Posted in The New York Story

FITting In

Before heading to New York to visit Isabella, my travels had largely consisted of road trips to visit my grandparents.  Save for that one trip to Disney World, I think trips to visit family were all I had done.  I had traveled alone by plane several times, but always with my mother on one end, and my grandparents or family on the other.  The individual road trips I had taken were driven from home to Karen’s college a few hours away.  Otherwise, it was all family, all the time.

I had never flown into an airport not knowing who would be there to get me.  I had never taken a taxi.  I had never stayed at a hotel without my mother.  I had never stayed in a city where there was no one related to me by blood or known friendship.  The closest I had ever been to traveling alone was going to Austin with a volunteer group, and Austin is a little smaller than NYC.

As Isabella and I rode into Manhattan, I was realizing just what a neophyte I was.  Could I tell a driver to take me to my hotel and trust that he was taking the direct route?  Not according to her.  She schooled me briefly in how to talk to cab drivers, gave me instructions on what not to do while walking down the street, and basically offered a primer in How Not To Get Mugged*.

And here I should stop to say that for as strange as Isabella turned out to be, she took very good care of her yokel friend.  She might not have fit her own description outside of eye color, and she might have been a lot more self-medicated than I realized, but she did her best to make sure I didn’t get myself killed.  Whether it was schooling me something as simple as not staring up at the buildings, or it was making sure I memorized the mysterious commandment of Go to Snow, Isabella was right there keeping me out of jail or the Hudson.  Of course, she was also largely the reason I could have ended up in jail… 

She was generous in paying for all or just her share of costs, and was very happy to squire me around to the sites I wanted to see.  She was a wonderful human being, even if she turned out to be a nightmare of a penpal.

Finally, after what seemed like an hour of lurching and slamming on brakes through city traffic, the driver swerved and pulled up short at the curb in front of FIT.  Isabella and I lumbered out, and I paid the driver, who then turned on me with spit flying.

I remember it in slow motion.  I handed him a bill and as he took it, his face changed.  Teeth were bared.  His nose rippled back up into his face like a wolverine.  It wouldn’t be the only time I watched that transformation, but it was the first.  You never forget your first.  “Moron!” He shouted, “That’s a great way to lose your luggage, right?!” 

He cursed at me, then yelled that I should never pay a driver before he had given me my bags, or he might just drive off with them.  Isabella was even stunned at the display of tough love. 

He flung my bags out onto the curb with a, “F*cking tourist!” And then slammed himself shut inside the car to drive away.  Isabella and I gawked at one another, then burst out laughing.  The tension was broken and I was glad for an ally in the already strange city.

FIT was something altogether new, too.  See, I was expecting design students to look like the people who might be wearing their designs.  Instead, swarming and milling about the sidewalks of the campus were dreadlocked, poncho wearing art types, and the most common uniform appeared to be torn jeans and the flannel shirts ubiquitous to the early 90s.  Oh, and horrible, horrible sandals.

I was in my Jackie-O sunglasses, with my shiny pre-Wintour bob, wearing a sleeveless, black catsuit under a cream colored, crocheted tunic, with fantastic bell sleeves, and black maryjanes by Sam & Libby.  (LOVED those shoes.  I bought spares of those shoes and wore them until every single pair wore out, sometime around 2000.) 

Looking around, I was so disappointed.  I could have been at the art building from my own university for all the fashion I was seeing.  It was my first lesson in the economic importance of not smoking what you sell.  “Are you kidding?” Isabella was incredulous.  “Who wants to work that hard?” She asked in answer to my question of why people weren’t more dressed up. 

“So listen,” she was ushering me up the sidewalk, carrying one of my bags while I wheeled the other behind me.  “We’re going to drop your stuff off with a friend of mine, then we’ll go get something to eat.  I’ve got a couple of apartments to look at and you can come with me, or you can hang out here.  I’m sure my old roommates will let you hang out.”

I waited in front of a dormitory for an hour and a half while she was inside looking for her old roommates, or friends, or snorting lines, or dropping acid, or whatever it was she was doing.  Admittedly, I was more than a little cranky when she finally reappeared to lead me inside and up to one of the tiny dorm rooms.

“This is Jenny,” she introduced one girl who was so baked she could barely coax her mouth into a smile.  “Jenny wants to date a mobster.  That’s the only reason she’s in NYC.”

