Drive, He Said

Well, the saga of my attempting to get a driver’s license so I can drive myself on my upcoming book tour continues. I was supposed to take my road test today up in Yonkers but inclement weather caused the DMV to postpone it till next Wednesday. At every turn, so to speak, the attempt to get this license has been a difficult one. I needed a Social Security Card – not just a number – in order to be able to take my written test to get a Learner’s Permit. But when I went to get a replacement card at the Social Security office here in NYC on Halloween day I discovered that the computer system wouldn’t take my information off my application. Behind the glass at the office, all the employees, who were dressed as Dr. Spock and Klingons and prostitutes and cowboys, etc., for Halloween, began to crowd around the computer trying to decipher the problem. After almost an hour they decided that my birthdate in the system was two years off my real one so the Social Security Adminstration had to write to the state of Mississippi to clear up the discrepancy. Therefore, instead of two weeks to get the replacement card, it took six weeks. When I finally got the card I went in to take the test and only missed one question so that part was easy. The day I had to sit inside a safety class for five hours – a week later – I discovered that my permit had already been suspended because, as it turns out, I failed to pay a $35 fine for running a red light ON MY BICYCLE nine years ago. I had to go back downtown and find the right office to pay the fine so my permit would be activated again and then head back to the safety school so, for an extra 200 dollars, it could expedite setting up a date for my road test. It was supposed to take place today. Perfect. I hope St. Martins appreciates all this tsuris I’m going through to save them the few dollars it would cost them to hire a cute grad student from Ole Miss to drive me around Mississippi and Alabama and Lousisana for a week.

By the way, the title of this post is from Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut in 1971. Extra points for knowing that. But it’s not about learning to drive a car. It’s about a basketball player – the “drive” in the title is a command to take the ball to the basket, not a writer to a bookstore.

Spring Awakening

Just thought I’d name this post for my favorite new musical. If you haven’t seen it, do. And Jonathan Groff, the lead, is a sweet kid. He even let me bring my nephew backstage to meet him after we saw it in December. I’ll be rooting for Jonathan come Tony time. I had an unrequited crush on him for a few weeks. Jonathan would be a great replacement for Daniel Radcliffe after he completes his Broadway run as Alan Strang in Equus next spring, costarring with Richard Griffiths as Dr. Dysart. (Spring Awakening’s producer, Tom Hulce, played Alan as Peter Firth’s replacement back on Broadyway in the 1970s.) Alan is a part I also played back when I was Jonathan’s age. Anthony Perkins played Dr. Dysart opposite me. I had a shag back then. And I had to wax my chest and stomach to appear closer to 17 the age of the character in the play. I think I was around 21 or 22 at the time. That was thirty years ago now. Roberta Maxwell played the stable girl with whom Alan has a nude scene. The last time I saw her, she was playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother at the end of Brokeback Mountain. I am often reminded that I have reached the “mother role” phase in my own life. When I used to watch Six Feet Under I always indentified with the sons until it always dawned on me that I went to the Juilliard School of Drama with Frannie Conroy, who played their mother. “I’m the mama,” I’d always whisper to myself and wait for Claire to fuck up.

Spring is, indeed, awakening and God am I grateful. Since I last posted, I went to dinner with Christopher Lee Nutter on Thursday night and took him to a party that my pal, Carole Radziwill, gave at her place on King Street for Norwood, a new arts club to be headquartered in a townhouse on 14th Street which is to open sometime this spring. Carole has just installed a turntable in her apartment, so records were also spun. It was all kind of au courant and old-fashioned and elegant and lively at the same time – much like Carole herself Friday I caught the train to Boston for a reading at Calamus Bookstore. It’s owner, John Mitzel, could not have been more gracious in his sonorous, flush-faced, royal blue-wearing way. A nice guy. It was standing room only in his lovely store. I read sitting at a table with shelves behind me around my head filled with first editions by gay writers. James Purdy and Patrick Dennis tomes were floating there next to my right ear. I could almost hear their very different prose styles whispering to me from between their covers before I started reading my own stylistic prose. Sold a few books. Had an interesting discussion afterwards with those who came to hear me read. People again complimented me on my “performance” from the book. I do enjoy these readings. Maybe I’ll do a one-man show of sections from the book at some point. Who knows. I’d forgotten what that sweet-spot of performing felt like. I used to feel it when I wore a shag and straddled Nugget, Alan’s horse-of-choice at the end of the first act, and went on one of his – my – midnight rides. I got back around 1 a.m. – a midnight ride of a very different sort – from Boston (don’t get me started on Jetblue again) and fell fast asleep looking forward to the weather we had all been promised on Saturday.

