The first place I went into was called Ransohoff’s, a women’s store located on Post Street just off Union Square. I had taken an early morning F-train from Berkeley to San Francisco, but I really had no idea where to start shopping once I got to the City. Inside Ransohoff’s, I was greeted by a crowd of women shoppers, almost all wearing hats and white gloves.

It was 1950’s San Francisco and it was intimidating. I may have been a university graduate student, but I felt like a roughhewn country boy amidst this sea of fashionable shoppers. I also had no idea what to look for in my search for Nancy’s birthday present, and the signs and directories inside Ransohoff’s didn’t help much. I mean, what were “Sundries,” “French Millinery,” “Point of View” or “Essentials?”

I summoned the courage to ask for some help from a sales clerk behind the jewelry counter. I couldn’t help noticing a fair amount of nice cleavage as she bent over the display case. I later learned that generous cleavage exposure and trim black dresses were de rigueur for clerks in most upscale San Francisco stores and were conventionally accepted ways to promote sales.

“Excuse me. I’m looking for a birthday gift for my girlfriend and wonder if you can suggest anything in the store that might work for a female in her early twenties?”

She gave me a look that was not unkind and included a bit of a twinkle in the eye.

“Well, you should know that Ransohoff’s is an extremely expensive women’s store and your money won’t go very far here. I’m a little older than you and work full time, but even with my employee discount I can hardly afford to buy anything here. If it were me, I would shop for your gift at City of Paris, located at Geary and Stockton on Union Square. You can walk there in three or four minutes: just go up Post half a block to Stockton, then go left for a block and you’ll be there.”

What a nice lady. I thanked her for her advice and headed to City of Paris. When I arrived, I found an imposing structure—I discovered later it was a designated heritage building designed in the Beaux-Arts style—and inside was an impressive central rotunda under a beautiful stained glass dome.

To one side, in a street-like department called Normandy Lane, was an expansive collection of both imported and domestic wines under a sign, “Verdier Cellars.” This was an inexpensive place to shop? It was mindful of a famous department store I had heard about in London called Harrods where rows of premium wines and game fowl hanging from overhead racks occupied a huge portion of one floor.

Once again, I found myself in foreign territory with little idea of how to start my search for Nancy’s gift. Then I spotted a directory and “Misses Wear” jumped out at me. That sounded promising; Nancy, after all, was a “Miss.” It was also on the store’s lower level, which by my naïve calculation suggested lower prices, so I took the escalator down to that department. As I rode down, it looked to my untrained eye as though the entire floor below was a vast expanse of every kind of female garment imaginable.

I headed to the nearest sales counter near the bottom of the escalator and waited patiently as the sales clerk finished up with two other customers. She then turned to me and asked in a warm, melodic voice that immediately put me at ease, “May I help you?”

The store badge on her crisp white blouse gave her name as Hélene Brooks, followed by the title of “Senior Associate: Nine Years of Service.” She looked to be somewhere in her fifties. No cleavage was apparent.

I hurriedly apprised her of my quest for Nancy’s birthday gift since I could see there were a lot of customers milling around and I didn’t feel comfortable occupying too much of her time.

“Well, I’m sure we can find something for your Nancy, if not in my department, then elsewhere in the store. How much do you want to spend?”

I told her $50, which was stretching it for me, but I wanted to get something really special. She didn’t react, instead leading me to various clothes racks and showcases in the area and bringing out items that were within my budget figure. This went on for some time, but nothing rang my bell and she seemed stumped. Suddenly, she moved with purpose to a display case filled with elegant colorful scarves and took one out.

“This may be taking a chance since it typically is of interest to women a little older than your girlfriend, but this elegant Hermés scarf is well worth considering. Until yesterday, it was priced at $185, but the company discontinued this design so it now sells for $55. I doubt I will ever again see a designer Hermés silk scarf priced this low in my lifetime. There is one other in the case and I plan to buy it for myself.”

I could tell that she was right. The quality and the beauty of the scarf were apparent, even to my unsophisticated eye. With tax it would be close to $60, but its value was so obvious that I was willing to stretch my budget.

“Thank you. I’ll take it.”

She placed the scarf in a splendid gift box, took the cash I proffered and concluded the transaction by saying the scarf could be returned if it was within thirty days of the sale.

“Be sure to let me know if I can help further in any way.”

The warmth and refinement of her voice struck me. It were as though her words were coated with chocolate syrup.

But, long story short, Nancy told me to return the scarf. It was too old for her, wouldn’t go with anything in her wardrobe, and it was a waste of my money. So it was back to City of Paris and Hélene Brooks the next Saturday to make the return.

“Hello there: how did your girlfriend like the Hérmes scarf?”

I reported on Nancy’s reaction and asked if we could find something else to substitute for it. “You were right to say we might be taking a chance on the scarf. She’s really concerned that her gift be appropriate for her age—as you know, she’s in her early twenties—and if I buy her an accessory or article of clothing, it should go with her youthful wardrobe.”

“You know, we struggled when you were here before and spent quite a bit of time before settling on the Hermés scarf. I certainly want to help you—it’s my job, after all—but it’s going to take extra time to come up with something satisfactory both to you and to your Nancy. As you can see, though, this is Saturday and we’re quite crowded with other shoppers, all wanting my attention.

“Let me suggest something. I usually take my lunch at 12:15 on a bench by the Dewey Monument on Union Square. It’s the tall sculpture topped by the Goddess of Victory. I would be pleased to meet you there today and discuss in detail Nancy’s preferences so we can take a stab at solving your problem.”

“That’s really a generous offer, but I feel it would be a terrible imposition on your private time.”

She smiled at me. “Not at all. I would enjoy the company.”

“OK, it’s less than an hour till then, so I’ll just kill a little time at the bookstore around the corner and then meet you at 12:15.”

