I love the QUEEN – the real one – Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, aka My Majesty. That’s how I refer to her, because Her Majesty just sounds too detached, while My Majesty shows a much greater affinity I feel. I did not always revere her as I do now, though to say I have always been an anglophile is truly understatement. It all began as a young reader in the sixth grade, stumbling upon a richly illustrated copy of A Christmas Carol in our school library. I saw the original black and white film for the first time that same Christmas on TV. I was haunted by the story and it was sealed. Forevermore I was totally enthralled by anything remotely British. Of course I assumed that London and its environs were unchanged from my original Dickensian picture: dark alleys filled with filthy, streetwise urchins living life in the sewage-filled gutters versus the posh, hoity-toity upper crust who ate with sterling silver on the finest of china and spoke eloquently clipped English. I was clever enough to realize they had progressed well beyond the England of Shakespeare but not too far from that of Victoria.
Imagine my chagrin not two years later upon first seeing The Beatles and film footage of their Liverpugnian roots. It was a shock to the naively conceived image of my Britain. At that same point I figured out exactly who this Elizabeth II was. I could not believe their QUEEN, with the glorious history of ancestors whose royal bums had warmed the very same throne, could end up looking like this dowdy, over-accessorized plain jane. And what the hell was with that pocket-book, I wondered. If she felt she needed to schlep it with her all over the bloody world, couldn’t she find some lady in waiting to inconspicuously carry it for her, rather than hanging the goddamn thing over her arm like a huge wet sock?
Despite the QUEEN, as an English major my first two years at University, my taste for British literature added even more fire to the flame of love. I often lost myself in a faux existence that allowed me to live a fantasy life on the other side of the pond, taking on the persona of a Brit who was a pastiche of all the Alan Bates characters I enjoyed in films. I did everything but sport a fake BBC accent because I was so smitten. Oh how I wished I’d been born there instead of here! It must have been due to some errant stork who’d somehow got his signals crossed or a bit of topsy-turvy from a long-lost Gilbert and Sullivan plot.
So, it’s the summer of 1976 and I am living not in London, but rather in Manhattan in my first solo apartment and working in a small custom furniture business, while New York City is celebrating the bicentennial. Most other American cities might have made the celebration into a big church bazaar or carnival, but NYC was planning an “event”. The Tall Ships is still etched in my memory as one of the many incredible episodes that made up the ‘salute to American show’ we witnessed that very Red-White-and-Blue July.
My job at the furniture company was one of the coolest on my very varied resume. In a manner of speaking, I ran the entire circus. I wrote the sales, managed both the small showroom and office, paid the bills, did customer service, payroll and liaised with the owner/boss in his factory across the river in Long Island City. Because I was this one man band, along with a ton of responsibility I enjoyed an equal amount of freedom. I had to open the showroom every morning on time and rarely took an hour for lunch, closing for fifteen minutes to run to the bank or post office and grab something quickly to eat at my desk in between duties. But I could make and take personal phone calls galore, my friends freely visited to hang out, I had access to petty cash for perks (as long as they were modest) and I could and would be as nasty or nastier than some of the acutely obnoxious clients I was often forced to deal with.
Plus there was NO dress code. Our clients were interior designers – drek-o-rators – as those of us on my side of the business affectionately called them. They were an artsy sort, so that nearly anything and everything could be deemed suitable attire. I would safely estimate the design business in the city at that time was 60% female/40% male. Of those men, easily 75% were gay. I was a part of an industry that allowed me total freedom to be my own unedited self and I took full liberty. I dressed as I would to go to any respectable gay bar in town – casual queer. Since it was summer and the city can be brutally hot, it meant jeans (denim or white), penny loafers with no socks and a cute summer shirt. I hated short-sleeved shirts because my upper arms were willowy skinny. I took to wearing these gauzy Indian cotton shirts that were semi-sheer, very tight-fitting with three quarter length sleeves. They were embroidered in the same color thread as the shirt and came in pastel colors. I even had a bright red one which was one of my favorites that I was wearing to death with the white jeans these bicentennial days.
Everywhere you turned it seemed, the city was awash in patriotica and before it was all over many of us feared we would drown from overkill. The buildup was so grand how could they ever finish without blowing up the entire island of Manhattan as a grande finale? I remember taking a beginning jazz dance class at that same time in a studio in the west village after work. It met twice a week for an hour, taught by this wonderfully silly and very campy little gay boy, mid-twenties like myself. We were working on this routine to BABY YOU CAN DRIVE MY CAR. I will never forget him or the song; the choreography I never remembered even then. At the end of each hour, when we would run the whole number adding that evening’s new segment, after positioning the needle onto the 45, he would leap back to join us shouting “Everybody – Moms and Dads and kiddies too, let’s put on over very best Betty Ford bicentennial feet and five-six-seven-eight!
