To support the theme “In Consciously Coupling We Trust,” rappers Mitch & Bitch have been named to lead the Grandmammy of all Gay Pride marches in June this year.
Police snipers will be positioned on rooftops to shoot on sight any pedestrians as there will be no sideline crowds allowed. Instead, by using the latest in NFL technologies, simulated crowd noise will be piped in and archival footage will be used to “symbolize” the citizenry’s participation. You can’t get any more virtual than this, baby.
Backed up by the Nobel Prize winning fact checkers at Fox News along with a new script for pharmaceutical meth, Maria Fartalotta reported it’s already being called the largest adoring crowd ever seen in the history of the universe.
A news clip was playing on my laptop of some pundit spouting that surviving the criminal activity of the current administration reemphasized “the beauty of the Constitution.” This type of cliches-by-the-ton journalism puts the pork chops on the table for Washington insiders like Bob Woodward and Susan Page.
The main takeaway from the recent election was that any traces of an independent, investigative press are gone. Fox News was only the tip of the iceberg, it seems people now selectively believe what they read on social media. Find a story that conforms to your point of view and you’ve discovered the truth. The age of disinformation is upon us. I know because I read it online.
Television news media is not a free press. They are co-opted by their corporate owners. Every election cycle races are too close to call up to Election Day. No sooner do the polls close than the incumbent is the projected winner with 70% of the vote. The media manufactures tight races to increase ad revenue. South Carolina Senate race anyone?
How long would a news division be around if they ran an expose on scandalous prescription drug pricing fueling advertising buys. Or a hit piece on fraud in the NFL after their Entertainment Division spent a billion dollars on rights to broadcast games,
Almost to a person the owners of American sport franchises are Trump Republicans. They subscribe to the same ethos: win at any cost.
These great Americans who never disrespect the flag, goddamnit, show no respect for individual liberty or justice. Especially when it gets in the way of making money. Patriotism is only prized when it throws the lemmings into lockstep.
When Bob Kraft goes to drain a little pecker snot then gets caught soliciting prostitution and abetting human trafficking, he spends hundreds of thousands on legal fees to obliterate the American Justice System. The misdemeanor is dropped and his record, if not his drawers, remains spotless. Talk about the wisdom of the founding fathers.
I watched a couple minutes of a NFL game.a few weeks ago. I saw a thrilling play that started off tentatively with the quarterback dumping off to a wideout just off the line of scrimmage. The receiver took a couple of steps downfield where he was met by a defender. Somehow he evaded that one tackle then made a 20 yard gallop into the endzone.
The play showed what an art form television coverage of football has become. The zooming in and out on the field as the play developed. The cut to a triumphal close-up when the receiver scores.
Equally impressive was the audio. The dull murmuring of anticipation at the line of scrimmage followed by the disappointing moan of a short gain. When the tackle is broken, however, a sudden roar crescendoes until the goal line is crossed
It was all so beautifully captured. Until the camera pans out afterwards to show an empty stadium.
It was like learning there was a laugh track to Leave It to Beaver. If that sound of emotion isn’t coming from the stands where else could it be sourced? The linemen’s asses?
As originally coined by the French, the term “third world” was meant to indicate a fraction, one third of the world’s population. Then the English translation made it sound like a stand alone entity, a parallel existence.
In calling Billy a third parent I don’t know if that means a portion of his skills were parental. Or if he was an other worldly, third person daddy.
If I could ask him I know he’d say neither. He had no tolerance for nor little interest in raising children. Still, from when I first learned of him he was an adult older than me of whom I was always consciously aware. I ended up following his example and seeking his approval for most of my life.
I once asked him about the early years. Specifically, why he’ d never talked to me about being gay or given me some clue on what I could expect.
I knew it was out of discretion. He couldn’t be seen intervening in the lives of his clients’ teenage children. But I wanted to hear his answer which was: “somethings you just have to figure out on your own.”
He paused a beat then added, “anyway, when I saw the red shoes I knew you’d be just fine.”
I didn’t host much company in San Francisco because I didn’t have space. When I was younger and friends didn’t mind sleeping bags, futons or couches, it was no big deal. As we got older, it was just too uncomfortable.
The condo in Fort Wayne was the perfect place for pampering guests. However, whereas everyone wanted to come to San Francisco, no one was interested in Indiana. Through the years I was able to convince several friends to take the plunge. I would host two or three state visits a year.
It was a way to close the circle between my upbringing and the close friends I made as an adult, mainly in California. Most of my company left saying the same thing: they hadn’t expected to meet someone like Billy in Indiana.
Peter and Barbara were the first to visit and they helped lay the foundation for future tours. The Frank Lloyd Wright Houses, the Court House murals, Coney Island hot dogs, and the Cord-Dusenberg Museum. And, of course, a selected sampling of the food and drink of the region.
Billy was smitten with the handsome and galant.husband. He couldn’t stop talking about him after they left.
