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Heloise in Hell

The Emergency Wardrobe Alert, and how to cope. Good advice for fuck-ups like me, freely given. Learned from repeated and painful experiences. Including a recipe for fried socks.

Liquors in Hoboken

Let's say that you moved back to the city with good intentions. And you have a job interview tomorrow. You've had all week to do laundry, get a haircut, assemble yourself.

But you've been low, and lonely, and the apartment is a mess, and all of your clothes, piled on the sofa, smell homeless, and your hair looks like the hair around a cat's ass. You've been reading sci-fi, smoking (even though you quit), and drinking (even though you quit).

Yesterday you masturbated 11 times, each fantasy becoming more and more perverse as a guard against the oppressive boredom that the tide is bringing to your building's door. Your fantasies have gone from meeting someone, falling in love, making love, and moving in together to a long narrative where you're paying Sherpa girls to do things with Alsatians while you're tied to the bed and poked with sticks.

It's 2:30 AM. Your skin is ashen and you're sweating clay, and your eyes only open halfway. You have exactly 6 hours before you need to get on a train, which means your clothes need to be on your body in 5.5 hours. You must be presentable, because if you don't get this job there won't be any shelter, food, or love to be had.

Before we begin, congratulate yourself. You have once again turned an entirely mundane social act - in this case, dressing yourself in clean clothing - into an exciting, risk-filled endeavor that could make or break your future chances at a happy life. Don't get upset at the way things turned out, at your total ineffectuality when faced with the basic requirements of adulthood, because it's your own fault, and you wanted it this way. Accept that. Now is a time for action, not self-analysis.

Now, identify every source of direct heat or moving air in your apartment. If it's winter and you've got a radiator (and a landlord with a sense of decency), you're in the most luck. Microwaves, ovens, stove burners, space heaters, and fans are also good.

Next, the hair. If you're new at this, you shouldn't do anything without hair clippers and two mirrors (a travel mirror is fine); experts can use scissors with a straight razor, but unless you're prepared to risk a mullet or total baldness, don't take any chances; ugly hair is better than a half-shaven patchwork puff mullet. If you don't have two mirrors you can risk doing it by touch alone, but again you must accept the risk that you'll end up totally bald or with people looking at the back of your head in disgust.

Don't look at the clock, and if you're tired slap yourself in the face (do not drink any more coffee). Put newspaper down in the sink. Use the second plastic attachment on the clippers. Let the clippers run for a few seconds to make sure they work. Start from the back and move forward steadily, moving over just a centimeter for every stripe, like you're mowing a very high hill and you're paid by the hour.

Do this twice over. Cheap clippers often stop mid-trim - do not freak out. Simply get as much of the hair out of the blades as you can, turn the little knobs, hit the clippers a few times, then turn them on again and keep going.

When you've trimmed things as evenly as the clippers will allow, get a straight razor and - take your time - even out the back in a straight line, using an arrangement of two mirrors (I leave you to figure out the mirrors on your own). If you're concerned about your proficiency with the two mirrors, wrap a piece of duct tape across the back of your neck and shave down from that.

In case of broken clippers or patchy hair, cut off as much hair as you can with scissors and wet shave it. This is very time consuming, and you can end up with a lot of nicks and scrapes, plus you'll look weird for the interview because the top of your head will be a different shade than your face, unless you haven't had any sun, so try to be careful.

If you succeed, remember that the extremely-short look is totally respectable for men of almost any age, and remind yourself that no one will be shocked at this sudden change, even though it may feel like a big deal to you. Importantly, if you go slow and do a good job, no one will ever think you cut your hair yourself last night at 3 in the morning in a state of exhausted half-hysteria.

Done? Not yet - rub your head vigorously and carefully investigate the haircut. Long strands often appear around the ears and in any of the dents of your head. Cut these with scissors, one at a time if need be. Now shave your face, making sure to cut an even line by the ears.

Great haircut! Now we need to scrub you up and find something nice to wear. If you are extraordinarily lucky you have, at the bottom of your closet, an unripped blue or black one-piece non-quilted workman's outfit, a vest, a tie - even a clip-on - and a pair of workman's black leather shoes. In that case, your problems are over. Simply wash the one-piece in the sink or tub, hang it over the radiator or in front of the fan, shine the shoes with newspaper and liquid shine, if you have some, and in the morning put the one-piece on with the clip-on tie and the vest over it. If you wear it confidently, people will assume you're making some sort of fashion statement by wearing a shirt that exactly matches your pants, and the vest/tie combo will hide the zipper. Just like with the sudden self-given haircut, no one will assume that you are wearing a one-piece workman's outfit; it just doesn't come up. Immediately before entering the interview pull down hard on the pants part of the one-piece and slump your shoulders slightly to hide the fact that you're not wearing any socks. This outfit is also to be preferred because it requires absolutely no underthings, which makes drying easier.

Of course, that's the best-case scenario. You may not have the good fortune of owning a workman's one-piece outfit. Don't worry. Simply don an undershirt, a button shirt with a pattern, a pair of slacks made of some artificial fiber, and socks. Put these on right now, regardless of how messy they are.

