Sunday, April 22, 2018

351. The 9/11 Museum: My Descent into the Land of the Dead


For my books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.

In the (near) Offing:

A self-appointed heir to the throne of Byzantium who for his coronation wanted fifty Vestal Virgins, but settled instead for Andy Warhol, a boa constrictor, and an ape.   

A male movie star whose New York funeral caused an all-day riot.  

An opera house manager who feuded with Maria Callas and told a disgruntled tenor to bite a soprano's ear onstage.

They're all forthcoming.  I've got them in hand, will announce them next week.  Some of them are fun, some are astonishing, some are frightening.


SMALL  TALK

Just after dawn on a recent Friday a truck pulled up at Bryant Park, the park behind the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue between West 42nd and 41st Street.  The truck's back door then opened and a great buzzing was heard, for stacked in the truck were boxes containing 9 million bees.  This was an annual rite of spring in the city, the delivery of bees from Florida to the beekeepers of the city and its environs, and they flocked (the beekeepers, not the bees) to claim their purchases.  Once banned (but practiced furtively), beekeeping became legal again in the city in 2010, and since then it has become a popular pastime.  Of the truck's 9 million bees, 3 million were sold in Bryant Park.  By car, train, bus, and bicycle, the keepers carried their spoils off to replenish their apiaries.  And where are those apiaries located?  On rooftops (including a church in Chelsea), in small backyards, and in some cases even indoors.  Many of the beekeepers had lost their bees because of last winter's fluctuating weather, but one keeper from a rural area said that bears had killed his bees last spring.  The bears ate the honey and killed the queen bees, and their death meant the end of the hives.  To avoid another such disaster, this year the keeper is using elevated hives.  But many of the bees stay in the city, and I've bought their honey in the Union Square greenmarket at Andrew's Honey, where Andrew boasts of honey that is locally produced.  So even if the season is afflicted with chilly weather and gale-force winds, the bees and their keepers insist that it is spring.

Source note: This Small Talk is indebted to Corey Kilgannon's article "Beekeepers' Rite of Spring: Replenishing the City's Hives," in the New York Times of April 14, 2018.

The 9/11 Museum: My Descent into the Land of the Dead


        To describe my visit to the 9/11 Museum requires a lengthy preface to explain my relationship to the World Trade Center site.  Frankly, I never had much use for the Twin Towers.  Architecturally, they struck me as two big boxes jutting skyward, void of grace and style.  And I agreed with those who said they weren’t really needed, but were built simply because it was possible and therefore should be done.  And if I’m not mistaken, they never filled up completely, always had room for tenants who never quite seemed to appear.  My one foray into one of them, to get some tax forms from a New York State office, involved changing elevators halfway up and left me indifferent to their height and significance.  My partner Bob, on the other hand, took his mother more than once to the Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, and raved not about the food but the view, which was said to extend for ninety miles.  My conclusion: the towers were acceptable if you were at the top looking out and didn’t have to look at the towers themselves.

File:Twin Towers circa fall 1993.jpg
Circa 1993.
Mariordo

         Yet for all that, the Twin Towers insinuated themselves into my daily existence.  Visible from my south-facing bedroom window, they were the last thing I saw at night, when I pulled the shade down, and the first thing I saw in the morning, when I put the shade back up.  If they were clearly visible, I knew the day would start off bright and sunny.  If they were somewhat blurred, I anticipated fog or maybe rain.  And if they weren’t visible at all, it meant heavy rain or possibly, in winter, snow.  So it went for years.

         Then came 9/11.  I had gotten up early to go look at migrating warblers in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at Broad Channel, on an island in Jamaica Bay, Queens.  I got there by a little before 8 a.m. and began walking around the West Pond, on whose edges I indeed found several warblers feeding at ground level and therefore easy to view. 

         “Have you seen the World Trade Center?” asked a young woman who was walking in the opposite direction. 

         “Yes, of course,” I answered, wondering why she asked, since one could always see it from a certain point that I had yet to reach.

         Farther on along the path I saw one of the towers – the North Tower, I learned later – emitting a huge column of black smoke.  What a fire! I thought, but went on looking at the birds.  Fires, even big ones, are common enough in the city and get put out in a matter of time.

File:National Park Service 9-11 Statue of Liberty and WTC fire.jpg
The North Tower, as seen from the Statue of Liberty.

