Thursday, September 29, 2005

Ashes, Part 2

Ashes, Part 1

When my friend Gary died, we scattered his ashes into the Gulf Of Mexico off of Pass-A-Grill beach. That was the gay section of the beach in St. Petersburg, and Gary had stipulated that we release his ashes in that place where he'd spent so many langorous afternoons with his best friends. Then we went to T-dance at the nearby club and got spectacularly drunk on a bar tab that he had pre-paid for us.

After Michael Paul died, his friends scattered his ashes off of Haulover Beach, the nude/gay section of the national seashore near North Miami Beach. Then they all got stoned out of their gourds on some killer weed that Michael had been hoarding for the occasion.

When Martin died, his lover Angelo placed his ashes in their prized Baccarat crystal decanter, from which Martin used to serve his famous "Martin-eees". The decanter sat right on their antique serving cart, because as Angelo put it, "More than anything in his life, Martin hated to miss a good party."

Naturally, all these ceremonies made us all contemplate our own disposal. It was a common topic in my circle, sometimes discussed with silliness and frivolity, sometimes with sincerely delivered drunken pledges to honor each other's plans.

For myself, I gave everyone instructions that if I met an untimely demise, I was to have my ashes fired out of the confetti cannon at the Warsaw Ballroom, on a Saturday night, over the packed dance floor, at the precise peak moment of The Communards' cover version of "Never Can Say Goodbye". And the crowd would squint and spit out the ashes and say, "Ew, yuck! Tastes like.....JOE!"

When the Warsaw fell out of favor, I changed the location to Paragon, then to Amnesia, then to another club, then another, and so on, for several years. Since South Beach is so out of favor these days, I guess I should find out what the hottest club in Fort Lauderdale is and make the location change known to my friends.

Sometime around 1993, my roommate Jim had his boyfriend Jeff move in with us, while they looked for a place of their own. The first time I visited the house that they eventually found was when I arrived for Jeff's memorial, about a year later. At the door, I was handed a Florida Lottery scratch-0ff ticket, because Jeff so loved his scratch-offs. Similarly, only Miller Lite in the can was served, along with Skittles and Cool-Ranch Doritos. Jeff's ashes sat on a shelf in Jim's closet, where they still were ten years later when I asked Jim about it.

Ask any gay man over 40 and he'll likely have a couple of ashes stories for you. I suppose the fact that so many gay men are cremated, rather that buried, is a function of several influences. Among them are a lack of interest in religion, a disconnection from biological families, and in the early years, an unwillingness of funeral homes to handle the bodies of AIDS patients. And certainly, the cost of burial was/is a factor, as AIDS impoverishes almost everybody it touches.

I have friends who have the ashes of lovers, the ashes of roommates, and in one case, the ashes of a lover's roommate. These ashes are sometimes prominently displayed in tasteful urns, positioned in places of honor. Sometimes these ashes are quietly stored out of sight, in a closet, or in a box under a bed, their caretakers unwilling to dispose of them, yet unable to cope with a constant visual reminder.

My friend David F. used to say that we gay men tend to create such ceremony over these ashes because it's part of our new and still-evolving unique tribal culture. Some cultures create funeral pyres. Some float their dead down a river. Gay men largely ignore the physical body after death, it seems. I can't remember having been to a viewing or a burial. But we do sometimes turn the ashes into ceremonial props, potent visual effects best used in celebrating love, or so we try to convince ourselves, as we force ourselves to forget the suffering and remember the smiling.

After David F. died, his lover David R., with the help of a group of their friends, myself included, scattered David F.'s ashes from the back of their boat, just offshore of Miami Beach. We were each given a small portion of the ashes, divided into individual fabric bags. It was beautiful, it was heartwrenching, but above all, it was David F. entirely. Martha Stewart had nothing on David F. when it came to fabulous event planning.

One by one, we untied the ribbon around our bag of ashes, and said a personal farewell, all as stipulated by David F. As I tossed the contents of my bag into the breeze, I said, "David, even from beyond the grave, you are a drama queen. And I will always love you."

It was one year and one day later, when we repeated the ritual for David R.


To Be Continued....


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Monday, September 26, 2005

Ashes

On a sunny morning in 1993, my 13 year old cat Boris jumped into my lap, stretched luxuriously, curled into a ball, and went to sleep forever. It wasn't totally out of the blue, he'd been suffering from urinary blockages, a chronic problem with neutered males. He'd been in a coma once, with a little kitty catheter attached. Still, he'd been fine for nearly a year.

I put Boris into a cardboard box to take him to the animal hospital for disposal. I called ahead and was told there was a $40 charge. Fine. I could do this. I kept my brave face on all morning, but once I was alone in the car, away from my roommates, I began to fall apart. On the drive, I talked to the closed box, telling Boris he'd been a good friend. At the animal hospital, I placed the box on the counter and waited for my turn. There were several others customers waiting. I kept my sunglasses on because I was embarrassed by my red eyes.

I was waited on a by a boyish young dyke who handed me a clipboard. I had just begun filling out the form when she asked me a question that seemed so odd to me, I asked her to repeat it.

"I said, do you want to keep Boris' remains?"

I still didn't understand. I was having him disposed of.

"Keep his remains?"

She smiled patiently. "Yes. You can check a box on that form if you'd like to get his ashes back after the cremation."

____ $40 General Cremation

____ $240 Private Cremation

I looked at the two choices, somehow still not fully comprehending. "So...it's an extra $200 to get the ashes back?"

"Yes, because we clean out the crematorium of the other animals' remains, and then we'd cremate Boris by himself, in order to keep his remains separated for you."

Oh.

I'd never considered this. I'd never been responsible for another being in this regard. My pragmatic side told me that it was silly to fork out $200 just to get back a box of ashes. What would I do with them anyway? Then I flashed over the previous 13 years, during which I probably moved about 13 times. Boris had been with me through all those apartments, all those cities. He'd been with me through half a dozen roommates and at least as many boyfriends. The more I thought about it, Boris had been the only true constant in my life, up until then.

