I’d always had some sort of job since age fourteen, but never worked anywhere long enough to merit a paid vacation until my first full-time position in the fabric showroom in NYC. It was meant to be a temporary thing until I landed my first starring role on Broadway. I put in nearly two years of indentured servitude, collecting starvation wages while being further away from the stage than when I lived in Ohio. I had little money, especially none to squander on a vacation, but I needed something to look forward to. My roommate Ken and many of my other friends from university were abandoning me for summer theatre jobs. Of course I could enjoy a second summer of weekend trips to the beach, yet still…
My first good friend I’d made in The City worked in the showroom next door to mine. We had started out flirting at the elevators and in the lobby. He was very cute: super tall and thin with great hair, a warm smile and big brown puppy dog eyes. His name was Marshall, a southern boy with only a whisper of a drawl and once we started talking we instantly clicked. Many of us referred to him as a poor man’s Tommy Tune, then a prominent Broadway face. I think we went out on one official date, kissed a bit, but realized we would make better girlfriends than boyfriends. After that first year he was transferred to Atlanta by his company and I was devastated. He’d been one of the few things that made my job palatable. He invited me to visit and stay at his place, so a southern sojourn was planned for early summer 1974.
Around that same time a strange phenomenon was taking place in my wider circle of acquaintances. Two friends from school had moved to Atlanta looking for theatre work. They came through NYC just before I was leaving for my vacation, all pumped about what a great town Atlanta was. They led me to believe it was easier down there because there was less competition, even though there weren’t nearly as many opportunities. The two of them had bumped into two others from our theatre department who’d moved south as well. Suddenly Atlanta was not just the town that Sherman burned, but rather a place which now cropped up everywhere I turned. I had all these familiar faces to visit during my week’s stay.
Never having been enamored of air travel, I opted to take the train because it would also leave me with more spending money. In those days train travel cost only a bit more than the bus and there has always been this grand romance connected with rail travel for me. All those wonderful scenes from cinematic history where everyone traveled by rail, whether it be in Europe or America, were strongly etched into my grey matter. I’d only been on a train once before as a small boy for a day trip from Cleveland to Columbus. That ride is still a treasured memory. On this trip I would be taking a train to Washington DC. There we would switch to the Southern Railway for the Silver Crescent on to Atlanta. That final leg would take us through the night until our arrival the following morning.
Even in those days, Amtrak was already just AMTRAK – only a slightly glorified version of a NYC subway ride. Where was the thrill, the comfort and bigness I remembered as five-year-old me? Had the past two years in Manhattan made me jaded and dulled the adventure of the rail? I was able to regain a bit of drama when changing trains in DC. It was exciting knowing that outside Union Station was our nation’s capitol, even if Tricky Dick was occupying the White House. Then I glimpsed the train that would bring me to the land beyond the Mason-Dixon line. It was a train from my childhood and stepping inside transformed me to another time and place.
The coaches were tall and seemingly much wider, darker because of narrow windows but it all lent character to our setting. The seats had high, rolled backs, upholstered in a mohair fabric reminiscent of sofas circa WWII, with fresh linen antimacassars affixed to the center of each one. My romantic sense had been piqued. Everywhere I looked were men in impeccable uniforms getting us situated so we could commence our final leg of the journey. They put the sorry Amtrak crew to shame. We had reserved seats and the car was only half filled. The one next to me was unoccupied, so I was told to use the window seat as well. While the afternoon light still shone, I watched as we headed south, wondering if the view would look any different.
Early in the evening they announced the dining room was open for dinner. I waited until the groups with children thinned before heading forward to eat. Anything could beat the Amtrak Snack Car, but what I stepped into on this train was glorious. There before me was a sea of white linen. Black men in starched white coats seated and served us. The tiny tables on either side of the car were amply draped in white cloths with polished wooden chairs. There were fresh flowers in glass vases, silver-plated flatware and the aroma of real food coming from the kitchen served on heavy china plates. There was not a scintilla of plastic or paper or vinyl to be found by my surveillant eyes. I have no idea what I ate nor can I recall who was seated across from me, but I became a character out of an Agatha Christie mystery. What a vacation this was turning out to be.
It was easy to fall asleep with the rockabye motion of the train lulling me. The over-stuffed seats cuddled me through the night. Early morning sun was my alarm clock and I peered out sleepily to see fields of green. Less than fifty miles from Atlanta there was still no sign of civilization. A porter explained to me that the lush greenery which covered the countryside was called kudzu and that it was somewhat of a plague that choked its host, “but it sho’ is pretty”.
The train doors opened and I stepped out of the car onto the platform of Peachtree Station. A grey haired stationmaster came out of the small building, walking towards the handful of disembarking passengers calling full-voiced “Hotlanna’! Hotlanna’ G-A”. I grinned at the black man who appeared as though he had been sent from central casting. The morning quiet was punctured by the trilling of an invisible bird in the trees somewhere on the other side of the tracks. Walking alongside him I asked “what is that bird that’s singing like that?”. “Why boy”, he stopped to answer, “that there’s a mockin’ bird”. All I needed next was an animated creature to descend upon his shoulder and for him to burst into a chorus of Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. It could not have been a more perfect scene for my movie.
