A gurgling fountain surrounded by palm trees adorns th atrium in front of the new Nordstrom department store in Towson Town Center mall.
Cafe-style tables are grouped about the fountain and the palms, and a waiter in formal attire moves quietly from table to table, taking orders, tidying up.
Patrons sip espresso, nibble at pastry.
From a distant skylight, sunlight splashes the area.
Ivory-colored columns line the walls.
All told, I beheld a scene of genteel splendor.
"Hmm," I said as I approached the store with a friend. "Pretty ostentatious for a discount chain, don't you think?"
My companion stopped in mid-stride and stared at me in astonishment.
"What in the world makes you think Nordstrom is a discount chain?" she asked.
"Well, isn't it?" I said.
"Absolutely not," she answered. "Nordstrom is very much up-scale. Why, they take pride in the fact that they only have sales three times a year."
I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.
"I just naturally assumed," I began, and I'm afraid my voice rose a pitch. "I mean, I felt certain that in hard times like these the only new stores to open would be . . ."
"Uh, uh," interrupted my friend. "You won't find any hard times in there."
Indeed, we step inside and an employee smiles and says softly, "Welcome to Nordstrom."
There's a little alcove over by the escalator, furnished with cushiony-looking sofas and Grecian-style sculptures.
On the second floor, pianist Larry Chione is dressed in evening wear and plays "Summertime" on a grand piano.
"I don't know how I feel about all of this," I whispered. My normal speaking voice seemed harsh and out of place here. "Doesn't this seem just a tad tasteless?"
"Lighten up and enjoy yourself," said my friend.
Outside, away from the regal splendor, away from the grand, Old-World elegance of Nordstrom of Towson, misery seems to reign supreme.
We have passed year two of the Great Recession -- dating from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis -- and the end is not in sight.
The economy has imploded. Poverty and rage and despair are spreading like a cancer.
Last month, 167,000 people lost their jobs, bringing the total number of Americans out of work to 9.7 million. Poverty has engulfed 35.7 million people, or 14.2 percent of the population.
So far this year, 60 banks have failed. Commercial and private bankruptcy is soaring. Consumer debt remains at historic levels. Americans, according to a government survey, are forced to work longer hours for less reward because private industry is afraid to hire new workers. Income growth last month lagged behind inflation.
Life for a lot of people is getting ugly.
Police and social workers report continued high levels of domestic violence, including an upsurge last year in infanticide and abandoned babies. Murder and other violent crimes are approaching the record levels of the 1970s. Recreational drug use is down but hard-core drug addiction is on the rise.
There also are more subtle signs of a growing public depression: College campuses report an increase in hate crimes. People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, described 1991 as "far and away the worst year on record" for censorship. A growing percentage of Americans tell pollsters that racial intolerance is one of their biggest concerns.
And economists, remember, concede that we have not yet reached the end of the recession.
This was the environment in which Nordstrom held its grand opening in Towson on Sept. 11 with balloons and parties and weeklong festivities. (To Nordstrom's credit, the proceeds of some of the parties were donated to charity).
The store reportedly brought in 125,000 pairs of shoes; 7,000 ties; 12,000 pairs of socks; 3,000 men's suits; 5,000 pairs of jeans; 4,000 blouses, and 2,600 pieces of outerwear for our consumption.
Apparently, some people are more than ready to consume despite the economic devastation around them, a reminder perhaps that even in a long and depressing recession, there are winners and losers.
There were long lines of people waiting for the store to open and, in keeping with Nordstrom's reputation for service, employees lined the floor and applauded as the first customers surged through.
"It sure doesn't feel like a recession around here these past few days," Amy Young, manager of the Towson Nordstrom, said yesterday. "We've been very, very pleased with the numbers."
Meanwhile, in the store, Chione at the grand ended "Summertime" with a neat flourish and segued smoothly into "Autumn Leaves."
I considered a rack of men's wool suits priced from $525 to $650.
"May I help you?" a clerk asked softly. He wore a flower in his lapel.
"Can people really afford a $650 suit these days?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, most assuredly," said the clerk.
My friend took me firmly by the arm and propelled me out of the store and back into the real world. "I can never take you anywhere," she said.