Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Purse

I was talking with friends and we were swapping stories about P'town. It reminded me of what has always been one of the quintessential P'town experiences for me. I was spending the summer working there, this must have been '79 or '80. In tourist towns, if you work there, you tend to pick up casual friendships pretty easily which are tried on, worn for the season. So it wasn't surprising that I was with a large group of people when we went to the White Party at the Boatslip. I don't particularly remember the party. It was pretty much of a piece with the other blowouts of that time, and Provincetown was a much funkier place. After a lot of drinking and dancing and drugging, the party ended and people began the trek down Commercial Street, either off to Spiritus or to trysts at a guest house with the flavor of the evening. It was one of the summers where there had been a lot of trouble with the local teenage boys bashing gay men.

As we moved down the street, trying to decide whether to attend the fire sale at Spiritus, or just head off to our respective homes we were checking out the other people straggling on ahead of us. Directly in front of our group was a drag queen in full Diana Ross. Big johnny mop wig, green sequin mini dress, matching clutch bag and 3 inch heels, girlfriend was magnificent. Ahead of her were a couple of LaCoste queens, all summer slacks and polo shirts with upturned collars, holding hands.

Miss Ross was an object of much more fascinated interest to us and we were vowing that if she stopped for pizza that we were going to have to talk with her and pay homage to her fabulous ensemble.

A pick up truck that was cruising slowly up the street stopped just short of the LaCoste boys, and 4 teenage boys leapt out and attacked the LaCoste's. It was so sudden that for a moment we were frozen in out tracks. Not so Miss Ross. With a wild battle cry and an amazing turn of speed for someone in stilettos she began swinging her evening bag like some avenging fury, a battle crazed Walkure, and laid waste to the enemy downing them with blows to the head from her bag and then kicking seven kinds of shit out of them with her fabulous pumps!

By the time we made it there to offer any support, Miss Ross had already subdued the ruffians and the cops had, surprisingly, already shown up. The LaCoste's more shaken than injured were comforting each other, one of them crying and Miss Ross the avenging angel stood there eyes blazing, chest heaving as if waiting for anyone to challenge her. The cops had asked us all to stay, so that they could get everyone's version of what had transpired, so we stood there not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Finally, my pal Paul leaned forward and gently touched Miss Ross on the arm. "Honey, what ARE you carrying in that bag?", he asked timidly. "Baby", she said haughtily, "I got my brick in my purse. I'm from New York, and a girl does NOT leave the house unless she has a brick in her purse."

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Weekend reading

I am planning a quiet New Year's. New Years Eve will be an early dinner with friends, per tradition, Chinese take-out. Otherwise I will be reading, I will probably finish "From Boys to Men" which is an anthology of coming of age, not to be mistaken for coming out, stories by gay men. It features pieces by Joe Jervis, a.k.a. Joe.My.God and Alexander Chee. I have really enjoyed it so far and can honestly say that half way through, there hasn't been a clunker yet. I also would like to try and get through "The March of Folly", by Barbara Tuchman. I have loved all of Tuchman's other books and find her histories engrossing and entertaining. She is able to take a moment in the past and make the events and the prime movers live again for the reader. "The March of Folly" seems like a timely read, since it's focus is on 4 different historical events where governments pursued policies that were clearly not in the best interest of the countries. Sounds all too familiar for anyone who has not been stranded on a desert island or living under a rock for the past 4 years. Food, friends and books! What could be better?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bad start

I got up this morning filled with determination. I have been letting my workout slip the past couple of weeks, between a cold and holiday malaise. This morning I arose at my usual obscene hour made coffee and was out the door by 5:30. As I walked out the door a few snowflakes hit me just as I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be the snowless year, and began my walk downtown.

