Less clear now the mark
between what is day and what is dark.
Explorations find us at the violet hour
listening to crickets, wisteria, birches
and the voices from windows
throw open to summer.
The plush grass unemcumbers us.
The children spread restless energies.
The aunts tell jokes (a surprise!)
Both Nanas whisper
and two boys kiss but
We spend the remaining light
on the laps of branches,
stoop and play at ideas and games,
let flirty breezes roll over us
like embracing angels.
Bees, plump from summer, feast
at the lilac.
Finches (or what kind of bird is that?)
flap, glint, glimmer.
Moths talk about us amongst themselves.
Shrubs pulsate with hidden chirps
then fade. Dusk fades.
Say that August happened to us
In winter, the children are gone.
In winter, the arbor holds only
In these rooms that hold Brueghel
the browns, the gold,
for hours on end
louder than crows,
louder than the hooves
in the pictures
blackened by cinder and soot,
louder than the flutes
no one but the player can hear,
wings too frozen to flap,
a mind too sore to think straight.
the tops of them chrome,
have been cemented into the floor
to which he is strapped
to strap his screaming.
Maybe he is making a gamble
to outshout the flat and angled landscapes,
the silence of one-dimensional men,
the injustices of history.
It's fitting these pictures watch over him;
the Masters knew the anguish of unanswered cries,
the loudness of hounds
when they see the road is covered over
by centuries of snow,
the shouts of skaters skating on a river
that never ends…
I’m 67 years old and I have never been to bed with anybody. I
don’t count the two times I found myself briefly on a mattress.
The first time was with a handsome hustler, Rosenberger, who
could only get off if the trick slapped one ten dollar bill after
another into his outstretched hand while sucking him.
Rosenberger joked, “I’m making money and getting my balls
off.” In the shower room of the Embarcadero “Y”, 1986, a hairy,
fat, mustachioed Armenian walked right up to me, boner in
hand, and said, “You got room here?” I was so unused to being
propositioned, I led him down the hall. He motioned me to lie
on the bed, face up, mounted me, used my body for a frotting
rock. He smelled like a garlic farm. In less than a minute, he
blew his load on me, got up, burped and left. Neither of these
episodes can be found in The International Annals of
I don’t know why I’m being flip about this. I’ve been denied one of the basic aspects of human experience. I’ve never cuddled or spooned with another human being. I’ve been kissed fewer times than Flannery O’Connor was kissed. There must be other reluctant monks out there but I’ve never met or heard of them. I don’t know how this happened. Or, do I? I learned from an early age that my being gives off not the slightest trace of sexual ethos. To put it another way, never have I instilled lust in anyone. One guy was cruel enough to look me in the eyes and state, “Leo, you’ve got the sex appeal of an uncooked egg.” Jan Morris, of all people, once noted I was the most androgynous person she’d ever known. Jan Morris! I mean, come on! Even clergy had a more active sex life than I did; it was known in the parish that two or three times a week, our Father Conway jogged up Adams Street in his Lycras to his girlfriend’s house, gave her a good screw then jogged back in time to say the 9 o’clock Mass.
Whenever a man showed even a smidge of interest, something or someone would come along to thwart it. It took on major mojo proportions. Karmic. One time, a fellow and I began to tussle in a very direct way in my kitchen when whose ugly face should appear in the window, big as life, but his girlfriend’s, ugly not because her features offended but because her timing did. Needless to say, I never saw that guy again. It didn’t help that I suffer from a touch of Borderline Personality Disorder; if a guy so much as held a door open for me, I was ready to pick out the wedding rings. On another occasion, a blind date ended our very brief encounter with, “You, sir, are a eunuch.” I did look gelded in my multicolored pastel K-Mart shmata, green corduroy elephant pants. Still another time, I found myself alone in a Motel 6 with a former member of the boy band, Menudo. Angel more than earned his name; his face was among the most beatific I’ve seen. By contrast, he had a mouth filthier than the possessed child in The Exorcist. A steady Latino stream of “I’m gonna fuck you and fuck you and fuck you more! I’m gonna fuck you to the moon. I’m gonna be your forever fuck and Fuck Fuck Fuck you.” But, like William Styron’s Leslie Lapidus in Sophie’s Choice, Angel could say fuck but he could not do it. When I got on all fours and wiggled my goods, Angel screamed not unlike Janet Leigh in Psycho and was out the door, like smoke.
I could fill notebook after notebook with stories of aborted consummations. Some people are skeptical that I’ve never had my cherry popped. Only Edmund White believes me, commiserating, “Poor dear; at this point, it’s probably a sun-dried tomato.”
One big problem is that I’m mostly if not always happy. This makes people suspicious. It led one guy to want to slash me with a butter knife. It’s definitely not sexy; it draws folks in who need a clown or jester fix. I have a propensity for attracting depressives. For years, my friend, Joe, called me, “Egg/Bird/Fish/Pizza Leo”, a reference to my genderless etheric. I attracted sexually confused heterosexual males and lesbians. The males usually blamed me for their confusion.
Oh, why pussyfoot around – I was fat, homely and shy. In the gay world, three strikes and you’re out. At least in the gay world of my day. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were no defined sexual categories, no bears, geishas, nerds. If there were, I was a kid and knew nothing about them, never knew a heavy man could be viewed by others as “hot stuff”.
Who knows? Maybe all that unused sexual energy channels into my creative efforts. It’s got to be going somewhere. William Carlos Williams enjoyed a healthy sex life but not nearly as healthy and lusty as he wanted it to be. Biographers point out his massive output might be attributed to sexual frustration, a hypersexual tension that went into his poems instead of the many pussies he dreamed would be his. Ditto Emily Dickinson, who turned unrequited passion into a cottage industry. Her work writhes, tumbles and jumbles more energetically than any four-poster acrobatics she imagined alone in her bed. Not that I put myself in a league with Williams or Dickinson. And not that celibacy is a needed ingredient for writing well. I know a prolific writer. In his 80s, he continues to have sex once a day with enough oomph left over to produce essays, short stories, broadsides, blurbs, reviews reviews reviews and a book a year. When they were handing out extraterrestrial energy, this guy cut to the front of the line.
Maybe my sexless existence opened me up to agape, the unconditional, open-hearted regard one man has for all mankind regardless of circumstance. Years ago, my friend, Quentin Crisp, in a letter empathizing with my chronic lack of romance, wrote, There is no more to be said for loving one person than for loving the whole world.”
Rituals of Defiance: On Seeking the complete Edmund White
I’d set myself the task of gathering together every book, book review, essay, stage play, print interview, everything gay writer Edmund White had made. An extensive bibliography. Most items, thanks in part to the marvelous collection The Beinecke Library at Yale owns, were easily come by. An archivist relies heavily also on serendipity and word-of-mouth and a Florida man who had collected every, single issue of After Dark Magazine emailed me to “Come on down!” His private store was a thrill to behold. What a day was had down there!
One item though of White-iana remained stubbornly elusive, a near-mythic film Ed appeared in sometime in the 1980s. Gay friends swore they’d watched it and that it was well -worth finding, for the biblio and for sheer pleasure viewing. I was given the title A Lovely Day in the Life of Edmund White. I could not find this movie anywhere. Years went by as every crumb of a clue led to one dead end after another. “This film, Leo, simply does not exist.” The beast became an amour fou, a Holy Grail. Librarians, good ones anyway, can’t give up, never give up when we are hell-bent to find something. One night, I dreamed about The Beinecke Library, a building that is completely windowless. In my dream, it had windows and brilliant light was emanating from them all. I woke up with the thought that I should call Timothy Young, curator there, and make another stab at finding this frustratingly slippery film. I don’t know what I said or what Timothy heard but he suddenly stopped me and said, “Wait a minute. Could this be The Day the Shit Happened ?” “The day the what happened?? There’s such a film ??” He went on to describe it a bit and it sounded like the one I was after. “We have two copies of that. Let’s send you the links.” Eureka! Score another one for Sir Gawain, Library Knight! I had found my Holy Grail.
