Back Pages

How could something that was worthless 45 years ago still be worthless today? In the mind of a collector this should never happen. The mere act of preserving something fragile for that many decades should add some value.

In the case of tabloid newspapers it doesn’t. My stack of Jackie National Enquirers, International Tattlers. and Weekly World News that cost me 10 to 50 cents back in the day don’t even fetch the $4.95 of a current issue.

After all that effort, the archivist in me couldn’t allow them to be tossed or destroyed. I thought of salvaging them as bathroom art but who among us wants to see another door papered with Jackie Kennedy covers?

Then I decided rather than focus solely on her I would celebrate the toilet bowl genre of journalism that fed her celebrity so effectively.  There are a few Jackie front pages included but they are among more hard-hitting pieces like: the tallest known traveling salesman in the world at 8′ 2″; the woman who sprouted porcupine quills; and, the first ever pictures of the Antichrist.

To honor her lifelong struggle of protecting herself and her children from the hordes, Privacy Film was used to cover the articles. And the borders are neon yellow to warn of potential hazard: there are some dangerous ways of thinking out there.

It’s fascinating to think how appalled this refined woman must have been to have her gawkish likeness on two-bit tea towels and coffee cups. Then how she was turned into a cartoon character for the tabloids by the Kennedy publicity machine. They had no problem using her because it only increased the power of the family brand among the masses. Plus it gave her a few bargaining chips in life.

It’s also hard to reconcile that figure with the one who studied art with Bernard Berenson and debated philosophy with Andre Malraux; who was the only one ever to convince the French to temporarily lend the Mona Lisa; whose influence brought the Temple of Dendur to the Met; and, who would charge clothing to Onassis’ haute couture accounts then immediately sell them to second hand shops to pad her cash on hand. You gotta do, girl, what you gotta do. It was the perversity of how she got ahead, and not so much idolatry, that appealed to me.

That was the inspiration for starting the collection 50 years ago. I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.

Misery

Do no harm……to the year-end bonus.

I returned from an east coast jaunt in early December to find my friend Ben in the hospital, his life in chaos. As the doctors searched for the cause of his pain I helped get his affairs in order. To motivate him I said we should try to get him home by Christmas.

He probably wouldn’t have been able to care for himself so I offered to have him stay at my place for a week to transition. I suggested he carefully review Kathy Bates’ performance in Misery.

Reality soon overwhelmed planning and he didn’t go anywhere for Christmas. Last Thursday he was transferred to a skilled nursing facility. Although there had been talk that he would eventually go to one of these places, the move itself came about rather suddenly.

Ben called me around noon that day and was distraught. They were making arrangements to move him that afternoon. He was afraid it would be some “Tenderloin hell-hole.”  As a graduate of Boalt Hall he can be quite argumentative and contentious at times. He put up all kinds of resistance.

I ended up the go-between for Ben and the Client Relations Manager Rihana. They’d determined the sole cause of his hip pain was a bacterial infection and the course of therapy was an IV antibiotic for six weeks. This could be administered at a nursing home. Ben pleaded for one more night at the hospital and said he would go in the morning. Rihana said she would try and it was left at that.

That evening when I visited him at San Francisco Health Care and Rehabilitation Center he was a defeated soul. Plus he looked at me like my powers of advocacy had failed him. I put the best spin on it I could. At least he’d found out the treatment was six weeks, he’d already done two, he just had to ride it out for a month.

Then he told me what happened that morning. He’s had an untreated Sciatica problem for years. In addition to the hip pain he was having a lot of back pain. Another MRI was done at 10:00 am and they found problems with a disc. By the time he got back to his room at 11:00 the transfer had been set in motion.

Had there been a secret meeting of the ODP’s (Obama Death Panels) and was it determined that a second non-emergency surgery paid for by Medicare would not be profitable for Davies Medical Center?  One tries not to be cynical but…

Friday afternoon I went to see him at the home and noticed there was no IV. He hadn’t had any treatment in the last 24 hours. I didn’t have the energy to take on the new mysterious bureaucracy of the nursing home, I preferred the old bureaucracy that I did know. I went outside and called Rihana at Davies.

