I had the great pleasure of attending Steamposium 2016 here in Seattle this last weekend. It is truly a feast for the eyes – the creativity of the costumes and characterizations, and the amount of skill and talent displayed by the attendees were all a marvel to behold. And, for me, the sight of so many people going to such length and to such expense to express a part of themselves not necessarily visible in their everyday lives was inspiring. There were aristocrats and mechanics, airship crew and mercenaries, commanding sea Captains and pirates, stealthy characters in black and ladies in hoop skirts; top hats, corsets, millinery and goggles abounded.
I attended on Friday in my generic Steampunk outfit of plaid trousers, stripped blouse, “period” shoes from Nordstrom’s, brown vest, cap, and, of course, goggles. I didn’t have a character or a history, and I just wandered around, taking in panels on making covered buttons and the use of programmable computer chips to control lights and sensors in one’s props. I spoke to very few people, as I did not have a base from which to begin. As much as I loved all that I saw, I felt – as many of us so often do – a bit of an outsider, imagining that everyone else was much more connected to the “Steampunk Community” than I could ever hope to be. I left before the evening festivities began. And I skipped attending on Saturday entirely. But I had an idea.
Gathering some previous finds from Goodwill, some dye, and a bit of imagination, I stitched together an outfit for Sunday. The upper class had been well-represented on Friday, so I decided I would be a beggar. My petticoats were frayed, ragged, and stained. My striped stockings were likewise in a poor state. My holey shawl covered my ill-fitting vest and grimy cardigan, and my hands in their smudged fingerless gloves clutched a filthy blood-soaked rag into which I frequently coughed. I did not wear my glasses, but carried a reading lens on leather lanyard. My face, chest, and hands were thinly smeared with grey makeup, adding to my unkempt air. I was not a pretty sight, but I was someone. I held out a yellow-enameled tin cup, and offered to tell fortunes with my Steampunk-themed tarot cards for a penny. I approached people easily – boldly even – and gave them my blessings even though most folks turned away uncomfortably with the same dissonant smile one sees on the faces of folks encountering authentic beggars on the streets. “I’m sorry,” said the lords and ladies in their finery, “I don’t have a penny.” A few, though, stopped and dropped a coin, or even a dollar, in my cup and chose three cards for me to read. It was a challenge without my glasses, leaning closely over the cards to read them, but I was able to please my benefactors with the short stories we wove from those ancient archetypes and symbols.
It was a very different day from my Friday experience. I had created for myself a character, a role, and a reason to interact with people. Of course, I wondered to myself why I had really chosen to be dirty, ugly, and poor; what self-image was I projecting? At the same time I knew that my beggar-self needed to solicit attention from those who passed by me, or she would go home hungry (figuratively).
In my “real” life as a Sexual Immigrant, I have, of late, tended to keep to myself, infrequently leaving my art-filled room, feeling weary of having to navigate the world that so often misreads my usual presentation. Residual paranoia and unwanted pronouns pierce like darts, adding to decades of small scars, a pox upon my soul. I do not like the character I play in the real world, and so I have preferred to avoid that particular theater as much as I can. Interestingly, when I became my beggar woman character, I had defined myself (albeit fictionally) and accordingly felt more confident engaging others.
I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Who am I this time?” Why is it easier to be a fiction? Does make-believe give us the illusion of control in a world in which we truly have only a weak grip on the reins? Why could I speak to strangers easily as a character I’d created when it is so difficult for me to play myself? There is a lesson for me in there somewhere….