Digging through old photos and studying the changes my face has undergone, I tracked the appearance and often the disappearance of eyeglasses starting at age 15. It was the beginning of the school year in eighth grade, while sitting in the back of the large old classrooms that I realized perhaps it wasn’t ‘normal’ not being able to read the blackboard. A visit to the eye doctor confirmed I was myopic. To demonstrate how radically different the world was in those days, a large downtown Cleveland optician carried only two choices of frames ‘for boys’-all black or grey with clear bottoms. Both were hideous. The two-toned ones seemed more palatable to me.
Those glasses spent more time folded in my pocket than on my face and when worn, were swiftly ditched whenever a kodak came into sight. At home, or in the presence of either parent, they had better be on my face “because we paid good money for those goddamn things so you better wear ‘em”. (I am still curious to know if anyone around in those days was regularly spending BAD money.) There is no picture extant of me in those specs.
After a few years my prescription changed and luckily so did the frames. This time I got the chance to buy the black version which I wore religiously through the end of high school. Not that I felt they were any more chic, I actually had grown to depend on glasses if I chose to see more than three feet ahead of me. Once we graduated and began earning weekly paychecks from our summer jobs, my best bud Billy decided we owed it to ourselves to buy contact lenses. They were the hard plastic version-the only kind available in 1968. I adapted well and they became a part of my daily routine like shaving, stick deodorant or tooth brushing.
Contacts thrust one into a league far superior to the bespectacled masses. It was an elite club which enabled you to engage in conversations about endurance. “I wore my lenses for twenty-two hours yesterday!” or “Last Saturday night we went out drinking and I fell asleep on my cousin’s couch and wore mine until noon on Sunday”. You shared tips on cleaning and storing them. I remember college kids turned me on to using baby shampoo instead of the expensive cleaner the opticians sold. There was also that nasty trick of taking out a smarting lens, popping it into your mouth to clean it with saliva while massaging it between the tip of your tongue and the inside of your lower lip.
One night Freshman year while visiting in the lounge of a girls’ dorm just before curfew (when all the men had to leave) I was practicing this rather unsanitary trick when someone cracked a ridiculously hysterical joke. As I stifled my laugh for fear I’d spit out the lens on the carpet, I inadvertently swallowed it. I flew to the Health Center in minutes, fearing the tiny, pale green plastic dot might certainly lacerate my small intestine. The nurse nonchalantly waved me off saying “Check your stool tomorrow. You’ll pass it with no problem”. I had NO intention of dung inspecting, even if it were my very own. And did she actually expect me to stick the fecal-tainted thing back into one of my eyes? There wasn’t enough baby shampoo in the world to cleanse it back to life. Anyway that was what the $15 a year replacement insurance was all about.
Who would guess that after spending $200 hard-earned dollars on contacts, John Lennon could resurrect wire rim glasses and make them fashionable? These were the very same eyeglasses we made fun of Grampa and Gramma for wearing. By Christmas break I had a pair of my very own. I found the coolest pair that were silver octagon shaped. On campus I was the big nosed guy with curly hair and silver stop sign glasses. They were so hot. They were a fun change, but I didn’t give up on the contacts which I still wore regularly all through university.
When I moved to NYC my contacts began to bother me with all the dirt and grit blowing around the streets. I had to clean my lenses at least once during the daytime and again when I got home if I was going out for the evening. I didn’t dare wear my spare glasses because they were dated and I was not about to look out-of-it. Again a recording artist appeared to save the day: Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Glasses-huge, honkin’ glasses-became the rage. The bigger, more colorful, the better. People who didn’t even need to were wearing them. They became a fashion statement, not to make one look intellectual, just outrageously cool.
There was this shop on Third Avenue, up the block from Bloomies called The Ultimate Spectacle. I walked by it almost daily on my lunch hour. There I found and fell in love with my very own Elton John’s. They were popsicle red, enormous, rounded-square frames and they cost over a hundred dollar-just the frames, mind you. I was poor, could barely exist on my salary but I had to own them. My rent was late that month, or I didn’t pay the electric, but they became mine. For thirty dollars more I had the lenses tinted rose. I was into this pair of specs for nearly two hundred bucks but I was so very hip.
That year I was going back to Cleveland for Christmas. I’d had the glasses for months, so they had now become just my glasses. Their impact had been somewhat mollified. My Dad always had this quirk about spending money when we were kids. If we told him what we’d paid for something, he railed and claimed “they saw you comin’!”. Mom began the practice of chopping the price in half. If it was ten dollars, she’d admit to spending five. He would still bitch and moan, just not as loudly. When we asked for money to buy anything, he’d give us what he thought it should cost. If we complained that we could never find anything with so little money his stock answer was always “When yer payin’ yer own way, you kin buy whatever the hell you want”.
My folks picked me up at the airport and it was a short ride home. Lunch was ready for us when we got there. In minutes we were around the kitchen table with plates of food before us. My father speaks: “You been home ten minutes. Aren’t ya gonna’ take off yer sun glasses?”. When I informed him that these were, indeed, my eyeglasses, he called out “Jesus Christ” then just stared at them in silent disbelief. I speak: “Remember when you said when I start paying the bills I can buy anything I want? Well I bought these and they cost close to $200″. He was mute. I’d finally won. And I was so chic I couldn’t stand it.
Trends come and go and much sooner and quicker in big cities. The Eltons were old and I still wore them because I couldn’t afford not to. In less than three years they were declasse in Manhattan and my mother had just purchased nearly the identical pair in blue in a mall in Cleveland. My friend Janet gave up a similar pair of big bug frames for the new soft contacts. They were bigger than my original contacts but much cheaper. The creepy part of them was taking them out. Hard lenses popped-out by blinking. These gooey suckers required kind of peeling off your eyeball, as though you were performing corneal surgery every night before bedtime with only your thumb and forefinger.
