It is at this time of the year that my thoughts turn to my one and only brush with European royalty.
(I realize I have told this story before. But I know I will tell it differently, because I am incapable of telling a story the same way twice. It is simply the way it works. Newly recalled specifics join the expository parade. Tangential recollections. I’ve become a more proficient writer in the interim. Besides, I do not remember how I told it the last time, nor what I entitled that blog post, so I could not plagiarize myself if I wanted to. Get ready for the same story, told differently. Let me also mention in passing that there are many preambling setups, explanatory side trips and ancillary incidents that I am choosing not to include. If I did include them, this story would run – serialized – for maybe a week. And I do not want that. Instead, I’m going to try my best and avoid meandering and stay on the “main road”, to keep the post length reasonable. Though I have unhelpfully just written the most extended parenthetical in the entire history of Just Thinking.)
Okay. So here’s the story. With no – okay, minimal – meanderings.
In 1967, for ten or so weeks between the beginning of October and two days before Christmas (I was supposed to work until the day before Christmas but I was fired a day early for leading my co-workers out on strike. What was that about? Sorry. No meanderings.), I was employed at London’s legendary Harrods Department Store as a hired-for-the-season member of a ragtag crew of “Holiday Gift” toy wrappers. (How I ended up at Harrods is a fascinating story itself, but, well…you know the drill.)
As the days grew closer to December 25th, Harrods was unable to insure that their delivery trucks (for local deliveries) or Her Majesty’s mail service (for deliveries to the “Continent”) would be able to get the purchased presents to their destinations in time for Christmas. And what good would they be if after that?
“Remember that big holiday a few days ago? Well these are for then.”
Not good. Kids cry. Possibly the quintessential definition of an “anti-climax.”
The store’s policy was therefore to cut off their deliveries five days before Christmas, and instead require all last-minute purchasers to transport their presents home themselves.
For that purpose, on the store’s Main Floor, a “Purchase Collection” kiosk was set up, not unlike a “hat check” booth in 1940’s “nightclub” movies. After the packages were professionally wrapped by the likes of me and scalawags of my ilk in what we affectionately though not inaccurately christened “The Dungeon”, the then-wrapped gifts would be hand-delivered to that kiosk, where, after their “Christmas Shopping” was completed, the customers would collect their purchases and shuttle them personally to their destinations.
Okay, so it’s my turn to deliver the packages to the kiosk. Now normally, Harrods’ “Ancillary Help” was invisible to the public. The male employees customers did interact with were all attired in an obligatory uniform – white shirt and dark tie, a cutaway jacket, and gray and black striped pants and a pair of black, expensive-looking, spit-polished shoes.
By contrast, when I rolled up – “rolled up”, because the wrapped presents were stacked high in a shopping cart for more efficient transportation from “The Dungeon” to the kiosk, I was dressed in a brown, less-than-recently-laundered pair of corduroy pants, a fading flannel shirt with a not as white as it used to be t-shirt underneath it, and a pair of beige, high-topped suede desert boots.
So we really looked different.
A considerable distance before my arrival at the “Purchase Collection” kiosk, I could already hear a woman angrily berating the Harrods employee behind the counter. When I finally got there – Note: I do not recall my exact words on this occasion but I specifically recall my initial words, which were these:
“Lady, you are giving me a headache.”
The woman looked demonstrably taken aback. Not merely by my response, but by the fact that I was speaking to her at all.
She appeared to be in her mid-to-late twenties. Floor length winter coat with pristine white fur trim. Her radiant, dark hair, exquisitely coiffed, was pulled back, revealing a face that was marble, not in the sense of marble being hard and cold and impenetrable, but in the sense of marble being elegant, milky white and microscopically flawless. (Or am I talking about porcelain. Anyway...)
She was the most beautiful Gentile woman I had ever seen in my life.
Seeing her relax her guard a touch consequent to my unexpected opening salvo, I asked her to explain to me – calmly – what was going on. She informed me that her parcels had been inappropriately wrapped for overseas travel, and that there was a car outside waiting to take her to the airport, so that the parcel-packing problem needed to be corrected immediately.
I assured her that I would help her, and I told her,
I then proceeded to escort this transparently elegant lady back to “The Dungeon.”
Our arrival elicited a spontaneous commotion. It was Queen Elizabeth visiting a coalmine. Since there were no chairs available, I offered my guest a seat on a large roll of corrugated cardboard, which, lacking any alternative, she accepted.
Jabbering as I worked, to distract her from the urgent ticking of the clock and from the fact I had delivered her to a hellhole, I proficiently went about rewrapping her purchases for overseas travel.
The repair process pretty much just involved more protective insulation (corrugated cardboard) inside the box. The packages were then recovered in signature “Harrods Green” wrapping paper, followed by the final step – the thick, gold-braided twine, tied in a bow. For that final maneuver, I solicited – and received – the customer’s assistance. She arose from her cardboard settee and magnanimously pressed her finger down on the knot.
With the problem now solved, I escorted Milady back to the Main Floor, where she thanked me for my help, presented me with a five pound (nearly fifteen dollar) tip, which I huffily rejected but she forced me to take – “Give it to your favorite charity”, she advised me, in an effort to make me feel like an equal though we were both aware that I wasn’t.
As I started back to my station, I was suddenly accosted by a half dozen extremely agitated high-level managers, or something – I don’t know who they were; I had never run into them before who quickly surrounded me and bombarded me with questions.
What was the problem? Where had I taken her? Was she upset? Was there any talk of litigation? What had I done to her?
“She’s fine,” I assured them. “She had a problem with a parcel and I fixed it.”
Before heading back back to normalcy, I took a moment to inquire,
“Who was she?”
To which I was informed,
“That was the Princess of Luxembourg.”
“Oh,” I replied, less excited than retroactively impressed.
“She gave me five pounds”, I reported, then adding,
“Can I keep it?”
I think about her now and then, especially around this time of the year. I even once thought of writing a screenplay about the encounter, though in my re-imagined version, she invited me to Christmas in Luxembourg.
She probably doesn’t remember me. But that’s okay.
It only takes one person to keep a memory alive.