I told him to put it back in his pants. I’d been friends with both of them for a couple of decades and I didn’t want him mucking things up with unbridled lust.
He said of course not, he’d never do a thing like that. But still. . .
When my Kentucky Derby hosts, Jan and Mar, were in Michigan for the weekend I convinced them to spend the night with me on their way home. That Sunday evening I invited Billy to join us for dinner.
I tend to surround myself with gregarious, outgoing friends as an antidote to me being too withdrawn and shy. These three were a perfect example. We were having drinks on the patio when I went into the kitchen to check on things. I wasn’t gone more than five minutes.
When I returned they had identified the woman who sold us the Scalamandre drapes upstairs as being the Mother of one of their good friends. How people who lived hundreds of miles apart and had never met could hone in on a detail like that so quickly was beyond me.
Billy talked about their visit for years to come. He couldn’t believe how open minded and accepting they were. In fact all of my friends were like that he said but especially them.
I mentioned the obvious, that their politics were more to the center and left than the people he surrounded himself with in Fort Wayne. He dismissed it with “no, no, that’s not it. There’s just something about them.” I didn’t press the point.
My friend who hadn’t lived there since Indiana became a state visited with his partner. It was perfect example of someone who hosted me several times that I could now finally repay, if only once.
The day I was having a large dinner party I worked in the kitchen while his spouse decided to have a glass of wine. It was noon. All afternoon I worked and he drank. For good measure he popped a couple of pain pills too. By the time the guests arrived at 6:00 he was blotto and I was a nervous wreck.
As the others enjoyed their first drink of the day, he sat quietly on the love seat adjacent to the kitchen. His silence was interrupted randomly with blood-curdling Banshee cries at the top of his lungs. Then he’d clam up again.
By the time we sat down at the table his wailings had subsided. Now he was an incessant chatterbox who had no interest in eating. His glass was filled to the brim as he grabbed it to walk around the place. While the others ate, I jumped up and trailed him.
His need for attention stemmed from the fact when our group of Bloomington friends got together we were more focussed on his partner, who lived with us there, than on him, who had not. It was not a position he was used to being in or could tolerate.
Once when the IU group gathered at their house there had been an incident with a chocolate dessert stain on their sofa. He saw it as a malicious and deliberate act on our parts. In reality, it was just a pretext he created so he wouldn’t have to host us as a group again. There was not an ounce of grace or a hint of forgiveness as we heard about the chocolate stain for years to come. That evening it felt like he was ready to exact his revenge.
The skid mark on his damask was nothing compared to the Exon oil slick of red wine he was about to spill on the wool carpets. I followed him around, mirrored his movements as I tried to coax the glass out of his hand. Finally I got it away from him. The evening was over, I was emotionally drained.
When I saw Billy after they left town I filled him in our past. It put into perspective an incident he otherwise thought was funny. He said he could tell something was bothering me but I handled the situation well. I didn’t make a scene.
To get me to move on and not dwell on it, he laughed it off saying the guy “was higher than a Georgia pine.”
When I was traveling back and forth, I’d leave San Francisco thinking why am I going to Indiana. I was having too much fun or in the middle of some project and it made no sense to leave. Then when it was time to leave Fort Wayne I’d have the same feelings about coming back here.
I shared this with Billy who said there was nothing wrong with that. “It just shows you’re happy in both places.”
But I would leave Fort Wayne with the extra baggage that we might not see each other again. It did not carry a heavy, emotional weight. Our goal was always on living life and having fun in the now. Increasingly, however, there was a now more than ever in what we did.
About six years ago I was visiting when Billy was recovering from a bout of something. It had been serious but he was bouncing back, recovering fully. His illness had not affected our activities.
During my stay he complained about all of the attention he was getting, people trying to do too much. Even if someone is a good friend, when they start showing up with coffee every morning and they’ve never done that before, it feels odd. Especially for someone who ferociously protected and enjoyed their privacy as much as he did.
The night before I left we had dinner at Catablu then I dropped him off at home. I gave him a hug and said he needed to be nice to people. I told him to feed them some crumbs, assign them a part of his routine as a way to let them participate. It beats someone calling everyday to “check in.” If they remained overbearing after that, then he could tell them to fuck off.
Billy mildly nodded his head in agreement, “yes, yes, I know.” Then he gave me an avuncular look that said: imagine that, a child like this telling me what to do.
Mother and Billy held a mutual distaste for the Victorian sensibilities of rural Indiana. Those traditions went well past their shelf life into the mid-20th Century.
Even as a child in the 1950’s I can remember my Great-Great Aunt Ada who weighed 85 pounds in her navy voile dresses with a handkerchief tucked into the cuff of her sleeve. She would retrieve it to dab the corner of her mouth when she emitted the tiniest of coughs. She was also constantly fainting at family dinners. Maybe from the sight of food.
