The Ultimate: Etta Without Tears

The incomparable Karen Baccouche, sometimes known professionally as Karen Binns. Self-creation par excellence. Native of Brooklyn, New York, lately of London, a fashion stylist, publisher, and the fine possessor of a language one is not likely to hear from anyone else, let alone with crimson lips. I would spend the rest of my life being her Boswell if she would have me, but she’s fairly Swiftian-by-way-of-Lester-Young herself, so, why should she? She writes as she walks, in the air. She’s the strutting embodiment of what Truman Capote was trying to get at with Miss Bobbitt in his short story, “Children on Their Birthdays,” with a little of his “Miriam,” thrown in, too, but only Miriam’s white dress. But scribblers live less than Miss Binns. We grew up within moments of each other in East New York; I wish I had known her then, which is to say been the happy beneficiary of her utterly realistic and ever hopeful eye, which never shuts the truth out, along with her sideways way of talking. Had I known her as a child, I would have grown up braver that I was, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have hid my childhood notebooks filled with observations about our neighborhood in her presence because Karen would have saved me, I am always looking for her rescue, I always listen for the sound of her voice when she says, as she said to her client, Tori Amos, once: “Chile, let’s push past this moment of horror and have some mushroom polenta.” We met in the New York of the Odeon, lines on the table, lines to get into Madame Rosa’s, where Karen was the door person from time to time as she worked to establish a career as a fashion stylist. With it all, Karen has never been anything less than herself, the kind of woman who, blonde to blonde, would have mothered Etta with a sidelong glance and a “That’s dry,” or “Chile, please,” when Etta’s men started acting up, or Etta herself. The New York where we met: no one wanted to live in Tribeca, it felt like a world filled with bats, an ominous moon, a little drug hustle you’d rather forget. Cabs, and street lights that didn’t make anything brighter except the potholes, and manhole covers. In that world, Karen, a girl’s girl, and her late friend, Mercedes, an actress, rose above the steam that drifted up and out of those manholes, like gossiping ghosts, and those two New York City girls walked straight through those phantoms and didn’t take any shit because why should they? There were other things to stick to the heels of your shoes: the vibration of the music at The World, or Save the Robots, or late night dish over bistro food at Florent before embarking on the real work that lay ahead: taking off one’s make up, taking the phone off the receiver, to bed. I rarely see Karen these days, but continue to “live,” as she might say, when I have news of her. The last time I saw her was over on the lower East Side, and she was in the company of a friend who looked so much like Mercedes, I couldn’t help but comment on it, somewhat tactlessly. Karen thought about it for a moment, her freckles got darker, and she said, shaking her head and speaking for all of us: “Chile, I’m just trying to hold on.”