Having fled Atlanta like some beleaguered war refugee, I returned to Manhattan with nowhere to live save the floor of an old (straight) college roommate’s studio apartment on West Third and MacDougal Streets. Half a block west was Sixth Avenue and the immortal Waverly Theatre-a cool neighborhood, for sure. His place had been newly renovated to perfection, but was ultra-compact even for one small person. It served as a welcomed respite in an unsettled time in my life. It was spring of 1975: my heart had been shattered by a southern romance gone bad, I was still not doing theatre and finances (or lack thereof) had forced me to return to a job I despised. Thankfully I was back in the city I vowed I would live in forever.
My college chum was unemployed, comfortably collecting compensation and always at home. He was carrying on a torrid love affair with a nearly three-foot tall red plastic bong. As a result, I never had a moment alone nor the chance to share a tryst with myself, let alone another guy. I’d lived solo in Atlanta for the first time in a charming old studio three times the size of this place, so how long I could endure the present situation was uncertain. It was clear I couldn’t afford a place of my own.
And finding men in bars was still difficult for me as well. I truly enjoyed going out to the clubs. I was just uncomfortable being IN them once I got there. I would spend hours nursing my bottle of beer as I perused the faces of the Whitman Sampler of prospects each night. Whether uptown Eastside/Westside bars, or downtown in the Village, it was pretty much the same deal. Patrons were dressier uptown, so maybe that was the reason I felt a bit less uncomfortable in my beloved Village. One can only imagine how displeasing my skittishly pinched face must have been perceived by the perspective lineup of beau I silently drooled over each evening. I was not a man-magnet, as my singular walk home most nights would attest to, but I wasn’t a troll either. Just what was the problem?
There was a small collection of guys from the D and D Building where I worked that I’d often meet up with at one of the bars, especially on weekends. Most were already partnered. Being together gave me people to chat with, so I didn’t feel or look so out-of-place. Being together likewise stifled my ability to cruise, making me self-conscious as I attempted to play the seducer. Why I could not just walk into a bar being myself, I’ve no earthly idea, but it simply wasn’t done. I’d had it on the best authority. If I had to choose, even though my colleagues were hysterically good company, being on my own made the whole bar/cruising scene much more palatable.
It must have been close to three months that I slept on that bloody apartment floor. I’d done the same thing in college, but at twenty-five, it was no longer charming, even if it was Greenwich Village. All my university theatre friends who immigrated to NYC when I did were already settled in situations. I kept my ear to the ground for sublets and apartment shares. Most of the more intriguing prospects were in Brooklyn. Although I was a hayseed from Ohio, a snob element had taken hold, demanding I couldn’t leave Manhattan. The finale to my life on the wooden floor came with the unexpected yet always anticipated arrival of a gentleman caller to rescue me from my plight.
Granted, my particular Lancelot was hardly a classic tale of grand romance. On my way home after work, walking from the subway stop in Soho, I meandered along Prince Street. Wearing a wonderful linen suit, I was feeling good about life, operating on auto pilot and unaware of my surroundings. I was certainly not thinking about sex. A guy on a bicycle passed me going in the opposite direction which I saw but barely noted. Two minutes later the same bike slowed up next to me at the curb and a gorgeous big smile caught my attention. “Hey, where ya’ headed?”, or some such quip served as his entrée. Oh my God, this guy isn’t lost looking for directions. I think he’s trying to pick me up! I’ve read porno stories with this exact same plot, known guys who make a life of this sort of thing, but it never happens to me. Never say never.
I still remember his name-Dana. He was blonde, nordic-looking, handsome and chiseled. He was from Iowa or Kansas-one of those places where corn and wheat flourish and guys named Dana come from. What in the world was he doing pursuing me? And he was- I swear. I explained why I didn’t have a place where we could go and Dana claimed a similar excuse. I was positive a persistent man like him must have had a lover waiting at home and that was the reason he was trawling Soho for a quickie. Still, he was so sweet, so complimentary, so nourishing for my bruised soul I hated to turn him down. Then I did something unimaginable for me to do in those days. Nearly forty years later I have no idea where the chutzpah came from. I told him somehow I would get my immobile flat mate to leave for two hours, gave him the address and asked him to be there at eight. I watched young Lochinvar bicycle away, thinking it had been a charming diversion, knowing he most probably would have found another boy before I even got home.
Surprisingly the roomie agreed to give me two hours with Mr. Dana, even more if I wanted. He wasn’t as concerned about his apartment (or stash) as he was for my safety. Was I certain this guy wasn’t going to harm me? I assured him I felt secure he was not a murderer. By 7:30 I was showered and ready. I recall sitting there prepared to be stood up and feeling foolish for being so gullible to trust a perfect stranger off the street. The buzzer rang a few minutes after eight. One of the first things out of my mouth, as we began getting naked, was “I don’t know if I can do this”. These cool blue eyes looked down at me and whispered “Sure you can”. I was amazed and he was amazing.
Obviously I never saw my phantom lover again. He was a first, who was date stamped to be a one time only thing. It forced me to see that I’d outgrown my floor sleeping days and needed to move on to a big boy living situation. Conveniently, near this same time, my friend Skip, who I’d befriended my sophomore year at university, had begun a new relationship with a dancer from Texas. They’d met on a bus and truck tour of Fiddler. Skip had been living on Sullivan Street a block from my old apartment with his first college boyfriend of several years. Now he was living with this new guy. I’d gotten to spend time with the two of them once I was back in The City. They had a two bedroom floor through in a lovely house on West 25th in Chelsea, previously shared with a third roommate. She’d landed an au pair position, thus the second bedroom became available. The timing was perfect, the apartment a dream, so I jumped at the chance.