Fresh from Janet’s inspiration I rushed out and bought into the latest vision craze myself. They had to be ‘boiled’ each time before wearing. Included in the $75 price tag was a plastic case the size of a large shot glass where the lenses soaked in saline solution. I remember the case was just big enough to not fit into my hip-hugger jeans’ front pockets. You bought salt tablets that dissolved in distilled water. Also included was an electric cooker. The case sat in a cradle and this little steamer boiled water which caused them to clean in their salty case each night. The whole process involved with these new lenses was like an experiment from Watch Mr. Wizard. I took to my softies quickly, wearing them all day from the get-go. The only problem was they didn’t correct my particular vision problem as well as glasses could.
Over the years I bought into anything that came along: photo gray glasses, gas permeable contacts, reading glasses that I wore over contacts, reading glasses that I wore on a cord around my neck and switched back and forth all day long with my regular glasses. One thing I’ve never done was wear bifocals, sorry Ben Franklin. I started wearing progressives in my mid-forties and pray I will always be able to afford new ones. Just last summer I invested in my first pair of prescription sunglasses because cataracts have begun growing in both eyes and bright sun can be difficult to deal with.
I’ve had several variations of what I affectionately term Trotsky glasses through the last three decades. The lenses are perfectly round, either metal or plastic or a hybrid of the two. They seem to suit my face well. I even had a pair that were periwinkle blue. When my hair and beard were still salt and pepper, people often commented I looked like Steven Spielberg in them. One could do worse, I suppose. I have saved a London Underground pass from the 80s because the ID photo is such a gas. With my Trotsky’s, full black beard and thick curly hair, today I would be on the Terrorist Watch list of every western country for sure.
Just like so many things in life, my newest glasses are remarkably the same as those simple black ones that took me through high school. These adult-sized frames are a slightly more attenuated version ‘handmade in Germany’. An update which makes them more today is that the outside is black and the inside a faux ivory. Regardless of style, they help these weak, sick, old eyes see better. Between the cost of the frames, the progressive lenses and the special non-glare coating, they cost almost as much as my first car-a then six-year- old Chevy Corvair Monza (red convertible/white vinyl interior) $375. Oh the times! Oh the customs!
This weekend I was notified by fellow blogger of ramblings of a supposed disease free mind (martinpwilson.wordpress.com) that he had nominated GayDinosaurTales for a blogging award. His blog is one I have been reading and following with much pleasure. He is a Canadian currently living in London and a faithful, dedicated blogger who posts regularly. The Liebster Award began in 2010 and has been created to help spread the readership of bloggers and reach more of an audience. There are countless blogs out there which are well-executed, smart, witty, touching, artistic-just waiting to be discovered.
Here are the Liebster Award rules:
- Thank the Liebster Blog Presenter who nominated you and link back to their blog.
- Post 11 facts about yourself, answer the 11 questions you were asked and create 11 questions for your nominees.
- Nominate 11 blogs you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen.
- Display the Liebster Award logo
- No tag back.
Facts About Me
- I get weepy and tear up at the dumbest things.
- I still miss smoking cigarettes after quitting more than a dozen years ago. If I were told I had only three months to live, the first thing I’d do after picking myself up off the doctor’s floor would be to buy a carton and continue inhaling.
- A two-hour long hot bath is a weekly ritual, even in summer.
- I adore anything British.
- My life would be empty without the pitter-patter of tiny feet in the house (NOT children but dogs and cats).
- I am manic about pretty old dishes. I have china cabinets and cupboards full and still can’t stop buying more.
- I despise house-cleaning, yet it is the first thing I do whenever angry or upset about something.
- I have eaten pepperoni pizza and a garden salad every Thursday night for over twenty years.
- As much as I like to talk, I am better at listening and am always amazed at the extremely private things people share with me.
- I am truly awed by people who can draw or paint and feel totally cheated that I can do neither.
- As much as I’ve learned to value my private time, I do best partnered.
Answers to the questions from my nominator
- If you could be anybody you wanted, who would it be and why? David Sedaris, because I have been following his career since early public radio days and have read his every printed word. He is witty and real and doing exactly what I would have loved to be doing.
- What do you enjoy most about blogging and how does it make you feel? I have always written-since I was a kid, but I am lazy and writing often makes me feel lonely. Blogging creates a sense of a deadline that keeps me at it and helps get it done (with some regularity).
- What’s your writing ritual, if you have one? I write my drafts on my iPad using Pages and then transfer to WordPress on my iMac. I’m still old school in the fact that I have to print out drafts to proof before posting because I can’t really see it until it’s on paper.
- What is your favorite thing in the world to watch on TV/live? One favorite is tough. It would have to be PBS Masterpiece. It’s so well done and so eclectic it affords variety but at the same time guarantees quality.
- What was the best moment of your life? That would be having a play I wrote chosen in a New England playwriting competition. I went to the performance directed by someone I knew only from a few phone conversations and acted by a cast of total strangers. I sat and watched a story and characters I had put down on paper come to life before my eyes-amazing!
- Which is your favorite picnic/relaxing/refreshing spot? Provincetown, Massachusetts where we enjoy many visits throughout the year in all seasons. It is a place to relax, recharge and just be.
- What blogging platform do you use? Did you try any other platforms before deciding on this one? WordPress. I considered a few others, but liked WordPress from the get-go.
- If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? Montreal. It’s where I truly feel I belong. (Click on Montreal in my tag cloud.)
- What is one thing on your bucket list you absolutely must do before you die? Travel to Slovenia where all four of my grandparents were born.
- What thing/person has annoyed you the most? Ignorant, bigoted, conservatives.
- What is your prized possession? What makes it special? My gold wedding band I exchanged with David. It represents who we are individually and together.
My nominees are
- Robert Patrick
- Junk Thief
- The Xanax Diary
- The Closet Professor
- Malleable Reality
- Dadicus Grinch
- 37, Gay and Single
- Purple Gloves
- Coffee and Cardigans
- Life from A to Z
- If you could invite one person to dinner (living or dead) who would it be and why?
