IN THE FASHION WORLD, I’M ALWAYS OUT OF STEP. I haven’t bought Uggs yet – thank god. I’m still wearing skinny jeans, while everyone else has moved onto boyfriend jeans and Jeggings. My hairstyle is unintentionally vintage, I will forever love ballerina flats, and I haven’t changed my earrings in a decade. You can call me individualistic, or perhaps I’m lazy. When I was younger, my style choices were more deliberate.
At the not-so-wise age of twenty-one, like many other optimistic youths, I wanted to be different in order to express my rejection of the establishment. At the time, my best friend bought me the satirical 1967 picture book, How to be a Non-Conformist, which detailed step-by-step instructions on how to be different, exactly like everyone else was trying to be different. I planned, though, to be differently different: I was going to get my nose pierced.
I fell in love with the glitter of nose jewelry like a magpie drawn to gathering shiny bling for its nest. If I had a nose ring, no one would mistake me for being conservative. I would be sending a message: I am a free thinker. I dare to be different. I don’t vote Republican.
Twenty years ago, almost no one had facial piercings. And by almost no one, I mean that exactly three people in the whole of Ithaca had nose rings: a beautiful, exotic woman named Cat who was passing through for the summer, a college intern at my office, and a long-haired tattooed guy named Rosy who worked at Oasis Bakery. Rosy had pierced both of the women as well as himself. No specialized body piercing parlors existed other than Claire’s Boutique, who only used their piercing guns on earlobes. No one dreamed of puncturing lips or eyebrows yet, let alone the nether regions. Except perhaps Rosy.
I found Rosy lurking behind the counter at Oasis, and I told him of my desire to join the ranks of the rebels. He instructed me to come back the next morning with an earring, specifically, a stud.
I arrived at 7 a.m. the next day, excited and nervous. Rosy was a man of few, if any, words. Muscular and stocky, the bullring between his nostrils added an essence of danger to his already fierce image. He motioned to me, and I followed him wordlessly down into the dimly lit basement of the bakery where he sat me on a stool. That early in the morning, the building was deserted other than us, and silent except for the sound of Rosy passing my stud back and forth on a sharpening stone until the tip was ground into a gleaming point.
Then Rosy pulled a carrot out of his pocket and began to peel and shape it with a knife. I watched, afraid to ask why he was doing this. When the carrot was about the length and width of my pinky, Rosy sat facing me on another stool and pulled me in close to him, pinning me between his knees.
As my body pressed up against Rosy and I felt his breath on my face, I contemplated how I had chosen to follow this man into a soundproof basement in an unoccupied building, this large, muscular man who had a knife and who could easily overpower me with one hand tied behind his back. I told no one I was coming here. And, I had requested that he injure my body for the sake of decoration. This could have been one of the stupidest things I’d ever done.
“Hold still,” he commanded.
He cupped my chin with one hand and firmly jammed the carrot deep into my right nostril. Letting go of my chin, he took the sharpened stud and slowly, excruciatingly, pressed it through my nose and into the carrot. The sound of the stud penetrating my cartilage snapped like a hook piercing the lip of a fish.
I gasped, tears welling and overflowing from my eyes. Rosy leaned back and handed me a tissue. It was over. I was a new woman, with a bright, red nose, watering eyes and a tiny gold gleam where once only skin had been.
I looked at my reflection in every window and mirror I passed that day, so pleased, despite the redness. People stared, unused to the sight of facial jewelry, which both unnerved me and added to my pleasure. I would eventually grow used to the fact that people gawked everywhere I went. Walking down sidewalks, or through the mall, heads would turn. One woman even tripped and fell as she rubber-necked my adornment. Months would pass when I saw no other person with a nose ring. At Indian restaurants, I was an unusual attraction, and the male owners always visited my table to compliment my style while their wives frowned at them from behind the cash registers. Everywhere else, I was a freak, and somehow that was immensely satisfying.
The night after I got my nose pierced, however, the stud fell out while I was sleeping. In the morning, I found it under my pillow. The hole had already begun healing over. I returned to Rosy’s torture chamber for a re-piercing of my already sore nose. This time, he twisted a nose screw into my raw puncture wound. The nose screw was a corkscrew-shaped earring that Rosy himself had fashioned from sterling silver.
For the next two or so years, I wore the silver nose screw. I had no other options; surgical-quality body jewelry simply did not exist yet, and I couldn’t fit an earring back on anything else I put into my tiny nostril. At least once a month, my piercing became infected, and a big whitehead erupted beside the nose screw. Each month, the infection healed, and a little bit more tarnish from the silver crept into the skin around the jewelry, creating a permanent, gray ring-around-the-collar effect.
Despite the discoloration, I refused to remove my beloved nose ring. When body jewelry became available as the piercing bug spread, I drove to New York City and bought a proper ring that prevented future infectious volcanoes, though it couldn’t erase the gray silhouette tattooed on my nose by the tarnish. Ithaca would not see its first body piercing shop for a few more years, and as piercing boutiques opened, millions of other young people’s noses, eyebrows and lips displayed jewelry, each body part shouting, “I am different!” (Nipples and genitals were pierced, too, but their voices were a bit more muffled under all those clothes).
I was disappointed as piercings popped up everywhere. I didn’t feel like a trendsetter; I felt more like my idea had been hijacked. A pierced nose still represented a radical choice, albeit less freakish. More than once, my employers voiced concerns. When I was thirty-four and applying to work in a winery tasting room, the owner told me I would have to remove the nose ring. I told him that he’d have to pay me a hell of lot more than $7 an hour to get me to take that thing out after all I went through to get it pierced fourteen years earlier. He let me keep it in, and I’m still wearing it now.
This is the place where I might be expected say something universal about my experience and the impulsiveness of youth. Something about how trying to be different isn’t so different and might even be kind of stupid. At least I’m supposed to warn you about following a big stranger with a knife into an isolated basement and letting him shove a carrot up your nose. But I have no regrets, other than it caught on as a fashion trend. I’d do it all over again, carrot and all.