         Perhaps a half hour later, having circled the pond, I came back to the point where the Twin Towers were visible.  But now they weren’t visible at all, being cloaked in a huge cloud of smoke that the wind was driving slowly eastward over Brooklyn toward the ocean.  Still, I assumed that this resulted from the fire I had seen before and found it only mildly troubling.  Then another visitor told me they were shutting down the refuge, and subway service to Manhattan might be suspended.  Now at last I realized that this was more than just a fire; it was an emergency affecting the whole city.

         Worried about getting back to Manhattan, I went out to Cross Bay Boulevard to wait for a bus to take me into Queens.  A policeman came over and informed me that no buses were running across the bridge to Howard Beach and the mainland, so I started walking toward the bridge.  One of the Wildlife Refuge staff driving that way in a car recognized me as a recent visitor to the refuge, stopped, and offered me a ride to Howard Beach.  There I got out to find a telephone and ask my friend Richard in Brooklyn to come get me with his car.  He came an hour later, and as we drove back to Brooklyn he told me that both towers had been hit by planes and collapsed.  Richard dropped me off at a subway entrance where we saw some people entering, but when I went down to the platform to wait for a train, I and other hopefuls heard a PA system announcement that no trains were running to Manhattan.  So I was trapped in Brooklyn. 

         Walking to Richard’s brownstone, I explained my situation.  He let me phone my partner Bob to explain that I would have to spend the night in Brooklyn, and then invited me to join him and several other friends for an impromptu dinner, following which another friend put me up in a guest room for the night.  The next morning I was able to get back to Manhattan by train.  I got off at a station within the so-called frozen zone, all of Manhattan below 14th Street that was now closed to the public, except for first responders heading downtown, and residents who lived inside the zone.  As I walked through the West Village, there were no cars driving on the streets, and an eerie silence prevailed. 

         Back in my apartment at last, I could see from the south-facing windows a blurred mass of smoke where the Twin Towers had once been visible.  The wind had now shifted in the direction of Manhattan, bringing us a burnt smell that persisted for days, sometimes so strong that we had to shut the windows.  Gradually the smell subsided, and the frozen zone was reduced in stages, until it was confined to only the area around Ground Zero, the site of the attack.  For weeks to come, whenever I took a walk along the riverfront, I would see people holding up signs that said THANK YOU and other messages of gratitude intended for any vehicle – police, fire department, or whatever – heading downtown to the site of the attack.  Often the driver of the vehicle would sound his horn in response.  This went on for weeks.

         I had witnessed the 9/11 attack only from a distance, but others were not so removed.  A woman I knew lived high up in a downtown apartment from which she could see people who, trapped in the blazing towers, in desperation leaped to their death.  This sight was avoided by the media, but it was implanted in her mind and horrified her for days to come.  And another friend of mine was dismayed to learn that her family heirlooms -- jewelry passed on to her by her mother and grandmother – had been destroyed in the bank vault where she had deposited them long before, thinking a vault at the World Trade Center the safest place imaginable.  In time her bank informed her that it had been able to access the vault and recover its safe deposit boxes, which had miraculously survived the attack. All her jewelry was intact except the pearls, which the intense heat of the fire had dissolved.

         Of course the Ground Zero site would be rebuilt, but the process  dragged on for many years, complicated by the conflicting needs and wishes of the many parties involved.  I often despaired of the whole business, until tangible results were achieved.  Through my south-facing window I could at last see the Freedom Tower, which at night appeared all lit up, with an antenna mounted on its roof and topped by a blinking red light; I christened it my Tower of Light.  As for the recently opened 9/11 Museum and Memorial, I heard good things about them and recently, quite on the spur of the moment, decided to visit the museum. 

File:WTC memorial june 2011.jpg
Ground Zero as seen from above, 2011.
Shiny Things

