Monday, October 30, 2006

Dangerous Liaisons?

Lately I have been obsessed with silent films and their actors. I should say re-obsessed. Ever since I was a teenager, I've had phases of wanting to know all I can about them. My dad used to rent them from the library and run them in our den. Sometimes I think I am a reincarnated actor from that era, or to be more oblique, I sometimes think I was a silent film in a former life. I used to think, if you have to express it in words, it must not be worth expressing. I am in a musical right now (hence my short, lackluster posts of late) and in many scenes where I'm on stage, but not speaking, and find myself using silent actor tools I never knew I had.

Did I tell you how amazing Jody looked at my Salon's opening party, in 1985? During one of our many thrift store trips, I found her pristine 5" patent leather cha-cha heels, a long clutch to match, a sleeveless gold metallic 50's era top, and a pencil skirt. I styled her naturally curly red hair into a perfect modern interpretation of Betty Grable's piled on curls. She was usually a more down to earth, albeit alternative, dresser but ceded to me that night and let me dress her up. I had a great time watching her teeter gracefully around the room on the blonde hardwood floor, and watching the drama she stirred up in the party goer's faces.

In the summer of '86, Jody and I got our own apartment. The place we shared with Scot was super cheap, but it's run-down state was starting to get to us. Our apartment was so hopelessly crappy, we rarely could bring ourselves to even clean the cat box we had in the pantry. Scot refused to do it, because they were my and Jody's cats, and I'm super lazy. If someone came over, I would brave it. We had mice and roaches, so a messy cat box room was small potatoes. Scot decided it was time for him to live alone for a while.
We took the third apartment the rental guy showed us. The first one was cool, in an old Victorian building on Sheffield north of Armitage, but the bedrooms were too tiny. The second one was on Racine north of Diversey, and was huge, with gigantic windows, but had hideous old green shag carpeting all over the place. The third was perfect. It was a 1920's courtyard building on Pinegrove, just south of Waveland, and had been nicely renovated. Most buildings in Chicago seem to be built before the Depression, or after WWII. It had two bedrooms, dark hardwood floors, a 1970's steel fireplace, and a modern kitchen and bath. She bought a black sofa and love seat from Carson Pirie Scott that she was constantly vacuuming for cat hair. She also bought me a stereo from the latest 80's sensation: TV shopping. My room was pretty bare: I had a futon I bought from that place on Clark and Belmont that's still there, and the dresser I told you about earlier. Most of the little things for our new place we bought from The House Store, which used to be on a side street off Broadway south of Diversey, because Brad was working there, and kitchen stuff from the old, simpler Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue.
On the day we moved, Scot and Jody did most of the work, because I was at the salon, and had to be dead or dying to get a day off from that place without hearing a two hour long lecture on 'responsibility'. When I got to the old apartment to help them out, I could tell something was wrong.
"What?! What's going on?!" I said as I walked up to them.
"It's Gidget. We can't find her." Scot said quietly.
"What! What are you talking about!" I yelled at him.
"We had to keep the door open while we were moving stuff out, and I thought she was locked in the bedroom! We've been looking for her for an hour now!" Scot said, becoming visibly upset.
Everything had been moved, and they had come back to search for my cat some more. She did get out of the apartment once before, but we soon found her at the downstairs neighbor's, covered in sugar, courtesy of their many small children, and needless to say, a little freaked out. They hadn't seen her, and we spent the remaining day light hours looking for her. Scot promised to come back for a few days before and after work, which he did, but we never found her.

For me, all the charm the 80's possessed evaporated on January 1st, 1986. All it's creativity, anarchy, and individuality turned into a mess of big perms, shoulder pads, tacky make-up and stirrup pants. Everything cool was now on prime-time TV or in Dress Barn, and therefore watered down and to be avoided. Thank God Gaultier, Moschino, pirate Chanels and Hermes' came along when they did. I don't know what I would've done if they hadn't.
Also during this time, all that resolve I told you I had, all that determination I had about being happy and getting a life was quickly slipping away. And Jody and I were drifting apart. She might tell you it was because of my new friends, Erin and Ronny, but I'm going to tell you the real reason: She had gotten a 'real' job, working indirectly for the government. Her immense intellect and education didn't fully register with me until she got that job. Looking back, I think it also had to do with Brad...
Brad and I have known each other since we were 11, and when we were kids I often imagined us as parents, with families of our own, living on the same block, as we were at the time, still in each other's lives, and our kids growing up together. He was a doctor, because with his brain it was the obvious choice, and I had a ranch where I raised horses, or I was an illustrator for children's books. As a kid, I was obsessed with both.
But as we got older, Brad ran away, and dropped out of highschool. His pursuit of immediate happiness preceded his pursuit of a future. I knew that wasn't my fault, but I felt partly to blame. His stepmother banned me from their home when we were 14, and I knew she was blaming me for Brad's problems, and not seeing her role with them, but I couldn't help but feel she was a little right. Had I the nerve, I would've done the things Brad did. I didn't, and lived vicariously through him. He lashed out against the world's unjust indifference, and I caved in. Had I not known him, I can tell you for a fact I wouldn't be here today.
That "caving in" feeling was happening again when I was living with Jody, and I honestly did not want to bring her down with me. She was going out less, and me more, so we had less to say to each other. I knew how deeply she felt for me, and yet she seemed to have no idea how easily she could've 'gotten' me. It wouldn't have taken much. If she made the moves, I would have followed. Maybe she did know. Maybe she wanted me to decide.
Whenever I thought about having an intimate relationship with her, I thought about Gina. Gina was Brad's girlfriend when we were 16, and I was Brad's boyfriend. They had dated for a year or so, and were in love, but I had many secret talks with her about how Brad was hurting her by distancing himself from her, and not telling her why, and throwing his life away. I heard the pain in her voice, and understood it, because I wanted Brad to give himself fully to me, as I was ready to do for him. I couldn't tell Gina this, and only told her of my 'brotherly' love and concern for him. I wasn't jealous of her, or mean to her, but I knew Brad wanted to end it with her, but didn't know how. Gina was one of the few honest and positive influences in his life, and lovingly tried to help him get his life on track. Gina and Jody were just too much alike in looks and intellect for me to date her. I didn't want to repeat what I saw happen with Brad and Gina.

