Spine Intact Chapter 27

And Queens Hereafter Shall Be Glad to Live

 

(Michael Drayton)

 

 

 

I stand on my balcony in the special San Francisco twilight. The day has been warm and summery but already a flock of white clouds gambols over the hilltops. The evening will be cool, sweater and jacket weather. Somewhere nearby someone is cooking. Chili, I think. It will be a good night for chili.

On the street below a young man hurries to meet his friends. He has an air about him, confident, unapologetic, that says more than any words how far we have come in the past thirty years.

He pauses at the corner. Something in the line of his shoulders, in that little gesture he makes with his hand, makes me think of another young man years before, strong of back and light of mind, on his way, but to where?

From the apartment behind me Hank Williams pleads with me to turn back the years…

 

We can’t turn back the years, Hank, and frankly I wouldn’t if I could. I have enjoyed my life as I lived it, good times and bad, but I am content now to let others carry that gay torch and to amuse those who care to listen with tales of a time when the torch was only a candle.

Still, as someone wiser than I has said, the flame of a single candle will pierce even the blackest night. Time has proven him right, hasn’t it, and when those who so carefully shielded their candles from the winds of hate and demagoguery began to come together and blend those little flames into one, what a wondrous light they then shed.

Did any of our efforts—those other writers, editors, photographers, publishers and brave soldiers—really count for anything in the end?

I like to think so. That young man on the street below persuades me so. Today, gays live in relative freedom; there is hardly a city in the world in which they do not have their meeting places where they argue and debate and come together and apart, and are better for it all.

It was not only gay society that was changed, either. Had the writers and publishers of the sixties not fought the fight, Danielle Steele might very well find herself today charged with writing “dirty books.”

Would Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kevin Bacon or Bruce Willis ever have shown their you-know-whats on movie screens if it hadn’t been for DSI, the Athletic Model Guilt, or Naked Men #1 and #2? I know there are many women and men who are glad for that. There was a time when they might have been, as I was, indicted for conspiracy to distribute obscenity.

Would actors like Kevin Kline, Tom Hanks, Hillary Swank, or Susan Sarandon have risked gay or lesbian scenes if our books and our magazines and our marches hadn’t brought us out of the closet? To do so in the not too distant past was sure death for an actor’s career. In the sixties, it could have landed them in prison. Nowadays, hardly anyone even blinks. Surely the world is a better place for the honest portrayal of different lives.

Say what you will, I believe it was gay men and women who put the boogie in those boogie nights at the dance clubs. Straights have always flocked to our clubs. You don’t find us in theirs.

Movies, theater, television, publishing, dance, merchandising, medicine, politics, welfare, racial interaction, education, law, police work—it’s hard to think of any aspect of our lives today that wasn’t touched by the revolution. Just between you and me, I am convinced that Julia Child filched one or two of her ideas from The C.A.M.P. Cookbook.

The publishing revolution of the sixties and the broader social revolution of the same period fed each other and are inseparable. We are all of us today the beneficiaries of those events. I have said a number of times that my contributions were minor ones, though I am proud to have made them. But I would not be able to sit and write these notes today without fear, nor could you read them, were it not for a host of writers, editors and publishers who stand at my shoulders as I type. I have been fortunate to still be around at a time when the community has begun to take note of what we did back then, but many of those others never got to hear the applause. Many are gone, and even many of those who remain, remain in obscurity.

I am happy to say that Earl Kemp’s contributions are finally being recognized, at least on the heterosexual front. Writers like Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins have lauded him and he is an honored guest annually at the Paperback Book Show and Convention in Mission Hills. Still, I remain puzzled that Earl, who did more than anyone before or since to change the face of gay publishing, remains utterly unremarked in gay history.

 

* * * * * * *

 

While my contributions may have been minor, the revolution of which they were a part was not minor. And it had its heroes—real ones. The Stonewall demonstrators, of course, but really, the gay liberation movement started long before then and on the West Coast, though I know I will take some flak for saying so.

It could be argued that the revolution began in 1950 when William Jennings was arrested in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and charged with indecent behavior. Jennings has been called our Rosa Parks and with good reason. The usual response to one of these arrests, as I have said earlier, was for the gay victim to plead to a lesser charge and pay a large fine, but Jennings refused to roll over. He demanded a jury trial and pleaded innocent. To the surprise of many, the jury acquitted him.

Until that time no jury in California had ever acquitted an openly homosexual individual on this type of charge and it was looked upon as a slap at the police entrapment policy. To be openly homosexual in 1950 and to stand up to the police entrapment of that era took balls.

That winter Jennings and Harry Hay brought a few friends together and formed the Mattachine Society (later the Mattachine Foundation), a support and information group modeled after the naacp and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. (One of those founders, by the way, was Wallace de Ortega Maxey, who later went to prison for publishing gay paperback novels.)

In 1951 the Foundation issued a declaration of purpose in which they held it “possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work, paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow minorities”

It was the first time that homosexuals had linked their plight and their fortunes to those of the various racial and ethnic minorities—Blacks, Jews, Mexicans—a move that yet today remains controversial on both sides of the fence. Black activists sometimes complain that homosexuals have at least the opportunity to closet themselves and conceal their minority status, and gays complain that blacks have an advantage in a legal status that confers upon them rights still denied to homosexuals. All of which misses the point, doesn’t it? Oppression is oppression.

The Foundation’s statement was also the first public call to gays to conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Moral looseness was a charge too often laid at our feet and that charge was a weapon used repeatedly against us. Gay showed themselves eager to disprove that contention. In time, in that spirit, gays would establish their own churches, eventually their own support groups and, in the AIDS epidemic that erupted in the late seventies, prove themselves exemplars of the Christian philosophy of love and charity.

In 1953 W. Dorr Legg started another group, One, Inc., and began publishing a magazine, One, the first American gay review, in the manner of Der Kreis from Switzerland.

In 1955, in San Francisco, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first ever lesbian rights organization. Interestingly, the pair had never heard of the Mattachine Society or of One, Inc. and it was nothing more than coincidence, and maybe something in the San Francisco air, that led them to form a secret group who met weekly at one another’s homes.

All of these groups became objects of scrutiny and even harassment on the part of the legal authorities, in particular the fbi and, of course, our old friends, the U.S. Post Office, who refused to mail the October 1954 issue of One on the grounds of obscenity—because it discussed homosexuality in a favorable light. I have always believed that it was my subscribing to One magazine and Der Kreis that first brought me to the attention of the federal authorities. I suspect that all the subscribers were subject to scrutiny. We were certainly a threat to society, don’t you see.

A 1955 issue of the Mattachine Review mentioned homosexuals in “key positions” in the FBI hierarchy. There had long been stories about J. Edgar Hoover and his top aide, Clyde Tolson, and these two took the Mattachine’s hints personally, as fighting words. The FBI repeatedly charged that all three rights organizations were communist fronts. It was true that Hay had been a party member but there was no evidence to suggest that the groups’ members in general had any kind of communist affiliation. Reality, however, did not often rule in these matters.

In the forties gay bar owners in San Francisco routinely paid bribes to the local police, but in 1951 Sol Stouman, owner of the Black Cat Café, decided he had had enough and refused to pay. He risked the loss of his liquor license, which is to say, the loss of his business, and he suffered repeated harassment for his stance. Members of the vice squad and even uniformed officers visited the Black Cat on evening after evening, simply to intimidate the customers and frighten them from the bar. Some did leave, of course, but many refused to be cowed and stayed anyway.

José Sarria, who would later become the first Empress of San Francisco, used to entertain at the Black Cat in drag, and at the end of his show he would lead the customers in a rousing rendition of God Bless Us Nelly Queens, to the tune of God Save Our Noble Queen.

It was a courageous act of defiance and deserves to be saluted. Thanks, José, we owe you. And Sol Stouman, too, who eventually ran up something in the neighborhood of $40,000 in legal bills. To put that in perspective, in 1951 you could rent a very nice apartment for one hundred dollars or less. Top of the line cars—Caddies and Lincolns—sold for $3,000 to $4,000. $10,000 bought you a very nice house. $40,000 was a fortune, in other words.

Oh, by the way, the authorities did eventually manage to close the Black Cat, using attractive young decoys to solicit passes, which became “offenses” and led to the revoking of the club’s liquor license. What with Hoover’s fbi and most city police departments all using the same tactic, it would seem that at that time that there may have been more police officers in tight jeans cruising the gay clubs than there were in uniforms patrolling the streets. Priorities, you understand. Where, after all, was serious crime to be found if not at the Black Cat’s opera nights? We all know what Aïda can lead to.

In 1961, in part inspired by the efforts of Stouman and Sarria, a number of San Francisco bars went to court rather than continue to pay police bribes. In 1962 Bill Plath, owner of several gay bars, brought bar owners together to form the Tavern Guild, the nation’s first gay business organization; the following year, Plath helped found the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), which actively worked for gay rights through legal channels and with civil disobedience.

1964 saw the formation of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, the first organization in the nation to use the word homosexual in its name. The Council, largely the work of Donald Steward Lucas, sponsored a ball that New Year’s Eve, and the police raided the ball, arresting several ministers, gay and straight. A serious mistake. The uproar that followed the arrests was the first public demonstration for gay rights and set the stage for the Stonewall uprising five years later.

Between the Council’s New Year’s Eve Ball, however, and the Stonewall uprising, a revolution in self-perception had taken place. In the early fifties, when the Mattachine Society, One Inc. and the Daughters of Bilitis were founded, and even as late as 1964 when the Council was formed, homosexuals were still largely a secret, an underground society of outlaws and outcasts. Even when we began to organize, we were still organizing from the basement of self-esteem, burdened with unnecessary guilt and all sorts of negative hangups. We were still regarded as psychotic by the psychiatric community and as prey by police, blackmailers and homophobes; and far too often seen by ourselves as victims.

By 1969, though we had not yet found a united voice with which to stand up and demand our rights, we were no longer underground but, at least in the major cities, very much visible and already enjoying a new sense of freedom.

We had begun by then to break free of the stereotypes by which we were usually judged, not only by others but by ourselves. When the John Goodman sitcom, Normal, Ohio (like no Ohio I have ever seen, I might say) debuted on television in 2000, an astonishing number of critics carped that Goodman’s character, a beer drinking football fan given to shouting at the players on the television screen, did not accurately represent gay men.

I can only suppose that these critics have never walked through the Castro on a Sunday afternoon when the Niners are playing and gay men and women by the thousands are screaming at the TVs. They were watching the games in 1969 as well, though they may have been a bit quieter.

