Introduction: My Bag
Which brings us of course to bags, and why they turn out to be a gender issue. If women’s clothes had more pockets, we might have gotten far fewer submissions to this month’s Short Takes. There was a brief, shining moment when designers tried to sell men on bags. It was in the ’70s. Men were wearing those Donny Osmond pants, skin-tight at the top, bell-bottomed below, and were having the same problem women do: where, in clothes like that, does a wallet fit? But, before that – and since – men have had pockets; women have carried bags.
Okay, before someone writes in to correct me, I’ll say it myself: luggage is pretty much gender neutral, and suitcases are called bags. But luggage is different: nobody except a flight crew rolls a suitcase around on a daily basis.
And, yes, there are briefcases. You could say that a briefcase is the male equivalent of a shoulder bag, except it is telling that nobody calls a briefcase a bag. Women put toiletries, tissues, kids’ toys in bags; briefcases are for heavy duty business stuff. Briefcases are for MEN. Women did carry briefcases for a time – back when equality between the sexes meant we should all get the same jobs as men, and even dress sort of like them. Back when I was a lawyer (men were lawyers) in a big city law firm (men worked in big city law firms), I wore the woman-lawyer uniform of the time: horrid little gray suits with straight stubby skirts and ghastly blue or red bow ties. And I had a briefcase. But at least it was a nifty red suede briefcase. What did we women carry in our briefcases? Oh yeah, high heels. I am glad to report that the stubby gray suit phase lasted just about as long as bell bottoms.
So why do women lug bags around, wearing grooves in our shoulders, while men just stuff their wallets and keys in handy pockets? Or, to ask the same question another way, why don’t women’s clothes come with pockets? The answer, in a word, is sex. No, not gender. Sex. Well, the intersection of sex and gender. Women’s clothes don’t have adequate pockets because, if they did, they wouldn’t be slim enough, close fitting enough, sexy enough. The age-old sex roles still find their expression in the clothes we wear: men are not supposed to dress to be desired; women are. Women are the object of men’s desires, not the other way around: women must radiate allure. The role of the hunted is to charm the hunter. The hunter doesn’t have to charm anyone; he is the chooser, not the chosen.
Given that, it is only somewhat with tongue in cheek that I conclude: Feminism will not have achieved its goals until all women have pockets. And, in the meantime, we can console ourselves with a number of excellent Short Takes.
When I was six years old, my favorite TV shows were westerns. If there was a shootout in the mountains or the canyons, I imagined myself in the scene while I secured my safety by ducking behind a chair or wedging myself under a couch cushion in my living room. My parents thought my playing was so cute they gave me a red cowgirl skirt and vest trimmed with blue and silver rickrack, a red cowgirl hat and a gold-colored cap gun with a holster. I had everything I needed, except a horse: a girl horse, I decided.
I started nagging my parents for one. My poor parents probably wondered what planet I dropped from, thinking a horse could live in a New York City apartment. The day I saw a few empty brown paper grocery bags sitting on the kitchen table, I decided to take matters into my own hands. There was my horse’s head. I grabbed the shortest one, ran to my room and laid it on my wood floor.
After I smoothed out the wrinkles as best I could, I got my red Crayola and set to work: triangle ears, egg-shaped eyes with long lashes, big dots for nostrils, a wide smile, a long curly mane. I took out the balled-up socks from my drawer and stuffed them into the bag. Those weren’t enough to fill it, so I stuffed in my parents’ socks until her head was properly puffed out. My pink toy broom was just the right height for me to ride on. I stuck the broom handle into the bag, then got the Scotch tape from my father’s desk. I wound the tape around the bottom of the bag and the broom handle until the bag stayed put. I named her Red. We were an adventurous duo.
There was a blue chenille cover on the couch. The flat weaves became rivulets where I panned for gold, using my mother’s sieve, while Red grazed on the protruding pile. Traveling long and hard, we ran low on rations. Red carefully climbed the rows of hills formed by that pile as we searched for a town where we could replenish our supplies. There were days when I was in countless gunfights. To be prepared, I would take all my mother’s scarves so that when I was shot, each hit plunging me to the floor, I was ready with something to stop the bleeding while I hobbled to safety on Red. On gunfight days, when my mother got me ready for bed, she pulled scarves from my polo shirt like a magician performing a magic trick.
