True Colors

I wrote this entry two years ago, in the wake of the Pulse shootings.

06/16/16

The phone ringing woke me up that morning.

I sometimes wonder if that is when my aversion to the telephone really began; I’ve always blame my dislike of telephones on jobs that involved a headset and taking phone calls. But I can remember, before that Sunday morning, always answering the phone; I never screened calls. I always checked the voice mail the moment I got home and called people back right away. Now, the ringing of the telephone, any phone, grates on my nerves and tears at my subconscious. So maybe that was it; I cannot say for sure because my memory is foggy and I’ve learned, far too many times, that my memory has lied to me.

But the phone was ringing as I woke up, and as I started to sit up in bed I seemed to recall hearing it ringing earlier, in my sleep; aware of it but too asleep to get out of bed. But this time it woke me, and as I considered ignoring it and going back to sleep, I noticed on the alarm clock that it was nine in the morning…

…and Paul wasn’t home.

As I put on my glasses and slipped my shoes on and ran over to the phone, I remember the number on the caller ID was one I didn’t recognize; UNKNOWN CALLER with no number. I picked it up and said “Hello?”

“Is this Greg?” asked a very small, quivering female voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this but Paul is on his way to the emergency room at Charity Hospital,” she went on.

I sat down in the desk chair and listened to her tell me the story, hiccuping and crying and trying to keep her voice steady. I listened, not entirely sure this was really happening to me, hoping that I was asleep and this was a bad dream, as she told me how she and her roommate, both waitresses, had gotten off work and decided to stop by Verti Mart and get something to eat on their way home from work. They were on bicycles, and they were both college students, I think she said at Tulane. She told me how they were standing at the counter, deciding on their order, when they saw a lone guy walking by himself on the sidewalk across the street. As they watched, a white van pulled up to the corner, five guys jumped out and attacked the guy, punching and kicking him and screaming at him even after he went down. Her friend shouted at the store clerk to call the police and the two girls, college students, ran outside screaming. The guys jumped back in the van and took off….with the girls getting on their bicycles and chasing after them, trying to get their license plate number, to no avail. When they finally realized they weren’t going to get close enough to seem the plate number, they went back and stayed with him until the police and the ambulance came.

“He just kept saying you have to call Greg, please call Greg,” she said, finally starting to sob. “I’m so so sorry, I don’t know if he’s okay. I just know they took him to Charity Hospital, and he told me the number to call, he made me promise I’d call.”

I said thank you, thank you very much, and didn’t think to get her name or her phone number or any of her information, which I regret to this day.

I hung up the phone, and knew I had to get to the hospital.

I know at some point as I brushed my teeth and put on clothes, I was aware that I was going into shock. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard my heartbeat in my ears, and I had no peripheral vision, and I couldn’t really hear anything. It was a very very strange feeling; I don’t remember every feeling that way before, or experiencing anything like it (I may have, but as I said earlier, my memory lies to me). I was shaking, and I knew I couldn’t drive.

So I called my best friend, who answered the phone the way he always did whenever I called him, cheerfully, “Hey whore!”

“Um, I need a favor. Paul’s at the emergency room and I don’t think I can drive. Can you come pick me up and take me?”

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

Charity Hospital was enormous. It’s still there, even though it’s not longer open. It became, of course, notorious after Hurricane Katrina, but before then, it was one of the top trauma centers and training hospitals for emergency trauma in the country. I vaguely remember sitting there in the emergency room waiting area, on those hard wooden benches that were so like church pews, while people were being brought in and rushed past, as other people sat there around us, worried, crying, some screaming every once in a while in pain while they waited to be taken in to see a doctor. It was surreal, and again it felt like something I wasn’t actually experiencing but was happening to someone else. I felt like I was out of my own body, watching.

And then finally they called my name.

A nurse led me back into the triage area, I guess it was called, I don’t know. On television emergency rooms always seem to be big rooms with sheets or dividers up separating the areas, but at Charity they actually had rooms. As the nurse led me back, she told me they were about to take him into surgery, and the surgeons would explain everything to me before I was taken in to see him.

All this time I didn’t know what was going on, and had been hoping it was something minor; a broken arm, a concussion, ribs, something where I’d be able to take him home.

Surgery. They were taking him in to surgery.

“He’s been given pain medication so he’s also going to be kind of out of it,” she said gently, and I will never forget her squeezing my arm when she said it.

She led me to a door–it was big and wooden and there was one of those small windows set into it at about eye level, with crisscrossing mesh wires set in the glass, where two men in scrubs were waiting for me.

In a low voice one of them, who had a Japanese last name, explained to me that he had sustained a lot of cuts and bruises but nothing serious; they had examined him and there was no concussion or internal damage. “But his eye–” he hesitated for a moment. “His eye was damaged.”

“His eye?”

The nurse was holding my arm still and she gave it another squeeze.

“Think of the eye like a grape,” he said softly. “If you put a lot of pressure on one side of a grape, it will explode out the back side. That’s what has happened to his eye. We’re going to try to save it.”

I think my knees buckled a little bit at this point, both in horror and relief; relief that it wasn’t something life-threatening, horror that his eye may have been destroyed.

The doctor also took me by both arms and looked me in the face. “He wants to see you. But you need to be prepared. It looks really bad. The surgery will also take a couple of hours. Once we take him in, you should just go home and relax, take care of things. Waiting here won’t do you any good, and just come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to take very good care of him, but if we’re able to save his eye, the recovery is going to take a really long time…and the psychological trauma can take even longer. You’re going to have to be strong for him.”

I nodded, and the nurse led me inside. Paul was lying on a hospital bed and when he saw me he just kept saying, over and over again, in a broken voice, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

My heart broke. His eye…even now I can’t describe what that looked like. He was covered in dried blood. I just kept saying it was okay, everything was going to be okay, and then it was time for them to take him into surgery.

