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Bitter is the new black, p.23
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.23

           Jen Lancaster

  “You wouldn’t have to shop there.”

  “Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to live within fifty yards of anything skeevy.”

  Fletch pounds his fist on the steering wheel. “That tears it! You’ve lost your vote. I know you don’t want to leave our apartment and you’re doing everything in your power to make it more difficult. I don’t want to leave either, but we do not have a choice. The boom is over. It was nice while it lasted, but now we have to be adults, face our new economic reality, and make necessary changes. As it is, I’m not sure how we’re going to come up with $1600 each month, but we’ll worry about that after we’ve got a new roof over our heads. So right now, we are going to meet with Brandon, see all the places he has to show us, and we’re going to choose one of them. Agreed?”

  I contemplate his outburst. It’s rare to see such an outpouring of emotion from him, so he must really mean business. Finally, I grunt, “Agreed.”

  “Thank you.” We exit the car and Fletch zips up his parka.

  I wrap my cashmere scarf around my neck and put on calfskin gloves before adding, “But if someone leaves mango pits on our lawn, you’re picking them up.”

  Brandon takes us to ten different listings, and each is worse than the last. I’m frustrated, tired, and dreading living in any of them. As we pull into the brokerage office’s parking lot, Brandon gets a call. He chats for a moment before addressing us.

  “Hey, that was this guy Bill on the phone. He has a nice place on Superior that I’ve wanted to show you, but I didn’t have the keys. He’s over there now if you guys want to take a look. Sounds like a decent fit because it has all the amenities you want. I know it’s pretty late, but do you want to swing by?”

  “Bring it on,” I say wearily.

  “Can you try to be a little more positive?” Fletch asks.

  “As you wish. Maybe this place will have empty crack vials on the porch, too!” I say brightly.

  We drive to a west-side neighborhood I’ve never heard of before. It’s dark and the streets are deserted, which, in my opinion, is a good sign. The last place we saw had thugs standing around in hooded sweatshirts, and they scared the pants off me. The cars on the street seem decent, and there’s some new construction, which is also encouraging.

  We’re greeted at the door by Bill, who has big white teeth, an expensive coat, and stupid spiky hair. He’s superenthusiastic and shakes my hand really hard while clapping me on the back.

  I already hate him.

  Bill leads us through the apartment and explains how he owns a mail-order cigar company but is starting to dabble in real estate development and this is one of the first buildings he’s redone and he’s really proud of the results and urban renewal and entrepreneur and blah blah blah…. Uh-huh, whatever. I’m a lot more concerned about a washer and dryer than I am about your résumé, pal.

  After our tour, Fletch asks the men to excuse us for a moment. We go upstairs to discuss the apartment.

  “This place has everything we want. It’s all new, there’s central AC, and there’s plenty of space. We’re taking it,” Fletch says.

  “Shouldn’t we check out the neighborhood in the daylight before we decide?” I ask.

  “Bill has five more showings tomorrow. If we wait, we’ll lose it.”

  “The thing is, the apartment is fine, but I hate the landlord.”

  “He seems nice and professional. What’s the problem now?”

  “He crushed my hand when he shook it and he’s reality-show handsome. He looks like he should be on The Bachelor. That bothers me.”

  Fletch rolls his eyes and hisses, “To think I believed your objections couldn’t get more ludicrous.” In a louder voice, he calls down the stairs, “OK, guys, let’s talk lease.”

  Cannibal Birds

  Weblog Entry 2/12/03


  We recently disconnected our satellite dish to prepare for our move, so we’re back on the building’s basic cable. Because I haven’t been able to consume my usual banal menu of A Wedding Story and The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, I made the mistake of watching MSNBC.

  Not smart.

  Every single one of their reports has caused me MUCH anxiety.

  First of all, I’m highly concerned about Al Jezeera reports of suicide attacks and possible use of radiological devices. I’m also worried about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, France’s rallying to weaken NATO, and the possibility of links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. And watching the Dow spiral down on the lower right-hand corner of my screen while these reports are read doesn’t exactly help my stress level, either.

