Landline

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.

I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s.  That’s who it turned it out to be.

We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.

He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.

We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.

In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.

At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.

When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.

Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

 

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The Story of Jim

Tina and the Spoken Word

My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.
My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.

Gary and I were friends in Bloomington and we both moved to San Francisco about the same time. He told me recently that one of the reasons he moved here was to see good music. It wasn’t the reason I moved but in retrospect it has been one of the great benefits. I’ve attended hundreds of performances over the last 40 years.

Among the best was Patti Smith in 1976. It was my first month in this apartment and she was on my block, at the Boarding House around the corner on Bush Street. It was torn down in 1980 so they could put up luxury condos (sound familiar?) I was also at Winterland for the Sex Pistols the night of “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated.”

Along those lines and two decades later I saw Loretta Lynn in Santa Rosa. She had a cold and did the whole set seated in a chair. At one point she talked to the audience and apologized, “I’m just sorry you folks had to pay to see this.”

One of the most startling performances I ever saw was Tina Turner at the Old Waldorf around 1979. I was going to say electrifying but she’s always that. She went well beyond her norm that night.

She was in her fallow period, after Ike but before Private Dancer, and she was playing smaller clubs to pay off her debts. I was doing my part to keep her name before the public by performing her numbers like Heard it Through the Grapevine (from her 1969 Live at Basin Street West) or Contact High (from Come Together). They were kind of obscure, not sure how much help I really was.

At the Old Waldorf she did Proud Mary. The 15 second introductory speech on the record became a three minute (pleasurable) ordeal in person. Her basic premise was “I know what you want but I’m not giving it to you.” It went on and on, she wouldn’t let go. I’ve never seen a crowd, which was frothing at the mouth, teased and controlled like that.

That version of Mary is in this clip from 1982. It’s a couple of years later so the patter sounds a little more set, not raw and fresh like the night I was 20 feet from her. The clip captures her wonderfully incongruous, Bell’s Palsy facial expressions. What it doesn’t capture is the tension that was in that room. Everyone wanted the big payoff, the uptempo finish and the dancing. Like a skilled dominatrix she edged us for an eternity.

One of the few embarrassments in Tina’s career was a 1960’s single called A Letter from Tina. It’s a junior high school-ish recitative about how much her man means to her. She is completely devoted and acknowledges that when things go wrong it’s her fault because she hasn’t taken the time to understand him completely. Obviously it was written by Ike.

Some of my favorite moments are the awkward transition from spoken to sung verse in “you control every movement.” It could have been a commercial for Ex-Lax. Then she has trouble with the word heartily in “I trust you heartily.” It sounds like “I trust you hardly” which may have been a subliminal message to her husband. Finally there’s the sign off, “yours, lifetime.” You know she means it.

If your heart has a warmth for the perverse like mine does, please click this link for A Letter from Tina. She can make even bad material memorable.

(p.s. I thought of Tina’s Letter because I had to write one to my landlord about the entry system not working and started wondering if the art of correspondence was dead. It took everything I had not to end my letter “Yours, lifetime.”)

Next: Go Ahead and Call it Frisco, What the Hell Do I Care
Previous: The Great Un-Quashed
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown

Nothing has happened on the eviction front. My attorney told me the one year notice period actually ended on Wednesday so yesterday was the first day they could have served me. They didn’t.

They might serve me today because the five days I have to respond includes weekends. The deadline would then be next Wednesday which gives us only three business days to prepare the response. Except it’s already done. So we wait.

The games lawyers play.

——

Next weekend is the Chinese New Year’s Parade. I’ve only been to one in the 40 years I’ve lived here.

In 1977 my friends Juan and James had a hair salon on Commercial Street. They wanted to be good neighborhood merchants so they signed up for an entry in the New Year’s Parade. They asked several of their clients to be on their float whose theme was “the most beautiful women in San Francisco.” They asked me to be on it too.

Jeffrey found a satin 1950’s oriental cocktail dress with a bubble skirt. To make it puff out required proper undergarments but we had no money or resources for crinolines. So we stuffed it with newspaper.

In the 1970’s the general population was still coming to terms with the concept of people being “gay.” They hadn’t begun to grapple with the idea of “drag.” So my appearance was something of a novelty. What first or second generation Chinese-Americans thought of me I’m not sure.

I do remember our float being stalled at the intersection of Kearney and California for a while. Directly in front of me stood two cops who both caught sight of me at the same time. They looked at each other in disgust and silently shook their heads.

After the parade we were walking up Grant Street headed for the party at the salon. There were a bunch of teenagers setting off fireworks and yelling at us. They saw me as an easy target and started throwing their firecrackers. I just ignored them as their munitions bounced off the fortified skirt.

As we approached the salon Brian was sitting on the front stoop. We had mutual friends at the time and knew of each other but had not yet met. As my stilletos clicked down the ancient brick street he yelled out, “Oh! It’s my favorite party person!” No more prophetic words have ever been spoken.

Next: What Have I Got to Hide?
Previous: Disassembly
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Life of the Egg Nog Party

In 1971 egg nog was something Richard Nixon and distinguished diplomats sipped at Georgetown parties. Not drug addled, wafer thin, gay hippie boys in Bloomington, Indiana.  That contradiction alone was enough to inspire my first big Christmas party.

The egg nog parties became an annual tradition. The first two were in Bloomington then five more after I moved to San Francisco. The last one was held in 1977 at a friend’s basement shop on Commercial Street in Chinatown. Nog was made available but also lots of champagne. So I rented about 8 dozen coupe glasses from Abbey Rents. By the end of the evening only one dozen remained.

It was the height of the punk era and destruction was the name of the game. Someone started it innocently by accidentally dropping their glass in the corner of the stairway. It was answered with a couple more throws into the corner. Soon it was a barrage, a constant din of shattering glass as every available coupe was hurled onto the pile. When no more glasses could be found, empty bottles were bounced off the walls.

