Celebrate Good Times – or – When Being Gay Was No Longer Gay

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Prologue

Late last year, someone I know was complaining about a persistent fever and feeling like crap for weeks. He was going back to the doctor for more blood work. Now his glands were swollen, and the poor guy was fighting constant nausea. Turns out he just had one of those nasty won’t-let-go bugs. However, in a heartbeat, his well-known series of complaints took me back. The time was the early 80s. I had been in a committed relationship with Alejandro since July of 1977. He worked in the travel industry when we met, and helped me land my first job with a charter tour operator. That led me to Laker Airways, a small British airline where I worked in the accounting department. My title was Refunds USA. I’ve often said, if I could go back to any one job in my life it would be here–this time–this place–that me. That is, until the world collapsed from underneath our feet.

Octave the first: Kool And The Gang

The accounting department was made up of a wonderful conglomeration of unique characters. The count was around twenty-five. Our group had a ball in that office, where each day was celebrated like a gala. We all guzzled coffee by the pot fulls and shared goodies brought from home. Most of us were packs-a-day smokers. Those good old days, when you could puff away anywhere and everywhere, and clean air nazis were silent and uncounted. All types were represented: young marrieds, working moms, college students, swinging singles and gay folk– either partnered, looking, or some only wanting to party. We were all openly OUT, and no one else was in the least bothered by it. I’d never felt so free to be myself, ever before.

Frequently we’d organize a Saturday night when the group expanded, with significant others or dates in tow. We’d meet up at this enormous dance club out on Long Island that boasted an ultra-sophisticated lighting system. There we could really let our hair down. A couple of the straight husbands would dance with us gay guys “just to be silly”, (or so they told their wives). CELEBRATE, by Kool and the Gang was a mega-hit in these days. They’d play it several times a night, and the crowd whooped and screamed and sang along. “So bring your good times, and your laughter too, we’re gonna’ celebrate your party with you”,  all the while strobing bars of multi-colored lights scanned the jumpin’ dance floor. We would share joints in the parking lot and carry on till we closed the place. Then we’d head to one of the well-known all night diners the Island was famous for, and pig out, satisfying our raging munchies.

Octave the second: Boy from way Uptown

Freddie was one of my Laker gay work friends. He was Cuban-American. His name was actually Federico, but he was very Americanized, and spoke English with no accent…well…except maybe a slight New York one. I was studying Spanish then, so I usually called him Federico when we spoke together, as I practiced habla-ing in my mixture of Spanish and English. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man, but he was constantly on the make. We could count on Monday mornings in the office beginning with Freddie recounting his dating stories from the weekend. Often there was a different man Friday and Saturday night. Too many Mondays he would sail in the door, throw himself into his seat, and announce that he’d found his husband at last. Typically it was one of the working moms who would remind him we’d heard that claim two weeks before. Somehow though, there was a naive charm to his trashy behavior.

He was in his early thirties like me, but had a penchant for younger Latino guys–mucho younger–typically early twenties. When he met Felix, he’d really pushed the envelope. Felix was only eighteen or nineteen. He lived way uptown near Harlem with his mother and many siblings in a cramped apartment. They were poor, like most in their neighborhood. Freddie fell fast and hard for this boy. There were no more Monday stories about new guys. Now it was Felix this and Felix that. He always managed to work his way to my desk before lunch to fill me in on the gory details of their sexcapades.

There was a Monday, I’m guessing a month or so after their meeting, that a very sullen Freddie dragged into the office. Felix was sick, raging with fever. He had mono, they suspected. Felix had a similar bout a few months before. “Freddie, you be careful too”, we all cautioned. As the week progressed, his boy grew sicker. The family had no insurance of any kind. They used the free clinic. Freddie worked the phones, advocating for him, calling all sorts of city agencies. That weekend an ambulance took Felix to the hospital.

I remember Freddie telling us how the fever continued to spike. They were packing Felix in ice, trying to bring it down. His glands were swollen everywhere. He was getting worse, not better. I don’t believe it was many days later that Felix died. Freddie was a wreck. We all were. The office was quieter. We still drank coffee and smoked and ate and carried on, but it was a very sobering thing to learn a nineteen-year-old could get sick and die from mono in less than two weeks time. Freddie came back to work. If memory serves, he’d given the mother some money to help bury poor little Felix, who none of us had ever even met. They performed an autopsy, but it would be months before they might have any results–if at all.

Octave the third: The Gay Cancer

The tragedy of Felix had to have happened in early summer, because it was July of 1981 that the New York Times first published an article about ‘the gay cancer’ that had already killed men in New York City and San Francisco. It had been gossiped about in gay circles for months. My friend Perry, who I’d known since my Kent State days, was working for a physician in Manhattan who saw primarily gay patients in his practice. There were several of these offices scattered throughout The City. We called them ‘gay doctors’. Men who typically had come to their MD for cases of the clap, hepatitis, or at the very worst, syphilis, were now showing up extremely ill, with odd symptoms. Still so recent, we whispered in our office that maybe this is what happened to Freddie’s boyfriend. We had no real name for what had begun killing our population.

All of us gay men were frightened by each bit of news heard through a gay bar grapevine. They were horrific tales of handsome, hunky young men getting sick and wasting away with purple sores and pneumonia–like geriatric patients, but all in a period of a few months. For a short time we enjoyed a reprieve of sorts, when those working on the disease believed it might be spread by Haitians. All of us who’d never known a Haitian breathed a sigh of relief. Then maybe a week or so later, those same researchers feared it might be caused by the recreational use of amyl nitrite–poppers. It was a liquid sold in every head shop and adult book store around the city. Poppers cause the heart to pound and bring on a pulsating euphoria. I’d inhaled gallons of the stuff since first arriving in 1972.

At some point they announced the possible window on contracting the disease could be as wide as ten years. That was as long as I’d lived in The City. I had lost count of my sexual partners before I met Alejandro. It didn’t seem to matter now that we’d been monogamous from the start. Five years was only half of that ten-year window. The more people who became ill, the more Gay Cancer was in the papers and talked about on TV, the more I was certain it was only a matter of time for all of us. Everybody was gonna die from whatever this was. Our celebration was turning into a raging funeral pyre.

Octave the fourth: Say goodbye

We were getting ready for work in early February of the following year, when Alejandro heard on the radio as he shaved, that Laker Airways had filed for bankruptcy. It came as a complete shock. None of us knew a thing about it, and we were the friggin’ Accounting Department! Our manager let us into the building to gather our personal things. There was no formal farewell, no last time gathering ’round the coffee pot. The party was over–full stop.

In the spring, our colleague Sheila, a lovely British lady and one of my very best buddies, died suddenly of a massive stroke. She left two young children behind. Her funeral served as a makeshift reunion for a handful of the old guard, getting together one last time. Freddie was there. He looked terrible. He said he’d been sick. Our eyes met briefly, and I guessed the worst. Not one year later, another gay friend from accounting who’d kept in touch, would call to tell me Freddie was dead. And so it began–the litany of gay men falling by the wayside.

Perry, my doctor’s assistant friend, would fill me in on the throngs of men who came through his office. “Remember the tall guy with the crew cut and biker boots we used to see at Ty’s?” or “This week we saw that cute trainer from our old gym. He’s sick now too.” And that was the code, or the euphemism we used–sick now too. It took a while to admit AIDS into our personal lexicon. That four letter word seemed too insignificant to stand for something so huge and so heinous. Luckily my circle of close friends remained untouched. Death was stalking all around us, but had not yet penetrated our little world. Anyone who thought we might somehow be immune was foolishly naïve. We all sensed it was only a matter of time before it would strike.

Octave the fifth: A self-examination

It got so that after a while, I couldn’t stop searching my body for signs of IT. Any bruise that turned remotely purple was something I studied and watched until it disappeared completely. I couldn’t wash my armpits, my neck or my crotch in the shower without feeling for glands that felt swollen or slightly tender to the touch. Probably I was making them sore with my guilty prodding. And the summer nights I awoke in a sweat, fearing these were the symptomatic deadly night sweats that often heralded IT’s arrival, would send me into a frightened tailspin.

Poor Perry. I badgered him every time we saw one another, or spoke on the phone. Does this look like something I should be concerned about? You know…I wake up nauseous a couple of mornings almost every week. Just what is considered a low-grade fever? My annoying anxieties usually would cease with a subtle rolling of his eyeballs. Sometimes it took him saying “Just stop. Please”, without even raising his voice. It made me remember the real horror he witnessed every day he went to work. He often said the frustration was, they weren’t curing anybody, just waiting with them while they died.

“Had all those indiscriminate encounters been as exciting as I thought they were? Was all that wasted passion and risk taking really anything more than the few minutes of orgasm it gave in return? Was any of it worth dying for?” These were the thoughts that accompanied my obsessive-compulsive behavior–another form of the disease called AIDS.

Octave the sixth: Right in my own backyard

It wasn’t the plague that prompted me to flee The City, but rather the opportunity to live in a house in New England with my partner Alejandro. The deregulation of the airlines was devastating the travel industry, and I needed to find a new career. Although I must admit, by late 1983, the effects of the disease had noticeably altered the face of The City. Even though we rarely went out to clubs anymore, the West Village especially had become another place. There were still people in bars. There were still guys meeting other guys, and exchanging phone numbers. But there was also an oppresive heaviness draped over the Christopher Street neighborhood, and Chelsea, and the Upper Westside and all the gayborhoods. Gay men were dying every day, and the fabulously fun world of pretty men was growing harder to find.

I can’t remember if it was while we were preparing to move, or once we were settling into the Victorian house in Town Commons Massachusetts, when we got word that Bruce, our sweet friend Bruce, was HIV positive. A boy from Ohio–from Kent State, who came to New York some years after me–still in his late twenties, had begun fighting for his life. Bruce was a gentle guy, tall and thin and long-limbed. He moved languidly, but at the same time with a burning passion for life. He was all heart, extremely witty, never sharp-tongued or judgemental. He’d found this great guy, and was living the life he dreamed of having, in a place where he could be himself. Bruce put a face on this insidious disease. Bruce wasn’t a work acquaintance or some guy at my gym, or one of those handsome lads you recognized from the neighborhood. Bruce wasn’t the friend of a friend. Bruce was my friend–our friend. And in what seemed for me no time at all, he was dead.

