What do a super-saleswoman, the theater expert upstairs and a Chihuahua named Spartacus have in common? They all keep columnist Lisa Kogan sane, connected and looking like $11,000...give or take.
She thinks I need a better bra, a lighter workload, a man with money. If she were my mother, I would have to strangle her. But she is not my mother, she is Margaret Forbes—the finest saleswoman on the face of the planet. "What are you, insane? Take that off immediately! The color, the shape—you look like a tea bag." Margaret has spoken and Margaret is right.
"So," she says, making herself comfortable on the little bench in the corner of my dressing room, "I'm ready." We've been down this road a time or two before. I know what's required of me. Reaching into the slouchy suede bag Margaret insisted I buy four seasons ago ("You'll wear it for the next four seasons"), I take out the latest batch of pictures my 3-year-old grudgingly sat for. It goes without saying that I'll be looking at her grandsons, Robert and Michael, when I get to the cash register. She oohs and aahs over Julia, announces she's available for babysitting seven nights a week, and hands me a black cashmere jacket to try. "Here, darling; it'll work with everything."
Margaret has spoken and Margaret is right.
In most great love stories—Anna Karenina, Marjorie Morningstar, Old Yeller—the participants tend to remember every exquisite detail of their first meeting: who spied whom across a crowded room, the song that was playing, the faint scent of Shalimar wending its way through the air. But my first time with Margaret was probably pretty mundane. If I had to guess, I'd say she noticed me hauling a stack of sweaters around and decided to take pity. However it started, I left Saks Fifth Avenue that afternoon as the proud owner of two blouses, a pair of pants, a skirt and the sense that I could go anywhere dressed in some combination of the above.
Soon the seduction began in earnest. A handwritten note announcing the spring collection. A call that the outfit I'd been eyeing had just gone on sale. An invitation to a lunch for my favorite designer. Margaret made it her business to learn about the clothes in my fantasies and the clothes in my closet. She knew what I could afford to skip. "Won't your taupe linen top serve almost the same purpose?" And she knew what I had to have. "Nothing is making you happy today because you feel fat. But I'll be holding this dress for you until the middle of next week—at which time you are going to want it." She taught me to pair my silk charmeuse skirt with my denim jacket, that heels are a must, that anyone who looks good in ocher will look even better not in ocher.
I've seen Margaret command respect from the haughty and elevate the insecure, accessorize the clueless, and sweet-talk the seamstress. She is a diplomat and an advocate, a troubleshooter and a problem solver. She consoles, she motivates, she follows up. She knows how to alchemize tragedy into comedy, turn a bad date into a good story. And, so help me God, if a viable candidate doesn't appear on the horizon at some point in the next six months—I'll single-handedly mount a campaign for Margaret Forbes to become the next president of the United States. I don't know about you, but I believe that the very least the leader of the Free World should be able to do is make me look thin.
Keep Reading: Why Margaret is not a friend—she's something else
But having now told you how I worship at her Joan & David-clad feet, that we are as close as two people can be, given that one needs to meet her sales quota and the other needs to pay her mortgage, I will tell you that Margaret and I are not actually friends.
As technology envelopes us all in an ever-tightening cocoon devoid of the most basic human contact, I find I make new friends about as easily as those survivors on Lost make ice cubes. But that's okay because—between working five days a week, freelancing on weekends and raising Julia—I don't actually have time for the friends I've already got. No, Margaret is something different.
They say that centuries ago, people roamed the earth in familial tribes, that eventually they scattered to the winds, but now and then you come across someone, a kindred spirit, who's out there every day, just like you, attempting to earn a living, and fall in love, and get to the gym, and return a call, and hand-wash her delicates, and touch another life. Sometimes a look is exchanged. You stop for a second and say something—"Can you believe that guy?" or "This has been the worst allergy season in years" or "I'd kill to have hair your color"—and a face in the crowd becomes a face you recognize, a face you look forward to seeing in the neighborhood. Then, little by little, that face becomes a person who anchors you, who nourishes you, who opens up the world for you. Margaret is a member of my tribe.
New York City is not for the faint of heart. For one thing, it is a very expensive place to live. The price for every single activity—whether it's sending your child to nursery school or buying a cappuccino or parking in a garage—is $11,000. It is not uncommon for couples to run through their entire life's savings simply by going out for Thai food and a movie. This fact, combined with the pollution, the noise, the constant threat of another terrorist attack, and the knowledge that there is always an episode of Law & Order being filmed in front of your supermarket (Jesse L. Martin has made it virtually impossible for me ever to pick up English muffins and a box of Cascade), tends to make most New Yorkers a touch snarky.
They will interrupt their very important cell phone conversations to snort derisively and inquire as to the state of your mental acuity should you take more than six seconds to order your $11,000 cappuccino. I've been cursed at, body checked, and left for dead all because I got the last throw pillow at a Jonathan Adler sample sale. I've been flipped off, ripped off and taken the long way home by every cabdriver in midtown. I've been spilled on, barked at, shoved aside, and woefully misinformed from Zabar's to Central Park. Make no mistake; New York is hard, the world is cold, and there are days when life is just plain brutal. But I'm still here. And so is Margaret.
Marian, Maggie and Natalia—the women who sneak Julia oatmeal cookies from behind the counter of the tiny gourmet shop on First Avenue—are also around. So is Mr. Thomas, who lives upstairs and knows all there is to know about theater. And then there's Jed, who stops to say hello each morning as he walks Spartacus, his mighty Chihuahua, past my bus stop. The truth is, I wouldn't dream of calling on any of these people if I were in trouble, nor would any of them come running to me. But we could, and we know it. Which brings us back to Margaret.
"Sweetheart," says the voice on my answering machine. "I haven't seen you in ages. Did you decide which preschool you're sending Julia to? Does she like camp? Isn't your boyfriend back from Europe this week? Call when you have a second to let me know that everything is fine. Oh, and I saw your last column. You are a very talented person, but white is not nice next to your face." And with one 15-second message, I feel...what? Loved? Sort of. Grounded? Sure. Part of a bigger picture? Absolutely.