Looks just like the opening sequence from 2001 A Space Odyssey, only it’s real. What have we come to as a nation?
Some Dance to Remember. Some Dance to Forget.
There I am at 16 — a skinny wisp of a thing — all nose and legs. If I turned sideways I would disappear, or so they said. I tried it but couldn’t quite manage to disappear entirely. Beanpole, Twiggy, Skinny Bones Jones, The Nose Knows, I was called. I was not a popular kid in my hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, a backwater town choking on its gene pool somewhere up the warm, root beer waters of the Calooshatchee River. My high school was mostly about football and unhooking the bras of cheerleaders, two disciplines I failed in. But there was something I excelled at. It was seeing. Photographing. Capturing the essence of a place in imagery. See that blue ribbon behind me? It’s tacked to a photograph I shot of a leaf on wet pavement that brought home Best of Show and a $100 prize in a county-wide juried art show sponsored by the Junior Welfare League. It was 1980 and this was to be the last vote of confidence bestowed on me as a kid in Fort Myers, a place that valued the power of your monster truck rather than the power of your brain.
Thirty-four years later I have returned with a camera still in my hands to retrace my past, to see what’s left — what’s left worth remembering and what must be forgotten. Yesterday I mounted my brother’s bicycle and headed east up the Caloosahatchee River. For reference, Sean and his family live in the nicest neighborhood of Fort Myers. It is the neighborhood of doctors, lawyers, and business owners — far from the east side of the Seaboard train tracks that cut through this sprawling subtropical city in Southwest Florida.
This is East Fort Myers. It is The Great Gatsby’s valley of the ashes — an exurban wasteland of abandoned shopping centers and used car lots. It’s the unsightly place where used furniture and clothes go when the wealthier part of the town discards them for an upgrade. This is where I spent my sweaty childhood festering beneath the Spanish moss clinging to the live oak trees. It was tough ground for a sensitive, artistic, gay boy to grow up with any sense of dignity or belonging.
The year was 1972. My father took a job as an art teacher in the newly built Riverdale High School set amid the quarter horse farms of East Fort Myers. We left Timothy Leary and the hot tubbing hippies of Laguna Beach, California, for this new life in the deep south. I was terribly excited to have my first jet trip not fully knowing what lay ahead. We exited the National Airlines 727 into pouring rains and chirping frogs. The drinkable humidity hanging in the air was something I’d never experienced having spent my first 8 years in the dry climes of Southern California. We retrieved our soaked luggage from the carts on the tarmac of Page Field and headed to our new home.
This is the house my folks rented the first few months of our new life in Florida. It was an efficiency apartment at 3353 E. Riverside Drive. My few memories of it were the sound of falling palm fronds whacking the ground, the flying cockroaches, and the masked terrorists at the summer olympics. My mother called them guerillas. (I thought they were gorillas who wore masks and were taking over the Olympics.)
My first day in my new environs I climbed a mango tree unwittingly covering myself with a toxic tree sap that would seal my eyes shut and cause my whole body to swell up. I lay in bed that night swollen and freaked out by the gorillas with guns. When I recovered, my older brother Michael showed Sean and me how to catch crabs at the river.
He led us to the Tarpon Street pier (above) just around the corner from the house. We walked the length in the searing sun all the way to the end. Mom supplied us with frozen turkey necks which we tied to a string and tossed into the dark waters with anticipation. We waited a few minutes until the string snapped taut as a crab took the bait. We slowly pulled the string with extreme care to not lose the crab. We hauled them up toward the surface and marveled at the size and color of the blue crabs and then scooped them into a net. Mom threw the angry critters into a boiling pot for dinner. We dipped the claws in butter and made a big mess feeling so satisfied for having caught our meal.
