It was 11:30 last Saturday night. My dear friend Sarah Jane and I were heading out the door, on our way to the Pussyfooters’ 10th Anniversary Blush Ball.
Sarah Jane was my ballet teacher when I first moved to New Orleans. She’s an amazing dancer & she installed all the plumbing in her own house & all she really wants to do is sew costumes. When I met her I thought, ‘That girl is so cool, she would never want to be friends with someone like me,’ so it still makes me happy & slightly amazed that she’s one of my best friends, eleven years later. The Pussyfooters are a majorette group for grown women: “Majorettes from the Mothership sent here to help the party people get their groove on,” quoth Camille Baldassar, one of their founders.
They’re awesome; they wear pink wigs and white boots and many feathers. Sarah Jane used to be a Pussyfooter; so did my friend Marigold. I always wanted to be one, but then my knee got wrecked, rendering me unfit to march long parade routes, so now I just admire them, and go to their parties. For this ball they decorated The Howlin’ Wolf in black, white and pink, and raised ten thousand dollars for a battered womens’ shelter. Sexy strong strong sexy women!
I took a disco nap while Sarah went out to dinner with a bunch of ballerinas, and then she came over to my house and we got all costumed up. Sarah’s costume was a pink & orange tasseled bikini-and-skirt combo that she made herself, tangerine striped stockings, white go-go boots, a red wig, and an orange-feather jacket, also made by her. This is Sarah Jane, and this is her jacket:
My costume was a purple leotard, a purple wig, pink fishnets, pink gloves, and my awesome superhero black boots. I found the boots when I was in New York City in the summer of 2008 with my friend Christopher, who’s been a crucial part of my life and my creative team for more than ten years. We knew I was soon to have a surgery that would leave me with a humongous scar on my right leg. I didn’t know whether I’d ever want to show my legs again, so we were on a mission to find a pair of flat-heeled over-the-knee black boots…and on our last day there, we did. We joked that they were ass-kicking, crime-fighting boots, and tried to come up with superhero names for each other. Here we are with The Boots:
Sarah made me a pink feather coat last year, so I wore that too. It’s the warmest, happiest garment I own. She has one just like it. Sometimes we go out wearing matching ones, like last year at MOM’s Ball:
When at last we were dressed and getting in the truck, looking like two scoops of sherbert, we ran into our friend John Allen, who we hadn’t seen for months. He took this picture of us; it’s not his fault my phone’s camera is so bad.
So we chatted with him for a little while, and if we hadn’t, I honestly think a man would have died, or else landed in hospital with tubes down his throat and crippled for life. Because here’s what happened next:
We got in Sarah’s truck. We drove five blocks from my house. I was looking out the window, and I saw three men struggling with something that was low on the pavement. My first thought was that they were torturing a dog. As we passed I saw one of them punching a man who was on the ground with his arms up over his face and head. The punches were so fast and so savage. I’ve seen great performers abandoned to music or to dance. These men were abandoned to violence; that’s the only way I can put it. If I’d had more time to watch, I’m sure I would have found it terrifying.
Instead I yelled at Sarah to slow down, rolled down my window, and screamed, “HEY!” at the three men. And they scattered. Just like that. They ran in three directions. They ran fast, like the cowards they were.
This was lucky, as later we found out one of them had a gun. Sarah pulled her truck over and we called to the beaten guy, who was getting to his feet. He was bleeding everywhere. My phone kept slipping out of my satin-gloved fingers; I tried simultaneously to tear the gloves off with my teeth and to call the guy to come over to us – he was staggering around. Sarah got her phone and called 911. The beaten guy (who I will call Pete from hereon out, although that is not his name) was in shock; he was standing in the street. I got him to stand on the sidewalk while Sarah told the dispatcher where we were.
Blood was pouring from a wound on Pete’s scalp. He kept spitting blood. His left eye was already swelling shut, and he couldn’t use his right hand. He said he lived a block from where he’d been jumped. He was a young guy, maybe 25, and he’d left his wife and kids at home and gone to the corner store with only a debit card to run an errand. When the guys jumped him, he told them he had no cash. They just beat him anyway. He wouldn’t sit down. I didn’t even have a towel or a tissue to offer him.
I can’t imagine how bewildering it must have been for him, first to be attacked in his own neighborhood, and then to have two feather-clad females, one red and orange, one pink and purple, pull up in a battered old truck to offer assistance. I’m not sure he believed we were real. He wouldn’t let anyone send for an ambulance; he kept saying he couldn’t pay the bill.
The cops came. They got him to sit down. They talked to him and took our information. New Orleans cops are kind of blasé. They didn’t bat an eye at our feather-clad bewigged going-out-at-midnight selves; they thanked us for being good citizens and for saving Pete’s life, and told us to have a good time, and sent us on our way.
We said goodbye to Pete, wished him all the best, and went to the ball. The whole episode lasted perhaps fifteen minutes (for us, not for him, of course).
We found our friends and we hugged them and kissed them and danced with them. Big Sam’s Funky Nation was playing. The Howlin’ Wolf was a sea of pink, and gold lame. I’ve spent a lot of the last five years stuck in my house, recovering from surgeries, not really well enough to go out and join in life. A room full of costumes fills my heart with joy at any time, but especially so these days when I am starting to rejoin the world. And after such a close brush with horror, I felt like my eyes were double-wide opened to the sweetness of the evening. Everyone looked beautiful to me.
