November 1, 2001
To Shop Is to Cope
I'm in a Commerce outlet mall feverishly darting from store to store. A swirl of images plays across my frontal lobe.
There are caramel-colored leather boots and pale pink thongs from Italy and a mint-green skirt with a tiny bow on the front. There's an unassuming corduroy blazer that's poetry with jeans. There's a pair of ridiculously expensive pants that seems to reshape you, as money tends to.
I've been shopping a lot lately, ever since it became our civic duty to reinvigorate the economy. God bless America.
Dashing through the mall is almost psychedelic; I'm a retail Hunter S. Thompson on a rambling, crazy search for the American dream, armed not with drugs, but with cash.
I guess acquisition is my drug -- but not in a bad way, not in a spend-your-way-into-bankruptcy-end-up-in-a-12-Step-program way -- no, in a useful way, much more Valium than crack.
Shopping was, and always will be, a primal experience for me, at once soothing and thrilling, a journey back to my earliest experiences of pure joy.
My mother and I didn't play catch in the yard or bake cookies or play Boggle -- we shopped. That was the only time we jointly focused on something other than fear and loathing of each other.
I'll never forget bonding over shopping victories, those singular moments a garment on the sale rack not only fits, but is 80 percent off the already marked-down price. Somehow, together, you've defeated Macy's. You're Bonnie and Bonnie and no one can stop you, not even your credit limit. All at once, you've transcended being barely middle class, a single mom and daughter driving a Bug that has to be pushed to start. In the time it takes for one big euphoric exchange of goods for cash, the world bursts open. You can be the person that would have bought that garment at retail. You're not Minnie Pearl. No one has to know.
You can't go far up the social ladder when you're a scholarship kid at private school, as I always was. You can't go on ski trips or to Paris for winter break. Still, if you really know how to shop, you can look the part. Style is the great equalizer. In India, a woman's caste is often denoted by the color of her sari. Here there are no such rules: even untouchables with decent credit can buy the Brahmin's Prada at Barney's Hangar Sale.
My mother, bless her for this, wasn't one of those totally confused parents who think wearing a "Braggin' Dragon" on your shirt is just the same as an Izod alligator.
For me, there was saving and chores and scouring sales and "factory seconds," but I usually had several back-to-school items that were what my mom would call "right."
I've been thinking a lot about class lately, how I just broke up with a guy my therapist dubbed Cash & Cachet and am now dating one whose décor features signed cleats under glass.
Cash & Cachet was, by most accounts, not the nicest guy. He once requested I stop being funny in front of his friends because it took the spotlight off him. He might as well have said, "I'm barely pulling off bringing you around by playing the exotic ethnic card, don't push it."
My friends didn't see what I saw; he was Ralph Lauren sheets and Agnes B. leather pants and a Vera Wang wedding dress. He was belonging. He was right.
Look, I know it's hard to be deep about clothes and shopping. If my mother had taken me fly fishing, this would be "A River Runs Through It."
Wait, maybe it is a little like fishing. You wait to catch the big one, all the while sipping Bud and swapping stories. On a good day, you leave with a big catch, a picture of you standing next to a 15-pound Gucci bag. Is it destructive, buying things you don't need to look like someone you weren't born to be? I think not.
If you'll recall high school biology, you might remember mimicry, the advantageous resemblance of one species to another. The viceroy butterfly mimics the monarch, which is repugnant to birds; harmless nettles resemble stinging ones; crabs evolve to look like floating seaweed.
Mimicry is nature's way of either blending or looking more dangerous than you are. Those who survive are able to produce offspring with the same useful appearance.
It's my secret hunch that everyone feels like a mimic at times, even blue-blood debutantes with Tiffany bracelets, flying across the room like monarchs. That's why shopping is more meaningful to me than it really should be, I guess. Every garment tells a story about the person I could be wearing it, where she goes in that blazer, who she talks to in those jeans, what she looks like to predators floating easily on the ocean, like seaweed.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.