The Pink Tea Cup

052809PinkTeaCup17MS.jpgWhen I lived in New York, on my days off from work, I would sometimes go to the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, check out a few books, then wander somewhere around there for lunch. One of my favorite places to have lunch alone, just me and a book, was a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood staple, called The Pink Tea Cup. I ordered the same thing every time, a burger special that came with fresh cut fries, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a cup of coffee. I was usually one of only a few customers during the hour or so I’d sit and read my book and eat my meal. It was a cozy joint and I especially liked going in the winter. I remember one year that I did not think I would be able to fly home for Christmas, whether it was because of money or getting shifts covered or both, but at some point, the heavens parted and I was able to get a plane ticket and make arrangements. I celebrated by taking myself to a late lunch at The Pink Tea Cup. I could not help but be conscious of the color of my skin while I dined there, but there was something Southern and familiar and comfortable about the place. I sat and ate the home cooked meal and looked forward to the home cooked meals my Mother would have waiting for me when I made it to Kansas for the holidays.

I just finished reading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. There was a section of the book where the protagonist, a successful African American actor named Leo Proudhammer, recalls working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant called The Island that sounded, if only to me, a bit like The Pink Tea Cup. Leo remembers serving Hopping John and chicken and ribs and I closed my eyes and saw all the action taking place at my old haunt, a place that still looked like 1968 even in 1993.

I am mostly drawn to James Baldwin for three reasons. He wrote often about New York, a city I love. He wrote about the Church, it’s complicated burdens and emancipations. And probably mostly, because he wrote about homosexuals, because he was one himself. I identify with James Baldwin.

This identification resonated even more in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone because he wrote about acting, specifically his character’s technique and process and it gave me an idea what it must have been like to be an actor in the ’50s and ’60s New York, a time and place that produced some pretty exciting actors, not to mention writers.

There is a point in the novel where Leo’s estranged brother, a man who was falsely imprisoned in his youth but has become a minister, comes to visit him at The Island. He stays until the restaurant closes and the two brothers sit to share a meal, Leo drinking a tumbler of Chianti, Caleb, the elder, drinking coffee. Their conversation is tense in moments and tender in others. At one point, Caleb asks Leo, “What does an artist really do?” I’m editing for space. More than anything I just want you to pick up the book and read it yourself, but Leo tells Caleb that an artist creates things-paintings, books, poems, plays, music. Caleb then wants to know exactly what these arts do. Leo tells him, “They make you-feel more alive.” And then Leo thinks to himself that he doesn’t trust that answer. They talk more, Leo then says, “I think it-art-can make you less lonely.” But he doesn’t trust that answer either. And then finally he tells his brother, “Sometimes you read something- or you listen to music- I don’t know- and you find this man, who may have been a very unhappy man- and- a man you’ve never seen- well, he tells you something about your life. And it doesn’t seem as awful as it did before.”

Everytime I write about Baldwin, I feel a little foolish. What could a very white boy from Kansas have to offer when talking about one of the greatest African American writers in history? His experience was not my experience. It’s kind of ludicrous for me to say, “Oh I LOVE James Baldwin because he wrote about New York!” It sounds like I’m talking about Cindy Adams. But there is something about the way he wrote about New York and Evangelicalism and sexuality that drew me into his world, that captivated me. And once he had me, has me, for James Baldwin’s work is ongoing, by seeing how much we are alike, he also reminds me of how different we are. I learn from his experience; it’s my hope that reading about his specific African American experience makes me a more sympathetic, empathetic, knowledgeable person. I think there is, in his writing, an attempt to shame me for the wrongs my ancestors did, just as I think he tries to hurt his father, even though he loves him, for being cruel and abusive and embittered and drunk when Baldwin was a boy. Baldwin offers a knife in the side and then a blanket for comfort.

It’s no surprise, really, that I feel a pang of regret for saying that something in Baldwin’s writing intends to punish or wound me. While I am gay and have always felt like an outsider, the color of my skin, reminds me, how much of an outsider could I possibly be? I’m much more Barbara, the secondary character of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a white aspiring actress who fled Kentucky in hopes of making her way in New York City, who forges a life long intimate relationship with Leo Proudhammer. Leo’s love for her is visible and tenable, but in the 20 years of their friendship the novel spans, there are the knife and the blanket and neither are ever very far from each other.

I really don’t know where I am going with all of this. Baldwin raises more questions than he answers for me. But God, I love him. I love the way his stories burrow into me and I laugh and I weep and I think to myself, “This is MY STORY. He is telling my story.” And the ridiculousness of that statement doesn’t even occur to me until I am pages ahead.