  While the disastrous possibilities these stories propose put me on edge, the news that scares me the most is the segment I recently saw about college students and their increased consumption of club drugs such as Ecstasy.

  When discussing usage statistics, the MSNBC reporter showed what now passes for a college party…it was a bunch of unkempt girls and dirty boys sprawled over all the flat surfaces in someone’s dorm room while horrific house music thumped in the background. Since they were “trippin’ on E” they took turns touching each other, as apparently tactile sensations are far stronger when chemically enhanced. They also took turns making out with each other—boys on girls, boys on boys, girls on girls, boys on dorm furniture, etc. until someone shouted “Switch!”

  Excuse me, but this is NOT a college party.

  I consider myself an expert on parties as my college career spanned from 1985 to 1996.141 In this eleven year period, I probably attended at least one party a week. Doing the math, that makes me the veteran of at least 572 parties.142 So consider me an expert when I say every party started with well-groomed attendees. Even if you weren’t the prettiest debutant at the ball, you made the most of what you had. The men were gelled and pressed and each of the women sported their cutest clothes and a face-full of cosmetics. There was none of this shaved-headed, random-facial-haired, poorly outfitted foolishness. And no one forgot deodorant, either. If anything, the whiff of Polo Sport and Liz Claiborne perfume was practically overwhelming.

  Second of all, parties never took place in anyone’s DORM.


  I mean, how the heck could you sneak twenty kegs past the RA? Fraternity houses had entire floors devoted to party space. And even apartment party-throwers cleared out the community living area to make room for lethal trash can punch because having space to circulate was the key to throwing a good party.

  Back then we had one drug and it was called ALCOHOL and that was just fine. There wasn’t any crank or smack or crack or stank or whatever else the kids do now.143 If drugs had been more readily available, no one would have done them because we were all concerned about failing piss tests and losing our internships.

  At our parties, if kids hooked up it was behind closed doors. Mostly we just drank and laughed and gossiped and smoked Marlboros, much as we do now as adults at work functions. This is because the purpose of college parties is to prepare the youth of our nation to mainstream into corporate America.

  So, please kids, pick yourselves up off the floor, take a shower, starch your khakis, crack a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and head over to the Delt house.

  The future of American business is depending on you.

  Although we’re moving in two days, we still make time to meet my cousin’s family for a delightful dinner at Carmine’s. After hugs, kisses, and promises to do this more often, Fletch and I are on our way to catch a cab when we walk past Jilly’s.


  Standing outside their door, I’m instantly transported back to 1999, where we’re in the throes of the dot-com gold rush. Most weekends we put on all our finery and get together with the rest of the young turks for four-digit group dinners at the Signature Room, Tavern on Rush, Gibson’s, etc. But no matter where we start, we always end up at the piano bar at Jilly’s, hanging out with the rest of Chicago’s young digital elite, drinking martinis, crooning along to Frank an
d Dino, and tripping across the dance floor while roving bands of photographers document our heyday on film.144 Invincibility permeates our souls like the smell of expensive cigars infuses our Brooks Brothers suits and Burberry shifts.

  Of course, those days over. The young turks have gone the way of our success, status, and jobs.

  And yet Jilly’s still stands, having been reclaimed by baby boomers. I LOATHE baby boomers. Boomers are the only people who emerged from the dot-bomb unscathed. I blame them for the economic crash. They’re the ones who used people like me and Fletch to build their pretend companies and their wealth, and then they bailed out before everything came crashing down.

  “Feel like nipping in for a quick one?” I ask Fletch. He looks as wistful as I feel.

  “I do, but we’re limited to one apiece. We need to tip the movers.”

  We wedge our way through the crowds and up to the bar, waiting for a stool to come open. As seating at Jilly’s is as precious and fleeting as a bull market for tech stocks, I grab an empty chair and plant myself in front of a couple of half-full drinks covered with napkins. I shove the glasses out of my way to make room and then gesture to my favorite bartender, who immediately knows to pull out the Stoli and Spanish olives. Seconds later, we’re presented with two swimming pool–sized cocktails.

