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  • Joanna

Toeing The Line


“A woman can do anything if her feet don’t hurt.” Maggie’s grandmother, Rose, never had an opinion that she didn’t share. And Maggie hadn’t wanted to bring her along on this particular shopping trip, but she’d agreed a month ago to bring the 82-year-old to the optometrist on that specific Thursday afternoon and Bloomingdales was on the way. 

Maggie hadn’t meant to wait until the last minute to find the perfect interview outfit. But she was nervous, felt unqualified, and was suffering from an acute case of Imposter Syndrome. And after all those years of working in tech, her wardrobe mainly consisted of hoodies and jeans. Without a professionally-fitting blazer in her closet, Maggie was forced out of her comfort zone and into the Career Woman’s section. 

Maggie was turning Thirty in two weeks and was going to celebrate her birthday week at her first ever Burning Man, the Avante-Garde art and music festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. She was scheduled to return to New York the day the festival ended, because, in a late-night burst of confidence and an online application,  she landed an interview for a director role at The Rockefeller Center. So, Maggie was a mixed bag of emotions in the Bloomingdale’s dressing room. She turned on her heel, checking herself out in the full-length mirror. She’d managed to pull quite a lot more off of the rack than a few blazers. There were more than a few pairs of shoes.

“I like the black ones,” Rose offered, scrunching her nose as if the other shoes were so awful that they managed to offend all of her senses, not just her fashion one. 

Maggie slipped off the brown loafers and cocked her head.

“You need sensible shoes, a strong handshake, and good ideas. The rest will take care of itself.” Rose raised her eyebrows in defiance of a retort. And Maggie knew better than to disagree with her grandmother. So, she nodded and smiled, even though she certainly was not going to buy the loafers. 

“I know, Grandma Rose, but I can’t show up naked. I need some cloths.” Rose didn’t like that answer but she was immediately distracted by how the next pair looked. 

“YOU CANNOT WEAR THOSE,” Rose gasped as if it were her final breath, her eyes glued on the green sequin boots that Maggie had barely managed to zip halfway up her right calf.

“These aren’t for work! These are for the festival Grandma.”

That reasoning didn’t exactly resonate with Rose. “Oh, you’re going to be on your feet all day with a bunch of artsy hippies in the middle of the desert wearing THOSE? Maybe your judgment isn’t good enough to work for the Rockefellers.”

Maggie sighed. She loved her grandmother dearly but preferred her company at the dinner table, ideally with a cocktail surrounded by other people for Rose to criticize. And, she knew that she was supposed to respect her elders and all of that but Rose was OLD. Like, really old. And some of her ideas and opinions on life were pretty antiquated. 

Maggie pushed and prodded her calf into the boot, managing to zip it up all the way, and only felt a mild pulse in her foot as she stood up to admire herself.

“Those will ruin you,” Rose offered, rifling through the tops on the hook, handing Maggie a nice button-down and a pinstripe vest.

“These will not,” 

Maggie looked at her watch. The doctor’s appointment was only two blocks away but Maggie knew how difficult it was to get her grandmother to move these days. She slipped on the top and the vest. They fit perfectly. Rose nodded in approval. This wasn’t a look that Maggie received much but, hey, they were running late, both pieces were on clearance, so she grabbed them and the green sequin boots for good measure, and handed the sales associate her credit card.

“You’re going to regret the boots,” Grandma Rose warned. Maggie just shrugged, her large paper bags clustered in her left hand so she could offer her grandmother her right elbow to hold onto. 

The optometrist appointment went fine. Rose would be able to keep her current prescription, and they would still be able to make the Happy Hour special at the neighborhood restaurant on her grandmother’s block.