I felt so helpless. It was the most horrible feeling in the world, when someone you love is suffering and in pain and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

The nurse handed me a clear plastic ziploc bag with his clothes and shoes inside of them.

They were soaked in blood.

I had Mark take me home. I don’t really remember the drive back home, I don’t really remember anything. I know that I didn’t break down until I was safely inside my apartment, and I sat on the couch for a really long time holding the bag of bloody clothes before I remembered that, no matter how much I wanted to wallow in it, I had to be strong.

I had to call his mother.

I had to call his boss.

I had to let friends know what was happening.

I know I did all of those things, but I don’t remember that afternoon very much. I just know that I kept calling Charity Hospital to find out if he was out of surgery but every time I called, I went into a nightmarish phone tree that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate, and finally I called a cab and went back.

Charity Hospital was enormous, as I said before, but one of the things that was really strange was I wasn’t able to find a reception desk, anything, anywhere, where I could find someone, anyone, to tell me anything.

There were phones in some places where you ostensibly could call for information, but a recording answered and I was too upset, too numb, to be able to figure out their phone tree system inside the hospital anymore than I had been able to at home.

I wandered around Charity Hospital looking for anyone for what seemed like hours.

Finally, I just sat down on the floor near an elevator bank, buried my face in my arms, and started sobbing in frustration and grief and pain.

Then someone knelt beside me and asked, in a very kind voice, if I was okay.

It was a nurse, a young African-American man with braids, and I sobbed out that my partner had surgery and I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t know how to find him and I couldn’t find anyone to ask.

He got me up, took me to a lounge, bought me a bottle of Coke from the machine there, dried my eyes, and made some calls. “He’s still in surgery,” he finally said, sitting next to me again. “I can take you up to the waiting room for that surgery. I’m so sorry.”

And he did, and he talked to the nurses on the floor, who came and checked in with me every half hour, making sure I was okay, making sure the television in the waiting room was on something I didn’t mind watching, or asking me if there was something else I’d rather watch.

They were so unbelievably kind.

This was before everything changed, you know, when I’d heard horror stories about how gay couples weren’t allowed to see each other in hospitals and how badly we were treated.

This was Charity Hospital in a state so red it practically glowed; yes, it was New Orleans, but it was also a city where my partner had just been beaten badly for the crime of walking while gay.

And they couldn’t have been nicer to me.

Finally, at ten o’clock, a nurse came to tell me he was now in the recovery ward, and she took me to see him. His head was bandaged but they’d cleaned off all the blood. He had tubes hooked up to him and monitors, but he was breathing, he was asleep.

I leaned over and kissed his forehead.

The recovery ward nurse told me I could stay if I wanted to, but she added that I’d be better off going home and sleeping in my own bed. “He’s going to need you to be rested and strong for him,” she said, rubbing my arm, “and so you’re going to need to make sure you take care of yourself. Will you promise me that? That you’ll take care of yourself? Because he’s going to need you.”

I nodded. “I don’t want to lose him again.”

She gave me her card, and wrote her cell phone number on the back. “I will call you and let you know where we’ve moved him, once he’s ready to be moved out of here. But you keep this card, and if you have any questions or anything to worry about, you call me any time. I’m so sorry you couldn’t find him earlier.”

I sat with him about an hour, and then I went home in a cab.

It was the longest and definitely one of the worst, days of my life.

I have never told this story publicly before, and I do not tell it now to try to make the Orlando tragedy about me. But what happened last Sunday wounded me very deeply, and dredged up a lot of these memories. As I tried to avoid social media, the news, etc., as much as possible–but you never really can–because of the arguing, the nastiness, the absolute viciousness, the attempts to erase the sexuality of the victims, and so on…I started thinking about what I personally have been through.

Paul wasn’t saved by a ‘good guy with a gun,’ he was saved by two brave college students–girls--who saw something wrong happening and did something about it even though those five assholes could have turned violence on them.

Two girls whose names I never knew, but to whom I will always be grateful.

And I also realized that in not telling my story of that awful day, that I was also being complicit. Complicit in not letting people know what it’s like to be gay in America, even in a tolerant city like New Orleans: that we are always at risk, we are always looking over our shoulder, we never can feel truly safe.

Ever since that day I have always, always made sure I was aware of my surroundings, of who was where and doing what. I observe and I watch, no matter what else I am doing, when I am out in public. I do it in the grocery store; I do it in the CVS; I do it when I am walking in the Quarter.

Tonight I have to go do bar testing, and it’s Pride Weekend in New Orleans. I’m not afraid; I have never been afraid. Being aware that you’re a target doesn’t make you afraid, but it means you just have to always pay attention and never let your guard down.

I never wrote about that day because Paul was the victim, not I; because it was Paul’s story to tell rather than mine. But I also realized that it is also my story.

The recovery for both of us from that day took a long time to heal, both physically and mentally. Reading the news reports about Orlando, paying attention to what was going, what had happened, the grief, made me realize that it’s still there, buried deep inside my soul.

My life changed that day. I changed. I am aware of some of the ways I’ve changed, but at the same time I also know I’ve changed in ways that even I may not be aware of. I didn’t write this for sympathy. I didn’t write this to try to make the tragedy about me. My heart breaks for everyone in Orlando. Even now when I run across things on my feed, stories of the survivors, stories of the dead, I can start crying again–so I try to limit my time on social media.

Orlando made us all change, I think. I think for the first time many people realized, maybe just a little bit, of what we as LGBTQ Americans go through, experience, on a daily basis; what it is like for us to live in a society and a culture where some people want us to die and celebrate our deaths.

