Letter From the Berkshires
September 2010
© 2010 Joel

“The moderate Muslims (who will attend the downtown Manhattan Islamic Center) are just the kind Bin Laden is afraid of.”—Fareed Zakaria on CNN

I was at first ambivalent about the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. New York could have quietly compromised to move the Center a few more blocks uptown. But I’m now firmly behind this opportunity to express mutual respect, understanding and the desire for peace. All the holy books of the Abrahamic faiths contain violence and other troublesome material. To characterize Christianity, Judaism and Islam religions of peace and love is not entirely so.

That’s all I was going to say about this subject, but now there’s more. Americans are currently in an foul mood (read The Dangers of America’s Deep Funk below) and are looking for a scapegoat for their personal and collective woes. Imam Rauf’s Center is but a sideshow to their angst.

Rev. Idiot and The Press

CNN and MSNBC (and Fox no doubt as well) have given something that calls itself pastor jones broadcast time more appropriately reserved for a president or a king. Why don’t they report his words second hand instead of showing us his ugly face? Don’t worry, media. It’s only someone’s holy book he threatened to incinerate, not your paychecks.

If Muslims around the world sent the message, “Burn the Koran, you bleeding moron; it will affect nothing but your rotten soul,” jones would have had no leverage. The majority of Muslims don’t have the luxury of being politically clever, but we do.

Live, Live, Live!

Auntie Mame sings to her nephew Patrick, in Jerry Herman’s musical Mame:

If you follow your Auntie Mame
I’ll make this vow my little love
That on the last day of your life,
You’ll be smiling the same young smile you’re smiling now, my little love,
If you throw away the cover
And you open up the shutter,
And you promise me that these will be the first words that you utter:
‘Open a new window, open a new door,
Travel a new highway that’s never been tried before......’
The song, “Open A New Window,” is Mame Dennis’s paean to shunning conventionality and living life to the hilt. “Live, live, live!” the lady argues. “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!”

Mame’s advice comes naturally to many of my readers, even those who’ve had serious setbacks in their lives. They serve as role models for us all.

Fail, Friends, Fail!

We’re all about failure, don’t you know? Every undertaking–marriage, work, running a household, a company or the United States or appearing in a play–is about failing. We aim not for perfection but to fail a little less each time. I thank an actor friend for that insight.

What did we dread more than an “F” on a test or a paper, or as adults making any discernible error in our lives? As a volunteer reading tutor I’d ask my student, “Make any mistakes lately? No? Then you haven’t tried!” (I’ve learned to ask myself the same.) How much peace of mind has been sacrificed to avoiding mistakes and consequently failing to learn from them?

Labor Day and Honor

We’ve recently had a relaxing three day weekend we call Labor Day, a great excuse for barbecues and sitting in a chair. This Labor Day I chose to honor the folks who do labor honestly, in contrast to those in corporate America who often don’t. This September 6th I was grateful for the actors entertaining us that evening, the policeman directing traffic in our streets, the waiters and the cooks at the Dream Away Lodge and the clerks at CVS. Not a one of them sold anyone on a risky mortgage or stock in enterprises they were betting on to fail.

A Noble Loss

Will Manhattan readers please explain why they have voted with their wallets to replace the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center, the locus of perhaps the most cultured and literate people in our world, with a mega store that sells discounted designer shlock? Amazon is inarguably more convenient and less expensive than a bookstore, which we’re all too busy doing nothing to visit, but consider the loss of contact with other readers, the sense of community that a bookstore offers, and the pleasure of being among the tons of books.

The Dangers of America’s Deep Funk

Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN, Sundays at 10:00 a.m., is the indispensable foreign affairs summary of the week. On a recent broadcast centering on China’s economic rise, host Zakaria spoke of America’s pervasive fear of the economy, mosques and immigration. A guest regards the feeling of being “down and out on our luck” as “a cultural danger.” We’re no longer emerging, like China, he told the audience, “we’ve emerged.”

The key characteristic of 20th century America was the feeling this was “our moment to define the present and the future.” Once lost, the dynamism and optimism essential to being strong in the world are “extremely difficult to gain back.”

“Everyone is afraid,” an anxious Berkshire neighbor told me lately, to which I retorted, “Then let’s stop making ourselves so bloody scared.” Clearly the United States is at a turning point. We need to figure out the how of future prosperity (beyond college grads all heading for Wall Street) in the post industrial, global trading era, and how to ease the economic pain until things improve. American’s political immaturity doesn’t help.

We’re responsible as citizens is to stop jumping up and down like infants so our political leaders can make mature decisions, too. Get this into everybody’s noggins– we’re in crisis and in need of unencumbered heads. Progressives are fuming at Obama’s lack of gumption, and Republicans peddle fear. Our representatives in Congress are damned if they don’t and damned worse if they do.

