Kathleen Alcott's first novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is forthcoming from Other Press in September. Born and raised in Northern California, she presently resides in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction; Slice; Vol. 1 Brooklyn; TheRumpus.Net; Explosion Proof; Rumpus Women Vol. 1, an anthology of personal essays; and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her second novel. You may visit her at KathleenAlcott.com or follow her on twitter @KathleenAlcott.
The tan felt base gives way to multi-dimensional swirls of raised mesh, attached at their origins by black jewels that grow from tight circles to a series of gentle waves over the generous brim. The felt gathers in a fold at the back, where a two-layered bow flutters. It is unclear who made this hat; It’s tag-less, and lacking any characteristics that point definitively to one era or another.
There is a gray-haired woman with bright eyes who sets up shop at the 11th street flea market every weekend, and I took this hat off her head in the first days of spring. She looked at me curiously, and I understood she was evaluating whether I was the sort of person who deserves a hat like this — who could love it? She had not planned to sell; I straightened up to convince her while I reassured myself. Ultimately, she narrowed her eyes and asked me to name a price, and after we haggled, the thing made its transfer from her crown to mine.
The comments began immediately. It was too warm for March, and the jacket I’d left the house with awkwardly hung around the strap of my purse. Just like that, I was exposed in my dress and the most overstated, gaudy accessory I’d ever owned.
“She bought the hat! She famous!” yelled a gregarious homeless guy who walked by the café where I sat outside. I felt like walking that day, feeling grateful to bare my shoulders. Everywhere I went, someone had something to say about the hat. The reactions ranged from generous praise to all-out staring at the monstrosity — it was like an entirely separate person in the conversation.
I wear this hat, and people feel the right to talk to me. They nod when I cross. Once, in the bathroom of a theatre, an old woman gasped at it and confessed to me how she liked to stop by a milliner’s on her way home from work and try on everything there, how she found some sort of power that way.
New York, like fashion, exists as a series of alternatives. In New York, on any given day, you can choose to stay in and work hard to meet your personal version of ambition and achievement, or you can throw yourself into a mass of people and wait. You can exhaust yourself trying to feel like you have carved out a place that feels comfortable or decide this is a city that never gives itself, not completely, to any person. You take the silk that refuses to take shape around your body and belt it. You decide on a well-placed touch of yellow.
I think the day I bought this hat — and possibly because of the hat — was one of the first in which New York City, this place that our culture affords such unyielding idolatry, felt like something I could accept and hold on to. I had a hard time falling in love with this city when I first arrived. To feel at home here — to be truly in love with the empty bleachers outside the bodegas and the fire hydrants that bleed madly in the summer and the sea of black coats on the F train in the winter — is not a gift you receive, but a choice that you make every day and a compensation you earn.
The East Village that day was becoming green and staying warm, and everyone out on the streets walked at a slower place, like they were trying to remember the day in order to keep it.
Photo: Courtesy of Kathleen Alcott