Category: Junior/Senior High School

Cruisin’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cavalcade of Birthday Memories

Scan10009I’ve had many, many birthdays since my earliest recollected fifth, and even many that I don’t remember at all. Like thirty. I know I was living in New York City, yet there is not a glimmer of recall at how I spent it and thirty is such a nice round number you would think there should have been some memory. And yet I see vividly my seventh, because I had my first “kid” birthday party with boys and girls from both school and the neighborhood. There was my mother, hosting over a dozen rowdy rugrats in our rec room, while being nine months morbidly pregnant, carrying my soon-to-be-baby brother.

The theme was circus, so of course it was clown everything: plates, cups, napkins, tablecloth, party favors and matching cake. The only thing NOT clown was the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game which I hated playing, because already at age seven I understood the meaning of passe. Mom’s ankles were swollen like the balloons hanging from the ceiling and she was feeling miserable, (she was only months away from being forty years old), but she was smiling and cordial to all those rambunctious little bastards who were my guests.

About half-way through the fete, after traveling up and down the basement steps schlepping for the umpteenth time, I caught a glimpse of the angst and discomfort show through her own painted smile. She resembled the clown faces that surrounded us everywhere we looked, pretending to be happy for my birthday while these rotten kids were making a mess of everything and creating still more work than her poor, expectant body could ever handle. On top of all this, my father was on the verge of his first ‘nervous breakdown’, a concept we were all learning to comprehend and work into the daily routine of our simple lives. I can never look back at seven and not first flash to that seminal period of our family history when crazy took over the reins.

At sixteen a friend from high school named Gemma attempted to throw a surprise party for me. She was supposedly cooking a birthday dinner at her parents’ house at 8:00 p.m. which was tres chic for West Buttfok, Ohio where by 5:30 most everybody had already finished doing the dishes even on Saturdays. We were super-close pals and had been hanging out together for a year or so. I’d gotten ready way ahead of schedule so I decided to walk over a little early. Maybe I could help her out with the cooking. I showed up at her door a bit before 7:00. I still remember her little sister’s face at the door, totally shocked which seemed odd as she adored me and enjoyed when I  visited because I fussed over her.  Gemma came up from behind her with shower wet hair, clutching her bathrobe to her chin. She looked really pissed and before I could say a thing she announced something to the effect of “So surprise, asshole”, (she definitely used that particular term of endearment), “you just blew your own surprise party by being the first one here!”.

Twenty-five was one of those birthdays that I judged as a traumatic mile marker. I was aggravating myself for several weeks before, announcing to anyone who would listen that I would soon be celebrating my Silver Birthday. It sounded like such a pivotal number. You could be in your early twenties and still be considered just a crazy college kid. That had long been my excuse to family elders my first few years in NYC trying to land an acting job. They viewed it as having no career and absolutely no direction in life. (Forget about the fact that I was unmarried with no sign of a girlfriend.) Twenty-five I was somehow interpreting as a serious signal that my frivolous years were behind me. I took the day off from work. I spent my entire birthday alone going out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between meals traveled from one cinema to another, taking in three different movies. I was home in bed and asleep by nine o’clock that night, over-fed, filmed-out and now seemingly devoid of my youth.

My fortieth birthday was spent in NYC even though I was living in an eight-room Victorian on the common of a sleepy New England town with my partner Alejandro. We went into The City for the weekend to celebrate. My good friend Giuseppe took me to lunch at Le Cirque and spent a fortune on a simply amazing afternoon of food, wine and conversation. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a more magnificent luncheon! Then it was off to the theatre to watch a college friend play Mother Superior in NUNSENSE. She was incredibly funny in the role and just seeing her ultra-Protestant self in her nun’s habit was a scream to this forty-year-old lapsed Catholic/lapsed thespian.

