An Estonian Girl in New York

Liis was unhappy. She had seen most of what Midtown Manhattan had to offer: Times Square, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway, and within it, Macy’s, Toys ‘R’ Us, Tiffany’s, and FAO Schwartz. But something was missing. On the second floor of New York’s largest toy store, surrounded by obscenely sized teddy bears and Harry Potter merchandise, she confided in me: “I want to go back to Forever 21.”

Forever 21. For this teenage Estonian girl from Tartu one particular clothing store beckoned with its glistening escalators, booming dance music, flashing lights, elegant wardrobes, and ensemble cast of hundreds of blazed European tourists, ladies who were willing to spend to the bottom of their purses to capture a little bit of New York class in a bag. Liis is not yet 16, so 21 seems infinitely distant. As our babysitter in Estonia, she had saved for months and months just to come to Manhattan, just so that she could step foot in a place like Forever 21.

When Liis first saw the lights of New York from our car window on the way home from the airport, she was both awed and tremendously satisfied. “It’s so beautiful,” she cooed. And then, “My best friend Kaisa is just going to die of jealousy when I tell her about it. She is going to cry, cry, and cry some more!” There was no empathy in Liis’ voice. She was very content that she would be the first of her friends to see Manhattan. She had told us that the girls at her school in Tartu would gaze upon her with adoration and respect once they heard that she had been shopping in New York.

While Kaisa has no doubt drenched her sheets in envious tears by now, Liis obtained for her a consolation prize: a $30 Rolling Stones shirt acquired in Times Square. Liis spent an equal sum on a Beatles t-shirt, and then $10 for five “I Love NY” t-shirts for various friends. I thought this was the zenith of this young Estonian woman’s fevered spending frenzy. I was wrong. On the way back to Forever 21, we stopped inside another delectable spender’s paradise, this one called Strawberry. One t-shirt inside proclaimed its values. “I want clothes, money, boys, fame, candy, and good grades,” it read. I could only spend about thirty seconds in the place before I excused myself to walk around the block.

I had been amused by Liis’ shopping antics but also touched in some way. In New York, she seemed amazed by everything: the battered Subway lines, the glossy skyscrapers, the pulsing neon lights. Even the Empire State Building excited her. I had seen these things so many times, they had become like wallpaper to me. With Liis they came back to life. In Strawberry, though, I reached my limit. I was done with it in half a minute. She spent half an hour there. Why? What kind of person could spend so much time in a store filled with dresses and shoes?

The obvious answer: a woman. A woman like Liis, like my wife Epp, like my mother. When I was a little boy, my mother would take me to places like Strawberry. I would scan its interior, searching for something mildly interesting. Sometimes I would think I would see toys shimmering in the distant corners of the clothing store, only to be disappointed when I discovered the “toy mirage” was really just more shoes and bags. To pass the time, I would hide among the clothing racks to torment my mother. Only when the son had disappeared for awhile would she even notice his absence. She was always irritated when I popped out from behind a brassier to cry, “peak a boo!”

Maybe such episodes built up my tolerance for places like Strawberry. It’s true, I had matured since those days, warily accompanying Epp to shops to answer such probing questions as, “What do you think of this shirt?” Or, “Do you think this bag would go with my winter coat?” On such excursions, I usually just say, “Yes,” or, if I am feeling honest, “I don’t know.” I am generally useless, but don’t mind carrying an extra bag around or opening the door.

When Liis finally emerged from Strawberry, shopping bags dripping from every arm, I was relieved. “Thanks for waiting,” she feigned an exhausted smile. “Um, I don’t think we need to go to Forever 21 anymore,” she blushed. “I spent all my allowance.”

Epp later rejoined us after doing an interview for a book with an actress in Times Square. Liis had wanted to go uptown to the Dakota to see where John Lennon had been shot, but our group voted for Union Square where there was an organic farmers market and, for my purposes, a Virgin Megastore where I could hide out while the Estonians raided another hall of consumer goods.

It was now early evening, and everyone was beat from walking and shopping. Even Liis’ Strawberry afterglow had subsided. She didn’t need any more clothes; she needed a pillow. As we ascended the Subway stairs into the bustling, sunny square, though, her tired eyes fixed on several large signs. There was a Strawberry here, too, she noticed, and a DSW, where they sold discount shoes! And right between them, sparkling in the summer light, was a Forever 21.

“I can give you the rest of your allowance today,” Epp chirped as Liis rifled through her wallet.

“You will?” Liis guffawed.

“Isn’t New York fun?” I patted Liis on the shoulder. She didn’t answer, but from the mad gleam in her eye, I could see that she was once again very, very happy. But she wasn’t the only one. As if diving into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, Epp swooned into DSW to try on new pairs of shoes. I waltzed over to the music store to explore the sounds of Jamaica, Nigeria, Brazil. For me, going to the music store has always been like going on a round-the-world trip, or sometimes a voyage back in time, or to the future. Music takes me places, it adds meaning to my life. But where can a dress take you? What meaning can a pair of shoes give to your life?

“I have my own theory,” Epp informed us as we waited later for a Subway train. “Using our hands helps us to relieve stress. Our grandmothers sewed and made their own clothes. But to release tension nowadays, women go shopping instead.” I pondered the therapeutic benefits of shopping as our train shot us under Manhattan. And, at one stop, I caught a glimpse of very tired Liis softly stroking her new bag.

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