Maybe things can change now. As I said the other day, I always try to make sense of the senseless; hope that things happen for a reason.

I just hope that those who died so horribly last Sunday morning, those whose last hours of life went from happiness and celebration to horror and fear–I hope that their deaths will mean something to this country, that their awful deaths weren’t just another statistic.

They are all at peace now.

May they never be forgotten.

I am posting this picture of two of the victims, a loving couple who hoped to be married but whose families will now bury them together, in a happier time, so that I, too, will never forget.

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May none of you ever be forgotten.

Out of Touch

As a general rule, my blog is something that I simply sit down and write while I drink my morning coffee and wake up in the morning. It’s part of my waking up process, so not only is it unfiltered, it’s unedited; I rarely go back and reread it with an eye towards fixing mistakes, sentences where I’ve left out a word, spelling mistakes that spell check  didn’t catch as I write, etc.

But every once in a  great while, I’ll start writing a blog post and am not entirely comfortable with discussing the subject matter publicly. I’ve said things before publicly that later were removed from their proper context and thus twisted by someone with an agenda determined to make me look bad; so when I am talking about a sensitive topic, I tend to either shelve the blog post entirely, or put it aside to read over again at a later date, or post it so that only I can see it. I worry about posting things because the last thing I ever want to do is deal with an angry on-line lynch mob, or say something that, taken out of context years later, will be used to bludgeon me; lynch mobs don’t care about either context or nuance, alas, and once the torches are lit and the pitchforks hoisted, no one listens.

This has happened to me more than once, as I said, so I tend to be careful.

So, in some ways I’ve become self-censoring; but this self-censoring has also saved me a lot of stress, aggravation, and worry. I also rarely, if ever, go off on one of what my friend Jeffrey used to call my Julia Sugarbaker rants. This has helped lower my blood pressure, for one thing; I still do it, of course, I just don’t make it public anymore. My opinion on anything and everything isn’t so amazing and profound that I feel it needs to be shared because it will change minds and make the world a better place. Simply because I can speak my mind freely on-line doesn’t mean that I should. I have a right to my opinion, as does everyone, but I also have a right to keep my own counsel and I also don’t have to argue with anyone I disagree with publicly; and the reality is, I am never going to be convinced that I as a gay man am not entitled to equality; that transfolk have no right to human dignity; that women are lesser than men; or that white people by virtue of being white are somehow superior to people who are not. I also will never be convinced that people do not have the right to be seen as individuals, rather than any subgroup they might be put into by other people. There is nothing worse than being judged by preconceptions you have no control over.

As you know, Constant Reader, I’ve been engaged in something I call The Short Story Project since the beginning of the year; in which I am focusing most of my fiction reading on short stories rather than novels. I’ve not read any novels since the first of the year; I am still reading nonfiction. The reasoning behind this was twofold; because I don’t think short stories get nearly enough attention from readers, myself included, and because I have always struggled with writing them; this was, for me, a self-improvement exercise as a writer. It has helped in that regard; I have written more short stories in the first few months of this year than I have in any year since I decided to pursue this.

One of my favorite writers from the past is Ross Macdonald; he’s a favorite, but he isn’t up there with James M. Cain and John D. Macdonald and Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson and Faulkner and some others than I consider not only to be iconic but also consider to be major influences on me and my work; Ross Macdonald is an influence, but not as much as the others I named and some others unnamed as well. But I do love Ross Macdonald (I love his wife Margaret Millar more, but that’s another blog entry, methinks), and several years ago I bought a compendium called The Archer Files, in which Macdonald’s short stories, some of which were unpublished, were pulled together in one volume and the editor did some academic discussion of them.

I am still kind of processing one of his short stories; “Strangers in Town.”  I have to give Macdonald credit for writing a short story in that time period (early 1950s)  with characters who were people of color who also drove the story, but…yeah, the casual racism of the period slapped me in the face. That story today most likely would not be published as written, but it has value historically since it stands as an example of how casual and easy systemic racism was in that period. He used parts of it in the next story in The Archer Files, and it also apparently structurally was important to his novel The Ivory Grin, which I think I’ve read; I miss my old ability to recall plots and characters and details of every book that I’d read. It would be a lot more helpful now than it ever was when I retained the skill, you know? Heavy sigh.

One of the issues of this new century involves separating the art from the artist; in other words, can you enjoy art by someone whom, as a private citizen, is problematic? The best examples of this, to name merely two, are Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I am not a fan of Allen’s art nor have I ever been; but Roman Polanski? He fled the United States to avoid jail on charges of statutory rape. Yet I love his films Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown; films I saw and enjoyed before he committed his crime.  Distaste has certainly kept me from seeing anything he has done since. But I still love those two films, and rewatch them on occasion; perhaps someday I will rewatch them to look for problematic tropes to unpack.

Likewise, other works from the American past are rife with tropes of sexism, homophobia and racism; the society and culture were sexist, racist, and homophobic; how can the art from that time not be? Yet but it’s how things were back then seems like a feeble response and defense; but I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art as long as one recognizes the presence of things which would never pass muster in today’s society and culture; there is a wonderful essay/book to be done about homophobia in crime fiction of the past, and how gay characters were seen/depicted/represented. I used to want to write that book, but I will undoubtedly never have the freedom and luxury of time to do the necessary research and writing of a book that would prove, ultimately, to have an exceptionally limited audience.