- What quirk do you have that sometimes embarrasses you?
- What is one thing on your bucket list you must do before you die?
- Is there a particular time of day in which you prefer to write?
- Where is the place that you feel most at home?
- Why do you blog?
- If you could be anybody you wanted, who would it be and why?
- What one thing you’ve done that you will leave behind after you exit this world are you proudest of?
- Who is your blogging idol?
- When you are not blogging, what do you most enjoy doing?
- Have you already, or do you plan to publish your work someday?
Thanks again, Martin and good blogging to all.
Time: People - Barbra Streisand
Place: Lynfield, Ohio
The summer before freshman year I had magically grown two inches taller while my nose nearly doubled. A once sweet sort of button knob now fought the rest of my face for dominance, competing with newly added smoke-grey eyeglasses. Although I was just entering high school, I had already graduated into geekdom cum laude. I was a mess, but I was not alone. Scanning our homeroom, now housed in the newer high school wing, quasi-familiar faces showed all sorts of similar morphings. Loads and loads of bad-skinned guys and girls carrying about them the telltale aroma of freshly applied Clearasil were sprinkled throughout the classroom. All the girls now toted a pair of breasts, real or snow cone fake and tightly brassiered. The desks were nearly filled and Kassouf had not yet made his appearance. Maybe he’d died over the summer, I guiltily hoped.
But no, his breathless appearance just after the final tardy bell proved my suspicions were false. His excuse was he couldn’t work the combination on his new locker. The presence of jacket, notebook, sneakers with gym uniform and smelly lunch bag, all of which he clumsily juggled on his way to the seat in front of me, proved he hadn’t been lying. It only affirmed he was this year even a bigger jerk.
And his nose-oh his nose had beaten mine hands down! True to his Lebanese genetics it had totally overtaken his entirety. He’d become a middle eastern Ichabod Crane. He broadcast to no one in particular his apology for a bizarre haircut, as though any of us in homeroom cared. His father had purchased electric clippers to save money and he’d been the guinea pig. The perimeter around his head was buzzed to the skull. Dark skin and coarse black hair saved him from total baldness. What was left on top poked in all directions, every bit as undisciplined as he was.
Just above the top of his monstrous proboscis was one massive black caterpillar eyebrow which accentuated a too narrow forehead. A group of brutish bad boys, whose existence on the planet was only to taunt others, would days later dub him ‘Cro-Magnon Man’. His visage was alarmingly comparable to the picture of his namesake in our General Science text. I could not have wished better for him. To be given a nickname at Lynfield was deadly. How pleased I was to have come this far still retaining my last name as an appellation, like most of the other guys.
Kassouf had outgrown me in height as well, now standing an inch or two taller. We were both still skinny. Studying his shoulders as I could sitting behind him, they appeared considerably wider, though there was still no musculature to hold them up. He carried a bigness that wasn’t there before and that scrawny me lacked. His mouth ran every bit as much as always and it took only milliseconds to recall why I wanted no part of him. He seemed not as incessant, but his interest in striking up a friendship revived the uneasiness he could so easily incite in me. Through his gift of persistence he parlayed my class schedule during the PA announcements and was thrilled that this year we would be together in both English and Latin class.
I had chosen Latin because I planned to study literature in college. That is, if I made it through four more years at Lynfield without taking my own life. What was this doofus doing wasting his time and now polluting my chance of possibly enjoying at least one hour every day in this shitty school system?
“Let’s see if we can sit together in class. I’ll save you a seat, or you save one for me if you get there first. Kazmarek…it’s gonna’ be a PANIC!”. He roared this over his shoulder for all to hear over the dismissal bell, bounding out the door while balancing his locker-full of cargo.
Thankfully our Latin teacher was so old school that she had made an assigned seating plan prior to our arrival. I was saved sitting anywhere near him. This didn’t stymie boorish Mr. Kassouf, however. He’d just shout across the rows that separated the two of us, carrying on as if we were shopping together in some vast open air market. It wasn’t long before he was berated by our matronly instructor, suffering the high school equivalent of standing in the corner. He was sent out into the hall for the last ten minutes of class on the very first day. I was dumbstruck by his ludicrous behavior. He’d digressed from junior high to kindergarten. Was he really that ignorant, I wondered and what was this fascination with me?
Freshman English proved not to be as fortuitous. It was a small section of twenty or so crammed into an even tinier classroom. We could sit anywhere we chose to. I’d come in just under the bell and could either sit directly in front of Hester Prynne’s desk (a pet name given to our teacher years before our arrival at Lynfield) or in the desk to Kassouf’s right. “Where you been I been saving you a seat?”, he called in one singular booming breath. I was humiliated before I sat down, worrying Hester might assume the two of us were joined at the hip.
He carried on much the same as he had in Latin, only here more offensively in the tighter space. He made inane comments, most of which were either somehow tied to bodily functions or simply uncouth like him. He guffawed openly after every utterance and smiled my way each time looking for a similar response from me. Initially I chose to ignore him. That not working, succeeding wisecracks I met with a look of disdain. Hester began leering in our direction, assuming her freezing stare might stifle this idiot. Her eyes petrified me; I prayed she didn’t connect me with this boorish lout simply because of my unfortunate proximity.
Just before the bell Kassouf made one final utterance, this time insulting our English teacher’s appearance by commenting on her outfit. Admittedly, his observation was quite valid. Still, it was uncalled for and mean-spirited, especially on our first day in colorless Hester Prynne’s classroom. No sooner had his insult exploded from his lips, when the bell rang. Over its din she angrily announced “Kassouf…..Kazmarek! Don’t move until I tell you to”. It was the first time I heard our names conjoined and it caused my blood to instantly congeal.
