When I regularly commuted to and from an office, I quite often found myself with a surplus of time between one obligation and the next. I had time to wander aimlessly, looking through big box stores, looking at clothes and shoes that promised me I could be exactly who I wanted to be if I just bought their wares. Lucky for me, New York City is full of avenues designed for this precise task. Before the pandemic, Jezebel’s offices were located in Times Square; just before that, we were smack in the middle of one of my favorite zones for this precise activity: a weird stretch of 5th and 6th Avenues between 14th Street and 18th Street that housed a Zara, an H&M, and two Sephoras. If I was feeling adventurous, I would swing west towards 6th Avenue and hit, in rapid succession, Old Navy, the Container Store, TJ Maxx, and Urban Outfitters, before wending my way down 14th Street, stopping into Foot Locker, considering a Frosty at Wendy’s, headed onwards my final, climactic destination: DSW, the best and the worst place in the world and an essential part of the time-killing shopping loop, is a discount shoe emporium that promises great deals and the possibility of a new me.
The time-killing shopping loop is inherently solitary, and it is also a little bit lonely. It’s one thing when you’re in the now-defunct liminal space between work and play; the fact that you are killing time at all means that you have something to do in the first place. But the time-killing loop becomes a little sad under other circumstances, because of what it implies about its reasons. On a Sunday with no other plans, browsing discount underpants at Nordstrom Rack feels industrious at first but can quickly devolve into sadness—nothing cataclysmic or particularly devastating, just an ennui that isn’t altogether miserable, but still prompts a pang for the feeling of connection. Boredom drives me often towards consumerism, but loneliness does too.
I do not consider myself particularly lonely; my greatest desire is in fact to be left alone. But one of the lingering after-effects of my new life as a remote worker is the weird sadness I feel in the interstitial space between my work hours and my leisure hours, because of the way my life has compressed. The summertime hours in the early evening before the sun sets can be lonely
when my only plans involve feeding the cat and looking at my phone until slumber. The promise of the kind of big box store that fills out suburban strip malls and New York City’s equivalent neighborhood, Midtown, is anonymity, and therefore space—to feel your big feelings while also entertaining the possibility of new pants.
DSW, an old mall standby, has always done the trick for me. The Union Square location in Manhattan is my preferred DSW, valued for its proximity to the subway. The lighting is always sort of bad and the mirrors are veer between too flattering and hideously real, but the aisles are wide, and the offerings plentiful. You can aimlessly try on shoes for a solid hour, sliding your feet in and out of dozens of sandals, unappealing canvas ballet flats, and the occasional outrageous stiletto without anyone actually pressuring you to buy.
I go there to celebrate quantity over quality, a habit that is hard to break. Material abundance is a signifier of wealth, but increasingly minimalism is, too. It’s much more cost-efficient to spend $300 on one pair of shoes that lasts 20 years but it’s ultimately more satisfying to spend the same amount on four that promptly fall apart. My aspirations are simple: homeownership is not a reality I see in my future, but the dream of a closet full of shoes I want to actually wear is.
An hour spent at DSW slips by in the blink of an eye. Because of the store’s inventory, I am careful with my browsing, wandering down every single aisle in search of the transformative, the practical, or some combination thereof that will hopefully change my life. It’s the possibility of transformation that sets DSW above other stores because I can experiment with mid-price shoe choices that speak to the sort of person I’m interested in becoming. Of all the shoes I’ve purchased from DSW, the only mistake I ever made was a pair of sleek black boots, purchased with the thought that by having nice shoes, my winter outfit of a sweatshirt and jeans would feel dressy and intentional. Unfortunately, they were one inch too high to be comfortable and made me clomp like a Clydesdale. I threw the box away when I got home, and realized, foolishly, that I needed the box to return them. They sat unworn and collecting dust under my dresser until I shoved them in a bag destined for Buffalo Exchange, and sold them for a paltry sum.
The shoes I buy at DSW, or the clutch of poly-blend tank tops I take home from H&M’s Basics section are foundational pieces of my wardrobe, which is relatively uninspired, but that is how I like it. Sure, there’s something sad about this, but I’m reaching the age where I can finally stop giving a shit about precisely how I am perceived in the world. The beauty of the loop is that by its end, you are reborn; the loneliness has faded, replaced by the quiet contentment of just being alone.