On the Road with Cliff

This is a companion piece to my other job-related article, “I’m Working Here!” Actually, there are four parts, along with School Days and My Non-Combat 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, and there are many.

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 involved traveling, “getting away from it all” was not doing anything all that different. When I was not on tour, the way for me to take time off from my job was to stay in town and catch up on domestic things that I have neglected. That was my idea of relaxation.

I love the deal of working while traveling. I have been places where there has been a lull, because there was nothing going on, but the fact that I had to do a show that night or at some point, gave 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 was the three summer vacations that I spent in France. In addition, working while traveling required that my expenses were usually paid for, and I was being paid besides! That’s the way I like to 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 55 countries and island nations of the world and all the other continents, except Australia and Antarctica. They are: Aruba, Azores, Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Canada [Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Vancouver Island], Carti Sugtupu, Coco Cay, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cozumel, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Grand Cayman, Grand Turk, Haiti, Half Moon Cay, Hawaii, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kodiak, Madeira, Mauritius, Mexico, Miyago, Monaco, Moorea, Motobu, Nuku Hiva, Oahu, Okinawa, Panama, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Reunion, Seychelles, South Africa, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Switzerland, Tahiti, Tokoshiki, Tortola, United Arab Emirates and U.S Virgin Islands. I mention the Hawaiian islands because they are not contiguous to the mainland and actually was a foreign entity once upon a time.

I have friends all over the country and abroad, and everybody wanted me to come visit them when I was 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 everyone 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. Now that my touring days are over, and I am not so keen on traveling anymore, I suggest that they come to visit me in NYC. The trains and planes and buses run in my direction, too, 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 (1964). We actually stayed in a motel in nearby Martinsville. I was with my Spanish teacher, Mr. Aguirre, and another student contestant. My grandfather, Mark Amos, which whom I lived, had family (his brother and a whole slew of nephews and nieces, and grand-) in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and we made occasional visits there over the years. Several of the clan would come to visit us as well. Papa’s nephews, Alfred and Willie B., were avid golfers and loved to use South Bend’s golf course.

A fun activity was when our mother took my brother and me to Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago a few times. Alas, it closed down in 1967. I loved that place. South Bend had its own Playland Amusement Park, but it was small potatoes compared to Riverview. My father belonged to a local Lodge organization which held periodic (not every year) weekend family picnics at Pokagon State Park, a few miles due east of the city. There was a lake there for swimming and standard playground equipment. Earl Jr. and I, being pre-teens, enjoyed these outings and spending some quality time with our dad. During the summer after graduation (1965), my high school band had a picnic-beach party at Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan. It was our last fling before we all went our separate ways, with college and whatever.

Celebratory beach party with members of the Central High School Band. (Clockwise from top left: Linda Harmon, Pamela Allen, Chas. Ellison, Marsha Huff, Edward Sparks, Gretchen Strandhagen, Me, Eddie Lark, Charles Bryant, Horace Denny, Ellen Davis in the center.)

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 only 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.

The Singing Hoosiers (Can you find me? Where’s Waldo?)

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 526.)

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. Before we got to sing, however, there were a lot of boring speeches that went on far too long. The football team had an 11:00 curfew, so at 11:10, while the Hoosiers were still singing, the coach and his team staged a walkout, along with other attendees. Well, how rude! Then on top of that, 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.

A few members of the Singing Hoosiers in LA. I don’t remember who everybody is.

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. 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 the film Funny Girl (1968) when it opened at a movie 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 by bus 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, New Jersey for a reception at the family 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, but only in Manhattan. 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, and she must have alerted him of our visit. 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 mangled 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 Non-Combat Tour-of-Duty). But for now I will tell you that the last 18 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 ensuing 43 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), New York City Opera, Collegiate Chorale, 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 U.S. states and visited and/or played many of the major cities, including 45 state capitals.

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 or Madison Square Garden, but I did perform at Yankee Stadium. I also dreamed 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 Robert DeCormier Singers, 1983 (left to right: Sandra Arida, Kevin Elliot, Adele Robbins, Brian Powell, Louise DeCormier, Susan Whitenack, David Dusing, Janine Hangen, Richard Scott, Arthur Williams, Maureen Haley, Claire Bennett, Me, Bob DeCormier)

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?!

That was “Everybody’s Out of Town,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I think that the most uneventful town that I ever had to perform in must be Shamrock, Texas (located in the panhandle and dubbed “The Irish City”), where we visited during the 1983 tour. It is what the song you just heard reminds me of. The DeCormier troupe 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.

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!” But short of GPS assistance, how would they find the town, when it’s not even on the map?! In fact, how did we find it?

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. Another memorable event was when the Tutankhamen Exhibit was making its rounds in the States and it happened to be on display in New Orleans when we performed there in November 1977. My friend and colleague, Lloyd Thompkins, now deceased, and I went to see the exhibit while tripping on acid. Wow, that was something! 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.

Me in Rapid City, SD. Notice the upper background.

I did seven concert tours with Bob on and off from 1974 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 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.

Maybe it’s not as bad now as it was in the past when white people would experience discrimination only if they were deemed to be gay. But in my case, that has never posed a problem for me. During these tour days with the DeCormier Singers, there were several unpleasant encounters with the law and local citizenry, which had nothing to do with my being gay.

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.

Me and my bitches (clockwise from top right: Louise DeCormier, Laura Vincent, Valerie Orlando, Elizabeth Farr, Pamela Kordan, Suzanne Maslanka, Jan Merchant)

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 and upfront 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 back to my room, 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! What else do we need to know?”

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 was something!–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. I contend that those cops were acting solely on their own. I doubt it that they got some alleged 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 scumbag 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, fortunately.  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 have been 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.  They even have a code name for it: “ped check,” which is short for pedestrian check. But it applies only to blacks being stopped by the police, merely for walking on a public street.

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 Ron’s 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 black man 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, again with no apology.

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! So you see, blatant racism does exist in the North, maybe even more so than in the South.

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 would have thought 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.

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. The Baskin-Robbins there was selling soup!

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 Band members were Alex Blake, Richard Cummings, Monti Ellison, Wilby Fletcher, Van Gibbs Ted Perlman and Steve Thornton. The other backup singers, besides me and Arthur, were Robert Deadmon, Albertine Robinson, Gloria Turner and Betty Volonec. Harry’s featured guest artist was singer Falumi Prince.

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.  Harry would get onstage and berate 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–and demanding at that! Of course, he could have been just kidding, but knowing Harry, he probably was serious. 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 cooking 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, therefore no 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.

Me with Harry Belafonte at Nice airport

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 is a park that is said to include every kind of plant and flower available in the area.  It’s 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. I was astounded by the amount of luggage that Harry traveled with. He had several steamer trunks that had to be lugged from place to place. I don’t know what was in them, as he wore basically the same thing on stage every night.

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 were hearing 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. Next! But I don’t regret it in the least.  It was fun while it lasted. 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.

“To Clifford–It was a pleasure sharing Canada with you. I hope our artistic paths cross again. All the best, Harry Belafonte”

Steamboat Gothic got its start on the streets of Manhattan, for the most part, where there was always an available and enthusiastic audience. It provided a little spending change as well. We found good spots at Sheridan Square and the PATH train entrance on Christopher Street in the Village. A couple of times Hair producers Tom O’Horgan and Gerome Ragni were in our audience. We once got to do a live satellite broadcast to Paris from under the Washington Square Arch! The song selection was “Vive L’Amour,” which you just heard, and which was sort of our signature number. We sang it at every performance. We would work the Broadway Theater district, too, performing for the theatergoers before and after the shows. One evening actor Barnard Hughes came by on his way to work (he was starring in Da at the time) and dropped some money into our basket. Some would comment, “You guys are really good! Why are you singing on the street?” Our reply: “Because we want to!? Mind your business!”

We might be likened to the King’s Singers or Chanticleer, as 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. Since we all were such crackerjack musicians and fast learners, we managed to rack up a vast repertoire in a very short time. And we were damn good, too! We sang a lot of street fairs and church concerts, a few weddings and private parties. We never got to travel abroad, except for a brief stint in Canada.

Actually, the first indoor gig that we did was a tribute dinner for some military guy, held at the Summit Hotel here in NY. We were the hired entertainment for the event. 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 Mississippi native Phil Sneed who eventually came up with Steamboat Gothic. 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.

One evening while singing on the street, we were approached by the organizer of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. At the time she was also organizing a gala event at her store for some fashion designers and wanted a singing group to entertain the invited guests to the affair. So she hired us! The pay was good, and they dressed us in tuxedos. For some reason, there wasn’t much of a turnout to the event, so during the long lulls, we just used the time to rehearse. In November 1978 the group got to entertain Mayor Edward Koch for a special awards ceremony for him held at the Metropolitan Museum. Also in attendance on this occasion were Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Edward Villella.

In February 1979, on a whim, we decided to enter a barbershop quartet contest held at Maude’s, a Manhattan bar. Of the six groups competing, we were by far the best group to perform that night, and everybody there knew it. There were only two judges, who rated us on several categories: audience appeal, musicality, theatricality, originality and judge’s personal impression. I did retain the scoring sheet, which showed that Steamboat Gothic received lower scores in every category than the other groups who were not as good as we. That last category rendered us the lowest score of anybody, which brought the overall total way down. Someone gave us some lame explanation that we were too good. This was supposed to be an amateur event, and we sounded too professional, I guess. So just because we are all consummate musicians who have our shit together, we should be penalized? They just did not want us to win. I think that it was a racial thing, our being the only blacks there. But they never would admit that as the reason.

From 1976 to 1985 there were many personnel changes (19 different combinations in all), but it was the original lineup (below) who got to do the Macy’s gig as well as the last one 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.

The original Steamboat Gothic at Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan (left to right: Eugene Carter, Me, Leslie Dorsey, Leo Warbington)

Bill Carney and Phil Sneed (who both are also deceased) 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 am glad that we didn’t have to stay out any longer than we did. We played one-nighters in minor towns in Illinois, Iowa, Manitoba, Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The 1982 tour group (Leo, Phil, Bill, Me)

(# …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’ll tell you, Henrietta really was kicking some major 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 press 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 or maintenance work themselves. For them it was just take the money and run.

I might have been willing to continue managing the group, but 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 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.

# Festival Voices is our name;
Singing a song is our game.
All we need to make the notes
Are the instruments in our throats.
We don’t pluck, we don’t blow, we don’t beat on anything;
All we do is simply open up our mouths and sing.
And we do all kinds of music: jazz and pop and classical, of course;
This way, no one gets bored, and that’s a policy that we endorse.
My name is Dora, this is Pam, and this is Michael and Cliff.
Festival Voices is our name;
Singing a song is our game. #

There are the lyrics, as the clip may not be too clear. The tune is the “Quintet from Bizet’s Carmen.”

Festival Voices/Quatraine (besides me, left to right are the late Pamela Warrick-Smith, Dora Ohrenstein and Michael Brown)

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. We introduced them to the various styles of music that can be done without instrumental accompaniment. 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. And Pamela Warrick-Smith was a cousin of Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick!

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 the most engagements in New Jersey, it has become my most-traveled state and where I have been in more towns and locations than any other, at least in this country. My foreign record would have to be France.

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. The time off that we had in Niagara Falls was spent doing the tourist thing with my regular tour buddy, Lloyd. We rode the Maid of the Mist boat, which furnished us with hooded raincoats for when it passes under the Falls. On the Canadian side, we visited Seaworld and Clifton Hill amusement park and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum.

In my I’m Working here!! blog, I go into my opera career with more detail, and 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 now 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 solo 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 (too late?), 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 not scored high enough to make the grade. I’m not giving up, though. Appearing on “Jeopardy!” is still 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 1985 Tour, taken in Rock Springs, Wyoming (front row: Lynn Hackman, April Lindevald, Naomi Itami, Patricia Price, Me; 2nd row: Scott Whitaker, Leslie Dorsey; 3rd row: Marjory Klein, Susan Altabet, Rosalind Rees, Gregg Smith, Dwana Holroyd, Mary Franke, Drew Martin; back row: Charles Robert Stephens, the bus driver, Jon Pickow, Gabriel DeAngelo, Walter Richardson)

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 (of which I partook) 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 twenty!  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 Pickow (now deceased), who also sang with the group, had a birthday that week, so I took him with me to see La Cage aux Folles, the musical, 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 July 2017, just five weeks shy of his 85th birthday.

Debut album cover

Of course, that was none other than actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein. In March 1991 Harvey came to see The Flirtations perform at Eighty-Eights, a Greenwich Village cabaret and while there, recorded that intro for us, which I have retained for moments such as this.

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. Our other tenor was TJ Myers, who also served as dance captain/choreographer. 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 for fun! 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.

T.J. died of AIDS the following summer, and Jimmy Rutland took his place.  This was the quintet combination that enjoyed the greatest success, from 1990-1993, 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 rise to 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, so we set about to find a replacement for him. During the National Gay Men’s Choruses Convention held in Denver July 1992, at which we got to perform, due to the hundreds of gay singers in attendance, we decided to take the opportunity to hold auditions. They all being amateurs for the most part, we didn’t hear anyone who measured up to our standards and purposes. We did, however, work for a while with Jay Guevara from New York and Bill McKinley from Indianapolis. Neither proved to be a suitable replacement for Michael, so we decided to continue on as a quartet. This worked out for two more years.

The Fabulous Flirtations (another earned epithet) got to perform as headliners at several music festivals in New England and Canada. The 14th Annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival was a new and fun experience for us. It was held for three days in July 1991 in Jericho Beach Park. 68 acts from 19 countries around the world–most of which I had no prior knowledge–participated. I suppose it was like a circus, with five stages and somebody performing on each one at all times from 10 AM to 11 PM all three days. We did a full concert on the Main Stage the first night and three more mini-concerts during the next two days. Meals were served on the premises but our after-hour lodging was located elsewhere. There were volunteer drivers to cart us back and forth to the Festival site. There were nightly impromptu jam sessions held in the common room by the various groups. As the Festival required ticketed admission, a wire fence surrounded the area. This permitted non-paying spectators to sit outside the fence and enjoy the music just the same. I met some of the foreign folk groups who were not pleased that people had to pay to hear their music. They believed that music should be free and available to the public. For outdoor situations such as this I would be inclined to agree. We were asked back again two years later.

