You Have to Give Them Hope

harvey-milkI am home after a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area. A friend of mine, Michael Gaffney was doing a reading of the one man show he’s been working on for a few years now and because I’m not working and I could, I decided to drive up for it on Monday and come back last night. He lives in the East Bay and the show was in Berkeley. I thought I was going to head home yesterday morning, but the City by the Bay called to me. I could not be that close to San Francisco without crossing that bridge, both literally and metaphorically.

So, I drove first to Coit Tower. I parked on Sansome, I think, and decided to climb the Filbert steps to the Tower. I huffed and puffed my way to the top, and enjoyed the lovingly restored structure with WPA murals and an ancient Otis Elevator and took several pictures from the observatory deck. And then I took another set of steps down, back to my car. As I was pondering the mixed blessing that living in one of these Telegraph Hill apartments would pose, I noticed a plaque, in a garden. This was Grace Marchant Garden and the plaque itself was to honor a man named Gary Kray who tended to the garden from 1979 to 2012. “His selfless dedication to friends and flowers will always be remembered.” Of course, I wondered if Gary Kray might have been gay, reasoning that any man who tends to a garden, in San Francisco, for 33 years, well, it’s possible, if not likely. This morning, I found his obituary where a friend shared that Kray’s big loves were San Francisco, Paris and the British Monarchy, so, you can draw your own conclusions. His obituary also told me that he worked nights as a cab driver so he could maintain his garden during the day. I thought about the sacrifice he made for doing something he loved and how that sacrifice touched the hearts of so many people. And his work lives on. Anyone, tourist or local, can stop and enjoy the flora and fauna as they take in the spectacular views: it’s a legacy.
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After a quick visit to the Sutro Baths and the fairly new incarnation of the Cliff House, I headed to the Castro for a quick lunch before hitting the road. I walked by The GLBT History Museum, and thought, this is my solo San Francisco adventure, I should check this out. It’s basically one large room and one could spend 15 minutes or a couple of hours there. What struck me most was the section dedicated to Harvey Milk. There was a hologram image of Milk and a blue button with instructions to push the button to listen to an excerpt from his famous tape recording that is featured in the film Milk, where he surmises that an assassination might be imminent and he conjectures what his legacy might be in the event of his death. I had turned away from the hologram as I listened to his words, while looking at pictures and artifacts, I heard him talk about someone from Altoona, Pennsylvania who called him, sharing that Milk’s election had given him hope. Harvey Milk also offered that, if he was assassinated, he would hope to see “every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know.” As I pondered his legacy, I turned around and noticed that the hologram was gone and through the glass, I saw a blood stained suit laid out. My response was surely the curators’ intention because I was truly shocked by its presence. As Harvey Milk continued to speak, I scanned the crimson soiled shirt and tie and jacket. As I became a bit emotional, his words were both a salve and a call to action. His life and death affected and inspired so many people, all races, all sexual identities, all ages.

I thought about Gary Kray and Harvey Milk as I drove down the 5 last night. How these San Franciscans had had these very different, but enduring legacies. They both were a product and a tribute to a city that holds many treasured memories for me.

I must confess now that I’ve buried my lead, and I did it on purpose. Because even more than Gary Kray and Harvey Milk, the person I thought about most as I travelled home was my friend Michael. He’s been the subject and guest star in several of my blogs as well as an occasional guest blogger. His show, at Berkeley Playhouse, a one night only event (so far), was a staged reading of his solo memoir The Oldest Living Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses. While he’s been a professional actor for over 25 years, he’s also been a cater waiter for several years. His story is about the juxtaposition of the two careers, the two worlds. It was something I clearly related to, having worked in restaurants, on and off, since I was 19, but it’s a universal theme. Who among us can say that our lives have turned out exactly the way we thought they would? Michael’s story made me laugh and cry, with honesty and humility and passion and tenacity. It must also be noted that the theatre (designed by Julia Morgan, btw) was filled by other artists and cater waiters and artist-cater waiters who love and root for Michael as much as I do. I think it’s rare for someone to be as loved, treasured as he is. I’m so proud of the work that he’s done on this show and I look forward to the next chapter.