Already by 1969 we no longer saw ourselves as limited to hair styling and interior decorating. To be sure, there are still today plenty of gays—and straights—in both those noble professions; but by now you are just as likely to find gays working openly as policemen and firemen, as ranchers and farmers, auto mechanics, truck drivers, professional athletes, you name it. We are parents, too—natural and adoptive, single and married. And you can trace all this back to those early efforts to break free.

I believe it is clear that much of that liberated image of ourselves that we acquired in those five years between 1964 and 1969 came as a result of the revolution that had taken place in publishing. If I contributed anything of importance to our society I believe it is in leading the charge to change gay publishing. Yes, thank you, I will take a bow.

No tomatoes, please.

Still it was those others who did the real work, who took the real risk. All of us who lived through the fifties lived with the daily specter of violence, arrest, harassment. Mostly, we found ways to minimize the risks and protect ourselves.

These people, however, didn’t minimize their risks, they maximized them. Each time that they met, each newspaper or bulletin that they published, at each public demonstration and with each defiant song, they put it all on the line—their freedom, their livelihoods, even, yes, their lives. You could be killed then for being gay. You still can, of course, as the stories in the news make all too evident, but the odds were even greater then and those who suffered had little recourse under the law.

“Courage” is one of those words that the media has cheapened with repeated over and mis-use. Notwithstanding the gushing of television commentators, courage is not an ice skater throwing in a triple axel at the end of her performance nor a baseline tennis player rushing to the net to score a point. It is not even a pop singer recording a different type of song, perilous though that may be.

Courage is protecting or rescuing another at the risk of your own life or wellbeing, whether braving a burning building as many heroes did in the World Trade Center 9/11 attack or dragging a wounded comrade from the line of enemy fire, or refusing to bow to tyranny. Courage can be plodding, too, and long lasting, as my mother’s was. Courage is fighting for what is right no matter what the fight costs you. It is standing up for what you believe, in the face of hardship, ostracism, harassment, even physical danger.

It took tremendous courage and unshakable conviction to do what these gay heroes of ours did and those of us who benefited from their heroism—certainly that is all of us who are gay and in my humble opinion the majority of straight society as well—ought to be erecting monuments to them. At the very least couldn’t we set aside one day a year in their honor? Yes, I know, there is Pride day, but that’s all about parades and parties, isn’t it, and celebrating ourselves.

Which is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with celebrating ourselves but I think there should be a Heroes Day or perhaps a Founders Day, specifically for them. There’s little hope, I am sure, of a national or even a local holiday, but since when have we needed governmental approval? If we had waited for our government to recognize us or grant us equal protection under the law we would still be dancing with those chains around our ankles.

Gays love a cause. And it isn’t like the old days, after all, when we communicated in codes and whispers. The gay press now reaches across the country, even around the world. Those on the internet can communicate instantaneously. There are organizations that meet virtually every day in virtually every city, and no shortage of activist groups busy with what they insist are our best interests. What is to prevent us, the gay community, from designating a day to honor our own? It wants only someone to spread the word, to get the ball rolling.

Do I see a hand?

 

* * * * * * *

 

We have modern day heroes, too. If his Pope-ness wants to find himself a saint, he need look no further than Ruth Brinker, an older, straight woman who cared about her gay friends who were too sick with AIDS to feed themselves and began to deliver meals to them. That initial effort became Project Open Hand, which now feeds over 600,000 people each year in San Francisco—not just AIDS patients but seniors and anyone who is home bound—and inspired similar efforts in cities around the world.

What about Rita Rocket, a young straight woman who was comforting AIDS patients at San Francisco General long before it became chic to do so (and whose work also is now done by thousands of others in hospitals everywhere)?

Or for that matter maybe the entire gay community. I am a history buff and I can think of nothing—not a single page in recorded history—to compare to the response of the gay community to the AIDS crisis.

Those religious zealots who condemn homosexuals as anti-Christian ought to take another look at their Bibles. The outpouring of loving kindness and givingness that arose within the gay community at the outbreak of AIDS would have been truly miraculous if it had gone on for a single year. It is now twenty years or so and has become a way of life in gay communities throughout the world. AIDS patients—gay or straight—can count on an army of heroes and heroines to pay their rent, bring them groceries or delicious prepared meals, walk their dogs and groom their cats, clean their homes, chauffeur them around and see to every medical necessity and, when it is inevitably needed, provide a friendly shoulder to cry on.

No business could operate for long in any gay community without lending its support for the cause. Every bar—virtually every business establishment—has its Every-Penny-Counts jar waiting for patrons” loose change, to give to an army of support institutions. In San Francisco the store Under One Roof sells merchandise donated by artists and manufacturers, and every cent earned goes to AIDS charities. There are raffles and beer busts and drag contests. There are AIDS runs, AIDS bike events, AIDS marches. One would have to look long and hard to find a gay or lesbian who isn’t somehow involved.

The gay community that we set in motion in the sixties and seventies came of age with the arrival of AIDS. I will let you in on a too-little-known secret, however. It is not only AIDS patients and not only their own kind for whom gays care. Perhaps because they suffer so much pain in their own lives, gays have always been particularly sympathetic to the pain of others. Whatever the reason it is fact that gays and lesbians tend to be caring, giving people.

Some years ago at a cocktail party in Manhattan I met a young man who told me a wonderful story. It seems that he and his partner were coming home from shopping one Saturday afternoon and in the elevator met their neighbor from across the hall, an elderly lady, struggling with her own groceries. They helped her carry them to her apartment and she fixed them a cup of coffee. This began a weekly ritual of taking her shopping with them each weekend and carrying her bags for her. In between there was an occasional dinner, birthday lunches and some chicken soup when she was sick.

In time their neighbor passed on and they were astonished to discover that they were her sole heirs in her will—she had left them a couple of million dollars in blue chip stocks.

A nice ending to his story but the real point is, they had no idea she had any stocks or any money at all; they were just being kind, without any thought of reward.

Lots of gays do the same day in and day out. We help old ladies across the street, care for sick neighbors and aging relatives, give to the homeless. The next time you have been jilted by a lover, a husband or wife or have been fired or found that you are seriously ill, call your gay friends—they will almost certainly be there for you.

Isn’t that what J.C. preached so very long ago? There are those who profess to be Christians who sincerely believe that Christ condemned homosexuality. It would behoove them to take another look at their Scriptures. Christ never directly addressed the subject at all, though there are those who believe that his reference in Mathew to those who are “born eunuchs” refers to homosexuals. Jewish law condemned the eunuchs for the same fundamental reason that it condemned any practice or condition that limited procreation—it was vital, after all, for the tribe to increase.

Moreover, Genesis promises that the Messiah will come from the seed of Adam, which is to say that any male child could turn out to be the Messiah; so anything that interfered with procreation could be seen as preventing the birth of the Messiah.

But Jesus welcomed the eunuch into the fold. Indeed, if there is a common thread to be found in all of Jesus’ teachings it is that of inclusion—which makes it all the more puzzling that so many who call themselves Christians are so obsessed with exclusion.

The Biblical strictures against homosexuality come mostly from the Old Testament and many of them, as I have already indicated, had to do with failure to procreate. In just the same way masturbation—Onanism, if you will—is condemned. One wonders how many of those religious zealots who are so down on homosexuality have never spanked the monkey, so to speak. And when the Church agreed to birth control in any form, even the rhythm method, or first sanctioned wedding vows between sterile couples or those too old to have children, it really surrendered the moral high ground, didn’t it?

Granted not all of the Old Testament references are a question of procreation. In Leviticus, for instance, homosexuality is called an abomination. But that specific reference is to temple prostitution, which is a far cry from what we mean today when we speak of a homosexual life style.

The fact is there is no word in the ancient Hebrew language nor the Aramaic nor even the Greek for homosexuality as we know it today, only words for particular acts, most of those concerned with idolatry or the subjugation of slaves or losers in battle.

All right, I just know some are dusting off their Sodom and Gomorrah mantelpiece villages at this very moment. Even that tale, however, is ambiguous so far as a condemnation of homosexuality per se. If you really care to know, the first Biblical reference that clearly links the sin of Sodom to sexual activity is in the Palestinian apocrypha, in the Book of Jubilees, 16.5-6.

Yes, in Genesis, the village men did gather outside Lot’s door and insist that he send his visiting Angels out to them, so that they might “know” them. And, yes, that verb can have a sexual connotation—but that Hebrew verb is used nine hundred and forty three times in the Old Testament (you may count them yourself if you don’t trust me) and in only ten of them does it signify carnal knowledge, so one can’t be altogether certain in this instance, can one?

In any event, even assuming that to be the case, the issue then would be one of homosexual rape, wouldn’t it? Quite a different matter I should say. Rape and abuse of hospitality, hospitality which was sacred among people living in such a harsh land. Certainly it appears in Mathew 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12, that Jesus himself was under the impression that Sodom’s sin was abuse of hospitality.

But all of that simply begs the point. The fact is, whatever was the grave wickedness of Sodom that caused its destruction it was not this incident with the Angels in Lot’s house, though there are many who mistakenly think that to be the case. If you go back and reread the story you will see that the Angels were there to warn Lot of the impending destruction of the city. Sodom was already condemned before this incident even occurred.

There are, of course, plenty of other Biblical passages that one can examine and plenty of books that do examine them, in a far more scholarly fashion than mine; I would recommend Peter J. Gomes’ The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (W. Morrow, 1996). Nor do I have the familiarity with the sacred books of other religions to qualify to discuss them. The point I am making is, if any congregation wishes to exclude homosexuals from their Church that is certainly their privilege. To do so on the basis of Christ’s teachings, however, is either ignorance (at best) or base hypocrisy. There is no Christian justification for condemning anyone for living his life as a homosexual, though within the framework of that life there may be plenty of other points on which an individual may be criticized—or praised.

Alas, you can never defend the rights or freedoms of gays without someone jumping up to rant about pedophiles. Yes, there are homosexually oriented—and heterosexually oriented—individuals who prey on children. And yes, of course, every sane, decent person finds repugnant those who abuse, not only children, but the elderly, the infirm, all those who are helpless and unable to protect themselves.

I have always believed that gays have a particular affinity for children; perhaps because so many were unhappy themselves as children it left them more attuned to the pain and terror of childhood.

But caring for children and molesting them are quite different things. There isn’t a single shred of evidence to show that this illness is any more common among homosexuals than heterosexuals.

