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.

Pear Picking in the USA

In my cousin Carol Ann’s backyard.

Last fall I took a no expenses paid trip to the mid-west. The region was in crisis. The local Fort Wayne Steak and Shake could not maintain regular business hours.

This franchise had experienced numerous unscheduled closures. Either they didn’t have enough staff to open or no-shows at shift changes forced shutting down in the middle of the day. Hiring was at a standstill, the usual suspects had no interest. High school kids couldn’t stomach the idea of working fast food. Immigrants preferred the underground economy to rampant xenophobia.

If capitalism is dependent on cheap labor, this trend could spell trouble. Ray Kroc might have to rise from the dead to demand: “Mr. Trump, tear… down….. this…. wall!”

 

Studying growth patterns to formulate picking schemata.

In retrospect the skyrocketing prices of Imodium should have been a tip-off. Of the many acronyms I’ve been diagnosed with, I’ve had some success controlling IBS with a gentle dose of loperamide. I know something about this shit. Two years ago 100 tabs cost $11 on Amazon. Today my local Walgreens sells 12 for $7.

It’s part of the FDA’s feebly belated attempt to control opiates. Apparently each tab contains a small trace of narcotic. Taken in huge quantities they get you off. If pain meds can’t be refilled or your dealer is out of China White, crush up a hundred little blue blockers instead. It must be a hell of a high if the trade-off is eight months without a bowel movement.

OxyContin seems to be the root of this generation’s problems. These Oxyennials have overindulged in the deadly cocktail of opiates and video games. The result is a bunch of apathetic lemmings primed to be led over the cliff by the next great dictator.

Going that extra mile to pull in a bumper crop.

I ran these ideas past Billy when I was home but he wasn’t buying them. He’s the oldest openly gay man on the planet and a major reason I go back to Indiana. He will be 87 on St. Patrick’s Day and has one of the most wicked senses of humor of anyone I know.

When he opened Fort Wayne’s preeminent beauty salon in 1959 he made no apologies for being gay. He was having too much fun to feel any shame. He owned his business so he didn’t worry about being fired and he was so charming all of the society women befriended him. I’ve always admired him for what he did because not many did at the time. It would be another 15 years, for example, before Harvey Milk deigned it safe to come out.

Because people accepted him didn’t mean they wanted to understand him or lose their prejudices. They just didn’t talk about it. Fort Wayne has always been very conservative and remains so today. The surprising thing is Billy has been a life-long Republican too.

When I had the condo in Fort Wayne, people visited from around the country. Billy always enjoyed these occasions because he shared many of their interests and no longer had a local outlet for them. He, in return, was a hit with my friends because he was unlike anyone they expected to meet in Indiana.

One evening my Kentucky Derby hosts, Jan and Mar, stopped on their way back to New Albany. Billy joined us at dinner for a rollicking good time. He still talks about how open and accepting they were compared to heterosexuals he knows. When I point out the link between their political thinking and social justice he will have none of it. To him they are simply good people.

This red state/blue state thing may just be a lot of blind allegiance. Like picking a sports team, my Dad was a Bear’s fan so I’m one too. Billy is bored by politics and puts little energy into it. It’s such a minute component of his personality, I can live with that.

I may have lost the battle but overall I think I won the war. Billy has been a friend to my Mother and me since I was a teenager.

Billy leading the Peru High School Band down Main Street in 1948. There’s a discernible hitch in that get-a-long that fortold greater things.

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.

 

 

Things I Will Miss, Volume III

I’ve always had a love/hate thing with Beaux-Arts. I’m childishly drawn to the grandeur but, as Diana Vreeland said, “the eye needs to travel” and with all that frou-frou which way does it go? Considering that almost all of its stylistic elements are from previous eras and that its success is based on new construction methods that allowed it to be produced on a large-scale, it’s not that original.

