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Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas
BY FRANK OWEN

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

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Open Season
BY ANN POWERS

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Black Santa
BY KWELI I. WRIGHT

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

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A Kwanzaa Carol
BY EVETTE PORTER

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”

“Okay.”

“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’

“Uh-huh.”

“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”

“What?”

“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”

“Okay.”

“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

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The Worst Noel
BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

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Holiday on Ice Cream
BY MICHAEL MUSTO

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

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Manger? Mangia!
BY FRANK RUSCITTI

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

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God Bless Us, Every One
BY MARIAH CORRIGAN

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Bah Humdrum
BY COREY SABOURIN

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

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Window Pain
BY LYNN YAEGER

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

[related_posts post_id_1=”715503″ /]

I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖

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From the Classifieds to the CFDA Fashion Awards

Way back in the 1980s, Lynn Yaeger started working in the Village Voice’s classified ads department. It wasn’t long before she was publishing insightful (and often biting) articles about street-level fashions and the politics of dressing. Tonight Yaeger is receiving an award from Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Below we’ve included a couple of choice articles and examples of the ways in which Yaeger cast a discerning (and sometimes dissenting) eye over the fashion landscape.

Affordable Antiques & Collectibles

Left But Not Forgotten — Part One
November 8, 1988

Persons evincing even the most cursory interest in the American political scene will find themselves agreeing that this presidential season can be termed the autumn of our collective discontent. It was not always thus. Readers of a certain age can remember the headier polit­ical struggles of yesteryear, when extra-parliamentary parties crowded the tickets, and the talk around town, rather than merely decrying the desultory task of holding one’s nose and flicking a lever for the lesser of two evils, considered the possi­bility of settling disputes at the barricades.

But not our task to survey and critique the mainstream candidates as they go pranc­ing around the country de­ceiving the electorate, obfuscating issues, and engaging in mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing attacks on one another. No, we are here to share with you a world which you may have just about forgotten lately­ — the world of “third party,” “progressive,” “socialistic” politics and its attendant memorabilia and ephemera. We mean something to the left of the despised “L­-word” here — we mean the more than 100 years of working-class organization and struggle, of the fight for equal rights and woman’s suffrage, immortalized in scraps of paper, pamphlets, postcards, buttons, medal­lions, and the occasional doll or bronze bust.

Although there are many people who maintain an in­tellectual interest in the hid­den history of progressive America, a lot of these types confine their collecting to books on the subject, which they then proceed to read. Undoubtedly a solid knowl­edge of the subject matter is imperative in the building of your collection (how else you gonna know to buy a convict number 2253 but­ton? How you gonna be ready to grab a Victoria Woodhull carte de visite?). We are not interested here, however, in bibliophilia, but rather in the physical evi­dence that these social movements actually existed.

There are, given the mass support many of these movements enjoyed, sur­prising few of these items extant. This is easy to ex­plain. Most people interest­ed in overthrowing the gov­ernment were poor. Poor people lived in crowded ten­ements and did not, as a rule, spend their time lov­ingly storing in scrapbooks or attics the precious souve­nirs of their radical youths. (The very same reasons it is so difficult to find a 1910 apron but relatively easy to locate a ball gown apply here.)

Your best bet if you’ve never even seen any of this stuff is to visit a postcard or paper ephemera show, where there is usually some­thing appropriate for sale. Postcards with women’s suf­frage themes (“I want to vote, wife won’t let me” de­picting a man scrubbing and a gamboling baby) or other lefty motifs usually turn up, though prices at these shows may be discouraging. Dealers specializing in paper ephemera are sure to have something — look through stacks of magazines from November 1917 forward for responses to the Bolshevik Revolution, ranging from the nervous to the hysterical but with a few surprisingly optimistic accounts.

Those with sufficient knowledge to seek out a bar­gain should look with both eyes at the displays of but­ton and ephemera at general flea markets. Here it is like­ly that you will know more than the seller and, when locked in battle over a Farmer/Labor pamphlet or William Z. Foster button, you will probably emerge the victor. (We were able to pick up a Robert Emmet “Let no man write my epi­taph” commemorative badge for a song because the 19-year-old dealer thought it was just a funny old piece of junk.)

Of course, the more you know, the easier it gets. You may spend a lifetime chas­ing Knights of Labor, I.W.W., and Lowell strike items without success, but along the way you will surely turn up some fascinating substitutes. Though it’s pos­sible, after years of stalking, to locate a “Votes for Wom­en” bisque statuette or a Eu­gene Debs convict bust, we dare you to bring us, at whatever price, the circa 1875 Automatic Toy Works suffragette clockwork toy, who, when activated, leans forward in her checkered dress and bonnet and bangs her tiny fist on a miniature rostrum to illustrate her point.

(Next column: The Mod­ern era! The War Years! The ’60s! The Panthers! The New Left!) ■

Feminist Collectibles
July 4, 1989

The antiques price guides we read list plenty of souve­nirs of suffrage. They men­tion “Votes for Women” pin-backs, “Mr. Suffer-Yet” cartoon buttons, and Em­meline Pankhurst bronze medals. They tell of 48-card “Votes for Women” games, and suffragette glass candy containers, and geese figu­rines wearing sandwich signs. Maybe we’re always in the wrong place at the wrong time (something we’ve long suspected), but, not unlike notoriously elusive Wobbly (IWW) material, suffrage stuff always re­mains in the rarefied world of the memorabilia price lists, never an arm’s length away from us on a bridge ta­ble at the flea market.

Let’s face it — we are what used to be called “political” people. When we think about old pamphlets, leaf­lets, banners, and the like, we twitter with excitement. We can’t think of a whole lot of things we’d rather spend our money on than the ribbons, pennants, and other assorted insignia from the late 19th and early 20th century women’s movement. We even think we have a fair idea of what we’re look­ing at and for (after all, didn’t we spend years in the academy blathering on about “women’s hidden history”?).

