Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dress Code

I think I’ve been mourning Heath Ledger. Not that I knew him or anything. I did see him in a bar one night, looking unshaved and a little disoriented, although I may be attaching that judgment retroactively, which is unfair. Celebrities need a disguise sometimes, and there’s no camouflage as effective as 'unkempt'. When you’re badly dressed you’re invisible.

One Christmas in the old days of New York I had to pick up a gift for someone on Madison Avenue at some pretentious boutique where I’d normally be watched by security as a potential thief or stalker. So this bearded skuzzy guy attaches himself to me, and seems literally to be shadowing my every move like a monkey. I get a little nervous, knowing I’ve got my friend’s wad of cash stuffed into my back pocket, and I give the salesman that look. ‘Mr. Jagger’, the salesman pronounces in this sycophantic tone…’I’m so sorry…’ and it seems Mick himself is wearing a beard and army coat and trying to avoid some paparazzi hound by concealing himself behind the unphotogenic me. He apologized and I was so astonished I accidentally came away with some form of grace. I bought the whatever-it-was and got the bonus celebrity-brush anecdote we New Yorkers act as though we could care less about.

What does annoy me are these little perfectly-coiffed salesgirls at Club Monaco and Banana Republic who are making undoubtedly less than the Starbucks baristas but who manage to convey complete disgust for people of my age who obviously have not cultivated an addiction to their merchandise.

So I ask myself…what is my building’s aversion to our homeless woman-visitor who is better dressed than either Mick Jagger or Heath Ledger on the two occasions I shared a moment? Does she remind them of their neglected mother or aunt? Is she a personification of guilt, a reminder of all the less fortunate people they overlook in their mad fashion-furious quest for ever-more décor, more clothing, better cars, invitations? Have they been watching the ‘Real’ Housewives of New York? These women whose grammar and diction betrays a level of class that is as slim as the latest ipod model? Do they realize how whisper-close they can be to either society? That their address, just nano-seconds ago in universe-time, was maybe a slum or a castle for the local rats who really have little prejudice and are just as happy in their Park Avenue digs as they are in the sewer.

I came in Saturday night, noticed yet again the empty stool placed for our latest version of ‘doorman’ who is nowhere to be found in the wee hours despite a salary which would easily house and care for this poor woman. After a brief exploration, I frightened said- employee in the laundry room, absorbed in a film on his portable dvd player. I apologized and left. I don’t want to cause his family to suffer by ratting him out. Besides, he’s at least keeping the rats out of the laundry room during these hours, although there’s very little damage they are inclined to do in there. Maybe romp a little. Snack on the dead waterbugs stuck on the gluetraps. Recycle.

If the newly-hyphenated residents of my building are so concerned with security, why don’t they employ the homeless woman to stand there and keep out undesireables? She could use the gig and she is much more conscientious than the security employees, appreciates the job and, in a way…belongs? She's better-mannered than most of them, doesn't judge me by my clothing. She's probably smarter and actually reads the Wall Street Journals stacked in the vestibule at 5 AM. Besides, they could use the money saved for an even more pretentious set of lobby furniture because the stuff they’ve selected for now looks---well, pedestrian. It’s like a doctor’s waiting room, frankly. What was there before, one might ask? The most tradable and coveted of all New York City commodities. Space. Empty, unoccupied, glorious space. The sign of luxury…class… old New York… grandness of scale… generosity.

Things without a name, without a price tag… make these newly-rich nervous. They don’t know quite how to behave. Stuck in an elevator with a delivery man? They have nothing to talk about. Forced by some natural or man-made disaster to survive among the non-labeled? Unthinkable.

As for me, I do not discount the possibility that the homeless woman is an angel, a sentinel. I strongly doubt this, because I have a feeling angels do not have that earthy scent. But we need her…as a reminder, maybe even a small annoyance…although unfortunately all the ones that need reminding are in Ambien-induced slumber and have forgotten about the magic of New York nights and the reason this real estate was coveted in the first place. At least Heath knew about this. He was just a little innocent. I miss him. Unfortunately it is most likely that the tenants who take over his pricey loft will not inherit his values.

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