Confessions of an Eight-Year-Old Cake Decorator

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It’s pretty scary, when at eight-years-old, you realize you’re a sissy. Worse, when at that same tender age, you begin to seriously ponder what it will mean for the rest of your life. Add to the mix a pronounced lisp your kindergarten teacher has already attached to your permanent file. You are branded different, and destined to make waves. Lucky for me, I didn’t mince. I ran like any boy my age–rode my red two-wheeler like a daredevil. I wasn’t afraid to get muddy, playing down by the creek in town. We swung on vines, caught tadpoles, and scared the girls by dangling grasshoppers two inches from their noses. It was those atypical things that held my interest which set me apart from the rest of the boys.

My peculiarity made making friends a difficult task. One might be hard-pressed to convince most first grade boys that coming over to your house after school to color could be a blast. I know. I tried many times. It was impossible, even if you did have Prang crayons and not those ordinary Crayola 64s–even if you did let them color in your best coloring book, and they didn’t need to stay within the lines like you impeccably always did. For my own well-being, I’d taught myself to curb my serious penchant for coloring when around my peers.

The real sissification process began when I got my very own potholder loom. It was all the rage–at least among the girls in my neighborhood and my two favorite female cousins. I developed potholder mania. I had a two bag a week habit for those stretchy little loops I wove incessantly, making potholders for every woman in our family. Not a word did I mention to ANYONE in school. It was a girly thing to do, but okay, just as long as no one talked about it. Decades later, when coming across the loom buried in my parents’ attic in its original box, I had to chuckle. The manufacturer was ‘Nelly Bee’.

While I was still a baby, my mother took a ten-lesson Adult Ed course in cake decorating. This was the first time in fifteen years of marriage she was a housewife without a full-time job. She threw herself into it with a vengeance. As long as I can remember, Mom decorated cakes. She made them for everyone she’d ever known, for every ridiculous occasion imaginable. As my mother grew in her craft, she began taking orders. By the time I was five, from May though August nearly every Saturday she delivered a wedding cake somewhere in the greater Cleveland area. I sat at our kitchen table, watching the magic take place.

Family folklore goes something like this. As a little tyke, in order to keep me quiet while she practiced ‘her art’, she gave me my own bag of frosting, and I played at cake decorating myself. I can’t say I remember that part. My pastry chef memory begins already knowing how to do it, just wanting to become as good at it as my Mom. By the time I started school, her craft had grown into a business. She taught classes mornings, afternoons and evenings. She was in the newspaper and even on local Cleveland television several times–in glorious black and white, (it was 1956).

A reporter from the Cleveland Press came to our house the following year to do a feature half-page pictorial article entitled: Flowers Bloom on Her Cakes. This woman was already a huge fan of my Mom. But she fell in love with little me after learning I too could decorate a cake. We watched my story take shape on her face. I can see the elegantly dressed older lady bending down to my level, asking “How would you like to be in the newspaper too?” My mother fell instantly into a state of ecstasy. The reporter turned to her photographer, announcing dramatically, “Little Boy. Big cake!” Of course I joined in their excitement, though little did I realize these two women would soon ‘out me’ as a card-carrying sissy.

Several months later they returned to our home for the photo shoot. My mother had baked a huge round cake iced in mocha. I decorated it with pale yellow roses and buttercream borders for my Uncle’s birthday. My grandmother made me an apron for the photo, and the reporter brought a real chef’s hat borrowed from a hotel restaurant in downtown Cleveland. It had to be pinned in the back to fit my small head. The title for my article was At Eight, He’s a Pretty Fancy Froster. It began:

Although he may not be able to run the 50 yard dash in under 20 seconds, he’s pretty proud of the fact that he can pipe a yellow duck out of icing in 15 seconds.

As second-grader me read that opening sentence, my heart sank to my feet. First of all, whatever had possessed me to tell the lady about the frosting duck? A little yellow ducky–what a dumb thing to mention. But it was that sports analogy the reporter had drawn herself, that cut right to the bone. A normal boy could run a race and be a winner; I was this little girly-boy, a loser sissy who decorated cakes. Now everybody would know. People who read The Press every evening, who didn’t even know me, would know. It was beyond shaming. It was like being naked in church–a nightmare.

The day after the article came out was a school day. I was so anxious, I wanted to stay home. I loved school, but the thought of facing my classmates now was terrifying. Praying for invisibility, I entered our classroom. Mrs. Holtz had pinned the newspaper clipping to the big bulletin board at second-grader eye level. A group of kids were crowded around it. Flushed with embarrassment I went quietly to my seat. Some of the kids ran over, surrounding my desk. They were gushing with disbelief that my picture had been in their parents’ evening paper. Some of the guys–the ones who were proficient at actually getting the basketball through the hoop in gym class–received me like a champion, back-slapping me with grins. Their reaction took me totally by surprise. It was not what I had been agonizingly anticipating.

Imagine, later that spring, when I announced, during a morning show-and-tell, that I would be appearing on a local television program, demonstrating cake decorating for Easter. Of course my mother had finagled this gig for me. It was on a popular Cleveland women’s interest program, hosted by the first-ever female fitness guru. My mother had begun doing a series of appearances as a sort of ‘regular’ on The Paige Palmer Show.  Mom had become well-known in the viewing area as “that lady who decorates cakes”. As a kid it was kinda’ neat and kinda’ embarrassing at the same time. Likewise, part of me was excited to be going on TV and scared to be doing something so sissified on television screens all across northeastern Ohio.

Live television was frightening, but for some reason it wasn’t much cause for my anxiety. The actor in me was thrilled at the chance to perform on such a grand scale. I was confident in my skill at cake-craft. Exposing my girlish proclivities, however, had me terrified. I was asking to be mocked by countless strangers, when dealing with only one in my own neighborhood had me frozen in fear.