The movie presents us with what we are told is a typical day in the Paris life of Edmund, sun-up to sundown. In silent-film style, captions move the action forward. There is dialogue throughout, some of it improvised, some of it scripted. After a dedication to Ed’s lover, John Purcell, a quote from Shakespeare and the floating romance of Debussy, setting us up for poetry and poetic musings, we are stopped short by the title The Day the Shit Happened. Here we are paused to have a laugh. The movie cuts to a sleeping Ed who is wakened by an offstage voice calling, “Charlotte! Charlotte!”. Comic is the sight of Ed waking to the morning, wiping the sleepy from his eyes and immediately taking up pad and pen to begin his work for the day when – mon Dieu! – we are surprised to see the delicious head of a young blond honey pop up from under the covers. Ed gives him a big kiss and orders him to bring coffee, mouthing, “I love you so much, darling.”
Fun, tongue-in-cheek highlights follow:
Ed gets on le raiseau, the French party line, to ring up possible tricks for the day. He is always and ever interested in finding out, “Are you blond?” “What color is your hair?”
Having no luck, he ventures out for a fitness session with his personal trainer, Douglas, who works Ed to the bone. Not even JLo’s personal trainer works her this hard. Ed looks at Douglas, then into the camera, noting, “A vegetarian who smokes, can you believe it?” We watch Ed shave, shower, then head home to receive a female caller. “Madam is here; I do hope I’ve put away my sex toys!” His live-in blond, William, rolls his eyes smoking furiously a la Bette Davis and says, “Ed hates me. He used to smoke four packs a day.”
A package arrives from Germany and Ed gets all excited. “He said he was going to send me some hash or some bauble.” Scott Joplin plays us into the next scene calledd
Ed, fashionably dressed, walks the streets and alleyways of Paris, stops inside a bookstore, makes a purchase, then tells us he is off to have pate with The Countess. Before that, he rushes into a travel agent to book a Paris-to-Boston flight, then a business meet with his editor who barks, “Sign and we’ll have $15,000 to you in the mail by Friday.” Ed also autographs copies of his new book. “Gotta fly, darling; still late for lunch with The Countess.”
Honeysuckle Rose plays over a scene of Ed scurrying to the restaurant where The Countess is already waiting. They order Evian water and The Countess shows him her new perfume. It’s to be called Perfume for the Left Bank Woman or Honeysuckle, she’s not sure which. She asks Ed’s opinion. The Countess looks around at the now-crowded eatery and comments, “As we came to the restaurant, everyone has come to the restaurant.” “When is she going to put out that awful cigarette!”, Ed thinks to himself. Talk turns to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Countess knows him and Ed is curious that Fitzgerald would not talk about his affairs. “Verrry discreet.”. The Countess notices Ed’s package and notes, “It smells bizarrely.” Ed says, “It’s perfume from an admirer in Germany.” “Well, it certainly doesn’t smell like my perfume.”
Back at the apartment, William tells us how “incredibly forgetful Ed is. He forgot tonight’s dinner party. What a space!”
We see Ed rejected by a rent boy who says, “You told me you were about 30.” Ed says, “Anyway, you told me you were a blond. Why don’t you make me a cup of coffee and then we can discuss things?” The kid agrees and Ed slinks in. A caption quote from Shakespeare’s Ariel appears: Where the bee sucks, there I suck, in a cowslip’s bell I lie.
We next see Ed at a Lambda Literary Awards show where he is being presented with a writing prize, this counterbalanced with a montage of scenes of France, statues, fountains, etc. The award presenter states, “This plaque and several envelopes of cash to Edmund White, You. You. You possess a genius for friendship.” Ed jokes that he’s not as deserving as David Leavitt “who’s taken gay sex to the suburbs.” This gets a big laugh.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Ed runs into an old friend in a square. They sit at table and chat but Ed deems the fellow “hopelessly straight. Such a flirt!” The man asks, “How many for dinner?”
“Sex and cocaine,”, says Ed.
He drops in on the butcher and chooses un grand gigot, arrives back home only to find William not in. “Where are you, honey bear?” He proceeds to make dinner. “Les haricots verts!”, he sings out. And Tea for Two as he chops veggies.
A trans woman arrives. “I told you never get involved with Claude! Did he beat you? That’s what I want to know.” She begs an invite to the party but Ed says he has eight coming and “I don’t have enough food.” He shows her the mail package and twinkles with delight, “It’s from one of my fans. What do you suppose he sent?!! Is it diamonds?? A Faberge egg?”
“The trans says, “It smells like the farm.”
Ed rips it open like a kid at Christmas.
“Oh, my God! It’s shit! He sent me a piece of shit!”
“How hateful!” squeals the trans.
THE DINNER PARTY
Ed greets his male and female guests. Ed serves. No William in sight who we see is alarmed; he’s forgotten to get dessert at the patisserie for the party. “I’m an even worse space cadet than Ed!” Ed and his guests exchange witty dinner chitchat. William climbs the stairs two-at-a-time with pastries. Ed is just happy to see him. Big hugs!
A handsome male stands up, bows and plays the piano. His music is accompanied by a voiceover of a poem by Rimbaud. Ed is seen in leather bombardier jacket walking the sad streets, a sad look on his face. He appears to be cruising for cock. A caption reads:
Full fathom five thy father lies
And these the pearls
That were his eyes
Thyself art King of Naples
And you a prince
With this strange prize.
Flashback to the party. The pièce de la résistance (pun fully intended) -- Ed and his guests get the idea to smoke the shit. They roll the feces in with weed and light up and toke and laugh and laugh some more, enjoying their devilment and each other’s company.
I am trying to unlock the metaphor for this, if there is one, which symbol Ed and his friends meant their ritual to imply. One of the people who was at the party thinks maybe it had to do with “doing jenkem,” the practice of huffing caca to get high. See it with me, please, as a thumbing of the nose at prejudice, an insouciant flip of the bird to blind hatred. Push my face down into the dirt, I’ll eat it, all of it, ‘til my stomach sprouts flowers. Call me a queer, I’ll stake my claim on the word, own it, embolden it. I AM A QUEER!! Shit on me, I’ll smoke it, spark it up with bravado. Blow the smoke of it in your fucking face inhaling/exhaling a ritual of defiance!!
LINES FOR BRIAN
A True Account by Leo Racicot
First published in Gay Sunshine 1980, Lines for Brian by Leo Racicot (who then used the pseudonym Leo Dreu) is the first published chronicle of a death from AIDS Related Complex (ARC). It was reprinted in Gay Roots: 20 Years of Gay Sunshine: An Anthology of Gay History, Sex, Poliltics, and Culture, ed. Winston Leyland, 1991.
Dedicated to my friend, Saint A.
He made a home of a crooked, white bungalow cottage. on Plum Island by the sea. In the final months, it was there we would find him sitting, for warmth, cross-legged atop the space heater or crouched wistfully in a corner listening to Judy Collins sing perfect Dutch or Joni Mitchell, perfect jazz, while Kate, his Irish setter, dozed blessedly ever near.
During those days when, as he described it, "mortality came to call," he spoke little, preferring instead to sur round himself with beauty. "Every day must be extraordi nary!" I remember hearing him say. "Bring my dreams, dreams and secrets and surprises. You must make of my end a holiday!"
Never one to rely solely on the whim or schedule of a friend, though, he kept close to his own amusement - books to read, a garden to hoe - and, as proof positive of his claim that he had seen more of the world than Magel lan, scattered every wall with postcards from everywhere imaginable which he had sent to himself "so I'll know where I've been." "They remember for me," he would explain and then, sadly, would add, "I cannot do that for myself, you know - remember."
