing rooms and exclaiming with rapture every time my friend stepped out to see herself in the large mirror, is obviously still being practiced. "Doesn't she look FABULOUS?" Leopard would say to Blondie whenver my friend pulled back the curtain. "Fabulous," would come the automatic reply.
We just rolled our eyes and smiled. After trying on many outfits I finally steered my friend towards a knit pair of pants that draped very nicely and a matching jacket that, unlike some of the other things she had tried on, actually flattered her body shape and would be relatively easy to get on and off. It is of good quality and will likely last her for many years. Blondie seemed miffed that we weren't taking the entire collection of items she had brought us. When I last looked she was putting things back on the rack with disdain on her face.
Clearly not happy to leave well enough alone, Leopard decided to go for one more round of foot in mouth as we were leaving the store. "My father's friend has MS too," she said. "She's 85 now and is in a wheelchair. But she still gets to the mall once a week with adapted transport." Perhaps she meant well but it was hardly an appropriate good-bye. "Thank you and please come again," would have been so much better.
We wondered, as we sipped our coffee afterwards, how this lady has managed to stay in business all these years. Having a good quality line of clothing obviously helps. But in the current economic climate I'm not sure that's enough. As we boomers start to adjust to our changing needs we will most certainly give our client loyalty to those who make us feel welcome, give us good service and fair value for our money. A little sensitivity that might allow for dignity in the face of adversity, for who among us will be spared, would certainly go a long way towards winning us over.
In the meantime, the boycott is back on.

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