Turning fifty looked to be an inexorable milestone. The year was 1999. My mother had died that June, so it was official – I was now an orphan. Everywhere we turned we were being bombarded with Y2K hysteria. I refused to stuff my mattress with my meager life savings and my retirement package likewise was going to stay put, doomsday advocates be damned. Certain unnamed relatives of mine in Michigan were stockpiling dried beans and rice in the cellar to no doubt observe their End of Days final meal. What sort of last hurrah style celebration would be appropriate for my golden birthday with all these factors considered? I settled upon a trip for David and me to see our dear friends Mickey and Minnie in Orlando. My younger brother and his family flew down to meet us, as we had vowed after Mom’s funeral that we would get together before the end of the millenium to do something together that was actually fun. It was a childishly wonderful fifty we all celebrated that year.

Once you have tallied these many years, birthdays seem to take on another meaning all together. You truly miss those friends and family who aren’t around any more to mail a card, make that phone call to sing an off-key version of the birthday song, or send an email. Now your refrigerator’s face is peppered with those ubiquitous little doctor’s appointment cards reminding you (sometimes seemingly into the next millenium) that you are mortal, slowly falling apart piece by piece. Yet even though I begin each new morning with an aspirin and three different pills for my blood pressure, I am still that foolish twenty-five-year old. When I pull on a pair of jeans I wonder why the tag reads W34 when I am certain my waist is the same 29 inches it has always been. Passing the medicine cabinet mirror as I stagger into the shower each a.m. without my glasses on, why do I catch a glimpse of my grandmother? The woman has been gone since 1990. I have always adored her, so why should she haunt me?

I think for my seventieth, if I am still around and still possessing all my marbles, I shall throw for myself a surprise party with a clown theme. I am betting I can pull it off without a hitch. And by then, so much time might have elapsed that Pin the Tail might have come round full circle again.

The Corn Stand Caper

That schmaltzy poem about ‘friend for a season/friend for a reason’ has made its way into nearly everyone’s email inbox, but the truth is you are extremely fortunate if you have made even one friend for life. The high school clique that had formed in my sophomore year, due to a formidable yet ephemeral young drama teacher, hung together even after we graduated and left West Buttfok. Deb Mae remained home our first three years of college. Billy, my closest compatriot attended a small state school in southern Ohio. Selma and Eddy went to Kent State with me, although with twenty thousand students it was easy to lose hometown acquaintances, so we tended to lead separate lives at university.

Deb Mae had been Debbie until The Group went to see Bonnie and Clyde our senior year of high school. The two of us were so taken by the film, we went back the following day and sat through two consecutive showings (remember when you could spend the day in the movies for the price of one admission?). We adopted these truly lame southern accents, so in order to make her a more believable belle, I christened her Deb Mae and it stuck. The two of us had solidified a friendship the first year of high school, long before Mr. Allen came and worked his magic. She was new to the school, having gone through eight years of Catholic indoctrination. We often walked home together, living just a few blocks apart. Debbie’s mom died when she was eight, leaving her father with three children – another daughter, five and a baby boy, three. The day her mother passed away, her father returned from the hospital, took her aside and announced “your mother is dead, so you’ll have to be the mommy now”. She assumed the role seamlessly, cooking, cleaning, raising her siblings and keeping everything in line, including a sometimes unruly Dad. She did a remarkable job, seldom complaining about her lot.

I would stop in regularly on our way home. She’d make a pot of coffee for me (she only drank Tab) and we would smoke cigarettes and kibbutz as Debbie cooked supper. We realized a few months into our friendship that we had been in the same kindergarten class. It was easy to remember the only kindergartener in the entire school with pierced ears. She was of Hungarian descent on both sides, and a blonde beauty to rival any of the Gabor sisters. Wonderfully female, curvy and attractively big-busted Deb Mae possessed the sweetest, softest voice and a loving heart.