Then there was Grandmother who remained seated after the car engine had been turned off while she waited for Granddad to walk around and open the passenger door. It was a condition for our release too. We weren’t supposed to open our doors until Grandmother got out. I may have had a hand in ending that particular folkway.
Despite their dislike for the social environment, there was no denying it had an affect on their own comportments. Mother and Billy’s gracious demeanors provided a stark contrast to the irreverent and bawdy humor they enjoyed. They were definitely modernists who held no nostalgia for the past. But they weren’t above talking about it for a couple of laughs.
Billy would sprinkle old fashioned bon mots into commentaries on my cooking. If the toffee I made cooked too long he’d say “why it’s harder than an 17-year-old groom on his wedding night.” Or if I was working with a roast or ham hock he’d remind me, “the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat.”
A tradition or superstition for the women in his family was to do needle work on New Years Day. That would be lace making or crocheting, not syringes, that brought them good luck for the year. If I spoke to him on New Years I’d ask if he’d worked on his faggoting yet that day.
He talked of how these women produced copious amounts of boiling water to scald the dishes after a large family dinner. And after a hard days’ work in the summer they sat on the porch in the evening until one would express a wish for “a dish of cream.” That would commence the ice cream making. The way Billy ennunciated the word “cream” added multiple layers of entendre to their desire.
Billy’s parents had moved to Peru, Indiana from Virginia because of his father’s work with the railroad. His father’s name was Civil. As a child Billy and his siblings accompanied their Mother on a train trip to the Shenandoah Valley every summer. They spent a month or so with her family. Billy remained close to that branch of relatives and attended a week-long reunion they held ever other year in Virginia.
It sounded like such an anachronistic bore but Billy never missed it. It continued well into the new millennium. If I was scheduling a trip home in early summer I checked with him first, “now is your Klan meeting this year or next? Are you still the Grand Wizard or did you pass that title on?”
Billy was a font of local knowledge and put to rest many things I’d wondered about for decades. Like why all the yokels called his hometown PEE-ru. He said it was a conductor call from the railroad days. Apparently saying Peru in normal tones could be mistaken for Beirut. By accenting the initial vowel you knew exactly where you were.
He pointed out why there was such a spectacular boom of early to mid-20th architecture on the south side of Fort Wayne. Up until 1920 the town was basically cut in two by heavy railroad traffic. If you were south of the tracks you were stuck. When they elevated them a whole new world opened up.
There was always lots of laughter with Billy. But every couple of days the surface giggles gave way to moments of uncontrollable guffaws: the shoulders and bellies shook; eyes teared up; you lost all sense of self as well as the ability to speak. Those were the moments when the wheels would hit the curb or, in the middle of snow flurries, you’d brake too late and slide past the stop sign through the intersection. And I’m not really that bad of a driver.
The basis of these laughs was just the absurdity of things. In our later years the Starbucks at Target was our favorite haunt for afternoon coffee. With its huge plate glass windows we watched our fellow citizens coming and going.
Again Billy’s primary target seemed to be severely obese women. “Look at those short arms with all of that fat. I mean how can she reach around to wipe? She can’t!”
Billy had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the bars and restaurants in Fort Wayne. He’d been in most of them including obscure ones like The Third Base Tavern. When I was little my brothers and I always laughed at that one because their tag line was “Last Stop Before Home.”
He told me of one husband and wife restaurant team where he managed the kitchen and she was hostess in the front of the house. She knew everyone in town. After guests were seated and ordered drinks, she’d pull up a chair and signal the waiter to bring her a cocktail too. The table would be enlivened with her wit and banter until their food arrived. She would excuse herself then go chat-up another table.
As the guests prepared to leave they found their tab had been enlivened as well. Whatever their hostess had been drinking at their table was added on.
There was another, more prominent couple who owned one of the city’s preeminent restaurants. They were active in the Arts and participated in many theatrical productions. They were also very active in their sex lives as they had an open marriage and were constantly taking on new lovers. The wife was said to be the long-term mistress of the owner of the eponymous Henry’s.
Billy had Thanksgiving with them one year in their beautiful home on the south side. Everything was lovely until they sat for dinner. They looked up to see a huge gaping hole that ran the length of the room. The second story floorboards had collapsed several months before. The rubble had been cleared out but they hadn’t had time yet to deal with fixing it. What with their other activities
One evening Billy and I were joined at dinner by a louche, older friend of his. The man was abhorred by many because he was so crude. He was adored by Billy because he was a trouble maker and therefore very entertaining.
When the subject of the theatrical couple came up the guy told about a trip to Paris he’d taken with them. He managed to boink the father, the mother and the (adult) daughter each without the other two finding out. He made it sound like such an enchanting journey.
Then there was the summer garden party where the wife greeted her guests outdoors. She was leaning against a hammock slung between two Dutch Elms. Her boyfriend of the moment was actually lying in the hammock. Her huge circle skirt concealed his midsection and the fact she was being penetrated as she spoke. A true multi-tasker.
