The fifth morning I put on the black turtleneck, Tricia asked if I wanted to borrow any clothes. She has a wardrobe full of groovy Rock Star’s Girlfriend outfits, plus a whole range of cosy stuff for February in New York. But I’ve grown so used to wearing the same thing every day that I’ve forgotten how to make those crucial decisions, and so I politely refused. Though you mightn’t know it, I have a good supply of clean undershirts and a choice of two, count ’em, pairs of New York pants—one being jeans, yet. Still, it was time to do laundry ostentatiously, in case I was kicked out under the Skanky Houseguest provision of her Brooklyn lease.
I put my little collection in a Duane Reade bag and headed out to the laundrette on North 8th and Berry. As I shuffled sockless through the snow, I remembered the women who had washed my clothes in the Mekong over the past seven months. Sometimes the t-shirts came back with a riverine smell and a light brown cast. I never minded; it was worth it for the soft, scrubbed-on-rocks texture that adds two hundred bucks to the tag at Barneys.
Williamsburg laundrettes are generally good for one of my favorite art forms: the New York noticeboard. They pop with energy, these Americans with their tear-off phone numbers. The Dead Sopranos are just one good drummer away from the cover of the NME. You can get your film edited, join a protest, take Chi Gung, really take off with a vocal coach. All breeds of hipsters are looking for roommates to share creative spaces with specified dietary and musical tastes. One set goes so far as to explain that their eyes aren’t really as crazy-looking as those in their cartoon depiction below.
And someone wanted to know if I wanted to earn an easy 25 dollars modeling feet for a prosthetics company.
I haven’t had a positive cashflow day since last June. Figuring six bucks for laundry and four for lunch, this could be it. I called Eric, who sounded very nice. It would only take 45 minutes, and the studio was right opposite the laundrette. I made an appointment for 2.30, when my clothes were due for the drier.
‘ Only thing is, you can’t wear socks for an hour beforehand.’
I looked at my entire collection of three pairs spinning in the washing machine and assured him it wouldn’t be a problem.
Eric’s studio looked like any other Williamsburg art loft. Labeled feet stood on shoe racks and flaccid legs dangled from the ceiling. Some feet, I noticed, had red toenail polish.
‘So, casts of my actual feet go on the artificial limbs?’
‘Not exactly. We try to match them to the other foot. But we use models as a rough starting point, and then our artists shape the toes and whatnot. Feet vary so much. That’s why we need a big inventory of model feet. We ran out of friends and families to use.’
‘Can I touch one of the legs? Are these high-end models?’
‘They’re pretty high-end, yep. We get a lot of athlete clients.’
He arranged my feet on a square of tinfoil. We each tried to pretend there wasn’t something slightly creepy about a man making a cast of a woman’s feet for money. His patter was cheerful and practiced, like a dentist.
‘First I’m going to cover your feet and ankles with vaseline, so the material doesn’t stick. Then we apply silicone, which I’ll mix in the ice-cream tub right here. It’ll be cold right at the beginning, but then it should be fine. I’ll apply a coat, let it dry a little, then place your foot on my knee to do the sole. Then I’ll do another coat. Takes about twenty minutes a foot. I’m sorry I don’t have any magazines or anything for you.’
‘That’s fine,’ I told him, ‘I have a magazine in my bag.’ In fact, I had US Weekly, swiped from Tricia’s coffee table, and, obscurely, I didn’t want Eric to think I was the kind of person who would read that kind of magazine. Besides, the loft was interesting. There was a hank of blonde hair on the table next to me, for one thing, yet another odd prop. He explained that some clients insisted on leg hair.
‘This guy, we told him it’ll rub off in his jeans inside three weeks, just as normal hair does. But he insists. So now I have to spend the next three weeks hand-sewing leg hair onto his prosthesis. Look.’
He showed me a floppy leg-skin, partly sewn with tufts of blond hair. It looked like victim of the nasty kid in Toy Story. I told him about all the amputees I’d seen in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The street beggars wouldn’t have wanted a fancy fake leg’their lack was their livelihood’but the farmers and boatmen might have dreamed of the comfort of a basic American prosthesis, let alone a hand-molded, pedicured, hairy Cadillac-leg like these. It would have cost less than a daily bomb load in the Seventies to outfit them all.
‘Are they comfortable? ‘ I asked.
‘I just asked one of our clients who got a new one. Her physical therapist is making her run every day to break it in. She says it feels like someone is whacking you in the ass with a big stick on every step. But it gets better.’
My foot was now gleaming white, like a fresh marble statue, and I was half admiring it and half worrying about the rumor that toe-waxing was the new New York minimum grooming requirement. I could see two toe hairs clearly through the silicone. Goddammit.
Eric hauled my foot up onto his knee and started painting the sole with latex. His jeans were covered in the gunk. The doorbell rang, and his friend John arrived to fix the computer. He stopped at the sight of Eric painting my foot, slack-jawed, with a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-this-is-your-job? expression. Eric directed him to the computer with guarded professionalism, and told him he could change the blues CD if it was bothering him. I think we were all trying not to laugh. Instead, we bitched politely about how Williamsburg had gone down in the ten years since they’d lived here, how it was full of hipster kids and fancy restaurants now. These days they reverse-card you in Williamsburg bars, the rumor goes, so that over-31s can’t get in without an accompanying minor.
I asked if I should prepare for notoriety when my foot molds got published on the Internet. Eric pointed to a pair of hammer-toed size 10s.
‘Well, as close as we get is that this woman is a stripper. I mean, she told us, voluntarily. I guess I shouldn’t disclose that stuff.’
‘It’s okay. I’m not ashamed of my modeling past. And those look like stripper’s feet’high heels kill you.’
Both feet now gleamed in their silicone icing, painted to the floor like weird wedding cakes. Eric slit each one down the back and had me wiggle my toes until my feet slid out. He held up the vinyl booties, and showed me how he would fill them with wax and and freeze the molds. Then my feet would join others on the shelves, neatly tagged ‘DERVALA’, as if they were attached to my dead body.
I spent some of the twenty-five bucks Eric sheepishly slipped me on two more pairs of socks for my collection, seeing as it’s cold in Bolivia. And when I hike up the mountains there, I’ll wonder who else is wearing my feet that day.
Anyone in the market for a pint of dairy-fed O Negative?