An excerpt from Jessica Pishko’s memoir In the Red.
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Jessica Pishko felt as though she was living the good life — an apartment in New York, a job at a corporate law firm, and her whole life ahead of her. But everything began to fall apart little by little as Jessica filled her apartment up with all of the beautiful things that money could buy at all the stores of Manhattan. Even when her closet was full, she kept buying, until clothes with their tags attached burst out from beneath her bed. She was a shopping addict.
By 2008, Jessica was unemployed and had filed for bankruptcy. She then embarked on the next stage of being broke: trying to work her way back up. This section comes from a chapter just before Jessica filed for bankruptcy, when she was trying to pay down her debt and get her financial (and love) life back on track.
It wasn’t uncommon, in my experience, for people to go shopping as a way to get over a breakup, recover from getting fired, or try to make oneself over anew. I used to spend my weekends watching episode after episode of What Not to Wear. My favorite part was the end, when the men and women walked into the room and saw themselves for the first time in a full-length mirror. Sometimes they sobbed, as if to say “Here I am! Yes, that’s who I am at last!”
Tears rolled down my cheeks, too, not just because I was depressed but also because I desperately wanted that feeling, the same way I wanted someone to love me, as the cliché says, “just the way I was.” It was more than longing or low-self-esteem (it was those things, too) but it was also the desire to have something that felt fully mine in a way that nothing did — not my high-paying job at a law firm in Manhattan, not my apartment with a bottle of vodka in the fridge and candy corn in the drawer, and not my body, which was always warping itself into something else that I felt would be more pleasing to others.
So I shopped, without the TV show guidance or network budget.
There was a shop that sold furs on Columbus Avenue not far from my apartment. There were headless white models in the window displaying opulent furs, ankle-length minks, and chubby bombers. I’d never owned a fur and never thought about owning one, but one day I walked by and there was a black shearling jacket in the window, calf-length, and the color of a night sky in the wilderness.
It became a frequent stop of mine, the fur shop, which was also next door to one of my favorite boutique shops, the kind of store where the salesgirls silently deliver more clothing to your dressing room that happens to be your size and style, like handmaidens tempting you by their assiduous service, so kind and so gentle. No one else in my life paid so much attention to my needs and desires. They even gave my dog Sammy treats and posted his photo on a bulletin board.
But the fur shop was unknown territory. Normally, I was a discount shopper, someone who always liked a good deal. I did not feel guilty dropping $500 at Loehmann’s or Century 21 because they were discount stores. The boutiques were more expensive — they carried upscale brands like Theory, Joie, and Splendid — but also more rare. A fur store, however, that was something else. Fur was a sign of excess.
I will never be sure what drew me to the store. The door was open. It was late fall, and there was a slight crispy feeling to the air, the kind that sweeps over New York City and blows the leaves and garbage down the streets. It brings color to your cheeks and reminds residents to zip up their jackets and wrap wool scarves around their necks. It also meant my favorite time in fashion had arrived. I loved fall colors like plum, aubergine, olive green, and deep chocolatey browns. My pale legs looked better in tights and knee-high boots. I liked to wear soft cashmere turtlenecks and handsome wool jackets.
So perhaps the dry breeze of change moved me to take a peek inside. Or perhaps there was a tempting sign and a salesperson who smiled from the depths of the store. I just felt like I needed that shearling coat. It was mine and I was its.
When I entered the store, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I’d thought it would be, although the $2,200 price tag on the coat made me gasp. But the salesperson pulled the jacket off the model and put it on me. It was like being wrapped in a warm hug — the shearling was incredibly soft. The color was rich and slightly dangerous. Looking in the mirror, I felt worthy and valued.
“I’m not sure because… it’s fur?” I was hesitant. Wasn’t fur something that protestors threw red paint on? In my adolescence, I had been a card-carrying PETA member.
“You can tell people it’s fake,” she said. “But only you know it’s real.”
This strategy appealed to me immensely. It felt lavish to tell other people that the coat was fake.
Then I rationalized. I wore leather shoes. I ate meat. What was the difference? There was no additional cruelty being done here. It wasn’t as if it were a mink coat with the little heads and tails on it. It was shearling, which is not the same (yes, it is).
