It is the start of a new year, yet still I persist in writing this blog. In a little more than six months I will be celebrating the four-year anniversary of GayDinosaurTales. What earthly reason would anyone have to continue reading these postings? As Montserrat Caballe, opera diva, questioned in her charming Spanish accent, just before singing her third or fourth encore at a concert I was privileged to attend years ago, “Dun’t you peepole haff a bus to catch?”
I can save you mucho trouble and possible eyestrain by giving here a brief heads up. David and I will be going to Montreal again during my spring break. We will do all the same things I’ve written about countless times. We’ll be in Provincetown to celebrate our ‘sort of anniversary’ as in the previous eleven years this coming May, following up with our full week in August. I’ve already put the deposit check in the mail for that one. I’m hoping to find a few days to visit NYC at some point. Maybe see a show. Catch up with the few cronies still there from my KSU days.
Besides the above usual diversions, I am taking time off to have cataract surgery on my left eye (a little earlier than the ophthalmologist anticipated), and my obligatory five-year date with the colonoscopy doctor. No offense Katie Couric, but for me there are still a few things I do not feel obliged to share here.
And of course it is impossible for me to not write about an old boyfriend or two or three–most of whom are all pushing up daisies due to AIDS–or more alarming these days–natural causes, i.e. old age. My suggestion would be rather than reading GayDinosaurTales, why not do a bit of charitable work and visit your local nursing home. There are so many lonely folks who would love to visit with a kind face who’d lend an ear to listening to stories of their high school antics, their first job in 1961, or perhaps a recounting of the day their eldest was born. All of these stories clearer than the day of the week, or whether the meal their stomach is currently digesting is breakfast or dinner.
Think of the time you would save by not reading this drivel. You could be freed up for more Grindr, Ok Cupid or Craig’s List. Is there ever too much Facebook in anybody’s day? Not only will you be able to rant more about your favorite political cause, you’ll have time to LIKE pictures of not just your FB friends’ cute kitties and puppies, but also those viral animal videos from Italy or Montenegro, or the exotic Philippines!
I believe it must have been some well-intentioned blogger in the not too distant past, who attempted to breathe new meaning into the word ‘musings’. Instead, it is perhaps only a hollow excuse for the rambling memories of one who in truth, is no longer relevant in the real world. Now go catch that bus.
It’s happened. It didn’t necessarily sneak up on me either. I’d seen it coming now for quite some time–several years in fact. So by the time you are reading this it will be official. I will have received my new title: Senior Citizen. I know you’re saying, “but look at him, that guy can’t be a day over sixty-three…maybe sixty-four tops”…but I’m here to tell you, that old bastard is sixty-five-long-years-old. A golden-ager, that’s what they called people like me in my parents’ day.
Many of the young women at our local Dunkin Donuts have been giving me the senior discount ahead of time. You know, they look up, see the silver hair and just assume “better give him the ten percent off–could be the old bugger’s last cup of coffee. Maybe he’s on route to the nursing home or at best adult day care, poor bastard.”
I finally broke down, rolled over and played dead for the AARP last year. They’d been chasing me with persistent mailings since I turned fifty-five. I prepaid my dues for three years and got a complimentary fanny pack, but don’t remember where I put it. I was really hoping for a big box of DEPENDS. Well, you can never be too prepared, right?
Earlier this month I had an appointment at the Social Security office to sign up for Medicare, even though I’m still working and keeping my old healthcare plan. What a disaster that turned out to be. I wasn’t there ten minutes before I texted David that if this was any indication of what collecting Social Security benefits might be about, I’d work until I keeled-over at my desk. That visit is worthy of its very own blog post. Because some asshat in a New York City Social Security office back in 1975 misspelled my name, I’ve got to go to court and legally change my name. Stay tuned for that one. So where was I? Oh right, walking the dog metaphor thingy.
I take our pooch, Henri, for a morning walk every day, unless it’s pouring rain or has snowed more than six inches. He’s got really short legs and hates getting wet. Our route is a hair over a half-mile and typically takes us around ten minutes. It’s my Dad quality time with the little guy, so I let him take me along at a pace he sets. We race like crazy at times, him choking and snorting away, pulling on the lead. Often we come to a screeching halt while he smells a few millimeters of turf for what seems like an eternity, savoring a mysterious undetectable ‘Je ne sais quois’. It’s his world; I just live in it. Following behind on the other end of the leash these five-plus years, I realize our pup holds the secret to a life well-lived.
Before we take even one step, as I open the back door, he throws his thirteen pounds full force at the bottom panel of the screen door, peering out at the same backyard view I’ve looked at for twenty years now. An excited energy instantly registers on his face. His wide eyes are certain that overnight our little house has left its Massachusetts’ foundation, and landed somewhere in the Land of Oz. Today, outside is a brand new place to discover. He squeals in delight or claws at the glass, over-eager for us to get going.
He pulls me down our driveway and onto our neighbors’ sidewalk, then across the street. We ascend to the top of the hill which is the end of our road. The wooded lot at the corner is his nirvana. There is a row of five old maples. Now I know Rodgers and Hammerstein have schooled us to climb every mountain, but Henri believes it is far better to sniff every tree trunk–every bloody nook and cranny of them all. Amazingly, he does not grace each tree by lifting a leg. Even though all are truly appreciated, only a select few does he choose to water.
Where the pavement allows us, his favorite move is to daringly shift our path into the street. He has absolutely no fear of cars or vehicles of any kind, no matter how big, loud or fast. And he’s insistent that we travel in the middle of the road. Of course this could just be dumb dog logic. Were I not there to yank him into submission, we’d both already be ashes in the same urn. Maybe he’s just reminding me that every once in a while we need to live a little dangerously, no matter how scary the circumstance. Stretch that old comfort zone. Take a walk on the wild side.
