Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Cluelessby Susan Jane Gilman
From the author of "Kiss My Tiara" comes a funny and poignant collection of true stories about women coming of age that for once isn't about finding a date.See more details below
From the author of "Kiss My Tiara" comes a funny and poignant collection of true stories about women coming of age that for once isn't about finding a date.
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Hypocrite in a Pouffy White DressTales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless
By Susan Jane Gilman
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Susan Jane Gilman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNudie Hippie Kiddie Star
WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I was so girlie and ambitious, I was practically a drag queen. I wanted to be everything at once: a prima ballerina, an actress, a model, a famous artist, a nurse, an Ice Capades dancer, and Batgirl. I spent inordinate amounts of time waltzing around our living room with a doily on my head, imagining in great detail my promenade down the runway as the new Miss America, during which time I would also happen to receive a Nobel Prize for coloring.
The one thing I did not want to be was a hippie. "For Chrissake, you're not a hippie," said my mother, fanning incense around our living room with the sleeves of her dashiki. "You're four years old. You run around in a tutu. You eat TV dinners and complain when the food doesn't look exactly like it does on the packages. Hippies don't do that," she said. "Hippies don't make a big production out of eating their Tater Tots.
"Come to think of it, hippies don't torture their little brother by trying to sell him the silverware, either," she added. "If I were you, I'd worry less about being a hippie and more about being an extortionist." But even by age four, I was aware of my family's intrinsicgrooviness, and it worried me no end. Like most little kids-or anyone, for that matter-I suffered from contradictory desires. While I wanted to be the biggest, brightest star in the universe, I also wanted to be exactly like everybody else.
And so, I was enormously relieved when my parents announced we were going away to Silver Lake for the summer. From what I understood of the world, "going away" was what normal Americans did. It was 1969, and my family was living in a subsidized housing project in Upper Manhattan, in a neighborhood whose only claim to fame at the time was that its crime and gang warfare had been sufficient enough to inspire the hit Broadway musical West Side Story.
At Silver Lake, not only would we be taking a real summer vacation, but, according to my mother, there was even the slight possibility I'd get to be in a movie. Apparently, she knew a filmmaker there named Alice Furnald, who had been casting around for kids.
To call Silver Lake a resort would be an exaggeration. It was a summer colony founded by Socialists, people either too exhausted from manual labor or too unfamiliar with it to care much about landscaping. Small bungalows had simply been built on plots of land, then left to recede back into the woods around them. Dirt roads led to the eponymous lake, which shimmered, mirrorlike, at the start of each summer before deteriorating into a green porridge of algae by late August. The community's one concession to civilization was "the Barn," an old red farm building used as a recreation center. Otherwise, Mother Nature had been pretty much left to "do her thing" as the colonists liked to say.
For a kid, Silver Lake presented infinite ways to inflict yourself on this natural world, and my new friends quickly schooled me in a range of distinctly un-girlie pleasures. Our parents might have been sitting cross-legged on the grass nodding along to the Youngbloods- "C'mon people now! Smile on your brother"-but we had ants to incinerate and decapitate, worms to smush, frogs to stalk, fireflies to take hostage, caterpillars to outwit, slugs to poke at with a stick, berries to pulverize with a rock, and dead moles to dig up in the garden and fling around the kitchen moments before lunch. We discovered that if we scraped reddish soil from the side of a mound by the lake, then mixed it with water, we got a terrifically sloppy, maroon-colored mess. It stained our clothes and the teenagers called it "bloody muddy," so of course we were determined to play with it as much as possible. It was like the caviar of mud.
Better yet was the four o'clock arrival of the ice cream man. I suspect the London Blitz generated less hysteria and mayhem. As soon as we heard the bells on the Good Humor truck jiggling up the road, every single kid under the age of twelve went insane. "Ice cream!" we shrieked. Dashing out of the water, we raced over to our parents, snatched money out of their hands before they could finish saying and get a Creamsicle for your father, please, then zoomed up the hill barefoot and screaming. It wasn't so much the ice cream man arriving as the ice cream messiah.
In Silver Lake, I romped through my days in a state of semidelirium, fully at home in the world, happy in my skin. Twirling and somersaulting in the sunlit lake, I was an Olympic gold medalist, I was the queen of water ballet, I was a weightless, shining goddess with nose plugs and a lime green Danskin bathing suit that kept falling off my shoulders and riding up my butt. I spent my days yelling, "Mom, Mom, Mom! Look at this! Look at this!" then doggiepaddling around the kiddie pen like a maniac.