It is lunchtime on Friday July 9th and I am walking up Third Avenue on my way to a favorite deli for a sandwich. As I pass Bloomingdale’s, there are two cops setting up those grey wooden police barricades along the sidewalk at the back door on 59th Street. I am wondering if there is some robbery in progress with hostages taken inside or something similarly horrible. One of the cops tells me “da Queen a’ England is comin’ ta Bloomies in a coupla’ hours”. I chuckle thinking he is jesting. A lone lady in her forties is standing near with a small Union Jack flag on a stick and in the loveliest of perfectly formed English, assures me the police are correct. She is wearing a summer frock in an insipid pastel shade. The dress seems terribly out-of-place and what makes it so conspicuous is that it’s not only ugly but also something that she would have worn to a fancy day time party perhaps ten years earlier. I approach her and thank her for her news update in my best American-speak and once she sees she has ahold of my ear, she senses I am hers for the afternoon.
We introduce ourselves. All these years later I cannot be expected to remember her name, but just as it should have been, it was suitably perfect for her and that tired party dress so I shall call her Lydia. She is one of those persons who has the uncanny ability to maintain a nearly frozen demeanour to her entire body, while her eyes and facial movements seem overly animated and dance about as she gushes with excitement and joie de vivre. Lydia patiently explains to me, as though I were from another galaxy, that The QUEEN will be coming in a few hours to shop in Bloomingdale’s, walking through the store with her husband, Prince Philip, then exiting through the doors we are standing in front of to get into her waiting car to go to another engagement. Lydia is chatting me up as though The QUEEN is either her sister or a childhood friend and I, her only crony in town. She tells me that they will be closing off Lexington Avenue for twenty blocks in order to reverse its normal downtown direction to uptown, “since Her Majesty can only get out of her car from the right side”. She assumes this is something I understand the reason for and I am not admitting my ignorance of this elusive fact.
When she finally gives me a chance to contribute to the conversation, I say some terribly ignorant Yankee-ism like “I adore anything British”. She asks how many times have I visited the UK on holiday and I am loath to admit I have never left the US, yet I know I daren’t lie because she will surely quiz me. She begins to tell me about when she left her home in England to come here, and it is clear I need to be getting back to the office long before she will possibly be able to finish her story. Oh, but it’s Friday, I rationalize to myself and in The City most people are already on their way to their weekend plans. I continue listening intently to my charming gal pal Lydia, telling me her saga.
She begins to explain the odd-looking jewelry she has fastened to the top of her bodice. She is a nurse and proudly displays the pin which The QUEEN herself had given her upon graduation from nursing school. I am totally taken aback to think that Elizabeth II, Monarch of the Empire, has time to pin nurses on their uniform lapels. But then Lydia certainly wouldn’t make something like this up, I know. “That was the first time I saw Her Majesty”, she proudly reminisces as she reverently caresses her medal. I learn that the same QUEEN came to visit a new hospital in Lydia’s hometown and did a walkabout where she got to see her again. That is why she is so excited about this afternoon, because she is hoping Her Majesty will do a walkabout outside Bloomies. “Do you really think she might?” I question. Suddenly, at the thought of seeing a celeb in the streets of New York, I instantly become interested in the Pocketbook Toter myself.
I quickly run across Third Avenue to a phone booth in the middle of the block and call my boss at the factory. I tell him that the QUEEN is coming to Bloomies. After several minutes’ explanation of which queen I’m referring to, he asks me “So what?”. In a mixture of frustration and elation I answer “So I am NOT reopening the showroom this afternoon”. I hang up and return to our prime location directly behind the police rail which is slowly beginning to fill with curious assorted bystanders. It is a mixture of crusty, seasoned New Yorkers and polyester-clad bicentennial tourists still celebrating. We learn from the growing crowd that we have at least an hour’s wait before The QUEEN’s car even arrives at the main entrance on Lexington Avenue. No one seems to know just how long she will be shopping inside the store either. Common sense tells me she will not be shopping at all; The QUEEN does not go to stores, stores come to The QUEEN.
