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New York, New York

American Peril

An ode to drunk shopping in New York City, regretted investments, and the transformative powers of faux-snakeskin leggings.

Photograph by Anita Sarkeesian

Like most people of the non-skeevy variety, I blanched at American Apparel’s billboards of barely legal girls holding their ankles in the air. I shook my head at the whispers of the lurid sexual harassment tales surrounding the CEO, and I shrank back from photos of his lascivious moustache. Yes, I knew American Apparel wasn’t the wholesome Team U.S.A. store it proclaimed to be. But I lived in New York for about nine years, and it was an unavoidable presence.

At first, American Apparel just mildly annoyed me as it sprang up on corner after corner. Later it began to incite mini bouts of rage. The streets of the East Village and Lower East Side, once my favorite neighborhoods, soon were overrun with hordes of American Apparel hipsters, all a decade younger than myself, all sporting the same neon leggings, tank tops, and dead-eyed frowns, like they were some existential rejects from an Olivia Newton-John video.

And yet, like many women, I am part crow. And I occasionally couldn’t help but be drawn to their window displays of glittery unitards. I tried mightily to steer clear of the place, for I knew it was hypocritical of me to criticize and then indulge in an organic cotton halter dress. But occasionally, I would weaken. Usually when I was intoxicated.

These drunken shopping sprees most often occurred after my friend Laura and I stumbled out of a three-hour brunch, reeking of bloody marys and homefries. We would walk around the corner, wander into a shop, and decide that nothing in the world made us look sexier than girls’ underwear cut like a boy’s tighty whities, complete with Y-front fly. We’d woozily twist on sausage-casing dresses that, even on our relatively slender frames, still managed to make the omelets in our stomachs resemble second-trimester pregnancies.

Shopping at American Apparel was always a three-part process for me. The drunken, impulsive purchase. Followed by buyer’s remorse the next day, when I would stand before my bedroom mirror and realize I’d never wear a neon mesh tank top. Finally, to complete the sequence, there was the return, where the clerk would barely acknowledge my existence.

It took me a while to actually break out of this cycle, but the day finally arrived with a visit to a friend who was heavily pregnant with her first child.

Forget buying rompers for her unborn child. We were going to buy one for me.

When Heather greeted me at the Denver airport she was radiantly huge, her body obviously swollen with much more than brunch. She had long been one of my closest friends—the friend with whom I spent countless nights roaming bars, cheering on bands, and ogling lead singers. We were inseparable, until she and her husband decided to leave the city. Now she was living in a Victorian home in Colorado. A comfortable sweater stretched over the ripe orb of her belly, and her cheeks were aglow. And me—well, I was 31 years old, sharing a walkup with roaches and a roommate, and still pulling on a faded Arcade Fire T-shirt to go out. As she handed me a latte in a decorative mug, I eyed her backyard and beagle, and swallowed back a rising tremor of anxiety.

After a few days spent painting a cow jumping over a moon on Heather’s nursery wall, we decided to head into town for a bit of shopping. We popped into boutiques and gazed at playful onesies, and fingered the satin ribbons on hand-knit booties. And I tried to ignore the confusing and unidentifiable panic that was quietly knotting my stomach. With every Bugaboo that rolled past us, I felt an even greater need to reassert our friendship as one that was still youthful and free, untethered to anyone or anything. And that was when I spotted it: the clean, pristine lines of the American Apparel logo. It stood there before us, a veritable fountain of youth, readily available via $28 V-necks. Forget buying rompers for her unborn child. We were going to buy one for me. Perhaps one made of terrycloth.

Heather patiently waited and watched as I tried on some ridiculous ensembles. When I emerged from the dressing room wearing a pair of faux-snakeskin, skintight black leggings, she smiled supportively, like the wonderful mother she would become. “You can totally pull those off,” she reassured me with a grimace. She shifted her position on the tiny metal stool in an attempt to take the strain off her overburdened back.

I put the leggings aside for purchase and tried on a Barberella-style outfit composed of silver stretch pants and a golden leotard. So taken was I with this superhero look I decided it had to be immortalized on film.

“Excuse me.” I held out my camera to the glassy-eyed, 80-pound fitting room attendant. “I don’t suppose you could take a quick picture of me with my friend?”

I spoke with as much dignity as is possible when one is dressed like a Christmas ornament.

“Oh. Yeah, sorry, but I can’t do that,” the girl said. “Photos are strictly against company policy?” She cocked her headbanded head at me.

I nodded in understanding, then gave a warm smile meant to convey I could be trusted with a snapshot, and had no plans to steal their design for lamé leotards.

“You see,” I said, “we need this photo. My friend”—here I gestured solemnly to Heather’s stomach—“is pregnant.”

“Oh, right,” the attendant whispered and shook her head, as if this logic made some kind of sense. She snapped a picture of us side by side—me looking like a double-chinned Flash Gordon, and Heather cradling her beach ball of a stomach.