  Fletch holds his drink up in a toast. “To new beginnings.”

  “Whatever they may bring.” We clink glasses. I sip the icy vodka, close my eyes, and I’m back in The Day again…mmmm, stock options…ooh, venture capital…aahhh, the e-volution….

  I’m jarred from my reverie when someone shoves my stool. I assume it’s the crush of the crowd or Fletch on his way back from the men’s room, but when I twist around, I come face to face with an angry boomer. He’s the owner of the covered beverages and has returned after fifteen minutes of dancing to reclaim his spot at the bar.

  Angry little eyes flash at me through tiny titanium bifocals and he accuses, “You took my seat.”

  “I most certainly did not. I sat down in an empty chair.”

  “Those are my drinks.”

  “And?” The LAST thing I’m going to do is hand my prized seat over to some boomer asshole without a fight. “Haven’t you ever been in a restaurant? A napkin is the universal signal for ‘I’m done.’ The drinks were covered. This chair was empty. I sat down. End of story.”

  “This is my chair.”

  “You certainly present a compelling argument. I am simply floored by your powers of persuasion. Tell me, are you an attorney?”

  He shoves my chair again. “Listen, little girl, I’m a regular here, and the bartenders know when I cover my drink, it means I’m coming back, so get your ass out of my seat right now.”

  I nod at the bartender. “Roger, you know this guy?”

  “Never seen him before, Jen. Is there a problem?”

  I smile. “No problem.” And to the boomer: “Since I’m nice, you can have this seat in a couple of minutes because we’re almost finished. Until then, piss off.” I shoo him away. He glowers at me before skulking back to the dance floor. Dance now, old man. Because someday I will rule Jilly’s again.

  Roger leans across the bar so that I can hear him over the noise. “Hey, where you guys been? Haven’t seen you in here for a long time.”

  “Roger, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

  It feels like we’ve been packing for months now, but it’s only been a week. We’ve already got seventy cartons stacked up in the dining room, and we haven’t even boxed up our personal items yet.

  As I pack, I’m struck by the sheer amount of junk that I own. I now understand I have no right to bitch about being broke because I was really foolish with the money I had when I had it.

  I start to tabulate what I could have had instead of what I do have. In this cabinet, I have twenty-five half-full bottles of body lotion, and they aren’t cheap, either. I’ve got the sublime—the sparkly designer tubes—and the ridiculous—the glycolic-acid-which-burns-off-several-layers-of-skin—and yet my legs are totally scaly. I never remember to use them until after I put on my pants, and by then, I’m too lazy to take them off again. Figuring that each bottle cost an average of $40, I would have $1000 now, which would pay for two months of COBRA for Fletch and me.

  Moving on to the next shelf, I find my nail-care toolbox. I open it and see at least twenty shades of matte red145 from OPI and Christian Dior, each of which cost an average of $10. I kept buying new bottles because I never got around to finding nail polish thinner to salvage the ones I already had. I have four identical bottles of Dutch Tulip and I’m embarrassed by my largesse. Did I mention that $200 would pay for a month of electricity? Add this to the seventeen trays of $30 eye shadow I own and never use,146 and all of a sudden, I have the means to pay for six months’ phone service.

  The living room is a monument to my impulsive spending habits. I’ve got more than two hundred DVDs, including cinematic greats such as Monkey Bone, Corky Romano, and A Night at the Roxbury, leading me to believe not only do I have awful taste in films, but I also have a Chris Kattan fixation. What I don’t have is $4000 earning interest in a money market account.

  The DVDs reside on the same bookcase as all my hardbacked books. Instead of waiting for the paperback edition or, God forbid, going to the public library, I had to have hardcovers. Had I checked these books out instead, I could afford an entire year’s worth of insurance on both vehicles.

  But these expenditures are nothing compared to what’s in my closet. My sweater compulsion could have easily afforded me a semester of grad school, and if I didn’t have an affinity for fur-trimmed coats, I could fund an entire MBA, including a new laptop.