I made it as far as the block between Berkeley and Arlington when I spotted someone pulled over trying to change a tire. This young guy had obviously never changed a tire before. He had already jacked the truck up and was trying to loosen the lugs. I almost walked on, but my better impulses stopped me. I asked if he wanted some help, and he gratefully accepted. I lowered the car, broke the seal on the nuts and jacked the car back up. Things would have been fine after that except for the spare. A curse on General Motors and on all engineers. Some genius had come to the conclusion that mounting the spare under the car was a good idea. I have had to struggle with similar arrangements before but never with a tire that was suspended by a single bolt. A single bolt I might add that was rusted solid after a few New England winters of road salt. So, taking further pity, I went to CVS which I knew was open and bought a can of WD-40. This in itself was an adventure, since I was in line behind a woman having an altercation with the cashier because he wouldn't accept her credit card without further proof of ID, because she hadn't signed her card. If that wasn't enough fun. There was a couple in front of me and the woman was tweeked out of her mind. Jumping up and down and back and forth. Jumping forward grabbing things out of the displays on the counters and then putting them back. All the while accompanying this with a loud running commentary on how long it was taking. The first woman at this point has become thoroughly if unjustifiably offended and is demanding to see the manager. She is being dissed and doesn't have to put up with this. At this point the manager actually walked through the door and got to have her turn with being haranged. Finally, one of the store slaves opened the self-serve and tweeky and boyfriend leapt to the machine, which she had no idea of how to operate. Fortunately, some kind soul moved in and helped her process her purchases, and I, who could feel the milk of human kindness curdling in my breast, swiped my stuff and headed back to the stranded motorist. I once again crawled under the truck and this time sprayed the hell out of wing bolt and spent several minutes whacking at it with the tire iron. Finally, I admitted defeat and asked the kid if he had triple A. As it would happen he did. Now some of you may be saying to yourself, why didn't he just call AAA right off the bat. I asked myself the same question, but at the same time, it is hard for me to fault anyone who is making the effort to solve a problem by themselves. Still I left feeling frustrated and as though I hadn't done enough, or had somehow failed. By this time it was too late to go to the gym and make it to work on time, so I walked to the nearest T stop and took the next train back to my neighborhood. Once home I was placing my faith in the efficacy of hot water. A hot shower would make the world right again. This was when I discovered that I had ice cold and ice cold running water. I did my best with a chilly sponge bath changed into clean clothes and went off to work.

I guess what I am wondering now is why I persist in believing in luck and fate and karma. In spite of having a run of what could be considered ill luck, what real significance does it have? It wasn't luck, it wasn't fate or karma. It was brownian motion in action. I was merely being propeled through my little part of the universe by forces of time and motion. I am not controling my life and neither is some great cosmic force. Sometimes faith in the nitrogen cycle bites down hard.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Feast of Stephen

Ah the post holiday let down. I am beginning to understand why other countries take the day after Xmas as well. It gives you a chance to recover from a certain amount of enforced conviviality. I suppose that there are those who would also like to have one day where they could gloat over their Xmas swag. My holiday was pretty gift free, which as I get older is something of a relief. My niece sent cookies and she and her boyfriend gave me an Amazon gift certificate, which is even now speeding 3 books to me. A collection of short gay fiction, one of the few things of Barbara Tuchman's that I haven't read, "The March of Folly" and a replacement copy of "Our Mutual Friend" which somehow disappeared off the bookshelf and hasn't been seen since. I also indulged in a new cell phone. The old Nokia was actually perfectly good. A solid cheap phone that took a great deal of abuse and kept working, but was unfortunately the size of a brick. I got one of the new slim candybar phones from Samsung. I am assured that as long as I don't carry it in my back pocket (how stupid do have to be?) that it is pretty darned sturdy. While the jury is out on that aspect, I have to say that it's a nice phone and so far I am happy. Other than that, I have not felt any burning need to add to all of the crap that I have in my house. I really would like to find a way to get rid of about 60% of my possesions so that I can start streamlining my existance. What ever possessed me? It is past time to purge. Maybe that will be my new project for 2007. Clearing the house until there is only what I really need left. What would that leave me with? In the end what would it say about me as a person, if I had only those things I really needed and valued? What would those things be? Well I will have to overcome some of my natural inertia to see what that would be. Still who knows, I never thought I'd loose weight and I did it. I never thought I'd escape from my old and hated job and I did that as well, the new day can always bring a suprise, whether you're ready or not.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Merry Little Xmas

