Eartha-quake

Forget the outrageous rents, the tourists, and the pungent top note of urine in the summer streets. Do you know what truly blows about New York City? The fact that the simplest tasks typically turn into three-act operas. Buying groceries involves more extravagant hand gestures and indecipherable cries than Wagner's Ring cycle. And trying to find men's A-shirts—"wifebeaters"—in mid-June? Forget it.

I'm spending my Wednesday afternoon combing the steamy East Village in a hungover haze, incapable of purchasing this mundane sundry. Finally, I'm reduced to visiting the widely reviled Astor Place K-Mart, where the cute pair of buns before me on the escalator turns out to be that of Johnny, drummer for neo-glam quartet Spacehog. You know how tough it is to tell if British guys are gay or just British? It's even harder when they're rooting through piles of underwear trying to help find your size.

Larges and X-Larges are plentiful. But options for scrawny guys suck. The lesbians buy up all the Smalls, and the muscle queens snag the Mediums (the better to show off their pec implants). Everywhere you turn in this burg, there's some photo stylist trying to look butch by wearing a straw cowboy hat and a wifebeater. I'm sorry, but real he-men don't use their tool chests to tote around hair spray, Mary. If you're that concerned about appearing testosterone-deficient, drive a John Deere tractor down Fashion Avenue.

Admittedly, my own motives today are about as manly as trying out for the Stanley Kowalski role in Oh, Streetcar! The Musical. I'm getting dressed for a press reception for Eartha Kitt.

Or rather, my buddy the Dog Boy is graciously assembling an outfit for me, since I've left my church clothes in Seattle and he owns a vintage store. Within walking distance of the fete. How convenient. So later that day, while my date Judy double-checks that the shades of silver of her purse, shoes, sparkly sweater, and finger- and toenails match, Dog Boy puts me through my paces, finally settling on a dark blue suit with a red Western shirt. I bristle when he pulls out motorcycle boots as the coup de gr⣥. He points out that until I dialed 911, my wardrobe options were limited to a lace blouse and leather pants. If I was willing to leave the house looking like the ghost of Michael Hutchence, he snarls, boots with a suit shouldn't seem outr鮍

Judy and I look smashing, but Eartha has us beat hands-down. As we stroll into the venue, an intimate Lower East Side eatery, she's perched on a divan, wearing a pastel green pantsuit. Her wide features are remarkably wrinkle free. Eartha's in great shape, her publicist insists. Recently, during a chat with Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura about the sorry state of physical fitness in America, she sprung into a handstand to illustrate the long-term benefits of regular exercise.

Several glasses of Merlot later, we're beckoned to meet the guest of honor. I panic. What do you say to Eartha Kitt? "I loved you as Catwoman on Batman, ma'am" seems inappropriate. As I introduce myself in a voice I barely recognize, I realize Judy has vanished. I'm left to fend for myself. With Eartha Kitt.

I ask if she selected the 22 songs on Purr-fect, her new CD of tracks cut for RCA in the '50s. No, she curtly replies.

Long pause.

She inquires if I've ever been in this restaurant before. No, I admit. "I was hard-pressed to imagine where they'd find a joint downtown swank enough for you," I blurt out.

Long pause.

"I like it," she announces. "They have leopard everywhere." Sure enough, much of the upholstery sports Eartha's signature spotted skin.

Warming up, she discloses her quest for a genuine leopard bedspread, an order her furrier has thus far declined. "Square bed or round?" I joke, feeling cheeky from the drink.

She shoots me a look like I just contested the date on her birth certificate. "What would a woman my age be doing with a round bed?" She bursts into a hearty laugh. "I'd just keep falling out of it." Sure, but it would be like roulette, I counter—half the fun would be never knowing where you'd land.

We go back and forth like this for what seems an eternity, making chitchat about vitamins, the orchestrations of her collaborator Henri Rene, and the tightness of the trousers favored by the men who clean her swimming pool. Her publicist finally returns with another sacrificial lamb from the press corps, and I make hasty good-byes, blowing kisses as I stumble backwards.

Judy hands me a champagne flute and apologizes for chickening out. I check my image in the mirror behind the bar. The Dog Boy's suit still looks spiffy. Underneath, my wifebeater is sopping wet.

 
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