“A middle aged performer of color with a high school education, a postdoctoral reading level, and expert motor vehicle operating skills moves to New York.” Sounds like a punchline, and maybe it is, but it’s also me. Or more accurately, it’s a thumbnail profile of Alexander Wye III.
My aging, increasingly feeble pop is thrilled that I moved back east, but urged me to move back home with him in Lynchton, where I was beaten bloody and run out of town by certain religious zealots a couple of decades ago. “Lynchton’s changed a lot,” he said.
I politely declined. “From what I can tell, the megachurches have only become more mega,” I pointed out.
My pop did not dispute this, but he said, “I could see you moving to New York in the nineties, but now? It sounds like just another shopping mall city. I thought you were trying to escape that.”
Now I couldn’t dispute his point, though I said, “New York is much bigger city than San Puerta. It’s not just a shopping mall. At least give me six, twelve months to try it.”
“And if it doesn’t work out?”
“Maybe we can both move in with Auntie Thelma in Baltimore,” I said.
Pop liked this idea. “I’ll call Thelma. Let’s visit her soon,” he said.
Pop was a formidable entrepreneur back in his day. Even though he’s been retired for a while from the motor coach industry, he still keeps in touch with an extended network of motor vehicle operators throughout the country. Pop may not have sent me to college, but he’s always willing to call his driver buddies to give me a hand. His New York buddy Mo, a veteran public bus driver for thirty odd years, told me he didn’t expect a transit job to open up any time soon.
“MTA jobs are really coveted here, and they rarely open up,” he said. “I will ask around though, so keep in touch.”
“How about taxis?” I asked.
“That’s just as tough, if not even tougher,” Mo said. “You should look into Greyhound or one of the ride-sharing companies. Or maybe drive a delivery truck.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t love lots of highway driving.”
“Do you have any other skills?”
I hesitated. But then I said, “I’ve been a nightclub performer for almost as long as I’ve been bus driving.”
“Hm,” Mo said, “you might have better luck getting those kinds of jobs.”
At this, I thought: what a great town.
So I called my old buddy Arnold, who queened with me years ago in San Puerta, when he was still a college student, and I wasn’t too much older myself. When I told Arnold I’d moved back east and was giving New York a “tryout,” he said, “This is marvelous news! I’m going to do my best to make New York stick for you. The queens here have a lot to learn from a pro like Kachina Wye.”
“Oh, stop,” I said.
Arnold could afford to be flattering. He had done well for himself in the past fifteen years. Now a senior director at a fancy advertising agency, Arnold was known for his flashy campaigns and often starring divas from the life. Still an occasional weekend performer, Arnold also had an eye for up and coming talent. I asked him about show gigs around the city.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Unfortunately Chelsea is kind of over, but you should come with me to Tia Tio’s in Williamsburg. They are the best right now. I’m a sort of curator in residence at their weekly show.”
“Sounds divine,” I said. Are they hiring?
“Darling, if you need a job, you’d get more temping at my agency than from any bar.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve never had an office job, and I don’t expect to ever have an office job.”
“Ha! Good for you. Most office jobs suck. But let me try to convince you another way. Come with me to this art show I’ve been meaning to check out. It’s called A Century of White Women.“
A few days later, Arnold took me for a ‘work lunch’ to Tuscan Kale, a Chelsea restaurant popular with the local crowd and an indicator that “Chelsea is no longer the gayborhood it was.” Salad was the main menu offering, and the tables were packed mostly with thin women who, like us, were watching their weight. With a look of surprise at the unusual curves I’d developed over the years, Arnold had persuaded me to take a break from Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburgers, in part because there are no Carl’s Jr. locations in New York.
“I can’t recall the last time I was in the company of so many women,” I said to Arnold.
“I’m wetting your appetite for the show,” Arnold said as the check arrived.
“Why is it called A Century of White Women?”
“The show consists of 100 unbranded ads––“
“What’s an unbranded ad?”
“An ad in which all the text is removed.”
“Shall we head over to the gallery?”
As we walked a few blocks south, Arnold resumed: “So show has 100 unbranded ads, one to represent each year, starting in 1915. This show is the artist’s follow-up to his previous show, which took a similar approach to black men in corporate culture. With both of the shows, the lack of text in each picture removes some of the product’s context, leaving the audience to contend with the imagery alone. You could say that it’s a critical look at the power, or at least the intentionality, of advertising.”