Luckily I’d gone to the TV studio with my mother for a few of her appearances, so I had a sense of how it all worked. The director asked to see what we’d brought for my demonstration, and determined I would have a five to six minute segment. They wheeled out a long plywood demo table for my set up. Just before airtime, Paige came to say hello and see what we would be doing. She was a bigger-than-life figure, but so good at engaging people in front of a camera. My mother asked what I should call her, and she throatily replied, “Call me Auntie Paige”.

Just before my segment there was a mild panic, because the floor director noticed the table was too high for an eight-year-old. He found me a battered wooden box to stand on for my five minutes of fame. I remember being not nervous, just anxious to get started. I’d seen my Mom do this very thing so many times. I knew to speak clearly and look into the camera with the red light on. The lights were bright and hot. Without thinking, the first question I answered began with, “Well you know, Paige….” just like my mother might have said, and not like an eight-year-old had been instructed . (Oh, she’s not my Auntie anyway!), I justified to myself.

They brought me back after the final segment to say goodbye. They’d had a group of little girls modeling Easter bonnets from a local department store. Once the fashion show finished, they huddled around my table, barely able to peer over the edge, while I stood on my wooden box to demonstrate one of my now famous 15-second duckies. Obviously with extra time before signing off, Paige asked the little girls what they’d be wearing on Easter Sunday. They were darling in their little spring hats, but proved to be totally inarticulate. She turned to me and asked the same question. “My navy blue suit”, I shrugged matter-of-factly. “Your navy blue suit!”, Auntie Paige laughed as though it were the most charmingly clever thing she’d ever heard.

So after Easter, my life returned to normal. I wasn’t shunned or publicly shamed as some sissy outcast, or whatever I feared would happen. Now I was simply “the son of that lady who decorates cakes who also decorates cakes”. Nothing much had changed. I didn’t even become locally prominent. Perhaps it was being so young and small and naive that made it less offensive than my nightmares. Probably what frightened me most was only myself. I had no idea what I was, yet who I would become had me frightened to death of my own shadow.

 

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It’s Christmastime in THE CITY

 

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It was an unseasonably warm December, that first Christmas I spent in New York. Being hyper theatrical in those days, I’d choreographed my entrance into Gotham at midnight on my birthday, a little less than three weeks before the magic Yuletide. My roommate, who I’d only met on two occasions prior to my move, was a friend of a friend from Youngstown. He was an assistant stage manager for a very popular Off-Broadway show and also moonlighted as a waiter at Marie’s Crisis Cafe in Greenwich Village. That’s where my cab dropped me off, suitcases in hand. It was 1972, and a magical night I still savor.

My family had begged me to put off moving until New Year’s. Especially once my mother learned this mysterious roommate, who she feared might be shady, would himself be going home to Ohio for Christmas. “You can’t spend Christmas ALONE in a strange city! What’s the matter with you? Even bums go to shelters for Christmas, for God’s sake”. What she could not understand was that this was precisely what I meant to do–be totally alone among eight million strangers. It would be a dreamy time to become intimate with the city I’d longed to be a part of since adolescence.

We shared a cramped, six floor walk-up studio with two windows. One above the tub overlooked an air shaft; the other, no more than a foot wide, looked sort of wedged into a corner facing the street. Hence it was dark day and night. The toilet tank leaked. There were roaches–I’d never even seen one before.  My roommate owned: an orange vinyl beanbag chair, a wire milk crate pilfered from the street which served as a table, and two inflatable air mattresses purchased at Lamston’s 5 and 10 that we slept on. There was no phone. The only electronics in the place were an alarm clock and a 12-inch black and white portable tv which sat on the floor–best viewed when lying on an air mattress. My new home was pure heaven. The only known picture of our apartment is in my mind’s eye.

We had a fantastic time that first week before he left for Youngstown.  We’d gone from near strangers to model roomies in a matter of days. He took me midtown to see the store windows in all their Christmas majesty. Macy’s and Gimbel’s were a treat. Saks Fifth Avenue took my breath away. I had never dreamed of a more sumptuous display. The night before he left for Ohio, we treated ourselves to second or third row seats at Radio City for the ultimate Christmas pageant. He bought some super-charged pot which produced a high nearly hallucinogenic. When the Rockettes danced downstage and began their high kicks, we ducked for fear we’d be clobbered in the head by a barrage of high-heeled tap shoes. During the live Nativity, we roared as the mammoth camel being led from ‘the East’ took a huge dump center stage. We likewise sniggered when the chick playing the Blessed Virgin Mary looked up from the Baby Jesus in her arms, revealing her enormous fake eyelashes, heavily rouged cheeks and turquoise eye shadow, which gave her away as just another Rockette in a madonna’s cloak.

It was his neighborhood familiarization trips which impressed me most. My roommate pointed out all those special little places tucked in the nooks and crannies of The Village. The Smiler’s Deli, where one buys provisions like Tropicana and Thomas’s English muffins. The best 24-hour Greek diner, where you could enjoy the closest thing to home cooking on the cheap, satisfying any boy from Ohio. A joint to get a great morning cup of coffee. A little spot to take someone any hour of the day or night with tons of local charm. Those places frequented by folks who might pass as native New Yorkers, who in truth, were probably transplants just like you, desperately hoping to look anything but.