"I think I want to get his ashes back."

The clerk nodded and said, "Let me go see if they can do it today." She disappeared into the back. In less than a minute, she was back. "They can do it today. Do you want to come back at the end of the day to pick up the remains? Or you can come back tomorrow. There's no....hurry."

"I'll come back tomorrow."

The clerk said, "OK, well I'll just need your check for $240. Do you want to say goodbye to Boris before I take him back?"

"Um...no.....thanks."

I almost said something, I almost changed my mind, I almost said, "Yes! Yes! I do want to say goodbye!" But I didn't. She pulled the box down from the counter and took it in the back. I stood there with my pen frozen over my checkbook. The clerk returned and mistook my discomposure, saying "Oh, don't worry about filling the top part in, we have a stamp for that." She reached across and stamped "Broward Animal Hospital" on the top line of my check.

Still, my pen was not moving. After a long moment, I scratched down the date. Then the amount. But I could not manage the finality of signing my name. My hand was shaking so hard that the pen dropped from my hand. I picked up the pen and the shaking got worse. The clerk, that young boyish dyke who'd been all business up to then, gently took the pen from my hand. I watched her face redraw itself, the way you might see a computer screen refresh a previously static image, revealing to you something completely different.

She glanced around the room and said softly, "I just need your driver's license."

I pulled my license out and laid it on the counter, my hands still trembling. The clerk laid my license next to my checkbook and carefully copied my signature onto my check. She forged my name on that check, and I think it was one of the greatest kindnesses even shown me.

I nodded my thanks to her, afraid to speak.

I picked up Boris' ashes the next day. They were packed in a plastic-wrapped, cube-sized box, about the same size as a box of Kleenex. At the top of the box, the plastic was knotted, with a spray of loose plastic above the knot, rendering it much like a birthday gift. I walked in the house and stood in the living room. Did I place the ashes on the mantel over the fireplace? Like a trophy? Or out of sight in a drawer, to be forgotten about?

I had no idea what to do with ashes. I never would.


To Be Continued.....


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LaDonna Andrea Gaines

I had an odd dream last night.

I dreamt I was having dinner in that decrepit, used-up Howard Johnson's restaurant in Times Square, when they seated Donna Summer in the booth next to mine. In my dream, I knew it was a dream, and I wondered to myself if the restaurant was a metaphor for Donna's career.

Nevertheless, I was not about to waste an opportunity to speak to the Queen Of Disco, even if it was in a dream. I wanted to tell her what a huge fan I had been for almost 30 years. I wanted to tell her how I knew her real name (LaDonna Gaines) and that I knew her birthday (December 31st) and that I could sing the song she wrote about her first child (Mimi's Song). I wanted to tell her about the time that I went to see her in concert in St.Petersburg, Florida, back in 1978.

But instead, I told her about the time that my college roommate came home unexpectedly and found me vacuuming in the nude, while loudly singing along to Try Me, I Know We Can Make It. Donna laughed and nodded and went back to reading her menu.

Then I wanted to talk about her Grammys and her platinum & gold records, and tell her that Once Upon A Time is still my single favorite album of all time, but for some reason I mentioned her wig. I don't know why I mentioned her wig, but I did. So she took it off and handed it to me. I looked at her wig in my hands and looked back at her, but she wasn't Donna Summer anymore. She was the dad in Diff'rent Strokes.

Like I said, it was an odd dream.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

It's About The Trust

The 3 Train, Thursday, Noon

Two guys in suits, carrying briefcases and legal files, are chatting loudly.

Young Businessman 1: So anyway, it's the same shit every night. The minute I get home and log in...BAM! She's all up in my face, "Where have you been? What have you been up to?"

Young Businessman 2: What, so she's just waiting online every night to make sure you are coming home on time? Dude, you need to tell her to save that shit for after you guys are married.

YB1: I keep telling her that if we're ever going to make it, she has to learn to trust me. Sometimes I have to work late or I want to go to the gym. But she just sits there in her office in Seattle, waiting for me to get online to see what time I get home. Sometimes I log in under a name she doesn't know and I just watch her log in, log out, log in, log out.

YB2: Why does she keep logging in and out?

YB1: I don't know, dude. I guess she doesn't want it to seem like she's always sitting there to check up on me, but I see what she's doing. How is it gonna work when we're all married and shit and I can't get her to trust me? I mean, I love her and all that, but daaamn dude, she is watching me like a hawk! For me, dude? It's got to be about the trust.

YB2: That sucks, man. You need to straighten that shit out before the wedding. Hey, you coming to Nobu with us after the presentation?

YB1: Can't dude. I gotta make a booty call later, over in Hoboken.

YB2: In Hoboken? Last week you said you quit banging that bitch?

YB1: I did. This is her cousin.

YB2: Sweeeeeet!

The men high-five, and we all disembark at Times Square.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Stalking Opportunity

I've been invited to speak at Columbia University on October 8th, at the annual show to kick off Queer Awareness Month . Sponsored by the Columbia Queer Alliance, the theme of the show is "Creating visibility, Creating awareness, Fostering community". Donations will be accepted for the NO/AIDS Task Force.

The show will be held at Lerner Hall, starting time is 10PM. Then, because this is NYC and we are gay, we'll all be going to an after-party where I'll be dispensing kisses, autographs, and attitude.

Check out Columbia's link for the roster of performers. I'm kinda thrilled to be sharing the stage with the famous Cashetta, America's premier drag queen magican.

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ten Days Later

With the World Trade Center abruptly removed from the Manhattan skyline, video editors on all networks madly set about to removing any shot of the towers from their programming. Shows like Sex And The City and The Sopranos edited their opening credits to remove shots of the Twin Towers. Many other shows such as Law & Order and Friends edited the WTC out of establishing shots.

This move really bothered some New Yorkers, even a newbie like me. Were we supposed to pretend that the towers never existed? After a bit of an uproar, some of the scenes were restored, although many were not. A notable scene in an episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer's car is given multiple tickets for being parked on the WTC plaza is still often edited out by local stations.

