NOTES FROM THE WORKING CLASS: The Mother of All Handbags

I was told never to place my handbag on the floor. I was told never to leave my handbag unattended. I was also told to never ever let another person touch my handbag. Disobeying any of the three cardinal rules of handbags brings poverty and is akin to having a gypsy place a curse on me. The gypsy’s curse lasts forever.

            Forever is a long time not to have any money.

            These laws are superstitions. I’m a working-class kid from Yonkers and I believe them. Always short on cash and living hand-to-mouth is de riguer.  My life stretches from paycheck to paycheck. I work hard for my money. I work harder than I need to work. I work harder than people who are born rich. Rich people do not have to carry their own handbags. They hire girls like me to bear the weight for them.

            Working-class girls grow up way too early. I have been carrying my own handbag since I was a toddler. There is a picture of me standing in front of the Washington Monument when I was two almost three. I am wearing the colors of the American flag. I clasp a little red handbag with two hands to the front of my white cotton blouse that is tucked into my pleated navy skirt. I can’t see my shoes and suspect they are red patent leather. The small handbag really looks like a tiny red suitcase because it is box-shaped and has two stiff handles that curve like the letter C. I look as pleased as punch.

            I have always had a handbag for as long as I can remember. My handbags were square-shaped and more sophisticated versions of my first little red one. I bought my first real handbag with my own money when I was ten at a department store named Mimi’s in Yonkers. My new handbag was made from pebbled black leather and had a brass buckle and a shoulder strap. The money used to buy the bag came from my stint as kid entrepreneur. That summer I had put on a carnival. I ran a make-shift roulette wheel and charged people admission to the show. I made money.

            I have always made money. I lost money too. But I did not lose money by breaking one of the cardinal rules about handbags.

I never made enough money to have any savings to fall back on. I lost jobs in recessions and stock market crashes. My father was a truck driver and my mother dropped out of high school. There was no trust fund. I did always have a secret nest egg of cash hidden in a square-shaped safe.

            I chose my handbags the way I chose cars. My top-of-the-line choices were Coach handbags and Volkswagen cars. I chose models that were smack middle-of-the-road and square-shaped. They were safe and well-constructed. My handbags and cars stood the test of time and invited neither scorn nor envy.

            I tried out bags other than Coach. I went slumming. I never bought a bag at a yard sale. I did not want the remnants of owning another woman’s baggage. Used handbags have crumbs and stray pen marks crawling like spider-veins along their deepest entrails.

            I did scrape the bottom of sales bins and grazed at tables where last season’s handbags were slumped in uneven piles like small-beached whales. This is where I bought the mother of all handbags.

            The mother of all handbags was a beauty. She was espresso-colored and lined with fake leopard skin. She had had four neat compartments within and a zippered and vaulted-looking liner for valuables. Two well-designed side pockets could hold a 1990s brick-shaped cell phone and a collection of half-used tubes of lipstick in every wanton shade that has ever been made by Chanel. The most important feature of this bag was her sheer size. She was boat-shaped and large enough to pack entire wardrobe changes for three days. She could be made heavy enough to dislocate my right shoulder. 

            I promised myself I would never take the mother of all handbags to New York City on a business trip because in this epicenter of fashion and wealth people would know the origins of my bag. They would know she was a knockoff per se. They would view my beauty as a well-conceived fake that was copied from an authentic luxury designer bag. All of the preening and snobbery prevalent among New Yorkers did not dissuade me from carrying her through the airports.

          I was so in love with her.  

          You have to understand that there is also an unspoken law about handbags. No one would ever deign to be of the working-class by carrying a pedestrian handbag. Class is just not mentioned in New York City. It is assumed that everyone is as rich and as prosperous as anyone else. Women walk into business meetings and line their handbags along the windowsill as a show of power. The handbags are made by Louis Vuitton or Prada and are not fake. I often hid my square-shaped Coach tote under the arm of my coat and kept it there.

          We’ve established that disobeying the three spoken rules of handbags brings poverty.

          But breaking the unspoken law about handbags will get you shunned.

          Forever is a long time to be cast aside as trash.

          Luxury designer goods dominate New York City with as much determination as sewer rats and cockroaches.

          You are only as good as last season’s handbag.

          There are internet companies who rent luxury handbags to women who are living hand-to-mouth. You can rent a new bag every month to look as though you have been catapulted into great wealth. You can return the bag when you are done and rent a new one. This rental cycle shows the world that your wealth is not a one-time fluke but long lasting and here to stay. Excessive rental fees are far less than owning a luxury bag and a small price to pay to avoid being shunned.

            Keep in mind that the shunning lasts forever.

            Traveling through dirty streets and riding on subways is exhausting. Looking fresh for the next burst of business requires having a bag of tricks. I broke my own promise to never take the mother of all handbags to New York. My beauty functioned perfectly as my traveling closet. How I loved her! How I still love her when I think about her! I kept her hidden from view as much as I could. She was my forbidden love but in gross violation of the great unspoken law of the city. My beauty was a fake and she betrayed my roots as a working-class girl from Yonkers.

