Katja and I head to Kensington Market on the art-bike and, of course, b-line to I Deal Coffee on Nassau street (so YUM). No sooner are we parked—our machine undoubtedly raises parallel parking to an art-form—a man wearing an old, rumpled, vaguely patterned white shirt draped over his bulging belly swaggers toward us. Katja runs in to get her coffee..His frumpy porkpie hat and crooked grin confuse me. I can’t decide whether he’s a sleazy-alcoholic-car-salesman type or an artist embodying that kitschy 1970s character. No matter, because the minute he opens his mouth, his frothy-saliva-embedded words etch his misogynist swagger on the pavement: “So, what are you gals up to?” I give him our usual pitch: “We are authors promoting our work and a platform for writers and readers to discuss literature without a corporate mandate defining the rules.” “HA!” he guffaws, barely waiting for me to pronounce my last syllable. “Is this what it has come to? Writers putting on get-ups and hawking their goods on the street!”
The more his spit coats his hoarse laughter, the more rooted and calm I become. Actually, I am totally out of character—or totally in, depending on how you look at it. I am beyond my usual trigger-happy fuck-you style when confronted with smarmy insults coming out of the mouth of “assholes.” Despite my girly makeup and scant attire, my soul seems to be irrevocably anchored in my killer patent-leather Docs and art. Without batting (a large red) eyelash, I lay it out: “Yo, dude, I was facing the nasty prospect of forking out big bucks to the corporate machine to promote my book and write—what? Emails dressed up as press releases or whatever? Fuck it. There’s no way I’m spending that kind of dough on vapid, cookie-cutter emails! If I have to spend that kind of cash, I’ll invest it in more art. So here you have it, the art I created instead of the campaign I could have bought.” “Well, you sure are getting some attention,” he scoffs. “Want a manifesto?” I ask.
He’s still laughing, but so am I. Wow! What just happened? It’s the strangest thing because I am not embodying a specific character, not really. Sure, my costume conjures up the girl on my book cover; sure, I created that image to represent women’s epic and courageous journey out of powerlessness; sure, she’s riding the wave of transformation and has six hundred pages written on her body, but Joe Blow on the street doesn’t know that. Buddy here sure doesn’t. Regardless, I have stepped into a powerful ethos that is shape-shifting my personality, responses and perception. I don’t think it’s the wig, mask, and snorkel; stripy period bathing suit; or the boots, for that matter. I think it’s the white paint. I am wearing a mask that has the power to reveal, hide and transform me. The thin film of water-soluble pigment transforms what would otherwise be a tandem bike with a big eyeball, some props, and a costume into a potent blend of ingredients that carries me into a theatrical and mystical matrix. Of course, shamans and medicine women have known this spell for millennia, performance artists have worked with masks for centuries, and I certainly explored this language as a theatre and opera designer, but I haven’t experienced the mystery first-hand, much less on streets I navigate to gather groceries, eat Asian food, and complete other mundane chores.
Though humiliation is one of the most painful emotions, the ephemeral pigment I quickly forget I’m wearing has the ability to shift my emotional state. I not only deflect buddy’s public humiliation attack with uncharacteristic equanimity, but I manage to gain clarity and renew my commitment to my creative venture. And truth be told, I sense that Sleaze Balls here lays into me more unabashedly because of it. The flimsy mask helps me shift my perception enough to transcend his attack, witness him for who he is—a man who knows how to humiliate and enjoys the opportunity to do so—and it blurs my identity enough to give him permission to read whatever he wants into me and assume his power over me. The distance the mask creates propels me into an intensely revealing interaction in the time it takes to get a coffee, literally. Katja traipses over with her sweetened milky concoction, and my head and heart are spinning. Even though we I consciously labelled this project an experiment, I am clearly in for more surprises on more levels than I anticipated.