“Nice?” I wondered aloud.

The other two friends were less relaxed and did not seem happy to have Isabella crowding their space.  In no uncertain terms they told her that regardless of what Jenny had said, they weren’t keeping my luggage (refered to in unsavory terms), and that they were not letting one of her strange friends hang out in their room.  It was becoming clearer that Isabella’s reasons for leaving dorm life might have been beyond her control.

She let their ire roll off her back, and after a few more minutes trying to communicate with Jenny, we headed back out onto the street.  I lugged my things along into the bookstore, where Isabella wrote a check for the most expensive book she could find.  On our way out of the store, she grinned.  “My bank doesn’t have a branch up here, so what I do is I buy something at the bookstore, then I return it in a couple of hours.  I get cash, and never have to leave campus.  Ready to eat?”

I was.  “But we can’t drag your stuff everywhere.  Let’s find someone.  Come on.”

Isabella asked a few different students, me straggling along behind her like the confused visitor I was.  “She’s going here,” she assured the last matted-haired boy she approached.  “But there’s a mix up with dorms and we’ve got to get her sorted out after registration.  Can you just hold her stuff til tonight?

People, I hesitate to tell you that I left my luggage with a complete stranger, who walked away with both my bags, disappearing into a building without so much as a backward glance.  To this day, I don’t know what adventures my things had, and probably don’t want to.

By the time we had made it to the corner diner Isabella suggested, I was angry-hungry, tired, a little sweaty from the August heat, and very sulky.  I assured her that I would be back to my normal self after a little Coke.

“Oh,” her ears perked up.  “I know where we can get some!”

I was confused, looking around.  “Here, right?”

“No, not here,” she laughed at me.  “But I’ve got a friend…”

I could feel my sheltered brow furrowing.  “Coca-cola?”

As my eyes narrowed, hers widened, and she cackled, “Totally!  Okay!  Coke!  Right!  Yeah!  You can get that here.  I thought you meant coke.”  She made a gesture involving her index finger and nostril.  Then she waved at me, “But don’t worry.  I won’t do it while you’re here if you’re not into it.  You’re not into it, are you?”

At that point in my life, aside from having been raised by a Marine and a Marine’s Wife, I was a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans, worked full-time at a bank, worked part-time for the local Justice of the Peace, sat on the board of directors for an organization dedicated to keeping youth from criminal acts, and had paperdoll cutouts of the Reagans on my dresser.  Even the drug dealer I dated (yes, I dated a drug dealer–what?) never offered me drugs. 

“Uh, no,” I shook my head, distressed and fascinated, and aware that I needed this girl to be on my side if I wanted to get my clothes back.  “But do your thing.  I’ll make sure you don’t jump out a window.”

“Cool,” she agreed.

I ordered and drank my Coke, while waiting on my burger, and realized there was a pay phone in the back of the diner.  God, I’m old.  Cell phones weren’t as available to the public as they are now.  In fact, though we did have a gigantic brick phone that my mother used for business purposes, it was something like $1 a minute.  Maybe more.

I told Isabella that I needed to call and let my parents that I’d gotten into the city and was fine, and steeled myself for the conversation.  At the sound of my mother accepting my collect call, I nearly burst into tears.  You have no idea how close I came to begging her to call the airline and set up my flight home.  But, I am as stubborn as I can be stupid, so I put on a smile and told her how awesome everything was.  She was unconvinced, but I was determined.  What’s more, I was there, and I was dedicated to having an adventure.

Little did I know what kind of an adventure apartment hunting could be.  Or college registration.

*Not that it did much good.  More on that later.

Posted in The New York Story

Lasting First Impressions

Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you were outside of yourself, looking in, watching yourself make bad decisions and act on them?   I had one of those on August 24, 1992.

I had been expecting an Amazon goddess to meet me at the Newark airport, and had been worried about what she was going to think of pink, blonde me, and found myself stunned into silence at the sight of the girl who was calling my name.  She was short.  My height.  And she was much thicker around.  Instead of the runway fashion queen I had expected, I was looking at a girl with  chunks of purple and brown hair sticking out from under a black baseball cap, wearing a heavy, leather motorcycle jacket over an insanely short, black, pleated skirt.  She had on purple and black striped Hamburgler tights, and combat boots. Her eye makeup looked day old, smeared in some places, crusty in others, and a fine sheen of sweat stood out over her upper lip.

