Poem for Tom

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In an already crowded apartment 
filled with flowers and food and music,
prescriptions and absorbent pads,
ebbing and flowing with friends and family,
nurses and caregivers,
laughter and tears.

The body in the recliner, 
the center of attention, 
almost in the way,
now talked about as much as talked to.
outpourings of memories, 
photographs,  here and electronically,

many proceeded by “Tom would hate this…”
recalling a life well lived, now ebbing.

A sad, sweet scene,
one that has taken place since time began,
in caves and plains,
parlors and bedrooms, 
hospitals and nursing homes,
wherever there has been life, there will be death.
After seven days of waiting and watching, I quip
“The Jews got it wrong; this is sitting shiva.”

I hold Tom’s hand,
stroke his crepey arm,
tell him that he can go
to that big dance floor in the sky,
I will take care of his beloved Allen.
Allen who has so lovingly taken care of Tom
for almost 35 years,
keeping his secrets, 
enduring his stubbornness,
sharing his love of another era,
a deep, unbreakable bond
that will endure beyond this transition.

My own relationship with Tom more fraught,
the phrase “it’s complicated” seemingly developed for this situation:
a trio, 
a ménage, 
not always in balance, 
but buoyed by love and loyalty,
and sometimes rivalry.
As Allen explains it succinctly to the visiting nurse:
“like lesbians”

Over the years Tom and I developed a routine: 
he continually requesting lemons from my backyard tree
me arriving with a bag of yellow orbs
a peace offering, 
an attempt at connection,
until one last lemon is proffered:
grabbed
clutched
refused to let go
slept with in his curled palm
all night long
until it too will inevitably be released…

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LOL

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“LOL” may be shorthand for “laugh out loud” or “lots of love” but for me it stands for “little old lady”. To be clear: these are not small women, in fact they’re larger than life.

I had lunch last week with Adah Bakalinsky. She is smart, funny, interesting, and beautiful. Still spry and always curious, she is the author of the beloved book Stairway Walks of San Francisco.  I have known her, not well, for ages. Neither of us can quite remember when we first met. It I may have been at a party given by my friend Margaret Fabrizio. I think I gave her a ride home that night, and our paths crossed frequently thereafter. I was delighted when she invited me to her 80th birthday party, many years ago. After we continued to orbit each other’s worlds, she invited me to lunch at the Towers. It was a lovely (re)connection and caused me to wonder about my attraction to what I lovingly call “little old ladies”.

My first little old lady was, undoubtedly like many, my grandmother. “Baba” was my Auntie Mame, with her flamboyant red hair, thick French accent, stylish clothes and jewelry, and a glamorous past.  She encouraged my adventurous palate by introducing me to such foreign foodstuffs as beef tongue, calf’s liver, sweetbreads, quenelles, braised lettuce, marinated cucumbers, among other culinary treats. The fact that she was an opera singer in Paris, with 78 recordings and theatre posters to prove it, only enhanced her role as antidote to my boring suburban experience.  I am proud to say she is the person who most influenced who I am today.

Another early lol was Helen Jean, whom I met in the very early 1970s through friends. “HJ” lived in a SRO in the Tenderloin, and strung beads to eke out a living. I had moved away from my family and friends and was just coming out as a gay man. HJ was my confidante, my mentor. She listened to my tales of love found and lost, and I commiserated with her always precarious financial situation and encroaching blindness. We had lots of adventures and lots of laughs. After decades of friendship we somehow lost touch, and I’m sure she is now long gone. I think of her frequently and fondly every time I drive past her Larkin Street apartment building.

Where did this intergenerational attraction come from? Is it particular to gay men?  I think of my friend Eric Smith’s collection of wonderful lol’s including “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road” about whom he made an inspiring documentary. What do we see in them, that others might not? How did Betty White become an icon of the gay community? Do we bask in their (fading) glory, desire to emulate their power, revel in details of their checkered or glamorous pasts? Who else participates in this particular pantheon?

