Letter From The Berkshires
July, 2010
© 2010 Joel


Robin Williams tells this much better. An American reporter once asked Madame de Gaulle to name the most wonderful thing in the world. “Apenis!” she unhesitatingly replied. After regaining his composure the interviewer inquired, “Well, what’s the worst thing in the world?” “Un-apenis!” said she.

I once defined happiness, as we say in English, as getting what I want. If that were true we’d be miserable indeed. A distinguished minister tells us this.

“Happiness is not being content with your life or satisfied with the sunshine. Happiness is being deeply connected and completely engaged. It’s going beyond the limits of our daily lives and seeing the reality of the world and our place in it. It’s the experience of being burdened by the persistent tragedy of the world and exhilarated by its sublime beauty.” –Galen Guengerich, All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City

Quotes of The Issue

How Barack Obama performs “in the fractious year of 2010” will enable Americans to “judge him as we should all presidents, on what he has actually done rather than on the one we imagine he is.” –Frank Rich, The New York Times

“Have we all gone mad?” Fareed Zakaria, referring to the media’s displeasure with the president’s “failure” to get angry, show emotion, “kick ass” over the crisis in The Gulf.

“Did You Plug the Hole Yet,” Dad?

“Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” asked Malia Obama as her father shaved. The president closed his May 27, 2010 news conference with this little tale. Chuck Todd, promoted to NBC’s Chief White House Correspondent as a consequence of shamelessly promoting Obama in the 2008 campaign, was close to tears.

The following day Glenn Beck mimicked the question in a little girl’s voice. I haven’t gone Glenn, nor do I think Malia is a clod, even if she never said those words. Imagine little David Eisenhower asking, “Did you get us out of Korea yet, Gramps?” or Caroline Kennedy, “Pop, how goes the Bay of Pigs?”

Readers know my irritation with the Obama swoon. Obama was another Lincoln, another JFK. A nation weary of the Bush years wanted change, audacity and hope. I’m still not clear whether Obama supporters got those words in the correct order–as if it mattered–or reflected on their meaning, “Vote for me.”

We are a sentimental people. “Fareed Zakaria’s GPS” (Sunday mornings, CNN) immediately following the 2008 election featured the likes of Robert Caro, John Ellis, Walter Isaacson and John Mecham having orgasms about the president elect. They compared Obama with Lincoln, Washington, Ben Franklin, Truman and every figure short of God. Their topic two months before the Inauguration was Obama’s legacy, so help me Barack.

I bear the president no ill will. I rate his presidency as sometimes good, ofttimes “I don’t know.” Halfway through his second year voters are beginning to wonder, and midterm elections and a possible tipping point are nigh. I judge leaders by results alone. My emotions are reserved for Mrs. Marshall, as the stoic general used to say.

Two questions, then. What does Obama stand for, and can he lead?

I would like the president to stand for, in no particular order and not limited to, decoupling the fortunes of feckless financial institutions from the fortunes of us all. Relieving the economic misery in our land. Regulation of campaign funding. A far less ideologically activist Supreme Court. A more competent federal bureaucracy dedicated to all Americans, not the corporations from which key administrators often come. Encouraging entrepreneurial ingenuity. Protecting consumers. Uniting all who do honest work. Leading the world in environmental change. Understanding that world, and “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Tempering our addiction to imported fossil fuel. Protecting Americans everywhere. Restoring our faith in government above all.

Tom Freidman bemoans the lack of a cohesive presidential program. Pitch hitting for an “overarching narrative” is “an obsession to pay off a liberal constituency.” The president has “pursued each item separately,” resulting in “at worst a hodgepodge, at best a to do list.” (The New York Times uses “hodgepodge” to describe government agencies that granted exemptions to BP before the disaster in the Gulf.) Tough, instructive words.

Consider presidential challenges such as the chimera of Republican cooperation, genuine, far reaching financial industry and health care reform, the losing proposition called Afghanistan and our involvement in Iraq. Also the Gulf emergency, a nuclear Iran, and the facile paranoia in our land. How has the Administration handled each of these? Can the president inspire, much less lead?

In his eighteen months in office Mr. Obama has been surprisingly short on charisma and significant reform. Americans still like him, for he seems a decent man. We comfort ourselves with the mantra “He’s intelligent,” as if his intellect were in doubt, much less the point. Could we be using Obama’s carefully cultivated “brand” to distract us from unreasonable expectations, or from his lacks?

What do you think Barack Obama stands for? What’s your take on his leadership thus far? Why do you think what you do?

Growing Up Gay: San Francisco Gets the Part, Eleven Months of Harvey,
“If They Could See Me Now,” and Gabriel Who?

When we returned to the Berkshires in May, 1977, Lloyd’s mother brought back more than memories of Rice-A-Roni and fog. She found in San Francisco a woman to serve as her companion and never went west again. Complaining about New England winters and her loneliness was much more fun.