I begin to worry that the two of us may get squeezed out of our places. She assures me we hold the best possible location to see Her, because as they come out the door, the entourage will have to move onto the sidewalk directly in front of us in order to board her car for the trip uptown. The police barricades will hold us if pushing and shoving should ensue. Lydia is growing more excited in anticipation of a possible third meeting with HRH and her fervor becomes infectious, even though my opinion of the monarch Herself is still rather questionable. I have not once let on to my new dear friend that I have always felt Her Majesty was a bit of a frump.
Loads of people stop to ask what’s going on and now Lydia and I take turns, acting almost like tour guides fielding questions. I try discouraging folks, fearing how a crowd may impact my view and Lydia’s heart is unselfishly thinking about her QUEEN and having the best welcoming turnout possible. I gingerly advise her that here in the U.S. we are not very devoted to any monarchy, especially the one which we have been celebrating our long fought independence from. The good-natured Brit just smiles a bad toothy smile and looks happily forward to the royal visit. Soon someone spots the arrival of her car on the next block and we know in only minutes Elizabeth II will be entering the building.
Less than half an hour later her car has rounded the corner and is parked behind us. Police are coming from every direction and positioning themselves at the door, on the corners and a few are neatening up the crowd behind us, getting them out of the middle of the street, even though it too is now closed to traffic. I survey those behind me, guessing several hundred have gathered in approximately four rows behind us. Still Lydia and I hold firmly to our prime spot. There is visible stirring behind the glass doors and in seconds they are pushed open and held by what I guess to be store security. The first few out the doors are unrecognizable faces to me as they step out of the way and onto the pavement. From behind the door now emerges a turbaned woman and a tall blond man. “There she IS!”, squeals a jubilant Lydia. “Ohhhh, doesn’t she luke lovely!”, she coos. At this moment the bright afternoon sun catches the royal couples’ faces like a spot light as they move away from the building’s shadows. I audibly gasp at the sight. These two people are breathtakingly stunning.
Their Royal Highnesses are no more than twelve feet away from us. They are shaking hands with the store big wigs and smiling at the crowd. The QUEEN is wearing a beautiful silk dress of light lime green with small cream polka dots and matching turban hat of the same fabric. Pearls are her jewelry. Her shoes and handbag are a matching lime green. Her skin is nearly the same creamy white as her polka dots. Philip is blond and lightly tanned, walking behind her, straight and tall. They are the handsomest couple I have ever seen. Lydia begins to frantically wave her small Union Jack flag about her head calling, (not shouting) “Yawh Majesty, Yawh Majesty!”. The QUEEN begins to walk towards the car and the crowd. She has these blue eyes. People are reaching out to her over the wooden rail, extending their hands. She moves forward beaming a wonderfully bright smile, acknowledging the crowd but avoiding any contact. Now the distance between Her and us is cut in half. The QUEEN spies the flag and Lydia waves all the more feverishly.
SHE gently moves towards Lydia and once before her, Lydia falls into a deep curtsey. Elizabeth II reaches her gloved hand to shake Lydia’s and my friend beams, touching her nurses’ pin, telling Her Majesty politely when and where she had given this to her and I begin to swoon. The QUEEN is speaking with my friend, Lydia about the hospital in her town now. She is so close I can smell her perfume. Her eyes are this incredible blue color, like lapis with tiny lights behind them to make them almost glow. I’ve never seen eyes like this before. I become excited, so in awe of this woman who stands only inches from me, as close as Lydia is to me. Overcome by her presence, by this incredible moment in time and the magic which seems to be taking place, I begin to clap. Not clap as in applause, but clap like a baby does with great pauses in between each singular slap of my hands coming together. I fill the spaces in between the claps with a shout “the queen”. If this silly behaviour of mine isn’t enough, I add to the mix a jump. And with each succeeding CLAP – “the queen” – JUMP I kangaroo bounce higher and higher on my best Betty Ford bicentennial feet. In short, I am making a total ass of myself before the Queen of the Commonwealth, having totally lost all control. With one short, quick look SHE walks past me, her husband following behind on their way to the waiting car, swiftly putting an end to my silly dance.
I cannot say that Her Majesty leered at me, or glared at me or gave me a dirty look. But I do know she looked directly at me, this silly, skinny poof and her bright smile changed into a somewhat disapproving frown for an instant, which caused me to cease my foolishness mid-clap. But I had caused those majestic, incredible, intensely blue eyes to make contact with mine. For a second in her lifetime she recognized my existence in her world and that was all I needed. I was besotted with her. At that very moment she had become My Majesty.