Years ago when Michael Montlack was compiling an anthology entitled My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, some of my writing partners and I decided to contribute.  Patrick Letellier wrote about his admiration for Queen Elizabeth I and Lewis DeSimone explored his adoration of the fictional character Auntie Mame. Other offerings included opera stars, popular singers, movie actresses and a few literary figures. My contribution was an essay entitled “Dinners with the Diminutive Diva”, which concludes, “To the world, Betty Berzon was a pioneering gay rights activist, psychotherapist, and bestselling author. To me, she was a dear friend, whose inspiration guides me daily even as her absence deeply affects me.” That sums up my inexplicably deep connection to Betty, and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo. When Betty died I went into such a tailspin you’d have thought I’d lost my own mother and mentor.

My childhood friends were mostly girls, with whom I played jacks and hopscotch and house. I always liked talking to their moms, who seemed nicer than my own. I had no aunts (or uncles, for that matter.)  Why was I so attracted to female energy?

These days I try to spend as much time as possible with my friends Bev Case, who recently turned 91, and and Margaret Fabrizio in her mid 80s. Not because I have any official obligation or for altruistic reasons, but because I enjoy their company. It’s as if I want to experience every drop of wisdom and wit from these wonderful women while they’re still around.

Friends sometimes tease that I’m turning into a little old lady. I can only hope it’s true.

I’ve certainly had many amazing role models.

LOL

Cinematic Souvenirs

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I recently toured the handsome new facilities of Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum. As head librarian Nancy Goldman showed the group of art librarians the rich resources of the library, she made passing reference to souvenir movie programs. I thought of my personal stash of programs, collected in the 1960s and ’70s and asked if she might want them for the collection. I never looked at them, but couldn’t bring myself to dispose of them. . I was thrilled when she said yes. Now they would have a permanent home, and be of potential use to future researchers. As I took them off the shelf and packaged them for delivery, I took one last look at these mementos of my youth.

It was a trip down a veritable memory lane, as most of them were bought at theatres along Hollywood Boulevard, where I saw so many movies for the first time. I loved going to the movie palaces along this famous street: Grauman’s Chinese, The Egyptian, The Pantages and The Paramount (aka El Capitan). Sometimes with my parents, sometimes with a school group, but mostly with my grandmother, who lived not far away.

I spent hours reading in magazines about movies being made and eagerly awaited their release. I stepped on or over famous names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, many of which had to be explained to me by my parents. I was fascinated by special effects, dreaming that one day I would work in the industry. The programs offered a tangible memento of the experience. Filled with behind the scenes stories, biographies of the stars, and stills, some of these promotional materials are merely advertising, others offer fascinating information. Most are standard formats, either 8 1/2 x 11″ hardcovers or 9 x 12″ brochures, others diverge. Is it significant that those for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon are offbeat sizes and shapes?

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My eclectic collection boasts many musicals, including classics like My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Funny Girl and Camelot. Julie Andrews is well represented: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Star!, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. 51ihuDp0xEL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_

Less successful offerings: Sweet Charity, The Happiest Millionaire, Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Doolittle. I bought the soundtracks of many of them, and compared them to the Original Broadway Cast albums that I borrowed from the library. I favored Gwen Verdon to Shirley Maclaine, Mary Martin to Mitzi Gaynor, and Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn. But, forgive me, I did prefer Julie Andrews over Mary Martin’s Maria von Trapp.

I would have been ten in 1962, when How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were released at the Cinerama dome, where a few years later the Battle of the Bulge played. Images from the star-studded western were indelibly imprinted on my adolescent psyche; the fairy tale backstory and the war movie not so much.

While waiting to see the film adaptations I devoured lengthy novels like Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Hawaii, and Far From the Madding Crowd. I scarcely understood that Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew were based on Shakespeare or that A Man for All Seasons had been a recent play.

