Herring boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine

So, this morning was the hospital’s breakfast and gala celebration of their volunteer workers.  It is, I’m told, National Volunteer Month, so if you know someone who volunteers at a hospital, or the library, or the church, or at school — it is appropriate to thank them for their service.

Inland Hospital’s thank-you was very pleasant.  There were about seventy of us present, and each had a made-to-order omelette, home fries, danish, and fruit salad, with beverages of our choice.  We had the Kennebec Chordsmen for entertainment while we ate, and I had occasion once again to be grateful to my grandmothers for taking me to All Of Those Concerts in the Parks when I was just a chitlin, so that I had more than a passing acquaintance with the Songs of My People.

After breakfast and entertainment, there was speechifying by the president, who honored our Volunteer of the Year. Then the volunteer coordinators were up, to give out certificates and service stars (I was there as a guest, having only served a few months so far).  Throughout it all was the drawing for and bestowing of door prizes.  All in all, as I said, a very pleasant affair, and also useful, as I got to put the names and faces of my colleagues together.

I want to talk a little bit about clothes.

Yeah, clothes.

And, also, height.

And expectations.

And fear.

Because, see, when I was dressing for the nice affair described above, I naturally reached for respectful clothes.  I therefore put on a yellow oxford cloth shirt (men’s tall medium, LL Bean); a pair of khakis (women’s tall 18, Eddie Bauer); a black leather vest (Penney’s, I think, back a hundred years ago); striped socks, naturally, and a pair of Dansko lace-up oxfords (which I just found out they don’t make anymore, dammit).  And, no — this is not a story about how I was vilified at the affair for wearing inappropriate clothes.  No one said anything about my clothes, though a couple of people admired my hair.

See. . .

People who have been following along here for a while, and those of you who have seen me in person will have noted A Thing about me.  Most people, in fact, notice this Thing about me immediately, and often comment upon it, far predating the purple hair, and with…significantly less enthusiasm.  In fact, most people, when commenting on my Thing…sound a little accusatory.

I’m six foot tall (just under 2 meters, for those who measure by tens).  Perhaps not quite so tall anymore (doctors differ), but still — tall for a woman.  And most especially tall for an Older Woman in Maine.

Now, the thing about the Thing?  Is that I’ve been damn’ near six foot tall since I was twelve.  I came from a family of tall people and I am, irony being what it is, the shortest person in my family group.  I remember shopping for clothes with my mother — proper girl clothes, you understand, this was the 1960s.  The sleeves would be short — “Roll them up,” said my mother — the skirts were too short — “Bend your knees,” said my mother — the shirt tails too short — “Don’t lift your arms,” said my mother.  Most of my clothes were, yes, home-made, and for a long while after I grew up and moved out, I made my own clothes.  Which solved that problem, sort of.

The thing about the Thing, though?  Is that I liked wearing jeans, and invariably did so on my own time.  On one occasion — I was 14 and had walked up to the local shopping center and was browsing the women’s section in the local, I dunno, was it Kmart, then, or still Kresge’s?  Anyhow, a saleswoman approached me — I was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt — and told me that I was in the wrong section, and I needed to leave.  The one thing that does give me away, if that’s even the phrase I want, is my voice, and she knew she’d made a mistake when I asked her for a date, but that didn’t stop her from calling the security guard.

Who didn’t throw me out, but who did give me a lecture about not being flip to my elders.

When it became possible for women to be seen in the workplace wearing pants, I enthusiastically adopted the practice and never looked back.

And there’s when the trouble really started.

I was tall.  At that point in my life, I was slender.  I wore my hair shortish.  I favored tailored suits and what are these days called “boyfriend” jeans.  I also wore makeup and earrings.

And, nine times out of ten, twenty times out of twenty-one, fifty out of fifty-one, I was addressed as “sir,” by almost everyone who stood behind any kind of counter, or who had to do with putting gas in my car, or almost anything else.  At one point — this was in the late 1970s, now — Steve and I walked, hand-in-hand, into a mall jewelry store.  One clerk turned away from us.  Another — possibly the manager — bravely stepped up to ask if he could help, “you gentlemen.”

Some years later, when we had moved to Maine — and I had long realized that wearing men’s clothes meant I could find sleeves that were long enough, and jeans that were long enough, and skirts were no longer an issue — I worked the night shift at the daily paper.  My shift ended at midnight.  Steve would often meet me after work, and we’d walk the long way home, across the Concourse, so called, which, at that time of night was the territory of drunks and bikers — not necessarily the same population, but there was an overlap.

One night, we were walking by a group of night-time livers, hand in hand, as we usually go, and someone in the shadows spat, and someone else said, “Fags.”

Steve turned around, still holding my hand, and said, “Hey, man, you insulted my wife.”

“Wife?” said one guy, maybe a little truculent, while his buddy put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Sorry, man.  Nice lookin’ woman.”

And so we passed on.

Always — and I mean, To This Day — when I walk into a public ladies room, and there is someone there before me — they do a double-take.  Always.  Nowadays, the purple hair sometimes smooths the alarm away into a smile, “I love your hair…”  But I gotta tell you, I just love that start of fear that I generate, just by being who I am.

