She sits in a wingback chair in the front room, stocking feet thoughtfully digging into the shag carpet, and over her shoulder, out the picture window, I can see the wood and wire cages, rows and rows of them, clustered on the lawn. The smell of mink?gamy, deeply organic, vaguely unpleasant?permeates the house.
We go outside to the stalls, where there are about 1800 mink, divided into long rows in their wood and wire cages by their color and gender. Currently, she breeds three different kinds of mink: ranch (black), sapphire (smoky blue) and violet (light lilac purple). Each cage is roughly the size and depth of a dresser drawer, and has frozen water in a dish on a sill outside a hole, which is ostensibly big enough for the mink's head. There is a constant stream of dark feces falling out of the bottom of all of the cages' wire floors, landing in identical dark, reeking pyramids below.
I peer inside the grilled peephole at the top of one of the cages and make eye contact with a sapphire male. Beady red eyes and needle teeth return my glare.
"Don't put your finger near the cage," she warns. "You won't get it back."
Naturally, when faced with this unpleasant, bloodthirsty mammal cooped up in a cage, I react with hostility and a bitter joy?the former because I know the mink would, if given the chance, hurl himself through the air and fasten his incisors to my jugular; the latter because I am human and relatively unfettered, and I have money for his hide while he does not, at this time, have money for mine.
His coat gleams. I mean, the way only living fur can shine?it flashes amethyst, peach and platinum, like the freshly shaved and oiled calves of a Brazilian virgin. Exactly. The male bares its teeth, wider now, tiny pink tongue panting, eyes little raging candy buttons. It only takes about 30 of him and his closest friends to make a full-length coat.
"When the animal rights people snuck in, they just let the minks out of their cages?" I ask.
"Isn't that enough? We had a thousand minks running around here," she says. "We lost about 200 of them. They got squashed by cars. We had no insurance, and we took a heck of a hit. It was a tragedy."
This year, she estimates, a single sapphire male pelt could sell for $40 to $50 on the open market, where she sells her skins once or twice a year to the fur wholesalers of the world, which is a marked improvement from past years ($28-$35 per skin in 1998). In a market that fluctuates wildly?not only with the strength of the economies of the foreign nations like Russia, China, Korea and Greece, which make up the majority of the American fur industry's business, but also with the whims of the tiny population of Americans who can and do buy fur?life as a mink rancher is anything but rock steady. "Every year is different," she says. "One year is better, then the next year we don't even make our livelihood. It doesn't even pay. We just went through one of those years, but this year should be better. Have you ever lived off one or two paychecks a year? I swear, mink farmers are the best money managers in the world."
The sapphire male squirms in its small cage and shits some more. Fuck you, you little creep, I think happily. You're a little devil animal, useful to no one, save for your skin. Unfortunately, you've been born wearing the pubic thatch of the gods. He gets my drift and hurls himself against the wire peephole.
"Am I right or am I wrong?" she says.
Give it up, I say, because I can say so. Die for us.
Hitler, and the whole lot of luckless assholes like him, was reincarnated as a mink, left to crap and breed and whelp in a stall-crammed slaver-ship tight next to his equally karmically ruined brethren. And then, after taking in their last coat-glossing meal of fish and chicken entrails, "harvest" time comes, an event that she explains tenderly and defensively: The minks are gassed with carbon monoxide on the premises, and their deaths come upon them "humanely and quickly."
She thinks about this for a moment.
"As a matter of fact, we probably take better care of our animals than a lot of people take care of their children. They're worth nothing to us if they don't flourish."
Rewind now to a prepubescent girl splayed down on her Sears canopy bed. Easy to picture her, isn't it, a fresh Vogue pinned down under her chin, pages rolled open to a spread of some dead doll clad in fox and not much else, or maybe it's pictures of Bert Stern's disintegrated Monroe she's marveling at: How the star is flawed naked and scarred, and how achingly right she is in a perfect fur, laughing hard-faced like Sacher-Masoch's auntie.