This absentmindedness, as it so happened, turned out to be the reason behind the sudden appearance in the bun galow, one day, of a group of photographs - black and white - which Brian, over a period of time, had collected and hung most artfully in the parlor: definitive photos of Hepburn, Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Proust and others, plus one three by five of John XXIII, nailed somewhere off to the side.
"It's a lovely arrangement," I said on first seeing it dis played. "Does wonders for an otherwise shabby wall."
"Nonsense!" Brian flared. "They're not there for adornment. They remind me who it is I admire."
Invariably, though, he would yield to sentiment, select ing one or two of the portraits, and toss off practiced kudos, announcing with a flourish, "Ah, Segovia, his play ing makes me weep!" or "Streisand! That voice could open wide the heavens!" and then, in a graceful gesture to mel ancholy, "If I must go, let the muses usher me out. Music! Art! Literature! I love them all!" And so he did.
Especially loved was a player piano, a dark ark of a thing crammed into an angle of wall too narrow to accommodate its rococo contours. Its haunted keys yellow with bounce, it played "Heart of My Heart," "Since You Went Away," "Friendly Star" as well as Brian's favorite, a rollicking, non-stop version of Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues."
There was music and there were plants, lots and lots of plants, some real and some Rousseau because "green," 99 declared Brian, “is the color of hope.”
* * *
Beauty and Hope. In the beginning, there was little need for either since hope was taken for granted and beauty, well, beauty was his.
That was in 1975, back when he was the highest-priced whore on Boston's Charles Street. He was twenty-one, chic as a peacock and quite the handsomest thing I had ever seen. There was never any question, you see, of whether or not I would meet him, only a question of when, for, in those days, anyone who came within breathing distance of Bea con Hill invariably came within breathing distance of Brian. An introduction was eventual.
Mine arrived in September of that same year. Fresh out of school and eager for independence, I scoured the want ads, survived endless interviews and opted for the security of a teaching apprenticeship in Latin and the histories at Saint Columba's High in nearby Brighton. Perfect - except for the sad fact that first semester lay just around the corner, leaving me little more than a week to find and move into an apartment. Shaughn, a friendly college mate, sent me in my search to Brian.
I found him living in a cozy sixth floor walk-up over looking a secret alleyway of orange sun and summer ivy. Furnishings were spare. He provided the glow and he knew it.
He was lean and sleek and fine. Sad were his eyes, and sleepy, two coffee moons chiseled high upon a crest of flesh the color of wine. His hair, tilled warm and earthy, was a rich mulch of chestnuts and autumns, finely layered like the barks of old trees whose coats resist their dying. His gaze was shy, his lips were full and sweet.
He did not turn as I knocked and entered but remained, back toward me, reflected in a bureau mirror before whose fullness he stood using a scissors on a magazine. His certain stance, a trusting tilt of the head, put me in mind of a little boy with his kindergarten cut-outs. His voice was boy-like, too.
"Shaughnie tells me you're looking for a place."
I cleared my throat. "Yes, that's right."
Still, he would not turn but carefully continued his cut ting and spoke to my reflection with what, at first, I took to be conceited candor but later, came to know, in him, as nothing more than unconscious indifference.
"Well, it's a bother but it's original. I am so exquisite, most guys who come to call want to fuck me, eat me, paint me, touch me. It's too sickening."
He exchanged the pair of scissors for a marble-handled hair brush and slowly began to brush the hair that didn't need any brushing. His good looks left me speechless.
Finally, he turned but the face I saw this time was a different face, a face of little countenance, a kindergarten cut-out.
"Here," he said, sitting himself down on the quilted bed and patting out a place for me beside him, "sit here and we'll chat."
I shrugged and obliged him.
"Good! You need a place to stay? Tell me, then, where are you going to - God forbid I should ever speak the word twice in one day - work?"
"I'm teaching," I said. "I don't know if know the place. Saint Columba's?"
He shook his head. "A parochial school? How medieval! I went to one myself. Saint Patrick's, if you please. All the nuns had Doomsday names and made us wear itching uniforms. Boys in green and white. Girls in white and plaid. It was all frighteningly ethnic. But don't take me wrong - what did you say your name was? Leo? - don't take me wrong, Leo. I bear my schooling no ill will. If anything, Catholic education is, without a doubt, responsible for the man I am today." And he giggled in mockery and winked. "Then you'll find me an apartment?" I asked.
"Of course! Did you have any doubts? I know just the place - a charming hide-away not two blocks down. And the price is right! We'll have you tucked in by midnight but,” he stopped, planting his hand on my shoulder, “only on one condition. Promise me you’ll spend at least some of your time here with me.”
In my misunderstanding, I muttered and squirmed.
Brian gavre a tsk. “I don’t mean that way! No, you see, once a week or so, the boys--Walla, Michael, Kevin and Shaughn--they come over and we all gather ‘round and pretend this is 27 rue de Fleurus or that we are the Sitwells. We play record albums, quibble over the latest books, pig out on wine and cheese. That sort of thing. It’s quite harmless. We shoot the breeze. Please say you’ll come. You’ll be good to have around.”
Less out of total surrender to his pleading effervescence than out of a need to find an apartment pronto, I agreed to his invitation.
"You are positively human!" he squealed, shouting his delight. "You'll fit in just wonderfully! Besides," he said, giving me the phony once-over, "I love your ass!" He clasped his sculptured hands in prayer, threw his perfect profile south and laughed a laugh even Bankhead would have envied.
* * *
Not that they were as holy as Stein's, those “salon” nights at Brian's I became privy to all that winter and all the following spring. There was not the "museum" look of the former's--Brian's studio was too small and unassuming - thus, no Braques hanging on the wall, no future Hemingway or Anderson fledglings to be found there.
The mood of these get-togethers was typically "Ruth Gordon" (i.e. toujours gai) but, depending on the gathering on any given night, an evening could run the gamut anywhere from being a sparkling, effortless bubble of color and conversation to a deadly impossible three-ring circus and there was never any telling in advance which of the two it might be. With Brian, one took one's chances. At any hour of the day or night, I learned, my phone might ring.
Some time after our first meeting, Brian had taken to calling me by this shortened version of my name.
"It's short and it's snappy!" he said seeing my expression upon first hearing it used. "I don't like 'Dreu' at all. Sounds like you belong to Congress or something."
The mini-name did take getting used to but I preferred it immeasurably over the other two tags he had invented for me: 'His Holiness' and 'The Little Catholic', names borne of his contempt for the fact that I was teaching in a parochial school and for parochial schools in general.
Anyway, my phone would ring...
"Leo D? I have lined up the most incredible night! You must come! A party of mine could not subsist without you. If you don't come, you'll ruin six weeks of planning. Come."
There was never time to argue. Brian was stone-deaf to any mention of indiscretion with regard to his "planning" of parties.
"You can mix and match people as easily as you can a wardrobe." he would matter-of-factly say. "I have the knack."
No matter the situation, Brian liked to think of himself as being, at all times, in perfect control. Utilizing his philosophy that "strangers make the best company," he could be found, almost any night of the week, shortly before sunset, on Boylston Street or roaming the Gardens or on Brattle Street in Cambridge, scrupulously gathering up his somewhat strange collection of people. These collections included some of the town's better buskers, street vendors, derelicts and drunks and, on desperate days, those he would acquire simply by picking up a receiver and dialing random telephone numbers. He had little trouble, if persuading these odd folk to accompany him home. Male and/or female, it is said many, on first sight, wept with the beauty of him, so flawless were his demeanor and dark countenance. He was the Pied Piper and they knew it.
