Knapsack

I shouldn’t have been there in the first place but I blame it on the Catholic Church, as I do most of my transgressions. Saks Fifth Avenue sits one block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, and through my twenties and thirties when I needed solace, when I didn’t have anywhere else to turn, I’d spend a little time in a pew, then approach the altar and light a candle. Then I’d go shopping.

Not for anything much – maybe a lipstick or the smallest size of Nahema perfume. But growing up, my mom would let me pick something marked way down in the Annual Sale (I still can’t figure out what a Saks was doing in downtown Pittsburgh) and the luxury department store still loomed large in my struggling musician/mom/temp worker life.The cathedral was cold and uncomfortable, the soaring arches made you feel small and doomed to fail. Catholics are born losers, square one you come into the world a sinner. Across 49th Street, Saks made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I had it in me to be a winner – or if not a winner a woman who could pass for one. At least smell like one.

I don’t remember when I first saw the black and white gingham check knapsack. I only know I made it my goal to own that bag. It said Kate Spade on the small label sewn on the outside, which I was a little worried about – thrift shopping was where I found most ot the clothes and housewares I owned. Designer anything was not my style, unless I’d found it used, for three dollars – then it was a triumph.

But the cotton gingham, the attention to detail, the size of the check and proportions of the bag – it became an obsession. I was temping around the corner, at Sony or CBS, and I’d visit the knapsack. Like a painting at the Met, an object to inspire me, until the pay day when I walked in, like a regular person with money, and bought it.

And the knapsack made my life better. It became a part of me. I even wrote a song about it. I drew it for my CD artwork. Tried to wash it at a laundromat. After a few years it got shabby, and felt ridiculously small, impractical. Maybe I just outgrew it, but in number of uses, in form and function and the happiness it brought me every time I hoisted it on my shoulder or back – before it just started to hang there like a lump – the bag more than paid for itself.

I felt so sad yesterday when I heard that Kate Spade had taken her own life. The realization that she was only fifty five stunned me. She’d had her vision to create something unique and specific enough that it spoke clearly to a young woman like me – to a city-ful and then a world of us – when she was just a young woman herself. Younger than me – she’d seemed like a chic big sister! That gift to help somebody say “this is who I am” and feel good about that. Seeing how huge the company and brand became, you might think that’s like saying you feel a kinship with everyone who ever ate at McDonalds. But there was a time when it was special. Whatever it became, what Kate Spade created was special.

van 6
Loading the van, 1996

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