And the girl has her palms way down her pants now. Obviously I am not making this up. She wants fur. The golden fleece is growing an ace black pubis like MM's and, more importantly, obtaining a wardrobe to match?a closet of furs that would make a Jewess newlywed smudge her eyeliner.
There's a jaundiced rabbit fur coat in her mother's room. She pauses there, chin on Vogue, not really humping her hand anymore, wondering if she can sneak the coat out of the walk-in closet. Her mother (in the den now, watching Days) wore it constantly, over halter tops and turtlenecks when she was young, big-legged and beehived. She hardly ever wore it now, which, to the soiled mores of the prepubescent girl, was license to steal the fur and put it in her own room. Elsewhere in the young dark mind, the girl knew her time was running out and that she, at 13 years of age, was quickly expending her first, and most arable, sexual peak. She needed that fucking rabbit.
"I wore it the night Georgie Jessel undressed me with his eyes," her mother sighed whenever her daughter mentioned borrowing the coat. Her mother's way of saying no.
She got her chance, though, a few nights later, when her mother went out. She found the Polaroid, snapped on some fresh flashcubes, set up the tripod in the living room and stripped down to nothing but her Candie's wedgies, gold barrette and the fur. Mouth hanging adenoidally open, nose chafed red from a recent cold, the thick collar drifting off her shoulders, she was ready for her maturity. She turned her back to the camera and then suddenly looked over one bare shoulder and the picture was taken.
She wasn't alone. With a babysitter in the den, who was talking on the phone, struggling to correct her orthodontic headgear and watching tv at the same time, the girl's sulky best friend Michelle walked into the living room, pushed the Polaroid's shutter and was out the door before the print spat out of the camera and hit the floor. Michelle lived across the street and could be counted on for some things. She helped in the chrysalis of me.
Before I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life enveloped in someone else's luxurious, preserved skin, I thought nothing. I harmed nothing. And then I harmed something and became a woman. A lucre queen, loinclothed, cock- and gift-hungry, with fuck oder kaput as my mantra.
And then I knew how real women lived: gorgeous, rich, superior, capable and inches from danger and death. As Adam's rib. In fur.
Go on, say it, you Teva-heads: I'm old, weary and louche in my ratty vintage rabbit hoodie, since, as you say (and I'm paraphrasing your anti-fur propaganda lit here), wearing fur makes women look old and dated. Propaganda like this seems to omit the fact that nothing, short of edema and a shopping cart jammed with Fanta cans and broken radios, makes a woman look old and dated. Fur makes a woman look fierce, like she's been around, and I don't care if that thing cost $50 or $15,000, she had to get way the hell around in order to end up with that on her back. As many times as it takes. And every woman in fur knows this. And every woman in fur wishes you knew that she knew.
A few weeks ago, on one of the first cold nights of the season, I was making haste down Ave. A, which is right in the clammy little heart of the p.c. nest. For if the pro-choice, anti-death penalty, anti-fur guerrillas target midtown for their soapboxing, they all friggin' live and lurk on A. It's late, or early, I'm just back from London, 4 a.m., and I've got the rabbit jacket on and I'm walking with my friend. We're eager to get home because although we've seen each other, we haven't touched each other in a long time.
And a busted woodie station wagon chortles up to a red light. Wan-faced guy in a snug knit cap yells out the open passenger window as I pass: How many dead animals did it take to make that coat?
Reflexively I yell fuck you, and I give the car's windshield the finger. Nothing happens after that. We keep walking, they drive on, and we're mutually satisfied.
Or not. I could have yelled something better. I have to stand up for the old lunching ladies and stout Jersey wives who get harangued and defaced every cold afternoon in midtown. I am not old, and I yell back.
I could have squashed my nose against the glass and yelled, "Don't you think I know the covenant of wearing fur?" or, "I've made gentle love in this coat. Doesn't that soften the hate that went into making it?" or "Anti-fur? What kind of fur are you anti?"
