Black History, Part 4: Criminal Injustice

How often do People-of-Color get blamed for something that a white person has done, because they know of and count on people’s willingness to believe the accusation? For those old enough, you may remember Charles Stuart, that white guy in Boston who shot and killed his pregnant wife in 1989 and tried to blame it on a black man. Child killer Susan Smith did the same thing in 1994. Back in 1923 the entire black community of Rosewood, Florida was destroyed by white vigilantes, and two years before that in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was a bloody race riot that lasted several days. Both of those incidents were instigated by a white woman’s accusing an innocent black man of assaulting her.

In the case of Rosewood, Fannie Taylor was a married woman whose secret lover beat the shit out of her one day. She had to tell her husband something when he got home and saw her bruises and injuries, but rather than getting her boyfriend in trouble or admitting her own infidelity, she decided to say that a black man raped and beat her up. Actually, Fannie did not say that she was raped. The others added the rape part for their own justification. Of course, he must have raped her. That was his goal all along, wasn’t it? That is what we always do. They all seemed so quick to believe such a preposterous accusation. Black men in that time and place were terrified to have any kind of interaction with a white woman and wouldn’t dare attempt anything so blatant. But apparently, they must be unable to control their sexual urges, so they constantly would risk their very lives in order to accomplish that goal? Of course, since there was no objection from the whites when white men assaulted and raped black women on a regular basis, they always got away with it.

Another fact that they didn’t consider was that this was a small town, and everybody knew each other, blacks and whites alike. Fannie didn’t give an actual name of anybody, and nobody even asked who actually did it. Just saying that he was black was all those “good ol’ boys” needed to get a willing lynch mob together, go into town and burn down the black residents’ houses and their churches and kill any denizens that got in the way. Every black male in town became the suspected culprit. They even tried to blame an unknown, non-existent escapee from the chain gang, who apparently wandered into town, went over to Fannie‘s house and beat her up. But why didn’t anybody in town see him coming or going? There was no investigation and no questions asked. Everybody just believed what they were told. It was not even about suspects anymore. Those men were on a free-for-all lynching frenzy.

It was days after all the killing and destruction was done that the deceitful bitches finally admitted that they had lied. But even if someone had been guilty, how can they justify going after an entire group of people for the actions of only one? They are not so quick to punish their own people en masse when one of them does something bad.

In 1931 two white women from Scottsboro, Alabama, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, falsely accused nine black youths of gang-raping them on a moving passenger train! The women were actually runaways who were afraid that they would be arrested for prostitution, is why they made up the story they did. Never mind that the allegations were utterly ridiculous to begin with; there was no evidence whatsoever against the defendants, physical or otherwise, and they had only the girls’ word for it. Didn’t anybody wonder or even care how the deed was accomplished? If they all were on an Alabama train, the young men must have been confined to the Negro car. Why are those white women with them? Was it just them and no other passengers present to witness it? And if there were, what were they doing, cheering them on?

The “Scottsboro Boys” were tried and convicted nonetheless by an all-white Southern judge and jury, based on perjured testimony and missing or non-existent witnesses. The boys didn’t have a chance. Their defense attorney was an alcoholic, who was drunk throughout the trial, and the prosecutor told the jury, “Guilty or not, let’s get rid of these niggers”! Apparently, nobody objected to that statement, and they all complied.

The boys were granted a second trial a year later, and even after Ms. Bates admitted in open court that she had lied and that the boys were innocent, they were still found guilty and sent back to prison. You see, Ruby’s new testimony was coerced by the defense. Well, so what, if it’s true? So I guess it’s not about their guilt or innocence, is it? All succeeding appeals and trials yielded the same result. Finally in 1937 four of the youngest boys were released and the other five remained in prison. When one of these, Haywood Patterson, was brought up for parole before the governor of Alabama, he was told that if he pleaded guilty (to a crime that he did not commit), he could go free. If not, he would have to stay in jail for the rest of his life. He still would not confess and he died 21 years later in prison.

I would never confess to something that I did not do, no matter what the circumstances, because once you confess, you can never take it back. No matter what transpires later, they will always remind everybody, “But he confessed!“ I have found that people tend to believe a lie more readily than they will the truth. And that is because they choose to believe what they want to believe, regardless of what is the real truth.

Also in 1931, wealthy American socialite, Thalia Massie, living in Honolulu, was brutally beaten by her boyfriend and left for dead by the side of the road. Five native Hawaiian youths happened by, retrieved her, and drove her to the nearest hospital where they dropped her off but did not stick around. Later, when her mother demanded to know who assaulted her daughter, instead of the girl naming the real culprit, her abusive boyfriend, she actually accused the very boys who had rescued her and saved her life. And of course, everybody believed her, and the hunt and the subsequent conviction was on for those innocent boys. This true-life incident was the basis of a very good TV-movie called Blood and Orchids (1986), and starred Kris Kristofferson as a local cop on the case and Jane Alexander as Thalia’s bitch of a mother. Rosewood was also made into a movie in 1997 and The Scottsboro Boys was made into a Broadway musical, no less, presented as a minstrel show!

When 14-year-old Emmett Till left his Chicago home in August 1955 to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, his mother adamantly warned him, “If you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and keep your head down. Don’t even look over her way.” Well, not only did cocky, young Emmett not take his mother seriously, he actually dared to defy her warning by catching a white woman’s eye in the local grocery store and then proceeded to whistle at her! The far-from-flattered, vindictive woman, Carolyn Bryant, told her husband what happened, and a couple of days later Roy Bryant and a friend of his showed up at Emmett’s uncle’s house where he was staying, abducted the boy, took him to the woods, beat him to a bloody pulp, shot him in the head and face, wrapped barbed wire around his neck and dumped his body into the river.

When Emmett’s mother went down to claim her son’s body, she was told that his corpse was in a sealed box that was to remain closed. But at her unrelenting insistence, it was finally opened for her. One can’t blame her for wanting to see her son, but of course, she was shocked at his appearance. The boy’s tongue and right eye were hanging down the side of his face, his nose and ears were missing, and when she peered into the hole on the side of his head, she could see clear through to the other side! For the funeral, it was suggested to Mrs. Till that the coffin should be left closed. But she said, “No! I want it opened, so that everyone can see what they did to my boy. Let them all share in the horror.“

As a mere formality, the two men were eventually brought to trial but were, of course, acquitted by an all-white male jury (hardly his peers). The verdict was met with public outrage all across the country, and the incident is said to have been the catalyst for the civil rights movement in the South. I was only 8-years-old when this happened, but I remember hearing about it on the news.

This horrific incident also has received cinematic recognition with two productions so far, a miniseries for television and a feature film for theatrical release. But why did they take 67 years to do it?! It might have helped the burgeoning civil rights movement at the time. So much time has passed that most were not even aware that such a thing had taken place. I was here when it happened and I hadn’t heard a word about it in all these years. A movie would have made a permanent record and caused us not to forget so readily. As the situation in the South has changed drastically for the better over the years, it’s not likely that a similar incident would occur now. But even if it did, it certainly would have a different outcome. Fortunately, these days those good ol’ boys can’t get away with all the racial atrocities they committed in the past.

I do have to put some blame on Emmett’s mother, however. Even from her warnings and protocol instructions to her son, knowing how it was, why did she send the boy down there alone in the first place? If she couldn’t go with him at that time, they could have waited until it was more convenient. Or if those relatives wanted to see him so badly, they might have gone up to Chicago instead. The buses and trains run in both directions, you know. Then, too, the uncle (or whoever it was) did not look out for the boy and protect him, as he said he would. When the two men came to the house to get Emmett, he just let them take him, saying later that he was afraid to intervene. They might have done something to him or his children. Mamie proffered, “So, you chose to sacrifice my child to save your own, then.” But before you accuse him of something, Ms. Thing, where were you, and what would you have done?

Later, when Mamie spoke at a rally in New York City, she admitted to the crowd that she knew what the situation was in Mississippi, but until this happened she deemed it as their problem and no concern of hers. So only now has she become an advocate of civil rights and want to help the cause. That is a common reaction. Many people are apathetic to social injustices until it hits home. As long as it’s not them, they can’t be bothered.

So, do you think that the United States is so upstanding as a nation and sets the standard for moral righteousness for the world? Oh, yes, we’re malice-free and innocent of any wrongdoing, don’t you know. Among our other despicable acts over the years, how could a so-called civilized society accept, condone and allow the lynching of its fellow citizens and consider it sport and entertainment? In the South, especially, the perpetrators of the practice didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. As in the past with other executions, like hangings and death by guillotine, the lynching of blacks became public, social events. They even posted announcements for them in the local newspapers! People turned out in droves to witness them. Some would pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. “Bring the kiddies along!”

Our Congress took years of negotiations before it would even pass a bill outlawing lynching or regarding it as a hate crime. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly refused to sign an anti-lynching bill, saying that it would deem lynching to be a crime. What?! But it is, Blanche. It is a crime! Although FDR’s administration was before my time, I always thought he was one of the better guys, until I learned that about him. You should check out my in-depth discussion about the Atlanta Child Murders in my blog, Conspiracy Theory, Part II: The AIDS Epidemic and Other Medical Speculations.

You have heard of the notorious Hollywood Blacklist of the ’50s, which was implemented by a Communist witchhunt of the film industry. Let me relate to you another, but literal this time, “blacklist” that occurred only 21 years ago. In September 1992, a 77-year-old woman visiting a family just outside the city of Oneonta, NY told police that she was attacked as she slept and struggled with her knife-wielding assailant before he fled. She never saw the man’s face, only his hand, and concluded that he was black, and blood at the scene indicated he had been cut on the hand, police said. This woman also claimed attempted rape. Why do they always think that we are out to rape them? Wishful thinking, perhaps? The victim never said that her attacker was young, but that was added to his description, which prompted the nearby state college (SUNY) to give the police a list of the 78 enrolled black male students to help in the investigation. In the following days, police stopped hundreds of young, black men in the area, questioned them about their whereabouts and checked their hands for signs of wounds. The actual perpetrator was never found, and it was eventually concluded that it was not any of the targeted students anyway. But the release of that hateful list sparked public outcry and national media attention.

In small town New Philadelphia, Ohio in June 1998, a little 5-year-old girl, Devan Duniver, came up missing one day and was found a couple of days later in the wooded area near her house, stabbed to death. After ruling out the child’s parents and her brother as possible suspects, the local police then focused their attention on a 12-year-old, black, neighbor boy, Anthony Harris. Again, there was no physical evidence to link him to the crime, but he was targeted anyway. Where is the murder weapon? What is the motive? Why do we get blamed for everything that happens? And knowing that, you all should realize that we would refrain from doing the things that we are always accused of doing. Do they think that we have no self-restraint at all? We just can’t help ourselves!

But it was during his interrogation that innocent, young Anthony made his big mistake. Not only was the boy, a minor, questioned without his parents or a lawyer present, he did not understand his Miranda rights of remaining silent and whatever he said would be used against him. After many hours of being detained, brow-beaten to exhaustion and told that he could not leave until he admits that he did it, he finally confessed. So then, that was it. End of any more investigation; case closed. Several members of the search party for the little girl reported that they had spied a mysterious stranger lurking around the same area where Devan was later found. He is probably “The Guy”, but why pursue him when they already have a suspect, however unlikely?

Anthony did not get a jury for his trial. His fate was in the hands of the white judge alone. She announced in open court that the boy should plead guilty and save all this time and expense. That’s being impartial? She’s already decided that he’s guilty, on no evidence whatsoever. So the judge sentences Anthony to eight years in prison, but when his lawyer files for appeal, they reopen the case and now everybody feels that the confession was coerced, and his conviction is overturned. He was released after only two years and was even given a public apology. They still haven’t found the real killer, but they are convinced, at least, that it is not Anthony.

A more recent incidence of racial injustice came to media exposure and discussion a whole year after it occurred. It all started in September 2006 in the small Southern burg of Jena, Louisiana, a town of only 3,000 people. Just outside of the high school, which is racially-mixed but predominately-white, stands a shade tree under which the students (the white ones at least) have been known to sit under during recess and other class breaks.

One day at the beginning of the school year, some of the black students at the high school dared to sit under the tree. They didn’t think that they were doing anything wrong. Besides, they had asked permission from the school principal to sit under the tree (which I find to be ridiculous in itself), and he had told them that it was okay. I mean, it’s a public tree; nobody owns it. Well, the very next morning when the kids returned to school, there were three nooses hanging from the branches of said tree. The message was clear. This has been designated a “white” tree, to be used by them and nobody else.

Thus began a chain of events which eventually escalated into international news coverage. The boys who hung the nooses were given a mere slap on the wrist. This was only an innocent “youthful prank,” after all. The blacks staged a protest sit-in under the tree, followed by harassment by the whites. An eventual altercation resulted in one white boy being beaten up by a group of blacks, which was in direct retaliation, mind you (a black classmate had just before been brutally beaten at a white party), and with only the black youths being arrested and charged with attempted murder. The white kid who was beaten claims that the attack was totally unprovoked. Of course, I was not there, but I find it hard to believe that out of all the students in the school, these boys would single out this one to attack, if he is as innocent as he says. He must have done or said something to them. As is always the case, white people can do and say anything to us, but if we respond, we are the ones who get blamed.

The convicted boys remained in jail for twelve months, because their bail was set so high (as much as $90,000 for one of them), that the families could not possibly pay it. Mychal Bell, the first boy to get an eventual trial, was represented by an incompetent, apathetic public defender and was tried by an all-white jury, DA and judge. Bell’s lawyer at least got his charges reduced to “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.” The deadly weapon in question? The boy’s tennis shoes! My goodness, if articles of clothing can now be deemed as deadly weapons, then we are all breaking the law! I had better stop wearing a belt. I suppose I could beat somebody to death with it. So what if my pants fall down? How do they let people get away with such absurdities in the name of so-called justice? Not surprisingly, but still unbelievably, Bell was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison! That is what caused the public outrage and media attention. People couldn’t believe that this sort of thing was still going on in 2007, fifty years since the trouble in Little Rock.

Civil rights and racial equality in this country seem to be at a standstill or regression rather than a progressive actuality. A subsequent appeal at least overturned his sentence, but Bell was not released from jail right away. There are still those who don’t even believe that there is a racism problem. When civil rights advocate, the Rev. Al Sharpton, was called down to Jena to see what he could do, certain white townsfolk were trying to blame him for the negative media attention that they received, saying that he had created the problems that they were having in Jena and that before he came, everything was hunky-dory. What?! Can you believe the naïve denial they always use when it suits their purpose?

Another disturbing trend that has stemmed from all this is the rash of other nooses and swastikas appearing all over the country, proliferating the media airwaves, thus indicating that hate and racism are still thriving. Someone hung a noose on the office door of a prominent black professor at Columbia University, and swastikas have been found painted on synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Even burning crosses still turn up now and then on people’s lawns. President Bush (Jr.) was so concerned about the so-called terrorism in foreign countries that have nothing to do with us directly, when he should have been addressing the definite and blatant terrorism that was going on in this country at that very minute, and has been going on for all times.

The Klan is still very much active, the Nazis, Skinheads and other hate groups are still active, and the Bush Administration did not do a damned thing about it. All he cared about was keeping those stupid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq going and gaining control of their oil in order to keep his buddy Dick Cheney and their supporters financially solvent and in the pink. My constant complaint about our country’s Administration is that I wish they would try to get our own house in order before they go meddling in other people’s affairs.

Don’t think, by any means however, that this type of thing happens only in the South. New York City, for one, has always had its share of racial injustice, too. Take the headlines-making case of the so-called “Central Park Jogger,” the 28-year-old white investment banker named Trisha Meili, who was assaulted, beaten and raped while jogging in the Park in April 1989. This time the woman did not even make a specific accusation as to who had attacked her, because she was unconscious and unable to speak for some time. So why were five innocent black teenagers arrested and accused of the crime? Again, why is it that whenever a white woman gets raped, or even not, the most logical thing to do is to round up a bunch of black youths, as if that is all we do is to go around raping white women?

I don’t know why these particular boys even were singled out, when there are always hundreds of people in the Park at any given time. There was not a shred of evidence to connect the boys with the crime. None of the boys were even near the victim when it happened. But after more than 16 hours of detention, interrogation and intimidation, the boys falsely confessed (big mistake!) and were convicted, on their confessions alone, and sent to prison. Let me reiterate. If you are ever in a similar situation and you are innocent, don’t ever confess your guilt, no matter what they do to you, because once you do, that’s it. That is the only thing anybody will remember and of which to remind you.

The news media related the story to the public so convincingly that everybody just accepted the fact that they were guilty. They couldn’t say that if it weren’t true, could they? Of course, we now know that it was all made up. There was no truth to any of it, which proves that you shouldn’t believe everything we’re told, even if it is on the TV news. The news anchorpeople report only what somebody tells them to say, and that could be anything. Just because it’s on the news or in print does not make it true. People, including Donald Trump, were even publicly clamoring for the death penalty. For all the crimes and indiscretions that have come to light about Trump himself, I would recommend the same sentence for him! But because the boys were under the age of 18, they had to opt for prison time instead. I have never forgiven Trump for being so adamant in his desired determination to see those innocent boys put to death. If you don’t have the real facts about any situation, keep your damned mouth shut!

Then 13 years later, in 2002, forensic DNA led authorities to the real culprit, Matias Reyes, at the time 17, but by then already serving time for rape and murder. He admitted that he had acted alone in the Mieli case. So even before Reyes’ confession, once it was discovered that there was only one attacker–I mean, by that time, Ms. Mieli must have told somebody what really happened–wasn’t that proof that at least four of the boys convicted must be innocent? The five other guys, grown men by this time, were subsequently exonerated and their criminal records expunged.

Interestingly, the boys’ release from prison and the public knowledge that they were innocent all along did not get half the attention or outcry as their conviction had gotten. There was no apology from the courts or police personnel for their gross mistake. They haven’t even admitted that they did anything wrong. But what if those death petitioners had gotten their way and executed the boys before the truth came out? “Oops, sorry” wouldn’t have cut it.

What galls me to no end, though, is how the police and courts can so casually and apathetically convict innocent people on no evidence whatsoever. But then, too, there are guilty ones who get off when everyone is convinced of their guilt. There have been rape-murder cases, for example, in which everyone knows that the guy is guilty; he pretty much even admits it. But his being white, first of all, a celebrity or the son of a prominent public figure, perhaps, the law needs more much proof before they can do anything. In these cases, mere suspicion isn’t enough to prosecute. They don’t want unnecessarily to antagonize somebody important, you see.

Like in the case of our former President Donald Trump, when during his impeachment trial for charges of inciting a riot prior to the Inauguration proceedings and other assorted crimes, although there was definite visual and audio proof of his involvement, we had to endure many days of long, drawn-out speeches and a rehash of all that had gone on before. He did it; what’s the hold-up? He was not arrested, locked-up, arraigned, denied bail for being a definite and probable flight risk, nothing! Why can’t we all get that same concession? Now he has the arrogant audacity to run for President again.

If I, or you, perhaps, had done what Trump did, we would be in prison, no discussion. I have been immediately jailed for much lesser charges for which I was totally innocent and for which they didn’t even have any proof. More often than not, once they target a suspect, they stop looking for anyone else or consider any other possible scenario. It’s this laziness of the police department that allows so many crimes to go unsolved. Either they just don’t care enough or they tend to take the easy way out. You got somebody now. Make the case against them. Why should we do any extra work? It was reported that only a couple of days after those “Jogger” boys were arrested, the officers assigned to the case were seen in a bar celebrating that they had solved and closed the case so quickly. “We got ’em. Next!” Yeah, you got somebody, but are they the right ones?

I recently heard a TV news report that a white youth was videotaped by surveillance camera stealing various articles from a church. The reporter said that the video was taken in May, and now it’s August, and the thief has not yet been apprehended. They don’t even know who he is! I’ll bet you that if he had been black, they would have had somebody in custody long before then, even if it wasn’t the right guy! They are always trying to assure the populace that criminal justice bears no racial bias, but time after time, I have yet to be convinced of that fact.

It was right here in the Howard Beach section of Queens that three black men were harassed, chased and beaten with baseball bats and crowbars (killing one of them), by a mob of local white youths, when their car broke down in the lily-white neighborhood in 1986. Four of the white boys eventually were convicted, but during their trial their team of attorneys tried to turn all the blame to the black victims by digging up their past indiscretions and trying their best to discredit them. What were they doing there anyway? They must have been selling drugs. (They weren’t, of course, but so what if they were? Whites have never dealt drugs in the black-predominant areas? From whom do they get them, then?) They even, although unsuccessfully, tried to pick an all-white jury, hoping that it would help their case.

Thankfully, justice did prevail this time, and the defendants were found guilty and served prison time. But this is New York, where everyone, regardless of their color, should be allowed to go anywhere in the City as they please. We don’t keep white people out of Harlem, for instance. In fact, as of late, they have practically taken it over for themselves. When I have the occasion to venture into Harlem now, I see more whites on the street than I do blacks. White people can go anywhere they want to with no restrictions. But the rest of us don’t have that privilege. Over the years I often have been found in neighborhoods that I “should not be in.”

A large number of Korean immigrants settled in Los Angeles and opened their own businesses in South Central, which is predominately-black, but there always was animosity and resentment between the races. The blacks didn’t like it that the Koreans were making a viable living in their neighborhood, and the Korean store owners mistrusted all blacks, thinking that they were always up to no good and out to get them. Well, if that’s how they feel, why did they go there? Why not open their businesses in their own section, Koreatown, or in the lily-white neighborhoods? After being told that I am not welcome somewhere, I would take my business elsewhere.

One of those Korean store proprietors created some trouble in March 1991, when Soon Ja Du falsely accused 15-year-old Latasha Harkins of trying to steal a container of orange juice. The teen was approaching the counter to pay for the juice, but when she turned her back for a moment, the other woman shot the girl in the back of her head and killed her. She still had the two dollars in her hand. Ms. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but instead of her having to serve any prison time, the white judge gave her six months probation and fined her $500. That was it. This prompted some civil unrest, along with the subsequent Rodney King case in 1991, when several Los Angeles cops were caught on videotape beating and kicking and tasing Mr. King repeatedly. King, now deceased, was not completely innocent this time, however. He had been drinking quite heavily and was stopped by the officers for speeding. But still to use such excessive force on anybody is unpardonable. When the officers were acquitted of the charges, it resulted in several riots across the country, the one in L.A. lasting for five days!

In February 1999 Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant, was returning to his home in the Bronx when four policemen, who were not in uniform, approached the young man as he passed by them. The cops claimed later that Amadou “matched the description” of a serial rapist that they were pursuing. (Yeah, that old excuse.) Now from Amadou’s viewpoint, he sees four strange white men coming towards him, so, understandably, he starts running up the steps to his apartment building to get away from them. Just then the boy reached into his pocket, probably to retrieve his house keys, and one of the cops yells out, “Gun!” to his partners, and instead of waiting to see what the object actually was (it was his wallet, by the way), those trigger-happy assholes just opened fire on this innocent, unarmed youth and pumped 41 (!) bullets into his body, just in case, I suppose, that the first 40 didn‘t take. Now I ask you, how can those cops’ actions in any way be justified? Even if he had been The Guy, he wasn’t raping anybody at that moment, so shouldn’t he at least get a trial to determine his fate? That was out-and-out murder, no doubt about it. But the cops went to trial themselves and were acquitted of all charges. How do these people live with themselves?

TV commentator Tavis Smiley related this story to Katie Couric on her show one day. When he was attending Indiana University in Bloomington (my Alma Mater) in 1983, Tavis’ black friend, Denver Smith, who was a football star and scholar with no criminal record, was gunned down by four white police officers. They shot him in the back 21 times, then tried to tell everybody that it was self-defense, although the young man was unarmed! Can you believe the audacity? He was said to have had some kind of altercation with the cops. So, if you talk back to a cop, it follows that you will most likely pay with your life?! Even without knowing the details, I am pretty sure that the so-called altercation was provoked by those cops. As a rule, blacks don’t voluntarily confront white, stoney police officers for the desired pleasure of starting a fight or disagreement with them. As far as I know, the murdering policemen have yet to be convicted of anything.

Aggressive action towards blacks is often the result of mistaken identity. But it seems that white people hardly ever “match the description” of any suspected criminals. Our trouble is, however, since we all look so much alike, you see, we are often mistaken for someone up to no good. But even so, find out who people are first and wait for an actual threat with a weapon before you kill them! I am not the only one who has said this, but we all are pretty sure that if Smith and Diallo had been white, those cops would have not been so quick to blow them away, no questions asked.

I read that the police force in Salt Lake City has gone through an effective retraining program, and as a result, there has not been a single killing by a cop on an innocent civilian in several years. Minimum force is supposed to be used when apprehending somebody anyway. These cops have to learn not to be so quick to shoot somebody before they know what the situation is. Just because that black man “fits the description” of a reported suspect, does not mean that he is The Guy. “He had a gun,” they always claim. Just because he is reaching into his pocket does not mean that he is going for a gun. Wait and see what it is first before you shoot him. If it does turn out to be a gun, although it almost never is, if he doesn’t comply when ordered to drop the weapon, just shoot it out of his hand. That should not be a difficult thing to do. They all have had weapons training. When someone is running away and the cop shoots them several times in the back, they were no immediate threat to the officer at the time, but he will still claim self-defense just the same.

To let the cops tell it, they are never at fault. “I didn’t have a choice,” they will insist. Sure, you did. You could kill them or you could choose not to kill them. By shooting them, you made your choice. If they are running away, shoot them in the knee. They probably will stop running. Or how about equipping cops with tranquilizer darts instead of bullets, like they do with rogue animals? That way they could stop the fleeing suspect without killing them. Then if the suspect later turns out not to be the right person or not guilty of a suspected crime, at least their life will have been spared.

It’s a frightening notion that human error or misconduct is automatically punishable by death. That means that no one is safe. If you are suspected of any wrongdoing, you deserve to die on the spot. “Oh, he was innocent? Well, sorry, then. My bad.” But even if they are guilty, they don’t have to be killed. Whether a person-of-interest is guilty of a crime or not, if they are killed before they are actually arrested or even accused of anything, they are deprived of receiving a fair trial to determine their innocence or guilt.

And only a cop can get away with this type of cold-blooded murder, which I think is totally outrageous. Policemen should be held up to the same moral standards as everybody else. Commonly, when blacks are involved in some kind of crime, whether they are guilty or not, it’s usually a hands-on offense, like physical assault with bare fists or some kind of blade. You whites tend to take the more cowardly, sneaky approach by planting bombs, starting fires, sniping and infecting people with deadly viruses. If you don’t see them in the actual act, then they probably won’t get accused. You have to prove it first, you see. We blacks don’t get the same concession. As you have learned from the previous accounts, they don’t have to see us do something for us to be blamed. A simple accusation, or sometimes even not, is all that is required to get us in trouble with the law. No actual proof is necessary. In my blogs, On the Road With Cliff and Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise, I relate some of my own horror stories involving the police, that I am fortunate enough still to be here to tell about.

Our next and more recent case of a white man getting away with murder is George Zimmerman, then 29, who, on February 26, 2012, shot and killed a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, although Martin himself had no lethal weapons on his person and was not an immediate fatal threat to the other man. Of course, I was not at the trial, so I don’t know everything that was said or addressed, but it seems to me that certain aspects of the case were apparently overlooked or disregarded altogether. The fact that Zimmerman was carrying around a loaded gun should have been a point of discussion. “Oh, he had a permit for the gun.” So does that give him the right to go around shooting innocent people at will? He was supposed merely to be on neighborhood watch, not appointed vigilante.

The boy was minding his business, on his way to and from the local convenience store, and Zimmerman was following him in his car, because he “looked suspicious,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Undoubtedly, there must have been other white people on the same street. Didn’t any of them look “suspicious” as well? Why was Trayvon singled out? I don’t know what all really went down that day, but the two subsequently got into a fight, with Martin possibly getting the upper hand. I don’t know who started it, but I suspect that it was Martin who was actually defending himself from his aggressor.

The defense attorney told the jury, “My client had no other choice but to kill his assailant.“ I can think of several other choices. Since Zimmerman had a car and the boy was on foot, why didn’t he just drive away if he thought his life in such danger? The fight would have been avoided altogether. Zimmerman had been ordered to remain in his car and not to pursue the “suspect.“ So the fact that he did get out of his car would suggest that he approached the boy and provoked the ensuing altercation. If he didn’t have a gun, Zimmerman would had to have found another way to defend himself, wouldn‘t he? The prosecutor did say, “The defendant didn’t shoot Trayvon because he had to. He shot him because he wanted to.”

Self-defense is protecting oneself from an apparent danger or threat. When people take self-defense courses and classes, they are taught how to defend themselves against molesters or attackers using their own bodies and wits. All the martial arts teach the same methods. The instructors don’t give everybody guns and tell them to shoot anyone who crosses you. I would think that actually killing an opponent would be the last resort. Try anything else except that. And, too, if Zimmerman, a grown man, is unable to defend himself against a kid, then why is he the head of the neighborhood watch? And he shouldn’t be packing a rod anyway! Why does a person carry a loaded gun or any weapon, if he doesn’t expect to use it? “Hmm, I’d better take my gun with me tonight. I might need it.“ That suggests premeditation right there!