Then it was the next day, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and working on this story, and several things intrigue me.
One is the fact that Sarah Jane and I, avid moviegoers that we are, inadvertently became Costumed Crime Fighters. It didn’t really take bad-ass-ery to stop the crime – it took a ‘hey!’ It took looking at something ugly and being willing to see it.
But given that we were in costume, and given that we’d just seen ‘The Green Hornet,’ and given that I’m incapable of going through any situation without trying to make a joke, we did come up with superhero names. I’m ‘The Pink WASP’ and Sarah is ‘Tangerine.’ (Or possibly ‘Orange Crush.’)
Another thing that intrigues me is the way all of our stories came together for those fifteen minutes and then separated. I’m still thinking about Pete; I’m sure he and his family are still thinking about that night. Try as I might I can’t imagine what the three men who attacked him might have been thinking at that moment, or afterwards. But for a few minutes, we all came together on the street where I live.
And another thing that intrigues me is what it means to me to have been able to make this particular piece of violence stop. Until I was 18 there was a lot of violence in my life. Some of it happened to me; I had to watch some of it happen to my little brother and to our animals. I know how frightening and demeaning and power-removing violence can be. It’s part of my life’s work to heal those wounds and to attempt to use what I learned to be of some service to others.
So for me there is something miraculous in the fact that I was able to make those men stop. It’s the first time in my whole life that I ever was able to make violence stop. And as I said, I didn’t do it by being great or amazing or courageous. It wasn’t that hard to make it stop, and that in itself is a miracle.
There’s a story I love about the Buddha. He sat down to meditate, and all his demons swarmed about his head, attacking him. In his wisdom and compassion, he saw them for what they truly were – illusion – and when he did, they turned into flowers and showered down upon him.
Let me be clear: those men were not illusions, and I don’t mean to suggest that they were. They damaged a living person, but Pete’s story belongs, as Aslan would say, to Pete. What I’m talking about is what they represent, as perpetrators of violence, to me.
I’ve spent so much of my life shadow-boxing with old fears, letting them hold me in and hold me back. Yet Saturday I wasn’t afraid. I had something to offer and I offered it. I had a friend with me whom I totally trust and respect and admire, and I was sure that together we could help the stranger who was bleeding on the sidewalk. And we did.
Beauty and horror do walk side by side. I’ve found that to be true in my life. And by and large, people don’t want to hear about the horror. If it’s ugly, if it’s icky, if it’s uncomfortable, people will do almost anything not to hear it, not to see it.
I lost most of my family – not my amazing mother and my amazing brother, but pretty much all the rest – when I started talking about the violence that had happened to me as a child. I didn’t feel like I had a choice; it was never my secret to keep, and keeping it secret was poisoning me.
How can the world ever get safer if we won’t look at what’s happening? How can we help each other if we won’t see each other when we are bleeding, unbeautiful, sad, humiliated, frightened? This is why I keep talking about it – because I hope that every time I do, someone else will discover that he or she is free.
The thing is, when I acted on what I saw Saturday night, when I rolled down the window and yelled (articulately) “Hey!” – those men vanished like a bubble popping. It didn’t take much – it didn’t really take anything – to help.
And Saturday night beauty and horror were juxtaposed so perfectly that it was almost ridiculous. We went from a crime scene to a ball filled with beautiful women & men who’d raised ten thousand dollars for the Metro Center for Women and Children, to help families escape domestic violence. We danced with our friends. For me, after all these surgeries, just to dance is a triumph of Olympic magnitude (and it always hurts a little, but it’s always worth it). I had my fucking leg cut in half & seven pieces of titanium put into my bones & had two bits from other peoples’ bodies transplanted, just so that I could dance!
So I was dancing, with my cane and my boots and my purple wig, watching Sarah Jane and Marigold really get down, and a guy in a top hat and black & white face-paint came up to me and said, “Are you a Pussyfooter?”
“No,” I said, still dancing.
“What are you?” he asked.
“I’m just a citizen!” I said.
“You mean you’re just a badass?” he said.
It was at that moment I realized that life was telling me clearly that It Was Good. I considered giving the guy a kiss on the cheek, but I didn’t want face-paint all over my face. So I grinned and I said, “Sure!” and I high-fived him, and I kept on dancing.
PS The lovely Lisanne Brown took this picture of me, Sarah Jane & Marigold at the ball:
PPS If you’re wondering ‘What are these Pussyfooters?’ or even ‘How could I myself be one someday?’ go here: http://www.pussyfooters.com/
PPPS If you’re wondering (and I know you are) ‘How can I get a headdress like Marigold’s orange one for my Carnival season attire?’ go here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/lovemarigold
PPPPS If you’re wondering how you too can have a lovely warm delightful delicious feather boa coat, that will keep you warm during Carnival and will make strangers stop and take your picture (and sometimes ask if they can stroke your feathers)…well, the coat-maker is quite shy & elusive, (much like the snow leopard), but if you email me, I’ll see about getting you an introduction. Because trust me, birds are NOT cold in winter. Feathers are warm. And happy.
PPPPPS If you’re wondering whether I love to brag on my beautiful and talented friends, the answer, quite obviously, is yes.