Bright Lights, Big Ass : A Self-Indulgent, Surly, Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why It Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are All These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me?

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2007-05-01
  • Publisher: NAL Trade
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Jen Lancaster hates to burst your happy little bubble, but life in the big city isn't all it's cracked up to be. Contrary to what you see on TV and in the movies, most urbanites aren'tparty-hopping in slinky dresses and strappy stilettos. But lucky for us, Lancaster knows how to make the life of the lower crust mercilessly funny and infinitely entertaining. Whether she's reporting rude neighbors to Homeland Security, harboring a crush on her grocery store clerk, or fighting-and losing-the Battle of the Stairmaster- Lancaster explores how silly, strange, and not-so-fabulous real city living can be. And if anyone doesn't like it, they can kiss her big, fat, pink, puffy down parka.

Author Biography

Jen Lancaster is the author of Bitter Is the New Black. She has lived in Chicago for ten years with her husband and pets, and has yet to get the hang of the subway or returning library books in a timely manner.


In my former, auspicious career I addressed crowds of thousands without breaking a sweat. I negotiated with dour, gray-suited hospital administrators so hostile they’d drag me into the desert and leave me for dead given the opportunity, yet I stood my ground in demanding they accept my company’s contract, “Or else.” And I’ve guided corporate executives through the most dire of crises with a smile on my face the entire time. So you’d think chatting with a kindly medical professional in the privacy of her office wouldn’t be but a blip on my radar.

And that would be true.

If I were wearing pants.

Today I’ve got an appointment with the girlie doctor and I’m nothing less than terrified. I’ve put off my annual wellwoman exam for four years because I’m so cowardly about this sort of thing, no doubt stemming from my Quaker-like sense of modesty. Sure, it’s all well and good to litter my conversations with every variety of f-bomb, but when it comes to showing my unmentionables to a complete stranger? Regardless of her impeccable medical education, extensive experience, and board certification? I think not.

However, I’m really trying to act more like an adult lately, so I force myself to make the appointment. Of course, I have to down a whole bottle3 of wine to do so. And then I cancel it three times before Fletch, disgusted by my lack of courage, threatens to (a) drag me to the appointment on a leash like we have to when we take Loki to the vet to have his nails clipped, and (b) check me into the Betty Ford Center if I don’t stop inhaling boxed wine every time I look at the phone.

Ihaveto honor the appointment this time and the only way that’s going to happen is if there’s an elaborate system of treats and rewards in place. I decide my beforehand treat will be a trip to the bookstore, so I ask Fletch to drop me off at the Michigan Ave Borders an hour before my appointment.

We’ve just gotten in the car when I start to hyperventilate.

“Funny, but Loki doesn’t start to panic until after we’ve exited our parking lot,” Fletch observes. “You need to breathe in a paper bag or something?”

“No.” Gasp. Gasp. Gasp. “I’ll (gasp) be (gasp) fine,” I reply.

“I don’t understand your anxiety. Are they going to cut you at all?”

“Oh, sweet Jesus, no!”I shriek. “Then they’re just going to look at stuff?”

Gasp. “Right.”

“Alone, in an exam room—just you and the doctor, and no one else, right?” We cross the bridge over the north branch of the river at Division and begin to drive past the projects.

“Yes.” Gasp.

He glances at the boarded-up buildings with their broken windows and concertina wire and poses a question. “Okay, which would you rather—to be dropped off in the middle of Cabrini Green at midnight with a handful of cash or to see your gynecologist for a routine visit?”

I don’t even have to consider the choice. “The Green. Definitely the Green.”

He turns to face me. “You’re kidding.”

“No, really—maybe Florida and J.J. still live there? And Thelma and Ralph, too. But not James. Poor James. He was killed in a car accident before the family could move to Mississippi for his excellent new job. And that? Was not dy-nomite.” “I wouldn’t know. My racist parents refused to let me watchGood Times. However, they were able to decipher fantasy from reality, which is more than I can say for you right now.”

I begin to hyperventilate again as we turn down Michigan Ave and idle in front of Borders. “Okay, you’re here,” Fletch says. “Good luck today.”

“Do—do—you have any last-minute advice for me?” I stammer.

He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I do.”


