by Ron Van Sweringen
The girl definitely needed a bath. That’s the first thing Margaret King thought when she came across her, panhandling on 3rd Avenue. Her face and hands were dirty, and a worn red knit hat covering her head made her hair color a question mark. But her cheek bones were killers, no question about that. A look at her through the viewfinder on Margaret’s camera confirmed it. It was hard to believe she could look that good without makeup.
Margaret opened her purse and rummaged through her wallet. She took her time on purpose, to attract the girl’s attention, hoping for a good, full face shot of her. Her ploy worked; the girl moved toward her in expectation of a handout.
Margaret pulled out a five-dollar bill and crumpled it into a ball. When the girl was near enough, she placed it in her hand and began snapping pictures of the girl’s puzzled expression at the crumpled bill and then her look of surprise and excitement when she realized it was a five.
Bingo!!! Margaret’s heart pounded. She was a diamond in the rough, maybe the best one she had ever seen.
“Maybe this is my lucky day,” Margaret said under her breath. “It’s about time.”
“Hi.” Margaret introduced herself to the girl. “What’s your name?” She extended her hand.
The girl made eye contact with her for a moment and then quickly turned, breaking into a run along the crowded sidewalk.
“Wait a minute,” Margaret called after her, “What’s your name?” There was no reply and the slight figure in the red knit hat was soon lost from sight.
“Crap.” Margaret sighed dejectedly.
“Your camera scared her off.” The voice that broke into Margaret’s misery. It belonged to a girl with spiked red hair and heavy black eyeliner. A studded dog collar around her neck and a silver ring piercing her left nostril completed the picture. “Runaways don’t like to be photographed,” she added with an attitude.
Margaret was streetwise; she knew better, but the girl was so striking, she hadn’t stopped to think, and now it was too late. Her chances of finding her again in Manhattan were minuscule.
“What’s the rub?” the girl asked. “Why were you taking her picture?”
“I’m a fashion photographer,” Margaret replied. “I think she has the potential to become a model.”
“You mean like in a magazine? A skinny twerp like that, she looks like she’s starving to death.”
“That’s the look high fashion pays a lot of money for, and she has it.”
“How about me? I can stop eating for a week.”
“Sorry, honey, you don’t have the cheekbones,” Margaret replied, finding it hard not to laugh. “But, tell you what, here’s my phone number. If you see her again, call me, I’ll see that there’s something in it for you. What’s your name anyway?”
“Doris. And we got a deal,” she answered in a now obvious Brooklyn accent. “I’ll find her for you.”
Two hours later, Margaret had developed the photographs in the bathroom of her small walk-up apartment. It was impossible to take a bad picture of the girl. “Oh God,” she moaned, sipping a glass of red wine, “why did she have to run away?”
When she was halfway through the second glass of wine, the intercom buzzer went off. It was Izzy Portman. Margaret heard his heavy footsteps on the third flight of stairs and had the apartment door open when he reached the landing.
“Geez, what a climb,” he panted. “Get rich and find a first-floor apartment, will ya. I’m not getting any younger, ya know.” A quick flop on the sofa and a glass of wine soon revived Izzy. “So what was so important?” he asked, tilting his head and looking over his glasses at Margaret, like an old-maid schoolteacher.
“These,” Margaret replied, handing him the photographs she had taken of the girl. Izzy set his wine glass down and began looking at them. He took his time examining each photo, “She’s sensational,” he finally blurted out. “Who is she?”
“That’s just it,” Margaret answered dejectedly, “I haven’t the foggiest idea.”
After her complete explanation of the morning’s events, Izzy leaned forward, taking her hand. “You have to find her, and fast. She is your lifeline back up the ladder to becoming a top photographer again. That face is worth a fortune.” Izzy’s words were what Margaret was hoping for, a validation that she was right.
“There’s just one thing,” Izzy added. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about her keeps tweaking me; maybe it’s just the pastrami on rye I had for lunch. Who knows?”
There were two heavy snows the following week. They prevented Margaret from spending much time on the streets looking for the girl. A phone call on Friday evening caused her to spill her wine; it was Doris!
“I found her!” were the first words Margaret heard. “You there?” were the second words.
“Yes, I’m here,” Margaret almost screamed into the phone. “Where is she?”
“Not so fast” was the sharp reply. “What’s in it for me?”
“Plenty,” Margaret answered, “if this works out, I promise I won’t forget you, I’ll even give you a job as my assistant.”
“Job! You mean work?”
Margaret had to laugh. “Thank you, God,” she said to herself.
Margaret was on the street corner across from the Good Shepherd Non-Denominational Chapel and Shelter, at 8:30 the next morning. Shortly after she arrived, Doris exited a bus halfway up the block. At first Margaret wasn’t sure who was coming toward her in a ratty, fake-leopardskin coat with a pink fur collar and spray-painted fuchsia work boots. The spiked red hair finally gave Doris away.
“Good grief,” Margaret whispered.
“There she is,” Doris said excitedly, pointing to a knot of people streaming through an open door in the side of the chapel. “It’s 8:30 and everyone who slept there last night has to leave for the day; they can return at 5:30 tonight for dinner and a cot.”