Oh how I long for the simpler joys of years gone by!
BONUS COVERAGE:Click here for: It Takes an 86-Year-Old. Twirling Tutorial from Summer, 2018.
I worried at first that our lack of face time may have hidden personality defects. It’s one thing to be on your best behavior for a couple hours over drinks and dinner. It’s another thing to spend eight hours with someone and expose a completely different side.
It was a needless worry. Mother had spent 40 years vetting us. The transition was effortless.
As I stayed to deal with everything in the 4000 square foot townhouse I realized there was no rush. Especially since I didn’t mind being there.
I saw family routinely but those were scheduled events, they had busy lives. The only person I could call on the spur of the moment was Billy. Like when I knocked the garage door off its railings. As a new condo owner I hadn’t ‘t a clue what to do. He said, “Call your maintenance person. It might be their responsibility. If not, they’ll know who to call.”
I decided to tweak the decor a little although it didn’t really need anything. I didn’t want it to have the Prince Albert dressing room give, everything in place as it was at death for decades to come. Billy admired and encouraged my unorthodox ideas for redecorating. And the odd things I’d buy when we went antiquing together.
My attempts to landscape the back patio were a different story. He was appalled that a gay man could be so lacking in gardening skills. I wasted so much money turning annuals into weeklies, he said the greenhouses loved to see me coming. A sure sign of a profitable summer.
Being in the condo was comfortable. And the room that was the most comfortable was the kitchen. We’d spent a couple of years gutting the back of the first floor then redesigning it and the small sitting area. The result was a much more efficient lay out with brand new appliances. You could do a Christmas buffet for 25 people and not be tired because there was so much working space and room to store everything you needed.
Billy was the Andy Warhol of Fort Wayne. Through his work and his interests he knew everyone in town. And he attended any social gathering of note. He thrived on it.
When we were running around he would invariably see someone he knew. When it came to introducing me he either would or wouldn’t. If it was someone he liked, he would immediately introduce me.
If it was someone he didn’t care for he’d keep it short then as he turned to walk away say to me, “that’s Mrs so-and-so, her husband owned such-and-such.” After a couple of more steps out of earshot he’d mutter, “I can’t stand that bitch.” There were a few times he got that last phrase out a little too quickly. And he wasn’t muttering.
Billy knew where the bodies were buried. We passed a real estate office and he pointed out a leading entrepreneur in the city had once been a secretary there. She got caught by the cleaning lady going to pound town with her boss on the reception desk one night.
I, in turn, shared what little I knew. He liked the one about the right-to-life activist who a friend of mine helped get a procedure back in high school. A couple of times. If only she’d had someone to scream “whore” and “murderer” in her face, perhaps she would have made different choices.
Billy was something of an iconoclast. Like with the hairdresser who peeled the orange all night. I’m sure he knew he was on drugs but it didn’t really bother him. As long as it didn’t become messy and he could do his job.
As he helped me get to know the locals, he invited a couple to dinner one evening who had been boyfriends about a year. They lived about thirty miles apart and the ties that bound didn’t appear that strong. The one guy seemed to be interested in me. The more we ran into each other after that the more interesting things got.
When I told Billy about it he shifted gears from troublemaker to cheerleader. In a wonderfully libertine way he said sparks were hard to come by in life, rules can be dealt with later. If you feel the impulse act on it.
I don’t know why Fort Wayne had to be different than any other town I’d been in. Consummation was never achieved.
When I first came out I noticed how much gay people name dropped. I saw it as an insecurity, using superficial associations to define themselves. Some guys had their celebrity CV locked and loaded to explode in anyone’s face. Over and over.
Billy was the complete opposite. He played his cards so close to his vest that a name drop from him was like a time bomb. Since he liked old movies so much I talked about some of the George Cukor films I enjoyed. He told about having dinner at Cukor’s a couple of times.
When we were on the Jayne Mansfield kick the name of her bodybuilding husband, Mickey Hargitay, came up. When Billy attended Herron Art School one of his roommates was Hargitay’s cousin. He was always dropping by and hanging out at their place.
I noticed a photo of a woman on his wall that was autographed but I couldn’t read it. She looked familiar though I couldn’t place her. It was Annie Lebowitz who had been a guest at a mutual friend’s New Mexico ranch at the same time. He was taking photography classes then, she had encouraged him.
One summer I’d been there a month and was returning to California the next day. It had been hot, we’d done a lot and were both drained. Still, it was the last night we couldn’t squander it. We decided to go to Paula’s for fresh seafood.
The evening started slowly, things picked up after a round of Cosmos. I told him about my Dad working construction and also doing part-time work for a contractor. In 1961 this contractor was building sets for a movie being filmed in Fort Wayne. Dad told me the books in the background of the den scene were actually trompe l’ceil painted on plywood.