As they each sipped their glasses Sauvignon Blanc and Rose commented on the clothing choices of the people walking by, Maggie allowed her brain to wander back and forth between the excitement of the music festival and the anxiety of this potential job opportunity. She knew that she’d been stagnant at her present company for well over a year now but she hadn’t been able to find the gumption to leave. It was comfortable, casual even. She was good at what she did, even if she was slightly bored, and could probably get her eight-hour workload done in three if she put her mind to it. Maggie justified this situation by telling herself that The City was so hard just to exist in, what was wrong with one part of your life being somewhat easy? And now she got to go to freaking Burning Man to let out her creative and (if she were being honest,) her very bored self.

Maggie and Rose finished up, paid the bill, and Maggie brought her grandmother up to her Upper East Side, two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment that Rose insisted that she would “never buy” because it didn’t have “enough closet space.” This is when her granddaughter would chime in that she lived in a place half the size with four roommates. But, Rose was set in her opinions.

Maggie left, put in her earphones to play one of the bands whom she’d soon see live in the Nevada desert, and strolled along the avenues with her shopping bags, popping in and out of thrift stores and boutiques, perfecting and cultivating the number of admittedly insane outfits she was excited to wear on the Playa. Her new sequin boots would take the starring role, but it was wild what kind of stuff a girl could buy if she were allowed to wear absolutely anything.

Back at her Brooklyn abode, when Maggie finally jiggled the keys in her front door, she was exhausted, shopped out, and plopped down on the couch with her roommates to watch Girls as she rubbed her sore feet, her big toe still throbbing. 

The following Saturday, settled into a cracked pink pedicure chair at Diva’s Discount Nail Salon in Bushwick, Maggie and her friends obsessed over which colors and embellishments would be “next level” for their fingers and toes. The outfit, the colors, the shoes, the nails, all of how you presented yourself at Burning Man was meant to display the fullest expression of your creative self. But, hey, no pressure.

Maggie settled on a glitter green polish to match her boots and winced when the poor woman taking care of her feet started digging around the side of her right big toenail. Maybe this particular discount situation wasn’t the best choice. The girls compared outfit ideas and looked over the pictures they’d taken of the gift bags they’d been making for months.

See, Burning Man is different than say, Coachella. You can buy coffee. You can buy ice. But that’s it. There’s no money exchanged in the desert. Everything is considered a ‘gift.’  If your legs are tired and you need a rubdown, professional massage therapists offer their services all over the temporary city. If you’re interested in wine tasting or pizza-making or a unicycle lesson, well, you’re in luck. If you want to borrow a bike or a scooter or try a pair of stilts or listen to incredible music played on homemade instruments, hey, that’s all there for you too. If you’re parched and want a watermelon popsicle or hell, maybe you’re just feining for a zipline ride, someone’s offering that. And if you’re tired or somehow bored or longing to experience life in a whole new dimension, there’s every kind of mind-altering substance that you could possibly imagine, literally, just at your fingertips. Just not for purchase.

So Maggie's group, or their “camp” in Burner terms, had decided to make “Playa Packs” as their gifts to their fellow Burners. These were zippered pouches purchased in bulk off the sidewalks of Canal Street that held bandaids, gum, hydration packs, tiny tubes of lip balm and sunscreen, Advil, and glow-in-the-dark bracelets. This adventure had been almost a year in the making.

All of the other members of Maggie’s camp had been to Burning Man before. And they loved bringing along a “Burgin” which is the unofficial vernacular for a first-time attendee. This group was no joke. Six of the guys drove from New York to Nevada with a truck and a trailer filled to the brim with all the necessary infrastructure for 22 people to live for nine days. The rest of the crew flew out to Reno and took the bus over to Black Rock City. Maggie was in complete and utter culture shock as they drove through the Burning Man gates.

There were enormous tents, art installations, and people buzzing around on every form of quietly motorized and non-motorized transportation that you can imagine. People were wearing ski goggles, dripping with neon, and music just seemed to be carried along with the oxygen. She’d seen pictures, and heard stories, but had never imagined the out-of-this-world immersive nature of this experience. There was a forty-foot-long castle made entirely of scrap metal, towering fifteen feet into the air.

