Sunday, January 28, 2007

All In The Family

Bingo! I figured it out!

This morning, I woke up before the alarm. I stayed under the covers, delaying the start of the day, the rush to get out the door for church, the search for a copy of the New York Times to buy which occasionally has me hunting for an hour, off to the gym...

As I lay there, not quite awake, not quite asleep, I wasn't thinking of the day ahead, or the job situation (or lack thereof), but of the Wistfulness Of Late.

And then it dawned on me. Clarity came in a flash.

I realized it had something to do with reading Ethan Mordden's Some Men Are Lookers. I had thought it was NYC, where I spent my halcyon days, and where the books are set. But not quite.

Y'see, one of the big themes of Mordden's Buddies series is family, both the families that we as gay men leave behind, and the families that we create around us. (At least that was the case for men of my generation; it's how I learned to be a gay man. But I wouldn't be surprised if now that being gay is not much different than being left handed or having blue eyes, it's no longer the way it all goes down.)

But I've always had that. A family I create around me. The really important relationships during periods of my life have not been sundry boyfriends, taking the stage one after another like an evening of emerging performance artists in some cramped East Village space. Rather, to extend the metaphor, it was the people I was sitting in the audience with. My family.

After I was graduated from college, I lived in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was a differnt place back then. Vast tracks of real estate were valueless. In West Philadelphia was an archipelago of Nineteenth Century mansions occupied by anarchists. Amazing apartments were available for less than $500 a month. (I splurged and rented a vast, loft-like space on the 1500 block of South Street with a tottering redwood deck on the back. At the first meeting of ACT UP Philadelphia, I met the Baron, and we quickly became partners in crime, deciding that the way things seemed to be going with the group was All Wrong and we'd have to make some Changes. Presently, we met Miss Fred, who joined us in these efforts. I started exchanging visits with an old high school friend, Ed, whose family had moved to Baltimore after his senior year. Ed was gay, too, and on one of his trips to visit me, he met Ray, whom I knew as a fellow volunteer in the buddy program of the local AIDS services organization. Ed and Ray quickly became a couple. And there were others, but we were the core group.

Back then, there was a dance club on Chestnut Street called Kurt's, which we rechristened Skirtz. There, we'd gather and boogie on down to Madonna and Rick Astley and the Pointer Sisters and Howard Jones and such. On Sundays, to avoid Philadelphia's then harsh Blue Laws, Skirtz started serving brunch. It was a catered affair: they'd load up a table withh scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and french toast, growing more inedible by the minute over sternos. For us, the most important consideration was that brunch at Skirtz was Free. (They only did it so they could make money selling liquor and being open on Sunday nights.) None of us had much in the way of money, so we would descend on gallery openings for free wine, and we knew all the straight bars in town that put out a nice spread when the yuppies trooped in for Happy Hour. So for us, Sunday brunch at Skirtz was a natural.

Back then, it was like we had the town to ourselves. At 11 p.m. on a Friday night, you could walk from one end of Center City to another and hardly meet a soul. Teenagers and punks and punk teenagers swarmed South Street, and gay men looking winsome slowly walked the the western end of Spruce Street and the spit of green by the river we called Judy Garland Park, but pretty much the town was empty.

So in we'd go to Skirtz, politely refusing the offers of $2 cranberry or orange juice and heading right for the food. We'd pile our plates high. On all the video screens that usually showed dance videos, some movie or other would be playing. Never anything good, although I think I caught part of Repo Man there one Sunday ("Hey you guys! Let's go get sushi and not pay for it!" we called to each other for weeks afterwards.)

We'd pile our plates high, and then take the throw pillows off the banquets in the back bar and arrange them on the floor, making a sort of "turkish corner." After stuffing ourselves on Skirtz's over-cooked scrambled eggs and french toast swimming in syrup to make it palatable, we'd talk and laugh and poke fun at each other, and more often than not start to nap when food stupor set in. Until Skirtz threw us out.

