Archive for April, 2012

QUEERS SUCK…. Or Why the Gay Ghetto Is So Nowhere

| April 29, 2012 | Comments (0)

Bette Davis in All About Eve trailer.jpg

Engaged in my favorite evening pursuit the other night – watching old movies – I received the shock of my life half-way through the Bette Davis classic, “All About Eve.”  Most of the famous one-liners had already been delivered – Margot’s “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy evening !”; Marilyn Monroe’s ” Who do I have to fuck to get a drink around here?” (or words to that effect) and my favorite put-down of all time, when George Saunders replies to  Anne Baxter’s Eve  after she points to the door telling him  to “get out”  and  he emits  that low-pitched snarl that only Saunders can deliver:  “Eve, you’re too short for that gesture! ”

In what  turns out to be one of the happier moments in the movie  – Davis  only insults a waiter and yells at her husband-to-be  and is not yet drunk – she lights yet another cigarette and I notice for the first time in decades of Davis-watching that Bette  IS NOT INHALING ! Not believing what I see on screen, I wait for the next light-up which is only minutes away since Margot/Bette practically chain-smokes, and my eyes confirm what they had just seen: Davis takes in a moderate amount of smoke and immediately blows it out, spewing the fumes aimlessly in all directions as an amateur non-inhaler is apt to do.

Somehow what I am witnessing seems to be a treasonous betrayal, but who is betraying whom ? It’s not as though Bette had been lying to ME all these years, doing something different from what she claimed she was doing. The celluloid proof of HOW Bette smoked had been there for all to see since the 1930s when in that famous close-up smoking scene from “Now Voyager” Leslie Howard lights two cigs at once and passes one to Bette. Somehow I just didn’t see what she did with that cigarette. Now, on reflection, I can only conclude one thing: that Bette Davis was really not smoking.

There are two things that spell Bette Davis to me – mind you, we all have our takes on what matters to us in her persona – and those two things are smoking  – REALLY smoking – and being mean to servants. A friend of mine defended Bette’s treatment of domestics saying that she was actually rather kind to her slaves in “Jezzabelle.” But I beg to differ. It’s true  she doesn’t strike them or shout when dishing out commands, but there is an iciness in her deliveries that assure us that Bette is, above all, not a nice person…and that is what I love about her, her pure un-adulterated meanness.

Her smoking and her meanness go hand-in-glove, but if Bette is NOT really smoking, can she actually be  all that mean ? By the end of the film, I could only conclude that mousey Eve (Anne Baxter) is actually far the meaner of the two and that Margot Channing is really more of a confused, middle-aged woman unsure of her grip on her profession and the man she thinks she has snared (Gary Merrill, also her real-life husband). To say that I was shaken to the core is an understatement. It was as if my best pal had denied our friendship or my parents had disowned me. Had I been younger and not so world-weary, I might have considered ending it all, but being in my eighth decade,  when Bette’s fake smoking hit me, I shrugged and poured myself another glass of vino. So much for you, Bette, and your “Now Voyager” non-inhaling. Life is a veil of tears or,  in your case, a cloud of un-inhaled smoke.

What we’re going to talk  about today does not directly concern Bette or what she did with her weeds, but it does relate to one of  her major constituencies – gays. I came to the sad conclusion implied in the title of this piece after spending a summer on Fire Island, the home of two famous gay summer communities, Cherry Grove and The Pines,  that gay people are their own worst enemies and that hovering together in a putative  clan of like-minded “family” is futile and counter-productive, a false hope not born out by real life experience. The result: bitter disappointment.

Cherry Grove is a cute village by the water  favored by lesbians. It is said that back in the 20s and 30s, Eleanor Roosevelt used to visit her pals there.  Set in lush gardens punctuated with wind-blown pine trees, tiny, brightly painted bungalows line weather-beaten boardwalks and display whimsical names like “Beau-He-Man Rhapsody” , “Shel Shocked” and “Seas the Day.” The village center includes an old-fashioned post office featuring tiny post boxes with little glass doors, presided over by an ancient post mistress who must be nearing 100 and is, by turns, crochety or cheerful depending on the weather.

