Luxury-goods heiress Coralie Charriol Paul was on the phone.
“There’s this woman who lives on the Upper East Side,” she said. “Talk about real personal style: This woman-I don’t know her age-wears hot pants, and a little bolero fur, and her head is shaved. She’s pale white; she’s this incredible character.”
Immediately, the sensation of having passed this woman-this vision-on Madison Avenue a few months earlier flooded back. I recalled a sparkly butterfly decal, set on a creamy, bare scalp.
I took a walk.
“We’re all dying to know who she is,” said Angela Thornton, a saleswoman at Worldly Things, a knitwear shop between 69th and 70th streets. “She walks in kind of little steps in very high heels. She must be a sculptor-she’s faintly exotic.”
“I’ve always wondered if she was an interior decorator,” said a saleswoman at Joseph. “The lady looks good, and she dresses very good, and she’s got great legs.”
At Sonia Rykiel, a woman folding sweaters said, “She has got a great, great body. Good for her!”
“She dresses pretty revealing for someone her age-for anybody, actually,” said a receptionist at a side-street gallery.
At the clothing shop Delle Celle on East 67th Street, Diana Ruzo said: “I’ve analyzed her head, and it’s perfectly round. She has a perfect skull.”
The next day, at a nearby coffee shop, I heard a street cleaner calling my name. He had just seen the mystery woman at the bank two blocks south.
I started trotting. It was like chasing the red balloon. A hot dog vendor had seen her brisk by five minutes earlier. I yanked open the door to the spiffy new Oscar de la Renta boutique.
“She took a right,” said the security guard.
At BCBG, the store’s visual manager, Daniel Wong, said she was a familiar sight. “My friend always says, ‘There aren’t very many happy old people in New York City, but the ones that are, are the most well-adjusted cool people in the world.’ And I bet you she is one of them,” Mr. Wong said. “For a woman her age, she just breaks all expectations of what an old person should be. She’s amazing. I have great respect for someone who doesn’t care what people think.”
On 66th Street, staffers at the private Lotos Club said they tended to see her around 4:30 p.m. and pointed across the street, where a ruddy-faced doorman grandly pronounced that the woman’s name was Mae Alexander.
“She doesn’t live here,” he said, explaining that Ms. Alexander is a social secretary to a now-deceased prominent resident.
I found an article in a 1981 edition of The Village Voice, titled “The 10 Best-Dressed Women in New York.” There was Ms. Alexander, in a low-cut V-neck sweater, sharing the page with former models Tina Chow and Carmen Dell’Orefice. The writer of the article, Elaine Louie, called Ms. Alexander a “walking sculpture.”
I tracked down a jewelry designer mentioned in the article-Manette van Hamel, now living in Woodstock, N.Y., age 91. She recalled meeting Ms. Alexander more than 20 years ago, when the latter took the bus upstate to be fitted for an ear sculpture. At the time, Ms. Alexander’s hair was swept to one side and standing up, “like a bird flying away,” Ms. van Hamel said.
Later that day, I received an e-mail from a friend who works at Cesare Paciotti, the shoe store. She had spotted Ms. Alexander on Madison and flagged her down for her name and number.
Ms. Alexander’s voice was very matter-of-fact on the phone.
“Leave me an enigma,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to know more about me than they already know. I don’t want to say anything about myself. I don’t want people to know anything more about me than they see. I don’t do anything for anybody else but me, and I’m not interested what other people think about me. It’s nice that they appreciate me, but if they don’t, it doesn’t make any difference, either.
“I’ve been walking down Madison for 39 years, so you know everyone has seen me, and they come up to me and talk to me and so forth. Unfortunately, you know, that’s how I have to get around is to walk in the city-except in the wintertime I take a taxi, so I have a little bit more privacy.”
Ms. Alexander said she was born in East Flatbush, to parents who were immigrants from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. She attended the Girls Commercial High School (now Prospect Heights High School). For 20 years, before taking her current position, she worked as the secretary to “the president of a corporation.” She moved into her studio apartment in 1965. In 1978, she shaved her hair off.
She designs all her clothes and has hot pants and miniskirts made in wool and leather, tights from Wolford and Capezio, and shoes by Charles Jourdan.
“I never wear a coat,” she said. “I never have a cold. I’m never sick. I can’t be bothered with a lot of clothing. And when I go someplace, I don’t have to check my coat. It’s so very simple and easy. I like to make life easy-simple, simple.
“People tell me, ‘Where did you get those legs?’” she said. “I tell them they came with me. It’s not something that you do anything about. But people are funny, like Art Linkletter used to say.
“I’m not a people lover,” she continued. “I have very few friends and I’m not all that social. I like my own company. I never met anyone I liked better than myself. And I think the world of myself. I think I am the greatest. I have a great deal of self-confidence. Well, you would have to have, in order to look like I do.”
We made a date to meet, but when I presented myself at her building at the appointed hour, she came down to the lobby and said she’d prefer not to say more.
And with that she walked away, her buns looking as tight as promised on Madison.
Dear Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan:
Congratulations on the success of your new book, The Underminer! I mean, it’s not like it’s a real book exactly. I mean, of course it’s a real book, but it is, you have to admit, one of those two-author comedy-book things. Like a stocking-stuffer! But that’s cool. The world needs stocking-stuffers! And “serious” literature is just so blecch. Who needs another Philip Roth? You guys did the right thing, the smart thing. And that’s very cool.
