Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Afternoon With the Ladies

They were true gentlemen.

     (4/23/12) Have you ever had a chivalrous young inmate in a crisp waiter's uniform slip you a lavender-blue note, along with your fruit plate, as you dined with the prison's top "brass"? Rikers Island's House of Detention for Men was always a hotbed of intrigue, especially since my job there was essentially to spy on the administration and advocate for prisoners, but this mysterious missive suggested that a new adventure was about to fall into my lap.

Where the prison's Big Boys were waited upon by inmates.
         I hated eating with the officers, and I'm sure they hated having me there, since they regarded me as a treacherous "Mata Hari," but the warden had ordered it. I didn't mind being surrounded by men -- I must admit that I arranged my life such that I almost always was. But  I would much rather have been with the young guards -- who were constantly competing for my attention by giving me tidbits of information that they shouldn’t have -- or the inmates, from whom I learned so much about life, love, crime, loyalty, poverty, manhood and even – believe it or not – philosophy and theology. They had lots of time to read, and they did.

    When I finally got back to my tiny office and was able to read the surreptitious note, an afternoon began that would restore something to my life that had been missing for a long time.

     The brief letter, written on hydrangea-scented paper in elaborate cursive, said: 

    Dearest Miss Kronstadt:
    We, the ladies of 4-U, implore you to have tea with us this afternoon. We are being frightfully abused in this institution, and we beseech your intervention.
    Respectfully, Ambrosia Capistrano

    Ladies? Being "frightfully abused" in a men's prison? My hands were trembling with confusion and panic.
    Just as I finished reading the note, an inmate came in to empty my wastebasket. 
    "What is 4-U?" I asked him.
    "It's the homo quad, ma'am," he answered. "They's kept separate. It's fo' they own protection."

    As a staff member of the watchdog New York City Board of Correction, I had been authorized to have access to ALL inmates in the facility, but it seemed apparent that I had been deliberately deprived of access to those who were gay. I had never heard of 4-U, despite the "complete tour" of the institution that had ceremoniously been given to me on my first day and on several occasions since. I had some snooping around to do. That was my specialty.
 I was the Mata Hari of Rikers Island. Cool!
    I would demand to be taken to 4-U right away, but I would first have to undergo a process that I felt compelled to endure several times a day.
    I  had to touch up my "disguise." 
    My disguise was makeup, and I wore a lot. No one except for my family had seen me without it since I was about 15 years old. I had acquired the conviction -- which became ever more entrenched -- that I was hideous without it. I was profoundly fearful that the sight of the real me would elicit disgust -- in men and women alike, even babies -- which would really hurt my feelings.
    But WITH makeup, it seemed that I could fool the world in the grandest way. I was sought after, catered to, wined and dined, whisked to weekend getaways, befriended by the rich and famous, sent martinis "by the gentleman over there, with his compliments," and offered jobs for which I had few qualifications. It was great!
    But my secret weighed heavily on me. What if someone saw my real face? I'd have to go back to Salt Lake City and teach high school creative writing, a realm in which a homely, anguished face might actually enhance my credibility. 

    But I didn't want to go back to the Land of Zion -- please! So every morning, I applied a rich, smooth foundation to my face, and then, with my trusty palette, I spent at least 30 minutes transforming that plain, coarse canvas into a charming landscape of color and light. A mini masterpiece!
    I must admit, I impressed myself. 
I was probably as addicted to makeup as this "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" actor.
   Anyone who is vain or insecure enough can learn to do this kind of portraiture quite easily. As you become more confident, you can experiment with all sorts of tricks and styles that will render you endlessly intriguing.
    I used sculpting bronzers, fresh rosy blush, black liner to enlarge and dramatize my eyes, white cream on my lids to convey fawn-like alertness, and pearly highlighters for my cheekbones and brow. I achieved magical effects from among my dozens of eyeshadows. I applied a liner to expand the outline of my lips, and then blended shades of coral, magenta and rose, a sheer froster and, of course, flavored gloss to drive the bastards mad. Naturally, everything was exquisitely color-coordinated with my outfit. 
    All day, I monitored my face neurotically, to be sure the mask of glamor was intact. I added blush or powder, and freshened my lipstick repeatedly. I kept a mirror in my central desk drawer, so I could take a quick peek at myself every 20 minutes or so to see if any erosion had occurred. 
   Yes -- it was pathetic! But it seemed that my artful disguise enabled me to have a life that consisted of one little miracle after another. I didn't want to be a fraud forever, but for the time being, the rewards were too great to be relinquished.


    Deputy Warden Gerard Brown -- one of the biggest, most handsome and manly men I had ever known -- was amused by my outrage over never having been given access to 4-U. We were walking there, and it was a long walk. He had warned me that it was "our equivalent of outermost Siberia."    
Dep Brown died of a brain tumor in his early forties, but he really was this delectable. Or more!
    I loved walking through this medieval hell hole with the smartly uniformed Dep Brown. My blood felt all creamy. My knees were a little rubbery. His voice made me tingle. I didn't know anything about neurotransmitters back then, but I think he did something to those, too. Interacting with him was my favorite part of the job, which is quite an embarrassing admission.
    He had grown up in East Harlem, the son of poor West Indian immigrants. He went on to get a Master's degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he taught evening classes periodically. 
     "PQ has always been off-limits to outsiders - especially goody-goody, save-the-world bleeding hearts in lacy underpants," Dep Brown said, continuing his erect, straight-faced stride. 

     "I'm not an outsider: The mayor has made the Board's right to complete access quite clear," I retorted, having to summon some willpower to avoid correcting him about my underpants (no lace). "Anyway, what do you mean by PQ?"
    "Pervert quadrant — or pansy quad, if you prefer," he said, nodding at the salutes of the guards who lined the corridors. "The flaming queens, the fairies, the swishers. We can't have a bunch of hookers running around in general population. It would be one great big gang bang."
  "They're prostitutes?"

A fusion of the 'flaming' and 'fantasy' genres.
      "Most of them are, yeah -- a twisted bunch of deviants. Ambrosia's different: She's awaiting trial for murder one, but everybody knows it was self-defense. She's a pre-operative transsexual. She was a Wall Street auditor who caught some investment dude in massive fraud, and he tried to kill her to save his ass. She got the better of him -- she is one tough broad -- and they locked her up. There's no way they can convict her, but she's stuck in here for the time being. Frankly speaking, we like having her here. She keeps all them freaks in PQ calmed down." 
    "So is she the only one who isn't in here for prostitution?" I asked.
    "Dove's a likable little gay Jewish kid who's accused of embezzlement. They say he was stealing to get money for his lover to have a kidney transplant. He'll be havin' to do some time. Most of the creeps in this joint deserve what they get, but I got to admit, I feel sorry for Dove. He don't have a mean bone in his body."
    Ambrosia? Dove? I felt that I was about to enter a fairyland. Not that kind of fairy! The kind of fairy in fairytales!
Maybe Ambrosia, Dove and I would fly to a secret forest full of playful children!
     When Dep Brown unlocked the door to the quad's relatively pleasant, well-lit dayroom, I was greeted by a banner that read: "Welcome Miss Sylvia: 4-U has a thing 4-U!" 

