The Versatility of the Color Black

Originally Published: November 5, 2001

The 8 AM Metroliner from Washington DC to New York City trundles along. Somehow, I expect a train with a name like Metroliner to dash gazelle-like along its tracks between two of the most influential cities in the world. But today is Sunday, and on Sundays apparently, we trundle. The train will still arrive at Penn Station at its appointed time of 11:04, but the atmosphere is distinctly weekendish. For one thing, the train is less than half full, and no one except my husband appears to be wearing a suit. These passengers are going to the city to shop, to visit, perhaps to gawk, or, like us, to attend a special event. A wedding, in our case. Dan and Liz’ wedding.

The late October day is stunning. This morning the unctuous weatherman announced - with all the toothy urging of a salesman nearing the end of the quarter – that the fall colors are at their peak – better hurry! And it is beautiful out my window. I’m sure it’s a poor man’s palate compared to, say, New England, but still dazzling to a transplant from California, where the fall doesn’t so much explode in riotous color, as taps demurely at the door, swathed tastefully in muted earth tones.

I had wrestled with what I should wear today. Initially, I didn’t want to wear black. There is so much worn these days in sorrow and this was certainly not a sorrowful occasion. But my closet gazed back at me darkly - all my best clothes were black. Basic black. Good old black.

Two and a half years ago, wearing all black, I also took the 8 AM Metroliner to New York. That time it was to attend a funeral. Jody had died of esophageal cancer. We had been friends since we were five, despite living our lives on different coasts most of those years. I had taken the train to see her twice since I’d moved east – once when she was newly diagnosed, once when she was dying. The funeral is hard for me to visualize now. I remember reading a piece I’d written about her to the room full of parched faces floating above yards and yards of black cloth. I remember her boyfriend, Dan, pale, exhausted. I remember my friend Janet singing a song she’d written for Jody, her dark hair falling forward over her face and almost into the strings of her guitar. As she sang, I stared at my black lap, my black shoes.

A year later, I took the Metroliner again, this time to attend the gallery opening of a friend’s first New York art show. Again I wore black – default chic this time - counting on black’s universal fashion parlance to cover the fact that I don’t own any clothing suitable for a hip soho event. Black can make us cooler than we are, can hide the fact that we are not au courant. Black has no season, no sell-by date. Black, like no existing color, can mask our deficiencies. And our excesses, it seems - everyone knows black is a thinning color.

And here I am again - wearing black, even to a wedding. To Dan’s wedding. It just went so nicely with the gold shantung silk pants. From the hips up and the ankles down, black. Black again.

I would have expected to have mixed feelings about Dan getting married. I don’t. I know, with  pre-ordained certainty – if I believed in such things - that I’m going to like Liz. Because she loves Dan. Like Jody loved Dan. Like I loved Jody and Dan loved and loves them both. It makes us all part of the same clan, those of us who were first friends with Jody, then with Dan and now, with Liz. We are connected through years of emotional floundering and messing around with our lives. We have coped with tragedy and are finally moving on. Jody would have been exasperated with us all for taking so long.

We are almost there. Trains are always bumpier than I remember. There is no way I can put on make-up here. I’ll have to do it at Penn Station.

I wonder if New York will look different – feel different. We’ll be far from the WTC, at Madison and 51st. Will the city shows its wounds? Until September 11, New York had always seemed such a distant place from my world.


Amazingly, it is still light. Still an October Sunday tilting toward November. The train, now full to capacity, no longer ambles but rockets purposefully back to Washington DC.

New York was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. In the past, I’ve felt out of step with that city, feeling not strong enough, not quick enough to occupy space there - whatever deficiency I had seemed amplified in the shadow of all that was talent, power and success. But on this trip the city meant more to me than a reflection of my suburban insecurities. It no longer intimidated me, but inspired a sisterly camaraderie. The playground bully had picked on each of our cities, and we’d both gotten up and given him the finger.

The wedding was lovely, the dinner afterwards very elegant, with more forks and knives saluting either side of the place plates than I’d ever imagined possible. We had been seated at a table with several of Jody’s old friends. Jody had been so bi-coastal, we had rarely, if ever, met each other. I’d met the bride in a moment of wild abandon on the dance floor. She was warm and delightful, and Dan was obviously entranced. They danced with all the joy of two people who had survived not only their wedding, but the dismal weeks that had lead up to it. Both wore white.

Jody’s mother was at the wedding – in black, I noticed, but accented with bright jewelry. She said, several times in the few minutes I had with her, that she was so pleased Dan was getting married, that he couldn’t be a hermit all his life, that he deserved to be happy. Her smile was just as I remembered from my childhood –that buck-up-under-any-circumstances smile that now seemed brave and vulnerable after the deaths of first her husband and then her daughter. I never imagined my life like this, her smile said, but I’m fine, really. I keep myself busy – this is New York, after all …

There was a moment after the plates were cleared away when the bride, jovially reminding everyone that it was her day, asked the two guitarists to repeat the recessional they’d played after the ceremony. The song was the Beatles’ On My Way Home. Jody had been a huge Beatles fan. I looked at the three other women at our table, all long-time friends of Jody’s, and saw that we were all crying. I only knew one of the three, but we stood, gravitating together, our arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling and crying while the bride and groom and everyone in the room listened happily to the song, facing away from us.

As the cake was cut, my husband and I had to depart. Our train would leave at 6:00, and Metroliner waits for no one. I had been unable to say a last good-bye to the bride and groom - my puffy eyes would have been impossible to explain amid all this joy. A wonderful thing was beginning, and yet, for Jody’s friends, it was also the end of something. I hugged Jody’s mother good-bye. Yes, she smiled, I was thinking of her, too.

The train bumps and sways again. The couple across the aisle from us was in our car this morning, sipping lattes. Four large shopping bags occupy two over-head bins as the woman converses loudly on her cell phone in a language I can’t catch. I notice my gold shantung pants have a grease mark and a few shimmery outlines from splashed champagne. The black shell and jacket still look impeccable. Another tally mark on black’s side of the board - one can be a slob less obviously wearing black. Now it’s dark finally, and the train rips along, on our way home.


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