The promise was fullfilled. After I worked out at the gym, I got on my new Electra Amsterdam bike and rode and rode and rode the blues away under the blue blue blue sky. Made it down to the parks and piers in the Village – it’s a bit like a midwestern river city that has spent some senior senator’s federal largesse on a waterfront, not Manhattan – but it was quite clean there and I did appreciate all those half naked bodies and beautiful faces, their winter glowers finally fading as they all, legs splayed, shoulders flexed, their calves cooled against the first brush of sod and grass and a spring breeze, allowed themselves to be moored in place, their hips beginning to list a bit in the sun, beneath the gleaming Meier apartment buildings.

I then rode down to my old neighborhood in Tribeca where I lived for about 15 years on Desbrosses and Greenwich. I was amazed by the difference in the neighborhood. Buildings even gleamier than the Meier cluster up the river had risen all around the old spice factory building where I had my loft. I loved living down there because it was so secluded and a bit of a frontier – though Bruce Weber and Bette Midler had lofts right around the corner. Bruce is still there I think. Bette’s become a Fifth Avenue lady – some downtown doyennes become that. Bette’s one of them, bless her heart. I worshipped her growing up back in Mississippi. My artistic brother Kim even painted t-shirts, exact copies of the Amsel portrait on her Divine Miss M album, for Karole and him and me when were were kids out in the country. I did a big cover story on her for Vanity Fair back around 1989, 1990. I visited her on the set of For the Boys and hung out at her house in Beverly Hills (”Well, Beverly Hills post office, “she corrected me back then, the first time I knew there was a distinction, a completely LA term to my New Yorkcentric ears.) She and her handsome fashionable lug of a husband, Martin, took me out to lunch. I even helped her – she was getting into gardening big time right about then – with her mulch. I helped her find best weed eater available at that time something like this. One day, over a year later, I was unlocking my bike on our shared corner in Tribeca and she and Martin were emerging from their building. “Hi, Bette,” I said. “Remember me?” She swept by in her haughtiest on-stage diva mode. “Hmmmph … vividly,” she said and strode right by. I had obviously said something in the VF story to offend her. My heart raced at the thought. Weeks later I was in our local breakfast expresso place. I was reading the Times and eating my croissant when she entered. We were the only two people in the place. “Morning, Bette,” I said. “Looks like you’re going to have a hit,” I told her, having seen the previews of First Wives Club a few days before. “Hmmmph,” she said, her favorite non-word it seemed when I was around. I turned back to the Times. My heart began to race again. I heard the click of her heels compete with the rapid beats of my increasingly racing heart. She stood, akimbo, next to me. “Kevin, we have to talk,” she said. “When you wrote that story on me for Vanity Fair, you said my baby was homely and it broke my heart.” I began to interrupt her. “No. Listen to me. What you wrote broke my heart. I have tried to forgive you. I have prayed to forgive you. I was hoping with time I could forgive you. But – look at me …” I looked up from my half-eaten croissant. Crusty remnants of it adhered to the roof of my mouth. “I will never fogive you,” she said. My hand shook own my expresso cup. “But, Bette … ” I stammered. “Kevin,” she said. “You broke my heart and I will never forgive you.” With that, she turned on her clicking heels and ordered her own expresso. Fade out. Fade in. The next year, in Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, I was asked to write an appreciation of Bette for the magazine’s Hall of Fame page. The form was that each sentence had to begin “Because …. ” At one point I said, words to the effect, that because in spite of all her awards and critical praise her greatest creation was her lovely daughter and then wrote Sophie’s lyrical full name. (I had initially written in the cover story on Bette that though Sophie had been a charmingly homely baby it was easy to see why Bette was so proud of her because she had grown into such an adorable child. But, rightly so, Better had focused on the word “homely.” I apologized privately to Martin and her with a note I slipped under their door and the Hall of Fame page was a public one as well.) A couple of weeks passed and I was buzzed at my loft. “Western Union,” came the voice. Who would be sending me a telegram in this day and age? I opened it and it read: “Kevin, That was very decent of you. All is forgiven. Bette. ” What a classy dame, which is more than I can say for myself in that story. Sometimes I think that’s one of the aspects of being gay: falling just short of being a classy dame oneself.

