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.

*****

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.

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.

 

 

Mama Was a Rollin’ Stone, Part Two

207 E. Second Street. My first apartment was in this duplex in the Fall of 1970. The following Spring I decided to throw a party here.

The few gay parties I’d attended seem to be divided by sect. The older, draggier queens threw the biggest parties and played nothing but the Supremes. With a dash of Freda Payne’s Band of Gold every now and then.

The younger, druggier gay parties were smaller with less drinking and more counter-culture. The older queens were not necessarily made to feel welcome at these affairs and didn’t attend.

In the middle were the bourgeois gays who were too closeted to ever throw their own parties. But they were are at every other party they could get into.

Mine would be open to everyone and only have dance music. I especially wanted the more radical element there and knew if I could get Dale to come the rest would follow.

I first saw him at a Gay Liberation meeting in April. It was a procedural bore until he spoke. Out of the blue he talked about the necessity of educating ourselves on feminist issues and how the same sexual stereotypes and prejudices that oppressed women also oppressed gays. Our objectives might be different but his point was any gay political movement should have a feminist perspective as well.

Most faces at the meeting had a rather glazed look on them, wondering what time to head to the bar. But Dale had my rapt attention. The authors he mentioned I’d read and his conclusions were ones I had arrived at on my own. I felt validated. I was not alone. I was determined to make this person my friend and, 46 years later, I’m still working on it.

Dale had been out longer than me and was more seasoned. He took me aside at one party and explained what dingleberries were. He was always calling me tart (which I took to mean sharp-tongued) but in an admiring way. As we fantasized about our drag myths he advised me never to admit I worked for Paramount, MGM was the only game in town.

He’d lived in Manhattan in a run down apartment where a rat once popped through the floor boards. There were also Lou Reed sightings when he came to see his boyfriend who lived in the same building.

Dale was at the Stonewall riots in 1969. He said the only violence or looting was when the drag queens broke the window of a wig shop and stole all the Eva Gabors.  Alice put an end to that (Alice was Manhattan camp for the cops.)

Dale showed up for my event with his entourage. The rest is history.

The Stones’ new single, Brown Sugar, was released the day before. I had the only copy in town. It was played repeatedly. The drunken choruses of “yeah, yeah, yeah, whew!” echoed into the night as the hardwood floor sprung like a trampoline. When the police came and told us to turn it down, I planted my 118 pound frame squarely in the front yard and went mano a mano. I assured them everything was under control.

My name was made that night. In the wee hours as he left, Dale stopped to thank me and gave me his blessing: “It’s the sign of a good party if Alice comes.”

330 South Dunn. My first drag was here in the summer of 1971. Mr. Sarah pin curled my hair then teased it out into a huge blonde afro. The silk voile 1930s dress I wore was almost transparent. Underneath were nude panties that concealed nothing. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone. I was trying to look good.

In my maiden excitement I was ready hours before the party started. With nothing to do I volunteered to go with others on a beer run. As we walked into the liquor store I wondered what kind of act or affectation to assume. Since I couldn’t really see myself and since nothing had changed inside me, I decided it was an issue for others not for me. I acted the way I normally would. It was just this androgynous thing with a basso profundo voice buying a couple cases of quarts.

On the ride back it felt like just another trip to the store. Except there was an additional sense of relief that I hadn’t been beaten to a pulp.

Islands in the stream, uhn-huh. In front of the Dunn Street house was the split between Dunn and Atwater Streets. It was a major thoroughfare, especially busy at rush hour. Larry Borders and I would drop acid then sit in the point watching the cars whiz by. They had to veer one way or the other. One hoped.

Ithaca!

With the Mayor of Palm Springs
With the Mayor of Palm Springs

That’s one small step for a gay man.
One giant leap for mid-century collectibles in the desert.

10-4, Good Buddy

***

The Last Temptation of Me

Hitler Youth

Fashion forward
Fashion forward

Gary gave me the Stones DVD of their 2013 Hyde Park concert.  It commemorated the 44th anniversary of their free concert for Brian Jones in the same venue. To honor him that day they released thousands of butterflies into the air. Only a fraction took flight, the rest suffocated from being boxed up in the hot July sun. Obviously pre-PETA.

I watched it today and they sounded great. No matter how many times they play the same songs they always make them different. Sometimes a number that was so-so in the studio can be stellar played live. Like It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll. Likewise a perfect song in the studio like Gimme Shelter just can’t be captured in person.

My favorite moment was Mick reappearing in the Michael Fish Shirt Dress he wore at the original concert. In 1969 I was just a country teenager with no concept of what my life would be. When I saw pictures of Mick in his Mr. Fish I felt I could do anything I wanted.

Being part of the Pop generation we were skeptical of all imagery. Yes, Hitler was a villain but did you see how he manipulated those crowds? I’m convinced the Stones studied his films because they mastered the art of inciting to a frenzy. Like Adolph it started with their propaganda, intentionally or not. Keith is close to death. They’re back in jail again. This is the last tour. It’s worked for 50 years.

