The Tide is High

2048x2048So, I’ve reentered the workforce. And not only am I back at a restaurant, I’ve returned to waiting tables after a few years away. I feel a little old and a little slow, but I genuinely like the people I work with and for and the food is amazing. Turns out, I like being around delicious food.

There is another thing I like about working in a restaurant, it’s not confined to restaurant environments, but it is a trademark. It’s when you start talking to a person, a customer, a client, a guest, whatever you’re asked to call the person and you start talking about what’s good on the menu and you somehow transition to talking about where you grew up or what you love/hate/love about LA or what are you passionate about.

A few nights ago, I waited on two women. I asked them where they lived, they told me. One of them lives in Venice. “Born and raised,” she told me. I asked her if she’d seen the exhibit about Venice Beach that’s at LACMA right now. She told me she had not seen it and I told her she must. She asked me where I was from. Kansas. Then she asked me when was the first time I saw the ocean.

I paused. Although it’s not a question one often gets asked, suddenly, I was 12 years old, on my first 747, seeing the ocean from my window seat as our plane prepared to land at San Francisco Airport, a stop on my family’s trip to Hawaii. As I told this to these ladies, the hair on my arms stood up, reliving one of the most exciting moments in my life up to that point.

Memories flooded back. I told them how Blondie’s The Tide is High was playing on the airplane’s radio playlist and I couldn’t figure out if the synchronization was random or orchestrated. To this day, I still don’t know, but every time I hear The Tide is High, I think about that sight.

I live 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. I sometimes see it several times in a week. It’s also not rare for me to go months without seeing it. But every time I go through that tunnel that drops you onto PCH and I see that beach and that water, it thrills me. I just never get tired of it. I tell myself, one of these days, I’m moving to the beach. And maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

When I lived in New York, I lived near the Atlantic Ocean, blocks from the Hudson River and I would see the water almost every day. During my San Francisco days, I could run from my apartment, through Golden Gate Park, all the way to Ocean Beach.

I don’t have to see the ocean every day, but I like knowing it’s there. When I go to Kansas, I actually get a little nervous, a little itchy thinking about how far I am from the ocean. Weird, I know, but it’s the truth.

I’m not the only land locked Midwesterner who followed the siren song of the ocean to a coastal city. Los Angeles is full of people like me. It’s even full of waiters like me. As much as I feel that tv and movies and that Hollywood illusion called to me from my living room floor, eyes and heart glued to the tv set, there is something about the geography that beckoned me too. Like the end of Inside Daisy Clover, when Natalie Wood barefooted it down the beach after her shanty exploded in flames. Or Jim Rockford’s trailer in Malibu. And even though we never saw them go there, except in the opening credits, we knew that Jack and Janet and Chrissy’s apartment was mere steps from Santa Monica Beach. They did not have to actually go there, for us to know it was there.

Which brings me back to my relationship to it. I probably won’t see the ocean today. Work, traffic, minutiae, they all can keep me from making the time to make the trek. But soon, Eric and I, or maybe I’ll go by myself, either way, I’ll get in my Jetta and head west. Maybe the traffic near the 405 will make me curse a little, but I’ll keep going and inevitably, I’ll take that little dip on the 10, into the tunnel, and spill out on the other side. I’ll see it, my enduring friend. I’ll try to keep my eyes on the road when all I’ll want to do is gaze to my left. And up the coast I’ll go, California dreamin’, a sunshine day, the tide high…

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A Trip to the Baths

sc0591f38fTennessee Williams’ Amanda Wingfield is a character that I understand. That scene when she appears in the dress in which she “led the cotillion,” the way she waxes about all the gentlemen callers, the opportunities she once had as a young girl, I understand it all. I, too, was once young. And if Amanda appears foolish for trying so desperately to hold onto those treasured days, it’s a foolishness that most of us relate to, perhaps some of us more than others.
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Yesterday, in my blog about three different San Francisco men, I touched on the fact that I’d made a visit to the remains of the Sutro Baths. The Sutro Baths were a large swimming pool complex built in the 19th century. It closed in the 1960s and a fire destroyed the building not long after. For decades, people have visited and walked around the ruins that face the Pacific Ocean. The venerable Cliff House is nearby and tourists and locals can visit both together.

