In 2008 the U.S. economy was collapsing, but I myself was experiencing a brief and temporary period of financial abundance, the first and only time like this I have ever known. After years of working at office jobs that barely allowed me breathing time on the weekends, I was fully freelance, or as I would later come to think of it, unemployed. I was renting my own one-bedroom apartment and spending a lot of time eating, going to yoga classes, and lying on the floor crying while dredging up bad memories to put in the book I was working on. I had been through a lot, I thought, and I was due some time to relax. I wasn’t a complete idiot — I knew that the windfall I was living on, from a book advance that was rapidly being decimated by taxes and insurance premiums, was finite and unlikely to be replenished via writing alone. But I was enough of an idiot to imagine that teaching yoga was going to be an adequate Plan B. And I was also enough of an idiot to start hanging out with T.
T was around during the day when I had nothing pressing to do, willing to have me over at 2 p.m. for tea and gossip. She was beautiful, with a wild head of perfectly maintained hair, and always smelled amazing. She had usually just come from a fitness class or a massage or a haircut or other more esoteric spa experience. She had written for years for women’s magazines, which were then much more of a thing, and so a lot of this self-care was either subsidized or a legitimate research expense. But you got the sense that she would still be doing it, even if it weren’t part of her job. This was just the way she lived. She reminded me of Colette, the author whose photograph was on the vision board I kept above my desk. She was a sensualist, an aesthete. She made it seem normal and rational and good to spend hours taking care of your body and mind, soothing and nourishing yourself like a pampered, beloved pet.
In my earlier 20s, I’d treated my body mostly as an impediment or an afterthought. My clothes were often from thrift stores, less fashion statement and more matter of expediency. I cared about how I looked, but I’d never had the time or money to care consistently enough to expect good results. Now, suddenly, I had both, and I was beginning to think of T as a good example of how I ought to spend them.
The first time she took me shopping was a revelation. Whenever I’d had the courage to venture into fancy stores before, I’d slunk around their periphery, sweatily aware that the employees knew I was unlikely to buy anything. I was sure that people could tell from looking at me how much each item I was wearing had cost, and were doing the math. I thought, in general, far too much about what other people were probably thinking about me. The merciful realization that no one is ever thinking about you because we’re all busy thinking about ourselves was still, for me, years away.
But shopping with T was different. When she walked into a store, the employees greeted her by name and began to pull items from the racks for her to try on. Riding her coattails, I was treated with the same consideration, which is how I wound up owning a beautiful cashmere 3.1 Philip Lim sweater that I had no use for and rarely wore, and which was eventually eaten by moths in my closet. Buying beautiful clothes at full retail price was not a part of my childhood and it is not a part of my life now. It felt more illicit and more pleasurable than buying drugs. It was like buying drugs and doing the drugs, simultaneously. It was the scene in Pretty Woman when she goes back to the boutique and tells them they’ve made a BIG mistake, HUGE, except no one had to feel bad about themselves. (Except me, of course, but not until months later, when I hit the limit on my credit card.)
It was rare that T vouchsafed to me any of her hard-won intel about who to see for the many disparate kinds of body, hair, and soul-tinkering she routinely engaged in; reasonably, she guarded her trade secrets. One exception, and I’m not sure why she made it, was that she told me the name of the stylist who colored her glorious hair. Maybe she was being nice. Maybe she’d already written about the stylist and wasn’t worried about blowing up her spot. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen with anyone whose hair was as brassy and bedraggled as mine was. In any event, I found myself at a Soho salon with snacks and Wi-Fi, getting balayaged by a moonlit goddess with an uncannily soothing physical affect. It was a pleasure just to sit there for hours watching her gently paint strands of my hair; it gave me that syrupy high that some people get from ASMR videos. Afterward, my hair looked like my hair had looked at the height of summer when I was 8 years old. Five hundred dollars seemed like a reasonable price to pay.
If getting T’s advice on who to pay for haircuts and sweaters was rare, getting advice on how to get paid for writing about them was impossible. She never introduced me to her editors or in any other way helped me learn how to live the way she did. I resented her for this; sharing that kind of information freely has always been my instinctive way, for better and worse. But I was wrong to feel resentful. Not only couldn’t she have helped me, she probably didn’t even realize that I needed help. By all appearances, my career was going perfectly well. And while she could have been freer with connections, she certainly wasn’t in a position to bend the laws of time and space and get me reborn into a very wealthy family, which is still the best freelance writing career tip I know.
After the book I’d spent that luxurious year wrestling with was published into a very different financial moment than the flush one during which the publisher had bought it, I started temping. The beautiful party dress and the wool cheerleader miniskirt I’d bought on shopping trips with T didn’t make sense in the offices where I answered the phones for $20 per hour, so I invested in some H&M basics. We didn’t have time to hang out at 2 p.m. anymore, and we drifted apart.
But I retained a few lessons from our brief friendship, and I don’t mean virtuous lessons about restraint and austerity. I learned there is a huge class of people who lounge around for a living in this city, still, and I love that. It’s not for everyone, but someone has to do it. I want to eat the rich as much, if not more, than every other good socialist gal, but I also do love beauty and luxury and days spent doing nothing, reading and stretching and drinking endless cups of tea. It’s easy to forget that the result of our efforts to bring about income equality shouldn’t be that everyone has to wear the same government-issued jumpsuit and put in long hours tilling the fields. Treating your mind and body with care shouldn’t be the province of a privileged few; but just because it still is doesn’t mean that no one should do it. I’ll always remember my time in T’s company fondly. Wherever she is now, I hope she’s well, relaxed, and lavishly well-moisturized.
Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.