In the summer after ninth grade, my friends and I started hanging around a certain block on the Upper West Side, right near the Burger King. It was a pretty well-known gathering place for a particular group of kids at that time: a casting director for the movie Kids - an extremely bleak but not entirely off-base portrayal of what teenage life was like in New York City in the mid-1990s - actually hung around there and ended up putting a few of our friends in the film. On Friday and Saturday nights, dozens of us would stream in as the sun set, calling out to each other to see what the plan was – because in the time before cell phones you actually had to stop into places to find out what was going on – then use the pay phone on the corner to page friends who hadn’t shown up yet. There was a code for “meet at Burger King”, but I can’t remember what it was.
When we’d gathered a big enough group, we’d wander through Central Park, head over to the east side to stop into the apartment of someone whose parents were out of town, and then usually end up sitting in the grass outside the Met after night fell, our backs leaned against the slanting glass wall of the Egyptian exhibit, doing our best to get into trouble but mostly only playing game after game of “I Never.”
There was this one summer when a girl named Hannah seemed like the center of it all: she had long, dark bangs, wore glitter eye makeup and perfect bellbottoms and her hair in two high, twisted buns on top of her head, and was best friends with the boy I had decided that I was in love with for the moment. She seemed comfortable in a way that I wanted so badly; I never could figure out how to be at rest with myself with too many people around – especially people who I very much wanted to be just like – and while we walked in large packs down the cobblestone streets bordering the park, yelling and laughing and shoving each other, I always had the sense that I was hovering somewhere outside of myself, looking in at my awkward way of holding my arms, my spotty skin, my not-quite-right sneakers, and seeing just how much I didn’t fit.
For awhile, it felt like the answer might be something as small as the shade of my lipstick, or the shape of my jeans. If I could find that pair of bellbottoms just like Hannah’s, I thought, maybe I could trick them – trick myself – into thinking I wasn’t just tolerated, but rather necessary, that they should call me from the pay phone to let me know that everyone was hanging out, we’re all here, you should come.
One Saturday that summer my friend Cynthia and I walked over to the flea market that used to set up every weekend in a big parking lot in the West ’70s – it’s gone now, I think, but it used to be amazing: filled with piles of costume jewelry, old furniture, clothing we could actually sometimes afford. And I remember exactly where I found these overalls: they were on a wire hanger sort of half-tucked into a rack, shoved carelessly back in just moments before by someone who’d decided they weren’t quite right.
I thought they were perfect. They were belled at the bottom and snug at the waist, and I thought they looked exactly like something Hannah might wear.
So even though they were twenty-five dollars, I bought them and took them home. And the very next day, before heading over to Cynthia’s house to pick her up for our daily walk to Burger King, I put them on. And then I looked at myself in the mirror, and suddenly all I could see were the legs that were too loose, the waist that was too high, the hems that were too short. I didn’t look like Hannah: I looked like a girl who was trying very hard to pretend to be a person who she was not, a person who was wearing overalls not because she wanted to but because she thought that they might make the difference between feeling on the outside and feeling at ease.
And I took them right off again.
I never actually wore these overalls while I was in high school, not once and not for years and years afterward. It wasn’t until over a decade later, when I was living in my Upper East Side apartment with my husband, maybe five weeks pregnant with our son and looking for something to wear while I painted over my grandmother’s old side table that I found them crumpled in the back of a drawer, put them on, and thought: hey. I like these.
I like them still; with a silk blouse, with leopard shoes, with whatever I feel like putting on that day. The looseness of the legs makes them comfortable; the high waist means they stay where they’re supposed to; the short hems keep me from tripping. They used to be a costume for a part I couldn’t quite play; now they’re just what I wear when I’ve got somewhere to go.
On me: Vintage overalls (similar); blouse c/o Nieves Lavi; Rebecca Minkoff purse; Folli Follie watch;House of Harlow sunglasses; CC Corso Como leopard boots.