Mom befriended a woman named Christina who lived across the street and down a spell in an old Florida bungalow (now remodeled below). I think we all were shocked at the friendship offerings having come from California but we made the best of it. This was my first experience with “white trash” and widespread racism. My high school was known for its race riots that forced the school into lockdown while the rednecks and the blacks bussed in from Anderson Avenue duked it out in the lunch room. Growing up in Orange County, I might have seen a Hispanic person but I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a black person before Florida. And I certainly had not seen poor white folk living the way they lived in East Fort Myers. For some, fishing that river was not an afternoon’s amusement, it was sustenance. Squirrels were not cute creatures that could walk gingerly on power lines, they were dinner.
One day our neighbor Christina called my mother from jail in tears. She was using her one call to tell my mother she had been arrested for killing her husband Gary with a butcher’s knife. She pleaded with my mother not to abandon her as she said it was in self defense. There would be no more screaming matches coming from their house down the road. Decades later after I had left town and started a national radio show, the Ft. Myers News Press ran a big feature article about me. A classmate from my high school got in touch with me by email to say he’d seen some things as a kid that one should never have to see and that he’d been harboring a grisly secret his whole life. That was all he said. I didn’t inquire further into this or any other dark stories of the backwoods of inland Florida believing that the less I knew about such things the better off I would be.
My first days at school I was introduced to some new words like “ya’ll” and “ain’t.” I questioned some kid about the words and he said his mother told him to repeat this: “I ain’t gonna say ain’t cuz ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” And then there were the southern accents I’d of course never heard. Some black girls with cornrows were talking about the price of something and it sounded like this, “Nan nanny nan and nanny nan sayent.” That would be $9.99 for those of you unacquainted with this dialect of English. I was puzzled just before the judgments set in. I began to feel like a stranger in a strange world and retreated inside my mind to a world where everything was beautiful, the cowboys had good manners and would hold me at the end of the day while we lay amid the night blooming jasmine. My waking world became ruder and ruder. I photographed everything as a way to hide while observing. It was rare to be seen without my camera and even rarer to be seen in front of one. Somehow if I was photographing this strange place, I could stay one step removed from it.
Our neighbor across the street called black people “jigaboos” and “porch monkeys.” I was too young to stand up to the old white guy in Bermuda shorts but something felt really wrong about it. Dirty even. Black people lived then (and still do), in a specific part of town set aside for them. “Ghetto” was a new word for me.
Felton Kinchen, a black kid in my school got assigned to me for the Christmas gift exchange two years in a row. Each year I was given a pair of black socks from him with a card that said, “Merry Christmas from the Kinchen family.” Crestfallen I went home crying to Mom that I got another pair of socks when everyone else was getting cool gifts. Mom said that was a good practical gift and that it was probably all they had. Who wants practical when you’re a kid? Of course I couldn’t picture the whole story having never been to his house in the ghetto. Anderson Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Ave.) was what you raced through to avoid traffic on the way downtown. When we did, I’d hear Dad double clicking the automatic locks on the car.
On my bike ride through memory lane yesterday, I passed the site of the first gay bar I ever visited, the Blarney Stone. It was alluringly positioned right across from the TV station where I worked for years. It had a reputation in town as THE FAG BAR. Kids bragged about waiting for guys to come out and beating them up. Tales were told about what went on inside: sodomy on the pool tables, perverts, baby killing. (Maybe I made up the part about baby killing.) Sounded like a good time so I had to go see for myself.
One night when I was 18, I parked my distinctive 1980 Toyota Corolla in the back so no passersby would see I was there. (I had at last admitted to myself that I was gay but knew full well that my life would be in danger if I went public about it.) So I sneaked in the back door. No one checked my ID. I was fresh meat to them and besides I think even the police were afraid to go there to check IDs lest they be sodomized on the pool table. The place was dark and smelled like cigarettes and mildew. It was strangely quiet. All I heard was the sound of water dripping from the roof. I saw the notorious pool table but no one was being sacrificed on it. There were a couple of old guys sitting at the bar in tight jeans smoking. They turned to stare at me and I turned and ran out the door panting, my heart racing. I never went back. Eventually it was abandoned and then torn down.
