I got naked while writing this essay. It was not sexy. Or it might have been, in a desperate, drunk kindof way. From waist to hips, from bust to thighs, I poured myself an obscene serving of sake and went to town with a measuring tape.

Jeff and Lisa, looking out the rear window of Jeff’s apartment, watch Miss Torso – a beautiful leggy blonde, swat away multiple suitors ravenous for her attention at a cocktail party.

JEFF: She’s like a queen bee with her pick of the drones.

LISA: I’d say she’s doing the hardest job a woman has: juggling wolves.

— Rear Window, 1954

*

I am not a whore.

Yeah.

That seems like a good place to start.

*

I’m cute. Almost always. Sometimes I think I even manage pretty. I have a great rack and a small waist. Hourglassy. Much more Marilyn than Moss. My big blue eyes are my very best feature and I’ve been told that my smile can be blinding. I like dresses. Girly ones. And heels. Tall. I paint my nails. Occasionally blue or black or brown, but usually red. Vampy, glittering reds are my favorite.

Make no mistake about it: I’m a girl.

But I also know where to draw the line. My clothes fit, they are both age and event-appropriate and you will never see what I do not want you to see.

After all, I’m also a lady.

Consequently, I’ve never, ever, felt like a whore.

Not until this past weekend, that is.

*

It’s no secret I’m raising money for my next film. One tactic is to find wealthy individuals with disposable income who have a passion for film and somehow convince them to invest in yours. Folks like that tend to be businessmen[1]. Risk-takers. Gamblers.

How do you find those people? Film festivals. Especially ones in wealthy towns.

I was invited to be on a jury at one such festival and seized the opportunity to attend – with the aim of networking within circles I would be otherwise unable to access. I printed my paperwork, practiced my schpiel, packed my bag with the perfect party gear and dove in headfirst.

*

At the opening night party I met “Horace”. Horace was a charming older gentleman. He was well-dressed, well-spoken, witty and thought critically about the evening’s film. I enjoyed talking with him immensely. He had done extremely well for himself working on Manhattan’s trading floor and was a fellow cinephile. He had even had been in a few background scenes in the films Trading Places and Wall Street. He retired comfortably and when the conversation got around to what I did and what I was working on, he immediately started introducing me to the other attendees – especially ones who he felt would take a personal interest to the material. He collected business cards for me and made it a point to tell me that making connections was his forté. We parted with a polite cheek-kiss and you can only imagine how thrilled I was to have started off so well.

The next morning, I awoke to an email with an invitation to join him for a cocktail party on the rooftop terrace of a snazzy new waterfront building. It was THE place to been seen and an opportunity to shake the hands of, not merely rich, but wealthy individuals.

Horace closed the email with “What are your plans tonight? I am looking for some ‘uncomplicated’ fun.”

AYFKMWTS[2]???

I responded with a polite and friendly reply. I thanked him for the invitation, told him how very much I enjoyed his company and would be delighted to join him, but that I was quite devoted to my boyfriend[3] and was there to enjoy the town, the festival and new friends and colleagues. I mentioned my investor search and how I would relish the opportunity to expand my network. I invited him to call if he still wanted me to join him at the cocktail party for networking and the like.

But yeah.

I shot him down.

Hard.

Because no matter how grandfatherly and pleasant he seemed the night before, he propositioned me.

And while there are innumerable things I will do for my film, sucking a 72 year-old dick is not one of them.

*

Two nights later, I paid dearly for a ticket for the festival’s big gala. While I did receive an otherwise pricey VIP badge in exchange for my services as a judge, the pass granted me access to everything but that one party, and when you’re looking for investors, a $200-ticket party is where you’ll find them.

As a brief respite from schmoozing some of the people Horace (whom I never heard from again) had introduced me to, I stopped to chat with some of the festival staff.

A gentleman wandered toward the group and greeted the people he knew. Introductions were made. He was high up in the “Jaymond Rames” family and didn’t necessarily flaunt his wealth, but did frequently and somewhat annoyingly refer to it. Also, he was a handsy fellow. A close-talker. And kind of loud. But it was a party and the DJ was spinning at a pitch just two decibels above ‘pleasant conversation’ and so I forgave him, but neither did I pay him much mind. Braggadocio is a less-than-admirable trait in my book.

When he mentioned that his brother was an opera singer, my ears perked up. “Who?” I asked. Small world of small words – I not only had heard of his brother, I had worked with him some ten years’ previous. I immediately saw the family resemblance. How had I missed it?! So I began to hone in on little clues as to his interest in, perhaps, another art form. Say… independent film?