         Just because these remarkable buildings and the Freedom Tower have been completed, don’t imagine that the site is all tidied up and presentable.  When I exited the E train terminal on Church Street near Fulton, the first thing I saw was the graveyard behind the St. Paul’s Chapel – not the graveyard I was meaning to visit.  And just across Church Street was a huge construction area blocked off and closed to the public.  Only by following big signs posted at intervals was I able to proceed to the museum past areas still under construction and emitting loud screeches and roars and whines.  On the way I saw, for the first time up close, the faceted thrust of the Freedom Tower stabbing skyward, and the Oculus, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which replaces the old PATH train station destroyed on 9/11: a strange thing looming squatly like a huge white mushroom or, as some would have it, a white dove spreading its wings and about to fly.  But I had no desire to linger here or to explore the Memorial’s plaza and fountains, given the nippy gusts of wind and my entrance scheduled for 10 a.m., so I hurried on to the museum entrance.  There, having bought my ticket online in advance, I was privileged to stand in the shorter line for ticket holders, as opposed to the long line for those numerous poor souls who had yet to obtain a ticket.  Admitted inside at last, I went through security just as strict and vigilant as the security at airports, and was finally ready to explore the museum itself.  Given the options of a tour with a guide or a do-it-yourself audio guide, I spurned both and elected to blunder forward on my own.

         Future visitors be warned: negotiating this labyrinthine museum requires an epic tolerance of darkness and crowds.  Anticipating wonders and horrors, I left daylight and the museum’s ground floor behind and descended a very long ramp into the land of the dead.  Arriving at a lower level, I saw a huge wall with square panels in various shades of blue and, in large letters, a quote from Virgil: NO DAY SHALL ERASE YOU FROM THE MEMORY OF TIME.  This perplexed me until, squinting through the semidarkness, I deciphered a sign explaining that behind the wall were the remains of many who died in the attack.  This, I later learned, was Memorial Hall, a reminder that the museum is, above all, a shrine to the deceased.  Throughout the whole of my visit the hundreds of visitors were properly respectful and subdued, the only audible speech often being that of the tour guides to their groups.


Barbara Hitchcock

         Proceeding from there, I found myself immersed in a darkness so total that I couldn’t see the floor in front of me and was afraid of stumbling over some unseen object and falling.  So I went groping bravely forward with other visitors on all sides of me doing the same.  Thinking to steady myself by touching a wall, I reached out and found … nothing!  So I just kept pressing on.

         Carried along in the sluggish flow of visitors, I encountered two large twisted steel girders, remnants from the attack, that seemed frozen together in a frenzied dance.  After that, an endless series of remnants, including the rectangular base of the steel box columns that had anchored the South Tower to bedrock.  The damaged columns had been removed, leaving only these “footprints” of the tower.  We were, then, on the site of the South Tower, the second to be hit.  Visitors were quietly snapping photos right and left, but in a separate section labeled IN MEMORIAM this was strictly forbidden.  Entering through a revolving door, I found myself confronted by a huge wall covered with photos and the names of the 2,983 people killed on 9/11 and in the earlier attack on February 26, 1993.  There were three more vast walls with photos and names, and a separate room where you could sit quietly and hear those many names being read aloud by a recorded voice.

         Having left this inner shrine, I came upon what seemed like a towering and twisted 40-foot avant-garde sculpture, which proved to be a section of the South Tower’s ravaged steel façade.  Down a side hall I found a display of the many New Yorker magazine covers celebrating the Twin Towers, followed by covers commemorating their destruction.  Especially vivid also on the wall was a large photo of the looming towers, quite intact, with a cluster of white-sailed sailboats passing tranquilly in the river in the foreground.

         At intervals in this subterranean maze I came upon stairs and escalators that took visitors still farther into the depths of Ground Zero.  Along the way benches were few and far between, and usually occupied by weary visitors, but I found a big one empty and promptly sat on it.  Only when I got up did I see a sign explaining that this was a bench salvaged from the plaza of the Twin Towers after the attack.  And just beyond that point I got a free museum map from an employee handing them out – useful now but useless at the time, given the lack of lighting.

         On ahead was the site of the North Tower, the one I had seen emitting a huge dark cloud of smoke.  Here were exhibits that took me into an eerie world of wonders.  What looked like a giant’s rust-brown headband topped by a tangle of spaghetti hair turned out to be a salvaged elevator motor.  And across the way loomed what looked like a big sci-fi armadillo, or perhaps a deep-sea creature with an armament of protruding spikes: a segment, a sign informed me, of the radio and television antenna that once rose from the roof of the North Tower.  Nearby, what bore the letters LADDER 3 was easy to identify: a Fire Department truck, one end savagely smashed.

