Last night I was invited to a small house party to watch the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is a reality show in the mold of Project Runway, but for aspiring drag queens. I had never seen the show before, and it was quite a hoot watching it in the company of fellow gays. As we were watching, one of the things that really struck me was how niche one had to be to get all of the in-jokes and references. I was talking with a few other people there and we agreed that if you were, say, a 30 year old straight dude watching in Topeka you would probably be utterly lost by the spectacle. Whether it was the multiple references to Mommie Dearest peppered in RuPaul’s dialog, or the lexicon of drag gestures or diva swagger, one really needed years of exposure to the culture to be able to fully appreciate this show. Then again, perhaps it is fascinating for those in a different culture to get a glimpse at life on Mars, and attempt to understand and deconstruct the milieu. Of course this isn’t unique to gay culture, there are millions of subcultures that people are a part of, and most times several at once. To list but a few of my own: foodies, webheads/technogeeks, architects, polyglots, travelers. Each of these are subcultures with their own preoccupations and terms that can seem impenetrable to those on the outside. But in building these communities, and integrating their peculiar symbology and slang over many years, we obtain a cultural literacy that gives great pleasure whenever we see it employed. And this pleasure comes from being in on the joke and feeling no small sense of belonging, made all the more satisfying by sharing the laughter with others and feeling connected to them.
When I was traveling about, in order to get the most out of the experience, I set a couple of rules for myself. One of which was to never say no to anything I hadn’t already done before if someone should suggest it. I found myself in all kinds of interesting situations thanks to this simple rule, and have never regretted any of them, even if they were difficult or upsetting. So a couple of weeks ago when my friend Olaf asked me if (being that I live in New York) I would mind going to an auction house here and bidding on a couple of items on his behalf. Dramatic Hollywood visions of Christie’s and Sotheby’s danced in my head, nasty bidding wars breaking out between otherwise upper crust and overly polite people. I immediately pictured myself in drag as a cross between Joan Collins in Dynasty, Bette Davis from Now, Voyager and Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman (after the shopping). There would be raised voices and wine glasses. Five thousand. Ten Thousand! TWENTY THOUSAND!! And…sold!…to the elegant heiress in the large hat.
The reality wasn’t all that far removed, although with quite a bit less drama and a bit more casually attired. At least, the crowd (about 50 of us, such as it was) was fairly casual. The many people that worked there were more smartly dressed, a line of about 30 of them taking phone bids during the auction. The room was contemporary and well appointed, coffee rather than wine was being served. Many of the bidders were hanging out at the back of the room, leaving very many of the chairs (especially at the front of the room) empty. I arrived about a third of the way through the bidding (at about lot 30; my lots to bid on were 75 and 76), and strolled to the front dramatically taking my seat in one of the almost empty rows at the front of the room. I was given a catalog of the lots, which was quite a nice book on its own really. I was stunned to discover that many of the photos on auction were ones I recognized and greatly admired. In and among them was the work of Diane Arbus, Herb Ritts, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber and many other well knowns. The fact that I would be bidding on pieces in such company made my palms slightly sweaty, especially as we approached my lot numbers. The bidding was all going more rapidly than I had imagined such things would take, and I was getting nervous, not wanting to miss my lots. I loosely grasped my blue bidding paddle with the number “110” in white upon it. The pieces I was to bid on were, relatively speaking small potatoes at a couple of thousand dollars each. There was a Cindy Sherman print a few lots before mine that went for $95,000, and the bidding was most furious for this lot. During it, I sneezed and the auctioneer looked over at me, as if to say “Sir, do I hear $80,000?”. Breaking out in a cold sweat, I shook my head and firmly removed my hand from my paddle as if it were toxic. They fortunately moved on to the other bidders, and no one seemed to notice. I don’t know why I felt a little nervous, this wasn’t MY money I was bidding with after all. I could just picture the conversation with my freind Olaf later:
“Sweetie, I just got you the most wonderful Cindy Sherman…and such a bargain! Worth at least $100K! And I got it for you for a mere $80K!…what?…well.. I know that wasn’t the one you wanted…yes, I understand that is about 76K over your total budget…no no, no need to thank me. Ciao!”
When my lots finally came up, I have to say I was a total natural. I waited just long enough at the first bid to not appear too eager. i refused to be bullied into a higher bid by the auctioneer. I held my ground and counter bid when necessary, but didn’t go higher than what I was authorized to do. In short, I was a pro. (Hm…maybe I should add this to my CV as a service I offer?) I ended up losing the first lot, but winning the second. I had to bid up to the high amount authorized me, but I got it.
I stayed to watch a few more lots go and some minor skirmishes. The totality of the event, now that I was coming down off my bidding high, washed over me. This turned out to be a fascinating look at a world I had never really encountered before. I got up, turned in my paddle and walked out feeling very posh indeed.
Juliette and I took a trip yesterday morning out on Lake Titicaca to visit a group of small islands belonging to a people called Los Uros. They are a pre Inca people that live on islands made entirely of reeds that grow in the lake. They originally moved to these islands as a defensive measure, and have been living on them for hundreds of years. The owner of the boat we rented took us to his family island that he shares with his mother, wife, daughter and two sons. He explined to us how his island was built about 15 years ago by pulling clumps of reeds together and then filling in with more reeds. As they rot from the bottom, they need to replace the top layer every 15 to 30 days depending on the weather. We also visited the largest island in the center of these which serves as a kind of commercial center for the group with small shops selling goods imported from the mainland. The Uros get items they can’t produce themselves (like fruits and vegetables) by trading textiles they make or fish they capture with the mainland.