I was wondering what to do today, what to write. The fact of being laid off—and the uncertainty of applying for unemployment—has weighed me down. I don’t have the heart or energy to tackle the Trayvon Martin tragedy or Rick Santorum saying “bullshit” or the relentless robotic aura of Mitt Romney. Or the fading presidency of Barack Obama. Or even the illness and surgery of our oldest, purriest cat, Doll.
Frustration, fear and self-loathing have taken me to dark places.
And so I offer an essay that has been on my computer for a while. Something, not exactly “light,” but a piece that might explain me a little bit. How I came to be me. Certain aspects of me. The more…sordid me.
I hope I won’t shock any of you too much.
HE’S LEAVING HOME…Bye, bye.
How Young Mr. Wow Came to Confront NYC’s Mean Streets in 1968.
“I took money, Steve….I made a way of life out of it. The deep shame didn’t hit me until much later.”
“When the time comes that I am no longer desired for myself, I’d rather not be desired at all.”
All true movie fans (and/or gay men) know the origin of the two quotes above. Miss Elizabeth Taylor as the overripe call girl Gloria, in “Butterfield 8.” And Miss Vivien Leigh as the fragile Karen Stone in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” Both characters traded in sex. One sold, one paid.
Mr. Wow saw these films as a youngster. Well, let’s say as a tween–in today’s parlance. They had an effect. By the time I watching Miz Liz strut around in her silky slip, and Miss Leigh pine after insensitive hustlers, I was sexually active, and aware that youth was my big calling card. I had no illusions. Feature by feature I was just a normal, cute-looking kid. But I was smart and already too worldly for my little world.
As I became more sophisticated (that is, I read a lot of Harold Robbins) I sometimes fantasized about being so desirable that I would be paid for my time, a la La Liz. I also saw myself in Vivien Leigh’s character! Even at 13 I knew someday I’d be in that position—not famous, not beautiful, not rich. (Not a woman, either.) But I would want younger partners. This struck me profoundly–that I would look so mournfully into the future. Anticipating faded petals while I was still barely a bud myself.
And even then I didn’t like myself. But I accepted myself.
My disordered childhood left me unmotivated to succeed, or to “be” anything. I certainly didn’t become self-reliant. Rather, I was obsessed with physical—not financial–security and on my ability to charm somebody into providing me a stable environment. All I wanted was a home. I never fantasized about money or fame.
During my time up at the Peekskill, NY orphanage, St. Joseph’s, I begged a beautiful social worker to adopt me. She was African American and had taken me into her home on Thanksgiving. Of course she could not adopt me—I was not an orphan. My mother was alive. Hospitalized, suicidal, volatile–but alive. And she wanted me. She had spent her own grim childhood in the care of good nuns at an orphanage. That her little boy had ended up in the same situation was for her an agony of guilt.
This social worker had already broken rules taking me home with her. (I met her family and they were great!) But I never forgot her, or that she cried when I saw her for the last time. She was much nicer than the nuns, and the only tenderness I found up there at St. Joseph’s.
By the time I was fourteen, running away from home—fleeing life with an insecure, tormented mother I hardly knew, or cared to know– had become a rather boring habit.
At first I came back within hours. Then more hours. Then a day. Then two. Always I would wander, walking on and on and on. I had this strong feeling that if I walked far enough, I would somehow, magically, fall into a new life. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, or through the looking-glass. I made myself believe that turning the next unknown corner might change my life, in some fantastic fashion. That never happened. Not as I anticipated, anyway. I was no Jack Kerouac, taking to the road and having terrific, mind and soul defining adventures. I waited for things to happen to me; passive and fatalistic. I did not believe in myself as a person, only as a commodity with an expiration date.
Midway through my fourteenth year, my epic rows with my mother reached a boiling point. I was relentlessly truant from school and despite an amazing ability to forge teacher’s names on notes and intercept the mail and phone calls, I was doomed to be caught. There were terrible scenes.