Then there are his ‘critters’. That is what we call squirrels. He is plagued by them. What drives him nuts, is the fact that they can move forward and backward, left and right…but they also can disappear. He can’t grasp the concept that squirrels can go up–climb those trees that he can only sniff or pee on. I must admit I feed his critter mania by pointing them out along our walk. “Look at that critter, Henri. Get that bastard!” and we lunge forward in hot pursuit. Of course the critters always win by scaling the closest tree, leaving him befuddled and amazed.
As much as these vermin annoy him, he has his buddies in the neighborhood to balance things. Drake is the dog who lives catty-corner across the street. He’s three times his size, a handsome, fluffy collie mix who also happens to be madly in love with Henri. I think he crushes on Drake as well. They have serious butt adoration sessions right in front of me. Then there is Daisy, a five-pound Yorkie who barks at him incessantly while excitedly wagging her tail in syncopation at the same time. She’s the only tiny dog Henri shows any liking for. Even though she yipes at him, he is mad about her.
On the occasional morning, during the final leg of our walk, we meet Taco–an ancient, blonde Chihuahua who is so obese he appears to be helium inflated. Always off-leash, he’s taken it upon himself to patrol the sidewalk in the front of his house and the neighbors’ on either side. Taco affects this low, very butch growl, showing his few remaining teeth while threatening both the pooch and me. Usually his owner has to open the front door and call him back in the house. Taco grumbles all the way to his door.
With the mileage of so many, many years under my belt, I suppose I have followed much of my dog’s philosophy. I’ve sniffed my fair share of tree trunks, and lifted my leg whenever something wonderful came my way. Most often it was those times I dared to walk down the middle of the road that I enjoyed some of my greatest adventures. There’ve been dozens of pesky critters who tried to make things difficult, but so many more Drakes who’ve made my world better. And you can’t live a truly full life without the noisy Daisys and obnoxious Tacos nipping at your heels while stumbling along on your journey. The time goes so quickly. As short as a great morning walk.
My twenty-sixth summer was one of those rare times when everything in my universe came together. I was living a charmed life. I had recently landed a job as sales/office manager for a small custom furniture company on Manhattan’s upper east side. The salary was enough to pay my rent, phone and electric bill with a little extra left for eating and playing. I’d become a pioneer in Chelsea, (a just beginning to bud Manhattan gayborhood), signing a lease on my first solo NYC apartment. It was a funky studio on the sixth floor of an elevator building with functioning wood-burning fireplace, and a palladium window onto West 17th and Eighth Avenue. I was acting with an off-off Broadway theatre troupe in a church basement near Lincoln Center, plus learning guitar and writing country western tunes with my friend Janet from Kent State. I had more friends–gay and straight–than I had free time to enjoy them, and the world was my oyster.
But I didn’t have a boyfriend. I dated like a courtesan, had sex more than I often could handle, yet lacked that special someone–the final puzzle piece greedy me still hungered for. I suffered from chronic chapped lip syndrome from kissing so many prince wannabes. I was constantly on the look-out, confident he’d be found in the least obvious place at the most unexpected time. And those were the exact circumstances in which I met The Man With the Three First Names.
My wonderful apartment had only one drawback. It had no air conditioner. Being on the top floor, once our tar-beach roof heated up, it radiated through my ceiling beginning at sundown, re-heating with the dawn. Too many nights I’d fall asleep in the swelter, only to awaken at one or two a.m. in a profusion of sweat. I took to getting up and dressing, then walking the neighborhood to 14th Street, a major cross-street. There I could seek the temporary pleasure of several air-conditioned stores which sold frozen treats, slowly devouring their cooling effects on my way back home. Luckily my neighborhood was safe any hour of the day or night, because there were always people coming or going someplace.
One hot, unsleepable night, I began my post-midnight stroll. Not halfway up the block I spied this tallish figure walking on the opposite side of the street. I assumed he saw me, because he’d now meandered over to my side. He was dressed in jeans and a pastel tank top. He had dark curly hair and a manicured black beard. So did I at the time. So did probably one out of every five gay guys in The City. I slowed my pace and he followed suit as we approached one another. The closer he got, the more my hormones raced in rhythm with my heart, while on the outside I continued a nonchalant stroll. When we passed on the sidewalk, only a foot or so apart, I turned my head slightly toward his, and smiled–more with my eyes than my mouth, without breaking my stride. God he looked gorgeous!
Giving myself a healthy number of steps forward, I stopped at the crucial point in our gay dance. Dare I turn around in hopes he had done the same? And in one of those truly magic moments in life, he’d swung himself completely around on the pavement, grinning shamelessly. His dark, piercing eyes looked me over as though he could see me naked. “Well… good evenin’ guy”, he coolly drawled, extending his hand reaching to take mine. He shook it like we were meeting at the punchbowl of some lovely social function. The man was handsome as hell and slathered in creamy Southern charm. I was so taken by his seductive allure, that the name he gave never registered in my brain. He acted like nothing but a gentleman, and certainly not street trash as one might expect at that hour of the night, cruising the neighborhood.
He lived some blocks away, over on the East Side. He was a psychologist, working in a city social work office. Neither of us had anything to write on or with, but, it turned out he had quite a distinctive name, very southern, consisting of what in reality were three first names. He told me proudly “Ahh am thee only one in the Manhattan phone dye-rectory”. I was to call him once I got home from work much later that day. My ice cream never had a chance to melt, since I rushed home to look him up the moment I got in the door. I had to be certain this all hadn’t been a dream. There he was–all three names of him–just like he’d said. He was neither a phantom of the night nor a bull shit artist.
I began phoning every one of my friends after sunrise that day, telling them about The Man With the Three First Names, and how, where and when we’d met. My women friends were either scandalized or fearful for my safety, while most of the boys were intrigued and/or aroused. I called him before I left work. We arranged to meet for a drink in the Village. We talked together non-stop for over an hour. He asked if I was free to have something to eat in his neighborhood. Was I free? He was absolutely enthralling and the evening is memorable to this day. By the end of the following week we became steady boyfriends.