After another Berkshire summer, our second since leaving New York, we returned to California, this time to L.A. The entertainment capital seemed unwelcoming and charmless compared to the mecca to its north. I still have our list of pros and cons. San Francisco: Gay Rap, gorgeous real estate, our favorite health food restaurant, a real downtown. L.A.: better weather. San Francisco won.

After driving real estate agents crazy and driving up and down the coast, I concluded we had to own a property in S.F. Victorian houses had been rediscovered and were riotously repainted after decades of neglect. Now called Painted Ladies, their price was heading north. To this day I recommend buying California real estate some thirty years ago.

The day we signed on our house in San Francisco Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors, and the Castro went berserk. Milk had become the first openly gay elected official in California. (Elaine Noble of Massachusetts had been the first lesbian or gay elected to a state legislature, in 1975.)

February 1978, the month after Harvey’s swearing in, we moved into our Victorian pair of flats (two floor through units), got tenants and became San Francisco’s Fred and Ethel Mertz. As assaults on gays were frequent in the Castro, self protection was a must. A volunteer patrol called The Butterfly Brigade recommended we carry whistles to call for help. Violent reaction to the perception of threatening change is nothing new.

We had never seen so many men who looked so much alike! They called them Castro Clones for their signature plaid shirts, Levis, similar hairstyles and hairy upper lips. I say them–not us.

The tenants had us to their parties because they felt they had to, but we fit in not at all. Lloyd and I were what was known as squares. We eschewed the clone look, rarely went to discos, never, ever, took recreational drugs, and we regarded baths as homes for rubber ducks. Visitors to our new home never stayed beyond ten p.m., as they had somewhere else–a date, a bar or bathhouse–to go. We were the odd men out.

Still, living in America’s premier gay neighborhood in the heyday of Gay Lib represented an unimaginable advance. Half a lifetime earlier I was roaming the locker room in school. Ten years before I was resigned to a life at The Bureau and to our remaining “roommates” to the end. Now we were out of the closet, militantly gay and proud of who we were. This unexpected and sudden liberation was to bring tragedy to many later on.

Had I been a California voter in ‘77 I would have supported gay moderate Rick Stokes over Harvey Milk. Harvey’s coalition of minorities, union members, seniors and ultraliberal gays turned the then Republican Joel off. I also found Harvey too cute by more than half–which he was–although today I celebrate and honor all he did.

What I loved about the Castro was its centrality to our lives. When things went divinely we gathered in the Castro, and when our hearts were broken we met there, too. The street cum gay town square became a source of unity and strength. One could be stirred by a speaker, hang around to gossip or protest, pick up a gay paper, or better, a cute young guy. The Castro was our worldwide web.

Someone–Harvey?–thought of our distributing little cards emblazoned “To know us is to love us” with the message we were people’s neighbors, employees, sons and friends. That simple stroke of genius gave our cause a human face and began the climb to acceptance overall.

I’ve written little about lesbians. In the Berkshires gay men and women remained fondly united despite our differences, a lesson for Americans today. One exception was the lesbian who came from Boston to “raise the consciousness” of BCGC’s gentle men. I was the only one who stood up to her brash dicta and she backed down.

I’m not sure how it started or why, but San Francisco’s girl and boy clones seldom got along. A cruel joke put the difference between a bull elephant and a bull dyke as a plaid shirt and twenty pounds. Much of the tension had to do with the novelty of feminine equality, male clubbiness, and some women taking their anger out on any man. When lesbians were finally given credit, Gay Lib was retitled Lesbian and Gay Lib, the women insisting they go first. (Bisexual and Transgender were added later on.) Occasionally monumental cruelty was committed in the name of Women’s Lib. Extremists left their husbands and sons on “principle.” Breaking the hearts of loved ones does not liberate at all.

Drag has been popular in the gay world and beyond–think of Milton Berle–probably since the cave. Berkshire lesbians felt drag queens were stereotyping women so they could mock. My aversion to drag is purely visceral, it’s not my cup of tea. However, when a new group hit the Castro c. 1980 I was glad.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, still in force today, is an “order” of gay men formed to protest homophobic religion, specifically of the Roman Catholic Church. We were friends of two, Sister Loganberry Frost and the well known Sister Boom Boom, really astrologer Jack Fertig, who ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the nun. In the order were also Sister Hysterectoria, Roz Errection and, incongruously, Sadie, Sadie the Rabbi Lady. My favorite? Sister Missionary Position, of course.

(When John’s Mass going Boston mother was walking in the Castro in the early 1980’s, a couple of the Sisters happened by. Anna, bless her heart, was characteristically oblivious to what she did not want to see. That experience continues to make us laugh.)

To our shame, all but one of The Castro’s bars were off limits to Asians and to blacks. The practice made even then Republican Joel hopping mad . A coalition know as Black and White Men Together was organized to address the problem, and I regret not having joined.