You can’t truly equate racism with homophobia; while there are similarities in oppression and bigotry, both systemic and personal, faced by the two communities, they aren’t the same thing; the differences can be, and are, as significant as the similarities. As a white gay man, I have systemic privilege of skin; unless my car has bumper stickers denoting it as belonging to a gay man I can feel relatively safe in my car from ‘driving while gay’; and while there are certainly levels of homophobia within law enforcement, just walking down the street I don’t need to be worried about being either harassed by law enforcement or profiled. Reading works, or seeing films, that are blatantly homophobic or have stereotypical queer characters who are there to be laughed at, mocked, or held in contempt, while somewhat jarring doesn’t feel the same to me as reading or seeing something current with those same metrics. I am not willing to judge a writer from the pre-Stonewall culture as harshly as I am someone from the present day; it is how things were. You cannot write a realistic novel or short story today about queer characters in the 1950’s, for example, without including homophobic characters and a certain degree of self-loathing in the queer characters themselves: they were outlaws, held in contempt by the society as a whole.

Yet Macdonald’s story bothered me; despite being written in a time when he was undoubtedly considered brave for writing characters of color who weren’t criminals or the kind of “Stepin’ Fetchit” stereotypes so prevalent in films of the time. And yet…and yet…

“Strangers in Town,” by Ross Macdonald, The Archer Files

“My son is in grave trouble,” the woman said.

I asked her to sit down, and after a moment’s hesitation she lowered her weight into the chair I placed for her. She was a large Negro woman, clothed rather tightly in a blue linen dress she had begun to outgrow. Her bosom was rising and falling with excitement, or from the effort of climbing the flight of stairs to my office. She looked no older than forty, but the hair that showed under her blue straw hat was the color of steel wool. Perspiration furred her upper lip.

“About your son?” I sat down behind my desk, the possible kinds of trouble that a Negro boy could get into in Los Angeles running like a newsreel through my head.

That last sentence! Referring to an adult young man of color as a “Negro boy”! And the story goes on with this sentence: She leaned towards me with the diffident and confiding charm of her race.

Yikes. Yup, no stereotyping going on there.

The murder victim was a “light-skinned brown woman.” Another “had straight black hair, trimmed short, and black-rimmed harlequin spectacles that gave her face an Asiatic cast.” Throughout the story, the word “Negro” is used; this is also jarring, because with all due respect, it’s the word that was used politely, rather than the other “n” word. But…no one said “African-American” back then…the police are also willing to view the murder of the light-skinned woman as a possible suicide–which would mean she’d slit her own throat; I can’t imagine anyone ever committing suicide that way–but the white cops’ willingness to believe that a woman of color could or would is also telling.

Other than these issues, it’s a good story; the way it twists and turns and moves away from the original crime and suspects makes for a great detective yarn; the cops never would have solved this, and the son of the woman who hired Archer most likely would have taken the fall for the crime. So, there’s that.

But the next story in The Archer Files, “Gone Girl”,  a different version of the same story, without the people of color, is also a much stronger story.

It was a Friday night. I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood. I had followed a man from Fresno to San Diego and lost him in the maze of streets in Old Town. When I picked up his trail again, it was cold. He had crossed the border, and my instructions were to go no further than the United States.

Halfway home, just above Emerald Bay, I overtook the worst driver in the world. He was driving a black fishtail Cadillac as if he were tacking a sailboat. The heavy car wove back and forth across the freeway, using two of its four lanes, and sometimes three. It was late, and I was in a hurry to get some sleep. I started to pass it on the right at a time when it was riding the double line. The Cadillac drifted towards me like an unguided missile, and forced me off the road in a screeching skid.

Rather than being hired by a mother whose son is being accused of murder, Archer now happens onto a strange situation while driving home from a case. He decides to stop for the night at a hotel, and becomes involved in another murder investigation. The basic story after this is the same, both structurally and thematically, but the casual racism is gone and it’s now about white people, and interestingly enough, not nearly so problematic as “Strangers in Town.” The second story works better as well; I’m not sure why that is; did it work better because he didn’t use the people of color, and thus without the stereotyping it worked better?

I am still processing this. As I said, I love Ross Macdonald, and his writing is extraordinary. He’s one of the greats. But what, and where, is that line?

I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone does, nor do I think there even is one answer. I don’t recall ever getting any racist vibe from Macdonald’s work before, but on the other hand, I may not have been looking for it, either; the subtleties of systemic prejudices aren’t always apparent at first glance, or even second. Sometimes it takes someone else to point them out.

While I can’t speak to whether racism in American art from the past should not be seen, viewed or read, I can speak, for myself, about art from our homophobic past (while recognizing they are not the same things). Seeing casual homophobia in American art from the past, while jarring, doesn’t bother me as much because that’s the way things were. I don’t think it should be glossed over, or censored out of existence; if we forget the past and how things were, we can’t make things better for the future nor can we understand not only how far we’ve come but how far we have to go; we cannot truly understand the present without understanding our past–and, for want of a better term, in stark black-and-white; we have to understand and appreciate the shades of gray.

And on THAT note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Here’s your Monday hunk.

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Cool It Now

I still have that horrible throaty cough periodically, but my voice is more normal and I don’t feel off, which I am counting as a win. I also think that my body has changed on me again; my eating habits are bad–I often forget to eat and rarely, if ever, get hungry–but now my blood sugar will drop, leaving me feeling tired and ill. I need to start making sure that I fuel my body properly; gallons of coffee in the morning aren’t the way to go, and that is also inhibiting my sleep at night.

Heavy sigh.