When I explained the situation she apologized. Then she said the facility was chosen because they could administer the therapy but Davies had no authority over what they actually did. I was flabbergasted. I accused her of being duplicitous and deliberately misleading Ben. I was upset that she had used me to help convince him to move based on her assertion that he would continue to receive treatment. It appeared Davies just wanted to free a bed for a more profitable patient. She kept repeating the “no authority” line so I hung up on her.

I walked around and ran some errands trying to think of a way to present this new development to Ben. When I returned to his room an hour later an IV had miraculously appeared in his arm.

To call this facility a hell hole is being kind. Ben says he’s seen bugs. When I visit he never has water. Nor do they provide pitchers I could fill with tap water. So I bring in bottled. He’s been there five days and has yet to have any physical therapy. They haven’t even helped him out of bed.

I could go on but all you need to know is that there’s one Russian doctor for the 168 patients. My guess is he’s a graduate of the famed Trump University of Ekaterinburg’s Med School by Mail program.

Who needs Kathy Bates to terrorize you when you have Medicare-fraud nursing homes to do it for you?

Happy New Year.

To read Ben’s story or to make a donation go to gofundme.com/ben-and-sydney.

Bitch Stole My Look

 

Me in the Chronicle Pink Section May, 1980

 

Miss Bates in 1990. When is the Academy going to recognize me?

A Caregiver’s Guide to a Successful Hospital Visit

Wear bright, bold colors and show as many teeth as possible when you smile. Phony cheerfulness can do wonders for the dreary ambiance of a hospital room. Listen intently to what the patient is saying. Somewhere in that incoherent mumbling they may be articulating a need you might be able to help with. Or not.

Be sure to to take advantage of the hospital’s free wifi and bring your phone. Small talk about the patient’s physical therapy can get old. Start texting to let everyone know which episode of The Crown you’re on. Or who you saw that tramp Bill with last night. You did your job by showing up at the hospital, now book a little “me time” and indulge yourself.

Patients often have weak or non-existent appetites so it’s no crime to stop by at meal times and pick at their trays. Those are your Obama-care tax dollars that paid for that slop, take back what’s rightfully yours. Patients are like zoo animals, they get regular feedings. Missing a meal here or there isn’t going to hurt them.

Decorum and a sense of self will get you everywhere in life. Never let down your guard.

*****

Ben continues to make slow progress. And, as should be obvious, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Thanks to all of you who have supported Ben. If you are interested in reading his story or making a donation visit gofundme.com/ben-and-sydney.

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Or whatever it is that floats your boat.

 

My God-Diggity Dog Daughter

Although I have not been officially consecrated by the Church yet, my spiritual charge, Sydney, was taken at knifepoint a week ago today. Fortunately, she was found in the streets a couple of hours later.

Sydney belongs to a neighbor and friend, Ben, who has had a rather rough go of it lately. I have started a fundraiser for him to help him along. Click here to read about Ben and Sydney or to make a donation.

To those who have already offered support, thank you. To everyone, thanks for your consideration and enjoy the holidays.

 

Dear (Fill in the Blank):

I won’t be home for Christmas, Mother.

Pursuant to my previous post, the last McLaughlin sister, Aunt Betty, died in early December. She was 97. Her four sisters preceded her in death at the ages of 96, 95, 92 and 77. There’s a runt in every litter.

Grandmother was born in 1900 and was the oldest sister. Betty was the youngest, born in 1920. The sticklers out there may question my statement that the girls were all “college graduates by 1925.” Rather than do a detailed accounting of their schooling, I chose a pithy way to emphasize how unusual post high school education was for rural Indiana women in the early 20th Century. It’s what we in the Bullshit Business call poetic license. And I find poetry everywhere. Especially the words “get off my fucking back.”

Despite her inability to graduate from college by the age of five, Aunt Betty was the brainiest of the girls. Grandmother, with her love for Calculus and Trigonometry, came in a close second. After college, Aunt Betty did medical research and planned to pursue med school. Then she succumbed to the country custom of the times and sacrificed it for marriage.