The two-day, 16th Annual Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival, held on the campus of Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY, June 1993, featured 82 acts and included Ani DiFranco, Odetta and Pete Seeger in attendance. The four-day Winnipeg Folk Festival in July 1994 featured 34 acts, where we shared the bill with Janis Ian and Tom Paxton. Although it was the middle of summer, it was freezing in Winnipeg! I didn’t even bring a jacket along and ended up buying a souvenir sweatshirt with our name on it for a little warmth at least. Then two weeks later we did the three-day Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, held at Long Hill Farm in Hillsdale, NY. There were 40 acts this time, including Patty Larkin and David Massengill.

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. 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.

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.

The Flirtations appeared on nationwide TV several times while I was with them. We were on “Good Morning America” twice, once on “Donahue,” on “In the Life” and “Network Q” a few times, and on the 1992 HBO documentary featuring Michael Callen, “America Undercover: Why Am I Gay?” which aired many times. We also made appearances on New York public access cable shows, and during my travels with the Flirts, I appeared on local TV shows in Cedar Rapids (Iowa), Denver, Madison, Phoenix, Tucson and Washington, DC. We did a singing interview with Terry David Mulligan for “Much Music,” the Canadian version of our MTV. While in Hamburg, Germany the second time, we performed live on a TV variety show, as well as being interviewed for a couple of other local TV spots there and in Nuremberg.

The Flirts’ appearance on “Donahue” in May 1991 was a lucky opportunity for us as well. I don’t know how we got the gig, but the producers called and asked us to appear on a special show, namely the first televised gay wedding. We serenaded the happy couple, Michael Marlowe and Wayne Watson from Philadelphia, during their on-air nuptials, then we got to sing each time Phil went to commercial. Since the show originally aired live, I had a friend record it for me so that I would have a souvenir copy. We discovered, though, when we watched the tape, that Michael’s microphone was not turned on for the entire broadcast, so his voice part is missing from the soundtrack! How could such a thing happen? Those people are supposed to be top-rate sound engineers. How could they not know that all the voices were not being picked up? And we had a sound check before the show and everything! When people would tell me, “You all sounded really great,” I would reply, ‘Well, you should hear it with all five parts!’

We were seen by millions of viewers that day and when the show aired in other parts of the country. I had perfect strangers coming up to me months and years later with, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Donahue’?” In July 1992 The Flirtations were actually mentioned in The National Enquirer tabloid, in a follow-up article which tried to create some kind of a scandal about the gay married couple. To be mentioned in The National Enquirer for any reason, we felt that we had really arrived!

The Flirts’ 2nd album cover

An industry phrase that cropped up some years ago is “alternative music.” What does that mean? Alternative to what? Music is music and should be judged on its own merit. The so-called experts (disk jockeys, producers, musicians themselves) don’t know exactly what it means either. I have asked them. It’s apparently some theoretical, temporary catchall category for certain music that does not fit into the so-called “mainstream” or music that defies strict classification. They don’t know what to call it, so it becomes alternative music. There are many recording artists who start out as alternative, but when they get popular enough to enter the mainstream, then they lose their alternative status.

I was first made aware of the phrase in late 1992 when The Flirtations’ second album Live Out on the Road (Get it?) was a preliminary nominee for a Grammy Award in the Alternative Music category. I remember thinking then, Our music is pop-oriented, it has worldwide appeal, it certainly would be mainstream if they would allow it to be, but we are not respected enough, perhaps because of our politics, to merit a real music category instead of this “alternative” designation. We may lead alternative lifestyles, but that doesn’t make our music alternative.

Alas, we didn’t make the finals (too much competition?), but it was nice to be considered, at least. Incidentally, I don’t like the expression “alternative lifestyle” either, as it implies that there is only one way to go in life, and if any of us should dare deviate from the “accepted norm,” then we are on the path of an “alternative” lifestyle. I contend, then, that since there is more than one way to go, everyone’s lifestyle is alternative.

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.

We all got “lei’d” as soon as we got off the plane. 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 rest, 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 already underwsy.

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 from the airport, we passed through the village of Kalapana, which was still deserted, having been evacuated and practically covered by lava flow from the eruption of the volcano Kilauea just the year before. It had cooled and hardened by this time so there was a black crust on everything. 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.

The Hawaii Men’s Gathering

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!

The humuhumunukunukuapuaa. A pretty little thing, isn’t it?

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. There may be other claims as well. But 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, 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”! At least the guys did not fight me on that particular decision.

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! When I finally got around to reading the book, I found it to be better than the movie, which is often the case.

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 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, Hamburg, Hannover, Karlsruhe, Kiel, Koblenz and Nuremberg, and we did two shows in Bern, Switzerland.

Our engagement in Copenhagen was cancelled before we got there. Only days before the gig was to take place, the local Danish guy who was producing the thing became very ill, and they cancelled our engagement. At least, that was the reason we were given. I was greatly disappointed. It would have given me a chance to see my friend Poul Jorgensen, who lived there, one last time before he died. They had sold a lot of tickets which they had to reimburse, and we had gotten major media coverage about the event. How could they leave only one person in charge of such a major event that involved so many people? I guess those Danes don’t believe in, “The show must go on.”

Since our next engagement was in Hamburg, we stayed there for the few extra days. I did enjoy my stay in Hamburg. In lieu of German television, I read a lot and explored the city. Bonn is only a short taxi ride from Cologne, so instead of staying there overnight–it’s a small, nothing town (although we did see the house where Beethoven was purportedly born)–we decided to go back to Cologne after our show, where a lot more was happening. I loved the nightlife in Cologne!

Berlin is huge, now that both East and West sections are one big city. I took a taxi from my hotel one night 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. While there the first time, we chanced to meet a wonderful, local acappella quintet who called themselves Five Live and made up of three men and two women. We all hit it off immediately, and we even got to hear each other perform. Just like ABBA, whose English was so good, you wouldn’t know that they were Swedish, these German guys sang in flawless English. I don’t think Five Live ever attained international recognition before their eventual disbandment, at least not here in America, but since I have both their albums, I can listen to them any time I want to.

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 30 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!

Since most Germans know and speak English very well, we could do our show 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. I found the German men to be friendly, sexy and quite accommodating. I got laid often during my visit. 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!

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!

“My heart is full. Thank you all so much.”

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 30 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, and keep my cap on? 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, still drinking. I saw drunks staggering around on the street. Others, who were not exactly drunk, I could see telltale signs of alcohol abuse 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, suppose 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 disrespectful treatment 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. And that we have never been back there since, the guy’s apology was rather moot anyway. Of course, this was pre-Hurricane Katrina, and the city is much different now.

(# …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, British Columbia, 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.

The Flirts 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! Helena is Myrna Loy’s hometown.

This is an incident of unnecessary overreaction. The first time that The Flirts did the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in July 1991, we had the pleasure of meeting three straight, English women, who called their comedy acappella group Sensible Footwear and described themselves as “comedic, feminist terrorists.” We got to share the stage at the Festival during one of our mini-concerts, and from the moment we met, we became instant friends. Sensible Footwear’s real names are Alex Dallas, Alison Field and Wendy Vousden, but the Flirts often referred to them collectively as “The Girls.” It was shorter than saying all their names or even using the group name. So it was, ‘I got a card from The Girls today’ or ‘The Girls are coming to see us in Seattle.’ There was no disrespect intended, and they didn’t mind the allusion. Besides, they, in turn, called us “The Boys.”

So after the 3-day Music Festival, we all stayed in town an extra day to do a one-nighter at a local nightclub in Vancouver, and the Flirts invited our new friends Sensible Footwear to do a set in our show. I did the introductions, telling the audience how we met and all, and just before I brought them out onstage, I said something like, ‘Now I’d like you to meet The Girls…’, introduced them one by one, and they came out and did their act. But during intermission, it got back to us that some disgruntled females in the audience had taken great offense to my referring to our friends as “girls.” I don’t normally use that term, especially with people I don’t know, just for that reason, as not to offend—just like I always address women as “Ms.,” regardless of their marital status. I meant no disrespect by “girls,” and they know that. I said it that time only out of habit and not thinking about it.

Anyway, when it was time for the Flirts to go back on to finish the show, Alison did a turnabout and introduced us as “The Boys.” When I got out onstage, I took the microphone and said to Alison, ‘Who you callin’ “boy”?!’ Of course, this broke up the whole audience and made light of the situation, also pointing out the inanity of those women’s protest. Those who don’t understand the various meanings and connotations of certain words reveal their lack of savvy rather than our sexual disrespect. When the group disbanded, Alex and Alison eventually settled in Toronto, Ontario, got married and had children. Alison since has divorced and moved back to England. Alex has remained in Toronto. I have lost track of Wendy, however, over the years.

(# Mister Sandman, would you believe, we want a superman like Christopher Reeve?… #)
It was a thrill for the Flirtations actually to get to sing the previous lyric to actor Christopher Reeve himself when he emceed an AIDS benefit concert at Manhattan Plaza apartment complex right here in New York in March 1992. Of course, this was before his debilitating injury. I was watching him when we sang the line, and he was visibly taken aback and clutched his pearls in surprise. After our set, Christopher told the audience that he was flattered and “I don’t think that I’ve ever been honored quite like that in a song before,” he said. I yelled from backstage, ‘Oh, honey, I’ll bet you have!’

I got to meet and chat with Christopher later at the reception, and I noticed a young woman who I didn’t know nearby in the room with us and assumed that she was there with Christopher. Some years before I remember reading about Christopher’s longtime involvement with a woman named Gay Exton. I didn’t know that that relationship had ended. I mean, who can keep up with these movie stars?! So I turned to this young woman, who was standing quietly by, and asked her, ‘Are you Gay?’ She was naturally confused by my question, but Christopher, understanding my query and attempt at a pun, explained that he was no longer with Ms. Exton and that this was his new wife, Dana. I apologized, but they both assured me that no offense was taken. I found them both to be quite charming. I’m sorry that I never got to see either of them again before they died. But I did manage to get a picture of Chris and me together (sorta). Aurelio is not a very good photographer.

Me only partially with Christopher Reeve

(# …Give him two legs like Greg Louganis, but make him public about his gayness… #)
Thus went another line in our version of “Mister Sandman.” But when Greg did come out publicly during the Gay Games IV in 1994, we changed the line to, # …a jock who’s public about his gayness… #. We sang this song when we appeared on the gay variety TV show “In the Life.” When the show aired in Chicago in November 1992, before the line change, we learned that the names Louganis and Reeve were actually deleted from the soundtrack (as if nobody would be able to fill in the appropriate rhymes themselves)!

According to Bruce Marcus, the senior vice president of corporate marketing and communications for Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, “Having those names in there we felt was an implication that the two individuals are gay, and we have no information with regard to that one way or another, and we felt it was an improper format to do that.” Come on! How is that implying anything of the sort? We are just saying that we want a man like those people. If we had said that we’d like a muscleman like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, that wouldn’t be implying that Arnold is gay.

I think that this Marcus guy is the one making the implication, not us. Just because he doesn’t have any information regarding such, doesn’t mean that we don’t. And since it was all right with Christopher himself when we did it, and Greg is, in fact, openly gay, who is he protecting? But so what if we were implying that they were gay? How is that his business? They never asked him to defend their honor. He is only displaying his own homophobia. Would he have objected if we had “implied” that Elton John and Neil Patrick Harris are straight? How dare they do that to us! We were furious. See my article on Censorship for more senseless and absurd instances of censoring.

(# …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. So children, for whom the song is intended, should not be exposed to the message of the song? God forbid that they might get the point and grow up with understanding and a sense of human tolerance for gay people!

(# The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become, the farther you take my rights away, the faster I will run…The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing…When people tell us that we are not good enough, we look ‘em in the eyes and say, ‘We‘re gonna do it anyway.’ #)
This is another powerful ballad that we included in every show. It was written by a gay, Nigerian-Brit named Labi Siffre. Let me get political for a minute. One of my disappointments with Jon’s management and booking decisions is that we never got to sing before a predominately-black audience the whole time I was with them. I got so tired of performing before seas of white folks night after night. I so wanted to play the Apollo Theater, for one thing. We would have been such a hit there, I’m sure. The lyrics of “Something Inside So Strong” not only reflect some of the restrictions afforded gay men, for people-of-color they take on a whole other aspect. They relate to us in ways that most whites cannot fathom. In fact, the more privileged, straight whites that we played for hardly could relate to the song at all. Nobody is constantly keeping them down and thwarting their civil rights. But it applies to all non-whites, whether they are gay or straight.

Check out these big names who were performing in the same area and at the same time that The Flirtations were appearing, but for whatever reasons people chose to see us over them: The Allman Brothers Band, Mariah Carey, Jim Carrey, Chicago, Crosby Stills and Nash, Janet Jackson, Elton John, Tom Jones, Richard Lewis, Barry Manilow (who was playing right across the street from where we were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), Liza Minnelli, The Oak Ridge Boys, RuPaul, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ravi Shankar, Nina Simone, Sting, Loudon Wainwright, Wynonna and Weird Al Yankovic.

In February 1992 the People With AIDS Coalition held a benefit concert at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan of which the Flirtations took part. On the bill with us were Phylicia Rashad (as host), Melba Moore, Karen Akers, opera divas Marvis Martin and Leona Mitchell. That evening Michael Callen was given a Living With AIDS Award.

We often did joint concerts with other artists, but the order of appearance was sometimes based on who was 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, B.C.! 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. Since these boys went on before us, 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.

Another annoying occurrence is when performers are regarded merely as background. When the Flirts were hired for the Gay and Lesbian Community Services 19th Anniversary Ball, held in Los Angeles in 1990, all during our set we were virtually ignored by the attending crowd, who were going about their business, milling around and talking loud–of course they had to shout to be heard over all that noise coming from the stage! A similar thing happened at a ritzy Horse Show in upstate New York, where the bourgeois patrons verbally socialized over dinner while we were singing. We are not muzak or a casual dance band. Our songs are intended to be listened to for the messages in the lyrics. I find this thoughtless behavior to be inconsiderate and quite disrespectful besides.

The Flirts got to play in Richmond, Virginia three times. The first time, in September 1991, we were there to perform for their “Gay Pride” celebration. There was a parade through town, although very few showed up for it. They also published an events booklet that included a Foreword pep talk by one of the organizers, encouraging every gay person in town to come out and make themselves known, stop hiding, strength in numbers, and all that gay pride rhetoric. But when I got to the end of the editorial, I found the salutation, “Name withheld upon request, for fear that I may lose my job as a teacher.” Hunh?! I thought, What two-faced hypocrite wrote this?! He’s telling us all to come out and then he’s afraid to give his own name?!

The author turned out to be our promoter, a white guy, who I had already met, and when I found him to be the culprit, chile, did I light into him! He had a good, secure position as a public school teacher, a post that he had held for 15 years, but he was afraid that if he revealed himself, he would be fired from his job. I said, ‘How dare you be such a fucking hypocrite!’ He was the primary organizer of the entire Gay Pride event but was afraid to be out about it. I tried to impress upon him my color analogy, reminding him that suppose I hid my race from my employer for 15 years, then when I finally revealed to them that I am really black, would they actually fire me? I’m the same good teacher I was a minute ago, before they found out. He got the point, but I don’t know if it he did anything about it. Everybody is not that clueless. People know or suspect even if they don’t say anything to the person. Did he actually think that nobody at his school has figured out his story in 15 years? I had this guy’s number the moment I met him!

Also, on the door of the hall where the festivities were being held, was a sign which requested that everyone with a camera should get permission from anyone they took a picture of, as that person may not want to be photographed for reasons of keeping their identity a secret! So what are they doing at a gay pride celebration if they are reluctant to have anybody know that they were there?! Plus, many of the people there, as well as in town, had an air of that Southern snobbery and pretense about them. I was so disgusted with the whole thing, I couldn’t wait to get away from there.

Besides Richmond and Chicago, another American city that gives me pause for wonder is San Diego, California. 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 plane 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. They seem to have this Oh-well-that’s-just-the-way-it-is attitude. 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, Maryland 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? A line in the opening number of Hairspray–the Musical, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” 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.

The Flirts on Halloween 1991 in Boston

When The Flirtations played Oberlin College in April 1993, we had an after-show meal with some of the students at one of their campus eateries. At our table was a charming young woman named Francesca, who was a friend of the woman who was promoting us. As we were leaving the restaurant, I noticed that the walls were covered with various opera posters, one of which was for Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. I pointed it out to Francesca, and she casually mentioned that her mother once appeared in that opera. Interested, I inquired, ‘Oh, your mother is an opera singer?’ “Yes, she is.” ‘So, who is your mother?’ “Shirley Verrett.” ‘Get outta here! I loved huh!’ She‘s dead now.

During my first year with the group, we were asked to appear on a local New York radio program. Our appeal and popularity stemmed from our campiness and playing up the gay aspect of our personalities. The announcer/deejay seemed all excited to have us on his show, but then he had the nerve to tell us that we needed to “tone down” that part of our act, because his listening audience would not take too kindly to the gay thing. That is the very thing that they liked about us and what set us apart from everybody else! That is why they would tune in, to hear what we had to say. And how could this guy know who his audience is? He doesn’t know who would be listening at that moment. It galls me when certain individuals think that the entire world regards everything in exactly the same way as they do. We declined his offer. If we can’t do our regular act, then we won’t do it at all.

Some other cities that I did enjoy visiting are Orlando, Florida (where the sexually-active Parliament House is located) and Austin, Texas. 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 soundcheck 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 Dallasites was confirmed by everybody to whom I mentioned it.

When the Flirts played Salt Lake City, Utah one year, during our tour of the city, we, as non-Mormons, were not allowed to see the inside of the famous Tabernacle, even though we were visiting celebrities. They are so strict! We did get to wade, somewhat, in the Great Salt Lake, however, although the day we were there, it was at low tide and quite muddy.

Utah was the 48th U.S. state that I have visited and Rhode Island, my 49th. I had missed Rhode Island all those years before on my other tours, because to get from Connecticut to Massachusetts and back, you don’t need to pass through R.I., as it is off to the side. We only got there finally when the Flirts played Providence. That was the same case with Utah. I never passed through it until we actually went there.

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 it 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, like, 48 years ago, when I was on tour with Bob DeCormier. We were traveling by bus, it was nighttime, and at about half of 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. He 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 experience. 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. (I still don’t.) 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 lost touch with Joe over the years and recently learned that he is deceased.

The Flirtations spent several days in Phoenix, Arizona in early September 1994, when the weather was very hot. I didn’t mind at all, however, as I love hot weather. We performed there as well. As an adventure and to celebrate my birthday on one of our days off, 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.

Me atop Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, Arizona, 1994. I don’t know who snapped the picture or from where.

We also played nearby Scottsbluff, and our promoter there threw us a little party at his home after our show. He claimed to be acquainted with Elton John, who happened to be playing in the area that night as well, so our host contacted him and invited him to our gathering. Alas, Elton did not show up, which disappointed me greatly. I would have loved to meet and talk with one of my music idols in a casual setting such as that.

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 know 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.’ I wasn’t worried, as I had not done anything wrong. 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, then 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.

The Flirtations with Lily Tomlin in Hollywood
The Flirts with Dick Sargent

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 eighteen 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. I don’t like the constant rocking of the ship. That is how the ’77 DeCormier tour began. It was fraught with adversity, some of which I have already told you about. But I was not the only one. Other group members had run-ins with local law enforcement personnel. Tragically, Bob and wife Louise had to leave the tour for several days to attend the funeral of their only son, Christopher.

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, with a different husband, 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.

Out Week, December 3, 1989–Our first magazine cover

My picture, alone and with the Flirts, appeared many times in many newspapers and magazines all across the country and abroad, including Out Week, Entertainment Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar. We even made at least eight, that I know about, covers of local magazines in various places. Just after the release of Philadelphia, my hometown newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, did a feature story on me, sort of a “Local Boy Makes Good” tribute. Most of it was my own review of the film. Over the years the Tribune regularly reported on my various career activities, my mother serving as my unofficial press agent.

Philadelphia photo shoot for Harper’s “Bizarre” [Cast members are (top to bottom, left to right): Quentin Crisp, David Drake, Jon Arterton, Roberta Maxwell, me, Anna Deavere Smith, Ron Vawter, John Epperson (aka Lypsinka), Jimmy Rutland

In addition to publicity posters and flyers, the Flirts’ pictorial images have appeared on T-shirts, calendars, and even cocktail napkins! Just our name, not our picture, appeared on a sweatshirt, was included on a promotional coffee mug once, and a fan of ours in Portland, Ore., who is a potter, made us all personalized mugs with our own names on them! I no longer have mine, however, as I dropped it one day and broke it. (Lummox!) I loved that mug, too! The group name and Michael Callen’s were both used as entries in a published crossword puzzle, and a cartoonist friend of TJ, Annie Gauger, created a comic book about us called “Sparky’s Visit,” depicting the group members as nondescript animals and changing our name to “The Sensations.”

The group’s name also appeared on the marquee of many of the theaters at which we were playing, and we once even got our name “in lights” when we played the Intermediate Theatre in Portland, Oregon in December 1991. We once got one of those plane banner messages advertising our concert performance in Pensacola, Florida, that flew over the local beach. The Flirts received album entries in both 1994’s The Gay Music Guide and its 1996 follow-up, Out Sounds, as well as an entry in the 1992 edition of the All Music Guide.

Theater Marquee in Portland, Oregon

My last performance with The Flirtations was on December 10, 1994 in Chicago. It was a joint concert with Holly Near and John Bucchino. The very next month, I was put out of the group 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 there was considerable mismanagement involved and Jon constantly allowing Jimmy to make wrong decisions concerning the group. When word got around that I, and Aurelio too, were no longer with them, many of our faithful fans stopped coming to their shows. They would get to the venue and wonder, “Where are Cliff and Aurelio? I didn’t come here to see those other two.”

For appearance’s sake, I’m pretty sure, Steve Langley, who is black, was next hired to replace me, but he was a tenor, not a bass, so the ensemble now sounded treble-heavy. Jon was a high baritone at most. Steve lasted only ten months before he was also given the boot. By this time they had taken on a female named Suede, so now the group had dwindled down to three singers, all white! Are you getting the picture? They certainly bore no resemblance to the former group, although they bodaciously kept using the name. This is a different group, so give it a different name! That’s blatant fraud, in my, or anybody’s opinion. I dubbed them “Suede and Dawn.” Remember Tony Orlando’s backup duo? With only three-part harmony, at most, and everybody crooning everything (Jimmy even got the others to adopt his vocal “technique”), their arrangements now sounded empty and vapid. The subsequent album that the three of them recorded in 1996 is an embarrassment, in my opinion. Due to lack of bookings and public interest, they finally had to call it quits in August 1997.

Who?! I don’t think so.

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 gave us three wholesome meals a day, all for free! We also had 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 was 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. There was sufficient moonlight at least. The music we all made there together was quite lovely, and I liked learning new and challenging works every year. The food was consistently good and plentiful, cafeteria-style, and we could have as much as we wanted. The lodging was 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). It was founded in 1941 by the prestigious choral conductor, Robert Shaw. 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. We flew to Geneva then had a bus to take us to our hotel in Martigny. The big choral work being performed that first year was Verdi’s Requiem, with major soloists and a youth 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 was 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 Alps. 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 (one way) 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. My favorite was Harold’s CyberCafé on the main drag, owned and operated by a friendly American gentleman named Alan. It was not a fancy place–just burgers, fries and such, you know, fast food items–but it was good enough and it was inexpensive. I ate there just about every day. 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 a rocky peak up there to climb, from where you can see the Matterhorn in the distance. There is another lift option which takes you down the hill in the other direction to the village of Le Chable. There is also a Sport Center in town which includes a hockey rink, courts for tennis and soccer and two pools, indoors and out.

On Mont-Fort in Verbier, Switzerland. Note the Matterhorn in the background.

There were occasional mini-concerts held in the town square for the tourists. One that I attended featured an ensemble of alpenhorns. Another time there was a seven-piece band with three black, female singers getting down with the oldies–“Flashdance,” Supremes, Aretha, ABBA, Pointer Sisters, Tina–and they were quite good. They had us dancing in the street. The days we spent in Switzerland were six, nine, ten and eight, respectively.

Swiss Alpenhorn Ensemble (This is something you don’t see or hear every day! I wish you could hear them.)

My late friend Lloyd had sort of a fanatic crush on Russian concert pianist Evgeny Kissin. He had all his recordings and went to see him play whenever he came to New York. But Lloyd never bothered to go backstage and meet him after any of his concerts. He just stood on the sidelines and ogled the guy. I am not into the man myself, but I supported 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.

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! I am not posting it here, because the picture did not come out too clearly. Evgeny remembered me the very next year when I returned to Verbier and greeted me warmly again when he saw me. In the audience that night was two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer, and on the performance roster that year were concert pianists Lang Lang and Garrick Ohlsen and singer Thomas Quasthoff.

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.

This rather odd occurrence happened as we were leaving the Museum of Art after our concert. Right outside the front door was a clowder of cats just hanging out around the entranceway there. I counted twelve of them. Apparently, there is a predominance of stray cats in the country. I suppose they over-procreate, and there not being enough, if any, animal shelters to accommodate them all, unwanted cats are just left out on the street to fend for themselves. I noticed quite a few of them myself all over town while I was there. And they all looked very scrawny, I suppose from not getting enough to eat. Well, these museum cats appeared to be no exception.

My colleagues and I, those of us who love cats, were rather feeling sorry for these poor, hungry cats, when we noticed that a few feet from where we were standing was a man with a bag filled of what looked like to be some kind of roll or bagel, some of which he was attempting to sell to us passersby. But it occurred to me, this man has food to feed the cats, but instead of doing it himself, he’s there to sell it to us so that we can feed the cats! How twisted is that? I tell you, there is a hustler everywhere you turn.

I had never thought of it before, but that reminded me of the Bird Woman from Mary Poppins. Now she’s out there on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral every day selling bread crumbs and imploring, “Feed the birds, oh, feed the birds. Tuppence a bag.” I’m thinking, Bitch, you’re the one with the fucking bread crumbs! Feed ‘em yourself. What do you need us for?

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.

2000-year-old (purportedly) olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane

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.

The Western (“Wailing”) Wall in Jerusalem
The Wailing Wall up close

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. That is why it’s dead, because it can’t sustain any marine life. 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.

That’s me back there (wearing my glasses) luxuriating in the Dead Sea. # Hated 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!)

I have a tendency to question everything. When we visited Mt. Beatitudes, for instance, it occurred to me to pose the question, how do we have an account of what was exactly said on that occasion? Was there someone there writing down everything that Jesus said, or did Matthew or someone else happen to remember his entire speech and was able to recreate it, word for word, many decades later? There was no recording equipment back then. In my Bible the sermon takes up five whole columns. That’s a lot to recall. And even for those who witnessed the event, were all those people spread out all over the place able to hear every word that was said? There was no amplification. Could Jesus project his voice that well? Monty Python spoofed that in Life of Brian (1979). From a distance away somebody asked, “Blessed are the cheese makers?”

The day we were in Jaffa our tour guide, Mark, was telling us some legendary tale about St. Peter receiving some kind of cloth from God which had pictures of animals on it which could be processed into food or some such nonsense. God told Peter that it was okay to eat any of the animals on the cloth, but Peter objected, saying that the animals on there were unclean, and God kept trying to assure him that they were not. So I asked Mark, ’Who told Peter that certain animals were unclean in the first place?’ “Well, God did.” ’But God just told him that they were not unclean. So who is he going to listen to, this God or the other one?’ Mark had to admit, “I see your point.” I was just trying to get him to think about what he was telling us, instead of just repeating what he has been taught and believing what he is saying to be true. Mark related several statements to us that day that have no basis of proof or truth to them.

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. Of course, it is a whole other situation there now. I am glad that we went there when we did.

The one downside of this trip is that I had to share a room with another chorister. I always try to get a single room, but as there were so many of us, it was not allowed this time. The young man I was paired with, another Mark, I didn’t know before this gig, and he was nice enough, I suppose, but our individual sleep schedules were quite disparate. Mark always turned in early, and I wanted to read, write in my journal and watch television until all hours, like I do at home. He couldn’t sleep with the lights or the TV on, so I would have to retreat to the bathroom so as not to disturb him. When I did finally go to bed, my snoring was a problem for him. With his constant complaining about it, I found myself so self-conscious, I was unable to sleep either, out of consideration for him. That’s why I need to room alone, for the benefit of others. That is also why I have chosen to live alone for so many years. Once the Flirtations had only two available rooms at a motel somewhere, and the other three preferred to stay together in one room so as not to have to put up with my snoring, and they let me have the other one all to myself. That was fine with me!

The next year and the last time I was in Verbier (in 2009), our trip home from Geneva was met with some problems. After our flight was delayed for several hours and then eventually the plane was taken out of service, we all had to book new flights. I was offered one for the next morning which flies first to Munich and then on to JFK. I accepted that one, which required me to stay overnight at the local Ramada Inn.

In December 1997 through a mutual friend, I met a very nice Parisian gentleman named Gilles Hané, 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 on a Sunday 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.

My wonderful traveling companion, Gilles Hané, atop the Arc de Triomphe in Paris
Me in the stairwell of the Eiffel Tower

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 next door also is larger than I had imagined, and the “Mona Lisa” (La Joconde) is 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. I went to the Louvre a third time with Gilles when I returned to Paris a couple of years later.

On the evening of July 10, The 3 Tenors (José 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 Elizabeths I and II 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!

Me in front of the Queen’s hameau at Versailles, France

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.

(“A handbag?!?!?“)
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 told you 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?

This guy 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. We weren’t having sex. We were merely sleeping. “Do you know him?” he said to me, referring to Gilles. ‘Well, of course, I do!’ “What’s his name?” How about, Does he know me? Why am I always the one up to no good?

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… #)
Yeah, I think 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 mess with us. I contend that there are no accidents.

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 aforementioned parking controversy and the broadcast censorship involving the Flirtations that time, among other incidents, 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. A while ago 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 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?!

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 Field, who by this time was divorced and had two little girls. 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. I guess we shouldn’t have stayed in Montreal as long as we did. 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 performance of the Verdi Requiem, Gilles rented a car in Paris and drove down to meet me at the Hotel Du Parc in Martigny. 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. In attendance were assorted relatives, friends and their children, 17 in all. There were also two pets–an ugly, big-headed bull mastiff named Lloyd and a goat named Fleur, who served as a lawn mower. 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 sang some Verdi operatic arias together, I don’t remember what now. 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, 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. We stopped in Aigues-Mortes to look around. Part of the village is surrounded by a walled fortress. It was used as a battlement during the Crusades.

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!

Look at him with his nose up in the air. What a snob!

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 original (?) Sleeping Beauty Castle in Ussé, France

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 this 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 an 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. People sure do love their fireworks displays, don’t they? This was my fifth one this year! The others occurred in Cape Town in April, in NYC on July 4, in Martigny and Cannes. 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.

At EuroDisney in France: my shark-eating grin

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 (a dark green, 4-door Peugeot) again the day before our first concert. This was the first year the choristers were housed in a number of “chalets” (apartment houses) in the village of Verbier itself. I shared, with four other guys (six of us, when Gilles arrived), an apartment with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, common living room and terrace. The greatest perk, however, was the fully-functional kitchen, which allowed us to prepare meals to eat at home. We didn’t have that privilege the year before, when we had to eat out all the time, and it wasn’t cheap either! Eating in every day saved us a lot of money. And there were two convenient supermarkets in town, thankfully.

The fabulous acappella group, Chanticleer, was in town for the Festival, and having the night off, most of us attended their concert at L’Eglise Saturday night. On Sunday, we performed the Mozart Requiem, which went splendidly, with the chorus receiving a standing ovation. A very cute young man approached me backstage afterward and exclaimed, “Beautiful!” I replied, ’Why, thank you. So are you!’

My housemates (Roosevelt Credit, Bruce Rameker, David Schnell and Archie Worley) all seemed to like Gilles. He fit in so well with all my friends. They were quite impressed, as I am, with his movie and music knowledge. Bruce had been spending time with a cute local boy named Nathanael, who worked over at the lift, and who offered to make fondue for us, so we invited him over to the house for a Fondue Party. On Monday afternoon, Gilles and I went up to the Church to check out the exhibit of French painter and sculptor Camillo.

We learned that the parents of a friend of Nathanael, Roger and Anne-Laure Bubesson, own and operate a cheese-making factory in town and invited us all for a tour. They took us through the whole process of making their raclette cheese for local and regional distribution. When we had finished the tour, Roger had set out for us some cheese samples to serve with bread and wine. We sang for them and some of the guys even bought some of their cheese to take with us.

Carmina Burana that night was also a rousing success, even though it rained throughout the performance. As this was our last night, we hit the local bar (also named Mont-Fort) and partied until very late. This pub had a couple of computers for patrons’ use, and I went there often to check my email and send update letters to Lloyd. It took me a while to get the hang of it, as their Swiss keyboard differs in places from mine at home.

It is now Tuesday, July 24th. 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! We found an inexpensive hotel and a free parking zone. The room was quite small; we could hardly get around the bed, which took up most of the space in the room, so the TV was hoisted way up near the ceiling over the bed!

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 anywhere 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! Oh, well!

So then we headed north toward St. Renau via Brest, another major port city. Genevieve is a teaching colleague of Gilles (they recently co-authored a book together), who lives with her common-law husband, Patrick, their teenage daughter, Anouk (lovely girl) and their gorgeous calico cat, whom they call Sweetie. Their country cottage is located in the port village of Porspoder. They 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.

Titanic Buttplug? in Brittany, France

After a lovely dinner, the five of us played Jungle Speed, an old tribal diversion 1000 years old in the form of a card game, where players have to match up colors and shapes. The game is conducive for illiterates and ignoramuses as well, because there is nothing to read and no questions to answer or anything to count or cipher. It’s similar to what I think about the game of Bingo. You don’t need to know anything. Patrick gave me as a gift, a can of their indigenous pork Paté Hénaff, which looks and tastes a whole lot like our Spam!

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.

On Sunday afternoon after lunch, however, Gilles and I went out for a walk and to get some gourmet ice cream that he had been raving about. He took me through an elevated garden promenade that I had not been to before. It started raining before we got back to the house. Early Monday morning I took a train back to Geneva to catch my flight home. Gilles went with me to the train station, and it’s good that we were a little early, because “Little-Miss-Take-Charge” had directed me to the wrong platform and would have put me on the wrong train, if we hadn’t caught his mistake in time. I don’t know where I would have ended up.

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 me 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.

It was January 2004 (nine years after The Flirtations) when I got involved with The New York Vagabonds, formerly known as the New Victory Singers. We were a paid professional male quartet whose repertoire differed considerably from the Flirtations. 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 (now deceased) on occasion.

The New York Vagabonds (from left, clockwise: Gabriel DeAngelo, Michael Walsh, Me, Joshua Walter)

Gabe was my connection to the group. Our relationship goes back a good 35 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 was a real blast. For the first year we played mostly what is called the “Borscht Circuit,” Jewish retirement villages in New Jersey, mostly, but frequent trips to Florida as well.

During the last week in January, 2006 the Vagabonds were playing a venue in Boca Raton, Fla. We were at the end of our show, about to do our encore, when we noticed some commotion in the audience and people crowding the aisles. What’s going on, we wondered? We learned that an elderly gentleman had just suffered a heart attack and died right there on the spot! Later when someone would ask how the show went, we would jokingly say that we killed them…literally! “We laid them in the aisles!”

I 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. During this time a mysterious “norovirus” had cropped up on one of their ships. A great number of passengers were getting sick with flu-like symptoms. It was surmised that somebody had brought the virus onto the ship with them and then managed to spread it around to the other passengers.

It so happened that our very first booking was on the infected ship, the M.S. Veendam. Early on Monday morning, Jan. 24th, we flew to the island of Curaçao, via Miami, to join this ship, which was halfway through their 14-day cruise. Believing that they had it under control, they allowed us on the ship. Safety precautions were underway, with hand sanitizer dispensers all around the ship and passengers avoiding physical contact. Hmm? Could this a precursor of our current coronovirus? Not knowing who we were and by our just arriving on the ship, it was assumed by many that we must be from the CDC, there to investigate.

We also visited Aruba before returning to Florida on Saturday, cancelling the Grand Cayman stop. 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.

We were booked immediately on the M.S. Ryndam for four days, but having just been on the viral ship, they thought it better that we not come aboard, just in case. This worked out fine for me, at least, as I was able to participate in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony here in the city, which I would have missed otherwise.

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, U.S. 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? And this airport had the good sense to remain open all night! We arrived in Victoria early and had to wait over an hour for the ship to arrive.

Our few ports-of-call were also interesting and fun, for the most part. 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, we encountered friendly black youths who would offer their services as a tour guide or whatever. Some looked to be as young as ten-years-old. We learned that they were not orphans or even homeless. It was just that their situation at home was so unbearable, they preferred to take their chances living on the street. Isn’t that sad? During our cab ride to the airport, we noticed on the side of the road rows and rows of small, makeshift structures that appeared to be made of some cheap, flimsy material that people were actually living in!

During our evening walk, 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 theory, 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. Then too, if somebody wanted in badly enough, those walls won’t keep them out. They can be gotten over, penetrated, even blown up. There is no absolute maximum security.

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 and cruising scene. In this respect, fortunately, things have really changed since the days of Apartheid. The clientele there was racially-mixed, blacks and whites alike, gay and purportedly-straight, all mingling and dancing together. I even picked up a white man, who spent the night with me at my hotel. 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. From up there 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, which none of us had the desire or time to do so, most choose to utilize, for a fee, the aerial trams (“cable cars”) to get us to the top.

L. to R.: the late Mark Wolff, Joshua Walter, Me and Michael Walsh atop Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

On April 14 we had to fly back to New York from Cape Town 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, trying to get us to buy their stupid, useless trinkets. 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. I don’t care how cheap it is. I just don’t want it! Leave me the fuck alone!

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 get 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, however, 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! And this is practically a daily occurrence. 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. I still have not made it to Spain.

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 deterrent 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!

This cruise ended on a downer, however, when a white, married, passenger couple falsely accused me of flashing their teenage daughter, and I did not receive any support from my colleagues, who know me and should know better than to believe such nonsense. Those parents were originally friendly towards me, but then turned on me on the word of their lying bitch of a daughter. Lloyd used to warn me about the ambiguous sincerity of rich people. I have on more than one occasion found his cynical assessment to have merit.

In Dominica with James Baylis, Mike Backes and Michael Walsh

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, per se,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 (out of four) 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? A drawn backdrop would have had the same effect.

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 require a 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, Francesca, 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 6-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 was not over yet! Now we had to find our way to Safaga, where the ship was docked for the night.

Joe and I 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.

Jordanian camel

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. After the itinerary was changed, some passengers chose to leave the cruise, which freed up some extra staterooms. 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 [21] 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 continuing east, 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.

Aomori, Japan. # Praise to Buddha! #

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 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! Getting home from there was quite an ordeal. 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. 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. I didn’t even have to miss church that weekend. 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 Cozumel, 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, 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.

(“The ships! Tell them about the ships!”)
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. On the very first cruise I was on, I did discover one elusive item, however. Except for the little stubby ones (which have no erasers!) that they pass out for the trivia games, there were no other pencils to be found, not even in the gift shops. There are ink pens galore but no pencils. I always maintain a journal when I am away from home for a time, and for that and my puzzle magazines I prefer to use a pencil instead of a pen. So the next time and every time after that, I always brought along my own pencils and portable sharpener. In fact, anything else that I required I would bring with me, so that I would not have to buy anything on the ship.

Although our main purpose there was 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 had to offer. We had 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, for example, 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. With all that walking and using the treadmill as well, I tended to lose an average of ten pounds on every cruise. I never used 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 were closed, we could 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 of Chesapeake Bay 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. These ideal accommodations made up for the aborted itinerary and the less-than-exemplary weather (it was cold the whole time).

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. My favorite spot is the very front of the ship, the bow, where I would lounge on a bench and look at the night sky. I also 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 Flirtations 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 needed 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 part of three days in the summer of 2002 during that road trip with Gilles.

This deportation incident, by the way, was still haunting me 18 years later. The last three times that the 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.

Alas, our cruising days are over. The last one we did was in November 2012. I am fortunate, however, to have done as many as I have. We did, however, a successful, well-received, two-week concert tour around Florida in February 2015. We played Coconut Creek, Boynton Beach, Leesburg, Poinciana, Lake Wales, Avon Park and Summerfield. Our last performance engagement was in October 2015 at one of those retirement communities in Monroe, New Jersey.

There have been some health issues with some group members, including myself. In November 2013 we had the rare opportunity to audition for “America’s Got Talent” here in NYC. But on the very day of the audition, Michael Walsh took ill. In fact, he was hospitalized, where it was discovered that he had developed a rare cancer of the blood, so we had to miss the audition, and we never got another chance. We are all up in age now, too, and not as spry as we once were. In addition, our first tenor, James Baylis, up and moved to Las Vegas, so we would have had to find a replacement for him anyway. And one of our primary booking agents died recently. The only time that we remaining three got to sing together was at Gabe and Fran’s annual Christmas parties at their house in White Plains, NY, when the attendees entertained each other. But now that’s over, too. With COVID in effect in 2020, the party was cancelled that year, and now Gabe and Fran have sold their house and moved to Naples, Florida. Oh, well, nothing is forever. It was all fun while it lasted.

The last time I was in South Bend was to attend my mother’s funeral in September 2015. And now that most of my old friends have died and those few that have survived have moved to other locales, plus my dear sister, Debra, has moved away as well, I don’t have any reason ever to go back there again. So with our mother gone and with her and her husband both retired from their jobs as postal workers, there was nothing keeping Debbie in South Bend either. Having lived there all their lives, they wanted a change of scenery and were tired of the severe winters up north. Their daughter, my niece, Danielle, had already moved to Georgia some years ago. So while their new house was being built in the Atlanta suburb of Winder, Deb and Sam stayed with Danielle and her husband, Adam. The house was finished in December 2018 and they are now well-settled into it. I wanted to see it, so I flew down for a visit in 2019, during the week of Deb’s birthday, April 12.

Now Debbie’s older daughter, Deanna has quit her job as a postal worker in South Bend as well and has moved to Georgia to be near her mother and sister. Most kids can’t wait to get away from the parents! The fact that they all have chosen to continue to live nearby means that they must really like each other. Danielle had her first child, a girl, in 2020, and a baby boy in 2023. Debbie is enjoying being a grandmother, regular babysitter and watching little Arrow and Reign grow and develop.

My father had proffered me a new car upon graduation from college, but since I did not graduate, he reneged. It doesn’t matter because my life’s situation never required me to own a car. My mother was my personal chauffeur until I went off to college. I didn’t need a car in Bloomington, as I always lived on or near campus, and everything was within walking distance. Besides, some of my friends had cars to get us around if needed. Then when I moved to New York right after the Army, by living in Manhattan, I have never needed a car here either. Trains and buses are readily accessible, or I manage to get to where I need to be on my own, that is, by bicycle or on foot. Although I do know how to drive, I don’t have a license anyway. Look at how much money I save by not having a car. There is the yearly insurance, maintenance, gas and endless parking fees to consider. With my bike, all I have to deal with is occasional maintenance, which is a whole lot less than those compulsory auto expenses.

Even without a license, I have been required to drive on more than a few occasions. When I was in college, one weekend I drove some friends from Bloomington to Indianapolis to go bar-hopping. Unbeknownst to him, I would sometimes borrow my roommate Matt’s Mustang to go cruising around Bloomington late at night, while he was asleep. When I was at Fort Gordon MP training, I got to drive a jeep one day. In Okinawa I borrowed my girlfriend Mary’s car to drive from my choir rehearsal at the post chapel to my barracks in order to sign in at the office while I was on supposedly-confined detention (details in another blog). In Halifax, Nova Scotia, while on tour with Harry Belafonte in 1978, I once offered to drive a friend home from a bar, as he was too drunk to drive himself. On that Steamboat Gothic tour in ‘92, the one day that I was relegated to drive was in Redfield, South Dakota during a blizzard, when there was no visibility! The last time I remember driving was in Dayton, Ohio (1993) spending some off time with my then boyfriend, John Z. While he was preparing a musical presentation that he was producing that night, he needed me to pick up a sick friend of his at his house and bring him to the venue. I also drove part of the way on a road trip with John, when we went to visit my friend, Don Girone, in Lexington, Kentucky. It was the last time I got to see him before he died.

My mother had the use of a car for most of her adult life. She would drive everywhere, even to our church, which was only two blocks away from where we lived! In her later years, when she was unable to drive anymore, she stopped going anywhere, using the lame excuse that she didn’t have any way to get there or anybody to take her (which wasn’t entirely true). I would tell her, ‘Mama, I don’t have a car, and I manage to get everywhere that I need to go.’

And speaking of walking… I have accomplished some real walking marathons over the years, when I was still young and energetic. The summer before I actually moved to New York (I was 25 at the time), 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 and Walton Avenue near Grand Concourse. That’s 8.5 miles!

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, so 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 considered 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 lived in east Bronx. Except for this one time, I always take the train up there, and it took over 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 in 2015. I was out there attending my family reunion and got to see my mother one last time alive. I borrowed my brother-in-law’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 fallen only a handful of times that resulted in any kind of injury. While still a kid in South Bend, one day I fell by tripping over a dog (!) and fracturing my wrist. You see, the dog ran across my front tire, causing my bike to fall over with me on it. Another time, I got struck by an automobile while on my bike, and although I was knocked unconscious for a bit, I miraculously was not physically hurt. My bike, however, was totaled. The man who hit me, out of guilt and remorse, I suppose, did replace my wrecked bike with a brand-new one. 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, on the way to church, my tire locked up somehow, and it threw me off my bike, causing me to fall and to fracture a couple of ribs. That was the most painful, as far as recovery went. I had to sleep sitting in a chair for several weeks, because it hurt too much to lie supine.

As you can see from this post alone, I have experienced a lot in life, but there are still some unfulfilled desires I would like to accomplish before I die. Almost every year around my birthday, I try to do or buy something special for myself. Founding my own record company and label while producing my first solo album was sort of a birthday celebration. My appearance on “…Millionaire” occurred around my birthday. In 1990 when I was turning 43, I decided to fulfill my longtime dream to skydive. I found a skydiving outlet in New Jersey that trains you and gives you a “crash course” (just in case your chute doesn’t open), takes you up in a plane and lets you jump that same day, all for a mere $200 (then). And I came that close to doing it, too, but sudden high winds prevented me from taking the actual jump, or so I was told. It was a great disappointment, after having psyched myself up for it and then being told that I couldn’t. The moment then was lost (as well as my $200). Since I believe that everything happens for a reason, I guess it was not meant to be at that time. I was given a rain check, good for only six months, but I never got the chance to go back again. I was in the middle of a busy opera season, and getting out there was a problem, being a non-driver without a car. The facility was way out in rural New Jersey somewhere, not even located in a real town, therefore not reachable by public transportation. A friend of mine drove me, and we had a hell of a time finding the place.

In my mind, if I ever got the chance again, I still would like to do it, but I doubt it will happen at this late date. It’s not that I think I am too old, it’s just that I am not in good physical shape anymore. I would have liked to have tried bungee jumping, too, but from a real bridge over a river, not from a tacky ol’ crane at an amusement park. I’ve always had a daring, adventurous spirit. I’m not afraid to take chances, as long as I don’t get hurt. The stunts Earl Jr. and I used to do as kids—hopping moving freight trains and jumping off the roof of our house—are things that I wouldn’t consider doing now, unless I was getting paid or participating as a contestant on TV’s “Fear Factor.”

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 fifty 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) and Rome. 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 would like to see the Taj Mahal in person, so to speak, as well as the Rock of Gibraltar and 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.

Of all the places that I have been in the world, there are three that I actually miss. At the top of my list is Okinawa. The 18 months that I spent there were most enjoyable and memorable. I also miss my summers in Provincetown–the rampant sex (nightly) and being in the presence of men everywhere I turned. Then there are the cruise ships. I sure would like to do that again.

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, the good as well as the not-so-good.

A street corner in Hannover, Germany. Notice the street sign.
“But ya are, Blanche, even in London!”

Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise

Those who have been following my blog articles would have noticed that most of them deal with my take on the world at large. I haven’t gotten into my personal life too intently, unless my discussions involve me directly. What follows are more excerpts from my treatise about racism. In this post I will relate to you some personal history that pertains to the racism and homophobia that I have observed and experienced at home as a youth. For my out-of-town travel experiences as a touring entertainer you will need to check out On the Road with Cliff. As usual, I shall include my cynical sarcasm and references to pop culture and movies to illustrate my points of discussion.

My being openly-gay and a person-of-color, at times it’s been pointed out to me that I have to endure a “double whammy.” If I were a woman and a sapphist, it would be a triple threat then, I guess. White people have actually asked me, “Which is more difficult for you, being black in this society or being gay?” I’ll bet you know the answer to that without my even telling you. There is no contest. It is definitely, infinitely, and always has been, more difficult to be black than to be gay. Ask any black person, gay or otherwise. I don’t mean difficult for me, as I can’t help being what I am, which doesn’t require any special effort on my part. It’s other people that seem to have the problem with black folks.

Some try to simplify the matter and say that being both black and gay have very similar challenges, but I’m here to tell you that there is one big difference. One’s homosexuality is usually determined by certain behavior or mere admittance, while one’s color is discerned by appearance alone. It is possible for a person to conceal their sexual orientation and modify their behavior, if they choose, to gain social acceptance, and many do apparently, judging from the vast number of closet cases in the world. We know, too, that there are certain Afro-Americans and those of mixed ethnicity whose features and fairer complexions allow them to “pass,” if they so desire. But I happen to be one who does not have that privilege. I never have been asked, “What are you?” questioning my ethnic classification. I am obviously a Negro by anyone’s observation. It is easier for some people to pass for members of the opposite sex than for me to try to pass for anything other than black. Fortunately, I have no desire to be other than what I am. I have even been identified as such by my voice. But since I am not regarded by most people to be outwardly effeminate, my gayness is not always as readily apparent. In that respect, I could pass for straight if I wanted to. People I meet for the first time don’t know for sure if I am gay or not, but they certainly can see what color I am.

Having inherent privileges, white people tend to take so much for granted in life and really don’t understand what the rest of us have to go through on a day-to-day basis. Let me give you some examples of what I have to put up with, in my particular case, and I’ll let you decide which is more subject to personal assessment from people, my being gay or my being black. White women riding in elevators with me don’t cower in the corner because they are frightened of gay men. I don’t think that white store clerks either follow me around the store or virtually ignore me altogether when I want some service because I’m a faggot. Doormen in swanky buildings don’t stop to question me and regard me with suspicion or either presume me to be a deliveryman because they don’t want their residence or office building to become a gay hangout. I am not consistently passed up on the street by cab drivers because they perceive me to be gay. Have I been refused entry into certain gay bars in major cities because I’m gay, for Christ’s sake?!

A personal annoyance for me is the frequent suspicious regard I still get from doormen and security guards. It’s as if I don’t have the same rights as other people to go to certain places without being questioned and scrutinized. Once I was returning from a break to a chorus rehearsal at New York University with a group of the other singers (about 10 of us). As we entered the building where the rehearsal was being held, everybody else walked right past the security guard at the door, and he didn’t say a word to any of them, but he had to single me out of the bunch and ask me where I was going. Now I’m with this big group (we’re all in one big clump), I am carrying a music folder just like the rest of them, but their being white and my being black, I couldn’t possibly be associated with any of them, right? So I must be some ruffian off the street trying to sneak in where I don’t belong. Why couldn’t I be a singer like the rest of them? For all he knows, I might even be the conductor of the thing and this is my choral group. That’s downright prejudice, I’m sorry! Why can’t some people imagine me to be what I really am—an intelligent, law-abiding, celebrated, working musician—instead of imagining me to be some disreputable lowlife who’s always up to no good, or otherwise some peon or common laborer…not that there’s anything wrong with that either?

I was signed with a local casting agency for commercials for a couple of years, and they would regularly send me to auditions. There is a big office building on Broadway where many of the auditions were held, and I had to go there several times. Depending on what the commercial was for, they asked me to dress accordingly. Most of the time I was asked to wear casual street clothes. But when I signed in with the deskman, he invariably would ask me if I was there to make a delivery. I am constantly annoyed by that. Why can’t I be a working actor just like everybody else going to the same place? Why do I have to be a delivery person all the time? Or if they see me arrive on my bike, I must be a courier of some sort.

It seems that I am not alone. Once while on Queen Latifah’s talk show, actor/model Tyson Beckford reported that he, too, would arrive at casting calls on his bike and be mistaken for a courier. We don’t all travel around the city in a limousine. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a delivery man or messenger, I just resent the presumption. I don’t make assumptions about anybody without knowing the facts. The one time I wore a sports jacket and tie to that same location, the guards didn’t say anything to me. I guess I must have been respectable that day. People certainly do have dress and appearance prejudice, you know that.

But even that doesn’t matter sometimes. My mixed, acappella quartet, Quatraine, was hired to perform at a party one evening at some white woman’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The four of us all met there, arriving at different times. When I arrived there alone, the doorman asked for my destination, as he is supposed to do; I don’t fault him for that. I had met the woman before, but we were not acquaintances exactly. So I used her last name with Ms. in front of it, out of courtesy and respect, nothing else, and he asked me if I were there to make a delivery! And I was dressed up that night, too, as it was a formal affair. But I guess that doorman just could not accept the fact that this black man could know anybody in his upper-scale building, especially to be invited to a party at the home of one of his white, female tenants, therefore I must be a delivery person! Maybe if I had referred to her by her first name, he might have had a different response, I’m not sure.

Now I don’t want to give you the impression that all of these doormen and security guards are white, because all are not. The black ones are just as guilty, like that one at NYU. They play into the same prejudices and stereotypes as their white co-workers, and they should know better, having gone through the same thing themselves at times, I’m sure.

Once passing through the metal detector at the airport, a white, female security officer was instructing all passengers, in general, to remove all metal objects from their pockets—”Loose change, keys, cell phones, jewelry…” but when I got up to the portal, she looked right at me and added, “…switchblades.” Now, are all gay men known to carry switchblades onto planes? Maybe she said it as a joke? Well, they make a point to impress on everyone not to joke with the security agents, so I should assume that she was being serious as well. Although I was quite insulted, I didn’t say anything that time.

The thing that I resent is constantly being singled out because of people’s prejudicial profiling. If these people are “doing their job,” they should do it with everybody that they encounter, not just with me or my ilk. I don’t object to equal public treatment for all, whatever it happens to be. If they are going to regard black people as potential criminals, they should regard everybody as potential criminals!

It is equally annoying to me and insensitive on their part when people automatically presume that I am heterosexual. They comment on my wife or girlfriend and want to talk sports with me (not that gay people can’t be sports enthusiasts, it’s just that I am not). “Say, man, how about that game today? Wasn’t that something?” ‘What game? I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t even care.’ I am never asked by a stranger what is being performed at the Metropolitan Opera tonight, or did I happen to catch Chanticleer at Carnegie Hall last weekend. I am black, tall, and “straight-looking,” so I must be up on all the basketball and football game results, right? Not! “What? You’re a musician?”

Among my baseball cap collection I have one that apparently displays the team logo for the New York Mets on the front. When I wear it, I frequently get the high sign from somebody acknowledging me to be a fellow Mets fan. I always shake my head and say, ‘No, I don’t have any interest in the Mets or baseball, for that matter.’ I just like the cap. It goes with my blue outfits and has a “NY” insignia, that’s all. I have been fooled too many times myself to make such presumptions about anybody else.

When I was a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” with Meredith Vieira in 2003, she vexed me by automatically assuming that I was straight. The production staff of the show get contestants to reveal facts about themselves to give the host something to talk about with us and share with the viewing audience. I told them that I am a confirmed bachelor and enjoy living alone because I don’t like anyone around to nag and tell me what to do all the time. But when Meredith imparted this news to the audience, her version was that I didn’t want a wife to nag me. She then asked, “Well, all women don’t do that, do they, Cliff?” ‘Uh, no. I never said that they did.’ I didn’t mention wives or women at all. I was referring to a roommate or living companion, most likely male. She never did ask me what I do for a living, as they do all of the other contestants that come on the show. She seemed more concerned about my living arrangements and heterosexual romantic attachments. Later she again alluded to my having a wife or some woman in my life. I almost blurted out, but didn’t, ‘Meredith, will you stop it? I am gay, all right?!’

But why should I even have to tell people that? It’s not that I am ashamed for everybody to know, but if I don’t volunteer the information myself, don’t make your own assumptions about me. Just keep your references non-specific or all-inclusive, as I do. If I don’t know somebody’s story for sure, I keep their options open. I don’t foist a specific gender on anybody. When I do attempt to pry into somebody’s business, I might ask them, ‘So, do you live with someone, or do you have a significant other?‘ Their truthful answer gives me some idea if they are gay or not. What I think it really is, unless they are told specifically otherwise, people usually assume that everybody is heterosexual, because that is the “normal” way to be, you see. To assume that someone is gay when they are not would be insulting to the person. “How dare you! I’m not gay!” But that is just the way I feel about it. Automatically to assume that I am straight when I am not, is insulting to me. If you don’t know for sure, just ask me. I won’t be offended. “Cliff, are you a homosexual?” ‘Sure, I enjoy having sex at home. But why do you want to know? Are you interested in getting it on with me?’

I am constantly irked by the general public’s tendency (wishful thinking on their part, I’m sure) always to presume that everybody is heterosexual. A mother will tell her caring, self-sufficient, sensitive young son that he will make some woman a good husband some day. Well, he might make some man a good husband some day, too! People being interviewed on TV shows, even young children, are often questioned about their dating affairs and romantic interests. Adults will ask little pre-teen boys, “So, Joey, do you have a girlfriend?” Just once I would like someone to reply, “Ugh, no yucky girls, but there is this real cute boy in my class whom I would certainly give it up for!” “She’s the type of girl that every guy would go for.” Nope. I know many guys, including myself, who have no interest in Miss Thing whatsoever.

A wife discovers that her husband is having an extramarital affair but does not know yet with whom. She confronts him with, “Who is she? Is she young and pretty?” It could just as well be another man that hubby is porking, you know. And I know from personal experience that in many instances, it is! It’s not that I think that everybody is gay, but everybody is not straight either. I just don’t make assumptions one way or the other and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

My mother also attended my high school, Central, and she told me that when she was going there (late ‘30s and early ‘40s), the black students were not even allowed to participate in school plays and shows, and there was imposed segregation at school dances and other social functions. There was a student hangout directly across from the school called the Morningside Diner, which was still active while I was at Central, but in Mother’s day it was off-limits to blacks. Similarly, there was a public indoor swimming pool in my neighborhood, that I frequented quite often growing up, called the Natatorium, and I learned that it also was once off-limits to blacks. After vehement protest in 1937, blacks were allowed to use the facilities (alone, of course), only one day a week. It wasn’t until 1950 that the Natatorium became fully integrated.

I had a Caucasian friend who grew up in the neighboring city of Mishawaka, who told me that his Kenyan brother-in-law (his sister’s first husband) was once refused service at a South Bend diner. And that was in 1971, mind you! So you see, even in the ‘30s through the ‘70s, maybe even later, and although it was the North, racism flourished there just like in the South.

Even my own home state of Indiana has been a center of major Klan activity since the 1920s. Judging from my sometimes “down-home” manner of speaking, strangers often peg me to hail from the South. I tell them, ‘Yeah, I am from the South all right. “South” Bend!’ We naïve kids took so much for granted when we were growing up, thinking that our liberal, prejudice-free environment was what it had always been and how it was everywhere else in the country.

Back when I was in high school, I used to visit my white friend, Donald Girone, at his house in his all-white neighborhood. He would tell me that I had his paranoid neighbors all abuzz with worry and concern about my presence there. Could they actually think that I was casing the place with intent to buy a house on the block? I mean, I’m only a kid. Maybe they were afraid that I was going to bring my gang over later to rob them all. Where do they get these ridiculous notions about us–from the news media, or do they just come up with these fantasies all by themselves? Donald, now deceased, and who didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body, was once walking on a South Bend street with our black friend, Leo, when a car passed by and yelled “nigger lover!” to him. They both were devastated. But things like that don’t happen in the north…do they?!

(“Are you talkin’ to me?!”)
This happened during my college years while I was working as a waiter in the Tudor Room restaurant at Indiana University. I was waiting on a group of white people, when one of the men in the party proceeded to summon me over to their table by snapping his fingers repeatedly and invoking, “Hey, boy…boy!” I looked around and thought, Who is he callin’ “boy”? I don’t see any damned boys in here! I was 21 by this time, hardly a boy. What was wrong with “young man,” if anything? I understood his racist connotation. I walked over to the table and as politely as I could muster, said, ‘Excuse me, Sir. My name is Cliff, and that’s the name I answer to. Look, I don’t mind if my mother calls me “Boy,” but you’re not my mother, are you? So, what is it that I may get for you?’ If this happened today, I would give him a snap, after I’ve read him! Let me tell you about some of the other countless incidents of racism, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping that I have experienced during just the last 50 years—since I moved to New York from Indiana—that have nothing whatsoever to do with my sexual orientation, then you can help me say.

I have concluded that part of the problem about eradicating racism is that many well-meaning white people are oblivious to when they are actually being racist. They make seemingly-innocent comments all the time without realizing what they are really saying. But now I tend to call them on it when they say something racist. How will they ever learn otherwise? I occasionally come across gay Caucasian men who, shall we say, have a special penchant for men-of-color. They are referred to as “dinge queens.” The term itself I could take issue with, because of the original meaning of dinge, but I can accept that it has lost much of its derogatory intent over the years, and there are worse things that they could call us. For instance, I greatly dislike the term “jungle fever.” What does that even mean? Someone has a romantic interest in a black person, so they have to search the jungle to find the object of their desire? That is so tacky!

I usually can spot these “DQs” quite easily, by the way they look at me or by certain things they say. I don’t dislike or resent these guys and I don’t mind the special attention I get from them. I’m sure that their intentions are good—and you know that the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions—but they are also racists just the same. They must think it’s flattering to tell me, “Cliff, I just love black guys!” It’s as if they are trying to tell me that they are not like other white people. You see, they really do like blacks, which makes them special. So, are they telling me that if I were not black, they wouldn’t have any interest in me at all? What am I supposed to do with that declaration?

For those who also have sex with their own kind, I’ll bet they never say to them, “I just love white guys!” I would never say that to anybody, even if that were the case. One guy wanted to tell me that one night and asked me what term should he use, you know, what was P.C. at the moment? I told him that whatever word he used would be racist. ‘Why can’t you just say that I am your particular type, or that you like the way I look?’ Should I be pleased and flattered when someone regards my color as the primary reason for their attention and interest of me, instead of how I am as a person? This is another kind of prejudice. For all they know, I could be the most despicable scumbag they have ever encountered, but they see that I’m black, and it’s “Hubba-hubba, come to Papa!”

Some are probably even serious when they ask me, “Is it true what they say about black men?” Feigning ignorance, I ask, ‘Is what true, and what do “they” say?’ “You know.” For those of you who may not know what I’m talking about, there seems to be an unwarranted rumor going around that all black men are well-endowed and are fantastic lovemakers. Wait, there is no need to euphemize here. We all have big dicks and know how to use them, okay?! I might say then, ‘So let me ask you something. Is it true what they say about white guys? You know.’ That makes about as much sense, doesn’t it? Sometimes I will meet a “first-timer” who will forego the question initially, but after proceeding to have sex, will actually say to me, “It’s true! It’s true!” Either they are quoting Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974), they just don’t care, or they don’t realize that they are perpetuating a stereotype, based on a myth that white people themselves started, by the way, since no black person I have known has ever made the claim that racially speaking, our dicks are bigger than anyone else’s.

As I consider myself an authority on comparative penises, I can tell you for certain that I have encountered as many exceptionally-large cocks on Caucasian men as I have tiny pee-pees on men-of-color. So one’s race or nationality has nothing to do with penile size. It’s completely individual, just like every other corporal feature. The stereotype probably started when a few white persons encountered a black dick that just happened to be larger than their own, so they just assumed that every black man has a big one.

In The Full Monty (1997) the lead characters (white) are interviewing men to be part of their little stripping ensemble, when a black guy comes in to audition. They readily accept him, automatically assuming that he is well-endowed, as all of us are, you know. But in anticipation of that presumption, the guy lets them know right away that he is not “all that” down there, if that was what they were thinking. It later turns out that, surprisingly for them, it’s a young, white guy who is the most-hung one of the group.

Another ridiculous stereotype which is still with us today is the notion that black people have an over-fondness, maybe an obsession even, for watermelon. It’s probably true that during slavery times and even after, the field hands working in the hot sun for hours on end ate a lot of watermelon to help cool them down and keep themselves hydrated. Fresh water was not always accessible or available, but the melons which grew abundantly nearby were more readily at their disposal. That’s understandable, considering the circumstances. But the thing is, a stereotype occurs only by the deliberate intent of someone to make it so. It was white man’s concerted campaign to perpetuate the watermelon mystique by creating limitless pictorial images of caricatured blacks delighting in eating watermelon. They appeared on postcards, posters, in cartoons, art items, everywhere. It wasn’t we blacks who were making this paraphernalia. Why would we do such a thing?

So, as it is with all media, people tend to believe what they are told. If it’s in print, then it must be true. For myself, I have never purchased a watermelon for consumption in my life. I have eaten it a few times, when it was being served by others, whites exclusively, I might add, but I don’t love it as much as I am supposed to, according to legend. The love of watermelon seems to be more a white person’s thing than it is ours. There was a guy on one season of “Big Brother,” who was a watermelon fanatic. He just couldn’t get enough!

So, see there? It’s not just we.

You whites have even bestowed the critical trait of lack of punctuality on us blacks. Persons who tend to be late for engagements are accused of operating on “C.P.T.” or “Colored-People’s Time.” I don’t like to arrive late to places and I make a real effort always to be on time. Most of my black fellow colleagues are the same way. On the other hand, I know more than a few white co-workers who are never on time and just come dragging in when they feel like it.

White, married men on TV, the movies and standup comedy routines are forever criticizing their wives for making them wait longer than necessary to go out somewhere. I have seen numerous scenes where the white characters arrive at a public gathering–concerts, theater, their own children’s school events, even church services, weddings and funerals–after they have already begun. And they don’t seem to care.

I have heard of or experienced celebrity entertainers who have been known to keep their audiences waiting indefinitely for them to show up for performances. A dresser at the Met once told me that Rudolf Nureyev arrived more than a half-hour after curtain time one night, because he was somewhere having sex, and then brought the young trick to the theater with him! While Rudy was getting dressed, the number asked Bob, “So, is he some kind of dancer or something?“ Well, duh! Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and even Frank Sinatra used to arrive late to their movie sets on a regular basis. Justin Bieber now has a reputation of exhibiting inexcusable tardiness at his shows, and even Madonna has been sued by some of her fans for making them wait two hours before beginning her show, due to her intentional lateness.

While in Tel Aviv with the Collegiate Chorale and Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta (who is not exactly white, so there are exceptions, and exhibiting unprofessional behavior just the same) arrived 45 minutes late one night to the concert that he was conducting. We’re all sitting there on stage, orchestra and chorus, and no conductor! Someone from the orchestra informed us, “Oh, he does this all the time.“ When Zubin did get there, he gave us no excuse or apology for being late. It was just, “Well, I’m here now. We can begin.“ I find that to be so disrespectful. They must think that they are “all that,” that their fans love them so much and will wait however long it takes for them to get themselves together.

So if the black choristers at the rehearsal I’m at are always on time, but it’s the white folks who are the chronic tardies, why is it still being referred to as C.P.T.? How did we get that dubious distinction? It’s really “W.P.T., White-People’s Time,” isn’t it? They even try to justify it in their favor. When it’s us, we’re on C.P.T., but when it’s they, they are only “fashionably late” or they want to “make an entrance.” Oh, that’s so much better then. You see, they always want to assign the negative traits to People-of-Color, even when it’s most of them who are guilty of the very thing they’re criticizing.

There are other unintentional (or maybe not) racist comments that some whites have made to me and others. There’s the very insulting, “You know, Cliff, you don’t act black.” I don’t? Maybe it’s because I don’t have to act. I am black. Just because I don’t epitomize the common stereotypes that some whites have about black people, I’m not behaving the way they expect me to? You know what I’m saying? I don’t act white either, for that matter. I’m just being myself, whatever that is. The same thing is done to gay people. We have to look and behave a certain way for some people to realize that we’re really gay. The reason my father gave that he never suspected that I was gay until I told him, was, as he put it, “Well, you don’t wear lipstick and high heels, so how would I know that you were ‘that way’?” Do you believe that? I felt like retorting but didn’t, ‘Well, Dad, you don’t drive a semi truck and operate power tools, so how would I know that you are straight?’ Terms like “straight-acting” and “discreet” are merely synonyms for closeted. If a gay man dates women and does not mince and lisp, he’s acting straight. Or if gay couples do not show public displays of affection, they are being discreet.

When I was cast to portray Haman in a show about the Biblical character Esther and the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim, the white director inquired if I could do an accent of some kind. I told her, ‘Yes, I believe I can.’ Then she actually said to me, “I don’t want you to sound black, though.” The alternative being that I should try to sound what, “white”? I didn’t know how to respond to that. My vocal sound is whatever it is. I don’t try to sound a certain color. I don’t even know what that is. I don’t think that person was even aware of how insultingly racist her comment was, or maybe she was. Even if there is such a way to sound “black,” what is Ms. Thing’s objection? Since the voice I was doing was for a Biblical character who nobody has ever seen or heard speak, what difference should it make how I sound? I’m sure that nobody in the audience complained, “Gee, he sure doesn’t sound like Haman!” ‘And you know this because…?’ It’s my character, who will sound the way that I, as an actor, want him to sound! Charlton Heston didn’t sound “Jewish” when he portrayed Moses and Judah Ben-Hur. I should have read the bitch, but I let her insult go.

After a New York Vagabonds gig in Coral Springs, Florida, during my first year with them, my colleague, Joshua, and I were greeting members of the audience when an old, white man told Josh that with his voice he should be singing opera. Then he looked at me and said, “You should be singing ‘Ol’ Man River.’” He probably thought he was being complimentary (or maybe not), but by the way he compared the two of us, I took it as quite an insult. Why didn’t that man consider it another way? Why shouldn’t I be the one singing opera? In fact, I am the opera singer, not Josh! And I do sing “Ol’ Man River,“ incidentally, but it’s not the only thing that I sing.

I also let it slide another time when the Vagabonds were in Florida, and a white woman came over to meet us before our show, looked at me and exclaimed, “Well, aren’t you a raisin in the sun!” We all looked at each other quizzically, but nobody said a word. We didn’t know quite what she meant, but it sure sounds suspiciously racist to me, and due to the fact that she was addressing only me. I should have replied but didn‘t, “Well, aren’t you a fucking, racist bitch!”

Harry Belafonte tells in his memoirs about the time he was playing a Las Vegas club casino and a southern white woman came up to him and gushed, “I have to tell you, Mr. Belafonte, having met you and heard you sing tonight, you’ve made me look at coons in a whole new way.” ‘Well, thank you and fuck you, my dear!’ I would have told her. Have they no shame?

Then there is the possibly well-meaning white person who probably thinks that they are paying me a compliment when they say to me, “You know, Cliff, I don’t think of you as black. I don’t even notice that you are, most of the time.” (Come on, how do you not notice?) And, “You are probably the whitest black person I know.” Is it because I don’t act “black,” whatever they think that is? Or, I’ve heard folks say, “I don’t see color in people.” Oh, no? Then why, in describing individuals in a mixed group, these same white people will designate other whites as “that blond, blue-eyed number” or “the brunette” or “the redhead” or “the man in the gray, flannel suit.” But with us, it’s “the black dude” or “the pretty, black woman.” If skin color is not a noticeable factor, then why don’t they describe us by our hair color or by what we are wearing? If I am the only person in a group of five wearing a leather cap, why must I be identified as “the black guy there with the leather cap”? They apparently see my color first, then they notice what I’m wearing. I don’t expect you not to notice my color, you just don’t have to make an issue about it. I have other distinguishing features about me, too, you know.

In all fairness, though, I suppose that if a particular group was mostly black, except for one white guy, he probably would be identified as “the white dude,” although I have not witnessed it myself. It’s very rare to find a single white person among a sea of blacks, but in my own experience, the opposite is much more prevalent. On many occasions I have been the only “one” in a crowd of white people. But it does point out that the minority color seems to be a deciding factor in personal identification. If one is making a visual reference to someone in each other’s presence, they can see for themselves what color the person is. You don’t have to point it out to them. When the person I am talking about is not present, I will mention their race or nationality only when it is relevant to the story I am telling, as I have been doing in this writing. If it is not, then I won’t.

How about when someone says, “I regard everybody exactly the same. I don’t care if they’re black, white or green with purple polka dots.” What a lie! You know damned well that they would have some negative opinion about somebody who was actually green with purple polka dots! Who wouldn’t? How could you overlook an abnormality like that? I don’t think that any sighted person is that non-prejudiced. I suppose the point they are trying to make is that one’s color does not matter to them. Well, if that’s true, it’s a commendable attitude, and I thank them.

There is a porno magazine publication (one of many, of course) called simply Men. But as I look through any given issue, all I ever see are white men from cover to cover. So why don’t they call the magazine White Men? And young white men at that! All the ones that feature black models commonly have the word black in the title—like Black Male, and Black Inches. This convention carries over to videos, too, so that the consumer may be aware of what kind of sex film he will be viewing. So, I guess the rule of thumb in life is that any persons generally referred to verbally or in literature, we are to presume that they are Caucasian, unless specified otherwise. White people apparently need no special designation like everyone else. Implicitly, they just are. Why the double standard? That’s a not-so-subtle indication right there that white supremacy is a primary guiding force of our world.

On a personal note and to illustrate the point further, in a 1990 newspaper review for the Flirtations’ first record album, the reviewer mentioned all the members of the group with a descriptive phrase. Jon Arterton was “one sexy, bald, academic type,” Michael Callen was “one Streisand PWA (person-with-AIDS),” Aurelio Font was “one Latino flirt,” TJ Myers was “one all-American boy,” and yours truly was “one black hunk.” See what I mean? Now I don’t mind being called a hunk, but it doesn’t need to be qualified with a color. Aurelio’s being Puerto Rican doesn’t make him more of a flirt. And I’m just as sexy and academic as Jon, if not more so. But the one that really gets me is the young, rather cute, white member being referred to as the “one all-American boy.” What are the rest of us, chopped liver?! The last time I checked, we all were “all-American.” I guess what I object to is taking a generalized phrase such as that and arbitrarily applying it to a specific type or image, in this case, clean-cut and Caucasian. And if this guy is going to describe Aurelio and me ethnically, why didn’t he refer to Jon, Michael and TJ as “B-flat white boys,” for example?

It’s like another proverbial image used all the time—”the boy (or girl) next door.” Who the hell is that? Doesn’t that depend on what neighborhood you are in and who actually lives next door? Is it assumed that most blacks grew up in the projects or where single dwellings was a rarity? When I was growing up, my brother and I were the boys next door, since the house on one side of us was inhabited by an old widow lady who lived alone and the other side had a childless couple living in it. If anybody is an “all-American boy-next-door,” it’s me. I can’t get much more American than I am, being Afro-American and probably part American Indian as well. But when that expression is used, I am not the first image that comes to mind for most people, am I? So when someone asks, “Which one is Cliff?” instead of saying, “the black one,” how about, “He’s the guy singing bass” or “that good-looking, humpy number on the far left”?

When my acappella quartet, Steamboat Gothic, received a write-up in New York magazine in 1980, there was one flaw in an otherwise wonderful tribute. One passage reads like this, “…What they like to do most, though, is harmonize on jaunty barbershop numbers like ‘Coney Island Baby,’ drinking songs like ‘Vive L’Amour,’ black spirituals like ‘Deep River’ (two of the group are black), and the traditional stuff everybody loves.” So what’s wrong with that, you may ask? Well, why did that reporter think that it was so important to mention that two of us were black? Is that why we sing “black” spirituals? Whose benefit was it for and what is their point exactly? If we are as fabulous as they say we are, then the group’s color membership should not matter to anybody. But even if they want to give you a racial breakdown, since the group was originally all-black, founded by myself and my black friend, Leo, and two of the guys were later replaced by white boys, it would have been more appropriate to say that “two of the group are white.” Having not interviewed us beforehand, it wouldn’t occur to them that such a group would be started and managed by the black members instead of the white ones.

You see, it goes to point of view, like whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The reviewer must be presuming from our repertoire (what, black folks singing barbershop and madrigals?!) that without seeing us, people would assume that we must be all-white. And for Leo and me to be singing that “white folks’ music” (I mean, acappella is a white thing, isn’t it?) must have seemed out-of-the-ordinary to that journalist. But then, if the white boys are singing spirituals and R&B, which is traditionally “our” music, it still makes more sense to say that two of us are white. Okay, maybe it was a seemingly harmless remark, but my point in all of this is that it is racist to mention a person’s color unnecessarily, especially when a white person does it. If they did it for everybody, including their own people, then I wouldn’t consider it such a big deal. Again, it’s the biased singling out that I object to.

An incident of “Walking-While-Black” happened to Harry Belafonte years ago (it was 1952) when he was in Beverly Hills, California as actor Farley Granger’s houseguest. One evening after dinner Harry decided to take a walk alone around the neighborhood. Within minutes, a police car drove up and asked Harry, “Why are you out here walking, Boy?” When he told them that he was there making a movie for MGM, of course they didn’t believe him and took him in for “illegal loitering.” They wouldn’t even allow him to make a phone call, and it was hours before Farley, when he realized that Harry was missing, tracked him down at the police station, and then it took the MGM studio lawyers to get him released.

How about merely “Standing-While-Black”? Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was playing at a club in Manhattan during the ‘60s, when he had just escorted a white woman to a cab and was standing just outside the club smoking a cigarette before going back inside. A white policeman approached Miles and told him to move along. Miles did not understand the request and attempted to tell this cop who he was. He even pointed to his name in huge letters on the front of the place. “That’s me!” he said. The cop said, “I don’t care who you say you are. Just get a move on!” Miles just looked at him and did not move. All of a sudden, he felt himself being hit on the head with a billy club from another cop who had sneaked up behind him. By this time Miles Davis had acquired worldwide fame and popularity. But that didn’t matter one bit to those racial bigots. So you see, they don’t care who you are, as long as you are the wrong color or are found where you they think you are not supposed to be. But that was Hollywood and New York City. There is no racial prejudice in those cities, are there?

Oprah Winfrey did a show once about reformed criminals, who were there to share the tricks of their former trade with the viewing and studio audience. One woman (young and attractive) boasted about how she used to burgle the ritzy neighborhoods of her hometown. In broad daylight she would go into houses when the occupants would be away and rob them blind! The neighbors would watch her come and go, but nobody suspected anything because she was white, and everybody knows, of course, that attractive, young white women just don’t commit burglary, right? They all assumed that the Radcliffes knew this woman and that she was just borrowing, with their permission, that TV, stereo equipment, set of silverware and all that jewelry that she walked out of the house with. I was only passing along a public street that night in Greenwich (see On the Road With Cliff for details), and they called the cops on my ass! Check out the movie Amos & Andrew (1993) sometime, if you haven’t already, for a comic depiction in absurd paranoia, although it’s not all that funny to me, as I have gone it through it myself.

On another “Oprah” episode about people who lead secret lives, it was reported that about one of every ten persons in America is a compulsive shoplifter. Several of these kleptos came on the show to tell their stories. One man revealed that he had stolen over a thousand items over many years. People walk out of stores with large items, like furniture and appliances, that they didn’t pay for. How is that even possible? I think the fact that all of these thieves are white (at least the ones featured on the show) is quite revealing in itself. It shows how white people can get away with anything. I am scared to death to shoplift and wouldn’t dare attempt it, but I am the one that they watch and follow around the store when I’m shopping. I’ll bet I wouldn’t be able to walk out of Staples with that file cabinet that I didn’t pay for. The wrong people are being scrutinized, it would seem.

The TV show “What Would You Do?” reenacts in every episode discussion-worthy social scenarios to demonstrate common people’s responses and how they handle certain issues. They use hidden cameras and hire actors to set up the controversial situations. One revealing segment had a white teenager trying to steal a bicycle in a public park. He had tools with him for cutting and sawing the lock and chain from the post the bike was attached to. Although passersby were aware of what was going down–the boy even admitted that it wasn’t his bike–in most cases, they just walked on by and nobody reported him or tried to stop him. So then they tried the same stunt with a pretty, blond white girl. She had guys actually helping her to steal the bike! “Do you need a hand with that?” They took the metal cutter and snipped the chain off for her.

But then they tried the same experiment with a black youth, who was the same age and was dressed similarly as the other boy. This time, not only was this boy not ignored by the people who saw him trying to take the bike, he drew a whole crowd of concerned citizens who tried to stop him. They chastised him, and people were on their cell phones calling the police to come to intervene. See the double standard? But these same people will tell you that the boy’s being black had nothing to do with their reaction. Oh, really? They weren’t so quick to rat on the white kid earlier. Nobody seemed to mind aiding the white kids to commit a crime, but they would not tolerate it with the black guy. Oh, no, it’s not a racial thing at all.

Another scenario involved a lone, black man in a restaurant asking nearby diners to watch his laptop while he goes outside to make a phone call. As soon as he leaves, a young white woman comes in, takes the computer and leaves with it. When the patrons who are supposed to be guarding the man’s property speaks to the thief, she tells them, “My friend asked me to get his computer and bring it to him.” “Oh, okay, then.” And they just let her go. When the host, John Quiñones, asks them why they let her steal the laptop, they said, “She looked legitimate. How could I know that she was lying?”