I spent the afternoon with friends. Wah-bags once again outdid himself. Roast goose, red cabbage and chestnuts braised in red wine, asparagus, wild rice and snap peas. Oh, yeah, and several bottles of Veuve Cliquot of which all partook liberally. One of the guests brought her partner, who being jewish had never actually taken part in a Xmas celebration. I explained to her how Santa used Rudolph's nose to guide the angels to baby Bejeezus and then had a three way with the wise men. That's why they brought along the incense and the oil. It also explained why Santa is so jolly. She said, yeah but Xmas only comes once a year. I said, what the hell do you think he's doing with all those elves up on the north pole the rest of the year. All in all it was a very nice day and I am now drinking copious amounts of water so that with any luck I will not drop a dumbell on my head while I am attempting tricep extentions tomorrow. This is why I don't drink any more. Merry Xmas to all and to all a good night!

The Godfather of Soul

I tuned into NPR this morning to some sad news. James Brown, the hardest working man in show business has died. Controversial, outrageous, love him or hate him, James Brown was probably one of the most important figures in music in the past 50 years. You think of James Brown and you think of someone who put everything into his show. I know I will always think of the time that he dropped to his knees so hard during a show that he limped for the rest of the performance. We seem to be loosing a lot of the figures that loomed as giants in the music industry during my youth. So put on your copy of Santa Claus, Santa Claus and pause for a moment in remembrance of the godfather of soul.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Red toy car

One of my earliest Christmas memories is playing with a red and white toy car. It was a 1958 Ford convertible that the top went up and down on as you rolled it across the floor. My Uncle Burt had given one each to my brother John and I.

Burt was my mother’s brother. He came up from Connecticut every weekend to spend the weekends with us, as well as holidays. He was divorced and I think had pretty limited access to his 2 sons, who he adored. The visiting arrangement was not one I think my father was very happy with. In later years talking with my mother, she told me of how as children, Burt who was older than her had always looked out for her, so as adults she felt she had to look out for him.

Burt had served in WWII as a radioman on a bomber. He had been stationed in England and flew some impossible number of missions over Germany. One night he was pulled off of duty because he had a cold that was affecting his middle ear. If you fly in a marginally pressurized airplane you can’t expect to be able to hear if your Eustachian tubes are blocked. That night the crew he had flown with every mission was lost over Germany. My mom said after that he was never the same.

According to my mother, before the war Burt had been “full if the devil”. He was someone always ready to go out dancing and have a good time, funny and with a wicked sense of humor and always ready for a joke. I would not have recognized this man. My Uncle Burt was to be succinct a bit nuts. He was so full of tics and rituals that it is a miracle that he ever made it through a day. Among the childhood memories my brothers and I share are Uncle Burt hogging the bathroom while we were hopping outside the bathroom door in desperate need of relief. He had the same toothbrush for years. “The bristles on new toothbrushes are too stiff. They’ll just wear the enamel right off your teeth, this one I have broken in just right.” Once when Mike and I were in the kitchen peeling oranges he came in and flew into a panic. “Always use a spoon to peel an orange! They are just full of acid and if it gets under your nails it will just eat it’s way right down to the bone!” He was as eccentric as a cage full of monkeys on hard drugs, and yet an incredibly kind man and he loved us. I think if he were diagnosed now, he would be described as suffering from PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder. Back in the 60’s he was merely nutty. Among Burt’s obsessions were, an encyclopedic knowledge of every automobile ever manufactured by Ford Motor Company, the big bands and Gilbert & Sullivan operas. In short he was the perfect uncle for a young homo.

In a lot of ways Uncle Burt was my savior. My father loathed me as a child. I was not a real little boy. I liked to read, draw and watch movies My interest in wildlife was to study it or try and draw it, not blast it off the landscape with a gun. I was more interested in the musicals of the golden age of Hollywood than any sports. Probably the only male interest I had as a kid was automobiles which fascinated me, but since my old man didn’t share that obsession, it didn’t count. All in all I was a thorough sissy, which ultimately resulted in my serving the purpose of emotional and physical punching bag for the old man. Dad was an alcoholic and a bully. If he spotted a weakness, he would exploit it. His idea of a joke was to expose you to something which terrified you and then laugh at your reaction. If you didn’t think it was the funniest thing in the world you had no sense of humor, and if you continued to be frightened, you were just a big sissy. Either way, he became angry with you and it was your fault for making him angry. I managed to earn regular thrashings over the years in this way. I know that a lot of kids that grow up like this spend their entire childhood trying to win the love and approval of this kind of father. I don’t know if I had a shallower learning curve than most, but by the time I was 11, I hated my father as much as he hated me and spent the next 7 years of my life trying to avoid contact with him as much as possible. The fact that avoidance was an option became clear to me because of the boat.