“You two clowns are not to sit anywhere near each other. Do you understand me?” It was the best news I’d heard all day. I assured her it couldn’t please me more to comply with her request. He grunted some ignorant response he hoped meant he was sorry. She excused us and I flew to the door to physically distance myself as far away from him as possible. He came charging behind me shouting “Kazmarek! Wait up!”. I realized he’d become an annoyance much akin to a dog turd wedged in the space between your heel and instep. I stopped in my tracks, purposely not turning around, giving him my frozen back to talk to.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. She’s such a bitch!”, he added to his apology.
Without turning I coldly delivered, “Do….not…ever…speak to me in any class…ever again. Do you understand me?”.
“Oh, come on…..”
“I am dead serious. Kassouf, YOU are a perfectly round asshole”. I walked on hurriedly to my next class, without turning back.
When I was five years old, I couldn’t wait to be in double digits so I could reap the same benefits as my older brother. He got a twenty-five-cent a week allowance. I wanted in on the cash too. I had my own needs. Once I arrived at ten, I only wanted to be sixteen. Not so I could get a learner’s permit, but so I could smoke cigarettes. My parents decided to allow my brother to smoke when he turned sixteen. He’d been smoking down by the railroad tracks since thirteen. If it applied to him, family law deemed it would hold for me too.
At ten I didn’t want to smoke to be like my older brother. I never wanted to be anything like him. Smoking was cool because there was this young couple down the street, unlike any people in our neighborhood. They were in their late twenties and their names were Ray and Jeanne. He didn’t work in a factory like 99% of the men on our block. Ray worked in an office. He wore suits and ties everyday. On Sundays he didn’t wear a suit like the other 99% did because Ray and Jeanne didn’t go to any church.
They owned a dark green MG convertible. It was the first and only foreign car I knew until high school. Jeanne drove the car too. Not many ladies on our street knew how to drive. Why should they? They all had husbands to drive them if they needed to leave the house. Jeanne was pregnant and didn’t go to work. Sitting on a small screened in patio, she would wait for Ray to come home each night. Once he arrived she would go inside and fix drinks. I would visit with this young couple after school which is how I knew the routine. Jeanne would often ‘fix me a coke’ in a glass glass which I would sip like they sipped their cocktails. I would watch them sip and smoke their filtered cigarettes. How cool these two were. They were just like real Americans on TV.
My parents didn’t smoke cigarettes. They were too busy being ethnic and second generation. I was in third grade before I learned that I was American and not a Slovenian. What a shock. They had drummed into my head since conception, that I was 100% Slovenian-on both sides. All four grandparents came here from the old country. It was their mantra. Once I understood the difference between nationality and heritage, I yearned to be a WASP. I began to identify with pilgrim hats and collars and buckled shoes. I never asked them before they moved away, (once Ray and Jeanne had their baby), but I was certain their ancestors had all come over on the Mayflower.
After reaching sixteen all I looked forward to was leaving home/leaving town. I despised them both with all my being. To accomplish this I would go away to college. I chose Kent State, too far to commute from home. While there, enjoying some independence for the first time, I turned twenty-one. Yet another age-milestone was achieved. I was now an adult responsible for myself. My first major adult decision: move to New York City to become an actor. This manuever provided my total freedom.
In my early twenties I played extremely hard. I drank moderately, smoked weed nearly daily and practiced homosexuality clumsily. By my late twenties I still drank moderately, still smoked weed but had graduated to hedonism. I dated as though it were a full-time occupation. In between boyfriends I found time to experiment in all the sex venues Manhattan had to offer in the 1970s. It was exhilarating, beyond fun, at times frightening and often exhausting. It was also dangerous on many levels. Those of us sharing in this wild ride had no idea of the possible consequences our sexual abandon might bring.
Entering my thirties I was already coupled with my partner Alejandro. We’d set up housekeeping together. My third decade was spent discovering the bigger world. We traveled European capitals and Caribbean beaches. New York City became my jumping-off point. I learned to taste and cook new cuisines. It’s hard to imagine living in a world without Indian food, couscous and guacamole. During this period I changed jobs and careers like fashion changes seasons. I learned much about the man I am by sharing my life with another man. Nearly three years of psychotherapy was a productive source of self realization too.
As a kid, our insurance man always gave us one of those America the Beautiful Calendars every year. You know, the pretty picture ones with the cheesy shots of the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert. It hung in our basement rec room. The only month I was drawn to in each year’s edition was either September or October. It was orange and gold leaves strewn across some quaint New England town common. This is exactly the place where I turned forty, in Alejandro’s eight room Victorian on the common. I opened a toy shop in the front of the house and played store. It was great having my own business, but even better when it closed. Working for someone else is wonderful because they have to pay you every week, whether it was a good week or not.
From this same calendar page locale I finally graduated from college with a BA and began work on my master’s. Barely into my forties, a relationship of nearly thirteen years came to a halting end. I found myself starting over again in a studio in an old apartment building in a city in central Massachusetts. It was not easy being newly middle-aged and living what is typically a young person’s life. I made only a few stupid choices. I managed to enjoy some quality alone time in the process.
I feathered a nest, purchasing a tiny bungalow to call my own. David found me by the time I’d worked out most of the kinks in the house and my psyche. We had our commitment ceremony after six years together. A year later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made it possible to marry so we did that too. For the life of me I cannot remember what year we first exchanged our gold bands on the beach in Ogunquit, Maine. They are the same rings we used for the succeeding ceremonies. We each buried our surviving parent in the same year, 1999, sharing official orphandom together. Our losses brought us closer.
Now I have reached ‘the sixth floor’, as a colleague of mine refers to it. Being sixty-something begs the weary question: “would you ever want to go back to some specific age?”. Five would be great, just for the naps. Wouldn’t it be incredible if your boss demanded you lie down for an hour each afternoon, then had a yummy snack ready when you woke up? I would not want to be twenty-anything again. Even the great times were painful on some level. My thirties were the most exciting. You’re old enough to appreciate everything that comes your way; you’re wise enough to cull friendships to discern which are worth keeping. The forties were final exams. You are tested on what you’ve learned so far and if you’re ready to go on to final jeopardy. And the fifties prepare you to let go of things and to practice saying goodbye.
