This short story (not so short!) is based on a chapter from January’s Thaw, the third and final book in the Joe January trilogy.
Walking through the door of McSorley’s Old Ale House was like walking through a time warp into the past, its sawdust covered floor and myriad historical trappings on the walls a balm to this troubled future into which I’d been unwittingly thrust. This East Village institution was a favorite haunt of mine in 1947. Whenever working a particularly troubling case or seeking escape from some capricious dame threatening to slap a ball and chain on my ankle, I sought refuge within the friendly confines of McSorley’s, where life was so much simpler: cheese and crackers for lunch, two choices of beer—light or dark—and most importantly, it was off-limits to women.
I sat at the wooden bar nursing my first beer—the dark variety—initially contemplating my past and marveling that this watering hole had survived the last sixty years largely unchanged, although in truth it had been only a matter of weeks, in 1947, since last I’d patronized this fine but seedy drinking establishment.
“Buy a girl a beer?” said a soft, sultry voice from beside me.
The owner of the voice was a voluptuous platinum blonde with multiple face piercings and a tattoo on her cheek of a purple clematis flower whose vine had climbed up from between her breasts—breasts free from the confines and support of a brassiere, pointed nipples showing through the thin fabric of her tight blouse.
“Hey,” said the young woman with mock indignity, “It’s not okay to stare.”
I hadn’t been leering, but I wasn’t used to the brazen way in which women in this century dressed. This gal may as well have walked in here with no top on at all. I sighed but bit back an angry retort even as I motioned to the bartender to bring another beer.
“Light,” called the young woman. Then, in reference to the fedora that sat askew atop my head: “Wicked hat.”
I let the compliment pass and, after a moment, said, “You know, there was a time when this bar was gents only—dames weren’t allowed.”
The woman laughed and said, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” When I withheld a reply, she asked, “Where you from?”
Not to be put off, the woman laughed again. Another time in another place under different circumstances I might have found the sound sexy. “That’s not a where,” she said, “but a when.”
“I’m from the Bronx,” I told her reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
The woman nodded, her eyes holding mine through the glass. “I didn’t think they had time travel back then.”
“They don’t.” I watched the woman’s image take a swallow from her glass; a few drops of condensation fell from the glass and found their way to between her breasts. I had hoped my snide first reply would result in the woman leaving me alone. “I got caught in a time warp the result of some clown from a future alternate reality in which Germany won World War II. In his time the empire Hitler vowed would last a thousand years is a century old.”
“Wow,” she breathed, and I couldn’t be sure whether the woman was only playing along with what I thought she thought was merely a game, or whether she believed me. “So it must be pretty bad, huh, in his present?”
“He came back to try to change it.” Matter of fact.
“Obviously he succeeded.” Equal indifference.
“And what do you think of your future?”
“Baseball isn’t the game it once was.” I took a swallow from my glass of beer before continuing: “Pornography, prostitution, pollution, government corruption, global warming, terrorism, and for all your purported connectivity through the Internet and cell phones, your society is more disconnected than ever. On top of that, the war between men and women is no closer to a cease fire than it was from when I come.”
“For someone out of the past, you seem to know an awful lot about my present.”
I thought her statement was intended to trip me up. “I’ve been here only a few days with little more to do but read the morning Times.” The woman seemed to accept my explanation.
“Still,” she mused, “it must be better than a future in which Nazis have been running the world for a hundred years.”
“Oppression under the guise of freedom is still oppression,” I said. When the woman said nothing, I added: “In my time we have burlesque, but here, prostitution has been all but legalized, and dames all walk around like you—advertising their body parts, and when I take notice you tell me it’s not okay to look.”
The woman laughed. “You sound like you’re out of an old Bogart movie.” When I said nothing, she added, “You also sound angry.”
“Just making an observation.”
“William S. Burroughs observed that Woman is a different species from Man.”
“Never heard of him,” I said, “but he sounds like a wise man.”
“He was a popular writer in the sixties and seventies.”
I nodded. “After my time.”
The woman ignored my simple statement, or perhaps it had gone over her head—with clearance to spare. “You can’t know what it’s like to be a woman, to be looked at as a piece of meat. To be objectified.”
“Another great author, this one before my time, once wrote: ‘A woman naked is a woman armed.’”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her query betrayed no offense.
“It means that you can’t know what it’s like to be a man when a woman parades around her body parts in front of him.”
“So we agree to disagree.”