After the shooting, 44 days passed before Zimmerman was even arrested! And that was only because of the public’s outrage and protest. The police apparently thought that he was completely in the right. Why make a big deal out of nothing? Then it took another 16 months before his trial. I have been arrested immediately for not doing anything. So it’s not all that surprising that he was let off. It seems that some minds were already made up about his innocence, due to their reluctant conviction. They all tried so hard to avoid making this case a racial one, but I and many others are pretty sure that if it had been a white boy, he wouldn’t have been so quick to kill him, let alone scrutinize and harass him in the first place. If it had been a black man killing a white teenager, for any reason, they would be deciding on his punishment (death or life imprisonment) rather than why he did it. Oh, no, race has nothing to do with it whatsoever. How naïve do they take us to be?!

Did the defense team think that a jury of six women would elicit sympathy for poor Trayvon, their being mothers and all? But as it turned out, their being white, too, they empathized more with Zimmerman, having the same fear of blacks that he apparently has. If the man has any kind of conscience, I think he knows what he did was wrong, and that everything that happened is his own fault. I don’t see much of a future for him either. Is he really free now? He’s now publicly despised. He receives constant death threats, and his own parents have said that they think he should stay in hiding for the rest of his life. Who is going to hire him for anything, and who wants to work with him? He has to watch his behavior and actions from here on out, because I doubt if he would be excused if he harms or kills anybody else. He might be better off in prison after all. By the way, if someone is convicted of vehicular manslaughter, don’t they take their license away and forbid them to drive? Zimmerman has proven to be irresponsible with a firearm, so why was he allowed to keep his gun after his acquittal? So, I guess some feel that he still hasn’t done anything wrong.

Then there is the recent case of poor Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black youth from Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot to death by a white police officer. And although the boy was unarmed, he was deemed a physical threat to the cop and therefore had to be dispatched. The case never even made it to trial, as a Grand Jury ruled against any wrongdoing on the officer’s behalf. There was no evidence except for the dead boy! No charges were made and the policeman got off scot-free…again!

These trigger-happy cops always use the excuse that they fear for their lives when they are confronted with potential suspects. Well, that is part of the job. Confronting armed criminals is what they do. They always want to blame the common citizens for their actions. You can’t control human behavior. If you don’t like constantly having to put your life on the line, then maybe you shouldn’t be a cop. Find something else to do. Everyone is not cut out to be a police officer. I wouldn’t want to do that. If a person decides that they want to be a trial lawyer, for instance, but find they are unable to speak in public, then maybe they should confine themselves to a clerical position. How can the police forces of major cities gain the public’s trust when it’s they who the people themselves fear for their lives on a daily basis? If we are afraid and don’t like cops in general, it’s probably for a good reason. I certainly have my reasons not to trust them.

There is another recent Central Park incident that did not even involve any kind of assault or injury. It was merely a matter of unwarranted paranoia and racial prejudice. In May 2020 Christian Cooper, a published author, was in the Rambles section of the park birdwatching, when he spied a young, white woman letting her dog run free without a leash, which is an infraction for that section of the park. This is a known rule of which I’m pretty sure Amy Cooper should have been aware. Christian–they might even be distantly related–proceeded to tell Amy to put her dog on a leash, but instead of complying, the woman decided to call the police with this complaint: “I am in Central Park, and there is an African-American man here who just threatened me and my dog. Please send the cops immediately.” I expect she thought that if she cited the man to be black, it would work in her favor, knowing how we are usually regarded by the police. If the guy had been white, she wouldn’t have called anybody, first of all, but she wouldn’t have said that “there is a white man here threatening me.” Luckily, Christian had the good sense to make a video of her call, which was helpful in his case, when he posted it on social media. Christian was now in the clear as being completely innocent, and Ms. Cooper was charged with making a false complaint to the police. She was also fired from her job when her boss deemed her to be a racial bigot. I hope she has learned something from that experience.

Despite my vast travel experiences in the past, when I am not working, I am pretty much a homebody. I am not aware of certain aspects of the outside world. I learn human nature behavior from the movies and TV shows. I have noticed that white characters on screen are so trusting of the police. They consider them their friends who are always willing to help them in time of need. We frequently see them phoning the police or threatening to call them for the slightest of reasons. That is something that blacks don’t tend to do. Expecting how they regard us, that we are the ones who are usually up to no good, they are never accommodating anyway. They have been known not to respond when we need real assistance or take their own sweet time to get there. I will speak to a patrol cop only when I am lost somewhere in the city and need directions. For anything more serious, I just take my chances.

[Related articles: Black History, Part 1–Did You Know?; Black History, Part 2–Slavery and Its Aftermath; Black History, Part 3–Racism via Show Business; Black History, Part 5–Biased Concerns; Color Issues; Some Racial Observations; Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise; Walt Disney, a Racist? Who‘d‘ve Thunk It!?]

Black History, Part 2: Slavery and Its Aftermath

Let me say right off that I am forever sickened by the historical realization of those many millions of unfortunate human beings who were forced to endure the centuries-long institution of slavery in Europe and America. Of course, slavery itself was nothing new. There were slaves during Greek, Roman and Egyptian times, as well as certain Asian cultures. I have heard news reports that slavery still exists even today in certain parts of the world, and my sympathies lie with all those enslaved as well, but my discussion here deals with the slavery of Negroes.

Similar to my feelings about subjected castration for the sake of music art, only much worse, I just can’t fathom how something so utterly and morally wrong could have been perpetuated and tolerated for 443 years (from 1420 to 1863). This is what my research uncovered. Other historians, however, have put 1619 as the beginning of American slavery, making 2019 the 400th anniversary instead of the now 600th. It would have to have been earlier than they say, however, because Columbus was known to have owned slaves during the 1480s.

It doesn’t even matter now how the whole thing got started or who were originally responsible, although the Portuguese are accredited with being the first European slave traders. I find it totally inexcusable that such a thing would be allowed to occur at all, let alone for that long a time. In my mind there is simply no acceptable justification whatsoever for it, I’m sorry. Forced slavery is the prime epitome of racial supremacy, that any one group of people, by the mere fact of their imagined superiority, would willfully exercise the right to subject another human being to such malicious cruelty and abject indignity.

The sickness of it all was that most of them thought that they were not doing anything wrong. When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, at least they were regarded as real people. Negroes are not even people, you see. They don’t feel pain or sorrow like your good white folks. They’re even too simple-minded to realize what’s being done to them. The irony of that absurd philosophy is that whites, as a race, consider themselves the more intelligent. Well, we blacks certainly know better than to believe such a notion about anybody, so then, who’s the smarter? Of course, the whites knew better, too, in their hearts. They maintained that way of thinking only to justify their actions and allay some of their guilt.

They used religious justification as well. Most Europeans considered themselves Christian, and since the Africans were not and considered to be savage heathens, therefore conducive to subservient status. They seemed not to want to acknowledge the fact that only a few centuries earlier Christians themselves were the victims of persecution and genocide by the polytheists who were the ones in control at the time. The abolitionists were hated and considered criminals, sinners and traitors to the cause. After all, it was God who set up slavery in the first place, you see, and any anti-slavery sentiments were going against God’s will. Yeah, such brilliant minds all right!

The fact that the slaves were always talking and singing about being free and always trying to escape were indications right there that they knew their lot in life was not a normal or natural situation for humans to be in. Actually, it was this feigned underestimation, on white people’s part, of the Negroes’ intelligence that worked in their favor, with regard to their survival and escape attempts. Just because someone is illiterate, it does not negate their intelligence. Reading and writing are learned skills, while thought processes are inherent.

While the whites were under the common impression that slaves were naturally stupid and feeble-minded, as well as deliriously happy with their station in life, therefore did not need to be watched so closely, the slaves would be out in their shacks plotting and planning and even executing their escape from their captors. Even on the slave ships during the Middle Passage, the African captives were trying to communicate in their various tongues to plan some kind of revolt, and the ship’s crewmen accounted their unintelligible discourse to be “that African mumbo-jumbo. They don’t have a real language, just a lot of grunts and groans.” As with animal sounds, if you yourself don’t understand it, then it must not mean anything, right?

There was one controversy that had a positive outcome, and that was the Amistad incident of 1839, when the 53 West African abductees on the Spanish schooner, La Amistad, bound for the U.S., actually rebelled against their captors, then were later brought up on charges of multiple murder and insurrection. Oh, so it’s the abducted captives who are the criminals, huh? Can they stop? Amistad means “amity,” by the way—friendly relations between nations. As if! The local New Haven newspaper reported this headline (from the side of the slaves’ culpability): “Massacre at Sea,” while the abolitionist publication, The Emancipator, read, “Freedom Fight at Sea.” So you see, it all goes to biased point of view. Black people had (and still don’t, in most cases) no right to raise their hand to a white person, regardless of the circumstances. They can do anything they want to us, and we are supposed just to stand there and take it; we dare not strike back. The much-honored action of self-defense, constantly utilized by whites, apparently does not apply to us (I can personally attest to that).

In addition, everybody was trying to claim this particular group of blacks as their own property. Queen Isabella II of Spain thought they were hers, as did both the Portuguese and Cuban ship captains, as well as stateside slave traders. But the court (presided over by John Quincy Adams) justifiably ruled that those captives did not belong to anybody, having been obtained and detained illegally, as slave trading had been outlawed by that time. So the captives were subsequently set free and allowed to return to their homelands. This event is effectively realized in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 docudrama Amistad. The leader of the rebellion, Joseph Cinque, is played by Djimon Hounsou and Sir Anthony Hopkins brilliantly portrays J.Q. Adams.

I found it interesting that the subtext of the Planet of the Apes film series (1968-1973) revealed that the futuristic situation on earth of simian domination over humans is the result of a slave revolt. We finally learn in the third film of the series, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and further explained in the following installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), that a worldwide plague had wiped out all the dogs and cats on earth. And due to people’s need for a household pet, they started to adopt chimpanzees to fill that need. Since primates are infinitely more intelligent as well as more dexterous than a mere dog or cat, the chimps were taught to do household chores, even to cook and clean and do the marketing. They soon became responsible for all the required manual labor, and of course, since they were only animals, their owners didn’t have to pay them anything for their constant hard work. One scene even shows some apes being bought and sold on the auction block!

But as the apes evolved mentally, they eventually became aware of their slave status and began to protest. And it was one particular ape that ultimately took a rebellious stand. When he was ordered by his master to do something one day, instead of their usual non-verbal grunts of disapproval, this time the animal uttered a single word that changed everything forever after. He said, “No!”

The recent update of the series, beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), has a different origin story, but there is a resultant simian revolt nonetheless. This story has allegorical significance as well. The fact that novelist Pierre Boulle made apes the protagonists in his story says something, in that black people have always been likened and referred to by some as monkeys or “jungle bunnies.”

I have often wondered how I would have fared during slavery times. Maybe as a product of the condition, I would be a lot different, but knowing how I am, I don’t think I would have made it as a slave myself. As one who regularly defies authority, I can’t see myself submitting to such indignity and humiliation that was afforded a slave. I am that rebellious chimp from the movie. “Fuck you, Massa! You can’t tell me what to do!” I would probably be killed for my haughty audacity and smart mouth. Either that or I would take the Kunta Kinte approach–display initial stubborn defiance, but eventually I would give in. If you want to change my name, I don’t care. What’s in a name anyway? I know who I am. You can call me anything you want, just don’t hit me. I don’t have to like it, but I would learn to assimilate.

I don’t guess I need to tell you about the terrible conditions of slavery and the mistreatment that slaves received. Watch Roots and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for some of the inside scoop. There is a Slave Museum in Philadelphia (but there are other locales as well) that has on display the instruments of punishment and torture that were used on insubordinate slaves. There are shackles and restraints and muzzles and whips and all sorts of harmful implements. But a more disturbing, to me, aspect of this industry is that, since we know that the whites of that period didn’t do anything that involved any kind of serious work or manual labor, most likely these implements were manufactured, maybe even designed, by other slaves! “Hey, Massa! Try dis new gadget on ‘im. Ah’ll bet he’ll bayhave den!”

With exception, however, all slaves were not mistreated. There were many slave owners who regarded their slaves as part of the family. They may have inherited them from their parents, perhaps, and maybe were raised by them as well. The house slaves were basically servants who ran the household. They did all the cooking and cleaning and sewing and anything that needed to be done. The only difference was that they were not paid for their services and labors. Otherwise, this wasn’t a bad situation. They had free room and board, and with no formal education, being let free was not an issue with a lot of them. Where would they go and what would they do with their freedom? They were confronted with that very reality when they were eventually set free.

The masters and traders did realize that slavery was wrong, but that is just the way things were, and they were just a product of their time. They didn’t start it. What could they do about it? Well, here’s an idea. They could have ended the slavery aspect of the situation by just paying the people a decent salary. I am sure they wouldn’t have minded the work if they were getting paid and allowed to come and go as they pleased, own land and property and maintain their own families. I have even heard them say (in the movies, of course), “The niggers are just plain lazy. They don’t want to work.” No, they don’t want to work for no pay. If you paid them, that might create some incentive. And what exactly are you doing, by the way–you who just made that comment?

The plantation owners had the money. For what they paid the traders for the slaves themselves, they could have used that money to pay the blacks directly. The whites who supported slavery did so to rationalize their own laziness, selfishness and greed. Rich plantation owners thought that if they had to pay people to work for them, it would cost them more to produce their rum, tobacco, cotton and other goods.

This is what I would have told them. ‘Well, if you don’t want to pay anybody, why don’t you and your pampered wives and children get out there in the field and do all that work yourselves? Did you ever consider that?’ There is a scene in Gone With the Wind (1939), when their home plantation, Tara, has been virtually destroyed by the War, and the O’Hara family are trying to restore it to its former glory. Scarlett’s two sisters are out in the field in the hot sun picking cotton and complaining about the heat and their bleeding hands. One says to the other, “I just hate this. We’re being treated just like the…” But before she can get out the word, she is interrupted by Scarlett. Well, duh! Now you know how it feels, don’t you?

It’s just like the idle rich white people, since slavery times, who employ housekeepers and other servants (usually black but not always) to run the household for them, while they sit on their butts all day and never lift a finger to do anything, as if cooking, cleaning and other housework is so beneath them. But at least they are paying them this time. And even some of your modern, hypocritical bigots have the nerve to call black people inherently lazy! How dare they! After 500 years of back-breaking work, I think that we deserve a little rest, don’t you?

The English merchants, too, were against the abolition of slavery because they feared financial ruin for the Triangle Trade and the loss of all their profits. What was more, how could they do without their tobacco and rum and their sugary sweets?! Even during the Great Migration after the turn of the 20th century, when many blacks left the South to go North, with the hope of a better life, it distressed the whites greatly to have to fend for themselves for the first time. “Lawsie, mercy, who is going to cook and clean for us and do all this field work?” Figure it out for yourselves, y‘all. It’s no longer our problem. Frankly, my dears, we don’t give a damn. We are out of there!

The common myth held by most whites that the slaves were content with their life’s situation and too servile and stupid to do anything about it was mere wishful thinking on their part. There were always those who resisted, and runaways were a constant common occurrence. This reality was further exemplified by activist Nat Turner’s brief reign of terror in the South. Turner was born a slave in Virginia and was taught to read and write by one of his master’s children. He became fascinated by religion and eventually became a preacher, known as “The Prophet.”

In August 1831 Turner managed to organize a band of 75 renegade slaves, and with firearms and courageous determination they went from farm to farm murdering every white person they encountered. They apparently ignored that Bible passage about “Thou shall not kill.” By the time the militia had been called in, Turner’s gang had killed 60 people, hardly a reciprocal amount, in my opinion. Of course, I don’t condone killing by anybody, but I can appreciate their desire finally to take a stand against their oppressors.

Turner and his cohorts all were eventually captured and disposed of, but it sent a message to those Southern whites that the slaves weren’t as complacent and non-threatening as they had once thought. The incident did inspire stricter pro-slavery laws with regard to education and public assembly of blacks, which stayed in effect until the Civil War thirty years later. You know, they even tried to blame that on us, as if they had nothing to do with it. “If it hadn’t been for that ol’ Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves, there wouldn’t have been a Civil War. If those blacks had only stayed in their place!” Well, it wasn’t any of us who drew up the Proclamation or even requested it. Lincoln did. How is the resulting War our fault, like we have so much political power and whatever we request in life is willingly given to us without question or protest?

They never want to take responsibility for their own actions. Racism is perpetuated by a carefully-calculated campaign of operation. Let me illustrate for you how the System works. For the most part, whites create the situations, then they blame the rest of us for the negative results of their actions. Remember, on the slave ship in the first episode of Roots (1977), the African captives were shackled together and forced to lie around for weeks, packed like sardines, in the hold of the ship. The white crew members are complaining to the captain, “Boy, they stink something fierce!” Well, they are not allowed to take toilet or bathing breaks for days on end, so what do you expect? Of course, they stink! But it’s not the slaves’ fault that they stink, as if they like to go indefinitely without bathing. If you don’t like the way they smell, then clean them up! But then they wouldn’t have the need to complain.

This is how they justified the slave trade. “We’re doing them all a favor by bringing them to a civilized country where they can learn Christianity and rid themselves of their heathenism. Plus, we have to tame their savageness. They’re all a bunch of cannibals, you know.” Hunh?! Even if that were true, what business is it of theirs? As long as they are not feasting on you personally, why should you care what or who they eat?

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern Negroes were forbidden by law, on pena la morte, to learn how to read and write, in fact, denied any educational opportunities whatsoever. In spite of the restriction, however, many slaves did learn to read, but had to keep it on the down-low for fear of harmful disciplinary action. So later on, when the freed slaves were trying to establish a new way of life for themselves, like when they wanted to register to vote, those white oppressors berated and ridiculed them with, “How do you expect to vote, you dumb nigger?! Why, you can’t even read!”—again, as if their illiteracy were entirely their own fault.

The TV series “Picket Fences” did a storyline about forced busing and school integration, which I’m sure was a reflection of the Little Rock, Arkansas experience of 1957. The series takes place in Wisconsin, by the way. The opposing whites warned that there would be trouble if they let blacks into the all-white high school. They were right, but the whites were the ones who made all the trouble, demonstrating outside the school, harassing the black students, picking fights and causing riots. Then these same rabble-rousing hate-mongers complained, “See there? I told you that those coloreds would cause trouble if you let them in!”

The institution of racism operates in pretty much the same way even today. White people still do their best to keep our people down, especially if they are poor and uneducated (and even if they’re not), and then will turn right around and criticize us for being in the situation that they themselves have put us in. They don’t want us to have or to accomplish any more than they do and will try to destroy or take away what little we already have.

With the actual Little Rock incident itself, even before the chosen nine black students attended Central High School for the first time, they were given a briefing by the School Board about their special restrictions, what to expect and what was expected of them. The only thing they were allowed to do, according to the Board, was attend daily classes. They could not participate in any extracurricular activities and clubs, no sports teams, no band or glee club, no drama club, no dances or social events, nothing. “Of course, if these conditions are not agreeable to any of you,” they opted, “You can always stay at your old school.” Yeah, that’s just what you would prefer, isn’t it?

Even the parents of the black kids warned them to keep to themselves and stay away from the white students. So how is it integration if the blacks and whites are not allowed to associate with each other? That’s supposed to be the whole point of the thing. How are they supposed to learn how to get along if they are kept apart? “Well, we had to let them in by court order, but they can’t make us go along with the program.” Laws don’t change people’s closed minds.

Speaking of Roots again, when David Wolper and the other producers were trying to sell the idea to the networks, many of the white, racist executives complained that the project would “glorify” black people. So what’s wrong with that? The miniseries turned out to be only the most-watched, highest-rated event in TV history. And I’ll bet you that those same pooh-pooh naysayers certainly appreciated the monetary profits that those glorified blacks earned for them!

There was one aspect of slave life that their owners could not control or quell, and that is our culture. The blacks managed to retain and pass down many past traditions and customs and created new ones as well. This is reflected in our cuisine, music and dance, among other things. Many, maybe not all, of the spirituals and other folk songs that the slaves made up and sang around the plantations, and that their masters regarded as mere entertainment for them and a sure indication of the slaves’ contentment, were loaded with multiple meanings and coded messages for each other. And like the American Indians, they used the secret language of drums to communicate with one another.

(# …Steal away home; I ain’t got long to stay here. #) That could mean that they are planning to escape when the time is right. (# …He calls me by the thunder… #)—referring to the beckoning drums, perhaps? (# Wade in the water, God is gonna trouble the water… #) This served as an escape instruction to the runaway slaves, that they find a river or some other body of water to throw off their scent to the hound dogs in pursuit. Did you notice that God is “dog” in reverse? Get it?

(# Deep river, my home is over Jordan…that Promised Land where all is peace… #)
(# …And go home to my Lord and be free
. #)
Many of their songs made reference to the River Jordan and the Promised Land as Home, which were metaphors for the Northern states and Canada, in this life, or Heaven, in the afterlife. In either case, they symbolized a place where they would at last be free. (# …Git on board, li’l chil’ren, there’s room for plenty-a more… #) That most likely refers to the Underground Railroad “train.”

(# Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home… #)
The chariot is a Biblical reference used as another means of conveyance to Heavenly refuge. (# …Follow the Drinking Gourd… #) They even had some comprehension of astronomy and of the constellations. The “Drinking Gourd” is a disguise for the Big Dipper, of which the North Star is a part—to wit, the way to Freedom. Many of the slaves took strongly to the Christian faith. Religion was an important aspect of their lives. It gave them a sense of hope and purpose. They could relate to Jesus Christ as someone else who was mistreated and was made to endure great suffering.

(# There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…to heal the sin-sick soul. #)
Being not able to read themselves, the slaves must have paid close attention to the Scriptures when they were read to them. The “balm of Gilead” is mentioned only a few times in the Bible. The slaves not only somehow grasped the meaning of this resinous tree extract used as a general medicament, antiseptic and counter-irritant, they actually wrote a song about it!

They even made the Old Testament Bible stories that they had learned from their masters into songs, like “Didn‘t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho“ and “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp,” to name a few. (# …Tell ol‘ Pharaoh to let my people go. #) “Go Down, Moses” is a direct correlation to the account of Israel in Egypt, which apparently did not escape these slaves’ recognition of their own plight. Just substitute the U.S. President for Pharaoh.

Now consider what went into creating all those spirituals. The beautiful, as well as diverse, melodies, the quite-profound lyrics, and usually with a message, including the ability to rhyme and scan, the rhythmic complexities, the well-organized arrangements of the songs, complete with harmonies and chord progressions, and the ensemble of their performance, are a sure indication of the slaves’ talent and musicianship. They even seemed to understand the concepts of form and tonality in the way that certain songs were composed. There were call-and-response ditties and those made up with verses and refrains. Happy, optimistic sentiments were set in major keys and the sadder-themed ones in minor.

Even the seemingly-innocent activity of quilt-making provided another means of relaying secret messages. Among the intricate patterns and designs on their quilts were signs and symbols that pointed directions and indicated who were participants on the Underground Railroad. So while tens of thousands of these “moronic” slaves made their way to Northern freedom, by their own ingenuity, the “superior-minded” white folks didn’t have a clue as to what was going on right under their noses.

Consider, too, the slaves’ creative acumen in terms of material things. As there were no shopping malls or general stores, everything that they needed they had to make themselves–tools, furniture, appliances, wearing apparel, medicinal items, their meals, everything. Who taught them how? Certainly not their masters, who didn’t know much themselves. And they couldn’t consult any instruction manuals to find out how to put something together. They had to figure it out for themselves. So again, who were smarter?

During these times, it became common practice for some slave owners to employ healthy, strapping black bucks, or “breeders,” to mate with the young, fertile female slaves, in order to produce more slaves. It was what they do with dogs and other animals. And of course, it was all right for white men to have sex with their black “wenches.” But they were not allowed to marry them, even if they actually loved each other. You know, it was “You can screw ’em all you want, just don’t get emotionally involved.”

Thomas Jefferson apparently had very strong feelings for his young slave mistress, Sally Hemings, since he had seven children by her (by some reports), two of them while they were living in the White House! The relationship began after Jefferson’s wife Martha died and before he became President, and lasted 38 years, until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Although they tried to keep their affair secret, it was pretty much common knowledge, and they did create quite a scandal. After all, they were living together as husband and wife although they were not married. Why didn’t he just say to hell with everybody and marry Sally for real? Oh, interracial marriage was against the law, you say? Well, he was the President. Change the law! What good are they if they don’t even make the attempt to right certain wrongs?

He was all adamant about the institution of slavery being a human abomination when he wrote the Declaration of Independence but was vehemently vetoed. It even caused a rift between the Southern and Northern delegates. A scene in 1776 (1972) shows the members of the Continental Congress arguing about the question of slavery. Jefferson is trying to convince the delegation that in order for America truly to be a free country, all of its citizens have to be free as well. Someone pointed out that Tom himself was a “practitioner,” and Jefferson assured him then that he had resolved to free all his slaves. But when, Tom? Fifty years from now, after you die? Talk is cheap, you fucking hypocrite!

Of course, Jefferson wasn’t the only one. Most of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners. There were those who fought in the Revolutionary War, which was supposed to be about freeing Americans from British tyranny. Then those same fighters turned right around and became tyrants themselves! So now as President, Jefferson had the power at least to propose abolition, like Lincoln did later on, but he never did. He kept his 187 slaves, including Sally and his own children! He didn’t even acknowledge his children with Sally as his own, although they looked just like him. They all instead took the Hemings surname. Now Sally is living in the White House with Jefferson, so who could those kids’ fathers be, any old Tom, excuse me, Dick or Harry that just happened to pass through there? The two oldest were let go when they reached the age of 21, but rather than officially declare them as free, Jefferson recorded them as “runaways.” Sally and her other children were freed only when he died.

Of course, people had to blame all the family’s woes on Sally. She caused the scandal and the disgrace. She, a mere slave, seduced Jefferson and forced him to have sex with her repeatedly, right? Tom was completely innocent of any complicity. He just couldn’t help himself, poor man! Can’t white people ever take responsibility for their actions? In spite of Jefferson’s genius and great accomplishments, I refuse to excuse, justify or forgive his stubborn hypocrisy.

To thicken the plot, Sally was actually Jefferson’s sister-in-law! She was the bastard child of Martha’s father, John Wayles, therefore her own half-sister. With our present-day strict, conservative standards about “family values” and political figures always having to maintain unblemished, personal backgrounds (consider what they put Bill Clinton through when news of his adultery while in office became public), there is no way that Jefferson would even be considered for U.S. President today. Blatant cohabitation with a Negress, no less! Forget that she’s his teenage sister-in-law. Tom, don’t you even think about running!

I do so admire and appreciate Abraham Lincoln for his Put-myself-in-the-other-person’s-position philosophy. He considered, “Just as I would not be a slave, I would not be a master either.“ It’s too bad that everybody did not think that way. Fortunately, we did have some passionate, good white men whose concerted efforts to help abolish slavery eventually paid off, among them being Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Garrett, Lord Mansfield, John Newton (who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,”), Granville Sharp, Josiah Wedgwood and William Wilberforce, as well as religious groups like the Quakers and the Evangelicals. It was English economist Adam Smith who pointed out that it cost more to feed and house a slave than to hire and pay a free man to do the work, and people eventually began to realize that they could afford to do without slavery. Although Britain did abolish the African slave trade in 1807, it didn’t abolish slavery until 1833, and it took another 30 years and a bloody Civil War in this country before we gave it up completely.

How is this for disloyalty and treason? In addition to the African tribal leaders who sold their own people to the marauding slave traders, during the 1830s there were actually free black men in Northern as well as the Southern states, who owned slaves themselves for a time! Not just a few either. According to the 1830 U.S. Census records, 3,775 free blacks owned a total of 12,760 slaves. So what if most of them eventually relinquished their slaves when offered money for them, I think it’s a shame that they would involve themselves with such a thing in the first place.

Some of the reasons they did it were for commercial profit, prestige or to protect their relatives and friends. There were black men who bought their own freedom and then kept their wives and children as slaves, because if they freed them, they could be kidnapped and sold right back into slavery! And some did purchase slaves in order to be able later to free them. I suppose that is commendable. But there was a double standard, however, because no one, white or black, could make other whites be slaves, no matter how poor they were. They could hire whites to work for them, but they had to pay them something.

And don’t think for a moment that New York City, of all places, has always been a slave-free community. At the time of the Revolution there were more enslaved Africans in New York than in any other city, except Charleston, South Carolina. 40% of New York City’s households owned slaves. They accounted for 20% of the population of the City, compared to 6% in Philadelphia and 2% in Boston. Among the City’s landmarks built by enslaved labor, are Battery Park, the first City Hall, the historic Fraunces Tavern (once frequented by George Washington and his cronies; it’s now a museum) and Trinity Church. They also built the Wall along Wall Street and cut the road that became Broadway. In Washington, DC, too, the White House as well as other city structures were built by slave labor, and ironically and hypocritically, the statue that adorns the top of the dome of the Capitol Building and represents Freedom, was cast by a slave!

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Oh, really?! What idealistic hogwash that is! We all are certainly not created equal, but our differences and worth are not divided along racial lines but by individual factors. I know that I am better than a lot of people in many respects, including and especially some whites. But be that as it may. You should know that laws cannot change the way people think, so that’s why 140 years later, although supposedly free, American blacks—and in the South especially—were still struggling for our basic civil rights, which we were already supposed to have, according to the U.S. Constitution. But therein lay much of the problem, because all references to human rights apparently did not apply to People-of-Color, and especially not to blacks, who were considered non-human entities. “A Negro is not a man” was a common sentiment of the day.