Marshall and I ran at the mouth non-stop for the first few hours, catching up after so long apart. He took me for a ride through his part of town, the two of us chuckling at how drastically different it was from our “New York” which he was really missing. I kept asking where all the big buildings were, because all I could see were shady streets with houses and apartment buildings that reminded me of Cleveland or Pittsburgh. His apartment was tiny – a studio in an old one-story wooden building very near to the High Museum of Art. We would go out to the clubs that night to experience Atlanta gay life.
There was a small neighborhood bar within walking distance from the apartment. The name escapes me now, but it had a welcoming crowd and there was entertainment in the form of drag queens who would lip sync tunes. I had seen drags in NYC but never in these numbers. As my week progressed, their popularity became more evident as we moved from bar to bar. It fascinated me – not so much THEM but rather those who were their followers. Each of these demi-divas had fans who idolized them as though they possessed some talent that I was blind to recognize. The majority were lousy at lip syncing and aside from expensive wigs and garish costumes they had little to no stage presence. There was a big disco that was the place to go summer of ’74, packed every night. Complete strangers would grab you to dance, not to hit on you, but simply to pull you onto the dance floor to shake a tail feather together. I have never been anywhere where gay people were as accepting to new faces.
While Marshall worked in the daytime, I visited with my university friends. The two who’d come through NYC before I left were both working, doing local TV and radio commercials and some dinner theatre. Both were managing to live and pay bills solely on this money. Neither had resorted to any part-time supplemental work. But of course the cost of living was incredible. While I was paying $225 for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Village, Marshall was paying $75 a month for his studio which included electricity. That alone caused me to ponder, but as Marshall was quick to point out, Greenwich Village and his neighborhood in Atlanta were two different entities altogether.
I spent some time with my other two university chums. Just how Edmond ended up in Atlanta and what he was doing there I don’t recall, but it was not for theatre. He was this wonderfully wise cracking guy I’d met in a class my final year at school. He was witty, extremely bright and so sardonically sarcastic you had to adore him. One would think he worked for the Chamber of Commerce the way he sold Atlanta to me those first few days. He took me to Underground Atlanta one afternoon, then a major showpiece for the city. It was a subterranean neighborhood of old brick walkways with bars and restaurants frequented by the young, straight crowd. Edmond was one of my few hetero guy friends; we appreciated each other for who we were, no questions asked. He was showing me a great time and I was getting to know him all over again.
Connie was another friend who’d traveled south a year before to visit her older sister. She loved it so she stayed and was now apprenticing at the Alliance Theatre, the big time for actors in the area. She took me on a tour of the facility and introduced me to some of the powers that be, helping me to make some connections. I could not get over how warm and welcoming everyone was. My guess was there really was something to the southern hospitality thing.
One of my last evenings, Marshall took me out to eat in a popular restaurant where he waited tables once in a while to make a little extra money. The place looked typically Southern to me with ceiling fans and huge potted ferns dotting a sprawling dining room. It was busy with a very mixed crowd and an appealing variety of gay boys serving as waiters, one more interesting looking than the next. We had a wonderful dinner and went dancing with half the wait staff later that night. As exotic as they all seemed to me. coming from every conceivable corner of the South, they were intrigued by the Yankee boy up from New York City. Singular me was still baffled by being referred to in the plural “Y’all”.
The day before my train was to leave, Edmond announced he’d had enough and was leaving Atlanta to return north. Suddenly everything he’d praised earlier in the week was pissing him off. He couldn’t wait to get the hell outta’ town AND the South. He suggested he could drive me back to NYC and spend a few days there before moving on, so I canceled my return ticket. He was looking for a car and we could leave the following day. I was on vacation having a grand time, so as long as I was back to work Monday morning, I was game for anything.
Saying goodbye to Marshall that last morning was difficult. He’d been the perfect host and although we both adored NYC, he had demonstrated that Atlanta could be a palatable substitute for me as well. At a perfect vacation’s end, being a big fish in a little pond sounded like a plausible alternative to the struggle my life had become these past two years. I had played hard for a week in somebody else’s sandbox without a care in the world and even though I missed my big city life a bit, I was relaxed and so at peace.
Edmond arrived, excited about our adventure north and his new car. Looking outside there was this huge boat of a vehicle – a 1964 Buick Le Sabre, nearly the size of the Southern Railway Dining Car. Seems he found an ad in the paper and called the guy who was asking somewhere between $300-$800 dollars (Edmond no longer remembers these particulars forty years later). The guy was leaving for Los Angeles the following day. Thinking it was just a sales ploy, Edmond shows up the following morning and sure enough a moving van is loading out front. He starts the car and asks the guy “Where’s the muffler?” and the guy lifts the trunk to show him where it’s stored. Edmond says “80 bucks or you can tow it to LA” pulling out four $20s from his pocket. As Edmond retells it today “and the rest was history”.
The car ride was unpleasant, not because of the vehicle’s performance nor Edmond’s company – but for the heat. It must have been in the upper 90s the entire way and we were cooled only by the car’s open windows. We stopped in DC and did a quick tour. I remember nearly passing out from heat-stroke before making it to the top step of the Lincoln Memorial. Of course after our two-day ride, it felt great to get back home to my apartment and the frenetic rhythm that belonged to Manhattan, which in turn regulated the pulse of all those who lived in it. It was a long rest of the summer for me, alone with only my job to occupy my time. My lush green days in Atlanta soothed me and got me to the fall, when changes came with the turning leaves outside my Sullivan Street windows.
to be continued