Octave the seventh: The cavalcade

After he was gone it hit me–Bruce became the herald, trumpeting the roll-call of names of those who fell victim to the monstrous death: Men I knew from Kent State, Old Boyfriends, Buddies we’d made in New York, Partners and Lovers of our friends we had welcomed into the fold. Many of them were intimates who had grown closer than our own siblings. All of these people had names and faces, and a piece of my heart that died along with them.

In those first years living in New England, we traveled back to The City frequently. Each visit we would get together, and the living would tally the newest numbers of the sick and the dead since the last time we’d gathered. On some visits I wanted to close my eyes and block my ears because I begged to play Pollyanna. The reality of our situation, like the disease itself, was simply too painful and too ugly to ignore. Throughout the latter half of the 1980s, each year was sadder than the one that had come before.

When I thought the mounting death count had already shriveled my senses, we received a phone call telling us Perry had AIDS. My longtime buddy who was battling the killer on the front lines had fallen victim himself. Perry had to have known for a long time, and kept it secret–at least from some of us. He must have been sick the summer before, when he brought his partner, their black Cocker Spaniel ‘Snickers’ and several other KSU/NYC transplants to our big house in Massachusetts. One member of the group still describes it today as our Big Chill weekend.

Perry had offered his Kent apartment floor for me to crash on, the semester I lived in my car, soon after we’d first met. We shared a hotel room on the New York theatre tour–both of our first times in The City. I moved there in ’72, then a few years after he followed, making us Chelsea neighbors. We watched every episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as if it were some sacred worship service. Together we cruised Manhattan from the upper Eastside down to the Bowery, until each of us found partners. Losing Perry made we realize what a huge slice of our lives we’d shared together. I was angry as hell that he left so quickly.

1988 brought my twenty year high school reunion. There were only four classmates I wanted to see. Two of them were guys I grew up with, literally and figuratively. All five of us made the trip back to West Buttfok. It was a long weekend I treasure like no other. Eddy I knew since elementary school. We sang in 5th and 6th grade chorus and played percussion in band. In junior high we were joined by Billy and we were the Drama Club. I think the three of us guessed we were gay from the start. We just needed to understand it was okay to be that way. Later, Billy became my first boyfriend while in college.

Just before flying back to Los Angeles, Billy told me his partner of many years was sick. We’d gotten together in LA on two different occasions. They were a beautiful couple, living the life in West Hollywood. He didn’t want to get tested himself for fear that if he was positive too, he might not be strong enough to see his companion through the ordeal. Eddy had been in San Francisco for over a decade. He already knew his HIV status. He didn’t want to spoil our good time. Eddy phoned one of the girls once we’d all got home from the reunion. She delivered the news to the rest of us. This became a sobering slap to end the Decade from Hell.

Billy buried his life partner in 1990. Eddy died about a year later. His sister called me from his hospital room and held the phone for him. I told Eddy to keep fighting. What else could you say? I remember the hissing sound the oxygen made, being forced into his nostrils. He was completely lucid, which made it even harder. Eddy didn’t last two days more.

Of course Billy tested positive shortly thereafter. The good thing was, now there was this thing called ‘the cocktail’. Billy was going to ride the wave every bit as far as he could. He was one of the most driven individuals I have ever known. He refused to take no for an answer–from anybody–in any situation.That’s how he got accepted into acting school in London. And how, without an agent, he pushed his way into his first minor movie job. Eventually, he landed a very nice role in an early, extremely popular TV miniseries. He gave up acting for screen writing, then knocked around Hollywood for many years, living off options on three of his screen plays. None of those ever made it to production. There was one that did, however, and it was a biggie which made lots of money for the star, the studio and Billy. He got to realize true success. He just didn’t get enough time to go for his second hit.

In the six or seven years he lived with the disease, he spent a great deal of time being sick–very sick. He got a serious brain infection early on which nearly did him in. He battled illnesses I’d never heard of, in places in your body you never knew existed. The same medicine which kept him alive often made him violently ill. He would suffer disgusting indignities, yet refused to accept defeat.

Living at coastal extremes, we corresponded through cards and letters. Several times a year we enjoyed long, long-distance chats. We always had too much to say, no matter how much time we’d spend talking. In what would be his final year, he made the last trip east. We enjoyed an afternoon high tea in his Boston hotel on a rainy autumn Sunday. It was shocking to see this always vital, bigger than life man, hollow-eyed and already ghostlike.

It was an impossible time for me when our communication was no more.

Octave the eighth: The Grand Silence

Eventually, after all of them had gone, there was a great hush that descended over our Neighborhood. It was unlike the silence that comes with a truce at the end of a traditional war. We who had miraculously escaped the plague looked around to see who else was still among the living. The numbers of those we lost to the disease seemed uncountable. And they were, because so many had died in silence or worse, in hiding. Not only had they suffered unthinkable pain, they had endured it in shame. Many of them had never come out to their families back home. These boys understood that the stigma of being gay for them, was far worse than the unfairness of dying long before their time. There are still old friends and acquaintances I think I left behind somewhere, yet I’ll never know for certain…

And if there could be anything more sorrowful than this whole terrible tale, it is the vacuum that was left in the wake of the blight. The creative world was decimated by the loss of talent. I’m not talking about the obvious, like Nureyev, Maplethorpe, Freddie Mercury, or Anthony Perkins. It was the young talent, robbed of a future before they had the chance to do something with their lives. People who had once dreamed the dreams of so many, lost even the ability to ever dream again. Think of all the movies never written, or acted, the sets never designed. Somewhere still are blank canvases, empty sketch pads, reams of paper left unused. Floating in the ether are dances never danced, and songs left unsung.

There were thousands and thousands of regular guys too, with simpler dreams. The guy next door types–men not in search of fame or glory. The guys people might have sat next to on a bus, never imagining they could possibly be gay. Guys who just wanted what most people anywhere want–to love and be loved. Tons of these wonderful men were taken from the world too.

Epilogue: My personal ‘in memoriam’

Billy          Eddy          Guy          Bruce          Bob R          Perry          Joe C          Brandon          Jay (lu boy)          Curtis

Bob J          Jimmy V          Louie          Joe L          Mark L          Tony          Julio          Otis          Jimmy D          Adam

Leonard          Mark A          Ed & Joe          Freddie          Bob B          Charles          Jim B          Gerry          Cees          John

I never dreamed something so awful would happen in my life, let alone that I would ever need to write about it.

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Do Not, I Repeat, Do NOT Read This Blog!

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It is the start of a new year, yet still I persist in writing this blog. In a little more than six months I will be celebrating the four-year anniversary of GayDinosaurTales. What earthly reason would anyone have to continue reading these postings? As Montserrat Caballe, opera diva, questioned in her charming Spanish accent, just before singing her third or fourth encore at a concert I was privileged to attend years ago, “Dun’t you peepole haff a bus to catch?”

I can save you mucho trouble and possible eyestrain by giving here a brief heads up. David and I will be going to Montreal again during my spring break. We will do all the same things I’ve written about countless times. We’ll be in Provincetown to celebrate our ‘sort of anniversary’ as in the previous eleven years this coming May, following up with our full week in August. I’ve already put the deposit check in the mail for that one. I’m hoping to find a few days to visit NYC at some point. Maybe see a show. Catch up with the few cronies still there from my KSU days.

Besides the above usual diversions, I am taking time off to have cataract surgery on my left eye (a little earlier than the ophthalmologist anticipated), and my obligatory five-year date with the colonoscopy doctor. No offense Katie Couric, but for me there are still a few things I do not feel obliged to share here.

And of course it is impossible for me to not write about an old boyfriend or two or three–most of whom are all pushing up daisies due to AIDS–or more alarming these days–natural causes, i.e. old age. My suggestion would be rather than reading GayDinosaurTales, why not do a bit of charitable work and visit your local nursing home. There are so many lonely folks who would love to visit with a kind face who’d lend an ear to listening to stories of their high school antics, their first job in 1961, or perhaps a recounting of the day their eldest was born. All of these stories clearer than the day of the week, or whether the meal their stomach is currently digesting is breakfast or dinner.

Think of the time you would save by not reading this drivel. You could be freed up for more Grindr, Ok Cupid or Craig’s List. Is there ever too much Facebook in anybody’s day? Not only will you be able to rant more about your favorite political cause, you’ll have time to LIKE pictures of not just your FB friends’ cute kitties and puppies, but also those viral animal videos from Italy or Montenegro, or the exotic Philippines!

I believe it must have been some well-intentioned blogger in the not too distant past, who attempted to breathe new meaning into the word ‘musings’. Instead, it is perhaps only a hollow excuse for the rambling memories of one who in truth, is no longer relevant in the real world. Now go catch that bus.

Take 12 Grapes at Midnight and Call Me in the New Year

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I’ve never been much for celebrating New Years. As a youngster I thought it was sheer magic that the number of the year changed. The concept of time wasn’t tracked by months or years for little me, but rather by my own particular age. “I’m gonna’ be eight this year.” And right around that time my parents allowed me to stay up past midnight to ring in the new. We watched Guy Lombardo, who for those of you under forty I should probably explain, was the Dick Clark of my parents’ generation. Dad toasted with ‘a shot and a beer’, Mom with her Highball, Older Brother his watered-down Coke Highball, and me–my drink of choice for many a year–a Tom and Jerry…neat.

It was not until I escaped to New York City that I truly began to celebrate. My first month there was in December of 1972, and I went to this incredibly grown-up party, packed with working theatre people. The hosts had a great apartment on West 8th Street in the heart of The Village. Almost everybody was thirty or forty something, except half a dozen of us. I had graduated to Scotch on the rocks and pot which I consumed in tandem the entire evening.