His choices rarely disappointed. The singers sang, dancers danced and the street vendors hustled, all very well.
With the derelicts, however, it was a different story for Brian, I was soon to learn, harbored within his heart a soft spot for bums.
He would seek them out, drag them home (sometimes two or three a night), lend them the use of his shower for sobering up, like a mother hen, would dry them off, set them down and, for the rest of the night, make them listen, force them to listen to the classics.
"Pay attention!" he would order them sternly but with compassion whenever he saw their attention beginning to stray. "This is better medicine."
I am reminded of the night I was trapped indoors, imprisoned by a promise to my students to have their quarterly tests corrected and deliverable to them by early the next morning, when my prayer for reprieve came in a call from Brian.
"Leo D? Hurry over!" he gasped in a halting, nervous breath. "I have the next Joan Baez in my apartment!"
Any adventure was better than gerunds. I pulled on my boots and high-tailed it through the snow.
She was a pretty-haired folkie with a cheap guitar plastered all over with little green gum 'em stars who sang bird-like renditions of "Rainy Night House" and "Oh, My Ramblin' Boy." She was dark and had velvet eyes and spoke English very badly. Her parents had named her Madonna Baia.
"But you sing so beautifully in English!" I exclaimed, astonished after hearing the contrast between her singing voice and her spoken one.
"I don't know where she comes from or what the complete story is," explained Brian, still aflutter. "I found her just today playing her music outside the Arlington Street Outbound. A friend who was with her claims she's an orphan who ran away from home (wherever that is!) because of the demands made on her by a perfectly ghastly uncle! Somewhere down Florida way, she teamed up with an old hobo and they've been riding the rails ever since. He saw she played the guitar and so taught her every song he knew--phonetically! Isn't she sweet? Hasn’t she the makings of a legend?”
Just then, the bathroom door opened and out stepped a gentleman I recognized immediately as one of Brian's derelict converts, a black bum by the name of Cotton Socks who had once been a Roxbury rag man.
He had, he said, heard the little girl singing and had come to see what all the 'fine jive' was about. Madonna Baia smiled. He approached the girl and asked if she knew and could possibly play "Among My Souvenirs." It was, he explained, a favorite of a long-ago sweetheart and his.
She answered him no but indicated that if he could but hum or sing some of the melody, she would try to find the chords.
So he hummed and she listened and he hummed a little more and, incredibly, in no time, she produced the song. The snow fell softly outside as she played and Cotton Socks, his eyes wet with the miracle, sat at her feet and sang along in a voice, like his coat, made of tweed. Brian watched, enraptured...
* * *
Nicest were the nights with only the regulars on hand and Brian at the helm.
It was an easy-going foursome. There was Michael, an eccentric black fellow with long legs and loose-fitting clothes who would tolerate no consideration of himself save octoroon, this due to the physically invisible presence in his blood of one-eighth's Cherokee.
There was Shaughn, of course, and Kevin, the unlikeliest of the bunch, a Brown University poli-sci major who now attended to the needs of multi-handicapped children at a nearby care facility for the retarded. He had a contradictory come-hither look, oblique cleverness and was very easily bored.
Lastly, there was Walla-Walla, a plump, wall-eyed Australian queen more commonly known as 'Mama Joe'. He dieted solely on laughter, peppered his speech with expressions such as good-oh' and 'blimey' and came, or so he said, for the quiche.
With Brian at the controls, there was nary a dull moment. Having seen to the comfort of all, he would plop himself into his favorite wicker chair, shush the assembly with a wave of his hand and set the festivities in motion.
Naturally, no one ventured a word before Brian had had his say. He held opinions on everything, mostly on the matter of celebrity with regard to the common man's pursuit of meaning and tolerance in a world which offered little gratis. His comments ranged in deliverance from the brackish to the profound and for every time he mouthed fictions utterly outrageous, he would counter the absurdities with follow-ups suitably sublime. You may not always have loved his choices; you always loved the way he loved them. Bons mots flowed from Brian like so much melted butter:
On Sarah Caldwell: "In her race to become empress of the New Opera, she has forfeited basic hygiene."
Julia Child: "Despite a winning combination of kitchen elan and nonsense, there is, about her, an abiding sadness. Take a look at any likeness. Hers is the face of great tragedy, however out of place it may be, like Medea at a picnic."
Barbra Streisand: "a goddess of song manquee. It is one of the mortal sins of cinema that she has opted for blue jeans and the most common movie vehicles, maddening that she has settled simply for mega bucks. Such tonsils deserve a more apocalyptic brain."
Bette Midler: "She is an innocent, really. Very sweet and very girl-next-doorish. She was the homely, taunted kid on the block and fought back by pulling down her knickers. La Barbra better watch out."
Diana Vreeland: "a fraud, a phony, the Anastasia of fashion."
Truman Capote: "I think of him as the witch writing her own fairytales. Some say he is sweet; some say he is poison. I say he is clever."
Richard Nixon: "We haven't seen the last of him...a martyr in the truest sense. If nothing else, his monstrous inferiority complex alone should and will see him to the top again and again."
It is proof positive of the inadequacies of the written word that Brian's speech, on paper, comes across so effeminate, for there was nothing the least bit effeminate about him. Whenever he spoke, his nostrils would flare with thoroughbred pride and when he walked, it was on the balls of his feet, with a strutting grace, hands apocketed, as if he owned the world or one day hoped to. That was the charm of him, really; that he could be witty or giddy or winsome without ever seeming fey. He was sensitive, bright, sometimes as wise and as tolerant as the classics, equally at home discussing the intricacies of "The Greek Way" or Ibsen as he was the antics of Popov or Hermione Gingold. Other times, acting on an impulsiveness peculiar to nothing and no one save children and small animals, he would leap suddenly skyward, all five feet eleven inches of him aglow with gooseflesh, and squeal "Let's play a game! Let's play 'Who Laughs First!""
Child or no, Brian need never have relied on innocence to maintain his status as a gay cause celebre. He was too fine a storyteller. In fact, if I were asked to point to any one moment before which I had felt, in Brian's presence, a virtual stranger and after which I had experienced that memorable episode of closeness one always ever after marks out as the turning point in a relationship, I would have to say it was the time Brian was coaxed into telling what was known as the whistling story. It happened something like this.
We were, the lot of us, lazing around the fire one evening, the glowing embers of winter conversation nearly spent, when Walla-Walla stirred and encouraged Brian to tell the whistling story. Brian thought the suggestion an outrage.
"That old chestnut? Oh, but you've heard it a hundred times!"
The truth of the matter did not stop Brian from spinning the tale one hundred and one.
"Well," he began, "my mother was pure Catholic, you know. Wanted all her daughters to be married and all her sons to be priests." He started to laugh. "I'm afraid a faggot son quite did her in! She kicked the day I turned twelve, two weeks after I told her all my dreams were of men."
There was a pause here with Brian lost inside it. "Anyway,"he continued, "long before all that, Mom had convinced Dad that what we children really needed was a sturdy, religious education. Nuns, daily Mass, the whole shtick. We were shipped off to Saint Patrick's, a sanforized mausoleum of guilt and doubt. How early man must have despised himself to have invented, under the aegis of a God, so self-hating a mythology as original sin!"
Michael impatiently interrupted. "But tell the whistling story!"
Brian nodded eagerly.
"Well, there was this Christmas pageant, you see, and I wanted to play the Christ Child - heaven knows I was glorious enough in those days - much better suited to the part than that polyester Mattel they always ended up using. Anyway, Sister Mark Margaret, bless her freckled little heart, she puts me in with the whistlers. Naturally, I was furious. 'I don't whistle,' I tell her, straight out. 'Don't be difficult, Brian, dear,' she says in that insufferable way all nuns have of saying 'dear'. I was polite but firm. ‘I am not being difficult,' I explained patiently. 'I don't whistle because I can't whistle.' 'Nonsense,' she says, 'everybody whistles."
