I want to thank each person who has written and shared their “bullying” story. (And please keep them coming.) It’s been an interesting endeavor because everyone’s story is different and yet, of course, there are common themes. I think feeling like an outsider and seeing others as being more included are both just part of the human condition. Even now, I think of my bullies and marvel, did they ever feel like outsiders too? At some point, they must have.
My friend Hilary, a cookbook author and blogger too, shared a childhood story and sent it with the qualification, “it’s wasn’t exactly bullying per se.” And well, I can kind of seeing how it might not be bullying PER SE, but it does seem to be needlessly cruel. And not to give away the ending, but a little mysterious too.
I asked Hilary if she had a picture of herself from around that time and of course, that is the picture that accompanies this story. Just a sweet little girl, trying to figure it out, trying to make new friends in a new situation.
One L or 2?
When I was nine-years-old, Ma married a nuclear physicist. Shortly after that, we abandoned our beloved, long-in-tooth West Hollywood rental for a boxy, personality-free apartment in Beverly Hills. I’d been attending Rosewood Elementary, a public school where I loved all the teachers, had a diverse mix of friends, and often stayed after school as a teacher’s helper. Up until that point, I was a relatively happy-go-lucky kid. We were broke, my parents were divorced, and my dad was barely in the picture. But I was a big “bright-sider,” often telling jokes, drawing, and trying to cheer up Ma who struggled to raise two kids without child support. Despite how difficult things were, they never seemed that bad. That is, until we moved to Beverly Hills.
Right around this same time, my ten-year-old brother, Chris, realized that his lengthy campaign to get our parents back together had gone down the crapper. “I’m moving in with Dad!” he announced.
“Fine. Go live with your father. You two deserve each other!” Ma said.
And thus began our wildly divergent Prince and The Pauper-type journeys. I was enrolled in Beverly Vista, a foreboding, brick structure of a school where every kid got dropped off in a shiny, foreign car. Chris went to live at Pop’s studio bachelor pad in West Hollywood and stayed at Rosewood. I got stuck with a bunch of spoiled, rich, nine-year-old a-holes while Chris palled around with juvenile delinquents and only went to school when he felt like it. At the time, it seemed like he got the better end of the deal. In retrospect, not so much.
On my first day at Beverly Vista, I met another girl in my homeroom named Hilary. It was a bit like meeting a unicorn. Back then, the name was pretty rare, akin to “Apple,” “North,” or “Latte” now. And this Hilary was fancy. She rolled up to me in a white rabbit fur coat, brown hair cascading down to her shoulders like a mini Charlie’s Angel. A couple of her friends stood behind her for backup. “One L or Two?” she asked.
“One,” I said, hoping that she had two because everyone knew that two L’s was the pedestrian spelling of the name, Hilary. My mom told me that. Even if I was wearing plaid hand-me-down knickers with Snoopy knee socks, the superior spelling of my name surely trumped her flawlessness.
“Me too.” She flipped her hair and flashed a knowing smile at her friends.
Since it ended up being a draw in the L battle, I thought we had bonded. Two Hilarys with one L in the same class! What were the odds? We’d be the best of the pals.
Maybe she’d let me borrow her fur jacket and show me how to get the frizzes out of my hair. I imagined the hilarious hijinks that would ensue any time the teacher called on “Hilary”
“Which one??” we’d say in unison and break down in hysterical laughter. But alas, that initial confrontation was the last time I ever exchanged words with Fancy Hilary. She continued her reign as the only true “Hilary,” ignoring my very existence as did most of the other kids at the school. And when I think back, ignoring someone is probably one of the cruelest types of bullying that exists because it renders one completely invisible.
For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. At Rosewood, my quirky, artistic persona fit right in with my classmates. Most of us were being raised by a single parent and money was scarce. At Beverly Vista, a school that reeked of privilege, I felt like I’d crash-landed my broke-ass spaceship on a hostile planet.
Then one day, in my giant and immaculate homeroom with large windows spraying LA sunshine on the backs of our heads, the teacher led the class in a calligraphy lesson. Yes, part of the fourth grade curriculum was to learn the very useful fine art of Japanese lettering. I noticed a quiet Japanese girl in front of me essentially crushing the assignment. She flicked her wrist with ease, creating beautiful black brush strokes on the parchment. I craned my neck to look at her paper and commented on how amazing it was. Her name was Yuko.
