Dear Princess of Luxembourg,
It’s been over forty years since I met you, while I was wrapping toys at Harrods Department Store during the Christmas season of 1967. You appeared to be slightly older than I, which would make you approximately…well, there’s no need not go into that. I just hope you’re still around to receive my sincere and heartfelt apology for my ungracious, though in no way intentional, disrespectful behavior.
As context rather than an excuse, allow me to provide you with some explanatory background. I was raised in Canada, a former British colony, as you know from your tutoring, and although Canadians are known for their good manners – at least compared to Americans – we have no tradition, at least no formalized tradition of status or class.
Canadians are an immigrant people. We (or our forbearers) all hail from other places. Some of us, me, for example, are Jewish, a religion that instructs us to treat all people as we would like to be treated ourselves, but bend a knee to no one. We’ve gotten into some hot water for that one, but what are you going to do? It’s in the Bible.
I was raised with a democratic (with a small “d”) spirit. At camp, we sang songs like, “I’m proud to be me, but I also see, you’re just as proud to be you.” We are all equal – that was the message. I used to lead a song called “We’re In The Same Boat, Brother.” What did it say? There is one boat, and everyone’s in it – children of immigrants, and princesses of Luxembourg.
That was my training. That’s what I believed.
For reasons too circuitous to go into, during the run-up to “Christmas 1967”, I found myself working at Harrods, wrapping toys for the holidays. The idea to do that came from a classmate in my acting class named Belinda Rokeby-Johnson. You might know her. She seems like she might move in your circles.
I was seriously in need of work. Belinda told me that, starting around the middle of October, her friends would always take jobs at Harrods, as the store took on extra employees for the Christmas rush. The reason her friends did that, Belinda explained, was so they could take advantage of the seventeen per cent “Employee Discount”, which they applied to the purchase of chinchilla coats.
Desperate for employment, I applied at Harrods, and I got a job. Not as a salesman; I did not have the wardrobe for that. I was assigned, instead, to an out of sight location – an airless, windowless storeroom, where with others of my undistinguished ilk, I wrapped presents purchased from the Toy Department, as they rolled in, collected in large wire baskets, on a ratchety, unstoppable conveyor belt.
I was not a great toy wrapper. I was slow, which could have meant I was meticulous, until you looked at my output and you realized I just stunk. At the end of the day, my nail, where the receipts were impaled after the wrapping of each toy order had been completed, always had the fewest number of receipts on it. Even though I consistently grabbed the baskets with the fewest number of toys in them, especially if they were small and rectangular toys, like a board game, or deck of cards, rather than a tricycle. Wrapping a tricycle could easily take me till Easter.
I am getting to you. I beg your patience.
Harrods had rules for their employees. We were not allowed to walk directly into the store. Those doors were exclusively for customers. Employees had to “clock in” in a building across the street, descend to a dark and winding catacombs, proceed through a tunnel under the road, climb some clanky, metal stairs, before unobtrusively entering the premises.
Once inside, employees were required to use the stairs, rather than the elevators and escalators, such conveyances, once again, being strictly “Customers Only!” As was the “Banking Hall” with its “Harrods Green”-upholstered couches, where store patrons would meet, before heading off to shop or enjoy a sumptuous lunch. Employees lunched in the subsidized “Employees Canteen”, situated on the top floor of the building.
My subversion was intermittent. Some rules I obeyed, and some, I didn’t. I had to enter from across the street, because I needed my “time-card” punched, in order to get paid. However, I threw caution to the winds, taking full advantage of the “Customers Only!” escalators.
Though I dined in the canteen, because it was cheap, I invariably took my meal-money savings, and proceeded to the Harrods “Smoke Shop”, where I bought an expensive Cuban cigar, which I then took down to the “Banking Hall”, where I puffed away, comfortably ensconces on one of the Hall’s overstuffed couches. If there was time left on my lunch break, I would, in the midst of the elegantly attired customers, kick off my shoes, curl up on the couch, and take a nap.
All right. Here we go.
On the last days immediately preceding Christmas, Harrods could no longer guarantee that the presents would be delivered on time. Therefore, after being wrapped – by myself and my cohorts – the customers were required to retrieve their purchases at a “Pick-up Kiosk”, and transport them home personally. This was particularly the case for presents that were intended to be mailed abroad. With Christmas closing in, their timely arrival was no longer possible.
Delivering the presents to the “Pick-up Kiosk” was my one chance to escape the lung-damaging dreariness of the “Toy Wrapping Room” and interact directly with the customers. Once, meeting an “Earl”, I asked, “What do you get for being an ‘Earl’? Do you get any special treatment, like can you park anywhere you want?” The “Earl” guffawed at my colonial silliness.
One day, I was delivering some purchases to the “Pick-up Kiosk”, when my ears were bombarded by the angrily raised voice of an unhappy female customer.
It was you.
What I rapidly gleaned was that, somehow, your presents had been indifferently wrapped, and inadequate for transport. And you were making a big fuss about it. I recall my first words in response to your tirade:
“Lady, you are giving me a headache.”
In quick order, I jumped in to help. I scooped up your presents, and invited you to accompany me back to the “Toy Wrapping Room”, where I assured you I would personally re-wrap your gifts to your complete satisfaction.
I escorted you “backstage”, a dank, under-lit tomb, where the dregs of society toiled in obscurity, wrapping Christmas presents for rich people’s children. I sat you down on a large roll of corrugated cardboard, distracting you with chatter, as I dutifully serviced your gift-wrapping needs. When the time came to tie the parcel’s bow, I recruited you to press down your impeccably manicured forefinger on the knot.
Though in highly unfamiliar surroundings, you seemed to be having a good time.
And so was I.
Finally, we were done. I escorted you back to the store, accompanying you to the exit. I said, “It was nice meeting you.” And that, I imagined, would be that.
You instructed me to wait. Then, you reached into your purse, and you drew out a five-pound note, handing it to me, with an “I appreciate your help.”
I immediately took offence.
“I don’t want money!”
It was deeply offended and righteously indignant. The money ruined my whole idea of what was going on. I thought we were two people, having an adventure. Humans beings from disparate backgrounds, thrown together in an unlikely encounter. I thought we were equal.
Whatever my fantasies, we were in reality, “The Fancy Lady and The ‘Nobody’ Who Wrapped Toys.”
You forced the fiver on me, saying, “Give it to your favorite charity.” And then, you were gone.
Moments later, a posse of high-ranking Harrods officials wearing striped pants and cutaway coats engulfed me, nervously peppering me with questions about what had just taken place. I told them, and asked them what was going on?
It was then I discovered you were the Princess of Luxembourg.
Sometimes, absorbed in myself, I neglect to check things out from the other person’s point on view. You weren’t trying to insult me with that tip. You were trying to be nice. Appreciative. In your continentally royal way.
And I was just rude.
Your Highness, I would like to, belatedly, say
It was a generous gesture, and I should never have reacted as I did. Full disclosure: The money never went to “my favorite charity.” I bought a cigar with it. But I imagine you knew I would. Well, not the cigar, but that I’d spend in on me.
You probably don’t remember any of this. I remember it all. Why wouldn’t I?
How often you meet a princess?
And tell her to shove her five pounds?
Well, not literally, but that was my tone.
I’m sorry, again.
And Merry Christmas.
The guy from the store.
Tomorrow, Dr. M and I are going to London for sixteen days, a week of which involves an organized tour of theater and British culture. I am taking some I-Contraption with me, in case I decide to post when we're away. I have also left enough posts to tide you over till I get back. I don't know how this will play out. Being me, I cover all the bases. So either I'll talk to you when I get back. Or before that. I currently have no idea which.