Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Two Bostons, One Man

A travel agent could make quick work of it, or anybody looking at the itinerary of Mr. Fernández and I would travel to Boston on a Friday, stay and take the train down to New York on Tuesday to attend my nephew’s graduation from Columbia University. So we would travel to two cities over ten days—easy, right?

In fact, it was several cities that I was visiting, since the 58-year old unfolding of myself also incorporates the 18-year old, quivering, version of myself that I was back then trying out on the world. Or rather, the façade I would show if anyone noticed me, poked me out of my shell, and made me present myself. Which is to say that I was young, had just had my first sexual experience with a man, had grown up sheltered and with none of the wiles needed for a big city, and—as if all that weren’t enough—I had only one shot at being a professional musician, and this was it.

It was something that had worried my parents, and my father in particular. My two elder brothers had gone to the University of Wisconsin, and lived at home, where, however often it might be evaded, there was still that watchful eye. But what would Marc do, in Boston? In particular, my father obsessed about what I would do, the first minute I got off the plane. Did he assume that if I could figure that out, the momentum of whatever I chose to do would carry me along for the rest of my life? It may be: We thought that way in those days. One choice would inevitably lead to the next, and next would be the avalanche that would bury your future, your character, your honor. So what would I do, in that first moment in the airport? The question troubled him as well as me.

Here, in Puerto Rico, after decades of planing and deplaning, the question seems absurd. It didn’t then, since I could read the subtext of the question: I would arrive in Boston and be stunned by the enormity of what I had set out to do, instantly realize the complete impossibility of it, and stand in horror and frozen as swirling crowds of sophisticated Bostonians swept past me. They all, knowing utterly well what they were to do, were spinning off to their glorious destinies.

I told my father at last that I would go to baggage, and pick up my bags, which in some way assured him, though of course it didn’t take care of the subtext. But it was important to have an answer, and so I went off to Boston.

I can see it now—it was doomed before it began. Consider the teacher: A famous pedagogue who told me, before hearing me play, that everything I did was wrong. So that meant that for an entire week, I was not to play the cello, but rather to hold the bow at the frog (yes, that’s what it’s called) and then wiggle my way to the other end of the bow, called the tip. Why such foolishness? If I ever knew, I’ve forgotten, and the point was that I had to do it until I could keep the bow completely still in the air. Then—of course—I had to go back from tip to frog. Then I had to do it….

I relieve you, with those three dots of ellipsis, of the tedium I endured, because there was nothing else for me to do, that first week in Boston. I had gone with the intention of spending eight or nine hours a day practicing, so enrolling in school was pointless. I came to this idea through my cello teacher in Madison, who had adopted the same strategy, and look where he had landed! He is now an emeritus professor of the University of Wisconsin, and has only a high diploma behind his name.

So there I was, knowing nothing about how to play the cello, and having nothing to do except brood and wonder—had it been a fluke, that sex with a man? Or would I have to do what I knew, or rather face what I knew, which was that if I had been able to have sex with a man in a public park while lying down on the sharpest rocks in Southwestern Wisconsin and slapping without effect the mosquitoes off me on that July night…. Well, shouldn’t that tell me something? Especially since when I tried to have sex with a girl in the comfort of my own bed, and….

I tell myself now: I did what was quite difficult then, and is still hard for many men and women today. Did I do it well? Of course not, since I had put myself in a place where I had no friends, and no structure to make friends. In fact, I was playing spectacularly to my greatest weakness—I was tempted to make that “my smallest weakness,” which seems more logical, somehow—which was to be shy to the point of social phobia. I give you an example: For much of that year, just getting to the store for food was a victory.   

Well, I also forced myself to go to the library, since a Newhouse without a library card is sort of like a person with a below the knee amputation: We can get along, and even go places, but it’s never quite right. So I was reading books on homosexuality, to the point where I detected a passage in one (famous) book that strongly resembled a passage in another (obscure) book. So I check that out, and sure enough: Blatant plagiarism!

Only now does the though occur to me: I should have exposed the (famous) author. But that was unthinkable, since those books that I was checking out? Well, I could only get them by doing two things: squeezing the gay books between a top and bottom regular book. Then, I had to study the librarians: Who was the youngest, the most indifferent,  the least noticing? Because what if she said to me, “excuse me, young man, but I’ve noticed that you’ve checked out Growing Up Gay several times in the last few weeks. Do you need to see a professional?”

I’m sitting in a café frequented by two gay guys at two separate tables; they are young and free and of a type once called “flagrant,” which tells you what the times were like. Because if I could have done what these two kids are doing? Been as out and free and what-they-are with no thought of the consequences….wait. Put it this way—incapable of imagining that there might or could be consequences.

Oh, and consequences? Well, they were mostly internal, though there was a time when a couple of guys tossed a bottle at me on Beacon Street, after calling me a fag. Right—but a fag with nicely long legs, which worked well enough in those days, especially when powered with adrenalin.

No, the real consequences were internal, since I was not going to do anything that would lead to the inevitable. And that was the look on my father’s face, seconds after he had found out that I had been arrested in a gay bar—or even seen going into one—and seconds before he clutched his chest, gasped, staggered to his feet, croaked “I can’t breath,” and then fell to the floor, dying at once from the massive heart attack.