A Meaning of Life

1798866_10152304887902755_1072442248_nMy friend Michael and I were talking about the meaning of life today. He is the Sonja to my woeful uncle Vanya. We conjectured that friends and faith and spouses and children are all the pools we draw from to drink of life.

I took an Ambien type pill about an hour ago. It calmed me a bit immediately. I’ve had a big day, you could read about it if you want, and I must be honest with you, it would mean much for me for you to read the the things I write. A man who calls his blog easily crestfallen is not cavalier about his feelings when he sees no one is reading his epistles, though admittedly, sometimes my words are overlooked for good reasons.

I’ve gotten off track. I took a pill that I sometimes, but seldom take, a pill that is supposed to help me sleep. I watched Below Deck on Bravo sans side effects and then I started to watch Big Brother. And then I started hallucinating prisms coming out of the tv. It was cool, but I took that as a sign for me to go to bed. I passed by, in the hall, a valued gift, A Phyllis Diller print called Reclusive Star. Again, I thought I saw prisms coming from the painting and the mirror facing it on the other wall. I felt like Jessica Lange in the new season of American Horror Story. I tried, most unsuccessfully to take selfies with Phyllis’ picture.

My clumsiness deterred my goal, I found myself smiling and giggling, fearlessly playing with my phone when the possibility of it dropping was extremely high. And I paused and thought. I am so happy. Drug induced, no please let me call it drug enhanced, like summer highlights or a beer chaser. But this feeling is unmistakeable and I’m sure most of you have experienced it, whether it’s enhanced by a prescription drug, an illegal drug, alcohol, extreme yoga, swimming, a great sex session. An otherworldly bliss is what I’m experiencing right now and I’m grateful for it because I had an introspective, confusing day where I was forced to make a big, burdening decision. And now I feel lighter, lighter than I felt all summer, all year.

And tomorrow I will rise and I might be proud of my wisdom, my honesty. I might be ashamed, too. I just realized the pages I read this morning are putting me to bed tonight. I’m currently reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. There is a scene in a New Jersey pizza parlor with 4 men, two women. Three of the men are black, one man is Italian. Both women are actresses, one from Kentucky, the other from Texas. But they’ve met at this place and started drinking together. One of the black men compliments the actress from Kentucky, telling her she’s quite a lady.

“Oh!” said Barbara. “I just want to live!”

“Tell me,” said Matthew (the young sensitive soldier) quickly, “do you find it hard to live? I mean”~he was very earnest; Fowler watched him with a smile~”really to live? Not just”~he waved his big hands nervously~”not just to go to the job and come home and go to sleep and get up and eat and go back to the job~but~to live.” His hands reached out, his fingers clutched the table, flat, palms downward; and he looked, for a moment at his hands. Then he looked at Barbara. “You know?”

When I read this this morning, I understood this young man’s ache. I know that ache. I want to wave my arms, clutch the air, look at my tired hands and proclaim, “I want to live.”

And in a moment or two, I will tumble into my bed, my mind will wander fancifully, a conscious dream state before my soon descending unconscious one. And I’ll giggle like a drunken accountant living in the Russian countryside. “This is the meaning of life!”

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What Becomes A (Semi) Legend Most

Joan-Rivers-What-Becomes-A-Semi-Legend-Most-CoverI had few friends when I was growing up in Kansas. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fanciful fantasy life. I had HBO in my bedroom where I watched Harper Valley PTA and Making Love, and the televised stage production of Vanities (starring Shelley Hack, Meredith Baxter and Annette O’Toole) every time they aired. I would read James Baldwin novels in the library because I was too afraid to check them out. I had every issue of Gentlemen’s Quarterly from 1982 on that I kept neatly stacked in the nook under my water bed. And I had a cassette tape of Joan Rivers’ What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most that I listened to regularly on my Sony Walkman. I did not understand at 15 or 16 precisely why I loved Joan Rivers so much, I just knew that I did.

Embarrassing confession: one time I went drinking with some high school classmates. I actually don’t even remember who it was, a group of 3 or 4 other guys. We were not close friends and I felt privileged and nervous to be out drinking Malt Duck at a place called The Spot. (At least I think it was Malt Duck and I think it was a place called The Spot.) I did not drink much when I was a teen, if you can imagine, so I was nervous that if I became drunk I might confess that I was gay. So, I got drunk and thought about how much I loved Joan Rivers. Please forgive me for my momentary departure from my blog’s strict PG-13 rating, but I actually confessed to my new friends at The Spot that I wanted to french kiss and yes, titty-fuck Joan Rivers. My new friends laughed. I laughed too. “See? You’re totally straight,” I silently congratulated myself.