We were resented. We were deplored. We didn't care.

Then, I bid Philadelphia a fond farewell when I moved to NYC in June of 1990. I started doing volunteer work at the Anti-Violence Project as a hotline crisis counselor, and then got involved in ACT UP there. And started to meet people, once again gathering a family around myself.

Nothing brings people closer like sitting down in the street and getting arrested together. The way it was done in ACT UP was through forming "affinity groups" before the action. You got to know each other well. This was helpful if someone should run into difficulties while in police custody, and also minimize the liklihood that members of the NYPD would infiltrate our demonstrations in order to be sort of agent provacateurs. My first ACT UP affinity group was essentially the lesbian caucus of ACT UP plus a few gay guys (we called ourselves the "boys auxilliary"). The name chosen was the "Big Bull Femmes."

I remember one night, before or after a demonstration, we all went off to The Bar, a great East Village hang at 2nd and 2nd. (People unfamiliar with East Village geography will no doubt think that's a typo.) While there, I suggested that we do this thing with beer that I'd read that queer punks in Seattle were doing in some zine or other. Of course, they were all game. So we stood in a circle. The first person would take a swig of beer, then squirt it into the mouth of the person on his or her left, doing so in the most erotic way possible. Then that person would pass the mouthful of brewski on to the person on his or her left, and so on around the circle. When your swig of beer came back to you, you could swallow. When we got going, there were several swigs simultaneously going around the circle, and much face-sucking, as we so demurely called it back then. At some point, we became aware that the other patrons of The Bar were looking on in horror. (Girl-girl face sucking was not uncommon there, and boy-boy face sucking was the norm, but it was probably all the boy-girl face sucking--Eeeeeew!--that set them off.

As always, I was big on cooking for folks. In my wee little apartment in a building that housed three (!) Indian restaurants at First Avenue off Sixth Street, I'd do my best to keep the cockroaches at bay long enough to whip up something masterful for my friends. But more often than not, we were all meeting up in restaurants. After the Monday night ACT UP meetings at the Community Center, we'd all head off to Florent to rage or exult or exult in our rage about the goings on at the meeting. The Monday night special at Florent used to be roast turkey with cranberry relish and sage dressing, and I couldn't get enough of it.

After the Big Bull Femmes, I became apart of Anger For Breakfast (I came up with that name). And then, I did some great work as part of City AIDS Actions, working to thwart devastating budget cuts to AIDS services proposed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. (Final Talley: We won, Giuliani lost.)

"Hey! It's me Drew. What's up? Doing anything today?"

"I am. Laundry."

"Want company?"

"I'm not gonna say no to that. In fact, if you hang out with me at my vile laundramat, I'll rent a video afterwards. Have you ever seen Arthur! Arthur!? It's hilarious!"

"Cool! I'll bring the makings of my famous hot chocolate. Have they turned your gas back on?"

"They have. Although I feel so bad about wasting money on utilities that should be going towards liquor."

"Great! Load up your laundry bag, Sweetheart, I'm on my way."

Then came the Great Intermission. My Awful Ex made me forgo my family, one by one. (Well, actually it wasn't that gradual. When we had a commitment ceremony, none of my friends were invited. I forget his flawless logic that lead to that outcome.)

(Oh. And did I mention that he was an asshole?)

After I emerged from that dour coupling, I made a beeline for GMSMA, Gay Male SM Activists. Once again, I started putting together a family, and embracing my leather-self, that I had heretofore relegated pretty much to a back burner. There I met Diabolique, and joined the Program Committee and the Leather Pride Night Committee and had a hapless year as the group's Treasurer (never vote for me to be the Treasurer of any group you're involved with). And once again, there was plenty to fill up my schedule with.

And, of course, about the same time, I joined my softball team, the Ball Breakers.

During the entire time I lived in New York City, I owned neither a television nor an air conditioner. (My Awful Ex, of course, owned both, further indication of what a mismatch we were.) But on my own, I didn't see the need for either, being remarkably heat tolerant and having something to do every night of the week.