“You should try to be less of a pansy. See you later!”

I escape into the safe confines of the bookstore, secure in the knowledge no one there is going to make me pull down my pants. I linger over the new releases and peruse the sale table. I go upstairs to the café and eschew coffee in favor of herbal tea, figuring the caffeine would make me even jumpier. Beverage in hand, I cruise the self-help section but don’t see any titles that might make me “less of a pansy.”

I buy a few new reads before heading down the street. I trudge past many happy places—Cartier, Coach, Tiffany, and, of course, Garrett’s Popcorn, but window-shopping fails to make me smile because I feel like Dead Man Walking.

I pray to get hit by a bus as I turn down St. Clair Street, figuring the doctor could check out my girl parts while I was under sedation to fix my broken leg, but no such luck. I arrive at the office not only intact but early, damn it. As I climb the wide marble steps to the front door, I’m overwhelmed by the desire to run. However, my inner adult forces me to press on and take the elevator to the eighth floor, likely because my inner adult fears running slightly more than pants-dropping.

With a quavering voice, I check in at reception. The office is gorgeous—clean, sleek furniture, lush plants, and an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan through enormous picture windows. The skies are steely gray and it’s windy today so the lake is choppy with whitecaps and is kicking up six-foot waves. Water crashes and foams over the concrete barriers protecting Lake Shore Drive, launching huge plumes of icy spray all over the abandoned running path. If I didn’t know I was in Illinois, I’d swear I was looking at the Atlantic Ocean. This magnificent body of water is precisely one of the reasons I choose to live here. Were I not about to show a stranger my yahoo, I’d be enthralled by the vista5 and likely to break into a chorus of “The Wreck of theEdmund Fitzgerald,” but today it barely registers.

The receptionist gives me the insurance form clipboard and a pen sporting an Ortho-Novum logo. I feel like I’m going to throw up and my hands are shaking so badly I can barely scrawl my name on the paperwork. I’m about to toss the clipboard, dash out the door, and catch the first steamer to Venezuela when some girl comes in with a “problem.” I can’t hear everything but I do catch the bit where she tells the receptionist, “I don’t know what it is, but I want it gone immediately.” I snicker so loudly the entire desk staff shoots me murderous looks, but I don’t care. Laughing at someone else’s misfortune makes me momentarily forget my fright and I remain in my seat, keeping a healthy distance between myself and Miss Scratchy McUnderpants. (Because, really? What’s funnier than venereal disease?)

I’m barely on the second page of the new Janet Evanovich when my name is called, so I gather up my sack of books and head down the Hallway of Doom. The nurse is wearing Dansko professional clogs and my loafer heels are rubber, so the only noise I hear as I’m walking down the hall is that of my own pounding pulse.

The walls leading to the exam room are covered with beastly graphic charts of internal workings. Squeamish as I am, the idea of all those pipes and tubes and fluids makes me weak in the knees. I prefer to think of myself as having a thick peanut-butter center. Or possibly creamy caramel.

Once I get to my room, the first thing I have to do is step on the scale. “Well,” I tell the nurse, “you certainly know how to add insult to injury in this joint.” And it’s no surprise when she points out I’ve gained fifty pounds since my last visit. “Really,” I exclaim, “is that why I can no longer get my old pants past my knees? Goodness, I’d simply assumed I’d had twenty-seven separate dry-cleaning incidents!”

Note to self for future reference:Tubby girls with smart mouths will be given paper robes, not cloth, by nurses who lack senses of humor.

Nurse Ratched advises me to strip completely, and as I undress I wonder if “completely” includes my socks. Erring on the side of caution, I toss them aside first, pleased with having the foresight to have given myself a fresh pedicure. Earlier this morning, I also brushed my teeth a second time and flossed. Fletch noted my excellent dental hygiene and asked, “Is that the end they’re going to examine?” With much trepidation, I take off my sweater and bra and begin to struggle into the miniature paper gown. Because of my rampant modesty, I’m trying in vain to keep everything covered. While I wrestle with the tiny plastic belt-tie, Iburstout of the left side of the robe, thus exposing my long, flat, completely non-gravity-resistant breast to the wall ofYour Cervixand You brochures.Gah!