She did not look like Isabella Rosselini.  She did  not look anything like what my pen pal had described to me.  However, she was smiling, and waving, and calling my name.

I recollected that Isabella had told me a friend of hers was coming with her to pick me up at the airport.  I decided this was the friend.  I waved back, and made my way over.  We greeted and hugged, and then I found myself following her through the airport, wondering how I was either going to ask her if she was Isabella, and if she was, how I was going to bring up the discrepancy in detail.

She chattered as we walked, and I inspected her.  She sounded like Isabella.  She seemed to know me like Isabella should.  Maybe she’d just gained weight?  It wasn’t a big deal if she had.  I didn’t care what she looked like beyond knowing what to look for, but how could I explain the difference in height?  Had I misread her description?  Misunderstood?  Or was this just not Isabella?

I followed her in a daze, still not quite believing what was patently obvious:  That this was Isabella, and she had just been extremely creative in her self-description.  What else had been exaggerated?  Or flat out fabricated?

It occurred to me that I could turn around right then and go home.  I had an open flight ticket.  One phone call and I could get back on a plane and my mother would be there waiting to pick me up.  But that was admitting defeat, and just as I had ignored my mother’s insistence that my Hawaiian admirer was admiring me from the State Pen, I was ignoring my parents’ insistence that this trip was unwise and that I couldn’t trust Isabella to be who she said she was.  The last thing I was going to do was tell my mother that she’d been right.  Besides, I thought, I had a hotel booked.  Worse came to worst, I would just hide in the hotel.

We picked up my luggage and headed toward the taxi stands, and Maybe-Isabella started giggling, pointing to a driver holding a sign.  “Mrs. Khanada”  I stared.  She had hired car to pick us up from the airport, using my Smash Hits pen pal name.  Isabella had a car.  Why was she hiring a car?  This couldn’t be Isabella then, could it?  But she knew me.

I was confused, but laughed along with the joke and followed her into the car as the driver put my bags in the trunk.  As we drove, the right phrasing came to me.  I said, “So you came alone?”

“Yeah,” she sighed.  “Jerri couldn’t make it.  So I–”

And I didn’t hear the rest.  All I could think was, “Were you tripping on acid when you wrote me your description?!”

I came around to her repeating, “So is that okay?”

“Huh?” I asked, shaking myself.  “Sorry!  Skyline–  Tourist–  I didn’t hear you.”

She laughed good-naturedly, then shrugged, “No big.  I said that we can go straight to your hotel, but I really need to stop by the school first.  Okay?  We can put your luggage in the dorm.  Okay?”

“Okay,” I nodded.  At least she was really a student.

She sighed, “Yeah.  I’ve got to register.  Oh, and do you mind if I stay in your room with you tonight?  Because…I don’t think I told you.  I kind of have to find a place to live.”

Everything my mother had said about the stupidity of my trip came rushing back.  I blinked and said the only thing I could think of to say.  “Uh…sure.”

To be continued.

Posted in The New York Story

Pen Pals Should Come With a Warning

Some nights when I am in the bathtub, my mind starts to wander back to things I would just as soon forget.  I am SUCH a weirdo.  I have done some truly ridiculous, embarrassing, dangerous things.  I’m not going to tell you about some of them (yet) because I am still too embarrassed to put them in print.  However, the fact that I have considered it means that eventually, it will all end up on my blog.

But here is a story until then.

Once upon a time, there was a 16-year-old named Lane.

It was 1987, and there were no internets.  Al Gore was still working on that.  There were no web forums nor chat rooms, no fan pages nor official websites.  If a girl wanted to meet other fans of David Bowie, or Duran Duran, or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, or Strawberry Switchblade, she had only a few sets of recourse.  She could keep an eye out for familiar doodles on other people’s Trapper Keepers, hang out at the Sound Warehouse, try to get to the concerts, or, she could put an ad in Smash Hits (the imported version) and ask for a penpal.

I did all of these.  The latter I did without telling my parents, so imagine their surprise when mail started showing up addressed to “Khanada” (God, okay, that’s embarrassing right there.) from all over the world and prison.

