“Blogs are a conversation no one wanted to have with you.” – Michelle Wolf
Making an Effort
On Sunday morning I went to the Grand Bazaar flea market on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was a lovely, soft day after a rainy Saturday. Three years out from the start of the pandemic, New York City has been slow to come back. Even before the lockdown, I’d noticed a steady and sad decline in “caring” when it came to personal appearance. People looked dirty, soiled, tired. Pajama pants and slippers in public became “fashion.” Was it poverty? Apathy? Depression? I don’t ride into the city (as we say from Queens, an outer borough) much anymore, since I can work from home more easily, but when I have taken the ride, it’s been a disappointing view of humanity, let me tell you.
Sunday was different. Sunday, I couldn’t help noticing, was awash in color and pattern, sartorial surprise, period fashion statements. An avid follower of the late Bill Cunningham, I have come to understand how street fashion tells us things about ourselves and our world that nothing else can; it is a true barometer of the local or (in the case of New York) (inter)national psychic weather.
Two Christmases ago, for example, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman returned to open the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for the first time since Covid, and Mx. Viv sent an email announcing “Kiki and Herb Sleigh Christmas” in which they beseeched ticket holders, “Make an effort!” It was a plea to look nice for a first big night out, for an occasion, to cheer us all up. I found my silver jacket and silver jewelry and duly duded up. Sadly, I was one of the only people in the entire place who not only made an effort but was what my mom, Lynne, would call appropriately dressed. My dear companion wore torn jeans, sneakers, and a bubble jacket. This was the general audience trend. Similarly, when the Metropolitan Museum finally reopened the previous August, I made a point of dressing in a smashing casual but coordinated ensemble; my companion that time wore clothes that appeared to be pulled from a dumpster—torn, ill-fitting, sad, unclean. He fit right in.
And all a person can do at that point is take the information as it is given to you: here is poverty (financial, emotional spiritual); here is a sad person; here are sad people; here are disconnected people. I don’t think this is about me being Judgy McJudger—it’s about reading the national room. And dear god what a depressing fucking room.
So this Sunday in May of 2023 was a revelation, and I wish I’d brazenly taken photographs: the adorable young woman in red Chanel hat, vintage red mini skirt and jacket, white ruffle neck blouse, red patent leather shoes, white stockings; the smart looking middle aged woman in 19th century dark blue hat and coat, who when I complimented her said, “This is my normal,” to which I said, “I love your normal.” Color and line and surprise abounded on Columbus Avenue.
Also on display: kindness. People’s nice attitudes mirrored their nice style. I sat on a bench outside the market with a woman named Jenny, her dark hair, very straight, pulled up by a bobby pin; she had a huge sack of apples for her three parakeets, too much weight to carry considering she’d had a hernia operation two weeks ago and uses a cane, what was she thinking; she was waiting for her Access-a-Ride to take her back to the Bronx. When she got the text, I carried her bag for her down to the waiting van, glad to do it, nice to meet you. Back to the bench, I found my friend Ryan just arriving. After a long conversation, a light lunch outside, and a market spin involving Turkish pillow shams, he said, “I need pickles,” and we sauntered over to the pickle vendor. A quart of half sours for him, a pint of kosher dills for me, the filling of the containers looked “like Tetras,” Ryan said, and the weary vendor half smiled.
As I stood there in the afternoon sun, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a tender young woman’s face, fair skin and full rosy cheeks, kind eyes, and she said, “I just had to tell you how beautiful you are.” I must have looked confused. “I saw you from over there,” she said, “your hair, your bag, just all of it. I needed to tell you.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and I laughed. “I needed to hear it!” I said. I thanked her. Ryan laughed.
Against my better judgment—because I knew what would happen—I found myself relaying this joyful little anecdote to a couple of friends I happened to chat with later, and truly, the moment came up organically out of each conversation, talking of kindness. By sharing it, I meant, “It’s so sweet to hear kindness like that,” or “New York can surprise you sometimes,” but that isn’t what they heard. And what happened instead was just what nearly always happens when I share these rare sweet moments. The first friend quickly changed the subject. The second friend said, “Well, it must have been because of your confidence, or the way you carry yourself.” Because obviously, was their message, the woman lied to you.
I celebrate a time when we can have more expansive ideas of what beauty is. We’ve had impossible standards for so long, haven’t we, all to do with youth and god-given physical features? And yet there I was, Miss O’, gray-hair up in a bun, face wrinkled, belly fat, my silhouette double-chinned and pale, standing simply in black chinos, a pale olive linen shirt, comfortable shoes, carrying an Indian print bag and waiting for pickles, and this dear child was clearly struck by beauty, somehow.
And the first impulse in others—because this is America after all—is almost exclusively to snatch away your bit of joy, the sweet moment, and remind you that you are old, ugly, nothing to look at, how could you be so foolish as to take in a kind word? Why even wear earrings, a necklace, a scarf? Why did you bother to make an effort? Who do you think you are, little missy?
And my whole point today is really this: When we try, when we choose what we wear with a thought to personal (not to say expensive) taste, with care, with attention, and with our hearts, and we put this out into the world with some effort at kindness and connection, we just might make someone else really happy. It’s not always about me, or about you. It’s about them—the people who have to look at us. They might be having a sort of nothing day and your presence, that effort you made, could make it a little nicer.
What’s wrong with that?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that: Not a goddamned thing.
Love to all. Somehow.