Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Playing Hooky

When I was sixteen, I lived in an uninspired 'burb about two hours outside of New York City. I was getting panic attacks in Biology class, plotting a future in which I dressed like a rock star, and working nights and weekends at the Ponderosa Steakhouse where I scooped chocolate pudding out of huge institutional vats and into parfait glasses. I also played hooky from high school as often as possible.

But I wasn't a bad kid. I wasn't banging the entire football team or sitting in the open lot under the transformer tower smoking weed. No. When I played hooky, I went to M_A_N_H_A_T_T_A_N -- for me, The Emerald City – and wandered through the medieval wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I dipped my eager hands into the "British Imports" bin at Tower Records to see if they had any Nik Kershaw 12-inch extended remixes. (Our local mall was too provincial for that.) I sauntered down Madison Avenue in my dad's vintage houndstooth trench coat and a pair of "Risky Business" sunglasses, pretending I belonged. And I was doing it in style – with a chauffeur-driven limousine at my beck and call. That's right. I spent my crusty-brown-apron-wearing wages on a private phone line for my bedroom and the occasional car and driver from the White Star Limousine Service.

I managed to pull off an excursion into The Big City three or four times a month. Each trip cost me everything I'd earned the previous week, but to my mind, nothing could have been more worth it. Even those nights at the old Ponderosa when I got stuck with the universally-dreaded tedium of disassembling the frozen yogurt machine – a task which kept its victim extra late into the night, meticulously washing dozens of miniscule silvery parts and nestling them into their corresponding niches in a slab of white Styrofoam. To me, it just meant more glamour time.

My parents weren't big on taking advantage of our proximity to New York City. They didn't use the commuter rail line like other Long Islanders did, going into the city for shows and museum exhibitions on a regular basis. My mother seemed to think New York was a place where crafty Hispanic men waited around every corner for a chance to slip a hand up your skirt. The whole thing frustrated me. Why did every weekend in our family include a visit to a strip mall, or some home improvement project that was only being done for the benefit of the people who'd eventually buy the house when we moved again anyway? I decided to take charge of my own cultural education.

In the morning, I had to walk to the school bus stop, which was inside a nearby housing development called University Heights. It was impossible to see the bus stop from the front door of our house, so after I disappeared around the corner, my mother could only assume I'd gone off the school as usual.

I timed it so the limousine arrived for me at least five minutes before the school bus came shuddering along. I didn't want to chance having the bus driver see me getting into a long dark car and report it to somebody. The other kids at the stop – well, I wasn't worried about them. They didn't even know my name, and I'm not so sure anyone in a position of authority would have listened to them anyway. The kids from University Heights always struck me as a tad rough. They knew what the inside of the Assistant Principal's office looked like. They were always just a half-step behind the fashion trends, but belligerently so, still flying Farrah Fawcett and Shaun Cassidy wings rebelliously in the face of progress and carrying curvaceous oversized combs in their back pockets like some sort of identifying badge.

They looked on, slack-jawed, as George (my regular driver), a towering, aging black man with sharp knees and elbows and a gentle face with sleepy brown eyelids, swept me into the velvety shadows of the limo's back seat with a tip of his cap. Me -- the quiet, no-name girl with the strawberry-blond bob and liquid black eyeliner, swimming in a quarterback's overcoat.

I used to love making the car reservations from the pink plastic telephone on my nightstand: "Ms. Brittingham, hello!" the White Star lady would sing. "Will you be needing George this week?" God, I loved the way she asked that. I felt like I was on Dynasty on something.

The limousines all had those brick-like car phones (such a glam novelty back then) and I placed a call to school on my way to NYC, affecting my mother's nasal Philadelphia drawl and smoker's hack, telling them that my daughter was throwing up or going to "a specialist" or blah-blah-blah. See, the school had a very clear policy: they would only call your parents to report your absence if your parents didn't call them by 10:00 AM. I simply headed them off.

It was a huge school, and someone like me who hardly said boo, didn't bother to make waves or put forth special effort to be recognized or remembered, was easily lost in their pokey, paper-laden system.

In spite of the dreary landscape of Long Island highway, my limousine rides into the city were alive with a dancing electricity of anticipation, of liberty, of all that was possible, of victory against all odds. And as the smoky angles of the skyline first emerged in the distance, as overpasses and highway signage first began to flaunt their scrawls of graffiti like nothing we'd ever see out in historic Stony Brook, my heart would leap. We were getting close now! We were passing through the outermost rings of the big, grand, golden aura that enveloped this magical place.

On those days when George arrived behind the wheel of a sedan, I would roll down my tinted back window as we approached the city, and craning my head into the wind, I threw all my giddiness forward from my fevered brow. The speed of things happening, of minds churning and millions of lives thundering forward in a collective, wanton spirit of progression roared past my ears and whipped my hair about in wild locks like a bacchanalia of dancers.