Unfortunately, even today (after 600 years) there are certain whites who would prefer that we were all still slaves to them. We still don’t get equal respect, and they act like they own us. Although our life’s situation had changed, white people’s opinions and attitudes about us did not. “Just because I don’t own you anymore, you are still the same person (or rather ‘non-person‘) that you were before.“ So even when slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, blacks were not really free. It’s utterly shameful that 100 years after the abolition of slavery in this country, American blacks, living in the South, still were not allowed to vote. The reason was, of course, if black people voted, they would have a say about how their community is run, the whites thus relinquishing some of their power and control of civic matters. Well, duh!

Now that most of us could read and write, they came up with other obstacles to disqualify the blacks from voting. “Recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. You do know what a preamble is, don’t you?” When they did that successfully, then he would ask, “How many county judges are there in Alabama?” “67.” “Name them.” They would keep presenting challenges until they eventually stumped them, then would stamp their application form, “Denied.” I’ll bet that no white voter was ever subjected to the same criteria, and they most likely would not know any of the answers either.

(# …First, it’s 40 acres and a mule, then they want to swim in our swimming pool; pretty soon they’ll be wanting to go to school… #)
Well, duh! So after slavery was abolished in the South and the whites could not legally own us anymore, it didn’t really end there. They just modified it a little. They came up with a devious, though ingenious, plan that still gave the illusion of slavery without calling it that. President Andrew Johnson had no use for Negroes. When meeting Frederick Douglass for the first time, he refused to shake the man’s hand. Johnson subsequently established a system of “black codes,” which required blacks to sign special labor contracts. If they refused to sign, they could be arrested, jailed and imposed a steep fine that they could not possibly pay, so they would have to work off their debt, which most never did. Then they went a step further by taking the children of these indentured blacks to care for them and provide a loving, nurturing home for them, you see. But what they would do is train these kids in farming and housekeeping skills and then put them to work…for no pay! So nothing had changed. They still had their slave labor on which to depend. Yeah, it was right to impeach his sorry ass! See how whites manage to get around everything, without breaking any laws, so that they can have their way?

In addition, with white men still in charge, they imposed new laws that applied only to blacks. Human actions that once were only minor misdemeanors (if even that) and indiscretions were now major felonies, punishable by imprisonment. A black person was not allowed to walk alongside a railroad track (what?!), and he couldn’t raise his voice in the presence of a white women, for example. They would find any excuse to arrest somebody, then incarcerate them without a trial. Those who did not get the chain gang were sent to work at factories, in the mines and in the cotton fields. And since they were now prisoners, they didn’t have to pay them. So, they are still slaves; nothing had changed.

Their next new plan of action was segregation, by which they could still control us, but from a safe distance, if you will. And although the country had this imposed law of “separate but equal” on the books, which is merely a hypocritical euphemism for segregation, many state administrations did not even honor that principle. The phrase is a bullshit oxymoron anyway. What’s equal about racial discrimination and social ostracism, especially in terms of educational facilities, which, for blacks, were most inadequate?

In some places, not only were black children made to attend school in backwoods rural areas in rundown, uncomfortable classrooms with raggedy, outdated textbooks, they had to walk to get there. Some trekked as many as five miles each way every day, because the white school board would not provide buses for them. The poor little kids would get to school exhausted. There were as many as 30 buses for the white children, but, to let them tell it, they just could not spare a single one for the blacks. You see, by cutting these youths off from the rest of society, denying them basic school supplies and thwarting their transportation besides, it was hoped that they all would get discouraged and perhaps stop going altogether. Many of them did just that. This would in turn prevent them from learning anything and bettering themselves for their future. Furthermore, this situation taught the children that they were not worth any better and should not expect better for their lives. You know, keep them ignorant and blissful and in their place.

Even at this present day things are not yet equal in regard to educational allotments. There are public schools right here in the South Bronx which get only $8,000 a year for supplies and facilities, whereas schools in your better, or whiter, neighborhoods are awarded $18,000. It wasn’t until August 1965 that the Voting Rights Law for all Americans was finally put into effect by President Lyndon Johnson. Why in hell did it take so long?!

During the 2007 season of the TV talent show, “American Idol,” they held a telethon one night to raise money for African children’s relief. But one of the appeals was for the poor and uneducated whites of the Appalachian regions of this country. They couldn’t let us have our own thing without them trying to get a little something for themselves as well. They showed adults who can’t read and their youngsters who somehow were unable to attend school for some reason, therefore were ignorant and illiterate. (Awww!) We viewers were implored to donate money to help these PWTs (poor white trash) get educational opportunities and enough to live on. I’m sorry, but in this day and age there is no valid excuse for anyone to be uneducated, especially anybody white. They have all the advantages of the world at their disposal. Why wasn’t there a telethon (or rather, public appeal), for those poor, American black children when they were struggling to obtain some learning but were being denied?

The United States military situation was subject to more separatism and inequality in the early days. This is from a U.S. Army War Study report from 1925: “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient, and coward in the face of danger. They are, therefore, unfit for combat.” Isn’t it amazing how well they know us and how we think? Oh, blacks were allowed to serve all right. There were freed slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War, but as they were hated and feared by both sides, it became a convenient way to dispose of them in the guise of battle. If any of them were overtaken, the white troops didn’t allow them to surrender or held as prisoners-of-war. They just killed them then and there. By the time the War ended, 40,000 black soldiers had been dispatched. When blacks were drafted to fight in the first World War, they were made to serve together in all-black platoons and regiments, which were always commanded by white officers. They’re all doing the same thing, they are just doing it separately, you see. So when the soldiers got killed, they at least died among their own people.

For the most part, these black troops proved to be quite capable and dedicated soldiers, but they never received the honor and respect from their white associates as they deserved. They would be sent into combat situations with faulty and outdated equipment, denied supplies and backup support, then when the mission failed, they would be blamed and accused of being inadequate and inefficient. They went in believing that they were defending our country against foreign enemies, but when they got overseas and found the German and French and Italian people treating them with non-prejudice and respect, they began to wonder if they were fighting for the right side. They certainly never got this kind of treatment at home.

(# How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? #)
Many even decided to stay in Europe after the War ended, but those who did return to the States came back with a new attitude, which was not lost on the Southern bigots especially. They knew that it would be difficult to return these young men to their previous subservient station in life after having been subjected to respectful European hospitality.

Unfortunately, not all Europeans followed a non-racist philosophy. Having heard a lecture about it during my world cruise on the Prinsendam, and then visiting the country in 2005, I now know more about the former Apartheid situation in South Africa. White political control began in 1948 and endured until 1994. My not being there when it all began, I can’t understand how the non-whites in the country would without sufficient protest allow those white men to take over the government and exert complete control over the people and for such a long time. Not only were these European despots not native to South Africa, they were not even in the majority. At any one time there were 19 million black people to only 4.5 million whites. During American slavery times, too, the enslaved blacks greatly outnumbered their white captors. Yet, the whites were always the ones calling all the shots.

The situation in America, particularly in the South, was a form of Apartheid, too. They didn’t call it that—that’s a Dutch word—but our System operated pretty much in the same way. We had Jim Crow, segregation and the denial of certain rights to our black citizens. All blacks had to carry “traveling passes” with them any time they were outside the confines of their home, for example, lest they be taken for a runaway. This longtime compliance rather confirms the fact, for me at least, that blacks, by nature, tend to be of a more peace-loving, pacifist kind of people than your aggressive, constantly warmongering whites. Initially, we tend to submit to and accept a situation that we don’t agree with, rather than resort to defensive retaliation. But then after a while, enough is enough and we finally decide that we won’t tolerate it anymore. Just like those movie apes, even a docile dog, if you keep kicking it, will eventually turn on you.

One of my greatest inspirational heroes is the late Nelson Mandela, the African anti-Apartheid activist, who, in 1962, was convicted of sabotage and treason, which warranted the death penalty. The charge at his arrest was, “conspiring to overthrow the Government using violence,” which was a lie in itself, as Mandela always condoned non-violence, and it was the whites who came in and took over the country, killing a lot of people in the process, anyone who made any kind of protest. So then, why are you all still alive? What hypocrites! They think that if you want to change the way things are, you are trying to overthrow the Government. No, we just want to reform it is all.

The judge at his trial, after he was found guilty, told Mandela that he would temper justice with mercy. So instead of executing him, he sentenced him to life imprisonment! No, we won’t kill you right away. We’ll just let you linger to death in captivity, however long it takes. Wasn’t that white of him? Mandela spent the next 27 years (!) in prison on Robben Island, was finally released in 1990, and four years later was elected President of South Africa. I suppose one can’t get a better public apology than that! Similar activist Steven Biko was not so lucky. When he was arrested in August 1977, he was beaten so badly by the police and was dead by the time he reached the prison.

During Apartheid American black celebrities were encouraged not to have anything to do with the country, and when tennis great, Arthur Ashe, was invited to participate in the South African Open, he initially refused. But then it was suggested to him that he should attend if only to show the people there that there are blacks who excel in a “white man’s sport.” It would give hope and pride to many. When he and his entourage arrived, however, they were given permits that designated them as “honorary whites.” They refused to accept that. They insisted that they be admitted on their own terms or not at all. Good for them!

There is one African nation, however, that did not put up with the foreign tyranny for too long. The Kikuyu tribe of Kenya did not welcome or accept this unwelcome infiltration. It is so typical for those lazy, greedy British marauders to take over these people’s land by force and then expect the natives to farm it and maintain it while they just sit back and reap the rewards.

In 1952 these tribesmen formed a secret organization which became to be known as the Mau Mau, whose goal was to destroy the white invaders. It is uncertain where the name Mau Mau came from, but somebody came up with a “backronym” for it: “Mzungu Aende Ulaya–Mwafrika Apate Uhuru,” which is Swahili for “Let the white man go back to Europe; let the African attain freedom.”

Part of the notoriety that the Mau Mau received from the public was when they learned about the rituals they performed to become a member. It is said that the men took an oath by drinking a mixture of blood, soil and fecal matter from a goat’s intestines. Then they actually had to fuck a goat!

Although this so-called rebellion went on for only eight years, ending in 1960, the whites got the upper hand yet again. Just like it was with Nat Turner’s futile attempt, the Mau Mau did not get to finish their goal either. They managed to kill only 32 whites before they in turn began to kill the blacks in retaliation. The casualty count for the blacks during the eight-year insurrection is over 300,000, 26,000 being children under the age of ten! You know, get rid of them while they’re young, lest they grow up to be threatening rebels themselves. And they didn’t just kill them in normal ways, but had to use torture and degrading methods, like sticking broken bottles and gun barrels up the men’s rectums and the women’s vaginas. Of course, the whites managed to justify their actions, as they always do. “Well, we can’t just let them go around killing good white folks, can we?” But it’s all right for you to kill us, of course.

This story is related somewhat in the 1957 drama Something of Value, based on a novel by Robert Ruark, directed by Richard Brooks and starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as childhood friends who grow up to turn against each other, just as Judah and Messala did in Ben-Hur (1959). Sidney plays one of the leaders of the Mau Mau. I won’t tell you how it turns out, in case you haven’t seen it. I am amazed at how they managed to film on location in Kenya while the conflict was still going on!

Another bit of little-known history involves the most famous scientist in the world, Albert Einstein, and that he was an anti-racism activist. When Einstein fled Nazi Germany in 1930, he came to America and settled in Princeton, NJ. It wasn’t long before he noticed how the black people in the community were being treated, much like the Jews were in Germany. This is New Jersey, and he was appalled to find that life in town was very much like the pre-Civil War South. He found that stores, restaurants, public facilities, many jobs and most schools were off-limits to blacks well into the 1940s.

He started visiting and hanging out in the black neighborhoods and got to know the denizens there. He became friends with W.E.B. Dubois for one, and once when a segregated Princeton hotel would not accommodate Marian Anderson, Einstein let her stay at his home. His friendship and association with Paul Robeson has pretty much been erased from history, including Robeson‘s name being omitted from articles, exhibitions and documentaries. As a result, there is a surprising number of students at Harvard and other prestigious colleges, as well as smart, educated thirty to forty-year-olds who have never even heard of him. Being that Robeson was an outspoken civil-rights advocate, his public and historical exclusion was all too deliberate and intentional.

Einstein was quoted to have said, “The taboo, the ’let’s-not-talk-about-it,’ must be broken. It must be pointed out time and again that racism is America’s worst disease. Segregation is a disease not of colored people but of white people, and I do not intend to be silent about it. The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Having learned this about him, I now have a new appreciation and respect for Albert Einstein.

Now don’t think for a moment that it’s only blacks who get fucked over by white people. You know the number that they did, and are still doing, on the American Indians. Whereas black people, in general, have managed to overcome a lot of the indignity that white people have afforded us over the decades and even centuries, the whites still hold our Indian citizens in very low esteem.

In every “Cowboys and Indians” scenario, the Indians are always depicted and regarded as the “bad guys.” But who did what to whom first, huh? Generally, Indians are gregarious, peace-loving people. But what should their reaction be when someone, without any provocation whatsoever, storms their villages and tribal communities and proceed to annihilate their entire families? Were they supposed just to sit there and say, “Oh, well!” and accept it all? Although I certainly do not condone any kind of warfare, whether it be retaliatory or not, I still hold little sympathy for the pioneers when their wagon caravans and trains are attacked by marauding Indians. So a few of their women and children are killed during the raids, but it’s simply a matter of “Do unto others before they do unto you.” Even if they had lived, it is likely that those women and children would have become Indian killers themselves to avenge the deaths of their husbands and fathers.

I imagine that part of the early settlers’ resentment of our American Indian brothers is that they did not readily comply and submit to the white man’s desire and aggressive efforts to make them into slaves, too, like they had done the African blacks. They probably remember or were told the history of when in the 1500s the Spanish conquistadors did succeed in making some American Indians into slaves for a while. But they treated them so cruelly and brutally beat them, that thousands of them died of starvation and overwork. Those Spanish fortune-hunters didn’t seem to understand that they couldn’t maintain slaves by killing them all off.

I suppose that subsequently the Indians began to resist capture and retaliate, not wanting to repeat the plight of their ancestors. Just because they refused to be bullied and fought back against their aggressors, does not make them all villainous savages. Even if the later white settlers had been able to control and manipulate the Indians, they still wouldn’t respect them, just as they didn’t the blacks.

I recently learned about the Osage Indians massacre by resentful whites. During the 1920s the Osage tribe claimed a large section of land in Oklahoma, which was discovered to be rich in oil. This made this group of settlers the richest people in the country at the time. When certain whites got wind of that, of course, they would not stand for it. Soon members of the head family of the Osage as well as others started turning up dead. Bombs were set off in their homes and some were poisoned. This coincided with the notorious massacre of the black citizens of Tulsa in 1921, which has also been swept under the rug until just recently.

By 1925 60 wealthy Osage men and women had been killed and their land inherited or deeded off to local white lawyers and businessmen. The FBI, in its early days, but already headed by J. Edgar Hoover, were put on the case to investigate the murders, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they themselves had something to do with it. I don’t put anything past Hoover! There were a few convictions for the media’s sake, but most of the murders have yet gone unsolved.

I don’t blame the Indians either for protesting the use of their tribal and cultural references by White America. Why should they feel honored or flattered to be depicted as college mascots, automobiles and sports teams? The whiteys don’t seem to have any qualms about using the terms “Cherokee” and “Redskins,” but they wouldn’t dare name a car Jeep “Hassid” or a team the Washington “Palefaces.” The disrespect of it all is that I’m sure that these marketers, ball club owners and college sports administrators did not ask anyone’s permission to use these terms. Indians, too, are non-people and their opinions and feelings don’t matter anyway. Moreover, unless the Atlanta Braves, the Boston and Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs are made up entirely of Indians (which, of course, they are not) and those are the names that they gave themselves, what gives these team bosses the right to use such names? That’s like if someone were to name an all-white basketball team the “Watusis.”

I am not so agreeable with referring to any and all American Indians as the only “Native Americans.” Several past generations of my family were born right here, so by rights I could be considered a Native American as well. Native also means “an original or indigenous inhabitant,” but we don’t know for sure that those people have always been here. Some believe that human life began in Africa or at least in Asia. I believe that everybody living in North and South America now came from somewhere else prior. Members of the many tribes who we refer to as Indians are classified as Mongoloids and are believed to have migrated to this continent from Mongolia, hence the name, via the Bering Strait.

But were they really the very first people ever to settle the land here? What about the ancient continental civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans? Or were they all just different tribes of the same people? It’s just like the eastern settlers who expanded to the West until they hit the Pacific Ocean. Some of these Asian immigrants chose to remain in the northernmost regions of the Arctic and became Eskimos, while those who desired your warmer climes made their expansion southward as far as Mexico, Central America and ultimately, to the southern tip of South America. Still others claimed for their new homes all of the many offshore islands they encountered along the way.

Let me give you the T on “squaw.” Most of the non-Indian, general public think that squaw is simply the term for an American Indian woman or wife. But that meaning of the word has only been perpetuated by the French settlers who introduced it. By some later accounts, squaw is actually an Algonquian word, roughly translated as “cunt.” It is not at all surprising to me that these racist, misogynists would refer to the women with that term. “Hey, squaw (cunt), bring your butt over here!” What happened, unfortunately, is that the term caught on as the word to which to refer to any and all American Indian women, and it has endured until this day. So just remember the next time you use the word or hear someone else use it, how disrespectful you or they are being to women in general. You may say that people are not being disrespectful intentionally, since they probably don’t know what the word really means. But I have always been told that ignorance is no excuse. So now you do know better.

There are some cultural linguists, however, who debunk that derogatory designation of the word and consider it non-offensive, but are still willing to concede to the other camp that the word’s use be in general disfavor. I have since learned that an effort has been made to change all American locales that have “Squaw” in their names. Phoenix, Arizona’s popular Squaw Peak, for example, which I had the occasion to climb when I was there in the summer of 1994, has been renamed Piestewa Peak, in honor of Iraq War casualty PFC Lori Piestewa, the first American Indian woman to die in combat for the U.S.

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, again it’s any excuse they can find to perpetuate their unfair prejudice against nonwhites. They were classified by the Government as “enemy non-aliens.“ What does even mean? 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, but you’ll notice that they didn’t put away any of their American counterparts or accuse them of being Nazis and Mussolini sympathizers. But why not, I ask rhetorically? At least these stateside 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, you see. 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. Perhaps it’s just remorse.

So, during the ’40s it was the American Japanese people who were persecuted and reviled. Today, it’s any and every person of the Muslim faith. Don’t wait around until one of them does something bad. Keep them out and ostracize them before they get the chance to commit an act of terrorism. We all know that the only reason they want to come here is to take over and destroy our country. That has been the goal of every immigrant for the last 500 years or so. Why should these people be any different? All that nonsense about wanting a better life is merely a ploy to get here and infiltrate us innocent, law-abiding citizens. Of course, I am being sarcastic, although I am not the first and only one who has said that.

President Trump was doing a press conference with the Vice-President at his side.
President Trump: “The less immigrants, the better.”
VP Pence: “The fewer.”
Trump: “Shh, don’t call me that in public…just yet.”

[Related articles: Black History, Part 1–Did You Know?; Black History, Part 3–Racism via Show Business; Black History, Part 4–Criminal Injustice; Black History, Part 5–Biased Concerns; Color Issues; Some Racial Observations; Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise; Walt Disney, a Racist?–Who’d’ve Thunk It?]

School Days

I have become aware of the fact that I was fortunate enough to have been afforded a more than adequate, well-rounded, primary education. With the help of my mother and grandmother—thankfully, both my live-in grandparents were functionally-literate—I had actually begun to learn to read and count even before I started kindergarten at Linden Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana. So with that head start, reading, writing and arithmetic came very easily to me, as well as did grammar and spelling.

I used to win all the class spelling bees when we had them. The one word that I missed one time, though, was Fascist. I was totally unfamiliar with the word at the time and had never seen it in print. My friends were impressed because I knew and could spell antidisestablishmentarianism, until I learned a better one: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis! It never occurred to me that the things I was being taught in school might be useless information, so I naturally absorbed and retained everything I was given. Of course, it helped that I had great teachers to guide and encourage me. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Daniels, and then Mrs. Johnson in the 3rd grade, citing only two, took a special interest in me early on.

Another case of life imitating art, in those days it was apparently all right to practice discipline and corporal punishment when students got out of line, not like it is now, because my teachers at Linden, it seemed, had no qualms about spanking, even beating us. We were particularly afraid of Miss Esma Williams, the music teacher, for she owned a thick, wooden paddle, which contained the engraved inscription, “To Impress You”. She didn’t mind using it either. In fact, I think she rather relished it. She got me a couple of times, too, although I don’t remember what I did to deserve it.

My arithmetic teacher, Mr. Algie Oldham, was not one to spare the rod either. He used to beat me with his pointer stick almost every day. I remember being a good and well-behaved pupil. I can’t believe that I deserved to be hit so often. I was sitting there in math class one day minding my own business when Mr. Oldham said, “Clifford, come on up here and get your daily beating.” ‘What did I do now, Mr. Oldham?’ (We pronounced his name just like it’s spelled, you know, like aged, cured pigmeat.) “I don’t know, but you’re too quiet over there. You must be up to something.” ‘Hunh?!’

I think that some of those teachers just had a sadistic streak about them. They would never get away with such actions today, as it would be considered unacceptable child abuse. But it was allowed in those days, and they sure took advantage of the privilege. Ironically, though, despite their propensity for freewill flagellation, I consider Mr. Oldham and Miss Williams to be two of my best teachers. Mr. Oldham, a big man, years later served as principal at three other public schools in town. He reminds me of actor Chi McBride, who played the school principal, Steven Harper, on TV’s “Boston Public.” Mr. Oldham is now deceased, and Riley High School, where he last served as principal, has named their gymnasium after him.

Here are some distinctions I acquired while I was at Linden. I was awarded certificates for “Outstanding Achievement” in reading, art, the Honor Roll and for “Meritorious Service” on the school safety patrol. Upon completion of the 6th grade, Linden would bestow the titles of “Outstanding Boy and Girl” (sort of like elementary valedictorians), and I was sure that I would get it, as I consistently had the highest grade-point average of any student there. But my homeroom teacher, Edward Myers, who was the basketball coach and later became school principal and who made the choices for Outstanding Boy and Girl that year, picked the less-worthy Gerry Hudson, who happened to be one of his team players. Gerry himself knew that he did not deserve the honor. He had often asked me for help with his lessons. For the graduation and awards ceremony I was the one asked to deliver the address to the class. Uh, why me? I wondered. Shouldn’t that be Gerry’s job as so-called top student? But I did it instead. I recited, from memory, Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem If.

One of my disappointments of not being chosen Outstanding Boy was that the winner’s name was added to a plaque, which hung on the wall in the front entranceway of the school. For years after, I hated seeing Gerry Hudson’s name up there in embossed bronze instead of my own. Jean Walker was our Outstanding Girl that year, and I had no problem with her eligibility. It’s all for naught now, however, because the names and plaque are no longer there, since the school was demolished years ago.

I have even forgiven Myers for passing me over. In an article published in the South Bend Tribune some years ago, I learned that Ed Myers was a World War II Army veteran who was stationed in Okinawa when the war ended. And like me, he served as the mail clerk for his unit. He soon discovered that many of the men to whom he delivered letters were illiterate. So he would read the letters to the soldiers who couldn’t read and would even pen a reply to them. That’s when he decided to be a teacher. I can’t help but wonder if he had known that someday I would follow in his footsteps as I did, maybe he would have been more respectful of me. I have more respect for him, now that I know those things about him. As he is dead now, I can’t even talk with him about it.

In my junior year of high school, due to my excellence in Spanish, I was selected to represent my school in the state Spanish Contest, held at Indiana University in Bloomington. I didn’t win anything, as it turned out, but it was my first time that I got to stay overnight out of town. I would practice the language by translating poems and song lyrics into Spanish. I did A Visit from St. Nicholas and several songs from Hair and Messiah, for example. But I think that my most gratifying assignment that I ever did for second-year Spanish was when I translated Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” into Spanish, memorized it and then recited it for the class. I had quite the retentive mind in those days. My teacher, Mr. Aguirre, as well as the whole class, all were quite impressed, that is, once they figured out what the hell I was doing!

I did have my share of childhood injuries, I am sorry to say. While at Linden–I don’t recall what grade I was in–I fell on a radiator and busted the back of my head open. You know the big metal kind that stands up against a wall or window, and each section of the thing has a narrow, tapered edge? My seat in homeroom was right next to one. These chairs had the smooth metal tips that didn’t provide much friction on the wooden floors. I was leaning back in my chair one day, trying to avoid the advances of classmate Shirley Paige, and it slipped from under me, causing me to fall and bump my head on the radiator behind me. That required just three stitches.

I fractured my wrist jumping out of a park swing, which I used to do on a regular basis. This time I didn’t land on my feet, as I was supposed to. I fractured my arm another time when I tripped over a dog while on my bike. It was running alongside me, but then got in front of my front tire, causing the bike to fall over, and I landed on my left wrist.

I once badly cut my forehead and forearm from going through a plate-glass window. I guess that requires some explanation, too. People frequently ask me, “How did you get that scar on your forehead?” I jokingly tell them that it’s my “ghetto scar,” then I show them my right arm and tell them that they are a set. (“It really is no ghetto scar; what happened was just this…”) I was around 11 or 12, I think. I was over at the Linden schoolyard playing with my homies, and we were choosing who was to be “It” for Hide ‘n’ Seek by racing the length of the walkway that lead up to the front doors of the school building. When I reached the doors, running (I got there first), and touched the glass pane, it shattered on impact. I was initially worried about breaking the window. I didn’t know that I was cut until I raised my head and blood started trickling down my face. That’s when I kinda freaked, and the big boys on the playground ran to my aid—unlike my playmate Nathan Jones, who ran away down the street lamenting, “He gonna die! He gonna die!” If it were up to him, I probably could have.

My mother was soon at my side (we lived just down the street) and drove me directly to the hospital. During the ride I noticed a towel wrapped around my right arm. So I removed the towel and looked at my arm. The flesh was splayed open down to the bone, as if done by a cleaver. ‘Ugh,’ I said, and replaced the towel. I hadn’t even felt the cut. My arm required about 40 stitches and 6 more in my forehead. I don’t remember this injury being particularly painful, fortunately. I guess that the cuts were so deep, they must have bypassed all the surface nerve endings.

Then only a couple of weeks later, while my arm was still bandaged up, I was struck by a car while on my bike! When I think back, I don’t even know how it happened. My brother, Earl, and I were on our way to the movie theater downtown on our bikes. And as we were crossing to the other side of the street we were on, a car appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and just like in the movies, time sort of stood still for a moment, or at least slowed down. I remember trying to pedal to get out of the way of the approaching car, and my bike would not move! I was just suspended in place, as in a dream. When the car hit me, I was knocked up into the air and landed on my head and shoulder (I‘ve never worn a helmet, then or even now). I then must have been rendered unconscious for a moment, because the next thing I knew, there was a bunch of people standing over me. I remember thinking, Where did all these people come from so suddenly? I wasn’t seriously hurt, as it turned out—just a bump on the head—but my poor bike was a twisted wreck! The white man who struck me, out of kind remorse, I suppose, did have my bike replaced.

Earl Jr., too, was sustaining some injuries of his own at about the same time as I was. While playing Little League softball, he broke his ankle sliding into home plate. He had a cast on his leg for weeks. Another time during our annual summer church picnic at Potawatomie Park (South Bend’s near equivalent of NY’s Central Park), Junior called himself entertaining the crowd gathered there; he was really showing off. He lined up a bunch of park benches, ten, I think, one behind the other, and decided to try to jump over all of them. Well, Evel Knievel he’s not. In his attempt he didn’t quite make it all the way across. His foot kicked the last bench, causing him to hit his right arm on one of the benches behind. This resulted in a dislocated elbow–it was knocked around to the front of his arm! This, too, required a cast on his whole arm.

So, between the two of us, we were accumulating a lot of medical expenses, and it was our father who was footing the bills, apparently. Dad came over to our house one day (he didn’t live with us) and reprimanded us with, “Don’t y’all break nothin’ else…not even a toenail!” Actually, we both fared well after those few mishaps, and I didn’t require any more medical care until I was well into adulthood, and any incurred expenses therefore became my responsibility.

Linden and then Central Junior High and High Schools all had chorus classes, and from the 4th grade on, I was always enrolled in one. It was Miss Williams who taught me my first song in a foreign language (Latin): “Panis Angelicus” by Cesar Franck. Even earlier, like in 2nd and 3rd grades, I had a homeroom teacher who made us sing in class all the time. Mrs. Ades was quite gaudy. She wore too much makeup and lots of jangle jewelry, but she was fun. We’d do things like “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” and other action-participatory songs. My junior high music teacher, Mr. Daniel Miller (he was too fine!), offered some music appreciation, as well, in his chorus classes.

(# Bill! I love you so, I always will… #)
But it was Mr. William Chapman, the faculty head of the chorus classes and the glee club at Central, who, I came to realize, was my greatest inspiration and favorite teacher. I can attribute most of my musical knowledge to what I learned from Mr. Chapman. I lost contact after high school and didn’t know where he moved to when he left Central and South Bend. I wanted so much to let him know how I turned out and that I hold him directly responsible for my career and success in music and being where I am today. I tried people search engines and locator services to no avail. I had a database list that contained 300 William Chapmans in the United States alone. I certainly wasn’t going to contact each name until I found the right one.

