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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Daddies and Twinks and Bears–OH MY!

 

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While the LGBT population world-wide struggles for acceptance and equality, at the same time we insist on separating ourselves into categories which we came up with–all on our own. The society we fight to find our place in had absolutely nothing to do with it. No wonder it’s tough to be gay. Sometimes we contribute to it by stereotyping ourselves, insisting on choosing a specific compartment that classifies us according to some physical trait or insignificant preference. It wasn’t always like that, this dinosaur is here to tell you.

Back in the last century, in the early 1970s in Ohio when I first came out, you went to a gay bar and there were two kinds of homosexuals–dykes and fags. We were so happy to be able to be out, no one thought to be anything more than simply GAY. In those clubs we could hang out together and just be ourselves, which we dared not do anywhere outside the safety of the places we frequented. It wasn’t that these gay bars were particularly fabulous or fun–they were all we had–a place to be comfortable in your own skin a few hours each week.

Moving to New York City, my gay world expanded. Actually, it damn near exploded. Unlike northeastern Ohio, where you could count the number of gay establishments on one hand, here there were dozens of places in Manhattan alone. And NYC is where I began to notice the development of gay stratification.

At this point there were: jocks, leather men, daddies and elephants. The jocks were hardly the buff gym rats of today. In fact, in those days a six-pack meant only one thing–six bottles or cans of beer. These jocks were closer to preppies, in button-down shirts, loafers with or without socks, clean-shaven and well-groomed hair. Leather men were easy to spot in their chaps, vests or black leather jackets and huge, heavy belts and boots. They made facial hair fashionable again. Leather men were the first to embrace piercings–initially just ears–then they commenced to travel south–way south. In the beginning these guys intimidated me, until I smartened up and realized for many, it was simply costume, and had zero to do with how they performed under the sheets. Daddies were men forty-plus years who dressed more sophisticatedly than any of the others. Technically they could have been a twenty-something’s father. While I found most daddies tantalizing in my heyday, I hesitated to pursue their advances because the age difference made me a bit queasy. And the elephants, oh those poor elephants, were the older, grandfatherly men who most gay guys ran from, (except for the gold diggers who took full advantage of the poor old horny dudes).

There was an unnamed category that a majority of gay men fell into in this same era. I would have to call it the ‘denim crowd’. It was the strata I identified with in my single days. In fall and winter we wore flannel shirts or work shirts and jeans with a jean jacket. In summer we’d don the same jeans, wife-beater tank tops or go shirtless with a jean jacket. Some guys wore heavy boots if they leaned towards leather. Others chose sneakers or loafers if they were more jock-inspired.

I dated my first denim guy for only a month or so. He worked in the interior design industry like myself. By day his job required he wear a suit and tie. Regardless, he wore this tiny gold hoop earing which I found an odd juxtaposition, but so very hot. His name was Robb (with two B’s) and his last name (French Canadian), also began with a B. I affectionately referred to him as ‘Robb Bone-air’, frankly because that’s what he gave me whenever I caught a glimpse of that shocking earring and the dirty grin always pasted on his handsome face. Even when dressed in denim, there was something about his earring that hayseed me found so provocative in those olden days. Robb was also responsible for making me go commando…but I’m getting a bit off-track here.

Just before the end of the 70s I went off the dating market, settling down with a man who didn’t belong to any of the above-mentioned categories. He was Alejandro, and we were together for a dozen years. During my time out of the gay loop, a few new categories were formed. The biggest was the Bear Community. They surfaced somewhere in the early 1980s. Of course Bears have been around since forever, but this is when they became a huge thing, perhaps because there became so many kinds of them.

Bears, first and foremost, are guys with body hair. Bears are not into manscaping. This does not mean you have to wear a chest wig to be a Bear. There are some burly Bear dudes who are not terribly hairy. These men might compensate by cultivating hair where it does naturally grow, like on their heads. And if it doesn’t grow there, then maybe they’ll sport full, bristling beards. The Bear population has grown so large they’ve developed subclasses: younger bears are referred to as Cubs, older bears are often called Polar Bears, there are Musclebears, Panda Bears (Asians) and then, to totally confuse things, there are Bears who are hairy but thinner and extremely muscular, termed Otters (which in the animal kingdom aren’t even in the same family!).