Well, when she found out I couldn't - whistle, that is - she took a perfect size triple E shit fit and told me I would have to whistle or at least try to whistle because all the other parts in the play had already been assigned. She relegated me to the back row of whistlers and told me to 'pretend' I was whistling. Just pucker your lips and move your head from side to side merrily, will you?' That's just the way she put it. It went fine in rehearsal for a couple of days until she woke up one morning, oh, I-don't-know, with a hair across her hole and out of the blue says to me, 'Brian, you do not look like you are whistling!' I stared her down. 'That,' I replied, 'is because I am not!’ Well, she turned beet red, actually kicked the stage, kicked the stage and said I would never be noticed no matter what, in life, I did. She got a brown paper lunch bag from her desk drawer, drew some squiggly, green lines all over it with a broken crayola, stuck it over my head and told me to stand still, that I was a palm tree.
Ever since that day, I made up my mind I would always be noticed. I was the winningest palm tree you ever saw. Honey, I made those crayola scribbles sway!"
* * *
In the summer of 1976, Brian disappeared. One day short of the fourth of July, with balloons and refreshments to welcome him, we gathered, as planned, at the studio but found he was not there. Instead, a Chinese girl was living in the apartment. She was dumb to his whereabouts and so was everyone else. The summer passed away.
I was missing him no less when I returned one morning from shopping to find a postcard among my mail, a standard glossy print of sand dunes and beach-blue skies. I flipped it over to read the four word missive. It asked a question: GUESS WHERE I'M HIDING? It was signed "from BRIAN."
I am, at present, in possession of a softbound edition of "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson." This is not the first time the volume has found its way into my home. It started out, some months ago, as a housewarming present for Brian. It is back with me now to stay.
I remember well the day I came bearing it - a gift all ribbons and silver - to the cottage by the sea. The drive was lazy and lonesome and, more than once along the way, I was stung by an eerie compulsion to advantage an about face but stubbornly fought it and would not yield. Once there, an old sailor, fishing from a log, pointed out the way. The door to the cottage was open, I entered, I called but Brian was not about. I happened upon a kitchen, took a look around. The sun snuck in on curtain breezes and warmed a row of tomatoes bathing red and happy on the sill.
'The last of the season,' I thought with nostalgic misgiving. 'Perhaps there is a garden.'
There was and he was busy in it, his back arched toward me as it had been the first time we two had met. Shirtless, he was wearing jeans faded to the color of a fine day and, on his head, a halo, a floppy, Shepherdess hat. A beat-up pair of Adidas', frayed with age, barely loyal, sheltered his trusting feet. He was hoeing a bed of flowers.
Deciding against a pounce of surprise, I called to my friend from afar.
"Hallo! 'm I interrupting anything?"
Brian let go one heathen cry. "Well, if it isn't the little Catholic, as I live and breathe, come to bring me a benediction." He curtsied as if to an imaginary Infanta and whispered low, "We are honored."
Closer now, I acknowledged his nonsense and asked him how he was doing. He threw down the hoe and scolded me.
"Come now, we've no time for small talk. There's much too much to catch up on. So how do you like it?" he asked, pointing proudly to the neatened clumps of plants and vegetables greenly growing at his feet.
"However did you get sunflowers to grow out here?" I asked, eyeing some tall beautiés coquettishly eyeing me back.
Brian wiped beads of sweat from his brow and alluded to legerdemain. "Green thumb, I guess. Can't say I've been too much of a failure the first time out, now can I?"
I applauded his efforts. He bowed and ordered me into the house.
"So what have you been up to?" I asked, not at all sure I wanted an answer.
Brian shrugged plainly. "Oh, nothing suitable for the headlines. Just lounging about, playing with my tomatoes and becoming beach-beautiful. I suppose all you regulars are quite furious with me for having pulled such a fast one. Well, but I won't apologize. I am not a letter writer. Never have been. Letter writing gives one limp wrists and all of heaven knows I am outré enough without those. But, here," he interrupted himself opening the screen door, "come inside where it's cooler." I welcomely obeyed.
"Asseyez-vous," he commanded, once inside, indicating a high-backed kitchen chair. "I'll scout around for a soda." In his absence, I paled. How to approach the subject of my visit, I wondered. Simplicity seemed the key.
"I appreciated the postcard." I blurted out rather awkwardly when he returned. "In fact, Walla did a cartwheel. We were all a little worried."
He grabbed for a bottle of orange. "Postcards. Don't you just love them? There's something inexplicably charming about the dear things. Little cards you can send secrets on. Nice."
Secrets. He told me his.
"The Big C. Tip to toe. A growth on my leg the size of a Liz Taylor diamond. Très grotesque, I assure you. I thought they'd lance the damnable thing and be done with it but no can do. What can I say? Tears are not good form."
This said, he calculatedly refused me time to react and proceeded to carry on with the chatter as casually as if he had made a statement similar to "The onion dip is made" or "My shoelace is untied."
"So what have you got in your hands there all wrapped up like Christmas? A present? I am a sucker for a present. Let me see!"
He snatched the package away and nervously scratched choice immediately.********
“Oh, you’re too good! Is my face radiant with thanks? Well, it should be. How thoughtful. You’re my very first visitor, you know.”
"No one else?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Who's going to hike all the way up here just to pamper me? I do the pampering. People are important only to themselves."
I remained puzzled. "But why come all the way out here, Brian? So far, so removed?"
He took a reflective sip of his tea. "For the solitude, the space. Once and for all, I wanted to find out just who this boy named Brian is."
"And have you?"
He seemed pleased. "Yes."
"And what are you?"
He roared. "I'm gay as a rainbow, darling! A victim of genetic drift. There's nothing wrong with it, nothing particularly right with it. The challenge comes in handling it." He offered me a cupcake.
I felt strangely close to him in that one, unimportant moment. More than anything, I wanted desperately to say something reassuring. I said, "You've done a commendable job."
After he had finished laughing, he cast his eyes gently downward and took hold of one of my hands.
"I'm not a bad sort. Really, I'm not. I go to church every Sunday. You didn't know that, did you? Well, I do. I figure if the Lord can forgive Mary Magdalene, he can certainly see to me. Let's see, yes, and, of course, there's Mrs. von Praagh over in Lexington. A saucy old gal who was once a professor at Wellesley. Blind now. I visit twice a week - on Tuesdays and Thursdays - and read to her from the works of Flaubert and Jane Austen. Very old world. Very satisfying."
"Brian. I had no idea..."
He nodded knowingly. "Of course, you hadn't. I do it all on the Q.T. so that you aren't even aware, are you, that I am the foster father to a little orphan girl across the miles, a sweet Pakistani waif for whose care I have been shelling out twelve big ones each and every month for the past five years. Surprised? She gets all the rice and schooling a growing girl could need and I get the satisfaction of being charitable. She is the dearest confection. Chocolate eyes and nut-brown hair. Her name, translated means 'Heaven-Sent."" Brian winced. "The poor child keeps asking for my picture. Do you suppose she'd understand? Anyway, it'll be our little secret."
* * *
Afterward, holding him in my arms like a spent wing, kissing the frail darkness, I should have wept but for the strength of his utopian optimism.
"We can talk about it, you know." he remarked all of a sudden. "It isn't taboo."
I feigned misunderstanding.