    "That's Ambrosia," Dep Brown said, nodding toward the corner. "Formerly Arthur Hillman, college valedictorian and one of the original Nader's Raiders. She has one more year of 'living as a woman' before she can have the operation, but she's already pumped pretty full of hormones. So's pretty much everybody else in here."
    "You let them have estrogen?" I asked.
This was a poignant movie about a sex-change that didn't work out.
     "Court order," Dep Brown said. "They ain't been convicted yet, so they still have some rights. One of those rights, apparently, is pretending to be chicks."
   Ambrosia had her back to us. She was tinkering with a record player and wore a white wrap dress that I would soon realize was open in front to reveal a black push-up bra and two exquisite heaps of bosom. 

    "Hey Ambie: Where's the rest of the dames?"
   "Back there primping their hearts out," she called good-naturedly over her shoulder. "They've got to put their best faces on for a VIP we're anticipating." (Kindred spirits, I thought: Makeup addicts.)
The ladies knew how to turn a grim cell into a girly boudoir.
    "Well, I've brought a ruthless little troublemaker for your afternoon entertainment," Dep Brown said. "Is this the 'VIP' you're talking about?"   

    At last, Ambrosia turned around and stood to her full height. She would have been very tall, even without the platform shoes.
    "Heavenly days -- our guest of honor!" she cried, fluffing a mass of reddish-golden curls and striding majestically toward me. 
    "Thank you so much for coming," she said, giving me the first "air kisses" I had ever received.  If I hadn't seen them in movies, I would have had no idea what odd transaction had just occurred.
Ambrosia had a manly assertiveness behind her delectability.
      "Wow -- you're beautiful," I said, without really intending to. I was dazzled by her -- all the more so when I reminded myself that there was a big old penis down there somewhere.
     "So are you," she said, taking my chin in her well-manicured hand.
    "Mine is just makeup," I confessed.
    "Ditto for me," she laughed. "You should see me after I wash my face. The Wicked Witch!"
    She had a throaty voice, with vaguely British inflections. I would later learn that her mother was from Trinidad.
    "It's so good of you to come. The girls have talked of nothing else for days," she said. "They wanted to put together a drag-queen revue for you, filled with song and dance, but I advised them not to detract from the seriousness of our situation." 

"The Ladies" loved to dress up and lip synch to '70s soul music. So did I!
     I realized that Dep Brown was still standing there, smirking indulgently. 
    "Hit the road, Dep," I said. "We aren't to be disturbed; I'll be here for some time."  

    "I want you in my office for a full debriefing before the shift is over, Mata Hari," he ordered.
    "Dream on," I retorted. "You can take your briefs off without any help from me. You know damn well I have a privileged relationship with the inmates."
     Dep Brown looked me slowly up and down, made a sort of sucking noise and left, slamming the door.
    "Verbal foreplay is a marvelous but rapidly vanishing art form," Ambrosia said admiringly. "Bacall has nothing on you, sister!"
The female Rudy Giuliani was as attractive as the male version.
     "I'm just doing my job," I replied, my cheeks flaming. 
    "And with panache to spare! You get comfy while I go back there and kick some fanny," Ambrosia said.
    I sat down at a large table that was covered in a pink acrylic blanket and set for tea. I slid a mirror out of my purse and checked -- yet again -- to see how my disguise was holding up. I had to admit, I was a genius in the art of deceptive packaging. I gazed at my reflection as if it were a delectable partner in crime. 

    Ambrosia returned to the doorway, held herself statuesquely, and declared, "Allow me to introduce the ladies of 4-U. In honor of your presence, they will appear in full regalia -- which, as you know, is in blatant violation of institutional regulations." 
    Thus began a sort of debutante "coming out," as each denizen of the "Pansy Quad" was introduced to me.  
     The Spinners' soulful hit tune, "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love" -- one of my favorite songs even today -- began playing.  I sat up
straight and crossed my legs at the ankle, my notebook held to my chest as if it were a bridal bouquet. 
    I had been fortunate in having had so many strange and interesting experiences during my first five years in New York, but I felt sure that this would be among the most colorful, if not outright disturbing. I loved black people and gay people, and I thought cross-dressers were fascinating, but transvestite prostitution just plain gave me the creeps, even more than the regular kind of prostitution.
    "Meet Fortune," Ambrosia intoned, as if hosting a beauty pageant. In strolled a graceful, small-boned waif in black tights and a short, vibrantly colored kimono. The poor girl looked shy and emotionally pained.
    "Born in Vietnam, she is on her way to becoming a full-fledged citizen of our country." 
Fortune had been so traumatized by American GIs, she had become almost catatonic.

   "Don't forget -- they're men," I reminded myself. But I could tell already that it wasn't going to work. As Fortune danced hesitantly toward me, I took both her hands and said it was nice to meet her. Wordlessly, she curtsied and sat down. I put my arm around her fragile shoulder.
    Immediately, a tumult of feathers and sequins entered the room.
    "And this is Stardust -- of Las Vegas fame as the black Marilyn Monroe -- come to N.Y. to make it on the Great White Way, though Lord knows why they call it that -- it's so unfair," Ambrosia said.
    Stardust made big "ooh" motions, Monroe-style, with her crimson lips, and she preened, and stuck her butt out, and made "naughty, naughty" finger waggings at me as she danced to the music. She swirled her black, plumed boa around a very short, kiwi-colored satin sheath and black fishnet stockings.
Stardust would be putting lots more stuff on her face before she got out the Marilyn wig.
    "Thank you, that's enough now, Stardust," Ambrosia said, as the leggy showgirl continued her lavish flouncing and pouty undulations. I tried to smile at her, but she refused to have eye contact with me. In my peripheral vision, I could tell that when I looked away, she was checking me out, as of I represented a competitive threat. 

    "And now let's hear it for Risque - our resident Latin lover," Ambrosia cried. "Named Enrique by a Haitian father and Cuban mother, we think of her as a walking testimonial to interracial marriage."
    Risque swept in, a red silk carnation pinned to her hair, which was pulled back and slicked down, except for a couple of curls in front. She had been fortunate enough to leave the ranks of streetwalker and become a "call girl" at a fancy midtown hotel. When she was arrested, she was in bed with a Japanese diplomat. He, of course, was a free man.
    Risque was gorgeous and flamboyant, carrying  herself like a toreador -- head high, nostrils flared, arms poised to deflect bull of any kind with a flourish of her unseen cape. Sultrily she smiled at me, as if we shared an exotic secret. In retrospect, we probably shared quite a few. We were both brilliantly knowledgeable about the architecture of the male ego.
Bronx born and raised, Risque had become quite worldly, servicing foreign men.
    "Now it's my pleasure to introduce you to Sass," Ambrosia declared, and a languid presence in a shiny turquoise halter-top with matching tights and wristbands sidled in. Her wig, which was streaked chestnut and blonde, didn't fit very well. Her heavy makeup didn't succeed in hiding deep, widespread acne scars. Listlessly she kicked up her little majorette boots in a sort of old-folks cancan, and kept glancing at Ambrosia, as if to ask, "Can I stop now?" 

    "Come sit down," I told her. "It's not your job to entertain me."
    She looked directly at me for the first time. "Sorry -- I'm just feeling down," she said.
    She would later tell me that she had recently been in the hospital after her pimp broke her nose and jaw. "He said I had a bad attitude," she confided. "I wanted to say, 'how can you have a good attitude about getting fucked in the ass and giving blow jobs for a living?' but I knew he'd beat me again if I did. Thank god he moved to L.A."
Sass said she was leaving "the life," but she'd said that before.
     It was comments such as these that brought me back to reality. Another common problem among "the ladies" was being assaulted if their "johns" found out that they were men.
     The song ended, and and  the Main Ingredient's "Just Don't Want to be Lonely" began (I still love that song, too).
    "And here is our precious friend Dove, so known because of his gentle nature and soothing voice," Ambrosia said.