One is pulled, involuntarily, to the nearby bakery, “Donuts N Things”, where the smell of freshly baked croissants and danish are impossible to resist. “Donuts N Things” is presided over by La Vyrne, a 6′ 2″  force to be reckoned with whose outfits defy description. La Vyrne is a black,  trans-gendered person who is half-way through her journey of sex change. She has a rich benefactor in the city who is paying for her surgery and she is taking a break from her medical procedures to spend summer by the sea.  Mornings do not find her at her best. Bright light is her born enemy and La Vyrne’s over-use of a pale-colored pancake make-up give her a Morticia look that is enough to cure the fiercest hang-over. To give La Vyrne her due, when night falls and she has had the time to put herself right,  she becomes the toast of the local clubs. Bathed in soft lights, with purple  eye-shadow and the right recreational drugs, she morphs into a fierce disco queen rivaled by none.

So that,  in a nutshell, is Cherry Grove, a rather strange mixture of Norman Rockwell, Studio 54 and the Addams Family. A mile or two down the road,  through a forest aptly named the Meat Rack for what goes on there, lies The Pines, an affluent redoubt that is young and almost exclusively male. The real estate  reflects the wealth; there are private swimming pools and mansions peer over high walls. Broadway legends retreat there on holiday.Young specimens with  oiled, shaved, “buff” bodies parade the boardwalk, engaging in The Pines’ favorite passtime: seeing and being seen.

One summer not long ago, I rented a wildly over-priced apartment in Cherry Grove for the May – September season, Memorial Day to Labor Day being the window of time for the beach. May-June was windblown and cool, with nights becoming delightfully chilly; high summer, from July into September, brought baking hot sun and refreshing breeze; some people even lingered for Thanksgiving on Fire Island. Harder to get to by boat by that time of year with local provisioning almost non-existent in November, I was told those Fire Island Thanksgivings resembled what one could imagine the first Thanksgiving was like in Plymouth  in 1620.

Inspite of the film-set  atmospherics, the envigorating weather, the shimmering beach and the tasty baked goods served up by statuesque La Vyrne  at “Donuts N Things”, I found Fire Island a sad, mean place populated mostly  by selfish, angry people whose negativity feeds on their insecurities.  The chemistry in restaurants was short-tempered  and the prices gouging. Socializing was problematic. With so many “categories”  and cliques having drawn their lines in the sand – young and male, middle-aged and lesbian, wealthy and professional versus working -class and un-educated, I was at a loss as to how I should navigate to find some human rapport.

Sadly, at the end of those four, overpriced months,  I had made almost no friends and found the place boring and mean-spirited inspite of  the natural beauty and the envigorating weather. I suppose my solititude should not have been a problem since my goal that summer was to take myself to the beach and write a book.  But the loneliness and lack of positive  vibrations made me realize that no man is an island, that we need at least a modicum of human support from fellow beings to function successfully.

Even my final moments on Fire Island left a bad taste in my mouth. Standing at the boat dock waiting for the ferry to take me back to the mainland at the end of the season, I realized I had forgotten to take my prescription medications. I entered the pier-side snack bar and asked the bartender for a cup of water so I could take my meds. He hissed back at me, “Honey, if ya want water, ya gotta buy it!” As luck would have it, I had no money with me and there was no ATM nearby to replenish my empty pockets. I ended up swallowing the pills dry and almost choking on them.

So much for the joys and friendship of  gay communities. Good riddance, Fire Island, may you sink, snarling and hissing, into the sea !

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EPHEMERALITY… So Bittersweet and Fleeting, FLESH…So Meaningless and Deceiving !

| April 19, 2012 | Comments (0)

I first met Moira nearly twenty years ago in the early 90s during what I  call my singing period. Never having uttered a musical sound in my life – indeed, my voice was of such questionable tonal quality that I had been instructed by our grade school choirmaster, who needed bodies to fill the pews, that I should join his group but ONLY  move my lips  and, whatever I did, NOT  utter a sound – I suddenly discovered in late middle-age that I wanted, indeed, desperately NEEDED  to do just that…sing.

 Legions of oldsters like yours truly must be seized by this musical ephiphany, for I found myself  enrolled in a cabaret class consisting of folks of a certain age whose musical potential had, shall we say, yet to be realized. Among the aging stockbrokers and lawyers who, like me, had received the inexplicable call to warble, there was one exception to this geriatric line-up:  a beautiful, talented young woman with a luminous voice and incredible charm named Moira. In her early 30s, Moira was at the peak of her female pulcritude and spoke with a slight, melodious brogue, lighting up the studio when she walked gracefully into our rehearsals.

After a series of classes and coaching sessions, our group neared its objective which was – what else ! – to put on a show; supportive relatives and loyal friends would be gang-pressed into filling a tiny space in Manhattan’s theatre district where they were duty-bound to clap loudly and murmur appreciately that we had “nailed it”.  I had the good fortune to be paired with Moira for one of the show’s duets which featured us in a series of tight embraces as we sang ourselves through  that Rogers and Hammerstein chestnut, “People Will Say We’re in Love !”