My group left about 4:00 a.m. to get some breakfast in an all-night diner off Sixth Avenue. There were people partying everywhere, even in the streets, due to some unseasonably warm weather that year. We just missed being struck by a huge upholstered wing chair that a rowdy group had shoved out of an apartment several floors above the sidewalk on which we’d been walking. Peering up at the window, there were three or four of the loonies still hanging out over the sill. They waved madly and screamed “Happy 1973″. We roared our greeting back up at them. Shaking my head, I muttered under my breath, “this NEVER would happen in Ohio”.

New Year’s 1976 I was madly in love with my Cuban-American boyfriend Julio. We’d been dating for only a few weeks. An actor-waiter, of course he had to work New Year’s Eve. His mom was visiting from Miami, and he’d put me in charge of looking after her at the restaurant. It was a big place right below the steps of Lincoln Center–still for me, one of the most romantic locations in The City. Think MOONSTRUCK. Mamacita was only in her late forties and looked younger. She was a hottie, chicly dressed with perfect make-up, nails and hair. She smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and cruised every guy in the restaurant, whether gay, married, young or old. She might have been the first mother I knew who was totally cool with having a gay son. Julio had introduced me as his boyfriend, which made me blush with pride. She remarked that her son always chose ‘the skinny gringos’. Me and Mama hit it off from the get-go.

About 11:45, she opened her purse and pulled out a plastic baggie. It was filled with loose, seedless red grapes. She had me open my hand while she carefully doled them out. Thinking this was a curious gift, I went to taste one and she shouted “No! Not yet!” Julio’s mom explained that just before midnight, as they counted down the last seconds, it was tradition to pop one grape starting from the count of 12 down to 1. With each grape, you were to make a wish for the New Year. We flagged down Julio at five minutes before the magic hour. She had me count twelve grapes, placing them into his palm. I loved his beautiful, big warm hands.

The three of us stood huddled in a corner by the bar. They’d passed out those silly cardboard hats–red, white and blue of course, for the Bicentennial year to come–emblazoned with 1976. This was the first time I passed the New Year in a public place. Everyone was on their feet shoulder to shoulder now. The excitement of the crowd in the restaurant anticipating the countdown was palpable, filling the big room with electricity. I tried to keep my twelve wishes clear in my head, fearing I’d forget and waste a precious one or two. Some people began counting down at TWENTY. Fruit was already poised in my fingertips. The moment of grape-popping began. “Julio’s the one / Happiness / He loves me /Forever /A Mother-in-law / More happiness / ….”

At exactly midnight, my mouth filled with grape mush, Julio came in for the kiss. I didn’t care that my soon-to-be mother-in-law was squashed up next to me. Unable to wait, she began kissing us both, covering the available parts of our faces with her lipstick rich smooches. Happy New Year! Julio and I made it through most of the winter, but I know we didn’t celebrate the Vernal Equinox together. So much for that Cuban New Year tradition.

Alejandro and I had been together for six months, but he’d only recently started staying in my studio in Chelsea just before New Year’s 1978. He was a firm believer that the way you spent New Year’s Eve, was the way you’d spend the entire year. I was just content with the two of us being together. Most of my friends were back in Ohio with their families, and those who remained had plans. At the last minute, maybe a day or two before, Alejandro decided we needed to host a small New Year’s Eve party. It ended up being the sort of invitation…”if you’re not doing anything / if you don’t already have other plans / drop in if you want for a drink and some nosh…” One of those invitations you extend that is often interpreted as only being polite, and not very definite.

I don’t know what food we prepared, but Alejandro is a born entertainer–not on stage, but as a party-giver. He is a phenomenal cook, and is never happier than when he can provide a lavish spread to wow everybody’s taste buds. He only knows how to cook for a crowd. Whatever the recipe, it is always made in mass quantities. My apartment was tiny. We couldn’t have invited more than a dozen guests.

At 7:30 p.m. the place was immaculate, food and drinks ready, the two of us bathed, scented and beautiful. By 8:00 we poured our first glasses of wine, sipping, listening to records, guessing who would show up first. The wood-burning fireplace was crackling and dancing, filling the room with its warmth. We waited. And waited. Then we waited some more. I think it was around 10:00 when we realized no one was going to show up. We started picking at the food, giggling at how stupid we’d been to throw this last-minute party and then expecting anybody to take our invitation seriously. We weren’t pissed or hurt–just feeling extremely foolish. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would welcome our first New Year alone together by the fire, with enough food and drink to take us to at least the end of January.

Just before 11:00, the downstairs buzzer sounded. By this time we’d almost forgotten we had actually invited anyone. “It’s HARVEY”, the voice informed us over the speaker. It was one of Alejandro’s work colleagues I’d never met. He’d just gotten off work. He moonlighted at several jobs. He brought a bottle of something, asked for a glass, and parked his ass in the tiny loveseat in the corner. He didn’t seem at all concerned that no one else had shown up. It was weirder to us that only one person had come, rather than no one at all. Like ‘the man who came to dinner’, Harvey stayed well into the wee hours telling us stories about fellow work colleagues even Alejandro never knew. It was hands down the most boring party I’d ever been to–let alone hosted. Alejandro and I have laughed about that night for decades.

David and I began the tradition of spending New Year’s Eve at the casino once they’d built the first one in Connecticut in the late 90s. That is the only night of the year when the gambling folk are actually aware of the time. Typically there are never clocks in casinos, or windows in the gaming rooms to give you any indication of how long you’ve been feeding the slot machines with your hard-earned money.

I particularly recall 1999–the Millenium New Year. We’d been duly alarmed by all the Y2K hype, anticipating the demise of the world as we once knew it. The media had prepared us. After the crashing of the internet, world banking system, power grid, et cetera, et cetera, we might well be spending our last moments on this earth at Foxwoods Indian Casino. Outside would reign bedlam and chaos. I figured, what better place to witness The End of Days than the Sodom and Gomorrah that is the busy casino floor.

Of course nothing happened. The damn lights didn’t as much as flicker. Just a multitude of strange gamblers, hesitating for only nanoseconds, their coins hovering at the slot long enough to shout “Happy New Year”, then commencing to feed their hungry machines again, just like the century before.

It seems I’ve come full circle. My parents’ living room in Cleveland has been replaced by our TV room in New England. The black and white television in the blond wooden cabinet has been replaced with a 42 inch flatscreen. David and I have morphed into my Dad and Mom. Instead of High Balls and Boiler Makers, he’s California Riesling and I’m French Rose. At least my Mom put on lipstick and my Dad changed into a nice pair of slacks. David is in sweats and I’m in my favorite worn jeans. Not only is Guy Lombardo dead, but so is Dick Clark! We’ve taken to tuning into Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin–the hottest gay guy on TV and a very funny fag hag. I suppose we could do worse. There was a year, not too long ago, where we both passed out sometime around 10:00. It’s just another year anyway, right? The important thing is, we’ve got each other. And we’ve made it to another year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing Harmony

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A visit to a small music store in Provincetown this holiday season helped to jump-start my spirit. The postage-stamp sized shop sells an eclectic selection of CDs, specializing in used rare and obscure artists. While I was looking through my favorite section of movie soundtracks and Broadway tunes, the owner began to play a new Christmas album which filled her store with two lovely soprano voices singing one of my favorite carols. There is not much of Christmas left in me any more. I still enjoy decorating a tree, baking cookies and shopping for trinkets for family and friends. But music…how could I ever forget about Christmas music? It is my direct connect to everything wonderful about the season of Good Cheer.

My mother was a singer. Not a professional singer, but she sang in choral groups as a child in Cleveland and seriously studied voice as a young woman.  She performed with a Slovenian-American cultural group in operas and operettas. She sang on local radio. Mom had a lovely soprano voice. She would remind us that she sang on stage from age five until she was six-months pregnant with my older brother. My mother sang when she was happy, when she was melancholy, when she was cleaning, when our family celebrated anything.

Some of my only warm memories of family togetherness are when we were riding in the car–me, Mom, Dad and Older Brother. In the 1950s every car ride was a long one. There were no freeways or inner belts. You drove on city streets to get anywhere and it didn’t matter where you were going, it always took forever. So we would sing to pass the time. Even Dad sang in his hearty baritone. I learned a few Slovenian folk songs before I was even five. Of course I just parroted the weird sounds, having no idea what the hell we were all singing about. Older Brother sang quietly, always distanced from the rest of us. I sang out loudly but on pitch, competing with my mother and father to dominate the tune.

In 1953 there was a song that was number one on the hit parade for eleven weeks, (thank you Wikipedia). It was called Vaya Con Dios by Les Paul and Mary Ford. They played it on the radio all day and all night forever. Mary Ford sang harmony with herself–many singers were doing it at the time. My mother would belt the harmony with Mary every time she heard it. We’d sing it in the car, and the not quite five-year old me would get tripped up, because I would try following Mom, and she’d switched to singing harmony during the choruses. She explained she was singing harmony to the melody and that I should just continue singing.

I remember sticking my fingers in my ears, so as not to get confused. Removing my little fingers gently with her hands, she instructed me to listen to what she was singing, so that I could figure out the harmony on my own. It was painfully fun, but after a few days of morning noon and night Vaya Con Dios, I got the hang of it. Soon Mom and I were singing harmony for just about every song we knew, and each new one that came our way.

By the time I got to elementary school, I loved music and had cultivated a decent singing voice. I was a boy soprano. We had music weekly with Mrs. Ermine, a pretty lady who sang like my mother. I enjoyed singing in our class, and adored our teacher. In second grade there was a girl named Marjorie Dusenbury (I swear to God I didn’t make-up this name). Margie and I were Mrs. Ermine’s favorites. She picked the two of us for a musical at the high school. It was about toys coming to life in a department store. Margie played the baby doll and I was a stuffed dog. I only had a few lines, crawling around and sniffing the ground. Margie had a solo. I remember being envious.