Eddy and Selma I had known since sixth grade chorus. Eddy had always had this ‘thing’ for Selma and they related to one another like a feisty, sparing couple who’d been married for at least thirty years. She was tall and lanky with long, straight hair and bangs – the perfect hippie. He played piano and loved the Motown sound long before we even knew there was a name for that kind of music. Eddy needed to hear a tune on the radio only two or three times before he started banging it out on the keys of the nearest piano. He was our accompanist whenever we wanted to sing, possessing a biting sense of humor that made us roar. A Polish American, he bore the brunt of all those horrible pollack jokes which were the mania of the time.

Billy was my nemesis turned counterpart. Sitting in the desk directly in front of me in homeroom from seventh grade on, I hated him because he was so heinously obnoxious. He was loud and silly and so horribly fey it made me uncomfortable to be in his presence. I was acutely aware of my own feminine propensities, doing everything I could to keep them at bay. Here was this flaming fairy mocking himself in a desperate attempt to gain attention anyway he could. I either ignored him or ridiculed him until Mr. Allen cast us in productions and our characters were forced to play off one another. In time we grew to become brothers. I’ve had no closer friend in this world than my best buddy Billy.

The first two summers everyone came home from college. Returning to the womb to work and save for the following year, no sooner would we be back when those group dynamics would kick in and we were tenth-graders again. Eddy would be bossing everyone around trying to get us to do whatever he selfishly wanted. Billy, ever the idea man with a relentless drive to see it through, choreographed our lives as a group, scheduling each minute and chaufering us in his family’s pale turquoise Rambler station wagon. Deb Mae was our heart and our den mother. Selma was the misfit in this group of misfits. She was there because Mr. Allen had put her there and neither Selma nor any of us ever challenged his decision. She was one of those sad souls who meanders through life with a dark cloud hovering overhead. Me, I was the mediator, the peacemaker who smoothed the ruffled feathers which regularly came from five people foolishly attempting to live life as a single entity.

We’d started our own West Buttfok Summer Theatre after graduating from high school, so at night those first two summers we rehearsed for a show like we always had. Even though we all loved theatre, it was more of an excuse to not be apart. As if this extreme togetherness wasn’t already more than unhealthy, and our summer jobs were not enough, Billy devised a scheme to make some easy money on weekends. We would open a corn stand – yes, a CORN stand.

Billy’s Lebanese grandfather had done this for years. He lived on the last rural route in West Buttfok where a handful of old family farms still existed, although none were in operation. Some of the families kept large vegetable gardens, selling tomatoes, peppers and the like on the roadside when there was an abundance they couldn’t consume themselves. Being business savvy, his grandfather had hooked up with a farmer about thirty miles away who grew sweet corn and he bought it weekly to sell with his homegrown vegetables. He told customers he grew it all out back in his fields.

Billy figured we could do even better, being college students working to pay our way. Selma’s folks lived on that same road but at the opposite end from Grandpa. Our only problem was her back yard was small, which was evident from the road. The story we would tell was we grew the corn, but “on our farm in Aurora”, (exactly where the corn did come from – so we wouldn’t really be lying). Selma’s parents thought our scheme was brilliant and loved helping our enterprise.

The first weekend we had one hundred dozen ears delivered. At the crack of dawn Saturday morning the farmer’s truck dropped off these oversized burlap bags filled with more corn than any of us could ever have imagined. Concerned we surely had been cheated, Eddy charmed the girls into helping him count each bag full. There was a substantial overage. We paid 35 cents per dozen for which Grandfather-up-the-road charged a dollar. Being new, we opted for 75 cents a dozen. We sold out early that first day, more than doubling our money, disappointed there was nothing left to sell on Sunday. The next week we increased the order to two hundred dozen. Greedy Eddy longed for more, so he talked Billy into visiting a wholesale produce market in Cleveland at five a.m. and buying tomatoes and cucumbers. Again, there wasn’t a veggie left by Sunday afternoon.

