I still think about her, probably 20 years later.
She was riding on the Lexington Avenue line downtown, the local. She was brunette, white, not much older than me. Maybe even the same age as me, but not the same economic class, that’s for sure. She may even have gone to the same Ivy League school I did, but she chose the kind of career where they pay you. You could tell because of how she looked.
She was wearing a camel hair coat cinched at the waist with a belt.
Up to that point in my life I had never seen a camel hair coat. I didn’t, at the time, know they were called camel hair coats. Even now I am not sure why they are called camel hair coats. They look nothing like the hair of a camel. They are soft, and golden-colored. Like the fur of some magical creature. Aslan, maybe.
It was long, down to her midcalf. Obviously cozy and warm. This lady did not have to worry about freezing her way through the winter in a leather motorcycle jacket and a wool cap bought from a stand on Canal Street. She didn’t even need a scarf, she was so warm. I could see plainly the dip at the base of her pretty neck.
She was standing, though there were plenty of seats. Probably she did not want to risk getting human yuck on her coat. It was midmorning on a weekday. The car was not full. She leaned against the shiny silver pole like it was her boyfriend, her arm curled casually around it. She was holding the newspaper open with both hands.
This was not an heiress; the clothes she wore were made for work. Whatever kind of work it was that she did, it allowed her to ride the subway in the middle of the day, breezily perusing Page Six of the Post.
Was I even the same species as this woman?
Maybe if I had a camel hair coat. Just one amazing coat that would pull me together, and make up for all my shortcomings.
But of course, you can’t just buy the camel hair coat. You need the rest of the clothes to go with it. Otherwise you look like a schlubby lesbian who spent her last dime on a coat she couldn’t even afford to keep clean.
I did, some years later, look at camel hair coats at Macy’s. I felt the arm of one. It was soft, like I’d imagined. I caressed down to the cuff, where I turned over the sharp, white tag. One thousand dollars. In 1991. I dropped it like it burned.
During my tenure in the city, I would never truly solve my winter coat dilemma. When I arrived, I brought with me a man’s overcoat I had purchased from a thrift store in Pomona. I loved it because it made me look New Wave, but it was thinner than a baby’s blanket and therefore useless.
The motorcycle jacket made its point but left me with a frozen butt.
I would go on to pay full dollar for half measures, like the puffy down sweater, also not long enough.
The LL Bean Gore-Tex rain jacket was a step in the right direction. Sometimes I wore the puffy sweater under the LL Bean rain jacket. The combination kept me warm and dry, but made me look gigantic and was complicated to hang up in restaurants.
It wasn’t until the last winter I spent in New York that I got something that approximated a suitable coat.
It was only because my mother gave me the money.
We had just reconciled after four years of me not speaking to her. It was my birthday and she asked me over the phone from California what I would like.
I would like a decent winter coat, I said.
She sent me a check for $200, which was probably a fifth of my monthly earnings. I deposited it and Stephanie and I went to Macy’s.
I got a leather coat. It wasn’t an overcoat but it did cover my butt, and it had a zip-in liner. I looked sharp. I could still be read for a lesbian, yet also walk into a nice restaurant without feeling like a cockroach.
I still wear it sometimes, when it gets a little cold in Southern California winters.
Why is it so hard to clothe myself?
Why does just thinking about getting a few tops for work lock me into a paralysis of yearning? I am thrown back to the subway car of 20 years ago, agape at a woman in a camel hair coat who seems to have the world at her feet, her psyche whole and held tight by a soft, golden belt.
Why do I wring my hands? Why do I stall, complaining that there are no appropriate styles for the androgynous? Where does one go for underwear? Must everything be made in China? This off-gassing will make me sick!
And on and on.
Drop down below my daylight protestations of cost and style and worker exploitation, and in the gloom you will start to hear, faintly, the plaintive cry of an infant: “Care for me! Care for me! Care for me!”