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.

Winning Streak

Captain Jack's Hospitality Team: Blossom, Bridget and Chatty Cathy
Captain Jack’s Hospitality Team: Blossom, Bridget and Chatty Cathy

Mark sent me a link to a New York Magazine article about a tony bay front cabin in Provincetown. The pictures conveyed all the sterile lifelessness of a very talented decorator. But we remembered it when it funked.

In the summer of 1972 Mark and two other Bloomington friends decided to work in this quaint little artists’ (wink wink) colony. In July three of us joined them at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a beaten down place that slept two but held six that week.

My friends’ first jobs were at the fish processing pier a hundred yards down the street. They lasted only a week. The constant waft of putrefied sea life lasted all summer.

My favorite memory is of the nights at Piggies, a ramshackle little dive bar on the outskirts of town. You could dance there. The crowd was a mix of gay and straight, half-naked because there was no AC.  Sweat flew to a constant onslaught of James Brown. It was a love shack if there ever was one.

Dancing in public was such a weird thing in the early 1970’s. My generation wanted to shake it but there was no place to go. In San Francisco you’d hear that you could dance at a certain bar on a certain night or that this one place had a jukebox if things didn’t get out of hand. But rumors abounded of police busts, mafia connections and liquor licenses being revoked. Discotheque was a 1960’s word, disco had yet to be invented.

The bar at Buzzbys
The bar at Buzzbys

Then in 1975 the first great gay dance bar opened, Buzzby’s on Polk Street. It was a small space we all crammed into. It was soon followed by Oil Can Harry’s at Ellis and Larkin.

Oil Can’s was huge and always crowded on the weekends. Attendance would fall off during the week, however, so they would often do promotions. One Wednesday they did a Nostalgia ’77 contest.

The trend of the day was for the 1950’s: Grease, Sha-Na-Na and Happy Days were on everyone’s minds. Not me, I wanted my Carnaby Street back. That night I wore a red vinyl mini-tunic, an asymmetrical bob wig, and go-go boots. In a sea of circle skirts, saddle shoes and pony tails, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I won.

In 1978 I met Brian. He talked to our mutual friend Kathy about entering The Outrageous Beauty Contest at the Fab Mab and she told him bluntly, “you’ll never win it without B.” So he called me and we started working on it.

Your Nostalgia 77 Winner
Your Nostalgia 77 Winner

With “outrageous” the theme, the elements of judging included: swimsuit–me in a mesh two piece with picture hat walking my poodle Brian; musical–I played the Hallelujah Chorus on a toy piano in a Bishop’s miter while he sang; and cooking–Brian did a Julia Child impression making a sauce then called for his assistant. I appeared in an outfit of tiered spaghetti and he dumped the putanseca over my head.

Our finale was Jack & Jackie. He laid on the catafalque with his exposed brain matter (doctored tripe) while I stood behind him in the pink suit reciting poignant passages from the Inaugural Address. We won.

In 1979 Ted Kennedy was planning to run for president.  For Halloween I went as “Joan, the next Kennedy widow.”  I wore a sleek black suit and a blonde fall which looked sexy even though no one got who I was. Brian and I went over to the Castro to hang out for a while then decided to head back to Polk.

There were no cabs so I took off my stilettos and walked the two miles in my stocking feet. At the ‘N Touch we saw some kind of competition on stage and heard a big crowd. Brian said, “put your shoes on, we’re going in.”

A drag queen was hosting a contest and pulling audience members up on the stage. She didn’t have much presence and came across as a control freak more interested in rules and regulations than in entertaining. She spotted me and called me up.

I’ve been on stage many times and live for that indefinable moment I am now going to try to define. It feels like a surge where individuals in the audience meld into an monolith of energy you fight. It’s not an a+b=c thing that can be programmed, it just happens sometimes. And when it does it’s better than any drug I’ve ever done (which I’ll save for another post.)

It happened that night at the ‘N Touch and all I had to do was slither and goad. The crowd loved it.  After I did my turn I crossed the stage for the “interview portion” of the competition.  The MC clearly resented my popularity and I only made things worse by being flip with my answers.

I found Brian afterwards who said “you’re going to win this.” We stayed and had a drink as the MC’s dreadful patter brought down the room. The electricity I’d felt on stage quickly dissipated into general mulling and indifference.

Finally she started naming the winners, corny best this and best that awards. Then the countdown began with fifth runner-up. When she got to third the crowd had had enough. They started chanting and stomping in unison “We want blond-ie! We want blond-ie!” It got so loud it drowned out the hapless hostess.

Brian dashed to the Ma and Pa store next door and returned just as I was pronounced the winner. He had a couple of bottles of cheap bubbly that he shook violently. As I took my victory lap on stage I popped them to spray the audience. Everyone went wild. Except the MC who shouted, “That does it! Get off the stage! You’re out of the competition!”

So what. Who needs titles when you have hearts and minds.

Outrageous Beauties
Outrageous Beauties

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The Jackie Obsession