Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Living Doll~ A short story by P.C. Fergusson

Waiting in a beauty parlour on Union Street ("Don't call it that!" her daughter admonishes. "They're called hair salons now."), Charon picks up a copy of Vogue magazine and opens to a picture of Susan Sarandon in a story called "Women of Hollywood." Sarandon looks fantastic in the photo, dressed in a black leather trenchcoat with a studded belt and black heels. The story says she's 66.

"This woman is 66 years old!" Charon announces to the small lobby lined with beauty products, turning the magazine outward to show them the black and white photograph.

"I know. Isn't that pathetic? She rocks it better than I do," says the young receptionist, a pretty girl with a wide face in a blue and white striped crewneck sweater.

The certified eyelash tinter clicks over in her high heels and snatches the magazine out of Charon's hand. She is wearing a low-cut blouse and a miniskirt, penciled eyebrows that extend beyond their natural boundaries. "She's had work," the tinter says, chewing her cheek thoughtfully and tapping a painted fingernail on the page. "She's had at least one facelift, botox, implants..."

Charon nods skeptically. She can tell all that from one picture?

"Anyone whose neck looks like that at 66 has had work done. You start thinking about it at 40," the tinter informs.

Charon has come to get her own "work done" after noticing a sign advertising eyelash tinting. She hadn't known eyelash tinting was possible before she saw the sign. "Is it dangerous?" she asked the receptionist when she made the appointment.

"No," the receptionist laughed. "We use a vegetable dye, so it can't hurt your eyes, although some people say it stings. We're all certified here."

Charon's eyelashes have chagrined since she lost them during chemo. They grew back gray and stubby, and her efforts to mascara them into existence have only mild results. She doesn't want to be one of those old ladies with makeup inexpertly applied -- a blotch here, a clot there, a daub of red on her forehead...

The receptionist brings Charon a cup of chai just as the tinter tells her to sit on a high leather chair by the window and close her eyes. She wedges her cup between the tiny bottles and shiny implements littering the tinter's table. The tinter puts what feels like medical tape around each eye, then slathers on a cold gel.

Charon thinks of her colleague, a woman close to her age, lying in an open casket the day before. She wore pink lipstick, as she had never done in life. Her little wire-frame librarian's glasses were gone, and her troublesome, bushy hair. A flowery turban encircled her head instead. She looked much more feminine, Charon thought, by which she meant frail. And she seemed much smaller--small enough to fit in the narrow, powder-blue casket, which Charon had helped to lift out of the white hearse onto a silver wheeled platform and drag into the church.

"Can you tint my eyebrows, too?" Charon asks, her eyes still closed.

"I can, but you're also going to need me to shape them. Tinting alone isn't going to do much."

"Let me start with the tint and see how I like it," Charon resists the sales pitch.

The idea of pulling out even one precious eyebrow hair is odious to Charon. So much has been lost. Now the hair on her legs and under her arms is so meek it rarely requires shaving. Her pubic hair is splotchy, making her feel old. But the hair on her head, at least, is longer than it's ever been before, falling almost to the rise of her rump. She loves the way it brushes her bare back when she walks naked from the bedroom to the bathroom in their flat--free to be immodest with their children grown and gone.

"Her new boyfriend is 35 years old," the tinter continues, slathering a cold paste on Sharon's eyebrows.

"You're kidding! I thought she was still married to that guy she met on Bull Durham."

"No. They were divorced a couple of years ago."

"Thirty-five? Wow." Charon thinks of Demi Moore and other women who've partnered with younger men, thinks of her own crush, years before, on a friend of her children's, and the vulnerable situation that puts a woman in--wanting to look younger than she really is, wanting to be more beautiful.

