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 regularly.

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. Back then here were few context clues in rural Indiana of the subculture that awaited..

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 in three years if I went to summer school. Then I came out and it took five more terms 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Me and Susie Had So Much Fun

There’s got to be a morning after. Susan with her friend Richie, mid-70’s.

As I worked with the gilded faux crocodile hide on the bathroom door, the Elton John song kept repeating in my head. His attempt at rocking out really was just a fluff piece of pop, When it was released it made me realize what cheap sentiment nostalgia was. And, how effective it could be. I would listen to the song in bed and cry.

It was December 1972 and my college chums were starting to leave campus. There would never be another time where I would become so close to so many people so quickly. Almost all of them ended up life-long friends. At the time, I wondered if I’d ever see them again.

To compound the anxiety, I was having my first serious relationship. What started out as a notch on the belt escalated into a torrid four-month affair.

Buzz was the hottest number to hit Bloomington’s insular gay community in ages. Everybody wanted him but he wanted me. Being with him was an excuse to delay decisions about where to move or what to do. He would go to work in the mornings leaving me alone listening to Crocodile Rock.

In 2008 I had a new boss. Susan. She was so open with and had such an enveloping smile. From the moment I met her she spoke to me as if she’d known me forever. I didn’t trust her for a second.

I thought this was the latest in management techniques, kill them with kindness before stabbing them in the back. My instincts were partially correct. Surprise lay-offs followed in January 2009. Susan had been privy to the preparations but resigned in October after only eight months on the job. She wanted no part of the blood-letting.

I wanted to remain friends after we left the firm but it’s hard translating workplace friendships into real ones. The office environment forces close connections with coworkers to make the work day palatable.  It feels artificial. Outside work, there’s often little common ground once the topic switches from year-end projections.

This was not the case with Susan. Intimate details of her life flowed freely. She told me things my oldest friends never share. And she did it in such a calm, non-dramatic way.

The memory evoking reptilian hide.
The memory evoking reptilian hide.

She helped me start this blog. When I was mulling over how to begin, Susan quietly got out her iphone and pulled up WordPress. Instantly she created an account and posted an item. Her unspoken words were “now get on with it” as she seemed a little perturbed with the person who was once in charge of her department’s technology.

Unlike many megalomaniac queens I know, her name-dropping CV does not come locked and loaded ready to explode in your face. It seeps out in dribs and drabs.

I told her about standing behind a man at O’Hare who was wearing this gorgeous black suit. The fabric was so exquisite I wanted to touch it. When he turned around it was Anderson Cooper.

She told a story about an awards ceremony honoring her brother where she was seated next to Anderson for the evening. She was matter of fact, it could have been morning traffic on the 101 she was talking about.

When rock was young we’d been on parallel tracks of fanaticism, liking the same music, seeing the same bands. I could mention Richard Hell and the Voidoids and she wouldn’t flinch. Love comes in spurts. Sometimes it hurts.

I told her about the Stones ’72 tour dates at Madison Square Garden. There’d been a New York Times ad announcing a random ticket draw so I submitted 200 postcards. 40 cards each under five different names.

Hi-Tech was just a gleam in Bill Hewlitt’s eye back then. I thought if a computer did the selection it could key on zip codes. Most entries would come from New York, Bloomington’s 47401 might get me a ticket.

All five of my names won. Non-photo IDs were still accepted so I took my friends’ drivers licenses to Manhattan and stood in line to buy the maximum four tickets per name. After completing the sale for one, I went to the back of a different line to use the next ID. I saw every show. Scalping the surplus tickets funded the trip.

Life is a pop of the cherry. Me at the St. Regis trying to crash Mick’s Birthday, July 1972.

Susan liked my story but, being a native New Yorker, had one that trumped mine. Although we’ve never been competitive, I listened intently while lingering over my steak tartare. Susan is a vegetarian.

As a dare she told a college friend she’d get him a meeting with his idol, Jerry Garcia. She began calling the Dead’s record label saying she was a CREEM Magazine reporter. Over a period of months they received concert tickets, backstage passes, and finally clearance to interview Jerry.

When they went to meet him, her friend posed as a photographer with his professional looking but non-functioning Nikon. He was supposed to do the talking but froze in the presence of his hero. Susan had to wing it.

Noticing a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book on the table, she began a conversation with Jerry on South American novelists. This led to a discussion of post-war German filmmakers, the bizarre lay-out of Washington DC and various other topics. Music was never mentioned. As they parted Jerry said it was the most intelligent conversation he’d had in some time. Susan answered, “if that’s true, I feel sorry for you!”

Her entrée with Jerry led to subsequent meetings when the group was in town. She hung out with the original Saturday Night Live cast when the Dead were on the show; there were week-long stays at the New York Hilton with the band; and, she watched their Garden concerts from onstage behind Jerry’s amps.

Susan had to psyche herself up for the occasional consorting part. She channeled Margaret Mead exploring some lost tribe. She was a punk rocking kid after all. Jerry at 35 was an ancient hippie.

I was amazed. What would corporate think? I loved the story though I’ve never cared for the Grateful Dead’s music. I couldn’t imagine she would either. When I questioned her about it she was blunt: “it’s some of the most tedious music ever made.”

Susan is leaving tonight on a plane (oh Jesus, enough John already). Actually she’s moving to New York to be with her family. If I’ve learned nothing else since that Bloomington winter it’s you don’t need to live in close proximity to remain good friends.

Life on Pretty Lake

Jim and me on Pretty Lake one summer in the early 70’s. Or maybe it was Center Lake. Or possibly it could have been Big Crooked or Little Crooked, Big Long or Little Long. At any rate, it was one of northeastern Indiana’s picturesque but ineptly named lakes.

***

The Story of Jim