Yuko, a perfectionist who never had a rumple on her pressed cotton pants, became my first friend at Beverly Vista and quickly introduced me to her bestie, Kanae (pronounced Can I – emphasis on “can”.) Kanae was heavier-set and more of a gabber like me. In a sea of white faces, Yuko and Kanae, were the oddballs, the outcasts. We quickly bonded over our similar plights and became inseparable. The three of us all freaking loved Sanrio. We traded stickers and admired each other’s collections. We went sticker shopping, ate lunch together, and gossiped about other kids at school. Having a couple of friends made life in Beverly Hills finally bearable. But then something changed.
I came to school one morning and Yuko wouldn’t talk to me. Later, when I saw Kanae on the playground, she marched ahead as if she couldn’t see me. In class, I tapped Yuko on the shoulder. I called her name. But she just sat staring forward, her perfect posture rigid in her wooden chair. I stared at her short ponytail, waiting for it to turn but it never budged. It was like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As if somehow I’d never been born and life as I knew it had completely vanished. At recess, I approached them, I asked them what happened, and I was sorry if I had done something wrong. But like Jimmy Stewart desperately shouting at the people who can’t hear him or see him, the two friends acted like I wasn’t there. They just talked to each other until I walked away. I tried for days to get them to forgive me for something I didn’t even know I had done but they never came around. And so after a few days, I gave up.
At home I sat in the closet in my room and cried. For hours I sobbed and tried to replay everything I had done and said to Yuko and Kanae to make them suddenly hate me. Ma called me for dinner and when I didn’t answer, she sent the physicist to look for me. He opened the closet door, saw me sitting there in the dark and shouted, “She’s in the closet.” Not knowing what to do, he awkwardly shuffled off, leaving me there to sulk.
I remember this time as my first foray into total inconsolable sadness. It seemed that Yuko and Kanae had broken my heart though it was probably intensified by the veritable trifecta of Ma getting remarried, my brother moving away, and starting at a new school where everyone hated me. I never made another friend at that school. When the year mercifully ended, we moved to a new house in the valley and my brother came back to live with us. I made friends easily at the new school and normalcy returned.
Unfortunately, my stepdad got transferred a year later and I had to once again start at a new school. It was something I did over and over again as kid and I can only say that after Beverly Vista, I honed my ability to recognize “my people.” I never had another Yuko and Kanae experience. I did have some thuggish guys push me in the school cafeteria but it was nothing compared to the psychological warfare waged on me by a couple of nine-year-olds. Their unflappable ability to completely freeze me out still haunts me to this day. It’s something I’d never wish on anyone.
If you’re one of those types who enjoys reading about the times I have embarrassed myself, you’re in luck. There is a little bit of that in this story. If you love reading about celebrities and how they behave in public, you’re also in luck. This story is about a famous person.
After working in restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for over 20 years, I sometimes feel that I have seen it all. Nearly every famous person I have wanted to see, I have seen, usually in a restaurant setting. Also, many famous people I have no desire to see in person I have seen. I’ve become fans of people who I knew little about simply on the basis of the kindness they offered me or my co-workers. (Maxwell, are you reading this?) I have also stopped liking people, stopped going to their movies or watching their tv shows or downloading their music, in part, because of the way a particular interaction went. I don’t need to name names, I’ll wait until the next time I’m a little drunk or hopped up on Ambien to do that.
It was a Sunday morning, a couple of years ago. Fall of 2012, to be exact. I looked up from the host stand to see Sarah Jessica Parker, SJP herself, approaching me with a smile. Standing beside her friend, she asked if they could have a table outside, even though they were only planning to have coffees. I told her it was absolutely fine to just have drinks and I grabbed two menus and we headed to the patio, which I’ve mentioned before, is one of the most stunning views in Beverly Hills. It looks out on the Hollywood Hills and it is a beacon of possibility for anyone who has ever dined, or perhaps, more importantly, worked there. I don’t know how many times I looked up while taking a complicated order on Table 47 to see the vista, on a clear day it includes the Hollywood Sign, and think, there is always HOPE that this could one day be mine too.
On this Sunday morning, as we were walking to the table, SJP asked me, “You look very familiar, do we know each other?” “No, we’ve never met.” She told me that I had a particular look on my face when she approached and she wondered how she knew me. I told her that my look was, now, I can finally check her off my list of stars I’ve always wanted to see, but haven’t seen yet. (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd.) She told me that I reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t figure it out. To my minor credit, I refrained from telling her that sometimes, some people, tell me I remind them of her BFF Andy Cohen.