Without having gone through the sixties, (as opposed to the 60s which I have gone through-decades ago), I’ve no idea what to anticipate. I can only assume it will be a slightly diminished version, a mish-mash conglomeration of the last few decades. Whatever time comes after, I look forward to as many episodes as I can grab ahold of.
* * *The picture is from my photo portfolio taken in NYC by IanAnderson. I always said it would be on the dust jacket of my first book. Of course I would’ve had to have been published by age twenty-six for the picture to be relevant.
No matter where we go during our time here on earth, we cannot help but collect people along the way. Some we welcome into our hearts and they become friends-casual or close and all remain with us in some form until the end of the road. Many are simply personalities who flash before our eyes. Their photographic images are burned into memory. The time I spent in the South made so clear why the likes of Faulkner, Williams and O’Connor blessed us with the caravan of characters they created out of the red clay of their peculiar America. Here are some who remain with me from my Atlanta days.
Miss Lettice was the lady across the hall from me in my apartment on Lombardy Way NE. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, not diminutive, but as fragile as Belleek porcelain. Marshall knocked on her door the day I moved into the building to let her know he was leaving and I would be taking his place. I glimpsed only a snippet of her form as she opened the door enough to allow the width of her mouth to be visible, clutching a jungle print robe to her throat. She breathed a gentle salutation welcoming me and questioned where he was moving, before softly shutting her door. He admitted he’d never seen much more of her than that. She ventured out of the building only a few times each month, waiting to do so when no one was around. I might have seen her dressed for those infrequent outings less than half a dozen times. Her outfits always included matching handbag, hat, shoes and gloves as though she were going to tea with royalty, when most likely she was taking the city bus to the Buckhead section of Atlanta to shop at Phipps Plaza.
Whenever I was coming or going, I would catch Miss Lettice peering out into the corridor, her door typically cracked only an eye’s width (there were no peepholes) checking to see who was where. At first I would acknowledge her eyeball with an appropriate greeting of ”good morning” or “good afternoon” but she would blink silently and pretend she wasn’t there. After a time I began to play along, acting like her covert snooping was as invisible as she evidently believed it to be. Often I would go to my mailbox in the small vestibule while she was gathering her mail. Then she would smile shyly and greet me. She always called me “Young Man” as though it were my christian name. After one or two polite sentences concerning the weather she would glide back to her apartment.
She wore voluminous dressing gowns to the floor, styled decades before-things I had only seen in movies of the 1930s and 40s. They might seem costume on anyone else, but she moved so comfortably and with such panache that she carried them off as though they were sweater and jeans. Her dyed light auburn hair was always perfectly in place, arranged with hair pins in a sort of French twist affair and girlishly curly in the front. She wore little make-up: thinly penciled brows, dark red lipstick following cupid shaped lips between heavily powdered cheeks. She was delicate and still pretty in a tragic sort of way. She never married and the mystery as to why she never did hovered about her like a perfume.
One morning, as I drank my coffee and savoured a companion cigarette, I heard a smashing clatter coming from the hall, or so it sounded. The crash was followed by a weakly plaintive shriek. Before I was able to detect which direction it had come from, there was a rapping at my door accompanied by a muffled “Young Man. Young Man”. Miss Lettice was in trouble. I threw open my door to see her full-on in the hall, wearing that jungle print robe over one of her gowns, waving her arms and babbling. She was animated and agitated like I had never imagined she was capable. Something horrendous had transpired in her apartment and she beckoned me follow her.
Just beyond the door, a wobbly wicker stand with three glass shelves had crumbled from either the weight of cosmetic jars and bottles or perhaps just the years of use it had obviously seen. It left a bit of a mess, but Miss Lettice had become a total mess. “Can it be…mended, do you think?” she spoke eloquently, while trembling thin hands tried forcing together a large shard of glass shelf with a crumbling chunk of wicker. I suggested we first begin cleaning up the shambles of broken glass and goop before a proper diagnosis could be made. She rearranged her morning fright hair, which poked out in all directions, as she left me to retrieve a broom and trash can.
While she was out of sight I surveyed the home of Miss Lettice, more a museum of vintage clothing and bric a brac. It was as though I had stepped into a colorized version of the snapshots my parents had of their early years of marriage, BC (before children). Layers of curtain and drapery covered all the wonderful windows, blocking the sumptuous southern sunshine. Heavily fringed once-white lampshades were everywhere, perched atop lamps on various tables compensating for the absence of light. Her bed was dressed in ruffles and flounces and was the focal point of the room. An AM radio cabinet and old heavy black phone were the only visible pieces of technology. Although a bit cluttered, her apartment was clean, but it lacked air and what was there smelled stale.
We salvaged a few items which hadn’t broken and she arranged those on one of the many small tables. The shelf had self-destructed and I carried its remains to the trash barrel out back in the yard. She was still horribly shaken, her eyes darting nervously in their sockets each time I returned for more. I invited Miss Lettice for a cup of coffee at my place but she declined, confessing she needed to lie down before a headache came on. She thanked me profusely and I left thinking perhaps her mini-tragedy might make us better neighbors. Stepping back into my apartment I heard her lock and then double lock the door, confirming that nothing would change. And it didn’t. She peered at me as always. Her eyeball was the last thing I saw the day I closed my door the final time on Lombardy Way NE.
* * *
People who work in restaurants tend to eat in other restaurants a lot and one of my favorite Atlanta breakfast spots became DODIE’S DINER. I began frequenting it several days each week after a waiter-friend from work first took me, citing DODIE’S a genuine Southern treat. It was a classic diner out of the 1950s, complete with a giant horseshoe-shaped counter, behind which reigned Dora, more a character than any movie stereotype one might conjure. (I know, Dora from Dodie’s Diner smacks of fiction, but honest-to-god I have not strayed from the real truth on this, one iota!) It was a busy joint all day with two other waitresses, yet folks waited to sit in Dora’s section which was more than half the horseshoe.