Ours was an odd relationship. Well, at least for me it was. For The Man With the Three First Names, I believe it was like any other he might have ever had. We saw each other regularly, getting together a few nights a week to eat and have sex. He was a real foodie and enjoyed an eclectic range of cuisines, as did I. He’d cook one night of the weekend at his apartment and I would do the same at my place on the alternate night. We both loved classical music. I was more opera-centric than him, but often couldn’t afford the tickets. He favored piano and orchestral music, so we would attend recitals or concerts at colleges and smaller venues. It was pure joy sitting next to him, watching the music move inside him, as though he were able to draw it up through the bottoms of his feet then register the emotions onto his face. I learned a new way to listen simply by being with him.
The Man With the Three First Names had no friends. If he did, he never talked about them. I continued to socialize with my close circle, but he was neither interested in meeting them nor in joining us when we got together. Rather than question this behavior, I chose to explain to my curious cronies that it was a truly adult relationship–that we shared our lives, without losing any sense of self in the process. I wasn’t deluding myself. It was working well and there was genuine caring in both directions. Besides, The City this special summer was celebrating the Bicentennial in a huge way. At times, it appeared the celebration was in honor of our wonderful coupling.
My parents typically visited every other summer since I’d moved from Ohio. Because of the huge red, white and blue crowds invading an already busy city, they moved their trip to the fall. I wasn’t certain how I would pull it off, but I did want them to meet this guy who’d become so important in my life. Up to this point, my parents knew nothing about my love life, nor the direction in which my sexuality leaned. One of the reasons I’d moved five-hundred-plus miles from home was in order to live, what I was certain my family would view as a depraved lifestyle, without them knowing anything about it. I had no plans to formally come out to them. Still, I wanted to share a morsel of the life I’d hidden from their view. Should they wonder how this handsome southern gentleman fit into my world, then all the better.
As uninterested as he was in my friends, The Man With the Three First Names was super enthused about meeting my parents. He planned their entire final Sunday which began by meeting him in Central Park for a morning walk, then brunch in an east side restaurant. The weather was perfect and brunch was a delight. My mother melted each time he called her Ma’am, even though she insisted he call her by her first name. Dad wasn’t moved one way or another, but then he seldom was.
We had a couple of hours before heading back to pick up their suitcases and leave for the airport, so he suggested stopping at The Plaza to show them how ‘the other half’ enjoyed vacationing in NYC. Mom and Dad walked through the lobby and into the Palm Court with open mouths, awed by their surroundings and the clientele. He invited my folks to enjoy a final drink at the bar in The Oak Room. Instantly he’d become number one in Dad’s book. My father came alive whenever he’d belly up to a bar and park his ass on a stool.
I sat at the end of the bar, my mother next to me, then Dad, then The Man With the Three First Names. We’d already enjoyed several cocktails each at the restaurant, so my mother’s Southern Comfort Manhattan ‘up’ quickly went to her head. She began speaking quietly to me, and her usually animated face looked as though she was struggling with something difficult she needed to get out. She told me she was worried about me. It was obvious I’d shown I could be responsible, and that I was living on my own in a very difficult place. They were proud I’d made a good home for myself, yet something was missing. I never talked about any women in my life. Then she fumbled around–something about the importance of a sex life.
I smiled and told her not to worry about my sex life. I was doing fine. It might have been my third drink kicking in too, because out of nowhere I softly announced, “You see that guy at the other end of the bar? He’s my boyfriend. I’m gay”. It was that simple. It just sort of fell out of my mouth and I couldn’t have said it better if it had been scripted by Neil Simon. She paused, looked me in the eyes and countered, “I knew it. I knew it since you were five”. She took another sip of her Manhattan, then concluded with “Don’t say anything to your father. I’ll tell him myself when we get back to Cleveland”. I quietly smirked the rest of the afternoon.
Summer turned to fall, and we carried on our life as we had from the beginning. For my twenty-seventh birthday he cooked Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe and gave me a membership to a gym. We added workouts to our time together. He was handsome, sensitive, intelligent, passionate and caring, and I’d fallen hard for him. I traveled back to West Buttfok for Christmas. It was weird not being with him, especially amidst the holiday mania of family and friends. All I could think about was the two of us together again. I got back to my apartment loaded with holiday goodies from Ohio and a beautiful old book my mother had found for The Man With The Three First Names. It was biographies of Bach, Beethoven and the great composers with incredible steel engravings. She’d inscribed something about “taking good care of my son” and he was quite moved.
Things began to turn strange in the early new year. It was like he’d switched something off inside, and didn’t have time for us anymore. One week in late January, we hadn’t seen one another for days. After suffering too much from his estrangement, I did something I’d never done before–showed up at his apartment door, unannounced. I half expected to find a new me enjoying dinner at my place at his table.
That would have been easier to bear than the scene I was forced to play. He was alone, looking grim, but not ruffled by my unexpected presence. I asked him what was wrong, what had I done, what caused the sudden alienation. He looked at me blankly. “Who is he?”, I nearly shrieked, my voice cracking in fear.
“No one. I promise.” He calmly sat down in his chair, devoid of emotion. “We just shouldn’t see each other anymore”, he delivered flatly. He said he didn’t want to hurt me. He couldn’t find a way to tell me his reason for avoiding me lately. He knew he’d never insult me by saying we could still be friends. That wasn’t an option. He understood that.
I can still see myself falling to my knees at his feet, pleading to know why. What had changed? I was hugging his legs, sobbing into his jeans, reduced to blubbering a single word question. “Why?”
His hand cradled the back of my head, in an attempt to comfort. “You’re not cerebral enough.”
My universe stopped with his words. It was that ton of bricks you always hear about, landing squarely onto my head. First came disbelief. Then numbness set in. Finally, anger brought me to my feet. “You are so fucked up you really need a shrink. But…I don’t know a good one to recommend.”
Blearily, I grabbed for my coat and headed towards the door. He called my name as I opened it, and I stopped. I almost turned around, but couldn’t bear to look at him knowing it would be the last time. I’d been decimated. Even without a mirror, I knew my face looked hideous and I refused to let him see the damage he had done. I have no idea how I found my way back to my apartment. I only remember he’d made the bitter January cold worse.