And we truly believe this stuff has got to be out there somewhere! The assiduous collector might begin by hunting through stacks of printed matter at that old standby, the paper ephem­era show, where one can usually come up with a mag­azine or newspaper article at least tangentially related to the subject under discus­sion. (Suffrage, always a hot topic for editorial page writers, is not difficult to find mention of once you famil­iarize yourself with the dates involved.) The travel­ing autograph shows held frequently in midtown hotels are less intimidating than upscale autograph showrooms; and might be able to produce something along the lines of, say, a Vic­toria Woodhull carte de vi­site. (Geraldine Ferraro autographs, for those who believe that these constitute a wise investment, are usu­ally available and fairly cheap.) You might also consider visiting one of the fre­quently held all-postcard shows — bizarre affairs where members of this par­ticular subculture crouch for hours in front of endless rows of boxes flipping and flipping through millions of pieces of cardboard. Ask the dealers if they have any suf­frage items and you just might be surprised with a British “I Want My Vote” meowing kitty card or a multicolored “Stumping for Votes.”

Of course, you could ditch the suffrage angle altogether and come up with a unique one-of-a-kind collection documenting the position of women in history. Here the ingenuity and wit of the cu­rator, rather than the vaga­ries of the market, would hold sway. How about the collection of makeup, start­ing with an 18th century patch box (spend the mon­ey!) through Princess Pat and Mum, right up to Biba (keep looking!) with a little homespun Avon thrown in? Why not a collection of bathing outfits dating from 19th century swimdresses with their stockings and shoes (difficult but not im­possible to find) and ending with a Rudi Gernreich top­less number? The clever connoisseur, by selecting just the right field and then tracking down the most au­thoritative examples, can end up building a collection more exciting, more infor­mative, and more scathing in its critique of women’s roles, than the highest, thickest stack of vintage pa­pers and buttons. ■

 

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IT’S THE SHIT

Romantic Shit. Jaguar Shit. Deep Shit. Bull Shit. Scary Shit. These are just a few of the works on display in Andres Serrano’s new Shit Show, an exhibition featuring 66 photos of excrement, each piece from a different animal. Serrano, whose 1989 Piss Christ spurred an outraged Jesse Helms to try to outlaw the National Endowment of the Arts from funding such projects, told our own Lynn Yaeger that he can actually see faces and tableaux in the gooey brown piles, including the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima in the one called Heroic Shit. “My ego as an artist says I can make anything look good, even shit,” the artist told her. You be the judge at tonight’s opening party. Something tells us no one will be in the mood to touch the hors d’oeuvres. Opens today, through October 4, Yvon Lambert Gallery, 550 West 21st Street, 212-242-3611, free

Thu., Sept. 4, 7 p.m., 2008

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The New York Flea Market Scene

It’s a freezing spring morning, but Sue Whitney, the co-author of Junk Beautiful: Room by Room Makeovers with Junkmarket Style, is preternaturally cheerful despite the weather, smiling gamely behind a book-signing table at the Hell’s Kitchen flea market. In front of her are three examples of the kinds of things she has made out of rotten junk over the years: a former Boy Scout flagpole turned into a toilet-paper holder, a pair of violin necks employed as picture frames, and a nasty old birdcage that has become a lamp. Whitney, who has pale blue eyes and looks a little like Florence Henderson, is here to autograph her latest tome, but she is also willing, at the least provocation, to demonstrate her techniques firsthand.

I have a bone to pick with the author. When I leafed through her book earlier in the week (I like anything with “junk” and “makeover” in the title), I saw instructions on how to decorate your veranda, sex up your laundry room, renovate your capacious home office, and other hints to enhance Xanadu-like spaces. (Though why, if you owned one of these palatial spreads, you’d be forced to decorate with junk isn’t addressed in the book.)

So what is Whitney doing hawking her book in Manhattan, where so many of us live in one or, if we’re really lucky, two unspeakably miniature rooms? “Even if you live in a studio, you can pull ideas,” she tells me gently, opening her book and pointing to a picture of a bathroom that she says in reality is a “tiny, tiny little room—things photograph a lot bigger than they are.” I’m warming up, but then she kills the mood by flipping the pages and showing me a closet that a client “didn’t need,” so Whitney turned it into a vanity.

A closet that you don’t need? What language are you speaking? People I know spend hundreds of dollars every month to rent storage spaces, just so they don’t have to pile their extra stuff in the middle of the living-room floor. Whitney, who lives in a 3,800-square-foot house in Minneapolis, doesn’t know from storage space. She recommends organizing your things in clear plastic containers, an idea that I never cared for—the whole idea of storage is to shove things into some dark corner or musty trunk and never see them again, not have them staring at you accusingly through the transparent walls of an ugly cheap tub.

Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood because I hate the Hell’s Kitchen flea market, which to me will never hold a candle to the old Chelsea flea district, where there were once at least four big parking lots devoted to antiques and collectibles every weekend. Now, slick overpriced apartment buildings have cannibalized those former lots, and the extant flea-market landscape is composed of one sad lot plus the famous bilevel garage on 25th just east of Sixth, which is still fabulous but which, rumor has it, is also doomed—dark whispers among the dealers say it’s slated to close in November.

Whitney is undaunted by my sour face. In fact, she offers to stroll through the flea with me and tell me what’s so good about it. It’s funny, but as soon as I see things through her eyes, the market seems a whole lot better. While I tend to concentrate on itsy-bitsy girly gunk—Bakelite mirrors, beaded purses—Whitney, a former private investigator (guess she always liked searching for the unfindable), is attracted to industrial detritus—rusty surveying tools, metal-rimmed crates, wooden hat molds, even a collapsible laundry basket. She nearly has a heart attack of joy when we discover pairs of push-pull brass doorplates for $50 a set.