That same year, for the Christmas concert, the two of us did a duet with the entire sixth grade chorus. There were probably fifty of them arranged on risers. Maybe halfway through, Mrs. Ermine stepped up to the microphone introducing Margie and me. We came out in short white choir robes with humongous red bows tied beneath our little chins. Mrs. Ermine lowered the microphone to second-grader level, and Margie and I stepped up to sing Silent Night in the high school auditorium. The theatre seated several hundred, and the place was nearly packed with mothers and fathers and grandparents. I remember being nervous, but not scared. Once we started singing, we both relaxed, singing like two tiny cherubs with the six-graders crooning a celestial back up. Our two soprano voices were a sweet and innocent blend. Oh for a video! There were rarely reel-to-reel tape recorders in schools at that time.

There would be many more Christmas programs, ending with sixth grade. Margie had moved from West Buttfok long before. I finally got a solo. Soon after my voice changed. Not until the final years of high school did my adult guy voice finally find its way in musicals. But my mother continued singing. She sang with Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Pat Boone and all the Champagne Ladies on Lawrence Welk. There wasn’t a Christmas special on TV that she didn’t lend her harmonies to–Andy Williams, right up to Tony Orlando.

Even though I am not really celebrating Christmas anymore, I still find this season a sacred one. It continues to be a time for reflecting on the past, the good and the bad memories. It is still a season for giving, of warmth and good cheer. Cookies and sweets of all kinds–special foods that may not be good for anybody, but taste so sinfully wonderful, especially this time of year. Over indulging in every way, we spoil ourselves and those we love and care about. Putting a pine tree in a corner of our home somewhere with lights and baubles, we try to be artful, yet manage instead to be gaudy and over-the-top.

And yes, I still sing those Christmas songs, now to the accompaniment of my iPod or phone, connected through the car radio or on my sound dock. A little Nat Cole, Judy Garland or Streisand, then some Brenda Lee or Elvis, and maybe finishing with Mariah Cary. Amazing how they don’t seem to mind me struggling as I sing those harmonies.

SILVER BELLS Renee Fleming

Walking the Dog: a metaphor


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It’s happened. It didn’t necessarily sneak up on me either. I’d seen it coming now for quite some time–several years in fact. So by the time you are reading this it will be official. I will have received my new title: Senior Citizen. I know you’re saying, “but look at him, that guy can’t be a day over sixty-three…maybe sixty-four tops”…but I’m here to tell you, that old bastard is sixty-five-long-years-old. A golden-ager, that’s what they called people like me in my parents’ day.

Many of the young women at our local Dunkin Donuts have been giving me the senior discount ahead of time. You know, they look up, see the silver hair and just assume “better give him the ten percent off–could be the old bugger’s last cup of coffee. Maybe he’s on route to the nursing home or at best adult day care, poor bastard.”

I finally broke down, rolled over and played dead for the AARP last year. They’d been chasing me with persistent mailings since I turned fifty-five. I prepaid my dues for three years and got a complimentary fanny pack, but don’t remember where I put it. I was really hoping for a big box of DEPENDS. Well, you can never be too prepared, right?

Earlier this month I had an appointment at the Social Security office to sign up for Medicare, even though I’m still working and keeping my old healthcare plan. What a disaster that turned out to be. I wasn’t there ten minutes before I texted David that if this was any indication of what collecting Social Security benefits might be about, I’d work until I keeled-over at my desk. That visit is worthy of its very own blog post. Because some asshat in a New York City Social Security office back in 1975 misspelled my name, I’ve got to go to court and legally change my name. Stay tuned for that one. So where was I? Oh right, walking the dog metaphor thingy.

I take our pooch, Henri, for a morning walk every day, unless it’s pouring rain or has snowed more than six inches.  He’s got really short legs and hates getting wet. Our route is a hair over a half-mile and typically takes us around ten minutes. It’s my Dad quality time with the little guy, so I let him take me along at a pace he sets. We race like crazy at times, him choking and snorting away, pulling on the lead. Often we come to a screeching halt while he smells a few millimeters of turf for what seems like an eternity, savoring a mysterious undetectable ‘Je ne sais quois’. It’s his world; I just live in it. Following behind on the other end of the leash these five-plus years, I realize our pup holds the secret to a life well-lived.

Before we take even one step, as I open the back door, he throws his thirteen pounds full force at the bottom panel of the screen door, peering out at the same backyard view I’ve looked at for twenty years now. An excited energy instantly registers on his face. His wide eyes are certain that overnight our little house has left its Massachusetts’ foundation, and landed somewhere in the Land of Oz. Today, outside is a brand new place to discover. He squeals in delight or claws at the glass, over-eager for us to get going.

He pulls me down our driveway and onto our neighbors’ sidewalk, then across the street. We ascend to the top of the hill which is the end of our road. The wooded lot at the corner is his nirvana. There is a row of five old maples. Now I know Rodgers and Hammerstein have schooled us to climb every mountain, but Henri believes it is far better to sniff every tree trunk–every bloody nook and cranny of them all. Amazingly, he does not grace each tree by lifting a leg. Even though all are truly appreciated, only a select few does he choose to water.

Where the pavement allows us, his favorite move is to daringly shift our path into the street. He has absolutely no fear of cars or vehicles of any kind, no matter how big, loud or fast. And he’s insistent that we travel in the middle of the road. Of course this could just be dumb dog logic. Were I not there to yank him into submission, we’d both already be ashes in the same urn. Maybe he’s just reminding me that every once in a while we need to live a little dangerously, no matter how scary the circumstance. Stretch that old comfort zone. Take a walk on the wild side.

Then there are his ‘critters’. That is what we call squirrels. He is plagued by them. What drives him nuts, is the fact that they can move forward and backward, left and right…but they also can disappear. He can’t grasp the concept that squirrels can go up–climb those trees that he can only sniff or pee on. I must admit I feed his critter mania by pointing them out along our walk. “Look at that critter, Henri. Get that bastard!” and we lunge forward in hot pursuit. Of course the critters always win by scaling the closest tree, leaving him befuddled and amazed.

As much as these vermin annoy him, he has his buddies in the neighborhood to balance things. Drake is the dog who lives catty-corner across the street. He’s three times his size, a handsome, fluffy collie mix who also happens to be madly in love with Henri. I think he crushes on Drake as well. They have serious butt adoration sessions right in front of me. Then there is Daisy, a five-pound Yorkie who barks at him incessantly while excitedly wagging her tail in syncopation at the same time. She’s the only tiny dog Henri shows any liking for. Even though she yipes at him, he is mad about her.

On the occasional morning, during the final leg of our walk, we meet Taco–an ancient, blonde Chihuahua who is so obese he appears to be helium inflated. Always off-leash, he’s taken it upon himself to patrol the sidewalk in the front of his house and the neighbors’ on either side. Taco affects this low, very butch growl, showing his few remaining teeth while threatening both the pooch and me. Usually his owner has to open the front door and call him back in the house. Taco grumbles all the way to his door.

With the mileage of so many, many years under my belt, I suppose I have followed much of my dog’s philosophy. I’ve sniffed my fair share of tree trunks, and lifted my leg whenever something wonderful came my way. Most often it was those times I dared to walk down the middle of the road that I enjoyed some of my greatest adventures. There’ve been dozens of pesky critters who tried to make things difficult, but so many more Drakes who’ve made my world better. And you can’t live a truly full life without the noisy Daisys and obnoxious Tacos nipping at your heels while stumbling along on your journey. The time goes so quickly. As short as a great morning walk.

 

Hey, did I mention I just turned sixty-five?

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A Thanksgiving Memory (Just Not a Hallmark One)

The neighborhood

The old neighborhood, courtesy Lionel Martinez DIRTY OLD 1970s New York City

 

Over the years, my family has changed multiple times. We are born into a family whose selection we have no control over. As we take charge of our life, we begin to collect the family we choose for ourselves. Unlike our birth family, which remains for the duration, the family of our choice grows and transforms. Members are added or disappear due to geography, happenstance, marriage, evolution and, (dare I say it), plain old FATE. There is family who mysteriously drifts away, or sometimes just takes a time-out. Then there are those who hang on, despite it all. Thus the faces at my Thanksgiving table may morph from year to year, just like the menu and the location.

After moving to New York, I kept close with my Kent State cronies who’d also laid down roots there. Because of theatre, many of us had lived together nearly 24/7 during the four years we spent doing college shows. I even added some KSU friends who came both before and after me. While all of us forged new friendships in the city, we came to value the comfort our warm safety net afforded. There were literally dozens of us spread out all over the five boroughs. During the holidays many went back to Ohio, but Thanksgiving being only a one-day thing and so close to Christmas, a good number often stayed to celebrate. And so, a new Kent tradition was born by the people who so loved a party–a pot-luck sort of Thanksgiving meal.

Those with bigger apartments each year volunteered to host. Out of necessity, they were also responsible for cooking the turkey. The thought of transporting a piping hot, twenty-plus pound roasted bird on the subway would be more ridiculous than the lamest Rhoda episode. This particular Thanksgiving memory took place in Chelsea, only two blocks from my apartment. Four Kent friends were sharing a small two-bedroom walk-up.  There were going to be so many of us staying in town this year that we split the group into two sections–Manhattan and Brooklyn party venues. There were about twelve of us, far more than the apartment could comfortably accommodate. And Noreen, a joyfully neurotic woman, would be the one cooking our turkey. She was a Kent State alumni I’d met in The City who’d come after I’d left.

I called her Sissy and she called me Bubba. We became instantly close-knit that year, and adopted one another as the brother and sister both of us had lacked. There are only two things you need to know about Noreeny: (1) the woman was totally nuts, and (2) she was one of the worst cooks I have ever known. Correction, she was the worst cook I have ever known. I loved her to pieces anyway.

Early on in our friendship, she called one grey and gloomy New York Saturday afternoon. She told me an evil elf had bewitched her during the night, so she couldn’t leave her bed. She begged me to come because neither of the boys (two of her roommates) was able to release her from the spell. She was certain her Bubba had magic powers. There was humor in her silly plea, but more than a hint of real anxiety and fear in her voice. Sissy coaxed me relentlessly over the phone. I caved and hurried over to rescue her. After spending another hour or so in her cramped room, plying her with several joints, I attempted to cajole her into joining the rest of the household. Stoned enough to medicate her loony state, she eventually danced out of her room in a sun dress and floppy hat, after the rest of us ignored her and began a munchie feast without her.