Sometimes there are photographs outside of Rudy's Pub, where Charon and her husband go for drinks on Wednesdays, of the strippers on Broadway. The female photographer lays them out on the sidewalk, hoping to make a sale. Women handle their breasts in the photos, stick out their butts, lean close to the mirror to put on cosmetics. Charon doesn't like the photographs, although she imagines they are art. And she is put off by the younger woman who is often inside, looking like a child's dress-up doll in a big, wide-brimmed hat and long, fingerless gloves, brightly colored dresses.

Charon has often cast her eyes toward this woman, thinking to make a connection, as two of the very few women in the room. But the living doll is unavailable as she perches on the window sill next to her shiny polka dot handbag, surrounded by a flock of old, admiring men.

Someone once said that Sports is serious business, but Fashion and Beauty are not. And why is that? Charon wonders. Is it because women obsess over beauty to win male approval, while men obsess over sports for themselves?

One night Charon watched the doll flirt with the bartender--an older man with a sizable paunch and an areola of wiry gray hair in a loose tee-shirt. She placed one hand over the other on the bar, elbows out and forearms flat as in an Audrey Hepburn picture, put her chin on her hands and stared up at the old man with big, widened eyes. "Love me!" she seemed to be commanding or pleading, not sure if her beauty was a secret superpower or a wound.

"Love me! Love me! Love me! Love me!"

The tinter squirts something cold and liquid on Charon's eyes and wipes them roughly with a towel. "How does that feel?"

"It stings a little."

"Do you want more?"

"I don't know. Is that what's making it sting?"

She squirts on more cold liquid, then swipes Charon's face with the towel and brings her a big, hand-held mirror.

Charon's eyebrows are clownish, too thick and an unnatural, bright red-brown color. She suppresses a gasp. Her eyelashes, though, look better, with excess black tint lining both the upper and the lower lid.

"Okay. You're right. I guess you better shape them," she says.

"Good," the tinter says as she pulls more tape off the roll and applies it around Charon's eyebrows. Then she is wielding a thick little paintbrush, standing back for a moment to look at her handiwork, cocking her head to one side.

Charon thinks of the priest putting his hand into the casket to adjust her colleague's turban, touching her face with a paternal fondness that made Charon uneasy.

Later, he rolled up a little scroll and placed it in her colleague's hand, like a window dresser rearranging a mannequin. Charon didn't like that, either.

But she liked the open-throated singing of the young cantor in his long, black dress. She liked the swinging of the censor with its strong incense and tiny bells.

"What about my hair?" Charon says. "How do the ends look?"

"We can take care of that for you," says the tinter. "Hasn't Lucy got a 4:30 open?" she calls over to the receptionist. Then she flicks her wrist and a scorching pain rips across Charon's forehead.

"Ow!" Charon is shocked by the sudden violence, puts a finger to the bald skin where part of one eyebrow had been.

The tinter smirks, "Are you okay?" she asks, but doesn't wait for an answer before daubing her paintbrush on the second brow.

"Yes, Lucy's got a 4:40 open," the receptionist says. "Do you want it?"

"Okay," Charon hesitates. "But I hope she doesn't have to take off too much. I really like it long."

Still later, he had leaned over the coffin and kissed her cheek or forehead. Many people had kissed her. The other priests in their funny, flat hats and long, gray beards. The family in the front row, the first in the long line to view her. The lead cantor and the other singers.

One got down on his hands and knees before the coffin and touched his forehead to the marble floor three times.

"It's too thin," the the tinter is saying. "It's not healthy. They're going to have to cut off a lot."

"Okay," Charon says. "Okay."  She clutches the armrests, bracing for the next rip.

Monday, November 12, 2012

So a Woman Who Walks Down the Street is a...?

Reading Kate Zambreno's new book Heroines opened so many avenues in me. It is a book about suppressed women in literature, including wives of the greats (Zelda and Viv,, lovers, characters in books, and women writers themselves.

Zambreno's scholarship is deep. I wrote down 20 names I'd never heard of, and plan to research. She writes a little about literary theory (which I know nothing about and am not interested in learning) and a little about herself (which I enjoy). If you're a woman and a writer, or someone interested in same, I highly recommend this book. It inspired me in a number of ways.

