Looking for Christmas at Macy's (Mim Kagol)

Macy’s on 34th Street, a Saturday night three weeks before Christmas. The nip in the air and the brisk breeze made us pull our hoods and scarves tight against our ears. Bright lights, big city—with crowds both overstressed and festive, it seemed as if everyone in New York City was downtown that night. Someone in our tour group had said to be sure to go to Macy’s and see the decorations. To us first-time visitors to the big city with a free hour before dinner, it seemed like the right thing to do, so my sister-in-law Kathy and I struck out down Sixth Avenue.

My first thought, as we entered a Macy’s side door, was that the interior was kind of tacky, a real bargain-basement atmosphere, until I realized the building was over a hundred years old—sort of a faded dowager compared with the locally familiar Macy’s at Ridgedale or Southdale, which are glitzy starlets in comparison. All that I realized later; for now, I was thinking that the famed Largest Department Store in the World was a bit down at the heels. We asked for help from a harried clerk in the first floor men’s department who was trying to hang onto her patience while the crowds of shoppers knocked stacks of shirts and ties to the floor. She misunderstood—we didn’t know ourselves what we were asking for—and directed us up to the 9th floor, which turned out to be just the Christmas and holiday home décor section. But struggling through the crowds of people, being swept along in a tide of shoppers, riding those old wooden escalators and groaning elevators and having spent fifteen minutes just to get up there, we decided to linger a while and catch our breath, maybe find a souvenir Christmas tree ornament, and then get out of there.

The crush of people was unrelenting, so we stepped out of the main aisle and sought refuge in a small area displaying tree skirts. I was examining one that had caught my eye when we suddenly heard muffled shouts and grunts, then a crashing sound. We turned toward the noise and saw a middle-aged man awkwardly down on his knees—either he had stumbled or been jostled by the crowd—with the remains of a Christmas-tree shaped display of boxed ornaments collapsed around him. It seemed like only seconds before a clerk saw what had happened and was trying to tend to him, while the crowd opened slightly in the space around him—onlookers who had seen the fall and others just gawking to find out what had happened.

I remember a stream of thoughts rushing through my mind: What happened? That man fell! Is he hurt? Heart attack? Stroke? Does he need help? It’s so crowded, give him space! Yet all that time, which was probably just a couple of seconds, I was rooted to my spot, feeling no compulsion to step over to help him. And then that thought flashed uncomfortably through my mind: Am I so accustomed to watching onscreen accidents happen, whether in news, advertisements or TV shows and movies, that I feel I am only ever a spectator? This passivity bothered me, as if what had just occurred in real time was only an incidental scene in some larger narrative arc.

Within what must have been another few seconds, a floor manager, perhaps, or at least a person with a title and some authority—he wore a black suit and had a Macy’s name-badge on his breast pocket—appeared and was down on his knees tending to the fallen man. The man apparently could not speak; stunned breathless, or not fluent in English, or both, he looked blankly at his helper, who was asking quietly but insistently, “Are you hurt? Can you breathe? Do you want to lie down?” and it occurred to me that we might be watching a man die. We stood rooted and uncertain, ceding responsibility to the Macy’s employee in the black suit. And then, within another few seconds, someone came with a small stool, which he set down right beside us in the tree-skirt nook, this little oasis of calm out of sight of the horde of shoppers. Together they helped the injured man to his feet and guided him through the crowded aisle to a resting spot on the stool.

Kathy and I tried to edge out of the way and to avoid staring. By now, the man who had fallen seemed a bit more aware of what had happened and was clearly embarrassed by the commotion he had caused. He said in broken English, “I so ashamed…I have done such damage…I wish to pay for things broken…I feel so bad to be trouble…”

And the Macy’s employee in the dark suit with the official name-badge over his left breast pocket took the man’s hand in both of his, looked into his eyes and said calmly, “No. No. It’s you we care about. There are hundreds of ornaments. There is only one you.”

Kathy and I looked at each other, blinked our eyes clear and moved away from the scene. “That was really something,” I said. “I know,” she replied. We walked on a bit, absorbed into the crush of the crowd, and then spied a New York City souvenir ornament, which I stopped to purchase.

“I’d like to go back there and tell that Macy’s guy I thought he was wonderful,” Kathy said. I nodded. It occurred to me that even if store policy during this most frenzied of shopping seasons was that you will do whatever it takes to placate a distressed customer and that you will do whatever it takes to avoid the bad publicity of a Christmas-shopping lawsuit—well, even so, we felt we had witnessed a moment of great tenderness and sincerity, a moment to remember as a high point in this huge, chaotic, bustling and notoriously rude city. We looked around for him, but he was gone, as was the injured man, and the ornament display was being reassembled.

We let the flow of humanity carry us back down nine floors to the crowded street outside, put our heads down against the brisk wind and eventually rejoined our group where the bus was waiting. Our guide asked heartily, “So, did you see the Macy’s windows? Herald Square, Fifth Avenue?”

Macy’s windows? The outside of the big store? Is that what we were looking for? “Not so much,” we said, with a rueful mixture of laughs and sniffles. “But we do have a story.” And so we shared it: good tidings, comfort and joy.
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