    Dove strolled  in with the refined showmanship of a Motown star, bowing and swaying to the music in an apricot-colored satin tuxedo. His dark, pixie-cut hair framed a pretty face dominated by huge, black-lashed eyes.
Dep Brown had described Dove as a sweet kid, and  he certainly was.
    "I'd rather be loved, and needed, 
depended on to give the love I can't give..." 
 Dove sang along, with heartfelt gestures. He kind of broke down, though, when he got to the part about, 
"When you're gone, when you're gone,
 I just don't want to be lonely...." 
and he said tearfully, "I'm sorry, Miss Kronstadt, I was thinking about Jeffrey."
    Jeff was his partner, who needed a kidney transplant. Dove  would later tell me that he was sorry he got caught taking thousands of dollars from Goldman Sachs -- where he was an intern -- but that he believed it was justified, to save a life.
    "Our precious Bambi constitutes our grand finale," Ambrosia said. "She hails from a rural cesspool just outside Pine Bluffs, Arkansas."
    The most trembling, terrified person I had ever seen slipped into the room, an imploring look on her face. Her hair stood out from her head in tiny, twisted tufts and she wore her regulation orange prison jumpsuit. She was the only one who hadn't put on makeup or a costume. She stared as if I were a shimmering hologram of some long-dead heroine. 

    Sass whispered to me, "She has had, like, the cruelest life you can believe. We all got it rough, but she's had every terrible thing done to her, startin' out with own family."
Bambi had come to New York, fleeing unspeakable violence and humiliation.
    Bambi's skin was a wondrous, primordial fabric -- simultaneously dark and alight. She seemed poised to flee like a tremulous forest creature, so Dove got up and led her protectively to the table as the music concluded.
    "Thank you for that," I applauded. "You are all lovely!”
   "You all is lovely too," Bambi said bashfully, hugging herself as if for comfort. 
    But something had soured, it seemed, as I perhaps got too much attention in the eyes of ladies who were accustomed to commandeering the spotlight at will. Maybe it was because I was a biological woman, and they assumed I looked down on their charade? I felt some bad vibes coming on.

    "Seem to me like she an uptight white show-off," Stardust said matter-of-factly, filing her neon-coral nails. "A viper if I ever seen one." 
                                                     "Bush Viper" by Ferdo Voigt
    A viper? I was stunned, but I couldn't help laughing at such an extreme accusation.
    "Like she got something stuck up her little you-know-what," Sass elaborated. 
    At this point, I was getting bewildered. I was being a lot warmer and more relaxed than I usually was when I was doing my job. What had I done that was offensive? It emerged later in the afternoon that Stardust and Sass were hurt that Ambrosia was treating me with such deference. They didn't believe she needed to "bow and scrape" in order to obtain the legal rights they were entitled to, and they were correct. 
Gay Pride and activism have taken many forms over the years.
    Ambrosia rose ferociously to her full height.
   "Kindly leave our presence this instant, you two, and go back to the dorm," she seethed. "Miss Sylvia, please accept our profuse apologies for the pain that has so callously been inflicted."

     But I was not in pain -- far from it. Instead, I felt a renegade-rippling across the formal garden of my face that was only vaguely familiar, something from out of my distant past: It was a smile, but it was a smile without premeditation, without motive, without a target and without regard to its aesthetic pros and cons. It was a smile as honest and spontaneous as a baby's.
Innocent delight.
    "I'm not offended Ambrosia. Their straightforwardness is a refreshing change from the rest of my life," I flushed."So many of my relationships are kind of inauthentic."
    "Anyways, we was only teasing," Stardust said guiltily.
    "On your knees, both of you, and beg her forgiveness," Ambrosia ordered melodramatically.
    "Don't - I'll leave if you do," I warned. "Thank you for your concern, Ambrosia, but I can defend myself pretty well."
    "Our benevolent dictatoress has been overruled - that's a first!" Dove exulted, his eyes bright and his lips as sweet as a baby's. "She's our philosopher-queen, Miss Sylvia, our Mother Superior."
    "And our mother hen," Risque added. "Our mamacita caliente!"

    "My maternal instinct is indeed overwhelming," Ambrosia admitted. "Perhaps one day I'll have the proper outlet for it. And a husband by my side."
    "We prays for you Ambie," Stardust said, looking at the floor. 
       "I know you do, girls," she said, blinking back a tear. "For the time being, you're my children, and Bambi is my dear baby."
Chantelle believed that having children was highly overrated.
    "Bambi didn't dress up because she has the blues," Dove explained to me.
    "She's always kind of a drag," Sass whispered to me, rather too loudly. 
    "Coming from a drag queen, that's a rather ironic as well as tasteless remark," Ambrosia retorted. "Bambi has been through utter hell her whole life, and she has emerged with her humanity intact. She the sweetest, gentlest person here, despite the ongoing ravages that are inflicted on her."


   "In here?" I raised my pen as if it were a scalpel that could excise
unpleasant aspects of history.
    "Everywhere she's been, seems like."
    "Starting with her own daddy."
    "Stepfather," Dove corrected, patting Bambi's hand. "She's such a doll, but that isn't always an advantage in today's beastly world." 
In 15 minutes, this damaged young man would be the tenderly delectable Bambi.
    "She had to sit on a donut pillow for weeks because she had 30 stitches up her hine end."
    "Ladies, please: There's a lady present!"
    "She gets gang-raped and she's the one that gets arrested."
    "Cop said, 'Ain't no such thing as rapin' a whore.'"
    "Don't let's talk about it," Bambi said, hiding behind her shoulder.
    I was still at the part about the 30 stitches; my stomach was in full spasm, and it was hard to swallow. 

    "You lye herpes tea?" Fortune said, approaching with a slight bow and a cracked porcelain teapot.
    I grew paler.
    "Herbal tea, dear: ERR-bull," Ambrosia corrected affectionately. "I'm trying to train her to be a waitress when she gets out," she told me, "but the language barrier is difficult. Instead of saying, 'Would you like coffee or herbal tea,' she comes out with 'coffal or herpes tea.' We have some work to do before I can get her assigned to officers' dining room!"
The ladies loved those herbal fragrances.
     "We grow our own herbs," Dove said proudly.
    "Herbs are so au courant, don't you agree?" Ambrosia said. 

    I knew all about the prison herb garden: It was another of the City Council president's  public-relations brainstorms and had already gotten him on the national news, just as he had predicted. It was the only touch of beauty in the entire compound.
    "They geeve us the garden work because they theenk seesies belong on their knees," Risque charged hotly.
    "All that Earth Mother bidness, I declare," Stardust said, with a roll of the eyes.
    "They right though," Bambi said thoughtfully. "That garden is like our chile, the way we tends to it."
    "Not a weed in sight!" Dove agreed.
    "Still, it's not nice to stereotype," Ambrosia said. 