Yet like most idyllic things, Silver Lake seemed to exist in this state only to serve as a backdrop for some pending and inevitable craziness.
And that's where Alice Furnald and her movie camera came in. Alice Furnald was known in the colony as an artiste with a capital "A." While other mothers walked around in flip-flops and rubbery bathing suits, Alice wore ruffled pencil skirts and platform shoes and white peasant blouses knotted snuggly between her breasts. Whenever she chewed gum-which was pretty much all of the time- everything on her jiggled. I called her "The Chiquita Banana Lady," and I meant this as a compliment: who didn't want to look adorable with a pile of fruit on her head?
One night, Alice called a meeting at the Barn. "As you might know," she announced, "I'm planning to shoot a film here in Silver Lake." Its title was going to be Camp, she said. If she meant this ironically, she seemed unaware of it.
"Camp will star a number of people here in the colony, including ..." Alice stopped chewing her gum and looked pointedly at me and my friend Edward Yitzkowitz. At that moment, I was busy inventing a way to hang upside down from the bench while chewing on a plastic necklace. Edward was shredding the rim of a Styrofoam cup with his teeth. "Including," Alice cleared her throat, "some of our very own children.
"Edward," Alice called across the barn. Like many of the colonists, Alice had a thick Brooklyn accent. She pronounced Edward not "Edward" but "Edwid." In fact, most of the colonists-including Edward's own Brooklyn-born mother, Carly, and thus Edward himself-pronounced Edward "Edwid." For years, I believed that was his real name. Edwid. Edwid Yitzkowitz. (Only when we were grown up, and I bumped into him in the East Village, did he inform me that his real name was "Edward." Or had been Edward. Sick of the wimpiness it implied, sick of its syllabic bastardization, he'd gone ahead and changed his name legally to "Steve.")
"Edwid. Little Susie Gilman," Alice called across the barn. "How would you two like to be in a real, live movie?"
Her voice had all the forced and suspicious cheerfulness of a proctologist-it was the voice grown-ups used whenever they wanted to coax children into doing something that they themselves would never do in a million years unless ordered to by a judge-but I was more than willing to overlook this. At that moment, I felt only the white-hot spotlight of glory and attention shining down on me: it felt like butterscotch, like whipped cream and sprinkles. I nodded frantically. Of course I wanted to be in a movie!
The truth was, until Silver Lake, the year had not gone terribly well for me. Sure, the Vietnam War was going on, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had recently been shot. But as far as I was concerned, there was only one national trauma worth paying any attention to: the birth of my baby brother. Not only did John's arrival demolish my status as an only child, but he was handily the cutest baby in all of recorded history. Decked out in his red pom-pom hat and his pale blue blankee, he was the traffic-stopper of the West 93rd Street Playground set. Other mothers abandoned their carriages by the monkey bars. "Oh my god, he is gorgeous!" they'd squeal, pushing past me to poke their heads under the hood of his stroller. "Does he model?"
I, on the other hand, was cute only in the way any four-year-old is cute: big eyes, boo-boos on the knee, the requisite lisp. But my face was round as an apple, my tummy even more so. I was not too young, I quickly discovered, to have adults declare open season on my weight. If anything, my brother's adorableness seemed to compel them to point out my unattractiveness in comparison. It was as if there was only a finite amount of cuteness in the world, and my brother had used up our quota.
"Oh, your little girl, she so chubby!" bellowed the obese Ukrainian woman who ran the Kay-Bee Discount department store, where my mother bought my Health-tex clothing wholesale.
"I think she drink too much Hi-C," the teacher's aide at my nursery school suggested. "Her face, it get fat."
My teacher, Celeste, was herself a genuine sadist. This was made clear to me the very first day of nursery school, when she led our class in a game of "Simon Says" designed to inflict flesh wounds: "Simon says: Poke yourself in the eye! Simon says: Hit yourself on the head with a Lincoln Log! Stick a crayon up your nose! Whoops. I didn't say Simon Says, now did I, Juan?"
"Well, Susie certainly does like Cookie Time," Celeste informed my mother with a naked, malicious glee. "And let's face it, she's not doing herself any favors. Have you considered taking her to a doctor?"
Halfway through the school year, I lay down in front of the door to my classroom and shrieked until my mother promised to take me home. So there I was: the Upper West Side's first bona fide nursery school dropout.