As choreographed by our director, Moira and I would enter from opposite sides – she stage left, me stage right –  Moira beginning the duet,  with eye-brows arched and a come-hither smile on her inviting lips, opening with, ” Why do they think up stories that link my name with yours !” At that moment, the air crackling with a frisson of romantic excitement sparked by Moira’s musical interrogative, I was supposed to appear on stage, take her hands in mine, gaze deeply into her eyes and begin the duet.

This did not happen. For some reason to which I will never know the answer, I continued to stand off stage WATCHING Moira sing, enjoying her performance as though I were part of the audience NOT her masterful partner in this charming, romantic duet !  This highly unusual image of Moira singing to thin area rather than to the beau who was supposed to be  lustily courting her, continued for what must have been a longish time until titters from the audience jolted  Moira into an emergency mode forcing her to cross the planks and actually drag me on stage to great roars of laughter.

Our performance ended up being a big hit but not in the way we expected: the audience thought we were performing a comical satire of a very romantic scene, something on the order of the send-up of that famous Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr love clinch on the beach in “From Here to Eternity”  where Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe grapple ineptly in the waves with Ewell choking and flailing away as Marilyn tries to seduce him.

I was told in the post-performance coaching critique that my hanging back in the wings instead of lunging on-stage to sing was actually a form of stage fright called “over-relaxation.” Whatever it was, I was enjoying myself immensely watching Moira sing and would probably, had it not been for Moira’s surprisingly strong tug dragging me front and center, have sat there till the cows came home or at least until the joint closed for the night.

Shortly after our triumphant performance, I realized sadly that I belonged to  a not-so-select group of would-be singers who populate countless clubs and bistros in Gotham: the talent-free; this was confirmed by a  kindly friend who advised me not to quit my regular job. I got the message and, forthwith, stopped singing in public. I still display my musical reperatoire, but only to my cats in the kitchen of a morning or occasionally under those acoustically voluptuous  bridges in Central Park when no one else is around.

In any event, all was well that ended well  with Moira and I becoming great pals and me giving her the highest compliment a gay man can bestow on a woman: I told her that if I were straight, I would propose marriage to her. And that even though I was queer, she brought out the 5% hetero that was lurking somewhere deep down inside of me. At which point I pecked  her on the cheek and ran out the door.

Over the years we stayed in touch telephonically and electronically, but never actually managed to get together until last week when we met for lunch. As I waited for Moira at an alfresco table in a cafe we had selected for our rendezvous, I engaged in one of my favorite hobbies, eye-balling the passing parade of pedestrians flowing up Broadway. Gazing out on the human swarm, in the distance I spotted a plump, middle-aged woman walking slowly up the street.  As she grew nearer I noticed   her walk  was punctuated by a slight limp. Poor soul, I thought, soon she’ll be needing a walker. Paying her no more attention, I turned away from my people-watching,  focusing on the menu before me until I felt the presence of someone standing over my table. It was that same dumpy, older woman I had seen in the distance a moment ago. I looked up squinting at this unfamiliar person and was about to ask, “May I help you, Ma’am?”, but before I could speak, this strange, older lady lady bent over and hugged me and I realized it was Moira.

Our lunch turned into an  epic marathon of laughter and reminiscing and I realized how much I loved Moira, still loved her after all these years. And how much more comfortable I was with her in her dowdy mother-hen state than I had been  twenty years ago when she was drop-dead gorgeous and young. Something about being gay and feeling threatened had disappeared, I suppose.

After more than three hours, we dawdled over our desserts until  the waitor’s frowns chased us away.We bid each other goodbye with many hugs and kisses and I watched her as she limped into the distance. I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a store window and noticed a  stooped, shuffling old man; surely that couldn’t be me, I thought. But indeed, it was ! I realized Moira was still beautiful and dear to me and wondered if we would see each other again. If we did meet once more, it would have to be sooner than twenty years !

As bittersweet as our encounter had been, I was left with a happy, warm feeling when Moira and I took leave of each other. Not so with my late mother on whom ephemerality and  the callow cruelty of  adolescent insecurity  had left its bitter mark and from which I will never recover.

My mother was a great beauty who was cursed by the ravages of a harsh, early middle-age that left her unrecognizable from the person she had been when she was thirty-nine. By forty-two she had gone from full-figured and voluptuous to obese. Adding insult to injury she sprouted a moustache on her upper lip which grew back with a vengeance each time she used my father’s razor.

