“Where Did You Get That Dress? It’s Awful! And Those Shoes and That Coat! Jeez!”

stephen-stuckerairplaneA few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play.  He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends.  When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us.  My character’s name was Russell.  He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing.  And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good.  I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.

And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually.  And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him.  I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take.  At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is.  To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago.  Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane.  I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments.  They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid.   I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…”  on a regular basis for anyone that would listen.    I loved that guy.  I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny.  And I wanted to be funny, too.  

When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too.  Like me, he  hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood.  His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy.  He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status.  I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death.  His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing.  But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.

I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.

A Perfect Party


A few years back, my friend Fred threw a perfect party. It was a summer Sunday afternoon in Silver Lake. His friend (Bob?) had come down from San Francisco and made mint juleps for everyone. (Refreshing!) It was the first (and only) time I ever had Pioneer Chicken. (Delicious!) There were over 60 people scattered throughout his perfectly decorated 2 bedroom apartment, even spilling out into his backyard where the temperature hovered around 75 degrees Fahrenheit all day. Gays and straights mingled, the nicest and most interesting specimens of each. I remember an elderly jazz singer, sat imperiously on a chair in the living room, holding court as 20-something’s listened to her stories about Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. It was the kind of party where you intended to be there for 2 hours, but stayed for 6. Also, Fred had set aside boxes of CD’s that he didn’t want anymore and told people to take the ones they wanted. I took Judy at Carnegie Hall. I still listen to it from time to time. For months after that party, several times, we would be out and about and someone would tell him, “Fred, THAT was a great party!” And every time, Fred would just smile and say, “I know, wasn’t it?”

This February, as I passed by Carnegie Hall in the blustery snow, I thought about that CD and in turn that perfect summer day and then, about Fred. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but it was either one or two years later that Fred died. He had a massive heart attack at work, three weeks shy of his 50th birthday. He was planning a blowout celebration for the milestone at the Redwood Bar downtown. After he died, it was decided that the party should go on as yet another memorial to this man who’d left his mark on so many. There were hundreds of people there, someone made a video tribute that made us laugh and cry. It was not the event that Fred had planned, but it was another memorable night.

When someone dies, especially in situations where they die suddenly, those left behind tend to ponder the what ifs. What could he or we have done differently to keep him here still with us? If he were alive today he would be 56. He would have just turned 56. Of course, there is nothing that can bring him back in a physical reality, but I’d like to think that he is still with us, hovering over, cosmically making sure there is enough wine in our glasses, enough food on our plates. It’s a comforting idea, anyway.

A few years ago, I was in a restaurant in Chinatown that Fred loved, Hop Louie. In fact there was a dinner there after his funeral. On the wall of black and white head shots of celebrities was a signed color photo of Fred. I really don’t remember who else was on that wall, a couple newscasters, various athletes and someone from Magnum P.I., I think. Per usual, Fred was the one who stood out. If you’re reading this and knew him, you knew that Fred was the most famous non-famous person you knew. More than that, Fred was loved by all.

So, during this time of year when I want to spend every day at an afternoon soirée that spills into evening, with just the right drinks and snacks and company, I remember with great fondness that perfect party, that perfect day and a mostly perfect man, who always, always knew how to have a good time. His name was Fred.

Frosted Hair and Feather Earrings

madonna-80s“It’s so interesting that the people with the loosest morals in high school, college, and the mid-twenties always have the best bible verses on Facebook.”  My friend Alan, who is the king of Facebook, posted this statement on his wall about 6 minutes ago.  In that time, he has already received 107 likes and 20 plus comments. And counting.  He is a person who has a knack for striking the right chord, and I must say, his observation is, per usual, on point.

I have thought something along the same lines myself.  I could write about assholes in high school who now post “I support Duck Dynasty” pictures to their Facebook wall, which is a little interesting, but not surprising.  Instead, I would like to write about the first person who came to mind when I saw Alan’s post.  And let me just say, it wasn’t in a bad way, either.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas.  There were less than 800 people in my high school.  If you didn’t know every person, you knew of every person.  There was a girl I’ll call Pepper that I grew up with, but had very little contact with.  I think we might have been on the same bowling league when we were in grade school.  Pepper was one or two years younger than me and from as early as grade school, she had a reputation.  I cringe when I think of the labels that were placed on Pepper while we were growing up.  Wild, Slut, Whore, Stoner, Easy, Loose, Bitch, Drunk.  I have no idea if any of it was true, I had no first hand knowledge.  I do remember she was one of the youngest girls to get blonde highlights and she did have a propensity to wear dangling feather earrings that looked like roach clips, but hey, what do I know?