File:New York City 07 - Fire Engine destroyed in the September 11 attacks.jpg
Geraldshields 11

Barbara Hitchcock


         At some point in my subterranean wanderings I entered a large hall – the Foundation Hall, as I later learned – where a section of wall had been left exposed: a huge expanse of illuminated rough concrete with some kind of knobs protruding at regular intervals.  Devoid of aesthetic interest, it impressed me only by its size.  Later I learned that this was part of the “slurry wall” that ran around the World Trade Center foundation, protecting it from the surrounding water table.  On 9/11 the wall strained under intense pressure from the water table, but held fast and prevented flooding of the underground subway tracks nearby, and maybe even the flooding of Lower Manhattan. 

File:2016 9-11 Museum portion of bathtub slurry wall with viewers.jpg
The slurry wall.
Beyond My Ken

          And in that same Foundation Hall you see the so-called Last Column, a 58-ton steel beam ceremoniously removed from the ravaged WTC site in 2002 and inscribed with markings, pictures, and tributes by the recovery workers. 


Barbara Hitchcock

         Finally I entered a climactic exhibition that told the story of the day 9/11 hour by hour, with photographs of the burning towers, quotes from witnesses, and even recorded voices of people expressing their bafflement, shock, and horror.  Especially riveting was a segment of film showing the second plane crashing into the South Tower, causing the tower to erupt into a huge fiery blaze consuming many floors below the top of the tower.  The film lasted only two or three minutes and was constantly repeated.  I recognized it as one made quite by chance by two young Frenchmen who happened to be out that morning filming in the streets.  Though I had seen it before, like everyone around me, I simply had to stand there and watch it at least three times, registering shock each time at the moment of the crash.

         There was more in the exhibit ahead of me, but by now I had spent two hours in the darkened depths and, foot-weary, was eager to return to the world of daylight.  Having long ago experienced the real 9/11 in my own way, I didn’t feel compelled to repeat it in its brilliantly reconstructed totality now.  Seeing an exit door for those not wishing to continue, I pushed it open and followed a corridor to the foot of the longest escalator I had ever seen, and by this means ascended slowly and regained the world of the living.  It was 12 noon.  Should I go up to the top floor and lunch in the café?  No, I decided to head home and collapse, having tasted the horrors of 9/11 to satiety. 


         Someday, in sunny mild weather, I’ll return to see my Tower of Light up close, as well as the Memorial plaza and the supermodern wonders of the Oculus.  But if, for me, two hours in the land of the dead had been enough, that land had been strange and fascinating.  It had assumed in turn the atmosphere of a hushed shrine, an avant-garde gallery of tortured statuary, and an undersea grotto inhabited by weird and mysterious creatures that loomed in frozen silence.  The 9/11 Museum is unique.


Coming soon: Fighting New York City: Five Tips.   


BROWDERBOOKS  



All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.

Review 


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2
Reviews

"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:


New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)







Reviews

"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.


Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 15, 2018

350. Flamboyant vs. "Normal" Gay: Triumphs, Risks and Horrors


For my fiction and nonfiction, scroll down past the post to BROWDERBOOKS. 

A note on reviews:

A review of my novel Dark Knowledge has been included in the April 2018 issue of Reviewer's Bookwatch, the online book review magazine of Midwest Book Review.  To see it, go here and scroll down.

If you read a book of mine or anyone's and enjoy it, tell your friends.  Word-of-mouth is the best advertising there is.

And if you read a book of mine or anyone's, go the book's online page on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and do a customer's review.  I have found it easier to get a book published than to get a review. (Yes, I'm serious.)  A review doesn't have to be three paragraphs long; it can be three sentences or less.  Anyone can do a review. And the review needn't be favorable, just honest.  Better a bad review than no review at all.



SMALL  TALK

What they said about New York:

"A hundred times I have thought New York a catastrophe, and fifty times: It is a beautiful catastrophe."  Le Corbusier 

"There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless."  Simone de Beauvoir


Flamboyant vs. "Normal" Gay

         In an article in the New York Times of March 29, 2018, producer and author Jacob Tobia protests the preference in film and television for masculine gay male leads, as opposed to feminine and gender-nonconforming gay men, who are only allowed to provide comic relief.  In so doing he tells how as an undergraduate at Duke University he was outrageously and flamboyantly gay.  He wore bright red lipstick and a full beard; danced on a bar in a miniskirt, exposing his unshaven legs; and strutted brazenly across cobblestones in four-inch heels.  For half the gay men on campus he was an inspiration and friend, and for the other half, an embarrassment.  Those who were embarrassed wouldn’t speak to him and even avoided eye contact, yet benefited from his presence, since his being the campus freak let them get accepted as “normal” gay.  The message for gay young people today, Tobia insists, is that they must be the “right type of gay” – masculine, not flamboyant femme – to be respected, accepted by their family, and desirable. 