To my 11-year-old mind this was blasphemy. You can’t lie about books. I asked Billy if he knew anything about the movie. His Pandora’s box of personal experience spontaneously erupted.
Know about it? The film’s star, Lisa Gaye, was either in The Corner House or he’d been on the set every day of the six week shoot. He was responsible for her hair and wigs. Both he and the salon were listed in the closing credits.
He hung out with the cast and crew and was their tour guide to the many fine lounges in town. His best friend Pat got to speak a line in the film and even he had a brief walk-on cameo.
This information overload left me no choice but to track down a copy on Amazon. We watched it on my next trip home.
Night of Evil was a terrible B movie, badly written, poorly acted. But it was so entertaining with Billy’s running commentary. It was based on the true story of Dixie Ann Dikes, a Miss Colorado in the Miss America pageant who was secretly married and eventually disqualified. Down and out she botches an armed robbery and goes to prison.
One of the major backers was from Fort Wayne. It was decided to shoot there as a way to keep costs down.
Billy had something to say for almost every scene. He identified one couple who had bit parts as being big in the local civic theatre. They owned the pharmacy on Lake Street.
In another scene he could tell by the wall paper they were in the old Columbia Hotel that was on the landing. How he could identify the wall covering in some flea-bag, by-the-hour, derelict hotel room, I didn’t ask.
The cast had stayed at the new Van Orman hotel out north and could usually be found in their supper club, The Embers, at night. It was used for a shot when the beauty queen’s fortunes are on the rise. His friend Pat plays a news photographer who approaches her table and asks, “a photo for the Gazette Miss Dikes?”
Then there’s the actual night of evil when the heinous crime occurred. An establishing shot shows a lone figure walking after midnight past a series of closed store fronts. It’s Billy’s first and only major motion picture role.
That he was overlooked for any acting honors remains a blight on the Academy’s history to this day.
BONUS COVERAGE:Click here for a yuletide tour of the condo formerly known as The Winter Palace, c. 2010.
One Christmas when I was home I attended a holiday party with Steve and Rik. It was a fun, raucous group of gay men, lots of alcohol on a Sunday afternoon.
When it was time to leave we went through the kitchen and our hosts called out a hearty “thanks for coming!” as we reached the door. I turned and gave them a blaise “you’re welcome” then walked out. Rik thought it was the rudest thing he’d ever seen. He and Steve laughed about it all the way back to Mother’s.
When Steve visited San Francisco in the 70’s we were in a cab circling Twin Peaks looking for his friend’s house. As the driver searched for the obscure address, Steve told me he’d picked up a souvenir that day in an Adult Book Store, a dildo that played “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It explained how Jimminy Cricket could hit those higher octaves.
I don’t remember any other occasions when it was just Steve and I alone. He was such a highlight in Mother’s life, we got together so infrequently, it felt cruel not to include her.
Our last outing together as a threesome was in October 2008 when we went to the Roanoke Tavern. I hadn’t seen him in a year. We were talking about a friend from college when he asked if the guy still lived back there. I answered, “oh god no. He hasn’t lived here since Indiana became a state.”
Steve laughed, “I like that.”
Mother enjoyed the evening too. In retrospect, however, she was masking the effects of her final, rather rapid decline.
The previous January I found some oversized, overpriced Christmas cards deeply discounted. She liked to send unique cards and these were that. The sentiment was simple, Happy Holidays, but the cover was trimmed in white marabou. It had a pocket for a large photo to be inserted. Mother’s project was to go through hundreds of pictures to find one appropriate for each recipient on her list.
She finished by July. By December she could barely hold a pen. When it came time to mail the cards she signed them then I took care of the rest. Each day she signed a few more.
One day she stopped and said, “are you sure this is a good idea? Considering the circumstances it could upset people.”
I assured her it was okay, people enjoyed seeing pictures of themselves. I’ve always regretted I may have forced her to do something she didn’t want to do. She was not a fan of cheap sentiment.
The day of her last doctor’s appointment we went to see if she qualified for a new experimental treatment. She did not and nothing else could be done.
It was freezing outside but felt even colder in the car on the silent ride home. When we got there Mother decided she wanted her hair washed. I asked if she needed an appointment, she said no.
Mother had stopped washing her own hair years ago. The Corner House had moved from Broadway to Covington Plaza, then when she moved to her condo it was just a quarter of a mile away. Although Rik’s time was hard to book to cut it, anyone in the shop could wash it and blow it out. So once or twice a week she’d call to see who was available.
When I dropped her off I got out to help her. She said it wasn’t necessary, just come back in half an hour.
When I returned I found her seated in the lobby. I helped her out and asked the receptionist if I needed to settle the bill. She said no, another client had taken care of it. It was such a Steel Magnolias moment. But not nearly as sappy.
Steve was not in the shop that day but heard Mother had been in. He called the next morning and asked if he could stop by with Richard who now lived in Palm Springs. They brought roses and I served them double chocolate cookies made that morning. Steve was flabbergasted I knew how to bake. It was an upbeat, unforced half hour that Mother enjoyed.
