on the Inside
long ago, I read about a guy who was trying to market a mirror
that somehow inverted its own image. I don’t know how the
thing was constructed or by what mechanism it accomplished
this (I’m guessing it’s done with . . . you know), but the
point was to present a mirror image of a mirror image, showing
you to you the way you look to others. Why is this necessary?
Well, the inventor sent a few of these gadgets to high-profile
politicians who, according to him, were parting their hair
on the wrong side. Mercifully, I don’t now remember whether
the right-side part or the left-side part was the “power-part”—otherwise,
I’d be freaking out self-consciously even now—but the general
gist of the article stuck with me:
First of all, you don’t look like you.
Or not like you think you do, anyway. You’re used to an inverted
version of yourself. You labor and fuss in the medicine-cabinet
mirror: moussing, gelling, plucking, brushing, exfoliating,
moisturizing, shaving, trimming, flossing, performing all
your arcane cosmetic rituals. Or you primp busily in the full-length
in the hallway or, more clandestinely, in the storefront glass
of darkened buildings on sunny days—but, in any case, you’re
trusting an unreliable facsimile.
And, secondly, the image you present has great pragmatic ramifications.
Hell, it can keep you from holding public office.
But, of course, you knew that. Everybody knows that. That’s
why aspiring politicians don’t wear brown suits (the color
only of underachievers and academics, I’m told). That’s why
we all have leather jackets, so we can affect cool
when we need to seem cool—now, whether it’s Brando cool, or
Raiders of the Lost Ark cool or Johnny Ramone cool
or Fonzie cool or Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer cool
or Thriller cool, is a matter of personal preference
and context. But you’re, at least semi-consciously, sending
a message: This is what I’m about.
And it’s not confined to makeup, hairstyles or clothing. Do
you drive a HumVee because you’re a rough-and-tumble-ready-for-anything
adventurer, who at any moment could be called away from the
basement rec room of your Loudonville New Eclectic home to
help the president on a super-secret sting operation to apprehend
an arms-dealer terrorist in Mombassa? Or just because, screw
it, you bust your ass for your money and the only time you
have to yourself is that 40-minute drive at the end of the
workday and, damn it, if you want to blast The Ride of
the Valkryies and feel like Robert Duvall for a few minutes,
by Christ, that’s what you’re going to do. Or, instead, do
you drive a Prius because it’s the very cutting-edge of environmentally
responsible transportation; or is it because nothing warms
your heart more than the delicious—almost erotic—charge of
sanctimony? Nyah, nyah, I love the earth more than you do.
All this stuff has been on my mind recently, because on my
own commute home every night I can watch the accent of those
complicated broadcasts change. As I drive down the long street
toward my apartment, through a gradual escalation of income
and apparent quality-of-life, I notice a shift of emphasis:
It’s like changing literary genres, and having to rapidly
recalibrate my expectations to divine authorial intent. And
it’s stoop season, so the sidewalks are densely populated—it’s
a wonder I haven’t wrapped my car (I’m not fool enough to
tell you its make, lest you make assumptions) around a utility
On the poorer blocks, there’s a sartorial assertiveness that’s
almost celebratory. It’s sultry weather, to be sure, but in
this neighborhood it’s like Rio—all bare chests, legs and
midriffs. The ornaments of these stoops are the residents
themselves: Look at me, look at me. And, of course, I do.
And they look back, staring through the windshield to see
who stares at them. The seeming boldness itself is attractive,
the appearance of forward sociability. In front of under-kept
(if not ramshackle) houses, they mix and mingle, vamp and
pose in varying degrees of self-confidence and vanity, and
with varying degrees of success.
Some chests, after all, should not be bared; and midriff sometimes
seems inaccurate—there exist, I can testify, maxiriffs.
As you progress up the street, it gets shadier and quieter.
There are fewer people on the stoops of these blocks. It’s
stately and reserved. The buildings are diligently—even, in
some cases, exquisitely—maintained. There are imposing and
regal doors, and wispy, delicate window treatments that simultaneously
bar entry and invite subtle attention: “Look at me, now move
on.” There are gardens modest in size, but obviously not in
the care given to them, that say, “Stop here. You know what
to do,” but the sinuous scrolls of the iron gates suggest
the invitation is rhetorical. When the residents are spotted,
they’re coming in or going out purposefully. They’re understated,
less spectacular than their homes—like technicians at a theme
park, they keep the whole thing running but they ain’t the
But these are just my drive-by thoughts, my speedreader’s
interpretations. I’ve talked to the people on my block and
they’re warm, friendly and sociable people, if generally subdued
in their attire. And the folks down the street, I can’t intuit
their motivations or their secret thoughts by the cut of a
T-shirt or the angle of a hat—though I try.
It’s a game to play: reading these outward signs as semaphore,
to correlate these coded signals with what I assume to be
the actual intended transmission.
But, of course, I don’t know what you see when you look in