Pear Picking in the USA

In my cousin Carol Ann’s backyard.

Last fall I took a no expenses paid trip to the mid-west. The region was in crisis. The local Fort Wayne Steak and Shake could not maintain regular business hours.

This franchise had experienced numerous unscheduled closures. Either they didn’t have enough staff to open or no-shows at shift changes forced shutting down in the middle of the day. Hiring was at a standstill, the usual suspects had no interest. High school kids couldn’t stomach the idea of working fast food. Immigrants preferred the underground economy to rampant xenophobia.

If capitalism is dependent on cheap labor, this trend could spell trouble. Ray Kroc might have to rise from the dead to demand: “Mr. Trump, tear… down….. this…. wall!”

 

Studying growth patterns to formulate picking schemata.

In retrospect the skyrocketing prices of Imodium should have been a tip-off. Of the many acronyms I’ve been diagnosed with, I’ve had some success controlling IBS with a gentle dose of loperamide. I know something about this shit. Two years ago 100 tabs cost $11 on Amazon. Today my local Walgreens sells 12 for $7.

It’s part of the FDA’s feebly belated attempt to control opiates. Apparently each tab contains a small trace of narcotic. Taken in huge quantities they get you off. If pain meds can’t be refilled or your dealer is out of China White, crush up a hundred little blue blockers instead. It must be a hell of a high if the trade-off is eight months without a bowel movement.

OxyContin seems to be the root of this generation’s problems. These Oxyennials have overindulged in the deadly cocktail of opiates and video games. The result is a bunch of apathetic lemmings primed to be led over the cliff by the next great dictator.

Going that extra mile to pull in a bumper crop.

I ran these ideas past Billy when I was home but he wasn’t buying them. He’s the oldest openly gay man on the planet and a major reason I go back to Indiana. He will be 87 on St. Patrick’s Day and has one of the most wicked senses of humor of anyone I know.

When he opened Fort Wayne’s preeminent beauty salon in 1959 he made no apologies for being gay. He was having too much fun to feel any shame. He owned his business so he didn’t worry about being fired and he was so charming all of the society women befriended him. I’ve always admired him for what he did because not many did at the time. It would be another 15 years, for example, before Harvey Milk deigned it safe to come out.

Because people accepted him didn’t mean they wanted to understand him or lose their prejudices. They just didn’t talk about it. Fort Wayne has always been very conservative and remains so today. The surprising thing is Billy has been a life-long Republican too.

When I had the condo in Fort Wayne, people visited from around the country. Billy always enjoyed these occasions because he shared many of their interests and no longer had a local outlet for them. He, in return, was a hit with my friends because he was unlike anyone they expected to meet in Indiana.

One evening my Kentucky Derby hosts, Jan and Mar, stopped on their way back to New Albany. Billy joined us at dinner for a rollicking good time. He still talks about how open and accepting they were compared to heterosexuals he knows. When I point out the link between their political thinking and social justice he will have none of it. To him they are simply good people.

This red state/blue state thing may just be a lot of blind allegiance. Like picking a sports team, my Dad was a Bear’s fan so I’m one too. Billy is bored by politics and puts little energy into it. It’s such a minute component of his personality, I can live with that.

I may have lost the battle but overall I think I won the war. Billy has been a friend to my Mother and me since I was a teenager.

Billy leading the Peru High School Band down Main Street in 1948. There’s a discernible hitch in that get-a-long that fortold greater things.

Childhood Living

Still life with guzzlers, 1971
Still life with guzzlers, 1971

Jim and I met in Bloomington, Indiana in the spring of 1971. We were both 20 and in the early stages of coming out. He a year before, me just that April. Jim watched the semester long drama of his friend stalking me until he snared me. And then the theater that followed. He later told me mine wasn’t so much a coming out as an explosion.

Jim had a brief stint at a St. Louis art school but hated it. After a suicide attempt his first month there he returned home to Fort Wayne where his parents sought psychiatric help for him. When they discovered he was homosexual the experts, with his parents consent, subjected him to electric shock treatments.  It didn’t change anything, Jim never back downed from being gay. He decided to move on and check things out in Bloomington.

He was pathologically shy and extremely awkward in social situations. If you were patient enough, however, there was an intelligent and kind person underneath. With a scathing sense of humor. He was a poet and had been published in a couple of magazines. The first booklet of his poetry “Red Sky and Blue Airplane” had just come out. While everyone around us talked of doing things, he had actually accomplished something.

Before I came out I was a known quantity around campus. My fixation with the Rolling Stones had me doing everything Mick did:  shoulder length hair, scooped neck jersey tops, skin-tight bell bottoms, and big black motorcycle belts. I even bought moccasins because Time said he wore them on stage “for easier leaping about.” What the Stones were doing was fresh and challenging and there was nothing like it in Indiana. Except me. In 1969 men just didn’t have pierced ears. When I saw Keith’s I copied it down to the petrified sharks tooth.

I didn’t have many friends so my self-expression was mainly for my own pleasure. I wanted to make an impression but it never occurred to me what others actually might be thinking about me. I didn’t know anyone in the gay community or that it even existed.  After I emerged,  however, I would discover that many had known me.

In Bloomington’s version of People’s Park, a vacant corner lot occupied by hippies, the tribes people thrived on being weirder than the next person. I had them baffled, they had no clue what to make of me. They called me “Crazy Chris.”

The conservative older queens who hung out in the Commons cafeteria were fixated on my suede book bag. I’d ordered it out of the LA Free Press, it was kind of hip, kind of Laurel Canyon. But its utilitarianism was lost on this bitter claque. Their name for me was “Miss Purse.”  (Six months later they would all have one.)

Summer treat, Hoosier style
Summer treat, Hoosier style

As I made gay friends I learned about camp and gender-fuck. It helped explain Jagger’s influences and opened new possibilities for me.  My persona project became a collective one as new friends became fashion advisers as well. Indian Chandelier earrings from the head shop, thrift store dresses worn over jeans and combat boots, 5 inch cork wedgies and red denim hot pants. Eventually my hair would be bleached every known shade of blonde. If someone had a good idea I would probably try it.

I even befriended the “Miss Purse” gang. They were hardcore, closeted queens who loved to do old school drag. They spoke the lost language of Girl-ene where every other word was ‘she,’ ‘her, ‘girl’ or ‘bitch.’ The rest of their vocabulary was made up or inexplicable. And they would not stop to bring you up to speed. You either caught on or were kicked to the curb.  Fortunately, I was a quick study.

 

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The Story of Jim