Obama may be doing lots we’ll thank him for some later day, but the country hurts too much to see. For all his virtues–which are many–Obama the media creation was perceived as promising too much. The chickens are about to roost.

Wait until November–boy oh boy! The Democrats are about to lose the Congress and the country is en route the Bush years in reverse, with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. At this moment of high anxiety Obama’s champions–minority voters and the young–are about to sit out the election in the fall. Either they enjoy feeling sorry for themselves, or they reckon that when the country hits rock bottom revolution comes. Comes Republican misrule!

Growing Up Gay

Before resuming Growing up Gay, I want to mark the passing of a man with the funny name of Seymour Pine at the age of 91. Pine was the NYPD officer in charge of the historic raid on the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969.

In 2004 he stated the Department had been “prejudiced against gays” and he publicly apologized for the raids. Pine told a Stonewall historian, “If what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.” A real man, Seymour Pine.

“Gabriel,” White Night, A Honeymoon and A Parade. Trouble in My Paradise, Too.

Lloyd and I were friends for so many years before we became romantic I couldn’t name the day we fell in love. With #3 it was fireworks right away. On March 13, 1979, one Gabriel decided to check out Gay Men’s Rap, and fortunately he stopped for groceries along the way.

When the New Boy in Town introduced himself to the acting group, Lloyd and I elbowed one another and smiled. Gabriel jumped into scenes like he had been on stage before (he had). The minute Rap was over we used the groceries as a pretext to offer him a ride home, and he used them as a pretext to accept. Those groceries served as a barrier against the unwanted advances of another back seat Rapmate we were chauffeuring that night. We exchanged phone numbers and talked about the guy from Boston all the way home.

Gabriel had journeyed west on Amtrac too. The day he applied for a job as a home healthcare worker in San Francisco he asked what the commotion at the cathedral across the street was all about. At that very moment George Moscone’s funeral was taking place and the city was in tears. Soon after, Gabriel returned to Boston for Christmas with his mother and four siblings and almost stayed. Lloyd and I were at the maiden Gay Men’s Chorus concert as I said.

We had gotten our real estate sales licenses and were in sales and rentals at an agency near Golden Gate Park. Some of our co-workers were gay, and Mary, the broker, was our boss. Mary was famous for saying “You’ve got to be a little crazy,” and she practiced what she preached. We loved her and still remain in touch. When a gay colleague shouted for Mary I brought the house down by responding, “Yes?”

The week after that portentous Gay Rap the office phone rang and Gabriel’s Boston accent came on the line. What were we doing for dinner that night? “I’ve made a lasagna I’d like to share with you. How about coming over after work?” As Gabriel owned little furniture, we arranged to drive man and pasta to our flat.

With man also came eggplant parmesan, a salad and a homemade bread. Gabriel took to our kitchen like he owned it. “When I saw those cute buns in my kitchen,” I often remind him, “I knew you had to stay.” Gabriel had been attracted by our antics at Gay Rap and he liked the way we looked. I had always wanted someone younger, if only by a year, with those big blue eyes and long brown hair.

Lloyd and I could speak or think of little else, and two soon became three. We didn’t have to wait long to meet Gabriel’s family. His sister visited him in San Francisco and brought a big surprise. She called her brother John! The name John was so common, “Gabriel” explained, he had used his middle name instead. From then on he was John.

A Burns and Allen routine involves Gracie’s preparing for a party to honor a professor and wanting to get everything just right. Gracie studied introductions in an etiquette book and mastered model phrases using the name John. At the party she introduced the professor to George Burns. “Professor, I’d like you to meet my husband John. John, meet the Professor” I’ll never forget the look on the professor’s face when Gracie followed up with, “George, would you ask the professor what he wants to drink?”

Our John’s mother, Anna, was a retired school teacher who attended Mass every day. When neighbors asked that she do something about a mysterious weed in a nearby college student’s window she answered, “That’s their business” and she didn’t do a thing. One of Anna’s daughters was a lesbian, another seeing an African American, and a son had married a Protestant, oh my God!

John’s Aunt Helen had some opinions, too. When she learned that Dignity, the gay Catholic group, had to hold sessions in church basements she told John it was a shame the men were not allowed to meet upstairs. You’d have known Aunt Helen as Sister Gabriel of the Holy Spirit, Mother Superior of the Carmelite Convent in Roxbury, Ma.

When John came out to his brother Dan he was told, “You’re my brother and I love you,” followed by a hug. His younger brother Henry visited San Francisco soon after we met and joined us for Gay Rap, We still laugh at how he hung his new jacket on the donation rack in error and almost lost it. When John introduced us to his mom the following summer she took her son aside. “When your brother and your sister were married I gave them money, so I’m giving you yours now,” Boston Irish. Daily Mass.

