It’s so refreshing to see young ladies just looking cute with no “edge” or “attitude”…right now I think it takes more guts to be gentle and sweet than to be faux-tough.—Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist
I’ve been thinking about these words since I read them yesterday, realizing this has been my ongoing struggle since moving to New York three and a half years ago.
My parents have taught me to be kind since day one. But on day two in New York, a man* approached me on Fifth Avenue and sweet-talked me into what turned out to be an awful (and at $90, overpriced) salon package. Being kind, I nodded my head. Being kind, I smiled as he told me about the head massage, sprinkling in a mention of the $1000 shoes on his feet. Then being kind, I walked with him to a grocer across the street, so I could withdraw the cash from an ATM. When he walked away with my money, I immediately felt violated and foolish. But what choice did I have? I had to be sweet.
My character was walked all over.
In New York there is a hardness; it may be the black, the steel and concrete, or just the air of determination. People don’t walk slow, or have the patience for those who do. They don’t make eye contact on trains or sidewalks—they really don’t want to talk about the weather when I buy a soda at the bodega. Several weeks into living in the city, a woman on a late night train mumbled toward me, “What are you looking at? With your ugly hair…and your ugly outfit.” She was deranged and drunk, a brown-bagged bottle spilling out of her handbag, but I saw it as another reason I might need to change.
Over the next few months I went bleach blonde, bought a leather jacket, wore bold red lips, went to bars—the things I’d first seen in my early days working on Crosby Street, beautiful people stepping out of magazines, gliding across the cobblestone road. I later worked in the East Village and witnessed a type of woman on repeat: Tough, sharply accessorized, stylishly disheveled, culturally obscure. The mystery! This was excitement, I was intrigued and decidedly, sweet was boring.
I went through waves of new interests and phases of physical shifts. I really wasn’t certain what was happening. But like a chameleon and a creature adapting for survival, I felt it needed to be done.
When I visited my home in North Dakota, friends would mention “New York Jenny.” This was the hardened lady, a sweetness glazed over by something defensive and tough; alert, always. But in the Midwest these traits aren’t always needed or understood—they are often misinterpreted as callous. And after spending 23 years in North Dakota, I would agree.
Several days ago at a vintage store in Brooklyn, I discovered a sweet silk skirt. It was a classic cut, vivid blue, swirled with delicate green leaves and purple petals. When I saw myself in the mirror I felt light, feminine, gentle. It reminded me of years back, when I felt sweeter and enjoyed it, when it never occurred to me that I should be or act anything else.
In these years New York has presented me with new, different visions of what I might or could be. It has encouraged me to be daring and think about what it means to be a lady at my age in this city—especially in this day. But to survive (“get ahead”), it’s not so much about being “tough” as it is to be kind. And in my version of the ideal city life, a lady gets by being smart, sensible and sweet.
I will leave the attitude to the East Village ladies—I’m a North Dakotan.
*Months later the same man would try to sell me the same deal in Times Square—I got the final word, and the satisfaction of letting him know, “We’ve already met, and never again.”