    Fortune was staring intently at the teapot, as if to speed up the steeping process.  "Poor Fortune is a creation of the Vietnam war and of our country's noble fighting men," she told me. 
The war in Vietnam created an insatiable demand for prostitutes. Go USA!
     "If a pretty girl ain't handy, a pretty boy will do."
    "They be bendin' him over since he was nine years old, gettin' they proud American rocks off."
    "They say it's for 'good fortune.'"
    "Thus the name."
    "Bought pebbles," Fortune said, gesturing broadly and revealing an arm scarred with needle tracks.
    "Boat people, dear," Ambrosia said. "Yes, she's a boat person, braving death to come to the great nation that bestowed her identity: Fortune the whore." 
    "Hore," Fortune practiced. "H'or d'oeuvres."
    "Don't you be knockin' our trade, Ambrosia," Stardust said. 
This 1965 Vietnam sculpture by Joseph Fornelli, on display in a Chicago museum, reminds me of Fortune, and the  psychic and physical violence that she endured, thanks to our nation's aggression.
     "Oh honey, I'm truly not -- I just want her to have some options."
    "Most of her johns is Vietnam veterans. Is that weird or what?" Sass said.
    "Perhaps they are searching for a purgative or cathartic experience," Ambrosia suggested.
    "Isn't purgative a part of hell?"
    "Aren't cathartics what make you pee into a tube?" 

    Ambrosia gave me a look of good-humored exasperation and them said: "Bambi dear, I'm sure the tea has steeped enough. Would you do the honors and pour, since this is your special day?"
    "She's been positively dying to meet you ever since she saw you in the infirmary," Dove confided to me. "She has such a crush!"
    "I don't get crushes on ladies, I just want to be they friend," Bambi murmured.
   "She een loaf weeth Dape Brown," Risque taunted.
    "Who isn't? The dude's a hunk of black heaven."
    "Doesn't Dep Brown's voice just about kill you, Miss Sylvia? It's sexier than Barry White's."

    "Yes it does," I said weakly.
    "In love with the deputy warden! Don't prison make strange bedfellows?"
    Indeed, I mused, looking amiably at my companions. I realized that I hadn't felt this authentic and open for as long as I could remember.

    "He could be my daddy any day of the week," I said, hoping to sound like one of the girls. 
    Stardust grinned encouragingly. "If he was a pimp, I'd sign up before he could say 'hand it over.'"
    "You all don't have pimps?" I inquired, thinking it was probably the oddest question I had ever asked. 
Prostitution is sad. Pimps are despicable. That's my opinion.
     "If we did, we wouldn't be in here -- they'd of paid our bail, and  we'd be back out there workin'."
    "But they too mean," Bambi said. Her eyes were like deep pools into which tortured bodies had been thrown.
    "T'mean, d'mean. Demain. De main course," Fortune recited.
    "This tea is delicious. Does it have sugar in it?" I asked. I kept a
running total of calories consumed each day.
    "No ma'am -- it's Sweet and Low, just like us." 
    Bambi left for a moment to get her donut pillow. She was obviously in great discomfort. 

    "She was lucky she even got to see a doctor -- most of us they ignore," Dove said, taking a prim sip of the lemongrass-chamomile blend. "They kept putting Luna off until we went on strike. Now she's in the hospital."
Luna nearly died after silicone caused an infection.
    "Just out of ICU," Ambrosia said, "with a massive staph infection."
    "Her titties was hurting something terrible."
    "Then they got all swole up."
    "Then the silicone turned lumpy and she had a fever."
    "The captain say, 'It's just yo' period, baby.'"
    "And now eets happeneeng to me," Risque said. 

    "Risque had hers done same time as Luna, when they was upstate. Luna's did all sorts of weird shit before they fell apart." 
     "You had silicone injections in prison?" I asked, incredulous.
    "Medical students practiced on us. One dude got cheek injections and they ruined her whole face. She had a good gig goin' on the outside, doin' a Diana Ross show."
    "It caved in and her mouth got paralyzed."
    "That's a scandal!" I said. "Something must be done!"
    "Show her your hooters, Risque," Sass suggested.
    The volatile beauty stood before me and lifted her pimento-and-black flamenco-style blouse.
    "Feel them," she ordered, but with her accent, it came out, "Feel dame." 
Risque's breasts looked very much like these.
    "I believe you," I said anxiously. "I'll get it taken care of."
    "Mama," Fortune said, eyes fixed on Risque's chest.
    "Ever time she see a boob, she think it's her old lady."
    "A poignant twist on the old imprinting phenomenon, wouldn't you concur?" Ambrosia said.
    "Feel dame," Risque repeated, leaning closer. A tattoo of roses and snakes rippled prettily as her breasts swung forward.
    "Yours might bite, but hers don't," Sass taunted.
    "If you'll adopt a clinical perspective, I believe you'll find it immensely facilitating,"Ambrosia advised.
    I reached up toward the mahogany-colored orbs and took one in my hand, feeling vaguely honored, and not at all gay. Bravely, I returned Risque's womanly gaze. Then, I pressed gently with my fingers. 

    "My God," I said, trembling. "It's all hard and breaking apart."
    "Eet hurts and eetches," Risque winced. 
    "I'll have a doctor in here before the day is over," I vowed.
    "Nobody in here cares about us - we eese just a bunch of laughing stocks to dame," Risque said hotly.
    "It's true: They ignore even our most serious problems. We went half the winter with practically no heat back here."
    I was taking extensive notes, which was one little clerical skill that had propelled my career along in ways I would never have dreamed possible.
    "At least it got us in shape: We was doin' aerobics day and night to keep from freezin'."
    "Stardust is an instructor of great imagination and flair. Her charisma inspires us all." 

    "When the exterminator come, they take him right on by our quarters, so we is left crawlin' with roaches."
    "They won't let us send our stuff to the laundry like everybody else, so we got to wash it all by hand, like we diseased or something."
    "It takes simply forever for the towels to dry." 
To the ladies, there was no such thing as an "unmentionable."
     "And when Bambi's lawyer went off her case a couple months ago, they wouldn't let her use the phone to get somebody else."
   "Who is your lawyer now?" I asked.
    "I don't got one, ma'am," Bambi said sorrowfully. "They won't even let me call my mama."
    "I'll have you escorted to my office first thing in the morning. We'll call Legal Aid, and I'll get you through to your family as well," I promised. "I'm also putting all of this in a report that will go to the commissioner and the mayor. Someone's going to have hell to pay for how you all are being treated."

    "Perhaps there's some way you can intercede on behalf of Sass," Ambrosia said. "She is simply brokenhearted. She's worked the streets for I don't know how long to save up for court-reporting school. She was virtually there..."
    "Then she gets busted, wouldn't you know."
    "The worst part is, she had a gun on her."
    "It's a jungle out there," Sass said. 
Perpetuating the grand history of the world's oldest profession.
     " she's bound to do time."
    "She tried to commit suicide...."
    "Sweet sigh," Fortune whispered.
    "Note the wristbands."
    "...but we saved her."
    "You bitches," Sass muttered, but her lips quivered and she accepted Stardust's outstretched hand.
    Sass blotted her pallid cheeks and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. The nails were bitten down to the quick. 
Sass yearned for the status and the drama of court reporting.