On those special days when George showed up in a stretch limousine (which sometimes happened, because a stretch might be the last car available), I'd open the car's sun roof to the raw air, and stand with my head and shoulders rising out of the rectangular hatch. Those beacons of steel – the twin towers of the World Trade Center like benevolent guardians, the triumphant torch of the Empire State Building, the swank point of the Chrysler Building -- beckoned to me. Sailing ahead with the car galloping beneath me, I felt like Boudica leading her charge of seventy thousand men. I felt like the Statue of Liberty herself. I felt like the diminutive but determined Fanny Brice at the helm of her tugboat:

Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter

Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter

Don't bring around a cloud, don't rain on my parade…

Only once, early in our relationship, did George ask me where I was going in Manhattan and why. I brushed some cockamamie story off my cuff about being an artist and going into the city to "have my portfolio reviewed". Damned if I know what that was supposed to mean, but I often carried my real art class portfolio with me, my oversized sketch pad tucked within. I always hoped to do some casual urban charcoal sketches, posing as a local bohemian, hoping tourists would find me fascinating and that locals would recognize themselves in me and nod in cool, knowing artiness. But that only happened once or twice. Usually, I just carried the portfolio around for effect – and for short intervals. When it got cumbersome, I left it in the back seat of the car.

George waited for me everywhere I went. If I planned to go walking around for a while, he'd find a legal place to park and reassure me he'd be right there, napping when I returned. "Take your time, young lady," he'd say. And he was always right where I left him.

I often went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on these trips. The Met is a huge, daunting but glorious place. You could easily spend a year of days seeing and appreciating everything inside, so one visit was never enough. The entrance fee, if you look closely at the sign, is a "suggested donation", which means they may ask you for eight bucks, but you can literally pay them a penny if you want and still get your little metal "M" entrance badge. I always paid a dime for my admission, because I spent so much on the limo that I had very little left over. Exactly one dime. It was what I paid on my very first visit, and afterwards I just made it a tradition.

I especially loved the Costume Institute in the basement of the museum. I could stand before a faceless, minimalist mannequin in a sumptuous 18th century gown and get lost in my own stupefaction. It blew my mind to realize someone actually wore this thing in the time of Marie Antoinette! It was actually worn against the warm, living, breathing body of someone who existed in that time. And I couldn't believe something of such detail and beauty, more beautiful even than the things we could manufacture in our times, with the benefits of our technology, could exist and be owned and enjoyed by someone back then. I think I assumed that everyone before 1895 walked around in animal skins with faces smeared in their own filth, and then, with the turn of a calendar page, they all suddenly jerked themselves upright and started waltzing, constructing bustles, whittling marionettes and waxing their moustaches.

There were rooms in the Met where I simply liked to sit and ponder where I was, smack-dab in the middle of New York on a school day. The cavernous room of the Temple of Dendur, the reconstructed Japanese garden, the Frank Lloyd Wright room -- all superb for maximum dramatic impact. I'd think about all the suckers back at school, and all the confining classrooms I was free of for the moment. Classrooms, those boxy little traps, the worst of them without windows. Teachers and their lectures, as nice as those teachers might be, still terrifying because they were the wardens and I was at their mercy. There were hallways where I'd panicked once, so now they seemed too long, it might take forever to get to the end of them. I avoided places where I'd felt scared before. The list of places in the school building where I felt safe grew shorter all the time.

Sometimes, in my favorite rooms of the museum, I'd imagine myself traveling back in time, to ancient Egypt or feudal Japan. I wondered if there was a formula one could follow, a specific set of steps, like thoughts combined with counting or breathing and performed in certain places, while smelling certain smells, that would transport a person back to another time and place. I wondered how many pointless attempts had been made at building time machines, when all we probably needed were our own minds – but no one had discovered the magic steps yet. I imagined a second-hand book shop in some shadowy corner of London where a musty diary with crumbling, tissue-like pages sat at the bottom of a pile, holding the secret to time travel, if only someone would bother to dig it out and read it. I just knew the world was full of wondrous things to be discovered.

The future was my favorite thing to think about – the inevitable SuperLife that awaited me at the end of this teenage thing. The future was here in New York, in a house that still had its old servant's bells in the kitchen, with a pink sectional sofa in the living room, ferns like green fireworks in the windows, and a room for my wardrobe with a motorized remote-controlled rack and a fainting couch like Faye Dunaway's in "Mommie Dearest" where I could recline for hours, perversely admiring the longer, slimmer legs I would definitely have by then. In the future I'd be a famous writer and artist, too good at both things to choose just one. Life would be a social whirlwind. British pop idols Duran Duran would be steeped in scandal, for two of its founding members would fight one another viciously for the privilege of marrying me. I liked contemplating their confessions of love, over and over again. Sometimes I made myself weep.