Billy and I realized that with blonde, buxom Deb Mae and long-haired, hippie chick Selma kept front and center, cars were stopping, looking and buying. Eddy worried that the girls might give incorrect change, cutting into the profits, while Billy and I feared that his obnoxious personality might frighten customers away. In the end, we all hovered around the corn stand the better part of the weekend. Between our theatre background, group dynamic and the delicious Silver Queen corn, we were moving lots of produce and having a great time together doing it. We planned on running through the last weekend in August. We’d built up quite a following our first month and regular customers were bringing us new ones.

Early in August Billy got a phone call from the Corn Man. They had over picked their fields and would not be able to supply us for the coming weekend. Billy and Eddy were devastated. The girls and I said no big deal, we’ll just sell the vegetables from the market. Billy worried that no one would stop without the corn piled high on the side of the road and promised he’d figure something out. Friday night, when typically we all took in a movie, he announced the solution. He contacted a neighboring farmer near our supplier who could give us as much corn as we needed, but….we would have to pick it ourselves. “How hard could picking corn be?” I can still hear the pollack saying.

The plan was for the three guys to drive separate cars in a caravan before dawn, pick enough corn to fill the first car and return to Selma’s so the girls could open. We would  drive the other cars back when they were sufficiently corn-laden. Deb Mae and Selma would go to the wholesale market to buy the produce. The most remarkable news was the corn would cost only 15 cents a dozen since we were doing the real work. We could all hear the cash register which was lodged somewhere in Eddy’s chest going”ka-ching”.

My bedroom was pitch black when Billy and Eddy frightened me awake with their cackling taunts to “git up boy, we gottsa’ pick us some corn!”. As we reached the farm, the sun was finally visible and the owner gave his five-minute lesson in corn picking. The three of us had dressed for perhaps a backyard barbecue, but certainly not to manuever our way through the tall August growth. There was barely enough room to work your way down the endlessly long rows. We were shooing off pesky bugs who were busy biting as the early sun was toasting us. The long green leaves on the stalks had razor-sharp edges which microscopically sliced our arms and legs and there was no avoiding them as we reached into the plants to pull off each ear. We were giddy and sweaty and scratched and achy but we were picking with a frenzy, filling up burlap bagfuls of corn, desperate to take advantage of the 15 cent price point. Eddy drove the first car back, eager to check on the girls to see how they fared at the market. He was uneasy leaving this task to anyone other than himself.

We spent another several hours picking, but by noon the overhead August sun was unbearable and we still had to fill the cars with so many bags full of corn we barely had room to drive. Unloading the corn back at Selma’s, we guesstimated we’d picked way over two hundred dozen – much more than we paid for or had ever sold in one weekend. The girls bought two crates of beautiful Chiquita brand cantaloupes at an incredible price along with the customary tomatoes and cukes.

As I came out front to sit with the girls, I saw an obviously heated and animated lady hanging out of her car window, gesticulating with a cantaloupe under Deb Mae’s nose. Our Deb was so gentle she would never defend herself so as I ran to her rescue the woman leaned out further. “Is there a problem, Ma’am?” I asked approaching.  She slowly began “I was just asking your college friend here how you grew these beautiful cantaloupes with a built-in Chiquita label? Special seeds, maybe?”. This was a huge oops. Well-intentioned Deb Mae had been telling people the cantaloupes were grown on “our farm in Aurora”, without checking for the colorful label stuck to  each melon. Thankfully there were no other customers around as I attempted to make Deb Mae look innocent, however this lady felt she’d been duped. We gave her all her money back, plus a half-dozen ears of corn with our apologies. Luckily my corn-picking battered body served as proof to her that we did grow the corn and she apologized to us profusely once Billy and Eddy joined in Deb’s defense, similarly bruised and bleeding. “You kids are really hardworking. Your parents should be so proud of you!” and off she drove.