On the other hand, magazines of all types were filled with cover-to-cover images of the Twin Towers. News magazines, entertainment magazines, even sports magazines were crammed with images of the World Trade Center in their pre-attack glory as icons of America's economic supremacy, and in their post-attack infamy as icons of America's security failures.

As someone who works in publishing, I can tell you that some magazines have very long lead times from the time the magazine is fully laid out (paginated), sent to the printers, manufactured, bound, and then finally shipped. In particular, the advertisements are positioned far in advance, in order to accommodate breaking stories which are then dropped into the "news hole" at the last moment before printing commences.

Ten days after the attack, I came across a couple of magazine ads that are chilling in their inappropriateness. Through no fault of the magazines, whom I won't name, and certainly through no fault of the advertisers, some regrettable copy managed to still make it to the newsstand.



I'm sure the folks at Cunard were appalled, and I feel quite sorry for the person who greenlighted an otherwise lovely image. However, jetBlue's ad, below, seems ominous in any circumstance. Today, it's just unspeakably creepy.




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Friday, September 16, 2005

One Week Later

Manhattan, September 18th, 2001

In 2001, I lived in Chelsea on 21st Street near 8th Avenue. Yes, that would be the corner of gay and gayer. My third floor apartment overlooked the playground of P.S. 11, the William T. Harris K-5 School. A few days after the attack, on the outside of the wall around the playground, the school began posting drawings that the children had made, presumably allowing them to express their fears and anxieties about the attack, by letting them make paintings.

Every morning and afternoon, I'd pass that wall of the children's drawings. And I'd be forced to slow, then stop, then linger. No pedestrian was able to walk past the drawings and ignore them, not one. We'd stand there silently, shoulder to shoulder, our eyes shifting from one taped-up depiction to the next. The younger children used familiar motifs with arrows pointing to stick-figures of "Mommy" and "Daddy", but with the unfamiliar addition of planes and flames. The older children depicted the towers themselves, often with explosions or people falling from the sky. One repeating theme was a tiny figure in the corner of the picture with an arrow pointing to it, and the word, "Scared."

On Tuesday, September 18th, one week after the attack, I was heading past the school around 9pm just as a violent rainstorm began. I went around the corner to pick something up from the deli, and when I came back past the school, I could see that the rain was ruining all the children's drawings. Some of them had fallen down into puddles, others were turning into runny messes of non-toxic paint.

A woman walking past exclaimed, "Oh, no! All those kids' drawings are being ruined!"

I said, "Yeah, it's a shame. But I guess the school wanted to leave them out here day and night as long as they lasted."

She and I looked at each other for a second, then she said, "Do you think it would be alright if we saved a few of them for ourselves? They're just gonna be piles of goo in a few more minutes."

I agreed, and we both selected two drawings and removed them from the wall. The first one I pulled down was nearly soaked all the way through and I had to be careful not to let it fall apart in my hands. When I got home, I laid it across the radiator in my living room and let it dry for a few days.


The artist, a kid named Jesus, captured all the key elements of that morning. The towers, the two planes, the figures running from the buildings. He even seems to have included one of the jumpers, leaping headfirst from the north tower, indicated by it's rooftop antenna. Note the unhappy sun looking down at the scene.

The other picture I took off that wall still brings tears to my eyes, and I've looked it a hundred times.


This picture didn't get as wet as the other one, but it's still hard to pick up that both towers are crying as they clutch each other.

It rained all night that night. On my way to work the next morning, a school janitor was moving down the wall with a rolling garbage can, picking up all the soggy pictures that lay ruined in the mud puddles, and ripping down the few that still clung to the wall.


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Thursday, September 15, 2005

One Day Later

Manhattan, September 12th, 2001

On that day, there were some people picking up "souvenirs" around the attack site. As hard as it is to believe, these were scavengers stooping to pick up business documents, office equipment, ID badges and other personal items, and stuffing them in bags. I'd like to believe that all those items were turned in to help the identification process. I'd like to believe that.

I had saved a couple of things myself. One day later, I placed the two items I had saved into a ziplock baggie, where they've been until I photographed them for this story.

Below, is the face mask I found lying on the ground on the outskirts of the financial district on September 11th, which I donned immediately. I've never read any explanation regarding how those thousands of face masks were available and being worn by so many people on the street. What company had prepared for such a circumstance?




Wherever they came from, I remain very grateful to whomever supplied the one that I found. I kept that face mask on for hours, finally removing it when I was halfway across the Hudson River. Perhaps that's why I'm not among the many thousands of folks who were downtown on that awful day who now suffer from countless different respiratory disorders.

The second thing I saved is this charred bit of paper. I was standing very close to World Trade Center Building 7, which was still burning, and when I took my cap off to wipe my brow, this piece of paper, still glowing at the edges, landed in my upturned cap.


This piece of still burning paper landed in my hat like a smoking fortune cookie, and I've puzzled over the text many times. It seems like it could have come from some business or self-help motivational book, but one line always jumps out at me.

"....motivations and reasons behind the actions...."

Four years later, we're still figuring it out.


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Sunday, September 11, 2005

That Day

Manhattan, September 11th, 2001

That day, I got to my office on 42nd Street at about 8:55am. About ten minutes later, I got a call from Terrence in Orlando.

"Honey, you should look out your window because a plane just hit the World Trade Center!"

I have a fabulous view of the Chrysler Building from my office, but to see the World Trade Center, I had to go downstairs and walk over to Fifth Avenue. There was already a crowd on every corner, shielding their eyes against the morning sun. All we could see was a plume of smoke. Just as I got back into my office, the word spread that a second plane had struck.

A few minutes later, someone reported that the subways had stopped running and it only took about another 15 minutes before office decorum began to dissolve. Davita, our normally stoic sales manager, began sobbing, worrying about getting home to her daughter in Brooklyn. Some of our staffers nervously took post at our windows overlooking Grand Central Terminal, watching the sky over the Chrysler Building, one block away. We all tried calling our families but got nothing but busy signals.