I have not been in the same room with Pepper once in the 28 years since I graduated high school, but she did send me a Facebook friend request several years ago, which I accepted.  Like me, Pepper spends a lot of time on Facebook.  And in the years between high school and now, she has become a deeply religious person.  Nearly every post is something about her faith, her walk with God.  If it isn’t about God, it’s about her family, which she is always quick to say is a gift from God.  If it isn’t about her family, it’s about the good friends that she is grateful for, more gifts from God.

One of the goals of religion, all religions, is to make the follower a better person, more loving, more compassionate, wiser, at peace.  And I read Pepper’s posts and I always think of Bible verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  She does not seem to be the girl I knew growing up, not that I really knew her growing up anyway.  Looking back, it does seem that she was a young person in pain, looking to find her way, something most of us can relate to.

Granted, I don’t really know her now, I can only understand her by what she posts and her message, quite literally, moves me to tears.  If she has posted anything anti-gay, I’ve yet to see it.  I think we all kind of have a Facebook persona. My friend Alan, for instance, is an acerbic mother hen, as if Bea Arthur had 2,574 children and her only contact with them was via Facebook.  My persona is, I don’t know, you could answer that better than me.  And Pepper’s persona is a woman who understands God’s grace.  I don’t know that that thirteen year old girl with frosted hair and feather earrings had any idea that her life would be filled with such riches.

The world is full of Peppers. Believe me, most of my best friends are Peppers. I’m a Pepper. And for the most part, we’re all just the adult versions of our thirteen year old selves, just trying to find our way. Grace.

The Books We Read In College

irv0-002I am reading a book right now that I’m not really in love with.  All of the characters are unlikeable and it’s set in New York in 2001 and I know something catastrophic is getting ready to happen and I look forward to it, because, like I said, I hate all of the characters.  

One of the characters was an English major in college, she says at one point that she looks at the books on her shelves and realizes that she read them in college but can’t remember anything about them.  I pondered for a moment about the books I read in Bible college. From the entire four years there, between assigned and pleasure reading, I only remember one book definitively.

If you and I have talked books, you might even know how much I love this book.  It’s a “like” on my Facebook wall.  I’ve read it now 3 or 4 times, but you always remember your first.  I don’t remember when I started John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It must have been over Christmas break of my senior year.  I came back to school a few weeks early to go to some kind of convention that was being held on campus.  I loved the feeling of walking around campus with 30% of its usual population.  And everywhere I went, I carried A Prayer for Owen Meany with me.  I ate lunches in the cafeteria by myself, just me and the book.  I don’t remember a single thing anyone talked about at that convention, but I remember that book.  My roommate had not yet arrived for the spring semester and every night I stayed up late reading.

On one of those nights, I stayed awake later than usual, so committed, so spellbound.  I measured the bulk of  the remaining pages in my hand, questioning whether I should turn in and finish the next day or keep going.  I kept going.  And then I finished.  If I tried hard enough, I could probably explain to you why the book resonated so deeply with me, it’s about unconventional people, it’s about complicated relationships with religion, it takes place in New England (and Canada).  There is also something about the ending, the theme of fulfilling the perceived will of God, that spoke to the 21 year old version of me on his final chapter of undergraduate life at a Bible college.

All this is to say that I remember this vividly, that the moment I read the last line of A Prayer for Owen Meany,  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You,” I shut the book and started weeping.  I lay on my little dorm super single bed with a royal blue Montgomery Ward bedspread and wept for poor dead Owen Meany and broken John Wheelwright and John Irving for being so brilliant and for me, preparing to go into the real world and not feeling equipped to do so.  And I cried until I was done and then I wiped my tears and put the book on my shelf, took off my glasses and went to sleep.

And right now, just thinking about that experience, that kinship, I am there in that January in Missouri cold dorm room, under those covers, reading a book about the world out there, beyond Joplin.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably on your own journey, thinking about that book or maybe two that you read at that time, such an impressionable time.  And you felt like John Irving or maybe Alice Hoffman or maybe Armistead Maupin or maybe James Joyce had written something specifically, singularly just for you.  And what a gift, when you think about it: you will carry that book with you forever, wherever you go.