My chattiness in sussing out whether he was an investor candidate was immediately assumed to be sexual and “Matt” got handsier. Grabby, actually. I got pawed like so much PlayDoh. I kept him at arm’s distance (as much as I could) and refused to “smell his neck” when repeatedly prodded, nor would I let him anywhere near mine.

It was at that point when he said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got the money for your film. Now just relax and let’s have some fun already.”

Upon parting ways, he told me to follow him in his car and he would steer me back to the interstate.

The valet brought my crappy little veedub (vs his slick beemer) first and I knew the way back. After all, I had driven myself there, hadn’t I? He called to tell me that I had turned incorrectly. The message was bitter.

“Kimberly. It’s Matt. You’re going the wrong way.”

I wasn’t.

Nor do I believe I’ll be joining him in the Bahamas next month.

*

Looking back at Rear Window, I don’t remember the specifics of Miss Torso’s party. We know all about the songwriter’s crescendo towards success and Miss Lonelyheart’s deep depression, the newly-wed bride’s insatiable appetite and of course, what happened to Mrs. Thorwald and the little dog too…

But why the party, Hitch?

The scene set up Miss Torso as a whore; a ditzy dancer who rehearsed in her granny panties during those hot summer afternoons and by the very nature of her affability and attractiveness, was asking for it.

Just like that poor little girl in Texas.

*

What the hell? Do I have to start wearing combat boots and black trench coats to be taken seriously by a man? Do I have to bind my breasts and shave my head? Assume a dour and aloof disposition and hope that someone just walks up to me and takes over where Ed McMahon left off??

*

I have another similar festival to attend in two weeks’ time and I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. I mean, seriously. Why would I prance around in my granny panties if I know everyone’s got binoculars?

After a thorough review of the weekend, I still contend that I dressed appropriately and professionally. I am certain that my pitch and business acumen was rock-solid. My friendly approach of “Hello! What did you think about the film?” came straight from the Dale Carnegie handbook, so I know that market’s cornered.

But ever the student, I knew there was something I could learn from this experience. Something I could do differently. Something I could change.

And it hit me.

Like a giant fucking rock.

[4]

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] I don’t know the percentage of male-to-female film investors, but my experience thus far leads me to believe that like the rest of the film industry, it’s pretty heavily male dominated.

[2] Are You Fucking Kidding Me With This Shit?

[3] It wasn’t a total lie. I mean, I would be if I had one.

[4] This is the wedding set I just bought (for a whopping $7.35) and will sport at the next film festival and subsequent parties. Otherwise, I’ll do and wear everything exactly the same as I did this past weekend. Even if I don’t raise a penny for the film, it should be a FASCINATING experiment.



This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

A celebrated actress, locks swept up in a becoming twist, nude but for a string of Bulgari pearls, reclines in one of Hungary’s renowned thermal springs as the Danube rushes below. A continent away, a glinty-eyed boy of six without warning drops his trunks and aims his stream at the back of a pigtailed toddler splashing carefree in the Whitewater Wave Pool’s shallow end.

Wild, but both scenes are set in what’s termed a “water park,” the concept of recreational waterplay probably originating with the Hungarian model, a spa-like orientation shared by a number of contemporary European parks including Germany’s Swabian Springs, where it’s not about wave pools but, rather, saunas, steam stations, low-key bathing areas, and a snow-filled room in which guests get naked and roll around.

They—water parks in their various guises—have been around a while, first popping up in the 1950s, and these days if you aren’t within driving distance of at least one you’re in the minority. The U.S. hosts the largest water park market, and with a total of eighteen indoor parks the Badger State owns the title of Water Park Capital of the World, while Bloomington, Minnesota is home to the largest indoor facility in the country, The Water Park of America.

And now, something to keep in mind: Like construction paper art projects and the county fair, America’s water parks are probably best suited to that peeing kiddo, and, by necessity, his parents. Next-best suited may be his big sister, an eighth grader at Rivercrest High with a begged-for two-piece and the desire to take it public, especially when brooding Robert Pattinson types are slated to be in attendance.

Thirty-one-year-olds have less to gain. A bold assertion? Recent experience—last summer, Riverhead’s Splish Splash Water Park—combined with some targeted research suggests not, but for people who prefer to reach their own conclusions, be my guest. What follows is a rough idea of what you can expect to find.