But once the Olympics are over, I can go back to getting in bed at ten and reading for a half an hour or so before going to sleep; I am greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence, as well as my other current non-fiction read, Joan Didion’s essay collection After Henry. Didion is amazing; the way she crafts sentences and paragraphs is both lyrical and beautiful. I wish I had one tenth of her skill. I also made some progress with the Short Story Project, and am thinking I may write a Chanse short story. Reading all these Tess Monaghan (Laura Lippman) and Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) and Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald) short stories are showing me how it’s possible to write and craft a private eye short story; and I have an idea in my head about one where Chanse goes back to LSU for a fraternity reunion that might turn deadly. It’s just a thought; I’ve always wanted to do that in a novel, but it might just be a short story, you know? One of my problems has always been that I think in terms of novels as opposed to short stories; I’ve certainly turned short stories into novels (Sorceress and Sleeping Angel come to mind), and am even thinking of turning another one into a novel. Reading all these short stories has been inspiring me to write short stories, which is incredibly cool. I have several in progress right now; I’ve been asked to write for two anthologies where the story is inspired by a song; which is something I have certainly done before, and I’m having a lot of fun with those. I also want to write something for the MWA anthology, and I have another I am writing to submit to another anthology as well. I am still working on the WIP and the Scotty, never fear–the Scotty is taking a timely and dark turn, which is kind of cool–but I have all these short stories dancing around in my head!

Bitchin’.

I also read two short stories over the weekend. The first was Sue Grafton’s “Long Gone,” from her Kinsey and Me collection.

September in Santa Teresa. I’ve never known anyone yet who doesn’t suffer a certain restlessness when autumn rolls around. it’s the season of new school clothes, fresh notebooks, and finely sharpened pencils without any teeth marks in the wood. We’re all eight years old again and anything is possible. The new year should never begin on January 1. It begins in the gall and continues as long as our saddle oxfords remain unscuffed and our lunch boxes have no dents.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m female, thirty-two, twice divorced, “doing business as” Kinsey Millhone Investigations in a little town ninety-nine miles north of Los Angeles. Mine isn’t a walk-in trade like a beauty salon. Most of my clients find themselves in a bind and then seek my services, hoping I can offer a solution for a mere thirty bucks an hour, plus expenses. Robert Ackerman’s message was waiting on my answering machine that Monday morning at nine when I got in.

One of the things that rarely gets mentioned in discussion about Sue Grafton’s work is how funny she can; and this particular story, with Kinsey having to interview a husband who wants to hire her to find his wife, and having to deal with his three children, all under five, is actually, despite its dark tone and subject matter, kind of breezy and funny. Kinsey’s droll sense of humor, and her sympathy for the missing wife–which comes from her own dour outlook at marriage and family–made me laugh out loud several times during the course of reading the story. It’s a pity that Grafton didn’t write more short stories, because these are gems.

I then moved on to “The Barber” by Flannery O’Connor, from The Complete Stories.

It is trying on liberals in Dilton.

After the Democratic White Primary, Rayber changed his barber. Three weeks before it, while he was shaving him, the barber said, “Who you gonna vote for?”

“Darmon,” Rayber said.

“You a n*****r-lover?”

Rayber started in the chair. He had not expected to be approached so brutally. “No,” he said. If he had not been off-balance, he would have said, “I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover.” He had said that before to Jacobs, the philosophy man, and–to show you how trying it is for liberals in Dilton–Jacobs–a man of his education, had muttered, “That’s a poor way to be.”

A writer friend of mine–probably one of my closest friends who is also a writer–is a huge Flannery O’Connor fan. As I mentioned when I talked about reading her story “The Geranium,” I had read her A Good Man Is Hard To Find and wasn’t overly impressed with it. Also, as I said when I read “The Geranium,” the racism and use of the n-word is kind of hard for me to see. And yet…in this story, it fits and has to be used, even though it fills me with distaste to see it on the page and to read it. “The Barber,” you see, is the perfect personification of what it’s like to live in the South and be confronted by in-your-face racism all the time. This doesn’t excuse it by any means, or say it’s okay; but wow, how honest and true this story is.

Rayber is a liberal, who clearly believes in racial equality; he is a teacher at the local college and when he is confronted with the racism from his barber and some of the other men in his shop, he is startled, shocked; doesn’t know what to do. Part of his white privilege comes from being surrounded, he believes, by people who believe the same way he does; that racism and bigotry and segregation is wrong and a moral evil. He doesn’t know what to do when he is confronted by it in the face of his barber, someone whose chair he has sat in for years, presumably, and allowed to apply a straight razor to his face and neck. Now, this pleasant person whom he has never really paid a whole lot of attention to and has never really given much of a thought to, other than he provides a service well that Rayber needs, is confronting him with a hideousness that is quite horrifying while holding a sharp razor at his throat. What makes this all the more brilliant is how O’Connor doesn’t even make that connection for the reader; she just puts it out there and lets the reader come to his own realization. And afterwards, after being mocked by the barber and his friends in the shop for how he chooses to cast his vote, he spends the next week angry and bitter about the experience, and preparing to explain his vote logically and rationally the next time he gets shaved; to reason with the barber and tell him how wrong racism is…and inevitably, when that times comes, as the barber jovially mocks him for his vote, he eventually becomes frustrated and physically lashes out.

This story resonated strongly with me. Whenever I am confronted with something I find morally abhorrent, to my face, it catches me so off-guard that I can’t really respond logically and rationally–sometimes even at all– because it is hard for me to understand that there are people out there who actually can hold positions I hold morally abhorrent; I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around, for example, homophobia. I don’t get it. I do not understand how anyone can simply devalue and deny another human being their humanity. It’s hard for me to write homophobic characters because I cannot fully flesh those characters out and make them anything other than one-dimensional; I cannot grasp hatred like that. But, as one editor told me early in my career, even Hitler loved his dogs. I could relate to O’Connor’s character, and his inability to understand, to realize, what he was dealing with; that behind the friendly face and jovial attitude is someone whose core values and beliefs are so repugnant to him that they didn’t seem POSSIBLE.

And that is the mark of a truly gifted writer.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that story since I read it, and again, the mark of a great writer. Ms. O’Connor made me think, made me reflect, got under my skin and made me question my own self, not only as a person but as a writer.