            One day I thought it was safe to let my hair down and show my practical nature. I walked into the office of my rich colleague. He finds me to be charming and useful to him. He knows I am from the working-class and can easily carry the extra weight of his baggage as well as my own. I did not expect to see Linda Beauchamp. She had an extensive background in the fashion industry and had helped to launch Donna Karan’s DKNY Men’s wear line. She knew how to spot my massive beauty as a fake.

            I dropped my handbag onto the floor and pretended that I did not know her. I actually pushed the bag off to the side with my foot and left her unattended. I abandoned my handbag the same way a bad mother would cast off her child as a foundling. I was secretly hoping the DKNY lady would not spy signs of my beauty. I was too late in my attempt to rid myself of the bag. I broke the rule to never place my handbag on the floor. I also broke the rule to never leave my handbag unattended.

            All of the lemons lined up. The third cardinal rule was also soon to be broken. The DKNY lady lusted for my bag and wanted to touch it. She ran toward me and almost knocked me to the ground. “Where did you get that Birkin bag?” she shrieked.

            She was touching my bag all over. She caressed it and lovingly held it up to her face. I quickly pondered some astonishing financial calculations. She thought my sad sack was an Hermès Birkin Bag! My mother of all bags wasn’t even close in price to a Coach. Going from the realm of hundreds of dollars for Coach bags to the realm of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hermès bags was more than I could bear. A buyer at Christie’s in Hong Kong had broken the record for the priciest Birkin bag ever sold at an auction—to the tune of $2.32 Million. Birkin bags are acquired and sold the same as stocks and art.

            She sniffed my bag and played with its tarnished zippers while I stood stunned. I probably would not have bought my beauty had I known she was a crudely done Hermès knockoff.

            I have never been a handbag snob. I have other aspirations and I have never wanted to spend my time living up to the impossibly high standards of owning a very expensive handbag. I’d have to worry about where it was it all the time. Having a very expensive handbag is like driving an expensive car. I knew someone would ding it in a parking garage on purpose.

            Her voice grew husky and she seemed to be having a mild panic attack. “How did you get this bag? I checked everywhere and none can be found!”

            Certain truths about Birkin bags rule when everyone is as rich and as prosperous as anyone else. No one walks into a store and just buys a Birkin bag. You have to go to an official Hermès boutique and place your name on a list. No one knows how to rise to the top of this list that is carefully guarded and kept confidential. A call comes after years or months of waiting and you pay thousands and thousands of dollars for the privilege of exacting the appearance of having extreme wealth. And extreme wealth it is indeed. Not many can pay the price for a handbag that could pay to feed the poor children of the combined populations of rural Alaska and southern Kentucky for their summer lunch programs.

            A certain sadness came over me while I watched her glom onto my beauty of a bag. I had allowed the third cardinal rule to be broken. I had always been told to never let anyone touch my handbag. She ran her hands all over my bag as if she was its ardent lover.

            Being from the working-class has always imbued me with a certain scrappiness. I grabbed the bag from her grasp and stared her down as if I was inviting her to a knife fight. There was no way she was going to keep mauling my bag.

            She reached to stroke the bag in my arms as if I was holding a small lap dog. “You still haven’t answered me! Where did you get this bag?”

            I told her the truth slowly for dramatic effect and also because I wanted to hear the reality of the situation for my own guilty listening pleasure. I had bought the mother of all bags on sale in an outlet store on the north coast of Oregon. The price of the bag was a mere thirty-five dollars. I had a discount coupon. There is no sales tax in Oregon. I had scored the bag for a flat twenty-five bucks.

            My bag was even lowlier than a knock-off. It was a steal. Now she looked at me with contempt. She did not say anything. I think the way she looked at me implied that I was a bag lady who had been caught begging in the public rest room at Grand Central Station.

This is why I have to work so hard to stay on par because I have always been a truth teller. Owning a Birkin bag would send the message to the world that I am as exclusive as the bag. Call me pedestrian. Call me a working-class girl from Yonkers. Call me white trash. I don’t care. I know the truth. Owning a handbag that defines my own self-worth is just too heavy a burden to bear.

I wrote this without using a single comma. Ha-Ha! I hate commas! -Patricia Vaccarino

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About Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, content, books, essays and articles. She is currently writing a collection of essays: NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS. She has written two works of fiction about Yonkers: YONKERS Yonkers!: A story of race and redemption and its sequel The Heart of Yonkers. Book Three in the Yonkers series is in development. In addition, she frequently writes about libraries, and has written a monograph, The Death of a Library: An American Tragedy, about the circumstances that led to the razing of the Yonkers Carnegie Library in 1982. She has an audience of 40,000+ followers on social media. She divides her time between homes in downtown Seattle and the north coast of Oregon.

 

 

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Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and eight books.


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