Friday, October 20, 2017

The Exchange

Perhaps my first mistake was thinking the experience of selling clothes to consignment shops in New York City would not be exactly like an episode of Broad City. I’m thinking in particular of when Abbi and Ilana try to sell some clothes and are greeted with a snobby sales clerk openly judging their clothes, taking almost nothing and offering just as much in return as payment. It was an exaggeration, after all, and surely it wouldn’t be that bad. 

But I was wrong. So horribly wrong I ended up with bruises, incidentally. 

I gathered together some clothes to sell in a giant bag along with a backpack full of books to sell. I looked like I was going to the laundromat, but I was convinced I wouldn’t be carrying any of it for long, that I wouldn’t be out all day, that I would make something like a lowballed $50 for all of this stuff and go home. But five hours later I was not home. Five hours later my shoulders were sore, I had walked several miles, and I felt like an idiot. 

I stopped first to sell my books in the East Village. Most of them were books I had been sent by publishers over the years, ones that I did not initially ask for—especially the very heavy design anthology I specifically asked a publisher to NOT send me, then she sent it anyway. They were all beginning to take up space in my room and I was tired of it. So off to sell them I went. 

Here, the salesperson said, you can empty your giant backpack of heavy hardcover books on this counter and we’ll take a look at them. I did as bidden. Oh, the salesperson said, you actually have to put all of these heavy books back in your backpack again and take them downstairs because they’re new. Why couldn’t there be a sign that says ‘new books go downstairs,’ I wondered, so I would not have to schlep the books in and out of my backpack twice within literally two minutes? Why would there be a sales clerk who asks if the books are used or new and then points you in the right direction? Because that would be too convenient, that would be too easy, so why would there be a sign saying that? 

I went downstairs with my heaping helping of heavy hardcovers and presented them to the person behind the desk. A paperback fictionalization about the life of Edgar Allen Poe’s wife that I was given in a goody bag some years ago was shoved back toward me along with the phrase “We can’t take this.” The person scanned the other hardcovers , then offered me $10 for 5 of them. “That’s IT?” I said, shocked. I understand discounted resale has to be incorporated into the amount offered back to me, but it almost seemed like stealing. Sure, I didn’t have to take the money, but then I’d have to carry around the books with me. My own physical comfort was held for ransom, it seemed. I gave in. But they did not take the heaviest design anthology I was most hoping they’d want. Luckily, there was another used bookstore around the corner, and I popped in to see if they might be interested in this lush, color-printed hardcover book that any design nerd would truly want. 

“Hi, do you ever take new books?” I asked. 
“Uh, sometimes,” the clerk said from behind metal-rimmed glasses and a mop of curly brown hair that dangled in front of his eyes. He leaned in his wooden desk chair as noncommittally as he answered. 
“Okay, great!” I said, taking the heavy design anthology out of my bag and placing it on the desk in between us. It was a perfect specimen, hardly untouched, the wrapping still on it. 
“Yeah, uh…we can’t take books that have wrapping on them in case they’re stolen,” he said, continuing to lean, continuing to be noncommittal. I feared for what his romantic life looked like, all the people he left in his wake with a simple “Yeah, uh…”
So I unwrapped the book and placed it on the desk. I hadn’t stolen it and had been given it fair and square. I just didn’t want it and even though it had only been something like an hour I was tired of carrying it and just wanted to abandon the thing, even if it was for a tenth of what it was actually worth. 
He looked at the book and flipped through it. 
“Yeah, uh…this is not really something we sell.” 
I resisted the urge to shout “WELL THEN WHY WASTE MY TIME WITH ALL OF YOUR ‘YEAH, UHS’ ASSHOLE?” Jesus Christ. If that’s what “Yeah, uh….” sounds like when all people say it, how it can so quickly fill a person with hope then despair, then if I ever in my life say it to a person again I will stab myself in the tongue. For fuck’s sake. Honestly. 

But I perked up and continued on to sell the clothes. I brought in my bagful, and the store manager placed the things she wanted—a pair of jeans and a tote bag that I’d end up getting $8 for—on the side while she looked at everything else, casting her eyes over the garments and shoes only long enough to know she didn’t want them. I had two pairs of jeans in the bag that were the same and she only took one, citing “We can only take so many jeans right now.” But like, it’s fall, woman. They are the same pair of jeans. Surely if one sells, the other will, too? Her long fingernails flicked over my plaids and pinks and denims as she folded them back up and said, “We can’t take any of these right now,” probably doing her best to be nice but just barely containing her judgment. 

I left annoyed, but quickly saw another consignment store around the corner. The girl behind the counter was really nice, but she said they only consign items they can sell for over $300. My eyes quietly boinged out of my head, Looney Tunes-style. My Old Navy and Forever 21 castoffs would certainly not find a home here, but she understood my angst. “Yeah, they’re really mean over there,” she said about the place I had just left. “And unnecessarily so.” Truth, sister. But she recommended to me another location closer to Union Square where she said I might have more luck, so I made my way. 

