Aside from the one young woman dozing narcotically on a sticky sofa, her fingers still clamped around a burning cigarette, the clients and staff at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center last Monday radiated excitement. On this Day of Pampering, a monthly event to help raise clients’ self-esteem, the needle exchange was welcoming a very special guest: none other than the reigning Miss America, Kate Shindle of Illinois.
After handing out Clairol gift bags, Shindle stood in front of a blackboard listing especially dangerous heroin brands and listened to a volunteer. “We do the condoms, the rubbers, the dental dams, the whole nine yards,” the volunteer explained. “We do bleach and cotton balls and show the women how to avoid abscesses and how to avoid hepatitis B and all that.”
“Grape-flavored condoms? I love that,” Shindle squealed, with the unregal candor for which one of her predecessors has recently reproached her.
An awestruck client reached out to touch Miss America’s rhinestone brooch, shaped like a tiara – like the tiara. “This pin,” she asked, “does that make you official?”
“I guess so,” Miss America responded brightly. “But look, it’s losing its stones. Honey, if I lost a diamond this big I’d be at home crying my eyes out.”
“She carries the real thing with her in a little wooden case,” said Drew Kramer, the center’s executive director. “I got to touch it – it was really thrilling.”
Bonnie Sirgany, the official “traveling companion for Miss America,” stood by uncomfortably. “She’s my ninth Miss America,” she confided. “I had the AIDS platform five years ago, but it was different then. That girl’s platform was awareness, so we went into the schools a lot. Whereas Kate’s thing is prevention. In Baltimore, we were at a needle-exchange table they had set up on the worst corner.”
Miss America posed for snapshots at the manicure table, and soon half the room was waving Polaroids while the other half waved wet fingernails. “I love speaking, but speaking can’t really compare to getting your hands dirty like you staff members and volunteers do,” she said. “I really respect that.”
Tiara box in hand, Sirgany cleared a path for her charge, who gave the crowd one last cheer: “Thumbs up! Gold stars for all of you. Now I’m taking my grape condoms and leaving.”
“Thank God for this,” a client said, clutching her Polaroid. “Nobody is going to believe this.” The black Lincoln Town Car sped off.