Thursday, January 28, 2010


Intermission. I'm part of a milling crowd in the lobby of the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, 1987. All very exciting, and Act I was terrific. We had splurged on tickets for "Into the Woods," already famous for its huge Giant's boot dangling above the marquee of the theater, visible for blocks.

Suddenly a woman comes up to me, even more excited than I am.

"Didn't you design the costumes for "Phantom of the Opera"?" she squeals.

Oh, for a ready lie! How hard would it have been to lay a finger to my lips, and wink modestly? I could have lived the entire second act as a world-famous costume designer, could have heard whispers rustling like candy wrappers along the adjacent rows, could have pointed a judicious finger towards the stage and sighed sadly at a shmatte that missed the mark. I cudda been a pretender!

But alas, I didn't. I wasn't. When the squealer asked the question, I demurred, I may even have simpered my denial. And that was that. Why the woman thought I was Maria Bjornson I don't know. I just now Googled Bjornson's name, and up came a lovely photo of the designer, sporting a chic beret. I have a collection of berets, and may well have been wearing one at the Martin Beck Theater that evening. On such a slender thread hung a chance to have fifteen minutes of fame. Or something like it.

But a few years later, under the warm, laid-back sun of South Carolina, my chutzpa waxed stronger, and I boldly lived a bit of a life that was never mine.

I had moved to South Carolina, leaving behind the fourth Dodge Caravan that I had owned. ("Old Blue.") My plan was to find yet another Caravan, about ten years old with acceptable mileage. In order to drive around and visit Myrtle Beach's many car dealerships, I borrowed Nancy's Cadillac STS, "Vanessa." Wildly unknowledgeable about cars, I didn't realize that the STS (Series Touring Sedan) was Cadillac's most pricy sedan and, worldwide, Cadillac's flagship model.

Before Vanessa, to me, a car was a car. It took me about ten minutes behind the wheel to realize the difference between Vanessa and Big Blue. It was the difference between pure Jersey cream and skim milk. Powdered skim milk.

So here I was, driving around to dealerships in the latest-model STS, the elegant "Vanessa," in a color called Moonstone. And I was asking the salesmen to show me a Dodge Caravan, about ten years old with maybe 75,000 miles on it. I might as well have couched my request in Urdu. They showed me everything under the moon, none of them remotely what I had requested. I realized that the salesmen considered me an eccentric who didn't really know what she wanted and could be easily overpowered by large smiles and Southern-gumbo rhetoric.

Very well, very well. An eccentric I would become. So I found an misdemeanor of a hat (didn't have to look far) and assumed a Role--sort of a cross between Bailey White's Mama and Angela Lansbury's Mame. I would roar into a dealership, screech to a stop, parade down the rows of cars, and tell the saleman trailing after me what I wanted. "IT'S THE DOGS, OF COURSE," I'd explain loudly so that the cowardly manager hiding in his office could hear. When the salesman tried showing me a Chrysler Town and Country, I'd laugh madly as if he'd suggested a yacht. "Oh dear ME, no! No no no NO! The dogs would devour those seats! Taking the DOGS to the SHOWS, that's what we want the Caravan for! Do YOU personally have dogs, Raleigh? I thought not."

It was rare fun. The SDS convinced the car dealers that I was rich; I convinced them I was cuckoo. They couldn't just dismiss me. I had an attentive audience for any nonsense I spouted. "Fourteen Chihuahuas! One HAS to take out that third seat. Just TOSS it OUT!" For a couple of hours a day, a few days one jolly week, I was Hortense von Clydesdale, trying on that gaudy life.

But even for Hortense, the dealers in Myrtle Beach couldn't find an aging Caravan.
Reluctantly, I kissed my fingertips in good-bye. We finally pressed deep into the Carolina backcountry, to a dealership-and-bait-shop owned by a friend of a friend, where I found a ten-year old white Caravan with 50,000 miles on her. "Vanilla." The dogs loved her. All two of them. Neither of Mexican ancestry.

(Next time, Hyacinth Who? And In the Trenches of Viet Nam. )

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