Once, when I was 21, I was mistaken for a homeless person in a McDonald’s bathroom in Berlin.
Yeah, I was a bit gaunt and ratty on account of two months backpacking around wintertime Europe and way too many cheap French cigarettes and a recent bout of walking pneumonia, besides. And sure, I was sporting a messy head of dreadlocks under my dirty pink bandana and struggling under the mighty weight of an overstuffed pack. But. I was angling for some novel brand of a nation-neutral globetrotter aesthetic with my look. I even sort of fancied myself a modernized incarnation of Dean Moriarty, and I had the tatty, coverless copy of On The Road (picked up at a hostel in Amsterdam, and how is that for traveler cred?) to prove it.
I’d overshot the mark, clearly, cause while I was waiting for a turn at the McDonald’s sink, a pretty German girl who’d just finished rinsing her hands turned and smilingly held out to me a shiny one-Euro coin.
I was so surprised that all I could do was stare dumbly back at her and shake my head in refusal. We both blushed prettily. Then she snatched the money back and quickly exited the bathroom, a horrified expression painted across her face.
I’m not sure who was more embarrassed.
Actually, that’s not true. It was definitely, definitely me.
Stuff like this has been happening to me my entire life, and I’ve never been able to sort out just why.
My fashion aesthetic has always been a bit out there. I’ve never cared much for fancy haircuts or sensible shoes. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for finery, for beautifully crafted jewelry and slippy, silky scarves and hand-hewn leather footwear. However, my poor and rambling lifestyle has never been equipped to accommodate much more than a suitcase full of wrinkly t-shirts and a pair of reeking flip flops. And even when my parents were the ones keeping me in clothes, I insisted on cobbling together my own unique outfits, which often consisted of artistically mismatched socks and battling hues of neon.
Once, in sixth grade, my best friend even told me, “Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be seen with you because of the outfits you wear.”
Truth told, though, I’ve never really minded being the scrappy one. I always even kind of liked that I looked Different. And I was often able to ring funny anecdotes out of my frequent so-pathetic-it’s-painful/so-painful-it’s-laughable encounters. Like, for example, the one in Berlin.
I also liked that people thought I was younger than I am, that I could brag about wearing ugly brown slippers to the ballet in Paris, that I had made my own roughshod clothes and purses.
Such run-ins stopped being quite so hilarious when I hit my mid-twenties and started combing my hair regularly.
And now that I’m a year-and-a-half out from thirty, they are definitely, definitely not funny.
As I’ve transitioned into full-blown adulthood, I’ve worked to rein in my scrubby aesthetic. I am grumblingly amassing a “Professional Wardrobe” and I’ve stopped giving myself haircuts and I even paint my freaking toenails. But still, somehow, I keep getting picked out—and on.
A few Tuesdays ago, I went to Fred Meyer to get a few sets of keys made. In the outdoor department where the big, noisy key-making kiosk was located, I came upon a skinny girl with bad teeth. She was wearing a fatigue vest and a nametag that read “Mysti.” As she sat sunning herself in front of the fluorescent glare emanating from a well-padlocked gun case, I asked for her assistance.
She glared at me and picked up a red phone.
“Sue to the key station,” she said into the phone, still glaring.
Sue, fat and oldish, soon arrived. I handed off my keys, and as she set to the rackety, teeth-jarring work of grinding down the copies, I wandered off to check out the toy section.
A few minutes later, the grinding stopped. I returned to the gun section and Sue handed me a paper baggy full of keys. On my way to the register, I detoured to check out a 75 percent-off rack I’d spotted earlier.
That’s when I noticed that Mysti was following me. And that’s when I realized she thought I was going to pocket the baggy of keys.
I pawed through a rack of underwear, feeling inexplicably guilty. Mysti seated herself in the nearby deli, eyes trained on me. Panic!! I hid between a few racks of ugly sweaters, gripping my newly minted keys in hand, freaking out and getting pissed. What the Hell?
Was this my strange and ridiculous destiny, to be eternally misread, to live out my days hiding from my would-be detractors behind a rack of cheap argyle sweaters, afraid of some terrible and unjust unmasking?
I wanted to shout to Mysti that I wasn’t who she’d decided I was. That I was smarter than she was. That, if I really wanted to, I could have walked of that store with a whole slew of merchandise, and her dumb ass would never have noticed. And that I had, in fact, done that very thing on a regular basis when I was in junior high. Packs of gum and candy bars and baggies of Goodie rubber bands, oh yes.
You idiots, I wanted to scream. You’re almost twenty years too late!
But I didn’t shout any of those things. Instead, I stomped out of the clearance section and passed through a checkout register. I jammed my credit card through the swiping machine with unwieldy force and I grabbed my receipt and I headed for the door, face burning.
On my way out, I noted that Mysti was still seated in the deli. Sue had joined her. They were both staring at me. Mysti’s teeth hung down absently over her lower lip as she fingered her nametag and shot me a dirty look.
Conspicuous and peptic, I jangled my baggie of keys in her direction and stomped out to the parking lot.
I sort of hated myself for it, but the next day, I got a $50 haircut.
-Erin J. Bernard