"You mustn't be afraid to," he continued. "I'm not. How could I be angry with a world so bright, tell me? A world where there is Nureyev and Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire. I have had such good times! I've seen Magda Olivero twice, in concert, Pavarotti, once. I've watched the Aurora Borealis from the top of a van off Baffin Bay, performed live on the stage of Symphony Hall. Can you swallow it? Symphony Hall! Jesus, I've been spoiled! "The Charterhouse of Parma," Proust, in French and in English, anything by Annie Dillard, God bless Annie Dillard! No, really, and the Divine Miss M and Hollywood Art Deco and doughnuts and Tolkien and Louisburg Square and the top of the Empire State Building at midnight and 12, count 'em, 12 perfect orgasms, one after another, into the belly of a beautiful man and Trinidad and parades and Willa Cather and white wine and," he sang, sucking in an ample amount of wind for jest, "just having lived in the same century as the Muppets!"
Thinking this last one a good one, indeed, he sat up in the bed and giggled.
"Oh, but I'm too jolly. I'm boasting! Really, at heart, I am trying to think of it simply as a visit home to my mother. She always said I was never around. First up on the agenda will be a celebration of my twelfth birthday. She missed that one.... At any rate, I am going to make an entrance. I shall be the Prince of Glitz! Just wait until St. Peter sets his peepers on my Calvin Kleins - he'll turn positively green! Then again, maybe not. I'll wager heaven makes Studio 54 look like Woolworth's after a fire."
Offtimes, his humor failed him, was not the buoy he needed to stay afloat throughout each day. Near the end, he suffered through terrible bouts with melancholy soliloquizing that, for all his popularity, he had never really once found "that one someone special" and he would tear at his elbows frantically and be seized with the panic to run.
After one such harrowing outburst, and in a fit of despair, he wrote to the English writer, wit, Quentin Crisp, whose life and works he so admired and who was, at that time, appearing in a one man show on Broadway. He labelled the venture 'sealing my heart for a stranger' and mailed the letter promptly. Here, in part, is the original note and the reply he received, shortly thereafter, from a kindly Mr. Crisp.
Dear Mr. Crisp,
...I am in awe, I confess, of your great strength and endurance in the face of what appears to have been a lifetime of persecution but, more so than this, I find myself drawn to you as a tangible symbol of hope in a world where, for the homosexual, there is always a plethora of parties and an endless line of laughs but faction. ******
I am young but feel very old, as if wanting to love men knowing the world will not easily allow me to love them has withered my youth away. I accepted long ago the fact that I am a homosexual. What I cannot accept is the fact that I must live and die as one. Witty conversation and a penchant for pretty things take me only so far. They are no nourishment for the lifetime of a soul...
The fault may very well lie with our own kind. One night stands and nameless faces in the dark do not make for a happy existence.
Can you tell me, please, that there will be hope? Tell me there will be someone to walk the beach with me in winter. Tell me there will be someone to send me a rose. Tell me there is romance and beauty in this world. For while there is practically no pain at all for me in not being loved, there is deep, deep pain in not being able to love someone else. If I have no need to be held, let me know, at least, that there is someone out there who needs to be held by me.
Tell me, sir, what is the message in the bottle?
My name is --
59 West 44th St. NYC, New York 10036
Thank you, dear Brian, for your letter and all the nice things that you say about me. You are too kind.
...It is difficult to imagine what it is you lack if witty conversation is to be had. Personally, I live on it. To me, it represents the effort that we make to offer the best of ourselves to others.
I cannot help thinking that you have adopted an exile's view of reality. By this, I mean that you imagine that there is something specially rewarding in being given a rose - in walking along the beach with someone. There is not. The real world is just as unsatisfactory as your own. There is no more to be said for devoting all your time to one person than for loving the whole world.
Brian was stunned. This unexpected response quite unsettled him and he wedged himself into a corner where he cried for several hours, non-stop, until some of us were able to persuade him to read the remaining portion of the letter and its extraordinary postscript:
Do not wear yourself out searching for a romantic relationship. The world is full of better things. Do not search for anything. All that you need is inside yourself.
P.S. I intend reading your letter tonight to all of Broadway!
Discovering this, Brian blossomed.
"There is wisdom in what he says, this Crisp. He is genuinely enlightened. After all, who is there better than me? I'm famous! This calls for a celebration. Un bal masque! Bring me my phone, my book of friends. We shall light up the sky with our laughing!"
* * *
Seconds after it was over, you couldn't tell there had been a party there, couldn't tell but for the paper-white fairies, suspended from filagree, spinning gracelessly in the wind, couldn't tell but for the leftover lobster claws lying, eaten, on the sand. Of Brian's brief commencement, even, there lingered but an echo.
"You are all my friends and I love you like crazy. But what's to be had? A speech? No. The world has had its fill of me and that's the end of that. There are clams, cases of beer, infinite games. With luck, there will be memories. So enjoy! Better than prayer, this is my armistice."
* * *
It had lasted for hours, this masquerade, and now, it was over, identities guessed, departures taken. I, alone, had been asked to remain. I sat with him low near the fire.
"Was it a success, Leo D?" he asked plaintively poking the fire. "Was I a swell host?"
I said what I thought would please him. "You were the belle of the ball."
Brian groaned. "Spare me this con job chit-chat. I look like hell itself. I look like a victim of the Spanish Inquisi tion.'
He was right; no longer was it the face I had grown used to. The handsomeness had vanished and sickness had traced new lines. The eyes were not his eyes but glazed and distant eyes, the hair not his hair but bits and pieces of brittle malt straw, lackluster patches of deterioration, the skin tight, with too much shine, so that the total effect lent him the unnatural look of a factory doll rejected and scooped thoughtlessly off the assembly line. Brian was deeply pained by the loss. My well-intentioned remark had upset him further.
"I can go if you like." I offered, standing to leave.
"No." he jumped, staying me with a touch of his hand. "Let's talk. I'd love to talk."
He seemed to me a little boy again. "I've been thinking a lot of St. Patrick's lately."
"Have you?" I drew in closer.
"Yes. I've been thinking it wasn't so bad after all. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say it was 'nice."" He lost himself in his past.
"We were spoon-fed on Jesus and every May Day, there would be a procession just outside the school on the street and everyone, even the boys, got to wear silk and carry lilac bouquets and all the dear old ladies from across the way would come out of their apartments and wave and shed a tear. Lessons were put aside. We got to see Jennifer Jones in "Song of Bernadette," got to eat free jujubes and chocolate babies and later, prayed the rosary, twice. Lovely!"
We could hear the waves now outside lapping at the light of a frosty moon. Brian covered his mouth as if chilled by awe.
"Sometimes, it all comes back to me, sweet and clear. When you're young, you believe anything." He smiled gently. "Memories."
"Memories." I repeated.
"Mine?" he continued. "Spelling bees, academy picnics, Holy Childhood drives, Saint Patrick's Day shows and mystery and novenas! Sometimes, it all comes rushng back to me in waves up my spine and how the colleens dance, how the bagpipes do play!"
There followed the long, familiar pause. only one to break it. Brian was the
"I started out okay. Mowing lawns and selling lemon slush. I've never owned a car and never cast a vote in an election so no one can ever accuse me, can they, of having contributed one speck to all this pollution and American decadence? Of that, I am proudest."
I was struck with sudden interest. "Is there anything you haven't one?" I asked excitedly. "I mean, something you've always wanted or yearned to do?"
"Well," he snapped naughtily, "not much!" He gave the matter some thought. "Let's see. I've always wanted to drop to my knees for Mick Jagger. Always wanted to watch the moon come up over the Fertile Crescent and" he said, warming up for the finale, "I have always dreamed of writing the definitive history of "Leave It To Beaver." I mean, think about it. Ward, June, Wally, the "Beav" - they are America, aren't they? Am I right? They were always there for one another and would never dream of breaking up house! Legendary archetypes of suburban mythology. Why, June's string of pearls, alone, are worthy of a chapter!"
We laughed but his was a bitter laugh. Using the poker as his sword, he jabbed at everything in sight: pictures, sheet music, treasures.
