A few days ago I got caught in a cloudburst and found myself right across the street from Flawless Sabrina’s house on East 73rd Street. Flawless Sabrina, aka Jack Doroshow, is someone I am always very happy to see, but my aversion to just dropping in on someone unannounced kept me from ringing her bell. 

She has had the same apartment since she first came as a fabulous queen to the city in 1967. It’s not big, but the rooms in it are poems full of gold and silver light, worthy of Harun al-Rashid. I waited out the rain in a dry spot, imagining Flawless sitting in one of those glittering rooms inside her pretty building, thinking of my first visit to her. I remember staring at the ceiling, which is embossed with gold leaf that Flawless said is actually tin foil that she and her brother stuck there one summer, long ago. I remember her telling me what an uppity, snobby, mean, and angry queen she had been for a long time. “Is that true?” I asked, because to me over the years she’s never been anything but warmth and kindness. “Oh!” she shouted. “I was furious! Furious! And my ears, so close to my mouth, listened to that shit for years! Fucking Hell! And years of high heels! Oh, my God! You should see my feet! Holy Christ! Oh, my God, they’re knarled! I wore a size four, but it was a size twelve foot I was putting in ‘em!”

Flawless said that if she were a tchotchke in a shop window, she would be labeled “Late Deco,” for having first opened her peepers in 1939. She told about being born in a South Philly slum five days after Hitler marched into Poland. She said peace is an aberration because there have been wars all her life. She told about the streets of South Philly and how they were a feast for the eye, always in a vapor of coal dust and how, during the war, there were rations and coupons but thanks to the mobsters the food they got was fantastic. The best steaks and the best olive oil. She said the neighborhood was full of gangsters and kids and church ladies. On Sundays, her grandmother invited the priest to come over for dinner. So as a kid, Flawless got to ask him questions all about idolatry and the Catholic habit of going into a little wooden booth and chatting up the guy sitting in it about whatever you did wrong and getting the little assignment that wiped the whole slate clean, which Flawless thought was a pretty good deal.

She told me about her mother and how she drilled into her kids’ heads the importance of having a positive outlook like a broken record. ‘You gotta be positive, you gotta be positive, you gotta be positive.’

Yes, but Mother! What about the negativity?
‘You gotta be positive!'
‘But Mother, surely it should be nuanced.’ 
'No, I think not.' 
I think the reptilian brain will more than make up for the differential!

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and the sun came out. I walked all the way downtown to the farmers market to buy some tomatoes, thinking of Flawless. She said that if you have the eyes of a child you stay curious and you get curiouser and curiouser and that one of the downsides of that is that you can be easily fooled. Then she said that she hoped her best quality was that of being a fool. She said, “I would certainly hope that I’m hardwired with fool. Yes, please!” She said she thinks ‘success’ is horseshit because it’s a moving target that can’t be hit and that significance is all that matters in life.

Once in the market, I  was reminded of a very unpleasant lady I encountered there once, standing behind a big pyramid of tomatoes next to a weighing scale. Her tomatoes were arranged so perfectly that I thought I should ask her for two rather than touch them. And when I did, she snapped: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you will have to get them yourself, just like everybody else. We’re not here to do everything for you.”

This took me by surprise and I felt immediately embarrassed. The man next to me turned to have a look at me, and so did the other three or four people gathered around. The lady looked at the man and shrugged, as if certain that he would sympathize with the kind of crap she had to put up with, and said, "I can help whoever's next." 

I was wearing a cape and my left arm was underneath it, invisible. Hanging on my right arm was my shopping bag full of other things, and in my right hand, my billfold. All at once I had an inspiration. I said to the man beside me, “Would you mind grabbing me two tomatoes? Any old two will do. I only have one arm, and I’d really appreciate it.”

The man's eyes got big. “Of course," he said. "Of course!” He shot a look at the tomato lady, who had reddened upon suddenly finding herself the one embarrassed in front of all the people. “Oh gosh,” she said. “I didn’t realize that you were handicapped! Why didn’t you say something?” She fell all over herself as the man put two tomatoes in a bag for me while my perfectly good left arm stayed under my cape doing nothing. I remembered Flawless Sabrina telling me how Andy Warhol used to say, “You’re the boss, applesauce,” to any kind of authority figure. I almost felt sorry for the lady, but she deserved it, and I felt lucky to have had the lame arm idea then and there rather than later. The rain started falling again as I walked home, and on both sides of the street umbrellas of all different colors opened up at once. 

3 July 2009

In memory of Flawless Sabrina, 1939 - 2017

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