I was left to clean up this heap of broken glass and repair the divots that had been taken out of the plaster. No dummy, I realized I’d lost my deposit on the glasses. But it had been entertaining so I rationalized it was cheaper than hiring a band.

Still, I didn’t have the courage to face Abbey Rents and asked David to take the survivors back on Monday. Even he, who can talk himself out of any situation, was at a loss. “What do I tell them?”

“Just say the buffet table collapsed.”

Next: Office Parties
Previous: John’s Grill
The complete saga, From the Beginning

 

Gimme Danger Little Stranger

My first drag age 6. I was pissed I didn't get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.
My first drag, age 6. I was pissed I didn’t get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.

The Halloween night I won the contest at the ‘N Touch I stumbled home at 2 a.m. I could hear my roommate snoring so I tiptoed down the hall to my room.

I was half undressed when I heard someone stirring. This cute little Aussie boy opened my door wearing just underwear and a smile. Apparently roomie had passed out mid-coitus and Down Under had been left unfulfilled. We started making out and fell into bed.

As I pulled off the rest of my clothes he said, “leave the pantyhose on.”

I said, “nah, I’m not really into that.”

He immediately asked, “can I wear them?”

I said, “sure.” A good time was had by all.

Attitudes toward drag were changing. Ten years before I had started out innocently enough as an androgynous waif trying to look like Mick. It shocked the Indiana locals. That look was augmented when my friends and I began to mock old school drag.

The older queens’ goal in drag was to pass. My generation’s was to challenge. Old school gays were often filled with self loathing and seemed to accept that violence was a necessary evil in or out of drag. My friends and I were having none of that.

One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark's birthday.
One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark’s birthday.

There were always stories of gay men being beaten up and, in particular, a carload of drag queens being shot at coming out of the Waffle House late one night. (Bloomington is 20 miles from the home of Indiana’s KKK.)

I was assaulted one afternoon just walking down the street. Wearing appropriate (for me) mid-day attire, a car of frat boys sped by calling me names and hurling a pumpkin at me. I was too quick, they missed.

What had been shocking in Bloomington was not so much in San Francisco. Charles Pierce, Goldie Glitter and the Cockettes had the local population somewhat inured. In the mid-70s drag’s new antagonist became the gay community itself.

As the gay rights movement became more middle class there was a feeling that male femininity needed to be purged from the image. Drag queens gave gay people a bad name.

The faux-butch lumberjack look became the antidote to the queeny hair dresser stereotype. This hyper-masculine uniform looked good. Until the guy opened his mouth.

One last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.
The last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.

In 1976 I was invited to an A-list party in Pacific Heights for someone leaving to study at the Comedie Francaise. It was going to be a pretentious and boring affair which I didn’t want to attend.  The dress code would be strictly Macy’s Lifestyle.

But I was friends of the host and had no choice.  I hadn’t planned on drag but at the last-minute I decided to act out and slapped on eyeliner,  some Red Red, a wig and a dress. I was a disheveled but appealing  mess. My signature look.

My arrival was like Scarlet at Miss Melly’s birthday, the entire room was in stunned silence. This was not the place for that.

In a kill or be killed moment I spotted a friend at the far end of the room. I calmly walked towards him ignoring all the eyes that were on me. Ernie greeted me with a big bear hug. Slowly the party warmed up again.

An hour later the ice had melted in the room and in the bourbon. A drunk hunk in his Castro flannel shirt, hiking boots and handlebar moustache cornered me. With a sense of urgency he asked, “What size are those heels? A 10? I think I can fit into them.”

My party for the Library's Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.
My party for the Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.

Five years after that I was in the Midnight Sun talking to this cute kid 10 years younger than me. He was so excited, he’d just come up with a drag name and was getting ready to dress up for the first time. Drag had become an accepted gay rite of passage.

I held a few drag parties in the 80’s but AIDS took its toll on my mailing list. And my closest friends. I had done best when I was someone’s muse but, truth be told, I was never quite sure what I was doing. It wasn’t as much fun on my own.

The torch had been passed to RuPaul’s generation. Miss Paul took that flame and turned it into an oil rig fire.

Today I love watching Drag Race and queens like Alaska Thunderfuck (who I adore and want to marry. Or at least boink.) I wasn’t as accomplished as they are at producing a look but I’m satisfied with what I did.

I did drag when drag was dangerous.

Next: Reviving a Classic
Previous: Life of Giving Thanks
The complete saga, From the Beginning

 

Life, Afterlife and Lowlife

Gravesite Photo Shoot

In 1976 Jim published the final edition of White Arms Magazine devoted completely to me. It was called the B-Centennial Issue.

We decided it needed some photos featuring gravesite drama so I packed up a bunch of friends and we headed to this fabulous cemetery in Oakland. An afternoon of bereavement hilarity followed.

Grandmother used to take me to antique auctions when I was a kid and at one there was this beautiful 19th Century silk crepe widow’s veil. I asked her to buy it for me because it reminded me of the assassination. During the photo shoot I held it in place with a black beret–just like Jackie.

 

 

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The Jackie Obsession

 

Life at Home, Alone: Special Halloween Edition of Nude Leaked Photos!

I’d like to write a story about these pictures I found but I don’t even remember them being taken. Just a quite evening at home with my best friend, the bottle, circa 1977.

One of my all time favorite spins on a celebrity PR crisis was when nude photos leaked of Vanessa Williams and she lost her Miss America crown. Her defense was she thought they were “only shooting silhouettes.”

I never liked wearing wigs and, as you can see, they were often treated as an afterthought.

Next: The Curse
Previous: Life of Brian
The complete saga, From the Beginning