They landed at the table, I asked if they knew what they’d like to drink, and one of them ordered an iced tea, the other an iced latte.
I went into the waiter’s station, even though I was not waiting tables and started making the drinks. My good friend Kristin, whose table it was, told me she could make the drinks, since it was her table. I shooed her away with an unnecessarily terse, “I GOT it!” “But it’s my table!” (Kristin is one of those dramatic types.) I can’t remember how it went down, but I think I let her bring the drinks to the table. But there is a chance I did not let her.
In my 15 years that I worked at Barney Greengrass, there were certain stars that when they came in, it shifted the dynamic of the entire day. Everyone was suddenly a little happier because of their brush with something that felt magical. It could be said that it’s about fame, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I think it’s about seeing a person who on screen or in music or on stage or on paper has somehow lived your story or the story you wish you were living. And let’s be honest, they probably did it better and prettier and more stylishly dressed than you.
I checked in on SJP and her friend a little later. She asked if there was a possibility I could do something to get them into the women’s shoe department before the store itself opened. I told her I would see what I could do. When I returned to tell her my manager was working on it, she again, asked me why I looked familiar to her. And in my defense, this WAS September or October of 2012. “Well, I have a Subway commercial running right now, maybe that’s it.” SJP paused. I looked at her friend who, understandably, rolled her eyes, un peu. Oh, God, Ray, you are an idiot, I thought. To make it worse, I mimed my action in the commercial, doing the $5 sub hand wave. “No, I don’t think that’s it.” Awkward moment. “But that’s great that you’re in a commercial.” It seemed like in that moment she was truly happy for me that I was in a (national, I might add) commercial, that she understood how hard of an industry this was. But still, I felt stupid, I should have played my cards a little closer to the vest. I should have just said, “I really don’t know why I look familiar, but I will definitely take it as a compliment.” My manager saved the day by coming to the table to tell the ladies that someone was waiting for them in women’s shoes. The ladies thanked both of us profusely. Not much later, they left, graciously thanking and saying good-bye to my manager and me, addressing us by our names. And though it’s a little indelicate to discuss such matters, they left their waitress Kristin a very generous tip.
I walked on cloud nine for the rest of the day. Kristin told me that I was in the wrong to not let her go to her table, I agreed. But nobody’s perfect. “Even Carrie and Miranda fought sometimes,” I told Kristin.
I’ve told the story of SJP and me probably over 100 times now, to anyone who will listen. If Eric had a dollar for every time he’s had to sit through one of my spirited retellings, we could buy a brownstone in Greenwich Village. It’s a story that stuck.
All my life, people have asked me why I work in restaurants. When are you going to grow up and get a real job? I don’t know. There are perks, for sure, I love food and love working in proximity to it. I love people who work in restaurants, those band of minstrels types. But, honestly, there is just something about that brush, since my second day of work at Popover Cafe, a handful of days after getting off a Greyhound from Kansas at Port Authority, when I waited on Andre Gregory and the person training me asked, “Do you know who that is? That’s the guy from My Dinner with Andre.” And I did know who it was, I had seen My Dinner with Andre on HBO.
Everyone is a commodity, especially in this social media culture. As I said earlier, there are actors and singers and writers that I will never want to personally make richer solely based on the treatment I received in the few minutes or, in some cases, hours, I spent with them. But as with SJP, there are those days, when you meet someone whose work you’ve always loved and they treat you like they are really taking you in, maybe complimenting the shirt you got from Land’s End or your Warby Parker glasses or the smile you got from your parents, and maybe you talk a little about plays or books or the best place in LA to get a mai-tai. Those days are the days. The brush. And it’s not about celebrity, not in any TMZ sort of way, anyway. It’s about one person saying to another person, “I see you.”
Father’s Day is about families. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I spent with the friends who became family because we all worked together, at Barney Greengrass. As many of you know, Thursday was the last day of operation for the Beverly Hills restaurant, Friday was my last day of work. It’s been a bittersweet time. Laughs, tears, all of it. I asked my good friend Barbara if she wanted to write a little something about our journey, her journey. We started within months of each other in 1999 and I count her among the greatest gifts from working there. If you were part of the ride, you will understand especially, but even if you never set foot inside the place, it’s a story of endings and new chapters and looking back, while still the memory is fresh, that anyone can relate to.
