This happened exactly one year ago…
I’d probably just started my drive to Houston in earnest when the Notre-Dame fire started. Blissfully unaware, I drove for three hours, listening to Spotify and Audible and occasionally stopping for a bite to eat or a bathroom break. I was in a Mediterranean grocery store near my motel, standing around for 20 minutes as the in-store deli worker fired up my falafel, apparently from scratch, and scrolling through Instagram on my phone.
The reactions were of the breast-beating, teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling variety, and I braced myself to dig into the news of the latest terrorist attack. A fire. Notre-Dame was on fire. No one was dead, but a firefighter was seriously injured. Centuries worth of art and relickery might or might not have survived.
My reaction was one of anger—anger at the self-absorbed nature of the “global” citizenry. I don’t remember anyone having this reaction when artifacts in Syria were destroyed, and that wasn’t an accident. I was sick of basic bitches, which was unfortunate, considering where I was headed.
It was in this state that I arrived at the Bayou City Events Center on Tuesday morning. I had left the motel around 7:35, passing the events center around 7:45. From my vantage point on the bridge, I could see people were already lining up outside. I knew that would be the smart play, the fangirl solidarity and priority admission worth the killed hour. I could even bring a book. #butfirstcoffee
I found the nearest Starbucks, a corner lot on Buffalo Bayou and Main Street so congested that the drive-through backed two cars deep into the road. It was the scariest thing I had seen in Houston on this trip. I made it back to the event center by 8:20 and sat in the car, refusing to take part in the queue. So basic. I lasted until about 8:30 before I joined the growing line out front. These were, after all, my sisters.
My segment of the line shared some self-aware laughter as we converged on the end of the line and took our respective places in an orderly fashion. A woman wearing yoga pants explained how sample sales worked (she lived in New York). I gave a pair of the pantyhose booties I’d brought to the woman behind me, Size Ten. Occasionally an overdressed, painstakingly coiffed basic bitch would roll through and have to join the line just like the rest of us. A young mother approached with a baby in a pouch, and someone sniped “That’s ambitious.” But mostly, we were a diverse, normal group of women (with about three men sprinkled in).
I’d joined the line just in time, as SJP staff in MD Anderson t-shirts began handing out tickets for admission. It turned out I was the second person to receive a number 3. A Wendy Davis lookalike walked up in jeans and a starched white button-down, and the SJP girls started cooing, “It’s Gina! She’s wearing Gina!” They were, of course, talking about the shoes, a pair of ridiculously impractical black strappy stiletto booties.
The SJP girls walked back in, assuring us we would be in the first wave. One resembled SJP in stature but wore hipster glasses and painstakingly effortless waves. The other was fresh-faced and ponytailed, giving off the vibe if not the exact resemblance of Sutton from The Bold Type.
About this time, the media started showing up, walking the line while filming and extolling us to chant SJP! SJP! My segment of the line hid our faces behind sunglasses and a white Dodge van parked at the curb. “Come on, again? Some of us our supposed to be at work…”
Finally, we were in. At almost nine o’clock sharp, we walked through the doors. Find your size, find your table, prices on the projected screens at either end of the back wall.
Almost immediately, I found what I’d come for: Ursula, a d’Orsay stiletto in a sparkling green labeled Meteor. Ursula had launched in the Summer of 2017, when I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Little Mermaid. Ursula was, of course, the villain of the musical, but Úrsula was also the name of the matriarch of the Buendía family. It felt like fate, back in the summer of 2017. I’d gotten so far as to place SJP’s Ursula in the website’s digital shopping cart, but ultimately couldn’t justify the price tag.
Today, though, was different. The prices were ridiculously low. A woman next to me asked how we were supposed to know the price, and when I pointed to the screen where the price list was cycling through promo photos of SJP with the shoes, she spoke into her phone: “Yeah, nothing is more than $125.” Not only were the discounts impressive, but the cause was altruistic.
It was about that time that I overheard a woman tell a reporter that she was not only picking up some things for herself but buying for her mother and sister as well.
One of my dad’s favorite stories to tell of my childhood involves a trip to the candy store. I assume it was the 7-11 near the house we lived in while I was growing up, but in reality it could have been any convenience store in North Austin, as “candy store” served as a generic name for all gas stations until we were old enough to care about the other provisions on offer. One of Dad’s old roughneck/wildcatter/poker buddies was with us, and when I panicked, exclaimed “I have to get something for Megan!” and ran back to the candy aisle, my dad swears he saw a tear roll down his friend’s weathered face while he declared it the sweetest thing he had ever seen.
Family myths are chimeric, and this story manifests new details every time my dad tells it. I, for one, have no memory of the alleged incident, but since I don’t believe in pure, selfless altruism, I know something else motivated me to run back to the candy aisle that day. There’s no telling. Regardless, Megan got candy that day, and she would get a pair of shoes on this day. I texted for size and if she even wore heels (she’s about 5’9”, introduced in my high school Spanish video project as “mas alta que me”). I plucked, I gathered, and, on a whim, I picked up another pair of the meteor-green Ursulas.
