Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Katharine Hepburn!

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When I set the table for that woman in the mirror, she wasn’t the guest of honor. She was (gulp) somebody’s mother. My husband and I recently watched the 1965 classic Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn/Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on television. Something has happened to me since the last time I saw the movie about ten years ago: instead of identifying with the lovestruck white girl in love with a black man, oh my God, I related to Kathryn Hepburn.

When did that happen? We have a primal urge to imagine ourselves as hero or heroine, the center of our imaginary movie Universe. When did I decide to to relate to a member of the supporting cast… and does this mean that I’m going to settle for a supporting role in LIFE, too? I’m no longer the ingénue, but I sure as heck am not the head-patting type, either. Someone please call Michelle Pfeiffer, Vanessa Williams, Brooke Shields and Goldie Hawn, we’re all going out for drinks and I’m buying. It’s bad enough to be a member of the audience who no longer relates to the juicy roles; I can’t imagine the frustration of actresses who need to ply their art in this twilight zone. When a woman in her prime lands a rare leading movie role these days, it’s as a dowager queen (or Prime Minister).

There is some hope if we women can make it through those hot flashes with our curves and moxy intact: thank you, Helen Mirren. Kudos, Betty White. Do I have to be perceived as ‘losing my groove’ in order to get it back? It’s a stale plot turn for Hollywood producers and performers: women do not to be cast as “the mother.” Skilled actresses of a certain age will sigh, accept the role, then swallow hard and step aside to watch the attention lavished on the blissfully oblivious—and slightly tarty—bombshell lead.

It’s a little pathetic that some women my age take solace because we know the shell will crack and the bomb will drop (along with those mammary glands) sooner than the ingénue might think. We’ll save you a stool at the bar, Hon. Unlike men, who seem to peak in their sex appeal much later (George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise (ick), Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth…) it feels as if we women have timers forcibly implanted in our asses at the ripe old age of 25.

Stop looking at real women as though we’re imagining something. Let me tell you, when the ass reaches the point that the gravity alarm goes off, it’s damn near impossible to ignore–and swatting at it only makes it more obvious. We have all seen women try to sit on the alarm, ignore the buzz going off in our backsides and keep on sporting miniskirts and sleeveless tops long after the bell tolls. No harm in that. If you’re offended by Granny in a tank top, there’s plenty of incentive to look the other way. There’s a continuous conveyor belt of sweet young “It Girls” (Wynona Rider, Scarlett Johansen, Debra Winger, that Victoria’s Secret model…) to distract you for oh, about half a decade.

Just because I forget what it’s like to be a tart doesn’t mean I have to be relegated to serving them to sweet young things, does it? I’m going to serve myself something juicy tonight, watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner again. This time I’m gonna swoon when Sidney speaks.

My LRLL (Laundry Room Lending Library)

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Perhaps I’m reading too much into the Laundry Room Lending Library. If you live in a New York City co-op or condo, you might be lucky enough to have a collection of secondhand books sharing the basement with washers, dryers and wheeled wire pushcarts: the Laundry Room Lending Library (LRLL). A well-stocked LRLL was one of the checkboxes I ticked off when I was in the market for a little Manhattan apartment–a few disheveled shelves overloaded with hardcovers and paperbacks was a sure sign of intellectual, altruistic, well read residents, the kind of smart folks who don’t need to gush or sign their names half-peeking out from under the dust jacket before passing on a good read.

When I first moved into 300 W. 23rd St., I was impressed by the Man Booker prize winners, the classic literature, the difficult anthologies and weighty reference work I found down there. OK, there was some demonstrably iffy gay fiction and there are always a few pulpy breathers and old computer manuals between heavier tomes.

The pickings are so admirable that I have a hard time snarfing no more than two or three a week; a bloated backlog soon developed on my studio bookshelf–paperback editions of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith; Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World; Junot Diaz’ Drown, a book called The New Feminine Brain, which I carried up to my apartment six months ago and haven’t opened yet (which may confirm that I have one already), and a black linen-bound compendium of essays about NYC called Wonderful Town. I actually do read that one in those rare moments when I need to be reminded. It’s my first trip back in a few months. Most of the volumes in the LRLL autumn collection are gone, replaced with a winter crop of eclectic literature, another mishmash of fine books, many of which look oddly untouched.

I don’t know about you, but when I really read a book it loses its virginity in an obvious way. The covers get messed, pages get stained, the spine shows evidence of an unnatural bend or two. Many of the books in the Laundry Room Lending Library look as though they have never been deflowered. Last October in the LRLL I found economist Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a brainy black book dipped in a thickish ego and rolled like Levantine pastry around 1,200 references of every famous penis-possessing person who ever philosophized about the limits of randomness and fractals. Taleb’s Black Swan begins with a chapter called “Umberto Eco’s Library, Or How We Seek Validation.” Taleb’s conclusion about the essayist’s vast book collection–Eco claims 50,000+ volumes in two locations–is that, “read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” The residents at 300 W. 23rd St. may agree. Either that or I have many extremely neat, incredibly self-validated neighbors. Eschewing the appearance of being well-read, perhaps they truly ARE.

Books are being displaced, especially in the City, by e-readers. As the owner of a tiny apartment I appreciate the precious space recovered by offloading printed matter. Imagine the joy of wanting a book and owning it within a moment or two… I just don’t know if I could ever use the laundry room again after carting down my word horde. Seeing familiar titles begin to smell like stale Downy, staring at me like once beloved, abandoned cats in an animal shelter…I’d wind carrying the unpopular ones back upstairs out of sheer pity.

Why are there so many books down there? All the literacy and introspection in my building could be seeping through the old brick, plaster and ductwork, succumbing to these shelves. Could there be something about living at 300 West 23rd that makes residents want to buy books just to give them away or have residents STOPPED reading, resulting in this glut of Anne Rice and Jodi Picoult? If people are purging themselves of print, when I come back in the spring I’ll surely notice. If, by next winter, there are only two romance novels and an old Time magazine on these shelves, I may have to move.