Strike the Stage
I am lost. I have nowhere to go. I don’t know who I am, or what I do. As in, I feel like I lost my identity. What I used to do? I managed Barneys New York Restaurant, and it has now seemingly (though it was anything but) come to an abrupt halt. “Barneys New York Restaurant, formerly Barney Greengrass, will be closing for renovations, to reopen in the fall as Fred’s. In keeping with the Barney’s brand.” I have said this so many times over the past four months I thought I wouldn’t be able to mouth the words and speak it again. It is a true statement: it is also a script. I am taking Ray up on his generous offer to finally go off script.
My displacement, oddly enough, didn’t happen when the people left. I thought I was weird for not being upset. I hugged them goodbye, when I had the time, I shared anecdotes, when I had the time, and once, with one friend, because I had even a little bit more time, I told her she was one of my favorites because she was.
Rather, my utter sense of loss began yesterday and culminated today when, of all things, the stupid furniture and the food were finally heaved and hauled out of there, all of it donated to charity, and, in one final act of good will, what was left of the food bagged and placed downstairs for everyone to come and “shop” as they joked, like a farmer’s market. I took my box of assorted goods someone prepared for me. I knew I wouldn’t eat most of it. I just couldn’t leave without it. It seemed such collective act of parting, like leaving a great dinner party, making sure everyone had something when they left.
Only now, tonight, do I think I know what happened to me. I think the people I worked wiith over the years, are so real to me, so vivid, so clearly a part of me and my life, who I am and what I really do, that they didn’t seem gone until all the props of the setting were gone. What do they call that, “strike the set”? They struck the set; the show was over, and with it, some of the best moments and times of my life. Empty and stark, it finally hit me that no one is coming back. Off everyone goes, they’ll get another part, we’ll all come see each other, but as I sit here now, silly fool, all alone crying by myself about missing, in no particular order, the cast and crew, Art, Ray, Vinod & Sean G., Florence, Kristin, Olya, Rudy, Jonathan M., Ian, Jamal, Alejandro, Gabe, Tino, Jacobo, Bayron, Mark, Oscar, Eli, Miguel, Mario, Flaco, Jonathan C., Oscar G., Juan H., Juan Pablo, Ruben, Juston, Diego, Brian, Jon V., Megan, Dawn, Cathy, Ben, Joy, Earl, Vanessa, Margie, Sharyn, Skye, Keith, Blake, Joey, Jennifer, Jennifer K., Robert, Roberto, Edgar, George, Andrea, Conrad, Christian, Kevin, Loriann, Marie, Matt, Bob R., Max., (forgive me if I missed anyone), I know what a hell of a job we did, how many people we affected and moved, together, as a cast of incredible characters. We had a long run, some recast over and over again, some of us staying the whole time, and we were really something! Let’s face it guys, the people loved us!
The proverbial “Barney’s Show” – had it all: the drama, the laughs, the births and even the death of our beloved Art. Some days, some of us weren’t quite able to play our parts, because we all had to flip a switch and perform at work, but we stood in, helped out, took over, supported each other through it. Needless to say, sometimes we had a tough audience. So we performed for each other! But sometimes they cheered for our little troop, and we basked in the praise; yes, we took pride in doing a good job because that is the kind of saps we are.
I left the dark stage today in a sad mood because I deeply miss my friends, on stage and off stage. I can’t say enough about the people I worked with. I will do this job again, no doubt, but for me, plays like this one, parts like this one only come along once in a lifetime, and I am so very grateful for it. By the end, I knew it by heart, by my heart.
I am currently reading a book called The Grand Surprise. It is the journals and letters of a man named Leo Lerman with biographical information interwoven, edited by Stephen Pascal. Lerman was a writer, critic and editor, but he was also known for the regular salons he held at his home on the Upper East Side which included the likes of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Christopher Isherwood, Peggy Guggenheim, Diana Vreeland, etc. He died in 1994 at 80 and even though I’m only on page 77, 1949, I can tell he lived a rich, full, life.
I just finished reading George Plimpton’s Truman Capote biography and Leo Lerman is one of the hundreds of people interviewed for that book. As much as I love reading Capote’s work, the more I read about him, the more I think I probably would not have liked him if I’d known him. Well, maybe I would have liked him, but he would have been one of those friends I would have to keep at a distance. He could never be a confidante or a person to depend on in a crisis.