Christmas that year was on a Monday. Roomie left the middle of the week before. I remember this, because it was almost the exact same day that I came down with a horrible case of the flu. I was sicker than I had ever remembered being sick before. Luckily I managed to make it to the drug store before the worst of it hit. Burning with fever spikes, then sweating like a pig on my plastic air mattress and shivering with chills, I slept between fits of delirium. Because of my always-dark apartment and 24-hour WPIX TV, I never knew if it was nine in the morning or nine at night. Crawling to the leaky toilet at one point, I felt so near death I actually called out for my “Mommy”. Maybe she’d been right after all, I moaned in my feverishness, as I dragged my aching carcass back to my plastic sick-bed. Christmas alone had been a stupid idea. I only hoped I would live to see the 25th to call her and tell her she’d been right all along.

Christmas Eve day I was well enough to take a shower and change my sick clothes. For the first time in days, I felt the need to make the trip down the six flights to the sidewalk below. The burst of air that hit me in the face smelled sweet and therapeutic. I walked slowly to Sixth Avenue towards those familiar places my roommate had taught me were now home. There was a guy on the corner selling some of the saddest Christmas trees imaginable. Half dead, crooked, misshapen pines the likes of which even Charlie Brown could never love, he began bargaining the moment he sensed I’d noticed them. Pulling at the most miserable of the lot he called out “Take it home fuh five dallahs!” He’d said the magic word. I lugged it back and up the many stair steps…home.

I shoved the tree trunk between the metal grid of the milk crate. I decorated my tree with the dozen or so Christmas cards I’d received, mailed to my new address. Stepping back, it was hardly beautiful, but the tree looked no longer sad. That evening the buzzer rang downstairs. It was another friend of a friend from Ohio. His parents had given him a plane ticket to New York for Christmas. He knew I’d be alone for the holidays. It was the best medicine I could have asked for. I was healed, in time to celebrate the season.

Christmas morning I awoke early. We went out for breakfast. As we ate, I thought about what my family would be doing at that same moment. They’d be getting ready to go to mass. My mother would be dressing, while arguing with my father who would be complaining about having to go to church, like he had every single year. “You HAVE to go to mass. It’s Christmas, for Chrissakes!” My friend wanted to go to Rockefeller Center to see the tree. I told him not to miss the windows at Saks. I walked around the neighborhood to see what was open and what would be closed today. There wasn’t any snow. It was almost warm.

That afternoon I went to my favorite phone booth, loaded with pockets full of quarters. I’d arranged, before I left Ohio, to call my Aunties’ house where the entire family would be gathered as we had ever since before I was born. I made the mistake of telling my Aunt I’d been sick. I could hear my mother in the background wailing “He’s sick?” I grinned, picturing them all–my Mom, Auntie, Gramma all dressed with pretty aprons on, getting the food ready. The men were in the basement by the Franklin stove, drinking shots and beers as they waited to be served. Younger cousins would be playing with whatever favorite toys Santa had delivered earlier that morning. Everyone is waiting to eat. One by one the phone is passed to each of them. I choke up when I get to Gramma. She isn’t even trying to hold back her tears. I feel awful and elated at the same time, then guilty that I could feel the two things simultaneously.

When I hang up, I don’t know what I want to do next. Do I need to run up six long flights of stairs to bawl in private? Do I just need to walk around the neighborhood a little longer? The beauty of The City is, you can cry hysterically, and not many people will notice, as long as you do it without bothering anyone else. I look up at the bank behind me. There’s a time and temperature digital clock. It’s forty-something degrees at 12:45 p.m. I am meeting my friend at 2:30 for dinner at the Greek diner around the corner. This certainly is turning out to be a different kind of Christmas, I tell myself. Nothing like the one I had anticipated back in Ohio.

Traditions are carried on only as long as we continue to keep them. New traditions are out there, waiting to be followed.

 

 

 

 

 

No More Do-overs

No-Do-Overs-The-Benefits-of-Training-through-Your-Mistakes-in-the-Martial-ArtsOver the years I have re-invented myself more times then I’d like to think about. December is birthday month for me. Rather than ending each year professing several empty resolutions that won’t make it through January, I relive my favorite metamorphoses. In my heart of hearts, I’ve come to realize there aren’t enough years left on my calendar to squeeze in even one more new and improved version of me. No more do-overs left for this old dude.

I pulled off my first major incarnation when I entered Kent State in the fall of 1968. It wasn’t so much a re-invention as it was an unveiling. In order to survive a brutal high school, I had hidden the real me from everyone except my small band of four friends. We met sophomore year and worked on theatre together. We all helped one another to conceal something from our high school world. Walking into the Music and Speech building on the KSU campus, I remember how comfortable it felt to stretch inside the genuine me those first weeks of college. How honest it was being able to show my true face.

Four years later I moved to Manhattan to begin my acting career. This called for an uber-conscious effort to fashion a new persona. It proved to be my ultimate acting job. I had to lose the hayseed Ohio kid. I needed to appear more worldly, develop an edge, and toughen up the romantic wuss with the big, gooey heart. And lastly, with nearly five hundred miles separating me from family, I would allow myself to embrace the gay man in the mirror. It was a huge transformation.

Five years later I would give up my theatrical dreams. The Ohio boy proved to hold a certain charm with strangers. My Manhattan lifestyle gave me that edge I’d sought, causing me to appear worldly. But The City had only amplified the romantic in me. I was a New Yorker who would never let go, till he’d taken the very last bite out of the Apple. I swore a solemn oath to never leave my adopted home.

So in 1983, at the end of the year, I did just that. My then partner of six years and I moved to a sleepy New England town. Neither of us had any thoughts of re-invention. We would take our three-room apartment City life, and transplant it into an eight-room Victorian on the town common. Little by little, without fanfare or intention, our relationship morphed into something neither of us could even recognize in the end. Somehow in the process, I’d lost myself as well. Maybe it was a casualty of leaving The City, or from reneging on my vow. Perhaps it had just come with maturity. For whatever reason, I was lost–forty years old without a clue to who I was, or where I was going.