“Interesting. But this is how you plan to convince me to work for your agency?”
“Like Gypsy Rose Lee said, no one laughs at me if I laugh first.”
By now, we were pushing open the door to the gallery, and I was struck with whiteness and height: the whiteness and height of the rooms, the whiteness and height of the front desk, the whiteness and the height of the receptionists. I’d been to many art shows in San Puerta, but none of them had such an alien effect.
“Are the receptionists part of the show?” I asked Arnold.
He smiled. “No, they look like this in almost every Chelsea gallery. At least the more expensive ones at storefront level.” He said this louder than he needed to, loud enough for the receptionists to hear, though they seemed trained to look passively bored. He stopped by the desk and asked, in the same loud tone, for the show list. Grudgingly, one of the receptionists handed him a stapled sheaf of plastic-sheathed sheets. He consulted it as we walked from picture to picture.
Arnold continued speaking loudly, as if giving a presentation: “These women occupy such an interesting place on the dominant-submissive spectrum, and even the subject-object spectrum as well. See? In most images, they are clearly the object of the male gaze, but in a few, they perpetuate an objectification, of colored servants, exotic locales, phalluses, and children.”
“Did you come up with all that just now?” I teased him. “Such a scholar!”
He grinned with only a touch of sheepishness. “I like my dolls and toys,” he said.
As Arnold soldiered on to the next image in the sequence, I wandered back to a picture near the entrance. I wanted to study the eye makeup of the model. I’d been working on some old torch songs to add my show repertoire, seeking to add an appropriate kind of depth as I rapidly approached the middle of my middle age. This exhibition was unexpectedly giving me new hair, makeup, and garment ideas for adding a bit of retrograde flair.
Two women entered the gallery. Both tall and fair, they fit the white height effect of the space. But they didn’t pay much attention to the show. Instead, one said to a receptionist, “we have a lunch date with Marianna.”
“Marianna is finishing up a meeting,” the receptionist said. “She should be out in five or ten minutes.”
“Okay, we’ll wait for a bit then.”
The women shuffled on admirably high heels a corner near the desk. “What do you think of the conference?” the blonder of the two asked.
The other woman, a reddish-blond, said, “it’s tremendous. And I love the title, Awesome Women Equals Successful Business. It is so true.”
“I loved Mariana’s talk. I didn’t realize how complicated it is to find arts funding.”
“Me neither. And did you know, she’s married to one of New York’s biggest VCs. I think Ted will be interested in that. His company is prepping for their series B.”
“Rydeo is really blowing up! I’m starting to see more Rydeo cars than Marz cars on the streets.”
“Marz has been having some legal issues, and they’re not being very savvy. It’s well known that they treat their drivers like shit.”
“Yeah well, Rydeo doesn’t do that. Ted wouldn’t allow it. Rydeo’s drivers are treated well.”
“Ted’s such a great guy.”
“I do feel very lucky. And for the record, I married him well before his company was valuated.”
“That’s an important point. You know my dad has invested in quite a few startups, so I’ve seen a lot of startup wives. A lot of them are trophy wives. You are no trophy wife.”
“Thank you. With all you’ve seen, I really appreciate you saying that. There’s so much crap that goes on in this business.”
“Definitely. There aren’t a lot of startup guys giving back.”
“I think that’s where women really shine. Like at this conference, I love seeing so many women as investors, donors, and patrons of the arts.”
“And with all these apps that make it so cheap to hire a driver, a nanny, a cleaning woman, a dog walker, and a secretary, it really is possible to run a company, find a great husband, raise children, own dogs, run a marathon, and still throw a party every weekend.”
“Do you think our mothers could have done this?”
“Absolutely not. I can’t stand my mother. She was never around, but she thinks she has the right to micromanage my life.”
“What sessions do you want to attend this afternoon?”
“Crowdfunding $100k in 100 Minutes, Silicon Alley’s Fashion Runway, Nutrition and Wellness Tips for Powerful Pitch Meetings… How about you?”
“Since I’m still relatively new to New York, I want to see: The Best Loft Spaces for Startups, and Monetizing Spare Time and Skills.”
“Hey!” Arnold was holding my arm. I hadn’t even noticed that he’d walked up to my side. “You’ve barely made a dent in the show.”