After so many years passed, I had about given up hope to finding my mentor. He’s probably dead by now anyway, I had concluded. Well, as luck would have it, when I received the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia (music fraternity) Alumni Directory that I had ordered earlier in the year (2007), I looked up Bill’s name on a mere whim. I didn’t know if Bill was a fellow Sinfonian or not. But there he was, listed with his home and e-mail addresses and phone number! Of course, I called right away to confirm that it was he, and Bill answered the phone. I told him who I was and was relieved and pleased that he was still alive, first of all, and that he remembered me. I told him what his musical training and tutelage has meant to me, which he told me made his day. He was retired from teaching and living in California. We remained in regular contact for the next ten years until he died in 2017 at the age of 92. His wife of 50 years had died the year before. I am glad that I found him before it was too late.

Central High School was really located right in the center of town and consisted of three separate buildings—the high school, the junior high and the vocational building, which housed the auto, drafting, electric, machine and wood shops, and all were connected by aerial ramps between the buildings. Central served the several other, what they called, “feeder” middle schools of the surrounding areas, so the student body was made up of kids from every neighborhood and section of town.

I truly loved Central, its facilities (we had two large gymnasiums, two auditoriums, a swimming pool and cafeteria), its comfortable, spacious classrooms, its faculty and students. The cafeteria served daily “plate lunches” for 35 cents! Can you believe it? And they were big meals with real nutritious food, too! And those little half-pint cartons of milk cost just 3 cents!

We had a full curriculum program, including foreign languages (French, German, Latin and Spanish), shop classes, the full gamut of athletics, music (Chorus, Band, Orchestra, Music Appreciation and Theory), art and drama. Two electives that I now wish I had taken when I had the chance are Chemistry and Physics. I didn’t realize my interest in science until later on. Although I liked and did well in math, I had had my fill of it after Algebra and Geometry, so I also passed on Trigonometry and Calculus. As I said, I was an honor student all through elementary, but I did slack off a bit when I got to junior high school. I did okay in all my required subjects in high school, except U.S. History (which I’ll discuss later).

There definitely was a high incidence of “old maid schoolteachers” in those days. Most of my female teachers at Central were unmarried—Miss Dienhart, Miss Korb, Miss Kruckel, Miss Matthews, Miss Smoger, Miss Waterman—and I am sure that there were some sapphists in the bunch. Kruckel and Matthews, for example, both short-haired “stompers,” were the girls’ gym teachers and seemed to be very chummy with each other. Many of us kids suspected that they were probably lovers, or at least “brothers.”

Central’s Glee Club was particularly fine (at least I thought that we were at the time) and provided the singers for all of the school’s musical productions. Our drama teacher, James Lewis Casady, was very competent and put on quite ambitious presentations. One year they actually did Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the next year, Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, in which I appeared. Slew-footed Mr. Casady used to call me “Clarence”; he apparently could never remember my right name. Or maybe he did it on purpose; I’m not sure. He did have a phenomenal memory for direction anyway and wouldn’t allow us to deviate. When he blocked a scene, he remembered exactly where he told everybody to be. “Uh, Clarence, you are in the wrong spot. You should be one step to your left.” Damn! How did he remember that from last week?! Being rather exacting myself, I admired his perfectionism. We did some fun shows with him, high-quality all the way.

There was a separate, storage space next to the high school building that housed Casady’s massive collection of costumes from his many years of producing shows. He would take us students in there to be fitted for the appropriate costumes needed for his plays, and he knew where everything was. He would waddle through rows and rows of the thousands of garments, accessories and props and find just the right item he wanted.

There was a rumor around school that Casady had been offered directing jobs in Hollywood, but he always turned them down. He told them that he was quite content staying where he was and working with us kids. It could have been, too, that being a “mama’s boy” and bachelor, he didn’t want to leave his dear, old mother, who was ailing and probably did not want to move way out there. He still lived with her, only a block away from the school, and they remained together until she died.

Our glee club also was selected to perform on local TV every year at Christmastime. Every year in the fall there would be a regional teachers’ conference held in South Bend, and for entertainment they would form a mass choir to sing, made up of all the choruses from all the high schools in the district and county. South Bend itself had five schools at the time. I’m talking many hundreds of singers here, okay? Then they would call in a guest conductor each year to direct the festivities. Of course, I participated every year, and it was great fun. We sang under Chicago conductor Margaret Hillis one year.

In junior high and high school, my extracurricular choral activities consisted of the All-City Chorus as well as smaller ensembles. My brother Earl, some friends and I formed our own makeshift doo-wop group for a short while, although we never got to perform publicly anywhere. I was the only real aspiring “star” in the group. The others weren’t serious about going public. They didn’t want to work. I did, however, participate in some more serious endeavors with my singer friends who were more accomplished in music. I formed a barbershop quartet (trained and coached by Bill Chapman), variously known as The Manuels and the Deluxe Barbershop Quartet (the name inspired by my next-door neighbor, Herbert Barham’s tonsorial parlor), that got to appear on local TV a couple of times.

I had success with an enterprising chorus of high-school students who sang around town, in churches mostly, although a good deal of our repertoire was secular, much of it learned in Chapman’s chorus classes. We called ourselves The Chamelons (hard C). I also sang with other amateur community groups, including the Aeolian Chorale and the Juantos. All these groups were good fun and great experience for me. Like all prepubescent boys, I was a soprano when I started singing. I sang alto in junior high chorus class and became a tenor when I started 9th grade. By the time I entered 12th grade, my voice had changed enough for me to be able to sing the bass part in chorus. But rather than my voice shifting downward proportionately as I changed vocal registers, my range increased instead. Now I could sing lower notes that I could not before while retaining my upper notes as well. I could still sing the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, high Fs and all!

I am aware of the fact that the public school experience in my day was not fraught with the peril that students have to put up with nowadays. We didn’t have to worry about kids toting guns and knives to school and being afraid for our very lives. Central had a very large, racially-mixed population, and on the whole, was pretty much free of serious racial conflict and bigotry (at least, among the students), which is another reason why I appreciate where I grew up.

There were no Asians at Central that I remember. We had a foreign exchange student from Spain, I think, and only one or two other Latinas the whole time I was there. My graduation class (of 1965) alone had 450 students, but we all seemed to get along with each other very well. I met some of these same people at my 35-year class reunion, and they were still just as nice and non-bigoted as they were when we were in school.

One of my schoolmates, Bruce Best, who became my dorm neighbor during my first year at I.U., has organized a weekly Zoom session, by which Central classmates can get together and chat, reminisce and play catch-up on our lives since high school. At present we have about 12 or so regulars and a few more occasional attendees. We discuss current events and reflect on what it was like growing up in South Bend and our impressions of Central. I always thought that our beloved alma mater was bereft of any racial discrimination, but then found out during one of our sessions that the school had sponsored some social fraternities and sororities for the white students only, of which the black students were totally unaware. I don’t know how they managed to keep it a secret all that time. There was even no mention of them in our yearbook.

During the six years that I attended Central (it was my junior high as well), I probably can count on one hand the number of fights or physical altercations that I witnessed between my fellow students. As I was always there and was very socially-active, if there was any trouble, I was there to witness it. And then, whenever there was a fight, it was always minor hand-to-hand combat—you know, slapping, kicking, pulling hair, nothing real serious. The girls, especially, were more into public humiliation and name-calling. Their favorite modus operandi was to rip each other’s clothes off, especially blouses and bras, to expose their opponent’s bare breasts to the eager spectators. The boys, I included, loved it. We didn’t know anything about shooting or stabbing a fellow classmate over some minor, stupid disagreement.

Things sure have changed in 50 years, haven’t they? Nowadays, a kid will kill you if you look at him wrong. “Whatchu lookin’ at, muth’fucka?” BAM! And the girls, instead of ripping your blouse off, now will slash your face with razor blades and box cutters! I mean, what’s a little temporary humiliation when they can ruin your looks and scar you for life?! These kids today do not play!

Central was closed down years ago and the junior high and vocational buildings were demolished and the space made into a parking lot. The main school building was about to meet the same fate, when some insightful entrepreneur got the inspired idea to turn it into an apartment complex instead. All the classrooms, the gym, even the swimming pool, now have been converted into private apartments. There are some alumni residents there now. If I ever moved back to South Bend, which at this point is very unlikely, I would consider living there myself.

It is automatically assumed by people who know me that I graduated from high school in the normal fashion. There is no reason to think otherwise. I mean, I did graduate eventually, but not in June with my Senior Class. My History teacher, Mr. Poorbaugh, chose to flunk me in my last semester, preventing me from graduating. At Linden I was a straight-A honor student. I received my first D in junior high and all throughout high school, some of my grades proved to be less than exemplary. My SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores were good enough to be accepted into college when I applied. My problem with U.S. History was that I just did not enjoy the class as it was, so I did not do the required work.

Ironically, I do like history, in theory, but the kind of history I am interested in—black history, gay history, cultural history, something pertinent to me—isn’t what was being taught at my school. I believe that teaching should be combined with entertainment. I, like most children, tend to retain knowledge if we are allowed actively to participate in the learning process. I enjoy filmed documentaries, for instance, which we didn’t have much of in those days, and playing games is a good way to learn. So there might have been some defiance on my part, plus my dislike of my previous teacher, Mr. Schultz, and then Poorbaugh after him. He apparently did not care too much for me either, considering his actions. This is not so much an excuse than an explanation of the situation.

If I were on a school board and cared anything about the students, I would be suspicious about the teacher involved. This particular student (me) has a history of constantly-good grades, and this one teacher does not want him to graduate because of a problem with one minor subject. How is that even fair? It’s not that the kid cannot read or count or is deficient in any of the more important life skills. It’s only a U.S. History course, for Christ’s sakes! You know, being as bright and as talented as I am, if I am not learning what I am supposed to know, maybe Poorbaugh isn’t doing his job. He’s the teacher. He needs to take some responsibility himself. I would question him to see if he has his own agenda or has something against this particular student. Maybe he is one those closet bigots who won’t express his racist views out in the open but will use his power of passive aggression to hold us back. There were white kids in my class who were far less smart than I am, and they managed to pass!

I suppose that I should not be using the “race card” as I certainly was not the only black kid in my graduating class, by any means. But I shouldn’t dismiss it as a possible motive either. Poorbaugh explained that he was doing this for my “own good.” Yeah, they tried to use that rationale during slavery times, too, telling us that it was for our own good. “You all are getting free room and board, and we are getting that savageness out of you and turning you into good God-fearing Christians.” Well, thank you and fuck you! Poorbaugh sounded pretty condescending to me. He tried to convince me that I needed this History course to get me through life. ‘But, Sir, I intend to be a musician and performer, not a historian!’ Of course, that didn’t matter to him one bit, as he already had made up his mind.

So the bastard flunked me anyway, requiring me to make up the course during the subsequent summer school session. As a result, I did not get to participate in my class’ Commencement exercises. Well, I did, in a way. While my classmates were processing to receive their individual diplomas, I was relegated to the orchestra, which accompanied their steps. It was a rather awkward situation for me–you know, being there but not doing what I should have been there for. But the trouper that I am, I didn’t let it get me down.

It proved to be a great disappointment to my father, which, I suppose, is understandable. If my mother was at all disappointed, she never told me so and never held it against me. She wouldn’t have the right to judge anyway, since she never finished high school herself. At least I did finish eventually and even went on to college. I don’t know my father’s educational history. I know that he didn’t go to college, but whether he finished high school or not, I have no idea. Having not grown up with my father–my parents divorced when I was only three–I don’t know a whole lot about his early years. When we did get together, we always talked about other things.

So that summer of 1965, while I was working for the South Bend Street Department (my first paid job) as a street cleaner and paver, I was going to school to make up the History course I had failed previously. I regret that I had to drop out of the summer’s local theatrical production of The King and I, because the rehearsals interfered with my more-important study and homework time. I did pass the course this time, with a different and better teacher, so I must not have been the problem after all. I received my diploma in August, just a few days before leaving for college.

I learned that actor Martin Sheen and I have this in common. He also was flunked in his senior year of high school and had to attend summer school to get his diploma. And he didn’t turn out so badly either, did he? The unfairness of it all is that teachers all the time still allow students to graduate who are functionally illiterate and are deficient in math and every other subject–some don’t even know where they live, looking at a state map!–but I, who am highly intelligent with an academic future not dependent on sports alone to get me by in life, get held back on one man’s arbitrary decision to deny me graduation.

I have mixed emotions about my college years. First of all, I originally never intended to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. My family had no money for college, so I had never built up any hopes of ever attending. I had considered joining the Air Force or the Peace Corps as alternatives. But my father came to me one day during my senior year and told me that he would try to make it possible for me to go to college. He didn’t really do anything, however. I myself applied for some local scholarships, but nothing panned out for me. In the meantime, I went on and applied to Indiana University (the Bloomington campus) and to my utter astonishment, I was readily accepted!

It all happened kind of fast. My best friend at the time from high school, Leo Warbington, was more sure about what he wanted to do, and he pretty much told me what I was doing, too. I was still rather impressionable in those days, not as sure of myself, and I would allow myself to be manipulated by stronger-willed persons than myself. So it was Leo who decided for both of us that we would apply to I.U. because of its reputable music department (Is it? I didn’t know), with the intent to enroll in the Music School, with the intent to work toward a Bachelor of Music Education degree, with the intent to what, teach? some day and/or perhaps, secure a position in a major orchestra. At least that was Leo’s initial plan. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do any of those things; I just went along with the program. It was also Leo’s idea for us to room together that first year. He even picked the dorm where we would stay. Leo was a French horn player and my concentration was initially the oboe, which I had been playing for only a year.

As it turned out, college was more than either of us could handle. Leo was more financially secure and did not have to work, whereas I didn’t have that option. Fortunately, I somehow was able to procure an “Educational Opportunity Grant” from the University, which, I suppose, took care of most of my tuition, and I received a National Defense Student Loan of $1,750 for the four years (which I eventually paid back in full in installments, all by myself). Of course, that amount is nothing, considering the price of college tuition these days. In fact, it wasn’t a whole lot even then! But with the few hundred dollars they would give me each semester, I was able to meet my tuition and pay for my books and campus lodging.

Outside of scholarship awards, I don’t think many kids actually pay their own entire college expenses, as I had to do. Many parents start college funds for their children as soon as they are born, sometimes even before. That would indicate that they are already planning their child’s future for them without consulting them about it. Maybe they don’t want to go to college. Shouldn’t that be the youngster’s decision? Then some even decide what college their kids will attend. The teen has no say-so about their own life. “Look, I’m paying for it, so I’ll tell you where to go and what courses to take.” Luckily for me, since I was paying my own way, I could make my own decisions, such as they were.

To supplement my loan allowance and to give me a little spending change, I was put on the school’s Work-Study Program, but the required work time turned out to be disproportionate to the much-more-needed study time. I held various jobs while fulfilling my Work-Study obligations. I was in the library business for a while, shelving books in one and xeroxing articles from non-circulating volumes in others. I liked that job, as it kept me on the go, and I didn’t have to sit around in one place all the time. It gave me the opportunity to learn the campus, too, as I scampered hither and yon retrieving requested material from books and periodicals from the various libraries. I was transferred from my previous shelving job in the Music Library because I couldn’t resist sitting back among the stacks reading the interesting books and scores that I came across, when I was supposed to be working.

For a while I worked as a typesetter and proofreader for the campus newspaper, The Daily Student (or as it was affectionately called, “The Daily Stupid“). I also served for one year as the editor-in-chief and journalist for The Lowe Blow, a newsletter published by and for my dormitory unit, Lowe House, in Wright Quadrangle. This was in addition to everything else I was doing, so I had to give it up as I had little to no time to devote to it. I don’t like to do anything half-assed, especially something creative. Out here in the real world, that would be a person’s full-time job.

I once was hired to type an extensive term paper for one of my off-campus housemates, who then tried to renege on paying me, after all my hard work. This was the days before word processors, when we were still using old, standard, manual typewriters. I rarely had time to do my own class assignments, let alone somebody else’s. He wasn’t a friend; I hardly even knew the man. Did he expect me to do his work for nothing, as poor as I was?

I eventually entered the food service venue and worked as a waiter and busboy for about three years altogether, in the Tudor Room on-campus and the Poplars Hotel restaurant off-campus. At the Tudor Room, I got to serve a few celebrities, namely, the now-deceased, portly opera diva Montserrat Caballé (or as she was known in opera circles, “Monster-fat Cowbelly”), dead songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and the late poet/playwright Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). The latter autographed a page of his play The Baptism, that I just happened to have with me at the time. His son, Ras Baraka, is the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey (as of this writing), whom I got to sing for one Sunday, when he attended a church service in town where I worked.

One day my boss, Mrs. Tower, proudly informed me that one of the people in my serving section was “the man who put the float in Ivory Soap!” I wasn’t as impressed as she seemed to be. I just twirled my finger in the air and mumbled a ‘Whoop-Dee-Doo!’ I also served as a sous-chef at Sully’s restaurant in town, and a kitchen helper for only one weekend at the Pizzaria, which was a popular, off-campus student hangout. They made the most delicious pizzas than anybody. Among my duties at Sully’s, I made salads, ladled the soups and prepared the appetizers for the servers, including deveining the shrimp for the shrimp cocktails.

Well, Leo and I both flunked out at the end of our first year. It wasn’t our music courses that either of us had trouble with. Having had the same musical training in high school, our music theory and literature classes were a breeze to us. In fact, we both tested out of first- and second-year theory. It was those outside, required non-music courses that were our downfall, such as Psychology, Government and English Composition (who had time to read and write themes all the time?), among others. We had no contact with the professors all year, they didn’t even know our names or even who was in their class.

I am the type of person who learns by actual doing, by practical, hands-on application. Don’t lecture me on how something is done. Show me how to do it myself. I didn’t learn math, how to write or type, musical instrument proficiency, computer operation, or anything else, by listening to somebody talk about it. I could not abide lecture classes. That was my problem in high school with History. It was my problem all through college and even in Basic Training. Don’t lecture me! It puts me right to sleep.

I found out that since I.U. is a state-supported school, in-state applicants were more likely to be accepted, so one of the ways to weed out the unworthy ones was to make all freshmen students take all those, in my opinion, pointless mass lecture courses. Other than offering scholarships to kids to pay their tuition and expenses, colleges and universities charge exorbitant fees to attend their institutions, so I don’t understand why interested students have to apply and then to be accepted before they are allowed to go there. I would think that those who are paying their way would readily be accepted, and the school would be pleased to be chosen. Why would they turn down a paying customer? Since it is all about money anyway, why should they care about the student’s academic potential, prospects or why they chose that particular school?

Another major complaint and big disappointment about I.U. was their compulsory curriculum requirement, the school administration arbitrarily deciding which courses every student must take to obtain a certain degree. I consider college itself to be elective advanced education. No one absolutely has to go to college to learn what they want to know. We had a variety of subjects in high school which should have given us the necessary, general education. So the purpose of college and other institutions of “higher learning,” in my opinion, should be to specialize in a particular field of study. A person who enrolls in a beauty college isn’t required to take English Comp. and Psychology along with their Hair and Makeup courses. I wanted to study music, so let me just study music! I had all that other crap back in high school! If I want to take a non-music subject on my own, then let it be an elective, not a requirement.

I mean, for all the money that we’re giving these people every year, I would think that they would let us choose our own curricula. They could sit each student down with a counselor and ask them what their specific interests are, and let them take those courses—you know, customized curricula within a chosen field. I have since learned that now there are colleges that do let enrolled students set up their own study programs, so it seems that somebody eventually picked up on this idea. I wish that I had had that option back in ‘65-’69.

So my problem in college was that while I was excelling in all my music courses, which I liked, I was flunking all the other shit, which I deplored. I liked being at I.U. enough that I decided to petition the Dean to let me come back the following fall to continue my studies. I was granted a continuance, and I did manage to bring my grade point average up a bit that second year. It is rather ironic that Leo, who at first was more gung-ho about I.U. than I was, did not do anything to try to get back in. So now out of school and back home, he was promptly drafted and went off to serve his two years with the Army Band, spending his last six months of his term in Vietnam.

The first semester of my third year turned out to be my best, academic-wise. Every student (at least, in the music school) is sort of on probation for the first two years. We have to prove our musical worthiness, I suppose. So at the end of our sophomore year, every music student is required to take what is called an “Upper Divisional Examination.” At this hearing we audition for the music faculty, who then evaluate our work to that point to determine whether we have the “right stuff” to continue in our chosen field. Well, apparently I didn’t, according to those professors, or at least one in particular. It was decided that I had not progressed enough on oboe to continue as a major. In fact, I should think about getting out of music altogether. I was wasting my time, you see. I would never make it as a professional musician.

How dare those people assess my entire life for me! They didn’t know me or knew the extent of my talents and interests. Being a virtuoso oboist is not the only facet of music that there is. It was never my intention to replace Ray Still in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra any time soon. Apparently, I was good enough to play in both of the school’s bands and several orchestras before and since. So not wanting to give up just yet, I made a compromise by changing degrees and my concentration for the upcoming term. I then went on to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Music degree with a double concentration in Voice and Spanish! So I didn’t play the oboe well enough to suit those old farts? I dare them to tell me that I can’t sing!

This next semester I was in a sort of curricular limbo, because for once I decided to defy authority and take some courses that I wanted to take, for a change. One of those was Orchestration, a music school course that was not even on my original curriculum. I don’t know why it wasn’t, since I was interested in arranging the whole time I was there. But they didn’t know that, because nobody ever asked. I suppose that their rationale was that only composition majors need to take Orchestration. What would a prospective music teacher need with it? Again, shouldn’t that be my decision? Why should I limit myself so? Maybe this music teacher is also a composer and arranger. Maybe this music teacher is interested in musical theater, acting and stagecraft (another set of courses that were absent from my program). Maybe this music teacher would someday like to produce his own solo record album! I have numerous skills and interests. Pigeon holes are for pigeons.

Anyway, I received straight A’s in my Orchestration course, by the way. It was a cinch for me, and I liked the teacher, jazzman David Baker. There was nothing he could teach me, however, as every assignment that I turned in was perfect. So I guess I didn’t need that course after all. Also that first semester, I took two required Spanish courses. One was a very boring lecture class where the professor conducted the class entirely in español, and we had to read Spanish novels and plays and such. And I thought English Lit was tedious! The other was a Spanish Composition course, in which we had to write themes and answer questions in class. I liked the teacher and she seemed to like me. To illustrate my earlier point, the passive literature-lecture course, I flunked, while the active Comp course, I aced, with no trouble at all. At least this course counted toward my new degree, but there was a whole lot more undesirable crap I still had to take as well.

The next year-and-a-half, though, got progressively worse. I couldn’t keep on taking electives that didn’t count toward anything, but the shit I had to take, I hated with a passion. Anthropology, Classical Mythology, Introduction to Teaching, Nutrition, Public Speaking—it wasn’t so much the courses themselves; I chose them thinking that I could get something out of them–it was the tedious classes with the boring professors that I couldn’t abide. It got so that I wouldn’t go to any of those classes. I would sign up for the course, go a couple of times, then they wouldn’t see me for the whole rest of the term. So naturally, I either flunked everything or was given the grade of Incomplete. I took a French course also that year, which I did attend those classes and did fairly well in.

While at I.U. I did get to take my first series of voice lessons ever, first with a graduate assistant named David Martin, who didn’t know quite what to do with me and my voice, or didn’t care, so I didn’t care too much for him either. Then I later got to study for one semester (I think) with the late opera baritone Pablo Elvira, who was on the I.U. voice faculty at the time. I liked him a little better, but I don’t remember his telling me anything that I didn’t already know. That’s the thing about big universities. There are so many students, it’s virtually impossible to give each one quality individual attention. It’s not like with private tutors and hired instructors whose students pay them directly in exchange for concentrated personal instruction. Their incentive is, if they don’t get definite results or don’t teach their students something, they will lose them as clients, and thus lose the money they were getting from them. Those college professors and other instructors get paid their regular salaries even if they don’t help their students. Some of them didn’t care whether we learned anything or not.

After Pablo, I have never had another voice instructor since. That could very well be a blessing. Maybe the reason that I still have a good voice (it’s stronger and richer than ever) is because I haven’t had anybody to screw it up. Up until about 40 years ago, I never could afford voice lessons. So when I eventually could afford it, I figured that if I have gotten by successfully this long without them, why bother to start at that late date? I can’t have done something for 70 years (that is, singing) and not picked up a few pointers about it. Considering the success that I’ve had with my voice all these years, the durability and flexibility that I have maintained, the many compliments I have received and the pleasure I have given so many people over the years, I must be doing something right.

The college held a campus-wide vocal competition every year called the “I.U. Sing,” and my first year there I entered the contest on behalf of Lowe House, my dorm. Ten of us as a group qualified in the Men’s Choral Division and won, beating out Beta Theta Pi fraternity, who had won the three previous years. Our set consisted of three songs, including “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. Leo and I both went up to accept the award, our being the co-directors of the group. We were given a trophy but didn’t retain it. We had to share it with the whole dorm, so it was put into the House’s trophy case. I entered the competition the next year, too, but with a mixed chorus this time, Lowe House teaming up with the women’s dorm next to ours. We did not win a second time, however.

The Lowe House Men’s Chorus at the I.U. Sing (That’s me on the far left.)

One of my class assignments for my music theory course, a movement from a Clementi piano sonatina arranged for string quartet, was chosen to be performed in class. In the first two years as an oboe major, I played in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Varsity-Civic Band. I even played recorder with an early music group called Collegium Musicum. All three ensembles gave concerts on campus as well as occasional out-of-town engagements. For a full account of my stint with the Singing Hoosiers, read my blog entitled, On the Road with Cliff.

(# I am a worm…a lowly, slimy, scummy worm…to the men of Phi Mu Alpha. #)
I pledged two fraternities while I was at I.U. I became a member of the Gamma Tau Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity in my junior year. There was a five-month pledge period, and I was initiated in March. The club operated out of the Music School. Each pledge was assigned a “pledge father,” who served as our guidance counselor and who prepared us for initiation. The other active members would amuse themselves by playfully harassing the pledges and trying to humiliate us in public. We would be called upon to sing “The Worm Song” (above), if there were enough bystanders present, or one of the guys would have us strike a match and recite the Greek alphabet before the flame reached our fingers.

There was this exchange, referred to as “the Time Speech,” which I, personally, enjoyed doing, being the alliteration aficionado that I am. “Hey, Pledge, what time is it?” one of the actives would ask one of us. ‘Dear Sir, I am deeply burned and mortified by the fires of unhallowed shame, but the circumstances are such that the tremulous tintinnabulations that temper the time-telling tones of my tinny timepiece render it errant, Sir. However, to estimate as nearly as possible to that divine computation given to us by the United States Astronomers, through baffling methods and procedures which are far above my mental powers, Sir, I would approximate the time to be thirty-two ticks and twenty-three tocks past the hour of 5, Sir!’ You see, I haven’t forgotten it. I have no idea who created that, but I love it.

Since we were all music students, the pledges were required to perform in a group recital as part of our initiation, and we participated in “Hell Night,” which was actually a party held for the actives, which allowed them to play harmless pranks on us pledges. We were sent on a scavenger hunt as one of the evening’s activities. I don’t remember the outcome of it, but I do remember one challenging item on my list that I managed to procure without much difficulty. Now where would I find a birth control pill?! I must have gone back to my rooming house to locate some of the other items when whom should I encounter but one of my housemates, Paul Cheifetz, and his girlfriend Nella Hunkins (both cello students), there for a night of lovemaking. Well, it won’t hurt to ask. ‘Nella, do you by any chance have a birth control pill in your possession?’ After explaining why I wanted it, she surprised me with, “Yes, I do, Cliff, and you certainly can borrow it.” I think that I was the only pledge to submit one for the hunt.

We didn’t get into the serious hazing like some of the social fraternities engage in, with excessive drinking and sophomoric, sometimes dangerous, pranks. We were too sophisticated to indulge in such irresponsible shenanigans. During my freshman year, however, I did participate in a silly, campus panty raid with the guys from my dorm. One night we all stormed the women’s dormitories, and as we could not enter the high-rise buildings for hands-on confiscation, the girls actually threw down their panties and other undergarments out the windows to us!

The Sinfonians’ idea of hazing was making us take a difficult music quiz. Even if I could remember it, I wouldn’t reveal the proceedings of the initiation ritual, because it’s supposed to remain shrouded in secrecy. (Ooh!)

During my last year at I.U. I was invited, by my roommate and friend of the previous summer, to pledge Phi Epsilon Pi social fraternity (the one to which Leonard Bernstein belonged), but I left school before I could be initiated. I suppose that they wanted to “diversify,” and I proved to be an acceptable candidate. I never moved into their fraternity house, but I used to eat dinner there (it was free!) with the frat brothers (all white) most every night. They all seemed to like me and treated me respectfully.

In addition to my academic woes, I was struggling financially all the while. All the college jobs that I had paid only minimum wage, and everything I earned went to rent and food. Actually, there were many days when I didn’t even have money to eat. When I moved out of the dorm, I was on my own, as far as meals were concerned. Fortunately, there was a lovely diner on campus whose owners, the Tapp family, bless their hearts, would let me eat there on credit whenever I wanted to, and I would always reimburse them when I got my paycheck.

