I was reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers yesterday when I came across this passage:
“Gazing at department store mannequins as if they possessed something essential and human that she lacked. Mannequins were carefully positioned to look natural, looking off in this direction or that but never at us. This was part of the Sears Mannequin Standard. My mother had worked for a short time as an assistant window dresser at the Sears in downtown Reno. She was given a booklet with a list of instructions, the most important being the no-eye-contact rule. If the mannequins made eye contact with the shoppers they would disrupt the dream, the shopper’s projection. A mannequin’s job was to sell us to ourselves in a more perfect version for $19.99.”
I was suddenly taken back to my own childhood and the Sears in Security Square Mall in Woodlawn, Maryland. My family shopped there fairly frequently. I had little interest in the merchandise but was fascinated by the layout and the internal geography of such a huge place. The “landscape” would change from department to department. As an only child until age 11, it was just me and one or both parents. They would frequently give me a long leash and I would usually wander off do one of two things—either use the clothing racks like a secret tunnel system as I disappeared inside them or, the more favorite of the two diversions, pretend I was a mannequin. In the clothing section, they would either have mannequin families or a few children mannequins grouped together. While my parents were shopping or waiting in the checkout line, I would try to make myself part of the mannequin display. I might step up on the white platform, stand next to my new best friend, place a hand gently on their shoulder, and stare off into the same distance as if we were sharing what might become a lifelong memory. A true moment. But I wan’t interested in the moment or what we might be staring at. What I was interested in was whether I could so accurately mimic a mannequin-esque pose and remain so still that the other shoppers would be fooled. I would breathe as slowly as possible and try not to blink and then a couple might pass by and a woman would say something like “That mannequin looks so real!” And her boyfriend would say “That’s because it is real!” And then my composure would fail and I’d smile or laugh. And so would they as they walked on through this materialistic wonderland. Even if no one noticed me, I enjoyed becoming part of the landscape. Hiding in plain sight.
Later, as a parent myself, I would try to distract my own toddler while my wife shopped and would ask him questions about the mannequins: Where did they come from? What did he think their names were? Usually, this would take a dark, humorous turn, especially in Ann Taylor Loft where the mannequins always seemed to be purposefully missing an appendage. We would run around like we were in a horror movie: “Ahh! They cut off that one’s foot! Don’t go over there, it’s where they chop off the heads!!!” Or we might try and figure out which employee was responsible for the beheadings. The child loved it. The wife would just sigh and shake her head.
Mannequins. Never forget they have stories of their own. And they are excellent listeners.