Our CEO called us into the conference room at 10am and announced, "It appears that the United States is under attack. I'm suggesting that we all try to make our way to our homes at once. Please call the office tomorrow before you come in, to see what our situation is." His voice was overloud, his nerves overcoming his normally lilting Liverpool accent.

A moment later someone with a radio announced, "One of the towers just collapsed." That sent the office scrambling for the door. A few minutes later, I was on the street. I headed towards my apartment on 22nd Street in Chelsea and had just turned south onto Sixth Avenue when the second tower collapsed. I watched the top half of the building slide from view. Everybody stopped walking and stood in silent horror. From our distance, there was no noise.

As I continued walking, I began to pass people in varying states of distress. Lines began to form in front of payphones as cellphones were now useless. Taking a cue from Hurricane Andrew, I decided to stop at an ATM and get all the cash I could, remembering that it was weeks before the machines were restocked in South Florida. Lots of people had the same idea, there were long lines at every ATM that I passed. I was almost home before I finally found a deli with an unnoticed ATM in the back.

I pulled $300 from the ATM and headed up front with my cash, where I heard a couple of guys telling the clerk that they were going to head downtown and offer their help to the firemen. That hadn't occured to me and it seemed like a good idea just then. Then a woman rushed in looking for bottled water, saying that she'd heard that the water supply was being turned off because it had been poisoned. That seemed quite possible, in the context of the day, so I followed her to the back of the store and picked up 4 gallons of water. I added a disposable camera to my purchase and struggled out.

Once home, I changed into my heaviest jeans and my workboots. Our cable was out, the radio stations were out, so without much information I headed downtown.


























There were crowds of people on most corners, staring southward. Anybody with a transistor radio drew an immediate crowd. The only stations on the air were those with towers in New Jersey.

I got as far as Canal Street when I first encountered a police road block. They seemed to be stopping vehicles only, but when I tried to walk past the cops, they turned me back, saying "Residents only." I guess I didn't look like someone who might live in Chinatown.




Every corner offered a fresh perspective on the horror.



I veered east on Canal and a few blocks away I found many thousands of people walking home to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge.



People were in a trance. There was little talking, just an occasional glance back at the smoke plume.



I walked out onto the upper part of the bridge and took this picture, above.



When I headed back south, along the edges of the financial district, I found many people wearing facemasks. I still have no idea where these thousands of masks came from, but when I came across one lying on the ground, I put it on.



The first physical evidence of the attack that I found was this heavy dusting.



This abandoned fruit stand struck me as a sign of the terror that must have reigned just a couple of hours earlier, because the owner even left his cash box behind, lying open with money visible.



This cop wouldn't let me go past his corner, but he did tell me that he heard that volunteers were being advised at the Ferry Building. He didn't seem very convincing, I think he just wanted me to go away.

A few feet away, a female cop started screaming at some people who'd arrived with cameras. She shouted, "You're horrible ghouls! This is a terrible disaster and you fucking want souvenirs!" I shoved my camera deeper into my pocket. One of the guys shouted back at her, "This is history, lady! Terrible, terrible history! People need to know what we are seeing!"



This is John Street, looking west. Those spots on the picture are tiny pieces of paper, raining down from some damaged skyscraper.



Just around the corner, I was only 100 feet up the block when a gust of wind brought thick smoke down on top of me, just as I was taking this picture. The darkness of the smoke prevented the camera from showing that this shoe was just one of dozens lying in the street, where people had run right out of their shoes in the panic. I was very glad to have my facemask right then.



Taking this photo of the Stock Exchange almost got me sent to Leavenworth. As I learned a moment later, taking pictures of financial institutions during national emergencies can be considered an act of treason, because you might be providing proof to the enemy of what they did or did not accomplish. While the news reporter standing next to me vehemently argued his case, I slipped away.

From here, I walked south to the Ferry Building, where as I suspected, there was no gathering of volunteers, just some dazed looking ferry employees and some passengers hoping for service to Staten Island. This is when I decided to give up on volunteering that day, there was just nobody around to report to. Nobody seemed in charge of anything, except the lone cops in charge of guarding their portion of the disaster's perimeter. The route to the west side of Manhattan was blocked from the Ferry Building, so I doubled back and circled the entire financial district, counter-clockwise, until I got to Battery Park City, intending to walk home up the West Side Highway.

I joined a ragtag group of office workers, perhaps a dozen or so, who'd just braved coming out of their buildings, and we walked on the sidewalk along the Hudson. We'd just about gotten to Tribeca when a police SWAT team of sorts appeared before us. One of them barked at us through his megaphone, which was a bit funny because he was only about ten feet away.

"You may not proceed in this direction. You may not return the way you came. You must all now join a mandatory evacuation of this area."

OK, fine. But if we can't go forward and we can't go back, what do we do?

"This tugboat is waiting to deliver you safely to Jersey City."

TUGBOAT? And indeed, moored there was a tugboat, one of those pushing things that steer the cruise ships into the harbor. The cops MADE us get on the tugboat. We protested, of course.

"This is for your own safety. We cannot allow you people to be wandering around this area. Once safely on the Jersey City side, you can re-enter Manhattan via the PATH train to the 33rd Street Station."

The tugboat crew had to lift us down onto the boat, there was no real dock there. And in my group of evacuees was a dog walker, who had about 8 tiny dogs on leashes. Once on the tugboat, it was noticed that the deck of the boat, which was an open-grill of sorts, was too wide for the little dogs' feet. So we were each handed one of the dogs to hold while we crossed the Hudson. I got the pug.



This is the view as we pushed back from the west side of Manhattan.



We were only about halfway across, when another building collapsed. I never figured out which one it was, but you can tell it was just north of the Twin Towers.






On the Jersey City side, we were met by eager emergency workers who seemed genuinely disappointed that we had no injuries. A young girl gave me a wet towel to wipe my face and I was surprised to see the towel turn black after just one pass across my forehead. I walked through a big crowd of EMT's all set up with no one to treat. They were just sitting in chairs, watching the smoke rise from downtown Manhattan.