I’ve always found Bears adorable. Although we shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about any one group of people, I’m sticking my neck out here to say almost every Bear I’ve ever met has been a really cool guy. They’re fun-loving and playful. They don’t intimidate and for the most part are very open and accepting of non-bear types. They couldn’t be less pretentious, and typically dress totally for comfort–fashion be damned. I’ve always secretly wished to be a bear, but I’m (1) not entirely hirsute, (2) too old and never was nearly in-shape enough to dare to call myself an Otter, and (3) unfortunately, a little too overly concerned with what I wear. Perhaps they will someday bestow an Honorary Ursine membership upon me.

If the 80s introduced the Bear, the 90s was the dawn of the Twink. These guys existed even in my youth; only the name is new and their growth in numbers appears to have increased. They could be considered the other extreme of the Bear. Twinks are slender, young, boyish, typically clean-shaven, manied and pedied and always dressed to go clubbing. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is most current in fashion and anything that is of no earthly use in the real world. It would be difficult, I imagine, to be thirty-something AND still be a Twink. I never got what they were about in my day, so I am even more in the dark concerning the Twinks of today. They’re the kind of people my Grandmother would pray for daily, were she still alive and able to recognize their existence in her world.

Dating sites and apps like Grindr will no doubt create some new categories of gay men perhaps even I will get wind of, as David pushes me in my wheelchair up Commercial Street in Provincetown, should I live long enough. Who can say what will be considered cool and appealing to the next gay generation? The only wisdom I can impart at this point in my life is simply this:

Whether you are a Twink, a Cub, or an Otter, please don’t get so wrapped up in the look or the trends of the day, that you miss the now–the moment you should be living. Forget about your outfit for Tea Dance–nobody cares if your shorts are just a little too baggy, or your sneakers are last season’s. Dance your ass off, even by yourself if no one else asks you to dance. Order dessert if you want. Only you see the extra half pound the next morning. Looking back on my gay life, it is as if only three summers ago I came out at twenty-one. A year later, I was forty and single again. And just last week, AARP sent me my first invitation for membership while still in my late fifties. Life happens so goddamn fast you become a dinosaur, before you’ve even had the chance to begin to sample life.

 

Epilogue

I have always longed to visit Provincetown for Bear Week, as it is one of the most popular weeks of the summer, when the town is overtaken by a Bear invasion. My job schedule has never afforded me the pleasure, but this year I will be able to at least make a day trip on Friday. I can’t wait to report on my day there in a follow-up post.

God I’m N O T a Dancer, A Dancer Dances


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Those of you too young to recollect the 1970s, or for the unschooled in the Broadway musical scene, you may not recognize my paraphrased title. It’s from A CHORUS LINE, and a huge moment in the second act, when Cassie, the lead character, performs a desperate show-stopping solo song and dance. She’s a diva, looking for a second chance in her career. She sings “God I’m a dancer–a dancer dances”. Of all the things I am or once was in my life, dancer was never anywhere in my expertise. Although unbelievably not once, but twice, I danced in an abbreviated version of THE NUTCRACKER, as the mysterious Uncle who gifts Clara with the magic wooden toy.

My ballet debut came as a favor to a friend who taught in a large dance studio in our area. Liz and I met in a community theatre group I became involved with when I first moved to New England. She did the choreography for a production of MUSIC MAN I directed. In payment, I would be in her NUTCRACKER, as she had no male students in ballet, and needed a guy to lift her prima ballerina in one scene, then make it snow in the second act and lift her some more. I’ve seen Liz work miracles with young tykes, non-graceful teens and adults with two left feet. What she’d need to do with this woeful klutz was far beyond even Liz’s talents.