I rode up from Tribeca into Soho and dropped in on my friend Michael Smith at Depression Modern, who had decorated my entire loft back in those days with 1930s furniture from his store. My weekend stops, when I’m in town in nice weather, have always included – for over 20 years now – a visit with Michael and his dear friend, Howard, who worked in the store on weekends. The Sunday before I headed out on book tour on that Monday, I visited Howard at St. Vincents hospital to bring him some tulips and see how he was doing. He was not doing well. He was up in his 80s and a lifetime smoker and when one thing started going wrong, everything started going wrong. He never made it home. I had been thinking about Howard all during my tour. I had written the words “Depression Modern is a less lovingly irascible place without you there. Get well, honey” on the note I left with the tulips. Michael told me Saturday that Howard had passed away. I stood in the store and cried a bit. I had last seen Howard in the lobby of City Center before the concert version of Follies. He was complaining that Michael was late and he was freezing and how he was so looking forward to seeing the production. Howard taught scenic design at Brooklyn College and worked as a scenic designer all his adult life. His professional heyday was back in the ‘50 and ’60s. I’ll miss talking about what theatre we’d seen the week before when I’d go downstairs at Depression Modern and sit at the table with him as well as discuss the stories he was reading in the Times and Post that day. He was one of those sweet curmudgeonly gay gentlemen of a certain age – literally a dying breed now – who are a repository of fabulous memories and nicotine and a hard-earned grace. Rest in peace, Howard. My life was enhanced knowing you.

Saturday night I met up for dinner with my friends Jamie – a Columbia med student – and his New Zealand boyfriend Bede, who recently graduated from Columbia law school. Jamie is on his way to Cape Town for the summer to work with AIDS orphans and Bede, who specializes in human rights law, is headed to Johannesburg to do some pro bono work before settling into his new job in D.C. at a law firm. We had a great meal at Mermaid Inn and then walked over to KGB Bar to hear Phil LaMarche read from his novel, American Youth. Remember Phil from my Toronto posting? The place was packed with his groupies – yeah, I guess I’m one of them – and I bought a book for him to sign. (Jerry Stahl in the LA Times gave him a rave last week and called the book “an American masterpiece.”) Before Phil read he said that some of his friends didn’t show up because they thought readings were for sissies. He wrote in my book, “Readings are not for sissies.” I think I would have liked it better if he had stuck with his friends’ attitude and turned it on its head. But maybe you have to be a real sissy to do that.

After the reading I left Bede and Jamie in an East Village boy bar to drink and I rode my bike up to the movie theatre on 11th and Third and bought a ticket to Fracture. Anthony Hopkins, the original Dr. Dysart in Equus on Broadway, and Ryan Gosling, who would have made a great Alan Strang a few years ago, were fun to watch though the movie was a bit too slick for my tastes. I made it home by midnight and read the Times with Archie my dog cuddled next to me. I wondered what stories Howard would have found the most interesting in the Arts and Leisure section. I fell asleep, looking forward to Sunday and more sunshine. I dreamt of Cape Town and Johannesburg and Bette Midler’s face singing Surabaya Johnny on a t-shirt I wish I still had in my drawer. “I’m the mama,” she whispered to me after she sang the song. “I”m the mama,” I whispered back. “I’m the mama,” we both kept saying and we were. We are.

Chapter vs. Verse

I haven’t posted in a week because I’ve been working on my new novel’s first chapter. So if you’ve logged in for a peek
at my life, please be patient for I guarantee you’ll soon be rapt or titillated, at least, by the love story I’m writing. It’s not set in Afghanistan. It’s not about kiting.

This much I can tell you about it so far since it’s just beginning to unfold in my mind. It’s about an ex-stripper named Emelle who is overburdened, overweight, and overly kind. Any more info would just be conjectural. Though it is set in Ptown. And the love is hetero as well as textural.

Right now its title is “Cock and Load,” yet I realize that could lend itself to a lot of Provincetown lore on its own. So before I get too far down the narrative road, I might change it to another title that would fit: “Soul W**re.” Which of the two do you find more resonant? I’m not sure I like what either says or not.