It had been years since I’d hiked around the Sutro Baths ruins. When Eric and I were in the city in June, we drove by, but did not stop and explore. But Tuesday, when I was tooling around the city, I felt I needed to go there, a mission of sorts.
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When I lived in San Francisco, I visited the Sutro Baths on occasion. I must confess, anything with the word baths in it’s name just sounds kind of sexy to me. I’ve seen the old pictures and the reality is probably not nearly as sexy as what I’d imagined. But still, I am a swimmer and I do love history so there was an appeal.

In the summer of 1997, my friend Greg Zukowski, a friend from New York and also a photographer, came to visit San Francisco. We got together and he asked me if I wanted to do a photo shoot with him, maybe something out and about in San Francisco. Because I was young and still loved the idea of having my picture taken, I said yes. I suggested we go to the Sutro Baths and that is where the majority of the pictures were taken. He took picture after picture, I gave him pose after pose. I smized, I tooched. I took off my shirt and posed shirtless. I’ve never had the best torso, but I’d run several miles that morning and felt confident. He asked if I wanted to take off my shorts for a few pictures. And, I figured I’d already been naked in a play and this was San Francisco, really, why shouldn’t I? So I dropped my shorts and posed for a few shots, my Speedo tan line, complimenting my summer skin. I don’t remember ever feeling more handsome.
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I also felt unlimited possibility. I had broken up with my boyfriend but we had remained friends, in fact we still lived together. These were my last weeks in San Francisco; I was moving back to Los Angeles and looked forward to starting the next chapter in my life. I know it’s a cringe-inducing confession, but I thought I was going to go back to Los Angeles and get an agent and start booking commercials and guest starring on Friends and Ellen. Of course, that’s not really how it went down, but, hey, that’s the great thing about hope: it gives you hope.
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Months later, when I was living in Los Angeles, Greg sent me a bundle of pictures with a letter saying that one of my pictures was going to be in an art show he was doing. He sent me a flyer for the show with an image of me. I was thrilled. I felt famous. By then, my Los Angeles reality was not shaping up the way I’d hoped. I still lived on my friend Amy’s couch, not making enough money to get an apartment. I dated with some regularity, but every guy paled in comparison to the ex-boyfriend I’d left in San Francisco. I was lonely and lost. But I loved my little bundle of pictures, they made me feel handsome. Years later, I am so happy I have these wonderful pictures taken by my talented friend Greg.

All of these things were in my thoughts as I wandered around the Sutro Baths on Tuesday morning, taking pictures of the ocean and the rocks and the ruins instead of selfies, because, as it turns out, I don’t like most pictures of myself anymore. Like The Glass Menagerie, it was my own memory play. I’m not young anymore and some days I mourn it’s loss more than others. But there on that overcast breezy morning, with each salty breath I took in, for a few minutes anyway, I was 29 again, slim and tanned and young with a world of boundless opportunity before me.
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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.

San Francisco Stories

I love a used book store. I love uncovering a treasure, a biography of an actor that I never knew existed or a great novel by an author I’ve never heard of. But also, I love that every book tells a story, many tell more than one.

I am on the plane back from New York as I type. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I’ll be blogging about the trip for days to come, but this is not necessarily a New York story. Yet, New York plays her role here, too.

I was browsing in Mid-town along 8th avenue and popped into a thrift store that I like to visit when I’m in NY. I found a book, San Francisco Stories, a collection of pieces written by famous writers about San Francisco, a city I love and a city where I once lived. I vacillated about buying it until I saw the inscription inside the jacket:

Michael-
Here’s thanks for your many kindnesses. I had some fun with this book. I hope you will, too.

10/26/92

Steve K******

It’s a simple inscription, clearly Steve was thanking Michael for something. He actually wrote his own short story in a collection of short stories and in some ways, so far anyway, it’s the most captivating. I want to know who Steve is. Will I learn more about him by reading this book? Maybe. Steve thought enough of it to buy it and gift it.

And then there is the mystery of Michael, did he hate it or perhaps even hate Steve and that’s why it ended up in a thrift store? Did he deposit it here because he moved away? And because I am gay man living in a certain time in history, I do wonder if Michael, or Steve for that matter are even still with us. I hope so.

