It seems my fondness for the Big Apple goes way back to my New England youth. Having been raised in rural Vermont, we would occasionally go into the city when my Dad had to attend business conferences. One of these trips has become infamous in our family and probably a defining moment in my young life, if not an early indication of what lay within my eight-year-old little spirit.
A family of five, we were staying in a hotel downtown close to where my Dad’s conference was being held. During the days, my mom would take three of us out “exploring”, covering what felt like a hundred blocks or so a day. We went to the library and “pet” the big stone lions out front; we looked at Monet’s Waterlilies, my mom explaining their significance; we ate kielbasa with grilled peppers and onions from a street vendor; went to the Cabbage Patch “Nursery”; FAO Schwarz to marvel at the giant-size stuffed animals and, finally, on the last afternoon, we hit my favorite stop of all. We’d stumbled across a warehouse-type “shop” that consisted of a garage door entrance rolled back with rows and rows of folding tables set out on a large concrete floor with cardboard box after cardboard box filled with “treasures”. At least that’s what it seemed like to my little eight-year-old eyes. Now I think I would call it something else…like “junk”. But I was eight and I was enamored.
“Can I get some??” I asked, looking up at my mom, hoping she’d see how much I loved it all. She laughed and said, “OK, you can each pick out three things but that’s it” and before she could even finish her sentence, the three of us were off in search of which “treasures” we would choose. We made our way down the isles giggling with excitement as we showed each other what we’d each found. Assembling our masses in order to try and narrow it down, the sister conference began. “OK, if you get that and I get this, we can share it! That makes DOUBLE!” Oh, but it was still going to be a tough decision. I finally settled on a bright blue eyeliner stick, a compact with three shades of glittery blue eyeshadow, each one more vibrant than the last and a perfect pink lipstick to top it all off. “Wow, you’ve picked out some pretty bright colors, Alyssa!” my mom said with a laugh as I brought her my carefully chosen selections and I beamed with pride at my choices. After my mom had paid for our items (probably amounting to about 15 bucks in all), we set off with our loot to meet my father and get ready for dinner. I couldn’t wait. I had decided something. I was going to steal the show!
In a single hotel room with two double beds and a roll-away cot (that the three of us had to rotate nights on so we wouldn’t fight over it), we had only the one bathroom for all of us to get ready in. With three girls and a wife, my Dad had to wait as each of us got ready. Poor dad. I waited patiently as my mom and sisters took their turn, determined not to be rushed. Finally it was my turn. An hour later, maybe longer, (my dad’s voice getting more “stern” each time he said, “Alys, you ready yet?” “Dad, don’t rush me!!”) I finally emerged from the bathroom in a haze of hairspray and blue glitter. It was, after all, my color…the color of my eyes. I had carefully applied the electric blue eyeliner and each of the three colors of eyeshadow in even stripes across my lids and finished with the bright pink Wet & Wild lipstick that I knew was just the right one to finish off the look. I was ready to make my debut. Opening the door, I waited for the gasps of how beautiful I looked, the amazement of how I’d known how to put on my makeup so expertly and the admiring looks of my sisters at how fabulous I was. But, alas, that’s not how the story went. My dad took one look at me and said, “Ummm, NO. A-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y not. Go back in there right now and wash that stuff off.” My mom peeked around the corner to see what was going on and a muffled laugh escaped as she tried to smooth out the shocked look on her face. I looked like an eight year old prostitute.
Sure that my dad didn’t know what he was talking about because he was, well, a guy, I turned to my mom beseeching her help. “Honey, it’s just a little much. Let’s just wipe some of it off, OK?” I was crushed. Fifteen minutes and a box of tissues later I emerged from the bathroom once again a toned-down version of the blue bombshell I had been before and with a red hue from all the rubbing my mom had done to try and remove what she could. I came out in a huff, distraught that my “creation” had been marred. My dad still wasn’t happy with the blue bonanza that was happening on my face but my mom convinced him that we should just go as is. It was getting quite late by that point, so he finally agreed.
Having preserved what I could of my fine work, I stepped out onto the streets of New York with my ego a bit bruised but emboldened by the pulse of the city that was palpable all around me. As the door swung shut and my parents counted heads, I stepped out and started off down the street, shoulders back and chin up. I had arrived.
“ALYSSA! Where are you going?!” There was a edge of panic in my parent’s voice as they raced after me. “You can’t just take off like that! Someone could grab you and run away!” “Oh, Daaaaaaad…. No one’s going to steal me. I’m too fast for them.” Did I mention I was eight? “You have to stay where we can see you. It’s dangerous to take off like that.” Frustrated at having my wings clipped once again, I folded my arms with a huff and sulked next to them, mortified. They just don’t understand, I thought and darted forward to gain some distance from them, whenever I could, until my dad would grab me and pull me back into line.
I’ll have you know that my perspective on this now is quite a bit different and I still apologize to my parents for my behavior then (and a few other times too). I cringe slightly at what I must have looked like (and I didn’t even tell you about my outfit!) or how frightened and frustrated my parents must have been as I darted time and time again into a sea of people, easily disappearing from their sight and getting lost in the urban chaos. But there’s also something really great about it, too. I had no sense of fear and I knew exactly what I wanted. And I was determined to get it. It was an early sign of the girl I would grow up to be (sans electric blue eyeliner and big bangs). I learned a lot about myself that day. Now, 27 years later, as I stepped out of the doors of the TIME Inc building, having just finished a photo shoot for a major magazine, I laughed to myself at the thought of “little me” elbowing her way through a sea of strangers, undeterred by my stunted makeup debut and propelled by a fire that burned within her to be who she was no matter what anyone else thought. That same fire would later help save my life and then give me the courage to put myself out there in the world and share my story with others. That little girl still struts inside me…stripped blue eyeshadow and all.