The Boys in the Hood


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


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?



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.














There is no way this will come off sounding anything except the height of conceit, but here goes anyway. I miss being cruised.

From The Urban Dictionary: “cruise – to search (as in public places) for a sexual partner.” It was one of my very favorite pastimes and something that, even when off the market, provided amusement and titillation beyond compare. Come on. Which of us doesn’t enjoy being looked at longingly, as a delightful object of some stranger’s lust? Alas, those days are long gone for the likes of me.

Often it served as merely a game to amplify the ego, or a means to flex my lascivious wings. In NYC it was a way of life for many guys–the ones I used to call full-time or professional fags. I learned to keep my own cruising in check, yet always on the ready in a second, should the situation present itself. One never cruised in the obvious places, like bars, saunas, or discos. There, you were already on the hunt simply by showing up. Cruising was done in those unexpected situations, while immersed in a seemingly straight world. For me it became an enticing exercise in arousal.

In my early teens I spent many a Saturday alone in downtown Cleveland playing independent grown-up me. I’d have just enough money for bus fare back and forth, plus a dollar or two for amusement. I discovered a Jewish deli right off Public Square where the bus left me off, and this wondrous thing called a bagel. The guy behind the counter was Alvie. He’d ask me if I wanted cream cheese, and taught me that just a little of it was referred to as a ‘schmeer’. As long as I asked for my schmeer, which cost an extra ten or fifteen cents, he’d tuck half a kosher pickle into a fold in the white paper wrapped around my bagel. Then I was off to the Cleveland Public Library, where my day’s entertainment was totally gratis.

It was cathedral-like, this grand edifice that took up nearly a city block. Inside everything was slathered in marble–floors, walls, staircases and railings. The city’s monument to knowledge had high, vaulted, ornate ceilings, which wore exquisite glass and lead lighting fixtures like elegant dangling earrings. It was a worship space for me, because it housed treasures that didn’t exist anywhere in my suburban world. Oh, we had our own library in West Buttfok, but it was just a place with lots of books. The Cleveland Public Library had become my temple.

Way upstairs was a room devoted to recorded literature spoken by great voices. Donning headphones like those worn by the guys who attempted to land the Hindenburg, I would spend my special Saturdays listening to the poetry of Frost and Poe read by black and white television greats. There were Shakespeare plays with unknown British voices, and classic American theatre by many of the same actors who performed them on Broadway. All the while I covertly nibbled my bagel behind the record album’s cover, making it last the whole afternoon.

Downstairs in the bowels of the building were the public restrooms. Like everything else in the library they were to scale, tall-ceilinged and grandiose. The sign M-E-N, painted on the textured glass of its heavy door was intimidating to the boy who opened it each time, just before boarding my bus for the trip back home. There were always several of THEM inside, looking for all the world as though they were taking care of business. Intuitively this boy smelled a danger not masked by the heavy scent of deodorizer.


There was a long bank of maybe ten or more mammoth porcelain urinals, standing like up-ended skinny bathtubs. Each was ensconced in a set of white marble pillars. They’d been designed to afford privacy to even the tallest of men. Usually stationed at the farthest point from the entrance would be a few guys whose heads would turn in unison the moment they heard the door creak. Often they shuffled their feet closer towards the drains when I entered. That echo still rings in my ears. I’d take my place at the urinal nearest the door. I felt even shorter and smaller than my scrawny five foot frame. If I positioned myself too close, there was this fear I might fall in.

As I unzipped, my eyes dropped to the floor. Even with no knowledge of the ancient monastic practice of ‘custody of the eyes’, I knew to keep my gaze downward, too intimidated to look anywhere near THEM. Learning the meaning of pee-shy firsthand here, my time inside the lavatory was interminable. On those visits when I bravely did hazard a glance, I’d shudder. And a steely look back from any one of THEM caused a shock to run down my spine. I was just a young boy, having no idea what all this meant. No, I was a young boy knowing exactly what it meant. I dared not return the secret stare for fear of being sucked into the vortex of desire.

I came to discover, a decade later, that cruising was desire incarnate–the raging sensation of lust made manifest through the eyes. It was a powerful force one learned to use on his own, without a Master’s guidance. In New York, it happened in The Village frequently, and in my Chelsea gayborhood regularly. In those upper Eastside Bloomingdale’s blocks where I worked for many years, it happened constantly. I walked the pavement up and down Third Avenue, enjoying the fabulously attractive men as though it were my own private runway show.

