For the years my oldest kid attended a preschool in the East 60’s, I enjoyed a perch on the top step of a red bricked brownstone; waiting for my kid to emerge, I had an entertaining view of the UES cosmos. Though I shared the stoop with other parents, I rarely felt obliged to speak to any of them. It was clear to me from the start that I was not a bird of the same feather. Who could forget the day the white stretch limousine parked in front of the school to reveal a curvy, middle-aged blonde woman in a tight white suit and white patent leather stilettos. She moved like a drunk cruise director– teetering precariously on the sidewalk as she held her small daughter’s hand to enter the school. It struck me as funny that someone confident or deluded enough to make this kind of entrance had not mastered the walk. I couldn’t fathom a plausible agenda for her day. Was this a prelude to the gym locker room/board meeting/morning of chores i.e, folding her laundry at home? Because of the generally haughty audience of parents at the time, I had no one to nudge and share snarky, amused comments. What a wasted moment!
I imagined most of the parents at this school looked at me in the same light as the blunt Chinese facialist who once learned of my lack of skincare routine and shouted as I lay on my back “you are like a peasant!” By extension, some of the parents’ nannies refused to smile back at me and denied playdate requests. I learned that one such nanny asked our babysitter if I was poor based on the way I dressed. (That mortified but didn’t shock me. I’m casual and I don’t care about designers. It may have unduly disturbed me, given the financial travails I endured as a child and my scruffy adoptee background. Was poverty, in fact, unshakable? ) Perhaps my favorite example of the comic parent body: at my kid’s fourth birthday party, one father who revered navy blazers said to my mother in law after she handed him a pizza slice on a paper plate, “how nice they let you eat!” (It was true that my MIL was handing him a slice of pizza while scarfing a separate slice of pizza in her other hand but no matter!). She politely explained she was my mother in law, to which he may have blushed. This was the same father I once overheard asking another parent “Where do you summer?” in all earnestness. (How I wished he’d ask me this question so I could respond with some funny, un-chic locale!) Other stand-out characters- the plastic surgeon mother in her sixties who constantly mistook me for other Asian mothers, which really irked me because I had assumed a plastic surgeon would pay proper attention to facial features and be able to distinguish mine! The best revenge I could hope for happened on grandparent visiting day when I left the classroom to go to the bathroom and upon my return, walked into the room where my little one was out loud, on his own compulsion, pointing out who was a grandmother and who was a mother. Before I could stop this exercise, my kid pointed at the plastic surgeon and declared “grandma!” (Heh, Heh “Grandma” was utterly displeased.)
These wealthy UES people, admittedly, both irked and fascinated me. Seated on my perch one afternoon, none other than Luann De Lesseps, a main character in the Real Housewives of New York, a show I watched two seasons of, and Ramona Singer, walked by, deeply immersed in a conversation. To my disbelief, as they passed, I shouted “love you guys!”, causing the mothers on the stoop to turn my way and more importantly causing said reality TV stars to look up at me and shout “Thank you!”. Did I really love these two? I hadn’t imagined so, but there I was declaring my devotion. My declaration surprised me because I thought I felt more animosity than adoration for this group. It wasn’t just the disparity of wealth and worldview that set me apart from these parents. I was different because my kid was autistic and therefore, the Other. The parent body at the school was particularly sold on early reading as the panacea, some having their kids do Kumon after a day of handwriting and literacy. Though here I had a bright two-year-old who read complex full sentences with no parental push (hyperlexia), we were sometimes socially excluded. During this time when I was just learning about autism, I admit it pained me to be once again, an outsider. (Now I have gained an appreciation of autism’s strength through my advocate child.) So this may explain the fun I derive from mocking the nouveau rich. Finally a minority group worth the derision! It does the soul good; for I may be less wealthy but my family is unique and I’m way less tacky.