In 1982, Fred Greene was the president of the TV Station where I worked. Fred had a public affairs program that I used to run camera for. Rumors circulated that he was gay. He was a bit swishy — a “confirmed bachelor” — and had a mop of hair that might have been a toupee. He somehow got word that I was gay but I avoided public conversations with him for fear of losing the respect of my coworkers. Ironically and tragically, he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead in his own home by a group of young men whom he apparently had picked up. Fred was fired from WINK and the scandal hushed. Years later I saw that he was working as a travel agent for Geraci Travel. I walked past the travel agency downtown one day and saw him working at his desk bearing the scars of his ordeal as he booked cruises and flights for clients. I swore I would never have my life amount to that level of degradation and so when I was 21, I moved to New York City.
D O W N T O W N
My brothers and I used to go the old Edison Theater (now a law firm) downtown to see 50 cent matinee movies like the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers. Mom would give us 35 cents for bus fare and we would ride downtown to see a movie or just go to McCrory’s five and dime for an orange soda and barbecue potato chips. I would break off a piece of potato chip and drizzle it with some soda and place it on the pavement near a crack and watch the ants go crazy for it. There wasn’t much to do downtown except see a second run movie in a moldy old theater and play with bugs on the sidewalk.
After our junk food indulgences, we would meet Mom, who worked for a downtown law firm, and hitch a ride back home with her. We would stop at “The Colonel” for dinner. That would be Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, aka “KFC” for those of you who don’t remember the origins of the acronym or the old guy with the bow tie in the logo. The bucket of extra crispy chicken handed to Mom from the drive through window sat in the front seat of the car driving us mad. The smell of fried chicken and gravy-soaked mashed potatoes filled the 1964 Chevrolet station wagon. We couldn’t wait to get home and tear through it.
Downtown Fort Myers in the 70s and 80s was no man’s land after 5 pm when all the city workers and lawyers left their offices. The Edison mall and subsequent strip malls put the downtown out of business. McCrory’s was abandoned and boarded up for years. Downtown was to be avoided at all cost. No one ever spoke of the beautiful, early 20th century American architecture that defined the look of the downtown. It was a sheer miracle that it didn’t get bulldozed for a hotel resort and shopping center.
The town was built on the site of the original fort which was the hub of the U.S. Government’s brilliant Seminole Indian eradication program — another dark story in Fort Myers’ checkered past. With the building of the mile-long bridge over the Caloosahatchee River in 1924, Fort Myers boomed on a wave of snowbird tourism. Its gentle climes and soft, white sand beaches soothed the winter-worn northerners.
But when I was growing up here, the downtown languished as most American downtowns did in the white flight and mall-ification periods. And then something shifted about 10 years ago…the town wised up. Low slung, moderately fanciful brick buildings line First and Bay Streets. Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Georgian, Mediterranean, and Spanish Revival homes surround the city center which has a protected yacht basin with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Myers came back from the dead realizing what an architectural gem this town was and and the city invested in it.
They tore up the pavement, unearthing the underlying original bricks which were then used to repave the streets. They widened the sidewalks to calm traffic and make room for outdoor dining. They redid the Edison era lampposts and planted royal palm trees along First Street. The City bootstrapped itself and behold…
The downtown now has a nascent yet vibrant sidewalk cafe scene at night. There are at least two rooftop bars that I know offering sunset happy hour specials and views of the town and river. There’s even a boutique hotel and a rocking good arts center showing independent films, local art shows, fashion shows, and all housed in the fabulous neoclassical limestone post office built in 1933…
Out of a dark and brutal past and a personally trying childhood comes a colorful and bright new town. It has now become a town with a lot of smile value and worthy of giving a second chance.
What I realized about my bike ride into my acrid childhood is that some things are surely worth remembering, and some things are better forgotten. The uglier memories have only served to keep me resentful, and sometimes a place deserves a little forgiveness. While racism and homophobia still exist here for sure, it’s not like it used to be. At the very least it’s considered impolite. And OK, I’ll take polite homophobia over violence. The plight of poor white people still exists here. I suppose I have a tad more compassion for them now knowing how poor choices, bad circumstance, and the need for an underclass ignorant and ready to serve got them where they are.