So the lifting stuff was easy. All I needed to do was secure the lithe twelve-year-old artfully around her tiny waist and ‘lift’. The kid did all the rest. Clara looked glorious up there in the air where I’d lift her several times during each performance. A few times it was necessary to carry her in the air, taking several steps to the right or left. That I could also manage, and come off looking relatively competent. But the hitch was, I needed to first sweep in, disrupting the merriment of the party scene, just as the adult guests finished a bright gavotte. I was to achieve this air of mystery in a black floor-length cloak. Liz assured me the cape would miraculously cause me to ‘swoop’ onto stage, frightening guests and the audience at the same time. It would take more than a hunk of tacky satin for me to pull that off.

Liz and I rehearsed my entrance literally for hours. After the girls were all home and asleep in their beds, I would still be attempting to swoop gracefully from upstage left to downstage center. We’re talking maybe less than twenty steps maximum. But lonnnng, sweeeeeping and graceful steps–which was my problem. I looked like I was executing my choreography with a load of shit in my tights, the cape only serving to conceal my huge pile of caca from view. And in the second act, when I needed to make it snow, I had the same horrible, swooping entrance–only this time I entered from upstage right, attempting it backwards. Liz was so kind, so patient, and I was so very bad. A few nights before final dress, I spent half of our private post-rehearsal rehearsal, trying to persuade Liz to bind her breasts, shove her hair under a top hat and perform the role of Drosselmeyer herself. But she had faith I could do it. Poor deluded Liz!

They taped the final dress rehearsal and made the mistake of having me watch it while the kids changed to go home. I studied my entrance like Nijinsky might have looked upon his first Rite of Spring. I did not swoop in as I’d feared, with a load in my tights. I galloped in, as though the turds had already worked their way down both legs, ready to plop out onstage if I wasn’t careful. It was embarrassing, but far too late to do anything about.

Once out there, Clara made me look great. I lifted her higher than high. When I presented her with the nutcracker, my broad mime gestures were brilliant. When I made it snow, even I bought into the theatrical magic. It was such great fun, I consented to do it again the following Christmas with a second, even younger Clara. I just never watched another video of me doing it again. It was too painful for my un-dancey ego to bear.

There were times when my lack of dancing ability did not yield this same happy ending. Such is the story of my audition for GREASE on Broadway. In 1972, when I arrived in New York, GREASE had only been running a few months. By the summer of 1975, there were national tours and many cast changes. They’d announced open auditions for both Broadway and tour replacements. The show was at the Royale Theatre on West 45th Street. One of my favorites, I’d seen it at least three times. As incredible as the movie is, there was something wonderfully simple about the original stage version. You were caught up in the fun the cast was obviously having, sitting there in your seat, watching the show happen at you. It was a dreamer’s dream to get a chance to be a part of it.

You needed to have a ballad and an up-tempo song ready. The ad instructed NOT to sing a song from the show, nor dress 1950-ish. Several of my friends didn’t even get through the first interview (which was presenting your eight-by-ten picture and resume to one of about six people sitting at long tables who looked at you, then looked at your picture and either said “thank-you-we’ll-call-you” and put the picture on one pile, or said “do you have sheet music–have a seat” and put yours in another). I’d heard stories many actors only got through just a few bars of their first song before they were told “thank-you-we’ll-call-you”…and of course, they never were.

My friend Dennis was a talented performer and musician. He came to NYC just a few months before me–is still there–and never once has he needed to take a job other than in theatre or music. I called and begged him to help me find two songs for my audition. He had stacks of sheet music of obscure tunes. We decided on To Know, Know, Know Her, a really cheesy 50s ballad he was sure no one else would dare to sing, and Jingle Bell Rock as my up-tempo choice. Mind you, it’s August, during a heat wave, so we’re certain none of my competition would think to choose this one either. We rehearsed both songs the night before for several hours, and I was ready for B’way.