Nothing mattered more to my mother than my education. She was compelled to leave school at 16, to work. She suffered what she thought were her intellectual deficiencies, though she wrote poetry, painted and was well-read. There was no possibility of having money to send me to college—we were on welfare by the time I was 11—but my mother hoped I might advance enough to earn some sort of scholarship. No way. School bored me. I read voraciously and was certain I knew more than my teachers. I didn’t feel the need to learn French or advanced mathematics. (Today I still count on my fingers!) My teachers tended to love me at first, then become puzzled, then ignore me—after all, there were students on hand who wanted to learn.
One of my teachers was so outraged by my indifference to him and to schoolwork in general, he ordered my mother to come see him, so he could have the pleasure of telling her, “Mrs. Wow, I think your son absolutely does not belong in an advanced classroom. In fact, I am going to make sure he is placed where he belongs, in the ‘average’ classrooms. Though he is barely even that.” (I don’t know how the system is now—but back then kids were divided into ‘average’ and ‘above average’ levels. It caused a lot of grief and insecurity.)
After that, I was openly contemptuous, which caused this learned man to throw a book at me. He missed. He hit the smart kid seated behind me..
In any case, I was always inevitably caught in my intricate but-sure-to-fail truancy lies. My mother and I slugged it out. Well, she tried to, and I ducked. She had a hair-trigger temper and the unfortunate habit of slapping me hard, often in front of others. She would then wonder why so many took my side, despite her very real concerns and grievances. “Don’t be fooled by his innocent look!” she would scream after sending me reeling with a roundhouse backhand. (I wasn’t trying to look innocent, but all who witnessed these scenes certainly thought I was.)
By fourteen I’d shot up to 5’ 7” to my mom’s 5’2”. (For a minute it looked like I might be tall. But I never grew another inch.) So it became comic as she tried to hit and corner me in our tiny two room Hollis, Queens apartment. The struggle was now ridiculous, and I often fell into giggles, leaping from sofa to chair and back again as she flailed, hoping to make a strike. My mother was not amused. We battled bitterly shortly after my fourteenth birthday. I didn’t feel like being slapped. I opted out of the house yet again.
I walked down Jamaica Avenue, then up to the more affluent Hillside Avenue and continued into Jamaica itself. I was so familiar with the area—the crumbling but still-deluxe Loews Valencia Theater…Gertz department store (with its tawdry and active men’s room) and the very nice public library where I spent many truant hours, reading good books in exquisite isolation. (The men’s room there also had a lot of traffic.)
This adventure would be different. For one thing, I was away five days. My longest sojourn from Hollis, ever. But something else was in the air. Me! At every turn, on every bench, in every theater seat (I knew how to sneak into the Valencia for free), and on each and every street, I was accosted, approached, seriously eyed. I was by no means naïve, or sexually inexperienced, but this was ridiculous. Had every gay man in the world decided to take a vacation in scenic Jamaica, Queens? And were they all somehow attracted to little ole cute-but-not-extraordinary Mr. Wow?
Apparently so. Several of these men were young and good-looking. (One took me to his tiny room the local YMCA. He cried with shame when we were done, which horrified me. Whatever problems I had, confusion about my sexual identity was not among them.) Others were not so young.
The night before I trudged sheepishly back home—to my hollow-eyed mother who was simply relieved I was alive—I encountered a drunk in the bus station. He was stout and bald and reeked of liquor. I was holding up a wall, clutching a paperback copy of “The Queen’s Necklace”—all about Marie Antoinette’s fatal bauble. I’d stolen it from a drugstore, and was reading it while wandering.
He approached. Ugh! I moved away. He followed. I went outside. He followed. “Hey, kid—you wanna make ten bucks?” This stopped me.
In 1967, with a mother on welfare, and reduced to stealing 95 cent paperback books, ten bucks might as well have been a hundred. “Come on, come on over here,” he slurred, indicating a deserted area of the bus parking area. I followed him warily. When we were secluded he turned, grabbed his crotch, and said, “So?” I said, “Money first.” Who knows where that bit of business sense came from? He handed over the ten. I looked at it. I looked at him. He looked mean. He smelled bad. I ran my ass off. He was too drunk to do anything but curse me as a faggot.