We discuss the regional differences in flea markets. On the coasts, you tend to find a lot of vintage fashion (she suggests you line an old purse with plastic and use it to hold bath soaps); Minnesota is the place to buy hatchery stuff, like one of Whitney’s favorite items, a chick transporter.

Whitney is so transfixed by a rotting hardware-store cabinet that she doesn’t appear to be listening when I whine for the millionth time that I guess the Hell’s Kitchen market is sort of OK, but it’s not like the old days, it’s way over on the West Side, blah, blah, blah. Then a guy overhears me and says: “What about that market that’s opening in Brooklyn next week? That should be great!”

Brooklyn? That’s even worse than 39th Street and Tenth Avenue. Nevertheless, the following Sunday morning, I scamper onto the subway in search of this new Jerusalem. The day doesn’t begin well: Incomprehensible weekend-service changes leave me dazed and confused blocks from the flea, but a pair of nice ladies who surmise by the fact that I am flapping haplessly along Fulton Street guess my destination and are kind of enough to point me in the right direction.

For all this effort, there had better be diamond-encrusted Fabergé eggs for a dollar, I’m thinking as I trudge to the schoolyard of the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, where the market is held. When I finally get there, there isn’t any Fabergé (surprise), but I do find a whacked-out 80-year-old doll with just a single hank of hair on her head (the sort of thing I like) for $65, and an old tweed coat with a bizarre furry mantle that would make you look like Ethel Rosenberg, but in a good way, for $50, and even a spectacular lipstick-red chair sporting a carefully typed-up description stating that it’s a “Czech Functionalist Armchair” and costs $1,350. Even the T-shirts, normally the bane of my existence, are minimally witty, displaying pictures of Tom Waits and the acronym WWTWD.

Well, if he lives in Brooklyn, Waits might just toddle over to this market, and if I lived in Brooklyn, I’m sure I’d come back, too. But as it stands, though this is a perfectly lovely neighborhood flea, if it isn’t your neighborhood, I’m not 100 percent sure it’s worth the schlep. The truth is, what Manhattan needs—what all the boroughs need—is far more of their own flea markets, just like this one. Flea markets on every corner all summer long! Why not? Why can’t all those hideous high schools, loathsome places I couldn’t wait to escape from, redeem themselves by hosting tables of junk every weekend?

I flag down a car-service sedan and take my leave (I’m usually pathologically cheap when it comes to transportation, but desperate times call for desperate measures: The train is broken, and there aren’t even any yellow cabs around here—I’m starting to feel like I’m in L.A.). As the car pulls away, I notice a woman leaving the market staggering under the weight of what appears to be a four-foot-high metal gear. She looks as happy as Sue Whitney discovering a chick transporter.

lyaeger@villagevoice.com

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Donna Karan Goes Zen, Yaeger Contemplates Shaving Her Head

I am standing on the pay line at the Donna Karan sample sale, and I am holding not one but two 1920s coats. One is black velvet, with a collar made from some noxious white fur that is shedding all over me; the other is richly embroidered but miserably faded. I know I should dump these rags on the floor and run, but the black beauty is a mere $50, the embroidered number a ridiculous $25, and sample-sale madness, like all shopping madness, has gotten hold of me and I am helpless to resist.

The paradox I am facing—why buy more stuff when I’m trying desperately to get rid of all the dust collectors I already have? What is the point of all this getting and spending and laying waste our bank accounts?—is, I suspect, the very conundrum that led to this sale in the first place.

Karan and her team were legendary for sweeping through vintage-clothing stores and antique shows all over the globe and gathering fistfuls of goods for “inspiration.” But a funny thing happened on the way to the flea market: At the pinnacle of her retail success, with her name slapped on everything from unguents to underpants, bodysuits to brassieres, Donna became fascinated with issues far deeper than a plunging neckline. Which is why all this stuff is priced to go for the benefit of Karan’s latest enthusiasm, something she calls the Urban Zen Foundation.

And plenty of stuff there is. The aroma of incense clings to what appear to be thousands of examples of the kind of souvenirs you buy when you’re traveling in Tangier or Bhutan—knotty baskets, wooden bowls, metal urns, and other unwieldy items you drag home and then never want to see again.

Which is not to say I don’t want to purchase them here and now, especially at these prices. (There’s nothing worse than dragging yourself to a so-called sample sale only to find the merch is still hundreds of dollars.) In addition to the third-world housewares, there are racks upon racks of DK apparel, an array so immense it’s like a history of the company in miniature—you can see the development of Karan’s design philosophy, from Victorian camisoles to slinky leotards to saris and kimonos.

Clutching my flapper coats—because even as I suspect that I will never wear either of them, I am terrified that if I put them down even for a second, someone else will snatch them up—and passing tables groaning with ostrich eggs, half-rotted fishing-tackle boxes, temple bells, etc., I seek out Kevin Salyer, who is the Urban Zen Foundation’s vice president for retail development.

So what’s this Urban Zen business about anyway, Kevin? “Urban Zen was started by Donna to begin raising awareness and to inspire change.” Huh? Awareness of what, exactly? I snap, my arms aching from carrying the coats. Salyer doesn’t miss a trick. “To preserve cultures, empower children, and to develop wellness programs,” he says evenly.