Indeed, there is much to suggest the opposite. If a major movie musical showed a park with lots of young boys playing and an old queen came on screen singing, “thank Heaven, for little boys” the religious zealots would burn down the theater, but when it is Maurice Chevalier leering and singing about little girls it’s “charming.” What is Minnelli’s Gigi about, after all? Two aging grandes horizontales wait for a young girl to get old enough to begin entertaining gentlemen. And let me tell you, if you haven’t read the book, it isn’t her eighteenth birthday they are awaiting.

I’m not trying to defend child molesters nor to impugn the reputations of Lerner and Loewe. I’m not even suggesting you can’t hate homosexuals if you choose, it’s your Karma, after all. I am saying, however, that I think there are those who use the charges of pedophilia to mask what is nothing but plain old homophobia.

I like bigots better when they are at least a little bit honest.

 

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There are those, too, and they are particularly reprehensible, I think, who contend that AIDS is God’s punishment of the homosexual. Were that the case one would have to suppose that he particularly detests blacks, since it is the heterosexual black populations of Africa who are now suffering the worst of the AIDS epidemic (and one would suppose, too, that he is truly fond of lesbians, for whom the incidence of AIDS is practically zero).

Nature has never been reluctant to sacrifice an individual—or even an entire species—for the greater good of the whole. It is easy to look around us in the present moment and see the ills of the world; but if we take the longer view it is clear that even in the last few centuries—a mere drop in the ocean of time—we have evolved to a much higher level of civilization.

It wasn’t so very far in the past that women were not much more than chattel to men. An eighteenth- or even a nineteenth-century woman born without independent means must necessarily find a man to take care of her. For many women marriage was only a licensed form of prostitution; few women could afford the luxury of marrying for love. And aside from marriage the opportunities for legitimate employment were rare. The gothic novels of frightened governesses notwithstanding, such positions were few and far between and even those women did not usually enjoy the sort of romantic pleasantness we find in the Brontës’ novels.

Childhood is a rather modern concept. It is only in recent time that children were regarded as a separate class, protected, looked after, and entitled to spend much of their time at play. Only a few years ago they were regarded more as small adults. And routinely exploited mercilessly. They still are in many places, true, but at least much of the world condemns such practices.

It is only in modern times that debtors’ prisons were abolished and that there has come to be help for the poor and the needy and until the twentieth century decent medical care was mostly for the wealthy. And though we have certainly not eliminated wars we have come, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, to a serious understanding of the horrors and dangers of armed conflicts and the world’s major governments confer regularly in serious attempts to prevent them.

Of course, we humans take an egocentric view of life—as I am sure do all life forms—but it is really only hubris to think of our bodies in personal terms—my body, your body. For starters, it’s really only a loaner, isn’t it, and I don’t recall having any voice in choosing model or color.

Anyway, it would certainly be more correct to say “our body,” since it is really home to trillions of living things aside from your personality—bacteria, viruses, the like. At this very moment there are microscopic creatures living at the base of your eyelashes. It may well be that these other creatures are the dominant life forms and that “our” bodies are only evolutionary adaptations to provide them with congenial hosts.

Now before the Christian Right starts shrieking at me about that evolution/creation argument, let me say that I do not see that there is necessarily a conflict between the two. Why, if one believes in God, would one suppose that evolution is not itself a part of God’s plan? After all, even God could not create a perfect man and give him free will, which in itself implies the right to imperfection. And supposing anyway that he could, what would that mean? An infinity of his own clones? What would be the point in that?

It may be that we and our evolution are a necessary part of the perfect design. God could not, could he, be perfect without the fullest knowledge of all evil, all pain, all failure? But if God were a failure, if God suffered pain, or committed evil, why then, he would again not be perfect, would he?

Perhaps we are only a sort of proxy for him, experiencing through the course of many lives all of life’s goods and evils and as we learn from them and shed the necessity of experiencing each, growing ever closer to the source from which we sprang and into which in time we will return.

Like those long ago Zoroastrian magi searching for the Messiah (history tends to believe that there were only two, not three, but I can’t say; whatever you may have heard, I was not there) we are all of us hearts in exile, stumbling about in the dark as we try to find our way to an unknowable destination. Perverse as it may seem, I believe that the loneliness of the journey may be God’s greatest gift. After all, if we could find perfect happiness, perfect contentment, in any person, in any work or place, what would there then be to urge us on in our journey?

Not far from where I grew up in Ohio there are remnants of an ancient mound-building people. The largest of these mounds takes the form of a serpent swallowing an egg. What is odd is that you would never guess at this representation seeing the mound from the ground, you see only curving hillocks of earth. To see the pattern they make you must see the mounds from the air, though the people who built them could hardly have done so.

I believe that we live surrounded by God’s pattern but we aren’t high enough to see it. You can elevate yourself, of course. That is the point of education, of meditation and prayer. The more one lifts oneself up, the more of the pattern he is able to discern. Only the enlightened few have a perspective lofty enough to see the outline whole. I do not pretend that I can make out that pattern but I do believe I can discern that there is a pattern.

The Holocaust, for instance, was certainly a tragedy of incomparable proportions. Yet it is largely as a result of that nightmare—of the shame and guilt and horror that it engendered in civilized people throughout the world—that the nation of Israel now exists and the Jews, who suffered endless persecution down through the centuries, now enjoy a freedom and respect—and power—that they had not known since the Biblical dispersal.

The slavery of the blacks in the nineteenth century is another epic tragedy. Yet it was the very horror of that system that caused good people to rise up and condemn and finally outlaw the practice of slavery, a practice that had been accepted, even taken for granted, throughout man’s long history until then. You could look at that and see one of history’s darkest hours or one of civilization’s great steps forward.

I cannot pretend to wisdom or to any particular spiritual insight. But it does seem to me that when we are able to look back upon the AIDS epidemic from the perspective of history, it may well be that we will discern in that tragedy a new and wonderful chapter in the history of the gay “nation.”

The Pride that we celebrate each June isn’t just an empty word, it is a dignity that gays have earned with every penny donated, every moment given, every kind and loving word, with each soul that we have wished God speed, with every vaccine test we have signed up for, with every candlelight march we have joined in.

In the forties and fifties gays were made to feel guilty, like freaks of nature who must hide their true selves and apologize to any who realized the truth. Today no man or woman has any reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed for being gay.

If that isn’t a revolution, I don’t know what is.

The fight isn’t over, of course. The fight for freedom never is. Gays and lesbians are still bashed and killed for nothing more than being what God or nature made them. There are plenty who want us dead or at the least back in our cages. In Russia and many of her former satellite countries the laws against homosexuality mostly remain harsh. Recently in Egypt twenty-three men were sentenced to one to five years of hard labor for simply congregating in a gay club. In many Arab countries gays are put to death as a matter of course.

But it isn’t only other countries in which such ugliness remains. Here in the United States, bastion of democracy and decency, the Jesse Helms and the Phelps and the Sheldons and their minions of darkness still preach hate and evil and call it God’s work. The United States military still has a policy of gay persecution and the violence and even murders that sometimes result are indelible stains upon the souls of those in charge. The moving finger writes and, as the poet said, not all your tears nor all your piety can wash away a single word.

The persecution of gays seems to me particularly tragic because it is so often waged in the name of “normalcy.” We are commonly labeled as abnormal, unnatural, freaks, perverts, inverts—regarded, often even by those who are our friends, as somehow unnatural.

Unnatural? CNN Correspondent Jeanne Moos recently did a story on a pair of male penguins who have lived as a couple for seven years—which certainly qualifies as a long term relationship in my book.

Wendell and Cass share a penthouse burrow—I know, wouldn’t they just have the poshest digs?—at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. They preen one another and when they are apart they vocalize to one another just like their straight neighbors (who, by the by, don’t seem to mind their relationship at all). At feeding time Cass stays home to watch the burrow—you never know when some upstart neighbor may think about moving in—and Wendell, who seems to be the butch, brings home the bacon—or in this case, the fish. And, yes, they do all the things that other penguin couples do.

Seven years. A romantic tale indeed, in my opinion. If those guys can find one another, I like to think there is still hope for me.

All right, yes, penguins are sort of funny critters to begin with. But it isn’t just penguins. Dr. William J. Sladen of Annapolis has found a solution to the proliferation of mute swans and their damage to the endangered vegetation of the Chesapeake Bay, by bringing together as cygnets pairs of male swans. These same sex couples live together for lifetimes in adoring happiness, without the problems of reproducing. So far Dr. Sladen has brokered no fewer than fifty-four of these long term relationships, a solution he considers infinitely preferable to the calls for swan slaughter that have come from others wanting to protect the bay’s environment.

Among the tropical ants Cardiocondyla Oscurior, the sexual competition is so fierce that the aggressive wingless males fight to the death for the privilege of mating with the queen. But there are winged males as well, far more docile—in a sense, the sissies of the colony. Now, one would think that these gentler fellows would almost surely get their butts kicked by their super macho hill-mates, and would have little chance for romance besides. That is not the case, however, because they secrete a chemical very much like that produced by the queen, a sort of chemical “drag,” as it were. As a result, not only do the butch wingless males not fight them, they often try to mate with them. Hmm—reminds me of that experience I told you about earlier, when I decided to dress up for Halloween.

In Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) Dr. Bruce Bagemihl states that homosexual or transgender behavior has been documented in no fewer than four hundred and fifty species, which seems to me to make it altogether a natural behavior. If you care, almost all bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees (our closest primate cousins) engage in homosexual acts, and only about one percent of ostriches.

Which is to say, if you are contemplating a bit of bestiality, you might want to skip the ostriches and hit on chimps instead.

Of course I just know someone is saying, but those are beasts and we are a higher form of life (at least in some opinions, although if you ask me, l’uomo è bestia, which freely translated means, men are beasts). Nevertheless, there is no country, society or culture in which we do not exist, often under the most arduous of circumstances.

A friend tells me of being taken to see a vacant lot separating the Arab and Jewish areas of Jerusalem and finding it busy with Orthodox Jews and young Arab men doing the deed together—not the first time, one must mention, that the sexual instruments have served as organs of rapprochement. I have no doubt that some will consider that scandalous but it seems to me, big silly that I am, that getting one’s rocks off is nicer for everyone than throwing rocks.