This predicament I’d found myself in called for a grand do-over. I sent myself back to school. I completed my BA and immediately enrolled in a graduate program. I found a small apartment in a second-class city in Massachusetts to nest on my own, and landed a teaching job. This time I took care of selecting all the elements of the world around me. By doing so, it fashioned the me I had to be in order to operate in my new universe. Or had I simply allowed who I’d been all along to come out to finally show his face?

At this point in the game, I’m too exhausted to want to remake myself again. Who needs it?  Being content with this oftentimes predictable life I lead is not a bad thing. Being content with who you are is a certain comfort. Besides, like I started out saying, at my age, there just isn’t enough time for more do-overs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We’ll be having a quiet Thanksgiving this year. Once again I will channel my Grandma in the kitchen for the one-day food marathon. Originally posted  Thanksgiving 2013, it puts me in the holiday mood, and hopefully will do the same for you. Happy Turkey Day.

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We saw a commercial the other evening, inviting us to spend Thanksgiving dining at our local Golden Corral restaurant. Could a holiday possibly be any sadder than that? If I still prayed, I would pray for anyone who chose to pass Turkey Day in that processed-meat, pathetic way. A local soup kitchen would serve better fare and the diners there would surely offer more scintillating conversation. For the first sixteen years of my life, each Thanksgiving was spent around my maternal grandparents’ dining table. Grampa might have sat at its head, but when food was involved, Gramma reigned supreme. There were never less than twelve and never more than eighteen of us each year…

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The Boys in the Hood

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It wasn’t until junior high that I figured out what boys were all about. Prior to kindergarten, I lived in a mostly girl-world. The girl next door was half a year younger than me. We had identical new houses, only reversed, and our backyards connected. Purely by default, she became my logical first playmate. Jennie had a swing set and taught me how to use it. She was extremely bossy, but I loved that sliding board. Next door to her were sisters Maryann and Katie. They had a creaky old house and a huge backyard with trees. I liked them better, and besides, their mom was a school teacher. My mother liked that I hung out with them. Still, I always needed permission to play ‘over their house’.

The only boys nearby both lived across the street. Crossing the street was a big to-do with my Mom. First, she had to be in the right mood before I could even ask her. Then she would have to check if the other moms really wanted me to come over and play. And thirdly, I had to hold her hand while she crossed me herself. She didn’t trust me to look both ways for the non-existent traffic on our sleepy road in West Buttfok.

Tony was the kid catty-corner across the street. He was a big cry baby, an only child, and spoiled rotten. I didn’t really like him enough to go through my mother’s complicated rigmarole. Besides, he didn’t share. But he had this pedal fire truck that I truly coveted. I had a tractor. We’d often race one another from our own sides of the street. I’d beat him most times, because my tractor was faster, which usually made him cry and run into the house. “Asshole”, I would have shouted, had I known the word at age four.

The only other boy lived a few houses up from Tony. He was a year or so older. His parents were from Germany. I don’t recall his name. He was a quiet, gentle boy. I enjoyed being with him, although his mom kept him in the backyard most of the time. The family moved away before Tony and I started school. And a few years later, so did cry-baby Tony.

Family-wise, my older brother rarely played with me, being seven years my senior. He had his own friends and a two-wheeler. He managed to never be around. To him, I was a “twerp”–something to only get in the way of him having fun. He despised looking after me. His greatest enjoyment came in torturing me every chance he got. The two of us learned early on, that to get along, we just needed to stay a few paces away from one another. It seems to work well for us. All of my cousins were girls too, except for a set of twin boys who were already in high school when I was born. Sundays with the family, therefore, placed me once again, hanging with the girls.

So ‘play’ for me meant dress-up and make-believe. Make-believe was right up my theatrical alley. I found dress-up to be a huge bore. Although I became instantly fascinated by those over-sized mommy high heels they clomped around in, and I held a secret curiosity for what all those yards of ruffled fabrics might feel like around my own waist, I was continually forced to be the groom, or the husband, the prince or the daddy. Maybe I got to wear one of my father’s smashed-up Stetson hats, but the characters I was forced to portray left me wanting. Just why the Prince, (who always managed to wear at least a cape or sash, I made sure), would want to rescue the princess seemed beyond my comprehension. A bit of foreshadowing here, perhaps? In the end I would insist we play school, where I demanded to be the teacher. That didn’t call for any costume, and I could take full charge. Plus I gave really hard tests.

Once I hit morning kindergarten, I was forced to confront them head-on. BOYS. Half a classroom of them. Of course habit made me gravitate towards the girls during playtime. They were my comfort zone, after all. Miss Peat would lead me, sometimes actually by the shoulders like a herding dog, to join the boys as they built massive forts or great ships out of the oversized wooden two-by-four building blocks in our clasroom.

Many of these creatures would pick up any object, turning it instantly into some sort of weapon, aim it at me, insisting I fight back or die. It was as though they were communicating in another language. Some didn’t speak at all. They just grunted at me, expecting my response. I couldn’t make any sense out of their machinations. The boys pushed, grabbed, or jostled me as though I were an oversized stuffed animal in their way. I hated playtime in school. I loved hearing stories, drawing, singing songs, creating things with my hands, learning about anything. I knew I was not a girl, and I didn’t want to be one. I also understood I was not like any of the boys in my West Buttfok kindergarten class either. That made little me so uneasy.

