Down to the Crossroads

Every afternoon Grandmother would take a break to “pile down.” That was her term for a short nap, her favorite part of the day. When we were young we were expected to join her.

Sometimes she would sing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” while my brother and I stifled our giggles. Her voice was a little warbly and a song about a dead goose seemed odd.

Naps were also a time for Prime Minister’s questions, we could ask anything. Once I wanted to know why, if “darn” was such a bad word to use, did so many people do it? Without hesitating she replied, “because they can’t think of the correct word to use.” For the record, I never heard her say darn.

She didn’t take many liberties with language. When a lighthearted mood struck writing a letter or diary entry, she sometimes succumbed to giddy contractions. Phrases like ’twill be good to see you, or ’tis another beautiful day. Other than those reckless moments of abandon, there were only two slang words she used with regularity.

One was dope. It must have been an elastic, catch-all expression like “stuff” that was popular when she was in her teens and twenties. Among other things it’s what she called her homemade chocolate sauce. I enjoyed my friends’  astonished looks when Grandmother served ice cream and asked if they’d “like some dope with it.”

Her other word was chum which was reserved for a select group: her college girlfriends. When she talked about them I sensed they were special people from a wonderful time in her life. The expectation set, I entered Indiana University in September 1968.

It was fun the first two and a half years on campus although I felt lonely and isolated. I was getting by in my friends’ straight world and resigned myself to accepting it as the way life was going to be. There were few context clues in rural Indiana then that a whole subculture existed.

In March 1971 I was stalked by a tall, lanky and creepy journalism student, Harry. Unbeknownst to me, he’d trailed me a couple of months and knew my name, address, hometown and class schedule. To quote Pete Rose on Ty Cobb, he knew everything except my cock size. He found that out too.

Attracted more to the situation than him, I closed my eyes and thought of Fire Island. Nothing much came of that relationship except that he started introducing me around the community. Friendships grew rapidly, many forming on the spot with like-minded gay-boys. I was awakened.

Jim Jordan knew Harry and witnessed the whole pursuit and aftermath. He said mine was not so much a coming out as an explosion. Probably from the relief I felt upon realizing I was the only context clue I needed.  I could just be myself.

The joy I felt was accompanied by underlying sadness. College was a temporary state. In my childhood I’d been through enough school changes, neighborhood moves, and summer camps to know tight bonds can dissipate quickly.

I was a senior after five semesters, on track to graduate early if I went to summer school. Then I came out and it took five more semesters to finish. Separation anxiety caused me to prolong the last year as long as I could.

The fear of losing friends was unfounded. Besides the fun most college kids experience, we were bound by something that changed American culture. While Harvey Milk remained in the closet protecting his job, our generation drew a line in the sand: this is who we are, take it or leave it.

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Along with his partner David, my college chum Dale visited San Francisco last week. He’s Grand Marshal of this year’s Boston Gay (plus 5–it’s dizzying how many initials it’s become) Pride Parade. They came to attend the memorial for Charley Brown, the husband of another chum, Mark.

They also were here to celebrate Dale’s 70th birthday, which we did Saturday night at Che Fico.  On Sunday, dinner was at our chum Eric’s house.

Our after-dinner entertainment that evening was to be Joan Crawford’s Humoresque which we’d all seen before. Over David’s spanakopita we shared hazy memories of the film: Issac Stern’s hand double role, the incredible cocktail shaker, the breaking glass. When Joan’s signature face-slapping came up, someone mentioned turning the other cheek.

Seizing a malapropism opportunity, I offered what was really said on the Mount: don’t retaliate just spread your cheeks. The table erupted in childish laughter. Coming up for air, Dale said moments like that were why he’s tolerated me for 50 years.

My whole life I’ve searched for the correct, or incorrect, word to use.

With Grandmother, 1954.

Madonna with Blue Balls

There’s sadness hanging over the holidays this year due to the recent death of my friend Charley. His portraits were featured on this blog Christmas Day, 2014. Of his many wonderful qualities, one I will treasure is he never sued me for using his work without permission.

As evidenced in Charley’s paintings, vibrant color provides an undeniable sense of life and joy. Taking time off from a youtube marathon of old Debbie Reynolds interviews, this Christmas I embellished a magenta Madonna found laying around the apartment. The holy virgin is now displayed in the hallway transom flanked by vintage Radko presidential ornaments. By conspicuously coupling the holidays I can keep the installation up until mid-February. If not longer.

Happy Christmas.

Bua uuh Guul

Back in the disco days when we encountered a person of undecipherable gender, we would turn to each other and ask “bua uuh guul?” The phrase became part of our vocabulary when someone overheard a pimp on the sidewalk approach a potential customer and offer him his choice of gender in a playmate. Not only was the john’s predilection unclear, what was available was pretty murky too.