Ten days later I was sitting in the funeral home talking to my niece. My back was to the door when she flashed a confused look then asked “who’s that?” I turned to see a solitary figure in a gray jacket with a gray cane slowly walking in. I jumped up and went over to greet Billy. All he said was “I can’t believe it, she was one of my best friends.”
I introduced him to my niece and he turned on the charm. Within seconds she was eating out of his hand.
The remains had been cremated so there was no hideous viewing ritual. A montage played of her through the years. Billy was especialy pleased with the photo in a tiger stripe bathing suit, not an image often seen in Indiana funeral parlors. When he left he said, “now call me.”
In the customs of the country the wives still called the shots. A husbands failure to comply resulted in a living hell at home. When it came time to make funeral arrangements I was dealing with brother/surrogates who had to check back with the decision makers. Things were not done the way Mother would have wanted.
Mother was not religious and did not care for prayers. But somehow a Bible College dropout who was the only thing a failing rural congregation could get to shepard their dwindling flock appeared.
It made no sense that someone with such limited knowledge was allowed to summarize a life as complex as the one Mother lived. When she spoke of her interests, this minister-with-training-wheels referred to her index cards then said Mother enjoyed collecting Art DEE-co. I did a silent eye roll in my head.
On the evening we got together to send acknowledgement cards, I produced the ones I had engraved. They included her name and a simple sentence thanking people. That’s the way Mother did things.
The funeral home had included these tacky autumnal scened, meaningfully inspirational and profoundly Hallmark styled cards. It was part of the package deal. They reminded me of the schlocky poems Jim Jordan wrote for the mortuary. We took the money he earned from that to print our magazine and go drinking.
I said Mother would have preferred the engraved ones. The sister-in-law said that’s not the way things were done around there. I snapped. “When did Mother ever do things the way they’re done around here?” It seemed so insensitive and ungracious. I gave up.
Mother always advised me not to engage in these feuds. I might prevail on principles but would lose access to my brothers and their kids. So I did it her way. When the grandchildren became adults both she and I had established excellent relationships with them independent of their parents
The one detail that was beyond internecine squabbling was the burial site, the country graveyard a mile from my Grandparents’ farm. As a child I peppered Grandmother here as she decorated the graves, “Are we related to this one? To this one? This one?” When I was older and able to contain my curiosity I would study the dates. There were some in the back row born in the 1700’s.
The women from the nearby church had tried for years to give the graveyard a more religious name. Whether it was officially changed was not clear, everyone continued to refer to it as Spider Hill Cemetary.
It snowed the night before her burial so the empty farmland vistas were blanketed in white. Even the air was a veil of whiteness. There was a steady mist of flurries that was either a remnant from the previous storm or a prelude to the next one coming. Millions of snowflakes set the scene, tiny little things that made everything seem wonderful. An apt metaphor for my Mother.
The family dispersed the day of the internment and I was alone in the condo. There was plenty to do so I kept busy until the day after New Years when I knew Billy would be back from visiting his family. I called him and we made dinner plans for the following day.
I held on to the condo for the next seven years and spent a third of my time in Indiana. From dinner that January evening until he died in October, I either saw or spoke to Billy every day I was in Fort Wayne. Unlike us, hanging out together never got old.
I must interrupt this unending tale of 1960’s and 70’s nostalgia to bring you exclusive news of nostalgia from the 1970’s alone.
I received a phone call this afternoon that had no caller id, a number I didn’t recognize, from a town I’d never heard of. All the markings of a call I don’t take. The clincher was when I answered there was a delay in the other voice coming on the line. I lit into them immediately
“You motherfucking bill collectors are never going to get a cent out of me! You can take this bogus bill collection process and shove it up your fucking ass!”
The caller was taken aback but persistent. He said it was Henry. He actually enjoyed hearing my tone because it reminded him of the days when I was his supervisor.
I realized who it was and he talked me down. We had a nice chat then he informed me the reason he was calling was because my name popped out of a book he was reading.
The Man Who Ate Too Much is a new biography of James Beard by John Birdsall. The author interviewed me a couple years ago then I forgot about it. I didn’t think I was helpful to him because he was pursuing information that I knew nothing about: an extortion plot by a male hustler involving Mr. Beard. As the escort soon found out, you can’t blackmail the shameless. “If you’re going to publish those nude photos of me in the orgy, can I get copies?”
Apparently Mr. Birdsall did like some of my anecdotes and included them in his book. And it’s fitting I should interrupt my story of Billy with a shout out to Beard. They were cut from the same cloth.
In an era when there were laws making their personal existence illegal, both of them took individual stances that did not back down from who they were. Neither had a desire to be public crusaders leading marches with hollow chants as they clapped their hands to mundane rhythms. In the continuum of the struggle for rights, however, their courageous acts were as important as any others.
