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What to Wear When You Have No Place to Go

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In 2016, I lost three jobs. And each time, I went shopping.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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We were given the news in precisely one sentence: Our company had made the tough decision to shut down the New York editorial office. This was our last day — or, as it turned out, last hour. I was writing a quiz titled “Which Classic Meg Ryan Movie Are You?” and then, suddenly, I wasn’t. Once the severance was explained and apologies given, I called my mom, I cried with my editor while wedged in a phone booth, and then I ran to the top of the Empire State Building just like Sleepless In Seattle taught me to.

Turns out, you can’t do that. A Friday in July is the perfect time for sightseeing, and my come to Jesus moment was diminished by the hour wait and, in particular, the photographer relentlessly trying to take a souvenir photo of me while there was mascara smudged down my cheek. I got to the top, took my Instagram, and decided to find Jesus the next best way: shopping.

Therapy shopping is something I’ve gotten pretty good at because, unbeknownst to my summer self, this was not the last time I’d lose my job in 2016. In fact, it was going to happen two more times. By New Year’s Eve, I had lost three jobs in a row. I also have a ton of new clothes and absolutely nowhere to wear them.

Everything happened for different reasons, each assuredly Not My Fault but still Somehow Feeling Like It. Just this past December, I was once again standing aimlessly on Broadway as the result of another tough decision and there were only two things in the world I wanted: stupidly expensive underwear and a sweater.

It’s an immense privilege to be laid off and still feel comfortable spending money, and doing so is not traditionally recommended. But at the beginning of the year, after setting aside money for food and rent each month, I began funneling the rest of my paychecks into my very own break-in-case-of-emergency, my Hail Mary, my Fuck Off Fund — and I have thrice been told to fuck right off.

The first time I lost my job, it was easier to think of it as a fresh start. The second time was not as kind. It was confirmation of my imposter syndrome, that I don’t actually deserve the things I get. I should have tried harder in school, graduated with honors, responded faster to texts and emails, sucked it up and been a better person. Good people don’t lose their jobs, right?

The third time it became clear: These were not fresh starts, but false ones. The thing I’m telling myself now is that maybe so is life. I’ll let you know when I believe it.

Post-layoff retail therapy is different from post-breakup because in this case the shops are empty. It’s not a Saturday with your friends but a Tuesday afternoon and you’re totally alone. Nobody is in this COS because they’re all at their jobs. I bet the sales associates wonder what I’m doing there the same way I do when I see teenagers on the subway on a weekday. Don’t you have someplace you’re supposed to be?

Each time I found myself wandering a store suddenly bereft of employment, I tried on anything remotely interesting, bought my favorite, and then walked outside only to ask the question I’d be asking for the next few weeks: Now what?

It’s very easy to do nothing. It’s very easy to wake up in bed the morning after losing a job and realize you have no reason to leave it — except for one. That new sweater is hanging in your closet, and you gotta wear it. And so the sweater defines your day. The sweater takes you to the coffee shop because you want your Brooklyn peers to see it. There, you tie up loose ends over email. While you’re out, you decide to run the errands you’ve been putting off, because what else do you have to do? Then you reward your productivity with a trip to Catbird, where for once it’s not crammed with people, because it’s Wednesday. Before you know it, you did things today.

Once I figured out this trick, that new clothes were the one thing that got me dressed in the morning, it influenced my post-layoff-shopping decisions. I didn’t just hold up a shirt and ask, “What could I wear this with?” It was “What could I wear this with tomorrow?”

If you ever find yourself in this position, you need to be strategic. A new cozy, bulky cardigan might only get you as far as the couch. A fresh pair of clogs takes you to at least the grocery store. A coat keeps you outside for a couple of hours. It depends on what you’re up for and how desperately you want to pretend everything's okay.

Some days will be more productive than others. You will apply for new opportunities and register for a class. Others, you’ll do nothing but take selfies in your new bra and learn “White Christmas” on the ukulele. You will get other gigs. You will lose them. So will everyone else. You’ll figure it out because you have to. In the meantime, you know exactly what to wear while you do it.