Not only was Dora a master server, she was a priceless human being whose enormous heart hung visibly from her short sleeve, which barely covered plump arms. Everything about Dora was pudgy. Her cheeks, neck, back, rear end-hell, even her fingers were porky little fat sausages which struggled to hold a pen to write your guest check. A two sizes too small pastel-colored nylon uniform hugged her descending rolls of fat so snuggly, that she appeared to be built like the little Michelin Man. She was a bleach blonde well beyond her years and each day she wore a pony tail hairdo with poodle pom-pom bangs. Dora used heavy liquid make-up base of a ruddy orangish hue. This was evident by the glaring line of demarkation where it stopped at the jaw line. From there down her chins gave her up as a china white Southern Belle. Pinned artistically like a corsage each morning was a uniquely beautiful hanky. It was requisite to ask Dora, the minute she greeted you, the significance of that day’s kerchief.
My waiter friend and I were boys from her collection of mostly male customers. She holds the distinction of being the only person in this world who consistently called me “Shugah”. My friend was “Darlin’”, another “Sweetness”-endless terms of endearment for each Tom, Dick and Clem who parked his ass at her counter. Dora carried on with us all, quasi-flirting in her chubby coquettish style. At no time did any one of the men cross the line of decency, all treating her with reverent respect, but playing along as though she were every one of our Scarlett O’Haras.
She advised you personally about the daily fare: “Y’all better stay away from that ham, ‘less you love lickin’ salt” or “Musta’ used old stockins for a filter, ‘coz coffee’s mighty mean tastin’ today”. She taught me to love grits, (which this boy from Ohio had never seen let alone tasted before), and when questioned as to how I should season them my first time she instructed: “jes’ lottsa’ buttah and peppah’d nahsly”. She then proceeded to prepare the grits on my plate for me in a gentle motherly way. “Want me to fix those for ya’ Sugah?”, she would ask each time as she finished anointing them with black pepper. Dora also introduced me to replacing my usual morning juice with a small glass of room temperature ‘Doct’ Peppa’, although many customers preferred ‘Coke-cola’. I had never considered it before DODIE’S DINER, and haven’t enjoyed it with breakfast since.
* * *
His name was Rob, my waiter-friend who introduced me to Dora. While the majority of the wait staff were in their early twenties, he had just entered his thirties. He was a man while we were still clinging to our boyhood and silliness. Most of the waiters were single, or dating or finding a new beau every other weekend at the bars. Rob had been in a committed relationship for almost ten years. It made sense because he was a serious guy. Rob was quiet when others were loud and campy. I had easily become part of their shenanigans and enjoyed myself, yet I was drawn to Rob’s quietude. He was the one I was assigned to ‘follow’ when first training as a waiter. Even though he didn’t appear as open as the other guys, he dropped his guard with me. Not having a car myself, he offered to drive me home each night after closing. Once behind the wheel, he gained confidence and a voice and revealed himself, bit by bit on those car rides home.
In high school back in Alabama, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he’d gotten a girl pregnant. For some bizarre reason, instead of giving the baby up for adoption, his mother took the child and raised her for him. Thus he had a daughter/sister back home, a teenager now herself. It is unclear today if she knew that he was her father or not, but it was definitely the reason he left home and moved far away to Atlanta. That anxiety-producing part of his past he spoke of very little and I did not press him for detail.
His current dilemma which monopolized most of our conversation those first evenings concerned the boyfriend of nearly a decade, Parker. He’d cheated on Rob a year before. As a result of his transgression, Parker had gone back to church and was born again. In 1975 I believe this was the first time I had ever heard about this phenomenon. By accepting Christ as his personal savior, of course he could no longer practice homosexuality. He wanted to continue living with Rob, still loved him, they just couldn’t make love together-ever again. Rob was so committed to him, so loyal that he was consumed by this bullshit, dying a little himself along with their relationship. Why he ever chose me as confidant was unclear. It was painful to listen to and watch. And schmuck that I am, Rob innocently pulled me slowly into the fray with him.
Rob was no taller than me; in truth, I was perhaps an inch or so taller but he gave the appearance of being bigger. He had broad shoulders, a beautifully developed upper body and small tight waist. His hair was sandy brown and full, eyes grey and he had a ruddy complexion. His skin was heavily textured from acne scarring, but like Richard Burton, it enhanced his sexiness. Deep creases on either side of his mouth only added to his masculine beauty. Between those folds lay an inviting moustache I would watch dance as he spoke softy. To look at him it appeared as though he didn’t have a gay bone in his body, especially when compared with the nelly crew which was our wait staff. It was not that he was hiding anything-he was an out and proud gay man, something that unnerved Parker greatly. He was just a guy perfectly comfortable in his gay skin. After two weeks, with each of us exposing our naked souls, I could no longer help myself. Adding to Rob’s problems, late one night in his car in front of my apartment building, I announced I had fallen in love with him.
He was not surprised, nor was he ready for the consequences. Within seconds of my proclamation, he leaned over from the driver’s seat and kissed me like I don’t remember ever having been kissed before. Although I had no doubt about the genuineness of his passion, I believe many months of frustration from Parker had colored the emotion behind it. So began my stint playing ‘the other woman’ in a convoluted storyline written by someone else. Prior to meeting him, I had already been preparing to shorten my Atlanta promise of “give it a year” to “I’m going back to NYC in the spring”. I was having a fine time, but deep inside I understood I did not belong anywhere near the Mason-Dixon line. Suddenly this guy Rob had me back-pedalling.
Parker had a day job, so by eight or nine each weekday morning Rob was at my door with plans for the day. It would be breakfast at DODIE’S or brunch or an early lunch somewhere intimate. He avoided being alone in my apartment for more than a cup of coffee and good morning kiss. He never took me anywhere near their apartment even though Parker knew I existed. I was referred to as ‘his co-worker from NYC’. I’d certainly been called worse. According to Rob, Parker had no clue about our relationship. I told him that was only fair, seeing as I had no idea what the two of us were all about either. We’d go shopping at a mall, or sometimes just drive around Atlanta, rehashing his predicament. Once my heart became entangled, it was difficult to remain neutral or suggest some way to make their relationship work. Staking a claim for him myself, there was only one viable outcome I could campaign for which was a totally selfish one. This went on for over two months.
