There I was, at the Peninsula hotel, a little past 6:30 on a recent Sunday evening, up at the rooftop indoor pool, reading my Vanity Fair and waiting for a middle-aged man to get out of the Jacuzzi so I could jump in for a relaxing end-of-the-day soak. A recent confluence of events-a particularly stress-filled period at work, the dreaded arrival of yet another birthday, the realization that I will probably never again fit into a pair of size-31 khakis-propelled me to do what I always do in moments of extreme crisis: I checked into a hotel. Now I have a perfectly nice, relatively good-sized apartment, with a view of the Hudson River from my bedroom. It is not, however, an apartment with room service, a never-ending supply of new towels in the bathroom, a rooftop bar, a gym on the premises and a spa where I can get a massage and facial. And those are the exact things I require in such moments of crisis.
So I checked into the Peninsula early Saturday afternoon-the front-desk clerk looked a little puzzled when he realized that my home address was down on 23rd Street and not, say, Chicago-and proceeded to get down to the job of pampering myself. A workout at the gym, followed by the sauna, a call to room service for a nice bottle of wine, raiding the minibar for some pistachios, and then padding up to the rooftop pool in my terry-cloth robe and slippers, grabbing a chaise longue by one of the windows as I waited for my chance to slip into the heated, luxurious whirlpool.
And that’s when things began to get a little weird. As I sat patiently thumbing through my magazine, I noticed another man-also in his mid- to late 50’s, balding, with a prominent roll of fat around his stomach-join the first occupant in the whirlpool. Damn, I thought. Now I’m just going to have to wait longer for my turn.
At first I thought the two men might have been friends, but as I overheard snatches of their conversation (not a hard task; their voices were booming off the tiled floor and windowed walls), I realized they had just met and were just making idle conversation while the water swirled around them. One turned out to be a dentist who had left his profession a couple of years ago to become a hedge-fund manager (a very 90’s thing to do, it seemed to me); the other mentioned something about being in the clothing business. On and on they chatted as I went back to my Vanity Fair, resigned to the fact that it might be a while before the whirlpool freed up.
Then a woman entered the room-sleekly attractive, probably a decade or so younger than the two men. It turned out she was the wife of the dentist turned money manager. Joining the conversation (but not the whirlpool), she quizzed her husband’s companion about his background-where was he from? How long had he been in New York?-and then asked the question that would suddenly make me forget my impatience about the wait.
“And what do you do for a living?” she asked.
“Oh,” he replied, “I sell clothes to cross-dressers.”
What? I suddenly lost interest in Christopher Hitchens’ rambling narrative about North Korea.
“Are you kidding?” she said.
“No,” he answered. “It’s a very big business.” He then went on to explain that he specialized not in the dresses that these men wore, but in the special-sized undergarments and large shoes (“Size 15 is very popular”) that they required to complete their outfits. To the fascination of the woman and (it appeared to me) the mounting discomfort of the husband, he went into a long explanation of how he had built his business over the past three decades. “We do a big business in Las Vegas,” he said. “You know, all those performers in drag. But my real money comes from married men who like to wear their wives’ clothes-they order from my catalog because this isn’t the kind of thing they would feel comfortable going into a store and buying.”
“No, I guess not,” she said.
“Honey,” her husband said, getting out of the whirlpool, “it’s time to swim.”
“I think I’m making your husband nervous,” the cross-dressing mogul said.
As the couple went into the pool, however, the wife kept loudly quizzing the man on his business while her husband paddled around on his back, seemingly trying to ignore them both. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she said, her voice reverberating in the room. “Are you a homosexual?”
Needless to say, Christopher Hitchens had completely lost me at this point.
“Oh,” he said. “I like everything-men, women, men and women. But right now, I’m asexual.”
“Really,” she said. “Asexual. That’s interesting.”
“And what about you?” the man asked.
“Oh, in a world full of everybody doing everything, we are just a very normal, straightforward Jewish couple. In fact, we’re Orthodox.”
“Honey,” her husband chimed in again, “we need to swim.”
“Orthodox, really?” the first man said, “You may have read a book written by a friend of mine-Kosher Sex.”
“Omigod!” the woman shrieked. “I love that book. It’s fantastic. Honey, did you hear that? He knows the guy who wrote the Kosher Sex.”
“I must meet him. Do you think I could meet him?”
“I’m sure I can put you in touch with him,” said the underwear salesman, at this point getting out of the pool and toweling himself in what (I had to notice) seemed a rather suggestive manner. “Just give me your number before you leave.”
“He’s not a cross-dresser too, is he?”
“No,” the man said, chuckling a bit. “Just a friend. In fact, we’re all going to the opening of Joe Franklin’s restaurant next week. Maybe you could come.”
Wait. This was getting too weird. Joe Franklin? The Channel 9 guy? Was he even still alive?
“I know Joe Franklin,” the dentist–fund manager suddenly chimed in-adding in a lowered voice to his wife, “If you want to go to his restaurant, I can arrange it.”
The conversation continued to stretch on, and I completely gave up the pretense of reading my magazine, wondering where it would all end.
Finally, the drag entrepreneur gathered up his things, got the phone number (work, not home) of the husband so that he could arrange a meeting with the Kosher Sex author, and then headed off to the elevator.
“Did you see what happened there in the whirlpool?” the husband demanded of his wife moments after the man left the room, his middle-aged paunch practically jiggling in consternation. “He was coming on to me! He really wanted me!”
With apologies to Cindy Adams (and I’m surprised she wasn’t there): Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.