On the site for this store, it said they prefer your vintage and/or designer cast-offs but will look at anything. So I brought my ‘anything’ and waited in line for 20 minutes while a slew of shop clerks looked over everyone’s wares. Finally, it was my turn and I approached the counter with my garments. The fingernails of the girl talking to me began to do the same judgmental flicking over my clothes, with an added “We don’t really take fast fashion?” for good measure, decrying my bagful of Old Navy and Forever 21. Her nails did the same choreography over a pair of cropped black pants right after telling me the store was in the market for cropped pants. Again, I found myself resisting the urge to shout first “THIS IS A THRIFT STORE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD” and then “BUT YOU JUST SAID YOU WANTED CROPPED PAINTS.” But I contained myself and the girl was kind enough to explain this particular store’s policies, the times of year it’s good to come in and sell fast fashion, what does well in the store, and other places I might go. She took one shirt from me. I think I got $3 out of the experience, if that. Waiting in line for to the cashier to redeem this paltry sum was humiliating, and the gentleman behind the counter looked at me from behind his round fake spectacles, from under his caftan and layers of necklaces and extended a lithe, cream-colored hand to me with my pittance and a pointed “Here” I don’t think I will soon forget. 

There were two more places to go now, recommended by the girl at this store, and they were uptown, in Chelsea. One was another location of the first store, of the store manager who wouldn’t take two pairs of the same jeans because I was told that sometimes different stores take different items. I waited in line for something like 30 minutes, only to be greeted by two impossibly hip store clerks casting their eyes and fingernails and bolero-topped heads over my clothing. “It seems like you were already one of our stores today?” asked a bleach blonde in red lipstick wearing a furry jacket dripping in enameled pins. “Yes,” I explained, telling them about the information I had been given about different stores wanting different items.
“Yeah, no…” she essentially said, unfolding and refolding my clothes in the way everyone else did. I noticed I was starting to clench my jaw. I said thank you and left, my eyes lowered in determination as I made my way to one last store. 

I put my name into the iPad that kept the list of potential sellers. There were five people in front of me. I had started at 10am and it was now 2:30. I waited for another 30 minutes, watching bagfuls and boxfuls and suitcasefuls of clothing being pored over. Reject, accept, reject, accept. Finally it was my turn and I brought my bag forward. “Stilettos don’t do well here,” the girl said, placing my practically unworn 4-inch heels back in my bag almost immediately after taking them out. “We need more of, you know, shoes people can walk in in New York.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I didn’t understand why the death of fashion was my problem all of a sudden, when clearly that distinction belonged to the people who thought it was okay to wear leggings as pants. “Oh, and we aren’t taking wedges right now, either,” she said, placing a pair of chestnut peep-toe oxfords back in the bag as well. She took two or three things, I think. I don’t even remember, I was practically blind after having seen the same scene over and over. I left with $7 from that store. 

It was 3:30. My bag of heavy clothes was still on my shoulder, its thin straps reddening my shoulder with their weight. And I was still carrying around this fucking design anthology in my backpack. Taking the bag on and off, the straps sliding down my right forearm how ever many times I went into different stores or got on the subway had caused me to develop what eventually became a huge purple, green, blue, and yellow bruise. I had spent five and a half hours earning a measly $27, less than minimum wage, and the day was a total bust. I wondered if this was how models had to feel on the regular, bringing your goods to be appraised only to be turned down for totally arbitrary reasons beyond your control, no matter how good or not good your salesmanship qualities are. It’s just not something you can be good at—either you have what someone needs or you don’t. And that day, I certainly didn’t. Next time I should know: Abbi and Ilana definitely know best. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Katya Stepanov

Katya Stepanov waves at me and smiles warmly from behind the turnstiles in a building on 8th Avenue that houses tons of artist performance spaces. There’s a black matador boater hat on her head, a furry grey and brown coat around her shoulders. The closer she gets, the more I realize her mascara is a bright blue, making her eyes pop, impossible to look away from. She has just left rehearsal for a reading of a play called Divo and Diavolo: A Tale of Two Tenors by Adam Kraar, about the life of David Tucker, the son of world-famous tenor opera singer Richard Tucker who also chased dreams of opera glory despite his father’s wishes. The workshop will run on October 19th and 20th and tickets are available here.

We make our way to Piccolo Cafe and grab some seats by the window to eat our salads. After graduating acting school, Katya was quickly able to get her Actor’s Equity card by doing regional theatre around the country. But speaking to Katya you don’t have an experience of that dreaded “Actor Factor,” a visibly fake interest in and positivity toward whatever comes out of a person’s mouth. She speaks eloquently and with real passion about her work, an almost fairy-like sense of wonder at the wildness of her experiences.

Katya was born in Minsk, Belarus shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Katya’s mother, who is Jewish, was able to bring her family to the U.S. on refugee status. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Teaneck, New Jersey while her parents learned English and went to local colleges to get their degrees. They got jobs shortly after graduating and moved into a house, hoping to give their daughter and later their son the opportunities they hoped for.

Katya is a native speaker of English and Russian, was a professional ballroom dancer at a young age, and acted all throughout high school while maintaining a high GPA. She got into a prestigious acting conservatory program for college, and then moved back to New York where her regional theatre experiences began. She also began teaching yoga and doing art direction and production design.

She finds often, to her frustration, that based on her name she’s brought in to read for roles that are primarily “Russian Sex Trafficking Victim” or “Spy” when it comes to TV and Film (thankfully theatrical productions, like Divo and Diavolo, offer more diverse roles). But her desire to write runs as deep as her love of performing, and she’s hoping to create her own work that can show the breadth and depth of immigrant experiences beyond American stereotypes.

We head back to the rehearsal space and I get to see Katya play both a high school singer and a beatnik soprano, though she has even more roles in the rest of the production. She warms up her voice to sing and her cast is pleasantly surprised. At this point, I wonder, what can’t she do?
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