In all that time there was only one day, one rainy, grey and glorious day when we spent nearly all the twenty-four hours alone together in his apartment. It was a Sunday and Parker had gone on an all-day church bus trip. Ron picked me up at the first light of dawn. He’d set a pretty breakfast table and cooked for me. For one of our very first times we talked about us and the possibility of an us replacing the nonentity which had once been them. I suggested he run away with me to NYC. It had been something I’d mentioned in jest as a possible scenario early on, which grew to a secret dream I harbored once I’d fallen for him. We spent the day in each others’ embrace saying very little, naked and hot making up for his celibate frustrations and my long anticipated ‘other woman’ desires. We enjoyed each other in every corner of that apartment except their bedroom. There was even an unforgettable shower scene. He drove me home, well after midnight, actually coming into my apartment this time to kiss me goodnight. Then he thanked me for saving his life.
And so in early March of 1975 I took the train back to NYC, a little more than six months after arriving. I did not find a real theatre job, nor had I taken much of a bite out of the Big Peach, but I had found something more wonderful. As thrilled as I was to be back in the city where I belonged, I had left him and so much of myself behind. He was pragmatic and knew he couldn’t just take off without properly closing the door on Parker and all that comes with ten years of life with someone you have loved. What I did not count on was the fact that Rob was weaker than the man I saw in my mind’s eye. Without my presence there to lovingly prod and push, there was the fear that he might lose his momentum.
We spoke long distance several times each week. Sometimes I would catch him in a super-positive mood and he’d talk about looking at jobs in the Sunday Times. I would send him the Village Voice with circled apartments that sounded perfect and he’d ask about the neighborhoods. Other weeks he would talk about Parker as though he hoped things would go back to how they used to be. Still other calls he’d be packing suitcases and driving up on the weekend, or he’d hint that I should come down to see him because he missed me. After a month of phone calls, his voice sounded thinner and I sensed Atlanta had grown further away from me and NYC might as well have been in the middle of the Sahara for Rob. It became the worst case of broken heart imaginable, some of the emptiest feeling my soul has ever endured. At two months, almost as long as he had been in my life, I knew it was not healthy to be bearing such pain. It was our last phone call that I got angry and told him “stop saying you love me, because you’re hurting us both when you do”. I begged him to leave Parker and the very moment that he did, no matter what time of day or night, I prayed I’d be the first one he would call; I would be waiting. My phone never rang.
Before the plane even pulled away from the gate, I knew this was the dumbest thing I had ever done in my twenty-four years on earth. Maybe DELTA is ready when you are (the air carrier’s slogan at the time), but was I ready to leave NYC and move to Atlanta? I knew hidden somewhere deep inside the answer was a resounding “no”. We had taxied to our runway and were awaiting clearance for takeoff-way too late to open the doors to let me off now. Besides, I’d (1) quit my job at the fabric showroom and was given a bon voyage party, (2) broke the lease and abandoned my West Village apartment, storing the few pieces of accumulated furniture with friends all over Manhattan and (3) bragged to all those whom I was leaving behind that “Atlanta was the new New York of the South” and I was getting the first bite of the Big Peach. Why didn’t I believe that myself?
The moment the fasten seat belt/no smoking signs went out, I lit up, safe in the knowledge that at least cigarettes were cheaper down there. This was, perhaps, the only thing I was certain of regarding my ridiculously stupid, brash move. “I should never have done this”, the tiny tape recorder in my brain played back continuously in a loop during the entire flight. But I had and there was no turning back. I promised myself to give it one year. One year was not that long and “really, I could come back whenever I chose to”. So why was I so frightened, feeling I was making such a major whoops in my life?
Marshall had moved to a large new apartment and offered to let me take over his tiny one. I had a permanent address of my very own before my plane touched down in Atlanta. That was somewhat assuring when compared to all the ponderous unknowns I’d saddled myself with by renouncing Manhattan. This apartment, though incredibly spartan, was charming in an austere sort of way. The main room was good-sized with a wall of windows framing an overgrown green garden of flowering bushes and shrubs, wild with weeds and twittering birds. Originally (pre WWII) there had been a Murphy bed, now long since gutted. Only the depression of its cupboard remained in the wall. An earlier tenant had installed a wooden clothes pole, but the space wasn’t deep enough to hang anything. Thus the shallow cavern in the wall seemed the perfect spot for a poster collage.
A small dressing room was just outside an equally tiny bathroom with original toilet, sink and cavernously deep old footed tub. All fixtures were just barely crammed inside its door. The jewel in the crown was the eat-in kitchen, with an overly painted, wooden two seat breakfast nook, tucked underneath a wide window overlooking that same unruly jungle garden. Even if it were on Jupiter, this apartment could not have been further from NYC. It was my new home and the first place I had ever lived on my own.
Immediately I set out looking for a new routine, hoping Atlanta had its own rhythm that I could hitch onto. It did not. Things really were way too relaxed. It was as though everyone was extremely stoned on some really potent weed and I either needed to find a dealer pronto or to start popping Valium just to fit in. I began to channel my high energy into looking for theatre work and some sort of job. Marshall offered to set up an interview at the restaurant, and Connie had some ideas about theatre possibilities. The following week I had appointments for both.