Skip I knew very well, although we’d never lived together. We were closer than cousins. The new partner was an unknown, but his vibes were good ones. If Skip loved him, I could surely like him enough to live comfortably together. He was Brandon MacKenzie. He was the prettiest man I have ever known. I used to describe him as a male Natalie Wood. In hindsight, he looked exactly like Natalie Wood. He had these beautiful, big eyes with such long black lashes they looked mascaraed. Those lashes were so lush they appeared to be the reason it was an effort for him to hold his languid eyelids open while he looked at you. His skin was peaches and cream, making his soft black hair and brows a bold contrast. He possessed a dancer’s body of course, long and lean with a killer ass to go along with the rest of it. He was the perfect package, especially for the particular times we gay men were living in.
Along with the distinction of prettiest, he was also one of the most superficial and I mean that in a nonjudgmental way. He was totally consumed by appearances. Everything in his world needed to look great. His hair, his clothes, his kitchen mixing bowls, even the way he arranged his record albums on the shelf and magazines on the floor. If it didn’t look good then it wasn’t any good. He had this thing about lighting, too. Either someone told him or he’d read somewhere that pink lighting was more flattering than standard incandescent, so every light bulb in the apartment was pink. You flicked any switch and voila-la vie en rose!
I confessed to them both that I was hesitant, feeling like a third wheel in their still new relationship. They assured me it would be no such thing. Moving into my bedroom stuck in the very back of the apartment, I kidded that I was like some weird relative a family might secrete away. I announced I would become their Aunt Charlotte, the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager-an unattractive spinster with furry eyebrows on the verge of a breakdown, who carves little boxes while squirreled away in her room. We roared.
Skip and I were learning to play Bridge with some of our college cronies. Brandon already played well so soon we hosted bridge get-togethers at the apartment. He made this killer cracker spread, his mother’s recipe, that was requisite for every gathering in that apartment. Weeknights we’d all come home around the same time and cook dinner together. We enjoyed a glass of sherry as we worked, a Brandon tradition he passed on to us. I don’t know that he particularly liked the taste of sherry. Actually I believe it was the way it looked in the glass that attracted him. I grew to enjoy the ritual, our unique eucharist that solidified the three of us.
As it turned out, this Texas dancer was a boon to my battered ego. He had a gift for complementing you in a subliminal way. “Your hair really looks good today”, he’d comment looking up from his coffee mug. I had thick, nearly black, naturally curly hair. I shampooed it in the shower each morning, towel dried it, fluffed it with my fingers and it assumed a modified afro shape all by itself, everyday the exact same way. This is a time before diffusers and hair product. He’d say stuff like that on those days when inside I craved a little vote of confidence.
I still remember him matter-of-factly stating one afternoon as I pulled on a jacket “that color is fabulous on you because it really shows off your green eyes”. My whole life I believed my eyes to be hazel. It was on my driver’s license for godsake. When I tried to correct him and stated no, they were hazel, he came right up for closer inspection then diagnosed: “There’s no brown in your eyes. They’re green like Vivien Leigh’s”. I floated out the door feeling deliciously distinctive. Brandon MacKenzie was a gay man’s Tony Robbins, and you didn’t have to buy his book or his CDs; he did it instinctively and for free.
Then there were those Saturday nights-nearly every Saturday night we all lived together. The triumverate would get dressed, get very high and get to the bars to dance and ‘vamp the boys’. With Brandon at the helm, the preparation might well eclipse our visit to the clubs. One small bathroom and three silly queens-you do the math. None of us owned that many clothes, yet the possible combinations to create an ensemble seemed endless. Walking out into the hall from our rooms, we’d take turns testing our outfits for approval. It was easily a three-joint/three-hour process. It culminated in our mentor gathering us before the mirror (the wall in Brandon’s dining area was mirror tiles) to inspect ourselves. Skip and I awaited his oral critique which often ended with something to the effect of “Just look at the three of us. There’s something for everyone”. That accomplished, the final doobie was rolled and smoked. I selected one of the 45s from my small disco collection, placed it on the turntable and we’d dance out the door.
I lived on 25th Street for at least six months. I left only because I landed a great job running a small custom furniture company and could finally afford an apartment on my own. I don’t recall how much longer Skip and Brandon stayed together or why they eventually split. I continue my friendship with Skip to this day. Occasionally I would bump into Brandon in the neighborhood or at a club, but lost contact after a few year’s time. Good things began happening to me from his influence and coaching. He’d empowered me to enter a room and not first scan for the attractive men, but rather note which ones I had attracted. He helped me to find the confidence to actually walk up and speak to men at a bar I found interesting, rather than losing myself in the cigarette smoke, waiting for them to make the first move. Boyfriends now found my prominent nose and sinewy frame assets to be attracted to and then, of course, there were those Vivien Leigh green eyes.
Brandon’s Mother’s Tuna Pate Recipe
- One 6-ounce can solid white tuna (in water) drained
- One 8-ounce package cream cheese
- 1/3 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
- One small onion grated or finely minced (about 2 Tablespoons)
Place cream cheese in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Flake the tuna over it. Add the chili sauce and onion and mash it into the cream cheese with a large fork, working it into the sides of the bowl. Refrigerate covered at least one hour before serving.
Brandon is no longer with us, yet another victim of the plague. I pass the recipe on to you so that he will not be forgotten. Be sure to serve it in a gorgeous bowl.