Also, while I was working my various restaurant jobs, I got to eat for free, so that helped. Well, in the case of the Tudor Room, the servers were not supposed to partake of any of the food there. But do you think that I would be around all that good food every day and as hungry as I was, I wouldn’t get any of it? Hah! Think again! If the diners get theirs, I’m certainly going to get mine! The cooks there liked me and were generous with the leftovers and sendbacks.

Do you want to know from poor? Let me tell you what my net income was for the entire year of 1968. $310.26! I kid you not. To this day, I still don’t know how I managed that. The whole time I was at I.U., from 1965-69, my total net earnings was only $3,455.59. My parents were no help to me whatsoever. My mother didn’t have anything to give me. She was as bad off as I was. But my father could have done more than he did. He was gainfully employed with a decent salary. Besides, it was his idea for me to go to college in the first place. I naturally, though foolishly, assumed that he was going to help me financially. I don’t remember his sending me a cent the whole time I was there. Then he reneged on my would-be graduation present, which was to be a car.

Looking back, I pride myself on having made my way financially ever since I left home and have been on my own. I paid my way through college, I moved and then settled in New York, have maintained an apartment alone for 51 years (in midtown Manhattan, no less!), and produced a commercial solo record album all by myself, without taking a penny from anyone, and not breaking the law either. And all this without having a regular 9-to-5 job. I don’t mean to brag, I am just amazed that I was able to do all that.

I was outed in the dorm the first week I was at Indiana. Our classes had not even begun yet. We were still having Orientation and getting settled in. Wright Quad was an all-male student housing facility on campus that was divided into 16 connected units, or Houses. Leo and I were assigned to Lowe House, but we had already made several friends during Pre-registration with other music students, who lived in the adjacent Elliott House.

After one of our evening powwows that first week at Wright, one of the non-music students, named Bill S., invited me back to his room, having been flirting with me all evening. His roommate was not there, so we were there alone when Bill took off his clothes, turned out the lights in the room and got into bed. So following his lead, I slipped into bed beside him. “Hey, man, what are you doing? I don’t play that shit!” Well, excuse me! So, why did you ask me here? To watch you sleep? In the dark?!

I found out later from Leo that Bill had blabbed to everybody on the floor about me, which prompted the gang to hold a “town meeting” to decide what to do about this faggot in their midst. But apparently, my charm and wit had already won them all over (I had already earned the epithet “Tifford Clownsend”), and no one wanted to see my reputation besmirched. So they let the whole thing drop, and nobody treated me any differently the whole rest of the time I was there. So fairness, tolerance and acceptance won out over paranoid homophobia. And then, too, of course I was not the only queer in the dorm or even on that committee, for that matter, therefore most of them didn’t have the right to judge me anyway. If they had given me the business, I would have pulled a “Harper Valley PTA” on their butts and read them all royally.

So college life at I.U. created an atmosphere of homo-tolerant existence. There was a rather large and quite openly-gay contingent on campus. It was quite easy for us to find each other. The Commons was the snack area and meeting place in the Student Union Building where one could always find the gay boys socializing over in the alcove by the jukebox. We could scream and camp to our hearts’ content and no one ever gave us a hard time about it.

There were even occasional publicized and sanctioned dances for gays held on campus. This was the years 1965-69, the few years prior to the Stonewall Riots in NYC. So when people tell me that that is when Gay Liberation really began, I beg to differ with them, since I and others had had it up to nine years prior. Of course, I made many friends, temporary as well as lifelong, at college, but I won’t give you a complete rundown of everybody. I will cite only a few who made significant impressions on me.

My “sisters” and I used to play a little outing game on campus and off, only we called it “wrecking” in those days. It was when one or more of us would attempt to reveal the homosexuality of another one of us, without his consent, to some unsuspecting straight person(s). We all gave ourselves and each other feminine monikers, or “drag names,” by which we referred to each other in private, but would sometimes call each other by these names in mixed public. The degree of embarrassment that we displayed would determine if we were sufficiently wrecked or not. “Ooh, Shasta (aka Dennis Gillom), she wrecked you!” It wasn’t easy to wreck me, because even then I didn’t care all that much who knew about me. After all, I had already been put through the proverbial wringer that first week. So what can they do to me now?

One of the guys at school did make a grand attempt once, though. We were all out at a Fourth of July fireworks display one summer that was being held at one of the campus stadiums. When it was over and we were in the process of leaving the field, this announcement resounded over the loudspeakers: “Will Miss Cliftina Townsend please report to the Information Counter!” My friends all expected me to be quite wrecked, but I was actually flattered that someone would go to all that trouble, and honored to hear my name paged like that. Nice try, “Teresa” (Terry Jackson), but thanks, anyway.

It has occurred to me that I actually was wrecked once, and by my own mother, no less! I was at home in South Bend. It must have been summer break during my college years. Mother and I were being playful that day, joking around and teasing each other. My friend Charles Bryant was there with me. As we were leaving the house at some point, my mother said, “See you later, Clifftina!” What?! Talk about wrecked! This was years before I officially came out to her. How did she even know my private drag name? I was first dubbed thusly by Phil Sneed. Although I never asked Mama where she got it from, I surmised that she must have been snooping in my room at home and found some correspondence from Phil where he referred to me by that name.

Back to school… If we inadvertently gave ourselves away or let someone know our story by our own actions, that was called “spilling [one’s] beads.” ‘Girls, did you hear about Doris (David) Fairfield spilling her beads to her parents when they came to visit?’ If someone made a gesture or said something that might be construed as gay, we would admonish him with, ‘Pick ’em up!’ referring to the beads he just spilled on the floor, or ‘Butch it up, Mary!’ A really gorgeous guy was said to be “out-of-the-night,” sort of equivalent to today’s “to-die-for.” ‘Amy (Mark Eakins), did you see that hunk that just passed through here?’ “‘I sure did. He’s your much out-of-the-night!”

There was one guy in our circle for a while named Dale Schneck, who we all thought looked like a frog…really. He was short and squat, had pop eyes and walked sort of slewfootedly. So the fellows called him “Toadweena,” but always behind his back, never to his face. You know how youths are always so sensitive of other people’s feelings, right? I never liked him too much, though. Besides being so unattractive, which I would not ordinarily hold against anyone, he was rather insolent with people and often ill-tempered. I entered the Commons one day and joined the gang (all white this time) at our regular niche. Upon seeing me approach, Dale piped up with, “Well, if it isn’t Black Bart!” So the bitch is racist as well! At least for me, being called black was not considered a favorable term in those days. There was some nervous titter from the others, but like Bugs Bunny who also “will not let that action go unchallenged,” I sat down at the table, greeted them, then said directly to Dale, ‘And how are you this afternoon, Toadweena?’ There was less titter this time as they were shocked that I would actually call him by his secret nickname right to his face. He was wrecked. I’ll teach that ugly queen not to get tacky with me! Homey don’t play that! The lesson that I hoped he learned is that if you call people names, realize that they may have epithets for you, too, however unflattering. That was the last time Dale ever disrespected me, at least to my person.

I liked Armand Goldstein from the moment I met him. We were at a pledge party for Phi Mu Alpha, when he introduced himself to me. You see, Armand had a slight stuttering problem. “My name is Armand G-G-Goldstein…with one G.” I thought, This is my kind of guy—cute, with a sense of humor and who can poke fun at himself. We became instant friends and spent a lot of time together, but we never made it in the sack. I never knew if he was gay or not. Armand was a trumpet major from Atlanta, and we were both Burt Bacharach fans. We have been out of touch all these years, but I believe he is still living in Georgia.

Matt Humenick and I became best friends at I.U. and remained close during the following years. He was originally from Hammond, Ind. and after much moving around the country and losing two lovers to AIDS, Matt finally settled in Denver, where he worked as a waiter in a fancy hotel, and where he used to be the chef. He eventually retired, spending his leisure time traveling a lot. He owned the house that he lived in alone. Matt was the one of our group who had his own car, and we went on regular outings together. We would visit the limestone quarries in the area, which were supposed to be off-limits to the general public, but we didn’t care about shit like that.

There was a freshwater pool there, but I never went in swimming. We once found an old, abandoned house in the area which was purported to be haunted, and we actually went inside one night to explore. I don’t know if it really was haunted, but we did hear some strange sounds (footsteps and audible moans) emanating from somewhere within while we were there. Of course, somebody could have been hiding out there and just wanted to scare us away. It worked. Well, at least the others were scared. I’m not as easily spooked. Matt died a few years ago, I don’t know of what.

I discovered the real, gay social scene when I moved off-campus. The Hideaway was a late-hour nightspot just one block from where I lived for a year, but still close to my other rooming houses as well. It was sort of a dive, really. It was not a full-scale restaurant; they served only basic fare: burgers, junk food snacks and soft drinks. There was a row of pinball machines along the back wall. That was it, as far as recreation. There was a jukebox, but no floor space for any dancing. Instead, there were loads of booths and tables to sit at, and the boys took over the place nightly. We mostly came there to play games (Cards, Categories, Jotto, The Truth Game, et al.), to camp and socialize, and even to study occasionally. I was there practically every night until closing (about 0200).

The proprietor of The Hideaway was an unattractive, redneck stoney named Roy Deckard, who was not too pleased that his establishment had turned into a “faggot hangout.” But we were the ones keeping him in business, so he begrudgingly tolerated us for years. He did eventually get rid of us by closing this place down and reopening another joint farther into town away from the campus. But the new place didn’t fare too well, due to the loss of our faithful patronage, I’m sure, and I believe he finally had to close down soon after for good.

Incidentally, the term “stoney” was used to refer to any of the native residents of Monroe County, where Bloomington is located, and surrounding environs. I suspect that the epithet was inspired by the aforementioned limestone quarries that employed many of the residents as stonecutters at one time or another. The name was not used derogatorily, at least not by me. It was just our way of distinguishing the town residents from college personnel, students and employees who were not of local origin. You may recall that in the film Breaking Away (1979), which is set in Bloomington, the term was changed to “cutter,” for reasons unknown to me.

There is a scene filmed at the very quarry that I alluded to earlier. The screenwriter, the late Steve Tesich, was a native Bloomingtonian himself. Other famous stoneys are concert violinist Joshua Bell and rocker John Cougar Mellencamp. Since I.U. employs many Bloomingtonians, it is an open campus with no guards, gates, locked fences or anything around it. So anybody can visit the campus and come and go as they please; you don’t have to be an enrolled student. The local residents are free to patronize the Commons along with the students, no passes required.

Our alternative hangout, only a block-and-a-half away from The Hideaway, was a big, two-story private house in town near campus, rented by graduate music student Robert Ingram. This was our main Party House for the three years until I left. Bob’s Place became so well-known in the local gay circle that he was for awhile listed in the Damron (gay) Guide! Any night of the week, after we would get kicked out of The Hideaway, we’d then go over to Ingram’s and resume our partying. He was always open and willing to entertain. Even if Bob was not at home, the guys would let themselves into the house anyway and start a party. There were always frivolity, music and dancing, drugs, drinking and sex (orgies, even) going on there. We were a real party crowd in those days. There were several others in our clique that had their own houses, including John “Felice” Hartley (who still lives there) and Carlton Higginbotham. So we partied and orgied at their places, too, not just at Bob’s all the time. You could always tell where a gay party was being held, because you would usually hear the Supremes records playing within.

After leaving Bob’s and oftentimes with the munchies, those with cars would then run us all out to The Big Wheel, a 24-hour eatery (similar to Denny’s) on the edge of town, for a late snack and more camp and silliness. The servers there always treated us with respect and non-attitude. On weekends, the place to get away to was Indianapolis, which is 40 miles northeast of Bloomington, and visit Betty Kay’s and Darlo’s, two dyke-run gay bars that featured weekend drag shows. As we had a few of our own resident drag queens in our group, they sometimes provided the entertainment at our local house parties. I eventually grew out of all that sissy camping that we used to do when I was young, but it was great fun at the time. Of course, I haven’t given it up completely; it’s just now reserved only for certain friends and special occasions, and I do use it in my writings; I can’t resist.

I lived in the dorm for the first three semesters, but soon felt that I needed to get away from all the constant “borassing” (student shenanigans and horsing around) and try it alone for a while. So I moved off-campus halfway through my sophomore year, where I stayed in an assortment of student rooming houses for the rest of my time in Bloomington. Even then, I was keeping late hours every night. So it occurred to me, why should I get up early, walk over to the campus to some class where I was going to sleep through anyway? I might as well stay at home and sleep. And nobody cared! My professors certainly didn’t care if I came to class or not. They never said anything to me about it.

So I didn’t care either. I was so discouraged by the end of that third year that I decided to hang up my jock. But a counselor talked me into coming back the next year and giving it another try. But that last year was more of the same. Nothing got any better, but I stuck it out until the end of the school term. Although I had finished all my music requirements for my degree, I still needed 40 hours of other stuff, courses which I had no intention or desire to take. Well, that’s it for me. I’m outta here! I give-a da up!

So I didn’t graduate from college either. But again, I got to play in the orchestra at what would have been my own Commencement exercises. (Always a bridesmaid, never the bride!) After all is said and done, though, I don’t even regret not finishing college. One’s purpose for going is presumably to earn some type of degree, which is presumably required to secure a good, high-paying job when you get out. Although people’s degree credentials do influence some prospective employers’ hiring practices, the bottom line is ultimately, can this person do the job for which they are being hired? If they can’t cut it, the boss won’t care how many degrees they have.

A college degree is no indication or guarantee of a person’s particular knowledge or ability. I know people with several degrees, who don’t even know how to program their DVR! Have you heard of the expression “educated fool”? Even now, I have friends and musical colleagues with Masters degrees who often call me to ask music-related questions and want help and advice about how to do certain things. Although I always know the answer (that’s why they ask me, because they know that I know), I ironically and sarcastically tell them, ‘Wipe your assking me for? Cow shit I know?! I’m just a dropout. You’re the one with all the music degrees.’

During all these 54 years of my professional life, I have not once been asked to produce a college diploma for any job–not even when I applied to do substitute teaching–and I am doing exactly what I want to do. As long as I can do what’s required, what does a piece of paper prove? I know my shit and I can back it up with competent application. College turned out to be a big waste of time and money, in some respects. I didn’t learn very much in college, academically speaking. I suppose I might have, had I gone to those missed classes. The reason I did so well in my music courses is because I already knew most of the material, having learned it while in high school. I built up my extensive repertoire of music literature via my record collection and by regularly making use of the public library in South Bend. I have learned more before I went and since I left I.U. then I ever did while I was there.

Since I left school, in my travels I have performed on many college campuses. And by talking with many students over the years, my opinion about the merits of a so-called college education has not changed too much. I would ask these kids, ‘So, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ From 9 out of 10 I would get the answer of “I don’t know.” “I am an Economics major.” ‘What do you plan on doing with that?’ “I don’t know.” Even nowadays when I encounter college grads and ask them that same question, I get the same answer. And practically everybody I meet who has been to college, with degrees and everything, ends up doing something totally different from what they went to college for.

What do the following people have in common: Don Ameche, Andrea Bocelli, Gerard Butler, Cab Calloway, Fidel Castro, Dane Clark, Bill Clinton, Dabney Coleman, Howard Cosell, Bing Crosby, Tom Ewell, Mohandas Gandhi, Vittorio Gassman, Leo Genn, John Grisham, Oscar Hammerstein II, Hill Harper, Sunny Hostin, Star Jones, David E. Kelley, Gene Kelly, John Kerr, Nelson Mandela, Edgar Lee Masters, Henri Matisse, Armistead Maupin, Matthew McConaughey, Clarence Muse, Barack Obama, David Otunga, Estelle Parsons, Cole Porter, Geraldo Rivera, Paul Robeson, Chuck Shuler, Ben Stein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Josh Taylor, Peter Tchaikovsky, Iyanla Vanzant, Bjorn Ulvaeus (of ABBA), Lew Wallace, John Wayne, Billy Wilder and Bob Woodruff? They all studied and/or briefly practiced law before entering show business and other fields. So they spent all that time and money being lawyers and ended up being performers, politicians and writers instead, for example.

I realize that it is common for people to change their minds about their careers. This is my advice for those youngsters right out of high school, who may not know yet what the hell they want to do with their lives. Why don’t they find out first what they want to do and then go seek the appropriate training for the career that they eventually decide upon? I know of many adults who have done just that. They are still going to school well into their 30s and 40s. Why spend all that money to get that degree that you may not even need to do what you end up doing. I knew that music and performing is what I would be doing with my life, and that is what I meant exclusively to specialize in college, even though they tried to steer me in other directions.

The media and society have sort of brainwashed the public with their marketing propaganda. They help parents to impress upon their children that a college education is, oh, so imperative, and that they will never amount to anything in life if they don’t get a degree. And many kids believe that, until they actually go to college and find out how things really are. Then they find out that their earning a degree is no guarantee of a good job or career opportunity. There are perpetually-unemployed college graduates, just as there are those who never attended at all with lucrative careers. The term “college education” is not mutually exclusive, necessarily. Just because one is attending college, it doesn’t mean that they are receiving an education. Some go in and don’t know any more years later when they get out.

What about those genius child prodigies who get through regular school at an early age and then go on to college? If they are that smart, what do they need college for? That’s supposed to be for higher learning, but if they know so much already, what do they expect to be taught with the extra schooling? That notion could actually apply to the rest of us as well. With virtually all human knowledge available to us via books and the World Wide Web, I don’t know why everyone could not educate themselves. If you want to be a lawyer, for instance, just read the required texts. If you can successfully pass the bar exam, which is the ultimate requirement, then why spend all that time and money to attend law school?

The cable TV series “Suits” is based on that very premise. “Mike” is a young man who manages to get hired by a major Manhattan law firm to practice law, although he never went to law school. Mike is very smart and learned all what he needed to know to pass the bar exam. The law partner who hired him kept it a secret from everyone at the firm, but one by one over the course of the series the other characters discovered that Mike did not attend Harvard like the rest of them did. When an ambitious D.A. gets wind of Mike’s deception, she charges him with fraud, calling him a criminal and wants to send him to prison. I don’t understand the objection. What crime has he committed? Mike has not harmed or killed anybody. The law partners accept him because they like him and he is good at his job. So if none of his colleagues have accused him of anything, why is it anybody else’s concern?

I thought that one has to press charges against somebody for law enforcement to get involved. Like when a man beats up on his wife, if she doesn’t report it and press charges, the cops won’t do anything. It must be okay then to abuse your wife and children, if they don’t complain about it. How does that prosecutor on the show even have a case? That would be like somebody telling me that I could not work as a professional musician just because I did not attend Juilliard. If I know what I need to know to do the job I am hired for, what difference should it make where or whether or not I went to a prestigious music school? I told you that I know certain ones with all kinds of degrees and credentials but are far less competent than I am with no degree.

Basically what a teacher does, or should do anyway, is inspire their students to want to learn. But if the kid has no desire to learn, there is nothing that the teacher can do about that. It has to be a person’s own ambition. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and the choices we make in life. Nobody had to force me to read or write or anything. I know how to do what I can do because I wanted to know how to do them.

College has some redeeming values, however. For me, it was my first time away from home, and it gave me a chance to learn how to fend for myself. I got to enjoy a fun social life and artistic outlet. I just wish all the rest of it had been a pleasant and beneficial experience. But I accept that all aspects of my life have their ups and downs. In my opinion, attending college seems like an awful waste of money for just to have a little freedom, a good time and to indulge one‘s self-expression, things which can be accomplished in simpler ways and much cheaply besides.

It’s the summer of 1969, I’m all finished with school, but I don’t want to leave Bloomington just yet to go back to South Bend. In addition, a cute fraternity brother of mine asked me to be his roommate for the summer, so I stayed. That was a real historical summer, too. We were in the midst of the hippie movement, “flower children” and free love. In fact, that year is still sometimes referred to as the “Summer of Love.” There were the Woodstock Music Festival, the Harlem Cultural Festival, the death of Judy Garland, which some believe was the catalyst for the revolutionary Stonewall Uprising in NYC, the infamous Charles Manson murders in Los Angeles, the Mary Jo Kopechne death cover-up in Chappaquiddick, Mass. involving Ted Kennedy, and the Apollo 11 astronauts (allegedly) walked on the moon for the first time.

Also that year Richard Nixon took Presidential office (I did not vote for him), Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel, and the Beatles officially broke up. (How dare they!) On December 17, Tiny Tim married Victoria May Budinger (or “Miss Vicki,” as he called her) on “The Tonight Show.” Bob Hope later reported in one of his TV standup routines that Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki were expecting a baby. He said that the couple were planning to name the child after both of them: “Vic-Tim.” (::rim shot::)

[Chronologically, the next installment is My Combatless Tour-of-Duty]

Left vs. Right

Every left-handed person (I, being one of them) is aware of the bias and favoritism towards the more common right-handedness in our society. Although it was not the case in my family (two of my younger siblings are also left-handed), I have heard of parents trying to influence, and even force, their left-hand-tending children to use their right hand to do everything. By doing that, they are already establishing a prejudice about a natural, inherent behavioral tendency.

The Latin word for left-handedness is sinistrum, from which we get the words sinister and sinistrous, meaning “unfavorable, unlucky, fraudulent, productive of evil, presaging ill fortune or trouble by reason of being on the left, leading to disaster.” Well, gee, give us a break! The French word for left is gauche, which has come to mean in English, “awkward, tactless, lacking social graces.“ The word awkward itself means “lacking in skill or dexterity (that is, right-handedness).” See how certain words and their definitions can influence people’s way of thinking? Even left-wing politics is supposed to be less favorable than the right-wing.

I think that right-handed people take so much for granted. With everything being designed with them in mind, they probably don’t even notice the favoritism. People meet and greet each other by shaking their right hands. Military personnel are taught to salute with the right as well. Whenever one takes a vow or is sworn in for anything, they are asked to raise their right hand. Why does it have to be the right? Common items like scissors are right-biased, coffee mugs have the message on the side for right-handed drinkers, even the lip of the dipper to a punch bowl is on the left side for a right-handed pourer. The jewel boxes that compact disks come in open from the right side (when you have the proper side up) so that the CD can be removed with the right hand.

The power switches on most computer equipment: monitors, drives, printers, etc., and other appliances and machines (at least on mine): microwave and toaster ovens, TV sets, my keyboard synthesizer and mixer, traditionally can be found on the right side of the unit. These things don’t pose any real problem, however, it just forces us southpaws, especially, to be more ambidextrous. For instance, it doesn’t bother me at all to have to operate my manual pencil sharpener and can opener or turn things off and on with my right hand. I found that I can operate my mouse with my left hand instead of my right. Musical instruments can be played only a certain way, regardless of one’s hand orientation, but I see no reason why a conductor cannot hold the baton in their left hand, if they so choose, just as leftie actor Richard Dreyfuss does in Mr. Holland’s Opus (1996).

I learned to bat right-handedly as a kid, because it seemed more natural to me for some reason, but I throw and catch with my left. In the Army I had to learn to shoot right-handedly because I had to aim with my right eye. I can close only my left eye and leave the right one open, not the other way around. It was often confusing for me. When the drill instructors would call for the left-handed shooters, I would have to think before responding, for although I am left-handed, I had to shoot with the right-handed trainees.

I can snap my fingers only on my right hand–I can’t as well with my left. I have discovered that I have more strength in my right hand and arm, though, than in my left. When I “make a muscle,” for instance, the right one has always been bigger than the left. So you see, with me and probably others as well, it’s not an exclusive thing. The hand that we favor sometimes depends on the particular situation and activity.

I just recently become aware of something that I didn’t know was a “thing.” On more than one TV crime drama a corpse has been definitely declared to be left-handed because he wore his watch on his right wrist. Is that supposed to be a universal certainty? I ask because I have always worn my watch on my left arm. I never saw the set-in-stone proclamation that everyone has to wear his watch on the opposite arm, as if we don’t have a choice. I don’t see what difference it makes. I contend that it’s merely a matter of preference. I most likely wear my watch on my left wrist because I am left-handed. An assessment like what they are making is only circumstantial at least. Even murder and suicide suspects have been dismissed by that assumption. Maybe the person is ambidextrous or purposely uses the other hand just to throw others off the track. “He couldn’t have shot himself in the right temple because he was left-handed.“ “Oh, well, then. Case closed.” “I have seen him conduct and I saw him bat once. He is apparently right-handed.“ I certainly would not make any foregone conclusions based on such indecisive evidence as that.

I have noticed, at least, some left-hand awareness in recent years, whereas when I was growing up, we were virtually ignored. Those who are old enough, remember the armed desk-chairs that we had in school with the writing area on the right side? We lefties had to turn around in the seat to write. Even if there was a left-sided desk manufactured, the school suppliers didn’t care enough to order some for their left-handed students. Writing in our notebooks, too, we always had rings, spirals and bindings to contend with.

I once encountered one of those “Left-handed Stores” during my travels, where every conceivable item has been geared strictly for the left-handed person, almost to the point of absurdity. But even these are not a common occurrence. I don’t think that we have a store in New York, for instance. I wish that manufacturers would design things ambidextrously without favoring one hand over the other, giving everyone an option. One such item is an electric iron. Some manufacturers now make them with the cord in the center of the handle instead of on the traditional left side (so that it’s out of the way for right-handed ironers), giving us lefties equal access and maneuverability.

My Non-Combat Tour-of-Duty

This is the sequel to School Days, an account of my scholastic years. Although I did finish Indiana University in 1969 without a degree, I stayed in Bloomington for the rest of the year, because I wasn’t ready to go home just yet. By staying, I did get an unauthorized trip to New York City with the Singing Hoosiers. I say unauthorized because it wasn’t until after the fact that Mr. Stoll, the chorus director, discovered that I was not enrolled in school at the time. I kept going to rehearsals that following semester, so he had just assumed that I was still a student. I’m sure that I told him, but it must not have registered with him. I think he liked having me around anyway.

By the time the New Year rolled around, I felt that I had overstayed my time there. The University was about to celebrate its Sesquicentennial (150 years) at the end of the month, and the Singing Hoosiers were preparing a special musical presentation for the occasion. I was out of money, out of work, and was not able to pay my rent for February, so I stayed around for the Sesquicentennial, then I headed back to South Bend. I went back to Bloomington in April to attend a friend’s birthday party and when I returned home, after a week’s stopover in Indianapolis, my draft papers were waiting for me. 22 years would pass before I visited Bloomington again.

I actually got drafted a year before I eventually went in. I had received my notice in the spring of ’69, the Selective Service not knowing that my student deferment was still in effect. Upon receiving verification that I was still in school, they left me alone for a year. The next time they contacted me, however, I didn’t have an excuse, so I had to go. But even when I went to Chicago to take my physical, I didn’t think that I would be staying. I expected to be rejected because of my flat feet, or something! No such luck. Before I realized what was happening, I was being sworn in! I went right to a phone and called my mother. ‘Mama, I AM IN THE FUCKING ARMY!’ Friends and acquaintances often ask me about my Army experience. For those of you who did not get to serve in the Armed Forces, you, too, may be curious about what it was like. So in recognition of Veterans’ Day, I will give you some of the highlights (and lowlights) of my military tour-of-duty.

Actually, the Army turned out to be a blessing in disguise. First of all, I spent 16 glorious, though grueling, weeks in sexually-segregated confinement with about 400 virile young men! I couldn’t touch (except for hand-to-hand combat training), but they sure couldn’t stop me from looking! Second, the exercise regimen we were given was the best I have ever had before or since. When I had completed my Basic Training, I was in the best shape I have ever been in my entire life, and I felt better than I have ever felt. Third, just as my mother had supposed, the Army did make a man out of me. I was still an insecure little boy when I got drafted, but by the time I got out 22 months later, I had considerably matured and was now ready to face my future as a responsible young adult. Fourth, during my 18-month assignment in Okinawa, I came to know the nicest bunch of people I have ever spent time with. Most were straight and married, but they were good, loving friends to me. After 52 years, I am still in touch and on good terms with some of them.

In case you are wondering about the gay thing, I should address that issue as well. Although my coming out as a gay man was virtually painless, it did not happen all at once. At the time I was drafted into the Army, I wasn’t exactly out all the way. I was still living “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I never volunteered the information, and until this time, only one other person had ever questioned my sexual orientation. At Central one day at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, a fellow classmate, Harry Van Scoyk, whom I didn’t even know very well, asked me right out if I were queer. I didn’t even hesitate. I answered, ‘Yes, I am.’ I didn’t see any reason to lie at the time. He didn’t seem disturbed or surprised by my admission. Maybe he already expected as much and is why he asked. You know, like it takes one to know one! I should have inquired why he would ask me such a thing. Maybe he was interested in me that way? He didn’t treat me any differently after that, and I don’t know if he ever told anybody.

So anyway, when I was filling out my military application and came to that certain question inquiring about it, I reluctantly checked the “No” box. I believe that most enlistees/draftees are compelled to lie about that particular question anyway, because of the way it is worded. “Do you have or have ever had homosexual tendencies?” That sure leaves little leeway for a truly negative response. It’s not asking if we actually are practicing homosexuals but whether if we might think about it or have ever considered it. I mean, come on, they’re about to throw us hot and horny young men into a male-segregated environment, so what are we supposed to do? Of course, we have homosexual tendencies! Who doesn’t? As adolescents, even boys that turned out later to be straight probably messed around with their homies or at least thought about it. I know of some myself. The question, or challenge, if you will, is whether we will act upon those tendencies. And even that is open to conjecture. In essence, they are asking us to predict the future. Maybe some guys didn’t have any conscious tendencies, but now that you mention it, they might consider it, when they had not thought about it or ever been tempted before.

