Life in the Late '80s

Shoulder pads, scrunchies, and sushi, oh, my...

In this edition of “Adventures in ‘Journalism’” we will be taking a little nostalgia trip back to the late ‘80s. But before we do: a word about this endeavor, and my preoccupation with some of the “bad” choices that dot my career path:

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It occurred to me after publishing the last edition that I might be giving the wrong impression as to how I feel about my career, and where I am now — that I might seem discontented and ungrateful, as if I were saying, “Woe is me, look at the mess I made, which I can’t get myself out of.”

That isn’t at all how I feel, or what I mean to say. I feel really happy and blessed to be where I am now. I love my job as Essays Editor at Longreads. I love teaching occasionally at Catapult, and am excited to soon teach a course in the MFA program at Bay Path University and truly honored to have been asked. I am thrilled that my anthologies, Goodbye to All That, and Never Can Say Goodbye, are still well received and continue to sell. I am one lucky duck.

I absolutely love my work and am so grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way, — *especially* in light of all the bad decisions I made in my 20s and 30s.

What I mean to convey in this newsletter is that I’m kind of astonished I’ve landed in a good place, given how many years I wandered aimlessly and misguidedly.

It wasn’t until my mid- to late-40s that I started to find my way again after kind of an auspicious start, a function mostly, I think, of finally tuning into who I really am and focusing on what matters to me, instead of grabbing at any vaguely writing-adjacent opportunity over and over, or people-pleasing, or doing what others recommended I do even if their recommendations didn’t resonate for me.

Don’t get me wrong; there are many goals I haven’t yet achieved. But I believe I’m still young enough to have plenty of road ahead of me, and I feel poised to achieve at least some of of my big goals in the near future. #StillEmerging, yada yada.

I guess I should be grateful to younger me for taking all those regrettable turns, because ultimately, they have brought me here, and, what’s more, provided me with stories to tell. (Thanks, younger me! 🙌) As I continue to regale you with examples of my ill-advised early career choices, know that I do so with a sense of great good fortune and gratitude for where they have led me. And if you’ve been wandering aimlessly and misguidedly for a long time (or even a short one), know that it’s still possible to find your way.

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^^^Now for that nostalgia trip I promised. Recently I was at my mom’s going through old photo albums, and I stumbled upon this picture of me at some rubber-chicken catering hall event in the summer of 1989.

This was taken about six months before I ended my first tenure (of like, five?) at Women’s Wear Daily and a handful of other publications at Fairchild. Finding this photo really took me back.

I thought I’d take you along with me on this nostalgia trip — especially those of you who either weren’t yet born yet in the late ‘80s, or were little kids — so you can get a glimpse of those very analog days.

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Let me first identify the period-markers in this photo. My ponytail is held together by a floral, imitation-silk scrunchie — an accessory that was ubiquitous back then, and which I hear is making a comeback. Some time in the late ‘90s I happily tossed all my scrunchies, but I am loathe to admit…they kind of look good to me again…? I did not see that coming.

More shocking to me is that the serious shoulder pads propping up the top edges of my double-breasted pinstripe blazer…don’t really bother me now…? I mean, they’re not ridiculous like the ones Cate Blanchett wore to the premiere of “Where’d You Go Bernadette” earlier this week. But mine definitely scream “power suit,” and I sincerely never thought I’d want to see or wear another one of those again, as long as I lived.

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From the New York Times, June 21, 1988 ^^^

I probably purchased that suit at one of the many sample sales I would regularly patronize on my lunch hour, often with my colleagues. Those fashion journalists in the know all had $32/year subscriptions to The S&B Report (the S and B stood for “sales and bargains”) a monthly newsletter that listed sample sales at showrooms in the garment district. I split my subscription with a fellow reporter. S&B wasn’t an online newsletter like this one, because…in the late ‘80s there was no such thing as online. You waited greedily each month for this little pamphlet to arrive in your snail mail box, so you could get the inside scoop on where all the best sample sales were. Then you’d engineer your entire appointment calendar around them.

Your “appointment calendar” was likely in a Filofax™, or Filofax knockoff. I received mine as a gift from the manufacturer after I included them in a round-up on planners, the new hot trend. It retailed for over $200, and I did not know until much later that I was not supposed to accept gifts worth more than $25. I worried for the rest of my time at WWD that someone would find me out. Meanwhile, some of the fashion editors were accepting designer handbags and whole outfits and other huge gifts that violated that rule.

I used my Filofax for years — decades! From the calendar inside, it looks as if I used it until about 2008. Every now and then I say to myself, “What did we do before Google Calendar???” This is what we did before Google Calendar.

My beat-up Filofax that I received as swag in 1988 or 1989. At some point the clasp broke and I crazy-glued glued carnelian and turquoise beads where the snap used to be.

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Most of the sample sales I went to were cash-only. I’d go to an ATM (they did have ATMS back then!), withdraw some money, and then…feel compelled to leave the sale with the least ugly thing I could possibly find in under an hour, while scavenging through piles of clothes that other people were rifling through at the same time. Many of the sales were utter bedlam, with women tripping over each other to get at the clothes or accessories or shoes they coveted.

The competition created a sense of urgency that led me to accumulate a lot of things which, once I got them home, I realized I didn’t love. Or…even like. I’d try to sell myself on them, and wear them once or twice, but…nope. Oops. No returns.

Eventually I realized I didn’t like most of what I bought at sample sales. So I stopped going.

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Some other old-fangled details of my life in 1988/89:

• When I applied for jobs, which I’d learn about in the New York Times (in print, obviously) I had to physically mail a resume, 100 of which I would get printed at a time, on off-white linen paper, at a print shop. I’d type a cover letter on matching paper, on my typewriter. I wouldn’t have a “home computer” for another three years.

• To freelance for newspapers and magazines, you had to mail them a typed-out pitch, plus physical Xeroxes of your clips, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope (S.A.S.E.) so they could get back to you on your dime.

• You’d wait for a call on your land line to hear whether you got a job or a freelance gig. There were answering machines then, so you didn’t have to be home. But there wasn’t yet call-waiting, so if you were home and on the phone, or someone else you lived with was on the phone, you could miss your one shot.

• If you were out “in the market,” aka the garment district, on assignment, and needed to reach the office, you had to call in from a pay phone, with quarters. Cell phones wouldn’t come out until many years later.

• Because reporters would be unreachable while out on appointments, we had to check out of the office in an appointment book, indicating when we left and when we expected to be back. Most of the time we just wrote “ITM,” which meant “in the market,” aka the garment district.

• It was suddenly a new food world. Before then, I had never eaten nor heard of sun-dried tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, goat cheese, pesto, tapenade, broccoli rabe, and sushi, and now they were everywhere.

I remember having a dinner date with an old friends so he could introduce me to sushi — his treat because it was expensive and he was in advertising and made a lot more money — and it was a big deal. He was going to shepherd me into the scary world of raw fish. Like, I thought I could die. I also worried I’d hate it, and my friend would have spent all this money on something I didn’t want to eat. Spoiler: I survived, and sushi is now my third-favorite food (bested only by 1. steamers [only belly clams will do] and 2. lobster). Now you can get packaged sushi at Duane Reade.

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