“That was brought in from Vancouver,” an experienced “Burner” explained to Maggie. But Maggie wasn’t really listening. She was just trying to take it all in. The rows of tents and RVs and temporary homes were constructed in perfectly straight lines, respecting diagonal streets (which she would later learn, were called “Avenues,”) where people walked hand-in-hand from one wildly imaginative art exhibit to the next. The colors were mind-blowing, the smells emanating from what looked like real restaurants made her mouth water, and the bikes- well, that was a whole other thing. 

Maggie’s crew had, themselves, bought secondhand bikes in Staten Island and spent many an enjoyable night decorating them to their gills. And now, Maggie saw why. The contraptions that people were riding down the avenues were nothing short of moving art installations themselves. Some were covered in neon lights, others were just the frame for UFO-looking contraptions, gliding along the sand in clouds of dust. It was amazing. It was unlike anything that she had ever seen. And she hadn’t even gotten off the bus yet.

The set-up day, or Build Day went by as a chroma-colored whirlwind, and the anticipation that Maggie felt as the sun went down could only be described as explosive. She and her Burner Family organized a stunning set-up of bedrooms, a communal space, and a fully decked-out saloon where people could enjoy a cocktail and some acoustic guitar music. It all felt like a dream. Like an out-of-body experience. This is how Maggie felt while getting dressed in her most outrageous getup for their first night. And the emerald green sparkles looked insane, complementing the giant gold wings that she’d purchased at a year-round Halloween store on 2nd Avenue.

The group was going to make their way to the center of the temporary city, stopping along the way to take in all the art and music and extraordinary experiences just waiting for them. They each brought a backpack, filled to the zippers with their Playa Packs, ready for whatever excitement they found. 

Maggie couldn’t articulate how incredible this night was, and she was barely scratching the surface. They met all kinds of artists and musicians and found themselves dancing with actual Cirque De Soliel performers, directly from Las Vegas.  Maggie twirled and jumped and released any inhibition she’d ever had. The music, the lights, the people, the energy, all of it was absolutely intoxicating. And somehow, this nonstop party stretched on for the entire night. Maggie didn’t remember the last time she’d seen the sun come up. But, there it was. And she knew that -epic party or not- she was a girl who needed her sleep. She rounded up her friends as the insanely talented musicians were replaced by less talented musicians and suggested that they make their way back to their camp. Everyone agreed, grabbed their backpacks, and tried to figure out which direction to go in. But there was a problem. Now that she'd stopped dancing, Maggie realized something, she couldn't walk.

The toe that had been bothering her on her shopping trip after dropping off Grandma Rose and at Diva’s Discount Nail Salon was now a mind-numbingly painful, throbbing, and an aching mess. And those fabulous sequin boots were now affixed to her swollen, purple feet. This was not a good look for a Burgin. It was, what many on the Playa would have called, a real rookie mistake, or in Burner terms, a ‘sparkle pony,’ which was the kind-of affectionate term for those who came out to the festival unprepared. But, this was more than that. This was a legitimate medical-attention-needing situation. Luckily, there was all that and more in the middle of the makeshift desert city.

A  man riding a three-wheeled bike (OK, yes, a tricycle, but like, an adult-sized tricycle) was enjoying the sunrise through the avenues when he saw Maggie’s friends trying to carry her off the dance floor. He pulled over to help and, with the aid of a few other Burners, managed to attach a wheeled platform to his ride and haul our injured heroine to the medical tent. This is where they did two things to Maggie. And in her overly excited and sleep-deprived state, she was almost equally unhappy with both of these actions. One- they used a pair of giant, sharp, medical shears to cut off her new boot. And two, no joke, they sterilized, anesthetized, and performed - again, we shit you not- ingrown toenail surgery right there in the big white tent in the middle of what some people describe as the world’s biggest and longest rave. 