If I had it to do over again, however, I would now proudly check the “Yes” box. But at the time, I didn’t know what the ramifications would be if I admitted my faggotry right then and there. Going into the Army was not my intention in the first place, and I had learned that merely admitting that you are gay was not necessarily an automatic deferment. Many draftees during that period declared that they were gay just so they would be rejected. It soon got to their being required to present a note from a doctor or therapist to verify their gayness. So I feared that they might have accepted me anyway, and my being black and queer too, I might have suffered unnecessary persecution, and/or they might have sent me directly to Vietnam to be sacrificed. You know, get rid of two dispensables with one mortar shell. Hey, I’m young and naïvely paranoid! What do I know?

I since have learned that this imagined concern of mine at the time was not completely unfounded. Even though the general attitude is that the Powers-That-Be don’t want homosexuals serving in the military and they will attempt to ban them and discharge them whenever they can, they seem to relax this policy during times of war. It has been reported that when American troops were required to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, suddenly it’s okay for known gay soldiers to serve. Gay discharges then are greatly decreased, and they were even recruited for combat positions. They need the bodies over there, and if any of them happen to get killed in the process, then so be it. That’s a rather cynical assessment, perhaps, but not entirely unjustified.

May 1970

So anyhow, I played it safe and allowed myself to be drafted. I was inducted on May 12, 1970 in Chicago. I did my 8 weeks of Basic Training in Fort Campbell, Kentucky/Tennessee (the military reservation is situated across both states), where I learned about obedience, discipline, tradition and communalism. I didn’t know how I would fare in boot camp, but I kept reminding myself that if my friend Leo did it, I should be able to do it as well.

I was assigned to Company D of the First Training Brigade of the First Battalion (or D-1-1), which was divided into four platoons (squads or sections), and since we were arranged alphabetically by our last names, I ended up in the 4th Platoon, which was our barracks as well. There were 60 of us in our platoon, from Herman Sands to Dennis Zoran. The whole company, that is, the four platoons, all trained together; we just slept in separate quarters.

When we arrived there, we had to send all our clothes and personal belongings home and were told that whatever we needed from here on out, Uncle Sam would provide it for us. And “he” did, too. Even my eyeglasses were Army-issue. Every hour of our day was planned and accounted for. There was no privacy whatsoever–we even had to take communal dumps, as there were no partitions separating the commodes–and our drill sergeants had to know where each of us was at all times.

Because of the initial trauma I felt when I began Basic Training, I just wanted to maintain a low profile and not draw too much attention to myself. Well, it didn’t happen. I mean, is it my magnetic, outstanding personality, or what? By the end of the first day at Fort Campbell, all my drill sergeants knew who I was by name. The first time I heard my name yelled out, “Townsend!” I thought, Oh, Lord, I’ve been discovered already! So much for desired anonymity.

I didn’t like the exercise so much while we were doing it, but I loved the result when it was all over. We had to get up every morning at 0400 hours (that’s 4 AM!), get dressed in all that heavy gear, go outside and run the mile around the field, in the dark! Then we’d go and have breakfast. After breakfast we’d go back and “clean” the barracks before beginning our training schedule for the day. But how dirty could it be, since we cleaned it just before we went to bed and spent so little time there as it was—that is, just to sleep?

I am normally a late-night person, but when they called “Lights out!” at 1900 hours (7 PM), I was ready to crash, having been on the go the whole day. This being late spring, it wasn’t even dark yet at 7:00. But isn’t that 9 hours of sleep instead the usual eight, you may ask? Well, at some point during the night we had to take turns putting in one hour of night watchman/guard duty, which consisted basically of patrolling the area around the barracks. Of course, nothing ever happened. What did they expect? It was just another pointless chore detail with which to burden us. My turn came around, I think, only once.

I have another barracks memory that I’d like to share. My favorite tenor, other than Mario Lanza, happens to be Karen Carpenter. The very first time I laid ears on her was during Basic Training. I was allowed to retain my portable radio/cassette player/recorder (plus my camera) that I bought while I was at college. The unit was sort of a precursor to the “boom box”—this was the days before Walkmans. Even then I liked to go to sleep with soft music on, and although I didn’t have headphones to listen privately, my barracks mates did not seem to mind.

So this one evening as we were all retiring at bedtime, I had on the local pop station, and they were playing a song that caught my attention, although I didn’t recognize the singer. The song was “They Long to Be Close to You,” and being a longtime Burt Bacharach fan, I had known the song from years before. But I was intrigued by this great, new arrangement and that haunting, sultry voice! I was wondering, Who is that?! When the record ended, the announcer said that it was The Carpenters. Who? I had never heard of them before. Of course, the record became a mega hit and I became a major Carpenters fan from then on. I have everything that they ever recorded. I was devastated and really angry when Karen starved herself to death. How dare she be dead! It has been conjectured that if Karen Carpenter had eaten the sandwich that Mama Cass Elliott allegedly choked on, they’d both probably would be alive today!

I rather enjoyed being outdoors for much of the time, the hiking and daily trips to the rifle range. We made this fun by singing as we marched along. Being the creative musician that I am, I would harmonize and embellish the basic chants, prompting some of the other guys to do the same. Some days we were really cooking, and the drill sergeants didn’t seem to mind. Besides, it helped pass the time.

I barely made Marksman, by the way, which was the lowest shooting grade. It didn’t matter to me, though, because I hadn’t planned on shooting anybody anyway. But if I had not passed, I would have had to do the whole cycle over again. I couldn’t throw worth a damn either. The day I had to toss a live hand grenade, everybody ran for cover, trainees and DIs alike!

Our motto was “Hurry up and wait.” They made us run everywhere (they called it “double time“), and then when we got there, we usually had to wait around to do something. In addition to waiting in line for all our meals and sitting through those tedious lecture classes that I had to endure almost every day, I didn’t much care for the Low Crawl and the “Smoker” either, hateful exercises that we were made to do for our daily routine. We had to crawl on our bellies along the ground like some damned alligator. This was put into practical application one day when we were required to maneuver ourselves under close-to-the-ground-placed barbed wire while live artillery was being fired over our heads. It was the day after a heavy rain, so the ground was still wet with mud puddles. # Hated it! #

The Smoker is where you lie flat on your back and hold both your feet together about five inches off the ground…indefinitely! You think it sounds simple? You try it. The drill sergeants used to threaten us with that one. “Trainee, if you don’t get your shit together, I’m going to smoke your ass!” Or, “Private, get down and give me twenty!” meaning pushups. I was once ordered to squat down and waddle around the post like a duck!

All these calisthenics were implemented as penalties, but they were actually just part of our “PT” (physical training) exercise program. While we thought we were being punished when ordered to do pushups and the Smoker and such, they were, of course, really getting us into fabulous shape. We wouldn’t do that shit voluntarily, unless they made us.

I also did not enjoy the day when we were forced to experience tear gas first-hand. We were ushered into these training area huts in groups, wearing our gas masks. They released the tear gas, then told us to remove our masks. Trainees hurriedly fled. That stuff is vile, y’all! It causes hacking and coughing and it certainly does make your eyes water.

There is a scene in the film Papillon (1973) where the stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, prisoners on Devil’s Island, are eating a meal out of their mess kits, and it is pouring rain into their mashed potatoes and everything. I can really relate to that scene, because I experienced that very same thing! On the days that we had to go out to the rifle range, it was too far to go all the way back to the post for lunch, so food was brought out there to us. One day it was pouring rain right during lunchtime, and since there was no shelter out there on the range, we had to sit there under our ponchos and eat our meal with the rain drenching our mashed potatoes! But that was a prison in the movie, and this was the Army! Hmm. There seems to be a connection.

We all had to serve on KP (kitchen police) duty at some point during the training cycle, and my turn came up only once. But even then, I lucked out. I remember having to work only breakfast instead of the whole day, because it was an important training day that I wasn’t allowed to miss, I was told. I was excused from normal activities another time, when I volunteered to give blood and was given the day off to rest.

Another day that I got out of training was when I went on “sick call.” I wasn’t really sick, it’s just that my periodic tendonitis, or “painful heel” condition prevented me from walking out to the rifle range that day. Since it was such a gorgeous day and there was nobody watching over me, I went out alone to an open, green field near the barracks area and lay down on the grass and just relaxed and napped for several hours. That was a wonderful break in the routine.

I thought that I would enjoy camping out, but the night on bivouac was one of the worst I ever spent. I had to share this tiny tent (which we pitched ourselves) with another guy, and I couldn’t sleep because the ground was cold and I felt bugs and creepy crawlies on me all night, imagined or not. # Hated it! #

We also played War Games earlier that night, which, I guessed, or hoped anyway, was the closest that I would ever come to an actual combat situation, simulated as it was. We had blank ammunition, so we could shoot at each other without anyone getting hurt. That was actually kinda fun—the ambushing and running for cover. It was sort of like Hide ‘n’ Seek with rifles! Bivouac was originally supposed to be for three days and nights, but they had gotten behind in the schedule somehow, so we had to do it only that one day. I am so glad about that. One night out there in the wild was quite enough, thank you!

The drill instructors were a trip unto themselves. They really did a number on us trainees, instilling fear and intimidation on these impressionable youngsters. They always yelled at us and were verbally abusive, calling us meatheads and worthless pieces of shit and stuff. The abuse was always verbal, however, as they never laid a hand on any of us. They “punished” us by making us do those strenuous exercises, which, as I said, were really for our own good.

The Pat Conroy novel, The Lords of Discipline, is set at a military college in Charleston, South Carolina and relates how life is in that situation. Having attended The Citadel himself, I expect Conroy’s story is at least semiautobiographical. In their attempt to make “men” out of their young students, the “cadre” (upperclassmen) do everything they can to break their “plebes” (freshmen cadets) to get them to leave, using tactics of extreme cruelty, violence and humiliation, or else to prove that they have the strength and determination to stay. We didn’t have the option in our case. If any of our trainees were not able to cut it for any reason, that was just too bad. We could not leave but had to stay and endure it. In the book, the cadre would find out each plebe’s dire fears and use it against them. That ploy would not have worked on me, as I did not then and still don’t have any fears or phobias. I am not afraid of anything, not even death.

My fellow trainees were very much afraid of Sgt. Murdock and Sgt. Ratleff, although the day we were on a group training mission together, I got to know Sgt. Murdock and found him to be a real nice, funny guy, not at all like the way he came on to us in public. That’s when I realized that his brusque demeanor was all an act, just for our benefit. They all were actors just playing a role, no different than Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Late actor R. Lee Ermey was a former Marine Corps drill instructor who went on actually to portray hard-edged military-man roles. I am sure that he got paid a whole lot more as a working actor than he did as an enlisted man, doing exactly the same thing. Our Sgt. Eberly came off less-threatening. He was kind of a gruff, Rod Steiger type.

Sgt. DiGesualdo, on the other hand, was mean-spirited and seemed to be angry all the time, unless that was an act, too. He was always on my case about something, screaming at me and spouting insults, until finally I had to say something to him. I guess he caught me on a bad day, or something. It was at lunch. DiGesualdo was heckling me all through my meal. I don’t even remember now what he was saying—just stupid bullshit. I had had enough of his harassment, so when I had finished eating, I walked over to the table where all the drill instructors ate together and told this bullying SOB to get off my back. ‘Look, Sergeant, I am sick of your petty needling. I do everything that I am supposed to do here and I haven’t done anything to you. I didn’t ask to be here, I don’t want to be here, and you’re not making it any easier for me. Please, just let me get through this and leave me the hell alone!’ Then I walked away, leaving him and the others sitting there with their mouths agape. I guess they couldn’t believe that I actually dared to stand up to my superior like that. But, you know? That was the last time that DI ever messed with me. I guess he said, “Ooh, I am scared of you!” Maybe the sarge was merely testing me with all that harassment to see how much I would take before I finally spoke up. I have found in my life that people will get away with what you let them get away with. If you don’t like the way you are being treated, then just don’t stand for it.

I frequently would fall asleep during those tedious lecture classes. One time the DI called me out. “Townsend, are we keeping you awake?” I replied, ‘Apparently not, Drill Sergeant.” One morning it took me longer than usual to get it together, and I was late falling out for formation. When I got to my place in line, the DI in charge said, “Well, Townsend, I’m glad you could make it!” I quipped, ‘Why, I wouldn’t miss this for the world, Drill Sergeant.’ Do you think I may have had a slight problem with authority?

By the way, I should mention that in the movies that are set in Basic Training scenarios, we always hear the trainees addressing their DIs as “Sir.” That is not the case at all. They would not allow us to call them “Sir.” We had to address them all as “Drill Sergeants.” “Sir” was reserved only for the commissioned officers.

Our company commander, Capt. Dille, was the same age as I was, 22, and we had two “louies” (2nd Lieutenants) who were even younger (they probably were right out of military school), and I had a hard time showing the proper respect I was supposed to afford those particular officers. Why should I call a boy, who is younger than I am, “Sir,” just because he has a couple of bars on his uniform? They should be calling me “Sir”! At least these kids didn’t give us the grief that we got from the drill sergeants, although they liked to strut around the company barking orders at us. I guess it made them feel important. I, however, was not impressed. There were only two other trainees in our whole company in the same situation as I. That is, we all had had four years of college prior to being drafted, so we were the same age. It made us feel a little old, being surrounded by mostly teenagers.

We got one movie night during the cycle when they showed us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). For the only one-day pass I was granted one weekend, I took a bus to nearby Clarksville, Tennessee. I decided to go alone, in case I found somebody to hook up with, and I didn’t want my Army buddies tagging along to cramp my style, you see. It was a Saturday night, but there wasn’t shit going on there! I had to wear my Army duds, as I didn’t have any “civvies,” making it obvious what I was and where I was from. I ended up at the local USO in town (United Service Organizations—a recreational facility for military personnel), which was also boring, so I didn’t stay there long. The trip there turned out to be a waste of time, but anything to get away from the post, if only for a little while.

After we finished Basic Training on July 10, we immediately had to do 8 more weeks of AIT (Advanced Individual Training). I was assigned to MP (Military Police) School in Fort Gordon, Georgia, located just southwest of Augusta. We were transported there by bus. Keep in mind that this was July and August at a place built on a Southern desert. I can honestly say that this was the most physical labor I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. They always had something for us to do there. When we were not doing our regular training, there was always work for us around the barracks and on post somewhere.

The terrain around our barracks was all sand, and the ground directly in front was always smoothly raked. This is where we fell out for formations, which, of course, always messed up the smoothly-raked sand. No matter. Just as soon as formation was over, somebody would be assigned to smooth it all out again, until the next time we had formation and we’d mess it all up again! They must have sat around thinking up bullshit chores for us to do. One day they made us take shovels and move a pile of sand from here to there! It reminds me of those prison rock pile details, which are also pointless.

There were classrooms to clean up after we had used them and always something in the barracks to do. I had to run the buffer machine in the day room a couple of times, which I did not mind at all. The floors were linoleum. I even worked in the main office as a clerk-typist for a while, which I actually liked. There was one 24-hour job, done in shifts, that we all had to partake at some point during the cycle, and that was CQ (Charge of Quarters) duty. Someone always had to be in the office to answer the phone, receive visitors, generally to be in charge of the post. CQ was a concession in every company that I happened to be in.

There were some good times, too. The day we got to drive the Jeeps was the most fun. We were out on these sand dunes, chasing each other up and down those hills. Cars were jumping and spinning around. It was like driving through deep snow. Dodg’em-on-the-Dunes. We had a blast that day. Another time was the week that we spent in “MP City.” This place was like a Hollywood movie back lot, with streets, fake storefronts and saloons, the whole bit. There we got to practice police procedures, like making arrests and riot control. It really was like an acting class, doing improvs. The “director” would give us a situation and we would “play the scene.” They were giving me personal, professional training and were not even aware of it.

My next one-day pass allowed me to visit nearby Augusta, but there wasn’t a whole lot going on there either. I did get to see, for the first time, the film version of one of my favorite plays, The Boys in the Band (1970), at their local theater, which was worth the trip in itself. Also that day I bought a “civilian” outfit (shirt and pants), so that I would not have to wear my military garb all the time.

I graduated from MP School on September 4th, was home in time for my birthday, and was granted three weeks’ leave—during which time I spent in South Bend and NYC (to visit friends)—before being assigned overseas duty in Okinawa. My mother was pregnant with my little brother, Aaron—in fact, she was due any day—and I was hoping that she would drop the kid before I had to leave for Oakland on the 28th. Otherwise, he would be a year-and-a-half when I got to see him for the first time—which is exactly what happened! I flew out to California (First Class!) on a Monday and Mother gave birth the following Friday, the same day I got my flight to Okinawa.

The flight from Oakland took 18 hours, and that’s entirely over water! Is the Pacific Ocean some big shit, or what?! For those of you not familiar with the imaginary International Date Line, it runs along the middle of the Ocean to adjust the global time zones and runs vertically for the most part, but for some reason makes a zigzag detour around Kiribati, Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. When you cross the Line going west, you skip a whole day, but you gain a day coming back this way. So going over, having left on a Friday evening, we missed Saturday entirely, arriving there on Sunday morning. But when I returned to the States, I left the island on Friday around 2100 hours (9 PM) and arrived in San Francisco at 1500 (3 PM) that same day, but 18 hours later! That was the longest day I had ever spent at that time (48 hours long). I got to do that again years later, when I experienced the same Monday twice, but I was on a cruise ship this time instead of an airplane, so it didn’t feel the same way. Doesn’t that seem kind of silly that they even do that?

Okinawa is the largest of a 143-member archipelago in the East China Sea area of the Pacific called the Ryukyu Islands (aka the Luchu Islands). They lie due south of Japan and just northeast of Taiwan. The American Armed Forces took over the islands at the end of World War II and eventually gave them back to the Japanese in 1972, not too long after I left, in fact.

There were flights to there that whole week that I was detained in Oakland, but by the time I arrived on the island (October 4), the MP Detachment Company had filled its quota, so the subsequent excess, of which I was a part, were sent to other venues around the island. Now that we were there, they had to find something for us to do. I was assigned to a missile site at Chinen to serve as a security gate guard. This I did for only about 3 months, although it seemed like much longer. Time did not pass so fast over there, it seemed.

Chinen is a peninsula, and the site was situated at the end of the road leading to it–a cul-de-sac, if you will. The only way out was to turn around and go back the same way you came in. It was not long when I realized that I didn’t want to spend the next year-and-a-half opening and closing a fucking gate for 8 hours every day! Talk about your mindless labor! It wasn’t even real work. We didn’t get many visitors to the site on a daily basis, so my duties were only occasional as it was. The island Brass (officers) rarely dropped by, and the place was off-limits to non-military personnel. So on most days during my shift, I didn’t have to do anything. There were a few advantages, however. At the post I had my own private room for a time, I had a lot of time to read, and I had a radio in my guard shack. Being stoned on marijuana a lot of the time certainly helped, too.

On guard duty at the Chinen missile site

(# There’s gotta be something better than this… #)
Eventually, it came to my attention that there was an Army Band operating on the island. So right after New Year’s and with oboe and clarinet in hand (I just happened to have brought them both with me, in a double case that accommodated both instruments), I found the company, which was based in Sukiran, the main Army base on the island (it was more centrally-located, too), successfully auditioned and was reassigned to the 29th Army Band, just in time to help them move into newly-acquired living quarters. At least now I was with other musicians and was playing and singing regularly, having by this time also joined the local Chapel Choir and the Choral Society, which were made up of servicemen and civilians, officers and their wives.

Our luggage was in the form of an Army-issued, olive-drab green duffel bag, in which we transported all our belongings and clothing items. When we first arrived on the island and while waiting to be assigned somewhere, we were lodged in a barracks holding area with no lockers or security for our personal property. So our stuff was pretty much up for the taking, if we didn’t stay right there and watch it at all times. I was out and about exploring during the day, so I was not there on guard the whole time. I wasn’t going to lug the thing around with me. On the very first day that I arrived, somebody stole my beloved radio/cassette player. I imagine that the thief kept it for himself, as there was no pawnshop around at which to hock it. They did, however, let me retain my musical instruments, typewriter and camera, thankfully, all of which I used often during my stay.

There was a lot of idle time in the Band. Most of it was spent hanging around the barracks playing Hearts, our card game of choice at the time. But we did rehearse (not every day) and got to perform occasionally for company retreats and played concerts for the leper colonies on the neighboring islands of Miyago, Motobu and Tokashiki, to which we traveled by helicopter. Some band members were there only to get out of more serious Army detail elsewhere, but a few of us were real, serious-minded musicians. Some of us would get together in our spare time and play duets and trios and such. Richard Balzer played flute and Dick Ingersoll was a top-rate clarinetist. I had my biggest solo moment when I played the Haydn Oboe Concerto (accompanied on piano by Bob Howell from the Band) before a large audience for the annual Ryukyu Music Festival.

Some of my other hangout buddies included Bill Kreutzer, percussionist, and Conrad “Flip” Oller played trombone. Conrad’s father was a “lifer” (an Army career sergeant), who was stationed right there on the island with us. Another trombonist, Mike Hatmaker, constantly had to endure, upon meeting him the first time, people’s singing of # Hatmaker, Hatmaker, make me a hat… # apparently not caring that he had probably heard it before. Of course, I did it, too, when I met him. It was Hatmaker who told me what the letters, U.S. ARMY, on our uniforms stood for: “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet.” And there was Michael Norman, who played the trumpet.

Before the Band went on separate rations, meaning that we all agreed to be responsible for our own meals, we ate in the Headquarters Company mess hall, which we shared with the several other units. At every meal the other black soldiers would eat together at the same table and would not mix with the white GIs. After all the strides we have made with integration, some blacks still purposely choose to segregate themselves from white people whenever possible. They apparently could not stand me, because I chose to sit and eat with my friends in the Band. There were other blacks in the Band—I wasn’t the only one—but I don’t remember them ever eating in the mess hall. I didn’t know any of those other black guys, so why would I sit with them just because they are black? I wasn’t desperate to make any new friends. I didn’t sit with the white guys that I didn’t know either. Besides, the guys in the Band would discuss music and recordings at meals, things that I was interested in. When I passed the other tables, they’d be talking bullshit and acting silly. Pardon me for being an artistic intellectual.

The “brothers” had this special, carefully choreographed, jive handshake with which they greeted each other. I think that they meant it to be some kind of unity thing. It was quite involved and complicated, but I thought it was silly and stupid, and I refused even to bother learning it. So some of them would try to test me, you know, see if I’m one of the gang. They’d walk up to me and prompt me into doing the hand jive thing with them, and I’d just stand there and look at them like, ‘Excuse me? What is that?’ Of course, this helped confirm what they already thought about me, that I was “uppity” and was trying to deny my blackness or something. So they gave me much attitude because of it. But my being one who doesn’t give in to peer pressure, I could care less what they thought about me. I don’t consider myself all that grand, but why should I forfeit my dignity or do something I don’t want to do just to please or to be accepted by a bunch of transient strangers whom I’ll probably never see again in life? And none of whom I ever have, by the way.

It later turned out that one of the black guys (I don’t even remember his name) who had been giving me a hard time—you know, making snide comments behind my back, greeting me with scowls and scoffs—eventually joined the Band as a trombone player. Now that we had to work together and he got to know me and started to like me, I think that he felt a little guilty about the way he had treated me previously. But I don’t like two-faced people, so we never did get really close. I can forgive what people have done to me, but I don’t forget. Besides, I found him to be quite unattractive. If he had been cute, I probably would have cut him some slack.

Let me tell you about the first time I went to jail. I didn’t do anything criminal, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was still with the Band at the time. The entire time I was stationed on Okinawa, the island was under constant conflict. The native Okinawans resented the Americans’ occupation and wanted their homeland back, so there was occasional organized protest and rioting in the streets of Koza City (the soldiers’ primary off-post hangout) and other areas, which required the armed forces to maintain 24-hour riot control guard duty. Whenever there was some trouble anywhere, the island would be put on what was called “Condition Green,” which rendered all areas outside military posts off-limits to service personnel.

One evening, while the island was on Condition Green, some of my Band buddies were sitting around the barracks playing Hearts, as usual, when somebody got the idea to go out to get something to eat. We had been smoking pot, so we all had a bit of “the munchies,” you see. The four of us (left to right: Conrad, Mike Norman, Me, Bill K.) piled into Bill’s little red car and headed for the A&W Drive Thru, which was only a short distance from our barracks. We had no sooner pulled into the driveway of the place when we were spotted by an MP (whom I did not know) out on motor patrol. He followed us around the restaurant and motioned for us to pull over and stop. We all were then arrested on the spot for being off-post during designated Condition Green and taken to the local stockade.

My Fellow Jailbirds

We were detained there for only a couple of hours, until Mr. Owens, the head of the Band, could come get us released. This first incarceration experience was not too unpleasant. I was with friends, and since we were put in the cell all together, we just continued our party until we were sprung. Unfortunately, I have had four other stints as a jailbird, which were not pleasant, to be sure. Again, I hadn’t committed any crime at neither time. I just seem always to be a victim of circumstance. But that’s at a later time, in another life and in other posts.

I did not get on too well with Mr. Owens. He was a musical idiot, in my opinion, and I had the bad habit of telling him so a little too often, I suppose. So after only about 7 months, he had me transferred to Headquarters Company, also located in Sukiran (so I only had to move to another barracks), where I became the mail clerk, a position I held until I left the island. That was by far my favorite Army job. The hours were few, and I had my own little private office where I could retreat to for several hours a day, as there was no real privacy, to speak of, in the barracks. I would go to the main post office in the morning, pick up my mail, sort it and pass it out to my various units. Then after lunch, I would make another run, and after that batch was sorted and picked up, I was through for the day, sometimes as early as 1500 hours. The rest of the time was my own.

I truly loved it over there. Everything was so inexpensive. Movies cost only a quarter, and a taxicab ride from one end of the island to the other (64 miles) cost only $3.00! I lived in the PX (post exchange, or general store). That just means that I spent a lot of time there. I bought many records and purchased my first real stereo system, with components. Since I did not have the space to store this stereo equipment, I waited until I was ready to leave the island to buy it so that I could ship everything home together. I did have a phonograph in the meantime, I recall, but I don’t remember when and where I acquired it. I loved being able to listen to music at my leisure.

We also had television, but nothing current. All that was available to us were old sitcoms and syndicated fare. I did get a kick watching “I Love Lucy” and “Bewitched” dubbed in Japanese! So I missed out on the new shows that premiered in ’70-’71. New arrivals to the island would be talking about Archie Bunker and Maude, for examples, and I didn’t know who they were. I got to see them all later back home, however, when they aired in syndication.

Even the theatrical movies were several months old by the time they reached the island. They published a monthly schedule of all the movies that were playing on the island, and the way it worked was, each new film would play each theater for a couple of days and then move on another one. So if I missed a movie at the big, main theater in Sukiran, I could catch it later at the Buckner or the one in Koza. In this way, I managed to see just about everything that played. I went several times a week sometimes.

We had touring musical artists who came to the island on occasion. There were O.C. Smith, Ike & Tina Turner, both of whom I missed, but I did catch Lou Rawls’ show at the Servicemen’s Club. In the summer of ’71 Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland were on a mission to protest the War, but I missed seeing them, too, because I was otherwise engaged during their rally.

The weather was glorious, too. I spent two Christmases there, and the coldest it ever got while I was there was 60 degrees, at the height of winter in February. The encyclopedia said that Okinawa was typhoon-prone, threatening many each year, but I got to experience nary a one the whole time I was there. We almost had a typhoon once, but it somehow missed us; it never hit our island directly.

It hardly ever rained either, and because of a lack of sufficient rainfall, for several months in 1971 the island suffered a serious drought, which required the residents there to practice enforced water-rationing. Running water was made available to us for only a few hours each day, at which time we could shower and do whatever else, within reason. When it was on, people were not allowed to water their lawns or wash their cars. While it was off, we couldn’t flush our toilets. Even when the water was turned on, it had to be sterilized for a couple of hours before it was fit to drink. I don’t remember bottled water being available to us either. This humbling experience helped me to be more aware of conservation and not to waste water, of all things. As much as I love my water, this was not an easy sacrifice for me. The old adage, “You never miss the water until the well runs dry,” became an apropos reality.

I never have any trouble making friends in new situations, and the Army was no exception. At Fort Campbell two guys in my platoon, Kevin Wieland and Aaron Williams, hooked up with me, and we hung out together all the time, like the Three Musketeers. They both got other assignments after Basic, and I never saw or heard from either one of them again. At Fort Gordon my barracks pals were Bob Hildebrand and Siegfried Tarasenko. Siegfried I lost contact with when we left MP school, but Bob was assigned to Okinawa like me, so we stayed in touch all the while we were there. We used to get stoned together often, and I used to keep him company until his wife came over to join him. I made many new friends in Okinawa. First at the missile site, then the Band and then the Choral Society and Sukiran Choir, which I directed for a while as well as sang in.