My mother and I had a conversation that went, “Lane, that letter is from a prison.”  “No it isn’t!”  “Yes, look at the address.  I don’t want you responding to this.”  “Uh!  Mooooooooom!”  Of course I responded, and I asked, “Are you in prison?”  Of course he was.  My friend Jason wrote back and told my inmate-soulmate that I had been killed in a freak boating accident.

One of the girls who responded to my plea for fans of the Thin White Duke was named…  I have to give her a pseudonym.  We’ll call her Isabella.  Isabella was cool.  She wrote well.  She was entertaining, and we shared very similar backgrounds as military brats, and we ended up writing to each other for a couple of years.  We also started phoning one another once a month, or so.

She would fill me in on her fabulous, fascinating life at fashion school in NYC, detailing her promotions job for The Limelight, and talking about which Veejay she was refusing that week.  In turn, I would fill her in on my world.  My part of the conversation rarely took more than five minutes.  I was in hayseed awe of her world, and when she would beg me to visit her, I always demurred.  I was afraid she would take one look at me and say, “Never mind.”

But one day I got a wild hare.  I drove myself right down to the travel agency below my neighborhood and asked, “How much does it cost to go to New York City?”  Tiffany, who would book that and every trip I took up to  my honeymoon 12 years later–I’m a loyal customer if you treat me well–got me a price and got me into a good hotel.  I went home and called Isabella.  She was thrilled.  But, she said, if I was insisting on a hotel, I had to stay at the Paramount.  The Hilton was just so-so.

I called Tiffany, who got me an amazing rate, and then I called the hotel posing as my own assistant to confirm the reservation.  I told them I was tying to keep a low profile while I was there, and asked for a few provisions.  It entertained me anyway.

I spent the next six weeks putting together my wardrobe.  There was the black catsuit and cropped ivory Nehru jacket.  There was the skin tight tank dress (that a man tried to trade me for a signed Steven Sprouse t-shirt.  I should have made the trade, but I’ll tell you about that later.)  There was the black and white striped, bateau neck shirt, worn with tights and a black mini.  And a few other pieces along with the basics.  I knew I wasn’t going to be anywhere near what Isabella’s wardrobe would bring, but it was the best I could do.

My parents were furious.  My over-protective parents, without whom I had never traveled.  I was twenty-one and had never been anywhere alone.  It was time, I told them, and I was going.  They could have their fits, but it was paid for, and I was going.  And I was going to be gone a while.  If I liked it, I was staying.

I flew into Newark airport on August 23, 1992.  I will never forget seeing the Statue of Liberty as we banked over the city.  I was equal parts elated and terrified.  What if Isabella didn’t come to pick me up?  What if she hated me?  What if she took one look at my corny Texas clothes and blew me off entirely?

You see, Isabella had described herself to me in detail.  She was tall, 5’10”, frequently mistaken for Isabella Rosselini.  She had men falling all over her, and was constantly fighting off suitors.  She went to a fashion school, where she was a top student.  She worked for what was one of the hottest clubs in New York, and also had ins at Sony and Capitol.

I was 5’3″ (almost), and though I was still working in commercials, and doing runway for petite shows at Market, it was the Dallas market and I thought it was nothing special.  I was round faced and freckled, and worked a temp job while I was going to school for my degree in English.  I went out to clubs, but I wasn’t the hot girl who got asked to work at them.  I’m not the muse.  I’m the girl you tell about the muse.  And my ins at record companies consisted of going in to record stores and buying things from their labels.  (That’s not entirely true.  A Capitol exec tried to recruit me, and I said no.  I didn’t want to live in LA.)

Isabella was this looming, grand thing in my mind, and I was afraid to meet her.

I got off the plane and walked out into the waiting area.  This was pre-9-11, so I fully expected that Isabella would be waiting for me.  I scanned the thick crowd, searching above the heads of the short people.  Looking, looking, looking, worrying.  Had she seen me and split?  She had a picture of me, but I only had her self-description.

And then I heard a voice.  “Laaaaaane?!   Laaaaaaaaaaaane?!”

The voice was coming from my height.  Maybe lower.  I was confused.  Finally, I located the person calling my name.  I did a double take, literally looking behind me for anyone else who might be named Lane because that. was. not. Isabella.

To be continued.