But my point is that we are everywhere, regardless of any circumstances of war or enmity, and ever have been. One need take only a cursory look at history to see that we have been around since the beginning. The writers of the Old Testament wouldn’t have had to shake their fingers and say “no, no,” if there hadn’t been guys saying “yes, yes.” We know we were represented in Rome and Greece and Egypt, and ancient Japan and China; and I haven’t the slightest doubt that one day some of those old cave squiggles will be translated to read “Peter loves James.”

What is more significant, I think, is that there isn’t a shred of evidence that either the repression of homosexuality nor the open acceptance of it has changed the numbers in any significant way. Homosexual behavior might be accordingly more discreet or flagrant, but the indication is that the overall percentage of the general population has remained more or less constant.

Which seems to me to say that we are altogether a normal part of human society, quite as natural as our heterosexual brothers and sisters and simply another facet in Nature’s grand design, which neither you nor I nor they can pretend to grasp entirely. But I am only a writer and an observer of the human condition and I am sure there are experts who will take exception with my observations and bigots who will continue to exclude us from the family circle.

Nevertheless, I have every confidence in the young men and women who will be our watchdogs and fight our fights through the next generation and the one after that.

And let it now be proclaimed herein and known by all, that, age be damned, I remain ever ready to serve as I did in our past battles, to solace and succor our brave soldiers.

And Marines, too, of course.

Oh, and sailors.

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Madison, Wisconsin, October 2008

with some fans

with some fans

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Spine Intact Chapter 26

With These Words…

 

 

 

There is a story told of Dorothy Parker and Irving Thalberg—he is reported to have remarked, “What is so special about writing anyway, it’s just putting one word after another?” To which Mrs. Parker supposedly replied, “Begging your pardon, Mister Thalberg, but it is putting the right word after another.”

When all is said and done, of course, you can take or leave everything I have had to say about books and writers. I have been shuffling words around on paper for a long time and like to think I have gained some sense of what words go after another and that my opinions in these matters are solid ones—but they are just my opinions nevertheless.

As, needless to say, all reviews and critiques are only that person’s opinion. As a writer you should not be intimidated by them if they are bad or too puffed up if they are good, though obviously we would rather the latter than the former. There are many who believe that the critics whose opinions really matter are the ones who fork over their hard earned money to buy your opus (and hopefully tell all their friends how wonderful it is) and there is something to be said for that point of view. I believe that each writer must decide for himself which opinions most matters to him—certainly one likes to think one’s friends and family would approve, and a nod from one’s peers is always welcome.

In the final analysis, though, I suppose the opinion that really counts is your own. Write to suit yourself. If you are lucky the world will come around to your position; if not you at least will sleep at night with your artistic conscience untroubled.

I would be the first to say that my talents (in any case my literary talents) are modest, though I would disagree vehemently if you tried to assert that they exist not at all. Still, I have no expectation of being nominated for Pulitzer or Nobel.

I was nominated once for a Silver Spur. It caused me a moment of consternation—I thought fleetingly that someone had learned of my childhood fantasies involving Roy Rogers. But, no, of course not, I had never shared those with anyone and certainly never acted upon them. Which is just as well for me when you think about what he did with Trigger. Imagine me, left for decades in the high desert, tourists taking badly framed photos of me and little boys peeing surreptitiously on my leg (I don’t care what ugly stories you may have heard about me. People will say anything).

The role of the critic in publishing is often disparaged. Jonathan Kellerman has one of his characters refer to critics (among others) as “leeches on the body artistic,” but I think even Mister Kellerman would shy away from describing G. B. Shaw or Edmund Wilson in such terms. It is true I once said of critics that, because of the many physical similarities it is easy to mistake them for humans, but that was the writing of a young man more interested in effect than truth, a sin far worse than any ever perpetrated by any critic hither or yon, and for which I apologize heartily. You shall have to take my word for it that I have grown wiser as the years have accrued.

In truth, I can say in all candor that with only the rarest of exceptions I always fared very well at the hands of critics. There were times, in fact, when I thought the reviews were better than a book deserved.

A couple of times I got lambasted. Sister Mary Somebody (I should want to remember Sister Leech’s name?) in The Catholic Journal wrote a scathing review of my historical opus, San Antone (1985), but I myself thought it not a very good work, at least as it was published. Kirkus Review gave the same novel a so-so review, but did poke fun at one particular scene; truth to tell, I agreed entirely.

So far as I can recall, however, that was the extent of my pans—pretty good considering how much I wrote.

I don’t have the reviews for The Why Not so you will have to take my word for it that they were good. The only printed review I have of any of the gay novels is one for The Gay Haunt (1970). California Scene described it as

 

“Most outstanding of the gay novels read this month, an amusing and entertaining story […] Paul, an ex-gay trying to go straight […] is a couple of weeks away from marrying the boss’s daughter when […] Paul’s former lover, Lorin, shows up […] the problem is further complicated by Lorin’s having been dead for the past five years. Mr. Jay is to be complimented for the development of such an extremely intriguing idea into such a completely satisfying story […] I think anyone who enjoys gay literature will find a few hours of better than average entertainment.”

 

I have no idea who or what California Scene is or was—I never looked too closely because I feared I might find my mother’s name on the payroll. It was enough to know they liked the book. As I did, and do, frankly. The theme has been borrowed since then but I can’t mind—my version owed more than a little to Thorne Smith’s Topper (1926). As Kenneth Clark once pointed out (he was discussing Raphael’s clearly purloined angels), the artist takes what he needs where he finds it.

Wait, though, it gets better. Publishers Weekly, reviewing This Splendid Earth, credited me with “the master’s touch in storytelling” and The Nashville Banner called me “A Master Storyteller.” And Publishers Weekly described one of my romantic suspense novels, Green Willows (1977), as “exemplary of the genre.” That review, I should say, came after my period as a gay paperback writer; the reviewer might not have said quite the same thing about, say, Fields of Love.

You won’t find Fields of Love in my bibliography, though I did write the book and it is significant. By 1968 the gay publishing revolution was in full swing. Greenleaf Classics was producing numerous titles every month. Sherbourne Press was active, though less so, and there were others—in the east H. Lynn Womack’s Guild Press, originally a gay-oriented mail order business, had begun publishing paperback originals. Most of what Womack printed was dreadful indeed, but he did publish Phil Andros, a byline for Sam Steward, a member of the Stein and Toklas Paris set and well regarded as a writer.

Unfortunately, among writers Womack had a reputation for being difficult to work with; worse, you could not be altogether sure of ever getting paid. Luckily for me I didn’t need the market. I had all I could do to supply the publishers for whom I was already writing, and when I was approached by Womack about doing some books for him, I was able to say thanks, but no thanks.

Still, I was glad to see Guild Press enter the field. I wanted to see as large a market for gay writers as was possible. Which meant I had to bring Milt Luros into the fold. Milt was the biggest of the pulp publishers of the day and if you wrote for Milt you didn’t have to worry about getting paid.

Unhappily, in 1968 Milt was still stubbornly outside of the gay arena. I have no doubt that this reflected a personal anti-gay bias. But Milt was a fair man and a tolerant one, always willing to consider an opinion unlike his own. He was also a sharp businessman.

Now, who would ever have thought that I would look back on a federal obscenity trial, with ten years hanging over my head, and see it as a stroke of luck? But there it was. Milt and I were not only friends, we were comrades in arms. Which meant that at the time I was probably the only gay writer in the business who could sit down face to face with him and sell him on the idea, one which he admitted he was reluctant to embrace. Undaunted, I told Milt that I would write him a gay novel and he needn’t pay me a penny.

When Milt was restored to consciousness I made the rest of my pitch. I would write him a gay novel. If it sold out its run or close to it, he would pay me my standard fee. Otherwise I would get nothing.

Bear in mind I regarded writing in those days as strictly business. You paid me so many dollars, you got so many days of my time. I was convinced, however, that converting Milt could only help the gay publishing cause—and my own, of course.

I wrote Fields of Love. I do not pretend that this was any great literary effort but I did take pains with it that I did not often take with these manuscripts. I spent several weeks writing a romantic suspense novel with a rural setting, in which two young farmboys come to terms with their love for one another, a major departure from what was then being done.

I persuaded my editor friend, Gil Porter, to read the manuscript and help me polish it up and I did copious rewrites. I felt confident that the novel I delivered to Milt was as good as he could get from the writing pool available to him at the time and that gay readers would take to this different offering like ducks to the water.

I reckoned, unfortunately, without the insecurity of Milt and his heterosexual staff when it came to the gay genre. Fields of Love did not seem to them the sort of title that would move a book in their markets. Hey, I admit it wasn’t the punchiest title I had ever come up with. In my wildest dreams, however, I could not have dreamed that Brandon House would retitle my romantic interlude Homo Farm!

“For God’s sake, Milt,” I railed at him when I got my copies of the book and saw what they had done, “Why didn’t you just call it The Pig Fuckers? That’s colorful, at least.”

Despite its dreadful title, however, and an arty cover that offered no clue to the book’s contents, Homo Farm (1968) did sell out its run or close to it. Milt, ever the gentleman, paid me my usual fee and over the next few years his companies were probably second only to Greenleaf Classics in the volume of gay material they published, though I can’t say that most of it approached the quality of Greenleaf’s best material. Still, I had opened up a significant market for gay writers, an accomplishment in which I took pleasure and pride.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Do the glowing reviews my books generally received mean that I am more fully qualified to offer my opinions on the writings of others? Maybe. But remember, as I said before, these are just the reviewers’ opinions. Except for Sister Mary’s I regard them as wise opinions, revealing the very best of taste, but only opinions nonetheless.

I think that the best review I ever received came from the most unlikely of sources. My home phone rang one afternoon and a woman’s voice asked if I was Victor Banis, who also wrote as Jan Alexander. I admitted that I was—at the time there was little likelihood that this was a bill collector and the death threats were not as common as my critics would have you believe.

The woman introduced herself. She was eighty years old, she informed me, calling from Pittsburgh and, to judge from her voice, black. She had gone to great trouble to track me down, first calling my publisher in New York—Pyramid Books, in this instance. As a rule publishers do not give out an author’s real name—certainly not his address or phone number, though they forward any mail, positive or negative, that arrives at their offices for the writer. This one time, however, the woman’s story impressed them enough to put her in touch with my agent, Jay Garon, and Jay was sufficiently impressed to give her my telephone number in Los Angeles.

My caller explained that she had not read a book in fifty years, maybe longer. She had lost her husband perhaps a year earlier and, finding herself alone and lonely, had joined a seniors’ group at her local community center. The group had been given an assignment, homework of sorts—read a book. Any book, on any subject. Just read it, and come prepared to talk about it with their fellow seniors.

