On Monday, January 30, I landed at JFK ready to visit a friend whom I hadn’t seen in several years. Like me, she’s from Missouri originally and went to Truman State University. Unlike me, she transferred out, translocated to New York City, and transitioned from “Mitchell” to Michelle.
As it turns out, Missouri is not the friendliest place for LGBT people, and is especially unkind to the T, in comparison to the liberal Mecca that is NYC. I’d first met Michelle though a mutual friend, and while she was doing drag shows in Missouri as “NoNitta Wig” (she grew her own hair out).
Even then, she had celebrity status among the queers of northeastern Missouri. I’ve followed Michelle for years now on social media as a bulk of our political values overlap, and I have to say that hers is a powerful story: small town girl throws a middle finger to the status quo and leaves the Midwest for the Big Apple to make it on her own, and then thrives? Yeah, I can get into that.
I’d been to New York briefly once before (link here), but this time I had a proper two full days to stay and learn something about life in the big city. The first thing you notice about New York when you exit the airport is how huge the buildings are. Taking the train into Brooklyn, there’s a stretch of the rail from which you can see a huge portion of the skyline; twinkling lights above the water, the buzz of several million people flying vertically in elevators and zipping between blocks in taxi cabs, trains, and food trucks. When you look at New York for a distance, you see it’s pulse and the course of its veins.
After some maneuvering through public transport, I came up on a little brick building with white lion statuettes peering down at passersby. I opened the red bar gate and texted Michelle to let her know I’d found the place. Moments later, we were laughing about male fragility and making plans to eat pizza.
New York is the kind of city that I gravitate towards in that it has a variety of cultures all thriving together, which translates to FOOD. Glorious food. We went walking around the neighborhood with a specific place in mind, someone mentioned ramen in passing and it was all over. We were sitting inside a little ramen restaurant with pork buns (包子) and enormous bowls of tonkotsu ramen.
“We need to drink,” Michelle suggested (to my vigorous approval). They didn’t serve alcohol at the ramen place, so we walked outside and directly into the first bar we saw (“Wolf & Deer, where the menus were contained in novels scattered around the bar) because we are impatient when there’s whiskey to be had.
We took our time with some Old Fashioneds and hurried through several shots of well whiskey. The bar was in a very cool space; brick walls and wood countertops set in the middle, with several old books which served as menus and reading material laying around. By the time we left, we were more than ready for pizza, so we made a stop at Artichoke Pizza.
That night, I went to hang out at Mulholland’s (Michelle’s second job- and a bar with a counter THAT. IS. MAHOGANY.). Incidentally, it was a KU bar and gave me PTSD episodes of life in Lawrence, KS. *Ahem*
Michelle stuck at work, her straight roommate came to whisk me away to Metropolitan for Queeraoke night. Such moral support. We didn’t have a chance to sing, but going to and from Metropolitan gave us an excuse to stop by one of the millions of corner bistros and chow down on some New York heroes/wedges/hoagies/subs (this is a debate into which I will not enter, thank you).
After Michelle did some business in the city on my last day, I met up with her in Manhattan for a proper tour. Not three seconds after beginning our walk together, someone called at her, “Hey, mama chula!”
“Did that just happen?” I asked, genuinely surprised.
“Oh yeah, men do that all the time,” Michelle responded nonchalantly. The city was coming in full force now as we strode past jewelry shops and food trucks. Men were cat-calling Michelle and soliciting me for business. When you’ve been in the city (or cities) long enough, you develop a sort of “Get out muh way” mode that involves ignoring everything around you but where you’re going and perhaps the person walking with you. Michelle’s voice echoed my thoughts. “You just have to block them out.”
“That’s ridiculous, I’m sorry. I’ve always seen stuff like that in those YouTube videos of women walking around the city, but I didn’t know the extent. That’s so depressing.”
“The scary part is when they follow you around.”
“They follow you?!”
“Yeah, sometimes they’ll follow you a few blocks and it’s kind of scary. But you kind of just have to ignore them until they go away. Like, who made you think the best way to get someone’s number is to just follow them?” I imagined a drooling zombie with a telephone pad stumbling after Michelle. She would probably kick their ass, I thought.
“I guess to be fair–“
“–we objectivity men–”
“–all day,” I finished, laughing.
We spent the morning at a cafe, a Japanese bookstore (the cafe made me miss Japan a lot), and then Michelle promised to show me one of the gayborhoods of NYC, Chelsea.
“You should come during the summer,” she began, as we were entering the Chelsea area, “you’ll just see people in crop tops and itty bitty shorts walking around here.”
