all I wanted was a camisole. Nothing fancy. Simple spaghetti straps, plain white silk. One of my wife's Christmas presents was a blouse of sheer silk and patterned velvet, and I knew she'd need to wear something underneath. This day I was meeting a friend for lunch and asked her if she'd mind popping into a lingerie store. Usually, having a woman with you is protection against The Treatment. Not today.
Entering the store, I was immediately approached by a saleswoman. I explained what I wanted and what it was to be worn with, and was taken to a selection of garments closer in length to a slip than a camisole, with wide, adjustable straps and elaborate seaming that must have cost the eyesight of several Asian children. No, I explained again, a plain camisole.
"Ah," said the saleswoman, "have you seen these?" This time I was led to camisoles, all of them riotous with embossed paisley patterns. No, I insisted again, with markedly less cordiality. This was to be worn under a sheer patterned blouse. It had to be plain. "Oh," said the saleswoman, and then, with the amazement of someone discovering that a pet responds to its name, "You know what you're talking about, don't you?"
After years of Christmas and birthday shopping for my wife, for girlfriends before her, for my mother since I was a kid, you'd think I'd be used to what happens to a man who chances to buy clothes for the woman he loves. Unless saleswomen suspect he's gay, a man who chooses to give a gift of female clothing is treated the way women used to be treated when they ventured into an auto showroom. (Saturn recently ran a series of ads playing on this. In one ad, a woman who gets first-rate treatment from her Saturn dealer winds up not just buying a car but selling them.)
It's The Treatment. I can spot it 50 yards away. The saleswoman notices me, glides in my direction pretending to straighten a rack or display, and then, inclining toward me, in soothing, measured, concerned tones, the way you might speak to the enfeebled, asks, "Is there anything I can help you with?" I look back at the expectant face and think that this is what immigrants to Ellis Island might have encountered had the guards been given sensitivity training.
Over the years I've developed my own technique for rebuffing The Treatment. "If you can, I'll let you know," I say, trying to sound neither rude nor encouraging, merely like someone big enough to cross the street by himself.
Even when I'm able to find what I want without any help, there remains the obstacle of the checkout. Just the other day, at Ann Taylor, I had the virtues of the "Gift Receipt" explained to me. This is a slip that doesn't show the price but can be used to return the gift. A fine idea, and one more retailers should adopt. Except that I suspect too many men have the policy explained to them the way it is explained to me: with the unmistakable subtext "She'll be back."
To be fair, there's a good reason too many saleswomen treat their male customers this way. When it comes to clothes, most men are idiots. We are raised to believe it's deeply unmasculine to care about the way we look, let alone the way anyone else does. Having money certainly doesn't improve the situation. Go to the offices of any company with a Friday casual-day dress policy and you'll see a virtual parade of those Garanimals for adult males -- Dockers, Levi-Strauss's line of interchangeable chinos, rugby shirts -- all ready to be combined with little thought and even less imagination. Einstein had one solution: he owned a dozen identical suits so that he didn't have to think about such things, which is at least an acknowledgement that dressing takes some consideration.
Yesterday, I was shopping for my mother-in-law in a shop catering to women with mature, fuller figures and was asked, in delicate tones of trepidation, "Are you looking for a gift?" (No, I've decided to become a transvestite who wears everything three sizes too large.) But every time I'm treated this way, I know that, by and large, my sex is to blame.
So to all you clueless tripods out there shopping for the women in your life this holiday season, it's time you learned that you can dress yourself well without knowing a note of "Judy at Carnegie Hall." It's time you figured out that a man who shows evidence of giving some thought to his appearance gets noticed by women, just as a man who shows evidence of giving some thought to what his wife or girlfriend wears gets appreciated. (The best advice I ever got about women, from a woman, was that they notice the quality and condition of a man's shoes.)
And maybe, if more of you start to pay attention to these things, in a few years you'll turn on your TV and there I'll be, behind the counter of the little shop where I finally found that camisole, saying, "I liked it so much, I decided to sell them."
A cure for Mad Cow disease?
They are happy, and they're stress free, they're clean.
-- U.K. farmer Alan Bristow, whose cows lie on bovine water beds instead of straw. (From "Straw poll: Cows like water beds," reported Wednesday by Cable News Network)