by Christina Verigan
February 21, 2009, Q train from Atlantic Avenue to 42nd Street
It’s Sunday night, 8 o’clock, warm for February. A black woman gets on the Q train at Atlantic Avenue and sits across from me. She’s constantly moving, her motions charged, alternating between jerky and fluid. She has a large black bag, wild hair rising straight off her head and wears a bright turquoise tank top, like people wear clubbing. Her make-up is thick and the traces of black eyeliner and mascara thicken her lashes. She’s wearing combat boots and a short black skirt and carries a torn black parka on her lap. I say “she” but her muscular legs and jaw give her away—she is definitely a man. She drops the bag on the floor between her feet and rummages through it, removing a shiny package of dental dams, holding them between her teeth as she gathers cosmetics in her fists. She sometimes talks to herself quietly, occasionally letting out a “HA!”
The woman beside her, also black, is wearing blue jeans, black Sketchers, and a black quilted jacket. She wears no make-up and a scarf wrapped around her head and watches the woman in teal out of the sides of her eyes. She inches to the end of the bench and the black parka expands into the space between them. A purple pedicure kit, toe separators, bronze nail polish, a comb, and the cosmetics are piled on top of the parka and the woman in jeans inches over more. The woman in teal smiles slyly and glances at the woman in jeans from time to time. Jeans woman keeps her head turned straight ahead with her hands folded in her lap. Sometimes she raises her eyebrows and sighs with disapproval. A young white couple sitting beside me whisper to each other, keeping their eyes on the woman in teal. The woman in teal opens a compact and smoothes foundation over her face without using a mirror. She shakes the nail polish and globs it onto her nails, which are already painted in the same color. She pulls down her eyelids and lines them with black eyeliner, then takes the mascara wand and flicks her arm in front of the woman in jeans before bending her elbow to stroke her lashes. She leans closer to the jeans woman with each stroke and laughs.
You don’t pay me no mind, do you? HA! No mind! I’m getting’ ready to go out. I’m goin’ out to 42nd Street I’m gonna sell some ASS! Tonight I’m not even wearing my false teeth because some guys like head with no teeth. But I’ll talk a little more feminine—[higher pitch, softer voice] I’ll talk like this. Does this sound feminine—does this sound more feminine to you? [Bats her eyes. Deep, gravelly purr returns.] But I gotta let ‘em know I’m TOUGH! That’s why I have the lumpy nail polish, shakin’ up my hair—I got my combat boots. [Speaks to the young white woman beside me, who laughs and addresses her as “ma’am.”] Thank you. Thank you so much—$65 for your grandpa, honey! I wanna have a comedy show! Right on 42nd Street. Would you see it? Would you really? OK, well my name is Cookie Love. Look out for me. You’ll enjoy it. You will. [Motions to shoes.] I don’t know how you women put up with all this shit every day. What! Oh my God! Should wear combats. The heels?! I don’t wear none. But do you ever wear the heels? How you guys do it? What a fuckin’ pain, huh! How you all do that? Your foot, your foot mustn’t be built for that. I don’t see how you can walk on your tippy-toes like that. It looks sexy, yeah! But, you know. It doesn’t matter. I could be barefooted, no teeth—that’s how nasty some men are. [Subway recording, male voice: Stand clear of the closing doors please. Subway chime.] I could be barefooted, no teeth, holes everywhere, you know? Isn’t it terrible? Isn’t that mor’n pathetic though? And you should see some of the clients I get. I mean, I’m talking about men in suits—you would be shocked. And they probably got beautiful women at home. And the shit that they wanna do—WHAT! [sings at top of lungs.] UNBELIEVEABLE! REMARKABLE! When I put it on paper, and when I have it done professionally, I’m telling you, it might be a joke, but it won’t really be a joke. From 42nd to 43rd there’ll be a new comedy show openin’ up. You ever go to plays and shows in midtown? Actor? I thought so. I thought so from the first glance. Alright you come see my show. I really hope you do. I’ll see you at the show. [Walks down the platform singing.] [Subway recording, female voice: This is a Queens-bound Q Express train. The next stop is midtown-57th Street.]
Postscript: I was interested in the different responses Cookie Love got from the black woman and white woman. For the monologue I took out the white woman's responses--they were quite short and usually affirmations of what Cookie Love had said to her--but I wonder if the white woman would have engaged with her so much, or so positively, if they had both been white. Glen from Fortune Society talked about how white cops, prison guards, and judges treated him differently--worse, even--than they treated black and Latino prisoners. He said, "...when you’re white it’s ten times harder ‘cause they think you should be one of them and on their side. What are you doin’ hangin’ out with these hoodlums, with these bums in the city? You’re just like them so they treat you worse because you’re of their kind yet…." This might explain why the black woman was not amused by Cookie Love, whereas the white woman enjoyed engaging with her; a black prostitute doesn't threaten her white identity. I may do some digging into psychology to find out more about this--I'll keep you posted. Any tips? ~CV