The percentage of the hundreds of guys I cruised who cruised back was maybe one-third. And the number of those I ended up exchanging phone numbers with was miniscule. That wasn’t the point of cruising for me. It was the recognition that somebody I found tempting felt the same about me. A man I longed to see naked, wrapped only in the sheets of my bed, had that identical image of me reflected in his returned glance. Had we only been searching for sexual partners, there were plenty of places to find that anytime of the day or night all over Manhattan. This was a delicious game of testosterone cat and mouse we were playing.

upper east side

Tucked lovingly in my cruising memory-bank is one brilliant summer afternoon in the late 1970s. My boss has sent me on a series of errands. I’m crossing Third Avenue on my way back to the office. It is pleasantly hot, and most people have long finished their light lunches, washed down with white wine spritzers. My small group of pedestrians walking west, passes our opposing group moving east. Midway, his roving eyes connect with mine. As I look deeply into his enticing stare I recognize a familiar face. Once we pass one another closely, it hits me how I know him. I walk to the other side, turning quickly to see if he’s stopped. Sure enough, he grins back at me from the opposite curb. I am numb with disbelief..

I don’t know-him, know him. He’d visited my home once a week throughout much of my adolescent and teenage life–via our TV set. In the beginning he was a cop, then either a lawyer or detective. Eventually he totally changed careers in his major starring role. That was when I secretly fell in love with his handsomeness. Sandy blonde hair and a perfectly smooth body–no matter the character he was smart, sensitive and caring. And now the WALK sign is pulsating, and he’s coming back my way, flashing his Hollywood pearly whites. I think I might pass out.

“Hey, some afternoon, huh?” His face is so close to mine I can almost see his pores. His skin is tan and perfect. His suit is designer expensive. He’s still looking into my eyes, and I can’t stop drinking-in the beautiful guy.

“You’re Blank Blank.” I say his name like I’m telling him something he doesn’t know.

He giggles in a kind of very manly way. Were he not looking me over so thoroughly, I might think he was totally straight. “Where are you off to this afternoon?” He continues to talk through his sexy smile that I can’t believe is directed at me.

I let him know I’m on my way back to work. He cannot possibly be trying to pick me up, I tell myself–the same boy he gave boners to in my West Buttfok bed all those years before. “Where are you going?”, I playfully question him back, amazed at my own coolness.

He tells me he has a meeting with some people for a film project. As a forty-something-year-old, he’s now graduated to TV movies. “I’ve got some time. Do you have a place nearby?”

HOLY SHIT I DON’T BELIEVE WHAT I’M HEARING. Naturally I softly blurt out something ridiculously stupid like…”I can’t believe you’re interested in me.”

He comes back with, (the smile turning into a dirty grin)… “You better believe it”. Then he calls me ‘Buddy’. I remember this, because it almost spoils the mood–our entire encounter . It sounds so 1950s, and so dated. Suddenly he’s coming off movie-script macho. But it sort of turns me on at the same time. After all, it is Blank Blank who is coming on to me.

Taking charge I say, “My apartment’s downtown. Is your hotel nearby?”

He confesses his wife is there. I don’t feel one bit sorry for her–that her husband’s off cruising guys on Third Avenue. Especially since I’m the guy he’s looking to bed. “Sorry we couldn’t make this work”, he says. The smile is still there, though diminishing.

Now I am the one still peering into his movie-blue eyes, wishing I could make out with him right there on the sidewalk. I am so erotically charged, I would shoot my wad if he so much as loosened his impeccable shirt collar and tie. I don’t want this scene to ever end.

He extends his hand and I take it at once, clasping tightly around it. As we shake gently, he apologizes that it wasn’t going to happen for us. I would give anything to see him this close to me and totally naked. Just before I release my grip, his other hand pulls them both towards him, and momentarily I brush his tight gut. “Take care” he whispers close to my ear.

I watch him cross to the other side, but of course, he never turns around.


I started out making a point, before becoming lost in my foolish reverie–that being–my cruising days are over. It’s easy to pass it off as simply another facet of the aging process, or a byproduct of a diminishing libido. That’s just too facile. I still look at guys everyday. Perhaps the rather lackluster area in which I live doesn’t afford those same opportunities I once enjoyed. All the same, cruising had served to wake up something inside me that affirmed I was alive and connected to a life-force. It supplied me with a source of energy and a sense that I was part of something greater. That’s what I miss, I guess. That, and being cruised.