Lerman, on the other hand, seems to me, a kindred spirit. What I’ve read so far, journals and letters from his 20s and 30s, are about loneliness, vocational directionlessness, romantic complications, frustration and judgment about being overweight, all things that resonate with the 20s and 30s incarnation of myself and are likely to be themes, to some extent, for the rest of my days. And, like me at 28 or 32 or 38, the one thing he knows he has are good friends to share his life with. There is something about Lerman that I recognize, something also, that I love. Would we be friends in real life? Perhaps, perhaps not.
I need an escape from my real life at the moment. Between Capote and The Grand Surprise, I’ve enjoyed spending time in mid 20th century New York City. My job of 15 years is ending next week. I’ve worked in the same restaurant, a high end lunch spot in Beverly Hills that caters to Los Angeles’ wealthy, since 1999. I started when I was 30, it’s been 1/3 of my entire life. The restaurant will reopen in a few months with a new identity, a new name, a new menu. I could very well be back and also, in the intervening months, something else might come up. Still, it’s an end to a time of my life and it’s bittersweet.
I suspect that in the future I will write more about this ending of one and beginning of another chapter in my life, but right now, when I start to write, I find I have no perspective. I have no idea what the weeks ahead hold for me. Which is kind of exciting, but also a little scary.
So, perhaps, one can understand, why I’ve buried myself in these thick books about charismatic gay men from another time. I close my eyes and imagine throwing intimate gatherings in my living room where all that is served is a jug of cheap wine and a big block of cheddar and everyone sits and gabs and laughs and drinks and eats. We all drink too much and talk too loudly and passionately and later, when I’m cleaning up the remains, I think to myself, my, aren’t we the smart ones!?
The accompanying picture is a painting by John Koch. Leo Lerman is in the foreground, conversing with pianist Ania Dorfmann. The artist is the lean, bespectacled fellow mixing drinks at the bar. He is somewhat famous for another painting called the The Sculptor which I wrote about many months ago, back when this blog was new.
I thought about Whitney Houston a lot this month. I remember the day she died quite vividly. February 11, 2012. I was on my computer that Saturday afternoon and the news popped up on Yahoo. I had been at work, just a few blocks away from the Beverly Hilton when she died. I do not know of a celebrity death that has affected me more. I loved Whitney Houston.
Her music was part of the soundtrack of my formative years,. I remember watching MTV in hopes that they’d play the How Will I Know video and then dancing to it, alone in my room. There was also something about her story that resonated with me: she was a church girl. She grew up in the church and sang in the church and talked about her faith in interviews.
Not surprisingly, she was a polarizing topic at my Bible college. Her albums had songs about faith sandwiched between songs about infidelity or sexual longing. I remember belting out I Wanna Dance with Somebody in my ’79 Monte Carlo on those long drives from Joplin to Independence to visit my parents.
Like many of our first loves, somewhere along the way, I lost track of Whitney. I saw The Bodyguard, of course and had a boyfriend give me a cd single of I Believe in You and Me. (As it turned out, he did not.) But somewhere between 1991 and 2012, I stopped buying Whitney’s music.
And then she died. And I started listening to her all over again. I bought the greatest hits collection on iTunes and I found this song that she released shortly before her death.
As a chubby, awkward, gay boy growing up in Kansas, I would stare at the picture of Whitney on the cover of her first album and think, “She’s just so pretty!” And then, after her passing, I found myself staring at the cover of her last album, I Look to You in a similar way. She was still so beautiful, of course, but her face gave some indication of the struggles that she had endured, the struggles that she had seemingly overcome.
Whitney Houston had her demons. She had this voice and face and look that was a gift from God, but there were things that she struggled with. And as much as I loved her because of her beauty, I think I understood her because of her weaknesses. I have demons myself. Some you know about, others I hope you never know about.
I love this video. As someone who grew up in church, it’s a plea from the broken to a merciful God. At the end of the day, whether we are Grammy winners or restaurant hosts, we all need a little help. So, if you have a few minutes, have a watch and listen. And don’t be too judgmental about your own brokenness, because at the end of the day, we are all the same: the lost looking for a cause, the weak looking for strength and the melody-less looking for a song.