    "I wanted to be a court reporter ever since my first arraignment," she said, twisting her ponytail in her fingers. "I just sat and watched that lady the whole time. She was like Liberace, the way she'd bend over the keyboard and then throw her head back and bang away and then she'd like slow down and kind of plink  along, depending on how much drama was happening."
    "The role does have a certain theatrical majesty when it is properly performed," Ambrosia agreed.
    "She got treated with such respect," Sass said with wistful eyes. "Even the judge was always begging her pardon. When there was a dispute over what was going down, they all turned to her."
    I was very touched by Sass's longing for esteem. I didn't want to ask if she had her GED, but I hoped we could get her the training and the job she'd dreamed of for so long.

    "That court reporter....did the court artist draw her picture?" Bambi asked shyly. "I always wished somebody would draw a picture of me."
Bambi wanted an artistic depiction of herself, so she could see what she really looked like.
     "Why didn't you tell me, you reticent treasure?" Ambrosia cried. "I am an accomplished artist if I do say so. Capturing your beauty on paper will be an exhilarating challenge, since portraiture is not my specialty."
    Sass continued the repetitive process of inhaling her cigarette as if hopeful or expectant, then exhaling despairingly.
    "We planned a fund-raising revue to get the money Sass needs for school, but the warden said it would cause too much excitement." 

    "Risque was writing some love songs for the occasion. Even though we don't understand Spanish, they make us practically faint."
    "They so beautiful, you can hear violins playin'."
    "Violence, plain," Fortune said, as if placing an order.
    "And Stardust was choreographing dances for a medley of show tunes."
    "Brandie was going to play her saxophone, but she got bailed out."
    "She had more soul than any white girl got a right to."
    "And more temper than anyone could stand -- Jesus, redheads!" 
Brandie was mean, and she played a mean sax.
    "If she can meet the entrance requirements, I think I can get Sass a scholarship to court-reporting school," I said. "If not, I'll get the money. We need you to clean up your act, though, Sass. We need to get you back out there supporting yourself in a legal way."

    "No problemo," Sass said drowsily, scratching her crotch. I continued to forget about what was really "down there." I wondered if that was nice of me, or if it was stupid.
    "We're making a costume for you to wear next time we put on a show," Dove confided eagerly. "You're about an eight aren't you?" 

    "Dove, you traitor!"
    "It was suppose to be a surprise!"
    "She couldn't keep a secret if we stapled her lips shut: She'd fart it out in Morse code," Stardust said disgustedly.
    "Ah, the delicate art of discretion. I believe Lord Byron said it best...."
    "Ambie, please!" 

    "Stardust hates it when I quote the great minds of Western civilization," Ambrosia told me, her eyes twinkling. 
    "When we got dumped in here we didn't get sentenced to sit through a philosophy class."
    "Although it would have been a welcome amenity," Dove said, adding: "It's going to be a rose-colored bodysuit with strategically placed feathers and a headdress. Very hot, but classy! Bambi and Sass will stitch it together -- they work in the tailor shop."
    "Don't worry -- it's real dignified. No cleavage or nothing."
    "As if Little Miss Pinafore had any." 
It's showtime!
     "With the right bra, you could make Olive Oyl look like Dolly Parton: They can pull flesh from all over and push it up almost to your chin."
    "The concept of consolidation is one of the most delightful feats of brassiere engineering," Ambrosia nodded.
    "Anyways, Miss Sylvia has a pretty bosom," Bambi said quietly.
    "With them little titties, she ain't never going to get no man," Stardust retorted, holding forth a bust that looked like two well-fed and well-basted game hens. 

    "Don't you read the gossip columns? She's squired around by the movers and shakers of this great metropolis!"
    "They ain't real men," Stardust sniffed.
    Silently, I agreed. I preferred the scruffy public-interest lawyers, the struggling writers and artists, the emigres, the proud shopkeepers and the grad students to the big-name guys, but I was -- embarrassingly -- quite status-oriented at that time, and I was getting as many notches on my belt as possible. 
On MY belt, I said. Keep your pants on.
    I must say that I had also kind of forgotten what point there was in having girlfriends. Men had the money, the power, the connections. They were interesting, they were flattering, they were protective. What more did I need? I was finding out this afternoon.
   "Getting back to Sass's predicament: I'm having dinner tomorrow with an Assistant District Attorney," I said. "I'll try to work something out with him. He's done favors for me in the past. I think I can get him to put Sass on probation if we can get her directly into training. I'll see about a stipend from Social Services. They owe me."

    "These 'favors' from the ADA: Do you have to 'pay' for them?"
     "Usually, flattery will get you everywhere, but occasionally more is required."
    "You're willing to turn a trick for me?" Sass asked in drowsy-eyed disbelief.
    "You are a most meritorious cause, honey," Ambrosia said. "And for our dear friend to make optimum use of her precious natural resources is reasonable and proper."
    "I don't turn any tricks," I said, "although what I do is almost as bad. I allow them to continue hoping that something is going to happen between us, even though it's definitely not. I get what I want, and then I'm outta there." 
"So you really can get Sass out on probation? You amaze me!"
     "Sound like some kinda crime to me," Stardust observed perceptively.
    "You are so strong -- just like a man!" Dove exclaimed and then covered his mouth with his hand in embarrassment.
    "Dove, really! Apologize at once to our very lovely and feminine guest," Ambrosia reproved him.

   "That's all right: I take it as a compliment," I assured
them, flushed and pleasantly confused about the role-reversal that was evolving: Miss Sylvia, the macho protector of the ladies of 4-U. I  sat up straighter in my chair.
    "I think the nicest thing about having white skin must be the capacity for blushing -- it's so becoming," Ambrosia said.
    "I suppose so," I replied absently. "But it's sort of like having erectile tissue: It broadcasts your true feelings to everyone in sight." 
Erectile tissue is a physiological wonder, kind of.
     "What a riveting analogy! It's strikingly apropos."
    "Ambrosia, if you don't start talkin' like real people, I'm going to scream," Stardust said, clamping her hands over her ears.
    "I'm sorry. It's thoughtless of me. Still, when one has a vocabulary, one tends to use it," Ambrosia said.
    I agreed.
    "I antagonized the warden that way. He asked me how I felt about parading around in front of 2,000 men every day and I said I was ambivalent," I recalled. 

    "He accused me of trying to 'lord it' over him by using 'smarty-pants' words. So when he asked how I planned on reversing decades of deeply ingrained prison routine, I tried to accommodate him: I said 'I have balls and I plan to use them.'"
    The ladies burst into laughter -- a warm merriment that took me back to my younger days, when squeal-filled slumber parties and group flirtation as we "dragged" State Street were among life's greatest pleasures. Back when I had girlfriends. We did everything together. We talked on the phone for hours: confiding, dreaming, hatching plots. We laughed until we peed our pants.
Whatever happened to my all-girl posse of yesteryear?
    I hadn't had a girlfriend since high school. I've forgotten why I shifted my focus entirely to relationships with males, but it probably had something to do with ego. 
    This afternoon, I was coming to remember how heartwarming and affirming, comforting and relaxing it is to have intimate bonds with women -- not to mention the naughtiness and hilarity. It was the height of irony that I was learning this lesson from men in drag. I vowed to stop eluding the friendly overtures of women, although it would prove to be harder than I expected.
    "Bambi has a secret way to get men hot!" Dove cried playfully.
    "You leave her be," Ambrosia ordered.
    "It don't matter; I ain't ashamed," Bambi said. 