Today there’s much less hype, much mellower audiences. One occasionally gets a waft of Munich, however, when you see the Investment Fund Manager in the front row, arm raised in defiance, mouthing the lyrics to You’ve Got the Silver.

Before there was the Citibank VIP sections in the stadiums there was the pre-punk mosh pits of the arenas. In 1972 Gary and I saw them several times in the mid-west where we honed our stage rushing technique. You had to break just at the right moment in Stevie Wonder’s set. Too soon and security would pull you out. Too late and you couldn’t get close. We always made it.

When the notice appeared for the lottery of New York tickets I submitted a couple hundred postcards under five different names. All five won. I had 20 tickets, enough to go every night with plenty left to scalp.  It paid for the trip.

Grouping at The St. Regis, July 1972
Grouping at The St. Regis, July 1972

We were only able to rush the stage opening night at Madison Square Garden. After that teams of guards propped up huge sheets of plywood at the end of all aisles and in front of the entrances on the main floor. Primitive but effective.

But that first night our timing was perfect, we made it to the third row just as they launched into Brown Sugar. The rough and tumble of the mid-west shows did not prepare us for the violence and brutality of New York. Gary and I were separated, the mob pushed from all directions squeezing those in front against the stage. People were on the floor. There was no security and no way out.

As I was about to be crushed I felt an arm around my waist pulling me backwards and up onto a chair. We were packed so tightly I couldn’t turn to see who grabbed me. I tried to thank him over my shoulder. He kept a firm grip on my bare midriff throughout the whole show.

When it was over and the crowd started to thin, I got off the chair and turned to properly thank my benefactor. I noticed that he was this cute kid. And that his other arm was around his girlfriend on the next chair. Sheepish grins and that was that.

Those first few moments standing on the chair I focused on stabilizing. When I did eventually look to the stage, Charlie Watts was staring directly at me. He had witnessed the whole Guernica scene and had a look of concern on his face (without missing a beat, of course).

I knew why he was watching so I continued to project panic not wanting to break the spell. Finally I decided to be honest and let him know I was okay. I flashed a big smile. As soon as I did, Charlie calmly turned his head and stared into space. It was the coolest “fuck you” ever.

My blurry homage to Keith and Jean Paul Gaultier, 1984
My blurry homage to Keith and Jean Paul Gaultier, 1984

Next: Good Morning Jones Street
Previous: Go Ahead and Call It Frisco What the Hell Do I Care
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Go Ahead and Call It Frisco, What the Hell Do I Care

The avant garde does not always age so well.
The avant garde does not always age so well.

The problem with being part of any vanguard is that, if you do your job properly, there’s eventually no van to guard. But the world doesn’t owe you a living for getting it right. Excellent instincts should be reward enough. Still, it is hard to watch what is happening to this city.

In the beginning the Beats begat the Free Speech Movement which begat Haight Ashbury which begat The Castro which begat the AIDS Crisis which begat the Y2K bubble that burst which begat communal non-office office space. Somehow, the spirit has changed. If history teaches millennials anything it’s that a CEO telling you something is cool usually means it isn’t.

In retrospect, my generation happened upon a gold mine when the bourgeoisie fled the City for the pre-fab dry wall and concrete driveways of the suburbs. What they left behind were Victorians and pre-war apartment buildings that were pretty much intact. Though we did not have the money to decorate them properly there was still something dramatic about having an India print covered mattress on the floor under a 12 foot ceiling.

Today’s influx also sees the value of these properties but it’s more of the investment opportunity kind. They no more than move in than they start waiting for the opportune moment to flip. We were just looking for a place to live.

My friend Thom always had a novel take on things like going for walks after a big storm because the air smelled clean. When he found a place in Hayes Valley, however, I thought he was nuts.

In the 1980s it was a neighborhood of abandoned store fronts, junk stores, drug dealers, muggings and police harassment. Some could see the potential, like the Punks and Goths, but nothing seemed to make a go of it over there. I had friends who opened an apparel store on Hayes called Dog Meat that only lasted a few months.

When I first visited Thom’s apartment I could see the appeal. High ceilings, well proportioned rooms, crown molding, and plenty of light from the rounded windows in the turret. It was a wonderful apartment. Getting to and from it was the issue.

Thom was hassled daily, mocked and yelled at on the street. He tuned it out and thrived on the neighborhood telling me he once bought some crack and smoked it with a guy in an alley. He just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  (And no, he did not become an addict.)

One night walking home after the bar closed he was mugged. They took everything on him and beat him badly. The police responded but nothing ever came of it. When I saw him a few days later he was severely bruised, his eye was swollen shut, and he was still stitched and bandaged up.

Thom didn’t walk home late at night after that but neither did he move out. I think of his face today when I’m walking down Hayes Street with my $5 scoop of fast frozen ice cream, admiring $95 Japanese baby booties in the window.

Next: Hitler Youth
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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