Sliding Through My Hands

Holding it together for the sake of the child. 1984
Holding it together for the sake of the child. 1984

After 1968 closed, Jim moved out and we didn’t see much of each other for five years. We made a couple attempts at reconciliation, like when Marilyn was in town, but we didn’t really speak. Then in 1985 he called and told me he had AIDS. It was not a time for holding grudges, I became part of his life again.

I knew his temper and feistiness would play to his advantage. Dr. Conant, who was my doctor before the crisis began who became a leading AIDS expert, told me the ones who seemed to fare best were those filled with piss and vinegar.

Jim’s therapist advised him to join a support group which he resented. At one meeting he sauntered in 20 minutes late with an open can of Bud. In her best touchy feely tone the leader said, “now Jim, I think you know what you’re doing could be considered an act of hostility.”

Over those five years we were apart Jim had hung out mostly with the leather crowd south of Market. He had a string of affairs including one with the author Randy Shilts. I’m guessing the competitiveness over writing must have lead to some interesting resolution in the bedroom. He felt Randy was wasting his talent on his newspaper column and once asked him,  “so you’re content just writing ad copy for Macy’s?”

Circle of the Serpent
Circle of the Serpent

One Saturday night during our estrangement we ran into each other at Febe’s on Folsom Street. It was the oldest leather bar in the City and Jim’s favorite hangout. I was feeling the Cape Cods I’d had at the Stud a couple doors down and started running off at the mouth about how Aretha’s elaborate stylizations were ruining her music. Jim was laughing very hard, either because what I said was funny or because he was nervous and I was embarrassing him in front of his friends. That attempted reconciliation didn’t go very far.

The artist Chuck Arnett was one of the co-owners of Febe’s and had done several murals south of Market. He had befriended Jim and his artwork inspired him to write a play, Circle of the Serpent. It concerned a motley group of gay men whose disperate lives intersected in a dive bar. Kind of an Edward Albee version of Cheers. This time Jim was content just to be the playwright and left the production and direction to others. It was staged upstairs at the Ambush and it had a much better result than 1968.

As Jim’s energy continued to fade, it surprised me what he could accomplish with only two or three good hours a day. Besides writing the play, he maintained an extensive journal, and moved himself to three different apartments before finally ending up in one of those “Day of the Locust” U-shaped buildings in Oakland.

Chuck Arnett mural at the Tool Box. Photograph by Mike Kelley 1975
Chuck Arnett mural at the Tool Box. Photograph by Mike Kelley 1975

I went to see him at Kaiser when he had a bout of pneumocystis. As I watched him struggle to breathe I wondered if my visits did any good and if his other friends ever came to see him.

I’d only been there ten minutes when he was getting drowsy. I decided to make it a short stay. His back was to the door so he couldn’t see people entering or leaving. I tiptoed out, got to the door when he bolted upright and yelled “Chris!” He thought he was alone. I sat back down and waited until the meds knocked him out.

No one took better care of their own or raised more money than the leather community in response to AIDS. But there remained a segment obsessed with sex and drugs. If you were not available meat you were not of much use. I got the feeling that’s who Jim hung out with since I never met any of those friends.

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The Story of Jim

 

Alone With Art

ad7The 1968 program that became the focal point of our discord was the most polished thing Jim and I ever did. It also turned out to be the last thing we collaborated on.

35 years later it still makes me laugh.

What the Critics Say (pdf)
Well received if only in our heads

Synopsis (pdf)
The Cliff Notes

Behind 1968: The Celebrants (pdf)
Cast bios

Beyond 1968: Eros and Civilization (pdf)
An interview with J. Jordan and B

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The Story of Jim

What’s the Date? 1968

“What’s the date? 1968” was the mantra the choruses repeated over and over

Jim moved to California in 1978. He’d liked the area down by Santa Cruz so he rented a place in Capitola.  To get away from White Arms and up the ante a bit he started writing a play that would star me and be produced in San Francisco.

It was called 1968 and it was about the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. I was to play Valerie Solanas, he would play Andy. He wanted it to be called an opera even though there was no music. It was written in verse and both Andy and Valerie were backed by a Greek chorus.  The only real musical element was the drummer who pounded out a rhythm which we tried to keep up with and project over.

We heavily researched every assassination detail and stuck to the facts. To a point. The verse was broken when Valerie delivered her SCUM Manifesto to the adoring masses. And after her trial she was given electric shock treatments to set her straight. The play ended with me lip synching “Chain of Fools.”

As things started to come together and it looked like we were going to pull it off, Jim moved up to the City into a rooming house across the street from me. A few months later he moved in with me so we could save money and share expenses.

We lived 1968 night and day and constantly bickered. He wanted Valerie to be true to life, scruffy and plain. I knew if my followers were coming they would want to see glam. I fought for something more mod and, even though it ended up a modest mod, it was not the realism he wanted.

Bette Davis Eyes. We weren't on until June but they used my image anyways
Bette Davis Eyes. We weren’t on until June but they used my image anyways

Jim took on the roles of producing, directing and acting. He had no experience in any of them. It didn’t help that he was also so indecisive. Sometimes we’d gather for rehearsals and he’d have no plans on what we were to work on, still mulling it over in his head. Most of the cast were friends of mine and I felt guilty we were wasting everyone’s time.

As the opening approached we fought over everything; graphics, staging, mailing lists. He would not delegate, I would not compromise.

His biggest accomplishment was securing the The Fab Mab. It was the hippest venue in town and the home of San Francisco’s punk scene. He talked the owner Dirk Dirksen into giving us early evenings on the weekends in June, 1980. At one rehearsal some English group was unloading their equipment and I heard one guy say, “ah, it’s just some fluff doing a play.”

Things finally came to a head over the program. I arrived home one night after he had been to the printers. He told me my cover design was technically not feasible. He seemed pleased about it because he hadn’t liked it in the first place. I said something catty like I’m sure he’d worked really hard to find a solution.

He snapped. He started yelling I always had to have my way, I was impossible to work with, I never supported him, etc., etc.  For emphasis, he put his fist through the plaster with such force the fountain pen he held splattered all over the ceiling.

I’d seen his violent side before but it had never been directed towards me. I shut down and started to phase him out. During the month-long run of 1968 communication between us was terse and only when necessary.

Mercifully, the play ended but our relationship was destroyed. We could barely stand to be together.

Deadly. My slightly modish version of Valerie.
Deadly. My slightly modish version of Valerie.

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The Story of Jim