1. Theme. Often character-driven, often ambiguous and pluralistic. While park designers may set out with an 18th-century Bavarian village in mind, subsequent expansion is likely to yield strange new modifiers: a snack hut with flying buttresses, say, or a changing room in the style of an Egyptian pyramid. Storybook imagery abounds, with brightly colored cottages housing souvenir visors, and oversized wooden lollipops inducing full-on meltdowns as five-year-olds plead for the real thing (incidentally, available at the cottage next door).

When it comes to actual attractions, design is more consistent. New Hampshire’s Whale’s Tale Waterpark features an eighty-five-foot, whale-shaped pool with underwater seating built into the tail, fins, and head; and rides are given names like Beluga Boggin’, Harpoon Express, Jonah’s Escape, and Whale Harbor. Dollywood’s Splash County in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is Smoky Mountain-themed, and encourages visitors to follow the Big Bear Plunge with a deep-fried lunch served up at the Brush Fire Grill. Nestled in the Smokies between native firs and hemlocks, you’re sure to confuse the park’s man-made tubes for slick, rocky precipices, the swirling chemicals below for mountain-clean, class II rapids. (No.)

2. Attractions. There are three major components of any decent park. First and most obviously are the slides, which propel riders downward via straightaways or complicated twists in a jarring side-to-side motion that includes painful seam clearances where slide components meet, before terminating less than a minute later in turbulent turquoise waters. Second, there’s the wave pool. This attraction, screamingly popular, proves an exercise in patience as splashers young and old await the every-ten-minutes-or-so activation of an “accordion mechanism,” whereby a large quantity of water is quickly released into the pool’s far end, forcing an evening-out and some pretty terrific waves. (Let’s hope your hometown’s water park wasn’t New Jersey’s now-shuttered Action Park, with its accident-fraught wave pool. So it goes, twelve lifeguards were on duty at all times, and on busy weekends they were known to “save” as many as thirty people, compared to the one to two the average lifeguard might rescue in a typical season at the lake. While we’re at it, let’s also hope you weren’t one of two deaths by drowning in this aptly coined “grave pool”—though, if you were, thanks for reading; I hope the afterlife has included swimming lessons.)

And, not to be forgotten, the lazy river: a shallow, donut-shaped pool with a gentle current along which to laze on a blowup raft, can of High Life smuggled in/clutched at your own risk.

Other attractions include carnival fare like balloon darts, the ring toss, and five-pin bowling; and the long line I glimpsed at Splish Splash’s temporary tattoo booth drove home the compatibility of bikinis and lower-back ink. (A nice dolphin, perhaps?)

3. Lines. The hotter the longer, especially on weekends. During last year’s adventure, I waited forty-five minutes to reach the slides’ top steps, and, as implied, the payoff was hardly all that. Be warned: your back will ache, your legs will tire, and the cement will cook your feet. Good company helps; so does visual distraction. Take Mr. Carpet Back, whom I found myself standing behind on several occasions. Eye candy he was not, but the sheer implausibility of that much hair took my mind happily off my blisters-in-progress.

4. Skin. Taut, saggy, scarce, abundant. It’s everywhere, and it’s damn close. Most evident while standing in the aforementioned lines, it dips and sinks, dangles and bows in ways you just don’t see coming. At the water park, it’s all out in the open: with pride, shame, or some combination. And there ain’t no hiding behind a baggy T-shirt, either, for park management explicitly states that all riders must wear bathing suits. So if you’re prone to bouts of debilitating self-consciousness, best keep to the backyard. (Do they still make Slip ‘n’ Slide?)

5. Fashion missteps. Because like anywhere else, people choose wrong.

6. Primer on type 2 diabetes. On how to get it, that is. Everything is shot through with sugar, breaded, and fried—including the Diet Coke. Now, will it be Fry World, Chicken Coop, or Low Country Snacks?

7. Game.

THE VOICE WAS UNMISTAKABLE. Sharp and high-pitched as it pushed its way from the ceiling down to the floor. I listened more attentively trying to peg the voice. Then it hit me.

“Is that that Billy Corgan?” I asked my wife.  We were walking into a popular clothing store.

“Sure sounds like it,” she said.

“Did he make a Christmas album?”

“I do believe those are jingle bells.”

“Cow bells also. And a xylophone,” I said.

A young man, roughly twenty years of age, approached us as we entered in full. He wore a bright smile and headset. A mic was positioned just at his mouth. He looked like a telephone operator.

Gaydar had spotted him some twenty feet back. Less Red October. More Pink November. He wore a light blue button down oxford. The sleeves were pushed up to his elbows. Like the Brawny Man. Or Chuck Norris when he’s cracking skulls. Or the Brawny Man in earlier photos because the Brawny Man in earlier photos looks like Chuck Norris wearing flannel when he is about to crack skulls with his sidekick, Trevett.

