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The pandemic changed me: I learned to like clothes shopping

BY KATE WALTER | It would be ironic if the pandemic made me get over my aversion to clothes shopping.

Ten months into the pandemic, the things that I really enjoy in Manhattan are still not available. I can’t attend concerts or plays or hang out at the Cubbyhole. I can’t go dancing.

Other than walking in Hudson River Park, what can I do for fun? I can eat in a sidewalk cafe (when it’s warm enough). Or I can bop around Soho or Chelsea or Union Square or the East Village and look in stores.

Last fall, when I saw a blurb in the newspaper for pile-lined sweat pants at Uniqlo, I wanted to stock up before the cold weather. And this is one of the few clothing stores I don’t totally hate. I like the store layout and their cool T-shirts with artistic prints.

So I planned an expedition to Soho to hit Uniqlo for sweatpants and McNally Jackson for books. I had a gift certificate for this cool indie store, and I like shopping for books.

The first thing I did after New York reopened was go to The Strand, Barnes & Noble and Three Lives. I had a great time at the tiny Three Lives. I discussed books with another customer and got recommendations from a salesclerk. I missed that.

But there is no way I missed clothes shopping. My dislike dates back to my childhood when I was a girl and my mother dragged me with her from store to store on Main Street in downtown Paterson, New Jersey. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, before the suburban malls, my home city had a lively commercial area with department stores and specialty shops.

I felt trapped. I wanted to be playing basketball or roller skating, but I was forced to help my mother decide on patterns and material for dresses she would sew. (Not the least bit appealing to a tomboy.) I was bored after half an hour but my mother wanted to shop much longer. I couldn’t wait to get home. The only thing that kept me going was the reward.

The writer’s quest for sweatpants helped eased the pressure of the pandemic. (Uniqlo)

When we finished, we went to the soda fountain at Woolworth’s and I ordered a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and sprinkles. I plopped down on the spinning stools, trying to restrain myself from twirling while waiting. I was an energetic baby dyke in training.

No surprise, I’ve never had an extensive wardrobe. If I can buy stuff online, like shoes or sneakers, all the better. I keep buying the same footwear, in different colors. I also buy socks and underwear online.

My former partner, a fashion plate, loved shopping and tried to explain why she enjoyed it.

“Buying makes people feel good. They like having new clothes. Maybe you don’t get shopping because you’re not into having things,” she observed about my simple, unadorned lifestyle.

“Or maybe I’m not into having things because then I’d have to shop for them,” I retorted.

Before I went to Uniqlo, I did the size chart online. I was a large. But when I got there, they only had white in large. I wanted a dark color, like black or navy. The salesclerk said she thought I could wear a medium, noting that she wore a large (and she was a lot bigger than me.) So I took a chance and bought the medium in black. The dressing rooms were closed due to the pandemic. As soon as I got home, I tried them on; they felt tight in the inseam. If they shrunk, I was in trouble.

If there’s one thing I hate more than buying, it’s returning. The next day, I revisited the store, hoping Uniqlo might’ve gotten a new shipment overnight. A different clerk told me that they had more pile-lined sweatpants in a slightly different style in another section.

Since I live alone, I was desperate for in-person conversation with anyone about anything. I actually enjoyed talking to the store clerks about styles and sizes, colors and fabrics. What was happening to me? Was I turning into my mother? I found my size in royal blue and was all set.

I forced myself to leave before I started going through racks and buying stuff I did not need.

Due to the exchange, I made two clothes-shopping trips to Soho in one week, something I would have hated under normal circumstances. But as I walked down Broadway, I realized I wasn’t as bothered by this, as I’d expected. For starters, Broadway was not packed with rich European tourists hitting the many shops. I could actually walk on the sidewalks.

During my first trip, I even felt a little sad when I noticed all the boarded-up storefronts and “Space For Rent” signs. I never thought I’d miss the days of bustling Soho. As I went back the second time, I realized that I enjoyed walking down Broadway and looking in the store windows. Going back to Uniqlo was not so awful.

Besides new sweatpants, I needed a fleece-lined hoodie to replace my favorite because the zipper broke. I went looking the day after Thanksgiving, not even realizing it was Black Friday until I got to Paragon and saw the sale signs outside. Never in my life have I gone shopping on Black Friday. I used to make fun of the people who did.

I thought the store might be packed but there were almost as many clerks as customers. Paragon only had zippered sweatshirts with brand names, so I went to Old Navy, which was a little busier, but not crowded. I bought a $35 hoodie and paid $17.50, on sale with 50 percent off.

As I stood on line to pay. I started having an anxiety attack. No one was ahead of me but the two cashiers seemed to be taking forever to ring up their customers. I felt sweaty, overdressed for an unseasonably warm fall day. Was I freaking out because I feared the virus or did waiting on line to buy clothes take me back to childhood?

Everyone was masked and the guy behind me kept his social distance. Yet I could not wait to pay and get outside. I wondered if I was taking too much risk to buy a sweatshirt.

But if I wanted to try it on, I had to visit a store. With a little more practice, this could become my winter entertainment.

After I got home, I needed a relaxing walk in the park. I threw on my stylish blue sweatpants and my grey hoodie. I looked fashionable. So this was why people liked shopping.

Took me a lifetime — and a pandemic — but I finally got it!

The Big Gay Ice Cream shop. (Photo by Kate Walter)

The next time I go hunting for clothes, I’ll end my trip at the Big Gay Ice Cream shop in the Village and order an old-school hot fudge sundae.

Walter is a freelance writer and the author of the memoir “Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing.” She is working on a memoir in essays about her life during the pandemic in New York City.

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