“Is that your man-purse?”
“Yes. Are those your man boobs?”
Someone stole my man-purse the other day. I was sitting on a red molded fiberglass bench in the subway, and I sat Pursey down beside me as I waited for the next train. I never do that, and must have been particularly distracted that day. There was nothing of value in it, just a faux leopard portable umbrella, a half filled bottle of spring water, and some leaky pens. Thank God the umbrella was faux leopard! Luckily I had my passport, keys, money, and other important documentation stuck up may ass. I only recall one occasion when someone stole some of my belongings from up there, and it was not an entirely unpleasant encounter.
Within seconds of noticing it was missing, I thought of my mother’s purse. I had no desire to run screaming through a crowded subway, trying to find the assailant. Their disappointment must have been far greater than mine.
Whenever something unpleasant happens to me that reminds me of my mother I always end up thinking it’s bad karma for giving her a hard time about superficial things. She never had anything of value in her purse, and although it was not fit to eat a meal out of, there were no cockroaches in it. I should have been more sensitive. But it drove me insane.
Like me, she had many in her lifetime, but the one I remember most was her last purse. It was one of those mid-sized cheap Louis Vuitton knock-offs, and it was presentable on the outside but disgusting on the inside. I would clean it for her every few weeks, but always resented it, and argued with her many times on the state of its interior, and how she should carry it securely over her arm in order to avoid theft, and not like Desdemona’s hand me down handkerchief about to fall daintily into the hands of unprecedented doom.
My biggest complaint about her purse had nothing to do with hygiene or the way she carried it in public places. It was when we were driving somewhere and she would constantly rummage through looking for the Holy Grail, I assume, because whenever I asked her what she was searching for, she would look at me with a strained, ethereal expression and say, “Nothing.”
Once I shouted, in a very loud stage whisper, “Nothing? You’re looking for nothing? Well, Nothing will come of Nothing, Mother! Put the god damned purse away before I drive us into a ditch!” Like some post-modern Cordelia stealing her father’s words from his mouth before he has a chance to speak them, I was a petulant child far too often in my mother’s presence.
Once I was in a play I had written, and my mother planned to come. Curtain was at eight, and at eight fifteen she still hadn’t arrived. She was never late so I assumed she wasn’t coming. We locked the door to the tiny basement performance space and started the show. Not five minutes into the performance there was a very loud banging on the door.
Once she had been let in she quietly took her seat in the front row, only a few feet away from the wooden lawn chair I was sitting in, delivering a brief monologue about something vulgar I am sure. Within seconds of taking her seat she picked her purse up off the floor in front of her and began to rifle through it.
I could have employed any number of unprofessional strategies. I considered getting up out of my seat, walking over to her mid-monologue, kissing her on the cheek, and gently taking her purse away from her, carrying it securely over my arm for the rest of the performance. I am a cross-dressed performance artist after all. It would not have been out of keeping with the general mise en scene of the overall piece. But I didn’t. I ignored her. And I regret that deeply. In life, and on the stage, I have always found improvised, meta-theatrical gestures very comforting.
There was one thing of questionable value that she always carried in her purse. It was a copy of my first published solo performance piece entitled What Dreadful Things to Say About Someone who has just Paid for my Lunch. It was dog-eared, falling apart, and filthy. The odd time, she would look at me, and out of the blue, she would say, “How come I never knew about when they hurt you in your book.” The first time she asked, I had no idea what she was talking about, so she gently took her fragile copy out of her purse and turned to a page that she had folded at the corner, and explained.
“See, here, where they hurt you.”
I had been beaten up and robbed in a park in Athens in the mid-eighties by two men who befriended me, and asked me to go to a gay nightclub with them. Over the years some casual acquaintances (formerly close friends) have suggested that this was a foolish act. I do not share their opinion, but I try to respect their right to cruelly judge my misfortune.
Whenever my mother would ask about this incident, I would carefully and gently explain to her that I didn’t tell her until years later, because I thought it would upset her. This was coming from a son who flew into a min-rage whenever she played in her purse, or asked me fifteen times over the course of an hour, how many times we had visited Disney World together. In my most bitter moments my mother’s life strikes me as a terrible distraction that occupied the first forty years of mine. When I am lucid I know that I was blessed by her bumbling presence, and her frequently conditional love, as she was by mine. Wherever the spirit world has taken her, I hope she remembers the good times. There were plenty. But there was also a lot of anger and betrayal on both our parts. Perhaps she is in heaven, looking down at me and saying, “You little bitch! It was just my goddamn purse. Leave me alone!” Or maybe she's in a bar in hell, having a good time, and too happy to care about how I felt about her purse.
She did swear at me many times, and I swore back. I admired her profanity. Once, sitting in an armchair in the lobby of the retirement home she lived in for the last five years of her life, a man came up to her and said, “That’s my chair.” My mother, a tiny, grey haired, sweet looking woman in her seventies, wearing a pale-orange, calve length cotton dress I had bought her at the Sally-Ann, and she hated, looked at him and said, “Fuck off.”
God Bless her.
Once, after a performance in a gallery in Ottawa, where I roller skated with a GI Joe Doll sewn into the nether regions of my bright red tights, my mother, after being kept awake during my show by frequent nudges by the curator, walked over to me and said, “Where do you get all your ideas?” I wanted to laugh, and say to her, with light but biting sarcasm, “I am an autobiographical performance artist mother. For the love of God, where on earth do you think I get them?” But I opted for kindness and simply said, “From life.”
If the subject matter of my performance was a little risqué, and it often was, I would sit her down before a show and we would have a little talk where I would tell her that if she had any questions or concerns she could ask me about them – afterwards. Except for that one general query about where my ideas came from, and the story about my misfortune in Athens, she never did. She was a lifelong fan, and I miss her, fumbling in her purse, driving me insane, and unwittingly foreshadowing all of the things I would become once she was gone.