Well, all noble goals, to be sure (though I must admit that when I hear words like “empower,” “children,” and “wellness” in the same sentence, I kinda gag just a teensy). But more to the subject at hand: Doesn’t it hurt to divest yourself of things you’ve collected for years? “It’s always difficult to part with things that have meaning—and it’s not like Donna’s going to stop shopping,” Salyer reassures me. “It’s very—I don’t want to say ‘cathartic’—it’s letting go, like when you spring-clean. Donna wanted to have an opportunity to share and give other people a chance to enjoy things she finds interesting and beautiful. There’s quite a scope of products here, and everyone likes a bargain. It’s kind of like keeping the cycle of the economy going. She’s long been a very generous giver—giving her time, her energy, and her money to help fund cancer research for years.”

I suddenly feel like such a jerk—what’s my problem with preserving cultures and furthering wellness anyway? Salyer reminds me that Karan started Super Saturday in the Hamptons, a famous charity sale at which fashionistas pay serious admission money to knock one another down in search of designer bargains. I actually went to this once (press comp, to my shame). Elle McPherson was there. I remember it as if it were yesterday: “Ellie, Ellie!” called a super-tanned guy in expensive loafers when she walked in ahead of invisible me. In a far corner of the vast lawn—the sale was at some Richie Rich’s spread in Water Mill—fully empowered children with painted faces were stuffing their cakeholes and going on rides. I didn’t buy anything.

Salyer interrupts my reverie. “You should go by the Urban Zen store—it’s right next-door,” he says. “It opened last May to fund the foundation. Donna’s a longtime retailer with a very clear point of view—her experience, her lifestyle. It’s really an extension of the rest of her life.”

So I stop by the store, which has a sign in its elegant, spare window that says: “Raise Awareness. Inspire Change.” It’s a gorgeous space, with rough-hewn tables and benches piled artfully with coffee-table books extolling various aspects of the glorious, mysterious East and merchandise that includes a pair of droopy wool jersey pants for $550 and a gift set of shower gels and other potions for $210 bearing the label Como Shambhala.

Are these items, lovely as they are, anywhere near what a real Zen master might require? I decide to contact a genuine practitioner for answers to this pressing question, and am thrilled when Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, the abbot of Dotoku-ji/Village Zendo, is nice enough to return my call.

“The guidelines are to wear things that are very simple—though it’s actually a little more complicated than that,” Enkyo Roshi explains. “It’s black for Japan, in Korea it’s simple gray, in Vietnam simple brown, here in America pretty much something very dark and muted—a shade that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the body. In the temple, we wear cotton robes made of plain homespun that we make ourselves or have made. Priests wear traditional robes—it goes back to the Buddha. The idea is to wear something that doesn’t distract.”

What does she wear to go to the grocery store? Jeans and a tee? “I wear my black work jacket—I just wear black all the time,” she says. “People here think I’m a martial artist, but someone from the East, someone Japanese, would know I’m a priest by the simplicity of it and my shaved head.”

You mean to tell me that someone bald and wearing solid black at the supermarket isn’t slightly distracting? “You’re quite right,” Enkyo Roshi replies, with just the whisper of a chuckle. “I’m the only woman at the Zendo who does shave—it helps me connect with people in places like the airport or the subway. The shaved head is a choice for both men and women. It’s definitely not required—it certainly isn’t intrinsically holy. Lots of the other practitioners kind of have buzz cuts.”

Turns out that Donna, who has a full head of hair, has actually stopped by the Village Zendo a couple of times, and Enkyo Roshi has met her. “I think what she’s doing is quite marvelous; she’s such a trendsetter,” she says. “I’ve seen the garments—a few simple things. I think it’s wonderful to have someone paying attention to simplicity. I’ve talked to her a few times. I told her to follow her path.”

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How To Wear Your Vote

How do you wear your politics on your sleeve if you won’t be caught dead in a T-shirt and can’t risk piercing a vintage velvet coat with a metal pinback? I’d no sooner don a baseball cap than a burqa. I once draped around myself, sari-style, a rainbow-striped banner that proclaimed, “We the people say NO to the Bush agenda,” but although the sentiment resonated, the outfit did not.

Sadly, when candidates call for change, they aren’t talking about your wardrobe: Those three hideous horsemen of campaign-themed dressing—the T-shirt, the metal button, and the cap—continue to dominate the politico-sartorial landscape.

Then again, you wouldn’t expect anything cutting-edge from JohnMcCain.com, where the online store offers tees as dull as the candidate’s speeches and bright green St. Patrick’s Day McCain mugs to cling to while vomiting outside McSorley’s. Prospects improve marginally at BarackObama.com. The mildly witty “Got Hope?” tee and a spaghetti-strapped “Women for Obama” tank (not described by its real name: a “wife-beater”) are joined by an item that is actually vaguely fashionable: a bangle reading “Hope” that is reminiscent of those Lance Armstrong bracelets everyone liked so much a few seasons back.

Over at HillaryClinton.com, the merch is perfectly pitched for her supposedly solid demographic: women of a certain age who might consider wearing a sterling-silver “H” bauble for $25 or a crystal Hillary brooch for $15. A pin that reproduces Clinton’s signature in brass costs a whopping $100 and was designed by someone the site describes as “the prominent Washington, D.C., jewelry designer Ann Hand.”

Further investigation reveals that Hand, who has two stores in the Beltway area, holds no particular brief for Hill: She also offers silver-plated Swarovski crystal presidential-candidate pins with the names of all the major contenders at $45 per. Hand tells me that at one time she had a raft of other crystal brooches—Huckabees and Edwardses and Bidens—but now, like the rest of the electorate, she’s down to three.

Here’s what’s so much fun about Hand: She keeps track of how many pins have been sold thus far and posts the tally in her shop windows. On the day I call her, the numbers are 187 for Clinton, 202 for McCain, and an impressive 535 for Obama. (Romney was doing well, garnering 200 or so in sales before he and his pins dropped out.) “We’ve never done this for the primaries before,” Hand tells me. “Normally we don’t start with our pins until the general election, but this year is different.” Then she adds some good news for Obama: “It’s amazing how close we come to tracking the national election results.”