Talking to an old black guy with white hair on the Tarpon Street pier who has been fishing there since the 50s, he told me all the blue crabs are gone now. He was going after the mullet and stood silently poised at the railing with his net waiting and watching. He said they were good eating. I thought about how he and I have an unspoken common bond as gay man and black man in the old south — both so oppressed and reviled in our time, in our home. So reviled that I stopped feeling that this was my home and I took off for the big cities to do my part toward transforming attitudes from a safer place. But he stayed in the trenches here in Ft. Myers.
I thought it ironic that as I walked off the pier, I passed this man’s brand-spanking-new pickup truck and headed to my borrowed bicycle with rusty chain. Times have indeed changed.
I think perhaps I have put my past in better perspective here on the turn of my own half century mark. Maybe it’s a good thing that creepy old gay bar is torn down. Maybe it was an improvement to take down the austere 1924 un-airconditioned Edgewood Elementary where I learned that ain’t ain’t a word. I hated writing my lessons there with sweaty hands trying to grip a slippery pencil while a giant fan ceaselessly beat the hot air. Now just the original doorway to the school stands and they renamed it Edgewood Academy — “where the arts grow in every child.” I couldn’t imagine such a slogan at the school where teachers still used corporal punishment when I was there. A smile came over me as I headed out on my bicycle, leaving my past behind me where it belongs.
There’s something gratifying about knowing that while you were away from a place, it got better instead of worse as you’d expect. Maybe now my resentments of 30 some years are worth rethinking and that should I need to, I could come back. It’s heartwarming to know that a place I never thought would grow up, did. And so did I.
And Felton Kinchen, if you are out there, I’m sorry I wasn’t rhapsodic with joy when you gave me yet another pair of socks for Christmas. But, man, I could use a nice pair of fashionable black socks now.
* * *
Here are some panoramic scenes from Fort Myers that I thought you’d enjoy for both their beauty and tackiness and sometimes both…
I try not to post stuff that isn’t my own, but this really touched me. Get past the slightly boring speaker’s intro and lateral lisp to his film about gratitude for each day as a gift. (God am I getting sentimental in my old age or what?) Jeesuz, I cried through most of this, partly because of the beauty and wisdom in the words of the filmmaker’s brother, but also over the regret for having missed so much of each day of my life. I’ve spent so much of my time being busy or sad or irritated about what I’ve lost or can’t have or can’t do by virtue of my limitations and circumstances. But I was also touched because I get it on a deep level and even though I’m often hating on stuff, I’m experiencing it fully. And as I’m getting older, I’m definitely taking more time to just absorb the beauty of a moment, as this film preaches.
When I meet you my eyes may be darting or looking at your feet but I am noticing you and your face in a glance, and the smell and the beauty and ugliness. I’m not grateful for all of it, but I’m aware of all of it. And this is why I travel, honestly. I love seeing faces, sunsets, fog, oceans, deserts, forests, crazy things, interesting people in foreign lands. Every walk out the hotel door is a feast of faces in Asia.
So I see this film as a little benediction, a blessing — someone cracking a bottle of champagne over my bow as I shove off on yet another 3-month journey into this fascinating world we live in.
Anyway, give it a shot and see what you think. See if it touches you. And if it doesn’t, know that not being touched is also part of life and your unique take on it. You are unique, like everyone else. ~ wink
It’s been a while since I posted and several people thought I died or have been given over to the melancholy. No way, baby. Been having a great time living life instead of blogging. But it’s time to catch up and if I’m not going to Facebook, I better get my photos up on the blog. So here’s my life in the last few weeks in pictures (working backward to forward)…
Took a quick business/pleasure trip to California. Here’s the video encapsulation. It begins at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then on to Esalen and Stinson Beach…
Glad I have friends who can share their bread with me.
Next stop: Fort Myers, Florida to be with my family for a month.