We chastised the girls for not peeling the labels off the cantaloupes and we waited in fear that someone else might show up and cause a similar scene. No one else did complain, but at some point that afternoon, we agreed this weekend should be the swan song for our corn stand. We’d made an incredible amount of money, deciding it best to quit while we were far ahead.

Epilogue 

Billy left for acting school in London midway through his junior year of college. Deb Mae moved to Houston with an aunt and uncle who were ex military to find a husband. Her mission was accomplished quickly but she was divorced after only three or four years. I never even met the guy. There she remained and ended up with a Texas drawl which sounded remarkably like her bad Bonnie Parker imitation. I moved to NYC and Eddie landed a public relations job in San Francisco after we left Kent State. Selma began teaching and moved to Florida a few years later, eventually marrying and having a son. We’d managed to get out of West Buttfok as we had always dreamed, just all to separate parts of the world. The years began to pass quickly. Around Christmastime we would make our way back to the scene of the crime, but never all of us at the same time. We didn’t see Billy for years while he was in Europe, but he corresponded regularly. Before the end of the 70s he came back to the states and moved to L.A. It looked as though time and distance were wreaking havoc on The Group.

It probably shouldn’t have seemed anything but obvious that inevitably all three of us guys came out around the same time and later settled into long-term relationships. I never met Eddy’s partner, but Billy and I shared several wonderful visits both on the West and East Coasts with significant others in tow and alone. The piece de resistance was 1988 and our West Buttfok twenty year class reunion which I’d vowed since graduation day I would never attend. The group came together, deciding we would meet in spite of the high school we all loved to hate. It was a three-day weekend I treasure to this day. We celebrated our five years of breathing as one – laughing, crying, holding on to our youth for dear life. Each of us left our spouses in their respective homes so as not to bore them and to give us the freedom to be our silly tenth grade selves. We were all thirty-eight, grown up and responsible, each of us stunning in our own way, yet malleable enough to sneak back in time to our golden callow days. It was seventy-two hours of unabashed bliss in which we relived our life moment by moment, memory to memory.

It was there, on the last evening before boarding planes in all directions back to real lives that Billy told me his partner of nearly ten years was HIV positive. Billy wasn’t being tested yet, because he was healthy and needed to begin his role as caregiver. His companion was gone in a little over a year. Deb Mae was visiting Eddy in San Francisco and the two went to the memorial service. Eddy announced shortly after that, he too was positive. It was something I had almost grown accustomed to hearing about in our community in those days, but when it came so dangerously close the hurt was all the deeper. A few years later Eddy was hospitalized for the last time with pneumonia. I called and spoke with his sister who stood vigil over him and she held the phone as I told him to keep fighting, knowing from the feeble, broken voice he had long-lost the battle. He was buried in a small cemetery in West Buttfok. All these things came so swiftly together I cannot say exactly when Billy told us he also had fallen prey to the insidious plague. THIS was more than I could bear.

Luckily he was able to get the cocktail and though he battled a laundry list of incredibly gruesome diseases, he lived and worked and traveled and we corresponded and spoke regularly for several wonderful years. He spent a few days in Boston while in a period of exceptionally good health and we had a fabulous visit, even though it was obvious there was a third party coming between us that we neither wished to name or face. My best bud Billy died in 1998, six days short of his forty-eighth birthday. He requested that I speak at his memorial service in L.A. but I knew he was always the stronger of the two of us and that I could never weather the pain of such an ordeal. I wrote a piece entitled A BEST FRIEND and his sister delivered it for me at his celebration. His passing was one of those slap-across-the-face realities that causes you to sit up and marvel at the gift we so take for granted.

