She has curly silver hair, loose pale linen shirt buttoned up to the neck, darker grey linen trousers. Cool glasses. Sort of Diane Keaton crossed with Melissa Leo. An interesting lady. Sixth Avenue and Twentieth Street, a weekday morning. She looks like she has an interview or an appointment.
I have an appointment too, and as usual I had a hard time getting ready to come to the city. When did I turn into a country bumpkin/hippie? Clothes that feel fine upstate, that even cause me to wonder if I’m trying too hard, don’t feel sufficiently armorlike in the city.
I bought a shirtdress two summers ago. Just dressy enough to feel like I’m wearing something better than what I’d cut the grass, tend bar or buy mulch in.
There’s no way I can wear the same dress to the city yet again. It’s reminding me too much of Long Black Veil, the lady with only one dress, driving up and down the Thruway as the dress grows more threadbare with every passing year, and the face and hair above it grow fainter: “She drives these hills, in her one chic dress.” I ended up wearing black jeans and putting the dress in a bag for the Salvation Army.
The silver hair lady is in front of me in the line to buy coffee. Am I staring? I don’t mean to. But when I see a woman who’s still making an effort, I look. I’m taking notes, I’m measuring myself against her. Not in a competitive way. Just registering – when a person looks at ease with themselves, I want to know how and why. Don’t we all want to be okay? Don’t we want to be seen a little?
I think about invisibility lately. Well, I have for years — it’s hard to believe I wrote a song about it almost twenty years ago! What did I know? I was in my late thirties. I remember feeling surprised and even moved when men told me they go through the same thing. It strikes me now how older ladies alternately mourn and feel relief at the loss of the male gaze. What goes unremarked on, and the thing that is even more painful as the years pile up, is how a woman might miss being seen by other women.
“You’re dead to me,” say a load of girls under…forty? As if getting older is catching. Or worse, that you have nothing to offer – not in terms of competition, inspiration, mere decoration. The loss of viability that isn’t sexual is the ultimate in humility because it’s not the loss of yourself as an object, it’s as if the very stream of life tumbles on without you. It’s a strengthening process, to plant yourself firmly in the tumble and flow, to stand like a rock or a tree; “I’m still here dammit!”: sturdy enough to at least delude yourself you have some say or influence on the direction the water takes. Or you just flow, running your own race now.
Ten years ago I became fascinated by those Red Hat Ladies. You know, the society of women that meet in large groups in restaurants and theatres. They wear purple clothes and loud red hats (the younger novitiates in pink hats) to refute their invisibility. “Don’t they look sad?” I’d say to my daughter. “Do you think they’d have me as a member? Just, y’know, for research.” Back then it felt like a little bit of a joke, Look at those kooky old ladies. But they made us look at them. Do they still exist? I haven’t seen one for ages.
The rest room door is locked and I wait for a chance to comb my hair, prepare for my meeting. The door opens and it’s silver-hair. I give her a giddy smile, like if a movie star you just watched on the screen appeared in the flesh. She stares at me blankly, almost looks worried.
“I see you!” I want to say. “You look great,” I want to say. But I look away.