After I returned to New York, my jet-lagged brain struggled to play catch-up with the emotions triggered by the trip. I stood in my cramped, paint-chipped Brooklyn bedroom, and tried to sort out my jumbled thoughts over my jumbled suitcase. Then I spied the crisp white American Apparel bag. Ah, yes! I immediately tugged on my new snakeskin trousers. I paired them with a black T-shirt and stood before my bedroom mirror, ready to admire my reptilian sexiness. Hmmm. Something wasn’t quite right. I tossed my hair, and fought back the nagging suspicion that I looked as though I’d just been thrown off the Rock of Love tour bus. The all-too-familiar American Apprel buyer’s remorse was threatening to creep in.

I strolled into the living room to model the pants for my boyfriend.

“What do you think?” I asked.

David turned away from the television and struggled to compose his expression. He was staring at me like I was wearing a skinned and still-bloody zebra upon my back.

“I—” he stammered. “It makes me feel like I don’t know who you are as a person if you want to wear those pants.” Finally he collapsed into laughter.

Well. So much for subtlety. No beating around the bush there. I huffed back to my bedroom and began to peel off the pants. But even as I slammed various drawers and cabinets in my room, I knew he was right. It pained me to admit it, but wearing that outfit, I looked a bit—well, like I was clinging a little too hard to something. Like I wanted nothing more in the world than to be close to Bret Michaels’s bandana. Some women my age might still be able to rock the boa constrictor look, but I was not one of them. The time had come for me to say goodbye to tube socks and shady employment practices once and for all. I slipped the pants back into the bag, located the receipt, and prepared for one last return.

It was a hot, muggy day. The store was crowded, and the speakers were booming unidentifiable dance music that exfoliated my eardrums. I went up to the counter and shoved the pants at the clerk. She swung her side ponytail at me in annoyance.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do an exchange for something else, instead of a return?”

I craned my neck around the store to look at the other merchandise—at the pastel jumpsuits, the reflective bikinis. I was about to scowl an emphatic “No” when suddenly I spotted it, sitting in the display case right before me. So oddly out of place. And yet so eye-catching. A Hitachi Magic Wand. The mother of all back massagers. The fabled sexual machinery I’d heard about for years, but had never attempted to seek out.

I jabbed my finger at the case. “Is that just for display?”

“No. It’s for sale. Do you want it?” She was already pulling it out of the case and handing it to me. “Two Speed Massager” read the box. Pictures of blissful women rubbing the tool over sore shoulder blades graced the side.

“It’s actually the same price as your leggings.” The clerk yawned at me.

Sold.

She quickly zapped the trade with her gun—a plug-in vibrator for a pair of flammable pants—then stuffed the wand into the unfortunately see-through bag. She bid me an up-speak “Thanks?” and for the first time ever, I walked to the door of an American Apparel store happy and confident of my purchase.

I was right. I never regretted that final purchase. (The wand does not exaggerate its magical powers.)

Was it gross that the pervy store was now peddling sex toys? Why yes, of course. But no grosser than anything else the mustachioed CEO had already done. I would let them take these final dollars from me. But at least I would finally be getting something of use. And I knew I would never return. I stepped out into the street, swinging my bag, and an angry passerby in skinny jeans yelled at me, “You support kiddie porn!”

But as this can pass for a casual evening greeting in New York City, I simply nodded at him with a smile. “And a good evening to you too, sir,” I tipped my imaginary cap to him.

I was right. I never regretted that final purchase. (The wand does not exaggerate its magical powers.) And I never went back to American Apparel. A few months later, I found myself packing up my apartment to move to Ireland with David. It was time for a change. As I was tossing items around the room, dividing belongings between what to take and what to leave in storage, I opened a drawer and spied the Hitachi. I paused.

“Is it excessive to pack a sex toy that requires an outlet adapter?” I called out to David.

His one word reply: “Yes.”

And so my “back massager” was tucked away in a U-Haul box, that was then marked in my exhausted sharpie scribble: Keepsakes/Homecoming Dress/Vibrator. Which actually kind of sounds like something from the Natural History Museum: “The gradual process of the American female homo sapien.”

I’ve been in Dublin for two years now. Of course, neon leggings have stretched around the world, and there is currently an American Apparel boutique just beyond the fabled Molly Malone statue. I pass it often and see eager Irish lasses on the prowl for our homegrown thigh-highs. I recently learned that the chain would likely be going bankrupt. I can’t say I feel sad about this news. But when I walk by their brightly lit, whitewashed interior, their proud proclamation of AMERICAN, I find I am filled with an odd mixture of irritation and homesickness. I’m reminded of my love/hate relationship with New York City. And I’m reminded of my magic wand, sitting lonely, in a dark, caged unit of Manhattan Mini Storage. I miss it as well. It was the only thing I ever bought in that place that actually made me feel good.

Johanna Gohmann has written for Salon, The Chicago Sun-Times, xoJane, Babble, Red, and Curve. She is a regular contributor to Bust. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, The Best Sex Writing 2010, and Joan Didion Crosses the Street. More by Johanna Gohmann