It’s been consistently nearly 100 degrees every day for weeks here in Tucson. As a cyclist it’s just unbearable. Talk about oppression! My tropical linen shirts and menthol powders from Thailand have been wonderful, but still only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in this sun. Tucson once again feels like a broken place for me. So many memories of past friends, lovers, and happier times haunt me here. I sit still in the dry desert sands like a lizard waiting for my next move. If I stay here more than a month I start slipping into a black hole of loneliness, listening to sad music, sleeping a lot, watching movies and getting caught up on American politics which does not cheer me up. It is not a vibrant life.
I was so happy over the summer in the freewheeling chaos of Thailand, unplugged from the idiocy of the United States and its priorities of war, wealth protection, and obsessions with security. To me everything in Asia is new and fascinating even if it is at times unpleasant. At least it’s THEIR country, not mine. I can shake my head and walk away unencumbered by responsibility. The people are adorable (if inaccessible), the food excellent and I get to be exotic as a hairy foreigner. In the US I’m immobilized by my lack of wealth. In Thailand, everything is within my reach. It’s not paradise — no place is. But it is where I was last happy.
And so I’m going back.
YOU ARE INVITED TO MY OVER-THE-HILL BAREFOOT BIRTHDAY PARTY
FEBRUARY 5, 2014 in PAI, THAILAND!
I turn 50 on February 5, and I am going to have a big party in Pai, Thailand to celebrate having made it this far. (Click here to see more about Pai.) Surprise me, loved one, and show up. Or let me know and I’ll help you make your reservation at Ing Doi guesthouse. Make your flight reservations soon-ish. You can fly RT from Los Angeles to Chiang Mai on Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) for about $1200. From Chiang Mai you would take a 20 minute flight on Kan Air. Someone at Ing Doi will get you at the air strip. If you’re going to be in Chiang Mai, stay at the Triple Palms Hotel. I will be in CM before and after my birthday. I will leave Thailand on February 8 for the States.
Join me in the rice paddies for cool nights, warm days, banana pancakes, beautiful Thai curries, cheap massages, and the general good cheer and ease of the Thai people.
So here are my dates if you wish to synch up with me on my travels:
- Chiang Mai: December 11 – 25 (14 nights)
- Pai: December 25 – January 2 (8 nights)
- CM: Jan 2 – January 9 (7 nights)
- Kuala Lumpur Jan 9 – 13 (4 nights)
- CM: Jan 13 – 27: (14 nights – could do less)
- Pai: Jan 27 – Feb 6 (10 nights) will fly on Kan Air on the 27th
- BIRTHDAY PARTY: February 5 in Pai
- Feb 6, leave Pai on Kan Air and change in CM for flight to Bangkok
- Bangkok: Feb 6 – 8 (2 nights) Will stay at Malaysia Hotel
- Leave for States: February 8
* * * *
It happened again. I fell in love with a closeted young man from a foreign country. I guess it’s a pattern! And so this is what my relationship with Yee has looked like like since we parted physical company on a windy street one night in Wellington, New Zealand, last June. Since then we’ve carried on a cyber relationship texting and sharing pictures back and forth with occasional visits on Skype. It’s pretty unsatisfying to have a long term non-physical relationship with no concrete plans to see each other.
Yesterday I decided to end this cyber relationship. Yee was planning to come to the States to see me but in the end his fears overcame him and he decided he just can’t do it. Fears of his sexuality somehow being discovered by his family, fears of his whole life in the closet collapsing on him with his newfound (though temporary) freedom. Both of these were likely to occur given that I was promising a grand time in America for Yee who has never had more than a few hours being out in the gay world before rushing home dutifully to his mother. I felt like it was time for him to break free from those shackles and experience love and adventure and be accepted and loved for who he is. I wanted him to be a free man. My idea of freedom is apparently not his if he has to go back home and pretend to be straight and work 2 jobs 6 days a week and calls that a good life. The eventuality of changing all that was just too overwhelming for this tender, young man.
Handing someone a new life is perhaps a loaded situation that is ultimately unsatisfying or at the very least, it is delivering to him a life that is no longer his own. I’m sure it’s extremely disorienting. And so with compassion for this golden-hearted young man trapped in a bad situation unable to muster the strength to wrest himself free, I said goodbye.