OK—one of the gay guys has left the café. But there’s still an opportunity: Do I go ask a complete stranger, though very much on my team, if he had ever worried about this?

Marc: Sorry, you don’t know me, but we’re both gay, though I am decades older. But I was just wondering—did you have a hard time coming out to your parents?

Complete Gay Stranger (CGS): Fuck off, Gramps!

I report—to be fair—that this dialogue is entirely imaginary, since who knows? Maybe he would be fascinated by a complete relic, since the time in which I was living—about 1976—was not long after Stonewall. OK—it was seven years after Stonewall, but the years back then were slower then. News came by your local paper, which if you were lucky had AP / UPI feeds. But was anybody writing about  what the American Psychological Association, until 1973, still called an illness?

So yes, Boston had a nascent gay community, but would I ever get near it, or even into it? Not likely, since I had no social skills, had never opened up to another person, and was in fact trapped in a pattern of reading from midafternoon to dawn, getting up at noon, experimenting for twenty minutes with the stupid bow trick, and then settling down for more…reading.

How isolated was I, in that year I spent in Boston? Well, perhaps my closest friend from high school was living a mile or so away from me at the time, and how often did I see him? Perhaps twice.  And he, of course, was coming out as well, which meant that he didn’t have the energy to pick up the phone and call me, as I didn’t have the energy to call him.

Because the closet? It has a door, and that door has to be kept closed, closed—nobody, absolutely NOBODY can get in, or peep in, or suspect, in fact, that there may even BE a door. So it’s really not a closet, unless it’s the closet of the secret chamber in your basement, the chamber you have dug alone late at night, when none of the neighbors can hear the chink of pickax against rock, and nobody can see you as you carry the bags of good, solid earth from a place which you will fill with your noxious dreams, your horrible lusts, your sickness awaiting your death.

So it takes energy, all this, since by day you have to go along worrying that someone will have seen you, in all senses of the word. Because they do, you know—and especially the ones who, like you, have built a closet, or dug a dungeon, or perhaps not. Who knows? Maybe they have no need for a dungeon, having chosen offense as the better strategy than defense. Because forget the jocks, it’s the “regular” guys who really can’t face themselves who will out you, call you a fag and a fudge packer, and laugh while you writhe.

And so, in a sense I was lucky. I didn’t have it as bad as some. Because there were a whole lot of gay men who had been there before me, and if the 70s were Wisconsin-cold, the 50s were Siberia. Which was metaphorically where many gay musicians and composers were, unless, of course, you managed to get to Paris, study with Nadia Boulanger—who taught everybody, practically—of any note—and dwell among civilized people. That’s what Ned Rorem did, and his song below, Early in the Morning, evokes so much that wonder that a young man, early in love and life, must feel. It tells you what there is—the café au lait, the croissants, the hosing down of the sidewalks of Rue François Premier, but it neglects to tell you the other, more salient, facts. Because Rorem saved those for his memoirs, when he would spill the beans about the celebrities he had bedded, the youths he had pursued, the debauches that preceded the early mornings, with their croissants and café au lait. Then it was home to bed.

I listen to this song, now, and remember a youth that was more imagined than lived. Because my own experience—then—was much more that of a somewhat lesser-known composer, Richard Hundley, whose Wikipedia page including the dead give-away for all of us homosexuals of the 70s: A complete lack of information about his personal life. OK—there’s this:

Throughout his life, Hundley has had close relationships with many of America's great composers. In the 1950's and 1960's, in addition to his teachers Thomson, Citkowitz, and Flanigan, he was in contact with Noel Farrand, Stanley Hollingsworth, John Brodkin Kelly, Lee Hoiby, David del Tredici, and John Corigliano. He also met and socialized with Marc Blitzstien, Henry Cowell, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, Alec Wilder, and Samuel Barber.  

Girlfriend, as we used to say, this ain’t no list, it’s the town’s most popular gay bar after The American Society of Composers closed their convention. And he’s skillful, this Hundley, he evokes mood just as much as Rorem. And ever since I heard the song, Come Ready and See Me, in high school, I loved it. In fact, the song  haunted me for years, with its plaintive refrain, “I can’t wait forever, for the years are running out….”

What was I waiting for? What wasn’t I waiting for, since every kid starts out with the curse of having to figure everything out and the blessing of having enough energy—for the most part—to do it. There was the cello, since I had used it to wage four or five psychic battles. There was my sexuality. And there was my depression, which may or may not have been related to all-of-the-above.

That year in Boston. Doomed, I now know, to failure. But then? I crawled out of the city after a year, went to the University of Wisconsin, buried my dream of being a musician, and clung hard to the improbable wish that I wouldn’t go through my life alone, and unseen.

And so there we were, Mr., Fernández and I, and he was looking at the buildings and the boys, since Boston has as many colleges as your lawn has dandelions, but that was ok, since I? I was whispering down the decades to a person I had left behind but also had reclaimed, since I was murmuring, “you see? It worked out OK in the end, even the cello, though that took several decades longer than estimated, but that’s all right, since the journey, with all of its trudging and wrong turns and the mud splashed up against my face, well, it was worth it.”

Did he hear me, that person who is so much myself, and so little?

I hope so.