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I loved the Biblical epics, The Bible, Ben Hur, and King of Kings. Can I count Cleopatra among the ancient extravaganzas? Other historical favorites were Is Paris Burning and Exodus.download

Before the days of videorecording, I often played the soundtrack and looked at the program, reimagining the experience of watching the movie. My bedroom walls were covered with images from magazines and sometimes even record albums, but never, ever, would I cut up my precious souvenir programs.

My penultimate perusal of these artifacts from the past returns me to my adolescent self and my love of movies. They are permanently imbedded in my heart; I no longer need their physical presence to remind me. After nearly fifty years on my shelves I am delighted they are moving to a new home.

Civil Vigilance

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Every Tuesday at noon, San Francisco is assailed with a siren. After a fifteen-second “wall” tone, a recorded message intones: “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.” Depending on one’s proximity to the 109 city-wide sirens, the succinct message is clearly audible or its unintelligibility becomes yet another element of urban noise pollution. Originally, fifty sirens were installed, in 1942, obviously in response to anticipated threats related to WWII.

This weekly interruption of city life invokes, for me, growing up during the 1950s. Considered to have begun in 1947, shortly after the devastation of World War II, and ending in 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, the Cold War’s legacy is legion.

pb-110817-duckandcover-rs.photoblog900Throughout grammar school I remember duck-and cover drills, diving under our desks, to avoid impending Russian bombs. These intermittent trainings somehow seemed much more terrifying than the emergency fire drills of walking calmly out of the not-actually-burning building. With our hands protecting the back of our youthful necks we were instructed to imagine the glass exploding from the wall of windows at Buena Terra Elementary School. Vivid descriptions of the first flash of intense heat and light of the developing nuclear fireball were invoked to motivate our participation. I don’t recall similar preparations for natural disasters like earthquakes (much more likely in Southern California) or tornadoes. We learned that some families built bomb shelters, filled with canned goods and all the necessities to survive. Were we being taught not to stick our necks out in more ways than one? Were they being overly cautious, or were we flirting with danger?

What else were we taught about those Russians? Most of what I learned was from the nefarious Boris Badenov, “world’s greatest no-goodnik”, and curvaceous Natasha Fatale on episodes of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle boris_and_natasha_by_rongs1234-d4ydjfuShow”. Would I have felt differently about those Russkies had I known that my grandfather had hidden the fact that he’d been born in Russia? Was my xenophobia generalizable?

The promotion of suspicion and paranoia seemed pervasive. I was eight in 1960 when Mattel released Lie Detector Scientific Crime Game. I remember hours of interrogating suspects, sticking the stylus into the “scientific” machine and waiting for the needle to register whether their description is true or false. What effect did this have on my developing psyche? Could my own utterances be so easily be decoded?

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I was an eager James Bond fan of both novels and films. I watched “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Get Smart”. I wanted to be a suave, sophisticated spy, seducing beautiful women, or at least sipping martinis — shaken not stirred — after a full day of covert adventure.

After being humiliated for playing with my friends’ Barbie and Ken dolls, I was too old by the time GI Joe doll was released in 1964. My younger brother had one, and I envied his ability to navigate doll-playing as an acceptable masculine behavior. There were so many aspects of masculinity I didn’t quite grok. The boys on the block played endless games of baseball, but I was bored. They also built customized model cars, but that too was a skill that escaped me.

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I preferred reading biographies and catching (and mounting, I’m sorry to say) butterflies. It all felt like a subversive plot, expecting me to act like a boy which meant betraying my authenticity.

I was expected to stand with hand on heart, intoning words that were meaningless. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This jingoism ran hollow then, and has only become more so after reading Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States and John Perkins’ more contemporary Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. How could I be expected to participate in this nationalistic charade, similar to endorsing the equally suspect cult of masculinity.
I wanted to eradicate fear, mostly my own, which seemed to accelerate, not dissipate, with each drill. One must always be alert, ready to act in event of attack. When the alarm sounded, day or night, one must know exactly what to do. Our lives depend on our vigilance.

Every Tuesday I wonder: am I ready?