Outside the museums and department stores were the streets of New York themselves. The cheapest ride in the amusement park is often the best. Merely walking around New York made me feel like hot shit. I could be content to do nothing else. In fact, sometimes having too many destinations and keeping myself holed up inside places left me feeling dissatisfied. I needed to know I really had been in New York, and to do that, spending a certain minimum of time out in it was crucial.

What I wore to New York was an important consideration. I didn't want to look like some suburban rube in tell-tale snow white mall-walking sneakers and equally white socks, or some ski jacket or windbreaker or worse than that, anything in a pastel that screamed "cul-de-sac". I'd discovered my dad's vintage ankle-length coat in the back of his closet and thought it was really hip. It was absurdly voluminous on me, and I had to roll up the sleeves (which I thought was all the more cool, because it revealed the coat's black satin lining). I wore that coat everywhere, not only to New York but to school, every day, all day, to every class. Never left it behind in my locker no matter how warm the weather. I lived in it. I pinned a cluster of rhinestone broaches on one lapel, and the blunt, angled haircut I maintained completed my overall look. I fancied myself like one of those cool kids Amy Miles and I had seen in Bloomingdale's that one Saturday afternoon in 9th grade.

/>Amy and I both wanted to live in New York City when we grew up. Maybe we'd even share an apartment together! There was no cooler place on earth, except maybe London. The best of everything was in the city. And it warmed the cockles of my heart to be with someone who deeply, sincerely understood and shared my feelings about the place. So when Amy's dad suggested a Saturday pilgrimage by train, just the three of us, Amy and I were beside ourselves. It was the first time I'd actually been to Manhattan.

It was late autumn of 1984, and the New York I remember from that day is one of edgy autumn air, pink and blue neon, red pumps and red fingerless gloves; respectable women in fishnet stockings; people standing in line for things: celebrity appearances, book signings, tickets, tables. Scarves with piano keyboards knitted into them for sale on every corner, Z-100 on the radio in every store; a glaring window display filled with television monitors framing the faces of "Apollonia 6", and the thumping, naughty whimsy of their one-hit wonder "Sex Shooter". Piss and saxophone music steamed up through subway gratings. Big Brown Bags bobbed from cold pink hands. Every now and then, we'd pass a whiff of a Calvin Klein fragrance and The Definitive New York Smell…is it roasted chestnuts, burnt pretzels, or a combination of the two? I'm still not sure, but it emanates from vendor carts and says, "You're in New York, for real!" I always wanted to bottle that smell and bring it back to suburbia with me.

Inside Bloomingdale's, Amy and I marveled at how much hipper the girls' clothes were there than in our local mall on Long Island. I remember taking in the people around me, trying to fix the details of them in my mind so I could emulate the look of them later on. There was one threesome of girls I'll never forget: they went skipping and giggling arm-in-arm through the teen section of Bloomie's, like the muses of '80s style, and Amy and I stood back and watched them in hick-like wonder. They wore ankle-length black wool coats and extra long scarves in solid neon colors – garish lime, screaming fuchsia, blinding danger yellow. One girl wore a length of her scarf tossed glamorously over one shoulder; the others had their scarves bunched around their necks in funky ascot variations I knew I could never copy. They wore scrunchy suede boots with decorative buckles, or patent leather jazz shoes with neon socks that matched their scarves. Most notable and impressive were their haircuts – all of them smooth and sleek and geometric. One side shorter than the other, ends flipped expertly under, swooping lengths obscuring one eye, tidy buzzed sections over an ear or at the nape of a neck.

The three of us – Amy, her father and I, actually froze in place to watch them gallop by, and they were so arresting that even Amy's father felt moved to comment:

"Their fathers probably own the store."

* * *

Bloomingdale's would ever-after remain a favorite destination on hooky days. Its heady aroma of perfumes and retail newness, the chic black deco facade of its Lexington Avenue entrance, were iconic to me. On as many trips as possible, I tried to squeeze in at least a promenade across the cosmetics floor.

"Hey George, I want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Bloomingdale's. Do you think we have time for both? You know we absolutely have to be back on the road by one o' clock."

Time was always of the essence. My school day was only about seven hours long. It took two hours to get to Manhattan and two hours back. That meant I needed a clear agenda in order to get the most out of my time. And I always did.

George had my trust and confidence. In my naivete, I actually believed the guy gave a shit about my truancy, so I tipped him well to "keep him quiet". And I felt my worldly gesture was working, because trip after trip went off without a hitch. The hammer never came down -- George never called my parents or the school; and in fact, I sensed he was getting a kick out of the whole thing. I'd like to think he went home to his wife (Amelia) and told her about this pip of a kid who dove into his backseat from the cracked curb of a weedy subdivision and kept him circling midtown blocks while she looked for the townhouse where Holly Golightly was supposed to have lived. After a while I'm sure he felt like more of a participant than a hired hand. I think I sensed it when, during our routine stops at the drive-thru window of a Long Island McDonald's, he ordered lunch for himself too. I always ate on the road going home, because I didn't want to waste one of my short and precious New York City hours merely eating.

