February 07, 2008
Atomic Cheesecake Studios is in Parkville, on the outer edge of Baltimore, and as we crest the hill that will take us to Stacey’s house, I suddenly wonder if we drove through a wrinkle in time and came out in 1959.
It’s a neighborhood of gloriously retro houses, like a set from Bewitched, and I want to learn how to wiggle my nose and live there.
It comes as no surprise that her house is a museum full of wondrous fifties and sixties furniture and decorations – from lamps to couches to wall art to the vintage record player on the porch and even the light-up pink flamingos that greet us as I knock on the wrong door.
Her husband opens the door and shows us where to go – a narrow staircase that leads into the basement studio that is Atomic Cheesecake.
Stacey is downstairs already, surrounded by vintage clothes and hats and wigs, and she’s organizing boxes of lingerie like a mad woman.
‘Come in,’ she says with a smile, ‘sit down and make yourselves at home.’
* * *
‘So,’ she starts once we’ve all had a moment to warm up and take off our coats and introduce ourselves to her cat (who Jessica has already threatened to steal – twice), ‘what’s your favorite feature?’
That’s a hard question…not one I enjoy being asked.
Honesty – always go with honesty when faced with a woman bearing garter belts and lacey push-up bras.
‘I like my breasts,’ I say with a shrug and a nervous giggle.
She stops sorting through underwear and looks up at me, eyes my chest and smiles.
‘We can work with that.’
She has the kind of presence I’ve heard southern women describe as taking up all the space in the room.
* * *
She hands me The Great American Pin-up, a book of pin-up photos and paintings from the great era of the American pin-up, when women were daring by just showing an ounce of skin – implied nudity as her well-spoken and highly intelligent daughter tells me later on – and tells me to flip through, see if I find anything I like.
I do – quite a few things, actually – and when I show them to her she begins a search through her vintage clothing rack for the perfect shirtdress.
It’s peach colored and there’s a little bit of shine to the material and both Jilly and I find it ironic that it was made in Glenville, New York long before we were born or even had ties to that town.
I try it on with the lacy push-up bra and garter belt she gives me and I look in the mirror.
The girl who stares back is already beginning to look unrecognizable.
‘That works,’ she says when I emerge from the dressing room.
* * *
It takes close to 25 rollers to set my head of heavy auburn hair and by the time she’s finished rolling strands of it up into jumbo curlers, I feel like I could, quite possibly, get the Playboy Channel if I tilt my head just right.
The whole time she’s rolling my hair, she’s telling us stories.
Stories about bars in Baltimore she’s been to…stories about the recent City Paper article they did on her business…stories about her life.
She’s one of the funniest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
I have to try very hard not to laugh so hard I cry, lest I screw up the fabulous eye make-up she’s put on me.
She loves campy old movies, movies that make B Movies look like Oscar contenders, and she tells us stories about the ones she’s seen.
Her husband downloaded Deafula, or, actually, Dracula for the deaf but instead of closed captioning, Dracula (and the other actors) signs…which, for some reason, is just friggin’ funny.
She’s brash and she’s honest and she isn’t afraid to ask questions or answer questions or tell you not to do something because it makes you look retarded.
She glues my left eye shut with the fake eyelashes and it makes me laugh.
She creates a new nickname for me, one that I will keep forever.
Jelly McWonder Tit-a-Lot.
Few people have such a wonderful, explicit, long nickname – I feel honored.
I might even put it on a t-shirt.
* * *
She takes out the rollers and pulls the curls out with her fingers.
My head feels lighter without the rollers…colder, too.
She pins the sides up and sticks a vibrant orange lily over one ear.
‘What’s your favorite color?’ she asks, disappearing into a storage closet off to the side.
I get up, follow her to the door, and take a peek inside.
It’s filled with props and boxes and a wall that’s lined with rolls and rolls of colored paper.
‘Green,’ I say and she points to two rolls.
‘Dark or light?’
The dark is actually a Kelly Green, true green for the Irish in the crowd.
I pick that one.
And so it begins…she builds the stage for my pinup debut and we watch in wonder as the background takes shape.
She asks me if I’m ready all too fast and I take a deep breath, smile at the girls (they’ve curled up on the couch with the cat between them and they look so content I fear I might have to find a ride home), and stand.
‘Ready as I’ll ever be,’ I say and step in front of the lights.