Real America with Abe Sauer: A Visit to New York City's JC Penney

jcp-nyc-outsideIn August, Cintra Wilson wrote a Critical Shopper column for the New York Times. The subject was JC Penney’s Manhattan store. There was a stir. While recently in New York, I dropped by the JC Penney in question with a copy of her column to do a big, fat fact-check.

The Manhattan Mall JC Penney, at 32nd and 6th, is located on two floors. An expansive, Penney-red branded wall invites shoppers down the escalators into the well. In this, it is a little like the anchor restaurant in some large Vegas hotel. One floor down, two Penney’s security/concierge dudes greet me. They are maybe the most sincerely nice retail greeting types I have ever met in my (amateur) shopping experience. jcp-escalator

Wilson wrote of this store:

This niche [of hugely-sized clothing] has been almost wholly neglected on our snobby, self-obsessed little island.

This is only true if your definition of “little island” refers solely to the shopping found on the stretch of Madison Avenue north of 57th Street.

Wilson often reminds readers that she is not among the behemoths sinking the nation below its waterline, but are petites who struggle to find small enough clothes. In her recent review of Ann Taylor, she wrote:

The chirpy saleswomen seem to have a genuine liking for the clothes and offer supportive, girl-friendly advice. ‘This skirt is great if you’re looking to mask a few pounds,’ one of them responded to a customer’s request. ‘But…,’ she added, breaking retail character, ‘you do realize, you’re tiny.’ (Emphasis, hers.)

When looking at Mr. Mizrahi’s work, she asked:

Was he making an effort to use models with a little more meat on them?

The author visited Amalga:

I selected… a modified 1940s black silk dress from Share Spirit. It had a detachable satin collar, tuxedo pin-tucks up one side and a satin rifle patch on one shoulder ($838)-heaven, but too big.

And in the JC Penny piece, she complained:

It took me a long time to find a size 2 among the racks.

I found one right away, in the I ♥ Ronson section, about 25 feet from the escalator. A pair of pants. Size 2.

After mentioning the difficulty in finding a size 2, Wilson wrote:

There are, however, abundant size 10’s, 12’s and 16’s.

Later, on my way out of the Mall, I dropped by the Express store that neighbors Penneys. The first table after entering is full of Express’ “Editor” pants in various colors, several size 2s, and abundant 10s, 12s and 14s. This issue of clothing size is perhaps not just germane to Penneys.

Wilson wrote:

The petites section features a bounty of items for women nearly as wide as they are tall.

It also features plenty of items, especially in the St. John’s Bay petite section, for petite women who are… petite. Wilson doesn’t mention this.

Throughout the Penneys location, I found plenty of size 4s and 6s.

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Later, Wilson tells a story about her male friend trying on a medium size shirt that was “five times larger than any large T-shirt either of us had ever seen.” As a male who wears a large, I can testify that Penney’s sizes for men may be larger than, say, Armani, but are comparable to any other retailer’s, from The Gap to Macy’s to J Crew.

But the most egregious claim Wilson makes about Penneys with regard to fatness is “[JC Penney] has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen.” The “I have ever seen” clause in that statement is the one thing that prevents me from declaring this outright slander. In my time at Penneys, I never saw a mannequin that looked appreciably different from any other mannequin that I have ever seen. They were all rather tall and skinny-you know, like mannequins are.
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From Salon to the Huffington Post, Wilson often uses the word fat.

· There’s a teenage Shakespeare company here. They do stuff on the lawn. Fat kids with glasses jovially asking each other, “How now, M’Lord?'”

· Cool, we thought, even though all the fat tourista people waddling around us were thoroughly Caucasian.”

·If America sells out its freedom to Christian religious extremists… America will be as hopeless as a fat, poor, pregnant teen…”

· “…would have been all over that boner like a fat girl bachelorette party at Chippendale’s.”

· “‘Don’t mock God, Mr. Clinton,’ said the signs carried by the unsmiling fat white women with parkas and bad perms…”)

Even in her book Colors Insulting to Nature, Wilson employs “fat” in the same manner. It reads as an amplification of the detestableness of a character: “a fat, mean pervert,” “a fat, scab-covered ex-con,” “a fat, blonde detective.”

Fat jokes can be funny in their place, though mostly only about those in the public eye. But Wilson’s throwaway slights are something else. A habit of making tired jokes about something as banal as people being fat puts Wilson in the rarefied company of comic titans like Tucker Max, Carlos Mencia and every middling sitcom writer in the history of ever. They betray Wilson’s inability to move past simple character assassination, something she has said is the easy way out: “I could churn out one-paragraph character descriptions all day long. It’s making the characters do anything meaningful once you’ve described them that’s difficult.”