Also, it occurred to me that since I lived in Manhattan in 1992, I might have known them or passed by them on the street. Maybe we frequented Splash or Uncle Charlie’s on the same nights or shared a lane at the Carmine Street Pool or ate at cramped nearby tables at MaryAnn’s. Maybe we auditioned for the same plays or NYU student films? Who knows?

It’s humbling and comforting that a book can live on after we lose interest or even perhaps pass on from this earthly plane. It can travel from hand to hand and touch soul after soul. Obviously, all art is like that.

So, I don’t really know how many of these San Francisco stories I will read, but I’m glad I bought the book. It seems like it’s already brought me $4 worth of joy. And maybe some day it will find it’s way into the hands of another, and I hope that person will appreciates it, too.

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This Takes Me Back

photo-37I am home now, but a few hours ago, I was walking through the David Hockney Exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.  Eric and I were in the city this week working a job together and I had a little extra time, so I went to the exhibit.  I used to live in San Francisco and as I drove along Fell and into Golden Gate Park, I remembered how I would often go for a run from my apartment near Alamo Square to the Pacific Ocean, along Fell, through the park, and then I’d turn around and run home.  I marvelled that there was ever a time when I had that much energy.

As I was walking through the exhibit, I noticed a gentleman about my Dad’s age lean in to say something to his wife.  They were looking at a rather large piece, entitled “Midsummer: East Yorkshire” which was composed of several panels of paintings.  I’d noticed him earlier, he was wearing a thin scarf around his neck and he just didn’t look like the scarf-wearing type.   He then pushed a finger up to his scarf and with a gravelly voice, whispered, “This takes me back to our trips to England.”  Then the two of them stared at the paintings in silence for a few moments, presumably lost in the memories of the vacations that they’d taken together through the years.  I don’t know the story of the scarf, if it’s something he’s dealt with for years or if it’s a new development, if it’s temporary or permanent.  He reminded me of my father, who last year for a couple of months had a tracheostomy tube and we wondered for a while if it might be permanent.  

When I saw the couple, for a moment, I thought I would write about them, then decided, no, there isn’t that much of a story.  Then in the next room, there was a very elderly couple, also taking in the same exhibit.  They were in their 90’s and the husband was bent over and the wife, who was only in slightly better shape than him, was helping him adjust his audio ear pieces that one sometimes rents at museums.  And while I was staring, yet again, I noticed my scarved friend was watching them, too.  I don’t know exactly what he was thinking, but it appeared to me, the look on his face said, “Don’t let this happen to me.”  Or maybe his look was just, “I wonder if this will be me.”  It’s hard to read looks, even when you’re a documented voyeur, I mean, people watcher.

And then, in the very next room, there was an installation called “Woldgate Woods” which depicted a road and the trees surrounding, on four different walls, at four different times of a year, April, June, early November and late November.  In the late November piece, there was snow glistening on the road and in the trees.  Certainly, it was intentionally evocative of the seasons of life and it reminded me of Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life” series, which depicts the four stages of human life.  And not only was I witnessing it at the DeYoung as I walked through those rooms.  I was a part of it.  I was a 45-year-old man, remembering those enduring, athletic runs of my youth, looking at these men at 70 and 90, wondering if this was going to be me, wondering if I could accept if it were to be my plight.

Last night, after our hosts took us to dinner in the Marina, Eric and I decided to walk from the restaurant to the home where we were staying in Pacific Heights.  After a few days of bitter cold, it was a balmy 50 degrees.  Many houses were decorated for Christmas, the Golden Gate Bridge was always within our eyeline.  As we walked around the Palace of Fine Arts, we took pictures and talked to the five swans that came to greet us at the water’s edge.  We talked about Ricky and Millie, because being around these gorgeous, flirty, talkative creatures made us miss our own gorgeous, flirty, talkative creatures back home.  And then we walked up Baker Street at what felt like a 75 degree angle, huffing, puffing, and laughing the whole way.  I guessed we laughed too much to call it romantic, but when we finally made it home, it felt like we’d made a special memory.  

And today, as I was driving down the 5 back to Los Angeles, already missing Eric, who is coming home tomorrow, it made me hope that one day, 20-40 years from now, we might be in a museum together and we might see a painting of Golden Gate Bridge, or Coit Tower, or the Presidio, or the Palace of Fine Arts and one of us (no matter what kind of shape we are in) will lean in and whisper to the other, “This takes me back to our trips to San Francisco.”

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.