My Mother’s Purse
perfumed by her lipstick and powder,
with a hint of Juicy Fruit gum.
Mom always had gum and Kleenex
and that tiny binder
with everything you’d want to know:
phone numbers, birthdays,
sizes for all of our clothes,
what time was confession at church.
She kept coins in an oval-shaped pouch,
bills in a wallet with checks
pre-signed by my father, who worked,
and two keys, the house and the car.
It all fit in her shiny white clutch
that closed with a comforting click.
My purse weighs more than a tabby cat
and stinks like an unwashed dog.
I don’t have any Kleenex or gum, but
somewhere I’ve got breath spray,
a cough drop covered with fur and sand,
a dozen pens, a book to read,
a wallet bulging with unused cards,
nickels, quarters, dollar bills,
chargers, cables, wrinkled receipts
from lunches eaten God knows when,
and keys. I’ve got so many keys
tangled with my charger cords.
My phone is ringing. Where’d it go?
I’m not my mother’s little girl.
This purse won’t close. Don’t even try.
Whose Bag? Your Bag?
When I Google “Just not my bag, man. It’s just not,” I get Erik Bledsoe’s 1994 interview of novelist Harry Crews. Crews is referring to the use of the word “disdain,” a word he claims he would never use in a discussion of postmodernism; not that postmodernism isn’t his bag, but that using the word “disdain” is not his bag. “Not that ‘disdain’ is too strong a word,” Crews explains to Bledsoe, but that the word itself is just not his bag.
After hippies were done being hip by dint of investing new meaning into phrases and usages such as “I’m hip man, I’m hip,” – meaning not only that you claimed to understand something that was being said, but also that you were probably wearing some tight-kneed bell bottom pants or maybe blue velveteen tight-kneed pants. Maybe you were also about to hand the person next to you a joint you’d just toked on – the sharing as much a part of the ritual as the rolling paper and breath holding. A ring of smokers, smoldering.
But this is all observed behavior: the observer being female, the rest of the action or most of it belonging to whatever males were dominating the room. Women in the counterculture were pretty much underlings.
I had a girlfriend, raised in San Francisco, who talked like that. She’d say, “Just not my bag, man,” looking right at me, drawing in a breath of smoke from a long skinny cigarette. “Are you hip?” And I’d just stare at her. She was an intellectual from a good high school, Jewish and smart. I was the farther north, Catholic version of her: I liked words like nifty, psychedelic, and groovy. Groovy was a dancing, sensual kind of word. A cut-loose-to-the-music-and-rock-and-roll, feel-good word; unapologetic, unpretentious, not beatnik dark but flower-power hopeful. That was my bag.
A New Leaf
We crawl into town in our old Oldsmobile – forest green, rusty and dented, it’s ready for the salvage yard. Fabric from the ceiling liner hangs in stringy clumps like Spanish moss. Springs erupt from the torn seats. It’s the fall of 1960, we’re in another new town, and my new sixth grade starts in two days. I’ve already lived in Connecticut, California, Hawaii, Florida, and three different cities in Virginia. Now we’re in Newport, Rhode Island.
Mom is driving, because my father is already at sea. She refused to live on the Navy base and rented a house, sight unseen, before we left Virginia. She wants us to have “the New England Experience.” At the local school, she insists that I be in a class of kids from Newport, rather than the class of Navy kids.
The next day she drives my brothers and me to school. When we’re two blocks away, I say, “Mom, let me out here. I’ll walk. I don’t want anyone to see me in this car.” She laughs and pulls over.
A new leaf, I think. I’m going to be “normal.” I won’t be Marti anymore; Marti is a boy’s name. This year, I’ll be Ellen, my first name.