All that intellect was focused on her progeny who were rewiring their house’s electricity by the time they were 11. It would be 50 more years before I could rewire a lamp. When her eldest son studied the french horn, an instrument I’d never heard of, I picked up the gauntlet and played it for the next seven years. And, because my birthday was around Memorial Day, my card always included a list of books to read that summer. Like Ivanhoe or The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

Her children wrote their tickets to college via scholarships. Upon graduation, a couple were swept up by the government to do top-secret work in New Mexico.

97, 92, 95, 96. Not pictured: 77.

Like Grandmother, Aunt Betty would gently challenge us.  When we came up with answers we were expected to justify the how and why of what we’d concluded. We were not trained monkeys robotically spitting out correct responses. We were Socratic simians unraveling the epistemology of the universe.

Grandmother started her family 10 years before her sisters so my Mother’s first decade was spent as the sole beneficiary of all that female power. One weekend when I was home from college, my grandparents took me to visit Aunt Betty’s farm. I hadn’t seen her in some time and had developed an exotic hippie look that Grandmother seemed to be proud of. As we walked into the house she teased her sister, “do you know who this is?” Aunt Betty smiled, “he has all of her expressions.”

Before there was email spam, before there were Ed McMahon’s sweepstakes congratulations, and even before there was xeroxing there were mimeographed Christmas letters. Aunt Betty made the mistake of sending them out a few times. Grandmother was appalled. To her it was the depths of bad taste. Being a dutiful grandson, I concurred.

But the chimp in me fostered a curiosity for people, especially accomplished people, who failed. There’s reasoning for both the good and bad in life, what is it? Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name?

With Aunt Lucille. Don’t even think of calling her Lucy.

The McLaughlin girls created a monster with a life-long fascination for the obtuse. I was thinking this year would be perfect for an impersonal personal Christmas communique: the instantaneous, phantasmagorical swollen lip; the explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting of a campylobacter infection; traveling with 80 cents in my pocket through a major mid-western city; and being named the spiritual mentor to a dog–all seem ripe for a mass mailing.

But why duplicate effort. The blog is a perpetual mimeograph.

2018 will be the year I finally organize my papers, photos, wardrobe and salacious memories to donate to posterity. Fair warning, dear reader, there’s going to be a Dewey Decimal feel in the months to come.

In the meantime, as we celebrate the holidays let’s not forget one of the most important teachings of the Church: Bless-ud are the Blanks for they shall inherit the archives.

 

 

Ode to Noreen and Nila Ann

Based on a recipe that revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize, Thanksgiving.

The five McLaughlin girls, my Grandmother and her sisters, were raised on a farm outside of Kokomo one hundred years ago. My Great-Grandfather Otis (whose in-laws are pictured above in the masthead) insisted they all have post high school educations which was unusual for women in the early 20th Century. Especially in rural Indiana where it’s still rare today. He wanted them to be independent and to be able to support themselves. By 1925 two of them graduated from college, two from beauty school, and one from secretarial school.

All of them married and lived on farms in close proximity. They remained a tight-knit group their entire lives, socializing and traveling together. Church-going was de rigueur though they were not hardcore, fundamentalist types. They were intelligent, gentle, fun-loving people who didn’t have a mean bone in them.

Which was what made the prayers at our large family dinners so bizarre. When we gathered to start the buffet, randomly one of the sisters would throw the challenge to another by saying something like: “Myrtle, will you return thanks?” The recipient would dive in without hesitation, improvise a blessing and then say Amen. The exchange was always unpredictable, rapid fire and direct.

It made me uncomfortable because it felt like people were put on the spot. And I was terrified they were going to pick me. It’s the only time I sensed aggressiveness or rivalry among the sisters.  Maybe it was a holdover from their childhood dining rituals: I’ll get her tonight, I’ll make her say the prayer.

When their daughters became adults they joined in the prayer round robin too. My Mother was never called upon probably because she would not have cooperated. She seemed to be exempt.