The burden of beauty is that when you lose it, you are ignored. My mother had always been a  social creature who needed attention; suddenly she found herself a non-person, nobody talked to her anymore. She suffered bouts of depression and unexpected crying jags. We became ashamed of her.

One afternoon when I came home from school, I heard moans coming from her bedroom. I approached the door and cracking it a few inches to peer in, I saw her prostrate on the bed, her mouth a bloody, swollen mass. She had been to the dentist for treatment of a serious gum problem called phyria and the dentist had decided to pull ALL of her lower teeth that day.

Instead of offering her sympathy, I stared at her  as though she were a stranger, wishing that my mother was still the physically beautiful person I had remembered from  what seemed like just a few months ago. Until she got her  dentures some weeks later, the concave collapse of her lower lip gave her the appearance of a withered crone. At the dinner table when she spoke to me, I averted my glance refusing to look at her.

Some months later my school issued invitations for our high school graduation. Since I was a senior I was among those who would don cap and gown and move on to another chapter in my life. There was an air of levity and happy expectation among my classmates  as they contemplated our graduation. I did not share their joy. Weighing on my mind and tearing at my emotions was a thought I could not resolve or dismiss: I was deeply ashamed of my mother and her appearance and did not want her to attend my graduation. 

Two nights before the event, I picked a fight with mother at the dinner table and yelling at her across my plate, I screamed, ” I don’t want you at my graduation ! I am ASHAMED of you!” She cried for two days and did not attend the graduation.

Ofcourse, she forgave me, but I never forgave myself. Years later when I was living in Thailand, I visited a Buddhist museum in Bangkok. The main display occupied a long room and consisted of  many pictures starting with  photos of babies; fat, jolly infants. The exhibit continued with images of young people, beautiful girls and handsome men. Suddenly the viewer was facing older people, then VERY old people and finally corpses and, last of all, likenesses of  skeletons.  The teaching of Lord Buddha was there for all to see: the human body is but a temporary vessel, flesh is nothing.

I thought of Moira and my own shuffling image glimpsed in the window’s reflection, headed in the not-too-distant future, as I was,  for extinction; surely not for Nirvana ! But most of all, I thought of my mother.  Better late than never, she taught me about compassion and what is really important.

 

 

 

 

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THE QUEEN BEE AND THE IMPREGNATOR… OR… How To Enjoy Life Without Lifting A Finger

| April 7, 2012 | Comments (5)

Every day, rain or shine, Dino stands at the corner of East 138th Street and Willis Avenue in my South Bronx neighborhood, doing his Statue of Liberty thing. Dino does publicity, handing out flyers for Liberty Tax Service, an income tax preparation outfit that’s very active during the first  six months of the year. Liberty is especially busy after New Year’s up until April 15 and Dino is proud that he is responsible for bringing in lots of business in the form of clients  in a hurry for  tax refunds.

In keeping with the theme of his employer’s name – Liberty –  Dino dresses in a Lady Liberty outfit consisting of a rather moth-eaten red velvet cloak that covers his body from neck to toes, his scuffy sneakers peeping out from the folds of his disheveled robe. This attire is topped by an over-sized styrofoam crown balanced on top of his out-sized Afro. The crown’s spikes no long radiate from his head as they should. Two of them are floppy and weather-beaten, but inspite of the forlorn appearance of his headdress Dino has a happy face, unaware of the clownish  image he presents, smiling with an ear-to-ear grin that features widely-spaced, gleaming white teeth. The French call them “dents de bonne heure”, good-time teeth and, indeed,  Dino seems to be having a good time. He has no idea how ridiculous he looks to some people, happily involved in what he is doing.

Dino is twenty-five and lives in the nearby  high-rise “projects” with his family. In New York City the  projects are synonymous with Section 8 housing which provide rent-free apartments for low income people. Dino dropped out of school before reaching the 9th grade and is proud of being the father of a baby girl named Destiny who is seven months old. I ask Dino how the baby is doing and he says he thinks she is  OK, but he is not sure  because Destiny lives with her mother and Dino is not certain where that is. Dino sees Destiny from time to time, but seems a bit bored and annoyed when I press him for details about how he exercises his parenting responsibilities as a father.  To avoid further conversation about his civil state, he turns his back to me  handing out a flyer to a passing lady, a tiny Mexican woman with three small children who speaks no English.