As two became a “triple,” reactions came our way. Cousin Stephen from D.C., whom I’m sorry to report died this past May, called to congratulate me on “having someone else to love,” At Rap John and I performed a love scene. “Hold it!” director Frank insisted, then suddenly realizing, “You’re not acting, are you?” A sad note crept into our becoming three. Twenty-three year old Gay Rapper Eric, who had been rejected by his parents for being gay, moved to San Francisco and had made himself a life. Eric was more fond of us than we had realized. When we told him about John he cried and not for joy.

John moved in with us into our flat in April, and our waistlines have never been the same. To celebrate we planned a “honeymoon” in L.A., and on the evening of May 21, 1979 we prepared to leave. Eric, who came by to dog sit in our absence, was bleeding when we met him in the door. Moscone Milk assassin Dan White had been sentenced to a mere seven years for involuntary manslaughter that afternoon, and what became known as the White Night riot was underway. A thug had picked on gentle Eric as he journeyed up our hill. A little soap and water erased the blood stains and a kiss or two the tears. I wanted to join the angry crowd. “Pack,” Eric wisely insisted. “and go down to L.A.”

Gays had gone ballistic over White’s lenient sentence, and they took their rage out on patrol cars and on City Hall. I’ve been critical of their actions all these years–for not having gone far enough! The cops went all the way.

In his biography of Dianne Feinstein, Jerry Roberts describes how the Mayor spent that “White Night” holed up with her finance and tolerant Police Chief Gaines (whom the cops despised) in her City Hall office unable to act or think. As orders from the top were not forthcoming, rouge policemen went berserk. Cops marched into the Castro, over a mile from City Hall, destroying property and beating the hell out of every man in sight. Even verbal resistance was met with force. Unlike Stonewall, this time the cops had won. Mayor Feinstein pursued the outrage with insufficient vigor, and not an officer was dismissed or went to jail. The following night, it’s worth knowing, a mob gathered in the Castro to celebrate Milk’s forty-ninth birthday with music and in peace.

San Francisco stopped happening for us as we drove down to L.A. We introduced John to Carmel and Monterey, to Disneyland and to L.A. friends and kin. “Welcome to our family!” a Joel cousin greeted John. We were thrilled to be a table away from movie star Jean Simmons in a restaurant, and on another night seated close to young John Voight.

When we returned to San Francisco, we learned that gays who were involved in the White Night riot had been advised not to talk about it to strangers, some of whom were police spies. Where the hell was this, Red China? But we three were on the move once more. Our jobs gave us the flexibility to spend several months away. However, one event remained. At the end of June we took John to his first and our second Gay Pride Parade. John had “Three is Beautiful” T shirts made for the occasion, which brought compliments and smiles.

Please join us on that splendid Sunday, June 24, 1979. Through the magic of the Internet you can google “San Francisco Gay Parade, 1979” and view two short videos online. One hundred thousand onlookers lined Market Street. Gays missed the presence of Mayor Moscone–the prudish Feinstein was never to appear in the parade– and we missed our Harvey Milk. Attendance was low because the White Night events had turned many San Franciscans off.

The S.F. Gay Freedom Marching Band, founded in response to Anita Bryant’s antics, filled our hearts with “California, Here I Come!” We were all in that parade. Lesbian and gay American Indians, South Asians, Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, nurses, accountants, lawyers, the teachers suspected of molesting children, lesbian and gay moms and dads. Catholics (Dignity), Episcopalians (Integrity), Jewish groups, Mormons, and a contingent from Lloyd’s and my old religion, Christian Science. Queer Democrats and gays of the GOP. No boos or hisses spoiled our party. Every color of our rainbow got a cheer.

Among bystanders interviewed, an older Chinese couple stand out. When asked if they were having fun, the husband said he was. His wife smiled tentatively and begrudgingly conceded “They have their rights.” She was not quite there yet, but one could hope she’d come around.

Two days later we were Berkshires bound once more. John’s entire family greeted us in Boston. I don’t think any of our New England neighbors fully grasped the nature of our relationship, and I wonder if half our friends do to this day. We introduced John to the Berkshires and to the Berkshire Community Gay Coalition. In September we returned to San Francisco. As we drove back from the airport I felt we’d never left.

Where had I put that list comparing L.A, and San Francisco? We now had John, a house and jobs, too late to make a switch. I found the real estate business boring, though the properties we sold to ourselves worked out just fine. Our life was now limited to a quiet neighborhood or two. Restaurants closed early, and we often walked with no one else around. The fog and wind no longer charmed–where was that “sun kissed Miss?”–and being pestered by the city’s signature beggars began to grate.

I did the manly thing and complained–for twenty years! I also got involved.

Next: A Very Gay Republican, A Bay Area reporter, and A Champion of Candidate and Cause

Joel: Letters