Audition day I arrived at The Royale, greeted by an ocean of actors. You believe you are this totally unique individual who somebody’s dying to discover–until you see two dozen people show up, all who look like they could be your first cousin. Instantly this puts you right in your place. Working my way through the crowd I make it up to the table and hand an attractive woman my picture and resume. She studies my face in the photo, looking up briefly to check if it at all resembles the guy who gave it to her. She smiles. I smile back while my heart is thumping so loudly I am certain she hears it too. “Have a seat over there in the corner with the boys. You have your music? It shouldn’t be too long”. I float over to the metal folding chairs and sit down quickly, before she has a chance to change her mind. I’ve made the first cut.

In about a half an hour, they bring our group of guys backstage. The stage is in partial view from the wings, as we listen to our competition singing to an invisible piano hammering out the tunes. It is like every movie I’ve ever seen about show business. Soon a disembodied voice calls my name. As I begin my walk onstage I’m beyond nervous. I am petrified with fright–yet so pumped. There is a tall stand to my left with a long panel of a dozen bright lights, blindingly illuminating me as I take my mark center stage. A guy appears from behind them and asks for my music, handing it to the accompanist in the pit. You can barely see a thing in the blackened theatre. A voice comes from somewhere midway in the center of the orchestra seats. I stupidly force a fake smile in that direction. All I can make out is a yellow legal pad. “Hi there”, he says. “Why don’t you sing your ballad for us.”

The piano begins and so do I. My nerves have dissipated somewhat, but as the words come out, I immediately realize this was a dumb choice. Why did we pick this boring song, anyway?

“To know-know-know her, is to love-love-love her. Just to see her smile, makes my whole life worth while. Yes-yes to know her is to love-love-love …”

“Matthew, do you have ANYTHING else you can sing?” he breaks in quickly as the piano trails off and I stop mid-song. I know this cannot be a good sign. Have I blown my big chance, I worry? Dammit, am I going home already?

“Why don’t you give us your up-tempo” he adds, brightly. A second chance–I breathe again and really smile his way this time. I begin thinking–while the piano player below rearranges the sheet music–Matthew, there are very few second chances. There won’t be another. Sing this song like your life depends on it. Your life does depend on this, so don’t blow it!

With that, the christmasy intro to Jingle Bell Rock begins, and I am singing my little heart out. The spirit of the 50s overtakes me, as I rock-and-roll my way through this tune like I’m Bobby Darin, complete with the finger-snapping. My hips have taken on a life of their own, while I work the stage like it’s all mine. I know it sounds impossible, but as I sing, I am at the same time marveling at where I am and what I’m doing. Me–onstage at The Royale Theatre on fucking B R O A D W A Y , singing Jingle Bell Rock like it’s my hit song, and as if the empty theatre is filled with enthralled fans who’ve come just to hear me sing. And I wish there was a video, because for sure, this was the performance of my life–two minutes of pure Mattie-perfection. He lets me sing the entire bloody song to the very end. Just before my performance is over, a woman’s head appears behind the dark legal-padded man. They are talking as I finish singing with a genuine shit-eating grin, now for just the two of them: “That’s the jingle bell, that’s the jingle bell, tha-att’s the jingle bell-el raah-ock!”

Once I’m done he says, “Nice to have that early Christmas present. We’d like you to stay and read for the part of Sonny. The stage manager will give you the script.” I nearly pass out, but quickly revive when the same guy who took my sheet music appears from behind the lights again, to escort me offstage. I’d been too nervous earlier to notice how hot this guy is. I quietly chastise myself for jeopardizing my moment of glory by even contemplating picking up the stage manager. I follow him to a small room where we run lines together.

The scene is only about a twelve line exchange. Handsome Hottie will be reading with me. He’s really sweet and gives me some pointers on how to play the scene–like I’m a real actor, or something. He works with me for maybe five minutes, then is called back onstage. He leaves me in the room and only then do I have a moment to sense what’s all come down in less than two hours at the theatre. I feel so good about myself and my abilities. I don’t want to jump the gun and spoil everything, but a wave of confidence over-takes me. Maybe I can do this. Maybe my dream of theatre isn’t just a dream.