For days after I remained in a stupor. Nothing felt real. I sat in my apartment alone, burning Duraflame logs in my fireplace, hoping to get warm. I watched the fire in silence, because there wasn’t an album I could play whose music didn’t make me think of him. The quiet was interrupted only by the echo of his words in my head. I was ashamed I’d allowed him to make me feel like a fool. My truly adult relationship had left me a sniveling, helpless infant. After several days, fearing for my sanity, I began calling my closest friends in an attempt to jump-start the old me–before I’d ever met The Man With The Three First Names. Those people were my treasures and the medication necessary to heal a battered ego.
They helped me back onto my feet. Still, I continued to find it difficult to listen to music. It had been the glue that kept our relationship together. But the music that Janet and I wrote and played was ours alone. He’d never heard any of it. I would draft the lyrics–concerned only with the story, the rhythm, and rhyme. She had the gift of creating the tune that fit–the important piece of the puzzle. Together we’d written probably half a dozen songs. We played and sang regularly, performing our tunes at parties and get togethers with our combined Kent State and NYC friends.
Long about week three after the breakup, the oddest thing occurred. This tune came into my head. I found myself humming it, wondering where I’d heard it before. I knew maybe a dozen chords which served to satisfy the extent of my guitar strumming/picking expertise. Alone, with just me and the guitar, I figured out the chord progression. The words followed almost instantly. The process proved therapeutic. I sensed it had all come from deep inside my gut, where it still hurt badly. The song was never written down, because I had no idea what the notes were. I didn’t sing it for many people. It was very personal, in a corny, country-western, tongue in cheek way.
Just like I will never forgot The Man With The Three First Names, I will never forget the song he’d inspired, which eased an aching heart.
Six Months a’ Heaven (And Just Three Weeks of Hell) music and lyrics by Matthew Schuster
Just what I thought Bear Week was going to be, in hindsight, I cannot say. I was certainly not disappointed. That is one thing I never am in Provincetown. But when comparing my recent day trip to any other week we’ve spent during the past eighteen summers, it did not seem there were any more Bears around than usual. While enjoying a tall, cold beer with lunch at Pepe’s Warf on a shady deck, I asked two guys nearby, sporting bear t-shirts, if they thought numbers were down this year. Both of them were town residents who assured me there were tons of Bears in town, just like every other year. They told me most of them were either busy at special venues like huge pool parties and other organized events, or sunning at the beach. All the clubs were packed with the grizzly guys every night, they reported, not to mention loads of private parties all over town.
While I tooled about Ptown, traversing up and down Commercial Street stopping in favorite stores and discovering a few new ones, I kept my eyes open for unusual Bear sightings. Of course they were ubiquitous as always. A pair that I wish I’d been able to photograph were these two guys getting out of a Checker Cab who took everyone by surprise. They looked to be in their early 30s, each of them six-foot-something and definitely the musclebear type. Both of them handsome as hell and nicely groomed, what made them stand out were their outfits. Gone were the denim cutoffs and flannel shirts with the sleeves ripped short, these two might have been expected to be wearing. Instead they were clad only in speedos–plus big, floppy garden party wide-brimmed hats, AND tall platform high-heeled Joan Crawford comefuckme pumps. Needless to say, this Bear Pair stopped traffic–and many hearts I am certain. To borrow a phrase: they were simply “too tremendous”.
Never having gone to Provincetown for just a day and without a spouse before, (David had to work and I was on a bus trip with forty some students and faculty from my school), it was a strangely unique experience. There was so much I’d hoped to do, but with so little time I worried I might not spend it wisely. I had known for weeks that Armistead Maupin was in town for Bear Week again this year. He was doing a program of conversation, and reading from his final volume of the Tales of the City saga. How I wished I could stay to hear him. He is truly one of my heroes. But our bus would be leaving at 5:00 p.m. and his program began at 8:00, presenting a scheduling impossibility. Posters of him were at the box office and in several shop windows. So close and yet so far away.
I was also shamelessly distributing a new postcard promoting the blog, to any place that would accept them:
While making my rounds, I spotted John Waters riding his bicycle only an arm’s-length away, always a welcoming sight. He spends summers in Ptown for some years now and we enjoyed his show at the Town Hall a few years back. Call me cornball, but I still get a thrill seeing famous people in the street, especially such a clever one who made some of my favorite films–the original Hairspray, not to mention Polyester, starring Divine with Tab Hunter (filmed in Odorama–I kept my scratch-and-sniff card for years after).
Then it happened. Not five minutes later, still fresh from my brush with cinematic greatness, as I passed the Crown and Anchor Hotel, leaning in its shade HE stood alone all by HIMSELF. It was as though the heavy foot traffic in the street shuttling by HIM unnoticed, mystically parted to expose the man as I approached. For a second, staring at that face I knew so well, yet had never seen in the flesh before, we were the only two people on Commercial Street. I was looking at greatness, and it was calling to me. Hesitating for only a millisecond, I started towards HIM with my paw extended, grabbing HIS warm hand in mine. I began my feeble soliloquy:
“I knew you were in town but I never thought I’d bump into you on the street!”
I lifted my oversized and very dark sunglasses to lessen both my frightening appearance and a perhaps too enthusiastic introduction. HE looked into my eyes, while quickly searching my face. Dear lord, I prayed, he thinks I am some lunatic. I ceased pumping his arm.
“It’s so amazing to finally meet you!” I wanted to add his name to the end of that sentence, but “Mr. Maupin” just didn’t fit the man whose hand I still held tightly in mine, nor the love for HIM and his talent which has burned in my heart since 1979 when I first began reading his Tales. And I couldn’t allow myself to be so presumptuous to ever call him Armistead. What DID people call HIM I wondered? Armi?
Then HE spoke to me, (while I still clutched his hand). “Oh, for a minute there I was struggling to put a name to your face and I couldn’t place you”, he sort of chuckled as a wonderful grin took over his face. Wow, I thought to myself, he laughed. I think he likes me.