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Back in JC Penney, not much time is needed to debunk Wilson’s next claim: “A good 96 percent of the Penney’s inventory is made of polyester.” It is simply not true. While Penneys stocks a good deal of polyester, I found entire lines that were largely 100-percent or 90-percent cotton, including St. John’s Bay, Liz & Co., American Living, and I ♥ Ronson. Wilson’s claim that “The few clothing items that are made of cotton make a sincere point of being cotton and tell you earnestly about their 100-percent cottonness with faux-hand-scribbled labels so obviously on the Green bandwagon they practically spit pine cones” is also obviously parody-and preposterous.
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Speaking of things I did not see. Wilson:

The strategy, and a good one, is to mark nearly every item on every rack 30 to 60 percent off, and announce this with signs shouting “Doorbuster!”

While a great deal of Penney’s merchandise was marked down in this target range, it was far from “nearly every item.” I would estimate maybe-maybe!-50%. Rather like most of the stores in Manhattan, apart from Tom Ford. And there were no cartoonish “Doorbuster!” signs.

It is understandable that Wilson’s Times column is fundamentally about mocking things. (Although the column has a thin skin: editors recently removed fellow Critical Shopper writer Mike Albo from the paper for his unrelated attendance at a junket.) How else do you make a column about shopping entertaining? But this is a complicated thing to do in a newspaper environment. A statement in the New York Times that 96% of everything at JC Penney is made of polyester is not an exaggeration for literary benefit, but a cold hard fact.

And then there is her Salon piece about the second Clinton inauguration, in which events occur that are hard to believe.

“At that point, another bartender, an older Uzbekistanian, cut through and grabbed me sharply by the arm. “These is the chippest event I ever been a part of my whole life!” he screamed, his eyes spinning in fury, beginning to tear. “Nobody can dreenk the hwine!” he bawled, pointing a shaking hand at one of the boxes of Fine Chablis. “They pay for these garbage, spit out, so deezgahsting. Hwomen in dress so fancy carrying the bag of Cheeto. Ees terribol.” This was a man whose lifelong dream was to escape to this country and wear a small American flag pin on his lapel and be in the same room with the president, the embodiment of Democracy. For him, the cheapness of the inaugural ball exposed our country in a horrible, heartbreaking way, like seeing Santa Claus being hauled away for a violation of Megan’s Law.”

Funny? Sure. And while life is strange and unbelievable, it is hard to believe that an Uzbek immigrant working the bar at such a tony event ever accosted a guest with that tirade.
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Beyond the parody and even the exaggeration, there are the clichés. Wilson’s stereotyping (Penney’s fictional obese mannequins are “like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of ‘Roseanne'”) isn’t limited to middle America or the fat. In reviewing Oscar de la Renta, she writes of women so wealthy “that they can wear white satin on the soles of their shoes since their daily walk involves only the floor mats of bulletproof limousines, Hereke silk carpets and the soft, clean heads of the middle class.”

To her, things are “Hemingway types” and “pure Scarface: something Suge Knight might wear.” When she writes of “despots” she only sees an unimaginative amalgamation of our worst stereotypes of Africa, all straight out of Hollywood: “all my wardrobe really needs is a gold-plated Kalashnikov, an entourage of boy soldiers and a necklace of human teeth.” Writing about her family? It shares all the plot stylings of a Ben Affleck film from his Jennifer Lopez era: “We all come together for Christmas under our one unifying conviction that Christmas is less a religious holiday than the one day a year we all start drinking before noon.”

Wilson’s slamming of JC Penney was merely the use of her usual tactics at an extremely loud volume. Contempt for even the most modestly utilitarian values-for icons popularized in “real” American locales where people are not concerned with updating their wardrobes more than once a decade-is itself a terrible cliché. I doubt this bothers her, as she adopts for herself a special kind of clichéd creature exclusive to our nation’s factories of pretension: the unapologetic, mean-spirited, spoiled big-city kid. In mundane, feel-good movies for the masses, such people travel a character arc that results in them seeing their behavior for what it is. In real life that rarely happens; instead they carp themselves into old age, their act finally becoming the actual.

After the JC Penney column appeared, Wilson was accused by most of being mean. So what? Lots of people are mean. Karl Rove. Michael Kors. Perez Hilton. Most 8th graders. Being mean sells and is often funny and makes some people feel better about themselves. Even the New York Times is cottoning on. And no one is begrudging Wilson the right to take her well-thumbed TMZ thesaurus to the foibles of fashion. The point of Wilson’s contributions is supposed to be right there in the title, “Critical Shopper.” For clarity, it should really be “Critical. Shopper.” She loses the “Shopper” entirely though when she veers off the intended target, blows up the marketplace on trumped-up charges and concludes by unnecessarily shooting the bystanders.