Bobbino was one of the guys who shared the apartment with Noreeny. He was a great cook, and ended up providing most meals for the household. Even though Sissy recognized her domestic talents were nil, there was an obvious jealousy festering whenever he’d hand her a plate of food. Of course I was amazed the night she phoned to invite me to supper. “I’m cooking Swiss Steak!”, she proudly chirped in my ear. I told her it was one of my favorite childhood dishes. When I asked if I should bring a salad or something, she said not to worry, cause she was even making hors d’oeuvres.

Those hors d’oeuvres ended up being peanut butter on Ritz crackers or Cheese Whiz piped cherry tomatoes, or some such nonsense. But when stoned enough, they disappeared quickly. Sissy was in party-mode, checking in the kitchen only once in a while, obviously not tied to her stove. Bobbino and I several times volunteered our help. She assured us everything was under control. After who knows how long and many, many joints later, she disappeared into the kitchen announcing food was on the way.

Out she came with our plates, upon which sat a small, very dark brown object, which I can only liken to a deformed and severely warped hockey puck. A silence fell over the room as we stared at our food.

“Noreeny, what happened?”, Bobbino questioned for us all.

“Oh, I got bored and lost interest halfway through”, she grunted as she sat down at her place, “so I decided–why the fuck bother with makin’ gravy?”

Cut to Thanksgiving Eve about 8:00 p.m. I have already finished putting together my contribution: Sweet Potatoes with Apricots and Pecans in a Sherry/Brown Sugar/Butter Glaze. I’d gotten the recipe the year before from GOURMET magazine for a gala all-gay-boys-Thanksgiving-extravaganza. It was the richest, fussiest food ever collected onto a single buffet table, with guests even more over-the-top.

I promised Bobbino I would stop by the apartment to help figure out where we would all sit the following day. He was busy preparing Italian Wedding soup for our first course. Noreeny was working late and then shopping for the turkey and fixings for bread stuffing. I couldn’t believe these guys were going ahead and entrusting our turkey, center piece and symbol of this sacrosanct holiday, to this madwoman without a culinary clue. She was hell-bent on doing it herself, and there was no stopping Sissy once she’d decided on something.

She came in the door huffing and puffing with a shopping bag stuffed underneath each arm pit. As exhausted as she looked, I sensed Sissy was already hyper-pumped about her holiday meal. She put the food away in the eensy kitchen, and said she would deal with everything in the morning. No one was arriving until after 3:oo p.m. tomorrow, and she needed to chill tonight. Eventually somebody went to get some soda, only to discover the twenty-five pounder, now wedged into the small refrigerator–a plastic sheathed solid mass of frozen turkey-sicle. “You bought a frozen turkey?!?”, we began shrieking from every direction. All the while she looked blankly from face to face as though we were speaking in tongues.

“It will never thaw”, Bobbino and I almost sang-out in unison. We jumped to our feet and were in the kitchen in seconds. He attempted to release it from its plastic casing while I searched the cupboards for a receptacle large enough to immerse the iceberg into hot water. Sissy barged into the kitchen, pissed that we’d trespassed into her domain. She realized we might be right–that she’d possibly blown Thanksgiving a day before it had even begun. I stayed well into the early a.m. hours, each of us taking turns dumping the frigid water every fifteen minutes or so, turning the fowl, then dousing it again in a hot sitz bath.

I called after 10:00 Thanksgiving morning for a turkey update. They’d managed to pry the pouch holding the neck, gizzard and other organs out of the cavity. The skin was now flexible, but the bird was pretty much still frozen. They decided to start it early at a very low temperature, in hopes that it would eventually thaw enough to actually begin cooking. Noreeny was confident it was going to be great, and kept madly basting it with endless sticks of butter, as though that would do any good. Bobbino showed a modicum of hope. I could smell disaster from two blocks away. They would bake the stuffing separately. That was her only contribution I felt there might still be hope for.

People arrived, and began smoking or drinking or both-ing. We were all waiting for the turkey to be done. Kinda’ like waiting for Godot. It looked brown and beautiful on the outside, but nobody had a clue to its inner done-ness. This was long before built in, pop-up thermometers. Noreeny knew, with everyone assembled and hungry, and side dishes getting cold, it was time to take the turkey out of the oven and begin carving. This task she passed on to Bobbino. I watched in the kitchen as he sliced into the bird to remove the drumsticks. As he pulled the joint to release it from the thigh, juicy red trickled from the area. It was cooked just right if the turkey were a filet of beef–medium rare perfection. “Look, it’s still nice and moist. See guys, I knew it would be fine!”, Noreeny boasted with pride. I walked into the dining area silently, refusing to utter a word of what I’d just witnessed.

So you might guess, this was the only Thanksgiving in my lifetime that I didn’t eat turkey–how could I? I barely was able to watch the stoned morons as they chewed the nearly raw poultry, then asked for seconds. I ate more mashed potatoes and veggie sides than I was comfortable consuming, just to keep my mouth filled, hoping no one would notice what I hadn’t eaten. I think even Bobbino ate a wing, or maybe just some skin which was the only part of the bird we were certain had been fully cooked. I kept waiting for the first person to show signs of poisoning–confident I would be the one responsible for calling the caravan of ambulances sirening guests on their way to St. Vincent’s Emergency Room. Thankfully, not one person even got indigestion. (The following year, when I did not attend, almost everyone suffered a nasty bout of food poisoning and Noreeny hadn’t cooked a thing.)

Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t reminisce about the turkey-less 1976 celebration. It didn’t mar Sissy’s and my relationship a bit. I loved her even more because of it. Not two years later, she went weird on me–really psycho–and cut me out of her life completely. I’d fallen in love with a guy she helped introduce me to, who ended up being my partner of nearly thirteen years. You’d think that would make her closer, right? Not my Noreeny. We spoke civilly if a situation brought us together; she treated me coldly otherwise. We became as detached as we were once conjoined.

A few years later she met a guy. They had a child. My Sissy became somebody’s Mom. She no longer speaks with any of the old crowd, severing all ties. She could easily be somebody’s grandma now. I often wonder if there’s a kid or two out there, who goes over the river and through the woods. Oh Gawd, for their sake, I hope she doesn’t cook the friggin’ turkey.

 

 

 

The Man With the Three First Names

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My twenty-sixth summer was one of those rare times when everything in my universe came together. I was living a charmed life. I had recently landed a job as sales/office manager for a small custom furniture company on Manhattan’s upper east side. The salary was enough to pay my rent, phone and electric bill with a little extra left for eating and playing. I’d become a pioneer in Chelsea, (a just beginning to bud Manhattan gayborhood), signing a lease on my first solo NYC apartment. It was a funky studio on the sixth floor of an elevator building with functioning wood-burning fireplace, and a palladium window onto West 17th and Eighth Avenue. I was acting with an off-off Broadway theatre troupe in a church basement near Lincoln Center, plus learning guitar and writing country western tunes with my friend Janet from Kent State. I had more friends–gay and straight–than I had free time to enjoy them, and the world was my oyster.

But I didn’t have a boyfriend. I dated like a courtesan, had sex more than I often could handle, yet lacked that special someone–the final puzzle piece greedy me still hungered for. I suffered from chronic chapped lip syndrome from kissing so many prince wannabes. I was constantly on the look-out, confident he’d be found in the least obvious place at the most unexpected time. And those were the exact circumstances in which I met The Man With the Three First Names.

My wonderful apartment had only one drawback. It had no air conditioner.  Being on the top floor, once our tar-beach roof heated up, it radiated through my ceiling beginning at sundown, re-heating with the dawn. Too many nights I’d fall asleep in the swelter, only to awaken at one or two a.m. in a profusion of sweat. I took to getting up and dressing, then walking the neighborhood to 14th Street, a major cross-street. There I could seek the temporary pleasure of several air-conditioned stores which sold frozen treats, slowly devouring their cooling effects on my way back home. Luckily my neighborhood was safe any hour of the day or night, because there were always people coming or going someplace.

One hot, unsleepable night, I began my post-midnight stroll. Not halfway up the block I spied this tallish figure walking on the opposite side of the street. I assumed he saw me, because he’d now meandered over to my side. He was dressed in jeans and a pastel tank top.  He had dark curly hair and a manicured black beard. So did I at the time. So did probably one out of every five gay guys in The City. I slowed my pace and he followed suit as we approached one another. The closer he got, the more my hormones raced in rhythm with my heart, while on the outside I continued a nonchalant stroll. When we passed on the sidewalk, only a foot or so apart, I turned my head slightly toward his, and smiled–more with my eyes than my mouth, without breaking my stride. God he looked gorgeous!

Giving myself a healthy number of steps forward, I stopped at the crucial point in our gay dance. Dare I turn around in hopes he had done the same? And in one of those truly magic moments in life, he’d swung himself completely around on the pavement, grinning shamelessly. His dark, piercing eyes looked me over as though he could see me naked. “Well… good evenin’ guy”, he coolly drawled, extending his hand reaching to take mine. He shook it like we were meeting at the punchbowl of some lovely social function. The man was handsome as hell and slathered in creamy Southern charm. I was so taken by his seductive allure, that the name he gave never registered in my brain. He acted like nothing but a gentleman, and certainly not street trash as one might expect at that hour of the night, cruising the neighborhood.

He lived some blocks away, over on the East Side. He was a psychologist, working in a city social work office. Neither of us had anything to write on or with, but, it turned out he had quite a distinctive name, very southern, consisting of what in reality were three first names. He told me proudly “Ahh am thee only one in the Manhattan phone dye-rectory”. I was to call him once I got home from work much later that day. My ice cream never had a chance to melt, since I rushed home to look him up the moment I got in the door. I had to be certain this all hadn’t been a dream. There he was–all three names of him–just like he’d said. He was neither a phantom of the night nor a bull shit artist.