If a Georgetown jeweler offers tasteful gold-tone lapel pins for tasteful ladies, Obama’s supporters, as you might suspect, suggest somewhat wackier stuff. I turn my gaze leftward to something, or someone, called Obey, a/k/a Shepard Fairey, an artist and skateboarder who is responsible for the “Andre the Giant has a posse” graffiti, which Fairey describes as “a street-art project and an experiment in phenomenology,” whatever that means. (How obvious is it that I don’t know what I’m talking about?) Anyway, this Fairey/Obey has designed a highly collectible Obama poster and tee depicting the senator in a Mao-like pose with the slogan “Hope.” An alternative samizdat version on eBay offers the shirt with the word “Dope” instead, and the following explanation from its creator, lest a potential buyer thinks this impugns the candidate’s intelligence: “Dope is slang for excellent, phat, cool . . . I think Obama is dope, so I made this shirt.”

(In an attempt to remain fair and balanced, it should be noted that Marc Jacobs, who a lot of people think is very cool, has reissued a tee he made for Hillary when she was a Senate candidate.)

The truth is, once you veer away from the candidate-approved goods, there’s a wild world out there. At the cleverly named WhiteHouse.org, you can order a shirt that says “George W. Bush is a lying sack of shit,” and I am ashamed to admit that I chuckled a few times when I discovered ShopMetroSpy.com, an ultra-right-wing site that states: “Over the next hundred years . . . things may get warmer and things may get cooler. Either way, we don’t care. During the next Ice Age we expect to sell more sweatshirts than T-shirts and more beanies than baseball caps. . . . We use all manner of canned aerosols to clean and disinfect after a liberal leaves our office.”

Unfortunately, mirth-squelching homophobia and racism rear their heads all too frequently on the site. Still, I want to find out who designed some of MetroSpy’s more obnoxious tees, so I phone up the company’s owner, Dan Jordan, and wouldn’t you know it, he couldn’t be lovelier. Who thought up the tee featuring a guy in a head wrap leading a donkey with the legend: “The vote is in! Nine of 10 terrorists agree: A Democratic Congress is good for Jihad”? Who’s responsible for the baseball cap with a pic of a pachyderm that reads “Hung like a Republican”?

“I design all the stuff myself. I’ve got people to pack it up, but I design it,” Jordan tells me, adding that occasionally he bows to popular demand, like the “Border Patrol” caps he made in response to requests that were purportedly pouring in. What’s his favorite shirt on the site right now? He pauses for a long moment, then says, “I like the one that says: ‘Who is scarier? Osama, Obama, or Chelsea’s mama?’ ”

Jordan got his start in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, when he noticed there were lots of anti-war shirts around but nothing representing his point of view. “I thought it would be fun to make a shirt that said ‘Pro-War,’ and a couple of shirts attacking the French,” he says. “It started as kind of a joke.” The joke grew into a business offering around 400 items. Asked what he currently thinks is his most offensive design, he chooses the “My Perfect Republican World” tee, which he confesses actually didn’t sell all that well. (The wordy shirt in question features a long list of qualities that this “perfect world” would exhibit, including gems like “Jimmy Carter is buried beneath a collapsed Habitat house during an earthquake in Iran” and “Alec Baldwin is found lifeless on a massage table after receiving a horrific bite from a transvestite in Palm Springs.”) “I think it was a little rough,” Jordan acknowledges. “Our job is not to make the offensive too offensive, or people don’t want to buy them.”

Still, Ron Paul supporter that he is, Jordan says: “I’m not a nut about it. We even tried a couple of shirts for the other side—they didn’t work out at all.” Does everyone employed by his company agree with his politics? “Mostly, they don’t care,” he laughs. “But about a year ago, I hired a young lady—a lesbian with tattoos who played in a punk band. She was one of my best employees.”

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Post-Oscars, the Dress Knock-Off Crowd Gets Busy

“I had 99 percent of the fabrics already. I didn’t have feathers yesterday, but I got them now.” It’s the morning after the Oscars, and Allen Schwartz, world-famous king of the red-carpet replica—adored by thousands for his copies of Academy Award gowns, reviled by others as a blatant, shameless rip-off artist—is telling me what he thought of the broadcast, which he and the design team from his company ABS scrutinized as avidly as a tomcat guards a mouse hole.

Of the many thousands of yards of duchesse satin, silk chiffon, and organza that floated down the red carpet on Oscar night, Schwartz isolates five or six styles that he’s convinced will look as good at a prom in Winnetka as they do in the corridors of the Kodak Theater.

Hilary Swank’s Versace, Jennifer Garner’s Oscar de la Renta, and Katherine Heigl’s Escada make the cut, and Schwartz is especially taken with Jessica Alba’s feather-laden Marchesa. He thinks she looks great despite the fact that she’s six months pregnant—good news for girls who want the Alba look but are not a size two. ABS dresses retail for between $400 and $500, and Schwartz claims they’re made as well as the couture stuff—or better. “My customers don’t spend 10 thousand or 20 thousand on a dress,” he says. “They’d rather buy a car.”

Even someone who merely glanced at E! between trips to the fridge and the toilet would have noticed that everyone from Miley Cyrus (who, two weeks earlier on the Grammy red carpet, gave a shout-out to the three men in her life: her father, her brother, and Jesus Christ) to the patrician Helen Mirren was clad in crimson, and of course Schwartz is all over it. But he hastens to add that he’s got plenty of other colors, including the greenish hue of Amy Adam’s green Proenza Schouler.

