I grew up wearing other kids’ clothes, mostly Mary Frances Todd’s. Even before my mom got sick and we got really poor, Mrs. Todd would show up at church two or three times a year with a bag of Mary Frances’ old clothes for me. I never thought much about it, except for one particular pink satin shift dress that hung on me like a sack. My mother was thrilled with it and made me wear it for every Special Occasion, but I hated the thing. Other than that one dress, though, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that clothes should be flattering. Or actually fit. Or be new.
Eventually we lost touch with Mrs. Todd and her daughter’s clothing, and I moved on to buying my clothes at thrift stores. The problem was that I was a big girl—5-foot-4 in the fourth grade—and there weren’t a lot of cast-off girls’ clohes that fit me. I ended up wearing lots of boys’ clothes and grown-up-lady outfits, which I can see now must have been sort of inappropriate, but at the time it was just the way I dressed.
As I got older, I began assembling outfits for comic effect. I thought clothes were good if they made me laugh. I had theme ensembles with special names like Methodist Christmas or Clash of the Tartans. You can get away with a lot when you’re young; guys dated me anyway. But as I got older, I realized that people weren’t giving me the benefit of the doubt the way they used to. They stopped assuming my little outfits were “ironic” and started thinking I really meant it.
I decided I should try to buy real clothes, like from a normal store. So when my $24 plastic H&M handbag started to fall apart, I went to the Lord & Taylor department store to try shopping. It is very strange when you need something to just go see what some store has and then pick an item from that selection. First, Lord & Taylor did not have any handbags that made me laugh. I kept walking back and forth through the handbag department, and I didn’t see anything I could even imagine carrying around. It was all so … bland. On my fourth trip through the department I finally spotted a red, sort-of satchel that I thought was maybe okay. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, the way I would be about a handbag that looked like an actual saddle, with little stirrups on it, or an inflatable one made out of green quilted plastic, or a big, white, plastic shoulder bag with a working wall clock embedded in the side—all of which I have owned. But I am trying to be a grown-up now.
So I was looking at the red satchel for maybe 15 seconds before some poor, desperate saleslady attached herself to me. It was so grim: She kept telling me what a great handbag it was, and how beautiful, and so on, which kind of begged the question of why it was jammed down on the lowest shelf of the clearance table. Then I looked at the price.
Okay, why should any handbag cost $600? That’s insane. And yes, I know there are bags that cost thousands of dollars—Hermes and Louis Vuitton and Gucci and Chanel—but that’s even crazier. Even if it were hilarious, I wouldn’t pay that much for a bag. But the desperately friendly saleslady helpfully pointed out that $600 was what the satchel used to cost, and now it was on sale. She also told me that the hat I was wearing was very pretty. My hat is a black Afghani man’s hat that Sluggo bought for $5 from a street vendor 15 years ago, and it is a lot of things but pretty isn’t one of them. I felt very sorry for the saleslady.
I didn’t know what to say, and I guess I was kind of just looking at her, so she started running through all the fine, fine, superfine features of the bag again. Meanwhile, I was doing math in my head, figuring the reduced price, minus the one-day-sale additional discount, minus the amount taken off for an internet coupon I’d printed out, minus a gift card I’d won at a Christmas party … My final, out-of-pocket cost for this supposed-to-be $600 bag was going to be $50. Even then I thought about just walking up to H&M and getting another $24 plastic handbag, or maybe even trying to repair the one I already owned. But when I told the saleslady I was going to think about it, she got all pale and I was afraid she might get ill. So I bought the red satchel for $50.
Now I’m carrying my new handbag, and it’s fine and all. I don’t really care about it one way or another. For sure, it doesn’t make me laugh. It just reminds me of that desperate, sad saleslady telling me I have a pretty hat. I don’t understand people who say they like to shop. I don’t think I will ever understand them.