    "She dresses up as a nurse! In a tiny white dress and a little hat and everything. Men go wild for her."
    "I always did want to be a nurse, even when I was a little boy," Bambi said wistfully. It seemed that the ladies and I were in a sort
of floating, shifting, swirling mixture of genders.
We seemed to be blends of both genders.
    "Like what's the big appeal of a nurse?" Sass said, smoking euphorically.
    "Maybe they think she more sanitary than the ordinary hooker."
    "Maybe uniforms turn men on just like they do women."
    "You all look fabulous in everything," Ambrosia said. "Whatever works, I always say."
    "The way you dress, Miss Sylvia, is it really you? The perfect hair, the suit - the Jackie O bit..."
    "Hope it," Fortune repeated thoughtfully.
    "...or is it just a costume, too?" 

    I looked at my gray woolens and my kidskin pumps as if consulting them. "I guess I've never thought about what's really me," I said. "I dress to achieve the goal at hand. Like Ambrosia said: whatever works."
   "On men?"
    "Who else?"
    "So, like, this is your credibility outfit?" 
Dressing for success was serious business.
     "It sho' ain't her open-they-nose outfit."
    "I'd like to get you up in some little calypso pants and platform shoes and a big hat with fruit on it, like Carmen Miranda!"
    "Or something ripply or shimmery."
    "Or skimpy."
    "Or funky."
    "What do you wear at home, when there's no one around and you just want to relax?" Ambrosia asked.
    "Considering my present company, the answer is pretty strange," I blushed again. "I...god, it's really too embarrassing."
    "Tell us! You have to!"

    "I...I hang out in men's underwear," I said, becoming flustered. It had never occurred to me that it was odd until this moment.
And it looked totally cute. It wasn't weird!
     There was laughter all around.
    "Oh this is too ironic! What a merry band of misfits we are!"
    "Maybe we misfits on our own, but together we fits pretty good."
    "We do cover all the bases!"
    "There's always room for one more transvestite."
    "I'm not...that's not what it is. They just look cute. And feel good," I protested.
    "Sounds like it's straight out of Webster's to me."
    "Not entirely," Ambrosia interjected. "I'm sure she doesn't experience sexual arousal from the gender-inappropriate attire, and that is an integral aspect of the abberration."
    I quickly focused my attention on my notepad. Truth was, I occasionally did have little tinglings when I saw myself in the mirror wearing men's underthings, but surely it wasn't a perversion. It was, it seemed to me, an entirely innocent pleasure. I had a decent physique back then, and I never really got to see it except when I was wearing my "skimpies." 
Tim Curry, in "Rocky Horror," was a naughty babe.
   I didn't dare mention that my favorite business attire was a men's Yves St. Laurent suit that a Lebanese friend didn't want anymore and had given to me. The quality and tailoring were exquisite. I loved it -- I felt and moved like a whole different person in it, with more confidence and ease.

    "All these preferences and practices and labels are getting me confused," I said. "I'm not a cross-dresser -- not that there's anything wrong with that." (Yes: I said it before Seinfeld. I have witnesses!)
    "I don't think any of us appreciates being pigeonholed," Ambrosia said. 
                                             "Pigeonholed" by Cory Sewelson
    "Or holed, period," Stardust smirked.
    "We're people just like anybody else; we like food and sleep and TV. We like to read about movie stars."
    "And dolphins and gorillas."
     "And fashion trends."
    "And we worry about our families so much -- it really hurts!"
    "And about our figures."
    "And hemorrhoids. What a hassle!"
    "And getting old."
    "We're just regular people."
    "Yes we is - even if we does have glitter on our toenails." 
    "It surely damages our sense of self, however, to be addressed by the Corrections Officers with such cruel, vulgar derision," Ambrosia told me.
    "That's something I can take care of," I said. "That's why I took this job."
    "The COs treats us like we sideshow freaks," Stardust declared.
I wonder what happened to all those poor 'sideshow freaks.'
    "But we fascinate them."
    "It's the ones that wants us the most that's the meanest."
    "They can strip us of everything but our dignity; that we shall never forfeit."
   "They are constantly looking for an excuse to grab ahold of us...."
    "...or pin us against the wall."
    "Or feel us up for weapons, I declare!"
    "And they so rough too," Bambi said sadly.
    "Captain Bain's rationale for being so 'thorough' in his searches is that he found a disassembled gun in a man's rectum one time," I said.
    "And he been looking for Number Two ever since."
    "Number Two is right! As long as his finger's in the right place, we ought to all give him some."
    "With concerted bowel discipline, I believe that is feasible. Let's all begin at once to exercise our sphincters," Ambrosia urged. 
In D.C., the "ladies" often work in pairs.
    "Let's give him a ride in the Poop de Ville," Dove cried, choking with laughter.
    "Dove's got a Cadillac fixation that's gettin' a little old," Stardust said irritably.
    "An luke who eese talkeeng, Dustbag," said Risque, who often refused to pronounce the word "Stardust" because it could not be uttered, she felt, without sounding awed. "You weeth your Ale-dorado and those seely personalize plates."
    "That car was a gift from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, and you know it. I'd of got a Sunbeam Alpine, like James Bond, if it was up to me. And the plates ain't personalized -- they's just what come in the mail."
Sean Connery knew class when he saw it. So did Stardust.
    "To my way of thinking, it's a heartwarming display of cosmic affection that the plates which happen to say 'YUM' were assigned to you," Ambrosia said fondly. "Life is resplendent with such breathtaking counterpoints."   
    "Gee, thanks for letting us know, Ambrosia. I could of sworn it was resplendent with crap," Sass said, rubbing the aromatic lemon rind from her tea on her throat and wrists.

    "I must confess that I ordered personalized license plates, but it wasn't out of vanity," Ambrosia said. "They kept sending me letter combinations that I found objectionable. One year it was CBW, which of course stands for chemical-biological warfare. What an atrocious concept to foster on one's bumper. Then there was MSG -- that disgusting food additive, which positively ruins Chinese food and can cause heart palpitations. So I ordered plates with the word that means the most in my life, ART. It wasn't until I had them on my car that I realized it was the name and the identity I have wanted to discard all my life: Arthur." 
Ru Paul is a beautiful, smart and very funny transvestite.
    I was stunned by the power of this little anecdote. There seemed to be one poignant or thought-provoking gem after another in this job, and indeed in New York City generally. I wished I could just sit back and take it all in this afternoon, but I felt compelled to continue madly taking notes. I didn't want to forget any of this. I knew it was very special.
    "Risque's just jealous that she don't have no car," Stardust said.
    "They squabble constantly, but it's just a game," Ambrosia told me. "Deep down, they adore each other."
     "Bullsheet! I hate that leetle teetmouse!" Risque flared, tweaking Stardust's awesome breast. They both dissolved into laughter and exchanged several restrained slaps.
    "Miss Sylvia, can you really make the COs stop tormenting us? They mock us something terrible."

    "I believe we threaten not their manhood, but their concept of womanhood,"Ambrosia theorized, standing up as if to employ a blackboard and pointer. "We are, in some ways, a caricature of the female of the species. Being heterosexual, they probably can't help but be attracted to us somewhat, which is galling to them. They see in us, and in a new light, the preening and daintiness, the dependence and pouty manipulation, to which they have succumbed in their women, and it makes them feel like the fools they are. The deflowering of their fantasies infuriates them." 
If the corrections officer wants to throw her down on the bed, is he gay?
     "I'm sure it's confusing for them," I said. "It's even confusing for me, trying to keep straight in my mind exactly who you are and what feelings are appropriate."
    "They is turned on and turned off at the same time." 
    "I'm sure that's true," I said. "Their bad behavior can't be tolerated, but we ought to give them some slack. They're only human."
    "So are we," Dove said. 
    "To say the least," Stardust said, stroking her neck with a feather.
    "We look like we do because of men," Sass added. "Don't blame us if their desires is fucked up." 

