Literally and euphorically, I became a New Yorker the moment that I signed my lease. But for me, my true rite of passage came when I visited the site of Ground Zero. Why? Because I wanted to stretch and to grow. To write and to play. But first, I had to honor those who could no longer do the same.
When I saw it, the area resembled a simple construction site. I will never forget it.
ST. MARKS (Excerpt from MANHATTAN book in progress)
Do you know what I love about New York - besides everything? It’s an event, an experience, and a badass mama. I joke that if I ran down the street naked and handing out business cards, fifty percent of the people wouldn’t give it a second thought because, “It’s New York.” And the other half would shake their heads, laugh, and say things like, “She may be crazy, but she’s got guts!” And, “Yeah. And cool earrings!"
Even so, there are times that we all find ourselves rewinding the same day, and playing it over and over, ad nauseum. It’s 2006, and despite the gentrification that is taking place there, St. Mark’s, in the East Village, is the perfect antidote for that monotony.
There is an outrageous, and curiously Zen, type of freedom that washes over me when I’m there. A freedom in seeing a man with the courage to sport an eighteen-inch high, sculpted, neon red hairstyle that looks like the cherry godfather of Hershey’s Kisses - and an ornately embellished Oz-meets-runway ensemble. Is he on his way to work? Or on his way to becoming the next Alexander McQueen?
And the six-foot transvestite he just passed? The one in the gold sequined leggings and Jimmy Choo stilettos? He’s discussing his college theatre auditions with a sophisticated blonde classmate toting a Sonia Rykiel bag and a laptop.
And as I’m watching them, I realize that the longer I live here, the more the City rubs off on me - and the freer I become. Like right now. I’m sitting at a tiny, round table on St. Mark’s contemplating what kind of tattoo I’d get - if I wanted one. I’m sure I’ll never get one. But if I did? I’d like a funky, happy, childlike frog that could perch like a butterfly atop my left shoulder. You know - just a tiny frog tattoo that could go everywhere with me, like the little dogs that peek out of so many women’s purses.
I’m sure I’ll never get one. However, the fact that I’m contemplating the how and what of it is a tribute to Manhattan. Because Manhattan frees us to shed the boundaries that do nothing except fence us in. Boundaries that are like flashing neon signs that tell us how to dress, think, and act “appropriately” from the moment we reach the ripe old age of - twenty.
But aren’t extremes just a different sort of boundary? No. Because, love them or not, it’s the extremes that validate, one more time, that we have a right to be different - and a responsibility to fill our own shoes!
Have you ever tried to force a square peg into a round hole? That's exactly what I tried to do the day before Halloween. I was feeling the loss of my great writing mentor and friend, Ed Paschke. And craved the neon-sensuality of his irreverent pop art paintings. So I walked through the City and tried to see it through his eyes.
Somehow though, the day looked like a chiffon veil had been thrown over the whole of it, and the color had all faded to "blah". New York couldn't have lost its magic for me. But the thought concerned me nonetheless. "What," I wondered, "would Ed Paschke say if I asked him?"
Immediately, I could almost hear his answer. "Joanie, you're just seeing things differently because you're looking too hard. You're going to miss it if you do that. Just keep moving along and it will appear."
So I left my expectations behind, and wandered around Union Square without them. And suddenly, like a wave of deja vu, a Paschke-esque King with a jewel encrusted crown appeared...and floated down Fourteenth Street like a vision of contentment, in the New York sea of traffic. A Punk King who tilted his fully made-up face and movie star glam glasses upward, as if to invite the sun's rays should they happen to peek out.
Oh, how I wished that I could have grabbed Ed Paschke's arm and pointed out this jewel of a man who he, himself, might have invented, and painted. Instead, I tried to catch up with this gently outrageous king. I wanted to know him - not because I saw his attire - but because I saw the man who wore it.
Unfortunately, I was stuck at the stoplight, while he turned down Third Avenue. As he floated out of sight, I tried to imprint this walking cornucopia of faux jewels, fur, and hot pink satin on my senses. And when the light changed? I followed his path - and hoped that serendipity would hear me calling.
Suddenly, there he was again! This time, posing for a photograph with a family who had stopped him as he passed. So I waited my turn, then told him that I was drawn to him as if by magic. Drawn to him because - like Ed Paschke's boldly irreverent paintings - he was a magnification of eclecticism, and of life.
He told me his name was John. He was a stylist and a sometimes drag queen with a six-foot-four-inch voice filled with Midwestern charm...and a graciousness of the Garden Club variety. He carried himself with the assurance of someone who lives with joy, and shares it. Told me that today he was King Johnny. But that tomorrow, for Halloween, he was going to be the Disco Queen - and couldn't wait until nightfall when the lamplight would honor every square inch of his baubles and bangles. And told me so sweetly about his brilliant, brilliant partner of fifteen years, who he adored.
Our only similarities were the Whole Foods bags that we carried - and our laughter. Yet, to passersby, we must have looked like two girlfriends who'd known each other forever, instead of for five minutes.
King Johnny told me that he was in search of more false eyelashes and the perfect mascara. He said he trusted my taste, so we continued his search together. I gave him an eyeliner from my purse so that he wouldn't have to trek back to Union Square. He picked lint off my hat from where my scarf had rubbed against it, and told me that he had a pair of gold Gucci slacks that he wanted to give me because they were "totally (me)".
He wasn't a celebrity, yet people everywhere stopped to celebrate him, and to take pictures together. I rarely take photographs, but this newfound friendship, and Johnny's costume, were moments waiting to be immortalized. When I took his picture though, I did a double-take...and shook my head in wonder. Why, I asked Johnny, was my face visible in the frame, when I had pointed my cell phone camera directly at him? So we stared at the image together.
This time, it was obviously Johnny's face - which looked nothing like my own. Johnny, a tall man, who looked as if he could have been related to Howard Stern. Even so, I stared in amazement as the memory of my first impression lingered on.
How was it possible that this tiny silver camera zeroed in on our souls - and left our physical features and garb behind? How was it possible that it showed us our similarities, even as it photographed our differences? Was it the camera that picked up our souls? Or was I the one who transposed them? The way the world actually is? Or the way it actually should be? The questions spilled over in my mind - but still, I had one more.
How did I find this radiant Paschke-esque Punk King with a heart that sparkled even more brilliantly than his costume? Because we were both walking down the street - and the street was in Manhattan!
Official Website of Ed Paschke: www.edpaschke.com