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Pretty on the Inside

Not 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 pole.

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 show themselves.

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 the mirror.

—John Rodat

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