How I got into the island’s choral scene was the night I wandered into Sukiran Chapel during a rehearsal of Bach’s Magnificat. I was sitting in the back of the church listening, then when the chorus took a break, this white man came over to where I was sitting and asked me if I sang and if I could read music. I answered ‘yes’ to both questions, and he immediately invited me to join the chorus. That is how I met Jim McGuire and got involved with the Choral Society. See what kind of person he is—so friendly and unprejudiced? I loved how he made no initial assumptions about me.

I actually ended up playing solo oboe in the Magnificat instead of singing in the chorus, and next when I was passed over for the bass solos in the Mozart Requiem, I ended up playing 2nd clarinet in the orchestra. When I helped get my bandmate, Bill Kreutzer, the job of conducting the Choral Society, I then got to do more solo work, and before I left the island, I got to work on Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar with them.

Jim McGuire and his charming wife, Sue, were civilians living and working on the island. Jim and his father owned and operated the Bireley’s (soda pop) bottling plant. Jim and Sue loved to entertain, and their house served as Party Central. Our gang spent many hours at their house for meals, parties and other fun events. One memorable evening was spent at the McGuires’ house constructing snowdrifts out of chicken wire and paper, which were to be used as stage decorations for the Choral Society’s Christmas concert. The chorus also got to appear on a local TV affiliate, doing our holiday program, for which I wrote the script. In addition, our Summer Sounds ’71 concert was recorded live, and we produced an album from it.

The Okinawa Choral Society Dancers (left to right: Me, Gini Ashby, Terry Morella, Bill Clark and Connie Garza, doing the “Jingle Bells Calypso” for our Christmas concert in 1971))

Mary Prange and I got to be very close. She was sort of my “girlfriend,” although it was strictly platonic. Mary taught math at the local American high school, but, like me, she was interested in musical theater and drama. The night of the McGuires’ second Christmas party, at which we entertained each other, Mary and I worked up a scene with song duet, “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” from the musical Promises, Promises, and performed it for the party guests.

Those people fed me to death over there! Almost every night of the week somebody in the choir was inviting me to their house for dinner, and since I did not have my own cooking facilities at home, I always accepted. In addition to eating at people’s homes, the church held a sumptuous pot luck supper once a month, which I always attended, and we were always going out to restaurants for group meals. By the time I left the island, I had blown up to over 200 pounds, at that time, the most I had ever weighed in my life. Blimey, I wish I could get back down to 200 now!

The gang regularly went on Sunday outings, too. We all sang in the post chapel choir together, and after the service and lunch we’d pile into somebody’s cars and visit the island’s tourist spots. There was an old, uninhabited castle, which was made into a zoo. That’s where Mary was kissed by an old camel! There was Suicide Cliff, where, when they surrendered in 1945, the Japanese troops all plunged to their deaths. More about that later. There was an Aquarium up north, and in Naha, the capital, is located the famous geisha palace, Teahouse of the August Moon, which was off-limits to military personnel, so I never got to see the inside. There is a 1956 film with the same name about the place, which stars Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford.

I once went to a movie theater in Naha and saw Love Story (1970), for the first time, in English with Japanese subtitles! The Okinawan natives held an annual island-wide Tug-o’-War in one of the villages, which I witnessed one Sunday afternoon, and I took pictures of the event and of the humongous rope that they use in the ritual. One of the nearby islands is Iwo Jima, where that famous photograph cum statue of those Marines raising the U.S. Flag took place. The McGuires also had a yacht in which a group of us sailed to Admirals Island one afternoon for a picnic and exploratory hike.

Okinawan Tug-o’-War

I had heard that there is a high incidence of longevity among the Okinawan natives. I have since learned that over 900 residents of the islands are over age 100! Scientists have not yet discovered their secret to super longevity, but it may have something to do with their easy-going lifestyle, or ikigai, “a reason to get up in the morning.” I noticed how everybody was so laid back over there, no one in a hurry or rushing around, like it tends to be in the big cities. I recall that my uncle Lester was always quiet and easy-going and he lived to be 111! Consider that tortoises live for a very long time, too. So, maybe taking it slow and easy is the key.

I considered staying there myself after my Army stint, maybe getting a job teaching at the high school. But it didn’t work out. I had to separate stateside and I just couldn’t see making that 18-hour trip two more times. Besides, the island’s subsequent reversion most likely changed things there, I‘m sure.

I suppose that inquiring minds, if you’re like me, may be wondering about the sexual situation in the Army. Since, as everybody knows, there are no homosexuals, besides myself, in the armed forces, right?, you must think that I spent my two years being celibate. Hah! Think again. Actually, there are as many queers in the service as there are anywhere else, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Although I did not do anything during Basic Training or MP School, I was quite sexually-active while I was in Okinawa. As it so happened, I don’t remember being horny at all the whole time I was at Forts Campbell and Gordon, even though I was around all those fine, humpy, young men all day long. There was an ongoing rumor that saltpeter, a nitrate (nitrite?) which supposedly represses one’s sexual libido, was added to the potatoes on a daily basis. If that is true, it must have worked, because I didn’t have the desire even to jerk off. I guess they didn’t trust us, so they chose to suppress any desire we normally would have if left to our own devices.

Anyway, there were indeed queers galore during my Army stint. The trick, though, was finding out who they were, and we gays seem to have a knack for ferreting out others like ourselves. Call it a sixth sense, “gaydar” or whatever, but I, for one, do seem to have the knack. It’s really a game with us, trying to figure out who is gay and who isn’t, and the military closetness really added to the challenge, as you can imagine. When I got to Okinawa, I soon discovered where the gay boys met and hung out, but even with my usual astuteness, I still got occasional surprises. I had guys coming on to me who I never suspected to be gay, although they apparently had my number, or at least suspected.

I had my regulars among the soldiers and even some American civilians, who were either on the island because of their jobs or they were tourists. I never got to fulfill my desire to make it with a native Okinawan man, however, and I never found the reputed local gay bar, if there really was one. I did have plenty of chances to sample the “working girls” there, though, but I repeatedly resisted the opportunity. They were always looking for a “short time” (a cheap quickie) with the servicemen via the bars, nightclubs and massage parlors. I told you that everything was cheap over there, including solicited sex. One could get laid for as little as $5!

When I was still at the missile site, a few of the guys and I went into Koza one night to get us some “poon-tang”—at least, they did. While each of them were upstairs, presumably getting it on with the girls they had picked up at the bar, I just sat at the bar, talking to the remaining girls and waited for my buds to return. Even for appearances’ sake, I wouldn’t bring myself to do something that I really did not want to do, especially if I had to pay for it! I don’t think that any of the guys ever figured out my story. At least if they did, they never confronted me about it.

Bill Kreutzer didn’t come out to me until he had settled in San Francisco and told me in a letter. We used to camp with each other all the time, too, but he would never come right out and admit to me that he was a “friend of Dorothy.” He must have known it about me, because I was pretty much myself by that time. The people who didn’t suspect were all just in denial. I didn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t, but I didn’t volunteer anything either. For appearances’ sake, though, I managed to conceal my homosexuality right along with the other gays in my company.

I did get into a little trouble about five months before my time was up, which started a certain chain of events which lasted until I left the island. When I moved to Headquarters Company after the Band, the bunk area in the barracks in which I lived was divided into sections, or “cubes,” with two bunk beds to a cube. The wall lockers that were assigned to us, in which to keep all of our belongings, were very tall and wide enough so that, when placed side by side, would form a partition on at least two sides. This gave us some degree of privacy, although there were no doors. This particular barracks was not fully-occupied, so all the bunks were not being used. I even had a whole bunk bed to myself, although I did have to share my cube.

It was the very day I was to be promoted from E-2 Private to E-3 PFC (Private First Class). I had been there for about a year by this time. It would have been my first earned promotion, as we are automatically promoted to E-2 status after AIT. The only merit of a military promotion is that it puts you in a higher pay grade. After breakfast and before I had to go to my job, I was called in to see my Commanding Officer, for the purpose of officially receiving my promotion, I thought. Instead, I was informed that it had just been brought to his attention, by someone in my platoon, that I had been observed making out with my cubemate in our bunks at night. I will admit to you here and now that I am guilty as charged (and it certainly was not the first and only time either), but I did not admit it to my CO at the time. And I assure you, it was completely consensual. I never take advantage of anyone against their will and never have. In fact, he was the one who first came on to me!

Again, if I had it to do over again, I would probably confess, and I don’t know why I didn’t then. I suppose it was because I was actually enjoying the Army by this time and I didn’t want to be kicked out with a dishonorable discharge. So I denied the charge, and since it was only my accuser’s word against mine, they never could prove it. I even had to see the company psychiatrist, so that he might ascertain if I were queer or not. But how could he or anyone else ever prove such a thing when all I have to do is give the right answers by telling them what they want to hear? The doctor said something interesting, though. He told me that in itself, being gay was not a crime and something that they couldn’t do anything about. It appeared that he was telling me that it was all right to be gay, and I suspected that he could have been, too. The issue was, did I actually do what I was being accused of? I still denied the charge.

As it takes two to tango, I have always wondered why my friend was not called in as well. Why only me? Or maybe he was, he just didn’t tell me. I was pretty sure who ratted on us, by the way, even though the CO would not tell me who it was. When I ran into the rat fink, John W., later that morning, he had the guiltiest look on his face. Uh-huh, just as I thought. Unbeknownst to me, he probably had caught us one night while we were getting it on. With no doors to close, it was always a risk of being caught in flagrante delicto. We just took our chances. I am surprised that we didn’t get caught more often than we did. A closet case himself, I suspect, but one that I had nothing to do with sexually, John was probably just jealous because I wasn’t giving him any action. I might have, though, if he had made his interest known, indiscriminate whore that I am. And I don’t think it was any coincidence that John was up for promotion, too, that day–maybe it was a quota situation and he thought he would have a better chance if he could eliminate his competition. Why else would he report me like that?

So I did not get my promotion, as it turned out. Due to the short term I was to serve, I wouldn’t have made it beyond E-3 anyway. But now I had to be careful about what I did, at least around the barracks, because if I got caught again, it would only validate the charge against me. I was somewhat hesitant about whether to include this very personal chapter of my Army experience, but hey! I wanted to be honest with you and give you the whole story, judgment be damned. You should hear about the unpleasant parts as well as the good. I cannot change the past, what’s done is done, and the truth needs no justification. Plus, I thought you would like to know how gay issues are dealt with when they arise. As usual, things seem to work out in my favor.

In my case, my superiors had a hard time disciplining me. Since most GIs join the armed forces voluntarily, the ultimate punishment is dismissal. To keep us in line, they could always threaten us with discharge. But since I, as a draftee, didn’t want to be there anyway, they couldn’t use kicking me out as an incentive to make me behave. So with me they used harassment, gave me bullshit details and constantly put me on guard duty. As long as I stayed out of the stockade, I didn’t care what they did to me, although what I knew about the stockade was that it was no different than boot camp, which was much like prison, as I alluded to earlier.

During my mail clerk assignment at Headquarters Company and when it was our turn to be on call for riot control guard duty, one Sunday evening I failed to show up for a company formation at which attendance was taken, and I was penalized with an Article 15 citation for missing it. I don’t remember why I did not attend. I must have been doing something that I deemed to be more important, or I just couldn’t be bothered at the time with such nonsense. Besides, they hardly ever took attendance anyway.

I don’t know the exact wording for it, but an Article 15 is a disciplinary action given for a military infraction. Yes, they could be unreasonably strict when they wanted to be. So I missed a stupid formation! Big-fucking-deal! How is that a crime? Maybe they were being more attentive in my case because of that other business. I suppose that I should have been more cautious myself and expected that Big Brother was watching me more closely now and just waiting for me to slip up in some way, in order to come after me.

My punishment was to sweep and clean the barracks office after duty hours for a designated period of time, which I didn’t mind doing, but Monday evening was my choir rehearsal night. I was directing the Sukiran choir at this time, and there was no way for me to contact everybody to change the rehearsal for another day or time. Communication by phone was non-existent at the time. I could not just fail to show up with no explanation. That’s not right. So I asked my barracks sergeant if I could start my extra detail tomorrow night instead, when I would be free. “Townsend, you will report to this office at 1800 hours tonight!” ‘I can’t come tonight. I have choir rehearsal. People depend on me.’ “You will report to this office tonight!” Why must he be so unreasonable? So, what did I do? I went to my rehearsal. To hell with that guy! Who does he think he is? He can’t tell me what to do!

The next morning I was presented with another Article 15 for violating the first one! I told you that they were strict. My punishment this time was my being put on company restriction, which meant that I was not allowed to leave the barracks for the next two weeks, except for my day job. So I’m grounded? What am I, an unruly child?! And to make sure I honored the restriction, I had to sign in at the office, every hour, on the hour. But I even managed to get around that, at least for the first few days. Tuesday and Wednesday of that week were no problem. I didn’t have anywhere to go and I got a good rest, besides, just relaxing, reading and listening to records. I didn’t even have to do the original custodian detail.

On Thursday evening, however, I had rehearsal for the Choral Society, so this is what I did. The rehearsal started at 7:00. I signed in at 7 then went to rehearsal. At five minutes to 8, I borrowed Mary’s car, drove back to the barracks to sign in for 8:00, then went back to rehearsal. We were finished before 9, so I got back home in time to sign in again. After that first week, it got easier, and they weren’t watching me as closely. I was busted back to E-1, by the way, as the result of those two Articles 15, in addition to the company surveillance.

I am sometimes asked if I was ever worried that I would have to go into actual combat. After all, the war in Vietnam… Excuse me, I almost forgot that war was never declared, was it? The conflict in Vietnam was in full swing, but I had no intention whatsoever of going there or fighting anybody. That just was not in the cards for me. They couldn’t make me fight; I would have simply refused. (“Hell, no! I won’t go!”) You know from some of my other posts how antiwar I am and that I am a committed pacifist. The Army may be a lot of things, but it does try to be fair and sensible, in some respects. Infantry assignments are mostly reserved for gung-ho volunteers, enlistees, high school dropouts, those guys deemed relatively-disposable, who apparently don’t mind dying for their country, or else they wouldn’t have volunteered.

We all were given extensive evaluation tests when we first went in, and with all my education and special skills, they probably realized that I would be more use to them alive than dead. They even tried to get me to sign up for officers’ training school, but I declined. I didn’t want to make any long-term or special commitments. Let me serve my two years and get the hell out of here! I do regret, however, not accepting the Airborne training assignment when it was offered to me. I would have gotten to be a paratrooper, which I have always wanted to do, but at the time I was so tired from the constant work and believed Airborne would be even more harrowing and strenuous. So I turned it down, too.

The Army recruiters managed to entice many of my college friends into enlisting for four years after graduation instead of risking being drafted, convincing them that they could pick their assignment and would not have to be sent to the infantry. Well, they all fell for their line and signed up for four years. Some of them did get cushy assignments after Basic, but it was no guarantee that they would or that they would avoid Vietnam. It never occurred to me to defect to Canada. I decided to take my chances with the draft, and you see that I lucked out. I got good assignments, I had to serve only 22 months in all and I didn’t even have to fight.

Many of the draftees were being granted early outs, and I was put on the list, too. I guess they couldn’t wait to get this willful, incorrigible (alleged) faggot out of their midst. The Choral Society was in rehearsal for Jesus Christ Superstar, in which I was to play Judas, so I didn’t want to leave until after the performance. I even asked for an extension, but it was flatly denied. So they did find an appropriate punishment for me after all! It’s like with the sadist and the masochist. The masochist: “Please, sir, beat me, beat me!” The sadist: “No!” So as soon as my orders were drawn up (in early March), I was out of there, but with an Honorable Discharge, thank you.

People came and went all the time, as their orders dictated. Jim and Sue would use any excuse to have a get-together, so whenever anybody in our family group left the island, they would throw them a Going-Away party. I, being one of their special friends, was, of course, no exception. They threw me a great going-away bash at their house three days before I had to leave. I received presents, cards, a cake, and my friend Carolyn Ryan, who also was over there as a schoolteacher, took the time to write a poem in my honor (it’s really in the form of a roast), which she read aloud to the attending party guests. I am presenting it here for your enjoyment and my evaluation.

AH, MEMORIES! (or Who Has the Goods on Cliff?)

By the shores of Okinawa on the strip of Kadena Base,
One large bird brought forth our Clifford, dropped him off with style and grace.
To the barracks he did saunter with his oboe in his hand;
Yep, you guessed it, he was to play for the 29th Army Band.
Onward to Sukiran Choir came our Clifford singing low;
But we notice, rarely softly, so we did hear that music flow.
Singing, outings, parties, job kept him busy we can guess;
Indeed, his time was taken, but was Cliff ever late? By golly, YES!
Into church he’d creep, plastic bag in hand,
Arriving in the sanctuary just in time to stand.
Oh, he’ll deny that this is true,
But we are witnesses, me and you.
At movies he sits so quietly in his seat,
Just sleeping like a baby. Ain’t he sweet?
Cliff is full of curiosity;
A case in point, we shall see;
Suicide Cliff we did explore;
After a while, Cliff was around no more.
We waited, searched, returned to the car;
Still no Cliff, though we looked very far.
We went back down, now drained of all pep;
Met Cliff coming up, counting each step!
There are more tales that could be told,
But will remain memories until we’re old;
For someday we will gather in his den,
And we will play “Remember When…?”

No, I don’t deny any of what Carolyn said about me. She had me pegged pretty well. I was often late for rehearsals and church services and such. I was young and frivolous in those days. I became much more grounded and responsible later on. I hate being late for anything, so now punctuality is very important to me. I don’t like for people to keep me waiting for them, so I am respectful enough not to make them wait for me. I did use to carry everything in a plastic bag, too. I must have started doing that at college. My pockets were not big enough for my music, my camera, reading material and other personal items. This was before it occurred to me that I could have carried a shoulder bag for that purpose. Yes, there was a time when my voice would stick out in a chorus, before I learned how to blend, and too, I used to doze at the movies. I still do, even at home. But as far as gathering in my den someday, I doubt that will ever happen, even if I, in fact, had a den. I suppose it could occur in someone else’s den, however.

There is a story behind that Suicide Cliff report. It was one Sunday afternoon when the gang went to see that tourist site. Down below the actual jumping-off place were subterranean tunnels where the Japanese soldiers had their headquarters, and there was a dense, wooded area adjacent to the ocean. I love to explore and I admit that I do have a tendency to wander off from groups I am with, and that is what I did that day. While we were exploring the area, I got separated from the others. I went into the midst of the jungle alone and got myself lost. I didn’t know where I was or how to get out, and I was becoming worried because it was getting dark. So out of fear and frustration, I did something that I had never done before or since. I started yelling ‘Help!’ just like in the cartoons and movies. And as luck would have it, some hikers happened along where I was and showed me the way to the main path that led out of the thicket. This path ended with a very long set of concrete stairs that led up to the parking area. Curious about the number of steps there were, I decided to count them as I ascended. Before I got to the top, I spied Carolyn and some of the gang coming down toward me. I don’t remember now exactly how many steps there were, but there were over a hundred.

Looking back and all things considered, I can rightly say that the time I spent on Okinawa was one the happiest periods of my life. Everything didn’t always go my way, as every life has its ups and downs, as I have related to you, but the pros greatly outnumber the cons. I was in a place with perfect weather and an incredible economic situation. After my impoverished college experience, I had learned that I could live comfortably on very little money. And since everything there was so damned inexpensive, I was able to accomplish that. I didn’t have to pay for lodging, and often my meals were free. The only things I spent money on, other than my new stereo system, were records, printed music and movies, plus some souvenirs for myself.

None of my various jobs could be considered hard labor: sitting on my ass most of the day, making music and handling mail. That’s nothing. I mean, I do most of that anyway, even when I‘m not getting paid! I had a great artistic outlet and entertainment opportunities, where I got to sing, dance, play musical instruments, conduct, act, even write. I learned a good bit of Japanese, too, while there, which I can still speak even today. I had fun-filled socializing with dear, loving friends, the food was plentiful and delicious, and I was getting satisfying, enjoyable sex on a regular basis. Come on, what’s not to like?

So I finished out my term and was returned to the States and released on March 4, 1972, two months early, only six weeks before the island reverted back to Japanese rule. If I had it to do over again, that is, if I had known for sure that I would have to serve in the Army, I would have gone in right after high school, instead of the other way around. Because when I was discharged, I was then ready for college. I was now 24 and had matured enough really to buckle down and do some serious studying. I could have taken advantage of the G.I. Bill, too. But because I had already been through that, I just didn’t want to do it all again. Seventeen consecutive years of schooling had been quite enough, thank you.

With my severance pay and accrued leave pay (I didn’t take any of my leave time, so they paid me the money instead) I went back to South Bend and applied for Unemployment Compensation for the first time. So in reflection, even though I didn’t want to go into the Army, I’m certainly glad that I did. It was a series of first-time experiences, some good, some not so good, but then I think about all the wonderful, life-changing adventures and fun things that I would have missed out on if I had not gone in.

Happy Veterans Day, my fellow veterans (and non-)!

[Related articles: “I’m Working Here!”; More Name Dropping; On the Road With Cliff; School Days]

Querulous Quirks

I would like to share some curious observations of life with you. Our English language prides itself on its vast vocabulary and verbal versatility. There seems to be a word for almost everything, and if there isn’t a term for something, someone usually comes up with a way to convey it, except for possibly a few things.

There are third-person pronouns for all three genders: masculine (he, him, his), feminine (she, her, hers) and neuter (it, its). But so often we need to refer to someone of indeterminate or common gender, and in English there is no specific, unique pronoun for that purpose. We always have to say “he or she” or the written contractions “he/she,“ “s/he” or “(s)he.”

For that reason I have adopted the gender non-specific, third-person plural pronoun “they” (also them, themself and their where applicable) to take the place of “he or she” whenever it occurs in any of my blog articles. The Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, etc.) practice a similar convention. It has been commonly acceptable in English to use the masculine pronouns for this purpose, but I choose not to do that because it is sexist and not all-inclusive. I make every attempt to be non-sexist, whenever possible, in my speech and my writing. Whenever I do happen to use Man or Woman as a general reference, I mean those words specifically. The usage of “they/them” has become more common as of late. Some transgendered persons or those of undecided self-identification have adopted “they” to refer to themselves, which to me would imply that they are not really sure what they are. “They” prefer not to be referred to as strictly male or female. What a world, huh?

There is also no gender non-specific word for nephews and nieces, collectively. We can use “children” or “offspring” to refer to sons and daughters, “siblings” to refer to brothers and sisters, and “cousins” can be either male or female, but we don’t have one word to convey “the sons and daughters of one’s brothers and/or sisters.” For that matter, there is no one word for the “brothers and sisters of one’s mother and/or father” either. We always have to say “aunts and uncles.” A person who loses a spouse to death is referred to as a widow or widower, and a child without parents is called an orphan. But, although it is a common occurrence, there is no word for a parent who loses a child.

The English language is loaded with verbal contradictions, oxymora, incongruities, redundancies, misnomers, etc. Here’s one: military intelligence. (Yeah, right.) The phrase “buying on credit” is an oxymoron. When you get something on credit, you haven’t bought it until you actually pay for it with real money. “I bought a new car today.“ No, you charged a new car. You didn’t pay cash for it, did you? That is one of the causes of our current economic crisis, people irresponsibly charging things for which they don’t have the ready cash, sometimes with no intention of paying their bills. Possession is not a true indication of one’s wealth. Just because they live in a mansion and drive a fancy car doesn’t mean that they’re paid for or that they have the money for their upkeep.

There are these redundancies: criminal lawyer; war crime(s)—I consider war in itself to be a crime; sugar cookie—I contend that every cookie is a sugar cookie. A cookie without sugar is a cracker. I heard a movie character being described as an undercover assassin. What assassin does not work undercover? No one has ever admitted it to me. ’So, what do you do, Ed?’ “Don’t you know? I kill people for a living.” ’Oh.’ The ones more often guilty of “insurance fraud” are the insurance companies themselves.

Note these superfluous phrases. Honcho is a Japanese word for squad leader or boss. So “head honcho” is superfluous. That means that they are the top boss as opposed to the subordinate boss? The Bantu word for fly is tsetse. Adding the “fly” only denotes what it is. Natives refer to that vast dry region in North Africa as the Sahara, which is Arabic for “desert.“ It must have been somebody else who started calling it the Sahara Desert. Similarly, la brea is the Spanish word for tar, so that location in Los Angeles could be referred to as “The Tar Tar Pits.” The V in HIV stands for “virus,” so the phrase “HIV virus” is superfluous. I hear people say that all the time. I’ve even seen it in print. They do it, too, with the “ADAP program” (AIDS Drug Assistance Program), ATM Machine (Automated Teller Machine), IRA account (Individual Retirement Account), MCC Church (Metropolitan Community Church), PIN number (Personal Identification Number), “SALT talks” (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), “VCR recorder” (videocassette recorder), and how about those TCBY yogurt parlors—The Country’s Best Yogurt yogurt?!

There are two words commonly used, although a bit archaic, that most people apparently don’t know the real meaning of. They are whence and wherefore. The first one certainly does not mean when. Whence means “from what place, source or cause; from where.” So the oft-quoted Bible verse, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help” is wrong! The “from” is unnecessary as it is included in the adverb. “Whence did you come to New York, young man?” “I am from Paris via Montreal.” Okay.

Wherefore does not mean where, as many think, but rather “why, for what reason or purpose?” “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” “Here I am, Juliet!” No, that’s not right! She is not inquiring about her lover’s whereabouts. There is no comma after “thou.” She is pondering why must he be a cursed Montague, a member of the rival family to hers, the Capulets? “Deny your father and refuse his name, and I will do the same.” “Wherefore are you going?” “Because I’ve had enough. I’m getting out.” Ah, so.

How are these for some confused misnomers? Motorists drive on a parkway but park in a driveway. Performers recite in a play but play in a recital. A lot of merchandise is shipped by ground vehicles but cargo is sent by ship. Our noses run and our feet smell. There are fingertips on our hands, but we don’t have “toetips” on our feet. Conversely, we can tiptoe but we don’t “tipfinger.” Jail and prison are synonyms, but jailer and prisoner are antonyms of each other. Why does quicksand work so slowly?

Boxing rings are square. Sweetmeats are candies, not meat, while sweetbreads, which is neither bread nor sweet, is meat. An eggplant does not contain egg nor resemble one, and a pineapple is neither pine nor apple. A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. English horn is the result of a mistranslation. It’s not English, but French. The original name for the instrument is “cor anglé” (angle horn), but somebody heard it as “cor Anglais,” which apparently won out.

The Australian koala is often erroneously called a “koala bear,“ I suppose because it resembles a cuddly teddy bear. But it is not a bear at all, but a marsupial. And a panda is not a bear either. It only resembles one. It is its own unique species of carnivores. What does not have an etymological resemblance, however, are the caterpillar, derived from the Old French chatepelose, meaning “hairy cat” and a dandelion from the Old French, dent de lion, means “tooth of the lion,” from its jagged leaves, I suppose. But when I see a dandelion, a lion’s tooth is not the first thing that comes to mind, and a fuzzy worm certainly does not suggest any kind of cat. From personal experience, they did get one right, though. A sweatshirt is really that!

Some donut franchises sell a little item known as a “donut hole.” To avoid wasting them (which is to be commended), the dough that is taken out of the center of a doughnut is cooked, just like the rest of the thing, and then powdered, frosted or coated and sold as a separate confection. But how can it be a hole? The hole is the part that is missing. One can’t eat a hole. It’s really the “donut center.” Or just regard it as a separate entity. Some companies have realized the incongruity and now call them “Donut Balls,” “Munchkins” and “Pop-ems.” “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.“ Sure, you can. You must have it before you can eat it. The proverb should go, “You can’t eat your cake and still have it, too,“ meaning, once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone.

Airlines advertise “nonstop” flights. What they really mean is that the flight is direct from one place to the next. I mean, it has to stop at some point, doesn’t it? It’s not the Flying Dutchman. “This door shall remained closed at all times.“ That’s not a door then. That’s just a wall with a knob or handle on it. “This John Doe was identified from his dental records.“ But if they don’t know who the person is, how do they know who his dentist is? The slogan used in Raid insecticides commercials and ads is “It kills bugs DEAD!” As opposed to what? Isn’t the subsequent result of killing something, death? But maybe the advertisers are just trying to be funny. “All-new episode tonight!” As opposed to what, partially-new?

This is for any baseball enthusiasts. When a pitcher manages to strike everybody out, resulting in no hits, no runs and no score, it is referred to as a “perfect game.“ I would think that people attend and watch baseball games for the actual plays, that is, hits, home runs, field catches and throws. So if none of these things happen and nobody gets to do anything, how is that a perfect game? That’s no game at all! That would be like going to a concert and no music is made. We all just sit there and watch the musicians do nothing.