Looking Like Osama
Some people look like Brad Pitt or Sarah Jessica Parker. It is my fate to resemble Osama bin Laden.
Much of this resemblance is due to my beard. Actually, I never began “growing a beard.” When I was 17, my father presented me with a new electric Norelco razor. Shaving for the first time, I enjoyed removing my few facial hairs.
The second time I shaved, I cut myself. I have never shaved since.
For many years, I had no beard-just some downy hairs on my cheek.
Suddenly, when I was 24, these hairs coalesced into a beard. I continued growing my beard even after 1980, when most men began to discard or closely trim their facial growths.
At one time, great men had great beards. When I visited Rabindranath Tagore’s house in Calcutta, I was impressed by the photograph of Tagore and George Bernard Shaw. The two philosophical writers sat together, pointing their long beards at one another. The greatest American poet (Walt Whitman) may have grown the greatest American beard.
Gradually, I noticed that no one else in American public life had a beard-particularly an untamed one. I observed this first on the cover of Time magazine. In 1981, in a supermarket, I saw a person who resembled me staring from Time. For an irrational particle of a second, I thought: “I have landed on the cover of Time for my achievements in poetry!”
Instead, the photograph was of a wild-eyed terrorist.
In succeeding years, each time I saw a face like mine on Time or Newsweek, I would look hopefully-always to find an angry bomber.
It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I knew the name of one of these men: Osama bin Laden.
Strangely, as Osama and I aged, our beards aged in exactly the same manner. They both became streaked with white, and the streaks were identical: two long patches on either side of the chin.
Osama and I share other resemblances besides our beards. We are both Semites. (Genetically, I am half Jewish.) We are thin. Also, I meditate twice a day; Osama (presumably) prays five times a day. These contemplative practices give our faces an unworried look.
Here is a journal entry of mine, from 2001:
9/18: “It’s him! Isamu bin Laden!” a teenage boy says, pointing at me.* (I am walking down Main Street in Flushing.) I examine the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster of bin Laden taped to Brio’s Pizzeria.
Thank God I don’t wear a turban!
*This was before everyone knew the correct pronunciation of bin Laden’s name.
Here is a selection from a letter, one month later:
I was in the East Village for the first time since the disaster. The bars were full on Saturday night (I went out with friends, although I do not drink alcohol) and a very drunk Polish guy thought I was bin Laden, in the Homestead Bar on First Avenue and Third Street.
“I’m going to get my shotgun!” he announced. He marched to a corner of the room and returned with a sweatshirt bearing an image of an American flag. For a moment I thought I would be shot.
How strange to die for someone else’s ideals!
One day on the elevator in my parents’ house in Brooklyn, a woman walked in. “Oh, shit!” I felt her thinking. “Of every elevator on earth, I had to choose the one with Osama!”
But what could I do? If I say, “No, I’m not Osama,” I sound insane.
People are obviously unaware that bin Laden is 6-foot-6 and on a dialysis machine.
Soon after Sept. 11, I heard a news story about a Middle Eastern man who ran a restaurant in Texas called “Osama’s Place.” Suddenly, business had fallen off. I empathized with this man. He was punished for his name, I for my face.
The Easter of 2002, my family flew to Orlando. My wife, my daughter and I were all given the thorough, shoes-off search. On the plane, I felt everyone’s eyes upon me. At one point, I stood up to remove my sweater, and several men prepared to tackle me.
Osama is about my age; he is 47, I am 51. We have had similar histories, actually. We both had a Western appearance as youths. There is a photograph of Osama with his family in Sweden, on vacation. He looks like a tall, uncomfortable teenager in a 70′s-style paisley shirt-just how I looked at that age! Somehow, we both decided to cash in our contemporary clothes for an ancient look.
What happened was that we began spiritual practice: I joined the Ananda Marga Society in 1974; Osama became an orthodox Muslim in 1979. Osama and I began to look like men did before capitalism, caffeine and computers. Our beards connect us to the saints and seers of an ancient world.
In the famous video where Osama speaks of the 9/11 attacks, most of the conversation is about dreams. Every morning, I lie in bed and remember my dreams.
Bearded men value their dreams.
It’s difficult to hate someone whom you resemble.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” applies less to someone with the same color eyes as you, the same crooked front tooth. I find myself seeing Osama as a not-too-smart, very religious guy who has been seduced by the radical allure of violence. (I must say I see Bush the same way.)
Of course, I personally benefited from the invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, our public villain was no longer Osama. Luckily, I look nothing like Saddam Hussein.
Still, each time I walk on an airplane, the stewardess at the entrance engages me in conversation. “How are you today?” she asks, usually in a Southern accent. (For some reason, nearly all stewardesses are Southern.) Her voice is hysterically cheerful, the way one is while conversing with a possible Islamic murderer.
“I’m fine, very good,” I reply in my Manhattan accent, and she relaxes.
What if I muttered, “Death to the American infidels?”
Would she refuse to serve me Sprite?
It’s O.K. to Punch These People in the Face
Anyone coming out of The Life Aquatic
Boys with pom-pom hats
Anyone with a mindspring e-mail account