Penneys is no place for old men. Or any men, really

Conor Pope: Shoppers stared through me. Sometimes they tried to walk through me

Penneys was dead to me from the moment it left me with my trousers around my ankles in Greystones more than a decade ago. To be honest, I didn't much like it before then either, as the discount draper of my childhood was a low-ceilinged, grimly-lit jumble of ugliness where joy died.

But as I aged, things changed. Newspapers ran features about its value and style, women boasted about their Penneys’ finds and it went international, spreading across the world like a pink-sequinned virus of ephemeral flimsy.

So I thought I’d give it a chance. I visited a store, one significantly brighter and more high-ceilinged than I recalled, and bought a pair of jeans for €10. The following morning I pulled them on and set off for a friend’s house by the sea. Having never been in Greystones, I stopped before I got to his house to take in the pier’s bracing air and to marvel at the town’s relentless greyness and the accuracy of its name.

Then the studded button on the jeans popped off and landed in the grey sea below me. Beltless, I cursed Penneys and, as I fashioned a means to hold my trousers up with the draw string from my hoodie, I resolved never to darken its doors again.


Excellent value for money

Penneys didn’t care and – after I had children – I stopped caring too. Because, when it comes to kids’ clothes, it’s excellent value for money. And so it was on a recent warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, that I found myself there with the woman and the girls in my life. As they scattered in search of summer wear, I was left to my own devices.

I quickly realised Penneys is no place for old men. Or any men really. I wandered its energy-sapping floors and turned into the invisible man – shoppers stared through me as they sought bargains. Sometimes they tried to walk through me too.

Eventually, my family set off for the changing rooms, arms heavy with clothes. Figuring I’d have 10 minutes or so to kill, I went from the mad busy ground floor upstairs to the distinctly calmer men’s section.

I eyed the jeans suspiciously and frowned at tee-shirts bearing the names of bands I loved. Seeing something that was once important to me selling here for a fiver made me sad. I don't think Kurt Cobain would have liked Nirvana tee-shirts in Penneys, even if it did smell like teen spirit.

The tee-shirts brought to mind a quote from the dying minutes of Withnail and I. "They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworth's, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over . . . And we have failed to paint it black," one character says with remarkable acuity.

I descended into the madness of the ground floor again, hoping to speed my family’s progress by calling words of encouragement into the changing rooms, words like “they’re grand” and “let’s go”.

First I had to find it. I wandered in circles, scowling at lurid Love Island tee-shirts and inappropriately short unicorn-themed crop-tops which I resolved my soon-to-be teenage daughters won't wear until they hit their 30s.

Then I had to do a thing I hate. I asked a staff member for directions. She offered to walk me to the changing rooms and as we chatted amicably she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “We’ve some seats in that corner, I think they’re free.”

Just how old does she think I am, I wondered.

United Nations of shoppers

My family were still queuing, far from an actual changing room. So I took a seat and watched as a United Nations of shoppers passed me by. A young Indian woman offered slipper advice to a confused man. Four young Americans wandered by searching for “the jeans that made my booty look great”. I frowned disapprovingly.

There was a girl with lispy South American Spanish FaceTiming her mam so she could help her choose between a pair of gold Minnie Mouse runners and a shimmering silver pair. “Que linda” they both marvelled before going for Minnie. Five French women spent an age helping a sixth choose a bra. I sat, stupefied, trying to come up with any circumstance in which I could get a group of my friends to spend 30 minutes – or 30 seconds – helping me choose underwear . I couldn’t

Eventually, the Pope Family was done. I walked briskly – ran almost – towards them, passing a man and his two sons. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops, suggesting he'd hoped to spend his day differently, perhaps in the sun. He was holding his head in his hands. One son held his head between his legs and the other stared dead-eyed at me, his face half covered by rack of pink and black bride-to-be singlets.

I was about to stop and guide them towards the secret seats when my phone trilled. It was time to go, so I left them to their misery and headed straight for the door.