No Björk swans muddy the water this year. When I bring up Tilda Swinton’s trashbag-esque uni-sleeved Lanvin (hey, I’d wear it!), Schwartz says, “The one shoulder that stole the night was Hilary Swank’s.” In truth, these Oscars were pretty much a cakewalk for copycats. “We’re into all these trends already,” Schwartz says. Huh? What about the feathers? “That’s a trim,” he explains patiently, adding that the plan is just to throw a few fluttery plumes on an existing design, not create a whole new dress. Because everything’s got to be on the racks at Bloomingdale’s or ABS’s other upscale vendors by May 30, time is tight, but Schwartz doesn’t seemed fazed. “If I don’t have those trends and those colors already,” he says, “I got a problem.”

Over at Faviana, a company that invites you to “dress like a star,” there’s general agreement that red is the new black. “I think that was really the stand-out color, very strong,” Omid Moradi, the company’s CEO, tells me. Moradi usually watches the awards en famille (mom Shala is the company’s designer; Omid handles the sales and merchandising), but this time they were camped across the street in the E! studio, doing a segment on their own Hollywood hits, which include a line-for-line copy of the green dress that Keira Knightley wore in Atonement. (Faviana also offers the purple dress from Enchantment and an ersatz golden frock from The Golden Compass.) Lest you think this dress-copying business is something new, it might interest you to know that a hideous ruffled number that Joan Crawford wore in the forgettable weepie Letty Lynton in 1932 was knocked off and sold 50,000 units at Macy’s alone in the depths of the Depression.

“We make trends work for everyday women,” says Moradi. “We take inspiration and design our own collection around it. We change it, we fit it, we use fabrications at reasonable prices.” Well, OK, though on its website, the company states its mission more baldly: “Ten minutes after any big awards telecast, the Faviana design team is already working on our newest ‘celebrity look-alike’ gowns.”

Which is fine with me. Frequent readers of this column know that I am an unequivocal fan of replicas, knockoffs, copies, fakes, and phonies of all stripes. I rejoice when I see Marni-esque make-believe at Old Navy, art nouveau proto-Prada at Zara, bogus Balenciaga and forged Fendis on a street table at 14th and Fifth.

But of course, not everyone agrees with me. I decide to call up Susan Scafidi, an attorney and law professor who operates the excellent website counterfeit chic.com and isn’t at all sanguine about the situation.

Turns out Scafidi watched the Oscars with the same enthusiasm as Schwartz and Moradi, and she’s got an idea of what those fellows will be up to soon enough. “The Gaultier mermaid dress, I think somebody’s going to knock that off,” she says. “And the red Valentino on Miley Cyrus—I would think that one, it’s an easy shape to wear. Oh, and the red Marchesa on Anne Hathaway, somebody’s going to knock that off too.”

When I tell Scafidi all the reasons I think fakes are so wonderful—that I believe copies provide a sartorial gateway drug, if you will, to young girls with no money; that the expensive stuff is frequently just as derivative as the blatant copies—Scafidi argues back, and, quite frankly, she talks rings around me. (But hey, she’s a lawyer.)

“Copying ought to be under the control of the designer,” she says in her calm, sweet voice. “What happens is heartbreaking: Young designers at trade shows get knocked off by the big companies all the time, and no one ever knows it was their design. In many countries, in Japan and in Europe, designers are protected legally. That way, it’s up to the designer to decide: ‘Maybe I’ll do a commercial deal with a place like Target’—or I might decide, ‘I did that Oscar dress as a one-off, so, OK, take it, copy it, do whatever you want with it.’ It’s not like a painting—it’s a commercial garment. For the designer, it’s a business decision, but it’s also an artistic and a creative decision.”

The discussion turns to my mythical little girl, spending her hard-earned pennies on fake Marc Jacobs at H&M, and here, I frankly find the otherwise hard-boiled Scafidi’s suggestions a little dreamy. She thinks my girl should bury herself in the vintage shop (what, like Anna Sui?) or, better yet, go to a fabric store (do these still exist?), stock up on red material, and learn to sew. After all, Scafidi offers, “That little girl might be a designer herself one day.” (Well, sure, she might be. Or she might be a skilled copyist, employed by the 2020 version of Forever 21.)

Let’s face it, when the prom rolls around, you won’t find most Miley Cyrus wannabes holed up like Bertha the sewing-machine girl. They’ll be cruising the local mall looking for ABS feathered frocks and Faviana Atonement gowns. Scafidi is more than aware of this reality. Right after our conversation, she e-mails me, tarter in print than she was in person: “If you speak to Allen Schwartz again, please tell him from me that if he were really Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, he wouldn’t take such a big cut along the way.”

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Traipsing Around Toy Fair 2008

The vast flag rippling miles above my head reads “Toy Fair 2008: Inspiring Growth” in bilious green, the color of kelp and algae and sad little sprouts; the comp tote bag they give you when you register features the same noxious hue and says, “Iddy biddy steps for a greener world.”

Even before I enter the Crystal Room of the Javits Center, I begin to suspect what I’m in for: a lot of preachy dolls and opinionated stuffed animals lecturing me on soy ink, organic rubberwood, the polar ice cap, global warming, bilateral disarmament, and a bunch of other topics that are about as festive as a nuclear winter.

And indeed, as I troll the aisles of this huge trade show, I gaze glassy-eyed at booth after booth offering miniature looms for making potholders and educational rugs brandishing potsy courts (what does that teach you exactly? To count to 10?) and even stuffed blobs meant to represent fat cells and earaches, magnified 10,000 times and kitted out with cute little eyes. (I think I already know what a fat cell looks like, and it ain’t cute.) The only firearm I see is a lone confetti gun—kids who want to kill each other will have to make do with the anemic selection of medieval swords.