I heard one of the tugboat people ask about the PATH train, and she was told "Oh, no. There will be no trains to Manhattan for at least 72 hours, by order of the Port Authority. The bridges and tunnels are closed too. You folks are going to have to make do over here for a few days."

I was furious. The cops on the Manhattan side had lied to us to get us onto the tugboat. I argued with a couple of the cops, telling them with great indignation of how we'd been deceived. One of them looked at me and said, "Buddy, if you want me to feel sorry for you, you need to turn around and look back at what you just left."

That shut me up.

A moment later, I had another attack of anger, this time at myself. I'd forgotten to take the $300 cash out of my work pants. I was in Jersey City, by myself, and in my pockets I had a disposable camera, an expired California driver's license and $6. I have no idea where the $6 came from. It could have been there since before I moved to NYC.

Trying to quell panic, I walked away from the pier towards downtown Jersey City, towards the PATH train station. I passed a young man sitting on a bike, studying the scene across the Hudson. Even in my very upset state of mind, I noted that he was very handsome.

"Joe! Is that you?"

I turned around. The guy on the bike was from San Francisco! He and I had fucked around once shortly after I got to SF, and from then on I'd seen him out at the clubs every so often. My sprits lifted, maybe he could put me up for three days?

"Hi Ricky! What are you doing in New York?"

"Actually, I live here in Jersey City. I'm going to school here now. Been here for about a year. What a day, huh? Oh, here comes my boyfriend."

And up walked a Port Authority cop. I couldn't believe my luck. I quickly explained my situation to them. The cop looked me up and down, then said, "Well, you can understand why they lied to you over on that side. You must have been in a dangerous area. And we've been told there will be no trains, tunnels or bridges open for at least 72 hours. But...."

But?

"There is going to be one more inbound train to Manhattan, in about 20 minutes. The train's gonna be all fire-rescue and search units from various Jersey locations. You could probably walk right onto that train and no one would stop you. You could pass for fire-rescue. Just don't talk to anybody. They're all from different units so they don't know each other anyway."

A few minutes later, Ricky's boyfriend, the Port Authority cop, walked me past the other cops and through the yellow tape blocking the PATH station entrance. We shook hands at the top of the escalator and I headed down. At the bottom of the escalator, I nearly gave myself away by instinctively heading for the fare machine, my $6 in my hand. Then I saw a fireman jump the turnstyle and I whirled around and did the same.

The train left almost the moment I got on. I made it by 20 seconds, tops. Nobody spoke on the ride over. Not one word. I sat at the far end of the car and tried not to meet anybody's eyes, even though it was too late to throw me off.

When we reached the 33rd Street station in Manhattan, I walked upstairs to find the streets completely deserted of cars and buses. I have no idea where all those vehicles went, but this picture of Seventh Avenue, looking north, is the proof. That's the west entrance of Macy's on the right.

I walked home for the second time, that day.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Five Days Earlier

New York City, September 7th 2001

I had been in New York City for just under six months. That Friday afternoon, I left the office a little bit early and headed downtown to meet my friend Paul at the World Trade Center. Downtown was usually a ghost town by 6pm, so in a program designed to keep downtown workers hanging around after work and therefore hopefully visiting the neighborhood restaurants and shops, there was an arts program of nightly free shows held in the massive outdoor plaza in front of the Twin Towers.

Appearing that night was the famous all-male drag ballet troupe, Les Ballet Trocadero de Monte Carlo. I'm not a dance aficionado, but I'd seen the troupe on television and had thought they were amazing and hilarious. This particular week, all the shows in the World Trade Center plaza had been various dance companies, so I'm sure the attendance had been heavily gay, but on this evening the plaza was wall to wall homos.

Just before the show was to start, Paul rode up on his bicycle. By then, all the seating in the plaza had been taken, so Paul laid his bike on its side to claim some empty concrete while I shoplifted a couple of chairs from the outdoor seating area of a restaurant on the far side of the plaza. The chairs were heavy wrought-iron and I had a bit of a hard time carrying them. After a few steps I stuck my hands through the backs of each chair and walked across the plaza in a pose not unlike a bodybuilder giving his audience a front double biceps pose.

Just as I reached where Paul was waiting, a couple of nearby queens teased me for the way I was carrying the chairs, "Oh, you GO Hercules!", which really cracked up everybody nearby. I made a face, but I really kinda loved it.

Paul and I sat back in our chairs at looked up at the Towers, office lights in some windows just becoming visible against the darkening sky. And we had a bit of an odd conversation for a few minutes, considering what he and I usually talked about. It started when Paul mentioned that his boyfriend had a problem with vertigo, and that merely sitting there staring straight up at the Twin Towers would probably have nauseated him.

Then we talked about the World Trade Center as potent symbols of American capitalism and supremacy. We discussed them as visual icons that represented New York City around the world. And we agreed that we thought the Towers were very ugly and that an opportunity to create something truly stunning and beautiful, on that scale, had been wasted.

The dance show was fantastic. The troupe did a variety of numbers, including their famous dying swan bit from Swan Lake, which I've still never seen performed by actual female ballerinas. When the show ended, Paul hopped back on his bike and headed north towards his place in the West Village.

I went into the huge shopping mall that lay beneath the Towers and wandered around a bit. That subterranean mall felt very familiar and suburban to me, with all those familiar mall chain stores and I'd already visited it a few times in my short time in the city. New York City still felt alien and surreal and while I knew that the mall lay beneath two of the tallest buildings in the world, at the far end of a small island in the middle of two rivers, I would walk around and imagine that I was in Fort Lauderdale and that my car was outside in the parking lot. And that would relax me, somehow.

Around 9pm, I caught the 1 train back to Chelsea, from the station under Tower 2.

Five days later, I would be downtown again.

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Quandary

What to do when abusive and off-topic comments won't stop coming? IP bans work well enough, but those with access to multiple computers at work and the homes of friends can find a way around that easily.

