Crispiness

by jkatejohnston

3 June 2016

Dear Max,

I’m continuing my literary series on immigration. It’s fun and way easier than writing anything myself. This is from Resident Alien, Quentin Crisp’s journal about emigrating from London to New York with no money.

Quentin Crisp happens to be legal immigrant. The title Resident Alien refers to his green card. But I make no distinction morally or economically between legal and illegal immigration. I’m in favor of both. In fact, if immigration is good because it brings grit and gumption into our national life, then maybe illegal immigration is better because it’s so much harder. You have to really want it, like Ana in the previous post.

I don’t know how famous Quentin Crisp is or how much explanation is needed here. Surely all my readers have Crispiness well in mind. But you need to know what he looked like for parts of the passage I’m about to quote to make sense: old, obviously gay, wearing a men’s suit, high heals, lots and lots of makeup, long nails and big rings, hair done up in some mysterious way, often a hat. Think Marlene Dietrich but an old white man. (He was eighty-six the year he wrote Resident Alien, and I think that qualifies.)

He writes that he has always been American in his heart. But what I love about him has a lot to do with what I think of as English virtues: the restraint, the wit, the good manners. My idea of Englishness comes from English law and literature. Quentin Crisp’s idea of Americanness comes from the movies. We’re probably both off the mark, but we’re wrong in the right direction.

I have always been American in my heart, ever since my mother took me to the pictures (silent). She did this in a spirit of ostentatious condescension. Films, she said, were for servant girls. Anyone with any taste went to the theatre. When I began to gibber with excitement, she warned me that movies were greatly exaggerated—that America was nothing like it was portrayed on the screen. I suspected that she was wrong and that everyone over here was beautiful and everyone was rich.

Though not everyone is rich, everyone is beautiful. This is due to the addition of a Mediterranean ingredient. For instance, in the district where I live, Spanish is spoken. The shopkeepers speak American to you but they gibber away in their native tongue to one another. Those who are not Spanish are Greek or Italian. That means that their lips are curly, their nostrils are flared, their eyelids are as thick as pastry. When I was only English, I asked an American soldier if he thought there was an English face. Immediately he said Yes. Then I asked if it looked as though there was not enough material to go round. To this he also agreed. The English have flap lips, papery eyelids, prominent jawbones and Adam’s apples. We are an ill-favoured race. I recognize that now that I live here.

A huge man sitting next to me on a bus going up Third Avenue asked me if I lived here permanently. When I said that I did, he remarked, ‘It is the place to be if you are of “a different stripe”.’ There are so many different nationalities, so many different income groups, so many different sexes, that the freaks pass unnoticed. People have always imagined, or pretended to imagine, that I seek to provoke hostile attention. This is rubbish. What I want is to be accepted by other people without beveling down my individuality to please them—because if I do that, all the attention, all the friendship, all the hospitality that I receive is really for somebody else of the same name. I want love on my own terms.

Here I, have it. I was standing on Third Avenue waiting for a bus when a black gentleman walked by. When he noticed me, he said, ‘Well, my! You’ve got it all on today.’ And he was laughing. In London, people stood with their faces six inches from mine and hissed, ‘Who do you think you are?’ What a stupid question. It must have been obvious that I didn’t think I was anybody else. (8-9)

The American people have done so much for me, have restored so fully my self-confidence, that I am constantly twisting and turning in an effort to live up to their expectations of me. Ingrid Bergman said, ‘You must go on the stage knowing they want you to succeed.’ She meant American audiences. In England the people in the stalls sit back in their chairs with folded arms, saying in their stony hearts, ‘We’ve paid a hell of a lot for these seats. We hope you’re going to DO something.’ In Manhattan, the audience is leaning forward eagerly, crying, ‘Tell us!’ You can tell them anything—how to be beautiful, how to be successful, how to be thin, how to be saved. They will listen intently.

As a friend remarked, I decided to come to America at an age when most people decide to go into a nursing home. I wish I could have come here sooner when I had the energy and the optimism to fling myself with more abandonment, more total commitment, into all opportunities for self-promotion that are offered to me, but I couldn’t pay my fare. When I say this people laugh nervously as though it were a joke, but it is the ugly truth. I never earned more than twelve pounds a week in my life in England. There it was enough. My old age was taken care of by Mrs. Snatcher. When the day came when I could no longer see or hear or walk, she would spread her iron wings over me. But I would have been saving up for three years to spend three hours in Manhattan so I waited until I was invited by Mr. Bennett, the darling of the Shubert Theaters, to visit Manhattan.

That is the story of my life: I go where my fare is paid. (15)

I guess I should have mentioned that he was also a performer: small roles in movies, and he did a one man-show where he just talked. Here’s what he looked and sounded like.

Quentin Crisp on David Letterman 1985

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