Walking into the kitchen, I heard an odd noise by the sofa. At first I jumped, because I thought it was a mouse, but then I saw the phone laying off the hook.
"Hey! Hello! Hellooo! Goddammit!" Someone was screaming into the phone.
"Hello?" I said, picking up the receiver.
"Brian? It's Erin! Why does Jody do that? Whenever I call she puts the phone down and walks away! It's driving me nuts!" She said.
"Um, maybe she doesn't like you..." I said.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


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In April, 1986, I turned 20. I don't know why, but I was freaked out to turn 20. Actually, I do know why: I wanted to stay a teenager! I didn't want to take that step into adulthood. If I was an adult, that meant I should 'have it together'. Or at least have some idea of how to put my life together. I was so very far from knowing any of life's meaning or mysteries.

I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that the meaning of life when you are twenty, is that it's the time in our lives to create meaning: we're supposed to flounder and make mistakes and be hopeless. And anyone as desperate as I was for direction, answers, and happiness is eventually going to find it. I was going to find it because I was looking for it.
And for some reason I was convinced I was going to die when I turned 20. I'm not sure why I thought that. Old habits, maybe. When things got difficult for me, I would often think to myself I hope I die before tomorrow. Then I won't have to deal with the bad thing/event/person. Obviously, I didn't die, but up to this point in my life, I had wished I had a million times.

The weekend of my birthday, my friends had a party for me at Mark's place. Carla, Jody, Scot Dave, Jeff, and his roommate Kristin, and Marty were all there. Jody gave me a beautiful cross bracelet, which I still have, and Mark stopped by the salon on the actual day to give me some beautiful orchids. I had told him about my secret fear about dying. He did his best to allay those fears with his wonderful, level-headed words, at the party.
"Well, you're right. Your childhood is dying, in a way. You're at the start of your adulthood. Your young adulthood. But I think you started that a long time ago. Look at your life, Brian: you live on your own in a big city, you have a job, and a lot of people who care about you. You're doing all the things you wanted to. You took a big risk and came here! And it's paying off." He said.
We partied until late into the night, blasting Avalon and Boys and Girls and Station to Station. I was obsessed with TVC 15 for a while.
Jody and Scot took me to The Cult concert, which was a week before my birthday. Jeff and I spent the day together at his place by Loyola. He went to school there, but was at a cross roads in his life: he was very close to quitting school, to pursue a music career, but not sure if he should or not. He picked me up at the apartment on Racine, and we trained up north. He lived with Ava and Kristin at the end of Pratt Street, next to The Planet of the Apes, as they called it.
"What? The Planet of the Apes?" I asked.
"You'll see..." He said.
The court yard building next to theirs had several odd stones laying around, almost like a Roman ruin of an amphitheater.
"Wow, you're right, it does look like The Planet of the Apes." I said.
Their apartment was large and sparsely furnished, and in great condition for such an old building. Japan, Roxy Music, Paul Young, and Duran Duran posters filled the walls. I was glad to see Jeff put the picture of Edie I painted for him on his wall. We were so obsessed with her. We watched Ciao, Manhattan over and over, and on that day. We were obsessed with the young Edie; the Edie who spent hours painting her eyes and spraying her hair silver and dressing herself. No one dressed like her! And the Edie who invented herself: she was her own creation, and a star for it. Jeff and I were kindred spirits, and wanted to be famous. But our own kind of famous; we didn't want to copy some one else. But Edie 'at the end' was not a pretty sight. I say 'at the end' because she was only in her late twenties when she died, and a million miles away from her New York stardom just six years earlier. When we watched the movie, we talked about how Edie died; how her life changed so much. Her and Nico. We debated how these two stunning, creative, talented women seemed to throw it all away. Did they realize they were on a path of their own destruction; victims of their selves? Why didn't they see a way out? We talked about how Debbie and Bowie and Iggy walked their same path, but found a way to survive life's crushing pain, without drugs, a pain all addicts know.
We left his apartment after the movie, and walked around his neighborhood, and by the lake, on the cool, sunny, spring day.
"I'm sorry I couldn't make your birthday more special, like fly us to New York or something"
Jeff said.
"This has been one of the best birthdays I've had in a while, Jeff" I said with a smile on my face.
I thought about how great it was to know someone that was so much like myself, and how I felt I might be able to leave the difficulties of my childhood behind me, and with new resolve, I thought about how I was going to be an adult.

