Look!

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

That people don’t look at each other here may account for the otherwise inexplicable disinterest in personal appearance in Berlin. That or city-wide depression. Nobody’s looking so who cares? Granted, in New York people look way too much. Gone are the days (and by days I mean the 80’s), when a woman can walk up Madison Avenue in sneakers and slide on pumps at her desk, oh no. You ride the subway and walk the whole distance in those puppies, no matter how far or you’re excommunicated from the club. Did you know you had to walk fifty blocks in stilettos to be considered a true New York Woman? You do. Do you see men coming to work in shorts and a t-shirt carrying a suit bag and changing in the men’s room before the big meeting? No, you don’t. That their shoes are generally not torture chambers doesn’t enter into the matter; you come dressed for your day. People are looking. From the minute you leave your house to the moment you get home, people are looking.

Not in Berlin. I have never been looked at so little in my life. Okay look, it’s not like I’m some raving beauty draped in men and chased by paparazzi, God no. But there is a lid for every pot and New Yorkers aren’t shy about letting you know when they like your pot.

Fashion is at the root of it all, of that I’m certain. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, I have no idea but it’s involved somehow. Never before have I been in a city where the dress code rarely requires more than a nice pair of jeans and often much less. Grunge is the mode du jour, I’m assuming because it goes nicely with graffiti of which there is a plethora. Not that grunge can’t be done well, it can. It’s just that come on, aren’t there moments in your life when you long to take out most of your earrings and put on a tie?

People have either created the non-looking or responded to it, I’m not sure which, by wearing comfortable shoes. Shoes make or break an outfit, as I’m sure you know, and most often Birkenstocks are a breaker. If you start with a Birk what more can you do but put on some khaki pants and a cotton top? Maybe a skirt but you’re really pushing the boundaries there and it can really only be done if there is tie-dye involved somehow. Once in an outfit like that how much more make-up can you slap on than maybe a sheer gloss? That I own some knock off Birks may tell you a little about how far I have fallen.

At first I was relieved. Living in a huge city among people without filters made me long for a quieter, less appearance-minded place. One where I could leave the house with out make-up and not feel naked. One where clients didn’t comment on my weight gain or loss on a daily basis. Now though, if I “put on my face” as my grandmother used to say, it’s remarked on by colleagues all day long as an anomaly.

“Wow, you’re wearing make-up today. Are you going somewhere after work?”, as if there’s no other reason on the planet to use mascara.

“Um no, just thought I’d try not to look like a refugee, haha!”

They’re right of course. What for? If nobody looks, then why bother? But I sometimes don’t recognize myself anymore so maybe that’s why. Where I was maybe too focused on such things before, it’s becoming the reverse and I’m starting to miss the part of my morning that included choosing clothes and watching Charmed reruns for make-up tips.

Something in the middle is ideal, I think. I long to be accepted as I come, who doesn’t? I come with many flaws and you don’t need a microscope to find them. In a city that lives under one, it’s a rarity to meet a New Yorker who doesn’t see them. On the other hand, to not care so much that you become wallpaper can’t be the answer either. So how to go forward? Do people start looking or do we start giving them a reason to? It’s a question for the experts. Gloria Steinem! Candace Bushnell! Help! In the meantime, I’m going to dig out my heels and see how far I can still get in three inches and red lipstick.


In 2005 and 2006, I spent a year in federal prison for the alleged crime of “illicit sale of archaeological artifacts.” It’s not my case that I want to write about but the people I met while serving time. I was sentenced to a prison in northern Ohio on the Pennsylvania border near Youngstown, a one-time crime family capital of the state where a once strong steel industry gave way to corruption and gangs. It was, I suppose, a suitable location for a prison.

The unit where I was housed was over an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) block that contained mostly Hispanic inmates but also black, Dominican and Mexican prisoners along with a smattering of Europeans. It was from this unit I made my best friends. There was Andrew from Poland and Thomas from Germany and there were, of course, the Russians. Most of the latter were from Uzbekistan.

As one who had a passion for reading and writing, I spent most of my free time doing so. It doesn’t take much to earn a reputation in lock-up and I was soon dubbed the “Professor.”
Damn Professor, you reading another book? Haven’t you read every book by now?

I was often the deciding vote on many a prison debate. Hey Professor, is the moon a planet or a star? And even (this was a serious question, I swear), do brown cows give chocolate milk?