Mother’s cousin Nila Ann, on the other hand, was often asked to say grace. It was a way to include her. She was slow mentally and stuck in her routine within the family. She finished high school and had a job as a clerk, but otherwise did not venture too far from home.

There was a lot of family humor and teasing in which Nila Ann tried to participate. But she’d always repeat the same joke when making small talk: “you been working hard or hardly working?” It was followed by her self-satisfied chuckles to help sell the quip. Or maybe she was genuinely amused each time she told it.

Another cousin, Noreen, was more like my Mother. She’d graduated from Purdue, was poised, reserved, and loved to laugh. Her worldliness caused her to her commit the blasphemy of blasphemies: she married a Catholic. But what a hunk of a Catholic. Even at 10 I knew he was worth losing your religion for.

These personal detractions and transgressions were never talked about openly. The sisters firmly believed if you can’t say something positive say nothing at all. At family gatherings compliments flowed freely for everyone’s cooking. Nila Ann would be praised for her fruit cocktail and jello salad.

Noreen showed up one year with a dish that had a lasting impact. She received kudos that day and from that Thanksgiving on because, thereafter, someone would always make her version of Cranberry Relish.

Her secret was to include diced celery and toasted pecans. The refreshingly cool taste of the celery against the tartness of the cranberries works perfectly. I’ve played with adding apples, oranges, or pears but the sweetness takes away from the cranberry/celery mojo. Usually celery plays the Thelma Ritter role, the supporting part. In this recipe it shows star quality.

This year Kathy and I visited our friend Linda who is in the hospital. Linda loves Thanksgiving so I prepared a traditional menu to take to her. Kathy implored me to keep it healthy which resulted in making cutbacks–somewhat on the butter, significantly on the sugar. For dessert I got out the ice cream maker and we had the world premiere of Sorbet a la Noreen: a cranberry ice garnished with pecans and celery.

The seismic activity felt last Thursday was the McLaughlin women turning in their graves. That an offspring of theirs would prepare Thanksgiving dinner and not bake a pie was just too much for them.

Mama Was a Rollin’ Stone, Part Three

Pat Henderson House. This was home to the foresisters of the gay liberation movement. It was the official gay headquarters for IU students and was known around the country as an openly gay collective. At the time most of the nation’s homosexuals, including Harvey Milk, chose to remain in the closet. To have a house labeled as gay, with five occupants who identified as gay men, was a very bold move.

There were growing pains, however. When a supposed lesbian started making out with a straight guy at one of the parties, there was an uproar from the purists. The offenders were thrown out and given a lifetime suspension.  (Tolerance had yet to be incorporated into the philosophy.)

Dale was instrumental in organizing the household as well as the movement on campus. He ran for the Student Senate on the Gay Revolutionary Party ticket and won.

As Daniel Webster was the Lion of the U.S. Senate, Dale was the Persian Cat of our student forum. He found the sessions monotonous and ineffective so he stopped attending. When the august body moved to expel him, Kitten reared, bared his claws and threatened a discrimination lawsuit against that farce of a litter box.

It’s how the Revolution was won: one heart, one mind at a time.

402 N. Park Street. This house felt like one of Jackie’s Georgetown homes. How a bunch of Speed Queens got their names on the lease is still a mystery.

For six weeks I lived with some hard core drag queens. I was fascinated by the non-stop camp, their obscure lingo, and the way they would riff on these complicated personalities they’d invented. It was so much fun until it dawned on me: it’s not a game, they really believe this shit. Although I remained friends with them, I got out quickly.

333 S. Lincoln. Today’s  Fox Hole was once the home to Bloomington’s legendary A-Hole. Little Miss Amanda Jones ran the last fun house of my college career in 1972. Amanda later shortened his name to the more arty, and more provocative, A-Hole.

I stayed in school as a means of supporting myself. By registering I remained eligible for grants, student loans and work-study jobs. Little effort went into academics, life was a constant stream of F’s and Incompletes.  The interminable senior year tolled on and on.