“Good afternoon,” the retail clerk said.  Beaming.  Slightly effeminate voice.  Looking in my wife’s direction. “If I can be of any assistance, please let me know. And one last thing: May I direct your attention to our new line of jeans that just came in this morning?”

Just came in from a Chinese sweatshop, I thought to myself. How many knuckles of overworked child laborers bled over this curvy fit, dark denim?

‘Stop being cynical,’ the internal narrator of my life, whom I call Jason, countered. ‘Your clothes were probably sewn together in an Indonesian sweat shop by a woman eight months pregnant who is enceinte for the sole reason that she was raped by her sweatshop boss. Really, there is no use in fighting it. You could tiptoe through life all you wanted and you would never escape the effects of globalization. Even if you wore a garbage bag as clothing you’d never escape. Do you know how many garbage bags are imported from India each year?’

I had no idea how many garbage bags were imported from India each year.

“Oh I like these,” my wife said to me. “Now help me find a top.”

She had not dragged me along. I volunteered to help her clothes shop. I can’t dress myself for shit but do have a considerable eye for what looks good on the ladies. I am the white reincarnation of Leon Phelps and usually stop off for a fish sandwich sometime after my time spent as a heterosexual fashionista.

Being a fashionista is oftentimes exhausting work and requires a reboosting of blood glucose levels. Glucose is a fancy way of saying “sugar.” 1 in 3 American children will be diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime and 1 in 3 are already considered overweight or obese partially because of jacked up glucose levels from most everything they eat containing high fructose corn syrup.

“If we’d drop the damn embargo against Cuba and bring in some real sugar cane to this country we wouldn’t have this problem,” my old college roommate Kelly McDowell-McCormick used to say. He’s Irish. In case you couldn’t tell by the name. “You ever drink any Old English 800? That’s good shit.”

He used to always fill the top row of our apartment’s refrigerator with OE800; that, and Chinese take-out. He spent a summer in China and came back with a bootlegged copy of Thank You for Smoking and was so inspired by the Chinese culture he took a job as a rickshaw driver when he got back to the States.

The two of us scoured the store high and low in what was becoming a somewhat futile attempt at piecing together a single outfit.

“What about this,” my wife asked holding up a thin, long-sleeved pink shirt that appeared to be made of spandex with a ruffled front.

Spandex, or elastane, is more durable than rubber and can be stretched up to 500% from its original size and still retain its original form. Because of this statement alone, “more durable than rubber,” spandex should never be worn as an outer layer of clothing.

Because of the second half of this statement (“can be stretched up to 500% from its original size and still retain its original form”), spandex should never be worn as an outer layer of clothing.

Unless you are Heidi Klum. Or Eva Green from the film The Dreamers.

“Their selection is sort of eh,” my wife said. Her face turned sour. “What about this?”

“It’s okay but, I mean, it won’t exactly keep you warm either. Winter is fast approaching and it’s already cold as balls out. And balls are pretty cold, usually 1-2 degrees cooler than normal body temperature. It’s the only way the male species can produce viable sperm and continue the human race. How about this sweater,” I finished.

Inquisitively she responded, “With the buttons on the shoulder?”

“Yep. It’s different. I know.”

“No, I like it actually. I just didn’t think you’d go for something like that.”

“That sweater is hot like Tex Pecante,” I said.

“What,” she said.

She grabbed the two items, paused, found the “Fitting Room” sign and proceeded in that trajectory. I stayed close by her side as if a small puppy with its owner.

I began searching for the man chair but only found, the closer we walked toward the fitting room, another man standing. His hands were in his pockets. He rocked back and forth on the balls and pads of his feet. He wore somewhat dirty and scuffed Adidas running sneakers, a black cap with orange and red flames, which is truly the type of hat that should never be worn in public and why firing squads still exist in Somalia, and had unkempt facial hair.

“Back in a minute,” my wife said smiling walking toward the fitting room. The man with the unkempt facial hair pulled out his cell phone and acted like he was checking for missed calls or text messages but he wasn’t. He wasn’t because I was getting ready to pull out my cell phone to see if I had any missed calls or new text messages. Because that’s what you do when you can’t find the man chair.