“You don’t need to tell me twice,” I chuckled. We walked into a bar called the Trailer Park. The right wall was a cross section of a long white and teal-blue trailer, and there were old photos, a tube television showing 70s movies, and memorabilia a la Nostalgiaville covering every available surface. Several people sat at the bar, a young woman bartending, and a man carried his infant daughter around, who looked thoroughly pleased with herself.
“Is that Michelle?!” a dark-haired woman called from a sofa adjacent to the bar. The place seemed to come alive– she was clearly no stranger to this place or to the people. She introduced me to some of the regulars and went to socialize while I took shots and discussed languages and traveling with some people. At one point I spoke with Lee, the dark-haired woman, about how to start traveling more.
“It’s just a question of saving money when you’re at home, and setting yourself up for not having too many ties in one place. That way, it’s easier to get up and move around.”
“Ugh, I would love to do that. I traveled a lot before, actually, but I feel like I have that bug again to just get out and see the world. What day were you born?” she asked.
“Uh… July? July 16.”
“Oh, I didn’t think Cancers could do that,” she said, sounding perplexed.
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t think a Cancer would be able to just move around so much and not have a private space to hole up in. They’re usually very homey,” she said, matter-of-fact. I don’t believe in star signs or astrology, but I’d heard this from friends who take it seriously. I tried to imagine what life would be like if someone truly believed they could or could not do something based on their birthday, and how that would affect their life decisions. I resisted the urge to ask whether her notions about astrologically-based limitations were self-fulfilling.
It felt like this group was a family in a cozy, safe little alcove. On our way out of the bar, Michelle explained, “When I first moved here, they took me in. This was my home when I came.”
“It’s just like in a movie,” I said, ginning. “I almost feel like I should try it myself.”
Slightly drunk and incredibly dehydrated, we walked along the high line for several minutes before I realized I had been there before. During my first trip through NYC (back in February 2015) I’d had just enough time to meet a CouchSurfer in Chelsea, see Time Square, and walk the high line. Our next stop was the Chelsea Market, which we walked through just to find food.
The range of options was spectacular; cheeses and wines, Mexican-Japanese, noodles, Italian, steak… It went on. After running back and forth along the entire length of the market, we settled on Japanese-inspired tacos and sangria. We made the right decision.
With little time left before my departure for Copenhagen, we picked up dessert from an adjacent Italian market. Michelle ordered some gelato and a latte, and the woman behind the counter had an accent I couldn’t place.
“Parli Italiano?” I asked.
“No, I actually speak Polish,” she responded in Italian.
Polish is a Slavic language, which means it shares a great deal of vocabulary and grammar with languages like Ukrainian and Czech, which were languages I had limited exposure to, so I used a mixture of them to order an espresso and thank her.
“And where are you from?” she asked, looking at both of us.
“We’re both from Missouri, actually,” I said.
“And you look very familiar,” she told Michelle.
“Oh, I’m an actress!” she said.
“So maybe I have seen you in something?”
“Have you seen Boy Meets Girl?” she asked.
“Yes! Yes! My friend and I watched this movie, it was so great. I cannot believe it’s you!” I couldn’t help but smile; this woman’s enthusiasm was contagious. Michelle had starred in a film as a trans woman navigating through the complexities of non-heteronormative (to put it lightly) relationships and small town life. It was a moving performance and the subject matter was particularly emotional for me, as I’m sure it was for many other people. Not the least of which for the inhabitants of a city like New York.
“Oh yeah,” she said, laughing it off, “thank you!”
On our way out of the market, it occurred to me that it must be weird to be recognized in public. “What’s it like to be recognized in different places by people you don’t know?” I asked.
“It’s funny. Sometimes I think, “Oh Lord, you’ve seen more of me than my boyfriend has,” but it’s nice. The weird part is having two, like, I have a public image now that I have to maintain. But at the same time, I have my own private life that’s sort of separate from it. It’s just different.”
I entertained the thought of being famous and wondered if I’d ever write a book successful enough for people to recognize me. A life with a public persona and a private life to maintain separate from it… I’ve done a pretty poor job. Facebook makes it convenient to publicize everything, which, to be honest, is freeing. Before I’d come out of the closet, I was miserable. After coming out, I’ve made a very active effort not to have many secrets and it’s contributed to my overall happiness for the past 4+ years.
I wondered how much my professional life would be affected by dumb posts from bars and clubs, or how public I make my political opinions. But I looked at Michelle, walking tall (like, really tall) in her fancy heels and fuzzy coat, doing everything she wanted to do in life while holding on to her humanity and compassion and somehow also not giving a flying fuck what kind of flack she got. It was nice to reflect on other people from my past who were doing the same thing with their own lives, and for a moment, I felt inspired. <3