For the past few weeks I have been working with employees in retail through my consulting business, Fordham Road Collaborative. One day during a break I was on the sales floor talking to customers when an elderly couple came up. They were looking for a pair of jeans for the man. I thought it would be easy enough, so I decided to help. When he told me what he wanted–jeans, blue, no holes, no patches, no buttons, no shredded anything–I showed him Calvin Klein. Then Guess, Hudson, and Diesel. Nothing satisfied him.
“What kind of jeans, exactly, are you looking for?” I asked. “Blue,” he answered. “And the style–straight, slim, skinny, boot cut?” “Just jeans.”
I thought immediately of the story “The Martini Scandal” (New York Times, 1965) by Russell Baker in which a guy goes to a swank restaurant for lunch and orders “a martini.” The wait staff and manager have no idea what to do with him. They offer suggestions: American vodka martini, Beefeater with a twist, Limehouse gin with South American vermouth. Nothing worked. And the time my daughter went into an Italian deli on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and asked for “salami.” The guy at the counter stared at her and gestured toward the fifteen different kinds of salami on display.
“All I want is a pair of jeans. Is that so hard? I don’t know about any of those other things,” the man said.
I sent him to the Levi’s section. His wife sat down on her walker, which had a fold-out seat. I didn’t want to leave her alone, so I waited until he returned. It took a while. “Mister Rosenberg is very particular,” she explained.
They met in the late 1930’s when they were still in their teens. Their families had escaped Nazi Germany and settled in New York. After marriage, they opened a small boutique on the Lower East Side. I knew they were old but had no idea she was ninety-one and her husband ninety-four. They were in terrific shape. I made a joke about her being attracted to older men. Then I went in for what used to be called the “sixty-four thousand dollar question.”
“The secret?” she repeated. “To marriage.” “Oh, that’s easy. I let Mister Rosenberg be Mister Rosenberg and he lets me be me.”
Here was a couple that had been married for seventy-five years and whose grandchildren were my age. They probably didn’t remember a time when they were not married. And here was the kicker. They were both happy. Sure, Mr. Rosenberg was gruff, but I could tell it was part of the what-has-the-world-come-to? act. He had a dry humor and was as down-to-earth as you could imagine, especially when he told me his price range for the jeans: $40, “give or take.”
Mrs. Rosenberg exuded pure happiness. She was content to sit on her walker waiting for her husband as shoppers rushed by. She smiled, observing the chaos around her as if it didn’t matter. I am sure it didn’t.
Maybe that was another part of their secret. It’s not about not caring; it’s about indifference, which is another way of saying let Mr. Rosenberg be Mr. Rosenberg. That is an extremely difficult thing to do, because if we let others be themselves, then we have to do the same for ourselves. How many of us are ready for that? The alternative is a life spent contending with people who have to control everything and everyone around them.
“Oh, that would be exhausting,” Mrs. Rosenberg agreed. Then she thought for a moment and said, “Of course, there is one other thing.” “Yes?” “We used to dance.”