Aspirin, Polka Dots & Hahne's

by Karen Zautyk


Among my happiest memories of Newark were the shopping outings with my mother to the department stores along Broad and Market Sts.  (in the business district that folks from Down Neck called “uptown,” never “downtown”).  My family’s favorite store was Bamberger’s (Bam’s), which had just about anything and everything a shopper might want – clothes, housewares, carpets, furniture, toys, books, luggage, sporting goods, etc., etc. Plus it had a photography studio (where my 8th-grade graduation picture was taken) and an optometrist’s office (where I was fitted with my first pair of glasses).

On the rare occasion Bam’s didn’t have what we were looking for, we’d head to Kresge’s or Ohrbach’s, and if in search of a real bargain, Klein’s. The store I can recall visiting only once – when my mother needed a special fabric for something she was sewing – was Hahne’s.  Hahne’s was upper-class. Posh. Filled, I presumed, with shoppers who didn’t arrive by Public Service bus but in cars (chauffeur-driven?) from the suburbs.

Hahne’s, however, was also the place where I had my very first job – as a temporary, part-time salesclerk when I was a senior in high school in the mid ‘60s.

Several of us from St. Cecilia’s H.S. in Kearny applied for Christmas-season work and were hired. We worked all day on Saturdays and one or two evenings during the week from maybe October (November?) until the holiday.

 However, before being allowed behind the counters, we had to attend training sessions. We sat in the store’s classroom for at least two Saturday mornings and learned such things as how to fill out receipts depending on the type of sale (cash-and-carry, cash-and-deliver, credit-and-carry, etc.) and, of equal importance, also how Hahne’s salesclerks MUST BEHAVE: No standing around talking to each other (even if there wasn’t a customer in sight) and ALWAYS LOOK BUSY. I was assigned to the second-floor boys’ department, which didn’t get as much commerce as some others, except on Saturdays. So, during the slow hours, I’d spend an inordinate amount of time rearranging the shirt counters and the suit racks – always looking BUSY.

Hahne’s also had a dress code for its salesclerks. Years ago, on eBay, someone was selling a copy of the little booklet we had been given detailing what was and wasn’t permissible attire.  I knew the booklet was authentic because the seller quoted a rule that had been seared into my brain since hearing it at one of the training classes: If you wore any clothing with polka dots, “the polka dots must be no bigger than an aspirin.”


I so regret not bidding for that eBay item, if only so I could prove to skeptics how strict the store had been.

My schoolmates and I wore civilian clothes for our Saturday shifts, but on weekdays, since we came to work directly from school, we were allowed to wear our school uniforms: plaid skirts, white blouses, bobby sox and clunky saddle shoes. However, the navy-blue blazers -- bearing the St. Cecilia’s insignia -- had to be hung in a closet.

One weekday, the senior class had a Christmas party at the school, which let us wear civilian garb for this special occasion. I was clad in a bright red woolen dress – long sleeves, bodice buttoned up to the chin, skirt well below the knees. And I also wore black stockings and high heels. I thought I looked conservatively elegant.

Then I went to work my shift at Hahne’s.

I don’t think I was there for an hour before a supervisor appeared and called me away from my department – for what reason I had no idea. Out of the hearing of my co-workers, she glared at me and said, quite angrily, “If you every show up in anything like this again, you’re fired!”

My red dress and my high heels were perfectly suitable for a conservative, strict Catholic school, but to Hahne’s I guess I looked like a scarlet woman.


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