Right after my husband and I graduated from college, we had the best job. We did living history tours at the Astor’s Beechwood Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. It was amazing! We lived on the top floor of the mansion, worked eight hours a day, five days a week, got to do a murder mystery and a speakeasy with a live jazz band once a week, and the ocean was our back yard. Best gig ever.
When we were doing the tours, we had lots of positions that we rotated through. You could be an aristocrat or a servant. You could be in the kitchen or the ballroom. There was even one job that consisted of driving around town in a model A with the top down all day. The only thing that made car duty hard was the eight hours you had to spend in a corset.
Well, one day I was working the door, which meant that I sat out in the vestibule selling tickets all day. We got all sort of patrons at the mansion. We had school groups and horny Red Hat ladies. And since Newport is the location of the oldest standing synagogue in the country, we also had a lot of Orthodox Jewish visitors. On this particular day, a Hasidic family came in and bought tickets. After I had shown the family in to wait for the tour, the father stayed in the vestibule looking at the poster for our speakeasy show. We sat there in silence for a while, me feeling awkward, him staring at the poster. Finally, he turned to me and asked, “Are these people women?”
I went over to look at the poster, and they were all women. Women in beaded twenties dresses, wigs, and fishnets. “Yes,” I answered. “Those are all women.”
“Oh,” he said nodding. “But they could be men?”
“I mean… I suppose,” I said tentatively. I didn’t know if discussing drag shows with a Hasidic Jew was taboo. “There are shows where men dress as women, but in our shows all the women are real women.”
“Oh,” he said nodding. I don’t know why the man liked to nod so much. “So, if they were men, how do they make the breasts?”
This is the point in the conversation where I started to wonder if I had pissed my boss off and he was setting me up, actually filming this conversation so the whole cast could have a good laugh at me later. But to be careful, I told him that I had never actually made fake breasts myself as I did have a built in pair, but I was pretty sure that they could be silicone, or socks, or water balloons. I don’t really know about the water balloons, but it sounded good at the time.
The man nodded, his Payes (jew curls) bouncing hypnotically off his face. “You see,” he said sadly, “I could never do this. My religion won’t let me shave my beard.”
“That could be a problem,” I started nodding with him, trying to be sympathetic to his lost career as a drag queen.
The clock chimed, and it was time to start the tour. I brought the sad Jewish man in to the rest of his family and had to look at his wife as I explained that “inside the house the year is 1891.” It was the hardest thing for me to not shout to her, “Your husband wants a dress!” I don’t know if I should hope that the man found his fake boobies or not. But wherever he is, I hope he is happy.