“Oh no, you don’t know me. But I feel like I know you really well.” To punctuate this, I cover our clasped hands with my left hand, making a sandwich of his between mine. “I’ve read everything you’ve ever written…except for the last book.” Plus now I am gushing, just like my mother used to. I cannot believe that at the moment I am face-to-face with one of the greatest gay icons in this world, I am also channeling my overly exuberant and very dead mother.
“I wish I could see you tonight.” I believe I released his poor hand at this point.
“There are still some seats…”
Interrupting Armistead Maupin I explain: “I’m only here another few hours. My bus is leaving at 5:00.” What the hell does he care about your schedule, asshole? Stop babbling and say something writerly fer’ crissakes.
“Thank you so much for all you’ve written.” Again he grinned, perhaps a bit broader. His blue eyes twinkled in the afternoon sun and all these wonderful laugh lines appeared around them magically at the same instant. With all the bright white hair on his head and in his bristly mustache, he looked like a gay Santa Claus masquerading in summer mufti. My thank you line became my exit cue, then I nodded almost reverently and continued up the street, not daring to turn back for even a parting glance.
Heady from the excitement of our brief encounter, I moved quickly, digesting the chance meeting the universe had just provided me. Why had I wasted the opportunity to really talk to the man–discussed something of substance–posed perhaps, at least one intelligent question? I’d wished to come across like a well read, somewhat witty person who understood that maybe such a thing as literary criticism existed in my world too. So why was I left with the feeling that I’d just done a near-perfect Edith Bunker impersonation?
What I wanted to tell him, was how important his stories had been to the young gay man from Ohio, who just like Mary Ann Singleton, had transplanted himself into a strange and wonderful Oz-like city where being gay was nearly as normal as being straight. I wish I had thanked him for the doors he opened so that it was possible to write stories–not G-A-Y stories for G-A-Y people, but stories like Mark Twain or Charles Dickens wrote, that were about all kinds of people who any reader could identify with or fall in love with. Being gay, or straight, bi-sexual, trans–whatever, he had made it so that didn’t matter anymore. No book I’d ever read before was so richly inclusive or honestly real– funny and sad or so very human. No, I didn’t say any of that to him. But I did manage to tell him what time my bus would be leaving.
While the LGBT population world-wide struggles for acceptance and equality, at the same time we insist on separating ourselves into categories which we came up with–all on our own. The society we fight to find our place in had absolutely nothing to do with it. No wonder it’s tough to be gay. Sometimes we contribute to it by stereotyping ourselves, insisting on choosing a specific compartment that classifies us according to some physical trait or insignificant preference. It wasn’t always like that, this dinosaur is here to tell you.
Back in the last century, in the early 1970s in Ohio when I first came out, you went to a gay bar and there were two kinds of homosexuals–dykes and fags. We were so happy to be able to be out, no one thought to be anything more than simply GAY. In those clubs we could hang out together and just be ourselves, which we dared not do anywhere outside the safety of the places we frequented. It wasn’t that these gay bars were particularly fabulous or fun–they were all we had–a place to be comfortable in your own skin a few hours each week.
Moving to New York City, my gay world expanded. Actually, it damn near exploded. Unlike northeastern Ohio, where you could count the number of gay establishments on one hand, here there were dozens of places in Manhattan alone. And NYC is where I began to notice the development of gay stratification.
At this point there were: jocks, leather men, daddies and elephants. The jocks were hardly the buff gym rats of today. In fact, in those days a six-pack meant only one thing–six bottles or cans of beer. These jocks were closer to preppies, in button-down shirts, loafers with or without socks, clean-shaven and well-groomed hair. Leather men were easy to spot in their chaps, vests or black leather jackets and huge, heavy belts and boots. They made facial hair fashionable again. Leather men were the first to embrace piercings–initially just ears–then they commenced to travel south–way south. In the beginning these guys intimidated me, until I smartened up and realized for many, it was simply costume, and had zero to do with how they performed under the sheets. Daddies were men forty-plus years who dressed more sophisticatedly than any of the others. Technically they could have been a twenty-something’s father. While I found most daddies tantalizing in my heyday, I hesitated to pursue their advances because the age difference made me a bit queasy. And the elephants, oh those poor elephants, were the older, grandfatherly men who most gay guys ran from, (except for the gold diggers who took full advantage of the poor old horny dudes).
There was an unnamed category that a majority of gay men fell into in this same era. I would have to call it the ‘denim crowd’. It was the strata I identified with in my single days. In fall and winter we wore flannel shirts or work shirts and jeans with a jean jacket. In summer we’d don the same jeans, wife-beater tank tops or go shirtless with a jean jacket. Some guys wore heavy boots if they leaned towards leather. Others chose sneakers or loafers if they were more jock-inspired.
I dated my first denim guy for only a month or so. He worked in the interior design industry like myself. By day his job required he wear a suit and tie. Regardless, he wore this tiny gold hoop earing which I found an odd juxtaposition, but so very hot. His name was Robb (with two B’s) and his last name (French Canadian), also began with a B. I affectionately referred to him as ‘Robb Bone-air’, frankly because that’s what he gave me whenever I caught a glimpse of that shocking earring and the dirty grin always pasted on his handsome face. Even when dressed in denim, there was something about his earring that hayseed me found so provocative in those olden days. Robb was also responsible for making me go commando…but I’m getting a bit off-track here.
Just before the end of the 70s I went off the dating market, settling down with a man who didn’t belong to any of the above-mentioned categories. He was Alejandro, and we were together for a dozen years. During my time out of the gay loop, a few new categories were formed. The biggest was the Bear Community. They surfaced somewhere in the early 1980s. Of course Bears have been around since forever, but this is when they became a huge thing, perhaps because there became so many kinds of them.
