“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.