First and foremost, it led me to refigure this blog, and decide I wanted it to be more like the newspaper column I wrote for years -- a place to philosophize, consider events, laugh about them and explore; to discuss what is happening in my life and how I feel about it; to attempt to make the personal into the universal, and transform experience into art.

But that column appeared in print. This will be different. In her book, Zambreno describes starting her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister and discovering a community of people online to talk with about issues that are important to her. My synapses started firing like a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Wow! I want some of that!

But where to begin?

I started by googling "feminist blogs" to see what was out there. One happy hit led to this year-old article by Emily Nussbaum about SlutWalk NYC in New York Magazine; it's a great read that brings up interesting issues about the ways women dress and male aggression, and best of all, it has a list of feminist blogs Nussbaum likes at the end.

I spent the rest of the day following her links. I liked what I found so much that I didn't come up for air until hours later when a dinner date forced me to stop. Yet it was such a glut of information that I couldn't recognize at the time which posts were really going to stick with me.

Now I do.

One that stuck was this post about getting fat to avoid men's attention at puberty. on Jezebel The post originally appeared on The anonymous interviewee describes the disturbing experience of moving into puberty that I recall:

"It started off subtle at first. Lingering stares and comments under the breath that you couldn't quite make out. I couldn't understand why these men were speaking to me that way. I may have had breasts and hips, but I still looked like a child...After I turned 16, it got unbearable/ I literally had men grab me, pull at me, hiss and whistle at me."

I didn't get fat myself, but after being a strong, happy, independent child with full agency and full membership in the human race. it was unsettling, to say the least, to be pushed out to the sketchy perimeter--to become a quasi-human, one it was okay to yell rude things to, to push, to violate with impunity--when I grew breasts.

Another one that stuck described a study about what women do to avoid harassment on the street (a dozen things or more), and what men do (nothing).

Unfortunately, with the ephemeral quality of the Internet and the wide range of my surfing that day, I can't find that exact article this morning. But I did find two organizations devoted to changing the climate for women in public, and two riveting stories about being harassed that went viral: This one about being groped on Muni in San Francisco and this one about enduring a threatening rant after refusing to talk to a man on an LA train.

Both of those stories were linked in a CNN article on various studies, statistics, and plans of action to address the harassment of women in the street.

It was a revelation to me that there even were a non-profit agencies like Stop Street Harassment, and Hollaback! attempting to prevent harassment of women on the street, because the experience seemed so pervasive to me, like a fact of life, like a force of nature.

When I moved out of San Francisco in my late '20s, one big motivator was the harassment I got almost every time I left my flat on 19th and Guerrero in the Mission District. Men would drive by and call rude things out the window at me, or mutter unpleasantries as I passed them on the sidewalk.

People who claim this is complimentary or irrelevant are not living in my universe. There is threat implicit in inappropriate sexual comments made in public.

To men who've never experienced it, I say imagine how you would feel if someone bigger and stronger (or maybe just exponentially meaner) passed you on the street and said he really wanted to fuck you, or liked your butt or penis. (Insulted? Afraid? Disturbed?)

To women who don't seem to be bothered by these comments, like my daughter, I just marvel. It takes a very self confident woman to brush that stuff off. I don't consider myself meek, and I wasn't able to do it. In my case, it literally drove me out of town.

When my husband suggested moving back to San Francisco almost 30 years after we left, I resisted. I had the vague impression that the City was dangerous. But he was so eager that I agreed to give it a try. And now that I'm here, I love living in San Francisco. But I'm older, and my flat is in a richer neighborhood. And even so, I walk fast and keep my eyes down when I pass men at night. And women shouldn't have to grow older and richer just to gain the right to walk unmolested down the street.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

And the Dead are Newly Risen

North Beach Notebook was originally conceived as a travelogue-type blog about living in San Francisco, but I don't want to write that anymore. I just want to write.