An intercom voice breaks my reverie. “Matthew Schuster onstage please”. How long have I waited to hear those words? I bolt for the door, probably tripping my way back onstage. There is Handsome, who leads me to my mark and we begin. The scene is over before I even have time to worry about it. “Do you want to hear it again?” Handsome calls out to Mr. Legal Pad.

“Yes, please. This time Matthew, could you give us a little more accent and a little more stupid?” I know exactly what he means. I was playing the part of Sonny—who is talking about flunking freshman English for like a second or third time–quasi-Shakespearean. This reading, I give him what I remember from seeing the show. “Great”, he says. “we’d like you to come back this afternoon for the dance audition, Matthew. The stage manager will give you the times.”

The DANCE audition? I freeze in my tracks as the blood drains from my body. I follow Handsome again, but this time with trepidation. My appointment is a few hours later. Once outside in the sunshine and heat, I look for somewhere to sit down and simply breath. In the theatre district, this means a coffee shop. I grab a booth by a window, order a cup and light up a smoke (perfect dancer preparation) and continue my inner dialogue. Nobody I’d spoken to ever mentioned a dance audition. What’s that about? I can’t dance. Well what did you expect, asshole–it’s a musical–of course you’ve gotta’ dance.

Drinking my coffee I realize this time I’m on my own. There’s no friend to call for a two-hour crash course in Broadway hoofing. They are going to throw some complicated combination at us in two minutes and expect us to BobFossee our way through it. Of course I shall make a total fool of myself and be laughed off the stage in humiliation. I need another cigarette. So goes the next hour–berating myself, smoking a cigarette, worrying I’ll trip or worse fall on my face, literally, then smoking another cigarette until the pack is empty and it’s time to dance.

Back at the theatre I am now in a small dance studio. There are a couple dozen of us, male and female. Three of the guys amazingly resemble me in height, weight and ethnic look i.e. big-nosed ItaloGreekJew. A young woman, who I’ve not yet seen today, is in charge. She looks friendly enough, but we sense she’s out to get us all with some intricate choreography, designed to ruin our chances at getting a part. She splits us into two groups and begins teaching us the “simple combination”. Luckily I’m in the first group, so I’m able to watch her teach it twice. As she breaks it down, none of the steps looks too difficult so far.

Next we put it together and then she goes and adds arms/upper body stuff to the mix, and my palms and pits start to get sweaty. There are people already looking like dancers here, yet I am not one of them. A few of us are stumbling, asking for her help with certain steps. We drop back behind the second group, and I attempt rehearsing while at the same time watching her instructions again. Maybe I will get through this and come off looking half decent. Think Jingle Bell Rock, Matthew. We will have no music to move to, only her incessant counting in eights.

Within minutes we are broken down into groups of six. Three in front, three in back. Luckily I am tall enough to be in the back row. Maybe I can hide from obvious view. I’m not in the first group of six, so I have a chance to watch and walk through the combination yet again. It is very fast and over quickly. I can do this. Jingle Bell Rock.

My group is up. “And five…six…seven…eight” she calls and off we dance. Watching the feet of the woman in front of me, I hope I’ll be safe. Oh no, my arms are over my head when they should be crossed against my chest. Is it left foot stomp or right? I forget to swivel and turn and just stand there for several counts like a ninny. I get through it without falling on my ass, but not much more could be said about my performance than that. We drop back to make way for the next group.

Once the final six finishes, she tells us “Thank you for your time today. They will be making calls in the next few days. Good luck everybody.” I leave almost numb. Overall it was a good day. I sang really well. I did a good job with my scene. Mr. Yellow Legal Pad liked me a lot. The choreographer chick–not so much. But maybe the dance part didn’t count too much. I throw in this last part, hoping to take the sting away and make me feel better.

So I check in with my phone service every two hours for the next three days. By the weekend I am losing hope. By Sunday night at midnight, I pretty well figure it out. I will not be playing the role of Sonny in GREASE at The Royale Theatre on 45th Street, or in any of the national tours. But I will be able to say, I once sang Jingle Bell Rock–one hot August afternoon on Broadway–and totally wowed my audience.

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