There is an old yiddish saying that goes something like “No-one knows whose shoe pinches except the person who is walking in them”. As a child I heard this phrase and conjured up images of my all-white KED sneakers that always gave me blisters, but I heard this phrase again while leaving Brooklyn and the words took on a whole new meaning.
I started my sojourn to Brooklyn like any fiscally conservative but daring 20-something would, by which I mean I took a bus through the night and got dumped off in Chinatown at 6:30am in the pouring rain with 6% cell phone battery and no idea of what train would take me to my final destination in Bushwick.
Eventually I arrived, immediately kicked off the riding boots I had been wearing and slipped on my hi-top sneakers in order to stop by a neighborhood diner that played nothing but early 90s pop tunes and served the most extravagant red-velvet chocolate chip pancakes topped with whipped cream.
After a decadent breakfast I was escorted over to the famous Steven Power’s typography piece that covers all four sides of an old Macy’s building. Although the words he paints are as piercing as they are original, the style in which the letters are painted mimics the original signage of the building itself, which ties history to contemporary life in a simple but grand manner.
The next morning came and I eagerly awoke knowing I would soon be assisting in preserving the memory and creating a conversation around Kris Grey and the bearded lady of Coney Island, Jean Carroll.
When Kris Grey picked me up that morning he had on a simple flannel shirt and blue slacks, but when I looked into the backseat I could see the long bustle of a shockingly white wedding dress. He turned to me and grinned as he saw the look of awe on my face and with that we were off to ‘Art in Odd Places’ in Union Square.
After a quick change from flannel wearing friend to serious performance artist Kris Grey and I headed to the end of Union Square to start the procession. He stood still, quiet and dignified as he looked out over the crowd and into the past.
Jean Carroll had been the bearded lady in the circus for most of her life, by the age of 10 she had developed substantial hair on her face and was forced into a lifelong role as an ‘outsider’. Along the way she met a sideshow caller who stole her heart and for 15 years they courted one another.
When it came time to make a more serious commitment Jean was forced by societal norms to shave her beard in order to look more feminine. But Jean couldn’t stop there, she wanted to remain in her outsider lifestyle and chose to tattoo the majority of her body. It was only after this final transformation that her lover became her husband.
In the ‘Procession’ performance piece, Kris Grey holds the ‘beard’ of Jean Carroll as a symbol of loss, identity, and progress. The loss of Jean’s beard was a choice on her part to change her physical identity and in a way carved a progressive path for those who want to change their physical appearance to match their internal truths.
The Procession lasted over 2 hours and with each delicate step I could see the fierce concentration on Kris Grey’s face. The crowd reaction varied from intellectual “I see a deconstruction of feminine symbols and believe he is commenting on shifting gender identity” to ignorant “Did he lose a bet? Our mom said he lost a bet because no man would ever dress like that on purpose” and even to narrative “He is walking towards his wedding, but he lost his lover, so in a way this is both a wedding march and a funeral procession”.
With minimal words between the two of us we had agreed on a stopping point and with seconds to spare with the changing light we scurried across the street and out of character.
The first thing Kris Grey said after taking off his veil was “This shoes are killing me!”
I knew what he meant; although he was wearing kitten heels and I was wearing wedge-heeled sneakers, the intensity of constantly balancing yourself is exhausting, and in a way Kris Grey is always performing a balancing act. This is no circus act though; it’s a true-life balance between her born identity, chosen physical alternations, and an insatiable urge to create a productive community conversation around gender and sexual identity.
When we got back to the car the mood was jovial but quickly turned to frazzled when we realized the battery had died. Luckily with a little help from the Spanish Consult, which was hosting their annual Columbus day celebration, and the kindness of a stranger in a 1980’s teal van we got back over to Brooklyn.
The next few days passed with copious amounts of donuts, lox, coffee, and two separate trips to a local hipster bar called “Night of Joy” which everyone thought looked like an old woman’s house that had been left over from the Victorian era and what I silently thought looked like my apartment back home.
The final day in town I geared up to ride a Citi-bike from the Williamsburg Bridge over to the Chelsea gallery district. The sheer terror and euphoric freedom I felt weaving through taxis and turning in the bike line were a completely new sensation to me and by the time we made it to Leila Heller Gallery I was ready to hop off my metal pony and onto the stable blacktop beneath my brand new black Vans skate shoes.
We walked around for a few hours before meeting another artist to discuss a graphic design project over gourmet ginger beer and chicken n’ biscuits. Then, in what felt like two blinks of the eye, I was standing on the platform at Penn Station headed to the Newark Airport with nothing but my memories and new shoes.
While waiting for my flight to CVG I overheard a couple talking about their friends in Boca Raton and as the man went to complain about the luxury in which their friends were living his wife turned to him and said “You never know whose shoes pinch except the person walking in them”. I stifled a laugh as I realized we all have shoes that pinch, the only difference is which nerves they pinch.