"Hey! How goes it?"

"Goooood. And I imagine things are good with you, too. Who was that cute boy you were putting the moves on at the LURE last night?"

"*sigh* He just left. Pretty dreamy. And he looked even better wrapped up in vet wrap."


"So anyway, I was wondering. For the GMSMA program on Wednesday night, we're looking for a demo bottom. Interested?"

"Possibly. Let's meet for coffee and you can give me the details."

"Perfect! You can't see on the phone, but I'm diabolically twirling my moustache."

"Where should we meet?"

"Somewhere by the PATH station?"

"How about Café Des Artistes?"

"Perfect! I haven't been there in years?"

And then, and then, all that came to an end. I was sort of spirited away by the gypsies, only in reverse. My family of origin (that would be my Dad), laid claim on me, and I left behind my family of choice.

So that's the lacuna, the missing element. I'm an orphan.

And, of course, the tricky part is, every now and then--at MAL, during softball season, at my Gay Men's SM-Spirituality Group this Sunday--I get a little taste of family once again. But, as the old song says, "a taste of honey's worse than none at all."

After I revisit, I wander over to wherever my silver Jeep Liberty is parked, stopping to pick up a venti latté from Starbucks on the way, climb in, start up the engine, down Washington Street to West Houston, over to West Street, inch my way to the Holland Tunnel, then it's onto the NJ Turnpike Extension, I-78 to exit 15, Route 513 to Frenchtown, cross the river, south on River Road to Point Pleasant, up Ferry Road to Tollgate, right on Tollgate and pull in to the first driveway on the right.

"Dad! I'm home"

"Finally! It's about time! Where the hell were you?"

"Traffic was bad coming through the tunnel."

"What's for dinner?"

"I was going to heat up the spaghetti with sausage and meatballs from the other night. You liked that, right?"

"That sounds good. How long till it's ready?"

"It'll take about twenty minutes to heat up."

"You take longer to heat up spaghetti than anyone who has ever used a stove."

"I want to check email first."

"Your email can wait. Get dinner on the table, and you can check email afterwards."

"Okay," I answer as I go to check email, "I'll give a call when it's ready."

You there! Reading this! That family of yours, or whatever you call them. Figure out the next Saturday you have free. Call them all up, invite them to come over for dinner. "Y'know, nothing fancy, just something informal." Figure out something to make, something everybody will like. (Here's hoping you don't have any vegans in your circle, but if you do, I have some suggestions for you.)

I'm totally serious about this.

Do it!

It's really important.


Dan B (no, not Bennett, think harder) said...

Speaking Of Judy Garland, there is an amazingly popular new group on Yahoo called THE JUDY GARLAND EXPERIENCE. They ultra rare audio files, photo's lively discussions, and an incredible group of people that includes Judy's family members, authors of several Garland biographies, people who knew Judy, and an eclectic bunch of fans of all age ranges (including many that were able to see Judy perform in person. Come check the group out, its great!

Anonymous said...

Judy Garland? Who said anything about Judy Garland?

Wasn't she an actress or something?

Let's be clear. Although I'm a homo, I know just about nothing of deceased actresses.



Kiturgy said...

So, like what are you doing for Chinese New Years?? (It's our fairly regular winter bash date here in maine in the stixxx land!--course, we did it in Boston, too, but it was queerer there than it is here, sorta by necessity. and more vegetarian here, too!

mercure615 said...

Wow, Drew....this was one of your most moving entries yet. Maybe its 'casue I'm a former denizen of both NYC and Philly, maybe its 'cause I'm also keeping watch over an aged and beloved parent, maybe its 'cause I miss my gay family, like you do yours...who knows. But you left me in tears. Just beautiful.


timothyjlambert said...

I found this late, but I also found it to be wonderful. I know we don't know each other, but if we every meet, I want to hug you. Hope that's okay.