AS A 37-year-old corporate cog living on the Lower East Side, I was the opposite of cool. While lithe college girls sashayed down Allen Street in their silver lamé leggings, seethough tops and knit caps, I ran for the bus in my loafers, khakis and button-up shirts. They drunkenly spilled out of bars till the wee hours and I gladly headed home for bed at 10 on Saturday nights. Any remotely warm day meant flimsy dresses for them. For me? SPF 30, a hat and sunglasses. I was more than uncool, I was positively suburban.
But what did I care? I’d never been cool in the first place. From Smurf socks and plaid pants in grade school, to braces and glasses at 13, to a Laura Ashley knock-off at my high school graduation, I’d always been awkward and have long accepted that fact.
Besides, this was adulthood. I knew who I was. While on the outside I was business casual, on the inside I was an artist—a writer. I was old enough, technically, to have birthed some of these hipsters and I could tell them a thing or two about life and love: that it wouldn’t always be so easy, that Daddy might not always be there to pick up the credit card bill.
But there was something about the fab, arty girls in my neighborhood that put me on edge. They reminded me too much of another kind of girl, that very popular, very mean girl, the bane of my 13-year-old existence.
One day I was on the F train, minding my own business, when three skinny-jeaned young’uns sat down across from me. Clad in fedoras, vests and ballet flats, they passed between them a flask from one of their enormous Marc Jacobs bags.
“Is this just like Chicago?” one girl asked the other, ironically of course.
“Oh my God, this is just like Chicago,” answered the girl from Chicago. She began pointing at random things on the train. “This is like Chicago, and this and this.”
Tired and hungry after a long day of work, I barely paid attention. I was looking forward to going home to my boyfriend, getting some food and curling up in bed with a new episode of Ghost Hunters. Then Chicago Girl pointed at me.
“Not her though. She’s definitely not like Chicago.” The girl whispered something to her friends, and they guffawed into their striped scarves.
I sat up. What just happened here? One moment I was fantasizing about pad Thai, and the next I was being chided by a poor man’s Leighton Meester for being… not like Chicago? What did that even mean?
Nothing, that’s what, but suddenly I was back in junior high and Heather B. was making fun of my pants while Heather M. was playing keepaway with my book bag.
From Smurf socks and plaid pants in grade school, to braces and glasses at 13, to a Laura Ashley knock-off at my high school graduation, I’d always been awkward and have long accepted that fact.
Back then I’d have dropped my eyes, cheeks burning, and shuffled away.
But this wasn’t junior high. This was New York City on the subway, where anything could happen and anyone could be crazy, including me.
For the rest of the train ride, I stared at Chicago Girl. Neither smiling nor hostile, I regarded her with a puzzled expression, my head slightly cocked. Why did you say that, Chicago Girl? Why did you point at me and snicker as though I wouldn’t hear? You made me uncomfortable, Chicago Girl, and now it’s my turn.
She fidgeted and snickered. She tried to ignore me. As my gaze remained unbroken, she began to look downright uncomfortable. Finally, she attempted a wary smile. See, crazy lady? I’m nice. See how pretty my smile is? This is the smile that usually gets me out of anything.
I didn’t smile back. When my stop arrived, I gathered my things and went to the door. I could feel the trio relax behind me. The volume of their tittering increased. Now my cheeks started to burn. Was it enough to have stared down Chicago Girl or did I need to do more? I stepped onto the platform, thought better of it and turned around.
“Hey!” I called. Chicago Girl looked at me, wide-eyed. That’s when I gave her two well-known words and one well-known hand gesture. Her mouth dropped open.
Walking, no, sashaying, back to my apartment, I felt proud for standing up for myself. Maybe what I did was childish, but I didn’t care. I’d never be a cool girl, but at least I could be a mean one.