New York, January 2001.
‘I am looking for ear muffs,’ I told the sales assistant at Macy’s.
The girl lead me down the cluttered aisles of the department store, past the jewellery and the glove section, to a stand covered in small plastic boxes. ‘Here they are, Ma’am’, she said helpfully.
I was getting quite excited by the prospect of my imminent purchase. When I had first arrived in the city, a month earlier, everyone was wearing ear muffs – men, women, children and policemen. They came in all colours and fabrics. Pink fluffy ones, white plush ones, brown furry ones and a plain black style for men. All designed to protect New Yorkers’ ears from the icy wind. At first, true to my European dress sense, I had turned my nose up at them. A month later, ‘flu-ridden and feverish, I embarked on a search for ear muffs to comfort my sore ears.
I began opening the boxes, one after the other, handling the soft furry pads. I tried a pair on. An unpleasant sensation suddenly came over me. I took off the ear muffs and smelt them. There was a definite, animal scent. I looked at the label, to discover they were made of real fur. I replaced them on the stand and fought my way through the January sale crowds, out onto Fifth Avenue.
I decided to try Saks. I marched down the glittering aisles that were still decorated in festive tinsel, up to the display of ear muffs but – alas – no muffs there. I went in search of a sales assistant. She tried to look interested. ‘We don’t have any left, Ma’am. It’s the end of the season. We’re selling off all our winter stock because we’re bringing in our spring collection next week.’
‘Spring?!’ I gasped, ‘It’s January!’
The sales assistant looked at me tolerantly. ‘Try Macy’s’, she suggested.
‘I’ve just been there’, I replied.
‘Then perhaps try Bergdorf and Goodman’, she continued, obviously humouring me.
Once again, out into Fifth Avenue, at -7 Celsius. I watched with envy all those cosy muffs on the ears of warmly wrapped New Yorkers. I rubbed my own reddened earlobes with my woollen gloves. How was it possible that in the world capital of designer ear muffs, I couldn’t find a pair for myself?
I caught sight of the imposing front entrance to Tiffany & Co. and crossed over to the other side of the street. Bergdorf and Goodman was untainted by the sales crowds. There were subtle indications that many of their prices were discounted but no large, bright signs hanging overhead like in the other stores. I stood up straight and put on a vaguely bored expression that suggested I had seen all that luxury before – that in fact, I had been born to it. With that casual manner, I approached a sales assistant, ‘Good morning. I don’t suppose you have any ear muffs left, do you?’
She responded accordingly. ‘Certainly, Ma’am. This way, please’.
Success! My ears were already feeling warmer. I followed the girl down the glittering aisles, past well-to-do ladies in fur coats and diamonds. The air was filled with a blend of expensive perfume and leather. She stepped behind a counter, pulled out a drawer and handed me – lo, and behold – a pair of rich brown ear muffs. Light as a feather. Voluptuously soft. I tried them on. I felt my ears wriggle with pleasure. My hand could not stop stroking the muffs. I decided there and then, that on warm winter days, I would carry them in my pocket where I could fondle them any time I needed comforting –
‘Original mink, down to $85’, said the sales assistant.
I handed the offending item back to her.
‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘do you have any wool… or synthetic ones?’
All right, I should not have said synthetic.
‘No, Ma’am’, replied the sales assistant, a glint of contempt in her eye.
‘Do you know where I can buy some?’ I persevered.
‘No, Ma’am’, the sales assistant’s eyes were beginning to glaze over. ‘Perhaps try Macy’s or Saks’.
‘I’ve already been there’, I insisted and began explaining that it was not the $85 that were an issue – after all you expected to pay $85 for a pair of ear muffs (!) – the problem was the mink. It was a matter of principle. I came from London, and in London, it was considered a small crime against fashion to own ear muffs but a capital offence against political correctness to be seen wearing real fur ones. I expressed a hope that the sales assistant understood my predicament. She blatantly did not. ‘Try Bloomingdale’s’, she said. I strolled out of Bergdorf and Goodman’s wearing my best disdainful face.
Out on Fifth Avenue again, I felt cold and disappointed. I had to resign myself to my ears freezing. I was hungry and my feet were sore from all the walking. I did not see much point in trekking over to Bloomingdale’s. The staff there was bound to be animal-unfriendly, like the rest of New York. I ventured there, nevertheless.
Once again, I was being walked down crowded aisles with too many glaring lights glaring in too many mirrors, to a polished wooden counter covered with round, plastic boxes. All were inscribed with ‘Bloomingdale’s’ in Art Deco style gold lettering and contained dark coloured muffs. Green, purple, grey. Irritable from hunger, I opened a box and pulled a pair of brown ones, held together by a black velvet Alice band. They were soft and cosy on the ears. I examined the label and saw the word ‘rabbit’. I was going to cast them aside when I noticed another word – ‘sheared’. The ear muffs were made of sheared rabbit. I felt a sudden hope rise. I attracted the attention of the sales assistant. She looked up helpfully. ‘Excuse me’, I said, ‘these ear muffs are made from sheared rabbit, right?’ She replied affirmatively. I continued, ‘Is that the same system as shearing a sheep?’
‘Yes, that’s right’.
I needed one more piece of information to convince me. ‘So they don’t kill the rabbit?’
‘No, he’s just a bit cold, afterwards’.
I could have hugged the sales assistant. ‘I’ll buy these. How much are they?’
I pulled out the banknote with a sense of deep satisfaction. I asked the girl to cut off the label and wore the ear muffs there and then. I walked out of the store, forgetting that I was hungry, and decided to take a triumphant stroll down Fifth Avenue to celebrate. My ears were deeply content. And the bunny – albeit naked – lived on.