    "It's true," Ambrosia said. "The girls are manifestations of the marketplace, creations of demand, embodiments of the collective male fantasy."
    "Calm down, Ambrosia."
    "You got to be, to get ahead out there."
    I had been quiet for some time, looking from face to face with a growing realization. Pleasing men, catering to them, had been the absolute key to my success. It had unlocked every door.
    "I'm in the same boat as you," I blurted.
    The same as a cross-dresser? Or a whore? Or a PRISONER? I was mixed up. Probably all three, in one way or another.
I was really starting to feel like one of the gang.
     "We didn't, like, invite you here because we thought you were in a different boat," Sass said, popping her gum deliciously.
    "We all gets it stuck to us one way or another."
    "Welcome to the sisterhood, Miss Sylvia!"
    "Break out the brandy: This calls for a toast!"
    "If we got to have tea, it might as well be high tea!"

    Risque fled to fetch the celebratory fluid.
    "I can't believe you've got alcohol in here," I said.
    "Honey, they is whatever you wants in here."
    "For a price."
    "But we makes our own hooch."
    "From all kinds of fruit -- it's quite tropical."
    Risque poured a shot into each teacup.
    "Are you sure I won't go blind drinking this stuff?" I asked dubiously.
    "Sugar, ain't nobody never taught you the difference between moonshine and masturbation?"
    "What lovely alliteration, Stardust," Ambrosia exclaimed. "You have some of the poetic potential of our former friend, Macabre."
    "She was such a slut -- no class," Stardust blurted. "That pig was a total embarrassment."
Macabre lived up to her name.
    "A toast to our new seester. Miss Sylvia," Risque proposed, flashing sapphire-frosted eyes at me.
    "To our sister!" they cried, and downed the amber-colored liquid. I took just a sip at first. It tasted like femininity on fire -- sweet, lush, complex and enfolding. I drank it in and closed my eyes. For a moment, we all sat back and enjoyed the feeling of it going down.

    "I love this song," I sighed, as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" filled the air.
    "Let's dance," Bambi said softly, standing before me.
   "Who's going to be the man?" I asked, suddenly shy.
    "They ain't going to be no man: Just two girlfrens dancing, and it ain't nobody's business if we do."
   The intimacy of the word "girlfriend" alone made me feel privileged. I took Bambi's outstretched hands, and we swayed to the yearning melody: "Givin' yourself to me could never be wrong, if the love is true...."
    I tried to focus on the reality of the situation, but it was tempting simply to give myself over to it. Was I dancing with a woman, bosom-to-bosom and tummy-to-tummy? If so, was that OK? Or was this a man? Wasn't it a bit cheap to be pressed up against him like this on our first meeting? 

 You don't have to worry that it's wrong
If the spirit moves you, let me groove you
Good, when the love comes down.
    Bambi pulled me closer: I felt like a mother, sister, and maybe even a lover. I couldn't tell.
Steven Wayno does an amazing version of Cher.
    I hoped Warden James Thomas didn't pick this moment to pay a visit to 4-U. He rarely ventured from his office anymore, due to a serious heart condition, and this might really do him in.
    "This is nice," Bambi sighed, resting her cheek on my shoulder. "I always wanted a sister that looked just like you."
    There were giggles and hoots all around.
    "She could of been adopted," Bambi retorted.
    "I would have been honored," I said.
    "Let's listen to 'Sexual Healing' next," Dove said. "It puts me in a trance!"
    "Sex never healed me of nothing, that's for sure," Sass said.
    "Except bein' broke."
    "All I ever want is to feel protected and secure, but I never do," I said, startled by my own candor.
    "You safe with us, honey. Safe as can be." 

    "I feels safest when I am bein' held by a man....when he just hold you in his arms and breathe warm on your neck," Bambi said. "Don't you like that?"
    "I guess I do," I said, my voice cracking. "I guess I would like that. But it's always used as a springboard to something else."
    "They say 'just let me hold you' and pretty soon they in your panties?" Stardust clarified brilliantly.
Why can't they leave our panties alone?
     I looked down and sighed, unexpectedly overcome with something -- a kind of loneliness, I think.
    Ambrosia stood up grandly, scooping me into her strong embrace, and said, "Allow me to be the first to give you a no-strings hug."
    Even before I was fully enveloped, I felt the stinging my nose which warned me that I was going to be sobbing at any moment. I hadn't cried in years. Shit -- why now? I tried to pull away.
    "No you don't baby," Ambrosia whispered, tightening her grip. "You stand here and experience the love of one woman for another. It's the best there is."

    "And we all feels the same!" Bambi cried, leaping to her feet and squeezing me from behind.
    "Indeed we do -- let me give the girl a kiss," Stardust said, trying to muscle in.
    Despite the magic of the moment, my worst nightmare was coming true.
    Layer after layer of makeup was being washed away - in peach, lilac, gold and aqua rivulets - revealing, so far, only in streaks, the true face that cowered underneath.
   "I'm sorry -- this is so embarrassing," 1 sniffled. 
A sweet little tear became a tidal wave of dripping makeup.
    "Crying rids the system of toxins...."
    "...and prevents sinusitis."
    "It something to work at: Mens is left hepless by it."
    "And it invigorates mental processes, I am told."
    "Still, I can't go back out there looking like this," I moaned. "Hundreds of guys will get a good look at this wrecked face before I can make it back to my office."

    "Oh, I have the perfect plan," Dove said. "Let's do a makeover on you!" 
    "It's one of our favorite pastimes, doin' each other up and trying new effects." 
Maybe I'd look like Adam Lambert, who wasn't yet born.
    "Ambrosia will give you a facial while we do some reflexology on your tootsies.You'll be on cloud nine!"
    "Then we'll make you sinfully delicious with the best makeup stash in town. We've got stuff hidden all over the quad!"
    "I can hardly wait to put some mauve on those eyelids. I think we'll see a whole new warmth come onto your face."
    "And the sparkles... could we use your powder with the sparkles in it Stardust?"
    "You got a date tonight?"
    "I've haven't bought my own dinner since I was 21," I said, exaggerating only slightly.
    "Then let's do it -- let's do her up like she's never been done before!" 
Uh oh, ladies -- let's keep in mind that I'm a regular girl, not a transvestite hooker.
     The tea things were cleared from the table and I -- with great trepidation but no apparent alternative -- was lain upon the pink blanket. Cotton pads soaked in our herb tea were placed over my eyelids, and a succession of steaming washcloths sprinkled with rosewater was draped my face.

   At first, I felt as if I were on an operating table -- then in a bizarre Dali rendition of the crucifixion. My feet were being kneaded with practiced sensuality; each new spot seemed to relax a different region of my body. Ambrosia massaged my scalp while the hot towels did their work. Stardust sang "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," the 1967 single by Aretha Franklin.
    "I know you're gonna make it big someday, Stardust," Sass said. "With a voice like that, you just got to." 
    Indeed, her singing was achingly beautiful. Thinking about how this talented and charismatic person made her living fortified my resolve to do something. This whole prison was jammed with wasted talent. 