I began phoning every one of my friends after sunrise that day, telling them about The Man With the Three First Names, and how, where and when we’d met. My women friends were either scandalized or fearful for my safety, while most of the boys were intrigued and/or aroused. I called him before I left work. We arranged to meet for a drink in the Village. We talked together non-stop for over an hour. He asked if I was free to have something to eat in his neighborhood. Was I free? He was absolutely enthralling and the evening is memorable to this day. By the end of the following week we became steady boyfriends.

Ours was an odd relationship. Well, at least for me it was. For The Man With the Three First Names, I believe it was like any other he might have ever had. We saw each other regularly, getting together a few nights a week to eat and have sex. He was a real foodie and enjoyed an eclectic range of cuisines, as did I. He’d cook one night of the weekend at his apartment and I would do the same at my place on the alternate night. We both loved classical music. I was more opera-centric than him, but often couldn’t afford the tickets. He favored piano and orchestral music, so we would attend recitals or concerts at colleges and smaller venues. It was pure joy sitting next to him, watching the music move inside him, as though he were able to draw it up through the bottoms of his feet then register the emotions onto his face. I learned a new way to listen simply by being with him.

The Man With the Three First Names had no friends. If he did, he never talked about them. I continued to socialize with my close circle, but he was neither interested in meeting them nor in joining us when we got together. Rather than question this behavior, I chose to explain to my curious cronies that it was a truly adult relationship–that we shared our lives, without losing any sense of self in the process. I wasn’t deluding myself. It was working well and there was genuine caring in both directions. Besides, The City this special summer was celebrating the Bicentennial in a huge way. At times, it appeared the celebration was in honor of our wonderful coupling.

My parents typically visited every other summer since I’d moved from Ohio. Because of the huge red, white and blue crowds invading an already busy city, they moved their trip to the fall. I wasn’t certain how I would pull it off, but I did want them to meet this guy who’d become so important in my life. Up to this point, my parents knew nothing about my love life, nor the direction in which my sexuality leaned. One of the reasons I’d moved five-hundred-plus miles from home was in order to live, what I was certain my family would view as a depraved lifestyle, without them knowing anything about it. I had no plans to formally come out to them. Still, I wanted to share a morsel of the life I’d hidden from their view. Should they wonder how this handsome southern gentleman fit into my world, then all the better.

As uninterested as he was in my friends, The Man With the Three First Names was super enthused about meeting my parents. He planned their entire final Sunday which began by meeting him in Central Park for a morning walk, then brunch in an east side restaurant. The weather was perfect and brunch was a delight. My mother melted each time he called her Ma’am, even though she insisted he call her by her first name. Dad wasn’t moved one way or another, but then he seldom was.

We had a couple of hours before heading back to pick up their suitcases and leave for the airport, so he suggested stopping at The Plaza to show them how ‘the other half’ enjoyed vacationing in NYC. Mom and Dad walked through the lobby and into the Palm Court with open mouths, awed by their surroundings and the clientele. He invited my folks to enjoy a final drink at the bar in The Oak Room. Instantly he’d become number one in Dad’s book. My father came alive whenever he’d belly up to a bar and park his ass on a stool.

I sat at the end of the bar, my mother next to me, then Dad, then The Man With the Three First Names. We’d already enjoyed several cocktails each at the restaurant, so my mother’s Southern Comfort Manhattan ‘up’ quickly went to her head. She began speaking quietly to me, and her usually animated face looked as though she was struggling with something difficult she needed to get out. She told me she was worried about me. It was obvious I’d shown I could be responsible, and that I was living on my own in a very difficult place. They were proud I’d made a good home for myself, yet something was missing. I never talked about any women in my life. Then she fumbled around–something about the importance of a sex life.

I smiled and told her not to worry about my sex life. I was doing fine. It might have been my third drink kicking in too, because out of nowhere I softly announced, “You see that guy at the other end of the bar? He’s my boyfriend. I’m gay”. It was that simple. It just sort of fell out of my mouth and I couldn’t have said it better if it had been scripted by Neil Simon. She paused, looked me in the eyes and countered, “I knew it. I knew it since you were five”. She took another sip of her Manhattan, then concluded with “Don’t say anything to your father. I’ll tell him myself when we get back to Cleveland”. I quietly smirked the rest of the afternoon.

Summer turned to fall, and we carried on our life as we had from the beginning.  For my twenty-seventh birthday he cooked Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe and gave me a membership to a gym. We added workouts to our time together. He was handsome, sensitive, intelligent, passionate and caring, and I’d fallen hard for him. I traveled back to West Buttfok for Christmas. It was weird not being with him, especially amidst the holiday mania of family and friends. All I could think about was the two of us together again. I got back to my apartment loaded with holiday goodies from Ohio and a beautiful old book my mother had found for The Man With The Three First Names. It was biographies of Bach, Beethoven and the great composers with incredible steel engravings. She’d inscribed something about “taking good care of my son” and he was quite moved.

Things began to turn strange in the early new year. It was like he’d switched something off inside, and didn’t have time for us anymore. One week in late January, we hadn’t seen one another for days. After suffering too much from his estrangement, I did something I’d never done before–showed up at his apartment door, unannounced. I half expected to find a new me enjoying dinner at my place at his table.

That would have been easier to bear than the scene I was forced to play. He was alone, looking grim, but not ruffled by my unexpected presence. I asked him what was wrong, what had I done, what caused the sudden alienation. He looked at me blankly. “Who is he?”, I nearly shrieked, my voice cracking in fear.

“No one. I promise.” He calmly sat down in his chair, devoid of emotion. “We just shouldn’t see each other anymore”, he delivered flatly. He said he didn’t want to hurt me. He couldn’t find a way to tell me his reason for avoiding me lately. He knew he’d never insult me by saying we could still be friends. That wasn’t an option. He understood that.

I can still see myself falling to my knees at his feet, pleading to know why. What had changed? I was hugging his legs, sobbing into his jeans, reduced to blubbering a single word question. “Why?”

His hand cradled the back of my head, in an attempt to comfort. “You’re not cerebral enough.”

My universe stopped with his words. It was that ton of bricks you always hear about, landing squarely onto my head. First came disbelief. Then numbness set in. Finally, anger brought me to my feet. “You are so fucked up you really need a shrink. But…I don’t know a good one to recommend.”

Blearily, I grabbed for my coat and headed towards the door. He called my name as I opened it, and I stopped. I almost turned around, but couldn’t bear to look at him knowing it would be the last time. I’d been decimated. Even without a mirror, I knew my face looked hideous and I refused to let him see the damage he had done. I have no idea how I found my way back to my apartment. I only remember he’d made the bitter January cold worse.

For days after I remained in a stupor. Nothing felt real. I sat in my apartment alone, burning Duraflame logs in my fireplace, hoping to get warm. I watched the fire in silence, because there wasn’t an album I could play whose music didn’t make me think of him. The quiet was interrupted only by the echo of his words in my head. I was ashamed I’d allowed him to make me feel like a fool. My truly adult relationship had left me a sniveling, helpless infant. After several days, fearing for my sanity, I began calling my closest friends in an attempt to jump-start the old me–before I’d ever met The Man With The Three First Names. Those people were my treasures and the medication necessary to heal a battered ego.

They helped me back onto my feet. Still, I continued to find it difficult to listen to music. It had been the glue that kept our relationship together. But the music that Janet and I wrote and played was ours alone. He’d never heard any of it. I would draft the lyrics–concerned only with the story, the rhythm, and rhyme. She had the gift of creating the tune that fit–the important piece of the puzzle. Together we’d written probably half a dozen songs. We played and sang regularly, performing our tunes at parties and get togethers with our combined Kent State and NYC friends.

Long about week three after the breakup, the oddest thing occurred. This tune came into my head. I found myself humming it, wondering where I’d heard it before. I knew maybe a dozen chords which served to satisfy the extent of my guitar strumming/picking expertise. Alone, with just me and the guitar, I figured out the chord progression. The words followed almost instantly. The process proved therapeutic. I sensed it had all come from deep inside my gut, where it still hurt badly. The song was never written down, because I had no idea what the notes were. I didn’t sing it for many people. It was very personal, in a corny, country-western, tongue in cheek way.

Just like I will never forgot The Man With The Three First Names, I will never forget the song he’d inspired, which eased an aching heart.

Six Months a’ Heaven (And Just Three Weeks of Hell) music and lyrics by Matthew Schuster

 

 

 

 

 

 

My ‘Leb’ Bag

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I bought a nice messenger bag while on vacation in Provincetown last month. It was one of the things I’d planned on shopping for long before we left. There were several great choices in the first few shops we visited. I was elated. In my pursuit, we happened on a new shop right off Commercial Street called Urban Man Made. Everything in the place is handcrafted by city artisans. This will not be a commercial for the store, although they do have a cool website if anybody’s interested. I ended up buying a funky vinyl black-on-blue bag there. It’s perfect, and I love it more every day I stuff something new into it. It grows with each addition and still has room to spare.

The bag sat in the passenger seat next to me the other morning. I glanced over at it while making a right turn. Although they look nothing alike, it brought to mind my very first bag, purchased on my maiden voyage to New York City. I was a college student on a theatre tour my final year at Kent State, in March of 1972. We traveled by bus and saw eight shows in six days. Onboard the bus that last night, as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel to return to Ohio, I realized I would never be the same. Something in me had changed. I’d fallen head-over-heels in love–with a CITY and adopted a new home. Plus, I had this wonderful brown leather bag over my shoulder, clutching it dearly the entire eleven-hour ride back to Kent.

So on this trip, we hardly ever left the theatre district. We couldn’t. We were either having a late breakfast before a matinée, or in a coffee shop grabbing a quick bite to make an eight o’clock curtain, or meeting our Theatre Prof, Duane for drinks after a show to gush about the magic we’d just witnessed onstage. Our territory was from Times Square/42nd Street to no further Uptown than 50th Street, maneuvering between Avenues Sixth through Eighth. Except one early morning, Duane took a small group of us downtown to Greenwich Village for a whirlwind one-hour sightseeing tour. The neighborhood enticed me. Next morning I returned to discover it on my own.

