“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
Had I not seen her home, decorated from ceiling to floor with American Flag ornaments, historical quotes of the revolution, and other patriotic regalia, I might have been given to doubt when I learned that Chanel won the 2013 Miss Duke City beauty pageant after reciting the Gettysburg Address before a ballroom full of people. What, after all, could such an ancient piece of script possibly mean to a modern young woman competing with other modern young women for public recognition of subjectively defined notions of feminine beauty?
Pondering it, my head remains cocked like a pup at a curious sound, for in matters of God and Country, I have long ago lost sight of the forest for the trees. Disheartened by the gory details of history, the blood of conquest, and the frequent triumph of raw power and greed today as before, the meaning of “America” to me has become far too nuanced to cuddle up to with token claims to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But Chanel’s sincerity lifts my brow and tickles to life an old feeling in my gut. It is a sense of pride and belonging. Patriotism. A love for one’s country. Chanel has got it, and she firmly believes in the founding principles expressed in its constitutional documents. These principles are not always followed—especially that bit about “all men created equal”—but they serve to orient us in that direction, and there is indeed a great value in that.
But beauty pageants? Six months ago the world of beauty pageants was as foreign to Chanel as it is to me. In January she was searching around for scholarship opportunities to help pay for college, and she stumbled upon an ad about the Miss Duke City contest, the winner of which would be eligible for financial assistance towards higher education. She called to learn more, and without realizing what she had done, the sweet southern lady on the other end of the line had registered her name. She had just two months to prepare, which meant hours on Youtube in order to learn all the right moves, and many more in the gym to sculpt a body to look good doing them. Still she never expected to win. In the beginning it was just a matter of shits n’ giggles, a flip of a coin for the hell of it, or a little YOLO, as the kids are saying these days. But it became something more, both for her personal development and for others. “Stones get polished by tumbling around with other stones,” she says. In other words, competition drives excellence. And for others, the mere appearance of a Miss This or a Miss That during any kind of collective emotional craze, be it a football game or a memorial for disaster victims, can inspire a greater hope of salvation, whatever that entails.
In bringing Chanel with me on the bus, I was hoping to loosely test a hypothesis somewhat related to this last point: The Down and Out love the Beautiful, so long as the latter is not overtly afraid of or disgusted by the former.
Most of the time I am surely incorrect in my suppositions on life and its participants, but this time the experiment lent evidence to my theoretical constructions. Chanel was at first taken aback when “Dan the Man,” drunk and smelling of street, jumped up to give her a hug, but she quickly relaxed and released her inhibitions. Several hugs later, she was as comfortable as a rabbit in a hole, listening to story after story of life on the streets, and sharing her own. In turn, the people of the streets, in all their pain and tragedy, fell in love with her. And with the classic chivalry of paupers, they kissed her hand and swore they would come after me if I did not take good care of her.
Safety, meanwhile, continues to be a luxury excluded to those who for vice, mental illness, or sheer poverty have come to live on the streets. At our first encounter we meet Ruthy, Melvin, Key, Abe and “Dan the Man.” Melvin and Abe both have scars where bullets cut through their flesh: the work of gangs of teenage boys stricken by boredom and drunk on beer and testosterone. Key’s face has been smashed so many times it looks like a waxed potato. Ruthy went to jail two weeks ago for swinging a bag of rocks at a man’s head while hanging out in the cemetery where she sleeps. “That asshole tried to steal me,” she describes the attempted rape, “but I told him, ‘you’re not gettin’ any pussy from me unless I give it to you!’” Her face still bares the sores and scars from the nasty scrap that ensued.
After some playfully posed shots, Chanel and I say our goodbyes and get up to move. Hugs all around the table. Melvin bows in, holds my hand, and whispers desperation into my ear. He is crying, “I just want my life back.” Gone is the hellacious laughter from moments before.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I used to be an officer in the army…I even went to college…”
Suddenly a tall man with a face like a soul broken under the weight of a hundred wars appears from behind me. He is Melvin’s brother. Melvin goes to him, hugs him, grabs his hand, and says a prayer for his redemption.
More prayers are said. The friends, who have been together on these streets for over a decade, have recently lost a “sister.” They tell us that her name is Dora Espinosa, 28 years old, and could we please keep her in our thoughts. Just a week ago she had taken her last swig of cheap vodka before throwing up blood. That was the end. She is in coma now, waiting to be taken off life support.
Shortly afterwards Chanel and I are waiting for a bus at Central and Harvard, and we meet Miss Southwest. Her name is Jewel, and she says that she won the crown more than ten years ago. The competition was subsequently canceled, and so she is still the reigning queen. Meanwhile, her 17-year old daughter came in third place in a similar competition among a thousand participants, but had to drop out of the next round for lack of money.
Having gotten on like two peas in a pod, Chanel and Jewel board the 766 all a smile n’ chatter, and I follow like a third wheel. But on the bus I meet my world again right away. A man is celebrating his release from the Metropolitan Detention Center, and everyone around cheers him on. First things first: he needs to remove his prisoner ID wristband. No problem. Knives start swinging out from pockets and purses, and a Cuban man with a USA t-shirt starts cutting through the thick plastic band.
Now it is picture time. The party is on and everyone is into it (except for one gruff man who storms angrily away). Finally, the free man pulls a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label from his pants, courtesy of his girlfriend who went to meet him at the prison gates. But that’s too much. The bus screeches to a halt, and the driver rushes back in a rage. Too much ruckus for one evening. Fortunately, the knives are again folded and concealed, the bottle is never opened, and nobody goes straight back to jail. Chanel and I jump off into a cool blue dusk and wave goodbye to the gleeful mayhem as its speeds into night.