It was the end of my first day on the job as a shop girl in an antique jewelry store in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Long glass cases on mahogany legs, a grandfather clock in the corner—they didn’t just sell jewelry but made and repaired it as well in the workshop at the back of the store. The last part of the closing routine was to sweep the floor. Finished, I was walking with the dust pan towards the trash basket next to the owner’s desk when suddenly both the shopkeeper and his benchman yelled “Stop!” This, they explained, pointing to the sweepings, was “Jeweler’s Dust,” and directed me to a wooden barrel. It was about half-full of the same stuff I had just swept up.
Every five years or so the barrel was emptied, handful by handful, into a sifter revealing bits and pieces from jewelry projects—one-point diamonds, small rubies and sapphires, garnets and pearls—that had escaped the benchman’s fingers, as well as gold and silver earring backs and necklace clasps that had dropped to the floor. Dust indeed! Emptying day was an event, done not just handful by handful but slowly, layer by layer, the dust bin’s contents like geological strata, each level of precious debris bringing back memories of past custom-made pieces, and sometimes the clients they were made for.
The busiest day of our year was Christmas Eve. People looking for the final gift on their list, the most important one, something unique. If you’ve ever worked as a shop clerk, waitress, or bartender you know there can be great energy in the room when you “get slammed,” when everyone seems to come in at once; it’s not chaos but rather the opposite. Some sort of hive instinct takes over. The staff is in sync, you’re aware of everything around you, it’s not just speed but rhythm. One Christmas Eve we were busy from the moment we opened until well into the evening. There was heavy snowfall. Folks came in with shoulders and hats covered in white, saying: “I’m so glad you’re still open!” At one point, I looked up to see a gentleman waiting patiently. I had two others before him, but I made eye contact, and he nodded quietly. He was perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed; a white-collar man. But there was something a little sad about him. When it was his turn, he began apologetically, “I can see how busy you are, but I don’t know exactly what I want!” I asked him who he was buying for. “I run an office in Chicago. On my way to the airport, I saw your store. I have a staff of five secretaries. They’re wonderful, I could not do my job without them. I could just give money, but I wanted it to be more personal, but, but . . .” I summed it up for him: “You’re buying for five women,” I said, “who all work in the same office, and you want all of them to feel special without anyone feeling above or below the others.” He looked at me, smiled gratefully, and said, “Yes. That is exactly right.” I immediately thought of the Hungarian rings and went to the window display to get them. Coral, moonstone, amber, topaz, in cluster settings of vermeil, some dome shaped, others slightly more built up, no two alike, could be sized to fit, all the same price. “Perfect,” he said. I put each one in a Chinese silk ring box, and he set off for the airport a happy man.
Yes, he was grateful that I had ascertained his problem and summed it up for him, but was this mature man really clueless about women? Or was he hesitant to put into words something he feared would label him “politically incorrect,” and glad I had said it for him? Now, this was in the mid-eighties. Gender ideology was not at the level of national farce that we are suffering through today—and national tragedy with the sexual mutilation of our children—but because abortion had nullified the Biology is Destiny distinction, it was understood that making observations about gender differences of any kind branded one an ignorant peasant, hence the businessman’s hesitation. Thing is, by presuming all gender-based observations are invalid, substantive conversations are taken off the table.
If the businessman from Chicago had an all-male staff and bought them all the same gift, identical coffee mugs, say, would offense be taken? More likely some form of male bonding would kick in. So what makes women so sensitive about being lumped together? Could it be because men are raised to see themselves as making their own mark in the world, as blazing new paths—every guy is Daniel Boone—whereas women are . . . a supply? An outrageous example of this way of thinking is the recent emergence of a male subculture known as “incels”, which is short for involuntary celibate, guys who are unable to get a “romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.” Their failure to find a “romantic partner” may be due in large part to the fact that they want a Barbie even though they’re not a Ken, that the women out there who might give them a tumble aren’t good enough for them. They’re snobs. But this talk about being deprived of a sexual partner “despite desiring one” is what really floors me. It epitomizes the “supply” idea; they want a female and it’s somehow the responsibility of the available stock to automatically serve one up! These idiots are oblivious to how their petulance puts them in a bad light, but is their thinking really so alien to our sociological-sexual zeitgeist? Aren’t men introduced to this attitude early on in life with the Adam’s Rib story?
What if we viewed our life experience as jeweler’s dust, with small bits and pieces that can slip through our fingers, seemingly insignificant at the time, but which add up to stuff worth sifting through now and then? What if we refused to allow the ones with the microphone to determine a convenient political narrative and demand everyone conform to it simply because it makes their mission easier? What if we agreed that women recoiling at being lumped together is not vanity but a form of resistance, and that it’s not automatically an insult to notice it? And to be more like the hive and less like the lemmings? Because as much as it’s valuable not to miss the forest for the trees, it’s also valuable not to miss the trees for the forest?