I braved the New York City Subway System alone that day and landed at Christopher Street/Sheridan Square, winding my way through the illogical maze that is the West Village. There were only little shops and small apartment buildings on every street. No chain-anythings. It was as though all the bigness of Mid-town Manhattan had petered out once you got to about 14th Street. Suddenly you were in a New York of the late eighteen-hundreds. One tiny business was more charming than the next.

It was on MacDougal Street that I spied this narrow shop’s window with a ham-fisted cardboard sign badly scrawled that read: Handmade Leather Bags Men and Women. Handbags for men? Initially the thought made me cringe. Then, regurgitated in my head, it sort of titillated me. A wiry dark man stood just inside the door. Middle Eastern I supposed from his wide dark eyes and craggy oversized nose, he was what I would term in those days ‘an older guy’–meaning mid to late thirties. As I stepped into the small space I became bombarded with the almost sweet, seductive smell that leather has for me. The man backed in further, silently beckoning me to come in and check out his wares. “Guud morning”, his rich baritone welcomed me. The street, the window, the bags, the smell, this guy–all together had me hooked.

“All made in Li-bah-non”, he told me, as did the small label inside each of the nicely finished pieces. They were simply designed and sturdily constructed of a substantial-weight leather. My Lebanese friend warned me of inferior bags sold in other locations in The Village made “in the Orient”. Without even questioning, he told me the price on the tags was negotiable. This struck me as odd, since I’d never been in any store in Ohio where you could bargain on the price of something brand new. I found my bag in only minutes, leaving the store with it draped over my shoulder, feeling like a real New Yorker–a Greenwich Villager–and possibly the queerest guy in the world who now carried a purse.

I sashayed all over town the rest of my trip, wearing that bag like a sign post. It said:  I’m not some hayseed yokel tourist from Ohio or the Midwest. I’m a New Yorker, goddamnit, so don’t mess with me. It gave me grit, making the statement that I could be every bit as cool as you incredible New Yorkers. Crusty. Edgy. Finger on the pulse of what’s new and trendy, while thumbing my nose at the rest of you. On the bus ride back, a guy who was a theatre reviewer for our college newspaper lovingly teased the hell out of me, dubbing the odd accessory my ‘Leb bag’, and questioning how many Lebs it would take to make a man’s purse. He clocked a bit too much mileage from his lame joke during the long, half-day trip back to school.

Once on campus, my bag got some comments, and the occasional odd look, but it certainly didn’t raise a fuss. It would have taken a helluva’ lot more than my shoulder pouch to stick out in the crowd of 20,000 KSU students in the hippie heyday. Now, going home to the parents–that was a different story altogether. I thought my father would stroke out when I hopped into the back seat of his car, bag dangling from my shoulder.

“Is that a purse you got there?”, the reflection of my father in the rear view mirror asked. He couldn’t bear to turn and confront me face-to-face.

“No, it’s a satchel“, I answered snottily, having the synonym ready for the questions I was certain would be coming the moment he spotted the handbag.

“Oh, did you pick that up in New York last week?”, my mother jumped in with both feet. Here was a woman who believed, especially in these days, I could do no wrong. She was so thrilled to have a kid in college that whatever I did, she was behind me one-hundred percent. She bragged to everyone she could that “I have a son at Kent State”, with all the pride of Rose Kennedy and as though it were Harvard. Her acceptance of my bag trumped my father’s disdain. Still, as always, he would get the last word.

“Well you’re NOT carrying it around the neighborhood”, Dad grumbled. “You might be at college, but I still gotta’ live there”. I fell silent. He’d made his point.

At the end of that semester I went back to the factory job I’d worked every summer since high school graduation. It was a fabric warehouse in an old building in downtown Cleveland, working with twenty or so guys. We got along okay, although it was clear they never knew quite what to make of me. Most of them were middle-aged family men. They had foul potty mouths. Amazingly, some were capable of dropping the f-bomb at least once in every sentence. They made crude remarks about sex all day long, five days a week. I hesitated to waltz in with my Leb bag slung over my shoulder the first day back, but it had become such a part of me, I felt compelled to do it. I knew the guys liked me. I also knew they called me faggot behind my back.

The elevator door opened on the fifth floor, as the actor in me prepared for the scene I’d already long-rehearsed.  I would step up to the time clock, my back to the men seated on the benches in the smoking area, nursing their coffee cups. They would see my bag even before seeing my face. At their first catcall or hurtful remark, I would swivel sharply to confront them all–my captive audience–and shout “That’s right, I AM a cock-sucker! So whatta’ ya’ gonna’ do about it, boys?”

There was only grand silence as I punched in. I turned towards the group of them. Frank, the elder and ringleader, cigar stub constantly between his lips, broke the spell. “Hey guys, our hippie boy’s back with so much fuckin’ pot, he’s gotta carry it in a leather sack”. We all laughed and the summer continued every bit the same as any other.

In December of the same year, my Leb bag and I made the move to Manhattan. We ended up in an apartment only a few blocks away from the leather shop where we’d first met. I went nowhere without my trusty friend on my side. He had become an appendage of my own appendage. But then, within maybe three years, trends changed and carrying a shoulder bag became passé. Men began toting gym bags everywhere. There was room enough for all the same crap I carried in my wonderful original, plus gym shorts, sneakers and a jock. The Leb bag ended up on the floor of a disorderly dark closet amongst the unworn shoes–then eventually in the trash.

Looking back, I should have had it bronzed like people used to do with baby shoes. That bag did so much more for me than simply house the essential crap one feels is necessary to live our day-to-day. At first he was only a souvenir of that incredible trip which would come to guide my early adulthood. It then became a certificate that allowed me passage anywhere, and proclaimed I was a proud New Yorker. Lastly, it transformed into a badge that represented my official coming-out–my own more palatable version of a pink triangle, which I felt brave enough to wear so the world could see. My new messenger bag is great, but it pales in comparison with the real McCoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Answer to Those Who Find it Impossible to Accept that Some People Actually ARE Born This Way

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The first time Mary Martin flew across our 21-inch black and white Philco as Peter Pan on live TV, it was 1955. Precocious enough to see the wires holding her up, still the theatrical kindergarten me pretended they weren’t there at all. I believed Peter really could fly. What bothered me more was that Peter Pan was not a boy. Worse, he was a woman! I figured by the time I was twelve or so, I could do a much better job with the role myself. To begin with, I already was a boy.

Peter had instructed me, that in order to fly, all I needed to do was “just think wonderful, lovely thoughts and then uuuuup you go!”. Some of the loveliest thoughts rattling around my five-year-old brain were of bare-chested, (or lovelier still), naked men. But while not knowing why, I was afraid to think of those things even secretly. And when I did allow myself to acknowledge these indecent images, still I could not fly. Of course I would never be able to take flight I came to realize, because I’d forgotten Peter Pan first needed to sprinkle the fairy dust on you. Where would I ever find fairy dust, I spent weeks afterward wondering?

I’ve read the psychological studies on dominant mothers and passive fathers. For a time this seemed a plausible excuse for me being queer. My father worked most of his life as a tool and die maker. He wore either a dark green or navy work shirt and pants, and came home each night either covered in and/or reeking of grease and oil. Even after laundering, his uniforms still bore the scent of eau de machine shop. It was a fragrance I was certain I never wanted to carry about me. My mother was a licensed beautician, who during my early years, was semi-retired. Many of the customers from her old business continued to come to our basement to get their hair done. Although a far more interesting job, giving permanents and blue rinses to silver-haired old ladies hardly seemed any more fascinating a career path.

My preschool years were spent joined at the hip with Mom. If she was cleaning the living room, I was following behind with my own tiny dust rag. On laundry days, I dumped the hamper and sorted the dirty clothes. Once the towels and socks came off the clothes line, it was my task to fold them. When she made a pie for dessert, my tart-size version went into the oven once hers had baked. This was the one she and I would sample before older brother came home from school or Daddy made his smelly entrance after work. In this way, I was groomed to become the perfect housewife–a task I understood at five years old, that my mother abhorred. I feared her plans were to draft me as a possible stand-in. Although I truly enjoy cooking and baking, to this day household chores come just before DEATH on my bucket list.

By kindergarten I had grown so unnaturally close to my mother and our home, I had missed almost too many school days–48 according to my report card. Only because I was far ahead of most of my classmates, and nearly half a year older than many of them, did they promote me to first grade. In this same report card, Miss Pete, my kindergarten teacher, noted I had a lisp (a boy with three ‘S’s in his full name). She stated this would be carefully watched in the next few years, “although he may just outgrow it”. Can we all say SISSY? I couldn’t, at least not without sounding like the mini-poof I was.

Surveying my very vivid childhood and adolescent memory, never once did my father ever throw, toss, pitch, bounce or hurl any variety of ball in my direction. Only one time in his seventy-seven years did I ever see Dad participate in a game of sport, other than horse shoes. It was at a huge family July 4th picnic, where my uncles and older cousins coaxed him to come up to bat in their softball game. He swung at everything, and when he finally did somehow miraculously make contact with the ball, my Dad ran like a chubby pubescent girl in her mother’s high heels. Perhaps this is partly to blame for my first grade teacher’s comments for the fall grading period: “He enjoys the friendship of his classmates, however he needs to be encouraged to associate more with the boys in his class”.

Truth of the matter was, not only did I not know how to play boys games, I simply never wanted to join in any of their stupid antics. I was hoping to play doctor with them and check out what they had in their pants and how we compared equipment-wise. That was the sport I was looking to compete in. I was also bright enough to know one needed to be very cautious in this area, because it might become troublesome if I pursued the wrong boy. Here, in these initial years of elementary school, I had already learned the important lesson of how to hide the dark, secret life brewing inside. The confusing, sometimes frightening secret I neither had a name for, nor dreamed there even was a name for. Yet somehow I was sure there were grownups somewhere who had figured out a way to pull it off, and a place where those like me could go.  It was nowhere in West Buttfok for sure, and I’d never seen any of those kinda guys with my own eyes.

