A person purse

Swifty Lazar

OK, yes, I've been carrying a purse, a little green-and-brown-striped plastic number that I picked up at Walgreen's for $1.50. It's not that I'm a drag queen, it's that I have to carry things with me when I leave my home – "home" here connoting whatever building I'm calling, on a temporary, day-to-day basis, by that name. Purses were invented for the purpose of carrying things, clear back, I imagine, when they mainly comprised the inedible intestinal linings of otherwise delicious prehistoric animals, but somehow, culturally, it became the privilege of only women to carry them.

Why? It can't be an imaginary strength issue since the things one carries are not made lighter by being grouped together – and, although of course I could be wrong, I don't believe that there was ever an era in which our species didn't have that information readily at hand. A purse adds weight, quite a bit, I would think, in some cases – I'm thinking here of the tole-painted, wooden boxes that a certain kind of arts-and-crafts woman carried in the 70s, painted by the woman herself and in each and every instance decorated with a genuine Indian-head penny and depicting, somewhere, a stalk of wheat. I'm thinking of Cher's metallurgical, pseudo-Gothic creations, like Hot Topic products, only more preposterous and so outrageously overpriced as to be kind of funny rather than offensive, shocking, or merely dumb. I'm thinking of a purse – actually a two-foot-long tray from a tool cabinet to which a metal strap had been welded – that a new-wave art student used to carry with her to Ultravox and Romeo Void shows in Lawrence when I was in college there.

It's no pretense that this column is called I Don't Sleep, and I need to hurry back to the point I was making while I still remember what it is. So: to see my argument better, let's postulate the existence of a wee and remote island nation populated by the descendants of mutineers. Wouldn't we think it strange were we to learn that, in this wee island nation, a custom existed dictating that, at Dillons, women's purchases were bagged while men were expected to carry their items out individually somehow? Well, when I'm gripping a pocket notebook, a pen, a highlighter, some banana Dum-Dums, and a cell phone in my teeth, and struggling to hold a cup of coffee upright while also locking or unlocking a door, I feel just like the great-great-great-grandson of one of those freaking mutineers. Purses, to me, aren't a woman's right. They're a person's right.

One Man's Struggle

It started this way: some time in the mid-80s I bought a pair of jeans that included in the purchase price a bonus red "tote," designed, I believe, to hold and keep cool a six-pack. But instead of storing beer in it, I packed it full of all the things I had to carry around and took it with me everywhere I went. I called this my "red thing," as in, "Did you guys see where I set down my red thing?"

Prior to the advent of the red thing, I don't believe I ever went more than six months without having to replace a lost driver's license; I had to lie like crazy on a regular basis to get into bars long after I was 21. I knew where my keys were maybe seventy percent of the time, I went to movies that I couldn't actually see since it was then my habit to take my glasses off all the time and I only rarely remembered to pick them up again, and my friends got sick of pooling their money to buy me still-expensive Walkmans for whatever special occasion because I had lost the last one they bought me even before it broke. I guiltily report here that I probably bred super-viruses since in retrospect it doesn't seem possible that I ever kept track of a prescription of antibiotics long enough to finish it.

The red thing transformed my life: I even took it to Worlds of Fun once and left with everything I'd arrived with. That's a true story. I loved the red thing, but then one day a friend of mine ruined it by responding to the question, "Did you guys see where I set down my red thing?" with the answer, "Do you mean your purse?"

You can call me a homophobe if you like, but the fact is that I wasn't "gay-identified" enough, as I believe I've heard it called, in 1986 to be comfortable with the accusation that I carried a purse. And so I crumbled immediately under peer pressure and reverted back to carrying everything in my hands. I happen to know for a fact that I lost yet another cassette copy – maybe my fourth or fifth – of Public Image Ltd's Second Edition as a result, and Sound Warehouse charged $14.99 for that title, which had to be special-ordered. I managed to get my friend Ron, who had a job, to pay for the replacement by asking him to "pick it up for me," as though it were merely a matter of transportation and not finances, but still.

I traveled to Paris that year – that trip has become almost folkloric among my acquaintances since everyone knew that I had no income at all and even I can't now imagine how I paid for any of it – and there, while carrying everything in my hands and pockets, I took serious note of fanny packs for the first time in my life. Yes, there appeared to be benefits, such as knowing where your passport was, but if I wasn't gay-identified enough to carry a purse, how on earth could I have strapped on a fanny pack, even in Paris? These were surely a drastic last resort; were I to wear one, self-consciousness would have immobilized me just the same as if I were using a cigarette holder or wearing a peach-colored sweater knotted loosely about the waist.

Real Men Don't Eat Quiche

This manual storage problem was a summertime problem since in the winter the extra pockets provided by a coat were enough to accommodate most of what I needed to have with me. I tried a backpack, but in summer – a Kansas August, say – losing everything I owned quickly came to seem preferable to strapping however many pounds of canvas to my back. Even on a cool night like tonight, in March, it gives me imaginary pimples just to remember it.