So, I do what any good little prude would do in this situation . . . I grab a stapler from the doctor’s desk and attempt to put the side back together in a panicked frenzy. While I twist around to work on fixing the left shoulder, Iburstout of the right side of the robe.

I begin to get very angry at the exploding clothing. Exactly when did I turn into the Jen-credible Hulk?

In my haste to cover my naked parts, I then staple the right side of the robe all crooked. I glance at myself in the mirror and see that what I’m wearing no longer resembles anything like a robe. Jagged bits of paper are sticking up everywhere, with random clumps of staples littering the sides and shoulders. I look like a mental patient who escaped to a paper factory and crafted a paper suit before attempting to create a paper getaway car to drive to paper Mexico. All I’m missing is a touch of (paper) crazy about the eyes.

After inspecting my handiwork, I inadvertently bend over laughing, thus causing the one untorn part of the robe toexplode.And in trying to fix it, I accidentally staple the back of the robe to my khakis. I’m hunkered over in my paper straitjacket, struggling to remove staples from my pants, when my gynecologist enters.

The doctor then excuses herself while she tries to stop crying.

Fortunately, when she returns she’s carrying a cloth gown, which I manage to put on upside down and backward. However, she’s got access to all the forbidden zones, so we leave it as is. She apologizes for giggling and says this sort of thing happens all the time. Yeah. Of course it does. Ten bucks says six months from now an entire table of conference-going, Chardonnay-swilling, lobster-tail-eating OB/GYNs will be laughing at me when she recounts this scene.

To the good doctor’s credit, she senses how scared I am, although perhaps my inability to clothe myself tipped her off. Or possibly me shrieking, “I am fucking terrified!”

Which is why I’m not surprised her first question is, “Do you use recreational drugs?”

I think for a moment before replying, “I don’t know. Do you consider NyQuil recreational?”

“I guess that would depend on the frequency,” she replies.

“Maybe every couple of months?”

“I’d say that’s okay. Any other drug usage? Marijuana? Ecstasy? Cocaine?”

Ha!” I reply. “Look at my butt; is this the ass of a coke fiend? I think not. However, sometimes when I’m tense, I have an OTC sleeping pill and follow it with a champagne chaser. Actually, it’s my signature drink and I call the combination ‘The Judy Garland.’ ”

After the doctor explains why she can’t just “remove the whole shootin’ match so I don’t ever have to suffer through this again,” she puts on her rubber gloves, at which point I may or may not pass out.

When I snap to, I inform her, “My middle name is Ann, my favorite movie isPulp Fiction, and I have a naughty pit bull named Maisy. Seems like if you’re going to poke arounddown there, you should know a bit more about me.”

She nods thoughtfully and tells me, “My middle name is Elizabeth and I likeLaw and Orderreruns. I backpacked in Europe after I finished undergrad and I adore Indian food. Now can you please uncross your legs so I can get a look?” The whole exam takes less than five minutes and . . . yes, I realize I probably overreacted. No matter how unpleasant the circumstance, if I can hold my breath for the duration, it can’t be so bad. After I dress,7 the doctor reenters the exam room and wants to discuss breast health. The only thing slightly less mortifying thanbeingnaked with a stranger istalkingabout it.

Stab me in the eye with a fucking fork, why don’t you?

Anyway, the doctor tries to give me a little kit that includes a journal to document my monthly cancer-screening self-exam.


What the hell am I going to record in aboob journal?

January 1—Got to second base with myself. Heh.

February 1—Got to second base with myself. Heh.

March 4—Forgot about the screening and only remembered

four days later when I almost slammed my boob in the car door. Got to second base with myself. Heh.

Sorry, but I do not possess the kind of maturity required to write about me ol’ knockers on a regular basis. I politely refuse the offer, claiming I couldn’t see me using it, what with all the giggling. Although I have to wait for the pap results to come back from the lab, everything else looks fine and I’m free to go,thank God.

Pants securely on, bags packed, and sock-free, I leave the scary, scary office with a spring in my step and a bit of a speculum-induced waddle. I did it! It’s over! I congratulate myself for being brave, so very brave,8 and decide it is treat time.Woo-hoo!But what to get? When I was a kid, my mom would take me to Dairy Queen after a particularly traumatic allergist appointment, but (a) she’s 150 miles away, and (b) it’s fourteen degrees today. So a Peanut Buster Parfait is probably out.