“Well, yes, I suppose we could do that,” I said. “But that brings us no closer to a solution, does it? That just maintains the status quo—no, on second thought it escalates the hostilities, as it’s done for the last sixty years. Perhaps longer. What’s wrong with compromising, with trying to see it from another perspective? Why does it have to be a war that’s won by one side and lost by the other? Sometimes the only way to achieve victory is through negotiation, because only in negotiation can understanding be attained.
“Look,” I said when the young woman only blinked. “You brought up the term objectification. It’s partly the definition of pornography—to objectify with the intention of arousing sexual excitement.”
“You think I dress like this to arouse men?” She was baiting me. “A man can look at a beautiful woman with admiration, or he can leer at her.”
“I understand the difference,” I said, “but I wonder if there is any real difference.” The young woman looked confused, so I explained, as much for her benefit as my own. “A strange man from across the room can look at you and if there is no interest on your part, then you perceive his look as unwanted and, as such, lewd. However, another man can look at you the same way, but if your interest in him is mutual—if you are attracted to him in return—then his look is welcomed and perceived as admiration.
“I can’t know what’s in your heart or mind when you dressed yourself this morning. Perhaps men have always objectified women to an extent. It happens in the animal kingdom often enough: the bird with the most colorful plumage gets the girl—or boy as the case may be. Yet appreciation of a woman’s body as a piece of art or as a collection of body parts is objectification of sorts no matter how you cut it. You can take a depiction of a naked woman painted on a brick wall in some back alley where people look away in disgust, slap it on a piece of canvas, call it a nude and hang it in a museum where those same people will pay to look at it approvingly. To some people art is art based solely on where it has been approved to be viewed as an artistic achievement.”
The woman ignored my case in point, seemingly stuck on the preceding page: “But you’re supposed to be intelligent. Are you saying you can’t control your body?”
“Intelligence has little to do with biology, miss. Personally, I prefer the more subtle advertising the gals in my era practice.” Noting her face piercings I added, “Here you’re all flashy baubles and billboards promoting a product at which you profess it’s not okay to look. I have the intelligence to control my body, but that doesn’t mean a certain body part of mine, which has a mind of its own, isn’t going to sit up and take notice when a piece of meat saunters by whether or not you tell me it’s not okay to look.
“You see that gent over there, by the window?” I said, indicating a young man wearing a t-shirt that served as a poster for Coca Cola. Overly thin with long, scraggly hair and an earring, he looked away when he saw me nod in his direction.
“What about him?”
“He’s been ogling you since you came in.”
“Creep,” the young woman said; I couldn’t be certain her disdain was feigned or authentic.
“And his buddy?” I said, referring to the first’s tablemate, who was muscular, mustachioed and had much shorter, wavy hair that glistened with one of myriad hair products that had been invented for men since the end of the twentieth century. I watched the young woman’s eyes linger on the man’s muscular torso a moment. “He likes what he sees in you, too,” I added, baiting the hook.
“Rugged,” she said. “Reminds me of a young Tom Selleck. I like him.”
“Thanks,” I said, “for proving my point.”
“What did I miss?” she asked.
“Two men, each one appraising you for your body parts from afar—to them you are the proverbial slab of meat you just told me you abhor being deemed. One repulses you, while the other you welcome, even as you objectify him in return.”
“A man can look at a woman with all the admiration of a pure heart and if his gaze isn’t welcome, then her perception can be skewed into whatever she wishes it to be—including revulsion.”
“Don’t I have the right to rebuff the man I have no interest in?”
“Of course you do,” I said. “But dressed as you are, objectified as you are, you have to expect that all manner of men—those to whom you may be attracted and those who will repel you—are going to notice you. To accept the advances of a few while reviling the others shows a lack of accountability.
“The way I see it, women in 2007 ‘objectify’ themselves more than they ever did in my time. Times Square is filled with flashy advertisements portraying women using their sex appeal to sell a host of products and services. The broads in Central Park wear less than does my gal Friday when she takes me to bed. A dame like you walks into a dive like this dressed as you are and asks me to buy her a beer and then chastises me for looking at what she’s done to objectify herself.”
“And that leaves you feeling oppressed?” The young woman seemed to relish what she perceived as having gained the upper hand in our discussion, although as of late she seemed, to me, reluctant to participate much.
“Hardly,” I replied, noting the woman’s disappointment with my response. “But it does confuse me.”
“It’s really very simple,” she said. “We objectify ourselves to compete amongst ourselves. We want to turn your heads away from the competition and towards us.”
“But you don’t really want the prize.”
“The prize is being able to just say no.”
“I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I did. “So you do dress to be noticed.”
“Well,” she began.
