On my first day in Manhattan 35 years ago, having just stepped off a bus, I stood on the corner of 50th and Broadway orienting myself as to east, west, north and south to determine which way to walk to my destination. It was noontime and the crowd was the largest and busiest I’d ever seen, a whirlwind of bodies weaving in and out and around one another, each independently intent on their individual goal.
As I sorted out the street signs from the profusion of gaudy neon, flashing store front lights, and walk/don’t walk indicators, a single voice made itself apparent above the din of traffic and several hundred people. When I located the source of the shouting, I was mortified to see a man – in a propeller beanie – yelling, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” while pointing directly at me.
No one stopped as they passed, but they glanced at him and then at me, and I wished with all my might to be made invisible. In a panic, I took off in the direction I hoped was the one I wanted, with his pointing finger and his words, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” following me across the street.
A few minutes later, as I waited for my friend in front of the entrance to Saks Fifth Avenue, taking in the amazing crowds of New York City at lunchtime, a well-dressed man of about 30 suddenly grabbed my arm and asked, “Are you married?”
Having escaped the verbal assault just 15 minutes earlier and shocked again at being singled out by a stranger in this strange, new town, I managed to stutter, “Uh, well, uh, yes.” The man looked at his companion as they walked on and said, “Damn, I’ll never find anyone to marry me.”
Welcome to Gotham, little girl.
I’ve come a long way since 1969. You can’t scare me in the street anymore, but you sure can piss me off.
Walking down Fifth Avenue last week near Lord and Taylor, I was accosted by a young woman handing out leaflets. Using my best New York survival tactics, I thought I’d sidestepped her, but no. She followed me down the block. I kept walking. She spoke:
SHE: We’re having a sale. Fifty percent off every haircut.
ME: No thanks.
SHE: You need a haircut. We’ll do it for half price.
ME: No thanks.
SHE: You’d look so much younger in a shorter hairstyle.
The woman had already overstepped the unspoken, New York bounds for a leafleteer and now, critiquing my appearance, she had gone too far. I stopped in my tracks and faced her up close.
ME: (Loud enough to catch glances from several passersby) Leave me alone. I don’t want to look younger.
Did I say that? I wondered as I stalked off. In a culture in which youth and wealth fight it out daily to be America’s number one desirable goal such a statement is heresy.
So call me a heretic. About a year and a half ago, when the price of a cut-and-color passed $200 before tip, I gave it up. I’ve been growing my hair since then and it’s long enough now to pull back in a sort of bun on the back of my head held in place by one of the several hair clips I have collected.
Although it has taken awhile to become accustomed to my new look, I like it now. It is part of what distinguishes me as me. I am well aware it’s an old-fashioned style and it is conceivable there is a shorter cut that would shave a year or two off my perceived age. But to do that, I would need to want to look younger and that desire has now passed me by. I have embraced, it seems, my inner old lady, though I wouldn’t have known that if the young woman with the leaflet and rude attitude hadn’t confronted me.
Our obsession with youth or, at the very least, the appearance of youth, has become a cultural sickness on which the billions annually spent for potions and surgeries (and expensive hair styles) could support several third-world countries. What are we thinking in doing all this? It is the destiny of everyone, barring early death, to become old and there are far more interesting and worthwhile things to do with our time and money in our later years than chase after an impossible illusion.
Oh, and by the way, that guy who yelled “Pervert” at me on 50th and Broadway? Shortly after our confrontation, I discovered he was well-known to New Yorkers. His name was Larry and he had been standing on that same corner in his propeller beanie shouting “Pervert” at random folks for longer than anyone could remember. I saw him now and again over the years, though he never picked on me again, and then he disappeared - one of the eight million stories in the naked city.