Hair Today

By J.E. Fishman

Essay


By happenstance or predilection, I am generally surrounded by people who embrace change with the enthusiasm of a koala hugging a porcupine.  For example, my parents stayed on the same floor of the same hotel every winter in Boca Raton for more than a decade before moving there from Great Neck.  And for the past ten years, they’ve stayed in the same hotel in Great Neck every summer when they’re not in Boca.

My father has done the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning of my entire life.  My father-in-law has used the same style date book for as long as I’ve known him, and probably much longer than that.

My stepmother — whom I’ve known longer than I had my deceased mother — didn’t learn to drive until she was nearly forty and then did so only under duress.  My mother-in-law takes one of three identical walks on her Eastern Shore farm every day she’s there, rarely venturing a new one.

My wife kept the same cell phone until an AT&T store salesman informed her that replacement batteries could no longer be found.  For twenty-five years, she has squirmed when I mention that I’m thinking of revising my hairstyle.  For family peace, I never do.

Hair is one of those things some people change as frequently as their shirt.  My people, not so much.

A few weeks ago, my parents, ensconced in their Great Neck hotel — not a place they own, mind you, though, at a month at a time, by this point they might have — invited us out to brunch (which they eat daily) at a place called Bruce’s where we always meet at least once when they’re in town.

They were already seated when we arrived, and after forty-seven years I am pretty familiar with my father’s face.  So what was this thing under his nose?

I did a double-take and a triple-take.

He arched his brow.  “You haven’t seen the mustache before?”

“Before when?” I wanted to say.  “Before the seventy-nine and a half years you’ve been clean shaven?”

But my mind was at sea.  All I could think of at first was the line from Jerry Seinfeld, who once said he’d thought about growing a mustache, but then he’d have to walk around in a bathrobe carrying a pipe to complete the look.

When I recovered a few senses, I tried to put the mustache in a more personal context.  This mustache on the man whose prior attitude toward facial hair took inspiration from the ancient Romans, who, after all, coined the word “barbarian”?  This fresh mustache on the man who drove the same model car (though a new one every time his lease expired) for three decades?  This new mustache on the man whose every suit and sport jacket bore the Paul Stuart label for literally half a human lifetime?

Maybe the shock wouldn’t have been so bad but for an announcement that my wife had made three months ago.  “I’ve decided to grow my hair out.”

It seemed like an innocuous statement at the time.  In the quarter century I’ve known her my wife’s hairstyle has evolved at a pace so glacial that distinctions between periods lay beyond recognition by heterosexual males.  So I wondered, how long would it have taken me to notice if she hadn’t mentioned it?

“I like it short,” I said, “but sure — whatever you want.”

Well, three months later and my wife’s hair had become an entity unto itself in our marriage.  A tote’s worth of equipment attended to it: bobby pins and hair blowers; a brush with a giant cylinder at its center and dangerous-looking spikes coming out; hair clips that could eat the world.

One day, when we were packing to go somewhere, she called up the stairs: “Could you put my flat iron in the bag before I forget!”  I thought: So that’s what that thing is with the cord and the prongs.

Worse than the equipment is the disruption of routine.  A good quarter hour has been added to her prep time, and when we’re both pressed I find myself showering to the roar of what sounds like a three-stroke engine on the other side of the bathroom.

Similarly, my father — who shaved for his whole life with a manual razor — now travels with a Norelco for trimming the weed under his nose.

Thus we all become slaves to our own ornamentation.

One evening this summer in Williamsburg, my immediate family signed up to attend the re-creation of a small ball, the kind they’d have put together for fun in 1774.  It felt like two hundred degrees, no air conditioning, and the Williamsburg women were wearing layered silk dresses and gloves up to the elbows.  They plucked me from the audience to join in a dance, and I ended up paired with the one who was playing the role of eligible widow.

“Mr. Fishman,” she said in character, “what a pleasure to make your acquaintance.  Are you married?”

I could hardly deny it with my wife and daughter sitting in the audience.

“Do you know of any eligible bachelors, then, a friend or a cousin perhaps?”

“No straight ones,” I said.  “Aren’t you hot under all those layers?”

She’d been asked that question a thousand times, I’m sure, and had some diversionary reply ready.  And then the dance was over and I was back in my seat.

But it occurred to me that the authentic clothing they wear in Williamsburg, so impractical for hot and humid Virginia summers, wasn’t born here.  It was the fashion brought over from England, where the weather is, well, English.

These people, our Founding Fathers and their peers, were slaves to fashion just like the rest of us.  Maybe clean-shaven George Washington spent half the morning primping his wig.  Maybe he let his beard grow at Valley Forge when no portraitists were around to make a record of it.  Maybe he returned to Mt. Vernon for a long weekend and Martha took one look at him and laughed her corset off until he got the razor out.

