A Blue Day in Tight Skin

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10/01/2006

W. 57th St. & 6th Ave., NY, NY 10019

Neighborhood: Midtown

Day talked about those skintight hologram jeans for weeks. It was 1978, and they’d look nice for shooting heroin in the basement lavatory at CBGB, especially in the snazzy lilac color with the lime iridescent overlay, and they’d look nice later–complementary–when she turned blue outside on the sidewalk.

The jeans cost $65.00, a considerable sum for 1978, and they were only available at Henri Bendel and everyone knew Henri Bendel’s dirty little secret: Nothing larger than an eight. They couldn’t weigh you at the door, however, which was why I was allowed to accompany Day, who was size two, off W. 57th Street and into the series of small boutiques that the larger store comprised. You weren’t chic if you wore larger than an eight, and even an eight was pushing things in some circles. There were monkey-fur jackets and mysterious veiled cloches, the last perhaps more democratic in assuming you also did not possess a fat head. Bianca Jagger shopped at Bendel’s. Girls from Parsippany with New Jersey thighs did not.

Day was infuriated that her mother wouldn’t give her the money for the jeans. Her mother gave her money for nursing school, for taxis, for methadone clinics, for out-of-season crab legs and large tufted ottomans, but not for shiny lilac pants and overdoses. We took her mother to see the jeans as though they were some kind of touring art exhibit that required an advance ticket. Her mother was a Bergdorf’s gal and had been since before the Korean war; she, like my own mother, dreamed of the day her daughter would open her own Bergdorf’s charge in anticipation of purchasing an elegant trousseau. This would follow a nice semi-career in international banking and would precede what mothers annoyingly referred to as a “successful” marriage. Instead, these mothers were given daughters with boyfriends who resembled gnats and daughters who didn’t know that 21 was anything other than a legal drinking age. Not that the musicians who made up the bug collection would have been given entrée to the mothers’ domains; they did, after all, reject suits, personal hygiene, and regular meals. Everyone remembered the drummer who considered wooden toothpicks part of the food pyramid.

The mothers tried to discourage these anemic boyfriends, proclaiming they were “not our sort, dear” and asking sarcastically if the young men had matriculated at Yale or Princeton, all the while knowing the true horror; the daughter was not only shooting dope with the wastrel, but was paying for his portion as well. The hologram jeans were merely confirmation of that pathetic truth. There would be no chiffon party frocks for this daughter, no Cub Room, no press party at Elaine’s. No Ferragamo pumps or Vuitton purses or titular status at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. No future, just like Johnny Rotten predicted.

“Absolutely not,” Mrs. Lewis decreed, when confronted with this obvious sign of imminent catastrophe. “Horrible things. Why do you girls insist on wearing everything so tight?” Moreover, it was understood that Henri Bendel was a bit–to put it nicely–arriviste, all things considered. Despite dating back to the turn of the century, the store did seem to consider spandex proper material for streetwear, and no amount of protestation from Day would change Mrs. Lewis’s mind. “Now, if you told me you needed a blond mink to wear to Pamela Chaldecott’s charity event, that would be a different story.”

“Shit,” Day protested, “It’s the Dead Boys tonight. For fuck’s sake, Mother!”

In a fit of kindness, we had decided to spare Mrs. Lewis the rest of our afternoon waypoints. Instead of biology class, we spent several hours calling the disconnected phones of itinerant songwriters and economically distressed poets. After attempting to score a joint from an unemployed neighbor, we’d head off to the Fiorucci boutique, where the clothes were louder than the New York Dolls. If I wanted to get a thigh into a pair of gold lame jeans, I’d have to give up the later afternoons we spent in a ménage a trois with our shared boyfriend Jack Daniels.

For whatever reason, Day and I never fought over Jack. We fought over junkie artists and English drummers, but not over Jack. We didn’t even mind that Jack’s own idea of fashion was that jocular standby, the brown paper bag. We’d just go and publicly do our thing in the middle of Washington Square Park. The mothers thought, incorrectly, that we were part of the large throng of students going about the business of education and future, and not part of a seedy fringe display that the students smartly ignored.

“I’ll go back on methadone. Tomorrow. Please! I have to have those jeans.” She wanted the pants more than she wanted a fix, at least at that moment.

Mrs. Lewis considered the situation and offered alternatives. She thought we might call Andre at Bonwit’s and do something about that awful orange hair. There were darling winter coats at Saks, some with coordinating scarves. Beige coats were time-honored maternal anodynes, as sure to soothe a mother’s concern as sensible loafers and degrees from Columbia. Anything but leather or these terrible purple pants.

“What about a nice Halston sarong?” she offered. “He did some lovely tropical prints this year.” She held up a length of sheer blue material printed with tropical lilies and knotted it around Day’s waist. “Girls, isn’t this terribly chic?”

The poor mother didn’t realize that her daughter was going to pass out and die on the curb outside a nightclub after tying on something quite different. She didn’t know that people would shrug and walk away when confronted with this commonplace occurrence, or that her daughter had in the past considered overdoses–her own included–to be special badges of honor and the golden key to a chic, perverted club. All of Day’s friends had gotten used to these preterite emergencies being casually interjected into conversations and hoped that she’d stop equating heroin with heroism.

Mrs. Lewis struggled to keep up with these sudden changes in fashion. Town and Country certainly couldn’t be counted on to report these disturbing styles, and while Vogue made certain arch references, at the moment it too seemed to think the trend was best avoided. The New Yorker, on the other hand, recommended that its readership patronize the establishments where the fad had its genesis. Furthermore, there seemed to be an accompanying soundtrack, which the New Yorker also recommended. Highly.

“Absolutely not,” she said, not realizing that repudiating the hologram jeans also meant repudiating her daughter with an ad hominem indictment that would cause Day to seek out not only those skeletal downtown musicians who couldn’t afford underwear or penicillin but also that outer element who supplied the musicians with the roughest, cheapest palliatives.

Mrs. Lewis had missed that the jeans represented an important step away from the black spandex that we had formerly considered le dernier cri of punk fashion. We had intended to take the purple denim out to Studio 54, not that Studio 54 was much of an improvement, drug-wise. Still, it was a place that Mrs. Lewis had at least heard about, and Vogue felt safe covering it as both a social and a fashion phenomenon. And since there was such a clamor outside the door Mrs. Lewis could feel the safety of numbers, unlike the sparse and criminal headcount Mrs. Lewis supposed would people the dingy downtown punk clubs. She didn’t apprehend that black spandex was outer borough now, and hardly likely to get you admitted to much more than a Brooklyn disco. The hologram jeans, on the other hand, were new and eye-catching, especially when lit from a certain angle. Those jeans spelled upward social mobility, but this was just too difficult to explain. They were a metaphor, the unvoiced difference between uptown and downtown. We might even have struggled to explain it ourselves, had anyone cared to ask. That’s what music was for, and Mrs. Lewis had the driver put on a classical station.

Later on, when Day went blue, Mrs. Lewis wondered about those jeans and asked herself if they really would have made that much of a difference. Yeah, I thought. They would have. Maybe. Maybe there would have been better quality control, better quality dope. Uptown, they used baby laxative; it was so much chicer than rat poison. You couldn’t tell, though. It wasn’t that often that fabric was the difference between life and death.

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