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lost in shanghai


Those halcyon days in New York...

Submitted but not printed in WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE May 2013
To read the essay in Chinese click HERE

By Mina Choi

In the early 1990s, when I was just several months short of graduating from university, I fell in with a bunch of beautiful ladies in New York City. Life was uncertain for me then; I didn't have a job offer or an apartment that I could move into. I had been a disorganized undergraduate, so unlike many of the better focused classmates, I had no idea what to do for a career. All I knew was that I needed a job, and good jobs were hard to come by in 1992 with the US economy in deep recession. 

During this period, to find some solace from the prospect that I might never leave New Haven, Connecticut and the poorly-paid jobs in a non-profit institute or as a lowly clerk at a bookstore, I would visit New York City whenever I could, more to assure myself that a brighter future existed somewhere outside of my college town.  

I often stayed with my friends in New York City who had graduated from Yale a year or two earlier. The better-employed ones, who bided their time between graduation and starting at one of the better law School, with jobs at law firms as paralegals, could just about to live in Manhattan and let me sleep on their couches. The poorer graduates--writers and artists--could only afford to stay in Brooklyn. I stayed on their couches too, but found that that wasn't as convenient because the subways only ran once an hour late at night and going back to Brooklyn at four in the morning for a young woman in a short mini-skirt was a little scary. 

But regardless of where they lived or stayed, for most of my friends in New York City, the main destination was always downtown Manhattan, in the streets not too far from Greenwich Village. 

One day, I was walking down one street near Union Square and stopped by a shop. It was a fancy eyeglasses shop offering all the brand-name spectacles I could never afford to buy. I walked in any way and tried on a few pairs. A very pretty shop girl stood behind the counter and I started to chat with her. I learnt that she was an immigrant like me, and hailed from the West Indies. I was struck by how elegant and self-possessed she was. She was clothed in stylish clothes and knew all the hip places in downtown like the back of her hand. 

I looked through the selection at her shop, and sighed. I couldn't really afford the very nice Calvin Klein or Armani pairs of the frames on display. Most of them cost at least $300 a pair. But the real problem was that I was badly in deed of spectacles-I had grown near-sighted and couldn't recognize friends who waved to me from across the street. I carefully looked through the store's selection and shook my head. 

The shop girl beyond counter asked me what my budget was and I told her that I didn't really have one. Then I sheepishly admitted to her that the most I could spend was one hundred dollars. She went through a few selections with me and picked out the one I quite liked. She said, 'I'll give these to you for one hundred dollars. For twenty dollars, I'll toss in the matching sunglass flap. Do you have a credit card?'?

I couldn't believe it. A cool pair of glasses for one hundred twenty dollars! And I could even get the matching shade flap with real UV block. Several weeks later, I picked up the glasses in Manhattan. My life had changed: I could finally see things in the far distance. And all the more, I could see clearly through a pair of beautiful frames. 

Immediately afterwards, I was invited by the same woman to attend some parties. I realized eventually, after meeting a few of her friends that she was a lesbian. I was surprised: all the lesbians I knew at Yale were butch, had short-hair and unappealing. This was the first beautiful lesbian I met. Soon, I also met the wider circle of her friends. They continued to awe me--they were all sophisticated and beautiful like her. 

But one thing they also shared with her was that they were all working at poorly-paid retail jobs that could not possibly fund their sophisticated tastes. And unlike me armed with my Ivy League degree, they really did not have much option for finding better jobs. I did not know this at the time because when one is 22-years old, the world seems a terrifying place and anyone with a job seemed better off than someone with nowhere to live and only one thousand dollars in savings.

What I appreciated the most about them was their beautiful things. They had exquisite taste and knew where the best things could be purchased for a fraction of the cost. I often wondered how they could afford the things they had, because I knew that shop clerks, even at a chic eyeglasses store, rarely made more than $10 an hour. And they were all living in New York City, the most expensive city in the U.S.  

I soon found out. One day, back at Yale, I was looking through my credit card bill and found a charge for $150 bouquet of flowers delivered inside Manhattan. I called American Express and told them it was a fraudulent charge--I had never ordered these flowers. The customer service agent asked me a few details and then agreed to remove the charge. But something clicked during the phone call: when they mentioned the address of the place where the flowers were delivered to, I realized that my friend at the eyeglass shop must have sent her girlfriend a birthday bouquet. She had my credit card slip because I had charged my eyeglasses on the same card. Nobody would find out, and I wouldn't have to pay for the charge either because it would have been written off as a fraud. The only person out of pocket would be American Express.

There was the beauty in her logic: She didn't hurt any single individual. She was ripping off American Express who could afford to lose a few hundred, or a few thousand dollars. Later on, she told me how she had found a platinum American Express card in a wallet in a taxi. She took the American Express card, in a man's name, and asked her friend, who was a white male, to accompany her to the Chanel store. She bought five thousand dollars' worth of merchandise before discarding the card. She kept some of the clothes for herself and sold some to her friends for half the price. It wouldn't have hurted the actual card-holder. The owner of the card would report it as a fraud and American Express would bear the loss.

There were other strategies they told me about. Whenever one of them fell in love with a European boyfriend or a girlfriend--all of whom were amazingly beautiful--they would then get one of their lesbian friends to marry the beautiful boy from Paris or Copenhagen. They knew the rules: marry for two years and live together and you get the Greencard. 

It was a funny experience. They were kind to me; they helped me find a place to stay when I needed to be in New York City for one week. They took me around and showed me the city. They told me about the best flea markets where I could get beautiful things for almost nothing.

After a few weeks in New York City, I decided it was time to make a drastic change and move to Los Angeles. It was a simpleton's decision: Los Angeles was warm, full of sunshine and was home to the entertainment industry. I was a writer and dreamt of working in Hollywood, lounging in the sun. A friend who had graduated one year earlier offered me a place on his couch. I moved.

Several months later, I got a call from the girlfriend from the eyeglasses shop. She was still working there. I asked her how she was. She said that she was fine, but the reason called was that she wanted my help. I asked her what sort of help? She said: I have a ten pairs of shoes from Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman that I want to have delivered to your address in Los Angeles. Once you receive them, you can mail them back to me and I will pay you back for the cost of the mailing. But you have to sign the delivery slip with a name that is not yours. Can you do that? Then she offered me a pair. I could keep one of the pairs, in size 38-my size.

I tried to picture this transaction and it felt too complicated. I saw boxes of shoes arriving at my door and struggling to sign the paper pretending to be someone else. I thought about it briefly and then told her I couldn't do it. 

I never heard from her again.

I often wonder what she is up to. Where is she now? What is she wearing? Who is she with? I hope if I ever see her again, she will still be with her beautiful friends surrounded by beautiful things.


For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE