This is a companion piece to my other job-related article, You Better Work! It’s actually in four parts, along with School Days and My Combatless Tour-of-Duty, but not in any particular order. You will have to read all four to get the full account of my work history. This installment deals primarily with my employment away from home. You will get first-hand impressions of all the places I have been in the world.
The concept of vacationing is not the same deal with me as it is with most people. Since a major part of my professional career has involved traveling, “getting away from it all” is not doing anything all that different. When I am not on tour, the way for me to take time off from my job is to stay in town and catch up on domestic things that I have neglected. That’s my idea of relaxation.
I love the deal of working while traveling. I have been places where there has been a lull, because there is nothing going on, but the fact that I have to do a show that night or at some point, gives me a purpose for being there. I can’t see myself lying around on a beach somewhere for days on end if I don’t have to be there for any other reason. The one exception so far is the three summer vacations that I spent in France.
In addition, working while traveling requires that my expenses are usually paid for, and I am being paid besides! That’s the way I roll! This has provided me a fabulous and exciting life. I’ve gotten to see and experience a lot of the world, which I never would have been able to afford otherwise. Of course, I have not been “everywhere,” as the Johnny Cash song boasts–who has?–but I have visited 37 foreign nations of the world. I have set foot on all the other continents except Australia and Antarctica.
I have friends all over the country and abroad, and everybody wants me to come visit them when I am not busy with work. But that’s the thing. I am always working on something. I wouldn’t have gotten any of my major projects done (my symphony, my albums and other music projects, or my book and blog site) if I had been running all over the place, during my time off, making idle visits to everybody I know.
For me, performing is playtime with pay. I do my real work at home. One of the fringe benefits of being with The Flirtations was the regular trips to my favorite cities where I got to visit my friends. So I just tell everybody now that they’ll have to wait until I get a gig where they live to see me, or I suggest that they come to visit me in NYC. The trains and planes and buses run in both directions, you know. .
The first time that I ever stayed overnight out-of-town was when I attended Spanish Contest in Bloomington, Indiana during my junior year of high school. We actually stayed in a motel in nearby Martinsville. I was with my Spanish teacher, Mr. Aguirre, and another student contestant. The only other outing, besides occasional day trips over the years to Chicago with the family to visit Riverview Amusement Park (it was so much fun, but it closed down in 1967), was when my high school band had a picnic-beach party at Indiana Dunes State Park (on Lake Michigan) the summer after graduation (1965). It was our last fling before we all went our separate ways, with college and whatever.
I attended Indiana University in Bloomington from 1965-69. When I first went there for Orientation, my mother and stepfather drove me down and back. During the next four years, every other time I had to go back and forth, I rode the bus. In my freshman year, and having been there for two months, I decided to go home for Thanksgiving. I must have been homesick already. I have since learned how to pack efficiently when I travel; I’ve certainly had enough experience over the years. But at that time I didn’t have a clue.
This was years before we had luggage with wheels and pull handles. All my bags were not very large, and they had to be carried. I don’t know where I thought I was going and for how long, because I must have packed everything that I owned for only a four-day trip! Since I was traveling alone, I had to shlep all of my suitcases by myself, and since I had so many, I couldn’t carry everything at once, but had to double back to retrieve the rest. I remember having to change buses in Fort Wayne, which proved problematic, luggage-wise. What was I thinking? But that was it. I guess I wasn’t thinking. Well, you live and learn.
The Singing Hoosiers (or as we were affectionately called, “The Hooting Seizures”) was a pop glee club (or “show choir” is a more modern term given this sort of group), of which I was a member during my whole time at I.U. It was an elective ensemble course for mostly non-music students who loved to sing. We did school concerts and even toured around the state doing one-nighters. To save on lodging expenses, local residents always put up group members at their houses when we had to stay over somewhere. We always wore tails (the men anyway) when we performed and employed a select subgroup called the Varsity (of which I never was a part) that stood out in front of the main group and did choreographed routines during the songs.
At the end of 1967, it was the day after Christmas, in fact, I.U.’s football team got to go to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, along with the Marching Hundred Band and the Singing Hoosiers. We were to be gone a week, all expenses paid, including meals, and there was a whole itinerary planned for us, to sightsee and perform while we were out there. We flew from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. That was my first plane flight, my first time to California and the farthest I had ever been from home, at that time. (My plane flights to date total 524.)
We were put up in the dorm at UCLA in Westwood Village. We got to perform for a company dinner at the Hollywood Palladium, where Pat Buttram and Hoagy Carmichael were in attendance and at which many members of the group got food poisoning! I, however, with my cast iron stomach, emerged unscathed. While at Disneyland, the group performed in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. We were given a tour of Universal Studios, where the musical film Sweet Charity (1969) and the TV series “It Takes a Thief” with Robert Wagner were in production at the time.
We all attended the Tournament of Roses Parade as spectators and the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day. There were people outside the stadium clamoring for tickets to the game, and I considered selling mine and could have made a lot of money in the deal. But I figured that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I shouldn’t miss out on it. As it turned out, though, I wish I had passed it up. The football game was a crashing bore to me. Spectator sports is not my thing at all. I’d rather be doing than watch someone else do. I feel the same way about opera. I don’t enjoy watching an opera performance as much as I would rather be up on the stage performing myself. Our team lost anyway. USC skunked us 14-3. An interesting note, however, is that I got to see O.J. Simpson play that day, and he was the MVP of the game!
Do you want to know from poor? For my first trip that far away and for that length of time, I went out there with only six dollars cash in my pocket! And still had three when I returned a week later! All I bought were some postcards and a new diary for the New Year. The Hoosiers once got to perform for the premiere of Funny Girl (1968) when it opened at a big theater in Indianapolis. We did our set and then they let us stay to watch the movie.
It was November 1969 when I made my first trip to New York City, with the Singing Hoosiers. I was no longer enrolled in school, but Mr. Robert Stoll, the director, allowed me to continue singing with the group anyway. I guess he liked having me around, although he never gave me any featured solos to do. Enroute we stopped in Westfield, NJ for a reception at the home of one of the women members. We spent two days in the City, performed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (but we were not put up there) and did some sightseeing. Upon our arrival to our hotel (which has since been demolished), we were surprised to see actor Tony Randall there to greet us! He knew one of the women in the group, having worked with her previously in summer stock. We also spied Col. Harland Sanders (you know, the original Kentucky Fried Chicken guy) standing on the front steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as we passed by on the bus.
On this occasion, the 46-member group was traveling by our usual bus and complementary station wagon. On the way back to Bloomington, we had stopped for a picnic lunch in Allentown, Pennsylvania at the home of another group member. When we were resuming our trip and loading the vehicles, I decided that I would like to ride in the station wagon for a while, having never done so. But a fellow colleague, Albert Blake, practically begged me to let him ride in the car. I didn’t feel that strongly about it, so I let him take the car with five others, and I got on the bus.
The motorcade was just outside Harrisburg when the station wagon, driven by a student group member, collided with a big truck at an intersection. No one was killed, thank goodness, but all five passengers were injured (David Huggins, the driver, was unharmed, however), and Albert, who had insisted on riding in the car instead of me, was sitting in the front seat (where I usually sit myself) and went through the windshield on impact! This was the days before compulsory seat belts. Al’s face got all cut up and required reconstructive surgery! I can’t believe my luck sometime. While my guardian angel apparently was looking out for me, poor Al’s must have been out-to-lunch that day! We all had to stay overnight in Harrisburg while the injured were being treated in the local hospital. I would have liked to show you a picture I took of the wrecked vehicle, but I don’t have it anymore.
After college I had the good fortune, for the most part, of serving only 22 months in the U.S. Army. That is because they let me out two months early. That’s a whole adventure story in itself, which I elaborate in full in another article (My Combatless Tour-of-Duty). But for now I will tell you that the last 17 months of my stint in the military was spent on the Japanese island of Okinawa. I was stationed there from October 1970 to March ’72, when I was 23-years-old, after my prior 16 weeks of Basic Training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky/Tennessee and Military Police School at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
When I made the permanent move to New York at the end of ‘72, my regular traveling experience was just beginning. In the last 45 years I have toured extensively with the likes of Harry Belafonte (doing vocal backup), the Robert DeCormier Singers (a singing and dancing folksong ensemble), The Flirtations (acappella vocal group), the Gregg Smith Singers (a just-stand-there-and-sing choral ensemble of 16 mixed voices), Festival Voices (an acappella mixed quartet that did public school shows), The New York Vagabonds (a pop, sing-and-dance act), and my own acappella quartet, Steamboat Gothic (who sang just about everything). As a result, I have performed in all 50 states and I’ve visited and/or played most of the major cities of this country, including 45 state capitals, and most of the provinces of Canada and their capital cities.
I have performed at or at least visited 136 colleges and universities, as well as many of the major concert halls and performing venues in this country and Canada, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles (where the Academy Awards shows were held for many years), the Johnny Carson Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Myrna Loy Theater in Helena, Montana, the Madame Walker Theater in Indianapolis, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, plus all the halls of New York’s Lincoln Center (including the Metropolitan Opera), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall many times. I have played the renowned Palace and Schubert Theaters here, but I have yet to play the Apollo or Beacon Theater. I also dream of playing the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. I have stayed in the best plush hotels and I have stayed in the worst dives as well.
The DeCormier ensemble was a mixed group in every sense of the word—by gender, ethnicity, vocal category and sexual orientation. The shows we did were basically folksongs from around the world, but the selections were all staged, with costumes, lighting, major choreography and inventive, modern arrangements; we didn’t just stand up there and sing. For me, that made the experience all the more enjoyable. We traveled by bus all over the U.S. and Canada doing one-nighters in mostly little, out-of-the-way, podunk towns. Come on, Cherokee Village, Arkansas and Warner Robins, Georgia, for example?!
I think that the most uneventful town that I ever had to perform in must be Shamrock, Texas (dubbed “The Irish City”), where we visited during the 1983 tour. We got there around noon on a Friday. I had some lunch then decided to go into the main section of town to cash my paycheck and do some shopping. The streets were quite deserted, and the bank and all the stores were already closed for the day, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon! I thought, Where is everybody? Do they take siestas here, too? Even if all the citizens there had been Jewish, it’s not sundown yet! Is this tired, or what? We didn’t have much of a turnout at the concert that night either. I don’t know why we were even booked in such a place. Shamrock is not even included on the Texas map in my Rand McNally atlas book. I guess the editors figured, “Why waste the print?”
I like to take pictures of just about every place I visit just to have some record that I was there. The only thing in Shamrock that was of any interest to me to take a picture of was their water tower (for my photo collection)! I also liked sending postcards from unusual places during my travels, and the cards usually depict the tourist attractions of the particular town or region. The only postcards that were available for Shamrock was a picture of a signpost with the town’s name on it and one with a depiction of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Main Street. Apparently, there was nothing else in the entire town that was worthy of a postcard! The caption on the parade card said that thousands (!) of visitors come to Shamrock each year to celebrate “Irish Day.” They all must be from neighboring areas, I would think. I can’t imagine anybody traveling great distances to attend a stupid parade. “So, Ms. O’Grady, after your March wedding here in your hometown of Anchorage, where are you going on your honeymoon?” “Oh, Mrs. O’Leary, that darling man of mine is taking me to Shamrock, Texas for Irish Day!” “Really? Ooh, lucky you!”
The way really to see the country is to travel by ground vehicle, and I have had many opportunities to do just that during my cross-country bus tours with Bob DeCormier and later with Gregg Smith. I made an interesting observation while traveling through the plain states of the West—Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming—you know, all those big, wide-open states out there. You can travel for miles and miles and not encounter anything. I mean, nada! Just flat, empty, wasted space for many miles. Then occasionally you come upon a residential community with rows of houses and streets. But these houses are built right next to each other, no more than five feet apart! I mean, they have this huge expanse of land where they could spread out, but they choose to live all bunched up together! I don’t mind having neighbors to socialize with, but I don’t want them to be able to look directly into my bedroom window! I like privacy and space. Of course, urban living is a different situation. Manhattan, for instance, being an island, our space is definitely limited, so we have to live on top of each other; it’s unavoidable. But there is no excuse for it out there. They have the space and they don’t use it. I guess some people have this great need for community and proximity, a sense of belonging somewhere.
During the 1977 tour when Bob’s group played San Diego, California, we had a night off, so a group of us took the opportunity to visit Tijuana, Mexico. We spent a good portion of the time going about the town inquiring about the alleged “Donkey Show.” That’s where a woman is purported to have sex with a real, live donkey onstage! We never did find it that night, however, but fellow colleague, David Düsing, now deceased, commemorated our efforts by composing a limerick in my honor, which he shared at a subsequent party. I actually did utter the last line to a Mexican cab driver, which most likely inspired the verse.
Our Cliff’s brow was raised in a furrow
When informed, “No, it’s just the girl.”
Said he with a laugh,
“But that’s only one half!
¿Dónde está el burro?!”
I actually used the correct pronunciation of burro, as I do know Spanish. But David wanted it to rhyme, which adds to the humor, I suppose. We crossed the Mexican border another time into Ciudad Juarez, when we played El Paso, Texas one year. While in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island in Canada, a posh reception was held for us at the Governor’s mansion. I got to visit Mount Rushmore when we played nearby Rapid City, South Dakota.
During these tour days with the DeCormier Singers, there were several unpleasant encounters with the law and local citizenry. In the spring of 1975 the ensemble had the occasion to perform in an auditorium of Walker College in the small Southern town of Jasper, Alabama. That year the group consisted of three black men, all gay, and the other ten singers were white. We did notice a rather less-than-warm response by the end of the show, and word got back to us from someone on our technical crew that during the intermission, some members of the audience were overheard making snide comments. They apparently were quite outraged by “them trashy women up there dancin’ with them nigger men.” It didn’t occur to them that the men in question might all be queer, therefore no threat to the heterosexual status quo, if that even would have mattered.
We used risers and a portable shell for our shows, and it was normal policy to hire local volunteers to unload the tour bus, set up the stage equipment and then take it all down at the end. Well, it was reported back on the bus that someone had scrawled swastikas and “KKK”s on the back of our shell. It had to have been one or more of the student volunteers.
You know, I find it interesting that if the Klan is so proud of their convictions, why do they hide their faces behind those hoods and sheets when they go out on their night rides, and establish their organization as a Secret Society? No one has ever admitted to me that they are a member of the Ku Klux Klan. They’re not ashamed, are they? It’s just like the German Nazis, when they were killing all those Jews and other people. They were so committed to their cause and were forever justifying their actions, yet they were so clandestine about it and tried to cover up their dastardly deeds. Even after the War, most of them fled the country, went into hiding and concealed their true identities. If they hadn’t done anything wrong, then why the secrecy? By the way, where do the Klan get their outfits? Is there a K.K.K-Mart that they all shop at? “Every day here is a White Sale.”
But I digress. Later that evening in Jasper, when the bus dropped us off at the motel, without changing our costumes, three of the women and I decided to go look for something to eat, as we are usually a bit peckish after the show. There was an open 7-11 right down the road that we could walk to. But before we even got to the store, we were approached by the cops and questioned. They wanted to know what a “nigra” man was doing walking alongside a country road with three heavily-made-up white women. They must all be hookers, and I must be their pimp, you see. I guess we didn’t convince them that we were really errant entertainers, because they patrolled our motel the rest of the night, I suppose trying to catch my girls’ johns going in and out. We were certainly glad to get out of that town the next morning.
In Birmingham the very next day, we had stopped to refuel at a filling station. When the white attendant came onto the bus to get his pay from the driver (who was also black), he looked the bus over, then announced, to no one in particular, “Hey, you know we had a busload of darkies come through here jes’ th’other day!” We all looked at each other quizzically and thought, ‘So, what’s your point?’ And does only four constitute a “busload”? What I have discovered about Southern bigots is that at least they are more outspoken about their feelings towards blacks. They will tell you right to your face what is on their mind, so you know where you stand with them. I have more respect for someone like that because of their honesty, despite the sentiment.
Sometimes mistaken identity is a factor. During the DeCormier tour in the fall of 1976 when we were in Franklin, Maryland, I had just finished having lunch in the local mini-mall right next to our motel, when, as I was crossing the parking area, heading home, several squad cars, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, came speeding up toward me. They jumped out, with weapons drawn and pointing at me, grabbed me, threw me against one of the cars, frisked me, and informed me that I had been “positively identified” as the person who had robbed the mall bank just minutes before. I was then escorted to the bank, right there on the premises, to confront my accusers, who informed the arresting officers, “Oops, sorry! That’s not him.” I’m not? Are you sure?
It was an understandable mistake, I should realize, because we all look so much alike, don’t you know. I’m pretty sure that the only description given to the police when they reported the robbery is that he was black. That’s all they ever notice. So any black person that they encounter must be the guy, right? Whites get more detailed descriptions. They will tell you their height, weight, hair color, age-approximation and what they are wearing. With us, the only thing they get is, “Well, he was black.“ Oh, well, that certainly narrows it down then!
They did let me go eventually, but not without first confirming my identity with my tour manager. They wouldn’t just take my word on who I said I was. Of course, I got no kind of apology from the cops for their false arrest or for the abject humiliation and terror that they had just put me through. I am so grateful, at least, that none of them became trigger-happy that day. They easily could have shot me dead on the spot and then asked questions later. Never mind that at the time I was apprehended, I was not carrying anything in my hands, and it apparently never occurred to them where I had so quickly stashed the loot I supposedly had just stolen. Also, why on earth would I hang around the place, on foot, after robbing the bank and wait for the cops to come and arrest me? The real robber was long gone by this time. Didn’t they consider any of that? I guess we mustn’t let common sense and logic interfere with law enforcement, must we?
In all fairness, though, mistaken identity is not just a black occurrence, of course. The police are always fingering the wrong people, white as well as black, for crimes that they did not commit. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957), for example, which is supposedly based on a true story, innocent Henry Fonda is accused of committing armed robbery, and all of the witnesses are positive and swear that he is the guy. When they eventually catch the real culprit, the actor that they cast does not look all that much like Fonda. I thought, How could they mistake that guy with Henry Fonda? So I guess y’all can’t even tell yourselves apart! But in the case of whites, they usually have a stronger case and more proof of identification than just a mere “That’s the one!” which is all that is required for us to get a conviction.
The next year in Walla Walla, Washington (October 1977)–yep, every year it‘s something, isn‘t it?–my friend and colleague, Lloyd, and I were doing our laundry at a local laundromat when a police car drove up, approached me inside and informed me that they had received a call from someone reporting that I was overheard plotting with my companion to rob the supermarket next door, where just prior we had gone for sodas. The charge was, get this, “premeditated, attempted armed robbery!” That is understandable, though, since I always plan my robberies in full earshot of the people I intend to rob. I mean, it’s only fair that I warn them first, right? And of course, I always pack my rod when I do my laundry. I never know when I’m going to need it, you see. Do you think that they consulted their list of gay holdup crooks to find me? It must be a sexual orientation issue, after all. It couldn’t be a racial thing, can it? I wonder, though, how they were able to identify me, since I was a stranger in town and nobody knew my name? Hmm.
Who would make up such a story and for what reason? I am rather wary of these so-called “anonymous tips.” I suspect that often they are means to divert attention from themselves. While the cops are checking out the innocent subject of a report, the caller may be the one actually committing a crime. But then again, those cops could have been acting solely on their own. Did they really get a phone call? You know, another case of pissing on me and telling me that it’s water! They probably saw me on the street and just wanted to harass me. But why were they speaking to only me? My “partner-in-crime” Lloyd was standing right there with me, but they didn’t say a word to him. What, all of a sudden now it’s the black guy who is the brilliant mastermind of this heist, and poor, innocent Lloyd is being coerced by me to go along with the plan?
I could have been fag bashed in Cheyenne, Wyoming once, if my attacker had known, or even cared, that I was gay. But that didn’t matter. I was assaulted for another, more important reason. This was just four days before my “attempted armed robbery” caper in Walla Walla. I was out strolling the streets of Cheyenne alone after our show that night, when I happened upon an apparently straight bar that caught my attention and interest because I spied through the large front window some cute, young men inside shooting pool. I went in so that I might observe them more closely, sat at the bar and ordered a beer.
No sooner had I sat down when I heard a male voice behind me quite audibly say, “So, they’re lettin’ niggers in here now, huh?” No, he didn’t whisper it, he wanted me to hear him. Should I ignore him, I thought, or should I get the hell out of here right now? As a rule, I’m not one to be intimidated by anyone. Besides, he was not the proprietor but only a patron himself, so the hell with him! I just sat right there and continued to sip my beer (and cruise the boys playing pool).
The asshole peckerwood continued to make his disparaging remarks, and I eventually got up and went into the adjoining pool area so that I wouldn’t have to listen to his shit. The lights were full up in the place, another indication that it was not a gay bar. And then before I realized what was happening, the redneck cracker had followed me into the other room, walked over to me and proceeded to punch me in the face with his fist, knocking my glasses off but not breaking them. I am a committed pacifist, and physical violence is not my thing at all, even if I’m provoked. I believe that I can take care of myself if I have to–after all, I have been trained in military hand-to-hand combat–but the guy had caught me by surprise, and nobody else in the bar even attempted to intervene or come to my defense. He could have had a deadly weapon, and I didn’t know anybody there to depend on for help if things got any uglier, so I retrieved my glasses off the floor and made a beeline for the door. The guy did manage, though, to get in a couple more licks before I could get away from him.
So, I wasn’t attacked for being a faggot but for being a black person, although the state of Wyoming is not without its homophobes, too. Remember that it was in Laramie that poor Matthew Shepard met his unfortunate demise at the hands of vicious fag bashers. What I find so maddeningly-inexcusable about this and other racial incidents, though, is that it did not happen in some place like Selma, Alabama or “Redneckville,” Mississippi. Ironically, I have experienced more racial discrimination in major Northern cities than I have in the podunk South. Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York are Northern states. Washington and Wyoming are Northwestern states. I didn’t get physically assaulted in Alabama or Mississippi.
We have heard of blacks being harassed by policemen for driving expensive cars. Even rich movie/TV stars like Wesley Snipes and Blair Underwood are under frequent scrutiny by L.A. cops. “What is that black guy doing driving that fancy car? It must be stolen. Be sure to check it for drugs, too, while we’re at it.” They think that no black person can afford a decent car. Shouldn’t we, with the means, be allowed to own nice automobiles, like your good, white folks? They have even come up with a special violation just for us: “D.W.B.”—Driving While Black, which gives them an excuse to pull us over for no other reason than just being that.
Since I don’t have a car and don‘t drive, I did a lot of walking when I was on the road, but I often got harassed by the cops, too, although my crime was merely “W.W.B.”—Walking While Black. In September 1975 I attended the cast party for a show I was in, entitled Sing America Sing, which was being held at a private home in Greenwich, Connecticut. I took the train up there from Manhattan, and as there was no one to meet me when I arrived at the station, I decided to find my way to the home of our music director, Ron Frangipane, on my own. It was already dark out and having been told that it was not far, I decided to walk.
When I got about two blocks from his house, I was approached by two uniformed, white police officers in their squad car, who asked me what I was doing there and where was I going. They told me that they had received a call from someone reporting “a suspicious character of your description lurking the streets.” So a person cannot walk on a public street without it being construed as lurking? Purportedly, there was a “cat burglar” at large in the neighborhood, or so they said. They took my name, and since we are all pathological liars, you know, while one of the cops detained me with him, the other one actually went to Ron’s house and asked him if he knew me and if he was expecting me! Since my story checked out, they eventually let me go on my way.
I can appreciate that those cops were only doing their job. I mean, they have to protect their town from that pervasive queer element, don’t they? I’m not even buying that burglar excuse. They have to make up something, rather than admit the real reason why they stopped me. But I am the bold-faced liar, right? If there had been a burglar at large in the neighborhood, and they apparently knew what he looked like, since I matched his description, why had they not caught him yet? Nobody was around when he was actually committing his crimes, but now they conveniently show up when they see me walking on the street?
If I had been the culprit, I wouldn’t be returning to the scene of the crime or out in the open on a public street where the cops could find me. But my other question is, why would somebody want to burgle a cat anyway? By the way, Greenwich is the very place where some white high school students got away with getting their subtly-cryptic message of “Kill All the Niggers!” published in their 1995 yearbook!
I met Harry Belafonte through my association with Bob DeCormier. I was a great fan of Harry and grew up listening to his records. Who woulda thunk it that I would someday be working with him and he’d be paying me big bucks for the privilege? Bob worked as Harry’s musical director back in the fifties and sixties. He also musically managed Peter, Paul & Mary’s act for many years. Bob’s forming of the Belafonte Folk Singers, which was all-male, was his inspiration for subsequently forming his own touring mixed ensemble, the DeCormier Singers. I did seven concert tours with Bob on and off from 1975 to 1988 (it was a different group each time), plus various concerts in the City and several recordings. Even as a nonagenarian, Bob still did occasional freelance conducting. Alas, we just lost Bob to kidney failure on November 7, 2017, just two months shy of his 96th birthday. He was a wonderful musician, colleague and friend.
During the fall of 1977 Bob and Harry both were on concurrent tours with their respective groups. Bob’s group consisted of 13 singers. Harry traveled with 6 backup singers (3 men and 3 women) and a 7-man band. It was planned for both our tours to finish at the end of November, at which time both tour groups were scheduled to do a whirlwind winter tour of Canada together. The occasion was a benefit fundraiser for all the major orchestras of Canada. We all met in Toronto on November 30 to rehearse the show that we would be doing for the next three weeks. In addition to the Toronto Symphony, we did the Saskatoon Symphony, the Winnipeg Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony, the Calgary Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the National Symphony of Ottawa and the Atlantic Symphony of Halifax, flying all the way. Montreal had to bow out, as they were on strike, so we didn’t make it there, that time. These were all one-nighters, but we did have some days off in between engagements.
It was snowy and cold everywhere we went. In fact, Saskatoon had a blizzard while we were there, and Edmonton turned out to be the coldest place I have ever been in my life. It was 40 degrees below zero! That is the point on the thermometer where both Celsius and Fahrenheit meet up, so that’s cold by anybody’s standards! It was so cold… (“How cold was it?!”) It was so cold that the air was frozen! You could see ice crystals hovering.
Anyway, Harry was scheduled to return to the same cities the following spring to do his own show, and he needed a couple more male singers to replace the two who were leaving his company. I was recommended for the job by a longtime Belafonte associate and South Bend homeboy and friend, tenor Arthur Williams. So having already met me and worked with me, Harry readily hired me for his upcoming Canadian tour.
The first leg of the tour was 12 weeks long, beginning on March 18 and went to June 8. This time we got to stay in each city for a week (including Montreal this time), except for Regina (Saskatchewan) and Saskatoon, where we split the week, and Toronto, where we played for three weeks. I even got to fly my mother and sister to see me in Toronto and to meet Harry. While he was still Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau came to see Harry’s show when we played Ottawa.
We also did some one-nighters in the Ontario towns of Hamilton, Kitchener, London and Peterborough. I remember that London’s show venue was a hockey arena. It was a Saturday night, and some of the attendees seemed to be pretty wasted already. As soon as Harry came out on stage, some drunken idiot yelled out, “Hey, Harry, sing ‘Day-O!'” I thought, How gauche! Let the man do his show. Anyone with any couth knows that one should make song requests at the end of a concert, not at the beginning. Wait and see if a song you like will be done before you ask for it.
This was a pretty good job, in most respects. Harry was paying me $500 a week to sit on a stool onstage and go, # Ooooo… # every night, so the money was good, and there were travel fringe benefits. We got to stay in the best hotels in Canada, which he paid for. Well, the second-best, really. Harry himself stayed in the best ones. I suppose what I mean by best is the most expensive. But I didn’t care. They all were pretty luxurious to me. Harry never liked to stay in the same hotel as his company. As it was, we never got to see him except during the shows and while traveling.
He didn’t have a choice in Hamilton, however, since they have only one major hotel. He would get onstage and throw shade at the people every night, telling them that they need to get a hotel, meaning, an alternative one that he wouldn’t have to share with the likes of us peons. The city is not all that big. Why would any city go to the added expense and trouble of building a whole new hotel just to accommodate Harry the few times that he may be in town? Some rich people are such snobs. Of course, he could have been just kidding, but knowing Harry, he could have been serious as well. Even in jest, there is some truth. He also would make fun of the Chinese eatery right across the street from the hotel, called Take-ee Out-ee. I loved the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton. I thought it was quite plush. The rooms even have kitchen facilities.
When we were in Calgary, Alberta, a group of us went to visit nearby Banff and Lake Louise. It is so beautiful up there. We went submerging in a hot springs pool located atop a snow-capped mountain! We had some wonderful company meals, too. One of my most memorable was the one to which Harry treated us all on our night off in Toronto. It was a fabulous soul food restaurant called The Underground Railroad. Chile, that was some of the best food I have ever tasted in my life! I liked to ate [sic] myself to death! I was in pain hobbling back to the hotel! I had hoped to revisit that place when I returned to Toronto years later, but it is no longer there.
Harry took the company to Bermuda for two days at the end of June that same year, where we played the pink-painted Princess Hotel. I did not enjoy my little leisure time in Bermuda so much, because I was constantly in the hot, blazing sun. Where I was staying, there were no trees, so hardly any shade anywhere. Unlike you whities, I don’t need or want so much sun exposure that badly. I prefer lots of shade. The ocean water was nice, though, very clear and warm.
Then next to Monte-Carlo (yes, they do spell it with the hyphen) the first 11 days in August, where we actually performed for the Royal Couple—Prince Rainier and Princess Grace! From where I was sitting on the stage of the Sporting Club, which is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, I could look out the back window and see the royal palace in moonlight silhouetted against the night sky. That was such an awesome sight! Also in the audience opening night were actor Gina Lollobrigida and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, a friend and colleague of Harry, whom I got to meet.
For me, eleven days in Monte-Carlo was about nine days too many. It’s just a tiny nothing village built on the side of a hill which slopes down to the sea. The entire town I managed to sightsee in the course of one afternoon! I learned that all of Monaco itself could fit inside New York’s Central Park, with room to spare! I couldn’t take any day trips anywhere because we had a show to do every evening.
The place caters to the idle rich, who lie around on the rocky beaches all day (instead of sand, the terrain is made up of varying sizes of rocks!), keep their expensive yachts harbored in the marina, and spend their nights gambling in the casino. I never gambled there, however. The stakes there were much too high for my modest, meager, monetary means. I confined my gambling, such as it was, to the quarter slot machines, found here and there around the square. I started out with a dollar’s worth, which won me a few extra quarters. So every day I would use the same quarters that I had already won previously to play the machines. That way I never lost any money. The trick with gambling is to know when to quit. Most suckers don’t seem to get that. Instead of quitting while they are ahead, they get greedy and hold out for more and end up losing it all.
I did enjoy staying in the Hermitage, an elegant, old hotel located right on the main square of town. Right across the street from my hotel was a park that was said to include every kind of plant and flower available in the area. It was sort of a garden museum, if you will. The night cruising was good there as well! Harry even paid all of our expenses on the Bermuda and Monaco trips.
The downside of the job was that Harry was the main attraction and did not give the singers a whole lot to do in the show. So after a while (I did 85 shows with him) it got to be so routine and rather boring for me. Harry expected all the members of his company to laugh at the same old tired jokes night after night, as if it were the first time we had heard them.
Since I hadn’t planned on making my life’s career doing unacknowledged backup for Harry Belafonte, when those tours were over, I decided I wanted to do something else. But I don’t regret it in the least. It was fun while it lasted. Next! And I will always be grateful to Harry for making it possible for me to get this apartment that I now live in. That just means that the money I earned working for him was what I used to pay the deposit and first few months of rent.
Steamboat Gothic got its start on the street, for the most part. We would work the Broadway Theater district, performing for the theatergoers before and after the shows. Our acappella repertoire was quite varied. We sang everything, including madrigals, early music, German lieder, sacred motets, spirituals and operatic ensembles, but we specialized in barbershop, and we were damn good, too! And isn’t that a great name! Steamboat Gothic is a type of Southern architectural style, exemplified by ornate flamboyance, strong, roguish gusto, and favored by retired riverboat captains.
Actually, the first indoor gig that we did, at a church dinner, we didn’t have a name yet, so the person who hired us gave us one, listing us on the program as “A Joyful Noise Quartet.” How so “Up With People” that sounds. We immediately needed a new name. The Deluxe Barbershop Quartet had already been used by my high-school group, and besides, barbershop wasn’t the only thing that we sang. We rejected “The Four Skins” for obvious reasons. I don’t even remember all the names that were suggested. It was Southern native Phil Sneed who eventually came up with Steamboat Gothic.
We sang a lot of street fairs and church concerts, a few weddings and private parties, and we once got to do a live radio broadcast via satellite to Paris, France from beneath the Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village! We never got to travel abroad, except for a brief stint in Canada. From 1976 to 1985 there were many personnel changes (19 different combinations in all), but it was the original lineup (below) who ironically got to sing the last gig that the group did. And of those four originals, I am the only one still alive! Leo died of drug addiction and AIDS, Gene died of a crack-induced heart attack, and Leslie was savagely murdered.
Bill Carney and Phil Sneed replaced Gene and Leslie for our 6-week, Midwest Community Concerts series tour in 1982. We could have gotten more, but we didn’t want to be out longer than six weeks. It was Leo’s first tour of this kind, and he wasn’t as used to the rigors of touring as the rest of us were. Plus, this was January and February of the coldest, severest winter I have ever experienced before or since, so I’m glad now that we didn’t have to stay out any longer than we did. We played one-nighters in minor towns in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
(# …They call the wind Maria… #) I call her “Henrietta Hawk.” Do you remember the winter of ’82, those who are old enough? There were tons of snow everywhere! Even Atlanta had a blizzard! The city didn’t even own a snowplow. We served as our own tour managers, and our producers gave us a station wagon to use, which turned out to be a real lemon. The thing kept breaking down on us. Our very first engagement was in Killarney, Manitoba, to where we drove from Minneapolis, after a major snowfall. Even before we left Minnesota, traffic had become virtually non-existent. There were no other cars on the road except us! We were the only ones going to Killarney, and nobody was leaving it, apparently. We passed many vehicles, stranded on the road and covered with snow.
We had to stop at the Canadian border to clear customs, and when we went back outside, the car wouldn’t start! It just died right there at the border and had to be towed into town. The damned thing broke down three more times in two weeks, until they had to give us a replacement. I never saw so much snow as what we encountered those weeks. The day we were in Redfield, South Dakota, was the worst. It was so cold, and the wind chill factor was so severe, it was painful. I mean, Henrietta was kicking some butt that day!
I thought it interesting and quite flattering that our producers could sell us to people who had never heard us or even heard of us. But we didn’t let anybody down. We were an unqualified hit in every place we played. One elderly couple in Pierre, South Dakota came up to us after the show to thank us and said, “We live for these concerts!” I thought, Oh, you poor things! Is this all you have going for you?
The one exception was our concert in Silver Bay, Minnesota. We were caught in another blizzard the day before, enroute from Waseca and had to spend the night in “Dulluth.” This required our show to be postponed until the next night, which turned out to be Super Bowl Sunday, and a good part of our audience, especially the men, did not want to be there, as they were missing the game (their wives had dragged them there). The general response that night was less than enthusiastic. It wasn’t our fault, we were just victims of circumstance and bad timing. Otherwise, we got great reviews, and mostly all of them mentioned that they liked my arrangements (I contributed four).
I put the concert program together and also wrote the script (our in-between-songs patter) for the show. I was really the unofficial manager of the group by default, since I was the one who got us most of our gigs, negotiated the fees for our tour, set up and organized the rehearsals, was in charge of all the music, and I was the only one of us who contributed any arrangements. But we always got equal pay across the board. I wouldn’t have minded that situation if the other guys had not taken me for granted and made me feel unappreciated. So one day I decided to stop doing anything regarding the group. I wanted to see if someone else would take the initiative to keep us going. Nobody did, so the group folded. Apparently, the other guys were on board as long as they did not have to do any preparatory work themselves. For them it was just take the money and run.
Just about the time in 1985 when I had done my last gig under the banner of Steamboat Gothic, I was getting involved in the founding of another mixed acappella quartet anyway called Festival Voices, aka Quatraine (when we did extra-curricular gigs). For 12 years we provided entertainment to the inner-city public schools of New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas. Festival of Music (the name has since been changed to Arts Horizons), an arts-in-education agency in Englewood, NJ, already had Festival Brass, Festival Percussion, Festival Strings and Festival Woodwinds on their roster and they were in need of a vocal ensemble to complete the instrumental families. So founder and President John Devol contacted me to put a group and show together for the agency. I called a few of my colleagues and together we developed a fabulous show, and in just our first season out, became the most popular group on the agency’s roster.
Our special appeal was probably due to the fact that, unlike the other instrumental groups, which the children could only listen to and not participate themselves, we allowed our young audiences to sing with us during portions of our program. Playing a musical instrument is a learned skill, while anyone with a voice is able to produce vocal sounds. The kids enjoyed doing as well as listening and learning. In this group, too, singers came and went often—there were 51 different combinations of personnel during its incarnation—and I am the only original member who stayed with the group until the very end!
One of our regular altos was Moné Walton, who had aspirations to be an actor. When she left the group, her thespian dream has been realized. With a name change to Monnae Michaell, our girl is in Hollywood working constantly on television. She keeps turning up on many of my favorite programs and in commercials. I am so proud of her. You go, girl! Another of our altos was jazz singer and teacher Amy London, who was in the entire run of City of Angels on Broadway.
Eventually, we all got discouraged by the scarcity of bookings the last couple of seasons and decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. Although I enjoyed doing the show, I didn’t care, at that point, if we continued or not. So we did our last one, my 500th show, on June 3, 1997. If John has put another group together to replace us, he is doing it without me. Since we had more engagements in New Jersey than anywhere else, it has become my most-traveled state and where I have been in more towns and locations than anywhere, at least in this country.
While I was employed with the New York City Opera chorus from 1984-1990, I got to go on several trips with the company. We went to Wolftrap in Vienna, Virginia, Saratoga in upstate NY one year, Niagara Falls and Costa Mesa, California. The show performed in each place? Carmen!
In my You Better Work! blog, I give you the lowdown of my experience appearing as a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But it was not my first attempt to get on a TV game show. In the past, in NYC, I auditioned for, but didn’t get on, “Jackpot” and “$10,000 Pyramid.” I have been trying to get on “Jeopardy!” since 1973, when the show was produced in NYC and Art Fleming was the host. The second time that I auditioned in person was in 1987 in Los Angeles. I don’t remember much about that first audition, so it’s this second time that I will tell you about.
The month was January and NYCO was on tour in Costa Mesa to initiate their brand new opera house and civic arts center. We were there for one week, and when I first arrived, on a Monday, I called up the number I had for “Jeopardy!”, got a live person on the line, and I told her that I was in town for the week and would like to audition for the show. Luckily, they were holding auditions the following Friday, which was my day off.
When I set out early that Friday morning, I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I was determined. I was off on another adventure. Since I don’t drive, I had to rely on public transportation to get me there. First, I took a city bus from Costa Mesa to the nearest town that had a train station. The train dropped me off somewhere in L.A., but nowhere near the studio, so I jumped in a taxicab, and he took me the rest of the way. I found the studio and I had arrived on time.
To make a long story shorter, I did take their test, but I didn’t score high enough to qualify as a contestant. Oh, well! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Auditions for the show are now conducted online in the comfort of our home. I have taken the test several times in this fashion, but have yet scored high enough to make the grade. I’m not giving up, though. Appearing on “Jeopardy!” is on my Bucket List.
So anyway, after I left the “Jeopardy!” testing center in L.A., I didn’t have to go back to Costa Mesa right away. It wasn’t even noon yet, so I decided to spend the rest of the day in Hollywood, as I had tomorrow morning and afternoon off as well. It was cold that day, and I had left home without a proper jacket. I called some friends in town, but nobody was home; they were all at work. So I roamed the streets all afternoon, ate, did some shopping. Later that evening, in front of Mann’s (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theater, a guy came by offering free tickets to some TV shows. Oh, what the hell! I’m not doing anything, so I chose “Valerie.”
Valerie Harper was still with the show at the time, so the title had not yet been changed to “The Hogan Family.” They even had a shuttle van to take us to Century City and back. Jason Bateman was standing right at the door where we entered the studio. It was his birthday, I remember. So that night I got to participate in an episode of a TV sitcom, being “taped before a live audience.”
I made my second visit to Disneyland, too, while I was out there. One of the young supers in the opera, a cute, little, Italian number named Dino from San Clemente, invited me to go with him (and his girlfriend) on our next day off (Sunday), and we spent the entire day. We were there when the place opened at 0900 and left when it closed at midnight.
The Gregg Smith Singers also was affiliated with Community Concerts. My time with them (1985) involved traveling cross-country and back (from New York to California via Florida and Texas) by bus doing one-nighters. As I was replacing someone who had dropped out of the group after their Asian-Hawaiian tour, and they were doing the exact same show on this subsequent tour, I didn’t get any rehearsal beforehand (all the music was memorized) and had to learn the show on the road, on my feet!
On this occasion I got to work with the Bass Section of Life! There were four of us on the part (Leslie Dorsey, Walter Richardson, Charles Robert Stephens and me), and we were all equally matched as far as reading ability, musicianship and competence goes. It was such a pleasure to sing with guys of such pitch accuracy and dependability. Our special gifts apparently did not go unnoticed, because after every concert, without fail—and we were in a different city every night—someone from the audience would come up to compliment us. “God, those basses! … The bass section is incredible! … Man, you guys are good!” Yes, we are, aren’t we? It really feels good when people let artists know that they appreciate the job we’re doing for them. It is all for you, you know, our public. What good is having talent if it is not shared with anyone?
A special tour highlight for me was getting to spend three days and nights in the Reynolda House, on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That’s the old homestead mansion of the tobacco tycoons Reynolds family, which is now an American art museum, but they also put up occasional guests. I love big, old houses, and this place was huge, so it was a real treat for me to lodge there. While exploring the house, I discovered that the place had an indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley, and as a nocturnal diversion one night, I went about the house counting the bathrooms. I think there were as many as fifteen! We also gave a concert in the main hall one evening.
We had a whole week off in Los Angeles. I stayed in Hollywood with friends who had recently moved out there from New York. My friend, Jon P., who also sang with the group, had a birthday that week, so I took him with me to see La Cage aux Folles, playing at the Pantages Theatre. We resumed the tour by performing at the L.A. Museum, which is right next to the Tar Pits, then returned east. Gregg subsequently developed severe diabetes, which prevented him from walking, but he still could conduct. But he never got any better and finally died last July (2017), just five weeks shy of his 85th birthday.
The Flirtations had been together for over a year when I joined them. Jon Arterton, the founder and manager, sang baritone, and Aurelio Font, with whom I sang in church choir together, sang tenor. Michael Callen, AIDS activist and PWA (Person With AIDS) himself, provided the top voice and much of the comic aspect for the act. We were billed as “the first openly-gay, acappella group.” As Stephen Sondheim once advised, “You gotta get a gimmick.” So that was ours. The group started out with six men until one dropped out. Then another member left and I stepped in to replace him during the summer of 1989. They didn’t have a bass anyway, so I provided a foundation for the group and some more color besides!
Taking me on also lent an air of professionalism to the group. Before I got with them, all they were doing were protest rallies and street fairs for no money. I let them know right off the bat that if I was going to spend all this time working with them, I needed to get paid. This is a job. I’m not just playing around here! So when we started charging for public appearances, people began to take us seriously. We eventually got enough work so that we could receive a weekly salary, even when we weren’t working.
Our tenor T.J. Myers died of AIDS the following summer, and Jimmy Rutland took his place. This was the quintet combination that enjoyed the greatest success, from 1990-1994, and I can immodestly say that my addition to the ensemble had a lot to do with our popularity. I won us many adoring fans during my time with them. I made the other guys all better musicians, too, as they tried to equal my expertise. Instead of small-town venues as I was subject to prior, The Flirts (as we were affectionately called) got to play many of the major cities across the country as well as Canada. By February 1993, however, Michael had became too sick to travel and perform with us, and failing to find a suitable replacement for him, we decided to continue on as a quartet. This worked out for almost two more years.
The Fabulous Flirtations (another earned epithet) got to perform as headliners at several music festivals in New England and Canada. We did the Vancouver Folk Music Festival twice, in 1991 and ’93, the Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival in Valhalla, NY, June ’93, the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Hillsdale, NY, both in July 1994. Twice while in Orlando, Florida in 1990, we visited Walt Disney World and Epcot Center. We got VIP treatment and did not have to wait in line for any of the rides and attractions.
I, alone or with The Flirtations, have participated in the Gay Pride Celebrations held in Asbury Park and Princeton (NJ), Boston, Burlington (Vermont), Cleveland, Dallas, Eugene (Oregon), Henniker (New Hampshire), Madison (Wisconsin), New Orleans, NYC, Provincetown (Massachusetts), Richmond (Virginia), San Diego, San Francisco, Tucson and Washington DC. In the Madison and P-town parades, the Flirts even got to ride in a car, not that I ever actually had to march in any of these Pride Parades.
We did an impromptu performance in front of the nation’s White House during an ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) protest in October 1992. We were just there attending the rally, when someone in the crowd recognized us and insisted that we sing something. We chose, appropriately, “Living in Wartime,” Michael’s diatribe of the apathetic response, by the Government, to the AIDS crisis. The senior Bushes were not there to hear it, unfortunately.
Although I did touch down on Hawaiian ground when we stopped in Honolulu to refuel enroute to Okinawa back in 1970, I didn’t get to see much of anything, since we were there for only 30 minutes. I didn’t even get off the plane. I had always felt cheated, having actually been to Hawaii but not at all experiencing it. So you can imagine my excitement and delight when I learned that The Flirtations would be spending seven days there in July 1992. We were supposed to have had a break that week between two separate tours, but we didn’t want to pass up this chance to visit Hawaii. So we decided to do it. By this time the group had really taken off, we had just released our second album, and we had steady work and were on tour for as many as 40 weeks out of the year, with brief breaks usually in January and August.
It was a marathon two days (at least for me) prior to our arrival in Hawaii. From New York we flew out to Detroit via Chicago on Friday the 10th, where we did a concert, then back to Chicago on Saturday for a show at the McCormick Center Hotel. I stayed up all night carousing and partying. My mother and little brother Aaron came from South Bend to see us on this occasion. From there we took a Sunday noon flight to Honolulu and arrived there at 1500, 8 hours later! I didn’t sleep on the plane because they showed The Prince of Tides (1991), which I hadn’t seen. I always try to watch the in-flight movie, whatever it is.
Besides, I have trouble sleeping on plane flights anyway, as I can’t get comfortable enough sitting up, and there are interruptions and aisle traffic to contend with. There was no time for an afternoon nap at the hotel either, since we had to rehearse a new show and do a sound check. Michael chose not to go with us this trip, so we had to do our quartet show without him.
We played the Waikiki Terrace Hotel Lounge and went on at 9 o’clock that same night, which is already 2 AM New York time, which my body was still on. Then of course, after our set, the producer had to throw us a Welcome-to-Hawaii bash at his bar, Hula’s. I finally crashed, utterly exhausted, at 0700 eastern time, after being up and on the go for two whole days on about two hours of sleep! On Monday, after a good sleep, I went shopping at the huge Ala Moana mall and spent the rest of the day walking around Waikiki. I couldn’t get to all of the Honolulu tourist spots in one day.
On Tuesday we flew to Hilo on “the Big Island,” then by car, proceeded on to Kalani Honua (the name means “the heavens and the earth”) retreat, where the week-long Hawaii Men’s Gathering was being held. How is this for an all-expenses-paid, working vacation? A week in Paradise with a plethora of men! We attended another two-day Men’s Gathering the year before at Camp Swig in Saratoga, California, but this one was far better.
Our concert for the retreaters wasn’t until Friday night, so we had all this time to play, enjoy the facilities and participate in the scheduled activities. The Flirts got their own rooms while all the other attendees had to share. Enroute to the retreat, we passed through the village of Kalapana, which was still deserted, having been evacuated and practically covered by lava flow–which had cooled and hardened by this time–from the eruption of the volcano Kilauea just the year before. I went bathing with some of the guys in a natural steam pit, sort of like a sauna-in-the-wilds. There was also a conventional sauna at the retreat, as well as a Jacuzzi and swimming pool, and we were served three vegetarian meals a day.
We went on a group picnic and hike one day, took a fun trek around the crater of the volcano and ate our lunch in the woods. Back at Kalani, we were given hula lessons, and later the Flirts lead the men in a sing-a-long. We romped on the rocks around Rainbow Falls, went snorkeling in the Pacific and lay around on the black sand beach. There were nightly pool, hot tub and sauna parties and nocturnal walks to “The Point,” a romantic rendezvous spot that overlooks the ocean. On Thursday we did two radio interviews in Hilo to publicize our concert, and the show itself on Friday was held outdoors on the retreat premises.
I did not enjoy this concert as much as I would have liked, however. A common occurrence in Hawaii is short (sometimes lasting only a minute), periodic rains throughout the day. It’s good, however, for the flora and foliage on the islands. Several times during our performance, it started to rain, which would interrupt the proceedings and cause the audience to fret and run for cover. Like those damned jet planes in San Diego, which I will tell you about a little later, it spoiled the momentum of the show for me and for the audience, too. Just the same, I loved my Hawaiian holiday. It was really quite special, a longtime dream come true.
Now I would like to share with you “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.” It’s a bit of exotic Americana, a charming little ditty that uses real Hawaiian words. I like the Hawaiian language, the sound of it and its economy. The entire alphabet is made up of only 12 letters! Although it is located on the Big Island, where we were, the Flirts did not make it to Kealakekua. This is one of only two songs that I know of that mentions the name of the official state fish of Hawaii, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa. The other appears in High School Musical 2, of all places!
One of our major claims-to-fame is that we had the privilege of appearing in 1993’s Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Although we got only 12 seconds of screen time, our names were listed in the end credits, and all are still receiving regular residual pay for video sales and cable broadcasting! Everybody always wants to hear about my experience working on that movie, so here is the T.
We are not absolutely sure how we got the gig. One source says that it was someone on the movie staff that knew of The Flirtations and told director Jonathan Demme about us, and he said, “Sure, get ’em!” Then in a published interview with Demme himself, he admits that it was he who saw a poster of the group one day while he was in town filming, and right then and there decided that he wanted us for his film. Whichever story is the case, we were contacted about it and just happened to be available to do it.
We were summoned to the “City of Brotherly Love” for six days in late January 1993, put up in a plush hotel and given a daily allowance until they were ready to shoot our scene on the last day. Most of the shooting day was spent preparing for the scene—you know, costumes, makeup, hair and picture-taking. When we got on the set, all of the principles and extras were there to greet us. They were all in various costumes (it’s Halloween), and Tom Hanks was being very friendly and playful with us. Tom prodded his costar (and lover in the film), Antonio Banderas, to turn around and show us his butt. Shy Tony reluctantly complied. I then said to Tom, ‘Now show us yours, why don’t you!’ Then Michael, confirmed bottom, piped up with, “That’s not the part I want to see!”
Denzel, on the other hand, was totally uncommunicative. He stayed off to himself the whole time we were on the set and never even came over to meet us. As his character was still struggling with his homophobia at that point in the film, I suppose that he chose to remain “in character.” He sure didn’t want to have anything to do with the likes of us. However, the actor who played his wife in the film, Lisa Summerour, was very friendly towards us, as well as everybody else on the set.
I saw Denzel again twice the following December, and he was no friendlier those times either. At a dance concert in NYC that I was involved in and where I was standing right next to him, he kept his head down and would not even look at me. That way, he wouldn’t have to speak, I guess. Then the very next week at the world premiere of the movie and post-viewing party held in Philadelphia, he again stayed off to himself. How can someone so dynamic and outgoing in his films be so introverted and aloof in real life? Maybe he’s just very shy. In all fairness, I suppose I could have spoken to him first. Why should he be the one to initiate a conversation with a stranger? He probably didn’t even remember me from the movie.
But back to the filming. When Jonathan Demme arrived on the set, he came right over to us and greeted each of us by our correct names! I was so impressed and honored that he would actually take the time and effort to find out who we all were, having never met us before. Our scene is the one where Tom and Antonio are throwing a Halloween party in their apartment, and the Flirts were hired to entertain the guests. We did two takes of our song, “Mister Sandman,” so that they could get the proper shots and camera angles. The whole thing took about ten minutes.
“Mister Sandman” was not my choice for the song we should do, but I was outvoted, as usual. I thought that our theme song, “The Flirt Song,” would be more appropriate and practical, besides. We repeatedly say our name, “The Flirtations” many times throughout the song, so no matter what part of the song made it into the final edit, everyone would at least know who we are. The publicity certainly couldn’t hurt! Plus, since the song was written by our very own Jon Arterton, he would be subject to extra royalties for the rest of his life. In addition, being an original song, it might have been eligible for the soundtrack album that we were left off of because of some copyright restrictions. But they never listened to me. What the hell do I know? I’ve been doing this for only 40 years!
While everyone was waiting around for the next shots to be set up, which was to be drag queen performance artist Lypsinka (who was ultimately cut from the final print), Jonathan asked us to do another song for the adoring crowd. Appropriately, we chose my own arrangement of “Johnny Angel”!
In addition to the invitation to the premiere, the other consolation souvenirs from the film company were a white sweatshirt with a red AIDS awareness ribbon, as part of the design, and the word “Philadelphia” across the front and a commemorative wristwatch with a sweet note signed by Tom Hanks. I wore that watch and cherished it until the battery finally went dead. Somebody has a photograph of me and Tom together. I wish I knew who took it and could get it from him. There was also a “novelization” book of the film by Christopher Davis published in which The Flirtations were mentioned four times!
I’d like to tell you about a somewhat psychic experience I had in San Antonio, Texas. By this time we were living in different cities, so I met the other Flirts there on April 9, 1994, as we were performing the next day. Since this was my first time there and I had the night free, I decided to case the town, as I am wont to do. There was a bar in town that I was interested in checking out, but I didn’t know how far away it was; I had only the address. So, its being a warm night, I donned my leather vest, grabbed my passport (I might need it for ID at some point) and set out on one of my nightly treks to find the bar and do some general cruising.
I was quite a ways already from my hotel when I came to an overpass that had a small stream running beneath it. I went down the embankment to survey it, briefly, and when I got back up to the street, it occurred to me to check my pockets to see if I still had everything I left home with—that is, my wallet and such. I always do a periodic check, when I think about it. My vest had two shallow pockets on the inside, but the openings were cut on the vertical instead of on the horizontal, and things, like my passport, had been known to fall out at times. The couple of times it did fall out, though, I managed to recover it immediately both times.
When I put my passport in that inner pocket before I left the hotel, I remember reminding myself at the time that I shouldn’t put it there, because it’s fallen out before, remember?! But I don’t always listen to myself, and like a hardheaded fool, I put it in there anyway, and when I checked later there by the bridge, it was not there! Shit! Where did I lose it? Well, I’d better retrace my steps and see if I can find where I dropped it. Maybe I even left it in my room and did not bring it with me at all.
So I went all the way back to the hotel, backtracking the exact same way I had come, which was not a direct route either, as I was doing some random sightseeing, but I didn’t see it anywhere. In the meantime, I was trying to think of how I was going to break the news to Jon and the other guys, if I did not recover it. I expected that there would be hell to pay from them. You see, we were leaving for Germany next week, and I didn’t know how I could replace my passport in that short a time.
But here is the point of this story that I’m getting to. So I’m standing there in my hotel room, when I hear a voice from somewhere within me, telling me to go back to the stream, where I first missed my passport. Well, it’s not here in the room, so why not give it another try? I went all the way back to where I was, went back down the grassy embankment to look around there. It was too dark to see anything, but I felt around and didn’t find it. I was climbing back up the embankment toward the street, looking down all the way, when lo and behold! Right there in the grass at my feet, with a beam of light, from who-knows-where, shining right down on it (!) was my passport.
Halleluyer! I was so relieved. If this were a movie, there would have been a musical chord and angelic vapor girls to accompany that beam of light. It had dropped out only a few feet away from where I was standing when I noticed that it was gone. Dumb Dora that I am, it hadn’t occurred to me at the time to check there first, before going all the way back to the hotel. I then realized that I must have received the cosmic message to check my pockets after I unknowingly had just dropped it.
That night convinced me that I have a guardian angel looking out for me. That must have been the voice that I heard. Just like when he saved me from that car crash in Pennsylvania that time, he saved me a lot of trouble and undue potential anguish this time as well. The fact that I am still here and have somehow survived a lot of adversity in my life, I must be getting protection from somebody or something! I’ve never seen him, but he certainly speaks to me often. Some people call it conscience, but maybe it’s something else. Or maybe that is what conscience is–disembodied spiritual guidance that helps us to discern right and wrong. I don’t mean to get all philosophical right now. I’ll leave that for other posts.
The Flirts also had the good fortune to do two concert tours of Germany in 1994, in April and November-December. Michael missed out because he had died at the end of 1993. We performed in Berlin, Bonn, Cologne (or Köhn), Hamburg, Hannover, Karlsruhe, Kiel, Koblenz and Nuremberg. Our engagement in Copenhagen was cancelled before we got there, but we did do two shows in Bern, Switzerland. Berlin is huge, now that both East and West sections are one big city. I took a taxi from my hotel and more than hour later I still had not arrived at my destination in town! Atlanta is like that in that respect–huge city, area-wise. I saw what is left of the Berlin Wall. I especially enjoyed Cologne and Hamburg. I found the German men to be friendly, sexy and quite accommodating. If there are still those who harbor Nazi sensibilities, I didn’t meet any. I think they all probably have died off or moved here!
Since most Germans know and speak English very well, we could do our banter in English and trust that we were being understood. But I decided to honor them by doing one of our song’s introduction auf Deutsch! This seemed to delight our audiences to no end. People came up to me after the show and told me that my German was impeccable! “When did you learn to speak it so well?” they asked. “Uh, a couple of days ago?” I did use the time to study and work up my speech during the plane flight. We even sang as our encore my arrangement of the Beatles’ “Good Night” in German.
Although we didn’t perform there, our arrival and departure point was Frankfurt-am-Main. I love the city of Frankfurt. It is so diverse, in terms of construction and design. I had the chance to tour much of the city one day. Although I was on foot, I managed to cover a lot of ground. There is a modern-looking commercial and business section with skyscrapers and office buildings. Then you walk a little farther along the river and come to a very European-looking area with old-style dwellings and churches and cobblestone streets. Then over near the opera house you will find a row of expensive shops and boutiques which I likened to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. On the way back to my hotel, I passed through a quiet, residential area that, if I had awakened there, I would have thought that I was in Brooklyn Heights!
The one thing that I hated about Germany is that practically everybody there smokes. We couldn’t go anywhere without being bombarded by people smoking. I found it to be quite unbearable. The country is so together as far as cleanliness and conservation are concerned, but they have not addressed the smoking situation (at least they hadn‘t when I was last there 24 years ago), because it’s so prevalent over there. We couldn’t say anything to anybody because we non-smokers are definitely in the minority. We wouldn’t permit smoking during our shows, however, and I’m sure they would have, if we had allowed it. But as soon as we would finish our set, virtually the whole audience would run for the exits so that they could light up!
In May 1991 the Flirts were hired to perform for a benefit fundraiser party, held at the home of Robert Epstein in San Francisco. He is the documentary filmmaker who won the Academy Award for both The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). That is one of Rob’s Oscars that I am holding in the following photo. I spied them on a shelf in the house and couldn’t resist picking one of them up and having this picture taken. Those things are heavy, too!
Of course, I love San Francisco. I once considered moving there, but it didn’t happen. The Flirts played there several times, and I always enjoyed my stay there each time. We opened Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint in the Castro in October 1991, which I assume is still in operation. They were still busy with construction and trying to get the place all together on the very day that we were to do our show–the first of eleven–later that evening. The city is resplendently gay. After all, it is named after St. Francis, a sissy!
At least it was very gay 24 years ago, the last time I was there. I have friends living there who tell me that the former gay scene has declined quite a bit over the years. The Castro isn’t what it used to be. They say that everything is so expensive, street crime is up, and there is a lot of homelessness. The weather, too, temperature-wise, is not consistent during the course of a day. It’s the type of place where if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes…it’ll change. There were times when I would venture out in the early afternoon, and it was warm enough to go about with just a T-shirt, perhaps, but then by early evening, it had turned cold enough to require a jacket or sweater.
But as gay-friendly as San Francisco is purported to be, they also have their share of racial bigotry and discrimination. And it’s among the gays, too, which I find to be inexcusable. This occurred one night outside a gay bar on Folsom Street. I was out cruising and stopped just to check out one of the neighborhood bars there. There were two white guys standing out in front of the place (I don’t remember the name now), and when I approached to go in, they stopped me and one of them informed me that if I wanted to go inside, I must remove my cap. I thought, Well, that’s a new one, a sleazy bar with a capital dress code? He must have thought that blacks always have to wear their hats and his request would be a deterrent.
Well, it worked. I decided not to go in. I can detect a smokescreen when I see one. You see, I don’t care that much about bars anyway, so I don’t need to make a big deal out of going where I am obviously not wanted. But suppose I had wanted to go in? I noticed, however, that before I got completely out of earshot of the bar, the next bechapeau’d parties (who were white) did not receive the same admonition upon entering that he gave me.
The only part of New Orleans that I am familiar with is the French Quarter. The several times I was there, that’s where I spent all of my time. I believe that there is a large number of alcoholics residing there. There are bars that never close. You can go into Lafitte’s at 6 AM and find people in there, drinking. I saw drunks staggering around on the street. Others, who were not exactly drunk, I could see telltale signs on their faces–ruddy complexions and wrinkled, weathered skin.
At least I received somewhat retribution for something that happened in New Orleans in 1993. I was there with the Flirtations and was out on the town one night, barhopping alone in the French Quarter. I don’t go to bars to drink. I can drink at home, although I don‘t even do that. I just go to see who’s there, basically, so if the cruising is good and I do decide to stay for a while, I might order a beer or something. But if I don’t like the scene, I’m out of there.
This particular night I stopped into Lafitte’s, one of the most popular gay bars in the Quarter. It was pretty packed, as it usually is. I had been there less than a minute, not even enough time to case the joint, when the bouncer came over to me and told me either to buy a drink or leave. Since I was only giving the place the once-over and had not planned on staying anyway, I promptly left the bar. I have visited bars and clubs all over the world and I know that it is not a regular policy for them to enforce drinking, or for you to order one as soon as you get there.
I think that it was simply a matter of racial harassment. That guy did not know me at all. Maybe I can’t drink. I mean, I could be a recovering alcoholic or a diabetic, or something. I could have already had my quota of drinking for the night. I may have been the designated driver of my group that night. I may have gone in to look for or retrieve someone. That guy did not ask me anything, not that it’s any of his business anyway. And I’m not going to pay $5.00 for a watered-down soft drink that I can get for much less at the all-night deli right across the street.
But all of that is beside the point. To drink is not the only reason people go to bars. I’ve even heard the excuse, “This is a business. We can’t stay open if nobody drinks.” Well, I’m not everybody, am I! People always drink in bars. My not buying one drink is not going to cause the place to close down, especially since I don’t live in town and am not a regular customer anyway. It’s not my sole responsibility to keep the place open. I mean, supposed that people were denied the privilege of entering any store, unless they purchased something? Many people are browsers and just want to see what merchandise is available. If we see something that we want or need, then we’ll buy it. Macy’s and Walmart are not going out of business just because I didn’t buy something the day I was in there.
Well, anyway, to finish the story, I found out later that my colleague, Aurelio, who is Syrian-Puertorican, had also encountered some maltreatment himself at that same bar. So when “the Flirts” were back in New Orleans again the following year, we happened to mention on stage during our show that we had had a little trouble the last time we were in town and even mentioned Lafitte’s as the culprit. There happened to be a close friend of the owner of the bar in the audience who rushed right out to call him and told him of our ordeal at his establishment.
A few days later, we received a written apology from the owner, assuring us that patron harassment was not a store policy and that that particular employee was acting on his own, not on any instructions from the management. As visiting celebrities in town, if that guy had known who we were, they would have been so honored that we were even gracing their place with our presence, would be begging us to stay and would be buying us drinks! But it shouldn’t matter who I am. I am not asking for special treatment, just common courtesy. Although I do appreciate the apology and the acknowledgment of our plight, it doesn’t excuse that guy or really change the situation, does it? Rules don’t influence people’s stubborn and biased attitudes.
(# …Everybody run, the Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!…Debbie’s smiling and waving her gun, picking off cheerleaders one by one…Bloody bodies all over the quad…She’s wasting half of the class… #) The Flirts created quite the controversy on December 6, 1991 while we were doing a series of concerts in Vancouver, B.C., when we regretfully programmed “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” on the first night of our run. We were recording our concerts that week and wanted to include the song on the ensuing album. The novelty number, originally done by Julie Brown, is a satirical spoof about a high school beauty queen who freaks out and goes on a killing spree during the Homecoming celebrations. I will acknowledge that the song is quite violent, and even “Debbie” herself gets blown away at the end, but we thought the song was funny at the time, and none of us took it all that seriously. Our audiences, too, seemed to enjoy it whenever we did it.
On this particular night, however, there was a number of audience members who apparently were not at all amused. We were not aware that it was the two-year anniversary of the so-called “Montreal Massacre,” when some deranged misogynist by the name of Marc Lepine gunned down 14 women, engineering students at the University of Montreal, who he derided as “feminists.” It’s a Canadian observance that we as “Staters” did not know anything about. Before our show the next day, we had received several letters from our feminist fans imploring us not to sing the song again while we were in town, preferably, never again, said some. They found the song to be in poor taste and insensitive to those who were still in mourning.
We did honor their requests by not singing the song during the rest of our run and apologized to those whom we had offended. The song has since turned out to be another case of life imitating art, when you consider the similar incidents that are occurring all over the country these days, and with the fantasy becoming reality, its intended humor has turned all too serious. It would be pretty insensitive of anyone to be singing the song today, although we can’t do anything about the existing recordings of it.
(# …Some women love women and some men love men… #) This seemingly innocent lyric (at least for us queers), from straight singer/songwriter Fred Small’s very popular lullaby “Everything Possible,” proved to be controversial as well when it was included on somebody’s children’s album. I don’t know who the artist(s) are; this was told to me by a fan, and she couldn’t remember the name(s) of the culprits. This song was unquestionably The Flirtations’ greatest hit. It was the best-received, most-requested and the most-covered by other vocal ensembles across the country. We included it in every single show that I did with the Flirts and it’s on several of our albums. That line is quite important to the whole point of the song, as it attempts to teach the child tolerance for human romantic and sexual diversity. This person or persons unknown apparently liked the song well enough to record it for an album project, but felt that this particular lyric was unsuitable for impressionable youngsters, so it was either changed or left out completely. God forbid that children might get the point and grow up with understanding and a sense of human tolerance for gay people!
The Flirtations themselves caused another furor in conservative Helena, Montana when we were scheduled to perform there for the first time in September 1992. An article about our upcoming concert appeared in the local newspaper and listed ticket outlets for the event. Some of these places soon started to receive a “barrage of rude telephone calls” to protest their involvement and our planned visit. The protesters even organized to boycott our concert in the name of “Christian morality.” There is no place in Helena for homosexuals, you see. Some of the ticket sellers gave in to the threats and complaints. But of course, as is always the case, their heated protests only incited people to find out what all the hoopla was about, and as a result, the performance was completely sold out with our new fans clamoring for more! We even had to add another show to accommodate the overflow. I have said that there is no bad publicity. When will these pooh-pooh naysayers ever learn? Their vocal negativity only helps our cause. Our performing venue was the Myrna Loy Theatre, which is a converted jailhouse. There were still bars on the windows!
We often did joint concerts with other artists, but the order of appearance was sometimes based on who were more famous, rather than the kind of music or act being presented. Now it was all right when a comic opened for us. They would get the crowd warmed up for us, and that was fine. But one time in April 1991, because she was more well-known, the Flirts opened for Suzanne Vega at Brooklyn College. Ideally, a concert is supposed to build in intensity. Our set got the audience all revved up and excited, then Ms. Vega came out and brought the audience way down with her low-keyed, folksy singing and playing. In that instance she should have gone on first.
In other cases, some disparate acts should never appear on the same bill. In March 1993 we were booked to sing at the Eaton Center Shopping Mall in Victoria, British Columbia! Booked with us were two local teenaged rock bands, the Hard Rock Miners and Seventh Stone. Their music was, of course, loud and raucous, quite contrary to our more subdued acappella singing. Those in attendance who were there to hear us had to endure that loud noise, and those who were into hard rock probably didn’t care that much about what we do. We were like apples and oranges. Some of these promoters and planners just don’t think about what they’re doing.
Besides Richmond, a city that I don’t care much for (see my Gay Pride and Homophobia blog for the inside dope), another American city that gives me pause for wonder is San Diego. The Flirtations played there several times, and our performing venue on a couple of those occasions was Balboa Park, where many of their populous, outdoor events, such as rock concerts and Gay Pride celebrations, are held. But here is the thing. The Park is located right next to the airport, so while we were doing our set, every three minutes, without fail, a jet would fly over the park, in the process of either taking off or landing! Can you imagine the annoying distraction and the intrusion involved in that? We are in the process of singing a quiet ballad or lullaby, when all of a sudden, “VROOOMMM!!” There goes another fucking plane! And of course, it’s very loud, as it’s passing directly overhead. Now, if this were only, like a once-an-hour occurrence, we wouldn’t mind so much. We would have just tried to work in between scheduled flights. But this happened, I’m telling you the truth, every few minutes, so how could we compete with that?
Why I question the citizens’ mentality about the situation, is that none of them seemed to think that there was anything wrong or unusual about this. What were the city planners thinking when they built a public park, that was to be used for outdoor performances, adjacent to an airport? Or if the park was there first, why didn’t they put the airport someplace else? Even when there is no music happening there, most people visit the park for peace and relaxation, a place to bring their children and pets. Who wants to be bombarded with the constant din of airplanes flying over all day long? I certainly don’t. But I don’t live there, so I guess it’s not my problem, is it?
The Flirts were in Baltimore for a couple of days in November 1991, where we gave a concert, Michael Callen hosted an AIDS seminar, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt was being displayed at Johns Hopkins University. The lasting impression I got from that city is that of creatural tolerance. While walking around the city late one night, on the way back to my hotel, I encountered rats–no, not mice, rats!–walking on the sidewalks of the downtown streets, not even scurrying, but moseying along like they are out for a leisurely, nightly stroll. And the pedestrians about did not pay them any mind, as they must be used to them. I thought, Well! How is that for sharing common space with creatures that are usually regarded despised and feared in other places? Even in the opening number of Hairspray–the Musical, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” there is a line that mentions # Rats on the street, they dance ‘round my feet…# as a normality, so I guess it’s not a shameful secret after all. And again, if they don’t mind the rats running rampant, then it’s not my problem, as I don’t live there.
One city that I have visited a number of times and find that I do like a lot is Boston. It is usually regarded as uptight, provincial and conservative, but I don‘t see it as being that way at all. The people I have met there have always been friendly and agreeable, and I have had great sexual encounters there. One time I got to stay in my own apartment alone in the Beacon Hill area of town. My place was on the same block as Cheers (where everybody knows your name)! I was doing my laundry at the local Laundromat one evening, and I met a man there who, when he discovered that I am a singer, went home and came back and gave me as a gift a tape of singers Roland Hayes and Bert Williams. He didn’t expect anything in return, he just thought I might enjoy it.
The Flirtations did a several days’ run in Boston at the end of October 1991, and on a frivolous whim we agreed to do the Halloween show in costume drag! After the show that night, one of our fans in attendance invited me to a party that one of his friends was throwing in town at his house. I am always up for a party, so I decided to go check it out. A lot of people showed up, and I didn’t know a single soul there. The crowd was quite diverse and of varying ages, and everyone was well-behaved, respectful and cordial. I imagined that if I had awoken there, I would wonder where the hell I was. I would never have guessed Boston, of all places.
Some other cities that I did enjoy visiting are Austin, Texas and Orlando, Florida. I didn’t care for Dallas too much, however. The people there, at least the gays, whom I was in contact with the whole time, all display a certain degree of snobbishness and elitism. Are they all like that, I wondered, even the “regular folks”? We performed there only once, in February 1993, in a concert with the Turtle Creek Chorale, their gay men’s chorus. In every place that we visited we were always greeted with great warmth and enthusiasm. When we arrived at the venue in Dallas, some guy merely showed us to our dressing room and then just left! He didn’t have anything to say to us, and wasn’t on hand if we had any questions or requests for him.
When we arrived on stage for our sound check and met the other singers, they were equally unforthcoming. None of them seemed at all impressed that we were gracing them with our celebrated presence. We felt so unwelcome, as if we were intruding on their hallowed territory. When I mentioned their bizarre behavior to other Texans outside of Dallas, they all tried to insure me that they are like that with all outsiders, not just us. So it really is a communal, cultural thing. My personal assessment of them was confirmed by everybody I mentioned it to.
When I visited Las Vegas for the first time during the mid-’70s and was checking out my first casino on the Strip (it might have been The Golden Horseshoe, in fact), I stopped at one of the gaming tables to observe. A smartly-dressed young man approached the table, reached in his pocket, took out, I think it was a $10,000 bill, and placed it on a number on the table. It lost, and the dealer gathered up this guy’s bill with the other losers. The guy then reached in his pocket and plucked down another $10,000 bill, which again did not win. I almost had a fit. I wanted to tell this irresponsible spendthrift, ‘Look, if you don’t want your money, give it to me!‘ I’m standing there with probably only a few dollars in my pocket, and this jerk is giving away multiple grands to a casino, which doesn’t even need it.
I came to the realization that day that this whole gambling thing is a grievous sin. There are so many impoverished, homeless, starving people in the world, even in this country alone. And for someone to go into a casino or to the racetrack and literally throw away thousands of dollars instead of giving to someone who needs it to live or for food and shelter, is quite sinful, in my opinion. This same casino had on display a million dollars in cash (one hundred $10,000 bills) arranged inside a giant, golden horseshoe.
I remember an impression that I have of Las Vegas (“Sin City”), when I left it that first time. This was over 40 years ago, when I was on tour with Bob DeCormier. We were traveling by bus, it was nighttime, and at about a mile down the road out of town, I looked out the back window of the bus and what I saw was what appeared to be a circle of lights in the middle of the desert. I felt as if I had just left Sodom and Gomorrah!
I did try the horse-racing experience once. I had a friend from New Jersey, named Joe Granese, with whom I used to play online Trivia years ago, who invited me to go with him to the racetrack at the Meadowlands in NJ one Sunday afternoon. As I will try almost anything at least once, I went along for a new adventure. I bet on only one race, probably no more than five dollars. At that time I didn’t have a lot of money just to throw away. The horse I picked–I don’t remember his name–did not win, not that I thought he would. I do recall that the racing officials considered my horse to be a mudder. And that’s what I called him, when he lost my money. “You slow-assed mudder…!”
I chose Joe to be my Phone-a-Friend when I appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2003, and he helped me to win $16,000 by providing the correct answer to the question, “What is George W. Bush‘s annual salary for serving as President of the United States?” I didn’t have a clue, but Joe knew (or guessed) it was $400,000. I have since lost touch with Joe and I believe he may be dead.
The Flirtations spent several days in Phoenix in early September, when the weather is very hot. I didn’t mind at all, as I love hot weather. As an adventure and to celebrate my birthday, we climbed Piestewa Peak (formerly called “Squaw” Peak) See my blog, Black History IV: Slavery and Its Aftermath for the explanation of the name change.
One dehumanizing incident of note happened in 1994, during my last summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, of all places. This is considered to be the Gay Mecca of the Northeast, which makes it all the more inexcusable. The Flirtations had a two-week engagement in town. After five consecutive summers there I knew the town very well and I knew many of the year-around residents, and they knew me. On a rainy Friday evening of the last weekend there before I left town, I went out to get some dinner, but I had not yet decided where I wanted to eat, so I was just walking around. It was still early, and although it was raining slightly, there were lots of people on the street.
I ran into a guy I knew and we were just about to go into a local bar when a white P-town cop approached me and said that he wanted to speak to me. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted, but I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, “We got a complaint from some girls that you have been stalking them.” ‘Excuse me? What girls?’ “Some girls over on Commercial Street (the main drag). They said that they came out of several shops, and each time, there you were!” ‘There I was? Who are these people? Where are they now?’ “They were so frightened, I had to escort them back to their car. So what do you have to say for yourself?” ‘I don’t know what to say. It’s ridiculous.’ “So are you saying that you were not following these women?” ‘What women?! I don’t even know who you’re talking about! How can I admit to something that I don’t know what I’m admitting to? It seems to me that if these people are so interested in my comings and goings, and I am not at all even aware of their presence, who is stalking whom? I think you have things a little backwards. Look, I am not here in P-town to cruise women, okay?!’
Then this copper proceeded to insult me further by asking me worrisome questions like what was I doing in town and where was I staying and treated me as if I was some loitering bum. I guess that I finally convinced him that I was not some kind of social threat and he left me alone. But the whole encounter made me furious! I can’t believe people can be so paranoid. With hundreds of pedestrians up and down the main street all day long, I get singled out as the one and only stalker on the whole damned street! I learned later from this cop’s female partner that it was four straight, white women who had made the complaint. Now come on! For one thing, the fact that P-town is predominately queer, didn’t it occur to these women that I just might be gay and had no interest whatsoever in their tired, white butts? I mean, if these bitches expect to get some male sexual action, they need to find a different locale. Then, too, I was wearing my Freedom Rings at the time, but of course, they didn’t notice that. All they saw was a big, black man and thought, “Oh, my goodness! He wants to rape us! Let us flee!”
(# It’s not your pale moon that excites me or thrills or delights me… #) So get over yourselves…please! Some white women seem to have this paranoid notion that all black men want to have sex with them. Don’t flatter yourselves, Girline! You don’t have anything that I want! All right? As if! In reality, I have found that it’s more their fantasy than it is ours anyway. I get hit on by white women all the time, and I ain’t even interested! I am reminded of the old joke about the spinster lady who discovers a handsome, young male intruder in her house, and she says to him, “What do you want?…I hope.” There are women who try to put the make on certain men, and when the guys reject them, they yell “rape” anyway, out of spite. Remember To Kill a Mockingbird?
But check this out. Even if I had intended to rape those P-town bitches, how would I go about it? Here we all are on a public street with a crowd of people, and I am alone with no weapons. So how could such a thing even be accomplished? Where are we going to do it, first of all, and then what are the other three doing while I’m “raping” the first one? Standing by awaiting their turn? It’s just too absurd.
Some friends I told about this incident have suggested that there never were any women and no complaint filed at all, that it was just simple police harassment, and of course, that certainly is a strong probability. That makes much more sense than his paranoid women scenario. If that cop had known who I am, which he should have, being the local and international celebrity that I am (yes!), he wouldn’t have even taken such a complaint seriously, if there actually was one. Instead of my being harassed while I am in town, I should be the one to receive police protection from those crazy, stalking tourists!
Our first appearance on “In the Life” in September 1992 was recorded in Hollywood, and on the program with us were Lily Tomlin and Dick Sargent. We also played Town Hall in New York in October with Joan Rivers as emcee and Lea Delaria and Harvey Fierstein, among others, on the bill.
Although I missed out on the typhoon experience on Okinawa, I once did get to experience a real hurricane first-hand. The Flirts just happened to be in Provincetown when Hurricane Bob swept through Cape Cod in August 1991. It didn’t hit us directly, but the storm came close enough to cause some wind and rain damage, plus it did knock out the electricity for a couple of days. This didn’t stop the queens from partying, however. We were all up and down the streets during the blackout, groping each other in the dark. The house that we had rented for the week had a back porch that faced the bay, and the other boys and I actually enjoyed standing out there during the peripheral effects of the storm while receiving an exhilarating, meteorological blow job. The more recent Hurricane Sandy that swept the east coast in October 2012, missed my midtown neighborhood completely. It got points east, west and south of me, but not my immediate vicinity. I don’t believe my luck sometime.
I have been in rowboats, motorboats, sailboats, cabin cruisers, yachts and ferries, which are all okay. But until thirteen years ago, I was not too keen on big cruise ships. I had been on them a couple of times, and I didn’t enjoy myself neither time. I once sailed from Portland, Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia overnight on the M.S. Caribe, and during the crossing I got sick and threw up. That is how the ’77 DeCormier tour began. (That particular tour was fraught with adversity.) I don’t like the constant rocking of the ship.
The Flirtations did a cruise ship gig once along the coast of Florida. We arose that morning at 0500 in Orlando, boarded the ship (the M.S. Scandinavian Sun) at about 0900, was on it all day, and did not get around to performing until about 0100 that night! It was one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever had to do. With the boat’s rocking back and forth, it was hard keeping our balance. In addition, the sound system was horrendous. We were using cordless microphones which were picking up all kinds of on-shore interference. Plus, we were all so tired by the time we went on, having been up for so long without any rest.
On this occasion I took some Dramamine, so at least I didn’t get sick, as I had before. I finally got to bed at 0400 the next morning. I’ll tell you, your mammy’s ass was draggin’ that night! As I have said, I will try most anything at least once, so I had told myself that I would give it another chance and be willing to take a cruise on one of those huge ocean liners, just to see if it is as pleasurable as everyone says they are. I did find out in 2005.
Although the group started out in Manhattan, by 1993 everyone except me had relocated somewhere else. Jon and Jimmy moved to Provincetown, Aurelio to Vancouver (to be with his then boyfriend) then later to San Francisco, where he still remains, and Michael to Hollywood. Audience members often asked us, “With you guys all living in different places, how do you rehearse?” My reply: ‘We don’t.’ You see, we had by this time accumulated enough repertoire to program any shows that we had to do, but our separation did prevent us from learning any new songs. We had to wait until we were all together and just meet wherever the particular gig was.
But what happened was, on the days that we had a show, the other guys did not want to rehearse. And on our days off during a tour, they didn’t want to rehearse either, which made me wonder, Okay, so if we don’t want to rehearse on the days that we sing nor on the days that we don’t sing, when do we rehearse?! So we started meeting days before a tour or remaining days after a tour to work on new material. This turned out to be a feasible solution to our dilemma. Once before a tour in California, for instance, we met a week early and rented a house in Guerneville on the Russian River, which gave us the chance to rehearse and sort of vacation at the same time.
Eventually, because of mismanagement and the making of wrong decisions on Jon’s part, I was put out of the group in January 1995 and Aurelio only a few months after that. That’s another long, involved story in itself, which I won’t go into at this time. I will tell you that when word got around that I, and Aurelio too, were no longer with the group, many of our faithful fans stopped coming to their shows. They would get there and wonder, “Where are Cliff and Aurelio? I didn’t come here to see those other two.” When the few remainders finally had to call it quits in August 1997, due to lack of public interest, the group had dwindled down to three singers, one of them a woman! They certainly bore no resemblance to the former group, although they fraudulently kept using the name.
Nine years passed before I got involved with The New York Vagabonds, formerly known as the New Victory Singers. We were a paid professional male quartet that had a more limited repertoire than the Flirts had. We weren’t strictly acappella either, but sang with pre-recorded backing tracks or piano accompaniment, and our numbers were choreographed, which I much enjoyed. Gabriel DeAngelo was the leader of the group and music arranger (although I made contributions as well) and sang tenor and baritone. Michael Kevin Walsh sang baritone, tenor and played occasional piano, and I was the bass, but as usual, sang everything else as well. The other tenor spot varied, depending on who was available at the time of any gig. Our regular tenor was James Baylis, who replaced Joshua Walter, but we also worked with Mike Backes, James Bullard, Andrew Hubacher, Joseph Paparella and Mark Wolff on occasion.
Gabe is my connection to the group. Our relationship goes back a good 30 years, when we were both singing and touring with Gregg Smith, but we had worked together in other fun musical ventures over the years. When Gabe was looking to revamp his New Victory Singers and needed a good bass, he thought of me. He came along just at the right time, too, because when he called, I was truly ready to get back on stage and start touring again. And it’s been a real blast. For the first year (I started with them in January 2004) we played mostly what is called the “Borscht Circuit,” Jewish retirement villages in New Jersey, mostly, but frequent trips to Florida as well.
The next year began a new chapter in my performing career when the group was hired to entertain passengers on a series of luxury cruise ships. In January and February of 2005, the Vagabonds got booked on several Caribbean cruises. The Holland America Cruise Line has a whole fleet of “Dam” ships that go everywhere in the world. Early on Monday morning, Jan. 24th, we flew to the island of Curaçao, via Miami, to join the M.S. Veendam, which was halfway through their 14-day cruise. We also visited Aruba before returning to Florida on Saturday. These two ports were of little interest and served only as tourist spots for souvenir shopping. I got off the ship just to be able to say that I’ve been there. That was the case for some other non-happening Caribbean islands as well.
The following week, on Feb. 6, a Sunday, we flew to Norfolk, Virginia to board the M.S. Maasdam, just leaving for an 11-day cruise. Our first stop was at Half Moon Cay (aka Little San Salvador) in the Bahamas, a privately-owned island by Holland America that does not appear on maps, which is why I couldn’t find it when I checked. We spent the afternoon on the beach and in the water. Our next stop, two days later, was St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where we got off and flew back to Newark on Thursday.
Upon our return we learned that we had been booked on two more cruises during the month of April. The first was a two-week leg of a 116-day world cruise. On April 1 we flew from JFK airport to Frankfurt, Germany to Dubai and then to Victoria, Mahe Island of the Seychelles, where the ship, the M.S. Prinsendam, was in port for the day. The Prinsendam is Holland America’s top-of-the-line ship, reserved for world cruises, and although it is not as large as some of the other ships in the fleet, it is the epitome of elegance and style. They had been out at sea since Jan. 13 (they finished on May 9). We sailed from there to Mauritius, to Reunion and to South Africa.
One of the more interesting airports that I have visited is Dubai International in United Arab Emirates. We had a few hours layover during our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Victoria. The flight to Dubai was on Emirate Air, which the ticket clerk told us was “the best airlines in the world.” I can’t confirm that claim since I haven’t tried every one, but I can rightly say, it’s the best one I have flown on. It was quite exceptional. The seats are roomier and more plush, the food was considerably better, and it seemed as if the entire plane was First Class. The very efficient female flight attendants came around often offering us beverages and tasty snacks throughout the six-hour flight.
The Dubai airport was a trip! The main concourse is laid out like a major shopping mall. It’s all very clean, with ornate décor, and there were all kinds of people milling around–travelers in their various native costumes, including women dressed in their black burqas. No different colors, only black. What’s up with that?
Our few ports-of-call were also interesting and fun. We spent one afternoon on Mauritius sightseeing, shopping (I didn’t buy anything) and lying on the beach. I even got to swim in the Indian Ocean for the first time. The island of Mauritius, which lies east of Madagascar, was the indigenous home of the now-extinct dodo. The hungry French settlers killed them all off, not realizing, or caring, that creatures don’t just happen, that they actively have to procreate in order to proliferate.
The French Creole island of Reunion, which is just south of Mauritius, proved to be rather uneventful. We weren’t there long enough to visit the landmark volcanoes. One, Piton des Neiges, is the highest point in the Indian Ocean. My friend and colleague, Mark, and I just walked around the capital city of La Possession and had lunch. That was about it.
There was more happening in Durban, however, which is located in the South African province of Natal. It is a bustling metropolis with plenty to see and do. We visited a museum while there. Some passengers got off the ship in Durban to go on safari. I would like to have gone with them.
Cape Town will have left a lasting impression on me in years to come. Since we were there for two days, we got to see much of the city and even check out the nightlife. That first day there while walking around the city with the other guys, I became fascinated and curious about a certain area we passed through. Every residence in this particular neighborhood has a high concrete wall surrounding it. I wondered what that was all about and came up with my own scenario, which was later confirmed by a town resident whom I met on the cruise ship.
I surmised that some kind of home security representative went around to these estates one day and convinced the inhabitants therein that they needed protection from the angry, marauding blacks of the region. (What marauding blacks?) So when several of these impressionable families had these walls constructed around their property, the other unwalled neighbors felt vulnerable, because they feared that when these imagined interlopers invaded, they naturally would hit the unprotected houses. It became a matter of mass paranoia and personal survival. “I’m not going to be the only house on the block without a wall. They’re not going to get me!” So somebody got over, didn’t they? They created a lucrative insurance business for something which had no basis of fact, and then it doesn’t even have to pay off in the end.
The fact that those Capetonians were so paranoid without any real warranty, tells me something. Who are they all afraid of again, the people whose land and livelihood were taken from them and turned them into virtual slaves in their own country? If the native blacks were on a campaign to burglarize, rob and pillage all the rich, white homeowners in the land, why hadn’t they done so before that time? That’s the kind of shit that greedy white folks like to do. And with them it’s not even about affluence either. The nightriders in the American South and other places didn’t target only the black civic leaders and upper-class black families, but were just as content to harass the poor people who didn’t have anything worth stealing. Terrorism isn’t about what someone has. It’s all about power, control and intimidation. They don’t care who you are or what you have or don’t have. So again, they’re afraid that we are going to do the same thing to them that they have always done to us. But if they are all so innocent, what are they worried about?
Then I wondered, who actually built all of those walls around all those estates. I was told that the construction was done by black laborers, which makes sense because I know that most manual labor is so beneath certain well-to-do whites. So the irony is that these security walls were built by the very people that the residents intended to keep out! “You boys do a good job now, you hear? Fix it so that you and your friends won’t be able to get in.” “Hakuna matata, Bwana!” (“No problem, Boss!”)
Later that night we found the most popular disco in town, called Bronx (!), and got to dance and experience the local social scene. Earlier when we had dinner at our 5-star hotel, the Commodore, I got to try ostrich for the first time, which I enjoyed very much. And it didn’t taste like chicken either!
Since we didn’t have to leave town until later the next day, the boys and I had time to do the main tourist attraction there, that being Table Mountain, which dominates the city’s skyline. Its being flat on top allows hikers to walk around on the summit and overlook the city below and surrounding areas. We could see Robben Island, where poor Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years prior. Although it is possible to scale the peak on foot, most choose to utilize, for a fee, the aerial trams (“cable cars”) to get us to the top.
On April 14 we had to fly back to New York via London, making the total travel time to the ship and back 65 hours! Then only four days later we had to get back on a plane, fly down to Ft. Lauderdale and board the M.S. Volendam for another 9-day cruise. This one took us back through the Caribbean all the way to Cartagena, Colombia, my first time on South American soil. These ports sure know when a cruise ship is in town, and they certainly are ready for them. Everywhere you turn, from the cab drivers who were there waiting for us when we got off the ship, to the people on the streets and in the shops, everybody was trying to sell us something.
The man in the jewelry store (I was only there tagging along with the other guys) tried his best to sell us emeralds and other gems that cost thousands of dollars, because if we are on a cruise ship, we must be filthy rich, right? He didn’t imagine that we might be starving musicians. Well, I’m hardly starving, am I? But you know what I mean. The street vendors were similarly relentless. They hounded us and stalked us and practically chased us down the street. I felt like Sebastian Venable. And they are not impressed by “no, gracias” or “no lo deseo” or “no lo necesito.” They just offer a better deal.
It was even worse the next day on the island of Carti Sugtupu, part of the San Blas Archipelago, which lie along the coast of Panama in the Gulf of San Blas. They get a cruise ship visit only twice a year, and we just happened to be there at the right time. On this small island virtually everything was for sale for “one dollah”: carved wooden boats, conch shells, drawings, bottled water and beer. It was more for clothing items, like shirts and hats. I don’t know from where they got the materials for their wares. Someone must bring them supplies on a regular basis. Even the people themselves charged us “one dollah” to take a picture of any of them or their huts, and a dollar per person at that! I was taking a picture of a little native girl and another child jumped into the pose just as I was snapping, and the mother called out, “Two dollah!”
These Tule people are a primitive tribe with their own language, Cuna, and culture. They are small in stature, brown-skinned with Mexican-Indian features and many wear nose rings. They all look pretty much alike, too, as if from the same family, which they probably are, being an indigenous tribe. I mean, being so isolated, with whom could they be having sex, if not with each other? And indicated by all the children running around there, somebody is certainly getting it on, and often! I’m sorry that I don’t have any pictures from there to show you. I know that I took some, but I don’t know what happened to them. I do, however, have a picture (front and back) of the souvenir shirt that I bought. I’ve never gotten to wear it, as it has always been too small for me. I didn’t get to try it on before I bought it, but took a chance that it would fit. Oh, well! You win some and you lose some.
“A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!” And it works in either direction, too! It’s been touted as one of the great wonders of the modern world, a manmade achievement of massive proportions. It was the intended highlight and selling point for this particular cruise, that is, the passage through the Panama Canal. The trip takes ten hours, from entry to exit, and they always plan it for the ship to arrive there in the morning right after sunup, so that the passengers can experience it during daylight. Word has it that the toll for going through the Canal comes to $190,000, which has to be paid in cash! Somebody is getting over.
Everybody seemed fascinated about how the locks work and all, water chambers raising and lowering the ship. But although I can acknowledge it as an impressive operation, I couldn’t get all that excited about it. I guess I’ve gotten rather jaded in my advanced age. I got much more enjoyment out of hiking atop Table Mountain and climbing the Eiffel Tower by foot. As I said before, I’m more of a doer and on-hands (or feet) participant rather than an on-the-sidelines spectator. Our next stop and where we got off was Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We had to drive two hours to the airport in San José, from where we flew back to NYC via Atlanta.
Our next cruise booking occurred in October of the same year (2005), when we had to fly to Funchal, Madeira via Lisbon, Portugal (only to come right back again!), and get on the M.S. Westerdam, the largest ship in the fleet, just in time to make an Atlantic crossing with them. On this 15-day cruise they had already been to Rome, Gibraltar, Cadiz (Spain) and Casablanca before we joined them in Madeira.
So I guess we missed the best part of the cruise, at least those major ports-of-call, because all we got after that was six whole days at sea, and brief stops in uneventful St. Maarten and Half Moon Cay, which I had already visited twice before. This time, however, I thought I would do something different. So I went parasailing! That’s where they take you out in a motor boat and hoist you up to a parachute with a harness. It was completely safe, so there was no danger involved—not that that would have been a factor to my doing it, thrill seeker that I am.
The cruise ended in Ft. Lauderdale, from where we flew to home. Imagine having to celebrate Halloween on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! Almost a whole year later we were back on the same ship but for only four days this time and with a reverse travel route. We first flew to San José, Costa Rica via Charlotte, NC, drove two hours to Puntarenas, where we met the ship, passed through the Panama Canal going in the opposite direction, and disembarked in Curaçao.
The next cruise only a week later found us in familiar surroundings but on a new ship. This time we had to fly to Cartagena via Miami and Bogotá, Colombia to get on the M.S. Zuiderdam, an identical sister ship to the Westerdam. Air travel has become so worrisome and inconvenient in this age of terrorist threats and heightened security. Taking the bus to Newark Airport used to be a breeze. I could leave my house and be at my departure gate in an hour’s time. Now the buses don’t run on schedule and take a lot longer to get to the airport. This time I almost missed my flight, and I would have if the plane had not been delayed a couple of hours.
When we did arrive in Cartagena the next day, there was nobody there to greet us and take us to where the ship was docked. The excuse we got was that they were told that we could find our way to the ship on our own. Oh, sure we can. We’re in a foreign country where nobody understands English, we don’t know where the hell the ship is and we have a ton of baggage to lug around. Then the clueless cab drivers we hired tried to rip us off. They were eager to take us to the ship, but when we got in, they had no idea where we wanted to go or how to get there, but still took our money just the same for giving us a non-requested tour of the city.
There were armed guards at the gangway of the ship who made us open our luggage for inspection before they would let us board. Then less than a minute later, the ship’s security crew inspected our bags once again! When I informed them that we had just been checked right outside, they said that the people out there didn’t have anything to do with the ship’s jurisdiction. I said, ‘But, what could we possibly have done between the gangway and the front door a few feet away?’ And anyway, if they and their sniffing dogs didn’t find “it,” what makes you think you will? It was just unnecessary harassment and bullshit.
This was the first ship that was so disorganized and dysfunctional. The cruise director was sort of a flake, there was stuff going on among the members of the band, the dinner service wasn’t as good as we had gotten used to, and even my cabin steward wasn’t as efficient as he could have been. The only new port that we visited on this trip was Ocho Rios, Jamaica, where we did some shopping and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even get off the ship at Half Moon Cay this time, this being the fourth time there and having done all there is to do there. We were on the ship for only the last five days of the cruise, ending up at Ft. Lauderdale.
Now our next cruise was on a different line. The Regent Seven Seas Navigator is a small ship with fewer passengers than what we had been used to, and there are a number of differences in its operation. We were on the ship for the entire 11-day Caribbean cruise, from December 28, 2006 to January 8, 2007. Bringing in the New Year on a cruise ship was a first for me. I danced more that night than I had done in years. On all of the other ships there are always two seatings for dinner, in order to accommodate everyone, and therefore two shows every night. On this ship there is only one dinner seating, therefore only one show each night. Our work schedule was ideal. We did only two shows in all and had 8 ports-of-call in 11 days, which we were free to enjoy.
From Ft. Lauderdale we went to Grand Turk Island, St. Thomas, St. Barts, Tortola and Nassau, ending up back at Ft. Lauderdale. On Sunday, New Year’s Eve, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Vagabonds did an impromptu performance in the Town Square. On Dominica we swam in a natural pool located under a waterfall, and in St. Maarten we participated in an America’s Cup Yacht Race with some passengers that we had befriended, and our team won!
In June 2008 the Vagabonds got yet another cruise offer. And it’s the one I had been waiting for, a cruise to Alaska! This was my 50th state, the only one that I had not been to yet. We were booked on two consecutive 7-day excursions from Seattle to Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska, plus Prince Rupert, British Columbia and back to Seattle. The ship was the Norwegian Star, which was even bigger than the Westerdam/Zuiderdam (971 feet long) and quite different in design and décor. We performed only six times during the two weeks, which gave us a lot of free time.
Disappointedly, I found the ports-of-call something to be desired, in my opinion. Although I finally did make it to Alaska, I didn’t really see Alaska. Just like I can say that I have been to Mexico (only the two border cities of Tijuana and Juarez and the off-shore island of Cozumel), but I haven’t really seen Mexico, have I? There is a lot more of it than just that.
I am always amused when an immigrant arrives in New York for the first time and exclaims, “Ah, America!“ I want to tell them, ‘Uh, no, this is New York City, which has nothing whatsoever to do with America. If you want to see “America,“ you need to proceed much further west.‘ Alaska is massive, and the stops we made were to these tiny outer villages on the very edges of the state. These particular towns actually would be part of British Columbia, were it not for the arbitrary border line.
It was raining in Ketchikan both times we were there and the first week in Skagway. In fact, we heard that it rains in Ketchikan a lot. It’s on that same Pacific Rim, like Vancouver and Seattle, where it also rains a lot. It was warm in Juneau only the first time. On that day I went into town to seek out the state capital building and get a postcard for my pictorial collection. I must have been right near Governor Sarah Palin’s office, before I knew who she was. Juneau has an excursion tour to visit the local glacier, and one can take a scenic train ride in Skagway, but I didn’t have the money to do them. This time I had inadvertently left my credit cards at home (they had fallen out of my wallet without my knowledge), so I had to pay cash for everything this trip.
All that Prince Rupert (B.C.) has is a little shopping mall. Big deal! I wish they had used the two weeks to sail to Anchorage, which is further north. At least that is a major city where one can see something without having to pay for special tours. I even have an old friend from college who lives in Anchorage. Those three little nothing towns did not do it for me.
On Thursday, January 22, 2009 we joined the M.S. Ryndam for the last two weeks of its 30-day cruise of the South Pacific. We first flew out to Los Angeles from New York, and continued on from there to Papeete, Tahiti, which is one of the Society Islands of French Polynesia. We arrived the day before the ship got there and were put up in the local Hilton Hotel overnight. The ship had already been to the Hawaiian Islands, Raiatea and Bora Bora before arriving at Tahiti. Since the ship remained there in dock until early Sunday morning, we had all day Saturday to sightsee and shop.
On Sunday we arrived at Moorea, which is only about an hour’s distance away, therefore is part of the same group of islands. We were told that Moorea’s claim-to-fame is that it is the island that was used in the first movie version of South Pacific (1958) to represent “Bali Ha’i,” the mysterious island that is off-limits to the sailors and that they are always trying to get to. It must be a tourist ploy, however, because I did some research when I got home and discovered that it is not the case at all.
Actually Bali Ha’i was based on the real island of Ambae (formerly Aoba Island), which is located in Vanuatu (formerly known as New Hebrides). In the film, Bali Ha’i is portrayed by the real island of Tioman in Malaysia. However, the scene was filmed on Mount Makana on the north shore of Kauai, and the scene where Bloody Mary sings of Bali Ha’i takes place on Hanalei Bay. Doesn’t that seem like a lot of trouble just to depict a visual image for a movie?
Incidentally, I didn’t find Moorea to be all-that, as I did not venture into the depths of the place. The other guys, however, went to a beach and found it to be quite beautiful, they reported. As you may have surmised by now, I am not the idly-lie-around-on-the-beach type of guy. I certainly don’t need the tan!
The only other port-of-call was three days later when we visited Taiohae Bay of Nuku Hiva of the Marquesas Islands group, still a part of French Polynesia. This place, too, I only walked around for about an hour and then back to the ship. After that, it was six whole days at sea until we got to San Diego, where the cruise ended. Round-trip, off-ship travel time was 35 hours!
We were all quite excited about the itinerary of our next world cruise, which was to take us to Egypt, Jordan, Greece and Turkey. The schedule, however, proved to be inconvenient for me, at least, as our leg of the tour began during Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter), which required me to miss that whole week of services at my church. I would prefer that our cruises not coincide with my other good-paying jobs in the City, as I would like to be able to do both if I can. But a chance to see the Egyptian Pyramids, I thought would be worth the sacrifice.
Well, things did not work out as we had hoped. The week before we were to leave and after I had committed to it, the ship, the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, experienced some mechanical problems of a functional nature, which caused them to change the remainder of their itinerary. By the time we joined the ship, most of the original ports-of-call had been cancelled, and Civitavecchia, Italy, a suburb of Rome, would be the final destination of the cruise, where the ship was put in dry dock to be repaired. So instead of spending six days in Egypt, where we were to visit Alexandria, Cairo, Giza, Luxor and the famous sights, the ship docked in Safaga for only one day.
Getting to Egypt and the ship was an ordeal in itself. This time we all did not travel together. Michael and his girlfriend, Linda, had joined the cruise a week earlier. Gabe and his then-fiancée, Fran, left earlier as well, in order to spend some extra time in Cairo to see the sights. Joe Paparella and I agreed to meet the others on the ship in Safaga.
Our late afternoon flight from JFK did not leave on schedule, because just before we began taxiing, a male passenger insisted to be let off the plane. He was acting nervous and was not responding to the flight crew’s questions to their satisfaction. Somebody thought that the man had come onboard with two bags but now was getting off with only one, which concerned the crew. This required a thorough check to see if there were any unclaimed bags aboard. I don’t know if they ever found anything awry.
We all eventually had to get off the plane, anyway, which was then taken out of service, and we were assigned a new flight and crew. The thing is, though, it was not scheduled to leave until 0100, and it was only 1900! At least they offered us food vouchers to use during our 5-hour delay. I couldn’t make any phone calls, because I had neglected to recharge my phone before I left home, and my charger was in my other checked bag, along with my phone book, and I didn’t know anybody’s number from memory. The cynic that I am, I didn’t believe that 0100 departure time, and I was right. We finally took off at 0420!
Ten hours later we landed in Cairo, where we had to take another flight to Hurghada, Egypt. But by getting in so late, we had already missed our scheduled connecting flight and had to wait another hour for the next one. It was almost midnight when we arrived in Hurghada, but the trip is not over yet! Now we have to find our way to Safaga, where the ship is docked for the night.
We hired a local cab driver, who agreed to take us there for $20, but on the way there, upon realizing that we were foreign tourists, hustled us for more money. Joe ended up paying him $54! We nor the driver knew where the hell the ship was, but after some trial-and-error searches, we eventually found it. By this time, it was 0200. After all that, I won’t even get to see the pyramids, which is why I accepted this cursed cruise in the first place!
From Safaga we made only one stop–Aqaba, Jordan–before continuing on directly to Civitavecchia. While in Jordan the rest of the group went on an excursion to the hidden city of Petra, which is carved out of rock, hence the name. The façade was used in a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). I didn’t go along because the tour was booked up, and I didn’t want to pay the $130 anyway. So I contented myself with just a sightseeing stroll around the city of Aqaba.
While walking back to the ship, I passed a camel standing on the side of the road with a plastic bag on its face. I said to the beast, ’What’s with the bag, Girlfriend? You’re not that ugly!’ I learned later that the bag was put there by its owner as a public safety precaution, as camels have a tendency to spit on people.
After Aqaba it was back around the Sinai Peninsula, up through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and through the Strait of Messina past Sicily to mainland Italy. The saving grace of this cruise, so that it was not a total disappointment, is that the accommodations were quite special. I got my own suite, which I didn’t have to share this time. On Holland America we always had to double up. Since we were at sea for days with nowhere to go, when we were not performing (we did four shows in all), I just stayed in my room watching movies all day. That’s basically what I do at home. The only thing missing was I didn’t have my computer with me, as I don’t own a laptop. We flew from Rome back to JFK, making off-ship round-trip travel time 43 hours.
(# Around the world in  days… #) Only five days later (April 25, 2009) we were off again for two back-to-back, three-weeks-long cruises that took us around the world, literally. We flew from New York to Ft. Lauderdale and got on the Eurodam, Holland America’s newest ship, only nine months old at the time. We did an Atlantic crossing, which took six days, then the first land we hit, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel of the Azores Islands (thought to be the remains of Atlantis), we got off the ship and flew to Lisbon, Portugal, spent the night in a hotel there, then next morning flew to London’s Heathrow Airport, changed planes and flew directly to Narita Airport in Japan, got on another ship, the Volendam, in Tokyo, visited three other Japanese ports, then made a Pacific crossing, which took six more days (crossing the International Dateline required us to experience Monday twice!), the first land we hit was Kodiak, Alaska, we got off the ship there, flew to Anchorage (so I finally made it to Anchorage after all, although we were confined to the airport the whole time) then to Houston then back to New York on May 15.
While in Lisbon for the night, my colleagues and I went for an evening out on the town, with sightseeing and dinner. The only part of Tokyo we got to see was during the taxi ride from the airport to the ship. By the time I got settled, I was so exhausted, all I wanted to do was crash. During the next few days, however, I did walk around in the towns of Hakodate and Otaru, and in Aomori we took a bus ride to Kuwabara Hill to see Showa-Daibutsu, the 70-feet-tall Buddha, aka Dainichi Nyorai.
Also on the site was a sort of Welcome House, where during my browsing I spied a page of sheet music and proceeded to sight-sing the melody, which delighted the Buddhist priest there, and he started singing the tune with me. It must have been some kind of prayer or folk song, although since the text was in Japanese, I had no idea what the hell we were singing about!
I found it interesting that there still are rickshaws in Japan. In this day and age, what kind of person would seek out such a job, or career even, of pulling a carriage of people around on foot? “So, what do you want to be when you grow up, Akiro?“ “I want to be a jinrikisha driver! Hai!“
I found the airfield terminal in Kodiak to be quite economical. The ticket counter, waiting area, departure gate, baggage claim carousel and car rental service were all in one room! Off-ship travel time this trip equaled 51 hours!
We got only a month’s break then, because on June 15, we were off on another cruise. Thankfully though, we were out for only five days. We left on Monday and were back home the following Saturday. This was our first time working for Royal Caribbean cruise line, and the name of the ship is Explorer of the Seas. The entire cruise was for nine days, beginning in New Jersey with stops in Bermuda, St. Maarten, St. Thomas (where we got on), San Juan, P.R. and back to Cape Liberty, NJ, where we got off. We next did two back-to-back cruises on Jewel of the Seas, which went from Boston to New Brunswick and back, and then on the Grandeur of the Seas which went to Mexico and Grand Cayman Island.
The first cruise of 2010 was on our fourth Royal Caribbean vessel, the Liberty of the Seas, which is a sister ship to the Explorer, only bigger. We were on the ship for a week for two different cruises, the last few days of one and the first few days of the next. The four new locales that we visited on this occasion were Belize (formerly British Honduras), Cozumel, Mexico, St. Kitts in the British West Indies and Haiti. This was only weeks after a devastating earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, so the people actually welcome the ships that come there bringing much-needed supplies and provisions.
The cruise line maintains and operates its own private resort called Labadee, which provides employment and income to many of the natives. We got off the ship in Jamaica and flew home from Montego Bay on Ash Wednesday. We made several cruise trips to Canada as well, visiting Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax each time via Boston and Portland, Maine.
But what about the actual cruises and more about the ships themselves, for those of you who have not had the experience? I’ve had fabulous times, for the most part. These big cruise ships are floating resort hotels with all the amenities. These things are self-contained. Since we are living on the ship (some of the crew for six months at a time or longer), everything you need is on there for you. Although we were there to entertain the other guests, we were treated as guests ourselves.
On the Holland America ships we didn’t have the restrictions that the crew members and even the regular passengers do. We could go anywhere on the entire ship that we wanted to, and we took advantage of all it has to offer. We have a TV in our room that shows movies and vintage series all day long, as well as a real movie theater with recent movies and complimentary popcorn!
There are organized games throughout the day that we could participate in—Team Trivia, Taboo, Outburst, Scattergories, Pictionary, Boggle, Hoopla, Guesstures and Name That Tune. There are various sports activities and special interest group meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, disguised as “Friends of Bill W.” (not for me, of course), and some ships even gave us “Friends of Dorothy” get-togethers, which, of course, is the code for gays. There is a gym with workout apparatus, a steam room, sauna, pools and jacuzzis.
There is plenty of opportunity to indulge in walking exercise as well. Most ships have an outdoor promenade that goes completely around the vessel. To give you some idea of how big the Westerdam is, the ship is 950 feet in length and one lap around the promenade equals one-third of a mile! Things are at opposite ends of the ship, so there is a lot of walking back and forth all day long. Plus, I always used the stairs to get from deck to deck, instead of taking the elevators. All the ships I have been on have up to fifteen decks. I have yet to use the beauty salon or the casino on any of the ships.
I did go in the indoor pool on the Norwegian Star one time, when no one else was using it, but it was too shallow even to swim in, and I have used the jacuzzi only twice. The food is magnificent, for the most part, abundant and free! There is food and drink available on the ships whenever you want it. Even when the dining areas are closed, we can order from room service 24 hours a day. The Liberty, for one, has 28 (!) bars or public areas where they serve alcoholic beverages. You never have to venture very far to get a drink.
We performed four times apiece (two shows a night) on the Eurodam, Ryndam, Veendam, Volendam, Westerdam, Zuiderdam, Jewel and Liberty of the Seas, only twice on the Maasdam, Navigator and Explorer of the Seas, four times in four days on the Voyager and six times on the Grandeur of the Seas, Norwegian Star and Prinsendam, each and every time proving ourselves to be an unqualified hit with the passengers and crew. Our performance schedule varied on the Enchantment. On that particular ship we did two, three and even four shows in one week‘s time. Our time on any given ship was from four days to three weeks, and our work schedule hardly ever exceeded more than three hours on performance days, so that gave us loads of free time to enjoy the cruises. In addition to New Year’s, the other holidays that I spent on a ship are Valentine’s Day, Easter, two Halloweens and a Thanksgiving.
That first week on the Veendam, I didn’t get sick at all, even without taking anything, and assumed that I had finally overcome my “mal de mer.” I was fine on the Volendam as well, but it was smooth-sailing throughout. The first day on the Maasdam, however, the turbulence did cause me to throw up several times and a few times on the Prinsendam as well. So I guess the problem was still with me, and I found a way to deal with it. I started wearing Sea Bands whenever I sailed or flew long distances. They are elastic bracelets, each containing a button that presses against certain pressure points in the wrists and stabilizes one’s equilibrium, or some such. Whatever is the deal, they must really work. But I must have gotten used to sailing eventually, because I stopped wearing them at some point, and I did not suffer any more gastric distress.
I think that my favorite ship was the Seven Seas Voyager. The cabins are the largest of any ships I have been on, with a walk-in closet and balcony. The TVs in our suites were pre-programmed with over 200 movies (didn’t I love that!) and included a DVD player as well. The bathroom was equipped with a tub, shower stall and telephone! I even loved the bed! And my not having to share was the best part. Along with the food, even the drinks are free. We love that, although I, for one, do not abuse the privilege. I never overindulge just because I don’t have to pay for it, just like I don’t eat any more than I choose to. Unfortunately though, Regent is the cruise line that is reluctant to give us single occupancy. The only reason I got it that one time was because some passengers had left the ship and they had the vacancy. That was the Egyptian cruise that changed its itinerary.
My least favorite was probably the Zuiderdam, for the reasons I cited earlier. I found that I liked the Volendam the first time around but not so much the second time. It was the first one where I met other gay men in my age group to party and hang out with. Most of the passenger personnel on these ships are old, straight, married couples, and the crew members, especially the musicians and the performing Cast members, are kids in their twenties (some are actual teenagers), therefore too young with which to have any sort of relationship. But even with the elderly straights, I was treated very kindly and respectfully and received many compliments after they had seen and heard me perform.
The cruise passengers are a generally quite friendly, fun-loving bunch. The daily trivia games are especially popular and tend to be very competitive. I never had trouble being invited to play on someone’s team. I liked the fact that I didn’t initially have to prove my intelligence to be accepted. But then when they discovered how smart I am, everybody wanted me on their team.
Now after 38 cruises (counting the first two as well), I am quite used to the routine. I especially liked the peace and solitude I got on the ships. Even with thousands of people on board at one time, there are so many places one can go to be alone, other than your stateroom. I often wondered, ‘Where the hell is everybody?!’ Since most people are creatures of habit, they tend to go to bed and get up at the same times they do when they are at home. And I, who normally keep late hours, could be found roaming the ship at night after most everyone have turned in. I love the outer and upper decks, especially when it is warm out. I much enjoyed strolling the deck and singing (and occasionally disturbing sleeping passengers) while listening to music on my portable music player.
I have been to Canada on numerous occasions—first with the DeCormier Singers several times, with Harry Belafonte for several weeks, for the Steamboat Gothic tour, with The Flirtations nine different times, and with The Vagabonds several times. I guess Vancouver is my most-visited Canadian city, probably ten times, but I have made it to Montreal only twice, although there have been several other attempts. I wanted to drive there with a group of friends from nearby Plattsburgh, NY after a gig one night, but it was too late to make the trip. Then remember the first orchestra tour with Harry, it was Montreal that cancelled on us the last minute. The Flirts were scheduled to perform in Montreal in August 1993, but we never made it out of the airport. In fact, we were deported and ordered to return to the States. What happened was this.
As working performers, we always need special permits and employment validation when in Canada, that are not required for common tourists. This particular time, though, our local promoter for the engagement neglected to provide the necessary papers for us that we were required to present to the Immigration officers upon our arrival. Just before we flew there from Boston, we were advised by the promoter guy not to reveal our true purpose for being there but to lie and say that we are just visiting tourists. Since it was too late to do anything else, we decided to do just that.
Well, three of us got through the Immigration gate okay, no questions asked, but Jimmy’s clerk must have read his nervousness or something, because he asked Jimmy direct, pertinent questions to which he confessed, out of fear and intimidation. Now that they were on to us, we had to come clean. We were then detained, further interrogated and all our belongings were searched. We were even strip-searched!
We were subsequently charged with fraud and misrepresentation and told that we could not enter the country at this time, and we were put on the very next flight back to Boston. So once again I almost made it to Montreal. I actually did finally get to visit the city during the second long tour with Harry in the spring of ’78, when I spent seven days there. Then I was back there for two days in the summer of 2002 during a road trip with my French boyfriend, Gilles, on which I will elaborate a little later.
This deportation incident, by the way, was still haunting me 18 years later. The last three times that the New York Vagabonds had to enter Canada as a result of our cruise itineraries, I alone had to visit the Immigration office at the airport. The first couple of times I didn’t understand what they wanted with me, and the clerks didn’t have much information to share with me. They did mention The Flirtations, however, reading about us on their computer screens, and asked me about my association with them. I was wondering, Why are they asking me about those guys after so many years? I haven’t been involved with them since 1994. Each time they let me continue on, however, but without telling me what the problem was.
So the last time I was at the Halifax airport and was again summoned to Immigration, and the customs officer asked me if I had ever had any trouble entering Canada. That’s when it dawned on me about the Montreal incident. I had forgotten all about it temporarily. So when I went to see them this time, I had an explanation for them. I related the story about the time we were detained and deported because of the lack of a work permit and asked them why it was still in their system. It happened so long ago, can’t you just expunge it from the record? They said, “No, it’s there permanently.” ’So you mean I have to go through this every time I come here now?’ “I’m afraid so.” The situation is different now, in that we are not in Canada to work, as was the case before, but only passing through to get onto a cruise ship.
It appears that my cruising days are over, at least for the time being, as we haven’t gotten a booking in over four years. I am fortunate, however, to have done as many as I have, in eight years’ time. There has been no other work at all, in fact. There have been some health issues with some group members, including myself. We are all up in age now and not as young and spry as we once were. In addition, our first tenor just recently moved to Las Vegas, so we would have to find a replacement for him anyway. We also could use some new and better management, as our present one isn’t doing shit for us. Oh, well, nothing is forever. It was all fun while it lasted. The only times that the three remaining guys get to sing together is at Gabe’s annual Christmas parties at his house in White Plains, NY, when his guests regularly entertain each other.
Another of my more pleasurable recurring gigs was my nearly-annual summer visit to Bard College, located in Annandale-on-the-Hudson in upstate New York. The Bard Music Festival, founded in 1990, focuses on a particular classical composer every year. The first time I got involved was in 1999, when Arnold Schoenberg was the featured composer and a large chorus was hired to perform his Gurrelieder. The next year was Beethoven, when we did his Missa Solemnis. I wasn’t needed the next year for Debussy, but in 2002 we performed both Mahler’s 2nd and 8th Symphonies. 2003 was Janacek’s year, but in addition to Czech, we had to sing in Russian and Polish! The next year honored Shostakovitch, but I missed Copland the next year. My last time there was Liszt summer of 2006. The music coordinator and conductor of the orchestra, Leon Botstein, is also the longtime president of the college.
I so much enjoyed the time I spent up at Bard. It’s a small college in a bucolic setting. There are lots of wooded areas and grass, hiking trails, waterfalls. It’s like a working vacation with pay. Bus transportation was provided for those of us who don’t drive, they put us up in campus dormitories while we’re there and give us three wholesome meals a day, all for free! We also have free use of the gym, workout equipment, swimming pool, sauna and tennis courts. With all the walking to and from the dorms and the dining room several times a day, I always lost some weight after I had been there. It’s an ideal job.
The choristers are the finest in the City and really a nice, fun bunch of people. There was a common area where we would gather at night, and as many of us are night owls, we liked to stay up late partying and playing games, like cards, Dominoes and Scrabble. During one summer there we experienced an electrical blackout, but that didn’t stop our nocturnal festivities. We just entertained ourselves in the dark. The music we all made there together was quite lovely, and I liked learning new and challenging works every year. The food is consistently good and plentiful; it’s cafeteria-style, and we can have as much as we want. The lodging is quite adequate (I always got a single room), the pay was very good, and I didn’t have to spend any money while there. The Festival’s occurring in August also helped get me over the dearth of paying summer jobs.
In my capacity as a freelance choral singer, I get to do a lot of ringer jobs. A ringer is a paid professional hired to help out in an amateur situation. One of my regular ringer jobs for several years was with the semi-professional group, the Collegiate Chorale (their name has since been changed to Master Voices). This association got me yearly summer trips to Europe four times, plus one year to the Holy Land. As the somewhat amateur singers had to pay their own way for the trips, the group’s size varied from time to time, but there were always at least 60 of us in attendance.
In July 2005 the Chorale was invited to participate in the annual Verbier Music Festival held in Verbier, Switzerland. The big choral work being performed that first year was Verdi’s Requiem, with major soloists and the orchestra conducted by James Levine. We were such a hit that we were asked back the next year to do a whole opera, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (although there is little choral work involved), along with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The next year we were given even more to do: Brahms and Mozart’s Requiems and Orff’s Carmina Burana. Levine was too ill to make the trip that third time, so Austrian maestro Manfred Honeck conducted in his place. Two years later we were back there again with Honeck to do Mozart’s Don Giovanni, his Laudate Dominum and the Fauré Requiem with Jean-Christophe Spinosi at the helm.
Verbier is a small village located high up in the Swiss Aps. The upward road that goes there actually takes you above the clouds! The first year there, the chorus were lodged in the not-so-nearby town of Martigny and had to make the 2-hour commute by bus every day to Verbier. This posed a problem, however, as there was never anywhere to eat when we were at our hotel. The one restaurant in the hotel always managed to be closed whenever we were there and wanted to eat. On one of our nights off, we roamed the streets of Martigny literally for several hours, looking for a restaurant that was open, first of all, and then one that could accommodate the bunch of us at one time. This will not do. Singers have to be fed, and often.
So the next year we actually got to stay in Verbier in a no-frills, unstaffed hotel (closed for the season, the area’s being more of a skiing resort during wintertime, therefore it had no employees), but at least there were plenty of tourist eateries in town from which to choose. The third and fourth times we fared even better, when, divided into small groups, we were put in individual “chalets” (apartment houses) that afforded us kitchen facilities with which to prepare our own meals. There was a convenient, well-stocked supermarket in town, thankfully. Other than being responsible for our meals, everything else, that is, plane fare and lodging, were paid for, plus we got a salary besides and an open-ended return plane ticket, which allowed us to stay after the Festival was over and to return home at our own leisure. I took advantage of that concession on two occasions, which I will relate in a moment.
The main tourist attraction there, other than the music concerts and which we all took part at some point, is the cable lifts that take you farther up the mountain (Mont-Fort) to view and actually to walk on a real glacier. There is also a rocky peak up there to climb, from where you can see the Matterhorn in the distance. One year a group of us got to visit a local cheese factory. There is also a public pool in town. There were also occasional mini-concerts held in the town square for the tourists. One that I attended featured an ensemble of alpenhorns. The days we spent in Switzerland were six, nine, ten and eight, respectively.
My friend Lloyd has sort of a fanatic crush on Russian concert pianist Evgeny Kissin. He has all his recordings and goes to see him play whenever he comes to New York. But Lloyd has not bothered to go backstage and meet him after any of his concerts. He just stands on the sidelines and ogles the guy. I am not into the man myself, but I support Lloyd’s admiration of him. Well, the second time I was in Verbier in 2006, Kissin was scheduled to perform during the Festival, too, and Lloyd half-jokingly told me that if I ran into Evgeny, to tell him “hi” for him. Well, as it turned out, I did more than that.
During intermission on the evening of our Saturday performance—we did Mirjams Siegesgesang by Franz Schubert—I was in the VIP area of the hall where we perform, to see who would be there. I looked around the room and saw his distinctive coif. It was none other than Evgeny Kissin himself! He was there attending the concert as a regular patron. He then caught my eye and actually walked over to where I was standing and gave me this friendly “Hi!” We chatted for a few minutes, and then I had to go meet the rest of the chorus on the other side of the stage. But after we did our bit, I got to thinking. Lloyd would love it if I got Evgeny’s autograph for him. So I went back over to where I was before, hoping he would come back in again. And he did! Some old lady was talking to him, and when he saw me, he just walked away from her, heading in my direction. This time I met him halfway and asked him if I could trouble him for an autograph for my friend Lloyd. He readily complied, and then I left him alone.
So the next night, we were there to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and there Evgeny was again before the show. This time I decided to have my picture taken with him, of which he graciously consented, with his arm around me, yet! Evgeny remembered me the very next year when I returned to Verbier and greeted me warmly again when he saw me.
It wasn’t that they didn’t want us for the Festival of the summer of 2008, it’s just that the Chorale was invited to do a two-week concert tour in Israel that year. On July 7 we flew to Tel Aviv, where we stayed for the duration in two adjacent hotels. Again, our major expenses were paid for: transportation, lodging, daily tours around the country, and we even received several complimentary company meals. We performed eight times in five different venues, in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
The primary music program, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic, was Bach’s Cantata No. 140, “Wachet Auf” (aka “Whack It Off”) and Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh [Sacred Service] with Thomas Hampson as our soloist cantor. We learned that Israeli audiences did not hear much live choral music, so they were very appreciative that we exposed them to some. The Bloch piece, especially, was unfamiliar to most, its being hardly ever performed anywhere. And by its being sung in Hebrew with their traditional religious texts, they were quite ecstatic about it.
The smaller group of professional ringers also got to do our own concert at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. This program was an eclectic mix of varying periods and styles, ending with a set of American spirituals, my own arrangement of “I Been in the Storm So Long” with myself as soloist, being one of them. According to all (or most) accounts, my Israeli solo debut turned out to be the highlight of the concert! We got to do this same program, with some selective changes, the next year in Verbier.
Every day, when we weren’t rehearsing, there was a guided tour for us to see the country. We visited the holy places in Nazareth and Jerusalem (both cities are major tourist attractions), including all the Biblical landmarks, like the Mount of Olives, Mount Beatitudes, the actual room where The Last Supper supposedly took place, King David’s Tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, which boasted a 2000-year-old olive tree (who is keeping track?), the Sea of Galilee, the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, and the Western (or “Wailing“) Wall.
That Wailing Wall, incidentally, is quite a trip! Every day you will find a crowd of religious fanatics, consisting of Christians, Muslims and Jews, all praying and actually wailing and stuffing pieces of paper into the cracks of the Wall which, I suppose, contain prayers and supplications to the Wall, as if they expect a reply from it.
Most of these historic places, which are based on traditional Christian beliefs that I don’t happen to share, mind you, lost the wonder for me because of the commemorative construction that mark them all. The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is built on the spot where the “Virgin” Mary allegedly received the word from the Angel Gabriel that she would conceive God’s Child. St. Joseph’s Church right next door is where hubby Joseph had his carpentry shop. There is a church built over the spot where Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes. Yonder shrine is where he gave his famous Sermon on the Mount. This church is built on the spot where he was arrested. This church is on the spot where he hung on the Cross, and that one there is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where he was buried.
Every place has a church or shrine built on it. Although these churches are impressive and quite beautiful, I would prefer that these special locales be designated by a simple stone marker or mere sign to identify them. Leave the landscape to look like it did during the time. But that’s just me. I suppose that they want to be more modernized, yet retaining the history. So I suppose that’s commendable.
We visited the Roman ruins of Caesarea and the ancient hilltop city of Masada. We did spelunking in Rosh Haniqua and the Soreq Cave and went swimming (well, floating, actually) in the Dead Sea. I didn’t particularly enjoy that. The salt content in there is ten times more than regular sea water, giving it a viscous or slimy quality. It’s advertised as being healing and therapeutic. I thought it was just plain nasty. But it’s something I did just to be able to say honestly that I did it.
We also visited the Ayalon Valley Tank Museum (!), the Crusader Knights fortress in Akko and the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem (they mustn’t ever let us forget about that), which I actually found to be quite interesting, informative, and I learned a lot. We didn’t make it to Bethlehem, however, which is Palestinian territory and subject to stricter admittance, but I didn’t care anyway. I’m sure there was just another church built over the very spot where the Baby Jesus was born. (Yeah, right. Sure it is!) Check out my For the Bible Tells Me So article for a couple more Israel tour anecdotes.
Some of my New York friends were so worried about my going to Israel, because of the news reports they had heard that it was a dangerous place to be in. “There are all kinds of civil unrest with terrorists and suicide bombers blowing up innocent bystanders on a daily basis,” they had warned me. Oh, like nothing like that ever happens right here at home, does it? Some even turned down the job because of their imagined fear. My reasoning was that I didn’t think that they would be bringing so many of us over there if our very lives were in constant imminent danger. I’m an adventurer and a participant in life. Again, I’m not one to sit on the sidelines and watch other people having fun. I’m also the type of person who does not live his life imagining the worst possible scenario in any situation. If I thought that way, I wouldn’t do anything or ever go anywhere. I would miss out on so much. I want to experience life whenever I get the chance. I mean, I know that shit happens, but not all the time. And I know how the media tends to exaggerate things. They will take isolated incidents and blow them all out of proportion. I have heard horror stories about living in New York that I know to be completely false.
As it turned out, and it’s what I expected, I did not feel any sense of danger at all, the whole time I was there. The residents there don’t even think about stuff like that. They all go about their business just like any place else. Daily city life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, too, is no different than it is in Manhattan, for instance. I felt very much at home there. Jerusalem surprised me by the number of young people there. Since it’s a major college town–with no less than 13 colleges–it seems that students predominate the city. The old part, or “Holy” section, is just a small area surrounded by a wall. The rest of it is modern-looking as any other city. Occasionally, I did see armed soldiers (also young) in uniform on patrol, but don’t we have armed police officers here, too, supposedly guarding our cities? The difference is, though, there they are not in the habit of gunning innocent people down at will as is so common an occurrence here.
Tel Aviv even boasts to be the “City That Never Sleeps.” There are 24-hour convenience stores, restaurants, laundromats, ATMs, movie theaters, bathhouses, and their bars and nightclubs don’t have an official closing time. I was out late on several nights, and there were people about on the streets and always something going on. I even got laid several times while there. I would hate to have missed out on this most rewarding and learning experience because of someone else’s paranoid but unwarranted trepidation.
In December 1997 through a mutual friend, I met a very nice Parisian gentleman named Gilles, when he was visiting New York City. We hit it off right away, and since that time we have formed a lasting friendship. Gilles is much younger than I, albeit (he was born the week I started college!), but his maturity, intelligence and charm more than make up for our age difference. He, too, is a Virgo and the second-born of three sons, like me.
I had always wanted to see Paris but never had the means or opportunity. But the very next year, and now that I know someone who lives there, plus, I had the whole summer free (my church choir job was on hiatus from June to October) and a free place to stay while there, I readily accepted when Gilles invited me to come to Paris for a visit. I flew there the last week of June 1998 and stayed for a whole month, returning to NYC at the end of July. It was the first time that I had gone anywhere for that length of time and not have any work obligations to fulfill, my first real vacation.
Just like that wonderful, life-changing trip to Hawaii with the Flirtations, my visit to Paris was another longtime dream come true. Gilles’ apartment building at the time was situated on a short, very quiet street near the Marais district, just a short distance from the Bastille. Gilles was a gracious host. He cooked for me, took me out to dine a few times and we were invited to several of his friends’ houses for dinners and parties. There were times when we were still eating dinner as late as midnight! But surprisingly, there is no indication of general overweight, as one would expect, like it is in this country. I didn’t see any fat people the whole time I was there, except for the one fat man at the Louvre. But I’m pretty sure he was an American tourist. The McDonald’s restaurants, which seemed to be everywhere, are exactly like the ones here.
Since Gilles had work obligations with school (he is a teacher) and every couple of days would check on his dying mother, who was in the hospital, I was often left to my own devices during the day, which was all right with me. I could sleep late, listen to music, watch videos, read, whatever I wanted to do, just like at home. I had use of his computer and I maintained a journal all while I was there. I hardly watched any French TV, except for movies, which were shown free of any commercials! When I did venture out, at some point every day, I had the use of Gilles’ bicycle to get me around town, just like at home. There was even the added convenience of a washing machine in the apartment. I certainly loved that!
I felt very much at home in Paris as well. I am easily assimilated anyway. I don’t require much to make me satisfied. The city is rather like New York in many respects. There are all kinds of people of various ethnicities who go about their business, and you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. The only real difference is, everything there is written in French. But just like it was in Germany, I must have been pegged as an American, for I didn’t even have to use my limited spoken French hardly at all, and Gilles himself and all his friends speak and understand English very well.
On July 1 we attended the birthday party of one of Gilles’ friends, David, and you should have seen me trying to play Charades with the party guests, in French! I didn’t know what the game entries meant most of the time, let alone how to act them out. Then we played the French version of Pictionary. That’s the game in which you have to convey common words to your teammates by drawing them on paper. But before I could draw a word, I often first had to find out what the damned thing meant! It was fun, though, and everyone was helpful and non-critical of me. David, incidentally, has since moved to New York to pursue a singing career in opera. He used to be a lawyer, and he’s a polyglot, meaning that he is fluent in several languages, and speaks English without a trace of accent! This special skill earned him a good day job at the United Nations as an interpreter.
I found it interesting that the French chose to honor their national artists (Hector Berlioz, Paul Cezanne, Claude Debussy, Gustave Eiffel and Antoine St. Exupery) by depicting their likenesses on their franc currency, instead of honoring Presidents and other politicians, like we do on ours, most of whom have not contributed to our country’s culture in any way. But now that France and most of Europe have switched to Euros as their official currency, human depictions have been excluded from the bills, I suppose, so as not to show any national favoritism.
I was there during the World Cup Soccer Tournament in July. I have never seen such fanatical frenzy for any sports event. It’s much worse than in the States. Sure, Americans love their spectator sports and Canada is mad for their hockey, but we don’t do up our faces and bodies with red, white and blue “war paint” and storm the streets, incessantly whooping and hollering and blowing our car horns and whistles. And this was before the game even started! Every TV set and monitor in town was on, especially the public ones in bars, restaurants and department stores, which were filled with men, women and children alike, there for the sole purpose of watching the “football” game, as they call it there. It’s really a manic obsession with them.
France won the game, by the way, beating the team from Brazil. That prompted more all-night celebration. Even our street outside, which was always very quiet, was noisy with cheers and boisterousness that night. The frivolity did not end there either, because only two days later was their Bastille Day, which is equivalent to our Fourth of July Independence Day. They even do a fireworks display, just like here, from the Eiffel Tower. We attended a party at the apartment of another one of Gilles’ friends, who lives so close to the Tower, we could watch the display from his bedroom window!
I did the whole tourist bit while I was there. With the help of map and guide book, I covered every section of the city from one end to the other. What amazed me is how much bigger the famous landmarks are live and in person, so to speak, than in pictures or in the movies. The Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, for instance, are huge! I went atop both of them, using the stairs to get there. I couldn’t very well finally get to Paris and not do the Eiffel Tower, now could I? The Arch has a 300-step spiral staircase and the “Tour Eiffel” is 725 steps one way! So altogether I maneuvered 2050 steps, with my tendonitis acting up the days I went! You can’t say that I am not a trouper.
Paris is a city of many churches, especially Roman Catholic, and I visited several. Notre Dame is impressive. I would like to have seen the bell tower, but there was a long line and they wanted a lot of money for it, so I decided to leave Quasimodo and his “children” for another time. As Sacre Coeur is way atop a hill in the Montmartre section of town, getting up there by bike was quite a struggle. The area’s streets remind me of San Francisco, with some serious hills. I wanted to check out Montparnasse and Père Lachaise cemeteries, but they wouldn’t let me ride my bike inside, and I didn’t have a lock to leave it parked somewhere unattended.
There was a month-long fair being held at the Tuileries Garden. The only ride that Gilles and I got on was the giant Ferris Wheel, although it took us around only four times. What a gyp! I wanted to do the Flume ride, too, but Gilles didn’t want to get wet. What a sissy! The Louvre museum also was larger than I had imagined, and the “Mona Lisa” (La Joconde) was smaller than I had thought it would be. I went there twice, the first time alone then again with Gilles and Lloyd, who joined us in Paris during my third week. We also took in the Orsay Museum, where “Whistler’s Mother” and other famous works are housed, and the Grande Galerie d’Evolution, which is their Museum of Natural History.
On the evening of July 10, The 3 Tenors (Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti) gave a historic concert outdoors on the mall in front of the Eiffel Tower, but Gilles neglected to let me know about it, so we missed it. It’s just as well, though, because I don’t like huge crowds anyway. Knowing that about me is probably why he thought that I would not want to go to it. He was right. He later gave me the CD recording made from the event, however, which, I suppose, makes up for not attending it live.
Lloyd arrived in Paris on a Friday and the following Sunday, the three of us took the Eurostar (the “Chunnel” or Channel tunnel train) to London for three days. We stayed in a gay-run hotel in Earls Court. I love London, maybe as much, if not more, than I do Paris. I could live there, if it were not so damned expensive, even more so than NYC. I wish I could have spent more time there, but we got to see quite a bit in two days of sightseeing. Many of the famous landmarks and tourist sites are all within walking distance of each other. We exited the subway near St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it was closed, so we didn’t get to see the inside, and the “Bird Woman” was not there either, alas. The steeple of St. Bride’s Church is the inspiration for the first multi-tiered wedding cake! The Royal Opera House was closed for renovation but featured a bevy of humpy construction workers on the “meat rack,” taking their lunch break.
I love the Parliament Building, which is known for its famous clock tower, erroneously referred to by many as “Big Ben,” which is actually the name of the large bell housed within. Westminster Abbey is basically a mausoleum, or indoor cemetery, where Elizabeth I and other famous “queens” are buried, including William Shakespeare, George F. Handel and Sir Laurence Olivier. What, you didn’t know?
We did the London theatre experience by going to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical, Whistle Down the Wind. We saw Covent Garden, Fleet Street, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. We also shopped at Harrods department store, which is similar to New York’s Bloomingdale’s, everything there being overpriced, too. We somehow neglected to do the Tower of London tour or visit Albert Hall. I mean, we could have stayed an extra day to get those in. I don’t know now why we didn’t.
Back in Paris, while in Bois du Bologne, which is equivalent to our Central Park, we did meet a “Bird Woman”! She herself fed them daily (not like that other extortionist!) and could identify every bird that dwell in the park.
On the last Saturday before the end of my stay, Gilles and I traveled by bus and train to the city of Versailles to visit the famous Chateau there. We decided to forego the royal palace itself and tour the grounds behind instead. I didn’t realize how much back there there was to see! There were fountains galore and Baroque music playing all around. The Grand and Petit Trianons were King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette’s respective private quarters, where they probably took their tricks, since the main house was always too crowded with people. Part of the queen’s estate, called an hameau, consisted of several thatch-roofed cottages and an animal farm with live cows, donkeys, ducks, goats, pigs and sheep. There were also many fish in the stream that flowed through. The grounds and woods were quite lovely. There were people in canoes on the canal as well as family picnickers and sunbathers all over the place. What an enjoyable vacation this was!
During Gilles’ month-long summer visit in 2002, we decided to go somewhere, rather than spend the whole time in NYC. So we rented a car—a bright red Chevy Cavalier—and hit the road, just like Thelma and Louise! Although we had mapped out a tentative itinerary, we sort of took each day as it came. We were on no strict time schedule; we would just get there when we get there. Gilles did all of the driving, as I don’t have a license and did not want to risk being stopped by the cops for anything. So I served as navigator, co-pilot and tour guide, having been before to most of the cities that we visited.
When Gilles got tired of driving, he would stop to rest. We had the car for only 16 days, so that in itself limited our destinations. We were going to stay out for at least three weeks. You see, we had originally planned to drive across the country, like, all the way to California. But that was more of an endeavor than we wanted to take on at this time. Besides, I wanted to be back before the first of the month, because of rent obligations and such. Gilles had never been to Chicago and wanted to see it, and I wanted to visit my mother in South Bend and see her new apartment, so we decided that this would be more feasible.
We left on Monday, July 15 and chose Philadelphia as our first stop. We arrived in Philly too late in the day to do other than some sightseeing downtown—Wanamaker’s Department Store (which features the giant pipe organ), the Liberty Bell, etc.—so we stayed overnight in order to do the art museum the next day. This is the same museum where the reception after the premiere showing of Philadelphia (1993) was held and where The Flirtations gave a mini-concert for those in attendance, on the very steps also where a major scene in Rocky (1976) was filmed! Although we had made it to Pittsburgh by nightfall the second day, we didn’t stay there but in a cheap motel in Florence, Pa.
The next day, after showing Gilles downtown Dayton, Ohio, we drove up to nearby Pleasant Hill and dropped in on my former boyfriend, John Z. He prepared us a lovely dinner, and we spent this Wednesday night in his guest room.
The next day we forewent Indianapolis and Bloomington and headed northwest instead to South Bend. Of course, my mother was thrilled to see me and took kindly to Gilles right off the bat. My sister and her husband were not free to entertain us until Sunday, so it was suggested that we go do Chicago, and they could spend some time with us when we came back. So that’s what we did.
On Friday after breakfast we drove to the Not-So-Windy city, which is approximately 100 miles away, visiting Lincoln Park Beach, Navy Pier and record shops, until it was time for us to crash somewhere. We were not ready to leave town just yet, as there were some more things that we wanted to do tomorrow. Neither of us wanted to spring for an expensive hotel, and Gilles was apprehensive about checking into a bathhouse for the night, having never been to one, and the couple of friends that I knew in town were unavailable to put us up, so we decided to sleep in the car this one time.
We found a parking area along Lake Shore Drive, which was part of an actual park and where a number of vehicles were parked for whatever reason. We saw that some cars were empty but some contained people within. We assumed that it would be all right to park there for a few hours while we got some sleep. What do we know? I mean, what’s the harm, right? So we put the seats back in a reclining position and promptly dozed off.
At about 0300 I awoke with a bright light shining in my face, a policeman‘s flashlight, it turned out to be. Oh-oh, what now? “Hey, fellas, let’s see some I.D.” I have a little, black, leatherette shoulder bag that I carry with me when I don’t need my other one that I use for larger-sized items. Among other things, this one contained my camera, notepad, pencil, and my passport, which I use for identification. I was reaching into the back seat for this..satchel to retrieve my passport, and one of the cops inquired, “What is that, a purse?!” I didn’t answer such a frivolous question, I just got out my passport and handed it to him. Okay, so maybe it is a purse, but so what? What is his point?
He and his fellow officers (there must have been at least a half a dozen of them) then proceeded to search all of our bags and belongings that were in the car, hoping to find something incriminating, I’m sure. They did not find anything, however. They also questioned us, wanting to know why we were there, where we were going, what we were doing. (Uh, how about, innocently sleeping?) I asked, ‘What are you looking for and why all the implicative questions?’ The reply, from the inquisitive cop, “Well, we find two grown men in a parked car together and one of them has a purse, what are we supposed to think?!” He even tried to imply that I might be some kind of prostitute drag queen and Gilles a casual stranger pickup trick. “Do you know him?” he said to me, referring to Gilles. ‘Well, of course, I do!’ “What’s his name?”
It was subsequently explained to us that we were illegally parked there, as the area was closed and off-limits at that time of night. ‘So if this area is “closed,” how did we get in, why are all these other cars parked here, and why is there not a gate or barrier of some sort keeping people out, or at least a sign somewhere telling us what the policy is? We don’t live here. We don’t know the rules.’ They must have considered this little fact, for they let us go without even a fine or ticket. I strongly suspect that had Gilles not been white and a foreigner, things might have gone quite differently. Needing more sleep, we then drove to a quiet, residential section of town and parked right on the street and resumed our slumber for a few more hours, undisturbed. You know, instead of harassing innocent tourists just trying to get some sleep in their car, those cops might be using that time to deal with the rampant multiple murders and violence that is plaguing the city. That should be their primary concern.
(# …Chicago, that toddlin’ town… #) It needs to grow up. Besides Richmond, Va. and San Diego (both of which I have already critiqued), the city of Chicago also gives me cause to complain. As a touring performer who has done a lot of air travel, I have been frequently required to land at O’Hare Airport. I simply loathe the place. I think that the Powers-That-Be there just love to mess with passengers’ minds. Why, for instance, since O’Hare handles many connecting flights, can’t they figure out a way better to coordinate the arrival and departure gates for the more common flight connections? No matter where you are coming from or going, they will put your planes on totally opposite ends of the terminal and give you five minutes to make your connection. I don’t like running, sometimes with luggage in tow, at least a quarter mile to the gate where my other plane is leaving from. But one time when I had a two-hour layover at O’Hare, my connecting gate was right next to the one at which I arrived! That’s when I realized that it was possible and that they do it the other way deliberately, just to annoy us.
Up until recently, I could not get a direct flight to South Bend but had to fly to Chicago first then take one of the smaller planes the rest of the way. I went home one year at Christmastime and got an evening flight from Newark to O’Hare that was delayed four hours. When I landed at O’Hare at 0100, there were no more connecting flights that night, plus all the car rental agencies, shuttle buses and commuter trains to neighboring areas (including all food concessions) had stopped and closed up for the night and would not resume until later that morning. Why would an airport of this size in a city as large as Chicago close down at midnight when flights are still coming in with travelers needing assistance, information, transportation options and perhaps even sustenance? Add this to the other inanities that have happened to me in this city, like the parking controversy and the broadcast censorship involving the Flirtations that time, do you see why I have had it with Chicago thinking and logic? It needs to get its shit together. It’s a big city but with small-town, Midwest mentality.
Although this is not Chicago’s fault, per se, it still exhibits illogical thoughtlessness on their or somebody’s else’s part. Recently there was some kind of fire at O’Hare which required that thousands of flights in and out of there that day had to be cancelled. As I have said, many flights to O’Hare are connecting flights to other places. Two passengers on the news reported said that their flight to Omaha had to be cancelled because they could not land in Chicago. But they didn’t even want to go to Chicago. Why didn’t they just fly them directly to Omaha?!
In 2009 when the Vagabonds were in Anchorage, ending our around-the-world cruise/tour, we first had to fly to Houston, where our connecting flight was delayed for several hours. But we didn’t need to go there in the first place! Why couldn’t they have gotten us a direct flight to New York? We were so exhausted and wanted to get home as soon as possible. I can understand our booking agents wanting to save money, but we are the ones who are inconvenienced, not them. They don’t give a shit about what we have to go through.
Pardon the digression. So Gilles and I are still in Chicago. We awoke around 0700, had breakfast at IHOP, then went downtown to take the Loop train tour. (Boring!) We enjoyed the Museum of Art a lot more and stayed until closing. We got back to South Bend Saturday night and hung out there with my mother and my sister’s family for three more days. We next had considered spending some time in Cleveland, but changed our minds. I mean, besides the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, what else is there to do? So we instead headed for Canada, crossing the border at Buffalo and stopping at Niagara Falls for a break and to take pictures.
Next stop: Toronto! It’s been ten years since I was there last, with the Flirtations, and it was like rediscovering the city all over again. Since we had a place to stay, with my friend Alison, we hung around in town until Saturday, record shopping and bar hopping. Gilles had a friend, Diana, in town as well, and we spent one night at her house.
We next hit Montreal for more of the same. We must have browsed every record shop in town during the three days we spent there. That is another reason why we are so compatible. Who would tolerate that many hours and days of tedious record shopping but another unabashed discophile like himself, namely me? Even before we had left Montreal on Monday, we had decided to forego Boston and Provincetown this trip, as it was too out of the way from where we were, and we would have needed an extra day or two to do them. We would have even gone to Halifax to visit my friend Owen, if we had had more time. So we headed back to Manhattan. We left too late to make it in one day and had to spend the night in a motel in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, but managed to return the car before the deadline on Tuesday, the 30th.