About the love story, I’m trying to write. Emelle heads to Ptown to spread her son’s ashes from their urn and meets Doyle, a housepainter, whose daughter, always ready to fight, has recently been killed in the war in Iraq. Together, they learn how again to walk along a beach as well as the lessons only dead children can teach.

Don’t worry, there is a drag queen or two in the story also. The main one, in fact, is named Nan Tuckit. So rapier wit and raunchy mean-ness abound with words like “s*ck it” and “f*ck it” thrown around with a bit of zest and much, much verve since everyone in Ptown – even middle-aged heteros – is a bit of a perv.

Okay, the novel is now demanding attention, so it’s time to put words in the mouths of Nan and Emelle, and Doyle
and other characters too numerous to mention in a sprightly little poem. I must also be careful. I do not dare spoil
any more of the plot residing in my imagination. Plus, I’ve reached – thank God, huh – my rhymester limitation.

 

I’m back!

i’m not sure if I still have any readers on this site anymore since I’ve been away from my postings for so long. Sorry about that. But I promised myself I wouldn’t post again until I had a chunk of my new novel written. Last week, I sent off 101 pages of THE SENSUAL MUSIC OF NEGLECT to my agent to see if they are worthy to show to publishers. I hope so. I think I’ve come up with something quite different and moving and funny. But we’ll see. I’ll keep you … ah … posted.

I’ve been up in Provincetown since June 1st – except for a brief trip back to NYC and Washington D.C. to do a couple of readings of MISSISSIPPI SISSY as well as furnish the “entertainment” to a big Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Waldorf at which we raised over a million dollars for the upcoming campaign. In NYC I did a reading at the Gay and Lesbian Center that went really well. Down in D.C. I did one at the FDIC as its featured speaker for Gay and Lesbian month.

It’s my sixth summer here in Ptown. Last night was typical of my time here. I went to see Hairspray at the local movie theatre and as I walked out I ran right into my old buddy, John Waters, who wrote and directed the original version. John is a Ptown summer denizen like me. He asked what I thought of the film. “Well, I can’t lie to you, John. I thought it was a mess. I started to hate it during Michelle Pfeiffer’s first production number and it went down hill from there. I adored the Broadway production. But this mess of a movie just made me realize how much I loved your original version.” John smiled and shrugged. “I think they did a fresh job. I liked it,” he said. “But I didn’t make this movie so you can’t hurt my feelings about it. A lot of people feel the way you feel about it, but a lot of others love it. Are you coming to my party later?” he asked, moving on to more important matters. I told him I was but first had to catch a ten o’clock performance of the Nellie Olsens, an edgy sketch comedy troupe that consists of three old NYC friends of mine. They were hilarious. Then I rode my bike to John’s party and as I walked in I was confronted with a social tableau that could only be witnessed in Ptown, which is why John and I all those like us who revel in the slightly taboo and a kind of grin-inducing incongruity summer here. Before me, as I entered his party, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Cunningham and editor-in-chief of New York magazine Adam Moss were being introduced to gay porn icon Jeff Stryker. When I coupled that image with one I had earlier in the evening of my old friend Andrew Sullivan and his partner Aaron (to be married here in a month) stopping to share a few laughs with Miss Richfield, one of Ptown’s reigning drag divas, as they strolled along Commercial Street with columnist Dan Savage and his partner and their young son who are here for Family Week which started yesterday … well, it all just reminds me why I keep coming back to this most quaint of fishing villages at the very tip of Cape Cod, an end-of-the-world kind of place – geographically, not philosophically – where all are welcome.

It’s good to be back – in Ptown as well as this blog.

