When the Macy's department store advertised a sale of surplus store mannequins and other display props recently, I was tempted to rush over to Gandy Boulevard and pick up an armless beauty or two. Then sanity took over and I stayed home. Been there, done that.
No, this wasn't an octogenarian's secret fantasy. It was an attempt to relive my experiences of 65 years ago when I was, for a few months, an assistant to the window trimmer in a St. Paul, Minn., department store.
Oh, the smirks of a 15-year-old lugging a nude mannequin through a crowded store, swathed only in a canvas drape. This was intended to hide the fact that the approved left hand grip went through a hole in the model's rear, where a metal rod was located that permitted the lady to stand upright. The right hand, of course, was placed somewhere discreetly under the mannequin's bust.
What was even racier was the fact the head window trimmer let me have a surplus mannequin, which I carried home in the same manner — this time on the open rear platform of a streetcar, as fellow passengers stared. The mannequin ultimately reposed in a corner of my bedroom, along with assorted postcard pinups, much to the amusement of my two little sisters, then 6 and 5 years old, who came in every day to giggle.
I acquired extra wigs, which had the texture of steel wool, so I could change my muse from a blond to a brunet at will. I also acquired a pair of hosiery model legs, garbed in silk hose and shoes, that I allowed to protrude fetchingly from beneath my bed. In the other corner was my record player and an ancient set of trap drums. My mother apparently concluded this was normal behavior for a boy who was to graduate from high school at 16.
Mostly, I thought all this equipage was funny, in the manner of Olsen & Johnson, a team of slapstick co medians dear to Minnesotan hearts. (I eventually got to be a one-night stooge for Olsen & Johnson, but that's another story.)
Mannequins in those days were not as sophisticated as today's models. They were mostly fragile plaster, and over time, chips would appear and fingernails and toenails would lose their color.
But one thing remains the same: Like Venus de Milo, their arms come off. They lock in place at the shoulder. And with a little ingenuity you can make these babies do everything from simple gestures to thumbing their noses.
That was a major challenge to me, working mostly in the depths of the display department. From time to time I had to help put a new model in the show window.
Now, the store requirement was that a cloth had to be erected around the window while it was being changed. Again, it was modesty that ruled. But what 15-year-old really abides fully by the rules? I managed to forget the curtain sometimes and would live for that wonderful moment when some matron would peer into the window and say, "Good heavens, Ethel, he's alive!"
Mostly, I helped the window dressers, as they were known, with pins and such items as fake grass and snow. I also developed a medical problem — if I rose too quickly from a crouching position in the window, I would get vertigo, and the risk of falling into the display and wrecking everything became very real indeed. Maybe that was what brought my career as apprentice window trimmer to its end. (Or was it only the end of vacation?)
In any case, I went on to other part-time jobs that included working in a fur-coat cold storage room (job terminated by pneumonia); crank turner at an apple cider booth at the Minnesota State Fair (worms and leaves included); and the pinnacle: thumb-turner in a glove factory. (I lasted one day turning the thumbs of mittens right side out, driven mad by the monotony and the fact that my co-workers spoke only Klopstokian or some such arcane tongue.)
It was thus a great relief when I graduated to shoe salesman in the ladies shoe department. And better yet, I had training for this job. If you can put shoes on a plaster mannequin, you can do well with a live human being.
Jerry Blizin is a retired journalist living in Tarpon Springs.