Friday, April 01, 2005

Millinery and Mortality

My thirtieth birthday is approaching. And recently I found my first gray hair. As a result, I have been contemplating my mortality even more than usual. I hate the prospect of growing old, of becoming staid and dowdy. I hate the thought that at some point I’ll have to stop going dancing all night and give my sequined butterfly top to charity. I was delighted then, when I discovered an organization called the Red Hat Society, a group for women over fifty devoted to the pursuit of fun. Inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning,” which begins “When I am old I shall wear purple,/With a red hat that doesn’t go,” members wear red hats and purple clothes and they go out on jolly jaunts. (Women under fifty, who occasionally want to join, must wear pink hats and lavender clothes, and are known as Pink Hatters.) These gaudy grannies are dedicated to “growing old disgracefully.” Yes, I thought, these are my sort of old ladies: over-fifty party animals. I decided to write an article about them.

A local chapter, the Babes on the Bay, invited me to join them at Betelnut, an Asian restaurant in the Marina, for a meeting last Tuesday night. The Marina? That didn’t sound too promising. As you know, the Marina is the LA of San Francisco, the home of rich, boring people, where the men wear clothes from the GAP and the women have perfect pedicures. But, I assumed, the fun would probably begin after dinner. What zany adventures were planned? Perhaps we would go to a strip club in North Beach and demand lap dances from alarmed nymphets. Maybe we would streak through the Financial District in nothing but our hats. Maybe we would go to Asia SF, and join the transsexuals cavorting on the bar. With daredevil dames such as these, who knew what would happen?

When I got to the restaurant, the Red Hatters stood out like a field of poppies. One middle-aged woman wore a crimson cowboy hat; another sported a scarlet beret. Another wore a tulle-trimmed affair that looked suitable for Ascot. The light on her plastic ring flashed on and off as she gobbled the cherry from her piña colada. They chorused a greeting and admired my pink hat and lilac dress (I’d thought it only polite to don the costume of a Pink Hatter). One handed me an amuse-bouche from a silver platter.

But when I started talking to my companions, it was like being trapped at a wedding with someone else’s elderly relatives. While some sat glumly silent, one woman would not stop talking. I heard all about why she should have chosen a different career, why Charles should apologize to Camilla’s husband, and why she had moved from New York to look after her grandson. She spoke unceasingly about herself, and her eyes were lonely. As she talked, I squinted at the amuse-bouche, which was disturbingly hard. It was round and brown with brightly colored speckles in the middle. Maybe it was a brooch? The other ladies, I noticed, had set theirs neatly by their water-glasses. They weren’t bothering to listen to my garrulous neighbor, but were too busy wrapping beef in lettuce leaves. In fact, I noticed, they were barely talking to each other. Were they even friends? When I asked, they said they hardly saw each other outside their monthly meetings. The Red Hat Society was supposed to be all about fun and friendship, but didn’t seem to offer much of either.

I went to the bathroom and looked at my reflection, relieved to see that I was still young. A woman putting on her lipstick grinned at my pink hat. On my way back to the table, I noticed that the other diners were staring at me. I liked the thought that they were wondering who I was and what my strange costume signified. This, I thought, is what these women get out of it: the frisson of attention. Women over fifty become invisible, and the red and purple ensemble is their way of forcing people to notice them.

When I was seated again, the creator of the mystery items demanded when I was going to eat my “Easter nest.” So that’s what it was.
“You can eat it?” I asked doubtfully. “What’s it made out of?”
“The nest is chow mein noodles stuck together with melted marshmallows, and the eggs are sugar-coated sunflower seeds.”
I wrapped the imaginative combination in my napkin, insisting,
“It’s too pretty to eat.” Glumly, I feared that self-absorption, loneliness, and handicrafts would be my lot. Instead of being inspired by the Red Hatters, I felt disillusioned. Instead of flouting stereotypes of middle-aged women, the Red Hatters enforced them. They preferred tea rooms to tattoo parlors. There was nothing madcap about them other than their millinery. For all their talk of growing old disgracefully, they did not paint the town red on Tuesday night. They refused a second piña colada, and by 8 PM the evening was winding down.

On the way home, I took a wrong turn, and found myself in Pacific Heights, staggering up a steep flight of steps in the dark. I thought of becoming old, of a future in which climbing stairs would be more and more difficult. I had to face the fact that perhaps one day I would lose my appetite for adventure, and, in the end, prefer high tea to high jinks. But even then, I promised myself, I would never force-feed seasonal handicrafts to my guests.


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