I earned at least three credits that fall semester because I was in a modern dance class with Dale and A-Hole. My attendance was perfect for this class because it was more about building friendships than schoolwork. As our final project we were asked to choreograph and then perform a dance involving negative space.

We chose the The Ikettes’s I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song). To that gutsy blues beat we did a series of geometric shapes without touching and unified movements without being connected. The sight of three men in black tights doing an incongruous dance to a song no one had ever heard had our classmates laughing throughout. We received a hearty round of applause at the end and it taught me a valuable lesson: the more seriously I take things, the more thought I put into them, the funnier it will be.

After Christmas break my friends started leaving town. I followed a few weeks later.

 

401 E. Second Street. In the fall of 1973 I went back to IU to get the last six credits for my degree. I rented a basement apartment from this crabby woman who had carved her house into four units to gouge students. She came by everyday, ostensibly to vacuum the hall but really to snoop around. When I signed the lease she told me, “I know what goes on in this town and I won’t stand for half of it.” I was the perfect fit.

Mr. Sarah was my only friend left. He had recently been gifted a slightly used Ford Galaxy by his brother. It was as big as a barge but to have any vehicle was a luxury. We called it Cougar.

The Coug had a couple of problems. Like no brakes. Mr. Sarah rarely would go over 30 because he couldn’t make sudden stops. If he saw a sign or light ahead, the deceleration process would start half a block away. If he still was moving when he reached the intersection he would hit the emergency brake.

In the winter, having no heater made it very uncomfortable. Having no defroster made it very unsafe. But The Coug had a wide dashboard so Mr. Sarah would light a series of votive candles to take care of the windows. Like a lugubrious, holy flotilla on the Ganges, the candlelit Cougar slowly wended its way through the streets of the 47401.

My friend Tokyo (aka Ruth Roman, aka The Biblical Ruth) had grown up in Bloomington. He was away doing an internship but I knew his Mother and Aunt who lived close to campus. After I was hospitalized with my second case of hepatitis in two years, Peggy and Sissy started mothering me.

They invited me over for dinner once a week, told me stories and then sent me back with leftovers. They could have cared less that I was the town’s most notorious wild child. The sisters were thrilled to have someone to dote on.

Peggy was the firebrand and ringleader. Sissy was the Ethel Mertz. They’d lived in the area their whole lives and pronounced it “exparred” like the waitress at the motel. Peggy’s expression of incredulity was always “Well shit-fart.”

For years she had operated her own beauty shop. Peggy told of the time one of the town strumpets, who’d dyed her hair every color under the sun, came in and said she wanted to go back to her natural hue. “We had to take her in the back room and pull down her panties to see what her real color was.”

She still practiced her art by styling wigs for herself and Sissy. On the living room floor behind the plastic covered sofa flanked by the plastic covered table lamps, were about 15 head forms with freshly styled wigs ready to go. As a cultural reference to the Whirly Bird, a popular child’s helicopter toy, they proudly showed me the most recent addition to their collection: The Curly Bird. Those two women had no qualms about leaving work one day as a sensible brunette then coming back the next as a sultry red head.

Peggy worked in the University Registrar’s Office. At one dinner she told me she’d overheard a professor and staff member reviewing a student’s transcript. The professor remarked the student had been doing so well but that something had obviously happened in their life to cause them to suddenly do very poorly. After they put the folder in the stack to refile, Peggy took a look. “It was your file, doll-baby.”

By the skin of my teeth I graduated. When I told the landlady I was leaving mid-year she was furious. She yelled I was in violation of my lease, she was going to sue, she would see to it that I could never rent an apartment in Bloomington again. I handed her the keys.

A month later I was up late in San Francisco talking to Wena. I told him about the cranky landlady. He said she’d probably enjoy hearing from me so we placed a collect call from John Wilkes Booth. As we held the receiver to our ears we heard a resounding “NO!”

Wena then tried Pope John XXIII. Same result.

I tried one last time. The operator asked, “I have a collect call from Judas Iscariot, will you accept the charges?”The landlady screamed, “Operator! You should know better than to put a fucking call like that through!”

My college days were over.