The Awful Truth

Cintra Wilson broods about the excessive happiness of Shalom Harlow, the closing of Woolworth's and the unequal distribution of pleasure in the world.

Published September 23, 1997 6:34PM (EDT)

fall fell on us like a cartoon safe in New York yesterday, and the air just socked in that Christmas/Thanksgivingy aura of rosemary-tinged bittersweetness and reminders of family bathos and ex-loves. Memories of the recently dead are flitting about in swatches like sudden hits of laundry steam and pine. The bright cold has that crispy heartache quality to it, where you can't believe how lucky you are to be walking in the hard morning sunlight on your own two strong legs, tensed against the new wind, and you also can't believe how sadly and violently impermanent every damn thing is. Yesterday, summer '97 snuck out the window forever, without even saying goodbye.

There are three things I can't stop thinking about, this sudden fall: supermodel Shalom Harlow, Nike and the closing of Woolworth's.

Shalom Harlow lives in my neighborhood, with her equally inhumanly pretty boyfriend, and the problem with them is they appear to be having an absolutely wonderful life. She is one of the best-paid people in the world. God knows who he is, but they undoubtedly met at some gala fashion show in some old garden palace in Firenze, where she was draped in the quattrocento courtyard against a twilit fig tree with morning glories twisted into her bangs, wearing nothing but a sheer organza tube slip and a $75,000 tangle of rare orange pearls, drinking a Dom Bellini out of a Tang dynasty finger bowl. He was probably looking for the ivory-tipped dart he had rashly shot out of an original Zulu blowgun that was only borrowed and supposed to be a prop, and he found it sticking suggestively in the trunk crotch about an inch and a half over her sleek, minky ocean of brunet curls, and huge blue eyes met huger blue eyes and they spoke in some kind of inaudible, spiritual free-prose and recognized that physical perfection and love and wealth had all instantaneously achieved some obscene, whirling celestial synthesis between them, and that they were the Original Man and Original Woman restored to power in Eden here in the late 20th century.

They are always clutching each other and giggling and kissing deeply but politely in the supermarket and whispering important little secrets to each other, dressed down exactly alike in their sealed, hermetic, beatific world, and everyone else who comes within 20 feet of them looks somehow like criminally obese shrub trolls, wretched from cosmic justice's foiling of their own selfish and foul-minded plans.

There goes the .0000000009 percent, I say, when I see Shalom and her Man.
All the looks, all the cash and all the fun, apparently. Glad somebody's having everything all at once. I just wish the rest of it all were more evenly distributed, like everything else in America and the world.

The other day, I went shopping on one of the final days of Woolworth's, the senile five-and-dime where you could once find anything from lawnmower cozies to oil lamps shaped like golden owls to Barbie windmills and top it all off with a 99-cent chili dog and an Orange Julius. By the time I got there, the shelves were a savaged carcass with all of the packaging entrails gored and exposed. Nobody was bothering to re-stack or re-wrap anything. The store was an old, obsolete creature that had already died; its custodians would never again bother to clip on its mock necktie or help its arthritic hands open a can of Vienna sausages or mix up its home permanent kit again.

Woolworth's was long past those modest vanities, and now the carrion shoppers were performing their entropic role. When I was standing in line with a pair of stockings and a couple of picture frames, I saw who the Woolworth's family was -- all the jittery, blotchy, innocent elderly people on terrifically constricted budgets, buying up the last new washcloths they'd ever use, young black women buying armloads of normally prohibitively priced baby accessories and hard young professional $16,000-a-year temp chicks with their plastic baskets filled with discounted cosmetics -- probably the same frustrated young women who ball-pointed the goatee and round glasses on the cosmetic display-photo of Shalom Harlow, staring winsomely out at Woolworth's shoppers through her glossy cardboard window from an empyrean galaxy far, far away. The poor neighborhood old folks would undoubtedly really miss their Woolworths, where they could always buy their Kleenex pocket-packs and Suave hand lotion and treat themselves to a nice grilled American-cheese sandwich and Carnation ice-milk for 10 percent off every Thursday.

While Woolworth's closed, two brand new Dolce & Gabbanas opened in New York this week, with 10-foot photo-murals of Shalom or her physiological equivalent in the windows, sporting $2,000 plastic raincoats and $130 stocking caps.

When I was flying back to the United States recently from Jakarta, I was listening to an obnoxious young woman, apparently an ad executive, talking to a couple of older guys who were apparently also ad executives. Like me, she was on her way back from visiting super-impoverished Indonesia. "So I had this pair of shoes," she was saying in the hyper-animated, entitled-to-your-rapt-attention way that spoiled little girls who get older always have, "and let me tell you, they smelled so bad, I decided to leave them behind! So I'm taking these shoes out of my bag near this village and these people started running up to me and saying, 'Nike American! Nike American!' and offering me trades! So I was like, sure, I'll take that sarong, I'll take that wall-clock, I'll take that and that!" She began laughing and the two older men started laughing with her. "This woman finally tried my shoes on," she continued, "and I kid you not, she started to walk to work in them and she was crying. Tears -- I'm not kidding you -- were rolling down her face."

"Nike American!" said one of the men. "Why, I'd cry too, who wouldn't?" I decided he wanted to get into her pants.

"Yep! The real McCoy!" said the woman.

The whole exchange turned me so emotionally sideways, I wanted to beat both of them into the tarmac with Tiger Woods' 9-iron. I really hate it when the overprivileged act like they are the only three-dimensional entities in the world and everyone else is an amusing finger puppet. According to Michael Moore's great lefty diatribe "Downsize This," 36 percent of all retail Nikes are made in Indonesia by young women who work 50 hours a week for a starting rate of $2 a day, a wage they can't live on. It would take most Indonesian villagers about two months to earn a pair of Nikes, and that's if they didn't spend any money eating or living. The $250 million that Nike spent on advertising in 1994 has successfully brainwashed all world ghettos, even the very people that Nike itself is keeping below the poverty line: Nikes are the magic shoes, the real McCoy, they can make you jump so high you can catch a glimpse of that world on luminous billboards and the international power-glow of MTV. Show your love for Michael Jordan, own a true piece of the hero, share the diamond-studded frame with the face of God.

Local unions must be established to safeguard the fair distribution of worldly pleasure. Shalom Harlow is the CEO of all human desire. If you want to picket, I know where she and her boyfriend hang out.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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