Wow.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Twist of Fate

It snowed yesterday in New Orleans, and it is still cold today–albeit sunny. I am sitting at my desk this morning wearing fingerless gloves so I can type, a  knit LSU cap on my head, and a blanket wrapped around my legs. I also have to go to Costco at some point today, and I also have to get some things done. Needless to say, a temperature around fifty at my computer doesn’t make that more likely. I may check into space heaters at Costco today–although I may check the attic. There should be another one around here somewhere.

When I got home last night I turned on the heat and cleaned the upstairs, then grabbed a blanket and headed for my easy chair.I stopped reading The Last Picture Show when I got to the bestiality part (which I’d completely forgotten about) and even though there’s an even more important part of the story after the cow-rape (seriously), I just couldn’t pick the book up again. I know I can skip over that part, but honestly. I didn’t remember it, or the relatively nonchalant way McMurtry talked about it in the book–like it’s very common place amongst farm boys (literally, “every farm boy has done it”)–and I don’t know…I still have fond memories of the book, but despite the fact that it’s still really well written, I don’t know if I’m going to keep reading it; although I suppose if I continue reading it as an example of toxic masculinity…and the homophobia in it–what would toxic masculinity be without some good old homophobia?–is also not easy to read; because it’s so casual. 

Then again, that was the thing about the culture back then (it’s set in the 1950’s); the hate was so casual and matter-of-fact. It’s a short book, I may go back to it later today. (And interestingly enough, Larry McMurtry also co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, so there’s that.)

Speaking of homophobia, I was scrolling through HBO Now last night looking for something to watch, and noticed they had American Gigolo available. I had watched that movie only once, years ago on videotape, when a female friend had rented it. I didn’t remember much about it, other than Richard Gere was so incredibly beautiful and at the end Lauren Hutton came through for him at the end, and Blondie’s “Call Me” played over the opening credits and it was criminal that the didn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for Best Song. It should have WON, damn it. It’s a great song and it still holds up today.

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I also remembered that it wasn’t very good.

That memory was correct, but watching it again…so much wasted potential in this movie. It could have been a noir classic.

Gere plays Julian, or Jules, who basically is a gigolo, and not cheap. He works for several different pimps–one a blonde woman with a great beach house, the other a black gay man–but Jules is so in demand and so good at what he does-and let’s face it, Gere smolders. You can see why he catches everyone’s eye when he walks into a room, and no one wears an expensive suit like he does–but he’s also become incredibly arrogant because he is so good. Both of his pimps argue with him about the split on jobs they get for him–but he’s so good he always gets his way, but both warn him that his attitude and ingratitude to them is going to bite him in the ass one day. The gay pimp sets him up with a kinky job in Palm Springs–he has to be abusive to the woman while the husband watches–which makes him incredibly uncomfortable but he does the job well because the pimp tells him they want him back. Jules throws the word ‘fag’ around a lot–“I don’t do fags” etc., which, as someone who is paid for sex, I can certainly see why he would want to be clear on what he does and what he doesn’t, but again–casual homophobia. He meets and falls for Lauren Hutton in a restaurant at a posh hotel, who turns out to be an unhappy politician’s wife. They embark on a secret affair, but she turns out to be his alibi for the night the Palm Springs wife is murdered…and he can’t tell the police about her. This is also kind of where the movie goes off the rails. The crime itself is treated as an afterthought, and Jules being suspected and investigated–and he is being framed–are all secondary to his development as a character; all of this is just a moral lesson for him about being humble and how you shouldn’t treat people badly because they won’t stand by you when you need him, all the while he’s making this incredible noble sacrifice for the woman he loves.

A woman is brutally murdered as a plot point and pivot so Jules can learn humility.

Whoa. And wow.

And even the resolution doesn’t make sense. Turns out the gay pimp pulled off this elaborate ruse and frame just to teach Jules a lesson in humility? I wasn’t really clear on this at the end; it didn’t make sense to  me the first time I watched and it still didn’t make sense this time. The confrontation with the pimp ends with him accidentally knocking him off the balcony, but Jules tries to save him, but he can’t hold him. He falls to his death with Jules literally left holding his boots. He is taken in by the police and arrested, refuses to speak to his lawyer, but then Lauren Hutton comes forward and alibis him for the original murder, because she loves him…and they speak to each other through glass in the prison’s visiting room when she tells him she’s cleared him because she loves him. The end. And my first thought was, well, your alibi isn’t going to do him any good NOW that he’s killed the pimp, even if it was an accident. So you just blew up your own life for no reason because he’s still going to jail.

None of that was resolved. It’s really a shame, because it could have been a great noir classic. And it many ways it is actually a good film, and highly original: it was one of the first movies to ever focus so heavily on male beauty, and Gere is often in underwear or naked (full frontal, at that) or shirtless; the camera lingers over him lovingly the way it previously only did for women; the soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder was excellent and also the first time electronica music was used for a film score; and the entire film is beautifully shot. But the writer/director didn’t see it as a film noir or a crime film; he saw it as a character study with a redemptive arc, and that was where the film fell flat.

Pity.

And now back to the spice mines.

Family Man

So, last night I started my reread of Stephen King’s It. The book is slightly over 1100 pages long; and was the second novel King published that I never reread after the initial read (the other being Pet Sematary, which I think I will reread at some point now; I really disliked the book, but I think it was more because of its subject matter than anything King did, if that makes sense?). I sat down with it in my easy chair, and before I knew it the evening had passed and I was well past page two hundred. King is always compulsively readable; I can’t think of a single King novel where I just thought, meh and was able to put it down and walk away from it without regret. Likewise, I was so enmeshed in the story last night that when Paul wanted to watch some of our shows (How to Get Away with Murder, Will and Grace) I was a little annoyed to put the book down. I have no doubts that i will be able to get the entire thing reread in a matter of days; it’s simply a matter of finding the time to read.

