Sunday, March 23, 2008

Concrete, Gospel, and Westchester Trannies

Easter Sunday

Just back from NYC. I woke this morning thinking of the city but also, because it was Easter, of Psalm 81:16: “...and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you…” Plenty of rock on Manhattan. The whole island was wind-blasted and stony as coastline – the cliff faces of buildings; the trees with their bark hard, bare, and flinty; even faces – everyone caught in the raw wind that dried and thickened the skin.

But honey? As I lay there, the word wrapped itself around images of curtains blowing from windows, plastic bags rippling in branches, sunlight glinting off glass, and finally the posters and graffiti between the shops in SoHo. Brightspray paint colors; peeling, image laden paper; faces, tags, and icons; angry words, holy words, proclamations of love and the end of the world – all this testament old and new spilling from concrete surfaces.

Sat Night: Nowhere (but Westchester)

We found ourselves in a basement bar called Nowhere, where an elderly grand-dame of a drag queen revealed to me a bit of the versatile poetry of the closet. “You can come here,” she said with a dry, thudding accent “and say to the wife, the neighbors, ‘I’m going nowhere’ and you wouldn’t be lying. Plus look around, the name fits!”

I asked what brought her nowhere tonight and her companion chimed in, “She’s a hag from Westchester, she had nowhere else to go!” Unflustered, my hostess responded, “The wife is in Florida with the grand kids, so here I am. I’m retired.” This statement was the cue to an obviously well rehearsed routine:

“Retired? She’s just tired.”

“Don’t mind her she thinks she’s on radio. She’s that old and her reception has always been poor.”

“Her wife knows she does drag, but don’t complain ‘cause this one is the only thing uglier than she is.”

“It’s hard to be a married drag queen, we’re both always watching our figures…”
“yeah, watchin’ ‘em get bigger everyday.”

“This one should talk, she uses powdered sugar from her jelly donuts for eye shadow!”

On they went, while the other girls in place had a shoe contest. None of them were pretty, none would pass, but beauty flowed across the room on heels, buckles, bows, bright toenails, long legs, skirts, gold belts, gold bangles, ruddy lips, pink and silver fingertips, and hair tossed, teased, slipping awry. A girl so tall her hair pressed the ceiling told me, “This body is my gift, my god given gift.” I looked at faces of the older ladies beside me. By day they would be lined and craggy. Even under layers of foundation, their heavy, masculine bone structure still showed But tonight, if their faces hadn’t really been smoothed of age and gender, they had been given a softness of spirit and an inner sustenance. Night, make-up, and companionship drew honey from the rock.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Last night I found myself at Gay Bingo. What’s next –Gay Renaissance Fairs? Huzza? HELL NO! I don’t play bingo, and I will not play bingo till arthritis molds my hand into a shape that is only useful for holding a dauber. Yet, there I sat watching a group of surprisingly young men engaged in chat-and-dab for prizes of wine glasses and coasters. Fellows, take a warning! It may be satisfying to fill up those numbered squares with colored circles but bingo cards are just advent calendars counting down the arrival of your Geriatric years. Face it, when you play this seemingly innocent game, you are daubing away at your own grave.

Bingo Card = Death Calendar

Fluttering around the tables, our host (ess) called numbers, gave up naughty tid-bits of her sex life, and told us the trials of being a drag queen though she hadn’t bothered to dress for the evening. I’ve known ladies who perform with their balls lost in their lower intestine, their skin suffocating under make-up, and their knees breaking crucifixion-style from heels -– so please girls, no complaining if you can’t even slip on a thrift store frock for the evening. It’s good for her that Portland gays let their drag queens of easily. The crowd loved her.

A man beside our table sat quietly playing along. Both his body and expression were soft. His face was so meek that I could not tell if he was placid or resigned. He smiled up at us once. His smile too was soft. Then he turned to his game. When I looked again he was gone but he'd left his cards on the table next to a half empty glass. He’d daubed a red dot at the center of each one but left all the numbers untouched.

B.I.N (G.O.NE)

My first memory of bingo goes back to visiting my great-great grandmother, Birdy Sennet at the nursing home. I was five; she was 95. It was my job to keep her from snagging cards, changing places, and using the dauber on her tongue to “kill the poison them nurses put in the food.” (She also used instant coffee powder and sucking on butter knives for this purpose.) She played by daubing all and everywhere, called bingo at random, and showed a surprisingly leathery strength when nurses tried to wrest her cards from her hands. Needless to say Grandma Birdy never got the holiday placemats, plastic flowers, and sugarless candies that sat waiting on the prize table.

Besides dreading her behavior, Grandma Birdy caused a deeper anxiety in me. How was it that the oldest person I knew broke every rule the rest of the adults ruthlessly forced me to conform to? She pinched people; she told lies; she colored where she wanted; spoke baby talk and profanities; she even pissed where and when she wanted - all those untamed pleasures I'd worked for five years to relinquish. Half mindless, smelling of rubbing alcohol and baby powder, she troubled the order of things. I’d never known her as a sensible woman and had so little sense of time and history that I could not reconcile her age with my perception of her as a strange, squishy, oversized child. I didn't know she had been a rock hard woman who’d pulled a family through the Depression; a woman who'd run off a drunken, abusive husband with a gun, or that she'd been a loving grandmother to my father. I can see now that she'd earmed the loss of her wits, though she deserved better.

Following Grandma's lesson, at this point in my life I’m looking forward to the license senility will grant me. Nurses and loved ones beware - If I don’t loose my faculties, I’ll fake it.

Birdy Sennet left the game at age 98