With a year of school under my belt, my mother eased up and let me travel further down our side of the street. This led me to meet Ricky. He was the youngest brother of my brother’s best friend. He would start kindergarten the following September. He was a full year younger than me, but that didn’t matter. He’d extended a hand in friendship, plus he thought I was a god and would do whatever I wanted to do. I still rode my tractor. He had a brand new red Radio Flyer wagon, complete with wooden slats on the back and sides. And he shared like crazy. We became fast friends that summer.

Ricky, the entire time I knew him, just like me never owned a ball of any shape or variety. He didn’t want to play war games, even though we both had Davy Crockett cap pistols. We usually just hit the rolls of caps with the handle of our guns on the sidewalk to set them off. Plus his dad smuggled sparklers from Niagara Falls every summer. Most of the time we just rode up and down our side of the street and were inseparable. His mother fed me snacks, and my mother fed him snacks. We made tents out of old blankets and even talked our parents into letting us sleep-out in my backyard once…ALL NIGHT LONG.

That was probably the first time we played doctor. I want to say that it was my idea, but maybe it was his. Ricky might have been a year and a grade behind me, but we were peers. All I know is, an awful lot went down in his garage and in that Radio Flyer. Thankfully his family moved away about three years later, or otherwise we probably would have had to get married.

In elementary school I blossomed academically as a high-achiever. I was popular with all my teachers and I was able to find a few scholarly geek boys each year to befriend. Plus there wasn’t the boy /girl division that would come with junior high, which I had long anticipated with terror. I made the most of those first six grades and ended up a pretty popular kid.

Junior high was like a well-executed sucker punch to my world. All those nightmarish fears were not preparation enough. We were immediately divided by sex. Even the faculty lumped as all together as boys and girls and never the twain should mix. In West Buttfok that meant every penis owner was considered a juvenile delinquent in-training. And because you had a pair of balls, you likewise had to be good in at least one or more sports. I was fk’d on day one.

Luckily I was able to summon the vestige of my elementary school popularity, gathering a group of misfits who huddled together for protection from the herd. We weathered the two years, somehow making it to high school neither being devoured, nor beaten to a pulp. We ended up a group of six guys, out of a class of about a hundred-eighty-something. In our misery we even managed to find a few more less fortunate than ourselves that we could look down upon, sad to say.

What I came to understand about most boys at that time, was that they were not “frogs and snails and puppy dog tails” like the insipid rhyme tried to teach. Instead they were empty bravado, boorish and brash, confused and awash in a sea of testosterone they feared they were drowning in. Unable to understand girls, or what they might expect of them, many lacked the ability to communicate even amongst themselves. Their world remained divided into us and them, which is why, perhaps, they were so consumed by sports–Home versus Visitors, like all scoreboards read. What they had not yet learned was that sometimes a tractor can beat a fire truck.

 

 

Vintage and the Aesthetics of Things Old

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A selfie of David and me, taken on the first day of our vacation last week, sent me into a tailspin. It’s no secret that I’m old. It was just that this particular picture happened to capture it more perfectly than any I’d seen before. At least that I can remember at my age. The following day I stayed in bed for a few hours, feigning a long nap. P.S. No one missed me. So, I escaped from the house with the pooch for a walk. Just him and me–therapy for my bruised ego. Clear-your-head-time for a major reality check. The dog is the only one in my life who has no idea how old I am. I lost myself in the gay afternoon haze of Provincetown, somewhere between lunch and the cocktail hour.

This photo-revelation came on the heels of someone we’d been talking to that same selfie day, who had remarked: “You look good for your age”. Just what the hell kind of left-handed compliment is that supposed to be anyway? What–a person my age looks good because he doesn’t have tubes up his nose and iv lines dangling from a fluid bag above?

“You look good”…..period, is what most people would appreciate. Why must they tack-on the age reference? It negates anything positive that came before. Not even half way through our walk, as I shed anger and frustration while the dog and I sashayed through town, it came to me. I am always grateful for a compliment.  The problem is, I resent being a person my age. I don’t want to be young again. I just don’t want to be this old.

As a kid, I recall my parents and their circle of friends they’d hung around with since they started dating, back in the 1930s. They would joke about being like fine vintage wine–getting better with age. This is when they were all somewhere in their forties. Vintage. A positive-sounding word. I liked the concept. Much gentler than getting old. My grandparents were old. I wasn’t ready for my parents to get there.

When the Kennedys lived in the White House, Jackie taught us to appreciate antiques. The First Lady’s definition of an antique was anything one hundred years or older. Those items were out of range for most people we knew, including my Mom. Instead she collected the stuff her mother had thrown out when Mom was a little girl. They were quite old, but technically not antiques. I developed an affinity for them myself. I began collecting as an adult, purchasing the things my mother threw out before I was born, in order to make room for something ‘modern’. These collectables are now referred to as vintage. Back to my favorite word again–optimistic for old.

So what am I to do about this aging thing? I thought about one of the few sage-like bits of wisdom my father ever imparted to me, when I phoned him on his sixty-fifth birthday.

“Dad, I can’t believe my father is actually sixty-five years old! How are you handling it?

“There’s only one other option, and that’s a helluva’ lot worse!”

It’s not the fear of death that has me flummoxed about the aging process. It is those physical signs–the wear and tear of life that begins to show on the outside. The thick curly brown hair turning from salt-and-pepper to thinning silver. The always small eyes getting even tinier, as eyelids droop and bags underneath puff-up like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Even staying moderately thin, being betrayed by saggy-baggy skin which creases wrinkly, like crumpled newspaper, and is peppered all over with age spots, moles and things you are certain weren’t there three weeks before. You lose hair in areas it’s been since puberty, and yank it and clip it daily from places you can’t believe it would ever grow. Vanity, thy name is old age.