Over the years since I first read It, I’ve seen some negative commentary on the book; I myself can distinctly remember not being overly thrilled with the ending, and being more than a little disappointed, which was a first with a King novel for me. The criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the book have included its length (I thought about that while reading last night, and frankly couldn’t imagine being King’s editor, trying to decide what to cut and what to leave behind), which I suppose can be justified in some ways; 1100 is awfully long. But as I was reading, I couldn’t imagine what needed to be cut from the book. King brings Derry vividly to life, and almost every word, every sentence, used to create his characters seems absolutely necessary. One of the things I’ve always loved about King was his realistic-seeming characters; whether it’s Stan Uris’ wife with her bitter recollection of not being allowed into the after-prom party at the country club because she and her date were Jewish, or Eddie Kasprack’s realization that in his overweight and needy and clingy wife, he has actually married his mother; and so on. No other writer I can recall has ever captured childhood, or written about children and the way their minds work, the way King has; the children he creates take me back to memories, long buried and forgotten, about my own childhood and its insecurities and its terrors–like Ben Hanscom when I was a kid I loved the library and lost myself in books, and was never lonely because I never really knew what it was like to have friends or a gang of friends. I always had books, you see, and I could see myself in some way in each and all of his characters as children.

Another one of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at It has to do with the gay-bashing murder of Adrian Mellon in the second chapter of the book; it’s this murder that brings the cycle of death back to Derry; just as the the first chapter’s depiction of how Georgie Denbrough dies, chasing his paper boat down the gutter triggers the cycle of death in 1958. I’ve seen criticism of the Adrian Mellon death as proof that King is homophobic, or criticism that the depiction of Adrian and his lover, Don Hagarty, was homophobic. Rereading it last night, I never once got that sense. The book was originally published in 1986, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the societal terror/homophobia that was triggered by the epidemic; some thirty years later it is easy to forget, or downplay what a truly terrifying time that was. And here was King, one of the biggest selling and most read authors of our time, putting in a vicious homophobic attack at the start of one of his biggest and most ambitious novels to date. Was his depiction of Adrian and Don, with their lipstick and tight pants and glittery eye shadow, indeed homophobic?

No, I didn’t think so in 1986 and I don’t think so in 2017.

Maybe Adrian and Don weren’t the most masculine gay men King could have chosen to write about, but the thing that we, in our more ‘enlightened’ times, tend to forget was that back in the day, back when the community was primarily focused on not dying and getting medical research into treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, the big butch straight-acting gay men were deep in the closet and desperately terrified that anyone might find out their truth. The effeminate gay men, ones who embraced who they were and wore make-up and flashy clothing and might have minced and pranced around a bit, flaunting their homosexuality–they were out because they didn’t have a choice. They weren’t straight-acting, the societal definition of masculine; they couldn’t hide their sexuality if they wanted to. Even if they remained closeted, everyone thought they were gay and treated them accordingly anyway, so they came out and got in everyone’s face.

And sometimes, getting in people’s faces, being so defiant about who they were, got them killed, as was the case with Adrian Mellon in Chapter Two of It.

King doesn’t show this hate crime as two fags getting what they deserved, either, by the way; he makes both Adrian and Don sympathetic, making the point that no one deserves to be beaten, attacked, or killed for simply being who they are. This was a radical statement to come from a straight white man whose books always shot up to Number One on the bestseller lists and had become a cultural phenomenon. Even the cops, who themselves were homophobic, made it clear that they maybe didn’t like gays but felt they should be left alone. King even talks about the small gay community in Derry, that it exists. He shows the death of Adrian as a tragedy, what happened to him as undeserved, wrong and terrible. He also shows, in a scene where Don shows Adrian, who has fallen in love with the small city and wants to stay there, the homophobic graffiti on the bridge where he ultimately dies–and the horrible words made this reader recoil, in horror and revulsion, at the inhuman sentiments expressed there with spray paint; the way the scene plays out only the most homophobic monster, without any feelings or heart, could possibly read any of it and think, well, that fag got what he deserved or agree with the sentiments spray painted on the bridge.

I’m sure there are others who can find this scene homophobic; I remember reading it back in my closeted days and having my decision to stay closeted confirmed; this is what happens to out gay men. I don’t think that was King’s intent; I believe King was trying, in his way, to show the oppression and abuse that gay men in 1986 were subjected to, something you didn’t find very often in mainstream novels of the time or even in mainstream novels of today.

He showed homophobia in all of its ugliness, and it still resonates today, thirty-one years later.

I have to go to the grocery store this morning, and I have a lot of cleaning and writing to do. So here’s a hunk to get your Saturday going, as I head back into the spice mines.

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Born This Way

Monday and we survived Weekend One of Carnival Parades. *whew*. I am exhausted, though, which is never a good thing for a Monday morning of a new work week. Heavy heaving sigh.

Now I know what ‘bone tired’ means. And speaking of ‘bone tired’….

As Constant Reader knows, I taught a session on writing LGBTQ characters at the SinC into Great Writing workshop at Bouchercon this past September in New Orleans. It was an amazing experience, and it was enormously flattering to be asked to do so in the first place. I was also asked to write something for the Sisters newsletter, pretty much given carte blanche to write whatever I wanted to, and since I had an essay about being a gay writer on the backburner (I’ve been toying with it for almost a year) which I was calling “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” I said sure. As I was wrapping up deadlines and looking ahead to the glory days of NOT HAVING ANY DEADLINES, I started writing the essay again, whittling away things from the original unfinished draft that no longer fit my thesis and…I got about halfway through and stopped.

The reason why I stopped? Because it is next to impossible to write about the challenges of being a gay crime writer writing about gay characters without sounding like the biggest whiner in the world, and I don’t want to be that guy.

