Ribbons and Bows

A large Hires Root Beer soda dispenser blocked my view of 42nd Street in Manhattan where I worked in the F.W. Woolworth 5¢ and 10¢ store.  I remember the smells from the lunch counter.  I was stationed behind the ribbon counter next to the luncheon section of the store.  I was fifteen and this was my first summer job.  It was at the beginning of World War II and bows were wired to combs and were very popular.  We all wore them in our hair, young girls and older women, to keep up our spirits during those early years of the war.


In addition to the bows I was also responsible for the sale of ribbons, which were wound around white cardboard ribbon holders.  I was never trained for the job, and so it was very difficult for me to figure out how to measure and cut the ribbon the customers were requesting.  I was also responsible for charging these ribbons by the yard, or by a half-yard or quarter of a yard and since I wasn’t very good at Math, many customers got great bargains.  By the middle of the day I was totally nauseated by the smells of hotdogs, egg salad and tuna fish that were wafting from the lunch counter.

Only ceiling fans high above us cooled us, and although I had an inventory of colorful bows, for some reason, I only displayed brown, black and navy blue. Ribbon cutting made me forget my bow responsibilities.

Around 3pm the supervisor of my counter came by to see how the ribbon and bow business was progressing.

“What a terrible display of bows”, she said.

I was so embarrassed, confused with my assignment, and nauseated by the food odors, I just stood still feeling petrified as her skinny, veined arm swept across my dreary display of bows sending them flying above and below the counter.

At that moment I remembered waiting on line at the Health Department to be able to get the needed approval to work, if under sixteen. I remembered how the doctor pulled down my white cotton panties and with his cold hand groped my belly for signs of hernia and finding none, approved my petition for “working papers.' I thought to myself that this horrendous job was not worth the agony I went through to get it. I fled straight out the doors of the 5¢ and 10¢ store.

Two weeks later I went back to look at the scene of my first employment. The lunch counter was doing an active business and next to it at my former counter was a sweet, motherly lady efficiently working at her task. In front of her was an array of lovely colorful bows.

I walked to the cosmetic counter, bought my Flame Glo light pink lipstick and a bottle of Blue Waltz toilet water. Walked down the street, and took the subway home.