The book she picked up and read was one of my romantic mysteries—I don’t recall now which one and don’t think it matters greatly. She had enjoyed it immensely. So much so that she was all of a sudden hooked on reading. Not just my books, either, though she had by this time read several of them, all she could find.

She was calling to thank me. She felt that reading my book had changed her life. I don’t know what any author could ask for better than that.

I received, as I have indicated, fan mail—rather an astonishing amount of it, it seemed to me. Over the years I have had letters from throughout the United States and even from abroad—Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands. I have always answered these letters and sometimes established long running correspondence with individuals who read a great many of the books I produced.

I have also been fortunate enough to meet many of my readers and since much of what I wrote was written under pseudonyms, I was sometimes lucky enough to hear their candid opinions of what they read before they learned that it was I who had written it. I am happy to say that the vast majority, if not quite all, of those opinions were favorable and I am truly grateful to know that I gave pleasure and entertainment to so many. To the others I can only offer humble apologies.

Well, all right, not so awfully humble. I mean, really, what did you expect for seventy-five cents?

 

* * * * * * *

 

Just this very day I was riding on one of San Francisco’s trolleys next to an elderly black man and in the course of conversation he mentioned that he had in the same day managed to break both pairs of his glasses.

“Gosh, this has been your unlucky day,” I said.

“Unlucky?” He gave me an astonished look. “I’d say it was pretty lucky. I woke up, didn’t I?”

Good point. Every day is a gift, isn’t it? Sometimes we demand too much of ourselves and of life. Daphne du Maurier, when she had finished her 1938 classic novel of suspense, Rebecca (now there is a great opening paragraph), gave the manuscript to her good friend, the literary lion, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (who wrote as “Q”). He read it and when he gave it back to her, told her that if she went ahead with it, the book would make her rich and famous—and the literary world would never forgive her for it. As it turned out he was right on all counts.

I am aware that there are those who look down upon what I have written. That is their problem. If mine was not the sort of career that led to great fame and fortune it was nonetheless successful in my own terms, on nearly every count. I have no regrets.

Indeed, I view regret as just another, more subtle way of flagellating oneself. Every moment of your life, every person and event, every mistake and triumph, has contributed to bringing you to where you are, to making you who and what you are. If you like yourself what is there to regret?

Don’t like yourself? Work on it. People take their cues from you. I can tell you for certain, in your entire life no one will ever like you any more than you like yourself. Looking for love? If you are not looking first at your self you really are looking in all the wrong places.

The legendary soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini, was interviewed late in her life. By this time she was living in a retirement home (they called them “poor houses” in those days) her operatic triumphs and scandalous romances far behind her. When the interviewer asked her about her voice, she went to the piano and sang a few measures from Lucia’s notoriously difficult mad scene, in what the interviewer described as an astonishingly young, fresh voice. She gave a cackle of glee and cried, “By God, I may be old, I may be poor, I may be toothless, but I’m still Tetrazzini!”

You’re still you, aren’t you? Whatever else may have gone from you with time or the sometimes puzzling machinations of fate there is one thing that you can never lose—no one ever has occupied, or ever will occupy, your unique place in the universe. Cherish it.

Take a look around yourself—better yet, take a look inside yourself. This is your life. Right now. Right here. Take responsibility for it. Are you happy? If not, why not? Unhappiness is mostly wanting things to be something other than what they really are. Wanting your next door neighbor to fall in love with you doesn’t make it so, it only makes you unhappy.

The conditions you put on being happy are the exact measure of the distance between yourself and happiness. Happiness cannot be deferred. We tend to choose to be unhappy until we can have our way with things. Like the child holding his breath until his parent gives in, we tell God, or life, that we are willing to be happy—when we get that new job, when so-and-so falls in love with us, when we have lost twenty pounds. This is not happiness, this is contract negotiation. Unfortunately, the other side across the negotiating table from you is just you again. We have met the enemy, as Pogo used to say, and he is us.

Pretend that you’re happy. The people who look into these things now say that when you smile the brain responds with a dose of the chemicals that it normally provides when you really are happy. It is sort of as if the brain says to itself, “Gosh, he’s smiling, we must be happy and I missed it,” and adapts to the program. If you pretend for a while that you are happy, you may trick yourself into feeling happy.

Find some time to be still. A woman once complained to me that she prayed and prayed incessantly but God never seemed to call her back. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “when he tries he gets a busy signal.”

Get rid of the busy signal: Meditate. Now, meditation is not the same as prayer, though ideally both will get you to the same place. We tend to associate meditation with Buddhism and indeed meditation is an essential element of Buddhism, but Buddhism is not essential to meditation, which is not the exclusive province of any religion. I have known Protestants and Catholics, Jews and atheists who meditate in one way or another and with no conflict with their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

If you look into a pool of clear water and splash it all about with your hand you will find it difficult to see the bottom with any clarity, but if you let the water go still you will find that you see right through it. Meditation is nothing more than getting the pool of your mind still.

Try chanting Ohm. The metaphysical people say that this puts you in tune with the universe but there are very practical and down to earth benefits as well. You will discover at once when you try that it stimulates your sinus cavities; if you have sinus problems, ten minutes a day of chanting will prove wonderfully therapeutic. At the same time you are stimulating the various glands, like the thyroid, that control your metabolism, which is to say, whether or not you believe that you are tuning into the universe, it’s certain to make you feel better.

There’s nothing mysterious about how to do it either—just take a deep breath and say Ohm on the exhalation. If you want to do it the really best way, make almost, but not quite, three separate syllables of it, which sounds far more difficult than it is. Begin the O sound in your throat as you would, say, singing. Then push the sound or the vibration up into you nasal cavity—you will find it easy to move the vibration around. Finally move to the front of your mouth for the Mmmm finale.

The experts say it’s not worth the effort if you aren’t going to do this a minimum of ten minutes a day but I say, pish, even a minute or two of peaceful focusing will do you good. Of course ten minutes a day is better. If you can manage that for a while and then try going to twenty, you will see that twenty is not just twice as good but many times better. Let’s be honest, though, one can’t always squeeze in that extra time. Do ten and if you are truly in a rush, do whatever you can and let yourself feel good about it.

Incidentally, if you are into affirming or visualization, the ideal time to do it is before chanting—stilling your mind allows time for your desires to sink into your subconscious before your negative energies go to work on them.

If chanting seems too esoteric for you, just sit and quietly observe your breathing, the flow of air in and out of your nostrils, the rise and fall of your diaphragm. Let your thoughts arise as they will, observe them and let them go without attaching yourself to them.

There are plenty of ways to meditate, however, and lots of good books to tell you how. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you chant or gaze into the flame of a candle or contemplate your navel, the whole point is to focus your mind, to help it shut up in other words.

Stand naked in front of your mirror. Yes, I know. But if you can’t love the warts you can’t love the dimples, you don’t get to pick and choose. Love doesn’t work that way, not with someone else and not with yourself.

If you are going to make perfection the price that must be paid for your love you are going to find yourself with very few shoppers. Practice forgiveness. Start with forgiving yourself. Stephen Levine writes of how very painful it can be to shut yourself out of your own heart. Forgiveness is the key to open the door.

We have all stepped on someone’s toes at one time or another. Silently ask those whom you have offended to forgive you. Go on to forgive those who have offended you. It can be difficult to grasp when you are angry but really, whatever it was that they did had nothing to do with you and everything to do with themselves. Don’t take it personally. The only personal part is the damage you are doing to yourself harboring those unhappy memories. Thoughts are things. Forgiving thoughts are healing things. Forgiveness is love and love is the answer. It doesn’t matter, Alex, what the question is. Love is always the answer.

Incidentally, don’t be surprised if that person you have been at odds with for ten years suddenly calls you on the phone and asks you to lunch. If he doesn’t, don’t worry about that either. This isn’t about him it’s about you.

Give. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Whatever you give comes back to you in like kind. But consider that a warning as well. Things return in the spirit in which they were given. Whatever you give lovingly, freely—and best of all unannounced—will find it’s way back to you in just such terms. If you find your life all tied up in knots, however, it may be the strings you attached to your gifts.

And don’t think you can use lack of money as an excuse, either. Considering how little it costs the giver it is astonishing what value a smile may have for the one who receives it. An honest compliment may be enough to get your waiter, the sales clerk, the bus driver, through a really hard day. Don’t sneer. We all have them, after all.

Practice a little tenderness. We live in such a crowded world it is inevitable that from time to time we are going to bump into one another. If we keep our edges a little soft, it won’t hurt so much. Courtesy, manners, respect for others—these are not “extras” in life, they are a major part of what separates us from the kids with the tails. Miss Manners jokes about saving civilization but her claim is not as exaggerated as it sounds. Throughout our long history, in every civilization that has come and gone, the first signal of decay, of the unraveling of the fabric, has always been the decline in everyday manners, the failure of the common courtesies people visit upon one another.

Of course, you cannot single-handedly save our society nor can I. But I truly believe that no one has ever set a strong example—for good or for ill—that someone else hasn’t followed it. Make your example a good one. Trust me, someone will emulate it.

It was Yogi Berra who pointed out that you should make a point of going to the funerals of others because if you did not they might not come to yours either.

His point was a valid one. We all need a little consideration from others from time to time. Sooner or later someone is going to need your kindness, seriously need it. You will miss out on that hot date because a friend needs to cry on your shoulder. Someone will say something stupid or spiteful and while disdaining to apologize will nonetheless hope for your forgiveness. Aunt Dilda will talk your ear off because she is lonely and you will have to take a pass on that lovely frock your heart was set on because a friend is in desperate need of a cash infusion.

These are the dues that we each of us have to pay from time to time for the privilege of being part of the family and though you may see yourself as the black sheep of the family, pay them anyway and be glad that you can. As sure as God made little green apples the sling pump will be on the other foot one day. Think of it as insurance and keep your policy paid up.

We are all, after all, a part of Mankind. Just now as I breathed out someone else breathed in from the same atmosphere and out again. The island word, aloha, translates literally as “joyful sharing of breath.” Joyful or not, however, we partake daily of one another’s breath in some infinitesimal degree. And not just those of us now alive, either. The scientists say that the supply of oxygen on our planet remains fixed, it merely recycles and remixes, which is another way to say that you are even now inhaling the breath of our predecessors.