Maggie’s time on the Playa wasn’t totally ruined. But her outfits were. The bandaging around her foot required - yes, again, this is all true, a surgical boot. And, in an effort to keep it clean from the desert dust and hopefully free of infection, the poor girl had to wear a trash bag tied around her ankle. It wasn’t exactly the icing on the wardrobe cake that Maggie had spent the last four months of her life planning. She was able to get around Black Rock City riding slightly lopsided on her bike and was gifted a lawn chair with backpack straps so she could sit anywhere when she needed to but, well, emergency surgery had not been considered in her sartorial plans.

It wasn’t that Burning Man wasn’t a formative and wildly memorable experience, but it would be a lie to say that Maggie wasn’t a little bit happy to finally get home to her overcrowded Brooklyn apartment with its very clean shower. That night, in bed, she realized that she’d been so preoccupied with the festival and then the surgery, and then mixing those two things together, that she’d sort of forgotten to stress about the job interview taking place approximately twelve hours into the future.

Shit, she thought, shit shit shit. She still couldn’t shove her foot into a proper pair of heels. What was she going to do, show up at The Rockefeller Foundation in her scrubby sneakers or Birkenstocks? Who would take her seriously as a director in something like that? And that’s when Maggie began to spiral.

What was she even doing, taking on this job interview? Who was she? She had no experience in the non-profit space, she’d worked for one tech start-up since college. And who was she to present in front of important donors or to comb through projects and submissions and, and, AND- and then a voice in her brain made all of this stop. It was a very recognizable voice. It was Grandma Rose’s.

“A woman can do anything… if her feet don’t hurt.”

Simple. Opinionated. Dubiously meaningful. But that’s what Maggie’s brain gave her at midnight after the wildest week and a half of her life, laying in bed in her quiet apartment, snuggled between her favorite blue gingham sheets. Somehow, those words were enough.

The next morning, Maggie hustled through her routine like a woman on a mission, which, well, she was. She put on the button-up, the vest, and a pair of ankle-length trousers that she didn’t remember ever buying. Then she packed her briefcase, grabbed her sunglasses,  put on her smelly, old, almost dead Birkenstocks, and hailed a cab directly to…. Bloomingdales, where she rode the elevator up to the second floor, past the Career Woman section, and hobbled directly to the shoe department, locating the black loafers that Grandma Rose had approved of only two weeks before.

Arriving at The Rockefeller Foundation offices in Midtown, Maggie didn’t feel like herself. She was probably close to being fatally dehydrated. There were remnants of temporary tattoos lurking on her body that she would be unable to fully remove until Christmas. Her eyes were a bit bloodshot, her skin a bit burnt, her hair a little less than professionally colored, and the after-effects of some very happy magic mushrooms on the last day were making her grin involuntarily to total strangers everywhere she looked. But, as her grandmother would say, a woman can do anything if her feet don’t hurt. So she took those words and her briefcase and those loafers up to the front desk, signed herself in, and waited in the lobby.

Sure, she was a mess. But a different mess than usual. And this specific kind of mess brought forth a smart, passionate, educated, and interesting woman with loads of creative ideas. Maggie had been through so much free expression so much, “radical acceptance” which was the first tenet of Burner Code, that even though here she was back in New York City - the complete and utter antithesis of the playa, her Burgin experience was working in her favor. She’d managed to shed a whole heck of a lot of her self-doubt, trepidation, and insecurities. It was a different Maggie interviewing than the Maggie who initially applied. And, as you can imagine, The Rockefeller Foundation liked the new Maggie.

Because two weeks later, she was their newest employee, maybe not in a director role.

After two days on the job, she heard her boss, a woman easily in her 70s but with the wit of a 30-year-old Jeopardy Champion, say something loudly to her co-worker.

“I want you to send in that interesting girl.”

“Oh,” The coworker was a little confused, “you mean Maggie?”

“The one,” the boss nodded her head and pressed her lips together for further emphasis, “the one in the sensible shoes.”

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