There are so few accessories that a man can get away with without seeming affected, and an umbrella is one of the really theatrical ones. I find umbrellas to be strange, spidery, web-like things. Especially the old-fashioned kinds with pointy noses and u-shaped handles. They are artifacts from the past, and yet we still use them; spiky phallic vectors when closed, vaginal demi-spheres of protection when they blossom. No wonder the surrealists found them useful in conveying the uncanny.
I always feel better defended when I go out with an umbrella. And I don't just mean against the rain. I mean against the vast nameless threat that resides outside my doorstep. You know the one. It's written in the sky, etched onto the curb, and lurking around every corner. Once in a while it fades away but then it always returns more menacing than ever.
Women seem to know how to carry umbrellas when they're open better than men. They seem better at exploiting their potential for shelter and expression. Men seem to like to keep their umbrellas shut, sometimes even during the rain. We find it soothing to grab onto something firm and sword-like. You can lean on an umbrella, almost as though it were a fancy cane. It's like a weapon but in the way that a toy gun or an english accent is like a weapon. An umbrella's magic has something to do with its formality, the way it makes you feel proper, genteel, correct – states of being that are hard to conjure these days, but that retain certain powers even in a world of hoodies and emoticons.
For a man, carrying an umbrella is a tiny taste of what it must feel like to be in drag. Just beyond the umbrella is the morning coat, and then the cigarette holder, and then before you know it, you're on stage in a Noel Coward play or you're the Penguin to someone's Batman. (If I have to be the Penguin please let it be Burgess Meredith, not Danny DeVito.) Even though umbrellas have been with us for thousands of years, and are unlikely to be surpassed by a new technology, they seem on the edge of extinction. One good push from the hoodie and they'll become a collectible. I notice they got no umbrellas on Star Trek.
With this, the usual churning of ludicrous, abstract thoughts just beneath my consciousness, and the unquenchable thirst for yet another consumer transaction, I stopped in front of a brass umbrella-shaped umbrella stand at 5:30 a.m. one recent Sunday at Alemany Flea Market. Like most brass objects that I see at the flea market, I assumed from a distance that this one said "Made in India" underneath. As usual I'd forgotten my flash light, so I couldn't confirm. But the longer I stared at the umbrella's sleek rippled body, beaded trim, tripod base, well-cast handle and tiny jester pompons, the suspicion of kitsch gave way to the suspicion of haute design. When the seller informed me the price was $30, I picked it up to see if it possessed an inner life. Yes, I have that power.
There are very few objects made in the style of architecture parlante or narrative architecture, where the form of the thing literally represents the thing. The ones there are have an eerie presence and this one is no exception. I grew up driving past one that we used to call the Big Duck. A fowl-shaped folly on the Sunrise Highway in Riverhead, New York, built by a farmer out of concrete to sell eggs, it marked the passage each summer from our regular life in New York City to the escapist delights of the beach on Long Island. The only other contact I've had with architecture parlante is the outsider drawings of A.G. Rizzoli, whose delineations of baroque skyscrapers are really portraits of the kids in his neighborhood. Thus conditioned, I wondered driving home if I hadn't found a piece of American folk art. But that didn't add up. This umbrella is a thing of chic refinement, most likely distributed by some cool boutique. No, I thought, this self-reflexive brass container has to be French '60s, or French '70s, more Catherine Deneuve in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg than Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, more sculpture than functional object. And isn't that the way we think of the French? I really can't see myself sullying it with dripping versions of the real thing.