My review of the motion picture Milk in January, 2009’s Letter From L.A. covers Proposition 6–the infamous attempt to remove gay teachers from California’s schools–and the eleven month tenure of Supervisor Milk. The Prop 6 campaign marked my first participation in politics, and I hold dear the religious leaders and parents who took our side. Harvey and the wonderful Sally Gearhart faced down hostile audiences and gave us unforgettable quotes. If children followed in the footsteps of their teachers, Harvey jested, they would have grown up to be old maids or nuns. And at our Prop 6 victory party Gearhart reminded us, “We are strong. We are beautiful. And we have friends!”

Prop 6 was dubbed the Briggs initiative for its instigator, state Senator John Briggs. Coincidentally we had a Briggs toilet installed in the middle of the campaign. We pooped on Briggs for years to come.

A bitter surprise was the homophobia of Christian Science, the religion of Lloyd’s and my youth. A friend reported being shoved by a Christian Scientist when asked to sign a “No on Six” petition, which no one from the church would sign. The Mother Church in Boston took an anti-gay position, and a lesbian employee of the Christian Science Monitor lost her job.

What a victory celebration when we defeated Proposition 6. Harley Human bounced to the gay band’s “California, Here I Come.” George Moscone addressed us. The Mayor! What a symbol of respect. A man I thought looked Italian in a snazzy, shiny suit, his curly dark hair heavily greased, remained on the platform until the end. I didn’t recognize him until he flashed his famous grin. That was the last I ever saw of Harvey Milk,

Three weeks later both gentlemen were dead. San Francisco was reeling from the Jonestown suicides of the week before. I was horrified by these events, but an emotional connection with Moscone and Milk was yet to come. That night we joined tens of thousands on a candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall, which is repeated on the anniversary every year. The presence of so many heterosexual neighbors, from mothers pushing strollers to older couples holding hands, vindicated Sally Gearhart’s words. They hadn’t come to laugh or mock or tell us we were ill.

The Castro Theater placed “George and Harvey”–in that order–on its marquee. To traditional Joel San Francisco was in many ways a foreign land. Although I was hardly a hardhat, the mores of the preceding decade had gone against my grain. Even now when I treasure diversity and fight for everybody’s rights I like bourgeois–with a theatrical twist, of course–when I come home.

Baghdad by the Bay was more like Neverland. Owning a home, keeping traditional hours, advancing a career, remaining drug or VD free–or contemplating anything that had happened the day before the day before–was condemned as caving in. So when the protocol of placing the fallen Mayor’s name above our beloved Harvey’s was observed I was grateful and surprised.

The world seemed to have gone crazy. When a PG&E representative threatened to cut off our power because a tenant was delinquent with his payment I reported the employee at once. The corporate General Manager called to say the man was through. I pleaded to give him a second chance “in the spirit of the season,” but I really feared revenge.

And suddenly the roller coaster turned around. On December 20, 1978, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which had sung at Harvey’s funeral and brazenly kept “Gay” in their name, gave their first public concert and inaugurated the gay choral tradition in this land. Lloyd and I sat front and center. Instead of entering from the wings the singers marched down the auditorium’s center aisle. They wore identical plaid shirts and jeans and looked simply great.

And as they marched they sang with pride, “If My Friends Could See Me Now!” from “Sweet Charity.” Lyrics, maestro please.

If they could see me now,
That dusty gang of mine,
I’m eating fancy chow
And drinking fancy wine.
I’d like those stumble bums to know for a fact,
The kind of top drawer, first rate chums I attract.
All I can say is “Wow-ee!”
Looka where I am
Tonight I landed, POW!
Right in a pot of jam.
What a set up! Holy Cow!
They’ll never believe me
If my friends could see me now.

If they could see me now! My third grade teacher. Mother. Dad. The director of my high school play. Sarah Aarons. Cousins and Stephen and Susan. Aunt Thea and Uncle Stanley. Arthur Block. Lillian Stern. Lily Haacker. Tony Pizza. Lloyd’s gay professor. The demoralized gay teacher from one school and the supportive PTA president from another. The effeminate boy whose speech I checked. My mother’s hospital roommate. The Irish grocer lady. The stupid tailor and his seed.

My childhood neighbor, beautiful teenaged Donny, whose effeminacy was the sorrow of his mother’s life. The neighbor in Yonkers with the “nephews” whose presence gave my mother fits. My elementary school music teacher, a mannish woman living with her “niece.” And everyone I had ever known. Without the help of a single drug this thirty-five year old was high.

A young fellow who had come to town the day of Harvey’s funeral, and whom we were yet to meet, missed that seminal event. Lonesome for his family, Gabriel went back to Boston for the holidays, but he was destined to return .

Next: “Gabriel,” White Night, A Honeymoon and A Parade.

Dear friends and readers, school is out. The next Letter From will be posted later this summer. You and I deserve a wonderful break. Don’t forget the sunblock!

Joel: Letters