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.

Guerrillas in the Midst

Stormy rocks!

After one of our many deluges this winter, I took to the streets to care for my adopted storm drain. It occurred to me that since it was my ward, I should be making it over in my image.  Aren’t we all just a little bit tired of rusted iron grates?

They should each have a color that reflects their unique lineage. It’s the kind of personal touch that will help the program gain acceptance. I, for one, am thinking of taking on a second drain and naming it “Miss Daniels, If You’re Nasty.”

No Wire Hangers!!! All dolled up.

If all the sewer parents would add their own special flare, what a festive addition to the neighborhoods it would be. It’s the kind of legally questionable, up-from-the streets spontaneity that used to give San Francisco character. Not today’s techno-cool that is dictated from some money-grubbing C-Suite.

And if I’m arrested? There’s hope on the horizon. Mark Leno has been on my events mailing list since the 70’s.

We need to keep that hushed up until after the mayoral election when I’ll be expecting a full pardon. Especially after my attorney makes a sizeable “campaign donation” under my alias, Peregrine Dennison IV.

Mover and shaker. Of the spray can.

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

The Conformist

Fascism can be so lonely.
Fascism can be so lonely.

As I wait for the judges gavel to fall I’ve been watching 70’s movies on Netflix. Last night was Bertolucci’s classic and it was as good as I remembered it being 40 years ago. In addition to the drinking, disco, drugs and drag back then, the other mainstay in our lives was movies. And there were so many good ones.

We saw “Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom” and “Swept Away” at the Lumiere; “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and “Grey Gardens” at the Clay; and “Metropolis” and “Now Voyager” at the Castro. There was also “Chinatown,” “Taxi Zum Klo,” “Amarcord,” “Shampoo,” etc., etc. etc.

When my Mother visited in 1974 we took her to a little flat on South Van Ness where they screened movies in a converted front parlor. We sat on recycled living room furniture and watched “Lifeboat.” Mother was more intrigued by our Tallulah fixation than by the movie.

The movie's most vivid colors are in the party for the blind scene.
The movie’s most vivid colors are in the party for the blind scene.

We also took her to a midnight showing of “Pink Flamingos” in North Beach. John Waters’ films did not go into general release in those days so when they were shown in the City it was a major event. Lines queued around the block at the now demolished Palace Theater. We saw “Desperate Living” and “Female Trouble” there too.

Being fresh out of college, steeped in the Socratic method, we were very critical. Lesser titles like “Barry Lyndon” or “Tess” were dismissed as quotidian. When I watched them recently on Netflix, however, I was surprised at how lush and entertaining they really were.

In the 80’s, going to movies became less social and a drop off in quality began. I blame Nancy Reagan for that. She bemoaned the fact that films no longer had happy endings like they did back at MGM. With the advent of mindless mall movies, she got her wish.

The spontaneous conga line coiled around the inert protagonist.
The spontaneous conga line coiled around the inert protagonist.

I tried to stay current by going on my own but it became too emotional. I cried through “Footloose,” I cried through Madonna’s “Truth or Dare.” It wasn’t the movies that got to me, it was the isolation of being in an audience. It was more fun to be on stage.

Most of my friends could not be bothered with mainstream cinema but I convinced a few to go with me on the pretext of examining cultural phenomena. We saw “Jaws” and the original “Star Wars” at the mammoth Coronet Theatre out on Geary. One “Star Wars” turned out to be enough for me.

It was also at the Coronet that I saw “Grease.” Musicals were not my thing but my friend was wooing a young German “pen pal” so I went along when he visited the States. The kid was obsessed with Americana and the 50’s nostalgia craze. There was a vicarious thrill in watching the film with him. Plus, there was just something about Travolta. (He reminded me of my closeted first boyfriend.)

The naughty chauffeur recycled as a peroxided troll.
The naughty chauffeur recycled as a peroxided troll.

In my role as pop anthropologist I went with Mark to see Streisand’s latest vanity project, “A Star is Born,” in 1976. It was at the Northpoint down by the Wharf. We knew what we were in for so we smoked a joint beforehand. I was high enough to become engrossed by the cinematography and ignored the transparent plot.

About three quarters of the way through silence fell over the theater. The soundtrack had been a constant of dialogue, ambient noise, soaring strings, and Babs. Now there was this sudden hush. We could hear a woman sobbing somewhere behind us. Without a word Mark and I burst out laughing.

I have a feeling she was reacting to the coniferous sap on the screen and not the desire to be on stage. But you never know.

No green screen here. Back when they spent money on films, characters were enveloped by the scenery not standing in front of it.
No green screen here. Back when they spent money on films, characters were enveloped by the scenery not standing in front of it.

Next: Landline
Previous: The Copycats Are Out
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

The Copycats Are Out

My former neighbor Vanessa spotted this in a Haight Street storefront. Whitey’s influence continues to grow. My version of the Siberian is now in captivity in a Palm Springs storage locker.

Next: The Conformist
Previous: The Only Person Who Can Judge Me Is Judy

For the complete travelogue see On the Odyssey Road
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Ithaca!

With the Mayor of Palm Springs
With the Mayor of Palm Springs

That’s one small step for a gay man.
One giant leap for mid-century collectibles in the desert.

10-4, Good Buddy

***

The Last Temptation of Me

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown

Nothing has happened on the eviction front. My attorney told me the one year notice period actually ended on Wednesday so yesterday was the first day they could have served me. They didn’t.

They might serve me today because the five days I have to respond includes weekends. The deadline would then be next Wednesday which gives us only three business days to prepare the response. Except it’s already done. So we wait.

The games lawyers play.

——

Next weekend is the Chinese New Year’s Parade. I’ve only been to one in the 40 years I’ve lived here.

In 1977 my friends Juan and James had a hair salon on Commercial Street. They wanted to be good neighborhood merchants so they signed up for an entry in the New Year’s Parade. They asked several of their clients to be on their float whose theme was “the most beautiful women in San Francisco.” They asked me to be on it too.

Jeffrey found a satin 1950’s oriental cocktail dress with a bubble skirt. To make it puff out required proper undergarments but we had no money or resources for crinolines. So we stuffed it with newspaper.

In the 1970’s the general population was still coming to terms with the concept of people being “gay.” They hadn’t begun to grapple with the idea of “drag.” So my appearance was something of a novelty. What first or second generation Chinese-Americans thought of me I’m not sure.

I do remember our float being stalled at the intersection of Kearney and California for a while. Directly in front of me stood two cops who both caught sight of me at the same time. They looked at each other in disgust and silently shook their heads.

After the parade we were walking up Grant Street headed for the party at the salon. There were a bunch of teenagers setting off fireworks and yelling at us. They saw me as an easy target and started throwing their firecrackers. I just ignored them as their munitions bounced off the fortified skirt.

As we approached the salon Brian was sitting on the front stoop. We had mutual friends at the time and knew of each other but had not yet met. As my stilletos clicked down the ancient brick street he yelled out, “Oh! It’s my favorite party person!” No more prophetic words have ever been spoken.

Next: What Have I Got to Hide?
Previous: Disassembly
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com