 Dino may not be a fast-track success story that a parent would brag about, but at least he is out there on the streets working at a minimum-wage job. Behind his care-free attitude there seems to lurk at least a smidgen of  a sense of  responsibility for being a member of the human race. When you talk to Dino you feel you are speaking to somebody who realizes that if  you are young and able-bodied you should at least make an effort and work at doing something, no matter how humble the task. Not just sit around all day feeling sorry for yourself.

Then there is my neighbor, Poncho. When we last visited Poncho he had just fathered a second child, and, with the child’s mother back in hospital due to asthma complications (she is a heavy smoker), Poncho had taken up with his 15 year-old stepdaughter who lives in the trash-filled Section 8 apartment he shares with his two infant children (two years of age and one month old), his “Baby Mama” (the mother of his two sons) and Baby Mama’s 8 year-old son. Poncho informs me that he took advantage of Baby Mama’s absence and threw a small party featuring booze and blunts (grass) and that he and his stepdaughter ended up having sex.

In a Facebook posting today I learn that Poncho has yet ANOTHER romantic interest. Via the friendly pages of this social networking phenomenon, Poncho has connected with a school mate, a girl he knew ten years earlier when he dropped out of junior high school before  finishing the eighth grade. He tells me his plan is to take her to movie and then a motel. When I ask how he will pay for this dalliance, he says his income tax refund of $3,000 has given him the wherewithal to show this girl a good time.

In my ignorance I ask Poncho how he can get an income tax refund when he does not work and therefore has no income. Child care, he answers. Apparently Poncho and many of his friends in the ‘hood get income tax refunds for fictitious incomes derived from spurious jobs they do not actually perform. Later on in the conversation Poncho seems to forget that he told me about the tax refund and hits me up for $20 to buy milk formula for his newborn son. Baby Mama is in hospital and on blood thinners and cannot feed the child, he explains. I demur, showing him an empty pocket.

Poncho and his buddies live in a world that can best be described as a bee hive. There is the Queen Bee or the Baby Mama who produces children thereby qualifying for free, Section 8 housing, food stamps, free medical care and other welfare benefits. I am told if you know how to play the system you can even get taxi fares and telephone bills paid for. And  free visits to the veterinarian for treatment of  your pets. 

To fuel this synergy, Baby Mama Queen Bees need an Impregnator to keep them pregnant assuring that benefits keep following, that housing,  food stamps and other  rewards for irresponsible behavior do not stop. This is where the Ponchos of my ‘hood fit in. Indolent lay-abouts, Poncho and his cohorts see no need to work, feel no moral compulsion to get a job. They “help” their  Baby Mamas by keeping them with child. When the last baby becomes an adult and turns 21, the free housing and benefits entitlements cease, but by that time there are new Baby Mamas who are impregnated by a new generation of Ponchos.

My conversation with Poncho goes back to his latest hoped-for conquest, the girl he hopes to lure to a motel. He informs me she is in college studying for a business degree and that he is “in love” with her. He calls her his “wifey.” Throwing cold water on his plan, I tell Poncho that no college girl will be interested in getting serious with a junior high school drop-out dude, no matter how cool and handsome he is. How can she respect you , I say, when you are leading a deadend life, no job, no education, nothing but a hang-out artist. Poncho frowns and shrugs, says  he’s gonna make her love him. Tells me his buddy, a drug dealer, has a girl who is a college  grad.

Seeing that my shock therapy mentoring has no effect on Poncho, I turn and walk away, thinking various thoughts – America in decline, how my tax dollars are going down a rat hole. There must be a cure for this  tragic, downward social spiral I see playing itself out in my neighborhood every day. I’m not about to vote Republican this November, but there has to be a way out of this morass if we are to survive as a healthy middle-class  society, a society free of  paranoid elites  fearful   of lumpen zombies banging on the portals of their gated communities.

Poncho and his  ilk have existed in every society since the beginning of time, but must our government pursue policies that cause these free-loaders to thrive and multiply ? Squeezed between  Poncho grifters and Wall Street bandits, I’m afraid to try and answer this vexing question.

Now our neighborhood is awash with the latest wave of immigrants from foreign shores, or more precisely from across the southern border – Mexicans. Hard-working, cheerful people with luxuriant, shiny black hair – I love Mexican hair – they work at any job offered them, sell tacos on the street from little carts, strum mariachi music on the subway for pennies, always smiling, dutifully crossing themselves as they pass our local cathedral, San Jeronimo.

But word is getting out in the Mexican community that there is something here in Gringoland called WELFARE. Now I see lay-abouts on 138th Street, groups of muchachos drunk on cerveza, just hanging out, no longer working. They have found that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so why do anything ! Welcome to the American Dream, Chavos !

 

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