Consider the plants, too, breathing in and out with us, exchanging nutrients. We sweat, we lose minute bits of hair and skin and they fall to the earth and become a part of its makeup. We die and in time our bodies return to dust. We eat food grown in the soil and in it are traces of everyone and everything that has ever lived on our planet.

So it turns out that it is really not my life and your life but Life, and we are all a part of this same vast organism, infinite and endless.

Damn, I just put my foot through my soapbox.

I guess what I am suggesting is, try living your life in such a way that if the curtain goes up sooner than you expected you’ll be ready anyway for the tableau.

 

* * * * * * *

 

When I mentioned these memoirs to an acquaintance of mine (as opposed to a friend of mine) he said, “Don’t you think you’re taking yourself a bit too seriously?”

Too seriously? I don’t think anyone who has read this far will accuse me of that. But I will tell you in all candor, I am convinced that I am the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sound egotistical? Then let me add, I am equally convinced that you are the best thing that ever happened to you. Forget the fat pictures, tape that message to your refrigerator and make the effort to live accordingly. It’ll change your life. It certainly did mine.

But wait, I said at the beginning that this wasn’t about me. Ha ha. Of course, if you are a writer you laughed when you read that. That’s one thing that every writer—every painter, every singer and dancer, every actor and sculptor—every artist—grasps intuitively. It’s where it all comes from and our ultimate reference work.

In one respect or another it’s always about “me.”

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Eaton, Ohio and environs

nearby b & b

nearby b & b

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more Eaton

the old library, gone now

the old library, gone now

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more Eaton

rare double barrelled covered bridge

rare double barrelled covered bridge

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Spine Intact Chapter 25

Home, Sweet Home

 

 

 

No authentic lesbian books then, and no unassisted leather books nor—and this one has puzzled me for years—no Eaton, Ohio books.

I am not at all sure how this has come to be so. “Write what you know” is the mantra of most writing pundits and certainly having spent the first twenty some years of my life in or around Eaton I think that I know that town well and its environs, too.

Her critics carp that Ohio is mostly flat, and so she is for the most part. But in the southern reaches of the state, where Eaton is, the unvarying landscape of the north gives way to gently rolling hills, many of them dotted with stands of trees. This is farm country, the fields new plowed in the spring, stubbled in the fall. Barns, some of them crumbling, exhort you to “Chew Mail Pouch.” The cows on the hillside look as if posed for your pictures and if Gary Larson is to be trusted, probably are.

This is a part of the country with seasons, distinct ones, and to a great extent they set the pace for life there. Literally, too—your brisk winter walk of necessity slows itself down in the dog days of summer. Those who live by the seashore find their lives dominated by the moods of the ocean. In just the same way life in the Midwest is dominated by the ebb and flow of the seasons—the rain and the snow, the heat and cold, the differences in air and landscape and flora and fauna, the planting and harvesting. When I look back upon growing up there I find that my memories, too, are seasonal.

I remember the tag end of Winter when everything is muddy and cold and dreary and it feels as if Spring will never come. When finally she does arrive it always seems as if she comes overnight, a surprise visit. All at once the lawns are green, a green to shame the Emerald Mountain, and the trees—the cherry and pear and apple and plum trees that surely only the day before were naked—are now thick with white and pink blossom. The air is heady with their perfume, the bees buzz drunkenly on their nectar.

The creeks and rills are in full roar, small trees and bushes uprooted in their rush and swept into piles against the rocks and the banks. Farmers plow and plant the fields in a frenzy of activity, every minute crucial, the tractors chug-chuffing late into the night. Birds who have spent their winters in the warmer weather southward return to the trees and the meadows, adding their songs to the general bedlam.

We cook the spongy morels and the first, sweet dandelion greens, all the more delicious after the winter of canned and dried foods. The daffodils spring up from the ground, and the crocus.

Young men feel the sap running. I skinny dip by moonlight with a handsome schoolmate. It is too early for swimming. The water is icy but we warm one another afterward on the grassy bank. He is wet and sleek and tastes of creek water. Spring is a delicious season.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Summer is hot and humid—sticky, we call it. The sun is a ferocious orb in a brilliant blue-white sky. When it rains, though, it pours, like the little girl with the salt, great sheets of water so heavy that you cannot see across the road. Deafening booms of thunder send the dogs hiding. At night the air is heavy and close. I like to sleep on the side porch, on the porch swing, when it rains. The enormous pear tree shields me from all but a faint, cooling mist.

Between rains the garden must be weeded and watered, the water carried in buckets. It is hard work and sweaty, but worth it in the end. Nothing is more delicious than a tomato picked ripe and sun-warm off the plant and eaten out of hand, dust and all, the juice dribbling shamelessly down your chin.

Here is the best recipe ever for corn. These are called “roastin’ ears,” although they are not roasted at all, but steamed; I am not accountable for the oddities or our culture. There is no law that says you can’t call them “corn on the cob” but don’t blame me if people look at you funny. Ohioans may not always be up to speed on, for example, the intricacies of the New York subway system, but their pretension-radar is invariably state of the art.

To cook the roastin’ ears (this is always pronounced, by the way, as one word, and with no g added) put a large pot of unsalted water—salt toughens the corn—on the stove to heat. When it is at a full boil dash to the garden and, as quietly as you can, pick a half dozen or so ripe ears. Husk them on your way back to the house at a full run. The point here is that the little kernels, dozing in the afternoon sun, will be caught by surprise and will not have time to convert their sugar to starch, as they will do at the slightest provocation.

Pop the ears into the pot, bring the water back to the boil, cover tightly, turn off the heat and let them steam for just a few minutes: five perhaps, not more than seven or eight certainly. Drain them and slather them generously with sweet butter. This cannot be improved upon. If you want fancy, however, add some Roquefort cheese and a dash of Tabasco to the butter. This is not good for your cholesterol or your calorie count but your taste buds will certainly applaud. You must decide for yourself how much pleasure is worth.

Oh, if you must buy your corn at the market, add some sugar to the water, the more the better, and steam them a bit longer, say ten minutes. As you get older tenderness becomes more elusive.

 

* * * * * * *

 

There are lots of woods here and trees in every yard and lining the streets. Which is to say, Autumn is a riot of color, the leaves a pale butter yellow and bright lemon as well; the orange of pumpkins and of saffron; dusty brown and chocolate; and red—a vast palette of reds, paprika and brick and the red of raw liver. They swish and crunch when you wade through them.

In the past they used to burn leaves. You could not go for a walk without passing a wispy column of smoke. I can’t think of a more evocative aroma but it is mostly gone now, outlawed because it was not healthy for the air. We breath so much pollution—car exhausts and diesel fumes, roofing tar and chemicals from our factories and on the odd occasion a dollop of nuclear fallout, that it is a relief to know that we are safe from burning leaves.

In good years we have a hog. He eats bountifully on slops through the summer and lolls in his mudbath in the heat of the day. Pigs are very smart creatures and perhaps he has a foreboding of what lies ahead. Perhaps while he lolls his dreams are haunted by visions of hams growing ripe and moldy in an old attic or bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Sometimes he makes a break for freedom, finding a way through the fence and dashing down our country road. But where would you go, a pig on the run?

Our pig’s flight is cancelled, alas, and in the fall he comes face to face with his grisly fate. I avoid the scene of the slaughter but poverty and hunger do not encourage squeamishness. When the gory deed is done, the hams made ready for hanging, the fat being rendered into precious lard, I have no compunctions about filching cracklings when my father isn’t looking. You can buy cracklings now in just about any market, leaving your conscience more or less clear, but they are not the same as fresh. As for your conscience, well, there is only one way to make cracklings.

Fall is county fair time. Each year we try to find a place to climb the fence. Mostly we are caught and shooed away but some years we make it. We stroll the dusty midways, feast on popcorn and candy apples and cider and get sick on the Octopus and the Ferris wheel and are serenaded by the rinky dink music of the merry-go-round.

I once went shopping for a merry-go-round, with a friend from a carnival. The carnies call them Jennies. That too was in the autumn and I was older but the music was no less magical. Everyone should go shopping for a Jenny at least once. It helps you hold on to the child within.

It is in the early fall that you begin to gather walnuts. Not the insipid English variety, those pale and papery shells that surrender their sweets to the slightest touch, but rather the black walnut. You must collect them first from under the tree where they fall, when they are not black at all but green, and no matter how careful you are the green hulls stain your fingers brown, a dark stain that will not wash off, scrub though you will, but must be allowed to wear off in time.

You store the nuts in your cellar where the squirrels, who know as well as you do what a winter’s treat they will make, cannot carry them off. In time the green hulls do indeed turn black and wrinkled and must be removed. The best way is with a hammer but there is nothing for it, your fingers will be stained again.

This is not the end of it either. Now that the nuts are hulled they must season or dry out. Though you started in early fall it is near Thanksgiving by the time they are ready to crack.

The shells are like rocks. You need the hammer again and a well practiced touch. You must use just the right force. Too gentle and they mock your timidity and remain stubbornly of a piece. Too hard and shell and nutmeats alike are crushed into a hopeless mess from which you can redeem little. What you want is two or three good pieces from which with a pick (a hairpin will do) you remove the meats. What we do not eat for our efforts go into a bowl to be added to cookies, cakes, candies, Christmas stockings.

Are they worth the time and effort? The best answer for that is to try this simple and elegant dessert after a really fine dinner. Pour a small glass of port. Vintage is best, if you can afford it. Quinta do Noval is the ne plus ultra of ports. ’63 is a superb vintage and ’70 and ’77 are nearly as good; but, really, I doubt that you could find a bad vintage port. And if money is short there is nothing wrong with a good ten- or twenty-year Tawny either.

Put a chunk of blue cheese on a plate. Stilton preferably, but a nice Maytag will do quite well. On each plate, a few nutmeats—just a few because you will want the rest to eat yourself when your guests have gone; generosity has its limits. A sip of the port, a piece of walnut, a crumble of cheese—no chef could concoct a more perfect blend of flavors.

The walnut trees are disappearing. The wood is valuable and a tree takes a decade to grow to maturity. There are poachers who will swoop down upon a field or a wood, or your yard if you are away, and in what seems no more than minutes the tree has become a stump and some slices of expensive wood for someone’s tabletop. The poachers, I suppose, have never tasted the nuts with some port and Stilton or they would know better. Or perhaps not. Dorothy Parker once said (when asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence): “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make him think.” Well, all right, Ms. Parker actually said “her” but I think the shoe fits a male foot just as neatly.

