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American Icons

Foreign fans lavish our Popeyes, our Mickeys, our Hilton sisters, our Beyoncés—all of our gorgeous cartoons—with so much genuine affection that it can make our own attention look halfhearted. Europeans love our Kill Bill outlaw culture for reasons we don't fully understand. We like the way their cinema, their theory, their fashions wear our Wild West influence, tailored so perfectly, so lovingly, they only make us look better. The Japanese take our hip-hop, our sports culture, our punk rock and morph it all into luscious Nintendo Next New Things. Certainly a foreign visitor can remind us of what we love—and don't love—about the places we call home.

Two winters ago, I was offered a fellowship to write screenplays for a year, and I contemplated a move from New York to Los Angeles. Wallowing in indecision, I made a weekend trip to test-drive West Coast life, but all I really did was shop.

On my final afternoon, I returned for the third time in three days to the airy Beverly Hills Barneys. This visit, I noticed a commotion on the staircase the moment I walked in the door. Two Japanese kids in their late teens, in Lakers jerseys, Sean John jeans, and huge John Varvatos Converse sneakers, were followed by a slim salesgirl and then, a few paces back, a Japanese parental unit carrying a dozen shopping bags and several twined, bundled boxes. The kids were attempting to rap a particularly difficult Missy Elliott song.

I went about my own shopping; before I knew it hours had passed, and I was carrying my own oversized fashion haul: imitation-vintage jeans, imitation-vintage T-shirts, a brown suede cowboy shirt, a baby blue Fred Perry tennis jacket, a pleated white Helmut Lang shirt. A fringed brown leather "man bag" with turquoise snaps. A pair of gray John Varvatos desert boots. An L.A. starter wardrobe, I told myself.

I plopped down in the shoe department, surrounded by my treasures, and for another hour, as the sun drooped outside, I didn't move. Finally, I noticed flickers of activityin my peripheral vision, and I snapped out of my dazed slump. I sat up straight and turned to my right to see that the two Japanese kids, the rappers I'd noticed on the stairs, were silentlyintent, mixing and matching my unpurchased clothing. "Hey," I said weakly. "I might want that."

The smaller of the boys smiled, holding up the blue tennis jacket, and said, "Not this." From a pile of items I didn't recognize, he produced a second tennis jacket, identical brand, but in bright yellow. "This," he said. "It matches you." Just as convincingly, he eliminated the suede, the turquoise, and the pretend vintage from my stack. He allowed me to take the desert boots. "Cool," he said, holding them up for his friend to admire. Then he handed me a black leather overnight bag, emblazoned with an Italian soccer insignia, and said, "Now you can go home."

I took his advice.

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