The Inn Crowd

Okay. By Wednesday of this week I had processed the review in the Times that’s running. I listened to a lot of Lena Horne to help me do it – especially her “Live on Broadway” recording. I not only love listening to her sing her songs, but also all the patter between them when she relates the ups and down of her life and how she consistently had to overcome shit. “I ran up the steps of MGM (where I was already signed) and told them you call Twentieth Century Fox and you tell’em ah’m back and ah’m gonna be Pinky!” she exclaims at one point – I love that moment – when she heads out to LA on the Super Chief train in the 1940s, quitting her job at Cafe Society to try and break into the movies for the second time, in order to claim the title role in that upcoming movie. She loses out, however, to Jeanne Crain. “A pretty little brown-haired blue-eyed child,” she says, her voice reverberating, reverence far from its tone, with all the times she had heard that very phrase spoken around her, no doubt, as she grew up in Brooklyn able to pass as a pretty little white girl herself but proudly refusing to do so, joining the Cotton Club chorus line by the time she was 16. “I felt bad for a while,” she deadpans to the audience about losing the part to Crain. “About 12 years. But I got over it. I knew life would go on and history would catch up and I’d end up sweating like a dog up here on Jimmy Nederlander’s stage actin’ like a damn fool and lovin’ every minute of it!” God. I love Lena Horne. If you don’t have any Lena in your music collection, go out and get some. She won’t let you wallow in self-pity; even when she’s singing about it you can hear in her voice that it ain’t gonna last too long because wallowing is for lower forms of life. And Lena is one superior form.

If color-blind casting had been in effect back in her day, Lena would have made a great Scarlett O’Hara. In fact, I summoned my inner Scarlett on Wednesday night. I stared at the drapes in my window. Tore them down. And whipped myself up a gown to wear out and hold my head high. I’d been invited by Graydon Carter, editor in chief of Vanity Fair, to a cocktail party he was throwing for an old colleague of his, Kurt Andersen, who has just published a highly praised novel, Heyday. Graydon was holding the party at his exclusive new restaurant, Waverly Inn. At first I thought I’d not go since I knew probably a lot of the people there would have already read the nasty review of Mississippi Sissy in the NYTBR. (It publishes early and the literati of Manhattan all grab their early copies so they know what to gossip about in the days leading up to another Sunday.) But I held my head high and made my way to the Village. Sure enough, a lot of the people there had read my review and were spitting mad about it. I talked to several friends who bucked me up. Others, I spotted, to reprint the list that Page Six ran: Rosanne Cash, Jim Cramer, Barry Diller, Jonathan Franzen, Kurt Vonnegut, John Huey, Walter Isaacson, Norm Pearlstine, Rick Stengel, Jacob Weisberg, and Michael Hirshhorn. Amy Fine Collins and I hung out for most of the party and made our way back to the lovely garden room of the Inn. It is said – this was my first time there (I did love the murals) – that one doesn’t want to be seated back there because it is considered Siberia, not part of the inner sanctum’s inner sanctum. But that’s where I felt most comfortable.

I walked home listening to Lena. I smiled all the way.

Enjoy this while you’re here:

The Birth of Mississippi Sissy!

The American South of the 1960s was no place to be different, much less a freak. Back then, boys grew up to become football heroes and marry girls who were taught to be perfect Southern belles. Segregation ruled, and you never voted for a Democrat in a national election, especially not a Kennedy. As far as music was concerned, you never sang anything in public other than a hymn. But Craig Gray knew he was different. His hero wasn’t Mickey Mantle. It was Arlene Francis. He knew the lyrics to Broadway show tunes as well as he knew the Baptist hymnal, and his grandmother’s African American maid, Matty May, taught him that the color of a person’s skin was not as important as what was underneath.

In his growing up, Craig Gray was a decidedly different resident of Forest, Mississippi, a solitary little boy whose parents died by the time he was eight years old. But he learned how to survive by drawing his family close to him, keeping dark secrets others feared to tell, and learning how to turn the word sissy on its head, just as his mama had taught him.

In a memoir set in Mississippi’s small towns, as well as the wider world of Jackson, Mississippi Sissy is a memoir of Southern voices now gone that mixes the tart-tongued, race-conscious patter of Craig’s Aunt Lola with the artistic, politically liberal musings of one of his early mentors, the great American writer Eudora Welty. It remembers the literary and theatrical lessons of journalist Frank Hains as well as the opportunistic and sinister preaching of a traveling evangelist who taught other, darker lessons. And, finally, it looks clear-eyed at the bittersweet truth of a Southern life touched by a violent and brutal act, an act that brings home the lessons America’s South can teach to those who are different.

In Mississippi Sissy, Craig Gray, one of our best-known celebrity journalists, creates a great panorama of the American South at mid-century as seen through the eyes of an odd little boy who took one small word—sissy—and made it bigger and stronger than anyone ever knew it could be.

“When I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it’s because we are still able to recognize one.”
— Flannery O’Connor