So then they turned things around, with the two actors changing places. The white girl is now the innocent victim, and the black guy is now the thief. When she leaves and the man picks up the laptop, almost everybody in the place jumps up and tries to stop him. They don’t even wait for an explanation. I guess he doesn’t look “legitimate,” as the girl apparently did. It is no surprise to me that white people can get away with virtually any behavior more readily that a black person can. Their being white must give them automatic, unspoken trust which allows them to get away with stuff. They never do anything wrong, whereas blacks are always up to no good.

One of my favorite TV series is “Boston Legal” (in some places airing in syndication). They did a great opening sequence one episode, which involves profiling. Two suspicious, formidable-looking, hoody-wearing, Hispanic youths enter a convenience store, which puts the manager on his guard. He pushes his police alert button behind the counter, fearing that he is about to be held up. The boys select a bag of potato chips and some other snacks, and one of them reaches into his jacket pocket to get out his…gun? No, it’s a couple of dollar bills with which he pays for their purchases, then they turn and leave the store. Right behind them is the recurring character of Katherine Piper, played by none other than Betty White. Seeing this elderly white woman causes the manager to relax and even turn his back on her. When he turns back around to serve her, he finds her holding a loaded pistol on him and asking him to empty out his cash register and hand over the cash to her. So, the Latino, perceived-to-be thugs were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, and it was the unsuspected, little old white lady who turned out to be the real armed robber. Series writer David E. Kelley’s scripts often challenged stereotypes and provoked controversy.

I had an old friend, recently deceased, who lived in South Bend and was very fair-skinned. Those who didn’t know him took him for a white man. John Charles did not intentionally pass, people just made that assumption. He used to tell me that he would overhear the nastiest comments about black folks all the time while in their presence, because they just assumed that he was one of them, therefore would not be offended. It’s the same thing that homophobes do with gays. These Yankee bigots will make disparaging comments about blacks and other ethnic groups when they think none are present, things they would not dare say to their face for fear of recrimination. More often than not, your Southern bigots don’t care who’s listening when they say something tacky. By the way, what do you get if you cross a certain American Indian with a black man? A Sioux named “Boy.”

I find it inexcusable that gay people, especially, can dare to be bigots and racists as well. But you must know that people are often guilty of the same things that they accuse others of being. There used to be a gay dance club (I’ve forgotten the name) on East 14th Street in Manhattan. Now I’m not into the disco scene at all, but this particular night, I only went there with my friend, Brooks (who is white), to help him celebrate his birthday. When we got there, there was a short line outside waiting to get in and a white guy, who works for the place, monitoring the crowd to decide who to let inside.

All the white boys in line had no trouble getting in, no questions asked. But when I got up to the door, this guy asked me for specific I.D., like a driver’s license, which I do not have. So when I failed to produce same, he told me that I could not enter. I’m sure that if I had had a driver’s license, he would have come up with some other stumbling block to deny my entrance. I did not make a scene, I just turned and left. Now did that guy think that I was so stupid that I wouldn’t know what was going on, or he just didn’t care what I thought?

This is the difference between the North and the South. In Jasper, Alabama, they would have told me right to my face, “I’m sorry, Boy, but we don’t allow no nigras in this establishment.” You know, polite, but honest and to the point. In New York, they have to make up some lame excuse so as not to admit to their outright bigotry. That’s why I like Archie Bunker, although he’s not from the South. People like that I can deal with because I know where they’re coming from. Tell me how you really feel about something, and we can discuss it openly. It’s the Northern racists that I distrust more. They will either condescend and patronize or otherwise try so hard to remain P.C. so as not to offend you, but in private or with their own kind or when they think you’re not listening, only then will they express their true feelings. They are two-faced and hypocritical. When does that “nice, black gentleman” become a nigger? As soon as he leaves the room!

Brooks, out of embarrassment and outrage, would not go in either then, although the doorman had not forbade him from entering. We decided to go someplace else instead. Since I wasn’t so keen about that place anyway, it didn’t bother me as much as it did Brooks, but it was just the principle of the thing that irritated me. What if I had wanted to go inside?

When Harry Belafonte was in the Navy and on leave in New York, he was refused entry to the Copacabana nightclub by a bigoted doorman, even though he was in uniform. Only ten years later–and by then he probably could have bought the place–he was the headliner act in the same club and wanted so much to confront that doorman, but he was no longer there, darn it! Harry had a few words for that guy.

Do you think that times have changed? Not enough, in my opinion. Oprah Winfrey publicized an incident that happened to her right here in Manhattan a while ago, when she tried to go shopping at Saks and Company. (Or was it Tiffany’s? I forget which; it was one of those highfalutin emporiums on 5th Avenue.) She wanted to pick up some quick gifts for some local friends. She reports that when she got to the front door of the store, somebody inside locked it so that she could not enter. She walked away but then phoned the store to find out if they were open. “Why, of course, we are!” was the reply. So she went back and they again forbade her to enter. She didn’t understand at first what was going on, until she again walked away from the store and then observed some white people being let into the store with no trouble at all. Ah! She’s got it now!

The store personnel apparently did not recognize her (Oprah spent most of her time in Chicago, after all) and regarded her as merely some black vagrant from the street who was there probably to shoplift. They must assume that no black person can possibly afford to buy anything at their high-priced boutique, therefore, she must be a browsing thief, right? Little did they know, or even cared, that this woman was able to buy the entire store if she wanted to! Needless to say, those people lost a major sale that day, and Oprah has sworn that she will forever boycott the store and has encouraged all her rich friends not to shop there either.

Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx grew up in Terrell, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), a town of 12,000 people, mostly white, I’m sure, and where the local daily newspaper there is only 12 pages. His being the most famous person ever to have come out of that town, it took his winning a Golden Globe in 2004 for Ray, finally to be mentioned in their paper. So again, they don’t care who you are or how much fame and fortune you have. If you’re black, stay back!

Even up to a few years ago, I was subject to discriminatory scrutiny at certain gay bars right here in Manhattan. There was a bar in Chelsea that I used to frequent on a regular basis, that, I suppose due to its popularity and crowdedness, attracted pickpockets. While unaware patrons were engaged in basic making-out or just general socializing, there were thieves who milled through the crowd lifting wallets and then would flee with the goods before they were discovered. After being ripped off myself several times, I learned many years ago always to hide my wallet when I am among crowds, or just don’t bring one with me at all if I know that’s where I’m going. You see, I don’t go there to drink anyway.

But even with the posted signs and verbal warnings about keeping an eye on their wallets, some of these guys never learn to take the proper precautions, and they continue to get robbed. It apparently got so bad at the bar, that the management started a sort of screening process to attempt to weed out the imagined, potential thieves. This was done by making everyone enter through the same single door where a doorman was posted to scrutinize all who enter. But the trouble with that was, it created gross prejudice on the part of the doorman, because he had to determine who the dishonest guys are, based on their appearance alone, which is impossible to do.

I was not at this bar all the time, mind you, but I considered myself a regular, and I knew many of the other regulars, including one of the bouncers and the owner himself, who, ironically, was a black man. On more than one occasion I would arrive at the bar and be asked by the incumbent white doorman to produce a piece of identification for his perusal. On this one particular night I didn’t bring my wallet with me. But even if I did have some I.D., what did he need to see it for? He didn’t need to check my age; I’m obviously old enough to be there. If he wants to know who I am, I can just tell him. An I.D. doesn’t prove anything, as people use fake ones all the time. And they don’t reveal anything about a person’s character anyway.

So then he said to me, “I don’t know you.” I told him that I didn’t know him either. What’s your point? This is a public New York City establishment. How do you expect and why do you have to know every single person who comes through here? I could be from out-of-town. And suppose that the alleged thieves are guys that he actually knows already? “Well, we’ve been having some trouble here,” he proffered. ‘What does that mean, and what does that have to do with me? Are you accusing me of something?’ So out of intimidation, I suppose, he finally let me into the bar. I then noticed that this same doorman is not stopping any of the men entering the bar right behind me, who all just happened to be white. So I can only assume that it must be a racial profiling thing, or maybe he “knows“ all of them. Why do they always single me out to give the third degree to? While they are harassing innocent me, they may be letting in the very ones whom they should be keeping out!

My suspicions were confirmed when, one night, I eventually reported my plight to my friend Joseph, who worked at the bar as a sort of bouncer/security guard. He confided to me that the reason those guys do what they do is because whenever a perpetrator actually had been apprehended, more times than not, he was a man-of-color. Aha! So it is a racial thing! They must be under the impression that any and every black man that comes to the bar, that they “don’t know” personally, must be a potential thief. You know that we all know one another and all run around in a gang. At least Joseph, who is white, understood, I think, how I might be insulted by that presumption. Again, it’s making us all suffer for the sins of only a few. And of course, those doormen, despite my goading, are never honest and up front with me. Just come right out and tell me, “I have been instructed to regard every Afro-American who comes to this bar with suspicion and distrust. Please don’t take it personally. We regard all of you people in this way.” Just tell me that right out and we can have a discussion about it.

It’s the double standard that I deplore. Percentage-wise, white people commit much more crime than anybody else, including theft (remember my earlier shoplifting statistic), but they manage always to maintain their status as law-abiding innocents. For instance, most of the serial killers and rapists throughout history have been white males. So why aren’t all white men regarded with dread and suspicion? They certainly would be if the majority of these killers and rapists were black. (They are anyway, in fact.) If I am automatically presumed to be a thief, because they think that most thieves are black, then why isn’t it automatically presumed that that white man there is a serial killer? The fact is, no matter what a white person does, the general attitude is, “Oh, well, no big deal. We’re not all like that.” But a few nonwhites doing the same thing, then we are all like that. It’s so unfair.

Are you aware that the prevailing practice of racial profiling is always directed toward non-Caucasians? WASPs are never profiled in the same way afforded other ethnic groups. White people can do anything they want to, go anywhere they please, and nobody gives a second thought about their political views or possible criminal intent. There is a book out called Flying While Black, which relates how security officers at airports are now in the habit of singling out black women plane passengers to give extensive and intrusive body searches to, ostensibly looking for contraband, and which they seldom find in the travelers’ possession. White people, however, are not stopped and searched nearly as often, and they are most likely the ones doing the smuggling! Now can you understand why I am constantly offended by the biased prejudice displayed in our society? And you see that it never ends.

Now since the “9/11” attacks, for instance, all persons of Islamic belief and those from the middle eastern countries, even if they are American citizens, are subject to profiling, discrimination, harassment and persecution from the general and corporate public. There are multi-millions of Moslems worldwide. They all, if hardly any, can’t be guilty of terrorism. Again, a whole group of people are made to take the blame for the actions of only a few. Why must a simple thing like common respect forever be this ongoing quest? If you read my article entitled, Conspiracy Theory, Pt. III: 9/11, you will learn that I have strong doubts that these people are guilty at all, which makes it even more unfair.

The poor American Japanese people, too, certainly suffered a raw deal during World War II, at the hands of bigoted, paranoid, white folks in this country. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, it sent much of White America into a panic. Innocent, upstanding, law-abiding, Japanese-American citizens by the thousands were arrested, driven from their homes and relegated to concentration camps, where they remained for the duration of the War. Actor George Takei was a child when he and his parents were victims of this senseless injustice. The white man’s irrational fear was that every person of Japanese descent would choose sides by renouncing their American citizenship and joining the enemy against us, even though most of them had been living here for several generations and were as American as anyone else. Isn’t that absurd? You know, it’s any excuse they can find to perpetuate their unfair prejudice against nonwhites. They were classified by the Government as “enemy non-aliens.“ But if they were non-aliens, that would make them citizens, right?

At the same time we were enemies with the Germans and Italians, too, and I learned that they, too, were subject to suspicious persecution. As it turned out, though, it was discovered that there actually were stateside Nazi organizations in operation, as well as secret gangs of Italians and Japanese who were advocating for the other side. It’s just that all gathered-up prisoners were not guilty of any treason, only some. At least our POWs weren’t all killed, like they did the European Jews. I suppose that the difference was, the Japanese-Americans were a rather docile people who kept a low profile and many of them worked in a servile capacity, so they were no real political threat. Whereas Jews, being white in appearance, owned property, ran their own businesses and had a considerable amount of economic power, therefore more of a social threat, so they had to be eliminated entirely, I suppose.

Of course, later on even the Japanese people’s benignancy didn’t matter when our Government chose to drop two atomic bombs on their former homeland. “That’ll teach ’em to fuck with us!” So, fifty years later, instead of retaliating with more aggressive warfare, Japan has taken the peaceful approach of attacking our pocketbooks, by buying up the United States bit by bit via our top businesses and corporations. And of course, we are playing right into their hands! So now, who is fucking over whom? And now, too, we seem to be practicing mutual forgiveness on both our parts. Japan is quite open to and greatly welcomes American tourism and vice versa. And just recently with the casualties caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami on their island, we Americans have been very generous with financial aid and sympathetic support, when only 70 years ago most didn’t bat an eye when the country was destroyed by atomic bomb. A little guilty retribution, perhaps?

It seems that they can find any excuse to justify their hatred toward certain people. Since the current COVID pandemic, which we were told originated in China, there has been a rise in this country of criminal aggression against Asian-Americans. They don’t have to be specifically Chinese either, to be subject to attack and persecution. One Asian person is the same as any other, apparently.

I will sum up by saying that I certainly don’t mean to give the impression that I am down on all white people. I don’t hate anybody. Because of the line of work I’m in, I owe a major part of my career and job opportunities to the generosities of white people, and I am eternally grateful to them. I am merely relating just my own personal experiences. You can talk to any other person-of-color and get similar and different accounts of their own experiences being black. My intent with this writing is to raise awareness of the racial situation in this country. Maybe now you will stop to think before you say or do certain things.

[Related articles: Black History, Pts. 1-5; Color issues; On the Road with Cliff; Some Racial Observations and Assessments; Walt Disney, a Racist? Who‘d‘ve Thunk It?!]