Bears, first and foremost, are guys with body hair. Bears are not into manscaping. This does not mean you have to wear a chest wig to be a Bear. There are some burly Bear dudes who are not terribly hairy. These men might compensate by cultivating hair where it does naturally grow, like on their heads. And if it doesn’t grow there, then maybe they’ll sport full, bristling beards. The Bear population has grown so large they’ve developed subclasses: younger bears are referred to as Cubs, older bears are often called Polar Bears, there are Musclebears, Panda Bears (Asians) and then, to totally confuse things, there are Bears who are hairy but thinner and extremely muscular, termed Otters (which in the animal kingdom aren’t even in the same family!).
I’ve always found Bears adorable. Although we shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about any one group of people, I’m sticking my neck out here to say almost every Bear I’ve ever met has been a really cool guy. They’re fun-loving and playful. They don’t intimidate and for the most part are very open and accepting of non-bear types. They couldn’t be less pretentious, and typically dress totally for comfort–fashion be damned. I’ve always secretly wished to be a bear, but I’m (1) not entirely hirsute, (2) too old and never was nearly in-shape enough to dare to call myself an Otter, and (3) unfortunately, a little too overly concerned with what I wear. Perhaps they will someday bestow an Honorary Ursine membership upon me.
If the 80s introduced the Bear, the 90s was the dawn of the Twink. These guys existed even in my youth; only the name is new and their growth in numbers appears to have increased. They could be considered the other extreme of the Bear. Twinks are slender, young, boyish, typically clean-shaven, manied and pedied and always dressed to go clubbing. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is most current in fashion and anything that is of no earthly use in the real world. It would be difficult, I imagine, to be thirty-something AND still be a Twink. I never got what they were about in my day, so I am even more in the dark concerning the Twinks of today. They’re the kind of people my Grandmother would pray for daily, were she still alive and able to recognize their existence in her world.
Dating sites and apps like Grindr will no doubt create some new categories of gay men perhaps even I will get wind of, as David pushes me in my wheelchair up Commercial Street in Provincetown, should I live long enough. Who can say what will be considered cool and appealing to the next gay generation? The only wisdom I can impart at this point in my life is simply this:
Whether you are a Twink, a Cub, or an Otter, please don’t get so wrapped up in the look or the trends of the day, that you miss the now–the moment you should be living. Forget about your outfit for Tea Dance–nobody cares if your shorts are just a little too baggy, or your sneakers are last season’s. Dance your ass off, even by yourself if no one else asks you to dance. Order dessert if you want. Only you see the extra half pound the next morning. Looking back on my gay life, it is as if only three summers ago I came out at twenty-one. A year later, I was forty and single again. And just last week, AARP sent me my first invitation for membership while still in my late fifties. Life happens so goddamn fast you become a dinosaur, before you’ve even had the chance to begin to sample life.
I have always longed to visit Provincetown for Bear Week, as it is one of the most popular weeks of the summer, when the town is overtaken by a Bear invasion. My job schedule has never afforded me the pleasure, but this year I will be able to at least make a day trip on Friday. I can’t wait to report on my day there in a follow-up post.
If those first five years at Lynfield Junior-Senior High were hell, then certainly my sixth and final year had to be at least purgatory. Heaven it was not, since it was, after all, still Lynfield. Senior year was also when I’d first discovered love. It was not for any one person in particular, but for life itself. Now when I walked through the halls, I no longer tried to blend into the beigeness of the painted cinder blocks, nor prayed to be swallowed up by an oversized green asphalt floor tile. I would make no more apologizes to the student body for my existence. To all of them and the majority of the faculty we were still Kassouf and Kazmarek. To each other we’d become Sammy and Timmy. It sounds insipidly sweet now, but in those golden days it fit us to a T.
Theatre was our world. I landed some amazing parts and hammered home to Sammy the value of going after the best role rather than the biggest. We learned to share the glory and managed to keep our egos at bay, recognizing friendship was more valuable than the pursuit of any lead. And although the humanities were looked down upon by ninety-nine percent of our peers, we still pretended to be the cognoscenti of Lynfield. We carried ourselves like movie stars, elevated to a position of fame that didn’t allow us to mingle with the likes of the lowly jocks, cheerleaders and popular crowd.
The two of us were seldom apart, and those rare times were made up for when we overnighted at each other’s houses on Saturday nights. It was usually chez moi, since I had my own bedroom and he didn’t. Our mothers had instantly adopted us both, sharing joint custody. Sammy opened our refrigerator door as if it were his own, and Mrs. Kassouf knew which Lebanese delicacies were special favorites of ‘my Timmy’. He had become the brother I’d always longed my own might be.
I was still going with him to clean the library a few nights a week. In early fall the Drama Club had gone to see Carol Channing in the national tour of HELLO DOLLY! Sammy was mesmerized by her performance. I thought she was abominably bad, chewing the scenery every chance she got. He called it comedic genius. The library had a copy of the album and Sammy played it continuously until I thought I would puke. He’d pipe it through the huge speakers in the lecture room. Late one school night, as I was nodding off in a dark corner while he finished buffing the floors, the well-known strains of the orchestra’s intro to the title song came blaring in my direction. Out the lecture hall door danced Sammy.
Not content to merely lip-sync, full-voiced and throatier than Miss Channing, he performed the entire number before me. At first I nervously giggled, somewhat embarrassed watching such a private performance, typically only attempted in front of a mirror when no one else was home. At least that’s how it was always done by me. Without aid of make-up or red-feathered headpiece, he was mimicking the tacky diva’s rendition, matching her note for note.
His musical extravaganza was obviously well-rehearsed. I whooped in great peals of laughter as he maneuvered about in the dance segment with those big hands attached to awkwardly flailing arms. I could almost make out the chorus of dancing waiters behind him as he executed those high kicks for his big finish. How comfortable he was in his own skin. How brave he was, doing exactly what he felt like doing with no regard for what anyone might think of him. Or else, he was just so at ease and one with me, that he recognized we had, ever so gradually, become kindred spirits. When he drove me home that night, I smiled all the way-not because of his silly show, but at the gift his friendship had become.