The Alliance Theatre was beginning a subscription campaign and I met with this very clever guy who wrote music and sketch material. Sorry to say I’ve long forgotten his name and face. He had put together a forty-five minute revue which would be performed for various groups all around the Atlanta area, hawking subscriptions for the upcoming season. He was looking for two women and one man. He read a scene with me and I sang my audition standby FORTY SECOND STREET for him. Looking back I am certain it was my connection with Connie and not my Ruby Keeler song that landed me the part. There was no pay involved, but it was the promise that “important people at the Alliance will get to see your work and that can lead to…” The money didn’t matter. I would be performing again. It only meant Marshall had to come through at the restaurant, because I needed an income and pronto. I doubt that I was left with much more than a hundred dollars after I’d paid my first $75 monthly rent.
I’d worked in a bakery while at university and for a caterer several summers in Ohio, but I had yet to ever wait tables. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but much like theatre, unless you’d done it already, not many restaurants would take a chance on you. The place where Marshall worked was looking for guys with personality, charm and youthful looks-he’d never worked in a restaurant before so he assured me this was in the bag. The owner who interviewed me was this handsome, charismatic gay man in his mid-thirties, so I shall confess without shame that I flirted with reckless abandon…and got the job. Mr. Sexy-Handsome had this way of sexualizing every conversation, while doing it with such elan. I was to begin as a busboy on the lunch shift. After only ten days in town, my life was set and I felt triumphant.
The guys at our eatery were an incredible group. All of them with his own unique brand of Southern, their camaraderie was unimaginably infectious. We would get a great meal everyday, minimum wage, plus the company paid our taxes and the waiters shared their tips. After two weeks of pouring ice water, hauling off dirty dishes, refilling coffee and clearing and setting tables I had the job under my belt and loved it. My problem soon became that I needed to rehearse and afterwards would begin performing our revue weekday afternoons.
Bravely I went to my boss, Mr. Sexy-Handsome, batted my eyes and stated I adored him, the restaurant and my job, (in no particular order), but that because of showbiz I needed to be scheduled nights in order to continue working there. “Girl”, his appellation for all his staff, “I do believe with those long legs you’re gonna’ be a great chorus girl someday, so I’ll give you nights startin’ nex’ week”. Then whispering wetly into my ear, “You were too pretty for the old-lady-lunch crowd anyway”. Playfully grabbing my ass, he grinned his orgasmic smile and pushed me out of his office. Things were working out too well.
It was great fun putting the revue together. It felt like theatre did back at university. We experimented with the material, made the skits our own and had a fantastic time together doing it. There were no egos. The two women were simpatico; one was from the south, the other a Yankee transplant like myself. There were three musical numbers and three skits, each representing one of the six shows in the season. We got updates on the groups we would be performing for and it looked as though we would be entertaining some influential Atlantans.
Our biggest audience would be the Kiwanis in a cavernous corporate space. and our most prestigious a historic country club wives’ group. We performed for them in the president’s private residence, resplendent with a quarter-mile circular drive, uniformed servants and more rooms than we could count. The thirty or so ladies met in the ‘Clubhouse’ which was just beyond the patio, adjacent to the tennis courts but not to be confused with the pool house (I am NOT exaggerating). I have still, forty years later, never witnessed firsthand a homestead of this size or caliber. The inhabitants were exactly what you would have imagined them to be: champagne-haired women of a certain age, phony, well-frocked, arrogant, bigoted and drippingly drenched in pre Civil War Southern slather. Both the venue and our performance that afternoon were amazing.
The restaurant was different at night. The sunny, open room took on a mood lit dining glow-dark and quasi romantic. Everyone looks better under lowered lights and the tables that were sprinkled everywhere for lunch seemed tucked into their own separate spaces, while privacy and quietude took the reins for the night. Most of the waiters were new faces to me as well, every bit as fun and friendly as day staff, just in greater numbers and perhaps better at their serving craft. The menu was recited at each table, so a certain amount of stage presence was necessary.”What a good waiter I’ll be”, I dreamed aloud to any who’d listen. Except for the cashier, bartender and hostess and ONE waiter, all of us were gay. Busboys had to hustle and moving the length of the room each night dozens of dozen times made my young body ache, although my share of tips had nearly doubled. Once we closed there was always a group ready to go out and do something fun. Being a night person, this fit my natural schedule perfectly.
Typically most weeknights and always every Friday and Saturday night we’d go bar-hopping to one of several cha-cha palaces. Sweet Gum Head was one and The Bayou Landing was another. If memory serves, Bayou had originally been built as a supermarket and was humongously bigger than big. Gay men and woman came from huge distances to drink and dance there. I remember looking around as we boogied to NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE or ROCK THE BOAT, those songs that got everyone onto the dance floor, and thinking to myself “surely one of these people has to be meant for me”. Luckily my longing for love never spoiled my playful dancing glee, grinning from ear to ear and enjoying all my new southern buddies.
Our musical revue was beginning to wind down just as the season opener The Boyfriend began auditions. I had been so busy promoting for the theatre, I had not made much contact with the regular production staff to know who these people were that would be competing for parts. I knew the show had a big chorus, so I wasn’t greedy-not expecting a big part, just a spot in the chorus and maybe a line or two. I sailed through the singing portion with the help of my friend who wrote and directed our revue, who was also doing music for this show. With my open-toned British accent I confidently managed the acting portion. Then came the third and final piece of the pie-the dance audition. The Boyfriend is a 1920s flapper musical, meaning tap dancing, tap dancing and then some more tap dancing. I was a disaster. It was much like Lucy trying to blend in with the showgirls onstage down at Ricky’s club. It was not pretty, what I did that afternoon and therefore no surprise when I wasn’t cast in the first show.
Before I had time to mourn my untimely death at those auditions, Mr. Sexy-Handsome came through with the perfect surprise. There was an opening for a waiter at night, and he gave me the job. This was just around Thanksgiving and it helped me forget while putting me into the holiday mood with a flourish. He enjoyed giving me the big tables weekends, the parties of ten or more. He often introduced me as their “entertainment for the evening”. My parents would be coming to visit over Christmas, originally planning to see me onstage. Dealing with my parents away from Ohio and on my turf was always theatre for me, so at least I’d be able to perform with the restaurant as a backdrop.
to be continued