Minding my own business, I am accosted by a puppet who commands that I guess what he (she? it?) is. “A platypus?” I offer wanly. “What? No! A harbor seal!” It takes only a few minutes to realize that the plentiful array of stuffed toys in the house features a preponderance of seals, dolphins, penguins, and, above all, polar bears—if these species ever do vanish from the earth, toy companies will be stuck with millions of extinct animals on their shelves.

My faith in human nature is restored at the TY booth, where a Girlz doll, sporting ripped jeans and a tight spangled sweater, wears the petulant fuck-you expression first made popular by the iconic Bratz. Heartened by the appearance of this young lady, who looks like she could pass for one of the working girlz who used to ply the streets of the West Side before the Javits Center was built, I seek out more hard-plastic harlots.

Alas, there is no Amy Winehouse doll, but at the enormous stand operated by Madame Alexander, there’s a wall of Eloises, each wearing her own pre-adolescent version of a petulant fuck-you expression, and seemingly unaware that her old digs, the Plaza Hotel, have been converted into condos and she will forthwith have to be home-schooled elsewhere. At a booth called Fashion Angels, the dolls are promisingly shallow and self-absorbed, what with their humongous wardrobes and red-carpet obsession. Unfortunately, these PC-safe Fashion Angels are idiots, spouting that their “package can be used for additional purposes”—unlike what, another box that can’t be used for something else?

But worse is yet to come. “Bonjour!” shrieks a tiny voice next to me. “I’m Fancy Nancy! I just like to be really fancy! My family is not as fancy! I try to teach them to be fancy! Here are my puzzles! You can feel the glitter! My dog is Frenchie, my doll is Maribelle Lavinia Chandelier! This is my other puzzle!” I look at the small person hectoring me, who is wearing a tutu and a tiara, and ask uncertainly how old she is. “I’m five!” she shrieks, which is surprising, because two minutes later she is prattling about her book’s status on the New York Times best-seller list and I notice that she presents the secondary sex characteristics of an adult.

I run from this homunculus into the comparative safety of BillyBob’s Teeth, where a gray-ponytailed guy in a leather jacket, accompanied by a younger Johnny Rotten wannabe (piercings, shaved head, the kind of bondage pants they still sell on St. Marks Place, if nowhere else) is telling the vendor, “I want your best sellers. Give me the vampire.” “Ya wanna go heavy on skulls?” the BillyBob’s Teeth representative asks. “Yeah, but no devils.”

BillyBob’s chompers may be off-putting, but they are nothing compared with the wares at Stuffin’ Party, a booth that attracts me initially because of its revolting name. The party entails a hand-cranked machine on which the carcass of an eviscerated stuffed animal, limp as an empty condom, is impaled, while you turn a handle that fills your new best friend with fluff. When I ask if this procedure doesn’t in fact horrify the kiddies (it certainly makes me queasy), I am assured by Annette, a company rep, that Build a Bear Workshop, the author of this grisly technique, has by now succeeded in achieving “intense awareness of the concept” and that in fact stuffing an animal yourself means “you bond with it in a deeper way.” As her co-worker shoves a dog on the stick and commences cranking, I grab my tail and scamper away,

Unfortunately, I flee right into the arms of Bindi, the famously pimped-out daughter, to coin a phrase, of the late naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed when his chest was pierced by a stingray barb. Despite the fact that her father died a horrible death and her four-year-old brother was recently bitten by a boa constrictor, this Bindi is unstoppable, claiming, on a big poster, that “it’s a play date with the planet—we are putting smiles on the faces of the Earth!” and offering junk like a shrink-wrapped kit called Bindi’s Aquatic Adventure containing a Bindi doll in a wetsuit, a surfboard, and yet another tiresome dolphin.

It’s a relief to visit a booth called Accoutrements, which carries rubber chickens, paste-on mustaches made of, I am sure, some deeply unbiodegradable substance, and that most transgressive of playthings, the toy cigarette pack, available as a squirter or filled with bubble gum. One pack bears the brand name Black Lung, if, as the salesman puts it, “your store is really edgy.”

Emboldened by my exposure to candy coffin nails, I ask a guy in a booth with bloodshot-eyeball spectacles if he has anything really disgusting. He shakes his head sadly. “For that, you have to go to the Halloween show in Vegas in three weeks,” he says. “They have things like a guy in an electric chair for $10,000.”

But then something really disgusting does happen, in a booth run by Gund, which advertises its merchandise as “the world’s most huggable.” I’m met at the door by a woman with a steely smile who asks me what business I’m in. When I tell her I’m a journalist, she says the pathetic flack employed to bullshit journalists (OK, that isn’t exactly what she says) is gone for the day, and then she refuses to let me examine their stock of dolphins and penguins and polar bears and in fact boots me out of the booth! Me!

It’s enough to make me want to go get a confetti gun.

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Can You Make a Living Selling Schmatas?

Once upon a time, many years ago, I attempted to sell vintage clothes at a now-defunct market in the schoolyard on Greenwich Avenue. I remember a very hot, very sad afternoon with my poor old rags hanging limply from the fence behind me—I didn’t want them, and apparently neither did anyone else. Finally it started to rain, and I stuffed my merchandise into a red duffel and went home. When I unpacked, I saw that the bag had run all over the clothes, leaving bloody streaks on my faded Trixie Norton swing coats and moth-eaten Ethel Mertz muumuus.

That was the beginning and end of my adventure as an entrepreneur. But if I have abandoned selling, the same cannot not be said for my enthusiastic buying. Still, that humiliating experience, as vivid in my mind as if it were yesterday, has left me with a vast respect for people who have actually made a success of hawking faded Sandra Dee prom dresses and Davy Crockett jackets.