In any case the point is, you cannot force people to have class, which is one of those words that has been cheapened by mis-use, but those who have it know well enough what it is—and what it is not. For one thing, and you can count this as certain, people who say they have it, don’t. And those who don’t, haven’t a clue.

My friend Don, however, once described an individual as having lots of class and all of it low, which I thought pithy and have used on a number of occasions since.

There is an old German proverb which gets it pretty thoroughly right. Paraphrased, it says that it is always best to be more than you seem. It is far more fun, and far classier, don’t you see, to make references to your little shanty in the country and have someone else discover for himself that it is really a mansion, than to speak of your mansion in the country and have someone discover that it is really a shanty.

 

* * * * * * *

 

But I was discussing the seasons. Winter is perhaps the most maligned of them, but it has its own beauty, stark and elegant, the sky like pewter, the harsher lines of reality softened with a mantle of white. Occasionally there will be a freezing rain and by morning the entire world—trees and telephone lines and fences—has been turned to glittering crystal. The ice creaks and cracks. The telephone lines hum with the ghosts of past voices.

Much of the color disappears from the winter world but when it snows the whiteness everywhere makes what bits of color remain appear all the brighter and magically intense. Little red berries become precious gems, evergreens look like Christmas trees every one and the Cardinals—the state bird—look like miniature dignitaries of the church in their crimson plumage.

Of course Winters are cold. Your breath makes little clouds that go before you, like a good man’s reputation and quite as ephemeral. At night we heat bricks and rocks on the stove and wrap them in rags and take them to bed with us in our unheated bedroom, to warm our feet.

I remember a Christmas Eve, walking at twilight with my brother, Sam, in a gentle snowfall while the bells of the local churches played Christmas Carols. It was a magical moment, all the more so shared with someone you love. I am told the churches in Eaton don’t play the carols any more. No doubt someone threatened a lawsuit. There are people who cannot abide any happiness, any beauty. There is a goodness that seems to invite the malice of bitter people.

My Christmas present is always a book (there are usually socks too, and perhaps other essentials, but not even my mother, with her boundless enthusiasm, could think a child would be thrilled by those, though we made the appropriate noises).

One year I received one of the “Milly” books. These were a series of racy books of the era that were definitely not written for a twelve-year-old boy, though I can honestly say I enjoyed the one I got. I was never quite sure if my mother was innocent of the book’s nature or perhaps prescient.

We got candy, too—sometimes the hard kind the English call Brighton Rock, with the pattern that goes all the way through it, and some years, the leaner ones, homemade fudge, and who could mind that?

Most years we got an orange, which does not sound like much today when you can pick up an orange at any time of year in any grocery store in any town, but in the winter in the Midwest in the thirties and forties, even in the fifties, oranges were truly exotic. We felt like kings and queens of the realm while we ate them.

No, I am not going to say it.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Eaton is an old town. It was begun in 1792 in an Ohio that was then the Wild West. It started with a fort, Fort Saint Clair.

The Fort has long since burned away but there is still the very pretty Fort Saint Clair Park just at the edge of town, with its wide green lawns (scene of annual civil war reenactments) and its all but unspoiled woods and meandering stream. There is the Whispering Oak as well, in which Chief Little Turtle of the Miami Tribe hid (according to legend, though history is less sure) to listen to the soldiers make their plans and so was able to massacre them later—which makes him, I suppose, the true forerunner of today’s gossip mavens who make a business of massacring people with collected whispers.

The town which soon grew up in the vicinity is lovely, too. Like all towns and cities these days it has suffered some from the relentless march of progress. A tornado some forty years ago destroyed the lovely old Victoria Opera House, which was then in use as the City Building. It was replaced with a hideous cement block architecture.

Though it was spared by the tornado, the splendid old Victorian library building—admittedly a monstrosity but a monstrosity of infinite fascination—was deemed too decrepit to be maintained and repaired (a fate I fear I shall face before too many years have passed by) and was torn down. In its stead is a perfectly harmless, and charmless, modern structure. I understand the benefits of its modernity but books seem to me to fit better in a Victorian structure, in much the same way that banking belongs to chunky, granite, Georgian styled buildings. I can never quite feel that my money is safe in a building made largely of glass.

Still, the wide, tree lined streets remain and many Victorian houses and the Greek revival courthouse that occupies much of the central block downtown. Though the Seven Mile Tavern, which once graced its banks, was lost years ago to a fire, the Seven Mile Creek still follows its circuitous and beautiful path through the town. Where it widens below the Main Street bridge the creek forms Crystal Lake, which is really not much more than a pond but a very pretty site nonetheless. In winter it freezes over and ice skaters add to its charm.

There is a covered bridge over the creek too, the Roberts bridge, the second oldest covered bridge in the United States and oldest of the nation’s six remaining double barreled or shotgun bridges, which is to say it has two passages side by side.

When I was young there were a great number of these covered bridges on the roads around Eaton but most have gone, many of them burned. Farmers, the rumors say, who could not drive their enormous equipment through the narrow bridges and so were forced to go many miles around to get just across the creek. I cannot say for sure but it would not surprise me if the rumors were true. Farmers are used to taking things down and starting them up again. But covered bridges, of course, do not grow on trees. Nor on cornstalks. Of the twenty-nine covered bridges that once graced the county, twenty-one have vanished.

The Sweet Shoppe, where we drank chocolate cokes (they seemed good then) and listened to Patsy Cline (who continues to seem plenty good to me), is gone but you can still get fried mush for breakfast, which is better than it sounds, particularly on a cold winter’s morning, and a pork tenderloin sandwich the size of a frisbee which, with a cup of coffee provides all four of the basic food groups—calories, cholesterol, grease and caffeine—and is tasty to boot.

Just up the road is Greenville which anyone knows who is familiar with Annie Get Your Gun (and if you’re not you should be; it’s splendid music) was the home of Annie Oakley. As a side note, Betty Hutton said that when she filmed the movie they soaked those black walnuts I have already told you about in water and threw the water in her face to give her a dirty, woodsy stain—so they were more versatile even than I thought, those walnuts.

Well to the east of Greenville is New Concord, Ohio. New Concord was the home of John Glenn. Glen was rightly lionized as the first man in space. He also should have been horsewhipped for his part in the Keating Banking Scandal because a) he was a hero and b) he was a small town Ohio boy and so was taught better values than that, as any small town Ohio boy can tell you.

Yes, I know that sounds harsh but honestly now, if all those crooked bankers who were a part of that chicanery were stripped naked and forced to run a gauntlet of the investors (mostly older retirees) whom they swindled out of their life savings, don’t you think the entire banking industry would be better as a result?

It is not just bankers, either, who could benefit from a little old prairie justice. There is so much brouhaha these days about energy shortages. I can’t help but think that the board members of the utility companies and of their energy suppliers might be better for the occasional birch switch, administered by select customers (chosen, for the sake of fairness, by a lottery system). I would bet you every light bulb in China that we would soon have no energy shortage.

And while you are at it, if you emptied the rascals’ pockets you would likely find the very profits that they insist have been lost and which are almost certainly only misplaced.

 

* * * * * * *

 

James Franciscus used to intone on television that “there are eight million stories in the Naked City.” With all due apologies to the Big Apple, if you want stories the small town is the place to find them.

Sodom and Gomorrah were small towns, after all. How do I know that, you ask? Simple. It is not nose count that defines the small town but rather the one inescapable fact of life: everyone knows everyone else’s business. If you go back and read the Biblical story you will see that it was true in Sodom and it is no less true in Eaton, Ohio, nor ever was.

The history of Eaton comes complete with every sort of drama you could imagine and some you probably never thought of. Murders, scandals, incest, adultery, great love affairs and heart wrenching tragedy.

And Miss Ames. Miss Ames taught Social Studies—some history, some geography. Not very well, I’m afraid. She was a spinster, for reasons which I will get to in time, already old when I knew her and a bit frail. Her round face might have been cherubic but for the unfortunate fact of her whiskers. We laughed at those, particularly when, as sometimes happened, she would be unaware of the lint that had been caught in them. Children are cruel and I am afraid we lived up (or down) to that truism. It is a major step in growing up when you come to find that you are ashamed of the thoughtless hurt you inflicted on others when you were young. Some people never get to that regret. Some never even get to the awareness of it. Saddest of all, some never stop inflicting it.

Still, though we were sometimes cruel we were fond of the old dear in our childish fashion and tolerant of her foibles. Hers was a sad story in a romantic, Victorian way. Long years before Miss Ames’ younger brother had vanished. Just disappeared, leaving behind a wife and daughter. And a sister, obviously. Some thought him dead. Others theorized that he had been a victim of amnesia or had been shanghaied in some foreign port. Or perhaps there had been some secret, shameful act that had made it impossible for him to face those who loved him. We knew only that he was gone.

I hardly knew the wife and daughter and how they responded to this strange disappearance I cannot say. But all of us were aware of Miss Ames” grief and her determination to solve the mystery.

It was for this reason that Miss Ames had never married, for her entire life had been devoted for several decades to searching for her brother. Her every penny, her every free hour, was spent in her search. She traveled often, following up any clue or hint, however tenuous, however distant. She read police reports, spent hours poring over old newspapers from throughout the country, even from foreign lands. An unidentified body, a wandering vagrant who could not remember his name, put her on a bus or a train, to New York, to Florida, to California. There were detectives, paid for with her scant earnings as a teacher. Phone calls, telegraphs, letters.

The years passed. The young, once pretty sister became an adult, the marriageable young woman became a spinster, the spinster an old, frail lady brushing lint from her whiskered chin and pretending not to hear her students snicker.

We watched her come and go. It was a romantic story, one of family devotion and untiring faith, doomed, it seemed, to have no end.

But end it did, though it was not Miss Ames’ tireless efforts that brought it to conclusion. Rather it was the sudden, astonishing return of her errant brother and the even more astonishing explanation for his long absence. There was, it seemed, no tragedy, no mystery, no thrilling saga to impart. He had simply gone off, following his own restless spirit, and never thought to get in touch nor to return until his wife was gone, his daughter grown, his sister near the end of a long, fruitless life.

She welcomed the prodigal home, of course. How could she not, while the whole town watched, and for a brief time they could be seen together, brother and sister, daughter sometimes as well, chatting in low voices as they sat on her porch or strolled the town’s streets in the twilight.

What did they speak of, one wondered? Did she berate him for his neglect? Did she speak in aggrieved tones of the trips, the search, the money and, oh, the years, the lost, long years, gone like the sunset fading into the darkening sky?