“Don’t you see the contradiction?” Because my glass was nearly empty and I didn’t wish to continue the discussion by ordering another, I added before she could respond, “You boasted earlier that your gender has come a long way, but I don’t see that you have, and you’d see it, too, if you understood that you can’t have a better tomorrow without occasionally looking at the past, to from where you’ve come. You may have won the freedom to dress as you do, to cover yourself with tattoos and adorn your face with all manner of hardware, to play games with men, to say ‘no,’ to tell me it’s not okay to stare, to enjoy sex without commitment—none of which holds a hint of accountability—but the result is still oppression.”
“Accountability?” she asked. “That’s the second time you’ve used that word. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything. It’s one of the rules of negotiation toward achieving that understanding I mentioned earlier.” The girl’s large blue eyes were empty of comprehension, like the rich man born into his wealth and so has no understanding of poverty; I explained: “We all must be accountable for our actions.”
The woman seemed to take in my argument, perhaps unsure how to counter; I watched the wheels behind her eyes turn, trying to grasp certain, until now, alien concepts. When she said nothing, I continued:
“Look, in 1947 it’s rare for a woman to sidle up to a man in a bar and ask him to buy her a drink. Certainly it sends a certain message to a gent. It seems commonplace today for a woman to approach a man—with the intention to deceive.”
“Is that what you think, that I was hitting on you?”
I waved her aside. “Even if I was available, you’re not my type,” I said, glancing at her breasts, “despite your very impressive credentials.”
“And just what is your type?” The woman seemed disappointed, but I didn’t believe for a moment its authenticity. I was certain that, to her, I was merely a game—someone with whom she could amuse herself at my expense. She seemed driven, possibly by previous success with others of my species, to manipulate me to her own ends—to just say “no.” I looked at the tattoo and the various rings on her face—lip, nose, eyebrow—and said:
“Let’s just say I prefer my women a little less forward and much more accommodating.” I wondered if she understood what I meant by accommodating.
“You were free to turn me down,” she said, and I understood this assertion, too, had gone over her head. It also hadn’t yet occurred to her that I already had turned her down.
Nodding, I said, “I’ve had my share of women reject my overtures.”
“I find that hard to believe,” the woman said. “You’re not a bad-looking dude.”
I chuckled. “Is that a come on?”
“If by ‘come on’ you mean flirting, yes, I suppose I am, but if you expect me to invite you back to my place for a matinee for the price of a beer you’re sadly mistaken.”
I laughed a rich, hearty laugh.
“I say something funny?”
“Now that we’ve determined what you are, we’re left to dicker over price?”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said, her face warming with a large measure of indignation.
“Relax,” I said. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Communication between the sexes has always been somewhat strained. I can’t say I’ve fared much better with the women of the 1940s.” I noted from the look on the woman’s face that she was just then considering the validity of my claim to be a time traveler from out of her past—a man out of place out of time. I enjoyed her bewilderment.
“The way I see it,” I said, “oppression comes in many shapes and sizes. The women in this century allow themselves—even participate in self-objectification—to be used as sexual objects, denying it under the pretext of freedom even as they rebuke the male species for embracing that objectification, which only results in widening the communication gap between the genders. You resent being looked at as a slab of meat but do everything to ensure that you are. You lie to yourself and us, and then blame us for our misunderstanding. Maybe it’s just more obvious to me, having jumped sixty years in the blink of an eye, but the women of the twenty-first century seem unaware of how little progress they’ve made since 1947, or maybe they choose to ignore it.”
The young woman seemed to take in everything I’d just said; perhaps uncertain how to respond, she announced: “Listen. I really would like to continue this discussion, but I’ve got to piss like a racehorse. Will you be here when I get back?”
I glanced at my watch even as I was taken aback by her pronouncement; in my time women went to “the little girls” room. “Not likely,” I said.
“Oh you!” she said, not believing me, or perchance confident in the allure with which her body held me.
I watched the young woman’s back recede as she headed for the loo, fascinated by the gentle sway of her hips snug in her Levi’s. When the door swung closed behind her, I finished what was left of my beer, told the bartender that the drinks were on the young woman, and left.
I returned to McSorley’s often, as did, I suspect, the young woman. I wonder if she ever expected to meet up with me again, or whether she ever speculated over my claim to be a time traveler from out of her past even as I, safe in my own era in 1947, occasionally wonder about the young woman’s arrogance, and of what crop might have sprung from the seed I sowed that long ago day in the future—a future that, although it had changed much from my present, had stayed pretty much the same.