Prouder Than a Tumescent Pubescent

I once toyed with becoming a Country Music songwriter. Listen to the lyrics, how hard could it be.

It’s the only art form that openly celebrates ignorance. Being the village idiot is worn as a badge of honor. When couched in a down-home, aw-shucks delivery, the singer’s lovability goes through the roof. The perfect country hit would be titled “Gosh, We’re Stupid.”

Another one could be a ballad, “Swallow My Pride.” Couple destined for eternal bliss, she suddenly bolts for another man. Blindsided, he does the manly thing, swallows his pride and gets on with life. She eventually comes back for forgiveness. He says under one condition: it’s now her turn to swallow his pride. Corny gimmickry, petty vengeance coupled with sexually combative undertones–this is what will make America great again.

I’ve had an issue with pride all of my life. I’m uncomfortable with the emotion and distrust others who express it in me. I blame my Calvinist upbringing. It forced me to bury my ego in a reserved and self-effacing manner and to not draw attention to myself. Some lessons were learned better than others.

With Dale in DC 1974. Discussing the Houdin Show at the National Gallery.

The term Gay Pride specifically has caused me problems. Living through its inception I understood the need for being open and unashamed. Which I was. But pride has such a defensive quality. It was a reaction to society’s hatred. The idea was to not buy into it,  feel good about yourself instead. It was a nice starting off point but somehow it stuck.

In life’s third act I’ve had to let go of many issues from my youth. Like this one. I doubt the name “Accepted Gay Parade” will ever catch on anyway.

Given Dale’s disdain for pets we were all praying for that cat. Provincetown, 1972.

With this reservoir of conflicted feelings, I digested the announcement this week that my friend Dale will be Grand Marshal of Boston’s 2019 Gay Pride Parade. We attended Indiana University together where he was active in student politics and participated in founding the national Gay Liberation Movement. He then moved to Boston and has spent his life working on LGBT issues. In recent years he’s gained recognition for raising the visibility of older LGBT adults.

Dale was at my first Gay Lib meeting in 1971. It was a dreary, procedural affair until this cute blonde hippie in tank top and denim cutoffs appeared enveloped by his entourage and a cloying cloud of patchouli oil. He spoke about feminism and how we should be allied with their movement. Of writers we should read and the destructive role of sexual stereotypes in our patriarchal society. Convincing and articulate, I felt this gay thing was going to be easy: they all think like me.

I soon discovered our ideas were in the minority. But Dale and a few other kindred spirits became good friends then and have remained so throughout my life.

In solidarity with Jackie at the eternal flame.

People from that era don’t buy the softer, wiser version of me I peddle today. They want in your face,  kill ’em if they don’t fight back attitudes from the Bloomington years.

When I called to congratulate Dale yesterday he was uneasy with my sincerity. Sometimes it’s just better to give the audience what they want. So I let the other penny drop with a profound thunder.

Since this honor was the result of an election, I seriously questioned its validity. Dale hung out with some radical people in college, this title reeks of his Russian Commie friends doing a “Hillary” on Gay Boston’s ass.

We talked of updating his look for the parade and bringing leftist imagery into the 21st Century. Obviously his model should be Kim Jong-un. What could be hotter than a shirtless 70 year-old in a cheap, bowl cut-gone-wrong toupee?

Then I got down to brass tacks. I wasn’t hearing “me” in any of this, what’s my role? Dale was not forthcoming. I volunteered if there was a building along the parade route resembling the Texas School Book Depository, I’d do a piece of performance art the town will never forget. He was reticent until I assured him I won’t use live ammo. (As if I could tell the difference.)

Dale laughed at our exchange and knows I’m happy for him. And proud of him too. If we add the Prince of Wales qualifier, whatever “proud”  means.

In Provincetown, later that same decade.

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.

 

 

Moonlight on the Wabash

Ominous shadows loom over the old Monroe County Jail, both in this photo and in the annals of American Criminal Justice. It was my home for one night in October 1971.