I spent half the weekend reading Heroines, a book by Kate Zambreno that just came out Nov. 2. I found it by following a post on facebook from an old high school friend of my daughter's. That led to a web site called The New Inquiry which had an interview with the author, here, and an excerpt from the book, here, and also mentioned Zambrino's blog Francis Farmer Is My Sister, and that led to me rushing down to City Lights Books to buy it.

The guy at the counter was such a dick. (That's part of my new blog aesthetic: being allowed to say words like "dick." Allowing myself.) First he told me to look in the Women's Studies section for the book, since the topic was "so specialized." Why is that? I wondered. Why is a book about the suppression of women in literature (the wives of great authors [Zelda and Viv,], lovers, characters, women writers) filed in Women's Studies, while a book about men is filed in the general section? Why don't we have a Men's Studies?

It's an ostracism, a diminishment. It felt like being banished to the "kids table" at Thanksgiving. And is the experience of being a woman "so specialized?" It doesn't seem that way to me. It seems universal--it is everything. And I'm pretty sure half the people on the planet feel the same way.

But anyway, I bopped down the stairs to get the book. Of course it wasn't there.

Mr. Dickhead gave a big sigh and shook his head like I was an incompetent who was causing him a migraine before he tromped down the stairs to look himself. As he crouched peering at titles on the bottom shelf I said, "See? No Z's."

"Actually, there are three Z's," he said testily.

"No Zambrenos."

Back upstairs his more helpful counterpart said he'd seen the book -- two copies -- somewhere. "It's gray. Outsized. Slim." Mr. D. wanted to send me away and told me he'd call if he (ever) found it, but I lingered among the shelves, trusting Mr. Helpful to solve the problem without directly asking him to--that might have been seen as an insult to his coworker.

This reminds me a little of what happened later that night, when I was supervising a high school dance as part of my job. (I am a high school English teacher, which is why I have previously censored myself from using words like "dick" on this blog, but I don't want to do that anymore. Like I said.) I arrived early and the two adorable sisters in charge of decorations were hovering around a big morass of blue and white ballons strung together with white ribbon on the floor of a big, empty room. Every so often a helium-filled balloon star rose out of the jumble.

"It's too heavy. We're going to have to pop half the balloons" the blonde sister told the brunette one, desultorily pricking a little white one with a small scissors. It popped.

Their mom stood nearby talking into her cell phone. "We haven't got lift off. We need a helium tank here, stat!"

I looked up at the rafters, down at skeins of yarn in a paper bag. "You could just hoist the whole thing up. Hang it from the ceiling," I said. The blonde daughter was skeptical. "I don't want to electrocute myself," she said, before they wandered out of the room. "We have to go get dressed."

Then a male administrator, a very tall man with an odd kind of bouncy swagger, walked into the room. "Their balloon cloud won't float," I told him, thinking to enlist him in my project.

He looked down at me from his great height. "That's their problem. What makes you think it's your job to deal with decorations?"

Sometimes I think there are basically two types of people in the world: problem solvers and... You know what I mean?

So anyway, the problem solver at City Lights eventually tromped up the stairs with an armload of books, including a slim gray one on top. I looked at him hopefully. "Did you find it?"

He had. And I was rewarded for my submissive subtlety with a great read that kept me going all day and all night, and then percolating all the next day and night until this very morning when I sat down on my red couch beneath the small window, inspired, to refigure my old blog.

And I bought a second copy and talked my friend into reading it. And I saw that Kate Zambreno is coming to SF to speak next week. And I learned of a mysterious venue in the lower Haight in an abandoned apartment lit by candles where a man named Janey reads his poetry about snow by flashlight to an audience sitting on the floor. I'm going to go there!

And the balloon cloud floated over all the teenage dancers for most of the night, until some prankster snipped the anchoring yarn and it floated down atop them, and they had such a time stomping and popping and laughing and dancing. We all had such a time.