The next morning I was back in Hollis, promising my mother I’d straighten up and fly right. Of course I wanted to finish high school and grow up to be a responsible person. I thought I meant it. Kind of.
I was thrilled with my ten dollar bill.
And then I was fifteen. My last year at home was a total joke. I was out of school so often that my teachers and supposed classmates didn’t even know who I was, on those rare occasions I deigned to appear. I spent a good deal of time with the guidance counselor. She was bright and funny, and had a connection to show biz. I amused her. I made her laugh. She’d always say, “Oh, you’re okay. You’re just too smart for your own good.” Once she said, “Have you ever considered acting?”
I answered, “What do you think I’m doing right now?” She looked somewhat stricken. That I might be less jaunty than I appeared hadn’t occurred to her.
When not being “counseled” I spent most of my stolen hours up at the local library, but I did scoot into Manhattan. I wandered around the Times Square and 42nd Street area. That’s when it truly was “bawdy, tawdry 42nd Street!” I didn’t know it—or maybe I did—but I was getting the lay of the land.
On a warmish November afternoon in ‘68 my mother and I had our final confrontation. Suspecting I was not going to school, she waited at my bus stop. Of course, I wasn’t on the bus; I was jauntily making my way down the street from the opposite direction. Curses, foiled again!
My mother was speechless with rage. Odd, for her. I was en garde, waiting for the slaps or savage pinches or just the yelling—like the roar of the Concorde taking off. (To this day, a raised voice will cause me to shut down, flee or hyperventilate.) She said nothing until we reached Rudy’s the corner convenience store, just across the street from our modest apartment complex. It was a little bit of everything at Rudy’s—a fountain, burgers, drugstore items, newspapers, magazines. And there was Rudy, too—a crusty character who never warmed to winsome Mr. Wow. (Perhaps he suspected that I often stole magazines and books.) My mother ordered a cup of coffee, and the mere act of speaking—“no milk”– unhinged her.
She began screaming to Rudy and several neighborhood ladies, about what an excruciatingly horrible, terrible boy I was. I never went to school, and for sure I was going to hell because of all the trouble I caused her. (She had a point, but–Young Wow did not smoke, drink, take drugs, use foul language or hang out with a bad crowd—or any crowd. I was a big nerd. And, tempting though it was, I didn’t sass my mom.)
Rudy and the gathered neighbors knit their brows and shook their heads. Wasn’t I ashamed of myself? What kind of a boy was I? Did I want to go to hell? And then, as per her habit, my mother hauled off and slapped me so hard I fell back against a pyramid of canned goods, knocking everything over. Rudy exclaimed, triumphantly, “See what you did?” One of the ladies piped up, “Look what you’ve done to your mother, she is always so sick, how can you be so cruel and irresponsible?”
“Go home!” shrieked my mother. “I’ll deal with you later.”
No thank you, Mom. Later never came. I dashed out of the store, flung my pristine, uncracked schoolbooks into a garbage can and headed up toward Hillside Avenue, and the subway to NYC. I had exactly 15 cents in my pocket. That was the fare. I was wearing grey slacks, a white shirt and short lightweight jacket. I probably had time to go home and change, or throw a few extra clothes in a bag, or root through my mother’s bureau draws for some money. I knew she’d be some time at Rudy’s, telling everybody I wasn’t as innocent as I looked.
But falling into the canned peas was my final straw. I felt desperately sad for my mother. I knew her own brutal history and I knew that she tried her best. I didn’t love her. I didn’t hate her, either. But we were not meant to live together. In later years I realized she wasn’t meant to live with anyone—she trusted so few– herself least of all. Alone was better. Although it was so terribly alone.
Alice said, once she found herself in Wonderland: “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
So, call it strange or sad, but that November day that I sauntered out onto 42nd Street and 8th Ave, determined never to return home…something made sense. To me. I knew my looking-glass was sordid, grimy, and held little hope. But I never expected Wonderland anyway.
TO BE CONTINUED…eventually.