Clearly, I’d stacked the deck, but when the response came, it was, “Omg, I love the green!”
I kept going back, looking for Cherry in a size 6. The size 5 was way too small, the 7 wearable but not worth the expense for an ill-fitting shoe. I was pushing my time limit and knew I would eventually have to go, so I did one more pass of the tables and found another pair of Ursulas. Except, something was different. These Ursulas had no heel. She looked more like a ballet flat with a peep toe. I checked the sole, and there seemed to be some sort of trial fitting. A prototype? They broke the mold when they made her? Regardless, she was perfect for my mom.
So now I had three pairs of Ursulas, an emerald-green ballet flat, and a fierce pair of gold booties. It was time to go. I got in line, which only stretched three-quarters of the way to the back of the room. Shortly after I joined the line, a lone gentleman queued behind me, and as we got to talking, I learned that Brandon was shopping for his wife, who worked at MD Anderson, and his mother. I approved of his purchases, including a handbag for his mother that still sported an original price tag for $1790!!! “Normally, you should remove the price tag from a gift, but you want to leave that one because your mother is going to be so proud of you,” I told him.
For my part, I was going back and forth about the bag, and here Brandon was extremely helpful. He pointed out the canvas SJP bags, which were only $50 and, better yet, matched the pencil bag I’d received as a pre-order gift from SJP’s publishing imprint. They were also plentiful, piled high on folding tables around the room, all of which I had some how missed in my beeline for the shoes. I left Brandon holding my place in line and walked toward what I thought was the closest table of canvas bags.
And there she was.
SJP walked out of a side door, then started the way I had just come. I ran back to Brandon, his phone already aimed and ready, and took my place in the screaming mob.
She stood behind a table piled high with canvas bags (yet another table I had somehow not seen, closer than the one I had been heading toward) and giggled at the crowd. She thanked us for helping to fight cancer, then emphatically shouted: “Now go shop more!” As much as I love SJP, I was too shopped-out to obey, so I stayed in line with Brandon as SJP worked the floor.
It was like watching a school of fish avoiding a predator, except the opposite. Everywhere she went, a sea of women followed, ebbing and flowing around her tiny person. We couldn’t even see her, just the effect she was having on the room. I learned later that she had declined to talk to media, so the TV cameras and reporters were swept along with the tide.
From where we stood, Brandon and I watched the crowd and compared SJP photos, texting each other copies of the best. “She’s still here,” he said, seeing my obvious anxiety. “She’s waiting for Mandy.”
I arrived at the register and paid for my shoes, requesting a few extra SJP shoe bags for good measure. I will never tell anyone how much I spent, but I can reveal the amount was exactly $100 higher than the absolute limit I had given myself before walking in the door. And this was after I traded the leather handbag for the canvas tote! I still spent less than the cost of golf clubs, anything with a motor, and, honestly, the original cost of the trenchcoat (if we include tax, which we did not as all the money was going to MD Anderson).
I took my giant white shopping bag, which was marked PAID in red Sharpie, and stood in the middle of the ballroom. I am pleased to report that, although it would have been terribly easy to slip another pair or five in my bag, the thought did not occur to me until a full 24 hours later. Besides, who steals from a charity sale? I was late, so late, and needed to leave…but I wanted to meet SJP. Brandon walked up behind me and said, “C’mon.” So I blame him for what happened next.
We approached what appeared to be an SJP fashion consultation, and in a shocking turn of events, got there just in time to hear her tell a woman: “I’m not a stylist; I can’t tell you what to buy.” SJP! Refusing to give fashion advice! It was refreshing. The crowd tightened, and the woman with the baby somehow got between me and SJP. Well, great, I thought, there goes any chance of meeting my hero…this woman clearly has the trump card.
SJP had been “working the floor” for a full ten minutes before Brandon and I followed her out there, but the moment we arrived seemed to be the moment she’d had enough. She ducked and dodged, I swear looking right at me once, and said something to one of the TV cameramen and then something to Sutton. Sutton politely asked me to stop taking photos because SJP was feeling a little overwhelmed. She quickly made her exit.
I did learn later that the problem was the news camera—it wasn’t supposed to be on her. You can see the moment at the 1:50 mark in this news clip. She’d asked not to be filmed.
But in the moment, it felt dirty, like we’d failed to treat her like a human. Oh, God, it was my outfit, wasn’t it—I looked like a stalker in ill-fitting celebrity skin. I’d completely forgotten about the pencil bag I’d wanted her to sign, so it may be for the best that it was still in my purse. Maybe it was my giant shopping bag. Or any of the fifty people in her immediate vicinity. That had to have been terrifying. Disappointed and a bit shamed, Brandon and I parted ways in the parking lot.
That night, I met some friends at a booksigning. Of course I wore my new booties, golden trophies of my conquest. One of my friends, not understanding the difference between a designer sample sale and the end-of-year clearance at the local department store, scoffed at my adventure: “That is the most basic shit.”