Margaret searched the group, quickly noticing the red hat. “Let’s come up behind her on each side and take an arm so she can’t run away again,” Margaret suggested. “Try not to scare her,” she added, giving Doris’s outfit a hard look.
“Whatever,” Doris responded sarcastically to the look, “This is America, ya know. A girl has a right to be herself.”
The plan worked perfectly, Margaret and Doris slid alongside the girl before she knew it, hemming her in.
“Don’t be frightened,” Margaret said quickly, “We’re friends, we want to help you.” Doris nodded her head and strangely enough the girl smiled at her.
“See there,” Doris chirped at Margaret, “I told ya.”
Ten minutes later the three were ensconced in a booth, drinking hot coffee at Schneider’s Drug Store on 35th Street. This was the first chance Margaret had to study the girl up close. She was very quiet and seemed unusually shy. Margaret had to ask three times for her name before she got an answer. “Bobbie Lewis,” was the response. “From Parkersburg, West Virginia.” Nothing more.
That’s enough for now, Margaret thought. You’re going to be a star whether you know it or not, Bobbie Lewis.
Margaret had to admit that Doris was turning out to be a godsend in the ice-breaking department, although she, herself, had to look away from that leopard-skin coat every time she swallowed her coffee.
Margaret explained that she was a fashion photographer and that she felt Bobbie had the potential to become a very successful model.
“That’s right,” Doris chimed in, “you have that half-dead look they pay a lot for.” Margaret was beginning to have second thoughts about Doris.
Half an hour later, it was agreed that Bobbie would spend the night with Doris and have a hot soaking bath and shampoo, along with a good dinner. They were to be at an address Margaret wrote down on a piece of paper at ten o’clock the next morning for Bobbie’s test shoot.
Margaret saw them off on the bus, her mind spinning, there was so much to do. She had rented a small photo studio for forty dollars an hour. Now she needed a couple of props and some high-end clothes, about a size 4, she guessed. Then she needed to call Izzy. His fashion sense was impeccable, along with his ability to apply makeup. After all he had forty years of experience doing his own.
When she got Izzy on the phone he agreed to be at the shoot in the morning. He sounded excited and before he hung up he giggled, “I’ve got some news for you, sweetie.”
Margaret had a hard time sleeping that night. Izzy’s remark didn’t help any. “What the hell is he up to now?” she kept asking herself, remembering the old days and some of the impossible situations Izzy got himself into.
Everyone was on time the next morning. There was a lighting technician, a girl to help dress Bobbie, and a part-time hair stylist. Margaret figured five hundred dollars for the shoot, just about everything she had in her savings account. But something in her gut told her to go for it.
Izzy bounced in the door with his makeup case and a smile a mile wide. “I’m going to make your day,” he bubbled. Margaret braced herself.
“Both Monarch Artist’s Agency and John Ashwell’s Modeling Agency flipped when I showed them your photographs of the girl. They want her, honey, I’ve been around this business long enough to know the real thing. She’s going to be big time.”
Doris approached them at that point and, after a quick introduction to Izzy, looked at Margaret in an odd way, announcing, “I hope you two are ready for this.”
At that moment the dressing room door opened and Bobbie appeared wearing a white satin nightgown and pale blue ostrich feather bed jacket. There was dead silence as everyone took in the sight.
“My God, she’s a knockout,” Izzy breathed, “except for... Is that what I think it is?”
“Oh my God,” Margaret gasped, “she has a....”
“Right,” Doris said suddenly, her eyes bulging, “that’s what I was trying to tell you!”
“I knew there was something!” Izzy exploded, looking remarkably like Kate Smith. “I haven’t been a queen for sixty years for nothing.”
“He’s transgendered, but he hasn’t got the money for the reassignment surgery,” Doris said. “He opened up a lot last night after I accidentally saw the popsicle. He attempted suicide last year because he’s afraid he’ll never be able to afford the operation.”
Margaret slumped down in a chair, “What a mess,” she sighed, “I’m so sorry for him, but we have to call the shoot off now, this changes everything.”
“You’re damn right it does!” Izzy replied loudly, “Look at her: she’s gorgeous, who’s to know? With a little tuck here and a little shove there, the problem’s solved. It’s manna from heaven.”
“What are you talking about?” Margaret raised her voice, “We can’t represent him as a girl.”
“Why not?” Izzy answered. “You’d be saving his life. This is 2012; the fashion world doesn’t care about his sex. Their only interest is in what the photographs look like. Believe me, every magazine will want him. He’ll make the money for his surgery.” Then he quieted down. “Isn’t that the most important thing here?”
Drawn by the loud conversation, Bobbie overheard everything.
“It’s your decision, Bobbie,” Margaret said. “What do we do?”
“Take my picture,” he answered, with the first real smile that Margaret had seen out of him. ”That’s what we’re here for.”
“All right,” Margaret said to the lighting technician, “let’s make her a star.”
“Say, you two” — Doris leaned over to Margaret and Izzy — “when you’re finished with her, could you make me rich and famous too? I’m having to shave my upper lip twice a week.”
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen