Stage Fright

Further proof that I’m watching too many Youtube documentaries came in the form of last night’s dream. The first of two startling vignettes involved Joan Crawford.

It was the mid-1960s thus in black and white. She was backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show preparing to do a dramatic reading of a poem. I found her alone cowering in the corner, en tremblant. She was surrounded by the stage crews’ brooms and cleaning equipment. Her ashen face pleaded with me to get her out of there, “there’s no way I can do this!”

The second, much grander scene was in technicolor and involved the last days of the Romanovs. I was with them in the Ekatrenberg basement as they and their captors made a very lurid porn movie together. It was going to be called Lust in the Dust. When I pointed out there was already a John Waters’ film with the same name, they decided to change the title to Lustful and Dustful. I woke up laughing

In the 2018 film Tea With the Dames, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright have a conversation about their careers in acting. The movie looks like a producer’s dream. All they had to do was turn on the camera and the women wrote the script on the spot. The only production value needed was a skillful editor to splice it together. Which they found.

Throughout the piece the actresses love to goof on the numerous elocution exercises they performed through the years (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.) And the editor’s masterful sprinkling of brief clips from their careers show how the exercises paid off. Their intrinsic articulation of every syllable in an English sentence is unequaled.

The most surprising takeaway is how all four dealt with stage fright. I know many suffer from this but I thought it was the exception. They talked as if it was pervasive and maybe the norm.

The paralysis I felt before any performance was just chalked up as another of my many personality defects. No one in their right mind would sit through such terror struggling for any possible way out of the situation. Scenarios that are completely wrong and that under normal circumstances would never even be considered are, at times like this, perfectly viable alternatives.

Eileen Atkins said every night in the car on the way to the theatre she wonders if it wouldn’t be better to be maimed or killed in an accident. She always just barely comes down on the side of “no, it would not.”

It’s reassuring to find out I’m not alone in this psychosis. But as Gilda Radner doing Barbara Walters would say, it comes “too widdle, too wate” to do me much good.

In 1995 I did my final performance, a benefit for the new Gay and Lesbian Reading Room at the library. It had been almost a decade since my previous show and AIDS had drastically changed the landscape. My mailing list had taken a big hit, the pool of worker bees who usually helped out had dwindled, plus those who remained were so burnt out there wasn’t much enthusiasm for another event. Most of all I missed Brian.

Brian didn’t do much hands on work until the day of a show when he would drop everything to help. But as projects unfolded he was a sounding board and source of encouragement. When I did my first solo Halloween show in 1981, Queens’ Christmas, he told me to stop brooding over a budget, concentrate on ideas not bookkeeping. He urged me to book the overpriced hotel ballroom I wanted but couldn’t afford. Worry about the money later. I did and somehow it worked out.

In 1995 I did almost all of the prep work myself. Everything went fine until the night of the performance. When the sleazeball entrepreneur who rented the space took my money he magnanimously said we could have access anytime that day to set up. We agreed on 7:00 PM.

That evening four of us arrived at the appointed hour and rang the bell. There was no answer. We rang and knocked again, nothing. So I called and got his voicemail. He didn’t return the call. Soon it was 7:30 then 8:00. All we could do was wait and keep leaving messages. We stood in the cold November night with all of our stuff on the sidewalk as a few more set up people joined us. Finally the proprietor showed up at 8:30 with a blithe smile and a “lets get this party started” fake attitude. I was furious but there was too much to do to waste energy on anger.

All day my stage fright had been increasing incrementally. But during the long wait at he door the trauma of one terror was replaced by that of another. I thought I’d been bilked out of $1500, the guy wasn’t even going to show. I thought of the people I was letting down, how they’d arrive only to find nothing there. I’d been given the stage fright fanatic’s ultimate wish, an excuse to not go on. Instead, to appear to be this irresponsible and incompetent and the damage it would cause to my reputation would hurt more than any humiliation I might have on stage.

The saving grace was that it was billed as a party that included a performance. Not a show with a curtain time. 9:00 PM was on the invitation and, given my chic friends, no one was going to show up on time. Indeed, the crowd didn’t start trickling in until 9:30. There was plenty to drink and by 10:30 a decent number had assembled. The show started at 11:00. We’d had barely enough time to get through the preparations.

My performance that night was not very good. I was so drained by the pre-show angst I had difficulty summoning the nerve to get through it.

I do think I redeemed myself with the encore, Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It had melodramatic chops I could sink my teeth into. I’d begun the evening with Ms. Springfield’s I Only Want to Be With You. So, in the spirit of Romanov porn, I introduced the final song with “Ashes to ashes, Dusty to Dusty.”

Satisfied with that effort I did not wish to end on a downer. I came back for a second encore, Tina Turner’s version of (Darlin’) You Know I Love You.

The choreographer of the great Russian ballets, Petipa, said always listen to the music. It will tell you exactly what to do. And the message from the bluesy beat of this B.B. King song came through loud and clear: strip. I have always been the happiest on stage when taking my clothes off.

Moving from the fantasy land of dreams and memories, harsh reality confronted me in the form of The Graham Norton Show. In one episode Lesley Manville made the case for what a trouble maker Judi Dench was. In their early careers they appeared together in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Well into the meat of the play Manville would stand alone to deliver a soliloquy. It was her character’s big moment in the production.

One night she noticed Dench in the wings awaiting her cue in the usual spot. She was hidden not only from the audience but also the cast and crew. The only sight line was between the two actresses.

As Manville bared her soul, Dench bent over at the waist to simulate an act of anal sex. Her pantomime was so convincing, with every pounding thrust of the phantom anal invader the actress in the spotlight could feel her concentration evaporate. She ended delivering a speech laced with uncontrollable laughter.

Manville regretted her lapse in professionalism. But actors on their level have such skills, who knows how it came off. The crowd may have perceived it as the madness of a talented performance. The actresses were probably the only ones who noticed the difference. Well, those two and the stage hands.

Lesley had given birth a couple of weeks before and was still having bladder control issues. As the mime in the wings reached around to apply more imaginary lube, Manville urinated all over the stage. Fortunately her costume included a long skirt.

50 years ago in the first year of our friendship, Dale and I were crammed in the back seat of a car leaving a party in Bloomington. Out of the blue he turned and said, “you’re the person most like Joan Crawford I’ve ever met.” Whether it was a compliment or a dig I wasn’t sure. An educated guess would be the latter.

On one hand Crawford was glamourous and adored. On the other, to achieve that adulation she had the reputation of being the most single-minded, calculating and ruthless of all the stars in Hollywood’s firmament.

I’ve always enjoyed the vagueness of not knowing what he meant.

A few years later that same sagacious queen offered another tidbit that has haunted me through the decades. He cautioned me to “be careful. All images eventually ring false.”

And I think I was careful, I never fell for the hype. I spent so much energy convincing others to believe in a persona I could never believe in myself. It was a job whose paycheck was the joy of pretending.

To quote Edward Albee:

Martha: Truth or illusion, George, you don’t know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as if we did, Martha.


For those who would like to read more about my life coach Dale, his new book will be published October 3rd. Hippie Faggot Freak details his harsh adolescence. The experience forged a determination which served him well when he became a leader of the emerging gay liberation movement of the early 1970’s.

We had not yet met so I can’t really speak to his years as a troubled teen. But, when I came out in college, it was quite a luxury to have access to my own private Simon Bolivar.

Click here for a preview of Hippie Faggot Freak.

Demanding a Recount

A slight oversight in the 2020 election steal media blitz has been that the only race affected was the presidential one. If a ballot was cast fraudulently, however, wouldn’t that invalidate all selections made on that ballot? Maybe it’s time to take a second look at the Dog Catcher contest in Maricopa County or the nail-biter for State Senator in Buttfuque, LA. If the issue is ballot fraud there’s a lot more to this story than Biden and Trump.

But since day one the narrative has been dumbed down to appeal to a national audience weaned on the ethics of the Real Housewives franchises and the logic of NRA Constitutional scholars. The illusion was created that millions of votes were independently cast for president which had no relation to other choices a voter may have made. It would be wrong to count the vote of a dead person for Joe Biden but apparently acceptable to include in the referendum to preserve the Stonewall Jackson statue in Smitherines, GA

That inside the beltway journalists like Susan Page, Anderson Cooper or Nora Dunce have not exposed this angle is shocking. Maybe they’ve done a Bob Woodward and made a deal with their sources not to publish until after the fact. “Explosive new details” can add millions to the take on your exclusive best seller.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court is standing by to save the day. While Justice Thomas relaxes on the Crow ranch engaging in his favorite summer pastime of picking pubic hairs out of his coke, his team of clerks funded by the Federal Lust Society are working on the solution: a bold new legal theory, ballotum fraudulentus.

This theory describes a computer virus so sophisticated it takes a trajectory not seen since the second shot from Dealey Plaza’s grassy knoll. In that instance of national intrigue, a bullet took a dramatic u-turn out of Governor Connolly to go back and hit the sitting President. Likewise the 2020 malware was so finely engineered it was able to course through all of the nation’s voting machinery attacking only the presidential vote and leaving all other races unaffected.

The House is jumping on the BF bandwagon and has scheduled hearings to commence immediately following the summer recess. Congresswoman Taylor-Greene is primed to introduce yet another piece of salacious evidence: the double-headed dildo used by Hunter Biden in one of his videos. She says it represents the duplicity of, well, er, uh, something–she hasn’t thought that through yet.

Keep up the good work Margie!

From a Plush Shag, 1972

My Bloomington friends and I have always bemoaned the fact there are very few photos from those two hectic years. Things were so counterculture we didn’t care about documenting anything.

Thanks to the miracle of hoarding and the kindness of a friend, a set of five photos have emerged.

Through my jeans legs, darkly.

God Save the King (Oh Spare Me)

For centuries the clergy have perfected the mysterious ritual of taking young men (and occasionally women) behind a partition to conduct the holiest of acts. The unction of choice is usually Wet Platinum or KY Jelly. Once in a lifetime, however, when it comes to anointing a monarch, they’ll pull out the Extra, Extra, I-Don’t-Care-How-Many-Times-You’ve-Been-Laid-For-Our-Purposes-You’re-Still-A-Virgin Oil.

Once the shaky, eczema covered hands finish slathering the luscious flesh, the heavens open and a direct line is established to God. We’ve all had tricks like that.

If Prince Harry’s Spare is to be believed, the main topic of discussion between the deity and their new representative on earth will be about managing PR. He describes a petty and duplicitous Palace staff consumed with controlling all royal news. Bad press is just as valuable as good, it shores up brand recognition.

Equally obsessed but somewhat less powerful are family members who hire staff. Each principal royal has a household who work with other households to resolve conflicts and whims. With some exceptions the pecking order usually prevails. A Defender of the Faith trumps a Prince of Wales who outranks a Princess Royal who precedes sundry duchies. Once the feathers from the henhouse staff fight settle, the principals display a united front to support the final outcome.

What Har the Spare exposes is how tacky this divine family’s backroom maneuvering can be. Conversations like “Kate has had bad press for two years now it’s Meaghan’s turn to be the villain” actually occur. Courtiers immediately leak stories about Kate’s impeccable style. While simultaneously fabricating ones on Meaghan abusing staff and bitch slapping Kate into tears.

Most of their derogatory coverage on the internet comes from about two dozen sources. And they all can be traced back to the Palace.

It’s not just the hazing ritual for newbies that creates a turnaround in PR fortunes. Camilla is probably experiencing whiplash from her recent press.

For decades she’s been the callous jezebel who tormented Diana and destroyed her marriage. Now with her coronation as Queen Consort imminent, she gives one speech on osteoporosis and becomes the angel of the downtrodden. What has changed? Just the pigeon hole she’s been assigned to keep the Firm afloat

Harry describes in detail his five years in the British army. The intense and lengthy training he went through to become a helicopter fighter pilot. The military turned him into a robotic piece of meat.

He was deployed in a hood with earplugs so there were no clues where he was being taken. Eventually he was dropped on the desert floor to live in a run down school house cum barracks.

The Prince’s main diversions were card games, girly magazines and sleep. He lived on constant edge as he could be summoned into combat at a moment’s notice. Existence became so rote there was a loss of sentience as he performed his tedious duties. Nothing was predictable.

On completing the tour of duty, one of his first events was the family’s annual meeting at Sandringham. The one where Royals (save the monarch) discuss organizations they patronize, fine tune assignments then divvy up new ones needing a sponsor.

The main item of interest is reviewing the Circular. This tally sheet shows the number of activities each royal undertook the previous year. There’s little consistency or precise definition on which jobs qualify.

The obvious ones would be “organized a fundraiser” or “attended a command performance.” Then there are the questionable entries: “helicoptered in to East Anglia for a 20 minute presentation at the Knitters League. Awarded Medal for Fewest Dropped Stitches in 2022 then helicoptered out.” Fresh off his Afghanistan stint, Harry quietly thought “they call that work?”

Backlash for Spare is orchestrated by the Palace in collusion with the tabloid press. The main criticisms are that Harry and Meaghan are narcissistic and greedy. Compared to whom?

After the army Harry was assigned a residence at Kensington Palace. Sounds grand but his particular crib was Notting Hill Cottage, a 19th century run down unit with a few small rooms and low ceilings. He got by with little help preferring to fend for himself.

It was an isolated and lonely experience. His only privacy was on the palace grounds. Once outside the gates he’d be besieged by paparzzi.

Occasionally he’d come up with a disguise, sneak out to a discount clothing retailer in his High Street neighborhood and make a mad dash to grab as much as he could. Then he’d quickly check out and run home with his wardrobe for the next six months. To linger meant discovery which resulted in all hell breaking loose.

Grocery shopping was more problematic because it needed to be done frequently. The only option was pick the least busy times and hope for the best. He writes how he and Meaghan bonded in their early days of dating by roasting a chicken at Nott Cott.

This side of the Prince comes from his Mother’s rearing not from his just folks Pa’s. His entire adult life, Charles III has employed a valet to squeeze the toothpaste on his brush because he can’t or won’t do it himself.

He also has a penchant for fresh vegetables from his garden at Highgrove. No matter which residence he’s in, home grown produce needs to be trucked or jetted to him the day it is on the menu. A true everyman.

Or maybe the critics would rather the Sussexes follow the example of Uncle Andrew. One of the few times he served as spokesman for the family was meeting reporters at the PanAm crash site in Lockerbie. Although not known at the time of his appearance, it was an agent of one of Andrew’s best buds, Muammar Gaddafi, who blew up the plane.

Standing on the field where the corpses had been strewn, Prince Andrew pontificated how “statistically something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.” Imagine the solace that statement provided.

It’s no wonder the family kept him muzzled for the next 30 years. When this cat somehow slipped out of the bag to give an interview on the Epstein Child Prostitution Case, he confessed the one thing he was guilty of was “just being too honorable.”

As for greed, most royals lead a pampered existence until about mid-life. Then budget cuts dictate their removal from the Civil List. With no training (or inclination) to do anything professionally, they are left to “spare change” in the noblest of ways.

There isn’t a royal alive who would not leap at the purported $100 million the Duke and Duchess got from Netflix. They had the savvy to know what was available and how to get it.

Whether intended or not, Spare makes the case for the jig being up. Monarchies have no place in the modern era except for the tourist dollars they attract. The Windsors are Britain’s Epcot Center: conveniently accessible as well an amazing life-like approximation of rulers from centuries gone by.

It’s preposterous the state should maintain Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace for two seniors like Fred and Gladys (the King and Queen Consort’s everyday people nicknames for each other). The edifices should be turned into museums leaving the state rooms intact for occasional ceremonial use.

With over 1500 rooms between them, there’s plenty left for more practical use. In the hands of a bankruptcy-savvy real estate firm run by the Trump-Kushners, excess space could be converted to new housing. Apartments like The Annus Horribillis Villas in Windsor could spring up. Or, in London, The Grace and Favor Dells at Buckingham. (To tour a model unit, contact Senior Property Manager George Santos.)

This is not to say all descendants of Billy the Conqueror should be euthanized. Anyone who can trace their roots back a millennium needs to be acknowledged in some manner. That can be accomplished in Ripley’s Believe or Not rather than the public dole.

I’ve not always been anti-monarchist. As a first grader reading fairy tales I was a believer. Then as I learned about authority figures, anyone on television was to be revered.

The seeds of doubt were planted in adolescence. Charles and Anne were roughly my age but they somethinged (it couldn’t be called dancing) to the beat of a different drum. Our generation was swinging but those two had severe cases of pelvic block. They were 50-year-olds in 15-year-old bodies. It made the family seem weird.

Then in college all the myths used to make us conform came tumbling down. Vietnam was the last line of defense against Communism. Women were genetically inferior to men and belonged in the home. Marijuana use guaranteed heroin addiction.

To this bonfire of lies it was a no-brainer to add hereditary monarchies. When I heard the Sex Pistols perform God Save the Queen at Winterland, it felt like the Brits had finally woken up to smell the Darjeeling. And this time, we mean it man.

Then I started to soften. Not for the institution but for the individual. And the jewels. (My God! What’s to become of those precious stones? RuPaul’s Drag Race could put them to good use.) Admiration for Elizabeth II necessitated postponing the guillotine until the end of her reign.

In an unassuming way she became a role model to women and girls in the under-educated regions of the world like Bangladesh or the American South. The Queen was not measured on how well she vamped to get her man. She was judged by the steadfast and diligent way she performed her duties, rarely putting a wrong foot forward.

Elizabeth did a traditional man’s job better than any male could have done. Subliminally this had to seep into the consciousness of females around the globe where the primitive Me-Tarzan-You-Jane ethos still flourishes (with the possible exception of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. They’re beyond hope.)

Her success was partly dependent on her ability to compartmentalize and delegate. Harry recalls a phone conversation with Granny about an issue he felt strongly about. She agreed whole-heartedly with his point of view and course of action. Five days later a courtier informed him they’d be doing exactly the opposite.

Like a professional sports team, the Queen must have evaluated overall performances at the end of the season. But she couldn’t lay her life on the line for individual items on the schedule. Sheer volume required she trust staff to vet the details. Even when a decision was not to her liking, she affably played the hand she was dealt.

Both Spare and Netflix’s The Crown establish the only person who can say “no” to a royal is this vagary called a courtier. How they are selected or from whence they gain their authority is a mystery. It is known they are picked from Britain’s aristocracy and work with branches of the government. But that’s about it. The resulting fog provides fertile ground for QAnon theorists and the minds of retired megalomaniacs.

Decisions at this diabolical level are done independently of the monarch. The royals have no curiosity after the fact nor do they have knowledge beforehand. Ignorance limits culpability. It would be wrong to assume the Queen attended plenary sessions with MI5, pounding her fist and yelling, “Not the Pont Neuf! Do it in the Alma Tunnel! No pedestrians!”

This obscure decision making process is especially valuable in dealing with expiration dates. In the midst of the Russian Revolution when the Tsar sought asylum in Britain, the answer was no. The Windsors were skating on thin ice with public opinion at the time. They couldn’t risk giving refuge to their tyrannical kinfolk.

When George V was in extremis 20 years later, someone ordered a speed ball of cocaine and morphine to be mainlined before midnight. Better to have the death announcement in the prestigious morning papers than the tawdry evening tabloids.

Then there’s the curious case of Meg and Mum. In 2002 the country was gearing up for summer long celebrations of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Hundreds of thousands of people would be descending on London. There were billions of dollars to be made.

The last thing they needed was a state funeral to muck things up with 10 days of official mourning. It would have been so awkward and cruel to force a despondent Queen onto the balcony to blithely smile and wave at the adoring masses.

In January of that year both Princess Margaret and the Queen Mum were in precarious health. Margaret died in February followed a few weeks later by her Mother. A respectable two months of mourning followed before the jubilee began in late May. Just saying.

The death of Harry’s Mother permeates Spare. He writes of an otherwise loving family who were either ill-equipped or unwilling to help him face his loss. They just shuttled him off to boarding school. Left to his own devices, he acted out with alcohol, drugs and Nazi uniforms.

The discipline of the army helped as did mental health counseling. Meeting Meaghan and starting a family, however, was the palliative that helped him get on with life.

Both he and his brother William have reservations about the cause of Diana’s death. And well they should. It has never made sense that three sophisticated, intelligent people like Princess Diana, Dodi al-Fayed and the bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones would get into a car with a driver as blisteringly drunk as their chauffeur was said to have been. Or how such a deadly accident could have occurred in a straight away tunnel with no hazards.

The issue with Diana was she had mastered press manipulation. She could outshine the royal family at the drop of a hat. Where it was hoped divorce would diminish her abilities and sideline her, instead it seemed to increase her power.

In the short term this would be an annoyance to the Queen who could hold her own. But in the long run it would be a disaster for the dullard Charles. Diana could always make mincemeat of him when it came to PR.

The Queen might have addressed the issue with her limited tools. The establishment, who were equally as cognizant, had more lethal methods at their disposal.

When she was informed of the crash, Elizabeth was probably as stunned and saddened as everyone else. But she would have immediately seen what it meant. Once the Queen of Hearts was laid, Lilibet was free to play out her winning hand and take all of the remaining tricks.

Harry’s perspective on the days after his Mother’s death corresponds with what I’ve always thought. As articulated in his uncle the Earl Spencer’s statement the following day, the whole world thought Diana was hounded to death by paparazzi. The publishers of tabloid trash had her blood on their hands.

But two days into mourning the story dramatically shifted to “show us you care”. Headlines blasted the Queen’s tone deaf response to the tragedy. This remained the official line all the way through to Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance ten years later.

There’s never been a discussion of the mechanics involved in making the Queen a focal point for the nation’s anger. Nor why the press got off scot-free for the proximate role they played in the crime. There is no bad press about the press because they control the press.

And there’s no push back from the Palace. For better or worse, they’re reliant on journalists to perpetuate The Firm.

The best scene of The Crown (so far) occurs in Season 5. In an opening sequence a shooting party is underway at Sandringham. It was not unusual for hundreds, if not thousands, of birds to be felled every winter.

Vignettes of George V’s festivities are juxtaposed with what was happening in Yekaterinburg. The narrative weaves between the falling fowl and the Romanovs herded to the basement, lined against the wall, then riddled with bullets.

You live by the blood sports, you die by the blood sports.

Platinum Jubilee

I was recently awakened at the ungodly hour of noon by an anonymous 800 number caller. I never answer these auto-calls because it’s no business of Citibank’s how my day is going. Occasionally, however, I will take one on for sport.

A favorite tactic is to be cooperative yet confused. After the first hundred words of the script I beg their forgiveness. “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand, could you please repeat that?” Usually they will, maybe in an abbreviated format, to which I’ll again confess “I really don’t get what you’re saying, could you explain that one more time?” Two rounds is usually enough, though I have gone three. These calls end abruptly with their indignant “hanging up” and then a dial tone.

A couple of times I’ve gone phone sex on them. If I’m really irritated.

“You as horny as I am? You got it out? Playing with it?” These calls are over quickly with just a dial tone. In the old days I might have gotten a “you’re disgusting.” Maybe so, but it’s no more sickening than their wasting my time with aggressively obnoxious marketing techniques.

As they robotically infer in their preamble, I hope they’re recording me for training purposes. I can think of no better teacher.

That morning/early afternoon I answered pounce. But there was something about her tone that gave me pause. In a halting, uncomfortable cadence she introduced herself as an executive with the American Airlines Platinum Program. Whereas I never hold back on the hostility with sleuth marketers, I try not to be intentionally rude to real people. I shifted gears from subversive to gracious. Within seconds we were both laughing.

Achieving elite status with a frequent flyer program is such a non-accomplishment. So was getting a B.A. in Political Science. My new executive friend explained I’d crossed the lifetime Two Million Mile threshold and was forevermore vested on the platinum level. In addition to no more qualifying annually, new benefits included checking two bags for free, boarding with the second or third group, and automatic upgrades. In the rare instances where customer assistance is staffed with human beings, there’s the shorter, preferred line.

I’d been close to the milestone for some time but since they changed the rules it wasn’t exactly clear where I stood. A thousand mile trip to Denver was once worth 1000 miles. Now it might only be 500 or 700 miles depending on how deeply discounted the fare is. To stay in the program, however, required flying at least once per calendar year. As of December 1st I hadn’t been on an American flight all year.

To preserve my status I searched for cheap flights. I bought a one way ticket to LA for $99 then watched for a good return fare. Up at 4:30 a.m. for the 7:00 flight, I was on the ground in LAX at 8:30. Checking one last time for a decent price back home, they were still in the $200+ range. So I executed Plan B.

For a $1.50 the metro took me downtown to Union Station where I purchased a $51 ticket for the next train to the City. It would be a seven hour trip but then I’m retired. What the hell else do I have to do?

From the ages of five to ten my family lived in the San Fernando Valley. Being in the Spanish Colonial station brought back memories of greeting relatives during the holidays or embarking on our summer vacations. There were those funky square waiting chairs that belied how comfortable they really were. And the garden courtyard that served as the backdrop for family portraits.

Among the throngs of passengers back then I remembered porky, corn-fed women in blue wool coats and smug smiles. I thought they must be important with their big corsages that said “Iowa.” Granddad explained they were in town for the Rose Bowl.

The metro links to the old station via the subway tunnel leading to the track gates. Deserted these days, one can stop to marvel at the majestic simplicity of its art deco symmetry.

In my youth this passage was truly scary. It was teeming with chaos as arriving passengers cooped up for two days scrambled for fresh air and ambulatory freedom. They competed for space with those who just heard their gate called and only had minutes to board. It felt especially panicked the summer Mother, 27, traveled alone to Indiana with her four boys ages one, three, seven and nine.

On that vacation Dad met us for the last week and we all returned together on the Super Chief. With a longer than usual stop in Albuquerque we walked around the station. Dad left me to my own devices, counting my change to determine if I had enough to buy an Indian Woman souvenir. She wore a fringed buckskin outfit with a papoose strapped on her back. He probably watched from afar but I couldn’t see him so it felt like I was on my own.

When the transaction was complete Dad suddenly reappeared and we scurried back to the train. Mid-scurry he lectured me on the importance of watching the clock so as to not miss the departure. Images were planted in my mind of a seven year old stranded in the Chihuahuan desert, never to see his family again. (Dad’s tactics were harsher than Mother’s.) That episode created a lifelong phobia for missing trains.

For my most recent train trip there was an hour between purchasing the ticket and departure. I relaxed and was spared the phobic curse. Although a seven hour train sounds like a huge waste, when you factor in the chaos and delays of air travel, or freeway traffic jams, it’s a wash in terms of time. And far less stressful.

The train doesn’t terminate in San Francisco. The last stop is Oakland. San Francisco passengers transfer to a coach in Emeryville for the 20 minute ride to the City.

As I was deboarding I heard a woman asking an Amtrak attendant for help. She had expected to end up in San Francisco. The conductor was not very forthcoming which made the situation a lot more confusing than it needed to be.

I turned to say I was headed to the City. If she wanted to walk with me about 100 feet I’d show her.

On the bus over the bridge she asked if I knew where the Tenderloin was. I said yes but was surprised. That’s not a destination point for most visitors. I asked if she had an address. She said no. Some friends of her son had called to tell her he was homeless and living in a tent in some alley.

They also said his girlfriend had overdosed on fentanyl recently. He was deeply despondent and using too. She hadn’t talked to her son in several weeks because he changed phones frequently and did not keep her up to date on numbers. She wanted to find him quickly to get him into rehab.

Her urgency was warranted. Fentanyl has killed so many lately. It appears to be highly addictive, batches vary wildly in strength, and there’s no antidote. Even if the EMS does arrive in time there’s not much they can do.

In San Francisco I offered to walk with her up Market Street. My route home would be close to the Loin, I could point her in the right direction. She was grateful and we proceeded together.

She’d only been here once before, very briefly. She did not know the City at all. I stressed she was headed to a rough neighborhood, that it might be better to wait for morning and daylight. She brushed me off, certain she would find her son.

She talked about him with such pride, how good looking he was. He had once modeled for major designers in the U.S. and Europe. He made good money but he hated the artificiality of the scene, the manufactured stress of it all. He quit and his slide into drugs began.

Because of his looks he’d been taken under the wings of a group of transexuals who lived near his tent. He loved the attention but insisted he was not into them sexually. They were the ones who called her to inform her of his circumstances.

Throughout our conversation I waited for the other penny to drop. Strangers with dramatic stories usually means there’s a scam involved. She was going to ask me to do something out of the ordinary or hit me up for money. But the more we talked, the more her credibility grew.

She resembled Meaghan Markle’s mother, Doria, both in appearance and demeanor. Although she found herself in an unnerving situation she was full of determination and kept her cool.

At Powell Street we exchanged phone numbers and prepared to part ways. I offered to help find a cheap room to use as a base. She couldn’t stay out in the cold all night. She demurred saying she’d deal with it later. She wanted to dive right in to find her boy. Then, for the second time that day, I invoked the retiree’s credo: what the hell else did I have to do? It was only 8:00, I would help her get her bearings.

It’s only one block from the cable car turnaround to the Tenderloin. The Union Square area with it’s big chain hotels forms the eastern boundary of the neighborhood. Miraculously, the populations of out-of-town tourists and the inner-city impoverished rarely mix. There’s a perverse thrill in thinking of white-bread Sioux City couples making a wrong turn out of the Hilton to search for a $50 Alcatraz t-shirt in the city’s barrio.

As we traversed the filth and squalor of Eddy Street I shared my method for dealing with potential danger. Maintain an unaffected and spaced out look while working the peripheral vision overtime. If someone greets you, make a casual reply but keep moving. Do not make eye contact, do not engage.

Shoulder bag purses make you a sitting duck for a snatch and run in any neighborhood. My friend said her shopping bag only contained fruit and reading material for the train. She was wearing one of those zipped up puffer coats and her valuables were secured in an interlined pocket.

The puzzling thing about her information was he camped in an alley. Even in the 19th Century when the grid was first laid out, space was at a premium downtown. There aren’t many alleys. When we got to Polk, the commercial street that bounds the Loin on the west, I thought of one.

We walked up to O’Farrell then over to Hyde. There’s a cul de sac that cuts about a third of the way into the block where it abuts the backside of an apartment building. It has a Gothic, picturesque quality because of the growth of older trees. Alas, that night there were no squatters. We continued on.

At Leavenworth we descended the hill to the street’s base in the UN Plaza on Market. The sidewalk was packed with street people selling goods spread out on blankets. It was now 9:00. I was tired and cold and told my companion I was going to head back to my place. She looked me squarely in the eyes and thanked me sincerely.

At home I contacted a community activist friend. He gave me the names of two agencies that might help. He also mentioned a bar called 800 Larkin. It’s a gathering spot for the transexual community and, if she was up for it, she was bound to learn something there. I forwarded this info on and went to bed.

The next morning there were no messages so I accepted the experience as just one of life’s unresolved mysteries.. Mid-morning another text from my activist friend said that, from what I had described, the guy was probably in one of the tent encampments on the short alley-like streets between Polk and Van Ness. They are named for indigenous ground cover like Fern, Ivy and Myrtle. I forwarded this too..

About 1:00 in the afternoon I heard from her. She had not found her son and got a room for the night, She was heading back out to search that afternoon..

At 7:00 there was another message saying she was on the train back to Modesto. Her daughter had insisted she return home but she planned to resume her quest early the following week.

A few days later over the weekend she texted again. Her son had called her. She had spoken to enough people that word eventually filtered back she’d been there. After talking to her he said at one point she’d been just a few feet from his tent on one of the ground cover streets. He said much of what she heard was grossly exaggerated. He wasn’t as bad off as she feared. But he admitted he needed help so was cooperating with her to find a facility. She was thrilled.

When I was 19 and in Fort Wayne for the summer, Jim and I struggled to find places to hang out. We were underage so couldn’t get into bars. If Marilyn was in town, though, she knew enough bouncers to sneak us in somewhere. Otherwise our choices were a coffee house that closed at 10 or the all night burger and breakfast joint, Azars.

Jim also liked to go to the Switchboard. It was a 24 hour hippie hotline staffed by volunteers and housed in an old Victorian church rectory. They offered advice on birth control, drugs, police issues, housing, then made referrals to more professional resources.

Calls could be few and far between so the volunteers didn’t mind friends hanging out. The room was outfitted with ratty used furniture to lounge in. You could get stoned there.

One night around midnight, someone offered to drop Jim off at his parents house on the north side. I lived south of the city and intended to leave soon too.

The next thing I knew it was 6:00 a.m. I was awakened by Mother’s voice, a firm “Chris.” She had not heard me come home. When the car wasn’t in the drive that morning she borrowed my brother’s GTO to look for me. After driving around downtown she finally spotted her Karmann Ghia parked in front of St. Mary’s.

As I pulled myself together on the beat up old sofa she asked if I was okay. I answered “yes.” Before I could say more she turned quietly and left.

I arrived home a few minutes after her. There were no histrionics, no scolding. We didn’t discuss the matter at all She just wanted to make sure I was safe. The rest would have to sort itself out.

Will the circle of concerned mothers with wayward children be unbroken?