But here’s the thing about my Thing — obviously people are not very observant.  Certainly, the normal joe or joan on the street can’t be trusted to correctly identify any random passer-by by their gender.

And, even if they could — so what?

People are people, people.  Just…sorta bear that in mind, ‘k?  It’ll make everybody’s life a whole lot easier.

Belle being elegant

Today’s blog title brought to you by, “My Darlin’ Clementine,” which is one of the Songs of My People.




11 thoughts on “Herring boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine”

  1. And now in some states they would be mad if you walked into a women’s restroom. I keep my hair “boy cut” short and wear men’s pants (they are cheaper and better made) and sometimes I can find a length of 25-26″ so they actually fit. I am long waisted so I buy men’s shirts too if I can. Short legs, long waist…Mom made my clothes for years. BTW, Petite or short women’s pants are 4-6 inches too long.

  2. And you have just written what is essentially the butch (or “masculine of center”) lesbians’ everyday experience. I am usually, though not always, attracted to such women. I have the opposite problem – I am very obviously feminine (having breasts in the double D range adds considerably to that impression). But that also reads as “heterosexual” to the average person. Especially the average male person. The hassle you get for your Thing I get for MY THING and because I let men know I’m not interested, thank you very much. A guy followed me from downtown all the way to Chinatown just so that he could call me names on the train and the bus. I’d been ignoring him but when the bus driver thought the situation amusing I let them both have it in the nicest way. “I’m so disgusting and hardly a woman according to the two you. Then why did you both ask to screw me? What does that say about you?” Two dark skin Black men went neon red and I went about my journey in blessed peace. #Itakenoprisoners

  3. I wear jeans and buttondown shirts by preference, and for the last…10 years at least, and intermittently earlier, I’ve worn a brush cut (longer than a buzz, shorter than anything else). Oh, and usually a hat (broad brim) and no makeup. I nearly always get “Can I help you, sir…(pause, focus) ma’am?” More often from men than women, actually. I’ve never noticed a flinch when I went into the ladies, though…and I don’t think I’d like it.
    Now my hair (which was dark brown) is entirely gray in front, and I keep being tempted to dye it. The problem is that I can’t think of a color that I wouldn’t get tired of shortly. I should try a temp color, at least.

  4. Allow me to recommend Overtone, which is what I use to color my (naturally silver) hair. It’s a conditioner, and if you get bored with the color, you just…stop using the conditioner and the color will fade out over a week or so. Overtone.co

  5. One of the best things about Overtone it that it will not make a mess of your pillows and headrests.

  6. Actually the surprising thing is that the world notices you at all. The claim is that once women get to be a certain age they become invisible. The writer that first expounded on this theme claimed that she should start robbing banks; nobody would pay any attention to her and she’d totally get away with it. [Mind you this was in the days before surveillance technology and facial recognition software]

  7. This is one of the reasons that my hair is purple, nowadays. I wanted to defuse the “Oh, gray-haired woman; nothing to listen to here” reflex. But, yes, I have a natural advantage in my height.

  8. Ah, yes, Been there done that. other than being mistaken for a man by way of my height, 6 ft , In crowded bars, when I was young, the short guys…well, nuff said.
    I’m proud of my height, too.

  9. Just so people aren’t confused – I am NOT saying that Ms. Lee is a lesbian. An acquaintance read this and suggested I might want to clear this up. ::slinking away now and sorry for any confusion ::

  10. On the other end, growing up short meant being mistaken for a boy if I wore jeans and a loooooooose T-shirt (I also belong to the Itty Bitty Titty Committee), during that period when I was young and kept my hair short. At 18, I was brat enough that if some guy made a snarky comment asking if I was a boy or a girl, I’d tell him to suck my tits and find out.

    It’s hard now to believe I actually said things like that. *shakes head*

  11. I don’t pay much attention to the reactions of strangers when I’m out and about, so I have no idea what impression I’ve given over the years.

    Lately, though, I’ve been regularly amused.

    After I had my breasts hacked off, I decided against reconstruction. I also decided that bra-stuffing is not for me. So I’m not merely flat; I’m a little concave–in other words, no matter what I’m wearing, it’s quite obvious that I’m breastless.

    During the buzzcut part of the experience (before chemo and for several months thereafter because I liked it so much), I was approached by a…well, I thought he was a woman, but the conversation we had made it plain that he was not. It was also quite clear that he was nonetheless living the life of a woman, in full. I became the “omen from God” that it was time to do something about that.

    I just went along with it. The grocery store was about to close, and there wasn’t time for a long-winded discussion, so I didn’t have to lie or embellish. Really, I said very little, and when he hugged me, I hugged him right back. No skin off my nose, and he had tears in his eyes.

    It wasn’t the first time since surgery that I’d had the “mistaken for trans” experience, but all the other times were limited to funny looks, snorts, giggling in the other aisle–that sort of thing. I never noticed if people turned away or offered other kinds of rejection, because I didn’t care.

    If strangers have nothing better to do than worry about what’s up with me, they are seriously in lack of a life. The only feeling I can muster for them is pity.

    P.S. to Nedhera: What you wrote the first time was perfectly clear. Your acquaintance read into it something that wasn’t there.

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