“I’m still working on it.” I smiled. “I’ve been distracted by… what do you call them? These gallerinas. I motioned to all the women standing nearby. I feel like a sailor lured onto a rock.”
Arnold smiled indulgently. “I know the feeling. But look, I have to get back to work, so I’ll leave you here with your sirens.”
“If I worked at your company, I’d have to go back to work too, which wouldn’t leave me much time with the entire century of white women, and I fully intend to go through it all.”
Arnold shrugged. “Time or money baby,” he said. “It’s one or the other.”
I did have time. But I needed money, and while I was still not quite willing to take on temping, I was willing try a job, through Arnold’s marketing connections, at a startup called Rydeo.
“One of the gallerinas was talking about Rydeo! Her husband runs the company,” I told Arnold when he told me about his connection.
“So you have a connection already,” he said.
“No no, I just overheard her chatting at the gallery.”
“It could be a good omen.”
“I don’t own a car though. I looked at the web site, and they only hire car owners and taxi drivers.”
Don’t worry. “My friend Abdul, he wants to rent his car to another driver when he’s not working. It’ll be a small cut of your pay, but at least it’s available now, and in your line of work.”
“Abdul works for Rydeo?”
“He works for Rydeo, and Marz, and Areceibo—all of them. You might find yourself doing that, too. But you might as well get started with one.”
Abdul, who I met a few days later, said it didn’t really matter who I drove for. “Since you don’t speak Spanish, you might not want to start with Areceibo,” he said.
I told him that I’d heard that Rydeo treats its employee’s better.
“Not really,” Abdul said. “They are so competitive and similar, it’s basically like working for brothers who bicker and treat you the same way—like gold or like shit, depending on the day. But start with Rydeo, see what you think.”
“Will it be ok that I don’t own this car?”
“You have a commercial license and insurance, right?”
“That should be enough. Let me talk with my contact at Rydeo, we’ll make sure that he is the one to take you on the welcome ride.”
“What’s a welcome ride?”
“Think of it as your inspection.”
Abdul made a couple of calls, then said, “Take my car to Rydeo’s office at 4 P.M. and ask for Joe.”
So 3 P.M., I drove to Queens and found Rydeo’s waterfront office. “I’m here for Joe,” I told the young, fashionable, tired-looking receptionist.
“Joe is in a meeting,” she said, “but he should be out in fifteen minutes.”
I sat in a waiting room chair and flipped through a car magazine. A huge flatscreen television played testimonials of grinning Rydeo riders and drivers.
Twenty five minutes passed.
A reddish-blonde women came into the waiting area. I recognized her from the gallery. Grinning like the people on the flatscreen, she said,
“Hello new drivers, I’m Tammy. My husband cofounded this amazing company. I hope you’ll get a chance to meet him before you get on the road.”
There were two other men in the waiting room, both middle-aged, dark-skinned, and a bit overweight like me, and also perhaps new to the city, like me. We sat in a state of late day torpor, bored of sitting, though in a way, we were all professional sitters.
“I just launched Omcase, a nonprofit that helps startup workers donate their skills for a good cause, and I want to ask you for your help. Tonight I’m hosting a gala benefit to highlight Omcase’s top tier charities, and I’m looking for some drivers to volunteer their time with the gala. Would any of you like to help?”
We eyed her with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. No one replied.
“Really? I know Rydeo can really make a great showing. And as the newest workers, you can set the bar.”
I looked at the other men, hoping that one of them would know what to do.
“Come now. Startup workers everywhere have a lot of talent that is underutilized in their jobs. Think about it. This is an opportunity to step up in an act of selflessness for your community.”
One of the men finally said, “I haven’t started working yet… I still have to go through my orientation ride.”
Tammy looked at the other man. “How about you?”
He said, “I don’t have much extra time to volunteer, I’m struggling just to pay my bills.”
She sighed. “I know rent can be high in certain parts of town, especially with newer buildings. But still, this will only take an hour or two of your time, and a lot of powerful people will take note.” She looked at me. “How about you?”
“I still have to do my orientation ride, too,” I said. “But can’t you book some current drivers through the system?”
“No, that would defeat the purpose,” she said. “It wouldn’t be volunteering.”
“Can you ask one of your friends to drive?”