“I just learned of his untimely death.” Untimely? What does that even mean? When is a good time to die? I am reminded of a scene from one of the film versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (I never read the actual book) in which one of Scrooge’s creditors is reminding him that it is the anniversary of his partner Jacob Marley’s death. He says, “What a shame to have died on Christmas Eve.” Ebenezer replies, “That’s as good a day to die as any!” He is right, of course. Are there certain days and times when people shouldn’t die? Death is indiscriminate to time and place. “He died before his time.” No, he didn’t. That was his time, apparently, or else he still would be alive, wouldn‘t he?“

Similar is the term “premature ejaculation.” I come when I’m ready to come. How is that premature? Am I supposed to wait for you? I got my nut, now you get yours! My sex partners and I very seldom manage to synchronize our orgasms. But… “To go together is blessed, to come together, divine!“ The same can be said of birth expectancy. A fetus is not aware of time. Some don’t need the standard nine months for complete development, so if the baby is said to be early, it‘s not “premature.” When it’s ready to come out, it will. And then some need more time. So those babies are not “overdue,“ they are just not ready to be born yet. A doctor tells the expectant mother exactly when the baby will be due, but he doesn’t know for sure. It could be anywhere from 270-279 days from conception, depending on the months involved. Nine months is only an average estimate. It’s just like when they decide when somebody is going to die. “You have six months.“ That’s not their call. Every person is different. The fatal ailment is not aware of actual time. So when six months arrives, the cancer, or whatever, doesn’t say, “All right, time’s up. According to your doctor, I’m going to have to kill you now.”

There is a TV commercial that advises women on what to do about an “unexpected pregnancy.” So, “I am ovulating and I let this man ejaculate into me without a condom, but I never expected to get pregnant!” Doesn’t that seem a bit naïve? A pregnancy can certainly be unwanted, but unexpected? That’s like screwing with someone, without any protection, that you know has the clap and not expecting to get infected. “She is a victim of a brutal rape.” As opposed to a pleasurable one? The brutality of a sexual assault is what makes it a rape.

“She has the voice of an angel.“ I realize that that is meant as a compliment, but what is it based on? Even if you believe in angels, do you know what they sound like? I suppose we like to think that angelic means heavenly and pleasing to the ear. But then which angel? Are we talking here about Whitney Houston or Florence Foster Jenkins? Do angels actually sing, and if they do, do they all have glorious voices? There may be some that don’t sing very well at all. So that can be an individual thing like everything else.

The clichéd simile “quiet as a mouse“ is not valid either. Mice are anything but quiet. The reason I know when they are on my premises is that I hear them scurrying around and gnawing on things even before I see them. “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” Really? What is he, some kind of freak extraterrestrial? “She’s a party pooper.” Eww! Keep her away from the dip!

A retronym is a term created to distinguish itself from a later development or variation of the same concept. Let me explain. Once upon a time there was only one basic way to prepare coffee. When a person wanted coffee, all they had to ask for was coffee. But then they came out with decaffeinated, espresso, cappuccino, lattés and all these flavored varieties, so now if you want plain old regular black coffee, that’s how you order it. The same goes for gasoline. With unleaded, premium, high-octane and all those other choices, if you want just regular, that’s what you have to ask for. We now have the original “analog” to distinguish it from “digital” and vinyl recordings to distinguish them from compact disks. With the current predominance of cell phones and other mobile gadgets, one’s connected phone at home is now referred to as a “landline” phone. I expect the first retronyms created were the words nudity and naked. Since we all come into the world without clothes then are compelled to go through public life covering our bodies, when we are in a state of undress, we had to have a word to reflect that—naked or nude, to denote the natural state.

A relatively-new retronym is the term “bareback,” which means to fuck without a condom. The fact that males have been screwing condomless forever, and there has never been a time when they didn’t (female impregnation by natural means has always prevailed), the term is stupid and unnecessary. Its most prevalent use, however, is in the porno film industry. When the campaign for safer sex came to the fore as a result of the AIDS crisis during the ‘80s and ‘90s, porno film “actors” started wearing condoms in their films as the PC thing to do. But during the last and present decade we seem to have reverted back to our old habits, and condom-wearing is more the exception than the rule. It’s more daring and exciting to do it au naturel, you see, and many of the new titles reflect this as a selling ploy. There’s Bareback Action and Bareback Mountin’, Bareback This and Bareback That, where before no designation was required. Gay men now even hold “bareback parties” (orgies), but I can tell you for a fact that I have never attended a group sex gathering that was not a bareback event. So why even call them that, as if it were something unique and different? I have previously debunked other phrases and expressions used by the media in another post, including “over and out,” AWOL and “first thing in the morning.” See my Cinematic Pros and Cons blog for explanations.

I have some verbal complaints as well. In this age of motor conveyances, people have replaced true distance with how long it takes to get somewhere by ground vehicle. When I was on tour with the Flirtations and I would ask someone how far a certain restaurant or bar or bathhouse is, they would invariably reply with, “Oh, it’s about 20 minutes from here,” which is how long it takes to drive there. But I didn’t ask them the driving time. I am not driving. I’m on foot. What is the approximate distance, please? Ten blocks, two miles, what? I’m not on a time schedule. I may want to stop along the way to eat, sightsee or do some shopping. Just tell me how far away it is.

And I wish that people would answer the question asked them. It happens all the time. Someone will ask a direct question and get a totally impertinent response. “What happened?” “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” But that’s not answering the question. Why should I be worried when you haven’t told me yet what has happened? Someone trying to put the other at ease: “I am worried about my daughter. She was supposed to be home hours ago, and she won’t answer her phone.” “Don’t worry. I’m sure she’s fine.” How can you be sure? You don’t know where she is or what she is doing. You just hope that she is fine. Then there is the well-meaning person who gives you more information than you require without answering your original question. Please, just answer the question asked! The answer to a yes-or-no question is “yes” or “no.”

When someone is in a life-threatening situation or illness, but the prognosis is positive, the doctor or someone will often tell the patient or victim’s loved ones, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” Not ever? Why tell a lie if you don’t have to? A better way to phrase it would be, “You are going to live for now.” By the same token, when we ask the question, it sounds better to ask, “Is he going to live?” rather than “Is she going to die?” The answer to both questions could possibly be “yes,” but the answer to both could never be “no.” I mean, they are going to die sometime, maybe not just right now.

Then there are those, like physicians and police officers, who are hesitant to tell you something of grave importance. “Uh, Mrs. Brown?” “Yes, what is it?” “It’s your husband.” “What is my husband? What about him?” “Uh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown.” (::pause::) What?! I’m thinking, Has he left her, is he hurt, sick, dead, just got a sex change, what? Go on and tell the woman what has happened to her husband! Why the reluctance? The sooner she knows, the sooner she can deal with it. I don’t like to assume anything. Just be up front and direct with me. I can’t stand hemming and hawing and beating around the bush. I am the kind of person who says what I mean and mean what I say. Don’t put words in my mouth or tell me what you think I want to hear either. Be honest about your feelings and thoughts. The truth needs no justification. Of course, there are ways to express yourself without hurting the person’s feelings, unless it is your intention to do so. It’s not really what you say at any time, but rather how you say it.

“He hasn’t been seen or heard from for days now. He seems just to have vanished into thin air.” People don’t actually “vanish.” They just leave your immediate sight or go into hiding somewhere. “Where have you been? We have looked everywhere for you!” Well, you didn’t look everywhere, now did you? I mean, they must have been somewhere. People tend to make assumptions when they are searching for something or somebody. When we hide something, we want to put it in a place where we think nobody would ever look. So don’t ever say, “He wouldn’t be there!” or “She wouldn’t hide the money in there!” But why not? Maybe that’s exactly where it is, right where it “couldn’t possibly be.” That‘s probably why you haven‘t found it, because you haven‘t looked in the right place!

“Those papers that were on my desk have disappeared.” Could it be that you just misplaced them, or maybe somebody moved them or stole them? You know, when you misplace something and then eventually find it, it’s always in the last place you look. Have you ever looked for something and couldn’t seem to find it, although you are looking right at the thing but still can’t see it? I don’t understand how that happens. It must be some sort of negative hallucination. Instead of seeing something that is not there, you are not seeing something that is there. And this is even when I’m not on anything!

I realize that people only mean well when they give us mild admonitions, like “be careful” and “watch your step,” but what do these warnings really do for us? Whenever I see a sign over a portal that says “Watch your step” or “Watch your head,” I will more often than not trip or bump my head anyway. So I’m thinking, What good was the sign? I didn’t bump my head on purpose, and telling me not to bump it is not going to prevent me from doing so. Do we normally go through life intentionally being careless, until someone warns us to “be careful”? Oh, thank you so much for telling me that. Otherwise, I would have been doomed to be a bumbling lummox! “Stay out of trouble now.” I don’t purposely go around looking for trouble. It usually finds me, no matter what I do. I am often the victim of circumstance.

“Don’t lose that now. Guard it with your very life.” Similarly, I don’t lose things on purpose either, and telling me not to is not going to protect me from loss or theft. And come on, I’m not getting myself killed over some material item. To the mugger with the gun, ‘So you want this floppy disk? Here, take it.’ Someone actually did give me a floppy disk once and told me to guard it with my life. ’Are you serious?’ I asked him. And due to the fact that floppies are now obsolete, I would have given up my life for nothing!

“Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.“ Who came up with that stupid comment? What does it even mean? First of all, I don’t know what you wouldn’t do, and what do your personal limitations have to do with me? Just because you are not interested in making it with that cute guy there with the big dick, I should pass on it, too, if given the opportunity? I don’t think so.

When someone makes a mistake or maybe is late for or misses altogether an important appointment or something and are called on it, they will often say, “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” How can you affirm that when you don’t have any control over destiny? You apparently couldn’t prevent it from happening this time, or so you say, so how do you know that it won’t happen ever again? I just say, ‘I will try to do better in the future.“

Most health insurance plans that Americans have are not all-inclusive. What I mean by that is one plan does not cover all your health needs. Ailments that occur below the neck, including internal organs, are covered, but your eyes, ears and teeth come under separate plans. Why is that? Isn’t your face and head part of your body?

I receive a monthly food allowance from the Government. It used to be referred to as “food stamps” but now it comes in the form of a plastic debit card. Money is put on it the first of every month and subtracted from it when you use it to buy groceries, just like a bank debit card. Now I can see why the card does not cover non-food items like paper products and detergents, but why does it not cover pet food? It’s still food, isn’t it, even though it’s not for my own consumption? What, my cat is financially secure and is able to pay for her own food?! Our pets are our dependents just like our children are. And how do they know that I’m not eating the cat food myself? I wonder if they make EBT recipient parents pay for baby food?

A Maternal Tribute

I just recently returned from burying my mother. Oh, yes, she’s dead. She passed on September 10, 2015, five days after my birthday, at the age of 90 years and 9 months. Due to her age and physical condition, her death was not unexpected. For some time now, Mother had been suffering from various ailments–diabetes, kidney trouble and anemia, among them, but she always remained in good spirits. I don’t feel at all sad, because my mom was ready to go. She didn’t have anything to live for anymore. For the last few years she was confined to a hospital/hospice/nursing home facility, where she received around-the-clock care. She could no longer walk or go anywhere on her own or do anything. She was basically only existing.

That last year Ma succumbed to dementia, and had become increasingly disoriented and confused. She still knew me and my siblings and her grandchildren, but her memory was short-term at best. She would repeat herself often, not realizing that she just told me that a moment ago. So since she had already resigned herself to her passing, we all accepted it as well. She led a good, long life, and I have no regrets or unfinished business with her. The last time we spoke on the phone, only a few days before she died, and every other time that we spoke, we both said “I love you” to each other.

My mother, Jeannette Agnes Wilson-Poston Amos Townsend McNeill, lived in South Bend, Indiana her entire life and even lived in the same house for 80 of those years. Mother grew up as an only child, but a while long ago discovered that she had a half-sister living right in town with her, my Aunt Betty, and a half-brother, whom neither of us ever met, from their common father, Willard Wilson. She and Betty even used to play together as children, not knowing, at the time, that they were sisters!

For some time Mother had known that she was adopted but had not been told the specific circumstances, until a niece of her birth mother contacted her some years ago and filled in most of the details. It turns out that my real grandmother, Muriel Piatt Poston Williams Crew, was only 15-years-old when she gave birth to my mother in 1924, and against her own wishes, her parents would not let her keep her baby.

How is this for hypocrisy? Muriel’s grandmother was a German white woman who apparently had mated with a black man, and being the times and all (the 1860s), even though it was the North, they never married, but the mother got to keep her child anyway. So along comes my mother also born out of wedlock, and Granny insisted that the baby be put up for adoption, to avoid another scandal in the family, I suppose. She even sent the pregnant Muriel from her home in Ohio to stay with Muriel’s older sister in Niles, Michigan until she had her baby. Then the family arranged a direct adoption with the Amoses, and for years nobody, especially my mother, was the wiser.

She once suspected that she was at least Mark Amos’ real daughter by another woman other than his wife, but she couldn’t verify it. When she did confront him once years ago with her adoption suspicions, he flatly denied it. So she just let it go and didn’t pursue it. Up until the day he died, “Papa” never confessed to my mother the real truth of her origin.

Muriel herself, after she got grown and was living in South Bend, did not ever try to contact my mother, even though she knew who she was and where she lived. We learned later that Granny would sometimes observe Mother from a distance when she was at church or on the street somewhere, but she never revealed herself to her. Grandmother Muriel was married twice (her first husband was the father of a friend and colleague of mine!), and we learned that she had another child while still a teenager, but it didn’t live long.

It was originally reported that Muriel died in 1964 of untreated diabetes at the ripe, young age of 54. I have since learned, however, that Granny fell in her kitchen one day and banged her head on a counter as she went down. So it was probably the resulting concussion she received that killed her. She did have brothers and sisters however, so now I have a whole slew of resultant aunts, uncles and cousins whom neither my mother nor any of us knew anything about, living in South Bend, Niles and the Cleveland area. Mother eventually found out that some people in town whom she had known all her life turned out to be our cousins! She really regretted not knowing her mother while she was alive. At this time we know nothing about the family of my mother’s birth father.

My mother first met my father, Earl Maize Townsend, in 1945 at the Chez Paree, a popular, local nightspot in South Bend, where their friends used to hang out on a regular basis. The place served liquor, had a jukebox and allowed dancing. Think of it as sort of a precursor discotheque. Mom was 20 and Dad was 24. He liked them younger. Against everybody’s wishes (everyone thought that my mother was too good for my dad), they started dating and before too long, Mother was pregnant with Earl Jr. (Like mother, like daughter, huh?) Then they were pressured by her parents to get married, although neither one was really in love with the other. It was only about sex, although Mother admitted to me that sex with my dad never was all that great anyway.

This was actually Dad’s second marriage. His first brief marriage, to a woman named Helen, ended abruptly when Dad returned home from military service and walked in on Helen, in bed with another woman! It was only a few months after my brother was born that Mother found herself pregnant again, with me this time. I think that originally everybody expected me to turn out to be more like my father. I looked more like him, and Junior looked more like our mother, but it soon became obvious that I was more like our mother, in personality and temperament, and Junior was more like our dad. My parents were married for only about four years and divorced when I was three. I suppose that may be why I never suffered the trauma of parental divorce that a lot of older children go through. It happened before I was old enough to know him as a live-in father.

During the ensuing years, Mother had several lovers (one at a time), including a decades-long love affair with a married man, a dentist. This union eventually produced a daughter, my half-sister, Debra Jean. I was ten when she came along. Despite the circumstances of her birth, I am so grateful that Mother allowed her to be born. Debbie is one of my best friends. Deb’s dad was my mother’s one true love. He was very good to her, and although he never divorced his wife (he already had four other children with her), he and my mom remained close up until he died.

Mother eventually did marry a second time herself to Lee D. McNeill (or “Mack“), a common laborer. That unfortunate union lasted for ten years. My stepfather and I never really got along. We tolerated each other for a while, but it got worse as time went on. I think he resented my smarts and my close relationship with my mother. I have learned since that he was abusive to her, too (physically and emotionally), while they were married, which increased my dislike of him even further.

Jenny had her last child, Aaron McNeill, when she was 46-years-old and I was 23. He certainly was unplanned and unexpected. When Mama didn’t get her period for three months, she assumed that she was menopausal. No such luck. Preggers again! She would had been lying if she said that she wanted another baby at age 46. I wasn’t around to watch Aaron grow up, since he was only two when I moved to NYC, but we’ve always been close as brothers. I won’t give you the rundown of my siblings and other family members at this time. This piece is about my mother.

By the late ‘90s the neighborhood, where we kids grew up as well, became rather rundown and unsafe, so Mother moved into a seniors-occupied apartment complex in another part of town. This was the first and only time that she lived alone. Before then she was always with her parents, children or husband. She loved having her own place while it lasted. But then she got too sick to care for herself and had to be confined to the hospital, where she lived out her remaining few years.

Jeannette was a dear, sweet woman who was kind, always cheerful, honest, out-spoken, friendly and cordial and well-liked by everyone. She didn’t know any strangers. When she visited me in NYC, she’d be talking to people on the street and in restaurants like she’s known them forever. I would tell her, “Mama, you don’t know those people. Why are you telling them all your business…and mine!?” But that’s how she was. She just liked people.

In her younger years, Mama worked at various jobs, including elevator operator, busgirl at a restaurant and housemaid. When she dropped out of high school at the end of her junior year, her only option, in lieu of marriage, was to go to work. She worked at Bike-Webb, a factory that made elastic garments and as a seamstress at Wilson Brothers clothing factory for several years. She next was a school crossing-guard for 20 years, until she retired for good in 1981. She also moonlighted as an undertaker’s assistant, but only as a sort of hostess and guide; she didn’t have to deal with corpse preparation. She attended the wakes and funerals, greeting and comforting the loved ones of the “dearly departed,” rendered a vocal solo when it was requested, and even drove the hearse occasionally.

Although Mother was an accomplished and talented singer in her own right, she never pursued a professional career with her singing. So she lived vicariously through my musical endeavors. When she was still a teenager, however, a man who was passing through town with a traveling dance band heard Mama singing one day and offered her a job with his band. Of course, her parents would not let her go with them. She was too young, and they weren’t going to relinquish their child to a bunch of errant strangers. I suppose I shouldn’t regret that she did not run off with that band so many years ago, for if she had, her life would have taken another path, she most likely would have not met my father, and I would never have been born. So you see, everything happens for a reason.

Mama did sing in her church choir for most of her life (and I along with her and my grandfather as well, until I left home), did solo work and even occasional recitals. For a while she directed our church’s youth choir, and of which I was also a member. As a young woman, Mother was a regular member of the H.T. Burleigh Company, a local theatrical troupe that produced musicals and even operas. When I was only twelve, I appeared in my first Carmen with the Company, as part of the children soldiers’ chorus in Act One.

I had a special relationship with my mother. She was my pal, my buddy, my best female friend. In fact, she called me “Buddy.” That’s been my family nickname all my life. One of my earliest memories was that I was a “Mama’s boy,” and I remember following her around the house like a shadow. It’s a wonder that I became so independent as I am now. But knowing that I would be on my own someday, I learned how to fend for myself. I can cook, iron, sew and do my own laundry. Even when I left home temporarily and then for good, my mother and I regularly corresponded with cards, letters and phone calls. We wrote each other when I was stationed in Okinawa for 18 months. Even while on my cruises with the New York Vagabonds, I would call her when I got the chance. No matter where I happened to be in the world, we always kept in touch. That is what I miss the most–our phone conversations. Hearing my voice always made her day. And I always had to end the calls; she would keep me on the phone all day if I let her. But then, she said the same about me.

Some of our common interests were our love of records, movies, music and singing. Mama must have instilled those aspects and talent in me as well. She told me that she sang the whole time that she was pregnant with me. I always acknowledged Mother’s Day and her Christmas birthday (Dec. 23) with a gift and a card. Typical gifts were cash (she could always use that!), recordings (my own, especially) or inexpensive jewelry items. She loved cheap jewelry, like earrings and brooches and such. She was not a flower person. I’m not either. What purpose do they serve? She preferred things which have a practical or useful function, as do I.

When Mother turned 80, in December 2004, to celebrate this milestone, the family decided to throw her a surprise birthday party at my sister’s house the day after Christmas. She had been hinting around for the whole year that she wanted a party. She appeared to be genuinely surprised. But the bigger surprise was my being there. I didn’t tell her that I was coming. Mama knew that I am always busy at Christmastime every year with singing gigs. In fact, I had not been back in South Bend at Christmas in 20 years! That was when she turned 60. So she did not expect to see me at all. She was quite taken aback but delighted to no end when I came out of hiding and walked into the room where everybody was.

I had the foresight to throw Mother another surprise 90th birthday party the summer before she died, when I was in South Bend for a family reunion (my father’s family). As it turned out, it was good that we did it then, because she never made it to 91. It was the last time that she got to see me, as well as some family members and mutual friends. Besides the four of us, there are six grandchildren and eleven(?) great-grandchildren.

Mother was so proud of me and all my achievements, musical and otherwise, and she was my biggest fan. Over the years and whenever possible, my mom would come to where I was to see me perform. She came down to Bloomington while I was at I.U. to see me act in a play (Jean Genet’s The Blacks). She saw some DeCormier shows, the Flirtations several times and even traveled to Toronto to see me when I was on the Canadian tour with Harry Belafonte. She was there for my stage debut in 1952, and ultimately, I performed for her after her death as well, when I delivered the eulogy at her funeral and rendered a dedicatory solo, standing directly over her coffin while I sang.

Now let me tell you what kind of mother she was. Jenny managed to raise four children, practically all by herself. Well, she did have help, because we lived in our grandparents’ house.
Considering how well we all turned out, I think she did a pretty fantastic job in raising us. None of us were ever in a gang growing up, in trouble all the time or hooked on drugs or in prison. Mother herself did not ever have a criminal record.

We were all really good-mannered, well-behaved kids, and I think Mama had a lot to do with that. I instinctively say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” without even having to think about it, because that is what we were taught. Our mother was never abusive to any of us, physically or emotionally. She never raised her voice to us in anger, not that we ever gave her any reason to, and we never disrespected her either. I am appalled at how some children talk to their parents, calling them ugly names and saying that they hate them. That sort of behavior was absolutely unheard of in our household. We all had mutual respect for one another.

Mother neither smoked nor drank. There was never any alcohol in the house anyway. We never had much money growing up, so none of us were spoiled or demanded things that we knew our mother could not afford. As a result, I still am frugal, non-extravagant and tend not to spend money unnecessarily. We didn’t know just how poor we were because we were always well-fed, clothed and had a roof over our heads. Mama woke us up every morning for school and made us breakfast. We never started our day hungry. Our mom showed us all unconditional love and was always accepting and supportive of anything that we wanted to do with our lives. We could talk to each other about anything. She would give advice if we asked for it, but she never was judgmental. Her life was not perfect by any means, so she chose not to criticize and reprimand us when we made mistakes.

You know how some parents are disapproving of their kids’ friends and acquaintances. Our mother was accepting and respectful to all of our friends. A couple of my own homies, for example, were, shall I say, a bit obvious, gayly-speaking, but Mother never talked about them disparagingly or criticized their unmasculine demeanor. I guess she realized that if I liked these boys, it was not her place to suggest that I should not be friends with them. In fact, she liked them, too. All my friends were good kids like myself. She had no reason to object to any of them. Besides, some of her boyfriends over the years were not all that great, so she knew better not to belittle any of mine. I must have gotten my lack of hypocrisy attitude from her, too.

I can’t ever accuse my mother of being neglectful or remiss in her duties as a parent. She was always there when we needed her. We never once had an outside babysitter. When she was at work, our grandmother watched us, and the rest of the time, Mama would be at home taking care of us herself. She was quite the homebody, not one to be out in the street every night doing who-knows-what, and I must have gotten that from her, too. Even now, I go out only when I need to.

Mama knew all of her kids, because she spent a lot of quality time with us. She read to us when we were little–in fact, she taught me how to read before I started kindergarten–she took us to the movies often, the indoor theaters as well as the outdoor drive-ins, we watched TV together, she played cards and board games with me and my brother and our friends, she attended my brother’s Little League baseball games, and we even played miniature golf and went bowling a few times. We kept up with and taught Mother all of the dances that came along in the ’50s and ’60s; there was a new one practically every week. Since we didn’t drive yet, she was our personal chauffeur until we left home to attend college. Mother knew her way around a sewing machine and used to make some of her own clothes. She taught me how to embroider, and I introduced her to Paint-By-Number.

I have learned over the years that some children of divorced parents don’t always have it so good, and it often affects their lives in very negative ways. The parents part as bitter enemies and tend to use their children as go-betweens. In addition, each one talks despicably about the other to the kids, expecting them to take sides. That was not our case at all. Our parents parted mutually on friendly terms and remained so for the rest of their lives. My mother never badmouthed our dad in our presence (neither did our grandparents) and never kept him from spending time with us. She confided to me later why they split up, but it was the truth and she wasn’t resentful about it. It worked out in all of our favors besides. If they had stayed together “for the sake of the children,” we all would have been miserable.

Dad married the woman that he left my mother for, and she appreciated Emma for taking my dad off her hands. My dad was a gambler and a womanizer. “Let her deal with him now,” Mama would say. Apparently, Dad and Emma were more suited to each other, since they were together for 44 years, until his death by heart failure brought on by a car collision with a drunken driver in August 1994. Another unusual situation was that my mom and stepmother were friends. Emma loved me and my brother as well. As she was unable to have children of her own, she considered Junior and me her surrogate sons.

My mother and I were alike in many ways, with similar personalities, intelligence, wit and a great sense of humor. We made each other laugh often. We had private references between us that we didn’t have to explain. She just got me. My mother absolutely adored me. But how could she not? I am so adorable! She is greatly missed.

Jeannette in her youth
Me and Mommie Dearest

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. You know that I am not one to gossip, but… From a veteran in the group I was told that in past years Bob tended to be a bit of a philanderer with the women while on the road. So now with their kids grown and out of the house, Bob’s wife, Louise, also a singer, was free to tour with us. That way, she could keep close tabs on Bob. Louise stayed with the group from then on, until the end. We traveled by bus all over the U.S. and Canada doing one-nighters in mostly little, out-of-the-way, podunk towns. Come on, Cherokee Village, Arkansas and Warner Robins, Georgia, for example?!

I think that the most uneventful town that I ever had to perform in must be Shamrock, Texas (located in the panhandle and dubbed “The Irish City”), where we visited during the 1983 tour. 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!”

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 LSD. 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. You know, it would not surprise me to know that someone from our audience might have called the police and asked them to keep an eye on us while we were there. How did they just happen to be there at that particular time and place? 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. Even if I am not a would-be bank robber, I must be up to something. Why am I lurking around the shopping mall, for instance? 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. “No? But they said that he was the guy.” Never mind that at the time I was apprehended, I was not carrying anything in my hands, and it apparently never occurred to anybody 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 only to 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 alleged 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 to 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. First of all, it’s none of their business where I was going. Do they ask everyone walking on the street where they are going? I don’t think so. 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 all 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. But the fact that we were not getting paid would put us on amateur status, wouldn’t it? 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 just happened to be 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 DeCormier “Hell Tour” of 1977 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. Then the island scenes could have been filmed on the same set as the rest of the film. Who would know the difference, and what would it matter anyway?

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 or sun worshipper. 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. So I missed out on the Tokyo experience entirely. I expect that was my last chance, too. I wish the ship had stayed there an extra day. 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 aloud, 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 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. We were given great accommodations on St. Kitts. It was sort of a resort. We all had individual suites, there was an outdoor pool on the premises and a gambling casino, both of which we partook. Each of us were given a chance to win complimentary tokens to play with, but as I had done in Monte-Carlo, I only played the slot machines and did not lose any of my own money by spending only the free quarters I was given.

The cruise line maintains and operates its own private resort in Haiti called Labadee, which provides employment and income to many of the natives. 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. Lunch was served outdoors in the beach area of Labadee. 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 am forever grateful for 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.

I am fortunate enough to have visited South Africa after all that Apartheid business was over with, and I got a most enjoyable trip to Israel before the current genocide started there, or never been in the midst of any other civil unrest anywhere. 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, as well as my occasional cynical sarcasm. It actually was fun for me to relive it all for you, the good as well as the not-so-good. Bless you, my friends!

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?!]


There was a young man named Beebe
Who was to wed a young lady named Phoebe.
“But first I must see
What the minister’s fee
Be before Phoebe be Phoebe Beebe.”

“There’s a train at 4:04,” said Miss Jenny,
“Four tickets I’ll take. Have you any?”
“I don’t have four more
For 4:04, for
Four for 4:04 is too many.”

If singing’s your joy and delight,
But triple time gets you uptight,
Perhaps on the whole, a
Discreet hemiola
Will make the rhythm come out right.

An aspiring musician named Welles
Is an expert on tubular bells;
From the “Coffee Cantata
To “Moonlight” Sonata,
He even plays the Bolero—Ravel’s.

A voracious old bird is the pelican;
His mouth can hold more than his belly can;
He can store in his beak
Enough food for a week.
I’ll be damned if I know how the hell he can!

There once was a convict named Finnegan,
When released from prison, swore he’d never sin again.
He then committed crimes by the dozen,
He even assaulted his cousin,
So, of course, the jail he was let out of, he’s back in again!

There was a young belle from Old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patches;
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes,
She said, “Ooh, honey chile, when ah itches, ah scratches!”

A gay man who came from Khartoum
Took a sapphist gal up to his room.
They argued all night
Over who had the right
To do what and with which and to whom.

A herpetophile from Samoa
Once decided to mate with a boa.
The time that he tried,
The snake wriggled aside,
And he spilled all his spermatozoa.

A gay priest who hailed from Laredo
Worshipped a giant cock made of Play-Doh.
When a parishioner asked, “Why?”
He replied with a sigh,
“‘Cause, Alice, this clay phallus is my credo.”