The Austin Chronicle

After a Fashion

By Stephen MacMillan Moser, January 7, 2000, Columns

THE NEXT BEST GIFT ... Buying fresh flowers on Christmas Eve at South Central Market from a store associate named Wendy. Always offering exemplary service and products at, uh, fairly reasonable prices (you do pay for that exemplary service), Central Market seems to be at the cutting edge for grocers. They succeed in making a mundane shopping experience into a pleasure with enticing goods, high-quality products, and excellent help, such as the aforementioned knowledgeable and friendly Wendy. On Christmas Eve, in the midst of last-minute shopping madness, I had the overwhelming sensation that my life was missing fresh flowers. This occurred to me while sitting in Central Market's charming outdoor seating area. As I breezed into the store, I was unaware that I was wading up to my neck in semi-cheerful teeming humanity. It was too late -- the whirling maelstrom of frenzied shoppers created a stiff tide that was difficult to navigate. It was all I could do to propel myself in the general direction of the floral department, weaving and twisting through loaded shopping carts. Upon reaching the outskirts of the desired area, I was initially disappointed that there were no Christmas-y flowers. Duh. It is Christmas Eve -- all the lovely Christmas arrangements have lovely homes for the holidays. But there were several varieties of magnificent lilies. It was a good start, but a fleeting victory, as I was discouragingly far away from any other flowers that I would have desired to use. Wading once again into the seething human morass that encircled the checkout stands, and not at all sure how I wanted to proceed with the flowers -- or even if I wanted to proceed. As I was drowning in indecision, my arm was gently taken by a lovely young woman with a kind face who appeared as an apparition in the crowd and said, "Would you like me to wrap up your lilies for you?" Feeling like Helen Keller having her senses suddenly restored, I was stunned. I numbly nodded "Yes," muttering that I probably needed some other things to fill out the flowers. Sensing my indecision, she took complete control of the situation, showing me what she thought was nice with the lilies. And she had impeccable taste. We added white hydrangeas and fuchsia meteors and composed a large bouquet of intoxicating beauty and fragrance. Knowing I could trust her with my flowers made me realize I could trust her with my most personal secrets, and soon we were plunged into a deeply personal conversation -- the kind you can only have with complete strangers in public, where you confess things you wouldn't tell your best friend. Well, maybe not as tawdry as all that, and of course we never crossed the boundaries of professionalism, but she was utterly delightful, and our five-minute transaction was, to me, something that seemed like a scene out of Norman Rockwell, in a world of kindness and graciousness that hardly exists anymore. Or maybe never did exist. It was a strong enough reaction that I braved the crowds yet again so I could go back and find out her name. Wendy. I told her it was a pleasure meeting her and I walked out with far more than an armload of exquisite flowers. I walked out with a warm memory of a short transaction that still brings a smile to my heart every time the fragrant blossoms capture my attention. It happened 12 days ago and the petals of the lilies have dropped and the meteors have expired, but the hydrangeas have still held out until now, though their heads are bowing from the weight of their transitory brilliance. As I lay them to rest in the trash, I know that the gratification of buying those flowers from Wendy was one of the best, and certainly most unexpected gifts of the season.

THE BEST GIFT But, lest we get maudlin, the best gift I (or anyone) could ever get was the 6x7' poster of Joan Crawford's 1955 drama Queen Bee that I received from my very understanding and very indulgent sister. When I first saw it go up for auction, I was captivated by it, and couldn't get it off my mind. With a glorious shot of Joan posing on a grand staircase in a gown that could only be described as queen bee-ish, as well as a glamorous closeup of Joan being mauled by her scar-faced husband, in huge letters it sneers the words "Another woman's man was waiting for her -- as usual." Truly dee-vine, but I wasn't ready to spend that kind of money on it, and I let the auction slip through my fingers. I never even tried to bid on it. Instead, I chose to mope around knowing that I'd never see that sizzling image of Joan again. And when I unwrapped it on Christmas morning and tenderly cradled it in my arms, I almost wept with joy and suddenly understood that the true meaning of holiday spirit was having the coolest sister on earth who gave you fabulous gifts.

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