Who the F#@k is The Divine Miss M?


After releasing album #25, Bette Midler is touring again, forty-some years after her first Grammy nominated masterpiece. All those many decades ago there were these things people called records, or LPs, and stores that sold only those magic spinning discs. I arrived in New York City in 1972, and during my first few months, absolutely haunted the Theatre District day and night. It was the reason I’d moved there in the first place. On 49th Street, just off Broadway was this humongous place called Sam Goody’s, filled to the rafters with every kind of music genre imaginable. Late one dark night, I passed the closed store, gazing into its well-lit windows. Hanging from transparent strings at all different levels were dozens of the same album cover, repeating an image which looked curiously strange to me at the time.

I studied the multiple faces on the record jackets while meandering the pavement. All that orange hair, those myriad crimson cheeks and overly shadowed blue eyes wowed my senses. I questioned out loud to the uncaring sidewalk traffic still milling about at that hour: “Who the f@#k is The Divine Miss M?”. Soon enough I would learn the answer to my query. And I would never ever be quite the same again.

Cut to a little over three months later, the day of my first Manhattan house-warming party. Actually it wasn’t my party, but rather a very silly eighteen-year-old roommate’s, who was throwing it for himself. We barely had money to pay rent and utilities. Jacob and I owed a mutual older friend $550 for the security deposit and first month’s rent. This translates into today’s dollars as roughly The National Debt. We couldn’t fathom how we’d ever find a way to pay him back. Yet foolish Jacob insisted we needed this party. He had even more-foolish friends who were donating most of the food and drink for his soiree. A major contributor was his best friend Benny, who volunteered to provide fried chicken. This man was a singer/piano player, multi-talented and a very fun guy. He was the only acquaintance of my roommate I could genuinely enjoy. Jacob had traveled to New Jersey that morning to borrow folding chairs from yet another in his stable of chums. I was tasked with picking up the chicken at Benny’s. I took along Elizabeth, a woman from my Kent State past who’d recently moved to The City.

It was late in the afternoon on a damp, grey Saturday. Elizabeth saw his piano and was thrilled when he asked if she wanted to sing. There was a great nostalgia for the 1930s at the time, with theatre people singing songs from the musical Dames at Sea. Elizabeth sang brightly, while Benny played and passed a joint, (I told you he was multi-talented), with neither of them ever missing a note. Then he asked if we wanted to do some poppers–amyl nitrite–which was all the rage among gay men, though typically only during sex. I’d heard about poppers, but never tried them, because frankly I was a wuss. It revived half-dead heart attack victims, fer’ chrissakes! Yet I did not want to look uncool, so I said “Sure!”.

Benny opens the screw top of the ubiquitous tiny brown glass bottle, holds it right below one of his nostrils, while blocking the other with his finger, and inhales deeply. An enormous grin overtakes his handsome face as he dreamily passes it to me. I repeat the process. I was prepared for the weird stench of the stuff, (one brand was actually called LOCKER ROOM), but not its effect. I parroted his technique like a popper pro.

At first you think you’re gonna pass out, until the roar of your heart pounding assures you if you do fall, you won’t hit the ground because you’re gonna float away anyway, ’cause your head just inflated with helium and you can only giggle because you’re feeling so silly and instantly high, and you swear you can hear every one of your organs pulsating inside your body, but before anything really bad happens to you, your head starts to throb a little at the temples while your eyes come back into focus…ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

As I regain my composure I hear Benny telling Elizabeth “You’re gonna’ love this woman. She’s the Divine Miss M”, and with that the now too-familiar trumpet intro to Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy invades my very being.  So tell me, how could anyone ever be the same after exposure to all that wonderfulness within maybe a window of three minutes? People in piano bars all around The City had added her song Friends to their show tunes repertoire.

About a year later I inherited somebody’s old stereo, so I could play that first album and buy the new one which was called simply BETTE MIDLER. The needle was worn and it scraped the daylights out of those records, but I played them both to death. A waiter from a bar I frequented at the time told me Miss M had an apartment in the West Village. I recall many a late night, standing on the sidewalk outside the presumed address he’d given me, waiting for a sighting. I had become obsessed with The Divine Miss M and would have killed to see her–even only her shadow, from the window I prayed was really hers.