Then, a question posted on a list-serve I belong to for crime writers triggered some answers that were so horrific, so thoughtless, and so ignorant that I suddenly knew how to write the essay–or at least how to address it with a starting place.

One of the current ‘boiling points’, if you will, in our current society is the question of ‘cultural appropriation’ as well as ‘cultural insensitivity’, and how these questions apply in a broader sense with the American guarantee of First Amendment rights under the Constitution (without getting into the reality–which most people either don’t understand, or chose to ignore– that ‘freedom of speech’ is actually only guaranteed as a protection from persecution and prosecution from the state; not from other people, and certainly not from consequences. The example I always use is, “Well, when I worked at the ticket counter I couldn’t tell a passenger to go fuck himself, could I, without getting fired?”) Recently–I don’t remember where I saw this, but it was on Facebook; I don’t know if it was from an industry publication or a newspaper or something–I read a piece about the major publishers hiring what were called ‘sensitivity readers’ to read manuscripts dealing with characters who were out of the author’s experience to make sure the characters weren’t offensive. I am of two minds about this, and I can certainly understand why people would find this alarming/concerning; how much control/power would these ‘sensitivity readers’ have over the author’s work? Not to mention the fact that no one can speak for an entire community; what one gay man finds offensive the next three you ask may not.

So, yes, I do have a bit of a problem with the concept of sensitivity readers. However, if I were writing a character from a culture not my own; say, a New Orleanian of Vietnamese descent, wouldn’t I want to talk to a New Orleanian or two of Vietnamese descent? Wouldn’t I want my character to be as authentic and realistic as I can possibly make him or her? I’ve talked to cops, private eyes, and FBI agents to make my characters are grounded in reality as I can. So, why wouldn’t a heterosexual writer creating a gay character want to get some insight from a gay person? And so on, and so on, and so on. I don’t see a problem here, but again, that is the work that should be done before the manuscript is turned into the editor and publisher, and I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with that for myself.

Of course, there are those who, because of this, have pulled out the ‘censorship’ battleflag, thoroughly missing the point. The First Amendment does not guarantee anyone a publishing contract, nor does it guarantee a platform; if it does I’d like to be booked on both The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert when my next book comes out, thank you very much. Oh, wait, it doesn’t mean that, after all?

Blimey.

Which is my roundabout way of getting to the latest provocateur, Milo. People were rightly outraged when the conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster gave him a book deal; people were rightly outraged when he started getting invitations to speak at colleges and universities; people were outraged when he got invited to go on Real Time with Bill Maher (whom I also have problems with, but we’re talking about Milo now). As loathsome as the things he says are, I will defend his right to say them against any attempt by the state to silence him. Simon & Schuster is a business; they have a right to give a book deal to anyone they think will make them money (although I seriously doubt this book will make them any money; I see it going onto the remainder table pretty damned quickly, and not even being released in paperback; unless, of course, conservative clubs and organizations buy it in bulk at a deep discount as giveaways for fundraising drives and so forth–which is often how people like Ann Coulter wind up on the bestseller lists), and likewise, college/university groups have a right to invite anyone they want to come speak to them…but rescinding those invitations (and promise of payments and expenses) when said invitations blow up in their faces is not censorship as defined by the law and the Constitution. The same law that gives Milo the right to say what he does also applies to those who oppose the things he says.

That’s um, kind of how our country works.

Being utterly uninterested in anything he has to say (I’ve never enjoyed listening to transphobia or racism), I didn’t watch Real Time with Bill Maher, only watching the clips of Larry Wilmore telling him to go fuck himself, which I will also admit to enjoying immensely. (Of course, now that clips of him talking approvingly of sex between children and adults have turned up–and really, who didn’t think something like this was going to come up; it was just a matter of time–he won’t be getting invited to speak anywhere anymore, and I suspect S&S will be cancelling their book contract.) But Milo–like Ann Coulter before him–fascinates me. (And for the record, I use ‘fascinate’ with the old meaning of like how a snake fascinates its prey; I do think he is kind of dangerous, and snake-like.) I always wonder how people like him come to be. I wrote eighty pages of a Paige novel in which the victim was a Coulter-like character, attempting to peel back the layers and see what could create someone like her/him (that manuscript is in a drawer, as no one had the slightest interest in publishing it). Coulter apparently sees herself as a comedian/performance artist; I sadly know people who know her, and they state she doesn’t really believe what she says but it makes her money; I suspect Milo is kind of similar to her in that regard, yet at the same time…

Take, for example, his appearance on Bill Maher. Milo is precisely the kind of gay stereotype that triggers homophobic reactions from the right, and even from some gay men: he isn’t particularly masculine, and wore enormous faux pearls around his neck on the show, which he played with as he spoke (damn it, I am going to have to watch); he is an effeminate gay man (think a conservative Jack from Will & Grace, or Emmett from Queer as Folk: the kind of gay man that ‘straight-acting’ gay men loathe and despise). The loathing of homophobes for effeminate gay men (and, let’s be honest, a number of GAY MEN as well) has everything to do with the culture of masculinity and the fear of ‘not being a man’; which, really, is where homophobia and sexism and transphobia comes from.

I just saw on Twitter that Milo may lose his job at Breitbart over the pedophilia comments; I am not holding my breath, nor will I hold my breath about losing the contract with S&S. He has, always, positioned himself as a spokesperson for the First Amendment; all of this should give him more material to work with, and of course, I am sure it’s the fault of the ‘politically correct’ who ‘want to silence him.’

So, I doubt he will go gently into that good night, and he will undoubtedly continue to fascinate me the way cobras fascinate their prey before they kill and eat them.

I always am curious at to what made these types of people what they are.