Greetings Dear Friends!
A woman in her early seventies comes in and deposits a vintage hunter green wool coat on the counter. The lining is what we call “ripe”—in that any kind of touching it causes it to split and disintegrate along the vertical lines. There is no sewing a lining like this—it must be cut out completely and replaced. “I’m asking for a friend,” she says looking at me. “I’ll be your friend!” I say instantly, naively assuming this poor dear is lonely. She purses her lips. “No,” she says, “I don’t need a friend. I already have a friend. This is her coat. I took it out of her house without her knowing it to see if you could do something about the lining. I’m sick of telling her she needs to get this fixed!” “Gee, that’s too bad,” I say wistfully, “I sure could use a friend like you who would pilfer all the things that need fixing out of my house!” This catches the woman off guard and she looks by turns irritated and confused. “As for this coat,” I continue, “it’s going to be quite a bit of money to replace the lining. How much of a favor are you willing to do her?” It turns out, not that much.
“I’ll just leave it here with you and tell her how much it is and that she has to call you if she wants to have it done. At least I have done this much,” the lady says with an exasperated sigh. Yes, at least she had done that much. How much is too much to do for our friends? It’s a question I ponder for the rest of the day as I marvel at all the boundaries that lady crossed in her benevolent thievery.
Ours is a Friendly shop. It goes without saying that the women who work here are dear friends. Quite a number of our customers are also friends, soon become our friends, or bring their own friends. “Patty Payalayta” always comes in without cash or checkbook. (Perhaps because she is a long-time friend and loyal customer, she always seems surprised that her work costs money.) She whips out a credit card and then pauses in shock as if hearing for the very first time that we cannot take any form of “plastic” payment. She will take her stuff anyway, promising to mail a check later because she is such a “good friend” and we know she is good for it. We trust our friends.
There are a variety of archetypes that come in as “friends” to assist one another with the tedious difficulties of getting their clothes adjusted and setting the needle just right on that fashion dial that goes anywhere from “I was just on my way to church to donate alms to the poor” to “I AM the Poor” to “my services are available for hire on an hourly basis.” We need these knowledgeable people to tell us that carrying around a stained mug of cold tea is NOT a fashion accessory or to prevent us from roaming the streets in tight yoga pants with enough panty-lines to make us look like a well-trussed Easter ham. (Not enough people are getting this memo!)
More often than not, “The Friend” is that annoying person who comes with a weak customer to tell her everything she is thinking is wrong. Yes, I said She. That’s because I never see any men bringing anyone like this, unless of course she is his wife. (It takes the matrimonial bondage of church and state to entice a man to submit to the overwhelming strain of a steady stream of well-intentioned advice.) This friend, while not an actual customer, is the authority on everything that customer does. She is a fashion expert, a tailoring expert, and an expert on how much things should cost. She will sit through a lengthy pinning and consultation only to advise her friend that she should go elsewhere.
I recently overheard the following half of a conversation emanating from the dressing room: “So, where’d you get this little number? Did your ex-husband’s new girlfriend pick it out, or what? What do you mean what’s wrong with it? It’s fuggly! No…I definitely was NOT with you when you bought this. Take it off. We’re taking it back. I’m not going to let you do this to yourself…”
How we long to get our fingers in each other’s clay and take over where the Potter left off! What forbearance it takes to stand back and allow people to hurl themselves towards their own destinies in coats that you think should be longer, shorter, cleaner, or taken to the back yard and burned. What fortitude it takes to let them roam the earth in colors that make them look like they are awaiting a liver transplant. Some friends have no idea where they begin and the other person ends.
I observe a lot of tricky partnerships from inside a pair of pants. I always feel sorry for Little Herman Peckhen: He is brought in by Mrs. Peckhen who is here in case Herman attempts to say a word—she will say it for him, and quite a few others besides. She is vastly irritated with him and follows him in to the fitting room to make sure he buttons his trousers properly and puts his shoes on the right feet. She will tell us everything he needs and how things are to fit him. She will tell us what he likes and what he cannot abide under any circumstances, though in the end, it will matter far more how things look to her than how they feel to him.