When I’m in these Clair de Lune moods I long for my Indiana homes. And in Bloomington there were quite a few.

I had a very promising start to my college career. I was a senior after five semesters and could have graduated after one more term and summer school. But something happened: I came out. I had so much fun it took me another five semesters to finish.

During my senior years I flitted from domicile to domicile. A two or three month stay in any one place was considered an eternity.

People seemed to enjoy me as a roommate. Or maybe I kept moving because I was always being kicked out. The mind, she plays tricks.

In one collective with four other gays, our furnishings were spartan: a couple of orange crates, an overstuffed chair from the street, a spinet piano left behind, and questionably stained sheets on the windows.

I practiced piano at the music school. The building was circular with practice rooms cut pie-shaped on both sides of the central hallway. The rooms were lined with cork and had thick, acoustical drapes that were pulled after closing the heavy door. Velvet became the answer to our window treatment dilemma.

Two roommates accompanied me to practice one day with luggage that possibly resembled horn cases. As I pounded out Bach Inventions, they struck the draperies.

We would have gotten away with it except one bonehead roommate allowed his friend Tony to use our address for registration. Tony didn’t live with us and was notorious for stealing antiques from the Union Building. The cops came looking for him, found no Charles V chairs but did spot the drapes and some drugs. We were taken into custody.

A strike for gender confusion: my violent violet checks.

The next morning we met our attorney in one of the jail’s conference rooms. He said he’d spring us for $300 each but nobody had any money. I volunteered to write the $1500 check ($9141.44 in 2017 dollars) against my zero balance.

The guard took forever to retrieve my book bag. When he finally returned he said there was no such bag.  I described it thoroughly: brown suede with a shoulder strap, it contained books, a red notebook, my keys and a checkbook. He asked snidely, “you mean that purse? ”

Mustering as much contempt as I could without inciting a police riot, I replied “Yes…That purse.”

Monroe County Courthouse. During a break in our hearing I bickered with my roommates over accepting the deal for a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge. Our attorney read us the prosecution’s expert forensic report. When I pointed out the weed was really hash he said “take the deal.” Hash was a felony.

The trend back then was to give the collective houses gender neutral first names and use the street as the surname. People would say “there’s a party at Pat Henderson’s,” or “I’m moving into Terry Walnut’s” and it was understood.

Those names were useful for bill-me-later magazine subscriptions too. Once you were an established periodical reader, the unsolicited gas credit cards in the name of the non-existent person would start rolling in.

The cards allowed us to travel across state lines to violate various man acts. In addition to gas they could be used at some motels and, if they had a restaurant, charge a meal.

There was an upscale motel on the north side of Bloomington with a rather pretentious restaurant. We decided one afternoon to treat ourselves to some fine dining.  Over cocktails, coquilles St. Jacques, Caesar salads, prime rib, and cheesecake, we debated whether to order wine. It seemed like the thing to do but the only one we knew was Mateus.  Yuck.

Enjoying brandy and cigars we pulled out the Shell Credit Card to pay for luncheon. The waitress returned to the table to tell us the card was declined. In local, stonecutter parlance she said it was “exparred.”

To avoid arrest, I wrote another violet check. She accepted it reluctantly, “that check’s probably exparred too.”

Mama was a Rollin’ Stone, Part One

On a recent overnight stay in Bloomington, I had an hour to kill. I went looking for places I used to live.

In an Ellis to Ellis exclusive, today is the first in a series highlighting houses I could find and/or remember.

 


Terry Walnut House.  I was met by cops one autumn afternoon in the driveway. They took me inside to question me and my roommates about the drapes. Then they threw us in the slammer.

The officers’ clothes may have been plain that day but mine were not.  I was incarcerated wearing red hot pants,  a pink jersey scoop necked shirt,  and Indian brass chandelier earrings. For emphasis I was going commando and barefoot.