I don’t know if we’re really poor, or if it just feels that way to me. But this I do know: I have only three outfits to wear to school. One is an olive-green corduroy jumper that I wear on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with blouses of different colors and matching belts. My two other outfits are for Tuesdays and Thursdays. By switching off in this manner, I hope that nobody will notice how few clothes I have.
When spring arrives, my friend Caryn buys a camel-colored, soft leather purse with a long shoulder strap. It’s expensive, definitely not something in my family’s budget. Soon, four or five other girls have one.
I’m desperate for one, too. I want it with a passion. I imbue it with magical powers. With it, my life will be easier. I won’t perspire. My old clothes won’t look so bad. My pimples will be invisible. I will be thin and beautiful. I want one so badly, I finally beg my mother, a thing I rarely do. And to my utter amazement, she takes me to the store to look at it.
When she buys it for me, I’m euphoric.
I spend all evening putting my essentials inside: Kleenex, Kotex, pencils, pens, ChapStick, and most important, my red leather wallet filled with school pictures of my friends from every place I’ve lived. I look at them whenever I’m lonely.
The next morning on the way to school, I walk from my house to pick up Caryn, my new purse hanging from my shoulder. She comes out her front door with her purse on her shoulder, and on the way, we’re joined by Nancy with her purse.
For one brief moment, I feel like I belong.
It was the right moment. Waiting for him in the car, pulled up by the road. He wouldn’t be able to make a scene. The engine was whirring away. He was coming back. A smug smile on his face. Last night was a mistake. I failed to say what I had been wanting to for a long time. I knew it now. He leaned over and gave me a peck. This was the moment. He was backing the car with a flamboyance that offended my dithering speech.
“Careful,” I shouted. A sudden screech and I was thrown forward. An old woman lay on the road. A flurry of action. The ambulance was called; the police arrived. He was asked to appear in court to answer the charges. I was the witness.
In the witness box I heard myself testify that the old woman had appeared from nowhere carrying a bag that, strangely, resembled the one I had. I said that the road was clear when my husband backed up the car. The old woman admitted she usually crossed the road anywhere. The case was dismissed. My husband was smiling.
We got into the car. “Thank you,” he bent over and kissed me. The moment returned. This time, I will not let it go, I said to myself.
I had just given a false statement in court to clear my husband in a traffic offence. Years of frustration surfaced. As he started the car, I said, “Ken, I will reactivate the divorce proceedings. It is final this time. I will move out tomorrow.’’
Chemo Be Damned
This past spring I was shocked by a diagnosis of a very aggressive form of breast cancer. Although I discovered the lump early, at stage 1, this “triple negative” cancer was so fast-growing that my lumpectomy would be followed by chemotherapy and radiation. The prospect of chemotherapy and its horrendous side effects frightened me.
On the day of my first treatment, as my wife and I were walking across the medical clinic parking lot, our 25-year-old granddaughter strolled up. She gave me a long, loving hug and handed me a brand new gym bag. “For your chemo,” she said.
The pink bag was covered with images of kittens and rainbows, two of my favorite things. My granddaughter and her husband had certainly done their research about chemo treatments. The bag contained a soft, fuzzy blanket, a pillow with the logo “You Got This,” a bag of Jolly Rancher hard candies, a bottle of Biotene dry mouth rinse, several lovely bandanas, packets of moisturizer, a Sonic gift card for the slushies I’d need to cool my mouth, and many other items that chemo patients find useful.
But the bag’s contents didn’t end with the helpful items. My granddaughter had included notes of love and encouragement, words of wisdom and hope, from many family members. From my sister-in-law: “No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities.” From my daughter: a beautiful picture of a butterfly and flower and the note “Thank you for being you.” From my niece: “You are an example of strength; you never let adversity stand in your way.” From another granddaughter: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you think, and loved more than you’ll ever know.”
I now approach the end of my chemo treatments and prepare for the radiation phase. Over these past months I have managed to face baldness, skin rashes, mouth sores, headaches, back pain, and more with courage and hope. The whole cycle of chemotherapy has been bearable because I have my bag filled with the best gift anyone could hope for – unconditional love.