As I’ve documented, though, the members of my modern tribe don’t change so quickly.  My best guess is that I’ll be lugging around totes full of hair supplies for the foreseeable future.  And my father will wear that mustache until some salesman tells him he can no longer find replacement batteries for the Norelco.

“Visiting London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where everyone knows his place.

-J.G. Ballard, Airports: Cities of the Future for Blueprint magazine, September 1997

As in every big city, perhaps in every large concentration of human beings, London regards itself as quite considerably more important than everywhere else. Areas within London even posture themselves as somehow superior to their closest bordering neighbours. The same ‘narcissism of minor difference’ is expressed clearly by the amplified hatred of one obscure group of sports fans for their closest neighbouring rivals eg. Liverpool vs. Manchester, New York vs. Boston etc. etc. It’s just another reminder of what a bunch of witless, retrograde animals we actually are, despite all the protestations of highly-evolved, right-brain thinking.

People talk about tiny areas of London as if they’ve magically earned as much a right to a place in the collective consciousness as Sparta or Crete simply by being within the boundaries of the North Circular road. Londoners tend to assume in the listener a detailed geographical grasp of the city, regardless of where they might be from, just as New Yorkers refer to esoteric distinctions in ‘uptown’, ‘midtown’, and ‘downtown’ culture as if they are as intrinsic to human development as the Out of Africa migration patterns of Pleistocene man.

How have the supercilious people of a cold, rainy conurbation in an isolated corner of Northern Europe come to such licence to lord the relative merits of either side of a grey, begrimed river over the rest of the world.

Especially now, it seems that London didn’t get the memo that the system it developed and propagated across the globe has almost no ethical, spiritual or economic currency anymore, anywhere. It’s a situation that makes the half-mast-drainpipe-red-jean brigades look extra-specially ridiculous

Like the revival of the cravat in the early nineteenth century, in the 1980s, and then again in the early 2000s, the choice of that hat looks very much like a ‘top of the economic bell curve’ decision.

It’s very hard to avoid making them. It’s a rare individual that manages to transcend economic determinism, and avoids falling into the trap of thinking that things might be even remotely similar to how they were five, or even three, years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with this guy, and therefore, with Nicholas Sarkozy:

“That a head of state should allow Eros to plot the trajectory of his life, rather than the travails of the global credit crunch, is so life-affirming it moves me to tears.

-Peter Aspden, Financial Times, August 2, 2008

I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

Look!

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

That people don’t look at each other here may account for the otherwise inexplicable disinterest in personal appearance in Berlin. That or city-wide depression. Nobody’s looking so who cares? Granted, in New York people look way too much. Gone are the days (and by days I mean the 80’s), when a woman can walk up Madison Avenue in sneakers and slide on pumps at her desk, oh no. You ride the subway and walk the whole distance in those puppies, no matter how far or you’re excommunicated from the club. Did you know you had to walk fifty blocks in stilettos to be considered a true New York Woman? You do. Do you see men coming to work in shorts and a t-shirt carrying a suit bag and changing in the men’s room before the big meeting? No, you don’t. That their shoes are generally not torture chambers doesn’t enter into the matter; you come dressed for your day. People are looking. From the minute you leave your house to the moment you get home, people are looking.

Not in Berlin. I have never been looked at so little in my life. Okay look, it’s not like I’m some raving beauty draped in men and chased by paparazzi, God no. But there is a lid for every pot and New Yorkers aren’t shy about letting you know when they like your pot.

Fashion is at the root of it all, of that I’m certain. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, I have no idea but it’s involved somehow. Never before have I been in a city where the dress code rarely requires more than a nice pair of jeans and often much less. Grunge is the mode du jour, I’m assuming because it goes nicely with graffiti of which there is a plethora. Not that grunge can’t be done well, it can. It’s just that come on, aren’t there moments in your life when you long to take out most of your earrings and put on a tie?

People have either created the non-looking or responded to it, I’m not sure which, by wearing comfortable shoes. Shoes make or break an outfit, as I’m sure you know, and most often Birkenstocks are a breaker. If you start with a Birk what more can you do but put on some khaki pants and a cotton top? Maybe a skirt but you’re really pushing the boundaries there and it can really only be done if there is tie-dye involved somehow. Once in an outfit like that how much more make-up can you slap on than maybe a sheer gloss? That I own some knock off Birks may tell you a little about how far I have fallen.