I felt close to Steve even though we didn’t really spend much time together. For those first pesky thirty years.
After I moved to San Francisco, I would go home once in the summer and again over Christmas. I’d try to see him each trip but at times he would be on vacation or we’d be too busy and couldn’t meet. There would be instances of a year-and-a-half without seeing each other.
I would hear about him almost every week, however, when I talked to Mother. She was the intermediary, not the relay. She decided what to share. I had no idea what she was telling him about me.
Once in a melodramatic flight of fancy I went over my funeral plans with Mother on one of our calls. There was to be no religion, no spoken word, no music except for Brown Sugar to be played at the gravesite. That would be it. If people wanted to participate in the “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whew’s!” that was fine but nothing organized. She laughed and I forgot about it.
Out of the blue, she later said she told Steve about my funeral. “He said you may want to wait on that, the Stones might come out with a better song.”
Steve focussed on the person in his chair. He knew everyone in town but wasn’t constantly acknowledging people coming and going through the lobby. Or chatting with customers in other chairs.
The co-owner of the shop, Rik, did Mother’s hair so she could be there an hour without being acknowledged by Steve. Then as she would get up to leave he’d whisper to have drinks or dinner with him. She went after work so was one of the last to leave the shop. She almost always said yes.
Or sometimes he’d just take a second during the hour to whisper one thing to make her laugh. At Easter it was a variation on the same theme: “you’d better be good or the Easter Bunny’s gonna shit in your basket.”
When Steve hired staff he didn’t shy away from eccentrics or lunatic fringe. If they could cut hair. Mother once told me about this hairdresser who said he’d been up all night but could only remember peeling an orange.
I asked Steve about him decades later and he said he went on to drive semis for many years. Not the typical gay career path. Steve hadn’t heard from him in ages when one morning he looked out the kitchen window to see an 18 wheeler parked in front of his house.
The last he heard he was the head cook of a large sorority house. When Steve talked about him it was obvious he thought the guy had an interesting mind.
The staff followed Steve’s lead keeping the chatter down and the mood professional in the front of the house. The back kitchen is where the co-worker laughter and gossip took place. Mother would hang there waiting for Rik to finish whoever he was working on. Or to wait for whatever chemicals she had in her hair to completely burn her scalp.
Mother had free reign in the shop and once went looking for something upstairs. As she passed the open door of a private workroom she looked in where Steve was alone preparing a wig for a client. To do the finishing touches he had it on his head. When he looked in the mirror and their eyes met they both laughed uncontrollably. Then, without words, he resumed styling and she continued to wander.
Mother was a little older and grew up on a farm outside of Bluffton. Forty miles down the Wabash River was Peru where Steve lived in the town itself. Both metropolises had populations around 10,000.
During their teen years they were both star struck by Hollywood. The Movie Star System was the internet of their age, the innovation that would change the world forever. They kept up with the fan gossip and saw as many movies as they could. In Bluffton it was at a tiny theater called The Grand. In Peru it was The Roxy. Whereas Mother loved the movies, Steve developed an obsession that would last his entire life.
Steve had binders full of autographed stills and letters he’d collected from stars. He’d established a correspondence with many resulting in a series of letters between them. One was from Joan Fontaine who he sent a photo to be autographed. It was one she’d never seen of herself “with Hitch.” She asked if she could have a copy.
By the late 1970’s he’d established a contact within the Academy. He attended the Oscar ceremonies every year for the next decade.
I’ve always wondered how he and Mother bucked the trend of rural Indiana to develop such expansive world views.
Steve had a caustic, scathing sense of humor that was conveyed in a gentlemanly way. He told jokes well but his strength was situational humor. Which is also the hardest to describe. It’s all about context.
Our favorite summer treat was the soft ice cream at Zesto’s on Broadway. Steve, Mother and I were in the car one hot July evening with our three vanilla cones. We sat in dead silence working quickly on the confections before they melted on us and the luxury upholstery. Nothing was said as we each noticed the same thing at once: an extremely large woman waddling through the parking lot on her way to the take-out window.
The walker easily weighed three hundred pounds. Sadly, she probably was only in her twenties which is not an uncommon sight in the mid-west. What was uncommon was this human sausage was encased from head to toe in skin-tight lavender spandex.
There was a silent anticipation in the car as we struggled to get to the manageable portion of our cones. Once there, Steve showcased his innate diplomatic charm.
“You know, Lilac really is her color. Truly it is. All her girlfriends tell her so. It makes her eyes pop. And it’s so smart the way she’s carried it through with the shadow and even in the blush. Not many would do that.”
We laughed so hard we couldn’t speak. Steve continued, “And that tiny top knot on her head is such a clever trick on a large woman. It draws the eye upward toward the pretty face, detracts from the less fortunate aspects of the silhouette.”