I'm not patient and I don't suffer silently. In my opinion, St. Bernadette should have grabbed the abbess and made her understand in no uncertain terms that she was in too much pain to valiantly continue mopping and embroidering vestments. So it was that my friends soon shared involuntarily in my frustration, and the most ridiculous suggestion subsequently offered – my friend Jim's advice that I grow a pouch, like a marsupial, excluded – was that I carry a "man bag." On paper it seems like a good enough idea, and in practice it may have worked once I humbled myself sufficiently to allow the words "man bag" to pass my lips. The problem was that I couldn't and still can't. "Man bag": who do we think we're fooling? The cultural taboo against men carrying purses is still too strong today to be toppled by a game of phony semantics as witless as that, and this was twenty years ago. If someone had mentioned my purse while I was carrying one of these things, there was a zero probability that I might haughtily counter that he, sir, was mistaken: it was a man bag instead.

Call it hysteria, but I see neologisms such as "man bag" as being a threat to the English language – not to its expressiveness ("man bag" certainly means what it says, just as plainly as if a trained gorilla had coined the term by pressing the MAN and BAG buttons consecutively on her speech console) but to its soul. Imagine if we called crayons "child wax sticks" – I can't be a party to it.

In reality my imaginary harasser of a couple paragraphs ago is right anyway, because what the words "man bag" describe is a purse. Of course there are cosmetic differences: no flashy patterns or colors on the man bag and no fake Chanel logo, although either might conceivably be adorned with an air-brushed wolf. But what are the deeper, structural differences? A quick Internet search reveals that those man bags that aren't actually briefcases or backpacks are carefully designed so as to appear to have a sports function – there are mesh pockets on the side and maybe a place for your Gatorade bottle – and that straps are nonexistent or significantly downplayed. These bags are purposeful looking, too: maybe women throw everything in together, but what men want is individual pockets for their condoms, compasses, emergency roadside flares, and barbells. Sample bag names include the Victorinox Trek Track Plus tm Attachable Shoulder Tote, the Overland Donner, the Gravis Mistro, the Lewis N. Clark Bicentennial Guide Bag, and the Lewis N. Clark Bicentennial Travel Shoulder Bag. These names all convey masculinity, but even if I were the hairiest, burliest guy on earth, the Overland Donner might give me second thoughts. Wasn't there something about how a Donner Party, traveling overland, kind of ended up eating one another in the Rockies? And if so, isn't "Overland Donner" overdoing it a little vis-à-vis the bringing-home-the-bacon thing? Am I being too sensitive again?

Hands Off the Bike

Last summer I bought a purse at Target – there's no point in splitting hairs here because, although it was gender-neutral so far as I could tell, I bought it in the purse section – and although it worked out pretty well for a time, I got tired of carrying it around: it was too big. This year's green-and-brown-striped purse is much smaller, but I had to limit its contents to what I really need.

What do I really need? I need a cell phone, an address book, a pocket notebook, some keys, a folder of business cards, two black pens, a Sharpie, six different colors of highlighters, a voice recorder, Prozac, various other medications, a booklet of Easter stickers, some cool superballs I got at my dentist's office, some rubber bands, neon sticky notes, an emergency nicotine patch in case I fly overseas or get arrested, a leather thing with pockets for my movie pass and stamps and fortunes from fortune cookies and spare buttons from shirts I haven't worn yet, and my passport because who knows where my driver's license is?

Here's what I had to leave out: forty-some colored Sharpies, an assortment of stickers (happy face, wrestling, Star Wars, kittens, flags of different countries, USE BY stickers, Hot Wheels, foil stars, a sticker reading IF YOU TOUCH MY BIKE, I'LL FUCK YOUR DOG, etc.), a flashlight, a Kansas map, a US atlas in which I've colored in the states in which I've gotten drunk with my friend Brad, a plastic rain poncho, a dictionary, whatever book I'm reading, Wichita City Paper, flip-flops for use in the shower, a towel, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, the cheapest hair gel available at Walgreen's, a box of cool paper clips, tape, scissors, candy bars, a spare lighter, a folder with a bunch of papers in it, and a picture of Taco the Italian Greyhound.

It actually makes me sad to realize, for instance, that I don't have my Easter stickers with me when I need them. The purse and its contents are reasonable, I think, especially in comparison to my plans for old age: definitely a cape, maybe a walking stick, and eyeglasses with lenses the size of dinner plates, like Swifty Lazar's; if you're old enough you can go out dressed just as crazily as you like and no one can say a word about it.

But for the time being not everyone is as comfortable with the purse. The other day at three or four in the morning I decided to walk to a friend's. I called to tell him I was coming.

"Do you want a ride?" he said.

"No," I said. "It's nice out."

"Are you carrying that purse?" he asked.

Then he came and picked me up.