The following Saturday night he slept at my house. As usual, we’d taken in a movie with our group of theatre friends. It was well past midnight and we were exhausted, yet way too energized to fall asleep. We lay in my dark bedroom-me uncomfortably on my single box spring and him sprawling across the mattress on the floor beside me. We often talked for hours into the night, the conversation continuing until one of us passed out mid-sentence. It was my favorite part of being best friends with Sammy Kassouf.
Turning on my side to face him while he lay on his back, after we’d run out of things to say about the movie and thoroughly dished all our friends, out of the blue I asked “Tell me what your dreams are.”
“You know them all already. I want to go to college…”
“No. that’s a reality”, I interrupted. “Come September you’ll be at Otterbein.”
“Yeah, and you’ll be at Kent, I get it. So then what d’ya mean by dreams?
“Escape Lynbrook immediately”, I began enumerating. “Get a job teaching English in a great school. Marry a girl like Patty or Barb. She’ll help me grade papers. I’ll get involved with the drama club-direct a play at least every spring. My wife will do costumes or maybe assistant direct.” My litany of dreams that before had played silently in my head, now tumbled out of my mouth and into our secret chamber for his ears only.
“Kids. I want a kid…well ….maybe. Do you? Can you imagine being somebody’s father?”
“Not really. No. I don’t see either of us with kids. But who knows what’ll happen ten years from now. Where either of us will be.”
“I hope we’ll be close by each other. Not like next door neighbors. But close enough to drive over to each other’s places, or meet for dinner or a movie. Right, Timmy? Don’t you think we’ll be best friends…like… always?”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how much he wanted to hear, or how much I was ready to offer. He was quiet for several minutes. I waited, listening for his breathing to see if he’d fallen asleep. Just when I was ready to drop-off myself, Sammy turned on his side facing me, our noses less than a foot apart.
“I want to be an actor. I want to make movies. I want to be like Dustin Hoffman.” He waited for my reaction.
“Is that all?”, I finally teased. “We’re from Lynfield, Ohio. Nobody remotely famous ever came from a place like this.”
“Clark Gable from Cadiz, Ohio. Tyrone Power from Cincinnati.”
“But that was then”, I negatively countered, throwing water to put out his fiery dream as he sat up on the mattress.
“Paul Newman AND Hal Holbrook are from Cleveland.”
Seeing he’d obviously done his homework, I reached for my cigarette pack, snapped on the bedside lamp, sensing we’d begun a second round for the night. We talked and smoked into dawn. Our confessional ended with my final quote: “I don’t much care what I end up doing. I just want to someday sit in that chair next to Johnny Carson’s desk.”
By the time the sun actually appeared in my window, we determined once we’d finished college, regardless of our degrees, we would go to New York, share an apartment, and study acting. No more talk of wives, or children, or good friends getting together for drinks every other weekend. We had formed a secret, solemn pact.
The school year continued as it had started-best buddies joined at the fucking hip. Sammy feared fall, with both of us nearly two hundred miles apart. I was confident it would only make things better. We each had to work in order to get through college, which I viewed simply as a necessary formality. Only then would we be ready to begin our real lives in New York City. The forced separation was something I was privately almost looking forward to, though I wasn’t sure why.
The weekend before we left for college, he arranged for us to have a brief getaway. He’d borrowed a four-man pop-up camper and we headed a few hours south to a small lake where his father had taken him fishing years before. We invited two guys from our theatre group to come along. They were juniors that we would be leaving behind. We bought provisions for two nights. All of us sensed this would be a welcomed last hurrah.
It poured the first night, and we became prisoners of the cramped trailer until the following afternoon, when the deluge halted enough to light the Coleman stove and grill burgers. We hiked a bit, but it was chilly and dark, so we built a big fire. We passed that evening around the blaze, rehashing our three years of theatre stories, honoring the people who made us laugh and cursing those who made our lives miserable. We paid tribute to ourselves for the stamina we showed to endure it all.
Our last morning the sun broke out gloriously. Everyone headed to the tiny lake to skinny dip for a few hours before driving back. Sammy was the swimming teacher/lifeguard. Me-I couldn’t swim or even float-though I had no fear of water. We’d brought these huge black inner tubes, and while the three of them horsed around, dunking and splashing like nine-year olds, I floated a distance away to watch them. Without realizing it, I was filming this scene with my mind’s eye for a day like today, when I would need to tell our story. We none of us had a care in this world, though we were certain we held the keys to the mysteries of the universe in our pockets. Foolish, silly Buckeye Boys that we were.
Instructions: Click the “Play” arrow above. Please follow along silently, as I read aloud.
Christmas as I’d always known it changed radically when my Dad died in late summer 1990. Although their marriage was quite the rocky one, my mother had stuck by him through fifty-four turbulent years and he by her. In hindsight, I don’t know which of them was the worst instigator. Truth be told, they both could be pains in the ass. Now for the first time in her adult life, Mom had found herself alone. I remember a phone conversation about two months after he was gone where I asked her “so how are you really doing now?” to which she responded without missing a beat:
“Oh, it’s soooo lonely. There’s no one to fight with.” She’d said it with pure sincerity.
As the holidays approached, she was getting sadder, not better. I never expected this from her, because she’d always been such a free-spirited woman. Many times during her life she was held back because my father didn’t want her doing something she would have loved to do. She explained she dreaded sitting around the Thanksgiving table with her sister and brother and their families all by herself. I suggested she come out to Massachusetts and spend it with me and my then partner Alejandro. She leapt at the chance. We took her to a lovely two-hundred-year-old inn for a hearth-side turkey dinner. She adored it, but commented several times during the meal that she felt like a whore (that’s how she pronounced it), because only whores ate Thanksgiving dinner at restaurants. Each time she repeated the word, she’d grin a little more broadly.
So Mom went back to Ohio, and now whenever we spoke on the phone her conversation turned to dreading Christmas. She wondered how she could ever make it to New Year’s without my father. Mind you, the two of them hadn’t partied on New Year’s Eve since the birth of my older brother in 1942. I suggested she find a bereavement support group to help ease her way through the holidays. She did attend several sessions. But those phone conversations were not getting any better and her calls were coming closer together. The topic was still the same and growing more maudlin each time.
