When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.
— Mae West
I sensed the conversation was drawing to a close, so I stopped pacing back and forth on the rug. We’d caught up as much as we were going to, and plans were made for us to hang out later in the week. “I’m sorry, Jess,” I said, as an afterthought. “I didn’t even think to ask if this was a good time for you to talk. Did I interrupt your work? What do you have going on today?” “It’s okay,” she said. “Nothing much, really. Todd’s getting home late, so we’ll probably order pizza and watch a movie. Right now, I’m going to finish this salad and then I’ve got to go electrocute a guy.”
“Hey, that’s something,” I said. “My big event of the day is a trip to Ralphs so I can restock my fridge with precooked chicken and frozen broccoli. Anyway, I’ll let you finish your lunch. I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. Have fun shocking.”
“I always do,” Jess answered. Her laughter was throaty and playful. I could hear the impish smile on her lips when she said, “Okay, cool, see you Saturday.”
“So how’s this work?” I asked Jess over a cocktail a few years ago. “Like, who pays for this kind of thing? What are these guys after?”
“Just a little freedom,” she replied. “A lot of them are looking to relinquish control, even if only for a short while. It’s like a mini- vacation for them.” Jess explained that most of her clients were men in positions of power, men who were accustomed to shouldering responsibility. “These guys want to be told what to do for a change.” With a smirk, she added, “And some of them are just kinky.” At a birthday party for one of Jess’s friends, a chain-smoking young woman wearing nothing but knotted ropes told me, “Jess is not a hooker.” As a professional dominatrix, what Jess provides for her clients does not include sex; but for many men, her services can be much more satisfying. As my friend, what Jess provides is continual expansion of my knowledge of an alternative universe.
I have always been drawn to freaks, the purple Dr. Martens in a world of brown penny loafers. In this respect, I take after Grandmère, my father’s mother, who kept a menagerie of eccentrics, whom she referred to as “characters.” Any person who didn’t fit the “mold” was a character — the mold being an Irish or Italian Catholic living a “mundane” life. Artists, agnostics, foreigners, intellectuals, and freethinkers, anyone who was different intrigued my grandmother. She wanted to know all about their peculiarities, why they dressed that way, why they talked that way, why they believed what they did. While most of her neighbors in the large Brooklyn apartment complex avoided the unconventional, Grandmère actively sought them out.
In the ’30s and ’40s (and in most red states today), people often looked with disdain upon those with whom they could not relate, especially by way of similarly colored skin, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. “We’re pretty comfortable with people who are different,” my Aunt Carol told me in a recent phone conversation. Aunt Carol, my father’s sister and Grandmère’s eldest child, lives in Staten Island. “It’s not because we’re wonderfully Zen. It’s a selfish curiosity. We’re open-minded, but we’re filling our need to know.” Aunt Carol says of a typical family day while she was growing up, “We would go shopping and get home and all be, like, ‘We were going to eat dinner, but Mommy met someone on the subway and she was talking.'” I see this gregarious trait in my father, who strikes up conversations with any person he passes on the street. I also see it in myself.
The word “weird” stems from the Middle-English werde , used to describe one who has the power to control fate. Those who forge their own paths — rather than following the heavily trodden roads constructed by their ancestors and endorsed by their parents and teachers during their indoctrination years — are weirdos. They do what they want to, not what others think they should, though the two may sometimes overlap. When I lived in Hollywood — a breeding ground for misfits — I became enchanted by the notion that life did not have to be lived any one way. I grew hopeful thinking that if these people, these weirdos, could control their fate by virtue of their choices, maybe I could control mine.
The characters I met tended to be more accepting of others, which only made them more attractive to me. Like Grandmère, I wanted to learn everything I could about them. I befriended a drag queen named Sassy and insisted she come get ready at my place before we went clubbing one night. I wanted to know how she applied her makeup, how she got her blonde wig to stay on. I discovered that she had made her own breasts by filling nylon sacks with birdseed, and that she sometimes padded her bum with toilet tissue. Knowing Sassy taught me a few other lessons, such as how hard it can be for a person caught between genders to fit into the world and that, despite her bitchy bravado, what my friend really wanted, like any other person in the world, was to be loved.
Jess has a daughter and lives in the suburbs. When questioned about her job at her husband’s work functions, she says she’s in real estate, to which people smile and nod approvingly. This is a profession and lifestyle they are familiar with. This woman is just like us , they think, so we will accept her. She’s normal . The word “normal” is from the Latin normalis , which means “made according to the square.” There’s nothing wrong with being square — every line is predictably the same length, and in that there is symmetry, stability, and geometric perfection. But squares bore me.
I’m not interested in learning anything from a real-estate agent and mother who lives in the ‘burbs. A real-life dominatrix, however, has much to offer in the realm of fascination. Half of the women I know can describe what it’s like to have a kid. But only one can explain to me how a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation unit (or TENS unit, for short) can be used safely on a man — and why. I can dial almost any number in my cell phone to hear someone speak of office politics. But only one number will lead me to the person who can tell me how to get the CEO to crawl on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness for being a Very. Bad. Boy .
Diversity is stimulating, and it promotes tolerance. The weirder a person is, the more likely he or she is willing to accept quirks or differences in others. Dominatrixes and drag queens have guided me to the most important realization of my life — I would rather be weird and control my fate than be normal and have it dictated to me.