Claim to Fame

For my first paying job, I worked the cash register, folded sweaters, and, on a few shockingly neither disastrous nor hilarious occasions offered fashion advice to paying customers. I worked at a clothing store at the Sangertown Square Mall, performing all of these tasks against a back drop of purple carpeting and a soundtrack split between top 40 and sundry European electro-pop.

Capers, an imprint of Rue 21, specialized in trendy looking clothes that weren’t especially well made, but that were sold at discounted prices. As such, the store drew a varied crowd--from high school and college kids on budgets, to money-conscious moms bringing a similar population to the happy mid-point between K-Mart threads and the clothes their kids really wanted from The Gap, to the older segment, which was particularly inclined to accumulate massive orders of jeans and fake leather jackets that they’d pay for on layaway.

One autumn night in 2000, a middle-aged couple visited the store, the man with curly hair, equal parts dark brown and gray, sunglasses perched atop his head, clad in a black button up lined with metallic studs, over ripped blue jeans. His bleached blonde wife carried an assortment of tops and two pairs of jeans to the front counter where I rung them out.

“That’s it?” the man said, eyeing the total of just under a hundred dollars.

“I know, this place is always so cheap.” White bubble gum smacked between the woman’s tongue and the roof of her mouth. She spread black top in front of her, with princess written in glitter across the chest. “And they have the cutest stuff.”

The man handed me five twenty-dollar bills. I punched the keys on the register in time with the song playing over the speakers.

“You seem like a personable dude,” the man said. “What’s your claim to fame?”

“Excuse me?” I counted his change.

The woman put a hand to the man’s chest, her fingernails flecked with chipped neon pink polish. “He means what do you do. Where do you go to school? What do you want to be?”

I told them I was senior in high school. That I hoped to be a writer.

The man pointed at me with both index fingers, thumbs up as though he were miming guns. “An artist, I like that,” he said. “Tell me something, have you seen Almost Famous?”

“Not yet. I heard it’s good.”

“Man, we just got out of the theater, and that movie is the best.” He ran his hand through his hair, unconscious of the sunglasses which he knocked right back over his head, all the way to the floor. The woman scurried to pick them up before he backed up and stepped on them. “It’s all about rock and roll and love and dreaming. You’ve got to see it.”

I told him I would.

The man carried the two plastic bags full of clothes, a long white receipt dangling precariously from one of them. The woman took his shoulders and steered him to face toward the exit, back out to the mall. She took one last look at me, smiled and waved one finger at a time on her left hand before they walked out.

In retrospect, one or both of them may well have been stoned. But I prefer to remember them as a grown-up couple that never forgot their love of rock and roll, love, and dreaming—the very stuff of youth; I prefer to remember as intoxicated by a movie that reminded them of a time when they were closer to my age.

And I liked that question—about the claim to fame, and have since appropriated it every now again for my own conversations, particularly with younger people. I prefer not to assume that a young man would define himself by his job or his school or any other particular socially normed dimension of his identity. I prefer to offer room for him describe himself--even if he needs to ask me what the hell I’m talking about.