The Siamese Brain—every now and then one comes across this amazing duo getting by on one single brain between them. Since they have only one mind, and they don’t want to wear it out too soon, or lose it altogether, they keep it safely at home a good deal of the time. Somehow, through deft use of muscle-memory and reflexes, one of them manages to operate a motor vehicle to the shop without incident. It is there they discover that their Brain has been left at home, often with the wallet, the shoes, or the garment that needed altering. Every query directed towards them, such as “May I help you?” is like a pop quiz for which they have not studied. Immediately one turns to the other one with a blank and beseeching look, as if the answer might be written on his/her forehead.
Straight out of a Geritol commercial, Mr. and Mrs. Adorable are the retired couple who come in to show off how cute they are and how they do everything together now that the kids are grown and the mortgage paid off. Their affection for each other can be seen in the way they gently correct each other’s anecdotes about how good-looking the other one used to be. He will talk about how she was such “a looker” back in the day and how tiny her waist used to be. She, thoroughly pleased, will bat his compliments away with shining eyes that belie her protestations. Something about the way he hands her his trousers makes eye-brow-arched Prudence think their other errand that day will be stopping at the pharmacy to refill their Viagra prescription on the way home.
There is something endearing yet ultimately cloying about each of these co-dependent, symbiotic dyads. Like any good partnership or pair of pants, there are two legs to them—two sides, working in tandem to maintain a risky sort of balance. One submits while the other pushes forward with an agenda. I can’t help being convinced that when a woman can be her own best friend, that’s when life gets easier. We don’t need to boss anyone else around, nor do we need to submit to bossing. When we trust our own competence and inner wisdom, when we know Who We Are and How We Want to Look the dressing room safaris are much simpler.
Friends are supposed to be the people with whom we dare to be ourselves but sometimes our “friends” can be very hard on us, or we on them. I can’t be bothered to look up the information now but I am sure I have read something to the effect that says our blood pressure is lower around our dogs than around our best friends. Unless of course, our dogs have just taken a dump on the carpet. Then the blood pressure is apt to sky-rocket. (I’m pretty sure that last part wasn’t in the original study…but I know it is true.)
I think a lot about the partnerships and friendships we enter into. I think about the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Ms. Bridesmaid, ask yourself, would you have someone follow you into the dressing room and tell you your gown made you look like you could play tight end for the Patriots? So why are you doing this? Margueritas are no excuse…) And that other bloody good biblical suggestion: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” These two maxims are not really about being Nice to other people—though they seem so at first glance. These are Equations, not injunctions. They say that we must each be strong. We must bargain as hard on our own behalf as we do for others’ or we risk slipping into the dynamic of slave or tyrant. We must be equal partners. It is much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. As Carl Jung points out, this means embracing the sinner who is yourself as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect or trying to wear a shade of orange you cannot stand. (I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention the orange part…he surely wanted to and just forgot.)
In my own periods of darkness, during my long, dark nights of the soul, I find myself often overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners, children, parents, family and do what they can provide for each other’s good and comfort. I give them immense credit for their ability to act productively and selflessly. Navigating healthy boundaries when we are trying to love and serve each other is tricky business indeed. It takes amazing communication skills—both in speaking and in Hearing the Truth. I think hearing another’s truth requires the most curiosity and courage. Plenty of people go about blabbing their truths—the only problem is that no one else is listening.
Eventually, Silence is where the real conversation happens between true friends. It’s great to be able to say anything you want to another person. It’s even better not to have to say anything at all… It is in listening to the great Silence within our own hearts that we become our own friends. Once we do that, we can be nice to anyone! (Yes, Prudence, even if we fall short of Glory, even if we attempt to mold others to our image instead of leaving them as God’s, and even when we find ourselves tempted to pilfer a friend’s ratty coat for her own good.)
Be well, dear ones! May you be merry and do Good Work!
P.S. You don’t have to be crazy to be my friend—I’ll train you!