Once I moved into my first solo Manhattan apartment, Bette came out with her first double-album: Live At Last. It was a concert recorded in Cleveland of all places, the town I’d fled four years prior. Before I had a chance to purchase my own copy, my turntable actually caught fire, melting some old, college era LP, (luckily neither of my Miss M favorites). This was the beginning of the pre-recorded cassette era, so I invested in a decent player and that first tape.

I memorized, word for word and note for note, that entire double album. Together we performed the show tirelessly, like a duet, for months on end. Saturday was my day to clean the apartment. I would get a buzz on, just as my morning caffeine fix began to fade. I’d roll a joint, pop in that cassette, then wail along with Bette, breathing when she did, mirroring even each little giggle, pausing only for laughs and applause.

I went to see The Rose the very first weekend it opened. I couldn’t wait to see her on the big screen. I had befriended an actor when I first came to The City who was in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in the mid 1960s, the same time Bette played one of the daughters. I asked him what she was like as an actress onstage. He told me “just like you’d imagine–a consummate performer”. I don’t believe I ever sat back in my seat during the entire movie. She had me entranced. Consummate for sure.

Not long after her movie debut, I learned Her Divinity was doing a benefit (for OXFAM America maybe?) in NYC at the Beacon Theatre. It must have been last minute, because I remember the posters and programs looked thrown-together, and I was able to get a terrific seat close to the stage. I was into photography big time in those days, wearing my Nikon FM around my neck like a fashion accessory. When Bette began singing The Rose, instantly everyone was on their feet.

I had some high-speed film in the camera and started shooting pictures. I moved down the aisle as I clicked the shutter, creeping slowly towards the stage, expecting someone would eventually stop me. No one ever did. I ended up standing inches from her. Through the lens, now angled up, I watched the tiny diva perform the song. She was bathed in pink light, and although she sang out to the house, it was as if she were singing only to me. I stopped shooting pictures, lowered the camera, transfixed on her image through my own naked eyes. The Divine Miss M, singing in the flesh–Heaven.

I would see her onstage three more times. Once from a front-row seat on a Broadway stage –a birthday gift from Alejandro in the early 80s. A few years later she performed De Tour outdoors in the Louis Armstrong Stadium. We got rained out the previous night, drenched to the bone waiting for the show. She returned the following night, and was gang-busters, well worth the downpour. The last time was a concert at Radio City in 1993. I was already living in New England then and dating this guy for some years. He was staid and squeaky-clean, yet crazier about Miss Midler than I was. In fact, if he’d loved me half as much as he did Bette, well, who knows how things might have turned out for us. She was divine–each and every time I saw her perform live. It was then, while dating Bette’s number one fan, that my recurring dream began.

In the dream, I’m in this apartment that is supposedly mine. Of course it looks more like a movie set than any place I’ve ever seen or been. I’m in the kitchen, and I am either preparing some food or just futzing around, chatting with someone behind me. I turn around and Bette is either thumbing through a magazine, or just draped in a chair looking every bit as though she belongs there. The dialogue goes something like…

Me: Bette Midler! What are you doing here?

Bette: (giggling) Just hanging out with you. What-d-ya think I’m doin’?

Me: But you’re here… in my apartment. Why? You don’t even know me.

Bette: Of course I do, honey. (She gets up and moves towards me.) We’re friends.

Me: Really? Bette? You’re really my friend?

And before she has time to break into a chorus of Friends, I wake up, with that happy/sad sensation all over my body, realizing this was only another silly dream. I haven’t dreamed it for some years now.

I adored Bette’s comedy films. I gotta’ admit, she lost me for a while, somewhere around Hocus Pocus, which I have yet to see from start to finish. And it was with great trepidation that I watched the first few episodes of her TV sitcom, later wondering which of us was more relieved that it was canceled. I read both her books, and treasure her goodbye to Johnny Carson as one of the best TV performances ever given.

It has always been her music though, which keeps me wrapped around her little finger. When I first moved out of The City and into the boonies of New England, I drove this cute little red pick-up truck with the worst, cheapest sound system imaginable. Maybe not so much a sound system, as just a truly shitty AM/FM radio. After twelve monogamous years in my first relationship, I found myself driving to rendezvous with this guy in Montpelier, Vermont which was halfway between my home and his (Montreal).