So when the thrice-yearly Metropolitan Vintage Clothing Show rolled into town earlier this month, I decided to ask the dealers in attendance how they got into the business in the first place, and how they actually make money at it. (This hard-hitting reportage, it must be admitted, isn’t as scary as, say, cold-calling the Pentagon or being embedded in Basra, since I know most of these freaks, at least by sight, and after literal decades of looking at this stuff, they know me as well.)

When I arrive at the opening bell, there’s already a huge crush outside: throngs of steely-eyed design-house employees looking for ideas to pilfer; salivating retail customers wearing the nutty stuff they’d apparently bought at previous vintage shows. I cut the line—I’m a journalist!—and, blinding myself to the beaded cardigans and alligator purses all around me, home in on my first victim, Monica Seggos, who is nice enough to take a break from the brisk selling—these early shoppers are demons—and tell me an amazing story.

It seems that while I was searching in vain at the Busy Bee mall in Massa-pequa for something decent to wear, Seggos’s family was in possession of a genuine 19th-century Worth gown. This spectacular frock sold at the Doyle auction house in 2001 and broke the auction record. The excitement whetted Seggos’s appetite for the business, and now she sells, if not Worths, a collection of high-end vintage, mostly to designers for “inspiration” (also known as line-for-line copies).

While Seggos’s family was working that Worth gown, Heloise Williams was working in what she calls “all the dirt-bag vintage stores” in her hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. Now a partner in Passement Ltd., when she’s not selling Schiaperelli swan dresses she’s performing with her band, Heloise and the Savoir Faire. (Like Abelard? Um, like “Hints from Heloise,” she replies.) As we chat, I look discreetly around her booth for an art deco beaded jacket I tried on at the last show and was about to buy for several hundred dollars when the hand of God intervened and stopped me (but maybe God was wrong?). Williams tells me that she went to Middlebury College and has a degree in English, which has helped her in her current occupation not one whit. “Well, you have to know how to spell, right?” she says with a shrug.

I don’t see any beaded deco jackets at Circa Now, but that’s because the owners—Parsons grads Nicole Tondre and Lisa Fuller—have an entirely different take on the meaning of vintage than I do: While I see myself festooned à la Libby Holman, they are channeling Janis Joplin. “We’re the go-to place for ’70s vintage denim,” says Tondre, whhas a large flame-and-star tattoo on her wrist. “We specialize in high-waisted jeans.” These once-ubiquitous (and to me hideous) garments are not as easy to find as you might imagine—like Depression-era newsboy caps or Victorian work shoes, the more ordinary and well-worn the item, the less likely it is to turn up.

If I’m not much of a denim connoisseur, I apparently left a mark on Elizabeth Kolanski, who recalls that a few years ago I considered a swirlyhand-painted dress later snapped up by Karl Lagerfeld. Kolanski got into the business when her brownstone apartment collapsed. Renovations on the floor above were responsible, forcing Kolanski’s family to flee to a country house and begin thrifting in earnest. “Basically, I’m not into the designer stuff—what I find is more plebian,” she says, an assertion belied by the appearance of an Yves St. Laurent sweater—a white body with quirky red sleeves (something from the ’70s that I like!) that I hastily try on but is, sadly, a tad too small. (Such is the agony of vintage shopping: Invariably, when you love it, it binds or it swims.)

Kolanksi’s professional career was spurred by a building collapse; Katherine Manzini, who is from California and is doing the show for the first time, has an even more harrowing tale to tell. “A million years ago,” she tells me, she sold furniture and high-end antique jewelry in the San Francisco Bay area until a devastating robbery forced her to look around for something not quite so dangerous. She settled on vintage clothes, which require burglars with needle skills, since many garments require substantial mending before they’re ready for prime time. These old babies rapidly became the love of Manzini’s life. “It’s the vibration, the happy feeling—75 years ago, women had their happiest days in these dresses.” The ardor has been returned: Manzini’s thriving business, Trappings of Time, supplies period clothes to movies, including a ton of things for Across the Universe, although, she says, “the only thing I could ID was the crazy bus driver’s fringed coat.”

Some dealers come from even farther away than California. A guy who insists that he be identified as Angela Nechay’s husband arrived from Ukraine 18 years ago with English skills, he says, limited to “yes and no, hi and bye.” He sold general antiques at a flea market until his wife’s enthusiasm for old clothes took over. “My wife likes to dress up,” he says. “She likes beautiful things.” A former teacher in Ukraine, he turned his scholarly attentions to costume history: “We bought books and studied. Little by little, we were only selling vintage clothing.”

But not everyone comes to the business propelled by an affection for Talitha Getty caftans and Annette Funicello circle skirts. Jerome Wilson tells me that the only reason he segued into clothes from his original passion, table linens, is that the younger generation doesn’t seem to care much about sitting down to formal dinners every Sunday or changing the draperies each spring the way his family did when he was growing up in Nutley, New Jersey.

“If Lindsay Lohan was blowing her nose on a linen napkin, or E! had a segment on old damask, maybe that would help,” he sighs as a young woman trying on an 80-year-old lace dress flaps around his booth, happy as Zelda Fitzgerald on her way to the Biltmore bar.

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UNCONVENTIONAL THREADS

Fashion photographer Scott Schuman has been uploading street shots of fashion-
forward city dwellers since ’05 on his super-popular blog, The Sartorialist, and his portraits now get a chance to hang on a wall. Danziger Projects is providing a home for Schuman’s shots of the smartly clad in cities around the globe. “When I worked in the fashion industry, I always felt there was a disconnect between what I was selling in the showroom and what I was seeing real people—really cool people—wearing in real life,” Schuman says. And hey, our very own fashion reporter, Lynn Yaeger, gets props in the show, too.

Sat., Feb. 23, noon, 2008