The following morning I took extra care getting ready for a new day. I shaved a little more carefully, dabbed on an extra dollop of eye gel on those Pillsbury Dough Boys, and used a little more product on the silver tresses. Then I pulled on my original Pee-Wee Herman vintage T-shirt (circa 1986) that my friends Susan and Ralph gave me back in the day. I only wear it once a year now, usually in Ptown, where I know it will be appreciated. And I was ready to take on the world–old age be damned. The only other option, is not an option.

 

 

 

The Gentleman or The Woodsman?

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Once upon a time in a kingdom called Manhattan, there lived a young man. He traveled from the west to seek his fame and fortune in the sparkling land. After five years, he had found neither. What he did find though, was a really cool job he enjoyed. It provided money to pay his bills, while still leaving enough for a life-style he’d now come to love–even more than his foolish dreams of fame. The only missing puzzle piece to total happiness would be a fantastic guy to share in his adventures.

The young man had no trouble meeting men. In this kingdom, in this era, the sidewalks were teeming with possibilities of every age, type and temperament. He managed to sample quite a variety of them. It had proved to be a delicious array, but none especially stood out as a potential candidate. The young man had grown comfortable living alone in this semi-paradise, but he was never lonely. He had more friends than free time to spend with them. And there was more to see and do here in this enchanted land than he would ever have years enough to experience it all.

Janet and Sissy were two of his best friends. They worked in a posh, posh hotel in the heart of The Kingdom. Hotel work schedules are oftentimes erratic. When Janet was on evenings, she’d phone the young man during those times it was quiet. They had some of their best conversations late nights, in between her duties. She and Sissy had befriended a fascinating collection of co-workers who came from all the continents of the globe. At times she might hand the phone to any one of them who passed through her office, instructing the puzzled foreigners “Say hello to my friend”. It was a silly game, yet nothing amused the young man more than playing along.

During one of those late night conversations, the phone was passed to someone with an exotic sounding name. He acted even more befuddled than the others, by Janet’s bizarre request to speak with some stranger on the other end of the line. The young man was instantly taken by the sound of his voice, and the intriguing accent with which it was flavored. But this particular fellow seemed uninterested in playing Janet’s game, passing the phone back to her after only a few polite exchanges.

“Is he gay?” the young man questioned his friend, while she adjusted the phone back over her ear.

Janet said she thought he might be, but she wasn’t certain. He was very sweet, very polite and mannerly, she told him. She thought he was either from Honduras or Colombia. “One of those countries. He is a real gentleman”, she pronounced finally.

The next time he saw her, the young man asked Sissy if she thought the guy at work with the exotic name was gay.

“I’d be boinking him myself if he wasn’t”, she answered without a pause. The young man grew even more interested.

Not too many weeks later, on an early summer Manhattan Sunday afternoon, the young man visited Janet at the hotel during her lunch break. They were meeting for a quick bite to eat. As they passed through the lobby, she noticed the exotic gentleman was on duty at the front desk. Although neither of them was dressed for the clientele milling about, still Janet marched them up through the chic little crowd to say hello.

The young man stopped to take it all in. The gentleman was poised at his station behind a gorgeous arrangement of expensive posies, looking uber-impeccable in his uniform jacket. On the lapel were these tiny colorful pins. When asked what they signified, he explained that they represented the languages he spoke.

“E-talian, Spon-ish, French and Eengleesh.”

The young man felt totally out of his league. But he didn’t mind, because the gentleman, amidst these stunning surroundings, was tantalizing just to look at. He was as handsome as a movie star–in the kind of movies you have to read the subtitles to understand. And Sissy’s gaydar had been spot-on. He studied him while Janet chatted away. Continental, the young man thought to himself–the walking, talking definition of the very word. Although he paid little, or next to no attention to him, somehow that didn’t matter.

As they began their goodbyes, the gentleman reached into the basket of flowers, carefully easing one out by its long stem. The young man’s heart began to leap in his breast. Then it quickly sank as he presented it to Janet with a flourish, bidding them both a good afternoon–much the same as he must have wished any of his chichi clientele.

Persistence was a quality the young man had been working on during his new life in The Kingdom. He somehow had to get the gentleman onto his own turf. Only then, if there was no chemistry, and the attraction remained one-sided, would he concede defeat. He coordinated a rendezvous through Janet and Sissy bringing all forces together. The girls had learned from a discussion at work that he loved to cook, and so did the young man. It was settled. They would prepare a dinner together at Janet’s, giving the young man a chance to win his favor. But it would be a feat for the three hotel workers to coordinate the same night off.

The two chefs prepared Spaghetti Carbonara. They drank wine and smoked grass, offering little snippets of their histories–just enough to whet the appetite. Having to cook necessitated they both spend part of the evening alone together in the kitchen. Those times they giggled a lot. The young man boldly, (after a little too much vino and way too many joints), delivered a sweet lingering kiss just before serving the pasta. By the time they said goodnight, he was certain they’d see one another again. The next move would have to be the gentleman’s, he decided.

*  *  *  *  *

It is a few weeks into full-on summer now, when the young man’s story continues. One of the special perks of The Kingdom of Manhattan, he learned, was the easy access to the only ocean he’d ever seen in his life. It was via a subway ride and then a bus. In under two hours time he could be lying bare-ass naked on his friendly nude beach. There he would spend his day romping in the waves with a unique collection of citizenry from The Kingdom. It was a sacred way for him to pass a Saturday or Sunday. He made the trip whenever the sun came out to play.

After yet another glorious day re-bronzing his lanky frame, he begrudgingly dressed, then trekked through the sand to begin the journey home. The line was long, but there was a fleet of buses rapidly filling one-by-one, to move the people on to the subway station. It was the end of the line for the train, so there would always be one waiting, with doors wide open. He boarded, choosing a seat on one of the long benches–far away from any screaming rug rats. He took out a book from his beach bag to help pass the boring but air-conditioned ride, and quickly immersed himself in its pages.