But now, Edwid and I were going to be movie stars! "We're going to be in a movie!" we sang on the ice cream line the next afternoon. As any kid knows, it's not just that good things should happen to you, but that they should be rubbed into the faces of everyone else. "We're going to be in a movie!" we chorused again, wiggling our butts in the universal hoochie-coochie dancetaunt, successfully and immediately alienating every other kid in the colony.
In retrospect, Edwid was probably as hungry for some top billing as I was. At four years old, he was already well on his way to becoming a dead-ringer for Ethel Merman. Showy, gossipy, melodramatic, he had a great froth of curly hair which he'd brush back with a flourish, and a voice that trilled up the octaves. "Ohmygawd, you guys, listen to this!" he'd exclaim. Never mind that for some of his contemporaries, getting through Hop on Pop was still a major accomplishment: Edwid had not just his mother's Brooklyn accent, but her full-blown, intellectual's vocabulary. "What child talks like that?" my mother remarked. "That kid is a yenta."
And I adored him for this. All the girls did. Unlike other little boys, whose primary hobbies seemed to be throwing rocks and plowing into you while pretending to be Speed Racer, Edwid was opposed to any kind of activity that required you to exert yourself. A burgeoning chocoholic like myself, he was only too happy to sit in a lawn chair eating Yodels and making up elaborate stories about what would happen to everybody in the colony, if, say, aliens landed in the Barn and enslaved people based on their outfits.
Needless to say, the other little boys weren't quite sure what to make of him. They were only four years old, and yet they knew-just as Edwid himself surely must have known-that one of these things is not like the others.
Slurping away on Fudgsicles, Edwid and I talked excitedly about how our lives would be transformed by being stars in the movie.
The only child actress I knew of at the time was the ancient Shirley Temple. Somehow, I had the idea that appearing in Camp meant being the centerpiece of several vigorous song-and-dance numbers: I envisioned myself solemnly descending a staircase in a small white mink cape while a cast of adoring grown-ups fawned around me, singing songs about how wonderful I was until they left me alone in the spotlight for one of my many ballet solos. I would then proceed to perform one perfect arabesque after another, ending each one by flashing a peace sign at the camera just like the Beatles did.
Edwid saw himself more as a magician. "I'm going to be in a long purple cape and a silver top hat," he announced. "When I tap the rim of my hat with a magic wand, pet rabbits are going to come running out. Then," he added, "I'll lock my sister Cleo in a cello case and make her disappear." It went without saying, of course, that somehow Cleo would fail to rematerialize at the end of the trick. Through no fault of Edwid's, she would remain lost forever in a netherworld of incompetent magicians' assistants.
At the end of the movie, Edwid and I agreed, we'd both be in a parade, then move to a split-level house in New Jersey with shag carpets and an aquarium and a kitchen stocked only with M&M's and Bosco.
The morning that Camp was to begin filming, I woke up so excited, I didn't want to eat breakfast. But there wasn't any breakfast to be had-my mother was already down at the lake, watching Alice shoot the first scene.
"Come take a look, sweetie," said my dad. "It's really something." Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that there might actually be other people in the movie besides Edwid and me. Following my father down to the lake, I didn't know what to expect: perhaps Alice would be seated in a director's chair while a few colonists milled around in sparkly costumes, awaiting my arrival. Maybe there'd be people practicing tap-dancing, or a collie with a red ribbon around its neck, being groomed to appear as my sidekick.
What I did not expect to see was twenty-seven hippies cramming themselves into a pink and purple VW Bug.
They were, from my point of view, practically naked. The men had only cutoff denim shorts, and the women who weren't actually topless were wearing tiny, macram? bikinis crafted by Daisy Loupes, a colonist whom even the others considered, in their words, "far out." Daisy made her living selling handcrafted bathing suits at music festivals. That people actually paid money for her creations is a testimony to the strength of the hallucinogens of the time. At Silver Lake, the older boys called Daisy's bathing suits "Bags o' Boobs" and "Saggy Titty Sacks." They weren't being uncharitable.
In place of everyone's clothes was psychedelic body art. Explosive flowers and huge Day-Glo orange peace signs were painted on their chests. Hearts framed their belly buttons, smiley faces grinned from their shoulders and knees. Butterflies alighted from their clavicles.
Excerpted from Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman Copyright © 2005 by Susan Jane Gilman. Excerpted by permission.
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