At first I was relieved. Living in a huge city among people without filters made me long for a quieter, less appearance-minded place. One where I could leave the house with out make-up and not feel naked. One where clients didn’t comment on my weight gain or loss on a daily basis. Now though, if I “put on my face” as my grandmother used to say, it’s remarked on by colleagues all day long as an anomaly.

“Wow, you’re wearing make-up today. Are you going somewhere after work?”, as if there’s no other reason on the planet to use mascara.

“Um no, just thought I’d try not to look like a refugee, haha!”

They’re right of course. What for? If nobody looks, then why bother? But I sometimes don’t recognize myself anymore so maybe that’s why. Where I was maybe too focused on such things before, it’s becoming the reverse and I’m starting to miss the part of my morning that included choosing clothes and watching Charmed reruns for make-up tips.

Something in the middle is ideal, I think. I long to be accepted as I come, who doesn’t? I come with many flaws and you don’t need a microscope to find them. In a city that lives under one, it’s a rarity to meet a New Yorker who doesn’t see them. On the other hand, to not care so much that you become wallpaper can’t be the answer either. So how to go forward? Do people start looking or do we start giving them a reason to? It’s a question for the experts. Gloria Steinem! Candace Bushnell! Help! In the meantime, I’m going to dig out my heels and see how far I can still get in three inches and red lipstick.

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”

 

Janeane Garofalo is almost 45 years old and wants you to know, “I don’t give a shit. I’ve mellowed.” We’re seated in one of L.A.’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, but I can’t give its location lest it becomes less popular. Nevertheless, Garofalo seems at ease with the diners trying to figure out just who she is, but she has an answer for that. “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” she says. Why? “Because I don’t believe in having pets, but beyond that, it was a slam at me, a typical role. I was the dog. And the only reason the guy fell in love with me was my personality. Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of fucking bullshit. Never happens. You see me with Brad Pitt? No, I’m eating with an unknown writer and watching people trying to remember having watched The Truth About Cats and Dogs. And to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.”

I seem to be carrying on the family tradition of tool-wielding women, albeit reluctantly.  My mother has long been gifted every Christmas with an addition to her tool set and although I am all for self-sufficiency and stepping outside traditional roles, the call of the tool belt never quite reached me.  It is, however, being forced upon me these days as drippy faucets and non-functional washing machines pervade my world and I have now come to know the inside of the Bauhaus the way I used to know Sephora.

My sister is one of The Order.  She practically came out of the womb with a penknife in her hand ready to jump into home improvement at a moment’s notice.  She is one of those people with spatial relation skills.  You know the type; organized closets, a place for everything, and everything in its place.  She knows what all the gadgets in her toolbox are called and more, how to use them.  I don’t think she relies on her superintendent for much of anything since it’s just oh, so much easier to do it herself.  I, on the other hand, know intimate family details about my New York super.  He was a staple in my life. I can’t tell you how much I miss him.

Since moving to Germany, I have learned that a super here isn’t really the apartment renter’s best friend.  You don’t tip them and they don’t fix minor problems.  Okay, if the ceiling falls in they’ll come but anything up to that you’re on your own.  In addition, a common clause in a lease states that the renter is responsible for some kind of home improvement after three years of inhabitance.  This makes no sense to me at all.  I pay you money to live in the place that you own.  You pocket it and pay a maintenance dude to sweep the hallway once a week.  And after three years, I am supposed remodel the kitchen?  Are you high?  If I wanted to that, I would have bought a house; hence the convenience of renting.  How did that get missed over here?

A few years back my father gifted me and my sister with lady’s tool kits.  They came in pink, plastic cases and have pink hand grips.  This, from the enlightened man that gave his wife a chainsaw for their anniversary.  Regardless, the pink tool kit sits in my New York apartment closet gathering dust, which, until now, was exactly where I thought it belonged.  Sadly, however, I find myself of late with a wrench in my right hand and some sort of plumbing in my left.  I am now able to name all the tools in that box and bemoaning the fact that they aren’t here.  Only a few short months ago I couldn’t have told you what a washer was.  Now I can tell you what aisle they’re in and how many sizes are available.  I miss high heels and eyeliner but in this new city, I need a socket wrench more often. I find that extremely disturbing.

Annoyingly, the other most prominent trait of the McGrath women is to make lemonade out of lemons.  We can be awfully perky at times.  In this instance I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps one more time and decided to call this a “learning experience.”  That sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But I always like to dress for the occasion, so I find myself pushing back the urge to don overalls and head to the salon for a mullet make-over.  I need my pink tools to keep my sense of femininity about this, damn it!  Dad was right about that.  Does Manolo Blahnik do steel-toed work boots?  God, I hope so.