On the square. In a civil war era building across from the Courthouse, I rented an internal room with no ventilation. The patchouli oil from a previous resident, the notorious drag queen Blossom Dearie, still lingered.

At the end of my two month summer lease I was in the hospital with hepatitis. My friends moved my things for me and, in the chaos, lost the horse hair mattress my Grandmother lent me.

My Grandmother did not lose her temper or express herself in anger. Ever. She didn’t need to. A stern look from her was more powerful than any tantrum I’ve ever seen. Whenever the topic of that horse hair came up she would sit quietly and shake her head in disapproval.

Speaking of controlled emotion, when I called my Grandmother’s daughter to tell her I’d been arrested and needed bail money she just started laughing. As I explained how my roomies were coming up with their share, Mother laughed harder and harder.

She was in shock. It was inconceivable that a child of hers could be arrested or bounce a $10,000 check. Her mechanism for dealing with the absurd was laughter which, in this case, was uncontrollable. The only words she spoke were “I can’t talk” as she hung up on me. She wasn’t laughing when I called her back later.

 

 

Sensitivity Training

 

Such sweet facades masking such depraved minds. With Jim and Marilyn on campus.
Such sweet facades masking such depraved minds. With Jim and Marilyn on campus.

In my Margaret Mead mode I remained obsessed with the queenie old school claque. I even moved in with them for about a month. Then, one day I realized “it’s not a game, they really believe this shit.” As funny as they were, they were really quite offensive. There was a heavy strain of misogyny in their humor, like the buffoonery of breasts, that I didn’t like.  So I backed off but remained friendly with them.  I needed good turn-outs for my parties, after all.

What intrigued me more than their acts were the superficial accoutrements they thought made you a woman: hair, makeup, fabric selection. It made no sense that genitalia dictated whether you could wear eyeliner or not. It either looked good or it didn’t. Being young and androgynous, I made a spectacle of myself. Everyone loved it. And once I had an audience there was no stopping me.

Jim and I hooked up daily, usually in the evening in Dunn Meadow with a bottle of Boones Farm.  He tried to nurture my appreciation for poetry but it was like jazz, I just didn’t get it. So he brought me along slowly with things like Bird on a Wire. I got that.

In turn I offered up the Stone’s latest single Wild Horses. He agreed that it was a beautiful song and reluctantly conceded it had “a certain” poetry to it. The Stones were more commercial than Leonard Cohen so we would hear Wild Horses on jukeboxes, on the radio, wafting from stereos out of open windows. It became the backdrop for the summer.

There was a sexual tension in our relationship that both of us were too naive and too shy to act upon. It was strange having such a strong infatuation that was never consummated. He later had an affair with a kid he fell for on the first night. What sealed the deal was when they woke up in the morning and he saw my name tattooed on the guy’s arm. Our relationship was kind of sick. And not in the fun way the kids use that word today.

He was working on a novella about me called “Image of Veta.” He insisted that I was going to become a star. I asked, “doing what?” I couldn’t sing, couldn’t act, I didn’t think I had any talent.

He replied, “your talent is being yourself. Become famous and the rest will follow.”  It was a formula used successfully by Madonna 10 years later.

Where Fort Wayne's elite meet
Where Fort Wayne’s elite meet

Jim left Bloomington for Fort Wayne. I moved to San Francisco. We hadn’t known each other growing up but Fort Wayne was my home too. We would see each other whenever I was there.

When he needed money Jim would tap into his local funeral home connection. The director loved his poems so Jim would dumb it down and churn out pap like  “autumn’s road to winter’s stillness.” Even I knew it was bad. We would take his earnings and the latest edition of Funeral Memories down to our favorite bar, Henrys. Sitting in the mahogany booth we drank and laughed as we read the poems to each other.

Jim was feeling the limitations of poetry. We both wanted more.

***

The Story of Jim

 

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.

 

***

The Story of Jim