One of my father’s friends had a boat that he kept all summer at the lake. He gave Dad the keys and permission with the boathouse so that the old man could use the boat any time he wanted when Mr. Bran was not using it. So every weekend during the summer we would go out in the boat. I hated it. I am still not comfortable around water. It probably goes back to the time that my older sister pushed me off a diving board and if my cousin Buster hadn’t pulled me out, I probably would have drowned. I am not a strong swimmer and tend to sink like a rock rather than float. Whatever the reason, I, did not then and to this day, do not like being on the water. But as I was saying, after downing a 6 pack, the old man would load the family into the car and off to the lake we went, and then Mom, my brothers, more beer and I would get into the boat for a relaxing afternoon of my father attempting daredevil stunts with the boat and me clinging face down to the deck whimpering and on occasion screaming. Among his favorite things was on days when the lake was rough, to turn into the waves and gun the boat eventually getting it to skip from crest to crest. Then the cycle would begin. Having reduced me to near pant wetting terror because he found it so funny, he would then become infuriated with my cowardice. Finally, my mother couldn’t stand the conflicts any longer and she made arrangements for me to be dropped off with grandma while they went off to the lake.

Around 1962, Uncle Burt bought a house about a mile away from us. He moved my much loved grandmother and my very scary town drunk of a grandfather into it and after that, continued to come back to Vermont from Connecticut every weekend, but now to his house, though at least for us kids it was never Uncle Burt’s house it was Grandma’s. From then on after the mandatory 6 pack, the rest of the family went off to the lake, and I was dropped off at Grandma’s. Those were quiet Sundays, and I remember Grandma having me read poetry aloud from her collection of books in her little bookcase, but what I also remember was Uncle Burt taking me up to his room where he had his stereo and playing music for me. Why I am not now an expert on the bands of the 40’s I don’t know. I heard more Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bennie Goodman and Glenn Miller than probably anyone born after the end of the Second World War. If that portion of my childhood had a sound track, it would feature “String of Pearls”. He was always buying more music, adding to what in the end was an incredible collection of the music from that era. Now in case some of you are slow on the uptake, my Uncle Burt was a closet case. If you are waiting to hear a lurid tale about how he took advantage of my youth and innocence you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Burt’s tragedy was perhaps even sadder in it’s own lonely way. He was, I think, so repressed that he completely sublimated any sexuality he had and put all of that pent up energy into his obsessions. In a way, while we were small children it gave him some means of communication, because he was one of those people who knew how to talk to little kids. If he provided a safe haven for me, then we boys gave him some hold on the world, a human contact that most people have with other adults in a harsh real world. Burt lived in a world of his own construction and it hadn’t changed since he had gone dancing with his little sister and his friends to the big bands playing at the Casino out on the lake before the war.

Time however marches on, and the 60’s steamrolled over us all. The ramifications of assassinations, the Viet Nam war, and social upheaval were felt everywhere, even in our sleepy little part of the world. Adolescence hit the Pelletier boys at the same time and if the world seemed to be going up in flames our family also was in an upheaval that none of us survived unscathed. Uncle Burt was good with small kids, but was clueless about teenagers, and had no insight into how to deal with the churning emotions that make up that transition in a persons life. So it was that we started to grow apart. And so it was that Burt began to retreat more into himself. Then his younger son was drafted, shipped off to Viet Nam and returned home a heroin addict. Burt didn’t have the emotional equipment to deal effectively with the crisis but he tried. His older son, always a bit of an emotional basket case, started to turn into a pale and even sadder form of his father. So his children slowly at first, then quickly and deliberately began to drift away from him. Burt’s reaction was to become even more obsessive and for lack of a better word crazy. I somehow made it through the 4 years that was a combination of bullying and boredom that was high school. I went to college for a year, dropped out and moved to Boston. As I began to bloom in more fertile new ground, Burt went into a downward spiral. The drug addict son kicked his addiction, found Jesus and excluded his father from his life. The other son went on his way, only maintaining contact with his father when he needed financial assistance.

