In the little free library was a hand-sewn chapbook with poems from all the poets who had read at Bean Heads. The open mic was every Friday and gray men would shuffle in to crinkle coffee-stained pages at the microphone. It was an Event. There were gasps and snaps and silence. I didn’t understand it. Here I was, fifteen years old and crafting big papers about The Count of Monte Cristo, and someone had written this:
A parliament of stalking butlers
Deafening silence over the telephone
The Pope flows like running water
Calligraphy makes the Queen go blind.
The poets must be on to something though because even now, after all my university degrees and formal trainings, this is still the only poem I know by heart.
The only other girl at Bean Heads was a barista. I envied her job, if only for the fact that she got to smell coffee and look at people instead of smell steramine and look at their food remains. She asked me the Cambridge equivalent of What do you want to be when you grow up? which was, What are you gonna do when you get out of here? Cambridge, New York was a tiny town that maybe after a couple beers could pass for a bootleg Stars Hollow, but I was too underage and nervous to make friends so after work I’d go straight back to my godfather’s place to listen to Lacuna Coil and smoke Ecstasy herbal cigarettes and write down my dreams. I made boxes of mac & cheese and took them upstairs to eat alone.
I told the barista I didn’t know what I was going to do but I wanted to write. She asked if I’d ever heard of NYLON Magazine. I hadn’t. She said it was her favorite and the next day she brought in a copy.
Growing up in Stow, Ohio, all the magazines for sale at the Discount Drug Mart in the early 2000s were different versions of the same thing. Glamour and Cosmo and Vogue, tailored to caricatures of women it seemed a lot of work to learn how to be. Down a step, Seventeen magazine showed smiling girls who had solid friendships and butterfly clips, whose problems had to do with what extracurriculars to give up because they were president of too many. I wonder how my life would’ve been different if I’d known about Rookie then, but if you’re always validated, there’s nothing left to push against.
NYLON was beyond this. No diet tips, no harrowing sex advice, no recommendations for jaw placement during a blow job. There were record recommendations and reviews of actual books. Young fashion designers who made nonsensical clothes worn by stoned-looking models and hand-drawn products on the beauty page. Chartreuse lipstick, three pairs of socks on a pair of untoned calves stuffed inside fuschia jelly platforms, unbrushed hair and absurdly short bangs. Fashion that made you go What the fuck? No $2000 trench coats that were fucking beige. And there was something else: the Private Icon.
Each month the Private Icon centered a heroine or set of heroines from a cult film, with a description of what made them iconic plus a recommended list of clothes and products with which to emulate their style. Alabama from True Romance. Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. Winona and Angelina, the OG fucked up gal pals in Girl, Interrupted. According to NYLON, canonization was not only possible, it was accessible by formula. Instead of becoming Your Best Self, as the other magazines instructed you to do, you could play characters. If you were having a hard time becoming somebody on your own, you could assemble the conflux of elements that had made somebody else unforgettable. If you wanted, you could buy the exact shade of lipstick worn by Penny Lane.
I wish I could live in New York and write for NYLON, the barista said.
And that was that, and then we went back to being dishwasher and barista, not going out after work and not saying much more to each other, and sooner or later the summer ended and I took my under-the-table money and went home, along with the copy of NYLON and the chapbook with “Amoral Amnesty” in it. Eventually I moved to New York and replaced the Ecstasy cigarettes with menthols and the mac & cheese with salads. I kept eating in my room alone.
The magazines came every month to my Alphabet City apartment. I had a Victoria’s Secret Angel for a downstairs neighbor and got my nails done next to Justin Vivian Bond. I tried interesting things with scarves and lipstick and bought an ugly pair of Miu Miu sandals at the Buffalo Exchange down the street. They were so ugly not one single person liked them on Instagram. And they fell apart on my way to buy a raw activated coconut something—you had to eat like an It Girl, which was something like the Private Icon in real time and involved a lot of raw organics punctuated by the occasional craving for a Big Mac and fries—after which I dumped the sandals in a trashcan on Avenue B and walked the rest of the way to Rawvolution barefoot, really living.
And then: I did end up writing for NYLON. I emailed an editor on the suggestion of my girlfriend and got a freelance gig writing beauty articles. Well sooner or later I would be hired to write features, I thought, and go on assignments, and the world would open up. I felt justified in having subscribed to NYLON, stacking the magazines up in a pile along the wall for lack of a bookshelf, knowing I could write anything in there better than the people they hired. None of that happened. A handful of my pieces were published online. They weren’t hiring staff writers anymore, they said, on account of the budget. I started a series called “Beauty and the Book” that made It Girls out of indie novel heroines. The series died after one installment. Nothing I did ever made it to print.
And so: the closest I came to being an It Girl was walking home from Hell’s Kitchen in the rain at 3:30 in the morning wearing Jeffrey Campbell Litas when they were still cool and a see-through Skingraft dress with a leather harness and no bra, finally skinny from Adderall and out of my mind on cocaine, posing for invisible cameras in the empty glow streets of Times Square. A show for no audience. That time, and the time a Teen Vogue editor tried on my Balmain coat and tweeted, I am tweeting from inside a Balmain coat, or the time I went to The Standard at the High Line with a pretty girl who convinced me we were pretty enough to get in upstairs sans guest list, and was right, and we left our dates downstairs playing pool even though I suspected there was no guest list, and was right, and had $18 vodka gimlets across from Rosie Huntington-Whitely. That’s my life in magazine copy.
And you were right about New York. It is expensive. NYLON still owes me a hundred and fifty dollars and they stopped answering my emails.