I was prepared to begin an affair with him, feeling guilty as all hell inside. It was a Sunday morning, and I was somewhere in the New Hampshire mountains. The only radio reception I could get were these bible-thumping stations with preachers yelling at me about damnation. I needed some music to lift my spirits, to make me feel like I was not the sleaziest bastard in the western hemisphere. I landed on a station that seemed to be playing pop tunes, which slowly made things a bit brighter. All of a sudden I hear this woman, who sounds remarkably like The Divine Miss M, singing. Only it can’t be her, because she’s singing about god watching us. “Oh shit! Even Bette’s gone holy roller on me now!” It was enough to make me drive the little red pick-up off the mountain, or at least turn around and head back home.

But it was only From a Distance, and the first Bette CD I would ever own. If you’re at all curious, I did not turn around and go back. I drove to Montpelier and we met for lunch. That afternoon we decided it wouldn’t be prudent for either of us to begin a long-distance romance with the 45th parallel and many other obstacles between us. I heard the song several more times on my return trip, and was able to join her in the chorus by the time I got home.

For the Girls, her latest album, was an iTunes download I pre-ordered, that went directly to my iPhone. How things change–and stay the same. It’s an incredible mix of songs–everything from an Andrews Sisters favorite to TLC. In between are loads of early 1960s girls’ group tunes–the music danced to in basement ‘recreation rooms’ and at every junior high dance and sock-hop by this confused and pimply faced nerd. Bette has been blessed with a gift to deliver these songs, making each sound brand new in a uniquely old-fashioned way. At least that’s what makes her divine to me. What else can you call the woman who nearly single-handedly supplied the soundtrack of your life?



Queer Envy (a lament)

TdanceBSlip Just back from our anniversary long-weekend in Provincetown, it is obvious that I am no longer young, For that I am grateful–for the most part. In my late teens and early twenties it was a struggle dealing with my sexuality. Those times in my life I have never longed to repeat. Much of it was just too damn difficult and painful. It wasn’t that I wanted to be straight, I simply didn’t know how to incorporate gay into my being. My move to NYC on the eve of my twenty-third birthday made accepting my homosexuality easier. Leaving home and my past behind enabled me to embrace it head-on. I jumped in with both feet, and over time grew comfortable in my skin. Lately, just a few days in Ptown serves to recharge my batteries. It’s invigorating to spend time in a place where population percentages are nearly reversed. But since back, I’ve discovered I may be suffering from Queer Envy. I would like the chance to come out–all over again, now in 2015.

It wasn’t exactly the Stone Age when I came out, but in comparison to today’s world, it was truly another era. Queer was a pejorative then, used by ignorant people, that instantly made my skin crawl while my stomach turned inside out. Gay was still a word which fumbled out of my mouth only after an embarrassingly awkward pause–every single time. Now I sort of fancy referring to myself as queer. And like gay, it has lost its original meaning. Nothing odd about me; I’m just as normal as everybody else.

So why then, this sudden urge to revisit my coming out? Because, (in the cinematic terms of five-year-old-me), “We’re just getting to the good part of the movie, and you’re gonna’ make me go to bed?” Selfishly, I want to see how it’s all going to end. A foolish part of me fantasizes that if I came out today, I could buy another thirty or forty years, and be even more amazed than I already am. How my world has changed.

We came back to our guesthouse where we were staying, after a late dinner on Saturday night in Ptown. Two guys in their early thirties were watching Netflix on the flat screen in the TV room. They were streaming Grace and Frankie, the first episode which I had already seen. As all of us laughed at some of the filthiest lines, I flashed back to a young, very brown-haired Martin Sheen the first time he portrayed a gay man in a 1972 made-for-TV movie That Certain Summer. Then I was with a group of friends, all of us nervously anticipating a movie about two homosexual men on network television. I knew it would also be on the TV set of my Mom and Dad–probably most of my family. What would they think? My gay friends and I watched anxiously, speaking during commercials only. What would this mean for us now that America was watching two men in love and committed to one another? The guys in the guesthouse sat un-phased at the flat-screen. And why shouldn’t they be? They’d been weaned on eight seasons of Will and Grace. This was just another TV show that could also be watched on their telephone.