In all honesty, I did think Joan Rivers was beautiful. I know at the time, part of her schtick was to make fun of her looks, but I didn’t get it. I thought she looked glamorous and sophisticated and stylish. She was so different than Kansas, what with her talk about Jews and plastic surgery and how Liberace wanted Tom Selleck to be his proctologist. When Rabbit Test aired on HBO, my Mom told me it was written and directed by Joan Rivers and I thought, my goodness, is there nothing this amazing lady can’t do?!?!

A few years ago, I went to see a screening of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with a question and answer session with the film’s subject and star. I went with my friends Traci and Linda, fellow storytellers, who had their own memories of growing up hearing and watching this comic genius, this woman who paved the way for other female comics. I don’t really remember any of the questions or any of the answers, I just sat there thinking, this is so cool, Joan Rivers is 15 feet away from me.

I’m not going to lie, though, there have been several times in the last few years where I’ve heard things that Joan said or did where I’ve thought to myself, oh no, Joan, too far! If something crosses the line and it’s funny, it’s comedy. If something crosses the line and it fails, it’s mean. If you’d asked me what I thought of Joan Rivers on Wednesday, my answer would have been less gracious than had you asked me on Thursday.

Since Thursday, like many people, I have been thinking quite a bit about Joan Rivers. I do an internet search every few hours to glean the latest news on the legend’s health status. Every friend I’ve seen in the last 72 hours, I’ve initiated a Joan conversation. I worry about Melissa, who is my age, and like me, her mother’s only child. I even keeping thinking about that horrible tv movie they did where they played themselves.

But back to me, for just a moment. When I remember that little freak whose best friend was a Joan Rivers cassette tape, I now think, that’s pretty funny, but a little sad. At the time, when I was that little freak, I thought my plight was almost entirely sad, but maybe, just a little bit funny. Malt duck, titty fuck, oh, grow up!

If Robin Williams’ passing reminded us of the fragility of life, Joan Rivers’ recent crisis reminds us of life’s absurdity. Flatlining during a minor procedure that was not even elective? It’s like the set up to a joke. Can we talk? Whatever happens, we know that comics will be riffing on it for years to come. If Joan Rivers survives and one day returns to doing shows, you can easily imagine her making light of the dark. And we hope she does and that she does and that she does. I read somewhere that in her show on Wednesday night, (btw, she’s 81, doing a live comedy show the night before surgery; that is grit.) she joked that she could die at any moment and what a story it would be for the audience members. ““Do you understand you would have something to talk about the rest of your life? You were there! ‘I was there, she just went over!’”

What’s the difference between comedy and tragedy? According to Mel Brooks, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Others have said that comedy is tragedy plus time. And I am conforted by that idea, that the pain eases and humor emerges as time passes. It was certainly the case for the 15 year old version of myself.

It is kind of sweet to think of 15 year old me, holed up in my bedroom listening to stories about Heidi Ambromowitz and Marie Osmond making Debby Boone look like a slut and the Queen of England having an affair with her husband Edgar from a woman who made me laugh a lot at a time when I really needed a friend. I don’t know what the future holds for Joan Rivers. But whatever happens, it will be with the passage of time that her family and friends and fans process the outcome. Until then, we have no shortage of Youtube videos of Joan being Joan to make us laugh and ease the sadness. I’ve posted two here, one from The Tonight Show, circa 1982. And also, an episode of her web series In Bed With Joan from just a couple weeks ago where she interviews drag superstar Bianca Del Rio. It makes me a little sad to watch these videos, of course, but also a little happy too. Funny.

James Baldwin

James-Baldwin-New-Orleans-1963So, if you and I have had an actual face to face conversation in the last few months, you might know that I’m reading the works of James Baldwin right now. I started with Another Country, then Go Tell it on the Mountain, then most recently, Giovanni’s Room.

I think he’s amazing. He wrote honestly and bravely about race and religion and homosexuality in the 50’s and 60’s, when barely anyone was writing about even one of those themes and he was writing about all three. There is so much tension in his novels and yet, the villain on page 43 is the person you’re most invested in on page 44. He understood that yin and yang of human behavior.

One of his most difficult characters is the father in Go Tell it on the Mountain, who was based on his own father. Not long ago, I watched an interview with Baldwin where he described his father this way: “He could not bend, he could only be broken.” I’ve carried that thought with me for a few days now, so I thought I would share it with you.

Baldwin grew up in a conservative church environment. He did not consider himself to be religious in his adulthood, but that Faith of his youth kept a hold on him his entire life. I’ve posted another, short youtube video of him singing “Precious Lord, take my Hand.” He had a beautiful voice. A beautiful voice in every way.