Thank you for being . . . Sophia Petrillo

Today, 25 July 2008, would have been the 85th birthday of Estelle Getty, who passed away last Tuesday. Since I was unable to share my thoughts here on that night, I shall do so now. The actress was on my mind that very night, before I even learned about her death. There is nothing uncanny about that, though. I often think, talk about—even talk like—Ms. Getty and the Girls. As I have related here previously, I owe much to Getty and her memorable television character, the feisty octogenarian Sophia Petrillo. To commemorate the anniversary of her birth, I have been going through old diaries to determine just when Sophia entered my life.

Picture it. New York City. The summer of 1989. I was on a six-month visit designed to delay my return to what I feared might be a lifetime of office work for which I, despite a three-year apprenticeship, was entirely unsuited. It would take nearly another year before I finally found the nerve to pack my scant belonging and move to Manhattan. Anyway. The Golden Girls were already in syndication when, staying at a friend’s place, I happened upon the series one morning while channel-hopping onto the fledgling Fox network.

I was unaware then, but nonetheless sensed, that Getty was a gay icon. She had played Harvey Fierstein’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy. Sophia wasn’t quite one of the Girls, who went off with their assorted beaux, shopped for condoms at the supermarket, entertained a lesbian friend, a closeted gay brother, or faced an Aids scare in their very midst. There was hardly room enough for that “fancy man” of a cook in Blanche’s kitchen, even though he, according to Sophia, was “an okay petunia.” Initially, I even mistook Bea Arthur for a drag queen.

While at the very center of it all, the Sicilian spitfire was, for the most part, a bystander who poked fun at the crazy going-on around her. Unless, of course, there was a Japanese gardener around, or Cesar Romero stopped by. “I’m tired of being the Tonto of the group,” she complained. She was like me, in that respect, wanting to be one of the girls.

So, I woke up to those Girls every weekday morning, week after week, and learned about American culture, about Jerry Falwell and Harvey Milk, about Tammy Faye Baker and Anita Bryant. I will surely “sehr vermissen” the Girls when I’m back in Germany, I noted in my diary on 14 September, shortly before my return to the stultifyingly bourgeois world I was at once desperate and terrified to leave behind.

I recall the first time I got one of Sophia’s zingers. I was learning English back then and struggled with those one-liners, with words not in my pocket dictionary and proper nouns for which I had no image in my head, over which went many of the cultural references for the appreciation of which today’s viewers, like me back then, require a few footnotes. It was easier for me to pick up the odd noun watching Family Feud, which I did. Zsa Zsa Gabor, after all, was still enhancing her dictionary by following the spinning Wheel of Fortune. The words and phrases I picked up watching the girls were far more rewarding than those to be gleaned from whatever “survey says.” Slut. Yutz. Queen. Botchagaloop? And “Floozy.” Inexperienced as I was, I lived in constant hope of warranting such a moniker one day.

“Get some Windex!” Sophia exclaimed. It was her response to the vain, delusional, middle-aged Blanche, who thought it was “just like looking in a mirror” to see her niece, an oversexed adventuress half her age. Luckily, I had just come across a bottle of Windex somewhere in the bathroom cabinet while trying to get the thick coating of Aquanet from the floor to which my socks had gotten stuck. In my native Germany, references to commercial products were not permitted, which made the sarcastic remark all the more startling and memorable to me. Not permitted? That woman could say just about anything! And did. Ahh, to have her mouth, I thought. And that perfect excuse for saying anything you like.

Watching the Girls at times takes me back to those days in 1989, when I was anxious to arm myself with a few choice words from Sophia so as not to be tongue-tied when confronted with the wolves roaming the Big Potato (okay, that was Rose). New York wasn’t Disney World back then. I can still “picture it.” Batman and Indiana Jones ruled the box office, an African American Democrat was about to make history by taking office, and I was glad not to be stuck in an office. Hey, it’s like looking in a mirror. I know, I know, “Get some Windex!”

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