I've just upgraded my Haloscan account to allow for moderating comments, which can really stifle a lively discussion, in my opinion. It's a sad move to have to make, one which I'm still mulling over.


Opinions?

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Chronic Correction Syndrome

Manhattan, Upper East Side, 2005

I walked through the automatic doors of the Gristede's on First Avenue and was just about to reach for a handbasket when I processed the sign that I had just seen in the front window. I walked back out to look at it again.

Attention Gristede's Shoppers: Entenmann's Baked Goods Are Now Located On Isle 3.

I walked back into the store and began my shopping. I only needed a few things, so in less than 5 minutes I was in line at the cashier. One of the store managers was standing at end of her counter, observing.

"Don't say anything. Don't say anything, " I kept repeating in my head.

Because you see, I have a pathological need to correct misspellings, including (especially) my own. A friend once called and mentioned a typo in this blog and I cut short my afternoon to rush home to correct it. These things bother me, and I don't know why.

I once called a Mexican restaurant from I-95 to tell them to change their marquee, that there was no "T" in salat. Another time I told a waiter that I wanted their Lamm Chops, "Hold the 'B'", yuk yuk. And then there's the time my favorite Chinese restaurant was "Closed For Re-Molding", and I wanted to break the window to correct their sign.

I put my items on the moving belt and tried to think of something else. Nope. All I could think was Isle.

After I paid, I smiled at the manager and said, "Oh, by the way, if it matters to you...there's a misspelling on the sign in your door."

He narrowed his eyes, "There is?"

"Yeah, it says "Entenmann's Baked Goods are on Isle 3" but you used the wrong spelling of aisle."

He walked out with me and looked at the sign. "Looks OK to me."

I said, "Well, that is how you'd spell it if you were talking about the Isle Of Capri, or the Isle Of Man or some other island. "

"But it does say aisle."

I started to get dizzy, "Right, they sound the same, but are spelled...."

The manager was already going back inside, shaking his head.


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Little League Redux

As a follow-up to my post about trying out for Little League, I thought I'd share this photograph, taken the following year. This a scan of a newspaper clipping, so the quality is not so great. But that's me, on the left again. Playing for Rotary that year. Playing for my father who could not resist getting involved.

My dad joined the league, became a coach and immediately drafted me onto his team. Under my dad's truly skillful leadership, Rotary had the best season in the history of local Little League, going 17-1. After a 17 game winning streak, the kind that they make heartwarming TV movies about, guess who cost the team a perfect season by dropping what would have been the final out?


My dad never once mentioned my losing the game for us, which hurt me more than if he had berated me. Isn't that odd? In fact, he never mentioned my playing Little League again, although he often bragged about the 17-1 season to his friends.

As for this picture, look at my stance. Isn't it just a little bit girly? Could I look any more bored?

Also, the other kid looks all alert and ready to play with his cleats on. I look sloppy and I'm wearing Keds. But what is up with the other kid's haircut? I've got bangs too, but sheesh, he looks like Oliver from The Brady Bunch.

For some reason, at a distance of over 30 years, that makes me feel better.

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Swag Update

It's been Swagapolooza outside Grand Central this week. Among the swagnanza of promo items shoved into my hands by the perky young ad agency interns were:

- A hand fan advertising the U.S. Open, currently underway. I wonder if attendance is down.

- A *totally* free subway map! Which was free! With ads on it! Like every single week!

- A cup of Reise coffee. Which even I, Joe Who Hates Coffee, knows is crap coffee. Only the homeless people were taking it.

- A free New York Times. With a DKNY outer wrap. This, I don't mind taking.

But just now, and the real reason for this post, I was handed a sample of the new Entenmann's Mini. The samples are being unloaded from the back of a Mini Cooper, of course. The car is covered with an Entenmann's logo, of course. My sample turned out to be cell phone sized piece of carrot cake. From my office window I can see them down there, still handing them out. Um, I'll be right back.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Blog Burning

Isn't it fascinating how blog traffic moves? You folks land on my blog, then you peruse my blogroll, where you find a blog title that intrigues you, you skip to that blog, and you continue from there. Bloghopping, some call it. Often, you'll find yourself on a blog and have no idea how you got there. It's probably how most of you first found me.

Blogrolls have an elasticity that appeals to me. Bloggers stop blogging, and you delink them and add someone new. Or bloggers grow stale or uninteresting to you, and you delink them and add someone new. The wise Troubled Diva once put it this way: "When de-linking someone from your blogroll, or when being de-linked from someone else's blogroll, it helps to visualize the blogosphere as a perpetual cocktail party, and the de-linker as the person saying: "Well, it has been lovely talking to you, but there are some people over there who I simply must meet." Because if you deploy this paradigm, then it takes all the silly paranoia out of the situation."

But recently I came across a situation that didn't quite fit the Diva's cocktail party scenario. Several months ago I became aware of a gay man's blog in which he advocated for gay-bashing men he found feminine, among many other repulsive statements. OK, he's a jerk, don't read his blog anymore, right? But it turns out that this guy's blog is linked to by several people on my blogroll, and through bloghopping, I'm surely unwittingly sending people to his hate blog.

Some other bloggers in my predicament exchanged a series of emails with me in which they advocated that we all delink anybody that linked to this hate blog, as a statement. Initially, I resisted this idea. It felt like groupthink. But I also really hated the idea of someone getting to this guy's lousy blog via mine, however convoluted the connection. So a couple of months ago, without comment to the bloggers in question, I quietly removed their links from my blogroll.

I'm still not sure that delinking them was ethical, regardless of the certainly negligible decrease in traffic to the hate blog. But instead of asking The Ethicist, I'll ask you, gentle readers. Do we as bloggers bear responsibility as gatekeepers to hate sites even if our readers arrive at these sites without our advocacy or recommendation? I certainly wouldn't hesitate to post links to anti-gay or right wing websites in the context of condemning them.

