Poem a day #14 Getting Dressed for Work

here’s a little lesson in what first drafts can look like. This not-yet-a-poem wanders all around, taking forever to tell a story which will probably be reduced to a few descriptive details when I’m done blithering and ready to really write. Inside every narrative is a lyric waiting to happen, but sometimes digging it out is not so easy. If I can’t remember the name of the woman I went out with, why is she even here in a poem about something else? And be forewarned that this piece doesn’t end but only gives up, out of time and out of words.

Getting Dressed for Work

Buttoning my Arrow shirt,
centering my thick leather belt
over the fly of my chinos,
sliding on my Doc Martens,
my mind bounced back
to Orange County, California
in 1986, on my first date
with a woman,
whose name I can’t recall,
in my first lesbian bar
whose name I don’t remember,

where I can still clearly see
the butch women—
the old school butches,
the men’s pants butches,
the starched collar butches,
the gentle hands that could
take you out butches,
the hold the door hold your chair
hold your hand but never let you
win at pool butches—
the butches, who all wore
tiny gold earrings.
Girly earrings, not Harlem studs

I stared at the butches,
discretely, for I’d read all about them
in my coming-out frenzy,
and also at their earrings,
mentioned in none
of my reading. My date,
as flighty as those earrings were
seemed not to notice.

Monday in coming out group
I asked my mentor Laurie,
who smiled at my description
with only half her face.

The dress code, she said. Don’t you know
about the dress code? When the bars
were raided, any woman wearing
less than three items
of women’s clothing
could be arrested
as a pervert.

Standing in Philadelphia
in 2010, I examine myself.
Men’s shirt.
Men’s style-pants.
Men’s shoes.
Men’s undershirt.
Men’s belt.
No jewelry.
Today, women’s underwear.
Black socks – do cotton socks have gender?
Carefully chosen gender-neutral
burnt orange urban messenger bag.

I’d be in the paddy wagon,
my picture spread on the paper,
my job lost probably
my apartment lost
maybe and even if I ran
out the back I could still
have been beaten openly
on any street.

How do you get dressed—
oh that most ordinary
of daily experiences—
trapped between the radical need
to be only who you are
and constant fear
of arrest? How did you find
masculine-looking shirts
that still button on the left?
Shoes just female enough
to keep you out of jail?

How did you invent a world
in a world not ready for you,
oh Butches with gold earrings?
I know you fondled the silky panties
of the femmes with teased up hair,
but did you, secretly, fondle
your own, those bits of nylon tricot,
swathes of practical cotton?

Or was it the women police officers
fondling your panties
when you were stripped in search
of women’s clothes?


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