“Okay,” I said. “I want it. But I don’t think I can afford it.”
I couldn’t. I had consolidated my credit cards under a “debt management program,” and was barely making my monthly bills. I should have been saving up to pay off debt. My paycheck — many paychecks — were already owed to MasterCard, Bloomingdales, and Visa.
I took the coat off and stroked it as I would a lover.
“That’s okay,” the salesperson said. She was slightly older, with faint wrinkles around her eyes where the powder settled like sedimentation in rock formations. She wore the same powdery pink blush I did as a child at dance recitals.
She introduced me to the concept of layaway, which I previously associated with old people and furniture from Sears. The concept was simple, she explained. Bring an amount of money every week, and it would be applied to my purchase of the coat. If I failed to make the payment one week, I would forfeit the chance to take the coat home. But it was a way for me to drag out the payments, $200 at a time.
I agreed and gave her $500 as the down payment when I initialed the paperwork.
Now my days all had a common goal. Each week I would stop by the store and bring $200 in cash. The saleswoman would take the money and give me a receipt. There was no judgment, no scolding, no wondering why I couldn’t just pay for the coat outright. There was only acceptance.
Some weeks, when I brought my $200 offering, the salesperson would ask me if I wanted to try the coat on. I agreed. She brought it out from behind the counter, where it hung in a special cabinet, designed, I suppose, to hold the coats-in-waiting. I would try it on, and as the weeks grew colder, imagine myself wearing the coat as I walked through the streets, turning the collar up against the wind, opening it to reveal the luxurious lining.
I continually brought my $200 to the store, my most constant commitment. At the time, I began sending my rent a week late, sometimes more. I paid my parents most weeks. But I always gave the saleswoman my $200.
While I was trying to win my coat, I was also trying to win over a new boyfriend named Mark. Like paying off my coat in installments, trying to make a relationship work with Mark had a slow and frustrating path where I sometimes felt as though I knew what the end result would be. Mark and I went to places like the Gin Mill and Jake’s Dilemma on the Upper West Side. Initially, I hadn’t thought of him as someone to date, but we eventually fell into a pattern, more of an accident than anything else. This continued off and on for nearly eight years. It was like comfort food or a favorite dive bar — I knew his purpose was limited, but it was soothing anyway.
Once, we agreed to meet for dinner near his apartment, which was near the Theater District. I showed up around the time we had agreed on, but Mark called my cell and told me that he was running late. I had a drink and waited. An hour passed. Another few drinks. Another hour. I was just about to leave when he finally arrived.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. He had a pale face and light hair, and his skin was slightly shiny, as if glazed from constant imbibing. We hugged. He always smelled sour, like something fermenting.
I should have left. That’s how it was with Mark. But I stayed. We ate. And I pretended like it was all cool.
Finally, the day I had dreamed about arrived. I paid my final installment for the shearling coat. It was mine. I took it home wrapped in a heavy black plastic garment bag. Back in my apartment, I opened the bag and buried my face in the soft fur.
I wore it for the first time on a January night to meet Mark at a bar where the drinks were filtered through some sort of holographic light. Everything glowed blue and green and yellow. There had been snow, and the streets were coated in a light dusting of ice that I walked over gingerly in a pair of stiletto black knee-high boots while holding on to Mark’s hand.
There was worse to come — I would get even more in debt. I would be forced to sell The Coat to someone on eBay. I would pack it sadly in a box wrapped in bubble wrap and hope that it had a good secondhand life. I would declare bankruptcy and piss off everyone I knew. I would get fired from the job and have to remake myself anew, again and again and again.
But for that night, there was me and the coat. I saw my reflection in the window of a sake bar populated by intimately-leaning couples, and I saw someone who looked like myself. I recognized her, at last, as the person who I was supposed to be.
Warmly wrapped in the jacket, secure from falling on my face, I felt that moment of pure joy, when the night-lights seem beautiful and anything is possible, even being loved.
While Recovering From a Shopping Addiction, I Bought a $2,200 Coat – Racked