Would you stop going to a bookstore just because they stocked a particular book that you found offensive? No? Would you stop going if the staff recommended that book and displayed it very prominently by the front door? Is trying to prevent your traffic from reaching a site with ideas that you dislike just a digital version of book burning?

(If you comment, let's keep the discussion on the question, and not name any specific bloggers. Thanks)


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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Greatest Hits"?

Thanks to the blog wizardy of a friend, I am now sporting a "Greatest Hits" menu of my stories. If anyone can come up with a better title than "Greatest Hits", something less pretentious, I'm all ears. (A hat tip to this guy too, for the advice.)

I wasn't so sure what to put on the list, but what I have at the moment is a samping of some childhood memories, some recounting of the early years of AIDS, and of course a generous helping of slutty sex. If I left something off the list that you particularly liked, let me know.

When I switched from Blogger's commenting system to Haloscan on April 1st of this year, I lost all my Blogger comments, so those stories show no comments, although I'm told they are still on Blogger, in the ether somewhere, we just can't see them. Also, Haloscan only shows the most recent 800 comments, but those comments are still there, even though the counter says "zero". If anybody knows how to retrieve and make all those comments visible again, please advise. Some of you wrote such beautiful responses, it kills me that they are gone.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Try-Out

Rural North Carolina, 1969

On the recreational field of Newport Elementary, if the teachers were in charge, we would all pressed into playing team sports such as kickball, dodgeball, and four-square (all played with the same under-inflated maroon ball). If the teachers weren't in charge, if it was before or after school, or on cold days when they couldn't be bothered to come outside, there was only one game being played.

That game was called Smear The Queer. Sometimes we called it Kill The Creep, but it was the same game, a sort of a combination of tag and keep away. The Queer, or the the guy with the ball, would run away from everyone else and try to hold onto the ball until he was tackled and the ball was wrestled away from him by someone, who was then the new Queer. The ironic fact that the goal of the game was to BE the Queer, for as long as possible, was as lost on the other children as it was on me.

When I was much older, I learned that Smear The Queer was not unique to backwater North Carolina, probably any American kid that hit elementary school before the "politically-correct" era will remember the game. For me, it was those games of Smear The Queer that taught me, with finality, that I would never enjoy playing sports. I learned that not only was I unskilled and unpopular during the team sports that the school organized, but that even when I voluntarily entered into games that seemed fun to me, I was slow, uncoordinated, and gleefully targeted as easy prey by the rest of the children. I was never the Queer for more than a few seconds. Again, the irony is dizzying.

My father, the athletic Marine, the sports nut who played in any game offered by the enlisted leagues on the base, loathed my lack of interest in sports, possibly even more than my painfully apparent lack of abilities. The old adage that distant fathers create gay sons is backwards, by the way. The truth is that gay sons create distant fathers, at least in my case, a situation that I didn't suss out for many years.

He was embarrassed by me, this he made apparent at every dropped ball, at every missed lay-up. And yet, he forced me into playing Little League, pushing my inabilities onto the biggest public stage offered by a rural Southern town. And I resisted, as mightily as any 10 year old boy could. I tried to miss the try-outs by walking to the field, instead of riding with the kid next door as arranged. But by chance, my father passed me on the road and angrily whipped his car around to deliver me to the try-outs himself, cursing while I sobbed in the back seat.

The try-outs weren't really "try-outs" since every kid would be assigned to a team. The try-outs were actually just a method for the coaches to assess the talent pool and try to allocate each team an equal number of ringers and losers. Of course, the coaches were just busy-body Dads who were trying to advance their own sons at the cost of the other kids. If your Dad was a coach, you didn't end up on somebody else's team.

With my father looking on, I "tried out". At the plate, I missed all five of my pitches. I tried to make up for this by showing extreme enthusiasm when it was my turn to run the bases, but in my attempt to run as fast as any other kid, I tripped on second base and slammed face-down into the dry red clay. The other kids screamed in delight while I picked myself up and limped to home plate. Rounding third, I saw my father standing behind the fence, stone-faced.

My fielding test was just as bad. At second base, I missed every grounder. Trying to throw to home plate, I hit one of the coaches in the leg. That's when they moved me to right field. For those that don't know, right field is most ignominious position in baseball. Since 95% of batters are right-handed, almost all hits end up in left or center field. Right field is where you stick a kid if you just can't take a chance that the ball might come to him. And every kid knows that.

So I stood there in right field, with a handful of other equally sucky kids, while the coaches conferred over their clipboards and made the team allocations. I looked around for my father, but he had fled in shame. I bent over and pretended to pick at the grass to hide the tears.

Little League teams are named after their sponsors, which are usually local businesses or fraternal organizations. Like many small towns, we had teams named Rotary, Elks, and Moose. But we also had teams like The Varmints, sponsored by a pest-control company. There were The Belks, sponsored by a department store called Belk-Lindsey. Out of the 10 teams, I mostly feared being chosen for W.O.W., which was sponsored by a logging company's union, Woodmen Of The World. Naturally, the kids all called the team Women Of The World.

Surprisingly, when the teams were announced, I was very happy. I'd been drafted onto the same team as my best friend Gary Wilson, no doubt because his Dad, whom I really liked, was that team's coach. It was the only bright spot in a horrible day that started and finished with crying. I think I actually smiled on the walk home. I think I may have actually looked forward to playing, on the walk home. I think I may have playfully tossed my mitt into the air, on the walk home. (Although I probably didn't catch it.)

I walked into the house and proudly announced, "Mom! Guess what! I'm on DRUGS!"

My mother said, "Oh, that's nice honey. I was hoping you'd be on Drugs."


Yes, gentle readers, my first Little League team was called DRUGS. Proudly sponsored by local pharmacist and owner of the Newport Pharmacy, Seymour Rubin. We were not THE Drugs, just Drugs. The local paper once had the headline "Rotary Overcome By Drugs." That's me on the left, by the way. Just by looking at this picture, can't you tell the other kid is a much better player?

And can you imagine a Little League team called "Drugs" in 2005?