Maybe fuck you is better. Because, really?fuck you. The ashen PETA wannabe sitting on her milk crate, buffeting the freezing wind with her gore placards on Astor Pl. who whines stock footage every time I walk by: same thing. Dusky-looking broke kid standing in my way on St. Marks, who got p.c. brainwashed lord knows where (in line at Miami customs? At the bodega?) tells me I'm "disgusting" because I'm wearing "real fur": I'd use more syllables but I don't want to overtax you, so fuck you too, fatty. I am wearing a rabbit jacket with a skull and crossbones shaved into the back, simmering happily in 15-degree weather with little or nothing on underneath, and you're wearing blubber.
Wearing fur makes me angry, obviously. It makes you angry, too. But I've got it better. I'm angry and unstoppably warm. Everyone wants to feel me, but somehow can't. Talk about luxury. I am also wearing the oldest, most traditional, most lush and intimate thing in the world, and it's the only fashion statement that gets a rise out of people, and this is a big deal if you have intentionally been dressing like an asshole for many years, as I have. Forget leather and vinyl and nipples as jewelry.
I try to look into the eyes of all my naysayers. Wouldn't it be funny if they looked like the animals they're trying to save? But they don't. Nobody can look as alert and pissed as a mink in a peephole. No, the animal saviors are tired, faded like an old tape.
"We know who they are," the mink rancher says. Her husband is sitting on the couch across the room in a colorless tracksuit, barefoot, attentive.
"Oh yeah," she continues. "Because we caught a few of them in that break-in. We have sat back and not said anything. A lot of [the activists] are young, well-educated people from wealthy families."
Young, well-educated and wealthy?taken separately, these attributes don't amount to much, but when put together, you have a seething mass of good lawyers, pimples and ethics twisted by liberal arts and the sonorous, keening cry of campus collective: Take back the night, and all the good shit that goes with it. The cheap luxe vices like butts and booze can pass under the p.c. radar with only a minimum of squawk, but what about the less dangerous but far more expensive and showy luxury vices like furs and firearms?
Fossilized in the coming age? That remains to be seen. But for me, the answer lies in this sheared beaver coat I'm wearing. It's one of the show pieces in the deeply carpeted and mirrored front room, which the rancher has nicknamed the Funhouse. The rancher retails a few pieces here, in varying species, and all of them are exemplary.
Now, if mink is bad, ooh, beaver is a sin. I mean, imagine clubbing Bucky's head to a pulp, for chrissakes. But would I club Bucky for a bit of heaven, like what I've got right here? Hell yeah. Nothing feels like beaver. Dense, graphite blacky brown, soft like a horse's nose.
"I tried on a beaver many years ago," I say, swiveling around to see all of it.
The rancher is watching me, leaning against the doorjamb. "You can still remember it. You can still dream about it," she says gently.
Then she says something about how the beavers shit in the water supply and cause diseases. Then she pads into the other room without another word. It is understood between us that diseased beaver shit in our drinking water is reason enough to kill many beavers and claim their fur.
"Yo, that jacket is buttah!" Now, the black ladies, they seem to still get it. They yell this at me sometimes, when I'm wearing the rabbit. To them, and maybe to me, wearing fur means arrival. Fur means Lil' Kim and Aretha?snarling divas who know that nary an ounce of blood, acid or insult is going to get hurled anywhere near their profuse sprays of chinchilla and dyed sable.
Fur also means that I have a lineage, draped down from my great-great-grandparents who came here from Lithuania with furs, pajamas and a few pots and pans, and it means my beautiful dark-skinned grandmother with mischievous blue eyes can decide it is now, this winter, this afternoon, that she will bestow upon me her never-worn three-quarter-length ranch mink.
It was mine all along, she said. Talk about arrival. I put it on, and it was me.