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.

Bua uuh Guul

Back in the disco days when we encountered a person of undecipherable gender, we would turn to each other and ask “bua uuh guul?” The phrase became part of our vocabulary when someone overheard a pimp on the sidewalk approach a potential customer and offer him his choice of gender in a playmate. Not only was the john’s predilection unclear, what was available was pretty murky too.

Gender confusion and challenging sex role stereotypes has always been a preoccupation of mine. As documented in a recently published book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating.

When I first saw the words “ethics” and “curators” together I thought “not another rehash of the frolicking I did back in 1973.” Those allegations involving The Detroit Institute of Art staff have been laid to rest years ago.

Then I realized it was referring to the Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art show held in Manhattan in 1982. My friend Charley Brown did a series of paintings of me in the early 80’s, a couple of which were in that New Museum show.

The portrait included in the book is one of my favorites because of Charley’s use of found materials: layers of cardboard glued together, appliqued toothpicks adding dimension to Brian’s sequined top. There’s gutter in that glamour.

The timing of that show coincided with my waning interest in drag. The derring-do and shock of what I’d done before was no longer there and my falling out with Jim had left me without focus. Plus, RuPaul was on the ascendant and about to change the drag landscape completely. I like to think I helped make the world safe for Ru. Then I think what a miserable failure I’ve been. No one’s safe from that bitch.

My friend Charley did a series of B paintings, a couple were in this show

On my trip to Indiana this month I reunited with Susan in Bloomington who I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. One of the things we reminisced about was the evening she gave me makeup lessons. As we listened to Ike & Tina records in her apartment that night, she went over the basics of eye makeup. And told me my practice of the art was particularly abysmal.

On our recent visit I tried to convince her that precision wasn’t nearly as important back in those days as how I presented myself. She would have none of it. She chided that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Then, out of the blue, she asked whether I identified as a woman or a man.

The question is an obvious one and the way the discussion seems to be framed these days. But it caught me completely off guard. The essence of my being never entered into my thinking when I did drag. It was all about what I could get away with. And looking good while I did it.

I told Susan the only thing I’ve ever identified as was a troublemaker.

Cherry

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

 

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The Story of Jim

Life, Afterlife and Lowlife

Gravesite Photo Shoot

In 1976 Jim published the final edition of White Arms Magazine devoted completely to me. It was called the B-Centennial Issue.

We decided it needed some photos featuring gravesite drama so I packed up a bunch of friends and we headed to this fabulous cemetery in Oakland. An afternoon of bereavement hilarity followed.

Grandmother used to take me to antique auctions when I was a kid and at one there was this beautiful 19th Century silk crepe widow’s veil. I asked her to buy it for me because it reminded me of the assassination. During the photo shoot I held it in place with a black beret–just like Jackie.

 

 

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The Jackie Obsession

 

I Know I’ve Dreamed You

As the disease and the heavy doses of AZT ravaged Jim, it was to the point he could no longer manage. He was moved to the Garden Sullivan Hospice. The dementia was getting much worse so our visits were mainly me filling the air with words hoping he’d pick up on some of them. There were so many absurd hospice moments I wanted to laugh about with him but I couldn’t get through.

One afternoon I was there and a person in his ward had just died. Two scruffy women were wrapping the corpse in black plastic and tying it with rope not bothering to close the curtain for privacy. There was a grizzly earnestness to what they did, a 19th Century workhouse feel to the scene. “Call the fishmonger’s wife! She’ll do it.”

Another time he was thirsty. He reached for his water bottle but picked up the urine container instead. I quickly grabbed it, “no, no! not that one!” Did the attendants even notice these things? Why would they place them so close together? Maybe they were Hindu and considered this an accepted practice.

On one of my last visits I let him do the talking. He thought he was looking at someone’s family portrait and he went down the line explaining to me who each person was. When he got to the imaginary guy on the end he said, “now that one, that one’s fuckable.”


Jim would not have wanted a memorial service but one of his newer friends Rachel was insistent. She lived a few doors down in the Day of the Locust complex. They had become friendly because she wrote poetry too. She was a needy and sensitive lass though I’m not sure how well she wrote. But Jim could rise to the level of the competition. With someone talented like Randy Shilts he could be brutal, with the neighboring naif I’m sure he was encouraging. Most importantly, her visits had added routine to his dwindling personal life.

I kept putting her off hoping to wear her down. I knew she would make any service more about Rachel than Jim but she wouldn’t give up. So I finally relented and agreed on a Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park. We would meet in front of the DeYoung at 2:00.

I thought of calling in sick or just not showing up but I forced myself to go. I drug my feet the whole way. Leaving the apartment late, taking unnecessary transfers on Muni and walking very slowly the final blocks, I arrived at 2:25 hoping it would be over. They were all waiting for me on the steps. We decided to go sit in a grove over to the right of the museum

I didn’t know any of the ten people there except his artist friend Steve who I liked. We engaged in light conversation as we walked towards the trees. In the distance there was a hippie minstrel playing guitar and singing Imagine. A nice coincidence even if it was a bit hackneyed. Jim would have liked the live music echoing in the bandshell amphitheatre. As I continued chatting with Steve I thought ‘wait a minute, that’s not Imagine, it’s Wild Horses.’ I felt a jolt. The song was not that popular, no one but the Stones ever sang it and even they rarely performed it. But now?

I sat silent and distracted through the ceremony catching only snippets of what Rachel was feeling. When the group dispersed some wanted to go have a drink. I demurred. I told them I wanted to walk, which I did, thinking of Jim on the three miles back to Jones Street.

***

The Story of Jim

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

 

Life at Sterling Cooper

 

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

We sold ads for the 1968 program and somehow I ended up being featured in all of them. Except one, I threw a bone to my co-star for her make-up business.

We were in the last vestiges of the Zine era. This was an homage to one of our favorites, Egozine.

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The Story of Jim