Since nearly every interview with Sean Penn immediately notes that he lights cigarettes with the regularity of old women on prune juice, Sean Penn lit his third cigarette before our interview had begun. He spent that time gazing at me as if I were some sort of fantastic form of quartz. He is, and will always be, one of Hollywood’s foremost geologists, digging up jewels of roles, which he then polishes like a rock tumbler. He lit a cigarette before finishing the other one and smoked the two simultaneously. Soon, he was smoking fifteen cigarettes at the same time. He put on his sunglasses, took them off, and put them on again. It’s a useless actor’s ploy, and he was being ironic, I’m sure of it.

I just used my boyfriend’s shaving cream to shave my legs and now they smell like a man.  On the one hand, I’m still shaving my legs, which I consider a coup in the war against the loss of my beauty regime.  On the other hand, my legs smell like a man’s face.  Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s better when you’re lying in bed with oxytocin rushing through your veins and the sheets rumpled beneath you rather than fresh from the shower.

I used to have my own shaving cream, fancy bath oils to make me smell pretty, creams to make my skin glow, creams to slow the aging process, top of the line make up to cover the aging process, expensive hair products and monthly mani-pedi excursions.  Truth be told, none of it was for anyone other than myself or maybe, as fellow TBN’r Kimberly Wetherell suggests in her short documentary, for other women.  Regardless, I loved it.

Thanks to the bankrupting war on Iraq, Bernie Madoff, those parasites at AIG and a global recession, I am cutting back with the rest of the world.  I’m grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, food on the table and Maybelline in my bathroom cupboard.  “Maybe she’s born with it?”  Maybe she’s broke!

Berlin seems to house an above-average percentage of folk who look like life has been pretty damn hard.  Perhaps it’s the horrible weather, perhaps it’s the harsh, mineral-filled water, perhaps it’s the marathon chain smoking or the beer. I’m often surprised to find out the 50-year-old woman next to me is actually 35.  It’s not helped by the trend toward androgynous fashion, either.  Of course we have our beautiful people in Berlin, but it’s not as important or prevalent in the culture as it is in places like New York, Miami and L.A.

The truth is, life probably is pretty damn hard.  Berlin has always been a poor city.  It’s where you come to live cheap, protest and create weird art.  Everyone here seems to be starting over and barely making it.  La Boheme is alive and well all around this city and, while there is some fantastic art in all its forms produced here, even moderately famous people are squatting or trying to squeak by on unemployment and an occasional commission.

What to do?  On the one hand, it’s an absolute release to escape the daily pressures and expectations of image that was part of my life in New York City.  On the other hand, there were parts of that I truly enjoyed.  Come on, I’m an opera singer.  I’m genetically coded to play dress up.  It’s nice not to feel like the fat girl in a sea of anorexic waifs, but at the same time, being a “girl” in some ways is something I really enjoy.  There has to be some middle ground.

For now I’m doing what I can not to lose myself entirely in the tightening of the purse strings.  I’m learning how to use TRUblend and remembering how to paint my own toes.  I guess if my legs smell like my boyfriend’s face, I’ll count that as a win over not having a razor to shave them with at all.  The creams will have to go.  I will try to embrace the grey when it comes and remember to love the creases around my eyes.  I have enough to get by–more than some–and I guess it won’t kill me to finally look my age.  Oh God.

Wifey’s from Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.  My college roomie and long time business partner is from Wausau, WI, married to a biomedical engineer and patent lawyer who was also a good college friend, hailing from Sault Saint Marie, MI.  Another college roomie, the first guy I ever heard ranting against the Electoral College when Clinton won in ’92, was from Menomonee.  A manager I’ve worked closely with at Sun Microsystems is from Shano, WI (draw that “o” out, will ya?).

Wifey cold kicked the Great Lakes accent ages ago, but as for any one of the others, all it takes is enough Blatz beer or something else similarly awful and they kick into that fascinating intonation, kinda like if you cross-bred a Norwegian and a Scot with someone born within fifty furlongs of the Mason-Dixon line, then stuffed the chimera’s voice into a deep well.

I’ve certainly never minded the accent, considering all these people, and many more from my college days in Milwaukee are very intelligent and eminently sensible, even the occasional punter who looked earnestly into my eyes to say “you know, you’re the only black person whom I’ve ever had a proper conversation with.”  I’m down with being the Olaudah Equiano of parts nort’ don’t ya know-oh.