I lucked out again in 2005, that first summer at Verbier, when I decided not to return home when the gig was over. On Tuesday, the day before our last performance of the Verdi Requiem, Gilles rented a car in Paris and drove down to meet me in Martigny, where we were being lodged. After showing him the town of Verbier, we traveled south through northern Italy enroute to the south of France. Since I had shown him part of my country (and Canada), he wanted to return the favor by showing me his country. And that he did! It’s Thursday, August 4th, and our first stop for lunch was Torino (or what we folks call “Turin”). We never did find out where they keep “The Shroud,” however.
Our first destination was Vence, France, where Gilles’ father owns a summer bungalow that we were allowed to use, as it was unoccupied at the time. We made ourselves at home there for 8 days. We bought groceries and prepared home-cooked meals. There was a swimming pool, and we had a washing machine to do our laundry. Every day that week we visited the towns and villages in the area. We did practically the entire Cote d’Azur (the French Riviera), which includes Antibes, Cannes, Éze, Menton, Montauroux, Nice, Ramatuelle, Saint-Paul and St. Tropez. We toured the caverns in Saint-Cezaire and a glass factory in Biot. We went skinny-dipping in Lake Saint-Cassien. In Cannes we watched a fireworks display. I had gone off without my camera this day and missed many “Kodak Moments.” We were in Monte-Carlo 27 years to the day that I was last there with Harry! One day in Nice, on a mountain above the city, Mont Boron, we were informed that the house right over there, only a few yards from where we were standing, is owned by Elton John!
The day that we checked out of “Chez Père de Gilles,” we began traveling back north toward Paris, but making scheduled stops along the way. Gilles knows a former teaching colleague, Catherine, who now lives in Marseille, and she invited us to stay with her and her then live-in boyfriend, François, for a few days (from Friday to Monday) in their large apartment. As it was Catherine’s 5-year-old daughter, Anna’s, birthday on Saturday, we were invited to a family picnic/birthday party at her parents’ house in nearby St. Zacharie. We all sang “The Birthday Song” several times in various languages: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish! Catherine’s father is a singer, too, and we did an impromptu Verdi opera duet together. We ate heartily and romped in the backyard pool. On Sunday Catherine gave us a tour of the city of Marseille: L’Estaque, where Paul Cezanne once lived, and the Centre de la Vielle Chanté art museum. We also visited the Cathedral of Ste. Marie Majeur, Notre Dame de la Garde and climbed the 156 steps to the top of Fort St. Jean Tower.
We left there on Monday and headed north toward Arles, stopping in L’Ile sur la Sorgue, Les Baux de Provence, Avignon, where the Palace of the Popes is, and Remoulins, to see the old bridge, Pont du Gard. The main tourist attraction in Arles is the Amphitheatre. I was surprised at the number of these arenas throughout France, built there when the Romans ruled the land. Next we visited Les Sainte-Maries de la Mer, Aigues-Mortes, Montady and the nude beach at Serignan, so that Gilles could sunbathe and rest a bit. As before, he had to do all of the driving, and I again served as map reader and gas pumper.
On the way to our next destination, Carcassonne, we took a side trip to check out the Oppidum d’Enserune, which is some kind of manmade irrigation project that has to be viewed from above (another high hill). Carcassonne is a city contained within a walled fortress. We enjoyed our time spent there. It even has a castle. Gilles refused to drive further south to Andorra. It was too far out of our way, and he said that there was nothing there to see anyway. So we continued northwest to Toulouse, where we did some sightseeing and shopping. The town square in Bergerac has an actual full-color statue of Cyrano!
Another teacher friend of Gilles, Marie-Jeanne, retired, and whom I met when I was in Paris before, spends part of the year with her male companion, Jean-Marie, a retired engineer and social worker, who designed and built, with his own two hands, the house in which he lives out in the country near the little village of Levignac de Guyenne. This elderly couple were our hosts for the next three nights. We still went on our daily outings while we were there. We visited the famous (?!) winemaking village of St. Emilion. The other towns in the area that we visited are Allemans-du-Dropt, Eymet, Monbazillac, Monségur, Monteton and Taillecavat. We passed through this nothing place named St. Geraud (according to the road sign) several times going to and fro. You’ve heard of “one-horse towns.” There, I never did see even their one horse!
We were fed well at Jean-Marie’s. He grows his own vegetables and has fruit trees bearing berries, peaches, plums and tomatoes. In addition to some great meals at home, they took us out for a tapas meal one night and another time we joined the other villagers at their monthly-held town picnic. Since both speak English, they were able to include me in their conversations. It is now Saturday, August 20th. Our next stop was Bordeaux, where we spent the night with François Xavier. Gilles and “F.X.” met through their mutual interest in French cinematic dubbing. He also fed us well and gave us a tour of the city.
For the next two days, enroute to Paris, we did the “Chateaux du Loire” tour, which, it seemed, many people had the same idea. There are a number of medieval and Renaissance castle museums scattered throughout the area, and although we couldn’t visit them all, we did manage to take in several. After having our lunch in Poitiers, since nothing was open in Lusignan, we toured the castle in Azay-le-Rideau, but only viewed the one in Ussé from the outside. This one’s claim-to-fame, however, is that it is purported to have been inspired by the story of Sleeping Beauty. Even the one in Disney’s version may be modeled after it.
The next chateau that we visited was in Villandry. This one has a huge expanse of gardens around it, as has the more famous one in Chenonceaux, where lived Catherine de Medici and other royals and nobles. This place is spectacular and required the whole tour. We spent several hours there in order to see almost everything, inside and out. We passed on the wax museum, however, and did not go rowing on the river in a rowboat. The one other chateau that Gilles wanted me to see is in Chambord. This is another famous one that was used in the 1971 Jacques Demy film Peau D’Ane (Donkey Skin), which is one of Gilles’ favorite movies and which I watched later that same day at his place.
The popular appeal of this chateau tour is that they are all different with their own unique features. We stayed overnight Sunday in Tours, where we found another huge cathedral, St. Gratien (who?!). You know, as non-religious as the both of us are, we sure do love churches! And every town in France, regardless of its size, has at least one. One of Tours’ bridges over the Cher (!) River, which connects the north part of town to the south, is called the St. Symphonien (who?!). I don’t know where they got all these obscure French saints from. I think they just made up some names and put “Saint” in front of them to give them a religious connotation.
Another observation is that it wouldn’t be feasible for French people to be acrophobic. Just about every town and attraction that we visited is high up on a hill or mountain or something that we had to climb. We were constantly driving up, climbing stairs and walking up somewhere to get to where we were going. Many of our views were from above looking down. We arrived in Paris by early evening on Monday, the 22nd,, where I spent the next few days.
The highlight of the week for me was on Wednesday, when Gilles and I went to Disneyland. The park is conveniently accessible by subway, located in Marne-la-Vallee, less than a hour from Paris. What a fun time we had! There are two separate parks: the regular traditional Disneyland and a new Walt Disney Studios theme park. I bought tickets for both parts; I wanted to see it all. We visited the new park first, since Gilles had never been to it, as it wasn’t yet built the last time he was there. And, too, this park was open only until 1800, while the other park didn’t close until 2300.
The Studios park consisted mostly of movie-related show attractions. Some were interesting, but some were pretty tired. Later in the big park, we didn’t get to see every attraction, but we did go on all four roller-coasters, my favorite being Big Thunder Mountain. We waited around for the Fantallusion Parade and the Lights and Fireworks Show on and around the Sleeping Beauty Castle. This was my fifth fireworks display this year! We stayed past closing, doing some last-minute shopping for gifts and souvenirs. I found this Disneyland to be more culture sensitive than its American counterparts. Being in Europe, there is a multi-lingual approach to everything. French predominates—this is France, after all—but other languages, English included, prevail as well.
The next summer when I went to Verbier, Gilles got sick the week of and didn’t make the trip. But as I had to get back right away for another commitment, I did not extend my visit that time. The following summer there, however, I did not need to go home after we had finished, so I did stay in Europe an extra week. Gilles drove down from Paris in a rental car and spent the week in Verbier with me and my chalet mates. Since we did most of the south of France last time, this time Gilles and I headed southwest toward the middle of France. We stopped in a town called St. Bonnet le Chateau, which had a church atop a high hill, and of course, we had to visit it! We next stopped in Le Bourboule for dinner. This town is purported to possess healing waters, and people go there from miles around to get healed of all kinds of serious ailments. We did not attempt to test their claim, however. We spent the night in a motel in Maussac.
Our first stop the next day was Limoges, where we spent a couple of hours sightseeing. There is an old Catholic Church, of course, that we had to visit, and we found the site of the famous Market Place, cited by Mussorgsky in his Pictures at an Exhibition. In fact, we had lunch there. By the way, Gilles knew nothing about the Market Place at Limoges, until I told him. Aha, so he doesn’t know everything!
We bypassed Poitiers this time and stopped in Parthenay instead. There was not a whole lot going on there, just a park that had a statue of a naked man showing dick (!), a town square and St. Laurent Church. We chose a major city, Nantes, for our evening stopover, and ended up spending part of two days there. When we had parked the car, we walked around the corner and there in front of us was the Center for Gays and Lesbians! Well, now!
The next morning we went on a walking tour of the city: Jardin des Plantes, Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Lieu Unique (an odd-looking building which is now a sort of museum), I’lle Feydeau, Le Passaye Pommeraye (a kind of architectural mall), and several cathedrals. Hotel Nantes is a newly-furnished suite built on and around a fountain and which can be rented nightly. We had to wait in line for that one.
We had many choices for where to eat lunch. I wanted to try the one Chinese restaurant in the area, but Gilles pooh-poohed it so adamantly, I gave in to him. He thinks that when in France, one should stick to French cuisine exclusively. With that kind of thinking, by my living in America, I should always eat at “American” restaurants and never experience Italian, Mexican, German, Thai or Chinese cooking! They are only trying to give people a choice, if they don’t want strictly “French” all the time. And I happen to love Chinese food. But we settled for a crepèrie instead.
We left Nantes and continued northwest toward the province known as Bretagne (or Brittany) as our penultimate destination. On the way we checked out an old walled city called Guérande, then continued on to Brittany’s southern coast. There is a narrow peninsula on which Gilles’ parents used to take him and his brothers when they were kids. He wanted to revisit the house where they stayed. It was still there in Plouharnel. We continued down the Quiberon Peninsula to Cote Sauvage, where we stopped and got out to look at the ocean, where we could see young French boys out there surfing. Then stops in Carnac, Ste.-Anne-d’Auray and Landevant, whose one restaurant served only crèpes and salads. But that’s what we had for lunch, so I didn’t want the same thing again twice in a row. Now if Gilles had let me have Chinese this afternoon, I would have been up for crèpes tonight!
After driving all around Lorient, we finally found a very nice hotel to stay in for the night. There was even a restaurant nearby that stayed open until midnight, so we went there for a late dinner. The next day, we just drove through, not even stopped in, Pont-Aven, which has been dubbed “City of Painters.” It was at one time a Bohemian village for many French artists, Paul Gauguin among them. We did spend some time in Concarneau, though, a thriving village which attracts a lot of tourists because of its quaintness and Old World charm. There was a guy disguised as Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, who posed for pictures with the children who recognized him. There was a clown street performer who juggled fire batons while riding a high-seat unicycle.
One of the souvenir gift shops featured an astounding array of ceramic bowls with hand-painted personal names on the side. I almost never find my own first name included on such items. But I thought I would check anyway, out of curiosity. Well, lo and behold! I was so surprised to find a bowl there with my name on it! New York City (or nowhere else in this country that I have found) doesn’t carry my name on anything, but Concarneau, France does?! Of course, I had to buy it. Alas, I no longer have it, as I dropped the damned thing on the floor one day, and it broke into several pieces. Lummox! I used it for dips and ice cream, you know, small portion servings of things. I loved that bowl!
So then we headed north toward St. Renau via Brest, another major port city. Genevieve is a teaching colleague of Gilles (they just co-authored a book together), and her country cottage is located in the port village of Porspoder. She took us to nearby Portsall, which is the site of a March 1978 maritime tragedy, when an oil tanker owned by Amoco hit an iceberg, I mean, some rocks, and sank, spilling 270,000 tons of crude oil into the ocean, killing 80 percent of the plant and animal life in that section of the sea. The local government sued and was awarded damages by the Amoco Corporation. Although they didn’t recover the ship—it’s still at the bottom of the ocean—they did keep the large anchor as a commemorative reminder of the incident.
Also throughout Brittany there are a series of mysterious rock formations, called “Alignements du Menec”, similar to England’s Stonehenge, although not as large. No one seems to know why they are there or who put them there. We spied one humongous, phallic-shaped monolith standing in the middle of a field. It looks like a gigantic dildo, a Titanic butt plug, if you will.
Saturday was a long drive day, as we had to return the car in Paris by 1800, so we avoided making any scenic stops along the way. Therefore, I missed seeing Rennes, Le Mans and the famous cathedral in Chartres. We stopped only once for lunch, at a McDonald’s in Pacé. But we did meet the deadline in time. This time my two days in Paris was for rest and relaxation. We stayed in both nights watching movies on TV, as I didn’t feel like going out either night. Early Monday morning I took a train back to Geneva to catch my flight home.
I have concluded that Gilles is a great traveling companion. We get along so well. He is so much fun to be with. I love his humor, his cleverness, his willingness to learn and assimilate. We have developed private references between us that only we know what we’re talking about sometimes. We seldom have to explain ourselves; we just get each other. Once the term “Substitutiary Locomotion” came up in a social situation, and we were the only ones there who knew what it meant! It’s a song featured in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), by the way.
We like most of the same things, including the same music and artists, and agree more times than not. We both like trivia and guessing games and are always testing each other’s knowledge of things. We both regard money in the same way. We’re frugal and don’t like to spend it unnecessarily. If I ever got to do “The Amazing Race” TV competition, Gilles is the one person I would like to be partnered with. Both our situations now have changed that prevent us from visiting each other when the mood strikes us. Gilles has been to New York enough times that he doesn’t crave it anymore. Why spend all that money? And my health is not so good anymore for extensive travel. I can hardly get around here at home. I don’t need to be traipsing all over Europe. And when I am with Gilles, he tends to walk you to death! I need to be near my doctors. So for now we have to be content with emails and phone calls. I suppose that we will remain friends, as we still have our common interests in movies and music.
Speaking of walking… I have accomplished some real walking marathons over the years, when I was still young and spry. The summer before I actually moved to New York, I did not know the City too well. Leo or somebody would chaperone me when I had to go anywhere. But one evening I went to see a couple of movies on 42nd Street alone, and after the films I decided to do some sightseeing on foot. I had intended to walk around some, then get on the subway to go back to Leo’s in the Bronx, where I was staying. So I headed uptown and when I got to the Park at 59th Street, I thought, Oh, Central Park! Let me check that out.
I entered the Park and promptly got lost. (I still can get lost in unfamiliar sections of the Park, especially at night.) When I eventually found my way out, I was at the north end of the Park at 110th Street, where Harlem starts. I knew there was a subway entrance at 125th Street somewhere, but I must have been on the wrong avenue, because I couldn’t find it. So I continued northward and found myself at the 149th Street Bridge, which leads to the Bronx. Once I reached Yankee Stadium, at 161st Street, I knew that I was almost home, so I walked the rest of the way, to 175th Street near Grand Concourse.
In Toledo, Ohio once, with The Flirtations, I was trying to find my way from downtown back to my motel, took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the neighboring suburb of Oregon. Once while trying to get back to Manchester, New Hampshire, I took a wrong turn and ended up in neighboring Bedford. I am not opposed to asking for help and directions when I get lost and confused, but in these particular cases, there was no one around to ask. I had to fend for myself.
I did High Holy Days services at a synagogue in Westchester County for five consecutive years. During the all-day Yom Kippur services, the hired quartet got a lunch break in the afternoon. Since I went up there by train each time, I didn’t have my own ground transportation to get to somewhere to eat, and the other singers always abandoned me and left me to my own devices. The synagogue is located in a rural, residential section, away from any commercial area. So I had to hoof it to one of the neighboring towns for the nearest eatery.
One year I found my way into Bronxville, NY, which is the nearest town in one direction from the synagogue, and had lunch in the local diner there. But instead of going back the same way I had come, I went a different route, got myself lost, again, and ended up in Yonkers, way the hell farther than I needed to go, in the opposite direction! I had to double back and pass through Mount Vernon and Fleetwood to get back to the synagogue. I did make it back to work in time, fortunately.
It’s often said that one cannot get along without a car in Los Angeles. Well, if you have the time and the stamina, you can. During our week-long tour break there with Gregg Smith, I once walked from Burbank to North Hollywood (where I was staying with a friend), in the rain. Then the next day I walked from North Hollywood to West Hollywood via Hollywood, and another time from Hollywood to Silver Lake and back to West Hollywood. I once walked from Miami Beach to the bathhouse in Miami and back again. I was really tired after that one!
When I was living in South Bend, I walked home from neighboring Mishawaka a couple of times. Since I don’t drive, I more often than not opt to walk to and from places when I am away from home, rather than take public transportation. It sometimes gets masochistic, when I am literally miles away from where I want to go and I am dead tired, but I refuse to hail a cab. I never consider hitchhiking, not that it’s likely that anyone would pick me up anyway.
I have done other major walkathons in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Gillette (Wyoming), Grand Rapids, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Madison, Milwaukee, Montreal, New Orleans, Orlando, Peoria, Philadelphia, Rehoboth Beach (Delaware), Rochester, Saint Johns (New Brunswick), San Antonio, San Francisco, Scottsbluff (Nebraska), Seattle, Syracuse, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C., and while abroad: Berlin, Cologne (one day I crossed the Rhine River four times via three different bridges), Frankfurt, Hamburg, London, Monte-Carlo, Paris, Tel Aviv and Verbier.
I suppose that my longest bike ride was the time I decided to visit my friend Lloyd, who lives in east Bronx. Except for this one time, I always take the train up there, and that takes an hour to get to his house. I don’t remember the year, but it was some time ago. I didn’t realize that it was as far as it was, but once I got going, I finished the trip. It turns out to be 13 miles from midtown Manhattan, where I live, to Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. So that’s 26 miles round-trip! That’s the distance of those running marathons that people do every year. I don’t know how they do that. I don’t know I did it! I was totally wiped out, and I was on a bicycle! Never again! Those endurance days of walking and even biking are over for me. I am too old and tired now.
Well, I did cover quite a bit of ground when I was in South Bend just three years ago, when I was out there attending my family reunion and got to see my mother one last time alive. I borrowed my sister’s bike a couple of days and made my rounds, visiting family members and friends who happen to live on opposite sides of town. It was tiring, but I managed it somehow.
When I was a kid, too, I did a lot of bike-riding. One ambitious project was to cover every street in the city from beginning to end. Each day I would get out my city map and plan my itinerary. South Bend is not a small town. It’s quite spread out, area-wise. This accomplished endeavor caused me to learn the city very well, and at one time I could tell you every street in town and where they were and went. I have forgotten a lot of it now, though, and the geography of the city has changed considerably anyway in the ensuing years.
In all my years of bike-riding I have injured myself only three times as a result of falling. While a teenager in South Bend, I fell and fractured my wrist. The summer of 1994 in Provincetown, I fell and banged myself up pretty badly, scraping my shoulder but not breaking anything. Here in Manhattan one day (I don’t remember the year) I fell and fractured a couple of ribs. That was the most painful, as far as recovery went. The time, when as a kid back in South Bend, I got struck by an automobile while on my bike, although I was knocked unconscious for a bit, I miraculously did not sustain any injuries. My bike, however, was totaled that time.
The places that I still would like to see before I leave this earth, in this country, are the Grand Canyon and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming up close. It’s been forty years since I was in Las Vegas, so I want to go back to see all that did not exist when I was there last. Abroad, I want to visit Amsterdam, Barcelona (I’ve never been to Spain at all), Rome and Vienna. Although everybody says that Venice is so beautiful, I’m not all that excited about seeing it. I’m not crazy about India either, but I do so want to see the Taj Mahal in person, so to speak, as well as the Great Wall of China. I’d still like to go back to Egypt to see all the stuff I missed out on the last time. I’d like to do Sydney, Australia, too, but I would prefer to get there by cruise ship, rather than have to abide another 20 hours or so plane flight. I missed out on Brazil and Rio de Janeiro when one of the Vagabond cruises that I did not go on one year went there.
The chance of accomplishing all or any of these places seem very slim at this point in my life, but as my life is always taking unexpected turns, who knows? It could still happen. I never expected that I would ever visit all the places I have been to. Except on rare occasions, I’ve never had the financial means to do a lot of travel on my own. I feel very fortunate about the opportunities that have been afforded me.
As far as public transportation goes, so far I have never been in a collision while riding in a car, taxi or bus, no train wrecks, plane crashes, no piracy or sinking ships that I have been on. Yes, you might say that I am one lucky guy! I hope you got some vicarious enjoyment in reading about my travel adventures and were entertained by the photos and audio clips provided. It actually was fun for me to relive it all for you.