If you're planning on wearing a blazer, use a dry scouring pad to gently brush off any crumbs, and a slightly damp cloth to pat down any odd spots. If the blazer is filthy, forget it; better go with no blazer at all (again, a vest is your best compromise garment, because it hides most of the shirt and most are made from fabrics that don't show wrinkles). Hang the blazer in the bathroom while you shower to steam it, but don't get it wet; immediately after the shower, put the blazer as flat as possible under your mattress to press it.

Now, get into the shower and soap yourself up, fully dressed. Take the scouring pad with you. Take off each piece of clothing and scrub the inside as well. Wring them out hard, twice. Pile them in the sink for the time being.

Make sure to rinse all the dye from your clothes off your skin (there's almost always some). Now, scrub your body - especially face, hands, and feet - vigorously with the scouring pad. Clean your unmentionables equally well, if more gently. Get rid of all the dead skin that rests on your lazy, weak-willed body, until you reach a state of high pinkness (or, if you are not natively pink, the equivalent). This will make you look much better. If you are worried about dry skin use lotion afterwards, or in an emergency, a teaspoon of vegetable or olive oil diluted in warm water for at least your elbows, face, and hands.

While in the shower, bite your fingernails down. Tomorrow morning, as you walk to the train, make sure to run them along the side of a concrete or brick building as you walk (avoid direct skin contact) to complete the manicure for a fast manicure.

You're almost there. It's probably 3:30 - 4. Hang the slacks over the radiator or fan; the same with the shirt. Hang up the undershirt and socks on the doorknobs and chair backs. If possible, hang up the slacks straight.

Set the alarm for an hour before you have to get up.

Sleep. Do not think, just sleep. Promise yourself with absolute certainty that no matter how great your resistance to the alarm, you will wake up. Promise yourself coffee and orange juice and an onion bagel with cream cheese and strawberry jam from the deli for the morning, damn the starch and sugar. Promise yourself cigarettes, if it helps. Then sleep.

Wake up. It will hurt, and it's the hardest part of the whole experience, the true test of your mettle. But get out of bed when you hear the alarm. Do not get back into the bed. Do not hit snooze. Do not make any bargains with yourself. The risk is too great.

Check the shirts, slacks, and underthings. The socks, undershirt, and, if you washed some (remember it's optional, just for one day) underwear will still be prohibitively damp. The reason the shirt should be patterned is that some wrinkling will not be obvious; the slacks should straighten out fairly well on their own if they're made of something with DuPontish overtones.

If you're late, put everything on and go. It will all straighten out enough from drying on your body to be moderately acceptable, and the dampness will spread enough to not look to bizarre over the course of a half hour.

If you're not late, put the socks in the microwave for one minute if they're thin, one and a half minutes if they're thick. Start up the iron if you have it. Take the socks out; they are probably steaming. Swing them around to release the steam. Put them back in and repeat for one minute intervals until they are only slightly damp. Repeat with your other underthings.

You can use the oven to dry your underthings, but it's very risky and often leads to molten elastic. Still, if they are still very wet (especially on warm summer nights), you may not have a choice. You can successfully dry underwear and socks in a frying pan, but you must make sure to constantly flip them. Slight burning (you'll smell it) is no big deal, although burnt elastic clothing can fall apart or bite your skin in awkward ways.

While things microwave, start ironing the shirt and slacks. Spray starch is a great help here. Make sure to empty any water out of the iron; you don't want steam mode. Make sure to budget 10 minutes for the actual process of dressing.

Now dress. Socks, undershirt, slacks, all of it. Don't stop to think while you put on your socks. Stretch and touch your toes once you get into the clothes to flex them out; bend the fabric as much as you can. Put on, or clip on, the tie. If you have a vest, put that on; if you're wearing a blazer, get it out from under the mattress, put it on, and stretch again.

Look in the mirror for exactly 30 seconds to get the tie straight and the collars flat. Say, “I am one handsome motherfucker.” You are. You have cool hair and bright, scrubbed skin. You have an interesting soapy smell. You are awake. The interview will be over and you can come immediately back and sleep. But for right now, for these next few hourse, consider no backpedaling. You're signed up, you're ready, you're real. No one knows you can't take care of yourself enough to have clean laundry while you're unemployed, and you never need to tell them.

Okay. Keys, wallet, hand on the doorknob. Turn off the iron and stove. Don't go downstairs without knowing that they're off, otherwise you'll remember while you're waiting on the train platform between the Scylla of your neighbors going up in flames and the Charibdes of showing up late for an interview.

Most important, remember that you're in no shape to question your fate, but you are in that unique over-tired space where your inhibitions are down and your basic honesty increased. Use this false confidence to your advantage during the interview; the interviewer will find you surprisingly natural and open.

There. You went from squalorous layabout to young professional in 3 hours using all the resources at your limited disposal. You did it. You're dressed. You're going to be there on time. Whatever comes now you can take. You're keeping up your end of the bargain, even though it's tough sometimes just to get from day to day. You're already a success. Now tell the world.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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