Once the train was filled to capacity, the doors were closed, AC cranked up, and they were moving. As he read, he had this feeling that someone nearby was staring at him–that creepy sensation. The long benches faced one another. He felt as if the surveillance was coming from the bench directly across from his. Covertly, his eyes moved up from the page to a pair of feet opposite him.

Now–bare feet are the norm on any beach, nude or clothed. But going barefoot on a subway is peculiarly rare. The cars were filthy, the floors often dangerous, and quite simply, it was never done. Panning his eyes up further, he saw before him a nearly nude beach refugee. The hairy-chested guy was clad in nothing but the briefest of black nylon speedos. On the beach, that might have been found to be provocative. On the subway, it read ‘street crazy’. The young man was afraid to look at his face, for fear eye contact might give this weirdo an invitation to conversation. He wouldn’t want to communicate to the collection of strangers in the train car, the impression he was in any way connected to this loony.

The young man, still a sympathetic do-gooder from the west, knew he had no choice but to answer his stare. And in doing so, he found something frightened, and not frightening, in the pair of gentle dark eyes looking back at him. The guy made a weak attempt at a teeny smile, using only the very corners of his full lips. It melted him instantly, so he returned the smile. In less than a heartbeat, the stranger was seated next to him.

“I’m so embarrassed. Some asshole stole all my stuff while I was in the water…my sandals, my wallet, my cut-offs. Everything.” His accent indicated he too must have originally hailed from west of The Kingdom.

“Oh, how awful!” the young man cried. “I have an extra T-shirt”, and he dug deep into his bag to fish it out. The guy began pouring out thank-yous for the small kindness like big sloppy kisses. The moment he pulled the shirt over his head, they were both put at ease. Then simultaneously the two locked eyes. They froze nose to nose on the seat they were sharing. There was this bond–an instant kinship struck between them–a  camaraderie the young man was certain now everyone in the subway car had recognized.

They talked the entire train ride back to The Kingdom. The two shared biographies and all their pertinent information: neighborhoods, jobs, favorite places to eat, hang-outs. The no-longer-stranger asked if he would accompany him back to his apartment building. They’d find the Super and use his spare keys, then get on the phone with the police to report his stolen wallet and property. He wanted to reward the young man with dinner for his help. To spend more time with this guy seemed a generous reward. He was already captivated.

Once back in Manhattan and in the apartment, they drank cold beers out of the can while he made his calls. The midtown studio of this solid, burly man was tiny and warm and cozy, in an earthy sort of way. It reflected how he was on the inside–lovable and unaffected. During each little break in his phone conversations, every quiet moment or pause, he would gaze at the young man with a tenderness impossible to be faked, and impossible for the young man to fathom.

They never went out to dinner. Once he’d finished his phone calls, he motioned the young man to him. He wrapped him in a bear hug and kissed him. It wasn’t a faked movie kind of kiss. It was strong and hungry. The kind of kiss that can only lead to one thing. When they had exhausted one another, and the sun began its descent, they ordered Chinese from around the block. The young man left in a cab that night, worried it all might only be something he’d dreamed, dozing-off on his blanket on the beach under the hot afternoon sun.

He was awakened the following morning, Sunday–before noon–very early for the young man, by his ringing telephone.

“Do you have plans for today?” an alert and husky voice on the other end questioned. It was the guy from the beach. He imagined his craggy tan face lying there in his bed, sharing the pillow alongside him. The young man grinned himself awake, savoring the memory of the day before. Eyes barely open, he listened as he laid out plans for the two of them this day.

They met for brunch in his neighborhood. He said the Chinese take-out didn’t count as a meal. They talked incessantly, both men, all afternoon long. There wasn’t a nanosecond of dead air between them. He confessed what brought him to The Kingdom, unlike the young man, was neither career nor dream. It was to escape family. He chose to live the life he needed to live on his own. He’d found a place in his heart for this special land that allowed such freedom, but his passion lay in the outdoors. They compared stories of favorite beach days, and of the ocean they both had grown to worship.

As evening neared, he shared a secret. He’d recently taken most of his savings, and bought a few acres in Woodstock, New York–three hours outside The Kingdom. It had a shack of a cabin on it that he was fixing, electricity and a well for water, and trees–lots and lots of them. In a year’s time he hoped to have it winterized. He’d been spending his free time there, clearing some of the wood, domesticating the cabin, and ‘just breathing real air’. “I look around my property…it’s a great big ocean of green.” The young man warmed inside at the poetic Paul Bunyan, who’d begun softly knocking at his heart’s door. The upcoming weekend was the July Fourth holiday, and the woodsman had taken extra days off, to spend more time in Woodstock. He promised to call once he returned. The young man trusted he’d be a man of his word.

*  *  *  *  *

All day at work Monday, the young man struggled hourly not to pick-up the phone to wish him a good vacation. In truth, it would only be a lame excuse to hear his voice again. Back home in his own apartment, he was glad he’d overcome his desire to do anything that stupid. A lot could happen in a week. So much can fade in even less time. Besides, he had woefully neglected his friends all weekend long. He needed to catch them up on his mad subway tryst.

He phoned his best buddy Perry. They used to go bar-hopping together, until Perry landed his gorgeous German boyfriend. They were already searching for an apartment together. Perry was waiting for the young man’s call, he admitted, thinking his weekend disappearance was caused by the hotel gentleman finally asking him out on a real date. He was all ears about this woodsman, but was just sitting down to dinner with the boyfriend. He’d return his call to get the whole scoop once they’d eaten. The young man hung up, and walked to the kitchen, hoping to find something more than carrot sticks and celery in his own refrigerator.

