The Lame Gazelle


Back in Manhattan, back in the day, when my acting friends and I were working on our “Not your victim, not your enemy” subtext schtick, there was an iconic TV documentary, with gory but memorable footage of cooperative hunting by African big cats at a (real) watering hole. How did those cats choose which animal from a herd to attack? No doubt to conserve Therbligs, they went after the lame gazelle. This image became our metaphor for how NOT to present oneself, whether in a Midtown watering hole or an Uptown subway train.

At the most concrete level, it meant not hobbling ourselves by wearing oh-so-high heels, if we were taking the Shoeleather Express any further than a waiting taxi. [Millenial women, I’m talking to you. Pack a pair of flats in your handbag, for a quick getaway.] This was a no-brainer for me, since I had gotten over the glamour of stilettos as a young teenager in London, when my heel wedged itself into the wooden tread of a Bakerloo escalator (8 years before my “Skaaf” escapade in Boston, yet).

At a more controversial level–in that Age of (alleged) Equality of the Sexes–it meant not trying to keep up with the lads, drink for drink, at the watering hole. The slightest unsteadiness on one’s feet, and the “prey” subtext is hard to override, whatever one’s actual state of inebriation. [Another good reason to leave the stilettos to fictional New Yorkers.] A glib remark–such as the British cliche, “Oopsie-daisy! Worse things happen at sea!”–helps, though, since it implies that one is not humiliated by one’s gait. It also is quaint and eccentric, implying that one might be a bit “Doo-lally” (crazy), which no self-respecting predator will pursue, if there is other fair game in sight. [Ethologists have speculated that this avoidance of erratically-behaving prey may have evolved as a protective mechanism against sinking one’s teeth into a rabid animal.] So, it is a fine line we walked–act crazy, not drunk–but we got the hang of it. As we had learned in acting school, actual drunks try very hard to appear sober and do everything more slowly than normal, whereas meshuggahs tend to do everything like a Marx brothers vaudeville routine.

One night, while co-starring in an Off Off Broadway production of Picnic in a theatre so bijou that it had no hot water, I decided to wait until I got home to take off my stage make-up. I was on the Uptown IRT local, getting [puzzling] predatory looks, when we went through a tunnel, which turned the train window into a mirror; and I saw my reflection. [Remember in the Disney cartoon, Aladdin, where the Robin Williams genie channels a Bravo-channel designer and asks our hero of his get-up, “Now, what are we saying?” A line much used in raising my two girls, I must say.] My subtext said either “female with low self-esteem” or “female impersonator.” To override these two subtexts, I addressed my fellow travelers in a loud, theatrical voice, “Hey, everybody! Did any of you catch our production of Picnic down in the Village tonight? We’re there all week!” The hunters averted their gaze. “She’s in a play,” they muttered to one another. “Yeah, yeah. Good for you, there, sweetheart. Break a leg.” No longer their potential victim…nor their enemy, unless I started spouting lines from the play.

So, here is Ruth, giving you her impression of decrepitude. For going-on 20, she is quite spry, and still a good hunter. She allows herself to be included in the male cats’ horsing around, but just let Lili try to herd her, and you’ll see who’s whose victim. Although she is a purebred Maine Coon, she is all fur and bones, no weight at all! Still, her self-possession and longevity are a reminder to us all, “Don’t be the lame gazelle!”

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, semiotics, therbligs

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