Tillie the Toiler Redux

by Phyllis Kriegel

According to New Jersey labor laws, minors under the age of 18 were allowed to work three hours a day; maximum 18 hours a week when school was in session. At age 14, I garnered the requisite working papers and became a some-time Tillie the Toiler, snagging a job at the Kresge Five and Ten on Main Street in Hackensack, New Jersey.

The store was a kid’s paradise where a dime could get you a burger plus a mug of root beer big enough to swim in.  Such store food was deemed forbidden fruit in my family.  Gleaming show cases offered happy hunting grounds for loose fingers eager to filch a shiny bauble or snatch a small toy. But as a card-carrying worker, no more petty larceny for me; sales help was carefully monitored when coming and going.

I longed to be assigned to the book section where scores of Nancy Drews and a raft of comic books awaited my delectation. But the store manager– tall, grey haired with a luxuriant mustache–had other plans, sending me to the makeup counter where he advised, ‘Keep busy.’

Did he imagine I had special expertise in the cosmetic world and that I– barely allowed to wear a touch of lipstick– would morph into a budding Helena Rubinstein, despite my having zero smarts in the field?

As was my wont when confronted by a quandary, I scooted full bore to the local library to explore the world of women’s magazines whose mission was to show aspiring ladies how to fashion the good life.

I discovered makeup mattered! Especially the color of your lips.  Seductive ads urged ‘buy a new lipstick and get transported to the moon.’ I fastened on the Tangee brand which sought to separate the ladies from the tarts: “Look beautiful without looking artificial. Brilliant, flaming tones are passé and no longer worn by fashionable women.”

My friendly smile and trendy spiel culled from advertising come-ons worked. Sales burgeoned. In my heart of hearts, I cottoned to Chen Yu, a brand that evoked the Inscrutable East: slightly sinful, conceived as an homage to Rudolph Valentino.  My favorite was Dragon’s Blood Ruby–as if ripe plums were channeled into a tube encased by ersatz ivory adorned with Chinese motifs.

Despite a surprising offer from management to become head of the Make-up Department–did they suspect that I wore an A for Ambition underneath my Sloppy Joe sweater—I said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

My sights were set on the College Shop at Arnold Constable, a swanky New York department store, newly moved down the block from Kresge Five and Ten on Main Street, Hackensack.


Virginia Woolf wants us to write “For the good of the world.” I believe that to survive, you must tell stories. Phyllis Kriegel