BWB

In our neighborhood, if you are outside, you are open for business – and the children will get in your business. I was sitting on the front stoop like Baby John in West Side Story, trying to be tough but totally harmless. The children, on this day represented by Dreana, came tumbling towards me.

“I’m going to paint your nails,” Dreana announced.

“No you’re not.” I countered.

“It’s boy nail polish.”

“That doesn’t exist.”

And so Dreana began painting my nails with her spit. I was going to ask her to stop, but it didn’t seem important. The next day she was back with the boy nail polish. To her credit, it was blue; a bright blue that has never cried. She also brought a boy, Anthony, as if this might prove persuasive. Again she asked and again I refused, so she started painting the siding.

“Please don’t do that,” I said. She paused for a moment. Then continued.

“What did I just say?” I snapped.

“Yeah!” Anthony matched my tone and made a grab for the nail polish, and Dreana made a fist, and the bottle didn’t want to pick a side, so it fell, spilling the candy blueberry polish all over the porch. With a squeal the kids scattered. I muttered all the way upstairs for a rag and sighed all the way down. As I rubbed repeatedly, the polish gradually transferred from concrete to rag, until the rag appeared as though some blue-blooded cartoon animal had bled on it.

It was the same color I saw at the Ebony fashion exhibit, in a far outfit of swimsuit, coat, scarf and stockings that was not suitable for any occasion. My friend Althea and I wandered through the temple of black goddesses, who were wearing fabulous ensembles and arranged in rows, like ornate columns supporting a vision. “These mannequins must have DNA, they are so lifelike,” I said. “That one looks like Naomi Campbell.” We approached some casual wear that was too coordinated to be casual – every piece similarly patterned in blocks of black and blue and trimmed with white lines – and I pointed at it, declaring, “I could wear that.”

A week later I returned from work and tried to close the distance between the car door and the front door as quickly as possible. Anthony shouted from down the street. “Wait up!”

“I’m waiting,” I said, not slowing or stopping. As I was unlocking the door he limped up the steps, holding something under his arm. “I broke my leg,” he said.

“No you didn’t.”

“This is my crutch.”

“No, that’s a snow shovel handle without the shovel,” I pushed the front door open.

“Hey!” Anthony leaned down, grabbing my pant leg and pulling it up a little. “What shoes are you wearing?” He asked.

“Adidas,” I said.

“Those are for black people.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.” And with that line, I exited inside, eager to be alone with my backpack, as it contained the love/hate letter Dear White People. It’s “a satire about being a black face in a white place,” but really it’s a chiaroscuro of characters at an Ivier-than-thou University. Among the students are Coco Conners, a black blogger with the nickname “blue eyes” because she prefers white men and helps one of their fraternities throw a blackface party so she can live blog the proceedings. “Tell me,” she mockingly implores the camera, “why are white folks so obsessed with being black? Hell, why are black folks addicted to blonde Barbie doll weaves? It’s a strange symbiosis that we’re here to investigate.”

“Can I destroy this terrible exegesis?” my roommate demanded the following morning, standing in the bathroom doorway, gripping a page torn from a Sunday School coloring book that had been taped on our refrigerator. I put down my toothbrush and examined the picture. The face of God floated in heaven, wearing a beard composed of the surrounding clouds. A child had bore a crayon back and forth across the face, likely Ultramarine, a shade which is based on Lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone coveted since ancient times for its intensity. “Blue is fascinating,” according to Yale ornithologist Rick Prum, “because the vast majority of animals are incapable of making it with pigments. They have evolved a new kind of optical technology, if you will, to create this color.”

Handing the picture back to my roommate, I said, “let’s keep it,” and together we left for work. Despite a week of rain, the polish on the porch had not faded.

The Passion According to St. Kate

Of course you could have written it better, but you never would have written it. The bi-oh-my-ography of Kay Thompson. You were too busy live-live-living it. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “[a second-rate poet] lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.” And it’s like Samuel Taylor said, “I think a true talent for living has the quality of creation…I’d rather live a first-rate life than paint a second-rate picture.” Except that it’s not like either. You drove Wilde and Taylor-made them both, because you could do both – live and create – and what’s more, you could live a creation and create a living.

When you wrote Eloise, it was simply publicizing a character you’d grown into since birth, the most grown up child of all, who lived at the Plaza and was the death of the management. So they invited you to live there for free and you carried on where the book left off.

And after vamping an American Vogue editor in Paris with Funny Face and wearing the pants in America’s relationship with women’s wear, you master mixed the American segment of the Palace of Versailles restoration benefit fashion show,* whipping up, as one assistant described it, “a frenzy…these were not kids at a rock concert. These were the wealthiest kings, queens and royalty of Europe.”

Even while you were showing Judy Garland how to rise and shine, you became Liza Minnelli’s god and mother, steering her career with one hand and drinking a can of Coca-Cola with the other, just because it was the perfect shade of red. When you were tired of driving, Liza gave you an apartment and became your mother until you died. Then, in an electric eulogy, she did a tribute performance of your best songs and arrangements. It was “a lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la!” Which was how you described the secret to life. But your life was no secret. It was created for everyone to see.

Many thanks to Sam Irvin for his comprehensive and incomprehensibly good book, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise.

*Kay directed the models like a poet with Tourette Syndrome: “Elocution with your arms. Vocabulary with your fingers. There’s a bird trapped in your hair. Walk like you have ice water in your brassiere,” and selected a soundtrack that consisted of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and Cole Porter.

Strike a Pose

“Be quiet, we don’t want to be caught,” the photographer instructs me. He turns to the roof ladder, and leaps up it like a monkey firefighter.

I try not to replay the opening scene in Vertigo. I’m a nervous matchmaker, introducing my right foot to the first rung, hoping they will like one another. They do. The same with the left. Soon both feet are social climbers, leading me to the roof.

The photographer is waiting, and the wind, sunlight and temperature are behaving like his crew – submitting to the moment.

“Now, put on the first outfit,” he says, demonstrating how a whisper can be a command.

“All right,” I say, looking through the outfits. They are overpowering; they are overdone; they are just over. But he’s a friend, so I put them on. Like Ben Folds, I do the best imitation of myself.

Soon he is telling me to do things I don’t do anymore, while making it look like I do…”give me a cocky pose.” I do. “No, like this.” He does it. I do it. “Umm, not quite, here, mirror me.” He does it. I do it. “No, come stand where I’m standing.” He does it. I do it. click. “Done. Next outfit.”

Years ago I saw Paris is Burning, a documentary about vogue balls in New York City. The participants try to pass for their opposite gender or social class. All I know is they walked down that runway like they were walking away from their old selves.