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.

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 Gays 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. Then 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.

 

 

Landline

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.

I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s.  That’s who it turned it out to be.

We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.

He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.

We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.

In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.

At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.

When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.

Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

 

***

The Story of Jim

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

The Folks at Home

Still no decision from the court after two weeks and my neighbor’s hearing has been postponed a couple of times. All because of the huge backlog in Ellis Act cases.

So while I wait I’ve turned my attention to the Hoosier State where I grew up and where a lot of my family still lives. I visit them often. And when I do the number one topic of conversation is always that they don’t have enough freedom to practice their religion and how the government has failed to step in to tackle this oppression.

I notice it especially when we’re at one of our favorite Amish restaurants for lunch. The piped-in Muzak is this heavy on the tremolo organ playing hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross.” There is no better aid to the digestion than the feeling of being at a Dust Bowl funeral.

But seriously, I thought my work was done back there when we liberated the state in the early 70’s. Apparently it’s time for a second offensive.

***

The Eviction Story

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com