No more than ten minutes passed before his phone rang. He skipped even saying hello. “That was quick. Did you chew before you swallowed?” There was a long dead silence. “Hello?”

A laugh on the other end, and definitely not Perry’s. Then, “Do I even want to know who you think this is?” It was the woodsman’s throaty voice.

The young man explained about Perry, at the same time feeling pleased that he might have been jealous–at least a tiny bit.Though he’d known him for less than three days, he detected in his tone a weighty reason for this call. He’d been raised to always look for the gloomy side of a situation. The woodsman stated he knew it might be coming out of left field, but he was extending an invitation to join him in his cabin the following Friday night for the long weekend.

“There’s no TV, or running water. But I’ve got a bike we can take into town to get food and ice and any stuff we need. I’d love to share it with you. I’ve never had company in the cabin before.”

The young man was without words. He was thrilled, and at the same moment made dumb by the proposal. They barely knew one another. This was an extremely intimate situation for two quasi-strangers. Excited and frightened, the young man’s heart was lodged in his throat. He begged for some technical snafu to crash the phone connection, buying himself time for an answer.

“You don’t have to tell me tonight”, the kind yet steady woodsman returned, assuring him. “I’m not leaving until Wednesday on the noon Trailways bus. Call me once you decide. “There was an evening bus Friday he could take. He could pick him up on his bike and ride the three miles to the cabin. The young man wanted to jump in a cab that instant just to kiss him. He thanked him, both for his invitation and his understanding.

He ran the two blocks to Sissy’s apartment, praying she’d be home to provide counsel. He needed input from someone in person, and pronto. Nearly out of oxygen, he managed to condense the entire weekend saga into about five minutes, which was a feat for the young man who loved to dramatize even the inconsequential. The woodsman’s invitation took only seconds.

“Are you fucking insane?” she shrieked, before he even got to tell her about the bicycle ride home from the bus. “He could be some wacko who kills gay guys! We won’t even know where to tell them to look for you. We’ll read about discovering your rotted carcass along with a dozen others in The National Enquirer, after the cops dig up half the woods in Woodstock!”

They got stoned, Sissy calmed down a little and then they called Janet at work. She was usually much more reasonable. She suggested taking plenty of time before deciding–maybe calling the woodsman to explain his natural hesitation. The young man felt better.

He met Perry for breakfast before work the following morning. “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about planning your July Fourth outfits. Or having to iron anything once you unpack.” He was all for the trip. One-hundred-percent. He did suggest asking for some sort of contact, maybe the number for the local police, in case there was an emergency while he was away. The young man knew he was lucky to have such good friends in The Kingdom.

He’d given himself until Tuesday evening. He wanted to be able to call the woodsman the minute he’d gotten home from work. His phone was ringing as he turned the key in the top lock. It could be him. Why does a ringing phone sound louder and more frantic from the other side of a locked door? He fumbled into his apartment, managing to pick up the phone on the fourth or fifth ring.

“Oh, I deedn’t know eef I wuud find you ahht home.” It was the gentleman, weeks after the Spaghetti Carbonara. He melted, hearing the music of his English over the wire. He’d given him up for dead. “I know thees iss short notiss, but I am wondering if you have plons for the holly-day thees weekend?”

The invitation made him go instantly numb. The gentleman explained he was good friends with his doctor, who had a little country house in Connecticut. The doctor’s boyfriend lived there full-time. They were throwing a weekend party with lots of old friends and good food, to christen a gorgeous new in ground pool they’d just installed. He was welcome to bring a guest with him. The gentleman had bartered with people at work to get the long weekend off, and rented a car last-minute. He only wished he’d been able to give the young man a little more notice.

“I have these tentative plans”, the young man replied, hoping to underplay his excitement over the woodsman’s invitation. “Let me check. Can I maybe get back to you tomorrow?” He hoped he wasn’t coming off as playing hard to get. He was never one for games when it came to the heart. The gentleman said that would be perfect. They chatted politely a little more, then said goodbyes.

The young man’s hand froze on the receiver once he’d hung up. Now there were decisions–not just A decision to make. As if one weren’t too much already. He couldn’t possibly put his friends through a second consult, nor himself for that matter. But he did, anyway. Perry, although he knew neither candidate, was pulling for the woodsman. He was partial to the rugged romantic scenario. Janet said she felt biased towards the gentleman, because she’d a hand in the matchmaking. However, she refused to take a stand. Sissy came in, not necessarily FOR the gentleman, but decidedly against the woodsman. She continued her disapproval, fearful of all that green wilderness and a stranger no one else had laid eyes upon.

Of course neither the gentleman nor the woodsman knew the other existed in the young man’s world. It would be so much easier, he thought, if these two Lochinvars knew they were both vying for the same heart. A duel could settle it easier. Then the young man would have no choice but to go off with the victor.

What purpose did The Fates have, the young man wondered, to toy so wickedly with him? He had asked to be sent one guy with whom he could share his life. Instead they had sent two. Each of them a perfect candidate in his own way. It was as if he were a contestant on a television game show, asked to choose between door number one or door number two. Behind one door was the refrigerator freezer combo. Behind the other, the all-expenses paid trip to Paradise. Of course he wanted Paradise. Wouldn’t everybody? But which door was Paradise behind? That was the predicament the universe had put him in.

The question was no longer how he would spend his July Fourth holiday. It was never as superficial as that. This decision he would make, the young man understood, would determine the very course his life would take. Was it door number one, or door number two? The telephone receiver, when he picked it up to dial, had never felt so heavy in the young man’s hand.