I went to Union Square at the appointed hour and spied her on a bench right away. Suddenly, I realized how striking she was in appearance. Her attractive dark hair, highlighted by natural gray streaks, was done up in a fashionable chignon. She embodied refinement. Her skirt and blouse were as you would expect from a City of Paris saleswoman; indeed, almost too demure. But they could not conceal her curvaceous body.

As I approached her, she bent over to pick up a piece of paper and it was apparent she was one trim woman with a fine posterior and breasts to match. I also noticed the panty line under her skirt seemed pretty high. What’s going on here? Hélene Brooks was my mother’s age.

“I’m glad you were able to find me. Now, let’s see if we can’t find something for your Nancy.”

We spent at least half an hour talking about Nancy, her wardrobe, my perception of her fashion sense and what I, personally, thought would be a nice gift for her. In the end, it became very simple. We walked back together to City of Paris and went over to her department. She brought out a gorgeous powder-blue lambswool sweater, with crewneck and long sleeves, on sale for $50. That was it! I thanked her profusely and then asked her to gift wrap it so I could be on my way. She then made a comment that took me a little aback.

“If you return her gift again, we’ll have to see how she looks in leather.”

Huh? She said it in a joking manner and I really didn’t know what she meant, so I gave no reply. She smiled as she wrapped the sweater in the gift box. It looked like she was as pleased as me at the happy outcome. She hesitated for a moment, then turned to face me directly.

“You know, I think we’ve become rather well acquainted with each other, so I would like to invite you and your Nancy to the Sunday afternoon party that I’ll be holding at my garden cottage. It’s an informal affair that I give every month and the guests are a mélange of young people and old, professionals and clerks and some students like you. Even a beatnik from Jack Kerouac’s crowd shows up now and then. The party usually gets going around four o’clock and I supply all the food and refreshments. You need only bring yourself; and Nancy, of course.”

I was flummoxed and couldn’t quite fathom my own reaction to her invitation. I know I was pleased that this elegant, mature woman liked me enough to welcome me to her home. But I was puzzled that someone with her obvious breeding would bother with an ordinary student like me. Finally, I just went with the obvious: she liked me.

“Thanks very much. It sounds like a lot of fun and a chance to meet people outside of my usual student circle. How do I get there?”

She gave me an address that was just a few minutes away from the Shakespeare Garden, an area inside Golden Gate Park I was familiar with because of some field trips I previously had made there. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about getting lost on San Francisco’s municipal bus system since I knew the exact bus that would take me there.

I waved goodbye and left City of Paris to head back to Berkeley. I called Nancy as soon as I got into my apartment and told her about the invitation. Well, wouldn’t you know, her parents had come into town for a visit and would be staying until Monday. Damn! I would have to go alone. Actually, Nancy didn’t sound too interested anyway, even though I told her that the woman hosting the party had helped me find her replacement gift for the Hermés scarf. I didn’t say what it was since I wanted to surprise her.

I woke up the next morning feeling excited. I don’t really understand why. I guess it seemed like an adventure, an opportunity to meet people outside of my usual university crowd and a chance to see Hélene Brooks in a different setting. I showered, shaved, and put on the nicest clothes I could find in the closet. My garb wasn’t great but, hey, I was a student and had a limited budget. I assumed there would be lots of pretty good food at the party so I didn’t eat much for breakfast and passed on lunch altogether. That really wasn’t anything new for me anyway.

I walked down Hearst to Shattuck and grabbed the 2:25 F-train to San Francisco. The nice thing about the Key System trains into the City is you never have to worry about traffic delays on the Bay Bridge. After we arrived at the Transbay Terminal, it was just a few minutes before the No. 5 Fulton muni-bus showed up and took me to the bus stop just a block from my destination. It was almost four o’clock on the button.

She had called it a garden cottage, but to my eyes it appeared more the size of a modest home. It was located near the end of a short cul-de-sac and, like all the homes surrounding it, was of Victorian design and had a genteel aura about it. It seemed consistent, indeed, with the grace and refinement of its owner.

The front door was ajar but I rang the doorbell anyway and then, without waiting, entered. There were, perhaps, fifteen people milling around with drinks and plates of food in hand. They seemed like party-goers everywhere and several earnest conversations were in progress. No one acknowledged me. It were as though I was invisible. Hélene Brooks was nowhere in sight.

I went over to the refreshments table and put together a plate of hors d’oeuvres and grabbed a bottle of beer. There was a hallway off to my right and I wandered over there in my attempt to locate my hostess. A few more guests were gathered there, but still no Hélene. I decided to ask one of them about her whereabouts and rather self-consciously interrupted a conversation to do so.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where I might find Hélene Brooks?”

“Who are you looking for?

”Helene Brooks, the woman who is hosting this party.”

“Oh, you mean Domme B. She’s over there in the room on the right at the end of this hallway.”

I thanked him and proceeded down the hallway to the room. The door was closed, so I knocked.

“Come in.”

I entered and found the room brightly lit, almost as if by floodlights. In the middle of the room, bound to separate high-back chairs, were a naked young man and a naked young woman. They had matching red ball gags in their mouths but nothing else graced their bodies. Their arms were tied behind the chair backs. Like Nancy and me, they both seemed to be in their twenties.

Reclining on a vintage French chaise between them was the refined and elegant Hélene Brooks. Her pose was reminiscent of Goya’s Naked Maja, except she was partially covered; that is, there was a beautiful Hermés designer silk scarf in a mélange of brilliant hues draped over her curvaceous hips, and nothing else. Her magnificent unclad breasts were in full view. On the wall behind her hung various whips, chains, leather straps and sundry other bondage implements.

“Hello there, kiddo. I’ve been expecting you. Glad you could make it. Where’s Nancy?”