In those sad years my mother fell into more and more of a role as caretaker of Burt. Things finally reached their nadir when my mother received a call from a mental institution in Connecticut. Burt who had become increasingly erratic had been sending letters to his boss. They were as it turned out odd and rambling, but the boss had found them threatening. I am not entirely sure about the content of these missives but whatever they contained they got Burt dismissed from his job. Burt then sent the boss a letter telling him he would be coming to settle matters. Whatever was in the letter, it was enough to convince the police that they would be there to meet Burt when he arrived and take him off to the booby hatch. So it was that Mom got a call from Burt, telling her where he was. It took a few phone calls and some threats on my mothers part with legal action to get Burt sprung. The situation was further hampered because Burt was determined to stay put until he convinced the doctors that he was not disturbed. If ever the adage that a lawyer who represents himself has fool for a client was applicable this would be an outstanding example. I have to hand it to Mom, she got him out and that was the beginning of Burt’s retirement. After that he moved to Vermont premanently and began life driving my poor grandmother crazy on a full time basis.

After that things quieted down a lot for Uncle Burt. He spent more time with his siblings, and his cars, and fretting about his health and everyone else’s, dispensing crazy advice and making pronouncements on the best way to treat or avoid illness. Grandma went into the hospital to be operated on for stomach cancer, had a stroke after the surgery and never went home. After she died, the house, which I think Burt kept against the day when he hoped his mother would return, began to seem too big. He sold the house and moved to a retirement community which had been developed only about a 10 minute walk from my parents and he would come to visit even more frequently to advise my mother on the error of her ways, which was anything that she happened to be doing at the time that Burt felt with his greater experience of the world, she could be doing in a manner more acceptable to him. It drove Mom sort of crazy, but she also would laugh about it. His ideas and rules had developed into such an arcane fetish, that there was no way to take offense, or at least to stay angry for too long. Then Burt, who had never drunk or smoked developed stomach cancer. He had one surgery, and then another. During the ordeal Burt remained the same. As his illness progressed he developed theories about the accuracy of his diagnosis, his treatment and whether his own cures which he developed by a means and reference known only to him would be more efficacious than anything medical science had developed. It was a cruel death after such a hard an unhappy life. As the disease reached it’s late stages Burt started to waste away and became even more difficult. My mother, never the most patient of people somehow managed to maintain her patience with Burt. Selfish as Mom can be, she truly loved her brother and he was probably one of the few people she has ever allowed herself to be close to and she at the end was all he had left.

When he died the funeral arrangements and burial were left to my mother. His sons came, cleaned out his place and left, and that was the end of Burt. My mother is now the only one left in her family and I think it has turned out to be as lonely of a life for her now as it had been for Burt. I rarely go to visit, though when I do more often than not we will talk about Uncle Burt. If Mom is having a good day, the conversation will turn to when they were young and what they did. How they would get into and out of trouble and it will be all sunny summer days in a world of radio programs and boys who wore short pants and Christmas trees that had real candles on them.

As for me, every Christmas I think of this man who must have struggled every day to get on in a hostile world, but who was able to give me a red toy car which after nearly 50 years I still remember with such joy and who for a while anyway provided me with a safe place to be.

Early a.m.

It is Xmas eve morning. Alice dragged me out of bed to get her breakfast. It's amazing how sounds of kitty destruction around the apartment will get you up. I have made myself an apple breakfast dish, that Clint gave me the recipe for. It is as yet untried, so I am volunteering as guinea pig. I will have to let Clint know what it's like. I am also going to try to finish a story I am working on about my Uncle Burt. He was a strange and rather sad man, who when I was a child gave us the best Xmas presents. He is one of my earliest childhood memories of Xmas and a happy one. I am not sure how it will turn out, and I don't think there is any way to put some sort of uplifting spin on the end of the story. Life may imitate fiction, but it is rarely the Disney version.