Coming home required a different routine from the morning's pick-up. Unlike the morning school bus, which picked me up away from home, the afternoon bus dropped me off directly in front of our house. I had to get on the homeward-bound bus at school, because my mother would be watching from the living room window, waiting for me to climb off.

George and I always timed things with delicious precision. That very first time, as we turned into the driveway of school, I made a point of laying out the plan.

"George?" I said, curling a hand around the opening in the privacy partition between the front and back seats and poking my face through, "I'm kind of in a hurry. If you just pull up behind that row of school buses on the side there, I'll jump right out and you can be on your way. Oh! In fact, here."

I pulled a wad of bills out of my coat pocket – his tip, forty dollars, stashed away so I wouldn't spend it – and handed it to him through the partition. He glanced quickly at my hand hovering near his ear and smiled as he took the money from my hand.

"Thank you very much, miss. Now where are we going – here?"

I looked nervously up at the school's facade, at the second story classrooms where some windows hung open a crack. I felt like the whole world was watching. Some liberal-minded history teacher was letting his seniors sit casually on the radiator covers next to the windows, and I glimpsed a bent blue-jean-covered leg, a shaggy mullet and an exposed t-shirt tag, too close to the windowpane for my comfort. A sway, a shifting, a turning head, just on the other side of that thin, transparent glass. Oh God, don't let anybody look this way and see a big black limousine in the parking lot. I had to turn away. I feared they'd feel my eyes on them and turn around.

"Yes George, right behind the buses. Just where that little brown door is on the side of the building. Do you see it?"

George pulled up to the sidewalk near the entrance closest to the girl's bathroom. I was ready to disembark, bottom two coat buttons securely fastened, canvas tote bag strapped across my chest, and the black plastic handle of my art portfolio squirming in my sweaty hand. I checked my watch. The car finally stopped.

I clicked instantly into a necessary headspace where I was convinced of my own invisibility. It wasn't so much a mantra I used, not audible, visual, imaginable words across my mind, like, "please don't see me, please don't see me, please don't see me"; not like that. Instinctively, I knew there was something about thinking "don't see me" that would jinx me, make the entire disciplinary staff of the school do just that. The principal, the assistant principal, the gruff gym teacher who presided over detention, all would stride right out of that inconspicuous side door at the exact inopportune moment and the game would be all over.

Instead, I "willed" myself invisible. I imagined myself being completely unnoticeable, as familiar and bland and unworthy of note as the grayish-green spits of grass between the school building and the curb of its vast parking lot, or the dulled asphalt itself.

I opened the car door and bailed out, swiftly, but being careful not to slam it shut behind me. I moved with quick, robotic purpose toward the windowless steel door, shoulders and neck bent forward, head down, trusting, trusting that I was invisible, that the world was not looking right here, right now, at this precise moment. I pulled the door open. A glimpse of a glinting, empty hallway. The girl's bathroom was inches away. I didn't hesitate, just kept moving, a train, ever forward, directly into the lavatory and then into a stall where I spun around and closed the door and pushed the latch into place. I waited and breathed. From somewhere, everywhere, a sphere of noises around me -- the echo of a shrill didactic voice, the creaking of metal desks beneath the weight of restless bodies. Air whined through a pipe. A ribbon of controlled laughter pulled low across a buffed floor.

There was just enough time to pee, flush with the dismissal bell, and sail back out that side door along with everyone else. I let myself get lost in the cattle drive where I'm sure nobody noticed the slow smile of triumph spreading across my face.

When I stepped off the bus, my mother, ironing my father's work shirts in the family room, looked out the picture window and watched me be-bopping across the lawn like nothing unusual happened. It was beautiful.

From that day on, I was emboldened. I hired George as often as I could for those final three months of my last year of high school. I was never caught – my secret remained safe.

I got pretty good at keeping secrets. I was born into a family of experts, so it's no wonder.

I told my mother about my adventures in limousine hooky years later, when I was in my 20s. I thought she'd get a kick out of it. But she just wouldn't believe me.

I thought about pulling out my high school scrapbook, and opening to the page where I pasted a souvenir napkin from one of George's stretch limos, one with a bar in the back. It was a square white cocktail napkin, with "White Star Limousine" embossed in metallic blue. But I left the scrapbook alone. After all, what point was there in owning up to the truth now? My mother could look at a nickel and still swear it was a dime, as long as it served her.

Besides. For me to know the truth was enough.

- Kim Brittingham