I practically dance the ten blocks from my doctor’s office to One Magnificent Mile and spend the whole time vacillating between the idea of high tea or a cocktail. Sure, orange pekoe and finger sandwiches in the vast parlor at the Drake Hotel sounds lovely, but that’s really more of a shared experience. Also, my hands are still trembling and I’m not sure I could keep my tea in its bone china cup. Instead, I choose the warm embrace of my old friend alcohol.

I head to the gorgeously appointed mahogany-and-leather bar at the Four Seasons on Delaware and I survey the array of squashy couches and brocaded chairs. Oh, how I love the Four Seasons! We used to come here all the time during the dot-com era, but now that we’re barely middle class we save it for very special occasions.

I’ve always adored the service here; I guess I appreciate any place that lets me make an ass out of myself without raising an eyebrow. One time a group of us came here after some drinky-drinky event downtown. Right as we were about to pour ourselves into a cab, I spotted a gigantic laminated “George Bush Is Hitler” poster and I thought, “Oh,hellno.” Sure, I get why people don’t like him and I’m fine with that. I understand those who protest his decisions and can totally see why folks might think he’s a dummy. However, I cannot agree with comparing him to the fiend who almost singlehandedly exterminated an entire race of people. So I tore the poster off the telephone pole and was barely able to wedge it in the taxi with us.

Anyway, we spilled out of the cab and washed onto the sidewalk at the Four Seasons. Valets helped us up and out, gingerly handling my mammoth placard. “Here you are, miss,” they said without batting an eye. They acted as though drunken girls carried giant posters of a swastika-covered president into their facility ten times a day. We paraded past all the staff—doormen, bellhops, concierges, etc., each of them smiling graciously, while I struggled behind my colossal sandwich board. We sloshed into the bar and the maître d’ met us at the door to show us to our seats.

And this bit? Right here? Is why the Four Seasons rocks. With nary a smirk, he asked, “Might I check that item for you, miss?”

To which I replied, “Ssshhank you, but I shhhannn’t be requiring your sssshhhhervichhes,” before hooting and snorting at my own savoir faire. And then Fletch, our friends, an unfortunately mustachioed photo of the commander in chief, and I spent the rest of the evening sitting on barstools swilling $14 cocktails.

As I settle into a plush couch in the corner next to a porcelain reading lamp, a waiter approaches with a dish of mixed nuts and wasabi peas. “Miss, what might I be gettin’ you?” he asks in a melodious Irish accent.

“Hmm,” I say. “I’m not sure. I’ve had areallystressful day. Doctor. Girl parts. Total nightmare. But I don’t want to talk about it. So, what can you suggest that might be hot, sweet, and full of liquor? And I don’t mean Tara Reid!” With a heroic amount of patience, he waits until I finish chortling myself stupid to detail the finer points of the winter drinks menu. We settle on a cider-and-whiskey beverage, which I belt down in about thirteen seconds. After the first cocktail, I begin to pace myself, spacing out my drinks with sips of water from my crystal goblet and nibbles from the gratis nut tray. (Whatever profit margin the Four Seasons may have realized from the overpriced ciders is neatly eclipsed by my cashew consumption.)

Since I spend all my money on fancy drinks, I have to take public transportation home. Mumbling to myself about girl parts and shuffling, I make my way down to the Chicago Avenue stop. The bus and I arrive at the same time (how did that happen?), and wafting whiskey fumes, I manage to stagger over discarded newspapers and empty Starbucks cups to the back of the vehicle.

And you know what’s nice?

Today I finally smell like everyone else on the midday bus.

Hooray for Tuesday Afternoon Drinking Club!

Before leaving the Four Seasons, I apparently call Fletch at work and leave the following message: “Hi, iissch me! My girly partschss are fiiiine and I’m drinking whooshkey! Bring home many beers.” Smirking, Fletch informs me he and his work pals had a delightful time passing the phone around and laughing at my expense.

Yes,har-de-har-har, fat boy. Laugh it up.

I hope you enjoy doing your own laundry when I check myself into the Betty Ford Center.

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