I got caught in the torrential downpour that happened around 5:30 on Monday evening. There was a flash flood warning around 5pm, and everyone's phones went off in the cafe where I was working but, for whatever reason, it didn't really register. Cut to me jumping across what was practically a river on 6th Avenue and West 8th Street as I scurried into the Waverly Diner for some solace from the rain and free wi-fi. The diner's faux-wood paneled walls, vinyl-cushioned seats, lunch counter, and metallic poles for coat-hanging were leftovers from the 1970s as, interestingly, were its menu designs. I shuffled myself in, perhaps embodying the Yiddish phrase my mother loves but which I cannot spell so I will just estimate: "oyskevepte katz," meaning not just "wet cat" but "You look like you really took a bath, cat." I make my way to a booth and I recognize the woman sitting in the one in front of me almost instantly. She has bright, vermillion hair spun into a bun on top of her head and she's decked out in a tan tiger-print caftan. Her attire is exactly what I would expect for who she is: one of the most famous burlesque performers in the world. And she is just sitting in front of me, reading and clicking through her phone with her long, manicured nails. Long gold earrings dangle from her ears, and her face is free of makeup.
I've written about my love of burlesque perhaps several times here, but arguably the reason I know about it at all, the reason it experienced a resurgence in the modern era, is because of this woman. She literally wrote the book on burlesque, runs a school for it here in the city, is on the educational forefront of the performance art at several highly respected burlesque venues across the country, and is one of the first names in the field today. In my mind, she's also a great role model for positive sexuality, ownership of femininity, and a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. And I was sitting behind her, in my full oyskevepte katz regalia.
Of all the dumb luck, I thought to myself. Goddamn New York, if you didn't come through today on this one. I may have gotten stuck in your monsoon, yes, but this is a wonderful gift in exchange. It was enough of a gift just being in her presence, but then I realized I wanted to say hello. How could I not? I'd be a chicken if I didn't, and I am many things, but I am not a chicken! But what would I say? And when would I say it? She had just ordered her macaroni and cheese in a very soft New York accent--which I have to say was a sort of delightful surprise because when she's onstage she doesn't always talk--so I'd have to wait. I didn't want to seem like a creep, but maybe it was already creepy that I was sitting behind her this whole time just waiting to talk to her? SE said anything I said that supported her work would be welcome, so I would use that as a jumping off point. I tried to sip the tea I ordered and finish the email I had been in the midst of sending, but my brain was too occupied.
I wonder, do people recognize her often? Are any of them young twenty-something gals like myself or are they all creepy old men, because lawd knows you get a whole lot of those at burlesque shows, too.
While I wait for her to finish eating, I actually do get some work done. But then her check comes and I sort of sit there rocking, trying to get myself to stand up and go say hello, like some socially inept freak of nature. But eventually I am standing, and eventually I am in front of her saying "Hello, [Her Name]?" And she says yes? And that soft New York accent comes out again. I say 'Hi, I'm Elyssa' in the tiny little voice that comes out when I'm nervous, 'I love your work. I've seen you perform so many times and I love your book, too.' And she says thank you so much, I really appreciate it, Elyssa. And maybe some other things somehow coherently fumble out of my mouth, too, but I don't remember exactly what they are now. The entire counter lasts probably less than three minutes. I'm just so happy she remembers my name when we're finished talking.
Looking back now, I'm amused at how starstruck I was, and it just goes to show that everyone has their own celebrities. I think about how many times I've said in a full whisper to friends that I've just spotted X photographer or X choreographer or X magazine editor, and they have no idea what I'm talking about. What's great, though, is that it's really quite possible to come to New York and be around your idols, to just walk past them in the street or sit behind them in a diner. It makes water-logged days like this one above-and-beyond worth it.