Gender confusion and challenging sex role stereotypes has always been a preoccupation of mine. As documented in a recently published book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating.

When I first saw the words “ethics” and “curators” together I thought “not another rehash of the frolicking I did back in 1973.” Those allegations involving The Detroit Institute of Art staff have been laid to rest years ago.

Then I realized it was referring to the Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art show held in Manhattan in 1982. My friend Charley Brown did a series of paintings of me in the early 80’s, a couple of which were in that New Museum show.

The portrait included in the book is one of my favorites because of Charley’s use of found materials: layers of cardboard glued together, appliqued toothpicks adding dimension to Brian’s sequined top. There’s gutter in that glamour.

The timing of that show coincided with my waning interest in drag. The derring-do and shock of what I’d done before was no longer there and my falling out with Jim had left me without focus. Plus, RuPaul was on the ascendant and about to change the drag landscape completely. I like to think I helped make the world safe for Ru. Then I think what a miserable failure I’ve been. No one’s safe from that bitch.

My friend Charley did a series of B paintings, a couple were in this show

On my trip to Indiana this month I reunited with Susan in Bloomington who I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. One of the things we reminisced about was the evening she gave me makeup lessons. As we listened to Ike & Tina records in her apartment that night, she went over the basics of eye makeup. And told me my practice of the art was particularly abysmal.

On our recent visit I tried to convince her that precision wasn’t nearly as important back in those days as how I presented myself. She would have none of it. She chided that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Then, out of the blue, she asked whether I identified as a woman or a man.

The question is an obvious one and the way the discussion seems to be framed these days. But it caught me completely off guard. The essence of my being never entered into my thinking when I did drag. It was all about what I could get away with. And looking good while I did it.

I told Susan the only thing I’ve ever identified as was a troublemaker.

Cherry

Atta Babe

When the double wide meets Avenue Foch.

With Opening Day upon us, everyone’s thoughts turn towards The Babe. For me that would be Mrs. William S. Paley.

Babe Paley was one of Truman Capote’s Swans, elegant chatelaines known for their jet set originality. In Babe’s case it was the seemingly effortless soigné she brought to her personal sense of fashion and decor.

My favorite quote of hers (which happens to be the only quote I know of hers) is that you have be able to mix the dime store stuff with the good stuff. Although her collection was more Jansen where mine is more Woolworth’s, I couldn’t agree with her more. It’s not so much what things are but how they are perceived.

Sans souci chic

I’ve always been too impressionable for my own good. And now I’ve become obsessed with Amazon. I want to buy everything, they make it so easy.

Lately its been those tacky plastic coverings that are used to make windows look frosted. Although I am savvy enough to see through the ad copy B.S., I am completely seduced by the photos. I really want to believe what I’m seeing is true.

The pictures make the windows so dazzling, they sparkle like fine case crystal. When the box arrives and is opened, however, the coverings look and smell like something out of a raunchy motel in the Smokies.

Undaunted, I was determined to use them in some manner. So I layered them on top of the Evans & Brown wall paper to cover the bedroom door.

The results were inconclusive. The side with the stylized cross pattern shows promise. It has an MCM feel to it (that would be mid-century modern to the unwashed) but shows glue spots in some of the frosted areas. Fortunately this is on the backside. And, unfortunately, very few visitors get the closed door experience these days anyway.

The front was a complete disaster, two days of effort and $9.98 wasted. I’d ordered the 35″ width but received two rolls of 17.5″. Trying to create an invisible center seam then match the dizzying 3D pattern into a straight, horizontal line was Sisyphean. Fine print must have been missed somewhere (calling the aforementioned ad savvy into question). Though one would be mistaken to think I’ve given up.

I doubt that Mrs. Paley would have used this technique in any of her homes. I do think she would have appreciated the spirit behind it.

Pussy Rout: the Cat’s Eye pattern produced Cat’s Liter results.

 

Centerfold

From the trash heap of history
From the trash heap of history

When my upstairs neighbor Jim was in the final stages of moving out last June we decided we couldn’t ignore the store-room we shared downstairs any longer. We spent an evening pulling out stuff, laughing and tossing. And marveling at a couple of discoveries we made like his Tahitian grog bowl and this picture of me.

Mark and Charley did this as the centerfold for the 1968 program. I had the original framed with all the printers marks intact and gave it to my friend Brian. He wanted to redo it and glam it up, take off the markings and put it in a glitzier frame. I wouldn’t let him. I liked exposing the process.

As natural as the image may seem, there’s a lot that goes into making a legend. It’s not as easy as it looks.

 

center3

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The Story of Jim