The differences between them and me are much bigger than that. They could have belonged to a Gay/Straight Alliances in their high school, though I doubt even they were able to take a guy to the prom. Their parents’ were Baby Boomers, and a great deal more accepting than mine–although coming out is never easy for most, it seems. I wonder how many commitment ceremonies and same-sex marriages they’ve already attended in their lifetimes. They still go out clubbing, but now in most cities they don’t frequent gay clubs. They opt instead for the trendiest, most popular places, where EVERYBODY is going, because they can dance together just about anywhere they want.

But do they get the same feeling I do, when I use a Harvey Milk stamp? Is Edie Windsor a hero to them too, or just an image they remember from Facebook? Have they read the entire Tales of the City series and do they get a little weepy or have a lump in their throat watching a Pride parade? Are they also holding their breath until the Supreme Court rules? I’d like to hope so, but we do live in different worlds. Maybe it’s better to put my Queer Envy aside, and just see how much longer I can ride this puppy out on my own.




Educating Matthew


My alma mater called last week to update my contact information, and to ask for a contribution to a special scholarship fund. The whole phone conversation hadn’t lasted more than five minutes, yet I got a follow-up video email from the student I spoke with, thanking me for my donation and for taking the time to chat about my experience there. It was one of those truly rare telephone solicitations where I actually felt good afterwards. The call made me realize I’d nearly forgotten an important anniversary that was fast approaching. In May, it will be twenty-five years since I graduated. I was forty-years old before I finally finished my B.A.

Historically speaking, Kent State was where I went to college and did all those wonderful things you were compelled to do as a student in the late 60s/early 70s: drink every kind of booze that comes your way, stay up all night (most nights), smoke pot, have sex–and if there’s any time left, attend the occasional class. This is what I did at Kent for four years, enrolled as a full-time student. Plus I was immersed to the ear lobes in theatre, rehearsing, working tech and performing in no less than two shows each semester. At the end of my four-year stint, I was thirty-plus credits shy of graduation. That would have meant another full year of studies. “I’m going to be an actor,” I told my parents. “Who needs a diploma to be famous?”  I left college and Ohio sans degree. But what I had in hand was the blueprint from which I would live my life for nearly the next two decades.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the school where adult me earned my diploma, a reward for attending classes, studying and applying myself. After weathering a series of failed careers, I fumbled my way through the transition from New York City wannabe actor to a gay Everyman of sorts, who had re-established himself in New England. In a sort of last-ditch effort, I chose to revisit my high school career plan of becoming an English teacher. All I needed to do was request my KSU transcript from fifteen years prior, apply to UMass, and finish those pesky last thirty or so credits.


My transcript arrived quickly. It was amazing to discover what I hadn’t accomplished in four years. There were courses listed I’d dropped or taken incompletes in that I hadn’t remembered ever registering for. My GPA was below 3.0–well below. I made an appointment with the Admissions office, prepared to show a serious adult face, eager to pick up the pieces, and ready this time to persevere.

The admissions officer was this attractive girl…er…young woman. If I squinted a bit, I possibly could have been her father. Handing over my transcript I began to apologize, explaining it was the Vietnam War–hippy days. “And before you ask, yes I was there then....that Kent State.” Her face registered nothing but puzzlement. “You know, the shootings.” (no reaction)  Finally singing softly: “This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in O-hio.” Even my musical clue elicited no response. I was scoring zero points

She patiently informed me, in order to graduate from UMass I would need to complete at least two years of coursework there. While I began to reason it seemed only fair to get credit for all the hours I had completed at Kent, she hit me with something to the effect of “but it seems your GPA isn’t enough to admit you into any undergraduate program here.” I was certain even the young lady must have heard the loud thud my heart made as it sank to my feet.

Instead of anger, it was this feeling of total defeat overtaking me. Failure once again would conquer me–even before being given this one last chance to save my sorry ass. “There is a special program here for older students you may want to look into”, she offered hopefully. Circling a building on a map of the campus, she slide it towards me, explaining she knew little about it, but that it was worth checking out. “Older students” I muttered to myself as I got back into my car. I wondered if walkers and wheel chairs were included in each semester’s tuition fees.

It was a New England farm-house that I pulled up to, not a typical college institution at all. It was called The University Without Walls. Inside the cluttered home I was greeted by a woman my age at least. Her smile warmed me at once. I was not an OLDER student, she corrected me. I was a NON-TRADITIONAL student. My new friend explained the program over chunky pottery mugs of coffee and loads of positive reinforcement. After a good hour she sent me off with handbooks and application, assuring me we had both just found the perfect fit. I was admitted to the program for fall semester 1988.