So it was Deb Mae and me. Selma had drifted from us soon after the reunion, cutting off all communication. Deb learned she was divorced and battling an auto immune disease which made it difficult to teach and raise a son on her own. Deb Mae and I made it a point to chat together monthly. She held a top position for a huge corporate travel company – imagine – the girl Eddy doubted could make proper change for 75 cents worth of corn. She never remarried but had a long-term relationship with a guy who could not commit for over a dozen years. She and I now met in West Buttfok every other year during Christmas. And as wonderful as it was to be together, as much as we laughed, reminiscing about The Group, our bad jokes, pranks and fights, I sensed we both were thinking the same thing: who would it be? Who would bury whom? She had written on the back of her senior picture “If you die before me, I’ll kill you”. She often said it to me in jest, until the deaths began and it ceased to be funny.

One of those years we didn’t get together for Christmas, we also hadn’t touched base until a few months afterwards. When I finally called, she was short with me, asking why I was calling. I was totally taken off-guard. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” I asked my friend of a million years. She assumed someone from her family had called to tell me the news she couldn’t bring herself to share with me. The virus she thought she’d been battling all winter was actually stage four lung cancer. It looked bad. No, it was grim. She had an appointment with a new oncologist who was doing a drug study. She would try anything, she told me sobbing. I began literally shaking in fear of her words, making those horrible grimaces you can when invisible on the other end of the phone, finally breaking down to cry along with her. THIS JUST WAS NOT FAIR, GOD DAMN IT.

In six months the tumors had shrunk remarkably and she was feeling good. She could laugh again and make plans. We met in West Buttfok and spent a weekend visiting and she got to meet David. We had begun planning our committment ceremony for the next spring, and she was excited to finally get to see Provincetown and to celebrate with us. Other than a wig, she seemed to be her old self. Everyone was hopeful.

Then there were these spots on a brain scan and a whole new treatment regime began. It nose-dived from there, but she still talked about what she was going to wear and what we would do in Cape Cod after the ceremony. In a few short months she ended up in the hospital. Once again I found myself making another deathbed call, talking with yet another sister. The cancer had spread rapidly throughout the brain. She was losing motor functions and the ability to speak, but she could still hear. Her sister held the receiver for her. What could I say to the girl I met in kindergarten, the woman I adored like a favorite sister? All I managed to get out was “I love you, Deb”, over and over. Palpable emotions and this awful moment in time had caused me to lose the ability to speak myself. She babbled some unintelligible sounds into the receiver. Her sister assured me her face had registered she knew it was me and that she understood. She died the following afternoon, April 2, 2003, a month before our committment ceremony.

So it was me. At fifty-three I was the last one. What were the statistical chances of my surviving them all I wondered? Who cares. What a sense of loneliness I was feeling! I longed to know if there was some purpose in being the last one. Was I saved because there was something left undone for me to do, or was this all some grand cosmic joke? Though I had decades ago shed the mantle of The Group to take on my own persona, there was still a comfort in remembering the safety we had shared in our cocoon. It shielded us as outcasts in a place where none of us felt we’d ever belonged. And when I needed some protection to not be so alone, I found I’d been left instead the lone custodian of memories for people and stories and laughter that had now fallen silent.

Sissy Boy

It’s taken six decades to accomplish, but in that time, I have been called: fag, faggot, fairy, fruit, homo, nellie, pansy, and queer. But by far, the most painful pejorative of them all has to be sissy and it was the very first I remember ever having been called at a very tender age. It was my older brother who often called me sissy boy whenever he was forced to have to include me in his play, or look after me while my mother had to do something that required her full attention. Being seven years younger, I was always a burden to him, something he was forced to put up with and he made it quite clear that it was with great detestation that he had to recognize my existence in his world at all. I didn’t expect him to like me, just not demean me by name calling. But that he did and with great gusto and he knew just how to zero in and make it hurt deeply. It was bad enough to have the cruel world of West Buttfok, Ohio hurl abusive epithets, but when it came from your own flesh and blood it was almost too much for me to bear. I even heard sissy from my father and mother, discussing me when they thought I couldn’t hear. And it all started very early in my life.

