For as long as I can remember, I've watched women arrive in public places and make themselves up. No doubt they do this out of necessity -- they're pressed for time -- but it always seems as if they're parading the secrets of their art, like magicians carrying rabbits and top hats around in open view. But magicians don't walk onstage without making sure the rabbit is properly stowed and ready for the performance. Women think nothing of stepping out for the day in mid-rehearsal.
Take a recent morning. I occupied the window seat in a two-seat berth on the Metro North commuter train into New York City. About halfway through the trip, a woman boarded and sat next to me in the aisle seat. She worked on her laptop until we reached Harlem, which is the point in the trip just before the train enters the tunnel leading into Grand Central Station. From there, it takes about 10 minutes to come to a stop on the platform and discharge passengers. Some forward-thinking riders get up and move to the head of their respective cars or to the adjoining section between cars in order to beat the crowd when the doors open. Normally I am among the most devoted practitioners of this tactic.
But on this morning, when the train pulled out of Harlem, the woman closed her laptop and broke out an array of tubes, mirrors, and other transformative agents. As the train labored through the tunnel, she worked furiously with the tools on her lap, wafting her eyelashes with those tiny brushes and sloshing her face with goop and painting her eyelids with eye shadow. Even if manners had not precluded my asking her if I could pass, the sheer magnitude of the operation taking place in her lap would have.
I didn't bother wondering why she would wait until entering the tunnel to do her makeup. Such questions never have satisfactory answers. So I stayed put and jealously watched other passengers fill the aisle. And then, as suddenly as she had brought them out, she packed up her tools into what turned out to be three bags. I'd only seen one when she sat down. All were black with various reddish patterns, which complemented her coat with amazing symphonic precision. (It's all so wonderfully bewildering and always has been.)
Standing in the aisle now, she suddenly turned to me and said, "Sorry." I wasn't sure what she was apologizing for, but I hoped that it might be for my entrapment. Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson said. It makes sense that a woman would point that out. A man would not be-feather hope; he would barely adorn it at all. For a man, hope would be a minimally plumed bird that had already taken to the skyways, on time and unobstructed.
I should say that women doing their makeup in public do not normally inconvenience me. In fact the whole operation is generally rather pleasing to observe. And unlike more recent personal assaults on public space, the makeup routine probably dates back to long before I was born. I'd have thought that in decades past, when propriety and modesty were more valued, such behavior would not have been tolerated in respectable circles. Since we now live in an age that mostly regards the inhibitions of our forebears as silly, harmful, or both, I wonder what might be the next barrier to fall. Already our phone conversations are public; our music, once a private refuge, is shared with unwilling strangers, since many of us lack the manners to control the volume on that most execrable of all modern technologies, the iPod.
Why should women's public grooming stop at their makeup? Could the blouse be next? Say the woman boards the train wearing only a bra, like Seinfeld's Sue Ellen Mischke, blouse slung casually over her arm like a man's sport jacket; or she's half-buttoned -- pressed for time, she had to make the 7:13! -- and proceeds to finish beside an unlucky, or deeply blessed, male passenger. Or perhaps the woman steps aboard with her hair still bundled in a bath towel, in that pyramid-like style of wrap that women seem to be born knowing and men cannot learn even if they had hair worth wrapping. These scenarios may sound unlikely, but so did the sight of teenaged girls wearing jeans slung low enough to audition for dishwasher-repairman school.
There's no point complaining about the double standards involved in all of this. Of course men do not and cannot board trains and begin shaving, or applying their deodorant, or brushing their teeth. They would lose whatever dignity they have managed to preserve into adulthood and post-industrial work. For most men these tasks take fewer than 10 minutes, and leaving the house without doing them probably means that they're not going to work that day.
I haven't asked other men for their views on the public makeup routine. I'd guess most of us file it away in that part of our brains reserved for other social oddities that reward indifference -- in this case, because nothing good has ever come of questioning a woman's cosmetic prerogatives. I'd guess, too, that most of us are more chivalrous than we're given credit for, and we appreciate that some women still see their task as did Maud Gonne's sister, who tells Yeats in one of his poems that women "must labour to be beautiful." We must never tell them that they don't need to labor nearly so hard. As if we're going anywhere.
Besides, there are far more puzzling things than a woman's public grooming exhibition. Try waiting for her to finish the task at home when you're due somewhere and time is short. Even after 10 years, I still cannot gauge where my wifeis in what I call "The Prep." The general rule is that my intuition will prove opposite of the reality. So I might see her, for example, still in robe and with her hair up, moving at a relaxed pace, and when I look at my watch in terror, she'll say, "I'm done, honey. We're on time. You can back the car out." Or I might come upon her dressed and seemingly made up, but hurtling across the bedroom, various items of product trailing in her wake as she tells me, "I'm really sorry, I'm running behind! Do you have the driving directions?" The mystery of what women do before they come and go cannot be understood, only accepted.
"You just have to factor it in," as a family member once said, more to himself than to me -- he was pacing and looking at his watch -- while we waited for our wives to come downstairs, already irretrievably late. He was right. Men learn, and learn again, that women appear when they're good and ready -- though they're still not ready.