  Now on to the mother lode—shoes. My stacked-heel loafer collection would have paid for two months’ rent and my summer slide assortment a whole season’s worth of groceries. My crocodile-skinned pumps alone might have funded a year of DSL service. And why the hell did I need so many pair of athletic shoes? It’s not like I exercise. But if I did, my sneaker budget could finance a health club membership at one of the city’s swankier gyms.

  Eventually, I get around to packing my purses. Even minus the ones I’ve auctioned, I still need two giant boxes to hold them all. None of these babies were a bargain, either. Why, exactly, did I need a lavender-and-brown Kate Spade bag for $300? Do you know how hard it is to coordinate those colors with anything else? I’ve used the damn thing twice in two years. And while I dig my white floral Spade bag, I never carry it for fear of getting it dirty. It sits in my closet doing nothing. Why didn’t I just give its $275 ticket price to a deserving charity instead?

  Finally, I examine the cornerstone of my beloved but ridiculous collection—my giant chain-strap Prada bag. I loved this purse when I saw it, and damn the price, I HAD to have it. Yet now it’s covered with dust, hasn’t been touched in months, and has brought me nothing but bad luck. I examine every inch of it and sigh deeply. The silver links are starting to chip and the Prada-embossed lining is torn. The worst part is that the cost of this bag could have paid for professionals to box up all this stuff.

  Fletch comes in to work on his side of the closet. “How’s it going?”

  “Depressing,” I reply.

  “I’m sad, too. But this is what we have to do.”

  “I’m talking about all this stuff. What was I thinking? Why did I buy so much? And why didn’t you stop me?”

  He snorts. “Because it would have been impossible.”

  I look over at his tidy row after row of Johnson & Murphy shoes, neatly hung Hickey-Freeman suits, stacks of cashmere sweaters, and rung of custom-made Thomas Pink shirts. “You’re one to talk.”

  He sits down heavily on the edge of the bed. “Now we know better. We’ve learned an expensive lesson.”

  I join him. “I just hope we didn’t learn it too late.”

  I fear we’ve made a terrible mistake.

  We’ve moved to the frigging barrio. I knew we should have checked this
place out in daylight. Yes, our apartment and landlord are decent, but that doesn’t change the fact that except for my building’s tenants, no one here speaks English.


  Which is probably why I’ve never heard of this neighborhood before. I don’t speak any of the languages in which I may have heard it discussed. All the signs are written in Spanish or Polish, and there are six lavanderias within walking distance. Not Laundromats: LAVANDERIAS. The shop around the corner sells Pollo Vivo, which translated means live chickens. I have no idea where I can buy a cup of coffee around here, but if I need access to an industrial-strength clothes dryer or want to kill my own dinner, I’m all set. The cashier at the local McDonald’s even tried to take my order in Spanish. Excuse me, but am I not smack in the center of the United States of America? Unless I need to order a beer or tell someone I have a pencil, I’m screwed. Perhaps I should have paid more attention when Bill was discussing “urban renewal.”

  When we looked at this place, the new construction next door must have blinded me to the tenement two doors down. There are at least fifteen fresh-off-the-boat immigrant families squashed into a building made to hold four. I can’t walk the dogs down the strip of grass bordering their property because of all the food they leave out, ostensibly for the birds. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen moldy tortillas, loaves of bread, cans of tuna, and a large sandwich with all the trimmings. Since when do sparrows eat beefsteak tomatoes? Yesterday the dogs almost yanked my arm off when we ran into a rat feasting on the tenement’s offerings; the rat slipped into a big crack in the side of the building as soon as it saw the dogs. That place has to be totally infested.

  Today was the kicker. We were taking our a.m. potty run, and I stumbled across a pile of pancakes. Who leaves an entire short stack out for the birds?? I imagine the people inside, throwing their hands up and crying in Slavic accents, “Vy ve haf so many rats?” I feel like shouting back at them, “Because you feed them Continental breakfasts!”

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