The Red Hat

I was walking behind a couple on Broadway – she, a tall woman with a crimped flaming-red twenties-style Cloche hat; he, nondescript, and best (and charitably so) described as wearing a gray coat. I remember it well: she had made herself taller by putting on high-heeled shoes, with the result of bringing out the play of fine subcutaneous muscles in her shins, never lost on me. But if her intention had been to match his height, the plot had failed since now he was shorter by an inch or two. They were walking fast, and difficult to overtake without an extra effort — not that I had a specific intention to pass them, watching as I did the play of her muscles, which is only afforded from the back perspective, but some business, not relevant to the substance of this conversation, had created extra urgency. As I was getting closer to the couple, I caught little snippets of their conversation now and then, but without being able to connect the pieces in a coherent way. She was — did I mention this? — swinging her hips, which had the effect of altering the vertical alignment of her buttocks. But then, just as I was right next to them, I heard very clearly what the man said to her, in a tone, if I heard it right, of accusation and disdain:

“You never told me you had a hat like that!”

I was – let me use this time-honored expression — thunderstruck. There was no mistake. I was supposed to believe that in all the time it had taken for the couple to meet at one place, let’s call it A, and walk to place B – the place where I encountered them – that in all that time he’d never brought up the subject of the red hat. I was discounting the possibility they were living together, since in that case he would have noticed the hat right off the bat. Alternatively, the hat would have been subject of an unspoken consensus never to bring it up in a public conversation. So, given the clues I had been handed, I stuck with the idea they lived separately and had met for a rendezvous, perhaps on the Verdi Plaza — by the imposing statue of the composer – or perhaps, more down to earth, at Starbucks nearby.

There is a time in a couple’s gestation of love — we are talking weeks or months here, not years! — when every conversation evolves into a disclosure of some sort. Her failure to disclose to him the existence of the hat, and her idea to wear it at this particular outing would have been a serious setback of their relationship, and in that case I would have been an involuntary witness of a scene with enormous emotional ramifications, perhaps resulting in a breakup right there — but I must maintain he would have had the accusatory reaction right when they’d met for the date, not at the time I passed the couple, when they must have already exhausted subject matters such as the weather, memories of their last romantic encounter, and — who knows? – even the current proliferation of bedbugs in town.

There was, I forgot to mention, no response by her; she simply continued walking next to him, continued putting one high-heeled shoe in front of the other with the click-clack I had heard before, with hips still swinging, invisible to me then as I was already ahead of the couple, but still continuing to swing in my imagination, and if she acknowledged his remark at all, it must have been by a move or gesture, a shrug of her shoulder, a throw-away flick of her hand, or a quick backward tilt of her head – like the one employed by the Greek when they say ochi to express total disagreement.

In other words, I didn’t for a second buy the idea that the two protagonists were having a normal conversation, and that the quip about the hat by him directed at her at the precise moment of my passing by was anywhere close to spontaneous. What I suspected right away – and I must now come to the heart of the matter – was that they’d decided to plant the remark right then, at the time and place where I would be able to overhear it. The preparation that I assume would have gone into the precise choreography of the encounter, the planning for it, which might have involved a chalkboard and meetings of a special task force at subterranean hideouts, the selection of spies they’d have to send out to confirm I was definitely on my way, and in fact serious about taking this precise path; the gathering of intelligence from my doorman, my cleaning lady, and my hairdresser; the bribes the facilitators would have had to pay; all that pointed to a very sophisticated operation, with people at the top, middlemen in the middle, and their lowly low-paid assistants at the bottom; lawyers retained as a backup in case the setup might run afoul; the installation of miniature microphones, the cooperation of complicit banks on the Upper West Side, the planning for escape routes, and all the instruments of subterfuges we know so well from the movies shot right here, right where I live.

This all brought to mind the question, which had started to plague me once I had time to reflect on the incidence, what exactly had made me the target of this plot. Why am I being singled out? I had never met her — that much was certain! – but I couldn’t be so sure about him, on the other hand. The blandness of his expression, his distinct lack of features, the way he dressed, it all left open the possibility that I had met him on numerous occasions without ever taking notice of him. In fact if he had intended to avoid leaving an impression, he could have not done better than dress like this.

I was never forewarned about this test of my intelligence, of my patience, and good will. I demand an explanation, but I’m unsure whom I can turn to. Meanwhile, the red hat has surfaced in my dreams: it is the stuff the Brothers Grimm were known to dwell on. If the tall woman is some sort of modern Red Riding Hood, then surely her boyfriend is a lesser wolf. In fact he is one of the lessest wolves I have ever come across on the Upper West Side, or, to tell you the truth, anywhere else I have been in the world.

What I do know is, apart from the physical attributes I have described, the place of the encounter – 68th Street — and the direction they walked in — south on Broadway — but I very much doubt this gives me a handle to find them now, four weeks after the encounter, given the fact that 70% of Manhattanites live south of this particular point.

But lately I have come think of an explanation that has given me more confidence to find her yet, despite the diminishing odds. For I believe I might have made a mistake, all along, assuming it was he who had targeted me with his remark. I have now come to think she wore the red hat for me, just for me, seeking all along an opportunity to get away from an oppressive relationship with a man entirely inattentive to her needs and her wardrobe; in other words, with a total brute. This idea gives me hope she will continue to wear the red hat, if only as a signal to beckon me with, so I can help her make an escape.

I’m happy about this turn of events, and the new responsibility it has given me. I only wished she had given me more clues. There is one thing I’m sure of, once we are finally united: I will never, ever tell her I didn’t know about that hat.

Joachim Frank