"Do you want to know what I really think of all these glittery things? This decaying crypt of baubles? Makes me want to puke!" He choked. "There's nothing graceful about death. Nothing! I cry like a son of a bitch sometimes for days and nights on end. It isn't art, it's only emotion. Beauty is a thief and cares nothing for a heart possessed or the sanctity of a locket."
He got up and stood before the mirror. "If the truth be told, all I ever wanted out of life was to have been the all-American boy."
I was furious with him.
"You don't mean a word of it." I hollered righteously. "Not a word!"
He studied himself in the mirror, measured his weakness, pouted, then winked.
"No," he said cheerily, "I don't." And he kissed his beaming reflection. I think I saw tears in his eyes. Two weeks later, he slipped
away. The funeral was spare but exotic, arrangements carried out to the letter, as specified, in three loose-leaf pages of green tissue stationery Brian had left behind in his elegant hand.
* * *
Services are to be held at Mystical Rose Chapel on D Street if the good fathers there will have me. It is to be a decent and proper farewell. There must be no hint of contrivance or any attempt to cover up what, in life, I was. No hymns or ritual, please.
The ceremony must be short. Anyone attending my fu neral will be the sort who has better things to do with his or her time. They must not be kept waiting or "put through the ringer," as it were. At all costs, avoid repetition.
After services, I am to be cremated under the full provi sions of the law. If possible, I would like my ashes to be taken, one fine and windy day, and sprinkled out over the great salt sea so I may roam the world at will.
a finger-kiss to all --
We drove home in the same car, Walla and Michael, Shaughn and Kevin and I. It was on the way back, sitting in the stillness of the mournful night, that Michael told the last of the Brian stories.
He had been visiting with Brian, it seems, not too long a time before his passing when the subject came up as to what texts, if any, were to be used at Brian's funeral.
Michael, at first, refused the discussion, finding the whole business tasteless and premature but Brian had in sisted.
"Listen, these things have to be taken care of." he had said, emphatically grabbing hold of a pad and pencil. "Now, come. Help me find something appropriate. No thing gauche. something gem-like. Quick and memorably wonderful."
Michael suggested a poem.
"Who walks with beauty has no need of fear; The sun and moon and stars keep pace with him; Invisible hands restore the ruined year And time, itself, grows beautifully dim."
Brian rejected it. He wanted them, he said, to read from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, each friend recit ing aloud a chapter or two.
"But, Brian!" Michael had wailed. "The life of Christ? How wicked!"
Brian, this time, would not yield. "If nothing else, it was a life lived in beauty."
"A beloved dwelling is Egg, nest, house, country, Universe."
For nine years, I was lucky enough to live on what’s known as Writers’ Block: Francis Avenue and Irving, a stone’s throw away from Harvard College, Cambridge.In exchange for my room, I worked caring and cooking for the disabled son of a Roosevelt-era couple and their live-in staff, a rotating door of handsome jocks and scholars matriculating at area universities (Harvard, M.I.T., B.U., B.C.). My job was challenging, and to keep from going mad, on my days off I’d make forays into this illustrious enclave.
My first stop was 104 Irving Street, where e e cummings once plied his trade. There was about the spot a green, leafy magic, playful, ghostly, strange. I could feel the creative spirit bubbling out from every corner and crack. This was before the city encased the house in a too-tall wood picket stockade. Even this didn’t keep me away. The blue, oval sign remained:
Literary nerd that I am, just being able to stand there gazing at the plaque brought vertiginous delight.
I liked next to hit the William James estate at 95 Irving, as dignified, stately and eccentric as the man himself – it’s said James fell in love so completely with his own design for the place, he moved himself and his family in long before the work was completed. So much for Pragmatism!
Oral and written accounts by neighbors have it that “a lamp was going 24 hours in the old thinker’s second-floor study.”
Being in the shadow of Harvard, always there were the celebrity encounters, the unexpected run-ins. The area, known by some as Professors’ Row, was home to many scholars of the time. The famous historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote so glowingly of his friends John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and his wife, artist/author Marian Cannon Schlesinger, became acquaintances, as did the Lords, Albert and Mary Louise, still a Classics legend at Bates College where she’s held sway for decades. Through the years I met, ran into, chatted up, or just spotted Wynton Marsalis, Peter Gomes, George Plimpton (tall as a sequoia), and Jamaica Kincaid, a regular visitor, who could always be counted on for a courtly, “How do?” She smelled like a garden. When she was teaching at Harvard, she was often a guest at Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.’s house, a screaming Miami-yellow Art Deco wedding cake totally out-of-place on tony Francis Avenue. He, sad to say, was one of the worst-behaved people I have ever met; Gates raised self-importance to new heights and was openly hostile to our autistic charge, Hilken. I admit I dined on the most delicious plate of Schadenfreude the time a cop caught Gates climbing into his own home, mistook him for a burglar, and hauled him in to the station.
Our neighborhood also claimed as residents Justin Kaplan, author of the definitive Walt Whitman biography, and his wife, the writer, Anne Bernays. Justin’s crusty, crotchety exterior belied a splendid, gentlemanly interior. Anne could be serious but loved to share tales of how smart her friend, Marilyn Monroe, had been: “She read Chekhov. She had a totally different voice in private, you know. Not at all the purring baby kitten voice you hear on screen. That girl knew what she was doing.”
One time, I saw John Cage and Merce Cunningham stop mid-Harvard Yard to do an impromptu little ballet. I gasped. I also got chummy with the heralded statesman of the Kennedy years, John Kenneth Galbraith and his darling, fashionista wife, Kitty. John Kenneth was even taller than George Plimpton, a spellbinding raconteur and fine art collector. Kitty enthralled annual Block Party audiences with her stories of Camelot and D.C. Her decline became evident when, at what was to be her final appearance, she related “the time Jackie, atop a ceremonial elephant, came riding right here up Francis Avenue”, likely confusing a trip she and John Kenneth had made with Jackie and Lee Radziwill to Pakistan and India in 1962. John Kenneth and Kitty were both beyond liberal. When Kitty found out I was a practicing Buddhist, she said, “But what good is all that navel watching going to do The People?”
Across the street from e e cummings, at 104 Irving, was Julia Child’s place.
I’d met Julia courtesy of our mutual friend, M.F.K. Fisher. Then, sometime after I moved to the Writers’ Block, we reacquainted. I spent many happy hours in that now-iconic kitchen. Julia, interestingly, didn’t care much for shop talk. She was a whiz though on other topics: politics, space travel, world religions. The one culinary subject I recall her waxing poetic about was McDonald’s French Fries. Through Julia I got to meet James Beard, Cynthia McFadden, Olympia Dukakis. The most fun I ever had with Julia was at the Wilbur Theater 1989 production of “Bon Appetit!,” Lee Holby’s operatic monologue starring Jean Stapleton as a singing Julia. Jean’s husband, John Putch, was a wreck fearing Julia would be offended by Jean’s portrayal but Julia ate it up.
Not everyone on the block was famous, of course; a plumber and his wife, the Lawtons, lived next door. He was genial. She liked to drink and when she got bored would spend her afternoons throwing heavy appliances out the window. Masa Higo liked to joke that our employer, Ilda Shea, was “sooo full of herself and yet – nothing to back it up!” This wasn’t true; Ms Shea studied philosophy at Radcliffe and was a favored pupil of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. She went on to become the first female to lead the class at Yale Law School. “The men hated me,” she liked to say. Ilda was also instrumental in the formation of the F.C.C. and counted among her friends and colleagues Alger Hiss, Abe Fortas, and Edward Bernays. More than once, Fortas asked her to marry him. “I mean, a Jew marrying a Jew? Too obvious,” she said. Ms Shea wasn’t as ostentatious as her neighbors and had a marked disdain for those who flaunted wealth though one time, a grease fire started in the companions’ pantry. Ms Shea refused to leave without her mink coat. The sight of her (mind you, she was in her 90s), carefully inching her way down the driveway in her fur and ever-present white platform pumps is one I hope never to unsee.
