THE future Miss Rheingold was always white. She wasn’t even “white.” She just was.
She and her six fellow contestants just appeared, every year, on a glossy full-color poster in the window of the butcher shop on the corner of West Fourth and Perry. Although I never saw my mother or father lift a stein of Rheingold—or any other—beer, the Miss Rheingold contest was of burning interest to me and indeed all of the ten year-old-girls on my block of Perry Street. We took sides, argued for our choices, and shamelessly stuffed the ballot box. A faint intimation of Lamarckian genetics theory must have been at work—if our blonde, blue-eyed, pageboy-hairdo’d favorite won, then maybe the magic would stickily transfer itself and somehow we too could someday aspire to such looks, such glory. And, too, it was a contest of The People—we sincerely believed our votes counted. Sincerely enough to cheat like bloody hell.
I sometimes wondered if Miss Subways and Miss Rheingold hung out together. They would probably go to the Automat and order coffee and lemon meringue pie, or maybe rice pudding with raisins and that thin cinnamon crust. They would, of course, be saving their prize money for college, or to help pay for their father’s knee surgery. They’d never sit at the White Horse Tavern knocking back a few frosty ones while flirting with unwashed poets—which was, needless to say, my fervent ambition, if not that of my best friend Bernice. My tongue swore allegiance to the parade of pristine Susans, Ellens and Mary-Lou’s, but I wanted to become one of the long-haired, lipstickless young women who floated mysteriously past us in Washington Square Park, wearing sandals as thin as the olive loaf slices that Mr. Flanagan gave us just to clear out of his butcher shop so the real customers could have some breathing room.
Hilariously waving good-bye to him with our lunchmeat held high and our spirits higher, our summertime gaggle would move on to torment the next merchant. Or perhaps to trail that dark-haired young woman right up to her boyfriend’s front door, which the moment it opened would send us cackling in all directions, a firecracker of girls exploding with mirth from behind a parked car as the startled lovers attempted to exchange a good-night kiss on a muggy August evening.