My mother saved most of my elementary school report cards, along with my childhood photos. I especially enjoy the one from Kindergarten. Miss Pete was my teacher, and we were evaluated at four separate times in the school year. Each of the evaluations was a typed paragraph which summed up our progress throughout the school year. In the first, she detects “a slight lisp which might be outgrown”  It wasn’t.  I had speech therapy in the third grade for a sibilant “s” (how appropriate for a gay-to-be). But more concerning “he does not seem to join in the play with the other boys in his class” and she was right. I naturally chose to hang out with the girls because they were a lot more well-behaved and played wonderful make-believe games while all the boys wanted to do was build forts with the huge wooden blocks, then proceed to knock them down and rough-house. What kind of fun is that? She comments in the following two paragraphs that “he enjoys story time” and that “he is a perfect gentlemen”. In the final paragraph she is “happy to report that he now enjoys the company of both his boy and girl classmates” which I think was actually bullshit, because I didn’t like them anymore than I did the first day and I had always identified more as one of the Kindergarten girls.

Elementary school got much better, and so did the boys. I enjoyed being one of the top students and each year, one of the teachers’ favorites and popular in the class as well. I always had one boy “best friend” each year; I guess I have always been a monogamous kind of guy. But none that I could play doctor with until fifth grade and that was a kid named Jim, who must have been held back twice, because he was already a few years older than me. To clarify, we didn’t play doctor in the classic sense (we were far too old for that-especially him) but he did teach me about masturbation, and demonstrated his technique for me and a few others in our class after school in his garage on several different occasions. I found it fascinating and couldn’t wait until it was physically possible for me to accomplish.

Then came junior high. It was a disastrous period for me. The whole socialization process had changed and it became boys against girls, yet at the same time our foes were also supposed to be our focus of sexual interest. It was all too confusing for me, perhaps because I was getting very different signals about who I was really attracted to in the first place. The only positive thing that came out of seventh and eighth grade was the locker room before and after Phys Ed class; I absolutely hated gym and anything connected with sports, but did I love getting naked with all those boy-men! Unfortunately, I had to endure all the awfulness of what junior high was daily, weekly, for only a few minutes of nakedness with about forty guys three times a week. Similarly, I had to brave a ton of name calling throughout each week as well. Junior high is where I learned, quite surprisingly, (and when it was far too late), that if you wore green on Thursdays you were a “fairy”. Up until this point, the only fairies I knew about were Tinkerbell and friends. Imagine my chagrin that first Thursday I chose to wear an outfit of olive corduroys and multi-shaded green sweater, that I would, for the balance of my West Buttfokian education, be forever branded “fairy” by some of my fellow students.

I need to interject here, that at this time I was thirteen, just under five feet tall and weighed not yet one hundred pounds. In other words, a typical skinny, scrawny  geek who would later that year be fitted with eyeglasses. Early on in the school year I made friends in study hall with a heavy-set girl named Connie. She wasn’t very pretty, over-teased and peroxided her hair and dressed like trailer-trash, but she had a filthy mouth and got into trouble a lot and for some reason this appealed to me. Maybe I felt she was “safe” because I knew she’d never expect to have a boyfriend , or maybe I was just attracted to her bad-girl image. She danced incredibly well and loved music and always had cigarettes for us to smoke. We walked home from school together, often with some of her friends. She wasn’t popular among the regular girls, but maintained her own pack of cohorts by shoplifting items according to their requests. It was limited only to what she could steal from a local store similar to K-Mart. This was totally out of my comprehension; I never knew anyone like this before. Finally, after several weeks of hanging out after school, I asked her if she could “crook me” a 45 of YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE . Sure enough, a few days later she slipped it into my notebook as she entered study hall. I was amazed. But no good deed goes unpunished, and I was going to pay big time for Connie’s gift.