This adds more poignance to my life as I do care for the guy as I cared for Sebastian, who was caught in similar circumstance. But I am not a savior and I have my own needs for love and support. I’m eager to help anyone who is able to ultimately help himself. But if someone is not willing to do the work or take steps toward his liberation, then it is only an exercise in frustration as I have to sit by watching someone snagged like a bug in a spider web.
All of this has shed light on the dark side of China. I have new insight into their family structure, their loyalties, and their undying commitment to work obligations at the cost of personal happiness. I have seen how much damage is done to the spirit of a young gay person trapped in a homophobic society. In spite of how adorable the Chinese are, and how earnest and loyal I think they are, I find it terribly sad to see how messed up they can be by their oppressive society. Shouldn’t we all be allowed to be ourselves free of the weight of judgment from our families, religion, and government? Shouldn’t we all be able to love whom we want? Homophobia seems so last century to me, but that is, of course, a Western perspective.
My heart goes out to little Yee. I hope he one day finds the courage to stop lying and hiding his true and beautiful self. The world will be a better place if and when he does. For me and my enduring and perhaps contracting heart, it’s back to the drawing board. The quest for love continues with diminishing faith that love will one day come. And stay.
* * * *
NEXT STOPS: San Francisco and maybe Esalen around Halloween; Ft. Myers for Thanksgiving with my family; Thailand for December and January.
Finally I have finished my multimedia presentation on tailoring in Thailand. Please have a look and pass it around to anyone who is interested in textiles and fashion design:
I have made it back to Tucson. We’re still in the middle of monsoon season so the normally dry rivers are flowing after rains, the nights are almost cool enough to call refreshing, the days a little too hot to call pleasant. In fact, it’s a bit like Thailand in the summer. I find myself opening up the Snake Brand cooling menthol powders and sprinkling it all over my body and thinking of those sweltering days in Pai, Thailand.
I’ve launched into home enhancement projects like replacing a 27 year old dishwasher myself with one I got on Craig’s List for $50! After months of eating fabulous Thai food, I’m back to cooking my own. Here’s a grilled chicken on focaccia with pesto, tomato, SunOven roasted eggplant and arugula on top…
Pack rats ate my bicycle. Grrrrrr. Had to get a grip (Ba-bump) and got the traps out. I’ve got it handled now. (Ta-ching.)
And now for something completely different! One thing I miss when traveling is making music so I am taking up the clarinet. I’ve never played one before but I’m fascinated by the sound and the nostalgia for Benny Goodman, Woody Allen, Artie Shaw, the jazz era, New Orleans and Klezmer. So I hired an extremely cute teacher and off we go. I can play a couple scales and a little bit of Over the Rainbow already. But jeez, I feel like I’m going to give myself a hernia blowing into that thing. Singing is so much easier after the clarinet.
So I guess it’s good to be home. I am thinking about my next trip. Where to go and when? I have to get to Europe next summer, possibly Croatia. But probably back to Asia this winter. For now it’s working on my embouchure and tending to my cactus garden.
Esalen. It’s pretty much the most beautiful place I have ever been. And I’ve been around. For me Esalen is Shangri-La made real.
It is at the intersection of desert mountains and the ocean, man and nature, heaven and earth.
And it is a place where people come to play, explore themselves and others, eat fabulous food and pamper themselves beyond belief in the warm natural springs.
We sit quietly on the lawn watching the fog advance and retreat casting the property into hues of blue and gray.
Then the sun comes out and the place is awash in color.
Sunsets are spectacular as we dine and lie on the grassy lawn waiting for the golden ball to drop into the ocean.
In the evenings we sit by the fire and tell stories, someone usually produces a guitar. We take another warm bath in the tubs over the ocean.
And then walk through the farm, down the hill, over the river and along the ocean to the farm house for a good night’s sleep with the sound of the rolling sea just feet away. Gosh it’s going to be hard to go back to Arizona after this.
As in pain so in pleasure. As in life so in death…nothing lasts forever.
Next stop: Tucson.