    I continued to feel uneasy about my current situation, lying on a table while being ministered to by a gang of flamboyant prostitutes. I was the one who was supposed to be serving them!
    It would make for a great tabloid headline:

Mayoral protege lies down
for 'the full treatment'
in homosexual love den 

"You know we think the world of you, dear Sylvia!"
    While I remained fixated on the possibility of winding up as a hilarious, outrageous skit on the new TV show, "Saturday Night Live," Ambrosia smoothed a foaming cleanser over my tingling face in a gentle circular motion, followed by a minty scrub.
    "Isn't exfoliation a lyrical word?" she said.
    "Sounds illegal to me."
    "Like something to do with a leather mask and straps."
    "Or Vicks VapoRub." 

    "Miss Sylvia, your scarf is the color of a cloud in heaven."
    "At dawn, lavender-blue with a touch of sun."
    "If they has clouds in heaven." 
     "Sin haven," Fortune advertised. She smiled with her eyes and nose, as if opening her tiny red mouth would leave her unbearably vulnerable.
    "Yes, on a symbolic level, it would be inappropriate for heaven to have clouds, but perhaps the Lord will bow to public pressure and give us a few," Ambrosia mused."Miss Sylvia, have you noticed that your scarf is the same color as my note to you? Is this not some sort of cosmic affirmation of our shared destiny?"
    "Will there be blacks in heaven, or will we get turned white?" Bambi asked. 

   "Merciful Mother of God, I surely hope we can retain our proud hue: I exult in its rich and indomitable heritage," Ambrosia said. She was spreading a musky mineral-clay masque on my face to "tighten and refine."
I'd call for my "Mammy," but I can't move my face. As it dried, it darkened.
     "When that dries, we peel it off and presto: a tabula rasa on which our makeup masters will perform their exquisite wizardry," Ambrosia declared. Masque in place, she resumed the scalp massage, which seemed to unleash a flood of unrelated images in my brain, like a stream-of-consciousness art film. 
    Even so, I was concerned about my hair getting messed up. People were always characterizing me as having "not a hair out of place," and I was rather attached to that image.
    The masque was definitely dry. My face was paralyzed.

    'Time for the extravaganza," Dove cried, and before I could sit up, I had been swept into Ambrosia's manly arms and carried to a chair in front of a large mirror, ringed with lights. The dressing table was covered with cremes, liners and powders of all colors. The solidified black masque was clamped so tightly that I dared not
try to speak or smile, but my eyes opened wide with shock at the sight of myself.

    "Can she sing 'Mammy'?" Sass teased.
    "Now she looks like your sister, Bambi! Like your sister who just saw a ghost!" 
    Ambrosia bent over to lift off the masque, but Bambi stopped her.
    "Let me do it --1 loves her the most," she pleaded.
    "Love isn't something we quantify, sweet," Ambrosia scolded, "but you may have the honor."
    Bambi straddled my knees and bent her own until we were face to face. Her skin looked as if it were in a black masque too, as if she could slip out of it and into something more comfortable. I was touched by the intimate experience of inhaling air that Bambi had just exhaled. It was sweet.
    Bambi signified that she was having a Higher Thought by placing the violet-colored tip of her tongue in the center of her upper lip and looking skyward. I could hear Dionne Warwick:
    "Each morning I wake up....before I put on my makeup..." 

    "Hep us Lord," Bambi prayed," to restore Miss Sylvia, so she can go on back to the Outside World with her head held high."
    Then she grasped the bottom of the masque and began slowly to peel it upward.

    "The curtain ascends," Dove cried, putting his hands over his eyes and peeking through. 
    "The Sistine Chapel is primed," Ambrosia added, "and ready for the painting." 
    "Pain thing," Fortune contributed astutely.
    And then my true face was fully exposed.
    "Madonna," Risque said, crossing herself. "She glows."
    "She is risen...."
    " a new level of, um...."
    "Pulchritude," Ambrosia assisted. "A Botticelli maiden, radiant and fair. Awash in the luminous nectar of Nature's grace."
I always thought Botticelli maidens were rather homely.
     "And those little freckles - they so cute!"
    "Lord strike me down if I does one thing to mess with that face," Stardust said, sweeping the makeup off the dressing table and into a Lord & Taylor shopping bag. "It would be a sin against Creation."

    I was trying to look at myself in the mirror -- trying to see myself as they saw me -- but for once I was unable to focus on my own reflection. I didn't so much look through myself as past myself -- to the reflections of the ladies -- my girlfriends.
    "You've been camouflaging beauty with glamor, girl," Ambrosia said.
    "And that isn't very nice."
    "What you been saving yourself for -- your wedding night?" 
    "She looked like a Barbie-on-the-Town doll before...."
    "Like she wearin' a little painted mask."
    "Now she looks so real."
    "So clear..."
    "Silken of skin, noble of brow."
    "All she needs is a light moisturizer."
    "Some tinted lip gloss."
    "And a touch of extra-virgin olive oil on her lashes."
    "We learned that from Pizzele. She finally got her surgery."
     "She used to work in the Lamborghini factory; isn't that fascinating?"

    "Miss Sylvia, your hair looks so free!"
    "As if she has been ebulliently dancing in a meadow....a maiden caught unawares in a fanciful spring breeze." 
    Indeed, my smooth, tame locks had been liberated by Ambrosia's massage into a devil-may-care profusion of waves. I looked breathless.
    And inside, I was breathless -- with surprise and relief -- at the implications this experience might have for the rest of my life. Perhaps now my tiresome routine of applying makeup before going to bed -- in case there was a natural disaster during the night -- could be terminated. It remained to be seen. (I did stop doing that -- it was too absurd even for me -- but I smoothed my hair back down as soon as I returned to my office)
    I never came to like my own face until I was in my fifties -- 25 or 30 years later -- and I continued to wear lots of makeup for more than 20 years after my "afternoon with the ladies." But they gave me a gift that has lasted all these years, by telling me, convincingly, that they saw beauty in my real face, even though I didn't.
    "I really do have to go now," I said. "Especially if I'm going to get the doctor in here to see Risque before his shift is over."
    "I wish you could sleep over," Bambi said, taking my hand.
    "We could take her hostage!"
    "And make popcorn and tell scary stories."
    "And wax our legs!" 
    Once again (being a journalist at heart) I could see the headlines: 

Ingenue held captive
by flaming queens in
gruesome, secret prison quad

     "Maybe next time, girls," Ambrosia said. "We must let our friend get back to her real life."
    Real life! For the moment, I honestly couldn't remember what my real life was. It seemed to me that I was right where I belonged.
    There were embraces all around, and I promised to return the following week with a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream, a cheesecake from the best deli in town and some fresh-ground mocha-java coffee.
    "We can all do aerobics afterward," Dove said. "So bring your leotard." 
    In retrospect, I would not be able to conjure in my mind the long walk back to my office, through that dizzying fun-house succession of corridors, screeching gates and crashing locks. I would never recall whether my naked face was met with the usual thundering ovations from the three-tiered cellblocks, or whether there was appalled silence. For that one interlude -- and who knows for how long and to what degree afterward -- it didn't matter: The ladies liked me just the way I was.

    I spent afternoons with the wardens, too. They weren't as colorful as "the ladies" were, but they were very compelling.

    l also spent months with a pre-operative transsexual in Greenwich Village, where she used me as her "femininity mentor."