Did he regale her with tales of his adventures in distant lands, of long treks along dusty roads, of flights in balloons and flights of fancy, of villains and heroes and saints and great, great loves? Did they laugh together, cry together, argue, coax, plead, explain, pray?

She died not long after his return, perhaps bereft of her reason for living, and he drifted away once again, this time to be unmourned, unsought, undreamed of on long summer evenings.

Not a grand story, you understand, not the stuff of operas nor even of novels. In a big city, in New York or San Francisco or New Orleans, the years might have passed, the comings and going, all unnoticed, her’s a lonely woman’s private pain.

It was a small town thing.

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a man in black

I would, wouldn't you?

I would, wouldn't you?

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Spine Intact Chapter 24.

He Was All in Black…

 

 

 

If I am unqualified to discourse on lesbian writings I am almost equally so when in comes to the leather scene and its peripherally related cousins, B&D, S&M, and the rest.

It is not true that I know little about them. Indeed, having spent hours studying Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, Freud, de Sade, et alii, I could probably be qualified as an expert, except that while I know much, I understand little. I read of complexes and syndromes, I nod my head yes, it makes sense—intellectually at least; but the truth is I really don’t get it, as my leather friends have always been quick to assert.

Part of the problem I confess is that the whole leather business has never particularly appealed to me and I have an outright aversion to the pain scene. As to bondage I can only tell you I have never in my life known anyone that I would trust enough to allow them to tie me up without a struggle. I have no doubt that there are plenty who would be happy to do so but it’s anyone’s guess when, if ever, they might choose to let me go and I have never wanted to take the gamble.

The same is true with the S&M scene. Of course what most gay men practice is not real sadism in the truest sense. With gay men, as I understand it, there is generally an agreed upon limit, or a keyword, which the masochist invokes when he wants to go no further. The real sadist, needless to say, would take even greater pleasure in ignoring that agreed upon limit and going even further. Still, even this watered down version is not for me. I have no doubt that there are those who would be glad to beat me with sticks but I have little confidence that any of them would stop when I asked.

Let it be said that if one is writing a scientific study of a subject there is some benefit to objectivity. A non-participant looking at a subject from outside may see things that the participant fails to see from his insider’s point of view—the forest for the trees, so to speak.

I think works of fiction are a different matter. I feel that if you are going to write about a particular life style or “scene,” it is helpful to write about it from the inside.

Now I know you are going to say, what about those who write murder mysteries? My answer to that is, I think those writers are writing from the inside—sort of. We have all at one time or another been mad enough to kill—or very nearly. We may not want to drag it up into the light of day and look at it too closely but I think we have all of us wished someone would drop dead. The writer who ventures into the realm of murder is only filtering those subconscious twinges through his writer’s imagination.

If I have ever longed for physical pain, it has been at too deep a level for me to recognize it. I suppose somewhere inside me is the same urge that makes other men want to clothe themselves in leather but I have never been able to unearth it sufficiently to utilize it in my writing. I have written books, fiction and nonfiction, which sometimes ventured into the leather world or the worlds of bondage, sadism, etc. I will now make a confession—when my manuscripts got to that point I gave them either to my partner or my secretary, both of whom found the subject matter more attractive, and let them write the necessary scenes.

My lack of interest in this whole general area may be that I grew up surrounded by macho, he-man types, the sort that gays like to fantasize about. I was born and raised in a military era so though I myself was never in the military service—not officially at any rate, though there were certainly times when I penetrated the ranks, so to speak—I was used to the company of soldiers, sailors, marines. My male relatives were farmers, truck drivers, construction workers, even a fireman. There is a whole contingent of cowboys. Now, like almost every gay male, I think cowboys are plenty cute, with their boots and jeans and their nicely bowed legs (pleasure bent as we used to put it). I have never ventured into Texas without hearing Patsy Montana’s wonderful song—I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart…—singing in my head.

When I am with these relatives, however, I am stubbornly myself and they tolerate me (fondly I hope) as eccentric. The last time I was at one nephew’s spread outside of San Antonio he asked if I wanted to ride one of the horses and I was quick to reply that I did not ride anything with more legs than I have.

When their conversations about herding cattle (yes, they really do talk about herding cattle) went on, I thought, a bit long, I described in loving detail a casserole I had recently concocted and the conversation veered into new directions.

I once cataloged by occupation the men with whom I had been involved, or at least those I remembered and whose occupations I knew. You can safely assume that one or two had been merely “ships passing in the night.” If you must know some of them roared by like hydroplanes. The ones I recalled were a diverse lot to be sure, but I was a bit surprised to discover that the largest number of them had been in sports or some variation of athletics.

I don’t know why that should be. My own involvement in athletics has been minimal, though I can say in all modesty that more than one man has called me a good sport. I have mentioned already some experience with running. I have scored a few home runs. As a young man I was a fairly capable swimmer—more than once I took the plunge and I have done some pretty fast laps when the occasion called for speed. Hiking, yes, hunting, obviously, and camping, in a manner of speaking. And fishing, but only for compliments. This is not what one would call an athletic background.

Of those men who have been engaged in sports, far and away the greatest number of my flings have been with boxers. Not men in boxers. I mean, men who box. Fisticuffs.

This is particularly odd as I have no training, experience or overwhelming interest in boxing, though I can enjoy a good match. It may be worth mentioning, however, that I am a Gemini and those twins that symbolize Gemini are supposed to be a horseman and a boxer; so perhaps there is an astrological influence at work. I know little about horses but I was once invited to what was described as a ‘stud farm” and… oh, never mind.

Of course, I am equally ignorant of quarterbacking in football and I remember with great fondness—but no, he is still around and would surely not welcome seeing his name here.

Nor I suppose would that lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department—besides, that mention could have me back in the divorce courts where I started, in a manner of speaking.

Anyway the point is I have always been around real men.

Men don dresses, the psychologists say, because they harbor a fantasy, often deeply buried, of being women—this fantasy is not, I hastily add, the same thing as being homosexual. The fantasy of being something that we are not is a quite common one, probably even universal. Young men imagine being older, old men young; some men put on dresses and women wear suits and ties and puff on cigars. Doctors want to be actors and actors dream of being athletes. The grass is always greener, isn’t it?

But what to make of men fantasizing being men? The same psychologists and the sexologists say that this obviously exaggerated masculinity reveals a marred self-image of themselves as men. A sort of compensation, it is said.

Perhaps, though surely not in every instance. A score of travelers may find themselves one day in the city of Rome but that is no evidence that they all came there by the same route. Coincidence is to be shunned in writing a novel but it is very much a part of real life.

I think often the fascination may be nothing more than an identification with certain “types” who are icons to gay men. But there again, you see, when you have all your life known and been around these men—getting to know them just as individuals and not as icons—much of the glamour wears off.

In the course of my life, for one reason or another, I have had more straight male friends than gay. Part of that was deliberate. As I said elsewhere, I always made a habit of trying to win over the toughest, butchest men; life was safer that way. Mostly I was always just more comfortable with them. The odd thing, I think, is that these raging bull types came to be comfortable with me.

None of which is to imply that I have never been exposed to the leather experience. I was a champion of “doing your own thing” long before that phrase came into vogue and over the years I have always had friends who were into part or all of the scenes; and as chance would have it I have spent many an evening in leather bars and at their social gatherings.

I was at the old Falcon’s Lair (then the leather hangout in Hollywood) one evening when a young man came in who sported the most impressive bulge down the inside of one thigh that I think I had ever seen. The snapping of heads must have been a great boon to the chiropractic profession on the following day. For a time all eyes were upon him.

Now, I can’t say exactly what it was that produced that bulge but I can tell you for certain that it was not a permanent part of his anatomy. I know that because after a time whatever was holding it in place—a safety pin I suppose, though that nomenclature in this instance proved erroneous—gave way. The bulge began to inch down his leg, leaving a conspicuous and growing gap between it and the crotch where it had begun.

All eyes remained on him but the smiles were growing into grins and outright guffaws (a wonderfully descriptive word, that, and one that cannot quite be replaced by any other. Try to find just such perfectly apt words when you write). The young center of this attention remained unaware of his sliding endowment and grew ever more puzzled by the looks he was getting.

Finally some charitable soul came to him and whispered into his ear. He turned that wonderful shade of red of which decorators are so fond and fled, never to be seen there again.

The story I really started out to tell you, however, is a different one. (This happens to me a lot doesn’t it?) At one time an old friend was staying with me and working evenings as a bartender at the Lair. I stopped in one evening to give him a lift home and I confess my costume was altogether frou frou. I had been to some other event—a concert, perhaps, or the opera, I don’t exactly remember what or where, but I do know that I was dressed accordingly—jacket, tie, the works. Not your typical Falcon’s Lair costume.

Now, I am not the sort who is particular bothered by being dressed differently from others in the room but I know that many are. Anyway since I never did wear the leather get up I was always dressed a bit unlike the other patrons at the Lair. For the most part this seemed never to present a problem, though on one occasion I made an overture to a young man who stalked away after inviting me to kiss him “where the sun don’t shine.” It was a romantic offer, notwithstanding the poor grammar, but I was certainly puzzled by it. Obviously he was referring to the south pole, where indeed the sun doesn’t shine for months at a time—but what was the likelihood that he and I would ever be there together to act upon his generous offer?

In the instance of which I was speaking, however, I was well aware that I was particularly overdressed and though it bothered me not at all I knew I was a trifle conspicuous and so I eschewed overtures altogether, taking a spot alone against the wall and quietly sipping a beer until closing time, rapidly approaching.

In no time at all one of the patrons, in full regalia and then some, sidled over to me and from the side of his mouth (I suspect he was uncomfortable about being seen even talking with me) asked, “Aren’t you nervous being in here with all these men?”

Nervous? Men? Me? I looked around and glanced briefly at him—that was enough—and replied, “sweetheart, I cut my teeth on tougher men than these.”

And so I had. Literally, if you want to know.

I cannot leave this subject, however, without emphasizing that I mean neither to mock nor to knock my friends in the leather community (a vital community that contributes much to the gay cause, one should note). That fact that I don’t get it is no evidence that there is no “it.” Anyway, it may well be that I, in my “don’t-get-it,” and they, in their rightful pleasure, are both right.

As my friend Harold used to say, that is why the Lord made chocolate and vanilla.

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Pulp Legend

Over the top, 1966

Over the top, 1966

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