In the Bag
I’m a beauty-bonus addict. My pulse quickens to department store cosmetic ads promising a bonus package – a sealed cellophane bag containing two weeks’ supply of moisturizing face creams, serums, and lotions or eye shadows, lipsticks, blushes, and mascaras. Often the bonus includes a colorful designer-inspired makeup bag. To receive both free bags, one must spend a certain amount on full-size, regular priced items. Let’s say a minimum of $28.50. I know it’s a clever marketing technique, to lured with the deal. I go for the deal. I once lived in Vegas.
I take care of my aging skin and hope makeup hides what potions don’t. Like my mother in her day, I’m rarely seen without lipstick. She swore by Pond’s Cold Cream, lipstick by Westmore, and Charles of the Ritz face powder. I use fragrance- free products and hope each bonus bag will contain something new and magical.
At home, I separate the contents – what to try immediately, what to save for travel, and what to keep in the car. In case of emergency, I tell myself. “If the Russians come, I’m prepared.” This was once my funny line. Not so funny these days. I wear coral reds, so I gather the purples, pinks, sparklies, and no-sunscreen items to take to my synagogue for the women’s shelter we support. I feel righteous.
When I worked in Bulgaria, “after the fall,” I took my collection to colleagues there. These products were beyond the means of most and not readily available in the marketplace. I felt like a drug runner carrying bags of makeup and skincare halfway around the world, returning with over-the-counter medications that required a prescription in the U.S. The bonus there: these medications had longer expiration dates and were contained in sealed packets. The Bulgarians know the Russians can come.
Recently I received an advertisement for a Clinique bonus in the mail. I vowed not to succumb. I must stop this, I told myself. Then I saw that the bonus bag contained four eye shadows in a compact container in my colors, earth tones. I felt the beat of my blood. I’ll just stop by and take a look. I asked the sales lady in the white coat, “The eye shadows in the bonus bag, are they sparkly?”
“Yes, they are,” she replied.
“Oh, I only wear matte – too old for sparkly. Exaggerates the lines.”
She had a feeling-sorry-for-me look in her eyes, a slight side nod of her head.
I flooded with relief. No deal. I could keep my vow. My pulse returned to sixty.
Dear Susan Strassburger,
Like you, I grew up on early morning cowboy movies on a small screen television. All I wanted was a Dale Evans cowgirl outfit and double gun and holster. At seventy-eight, it is the only gift I can recall. Thank you for sharing this delightfully vivid piece.
Back when there were no women besides myself on business flights, having to schlep a bag, a briefcase and a carry-on made me look like a pack horse. A mentor told me to always check my luggage, can the bag, reduce the size of the briefcase, else I was not going to be taken for an executive. I did as he suggested and it did make a difference. Among other things, men started shaking my hand as a greeting, and the stewardesses (all flight attendants were female) stopped ignoring me. Now that as a retiree I travel for pleasure I can’t help but chuckle to myself when I see the business men loaded down with a suitcase, a roller bag, a computer bag, a phone pouch and maybe even a sort of back pack. And…they look just as harried and junior as I must have.
I wear scrub pants. 5 pockets. Phone, id, tissues, gum or mints, and money or card for meal. Works great.
The no-pockets aspect of women’s clothing has always bugged me. Not only are we meant to be alluring, the hunted, the enchantresses, but it is a form–not so subtle–of hampering freedom. As are high heels. It’s harder to walk around with that heavy bag hanging from your shoulder. Even a light bag is an encumbrance. And those wallets! The change! Where do you put all the ID, the bills, the change, the makeup (men don’t wear makeup, generallay), the tampax, the address book, the notebook, the pens? Men have pockets. Lots of pockets! They enjoy a freedom that we haven’t yet claimed, en masse.
Love, love, love the shorts! Pockets yes, but functional pockets. Many of my pants have small pockets. Can hold a small package of tissues & nothing else. I often wear men’s sweat pants because they have great pockets.
Love Jean Zorn’s introduction!!! These excellent short takes turn trivia into thoughtful profound tales. Thanks to all