Stephanie Hammer





Once upon a time, Mahatma Gandhi decided to buy a mink coat.

He came to this decision very suddenly as the sat at the airport in New Delhi, waiting for the plane to Bombay where he was to give an important speech. A magazine from America blew out of the hands of a visiting Pakistani dignitary and the periodical tumbled on the floor of the waiting area, right below Gandhi’s knees. The magazine fell open to a photograph of Aretha Franklin resplendent in a voluminous black mink.

“What becomes a legend most?” Gandhi read. Why, I’m a legend, he thought.

“Enough of this talk about pacifism,” he told his startled assistant. “I want a mink already.”

The assistant hustled to change the airline tickets, and promptly, Gandhi was sitting — for the first time ever — in first class on PANAM flight 0000 to JFK.

Gandhi arrived in New York right on schedule, whisked through customs (Mahatma Gandhi is here!), booked a very nice suite at the Plaza Hotel and before you could say shanti shanti, he was charging down Fifth Avenue, much to the delight of the passersby. His first stop was Brooks Brothers, so he could change out of the white thing he always wore.
“I have such skinny legs,” he told the pleasant young sales assistant at Brooks, and the legs were immediately placed into a salt and pepper gabardine.

“Very Wall Street, very nice,” said the salesman. But when Gandhi told him “put the suit on my account,” the young man balked. He tiptoed over to the floor manager, and whispered in the older man’s ear:
“See the elderly skinny bald gentleman from India? — He doesn’t HAVE an account with Brooks.”

“For God’s sake,” said the floor manager, who was a man of the world.

“Can’t you see that is GANDHI? And besides, my good fellow, can’t we just for once in our lives support this man, this hero, who is finally at his advanced age, making this decision, this commitment I dare say to be well-dressed, comme il faut?”

“Well,” said the young man. “OK.”

Forty-five minutes later, Gandhi strolled back to the Plaza, all gabardine and sandals, gazed upon himself in the lobby mirrors — verifying that he was truly ready to become a legend in the fullest sense of the word.

It was time for Bloomingdale’s.

Gandhi walked over to the corner of 59th and 5th. His personal assistant, an anxious young lady with a fresh degree from Oxford, who had sat all twisted up on one of those PANAM coach seats, followed him out the hotel’s revolving doors and down the steps; she wanted to go to Bloomie’s too. But Gandhi shook his head, and then peered over his shoulder up 59th Street, where he waited — as many well-dressed Manhattanites do — for the cross-town bus.

The #4 bus was packed. Talented youngsters from Julliard clutched trombone cases, and cymbals, and sheet music for contraltos and tenors while they chattered and sang. Ladies were traveling back east from the concerts and ballets at Lincoln Center or from the dramas and musicals on 42nd Street with an array of well-behaved nieces and nephews, or loquacious grand- and godchildren. These sophisticated persons were all murmuring about motivation, presence, and method versus continental acting behind lace collars and jackets with the crests of Connecticut schools on breast pockets, their necks rising up from strings of fine pearls, club ties, and silk scarves, their heads covered in all manner of stylish hats.

When Gandhi boarded there was an immediate, welled reaction within. Why, isn’t that? No, it couldn’t be. But, yes it is, and who knew he had such a sense of style? Well, I could have told you. Why, how marvelous!

“Please,” said Gandhi to the bus driver — he had given his seat to an elderly lady holding a Playbill — and now stood near the front so he could more easily address the driver. “Please tell me when we get to Bloomingdale’s.”

There was a hush and even more murmuring as everyone nodded approvingly: Such a nice store, and so much variety. Yes, a little lower-scale than Saks but those prices! Best was best ha ha don’t you think, but Bloomingdale’s certainly, Bloomingdale’s, yes.

Bloomie’s rose — black and silver with flags fluttering onto Lexington — a shrine onto itself. Past the perfumes, the chocolates, the entry to the subway, the watches, hosiery, and up pas Juniors, Designers, and even Children and Housewares.

To the Fur Salon. Why, Mr. Gandhi yes, Blackglama, do you really…? Well, of course, Aretha Franklin. Perhaps a size 8?…

And there was Gandhi slipping slim arms into the fur, twirling like a dervish, in the blackglama mink. Smiling a secret smile that no one — not Indira or Tagore or the British or his most secret love — had ever seen . . . Before he took it off (the coat, not the smile), caressed the fur, and slowly spread the mink on the floor of Bloomingdale’s, where he lay down and prepared to make a hunger strike. His greatest. His last. And without a doubt his most shamelessly glamorous.

Gandhi’s hunger strike at Bloomingdale’s became a sensation. Andy Warhol and the Factory entourage arrived to make a movie about Gandhi and the blackglama mink. Lou Reed wrote a song about it. The nice young man came every day from Brooks to dress Gandhi in yet another lovely suit. STARVE IN STYLE, a Brooks promo created specially for this event ran in the Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and Playboy.

Not to be outdone, Bloomie’s developed its exclusive Gandhi line. There was Gandhi perfume and Gandhi luggage, Gandhi gloves, and Gandhi strollers, and even tiny porcelain Gandhi plates for those determined to eat as little as possible.

Day after day, people came to shop for the Gandhi products (sold only at the New York store) and to see the great man himself, now in creaseless linen blue, now in a jaunty plaid. And always so thin, so very very svelte. His skin above the collar and below the cuffs becoming transparent.

In the years that followed Gandhi grew so transparent that he was able to teleport through the city, astral-planing in surprising locales, leaving his body, a wan, witty husk in its suit de jour on the top floor of 59th and Lex. He was spotted at the New School lecturing on economics, at the US open gearing up for his killer serve in classic Lacoste whites, buying toy trolls on Madison in Bermuda shorts, treating everyone on 102nd Street to Bazooka bubble gum which he dispensed while wearing a white and pink seersucker suit. There were swank shots of him in W, The Fashions of the Times, and Vogue. In black tails, a tux, or a morning ensemble of dove gray. In orange Nikes playing a pick-up game of Basketball on Avenue A.

And isn’t that he just now at the corner — by the dumpsters, which line our city’s largest empty space? He walks into the ruined downtown Brooks Brothers, and circulates among the silent people who lie in neat rows along side the stacks of dusty button-down shirts. Stepping delicately over the twisted metal and broken glass, he leads the stockbrokers, elevator operators, police- and fire- persons, cooks, waiters, tourists, and a young prop stylist who came from Hoboken, New Jersey for her first big photo shoot to a long, but polite, queue.

At the very edge of the island, Gandhi waits. As the New Yorkers, New Jerseyites and visitors ascend an escalator to realms which both epitomize and transcend style, he waves a blessing with one hand. Plunges the other — opalescent, vital — into an endlessly deep pocket of warm, lustrous black.


Copyright © 2004 Stephanie Hammer.  All Rights Reserved.


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