Finally, out of desperation, I tried another tactic. With a giggle in my voice I offhandedly joked “Mom, maybe you should think back to all those Christmases that Dad ruined by screaming and fighting over the Christmas tree”. There was a long pause as I waited for her reply. Then it came like a volley:
“Well…I’m sorry that your childhood Christmases were ruined”, and she hung up with a bang.
But it was true. Just as I remember looking back on fun hours baking Christmas cookies, I recall the angst and torture that came with merely the mention of the words Christmas and tree combined. My parents certainly never needed a real reason to have an argument. They could start a rip-snorter over the most insignificant thing imaginable. Like the thermostat on the wall. On one trip back to West Buttfok, I found the two of them hadn’t spoken to each other for three days, because each insisted that neither of them had touched the bloody thermostat and yet it somehow was set at 70 instead of 68 degrees. Is that the universally acceptable winter setting, I’d wondered?
So one can see how a relationship as explosive as theirs would certainly crumble under the pressure of dealing with the burden of a Christmas tree. And it often times began at home simply discussing the fact that it was nearing time to go out and buy a tree. Dad would say it was way too early to go looking, and my mother insisted that if we waited even an hour longer all the good ones would surely be gone. They would scream and curse and name call and insult the hell out of each other until one of them would end up grumbling “then fine-we just won’t have a tree this year”.
Once the two of them agreed it was the appropriate time, we all of us piled into the car and round two began-where to buy the tree. In the 50s and 60s there weren’t a lot of places that sold trees in our area of greater Cleveland, yet our folks claimed they could never remember where we got the tree the year before. I always remembered, but they didn’t trust one another, so why would they even consider trusting a kid? We were hardly down the driveway before the screaming began again, this time about which direction to head in. If Mom persisted in going to the tree seller she thought we’d gone to the year before, my father would threaten: “Stop tellin’ me where ta’ drive or I’ll turn the god-damn car around right now and you won’t have yer’ tree.”
It’s not my tree”, she would counter, it’s our tree.”
“Yeah, right”, he’d grumble under his breath, demanding to have the last word. I would sit in the back seat cowering, just wishing the ordeal would be over rather than only beginning. There were also years when she’d call his bluff and he did turn around to go home. Then usually my brother or I started crying. This caused Dad to scream at us and reach around with his right hand blindly smacking at our legs while he continued driving, one-handed, refocusing his anger on his sons rather than his wife the shrew. We never did suffer a Christmas without a tree though, but came pretty damn close a couple of years.
Invariably we ended up at a place near my elementary school which always had the best selection. My older brother and I started running down the rows of cut trees propped up on stakes. Our parents screaching at us to “act civilized, fer’ chrissakes”-ironic coming from the two of them. All of us were hoping to be first to spot the perfect tree for our tiny living room, which barely had space for the manger scene on the TV set and the four of us at the same time. Of course my mother always fell in love with the twelve footers, which was a total impossibility in our bungalow. My dad typically chose the shortest, bushiest, shrub-like arbor because his main criteria was fitting “the god-damn thing” into his car trunk. He never would be so cavalier to allow even one inch of pine to stick out of the car. He was far too lazy to expend the energy tying the thing to his roof. “It might scratch the paint” was his excuse against doing any extra work. This concern for a car he washed with Spic-n-Span once a summer-whether it needed it or not.
The one and only thing they did agree on was it had to be a Scotch Pine. Why, I’ve no idea, but every year it had to be our tree of choice. Short needle, long needle, bushy or spindly, my brother and I just wanted a tree to take home to decorate, and our parents to stop fighting and shut the hell up. They had no shame; they’d fight in front of the tree man. They weren’t the least bit bothered by each other’s behavior but I could have died right then and there. I bore their shame for them.
Round three was bringing the tree into the living room, setting it up and putting on the lights. This was something that only Dad could do, no matter how old we sons were. It was one of his few expressions of machismo, but of course, it came with a price. We were expected to help him if he struggled, while at the same time staying out of his way. So, if the tree began to lean dangerously close to falling, (as Mom hollered “towards the window!” and he queried “which window, fer’ chrissakes?”) unless he called for help we were NOT to attempt assisting. And when he did ask for our aid, we were, of course, told we were useless, because it was our fault that whatever had happened, happened.
He shouted and swore and G-D’d his way through the job. Once it was up in its stand and encircled in lights he parked his ass in his recliner and watched us hanging the years of accumulated ornaments and tinsel and candy canes. Intermittently supervising our work, chewing on a smelly cheap cigar, he would bellow instructions from his throne. He’d critique our decorating with helpful comments like: “Yer’ makin’ the damn thing look cockeyed now” or the ever-popular “Can’t you do anything right?”. Then when people came to visit over the holidays my father was the first to remark “isn’t our tree beautiful?”. We all wanted to wring his neck, leaving him dead-right there in his chair.
At the end of the joyous season came the final round…that being dismantling the dead pine and taking it out to the street to be carted away by the trash man. I won’t even bore you with that ordeal. I think you might guess that those memories are not half as pleasant as the ones putting the tree up had been.
I still love Christmas trees, despite my parents’ damaged sense of holiday cheer. I’ll admit that taking down dessicated live trees is nothing but ugliness and hell, and I often channel most of my father’s rage to assist me in the task. But still for seventeen years, David and I went out shopping for a live tree. It is a happy/sad time for us both, decorating and remembering Christmases past and family and friends no longer with us to celebrate the season.
This Christmas is our first foray into the world of the fake tree-and is it ever. A fantasy of mine for decades-inspired, no doubt by some uber queer department store window designer in the late 1950s-a six-foot tall PINK Christmas tree. It’s so gay it’s almost embarrassing. But it’s beginning to grow on us. Have a fabulous holiday! (whatever you celebrate).