“My friends are taking part in the benefit,” she said, “they don’t have time to drive.”
“But isn’t volunteer driving a way of taking part in the benefit?”
“Okay, fine, if money’s that important to you drivers,” she said, “I will book through the system. She pulled out her phone. Are any of you driving tonight?”
We said nothing, just stared at her.
She looked back for a few moments, then let out a loud, windy sigh. She turned and left the room.
We looked at each other. “I’m actually working tonight,” one of the men said. “But I didn’t want to say so.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
The other man nodded. “Gringas,” he said.
Later, Joe took me on my welcome ride and, as predicted, passed me with flying colors. I asked him, “Does this reddish-haired woman ever come out and ask you to drive for free?”
He smiled. “Ted’s wife? Sure. But Ted usually finds a way to reign her in.”
“Does she work for the company?”
“No, she just likes to hang out.”
Ted shrugged. “It’s her right, I guess,” he said.
After Arnold told me about Tia Tio’s, I went by a few times to get a sense of the space, it’s vibe, and how it evolved as the night unfolded. There are public spaces that make you feel like an outsider, there are public spaces that make you feel like an insider, and there are spaces that make you feel like some of both. I believe the best nightlife venues take the latter approach, often by having multiple rooms that suit your energy as it waxes and wanes throughout the night. Tia Tio’s has three rooms, and I gave my own moniker to each: the pub, the theater, and the cabaret. In my youth, I was more for the grandiosity of the theater, especially when it transformed into a sweaty dance club. I can see myself possibly becoming more of a pub man when I reach my pop’s age. But right now, I’m a woman of the cabaret, an intimate performance space where you can share awkward secrets through song and dance. Unsurprisingly, the cabaret room is Tia Tio’s home for their karaoke night (Tuesday) and showtunes night (Monday).
Every third Friday of the month is a drag competition, and Arnold persuaded me to sign up for the next show, in which he, under the stage name Arleety, would be the MC. I arrived ninety minutes before the 10 PM show and was mildly shocked to pass Tammy and a gaggle of her friends, all sipping cocktails and talking loudly. I think, but I can’t be sure, that Tammy recognized me. She did at least see me, and her eyes narrowed.
I walked a little faster toward backstage. I make most of my performance preparations at home, but touch-ups are always required on site, between each costume change and stage entrance. I cornered a square foot of dressing room and pulled out my make-up case. Arleety saw me, and after air kissing me hello, she asked, “how are you doing? Feel ready?”
“I have to tell you, I don’t feel entirely comfortable performing tonight.”
“Why, baby? Has it been too long?”
“No. Bitch alert.”
“Oh shit. Rednecks? Skinheads?”
“No… It’s a woman who’s with some of her friends.”
“No no. She’s the one I was telling you about, the wife of Rydeo’s CEO. I had another run-in with her at my orientation.”
“Ah, I see. Rich bitch. But I know you know how to deal with the moneyed honeys. You taught me how to do it!”
“She has some power over me at my job. And it’s a weird, indirect power. But I’m not saying I won’t perform, I’m just sharing my insecurities with you.”
Arleety smiled and put her arm around me. “That’s one of the reasons why I love you, dear. Well, if it would make you feel better, I can put the other girls on alert.”
“Sure, why not.”
Arleety turned to the others in the dressing room. “Listen up girls, we have a bitch alert. A table of mean-ass millionaire rich bitches. Work ’em as best you can, but if they snipe, fuck those bitches, ok?”
“Fuck those bitches! Fuck those bitches!”
As the chant briefly grew louder, I was sixteen again, playing and excelling at varsity football because I thought it was a good disguise, being surrounded in the locker room by other men, biological males at least, chanting some frustrated warrior cry against another team, or maybe just a ruthless cheerleader. If I had gone to college, maybe I would have continued with the football, and witnessed the warrior cries growing even louder, more furious, more frustrated with sexual yearning, and sexual confusion. Am I a man? Am I a man who loves women? Am I a man who loves men? Am I a woman? Am I a woman who loves men?
Fuck those bitches. Fuck those bitches. The chant died out quickly. Adolescence, and its particular confusions were far behind us. We have different wars to fight, different battle stations to contend with, makeup stations where we gloss the gel glitter on our cheeks, readying them for the brightest kind of light.