So, three men. Three very different legacies, but they were the men who permeated my thoughts and even spoke to me on that long drive home last night. I remembered another famous speech by Harvey Milk, about giving people hope, its importance, and how each of these three gave and give me hope in their own ways. It could have been a lonely trip, but I felt I was in good company.

Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: My Funny Cater Waiter

catering nightmareIt seems like just yesterday, Michael Patrick Gaffney and I were standing on the corner of Castro and Market in short shorts and tank tops hollering, “Coupons for Party!  Who wants a coupon for Party?!?”  In truth, that was 17 years ago, when we were at the beginning of our enduring friendship.  We’ve acted together and we’ve catered together and I must say, in both situations, it’s a pleasure to be by his side.  I asked him to guest blog and he graciously accepted.  While not everyone has catered or waitered or cater waitered for a living, I think his story is universal.  Who among us is living a life that turned out exactly the way they thought it would?  Recently, a blogger friend of mine wrote, “What will survive us is Love.”  I completely agree and I must say, I know few people that are as loving or as loved as my friend Michael Patrick Gaffney.

 

My Funny Cater Waiter

I was sitting in my therapist’s office on Tuesday…It’s worth noting that this is the therapist I have been trying to break up with for a few months now because he cried during my session TWICE!  And he stood me up once and is quite aware of my abandonment issues.  I have been dealing with an anxiety disorder for awhile now and he finally asked me, “What are you most afraid of?”  I sat there for a moment and thought for awhile and finally I said, “I’m afraid I will become the oldest living cater waiter.

I am a professional stage actor but if I am to be brutally honest I have been making most of my living as a cater waiter for the past 17 years.  

I started off in L.A. trying to make it as a film actor and worked as a waiter in restaurants until the infamous potato skin incident of 1989, which abruptly ended my career.  When I moved up to San Francisco in 1996 a friend suggested I try catering work between theatre jobs.  I signed up with a very high end company and began my new career as a cater waiter.  I enjoy it for the most part and have been a part of some incredible events over the years. I have waited on countless celebrities and politicians including; Nancy Pelosi, Sean Penn, Christy Turlington, Hillary Clinton and Tabatha, from Bravo’s Shear Genius.  And although I didn’t serve him dinner, at one fundraiser I met and shook the hand of President Barack Obama.  

But as the years have gone on, I have found myself wearing a uniform more than a costume and my body has begun to tell the wear and tear of the often physical work and long hours.  I find myself worrying about my future and how I will support myself.  Will I become the oldest living cater waiter?  Sometimes I think about how many weddings, fundraisers and bar mitzvahs I have done over the years.  Some of them easy, most of them not so easy, and some of them down right grueling.  I remember one particular wedding several years back.  We were loaded onto a shuttle at 6am and driven down to Montecito to a 48 million dollar estate for a wedding that was rumored to have cost 5 million dollars.  We worked for hours setting up the dining room and by the time the guests arrived I was exhausted and didn’t know how I would make it through the entrée course.  I was assigned to the head table and had several celebrities to serve, including an unnamed romance novelist who chain smoked throughout the meal.  By the time we dropped the entrée I was physically, mentally and spiritually spent. I was very close to tears and my white gloves were filthy with cigarette ash from replacing the ashtray for unnamed romance novelist.  Suddenly I heard the voice of an angel singing my favorite song of all time, “My Funny Valentine”.  I turned around and just a few feet from me was Etta James on stage.  I just stood there smiling with the biggest lump in my throat and gave her a little wave with my filthy white glove and she looked at me and smiled.  Time stood still and for a moment it was just Etta and me and Rogers and Hart.   It is moments like these that make my career as the oldest living cater waiter all worth while. 

Thank you, Etta…and bite me, unnamed romance novelist.

Neewollah

189143_106824046067080_2529733_nA few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic.  I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim.  The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood.  I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people.  I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?”  But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.”  And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  

It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home.  Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates.  This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival.  Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors.  I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still.  Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble.  On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.

I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now.  That seems unbelievable, but it’s true.  The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade.  We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.  

I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities.  I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade.  I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either.  I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.

I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do.  The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.