Raised in a very Catholic family, in second grade I began Sunday catechism classes to prepare for my first communion. The nuns taught us all about sin–mortal and venial. They were overly concerned with impure thoughts to the point, I felt, of obsession. Impure thoughts were about all I had in the category of sins to confess as a second grader. That and disobeying my parents. I hadn’t taken up swearing yet. Swearing came in the fifth grade, along with stealing quarters from my mother’s purse, and smoking cigarettes by the railroad tracks, which is what the quarters were for. In 1961, a pack of Kent’s (with the Micronite filter) cost twenty-one cents at Marshall’s Drug Store. Smoking cigarettes was not technically a sin in and of itself. Smoking fell into the category of disobeying your parents, my Catholic buddy Johnny Stelmach pointed out to me while we puffed away, as freight trains whistled by us on the tracks. But I digress.

What if the priest asks me WHAT my impure thoughts are? Could he do that? Who could I go to for the answer to that question? Certainly not Sister Dorothy Ann. Of course she never had an impure thought, being a nun and all, with a rumored shaved skull and tightly bandaged chest. If our young priest, Father Leo questioned me, I could lie and say I was thinking about Marilyn Monroe’s or Sophia Loren’s breasts. Lying to a priest in the confessional had to be worse than a mortal sin. It had to be a special brand of mortal. But how could I ever tell Father Leo I sometimes wondered if his chest, under that black-collared shirt, was hairy?

So what was wrong with wanting to see his naked chest? Nothing. But WHY I would want to see Father Leo or any man for that matter, naked (something I spent hours sinning about in these days) was the real question. Without the term for my affliction, without knowing why it was there in the first place, I silently carried this sin on my soul and never once dared confess it. And luckily, in all my hours clocked in the confessional, no priest ever did ask just who those wonderfully impure thoughts were about.

But my gay sensibility didn’t begin here, or in kindergarten or while playing little housewife. It went back further than that–to the days of some of my earliest recollection. I knew how to print before kindergarten, and could read before I started first grade, so this was before that time–a time when people didn’t get their daily news from the television. My Dad religiously read the CLEVELAND PRESS from front to back every night after he got home from work. From his chair in our living room, he would call me up into his lap once he got to the comics. I would nestle back against him comfortably, as he read the daily comics aloud to me, my teeny finger following the letters in each word. My favorite by far was L’il Abner.

Now it wasn’t the story line that kept me interested. It made little sense, and the hillbilly dialogue Dad tried patiently to explain to me. The satire, of course, was totally lost on my three or four-year-old brain and perhaps my father’s as well. But that Abner–he was so tantalizingly attractive to me. At the same time I understood I should have been attracted to Daisy Mae. Abner was a boy and so in love with Daisy Mae. Abner was a boy and I was a boy, and boys married girls–not other boys. This was a basic truth quite clear to me, even at my tender age.

There was something about the tiny opening at the top of Abner’s shirt which showed-off just enough of his broad chest to intrigue me. Having no clue as to why, I understood this had to stay my little secret. I knew it was wrong to feel this way, even though I could not comprehend these sensations at the time, nor why I was feeling them. I was super-thrilled on those rare occasions when my paramour was shirtless, and I could easily ogle that big, hunky, hairless chest. It made me feel tingling all over and my insides sort of jumpy at the same time.

Selfishly I wish I could go back further, wondering if maybe there was something that set my libido to the gay mode–a big bang where my gayness got its start. I am here to tell you that nearly as long as I’ve been aware that I exist in the universe, I have known precisely who and what I am. Maybe the birth canal I pushed myself through was lined with fairy dust, and I became covered from head to toe with the stuff at the same moment I was born into this fabulous world.

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UPDATE: Ptown Bear Week 2014

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Just what I thought Bear Week was going to be, in hindsight, I cannot say. I was certainly not disappointed. That is one thing I never am in Provincetown. But when comparing my recent day trip to any other week we’ve spent during the past eighteen summers, it did not seem there were any more Bears around than usual. While enjoying a tall, cold beer with lunch at Pepe’s Warf on a shady deck, I asked two guys nearby, sporting bear t-shirts, if they thought numbers were down this year. Both of them were town residents who assured me there were tons of Bears in town, just like every other year. They told me most of them were either busy at special venues like huge pool parties and other organized events, or sunning at the beach. All the clubs were packed with the grizzly guys every night, they reported, not to mention loads of private parties all over town.

While I tooled about Ptown, traversing up and down Commercial Street stopping in favorite stores and discovering a few new ones, I kept my eyes open for unusual Bear sightings. Of course they were ubiquitous as always. A pair that I wish I’d been able to photograph were these two guys getting out of a Checker Cab who took everyone by surprise. They looked to be in their early 30s, each of them six-foot-something and definitely the musclebear type. Both of them handsome as hell and nicely groomed, what made them stand out were their outfits. Gone were the denim cutoffs and flannel shirts with the sleeves ripped short, these two might have been expected to be wearing. Instead they were clad only in speedos–plus big, floppy garden party wide-brimmed hats, AND tall platform high-heeled Joan Crawford comefuckme pumps. Needless to say, this Bear Pair stopped traffic–and many hearts I am certain. To borrow a phrase: they were simply “too tremendous”.

Never having gone to Provincetown for just a day and without a spouse before, (David had to work and I was on a bus trip with forty some students and faculty from my school), it was a strangely unique experience. There was so much I’d hoped to do, but with so little time I worried I might not spend it wisely. I had known for weeks that Armistead Maupin was in town for Bear Week again this year.  He was doing a program of conversation, and reading from his final volume of the Tales of the City saga. How I wished I could stay to hear him. He is truly one of my heroes. But our bus would be leaving at 5:00 p.m. and his program began at 8:00, presenting a scheduling impossibility. Posters of him were at the box office and in several shop windows. So close and yet so far away.

I was also shamelessly distributing a new postcard promoting the blog, to any place that would accept them:

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While making my rounds, I spotted John Waters riding his bicycle only an arm’s-length away, always a welcoming sight. He spends summers in Ptown for some years now and we enjoyed his show at the Town Hall a few years back. Call me cornball, but I still get a thrill seeing famous people in the street, especially such a clever one who made some of my favorite films–the original Hairspray, not to mention Polyester, starring Divine with Tab Hunter (filmed in Odorama–I kept my scratch-and-sniff card for years after).

Then it happened. Not five minutes later, still fresh from my brush with cinematic greatness, as I passed the Crown and Anchor Hotel, leaning in its shade HE stood alone all by HIMSELF. It was as though the heavy foot traffic in the street shuttling by HIM unnoticed, mystically parted to expose the man as I approached. For a second, staring at that face I knew so well, yet had never seen in the flesh before, we were the only two people on Commercial Street. I was looking at greatness, and it was calling to me. Hesitating for only a millisecond, I started towards HIM with my paw extended, grabbing HIS warm hand in mine. I began my feeble soliloquy:

“I knew you were in town but I never thought I’d bump into you on the street!”

I lifted my oversized and very dark sunglasses to lessen both my frightening appearance and a perhaps too enthusiastic introduction. HE looked into my eyes, while quickly searching my face. Dear lord, I prayed, he thinks I am some lunatic. I ceased pumping his arm.

“It’s so amazing to finally meet you!” I wanted to add his name to the end of that sentence, but “Mr. Maupin” just didn’t fit the man whose hand I still held tightly in mine, nor the love for HIM and his talent which has burned in my heart since 1979 when I first began reading his Tales. And I couldn’t allow myself to be so presumptuous to ever call him Armistead. What DID people call HIM I wondered? Armi?

Then HE spoke to me, (while I still clutched his hand). “Oh, for a minute there I was struggling to put a name to your face and I couldn’t place you”, he sort of chuckled as a wonderful grin took over his face. Wow, I thought to myself, he laughed. I think he likes me.

“Oh no, you don’t know me. But I feel like I know you really well.” To punctuate this, I cover our clasped hands with my left hand, making a sandwich of his between mine. “I’ve read everything you’ve ever written…except for the last book.” Plus now I am gushing, just like my mother used to. I cannot believe that at the moment I am face-to-face with one of the greatest gay icons in this world, I am also channeling my overly exuberant and very dead mother.

“I wish I could see you tonight.” I believe I released his poor hand at this point.

“There are still some seats…”

Interrupting Armistead Maupin I explain: “I’m only here another few hours. My bus is leaving at 5:00.” What the hell does he care about your schedule, asshole? Stop babbling and say something writerly fer’ crissakes.

“Thank you so much for all you’ve written.” Again he grinned, perhaps a bit broader. His blue eyes twinkled in the afternoon sun and all these wonderful laugh lines appeared around them magically at the same instant. With all the bright white hair on his head and in his bristly mustache, he looked like a gay Santa Claus masquerading in summer mufti. My thank you line became my exit cue, then I nodded almost reverently and continued up the street, not daring to turn back for even a parting glance.

Heady from the excitement of our brief encounter, I moved quickly, digesting the chance meeting the universe had just provided me. Why had I wasted the opportunity to really talk to the man–discussed something of substance–posed perhaps, at least one intelligent question?  I’d wished to come across like a well read, somewhat witty person who understood that maybe such a thing as literary criticism existed in my world too. So why was I left with the feeling that I’d just done a near-perfect Edith Bunker impersonation?

What I wanted to tell him, was how important his stories had been to the young gay man from Ohio, who just like Mary Ann Singleton, had transplanted himself into a strange and wonderful Oz-like city where being gay was nearly as normal as being straight. I wish I had thanked him for the doors he opened so that it was possible to write stories–not G-A-Y stories for G-A-Y people, but stories like Mark Twain or Charles Dickens wrote, that were about all kinds of people who any reader could identify with or fall in love with. Being gay, or straight, bi-sexual, trans–whatever, he had made it so that didn’t matter anymore. No book I’d ever read before was so richly inclusive or honestly real– funny and sad or so very human. No, I didn’t say any of that to him. But I did manage to tell him what time my bus would be leaving.

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