I've stayed at The Chelsea a few times over the years, where Edie lived for awhile, and always find an old-timer and ask about her.
"Did she pay her bill? I asked.
"Of course!" He said.
"You didn't kick her out after the fire she started, huh?" I said.
"The fires...oh!" He said as he shook his head. "No. She was a beeyootiful girl, a beeyootiful girl."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

If the People Stare, Then the People Stare

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Do you have that book? You know what I mean. That book, when you read it, you feel you are reading about yourself? A book you feel you almost could have written? Mine was Bless the Beasts & Children. I read it for my English class, when I was 13. Not only did I see myself in that book, but I understood it from start to finish. I knew that book inside out. I can't remember what I was more excited about; my connection to the book or my comprehension of it. I wasn't the greatest student up until then, and I had some serious doubts about my academic abilities. That book changed my life. I hope you have a book like that.

In 1986, someone I knew was struggling with his sexuality. He had kids and grandkids, but somewhere along the way he pushed his preference aside and got married. I knew two of his sons and his daughter a little bit, and I couldn't keep my eyes off them whenever they were around. They were all very beautiful, and dressed with great style, but I could never tell if they were hung-over, high, tired, depressed, or just plain quiet. Whenever they were around, I would think to myself: Why am I so fascinated by them? What is in me that compels me to want to be like them; to want to be them!? Their auras of suburban glamour and mystery confounded me, because I felt so obvious around them.
Bill, their father and my friend, would ask me the stupidest questions about being gay in front of total strangers at work.
"Brian, is it true gay men sleep with about 500 men a year? I read that somewhere." He asked.
"Are you crazy?! There's only 365 days in a year! I don't know anyone like that. I've never heard such a horrible thing! I'm 19, and I've slept with four men in the past three years." I said.
"But you're not gay gay. I mean career gay: San Fran and New York gays." Bill said.
"Gay gay? What is that? Career gay? Where do you hear this stuff? Look, the gay people I know are just like the straight people I know, when it comes to sex and relationships. I guess there are some 'sex addicts', but you don't have to be gay for that, ya know?" I said to a roomful of people, getting madder and madder.
One night, Bill drove me home, and asked me some saner questions, as we sat in his car for a couple hours:
"How did you know you were gay?"
I told Bill a little bit about my past, and I told him I was attracted to the person. My first love was my best friend Brad, but I have been in love with a couple girls, too. I told him this world likes to tell us who we are supposed to love. Love is love and attraction is attraction, you can't control it.
"I don't think of myself as gay or bi or straight. To me those terms are related to an act; a sexual act. When I am intimate with someone, it's because I have an emotional connection to them. Them, not their gender. Does that make sense?" I said, finding this conversation and our 30 year age difference a little odd.
Why doesn't he already know this? What does he spend his time doing? Do I think too much? I thought to myself.
Bill asked a few more questions that night, and sat quietly and patiently through my long-winded answers, til it was time to go.
The conversation I had with Bill reminded me about the questions I had about my own life. I admired Bill for talking to me about such personal matters, cause I lived in my head so much, and couldn't do it. I didn't realize it then, but the only time my self-hatred went away was when I drank. I felt better when I was drunk. I knew drinking wasn't the answer, but it worked for a while. I knew pop music wasn't the answer, either, but I did get a lot from The Smiths and Nina Hagen. I spent many many hours in early '86 with Hatful of Hollow and Nunsexmonkrock. Morrissey asked why pamper life's complexity and when will you accept yourself, and Nina told me to be fearless and the future is now. I looked in many books, and besides Vonnegut, The Color Purple and Jayne Eyre inspired me a lot then, too.
The main thing I learned from these people was that the answer lay inside me. I just had no clue as to how to unlock that door.

Jody, Scot and I liked to spend our weekend days walking all over the city. Those trips usually included a stop by the lake, and through the old north side neighborhoods. We would count the 'geese lamps' in the windows, which were some weird fad back then. Scot liked to people watch and Jody liked to talk and I liked to look at all the old buildings, because my home town had so few, and all this history was new to me. As I walked with them, I silently wished I lived back then, a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, cause life seemed less complicated to me. Everyone dressed the same and had jobs and families. Everyone seemed to live the same life: You bought a car and a radio and went to work and went to church and opened Christmas presents and had kids and grandkids and died. Easy!
But I knew those were illusions I had of the past. I could easily shatter them when I thought about The Jungle, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, or those Weegee photos of people found dead and nude in shitty apartments.
As much as I hated to, I was starting to be glad to have the opportunity to figure things out for myself.