Shortly after the delivery of my hot 45, I began receiving a series of anonymous phone calls. They were from a guy, who referred to me alternately as either sissy-boy or queer-boy. He said I didn’t know him, but he knew me and he was going to beat me up one day after school. I asked him why he would want to beat me up if I didn’t even know him, and how could he know me and I not know him. That wasn’t important, he would quasi-explain, the only important thing was he was going to be waiting for me at my corner bus stop soon and “would beat the shit out of my queer face”. It was amazing how he was able to fill each of his short sentences with those stinging words sissy or queer. I always received these calls soon after coming in the door from school and he would make two or three brief, threatening calls each week. I was scared to death. I had, up to this point, avoided physical confrontation of any kind. I knew I would never be able to defend myself from even an elementary school kid. I now was the sissy-boy he accused me of being because all the years of name calling had instilled it in me.Who was this person, and why was he so angry with me? The only one I could speak to about it was Connie, because she was always threatening to beat everybody up, so certainly she would understand. I figured as a last resort, maybe she would help me beat him up. I know I would have been afraid of her in a fight because she was one tough broad. With each phone call and every passing week, I grew more and more paranoid. I developed eagle eyes whenever walking, especially to or from school. I was leery of any strange guys I saw anywhere, any time of day. This was crazy. I was being stalked long before I knew the word existed.

After nearly a month of these calls, my anonymous caller made a slip-up. As I attempted to reason with this insane teen terrorist, I asked him what school he went to. He had admitted earlier he didn’t go to West B. He gave me the name of a high school in the next town over. I knew no one there, but I remembered instantly that Connie had a cousin she often spoke about in that school who she was very close to. I paused, took a deep breath, and said “so then you must be Connie’s cousin”. There was silence on the line. Then he shot back with something to the effect of yeah but it didn’t matter because he was still gonna’ kick my queer ass. I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but knowing that he wasn’t totally anonymous anymore gave me a tiny morsel of courage, so I turned the tables on him. “OK, so when are we going to get this thing over with? When do you want to meet? Tomorrow?” Another longer pause. “I’m busy tomorrow”, he says. “Maybe next week. Don’t worry sissy boy, I’m still gonna’ get you”. He hung up.

The next day I didn’t even wait for study hall. I met Connie outside her homeroom. I told her we had to talk before study hall. We arranged to get hall passes at the same time from our first period classes. She knew what was up, because I’m sure her cousin must have called her after he hung up with me. I asked her point-blank why he was harassing me and the only answer she gave was a shrug of her shoulders and “he’s just a crazy asshole”.  I never did find out why this guy started calling me. Maybe she needed to intimidate me and couldn’t do it face to face so he was her surrogate. Or maybe he was jealous of Connie’s and my relationship (whatever the hell that was) and wanted me to leave her alone. I only know that he never called again. And Connie and I were civil to each other but never buddies again.

But it didn’t matter that his phone calls stopped. The ordeal made me so frightened, so unsure of myself and so afraid of even my own shadow, that I was haunted by the thought that sissy-boy-me would forever be taunted and jeered at and threatened with physical harm for the rest of my days. And for many, many years afterwards I was. Anywhere I walked, any time of the day or night, I lived in constant fear of being beaten up for being queer-just being me. If I saw a teenage guy coming my way, I hurriedly crossed to the opposite of the street. If, God forbid, a group of older boys was walking in my direction I would duck into the first open door or safe place and wait until they passed before continuing on my way. Even in my twenties, and my first few years living in Manhattan, I was intimidated by the mere sight of teenage boys, certain they would beat me up because I had “sissy” tattooed in invisible ink across my forehead. It literally took years to get over my phobia. It’s been uncomfortable for me just to write this paragraph nearly fifty years later.

Did any good come out of this? We always want to feel that overcoming obstacles in life makes us better people. It usually does. It toughened me up, certainly. Did I learn anything from it? Yes, that it was really difficult growing up gay back in the old days. And today with television shows like GLEE, and all the “out” pop icons, and Gay/Straight Alliances in high schools, and Pride Parades in cities all over this world, it’s still really difficult growing up gay.