The program proved an amazing learning experience.  Each UWW student worked with a mentor who helped us choose coursework to design our own unique degree which would likewise satisfy university requirements. I was fortunate to work with not one, but two ‘guides’ who fostered me along my path. Over the following two years I studied with professors on three different campuses in courses that challenged and nourished me. In one of my first education classes we viewed the movie Educating Rita while focusing on the adult learner. Besides being an incredibly entertaining film, it uncovered parallels with my own life at the time–far beyond the classroom.

Renting a copy from the video store in my town, I must have watched it half a dozen times over that weekend. Rita was twenty-six, married and postponing starting a family against her husband’s wishes. She wanted an education in order to “find me-self first”. I was thirty-eight, partnered for ten years, seeking an education to find a fulfilling career. In the process to change herself “inside”, Rita discovers the strengths of a woman that were there all along, before she came to know the poetry of Blake or understood E. M. Forster. My own learning experience caused me to find the Matthew who’d been lost through the multiple reinventions of myself over the years. Continually fixated on the me I would show on the outside, I had neglected the one living on the inside. It happened so slowly and so silently, I hadn’t even recognized he’d gone missing.

I grew up always sensing I was different from my peers, developing an independence early on. By the time I arrived at Kent State, I’d taught myself to display a fey bravado of sorts. I didn’t care if I didn’t fit in, because I knew there were always people who might be charmed by my flair. The unique appeal, I understood, attracted an equally unique collection of personalities. Moving to New York in search of a career onstage, I was a tiny fish in a sea of bigger than life personas. I’d also signed on as a member of a highly visible gay society. I felt it necessary to ramp myself up several notches to meet this even more spectacular challenge. What I had never prepared for, though, was that point in my New York life when I would realize my actor’s dream was only a pipe dream.

It hit hard, having to admit I was either not talented enough, or worse, simply not strong enough to continue my charade. It seemed more than a lifetime that my focus had been fixated solely on theatre. As the dust settled, I understood I was still a citizen of The City I loved more than anything, and somehow it would all turn out okay. I would refashion a meaningful life here and that would somehow be enough. Soon after, I met Alejandro.

We fell in love at the right time in the right place. Even though we came from totally different cultures, we shared many of the same priorities–love of family, pride in who we were and what we wanted from life, and a need for home where we could live in peace together with our collected family of friends. A significant other had also been a part of my dream. What earthly good would any life be if there weren’t someone to share it with? I had failed miserably in the first half of my dream; I refused to fail in the second.

Shifting my focus immediately to our relationship, there was nothing more important now than ‘us together’ and ‘him’. Like me / like my partner–we were an instant duo. We shared a love for many of the same things, and we taught one another to enjoy some of our own unique flavors. But there were lots of differences and both of us had super-strong personalities. His was stronger than mine. I could stand my ground, but when it came time to caving, I was typically first to give in. Most times it was something so trivial it didn’t merit the energy of an argument.

We left The City after five years to live in the big house in Town Commons. The transition of going from a world capital to a place where the Cumberland Farms closed at 7:00 p.m. was far greater than the initial impact the move had been on our relationship. There were all those distractions and difficulties of living in a big, brassy city. In Town Commons, there was an eight-room Victorian and the two of us–the ultimate downsizing of our lives.

To say that going back to school after nearly two decades was a challenge is understatement. Add to it a forty-hour-a-week job and it becomes arduous. Still, I threw myself into it as I’d never done before, literally possessed to finish that degree. It was as though I went from having nothing to do in my life, to having no time to catch my breath. Alejandro was amazed to see me this driven–it was someone he’d never met before that he was living with now. I was so excited over something I didn’t know how to share with him, and too overwhelmed by all I was discovering to notice IT was becoming a third party in our relationship.

It was not until graduation day, as Alejandro and a small group of our friends celebrated my big moment in a favorite college town bistro, that I had time to stop and recognize what I had accomplished. I looked over at him on the other side of the table. We looked the same, acted the same, laughed at the old jokes, kidded one another like always…but somehow it wasn’t the same. There had been small signs of strangeness the last few months, but I’d been so preoccupied with finishing my last semester, I frankly hadn’t the luxury of time to worry about anything else. I began to see, like Rita, that I hadn’t been changed by my education. I had only rediscovered Matthew, who the guy on the outside–that mediocre actor–had hidden from view, even from myself.