Fast forward about seven years to an afternoon in which one of the only friends I made at the above-mentioned preschool, E, took me clothes shopping. She didn’t take me to a traditional store but brought me to the showroom/UES apartment of Vixen, a middle-aged Chinese-American woman who sold designer knockoff clothing and accessories she had made at a Chinese factory. E had not adequately prepared me for the other-worldly experience. In an apartment, so sunny and white, it made my eyes water, Vixen greeted me with a flamboyant hug, furry, slipper/shoes and a Missoni-like dress–a polar opposite to my Target velour leggings and graying white sneakers. She had puffer-fish lips, a suspiciously even tan and a swath of bronze eye makeup that contrasted greatly with the minimalist decor. In the adjoining dining room, sat ten mostly blonde women at a long white table who turned to stare at me in unison. Most of them, including the hostess, were parents at the same preschool I’d known years back. The table was set with long trays of sushi, cloth napkins and champagne glasses at each plate setting. Each chair was draped with a piece of white fur, supposedly in fashion at the time. In this unfamiliar setting, I fell quiet, aware of the clink of champagne glasses among women I did not know and I clung greedily to my friend. (Though my friend is blonde, tall and solidly very UES, she is a human I trust. If I wanted to run away screaming, I’m pretty sure she’d follow).
After getting us good and tipsy, Vixen led us into her showroom of clothing with its large windows overlooking Central Park. I was met by rows of fake Chanel jackets complete with fake labels inside (I’m sorry Fo, my friend who used to do trademark at Chanel!), fake Prada, Miu Miiu sweaters that those around me, whispered were incredible knock offs at a fraction of the price. Evidencing my quick surrender to peer pressure, I bought things I not only did not need but did not particularly like. A fellow customer, an elegant woman from Spain with a Balanchine neck and hair in a corresponding bun, encouraged me to try on not one but two mock Chanel jackets; she told me the green of the boucled jacket made my face “pop”—opening a closed fist near my face to emphasize her point. Though when I looked at myself in a long mirror, I only felt the unappetizing scratch of the fabric and felt the dowdy matron, I snatched up these jackets. The Vixen herself was the consummate saleswoman, bringing me the type of tight skirts and dresses that even in my youth, I avoided as she cooed words of encouragement. I found her sales skills a shade overwrought (though amusing).”This is like the sexy you need, like your date night, straight-to- the-boom-boom look” or “it’s a myth that pink isn’t for everyone. You can’t go wrong in this sweater. Men love bunnies.” When her young daughter arrived from school with her nanny, the mothers appreciatively clucked at the 5 year old Eurasian beauty; Vixen, greeted her by stroking her pretty dark hair. “Check out her Fendi fur keychain. This one’s for real. How fab is it?” The women collectively murmured their approval. Then the sweet girl was escorted away by the nanny, neatly out of sight. I had to wonder what a five year girl needed with an expensive fur keychain, possibly worth $1,450 according to my covert Google search. But the little bit of champagne soothed my brittle thoughts and allowed me to waltz out of her apartment with a fake Chanel shopping bag. Vixen was if anything a perfectionist-her fraud was not a half hearted endeavor! I had to give her that.
Two days later, I re-tried my Chanels and decried my morally questionable/tacky purchases. I am a legal services attorney afterall and I had no plausible place to wear these jackets. I made a call to the Vixen. When I asked to return the jackets, it was silent on the other end.
Gone was the gaiety and loquacity I had witnessed. “All sales are final.” I could hear the sound of her drumming her long nails on some surface. I hung up, annoyed more at myself than anyone else. After that, I followed her world with delighted gasps of disbelief–how she had told my friend that she gave a Rolex watch (probable fake) to the Exmissions director at the preschool, how she liked to post photos of her daughter in front of the most prestigious private school in nyc and post triumphant photos of her white, disheveled attorney husband and herself at Mar-a-Lago –Trump and Melania half visible in the background. Finally, I learned how she got in some kind of trouble for doing a trunk show and telling her clients that she was selling real designer clothing when she in fact was not. Though time passed, my mom became the happy recipient of my fake Chanel jackets, and I wish Vixen well, I do occasionally enjoy the ping of joy from seeing her baroque world of opera benefits and garish lunches with her friends–a motley group of old, plastic socialites looking for eternal beauty. Please, friends, let me have this small joy.