It’s a Saturday night in the Bronx. Around eight o’clock. Summer of ‘76. My big sister’s attic bedroom is aflounce in satin, sequins, and feather boas. She and her girlfriends and I — joined, perhaps, by a couple of my friends — are primping for a midnight screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Stills and publicity shots from the gender-bending cult sensation out of London are taped to the walls for reference: Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and Nell Campbell leering at us through heavy layers of glamour Goth.
The girls hover over the old Singer sewing machine, putting finishing touches on their homemade black satin capes with blood-red linings; sparkly little tops and skirts and bustiers; artfully tattered lace shawls and other accessories. Christine, a professional beautician (and my sister’s BFF since grade school), has teased out everyone’s hair and is now tying it into irregular knots. She’s responsible for my new hairstyle, a perm, the “white Afro” look I’ve wanted for so long.
“You gotta permanett’,” Grandma declared in her Southern Italian accent, thick as Sunday gravy, the minute she laid eyes on it.
“No I didn’t,” I lied, not wanting to admit to time spent in a beauty parlor.
“Dotsa permanetta, you."
“No. I just need to comb it.”
“Nunna you tella me. Theeza permanett’.”
(Grandma knew her salon treatments.)
Fully coiffed and ready to rumble, we tumble into my sister’s 1960s Volvo sedan and drive down to Greenwich Village. The line outside the Eighth Street Playhouse, snaking all the way down to the corner of Sixth Avenue, is an open-air party. Costumed revelers sip Southern Comfort from hidden flasks, sing the soundtrack at the tops of their lungs, and dance the Time Warp right there in the street.
When the theater finally opens its doors, fans dressed as characters from the movie parade back and forth before the screen, warming up the crowd and winning fans of their own. During the movie, audience members shout phrases in unison with the action, throw things at the screen on cue (rice, water, frankfurters), and hop into the aisles to mimic Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter) as he performs “Sweet Transvestite.”
Later, party seekers linger on the sidewalk. Nobody wants the night to end.
My crew and I walk west to the Washington Square Diner for eggs and coffee, or east to Kiev, for cheese blintzes and pierogi with sour cream. The girls freshen their makeup in the bathroom or right at the table. (I will usually have opted for a simple cape and nothing more, too self-conscious to exploit this legitimate opportunity to apply makeup or expose some flesh.) We pile back into the car, swing by Astor Place Square, pull over, and jump out to give “the cube” a twirl before heading home. (Sculptor Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo, a massive black metal form balanced on one of eight corners, spins handily on its axis when given a push. Check it out next time you’re in the neighborhood. It’s still there.)
Back in the Bronx, I creep into the house as soundlessly as possible, praying that I won’t find my father sitting up at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and engaging his restless leg syndrome at full tilt. “What time is it?” he’d ask flatly on such occasions. (My sister, six years older than I, was not subject to these interrogations. Besides, she and my father were not on speaking terms in those years. But that’s another story.) I’d pretend to listen my father’s endless harangue (“Only people who are looking for trouble are out at this hour!”), occasionally attempting to defend myself with breathless lies:
“But the car broke down and we didn’t have a spare tire so we called Triple A but they took a really long time to get there and I tried to call you but there was no pay phone anywhere and by the time we finally found one we were almost home so I — ” Or:
“My friend’s sister’s boyfriend got a promotion at work and he took us all out for burgers and milk shakes and I didn’t have my own ride home so I had to wait with everybody until it was all over and when I tried to call you the guy in the restaurant said the pay phone was busted and I couldn’t use the restaurant phone unless it was an emergency and I said it really was an emergency but he didn’t believe me so — ” Or:
“My friend’s grandmother had a heart attack and her mother was really upset so she asked me to stay until the aunt and uncle came over but they were late because they got in a car accident and the uncle was badly hurt and — ”
More often, though, I kept the story simple: it was John’s birthday, or Peter’s birthday, or Terry’s. Or all three.
“Awful lotta birthdays in your crowd,” my father would mutter, frequently letting me slide in spite of himself.
I slither off to bed, my mind already spinning with ideas for next week’s costume. Maybe I’ll finally work up the nerve to wear a bustier. And eye shadow.