My lifelong friend, professor, mentor, Brother Bob Bousquet, a Xaverian, loved the Writers’ Block as much as I did. Every Thursday, Bob, now wracked with Parkinson’s Disease, would come in from far Danvers to join me on my strolls. He was so companionable: scholar, linguist, musician. Brilliant. Bob was the absolute soul of decorum, discretion, almost saintly in his bearing. So you would never in a million years think he had a habit of busting into places he knew he wasn’t allowed. I was his partner-in-crime the time this truly holy man cooked up a scheme to get me into Widener Library’s banned-to-outsiders stacks. From his walker, he instructed, “I’ll create a diversion. I’ll pretend to fall. When the guard responds, you run as fast as you can into the stacks.” Before I could protest, Bob threw himself on the floor, the guard dashed over and Bob yelled, “Run, Leo, Run!” I leave it to you to guess the outcome of that fiasco. Another time, Bob was drawn to the lush plants in the foyer of a home near The Divinity School. Bob went right up to the door calm as you please, opened it and walked in. Soon, we were confronted by a very nervous woman who said, firmly, “Can I help you? Do you realize this is a private home?” Bob looked innocently into this woman’s eyes, a stranger in whose house he had no business being and asked, “Is Paul home?”
I saw a blue heron on the grounds of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As I approached, it kept gulping hungrily at the cloud of mosquitos around its great head. Honeysuckle and wisteria walked with you as you went down the block. One season, the flora was so redolent, so everywhere, it near-rivalled what I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were like; you couldn't see the sky. No later summer ever was like that summer. Creative sustenance and comfort amazed me in that place, at that time.
Preparations for the Jamboree
They didn’t answer my emails or my phone messages so I sent them a letter, certified return receipt. What I want is a copy of the photo displayed in Saint Joe’s lobby of a group of martyred missionaries, Oblates, slain in the name of Christ. Before COVID locked us out of churches, out of everywhere, I used to look at it for as long as I could – maybe they saw me on camera, monks watching me looking so long, obvious and suspect. Maybe they knew what I wanted to do with the photo – take it inside the confessional box, masturbate on the faces of all these perfectly beautiful young men, their guileless, blindly trusting hearts. Not one had that antiseptic, sexless blot a lot of we clergy have; their unblemished faces popped, visages eager to please, their praying lips thirsty for certainty, instead given hard cracks across the face, derision from the insurrectionists alive with ice water for blood, armed with demons. They hacked off the testicles of one with a dull, small saw, made his brother take the testicles in his mouth and chew until they burst and when they burst shot him square in the forehead and laughed. Another whose intestines they exposed by opening him up with a rusty trowel was tied to a kapok tree (Madre de Dios) where plasma and feces drew insects and animals to eat him from the outside in. I wonder how these innocents felt then about their Holy Orders. They had believed and here was their reward. I despised their stupidity so yes, I would have liked to bring them into the dark cave of guilt and sin, jerk the fuck off all over their gullibility. What place, I ask you, smells more like sin than a church?
I wasn’t always like this; I was open-faced, pure. I turned my bedroom into a giant May altar, prayed daily “Mass” with a Kleenex and piece of cardboard (purificator and pall) draped over an empty jelly glass (chalice). I wore my mother’s cape jacket (chasuble) and rushed to confession in a sweat after a liquid oozed out of my dinky while listening from my bed to a Jack Benny program my mother was watching in the next room. I should have known trouble lay ahead; what kid squirts his load for the first time listening to Jack Benny? Come to think of it though, the guy was a bit of a nance.
Along came Father Horgan. After I’d whispered my silly, made-up sins, he gave me my penance, adding, “At next week’s Scout Jamboree, you’ll show Father your penis, won’t you?” Horgan had eel-ish eyes, a trouty mouth and stunk of Blue Nun. I think I went deaf in that moment and for many years after. The jolt shock of a priest absolving my sins while committing his own threw me into confusion. And my Uncle Albert, a Marist, Brother Paul Felix, who’d come home for visits, grab my ears hard, lift me right up off the floor. My mother’d say, “Stop that, Albert!” but Albert laughed and laughed.
In D.C., on a vocations retreat, in the shadow of Catholic University, Father Verstraete walked me out into the seminary garden. We prayed together. He said, “Now if you will lower your trousers please, son. We need to make sure you’re pure before entry into the order.” I wondered if this happened to the girls. I doubted it then my sister told me that before and after the annual Academy picnics, Reverend Mother Francis Anthony took aside certain girls, inserted two fingers in their tee-tee and sniffed them, “To make sure you didn’t let a boy in ‘down there’.” Our cousin, Noreen, too, was found reading Colette in bed under a blanket. The nun whacked her with a flashlight, made her keep her clothes on whenever she took a bath from then on. “God does not want to see your nakedness!” I vowed, sadly, never to read Colette.
This, then, became my picture of what Catholicism is – a landscape of secret gropes, seed spilling out from self-loathing testicles in cold, dark rectories, in lonely choir lofts before Mass, brutish grunts. I once heard these grunts, grunting the way zoo apes grunt, coming from an alcove in the school boiler room, the crack of oversized rosary beads nuns wore in those days around their waist, the windy rustle of the many skirts they wore to hide their vaginas. Two sisters, Margaret and Cecile, were locked in hurried embrace, the tapered fingers of one desperately clawing at the face of the other, traveling frantically down to her lip, insistent. They never saw that I saw them. Margaret, the tall one, gave us lessons the next week in The Mysteries of The Holy Rosary.
I made sure I didn’t swear, didn’t play with myself, didn’t have impure thoughts. I hardly breathed, hardly spoke. Some people asked my mother if I was retarded. I did act it. But I was terrified. I knew only the good, only the pure make it into Heaven. Catholic grade school was followed by Catholic high school, Catholic college.
The first time I heard the word ‘pandemic’ used in a setting outside the classroom, my sociology professor, Allie Scruggs, dragged me into volunteer work for Project Place, Roxbury, at that time one of the few sources of help inner city youth and others in that blighted area had. I was scared. But I liked As on my report card. I liked Scruggs. One night, Scruggs invited a group of us students to have dinner with the comedian Redd Foxx. The pair had grown up together in Harlem and Scruggs had gotten Foxx to headline a Project Place fundraiser. Foxx peppered the meal with the saltiest language I’d ever heard (an unfortunate but apt pun). I was getting quite the education (on multi-levels) especially when Foxx got into a feisty dialogue concerning the abominations of poverty. A student whose name I forget chimed in, boldly, too boldly, “Mr. Foxx, how, in your mind, do you reconcile your own personal wealth with the pandemic lack of it you see in your ghetto brothers and sisters?” Foxx stopped short, leaned in as close to the combatant as table space would allow and said, “Brother, I just got a good idea – why don’t you eat the peanuts outta my shit and the blood clots outta my girlfriend’s cunt?”
* * *
I doubt very much Saint Joe’s is going to send me that picture, they’ll probably see right through the fake name and P.O. Box I used. The rivalry they’ve always had with us here at Saint Stan’s is more than rumor, I’m afraid. I’d tell you more --- there’s loads to tell – but I have my own Mass at 9 and Father Ray’s asked me to take his 11. After lunch, there’s the men and boys choir rehearsal. And plans tonight for next week’s statewide Scout Jamboree – an unprecedented 700 boys are expected. So, so much to prepare for --
Leo Racicot is an award-winning essay-memoirist and poet.