He concluded with, “You know she’s just come from the gym, she’s been working out very hard this summer. She likes to reward herself with a double fudge turtle sundae after a strenuous session like that. She’s earned it. I see nothing but good things ahead for her.”
With that, Steve started laughing as hard as we were.
Billy was my friend for over 50 years. For the first 30 of those I wasn’t even calling him by his correct name.
After graduating from beauty school in the 1950’s he went to work in the salon at Wolf and Dessauer’s, Fort Wayne’s leading department store. The impresario of the shop decided he needed a different name because she already had a couple of Bills. Like Lady Marjorie naming one of the servants on Upstairs Downstairs, she decided he would be called Steve. No questions asked, that was his professional name.
By the late 50’s Steve was ready to branch out on his own. He took his stage name with him and opened his own salon in a Victorian at the corner of Broadway and Kinnaird. For the next half century, The Corner House became the ne plus ultra for the city’s toniest coiffures..
Steve was one of Rosie Didier’s best friends which is how Mother heard of the shop. She started going around 1965 and soon became friends with the owner. She was puzzled by the name dichotomy at first then learned why some of his closer friends called him Billy.
But she persisted on calling him Steve. They had been introduced that way and she wasn’t one for playing games. So I called him Steve too.
When I was thinking about the gay thing in high school, I knew the men in the salon were a link to that mysterious life. I couldn’t completely figure them out but they had the trendiest clothing, seemed to always have fun and were forever changing hair styles. When I got my drivers license and knew I’d be picking Mother up at the shop, I made sure to wear my latest.
Junior year in college was the season of the Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I’d been to the Brass Boot on Oak Street in Chicago and came away with a pair of red leather platform shoes. They had three inch heels that were silver as were the soles and the stars that were on either side of the red leather. Everyone took notice including Granddad whose indifference to my wardrobe never waivered. He asked dryly if the shoes were for “orthopedic purposes.”
The staff in the Corner House took note as well. Although too cool and professional to fawn over them in person, their comments filtered back through my Mother for weeks to come. Even years later someone would occasionally ask her if I still had the red shoes.
Steve had been kind to me when I was in high school and college. But we never socialized. That all changed when I turned twenty-one. Suddenly the world of cocktail lounges and dinner dates that he and Mother inhabited opened up to me. Exposed to the full bore of his humor and intellect, I understood why Mother found him so engaging. I started to gain confidence that I could hold my own with him.
With his rapier wit, Steve was a master at playful banter. If you got off a decent quip you could always expect a response in kind. One year I sent a Christmas card of Jayne Mansfield decorating the tree. I wrote I’d found this old photo of Mother wearing what I believed was one of her 4-H sewing projects.
I then saw him when I went home for vacation. His first words were, “I think you’re right. that was the year she won the blue ribbon at the county fair.”.
In the end my route out of the closet ran through the Union Building in Bloomington and not the Corner House. In less than a month the scales fell from my eyes. I was meeting guys who were young, attractive, intelligent and witty. Except for their sex partners, they were just like other kids. It really was not that big of a deal.
My apprehensions had been based on a lack of information. The only ones talking about gay people were those who hated them. It was hard to reconcile what I felt with the child molestor/sex offender characterizations gays were given. Which is why I was so curious about the guys at The Corner House. They didn’t strike me as criminal class.
Until my generation gay life was underground. There was no visible community portraying a positive image to counteract all the negativity. In the early 1970s emerging political groups were rapidly trying to change that.
There was pressure for gays to come out to everybody especially their families. The suggested mode was the classic intergenerational speech that began, in hushed tones, with the cliche, “Mom…Dad…I’m gay.”
No one in my family communicated like that and I wasn’t going to be the first. Still I needed to acknowledge my sexuality somehow.
Eric was a Bloomington friend who also was from Fort Wayne, although we didn’t meet until college. Mother got to know him during our breaks at home. She was fond of him because he would openly discuss any subject with her. Their talks were so frank, a sense of propriety had me leaving the room at times. I wasn’t about to discuss that with her.
Eric and I never had sex although we could have. Everyone was doing everybody and with an “all-in” attitude like that STDs were rampant. It was 10 years before AIDS, VD was like the common cold in college.
I had several illnesses as a child and still felt the need to communicate to Mother when I was sick. So on one of my calls from campus I fabricated the story that I’d contacted gonorrhea from Eric. I wasn’t completely lying, I did have the infection. I just used him to soften the blow.
Mother’s immediate response was direct, “well, have you been to the doctor?” Any disdain she felt was was for the disease not the act. She’d been through my childhood TB, double pneumonia, spinal meningitis and hepatitis but no member of her family was ever stricken with a malady like this.
There might have been a perfunctory “be careful” during the call but not much else was said about it. From that point on, however, there were no major secrets between us.
I offer this as an example to mental health professionals. There are probably more sensitive ways to address coming out, but it’s just as effective to say, “Mom…Dad…Eric gave me the clap.”