All the best players are on Drugs.


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Friday, September 02, 2005

Correction

"Society unravels pretty fucking fast in these situations, I've seen it first hand. And nothing....nothing but a strong and authoritatively responding military/police presence will stop it. Without that command, in the hot sun, in those conditions, within a week or so, you can watch human culture devolve a thousand years."

I was wrong. It took 3 days.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Ice And The Shovel

South Florida, August 1992, Hurricane Andrew Day 4

Dade County, especially south of Miami, was a scene of devastation, chaos, and social unrest that rivaled the Los Angeles riots of earlier that year. In Broward County, just to the north, where I lived in Fort Lauderdale, the situation was much better. Many major streets and intersections remained blocked, fires burned with no attention paid, the electricity was out....but most of us cautiously returned to the lush downtown area to find our homes only slightly battered.

My company, with a dozen or so locations across South Florida, had just relocated me to our farthest north unit, way up in Palm Beach County, in West Palm Beach. But I had settled our little family in Fort Lauderdale in order to be in the middle of our coverage area, because transfers were so common, and my new one hour commute up to West Palm Beach only mirrored the one I'd been making to South Miami for the previous year or so.

West Palm Beach was untouched by Hurricane Andrew and even though all of our operations to the south were either totally destroyed or closed due to lack of electricity, my orders were for business as usual. So on Day 4, I fearfully weaved my car through the debris-cluttered streets and useless signal lights, until I got up on I-95. From there to West Palm Beach, my side of the highway was almost empty. Southbound was heavy with returning evacuees.

When I got to the mall where my company was an anchor tenant, there were scarcely a dozen cars in the massive lot. Inside, I found a ghost town of barely staffed stores and restaurants, and the usual few dozen seniors who arrived daily to gab and soak up the air conditioning. By 5pm, we'd hardly had a handful of customers and I decided to close early. I had sent the staff home and begun locking up when Luis, the mall maintenance guy knocked on my office door.

"Joe, you live in Lauderdale right?"

"Yeah."

"I was wondering if you'd wanna help me take some ice down there tonight. My church has some people setting up a relief operation in a parking lot and I need some help loading up my truck. You can have some ice for...um....your people too."

My people. I almost laughed at his discomfort, even though I understood what he meant. And ice was exactly was most people were desperate for. A cold drink, after 4 murderously hot and humid days of sweltering in your home, was a fantasy come true.

"Well, now that you mention it, I'm sure my neighbors would love some ice after four days of this heat! And maybe I could take some over to Broward General by my house. How much ice is there?"

Broward General had an AIDS ward, where I usually had a least one friend at any given time.

"All we want, but we have to go get it."

As it turned out, every ice machine in every restaurant in the mall was bursting with ice, since there'd been no real business for several days. We scavenged two dozen large plastic tubs and a shovel and after an hour of backbreaking lifting and sweating, we'd loaded the bed of Luis' truck, and the trunk and backseat of my car.

I agreed to follow Luis to his church's operation and help unload most of the ice, then he was going to come with me to Broward General with the rest. The tubs on my backseat were for the folks on my street. I followed Luis onto I-95 and we joined the southern flow. At first, I was sure the ice would long be melted before we got anywhere, but somehow the traffic cleared and soon we were doing about 80.

On Sunrise Blvd, I followed Luis when he exited west and pulled into a strip mall at the end of the off-ramp. There was a ragtag group of trucks and cars, and I could see some folks had dropped off piles of unwanted clothing and some other items. There were a few pallets of bottled water and some diapers on a folding table, but otherwise there didn't seem to be much organization to whatever was going on in that parking lot. Mostly, it was a bunch of people milling around or sitting on curbs.

Luis swung his truck alongside a panel truck where some people were handing out flashlights and batteries. I parked a few yards away and came over to help him unload. I was standing in the bed of his truck, watching him talk to one of his church members, when somebody grabbed the edge of the truck bed and shouted.

"Hey! These guys got ICE!!!"

And in a moment, the truck was surrounded by two dozen men. A couple of them jumped into the bed of the truck and started heaving the tubs of ice over the side. Luis came running over and starting shouting,"No! This is for my church! This is for old people!"

The men ignored him. For reasons I have never understood, I tried to protect the ice. Even those words "protect the ice" sound ridiculous now. I pushed one of the men in the truck and shouted, "Get out of the truck! This is for the hospital! You are stealing!"

"Fuck that shit. "

In another 30 seconds, we'd been swarmed. All but one of the ice tubs had been lifted over the sides and raced away with. Luis jumped behind the wheel and started to drive away. The last guy in the truck tugged at the last tub and I tugged back, until my back was against the cab, shouting for Luis to "Drive! Drive!"

Then the man picked up Luis' shovel and swung it viciously at my head, his face contorted in anger.

I didn't duck. I didn't flinch. I was too terrified to do anything.

And the shovel clipped the cab of the truck. The edge of the blade barely dinged off the roof of the cab and the shovel missed my face by less than an inch. The man threw down the shovel and jumped out with that last tub of ice, and about 10 feet away, as he struggled to carry that hundred pounds of ice, one of the tub handles cracked off and the ice fell on the ground.

Luis pulled over to where I'd parked. Both of my rear doors were open and the two tubs of ice in my backseat were gone. Luis went to call the police, which I knew would be futile, so I drove home. With my one, hidden, precious tub of ice still in my trunk.

When I finally got home, that tub of ice was half melted, of course. It had been in my trunk for almost 2 hours. But the neighbors all came to the end of our driveway and sifted out some cubes. Some just wanted the cold water. Some gave a few cubes to their dogs. The old alcoholic lady that lived behind us, she just held out a short glass of Jack Daniels and I winked at her and dropped in a few cubes.

At work the next day, alone, I nearly killed myself carrying 3 more tubs to my car, which I drove right up to the emergency entrance of Broward General. There were a couple of ER employees standing there smoking and I made my offer of the ice to them.

"Oh, that's nice. But we've got plenty of ice. Our machines are on the generator."

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