After the 1906 earthquake many doubted that a city should be rebuilt on a site prone to natural disasters. Civic leaders forged ahead anyway with a City Hall that was grander than anything previously imagined. Its dome, fifth largest in the world, stands as a defiant middle finger "fuck you" to the naysayers.
After the 1906 earthquake many doubted that a city should be rebuilt on a site prone to natural disasters. Civic leaders forged ahead anyway with a City Hall that was grander than anything previously imagined. Its dome, fifth largest in the world, stands as a defiant middle finger “fuck you” to the naysayers.

 

While many of us freeloaded on food stamps, Jeffrey had a job at City Hall. I would visit him on breaks in the third floor hallway. He talked about his old-school co-workers who would arrive early in the morning for an eye-opener at the bar across the street before work. Their fifteen minute morning break became a half hour so they could go knock a couple back. More knocking back occurred during their 1 1/2 hour lunch and the extended afternoon break. After work they would avoid the Muni rush hour crush by topping things off with just one more. Their evening homecoming must have been something to behold.
While many of us freeloaded on food stamps, Jeffrey had a job at City Hall. I would visit him on breaks in the third floor hallway.
 
He talked about his old-school co-workers who would arrive early in the morning for an eye-opener at the bar across the street before work. Their fifteen minute morning break became a half hour so they could go knock a couple back. More knocking back occurred during their 1 1/2 hour lunch and the extended afternoon break.
 
After work they would avoid the Muni rush hour crush by topping things off with just one more. Their evening homecoming must have been something to behold.

 

The Feminist Movement made it clear that women had the same job performance capabilities as men. In order to gain acceptance, however, they still had to play the feminine attire game (see Joan in Mad Men). To me that silly expectation is part of the allure of drag. We were leaning on the third floor balustrade one day when Jeffrey said "there she goes." I looked down and saw Supervisor Dianne Feinstein in a determined dash up the grand staircase. He added, "she always runs." Such a camp.
The Feminist Movement made it clear that women had the same job performance capabilities as men. In order to gain acceptance, however, they still had to play the feminine attire game (see Joan in Mad Men). To me that silly expectation is part of the allure of drag.
 
We were leaning on the third floor balustrade one day when Jeffrey said “there she goes.” I looked down and saw Supervisor Dianne Feinstein in her camel skirt and navy pumps doing a determined dash up the grand staircase. He added, “she always runs up those stairs.”
 
Such a camp.

 

In the late 70's I worked in the Mayor's Budget Office. The easiest way to get around City Hall was to use the back staircases. Mayor Feinstein knew this too and I would sometimes run into her. She was always surrounded by an entourage and in a hurry. But she'd flash her campaign smile and issue a brisk "Hi. How are you." As she flew past me. She didn't know me from Adam but she could always use my vote. Still a camp.
In the late 70’s I worked in the Mayor’s Budget Office. The easiest way to get around City Hall was to use the back staircases. Mayor Feinstein knew this too and I would sometimes run into her.
 
She was always surrounded by an entourage and in a hurry. But she’d flash her campaign smile and issue a brisk “hi. how are you” as she flew past me. She didn’t know me from Adam but she could always use my vote.
 
Still a camp.

 

Jeffrey found a Feinstein for Mayor sweatshirt at a thrift store for a quarter. It was from one of her earlier failed campaigns. I wore it the day I worked the Wilkes Bashford fashion show at the Kabuki. In the late 70's I worked in the Mayor's Budget Office. The easiest way to get around City Hall was to use the back staircases. Mayor Feinstein knew this too and I would sometimes run into her. She was always surrounded by an entourage and in a hurry. But she'd flash her campaign smile and issue a brisk
Jeffrey found a Feinstein for Mayor sweatshirt at a thrift store for a quarter. It was from one of her earlier failed campaigns. I held on to it for years and finally wore it the day I worked the Wilkes Bashford fashion show at the Kabuki.
 
It was staged one week after the Milk/Moscone murders and a new mayor had not yet been selected. I realized that many might think my shirt “too soon” or insensitive. All the more reason to wear it.
 
After the rehearsal Willie Brown was meandering backstage. As he walked by me he looked at my shirt, shook his head and muttered, “they’re at it already?”
 
Always a camp.

Previous: Uncle Cookie’s Antique Empire
For the complete saga, From the Beginning

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