         Tobia’s article underlines the divide in the gay community between “normal” (i.e., masculine) gay and flamboyant femme gay that goes back as far as I can remember.  In my days as a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1950s I can recall a gay Iranian student complaining of “those characters who give homosexuality a bad name.”  A very masculine gay man getting a master’s degree in Library Science gave his friends glowing accounts of a gay bar in Patterson, New Jersey, where “there isn’t a “broken wrist in sight,” that being a stereotypical sign of femme gay.  In those less tolerant days, the majority of gay men distanced themselves from the obviously gay, queenly types, even if sometimes, discreetly, they might approach them for a romp in bed.

         Memorable from my days at Columbia is a Puerto Rican kid named Wally, not outrageously femme but a bit too exuberant to be straight, who got a lot of attention and reveled in it.  “Cette folle” (“that madwoman”) a very masculine Haitian acquaintance of mine labeled him and kept his distance, but a Jewish friend, a sophisticated New Yorker, told me, when I described Wally to him, “I want to meet this one.”  Meet “this one” he did, not out of sexual interest but curiosity, a curiosity that was satisfied with a single encounter.  Though I half kept my distance, Wally confided in me how back in Puerto Rico his family had heard strangers comment on his exuberant gayness.  The family solution was to have some cousins drop him off at a brothel and wait till he reappeared, presumably no longer a virgin.  Wally assured the cousins that all had gone well, and so for the moment allayed the family’s suspicions.  To pass the time in the brothel, he must have entertained the girls with some of his stories, or maybe, like a friend of mine once, joined them in a game of tiddlywinks.  When he got a chance to come to New York to study, Wally jumped at it and left the family and its suspicions far behind in Puerto Rico.  Wally was an entertainer, exuberant and gregarious, but his entertaining ran big risks.  When he got a job teaching in a boys’ school, I predicted that he wouldn’t last one term.  Sure enough, the kids caught on to him and he was summarily dismissed.  What became of him after that I have no idea.

         Another acquaintance from my first year at Columbia was Jimmy, a rather sexy femme kid whose room was just across the hall from mine on the fifteenth floor of John Jay Hall, where, quite by chance, two-thirds of the guys were gay, but mostly “normal” gay.  A graduate student in English, Jimmy had a cute little black lover who was often seen in the communal shower.  One morning, having just seen a very macho Marlon Brando in curly bangs playing young Mark Antony in the film Julius Caesar, Jimmy showed up in bangs.  

File:Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar trailer.jpg
Jimmy's inspiration.

But if bangs enhanced the masculinity of a very quietly and confidently masculine Brando, on Jimmy they came off as just plain weird.  To my dismay, I found myself walking with Jimmy to a 9:00 a.m. English class that we were both attending.  Without being a close friend, I knew him too well to avoid going with him, but feared the looks we would both soon get.  Looks there were aplenty, but all at Jimmy; I was scarcely noticed.  Then, within a day or two, the bangs were gone.  His black lover, he told me, had taken one look and announced, “You look like a Roman whore.”  That did it; the bangs disappeared.  At the end of the year Jimmy announced that he had been drafted.  “Whatever my sergeant can do,” he told me, “I guess I can do, too.”  What the consequences were for both Jimmy and the Army I hesitate to say.

         My memories stretch back as well to my undergraduate days at Pomona College in Claremont, California.  There I honestly believed myself to be straight, but like many other students, I was distantly tolerant of the “drama crowd” who starred repeatedly in campus theater productions or otherwise helped make them happen.  That crowd was presumably gay – the men, at least – but they were tolerated as different, “artsy-fartsy,” marginal.  One of them named Don – short, witty, cute -- seemed to revel in his “otherness” and reportedly proclaimed himself “as queer as a two-dollar bill.”  Far from clinging to the shadows, Don often performed in the college productions, preferring comic roles and doing a delicious Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Likable and harmless, he was accepted as the campus queer.  I recall myself saying of him, “I don’t care what he is, as long as he leaves me alone.”  He achieved a new height of notoriety when, with a perverse sense of humor, the Pomona coeds elected him the King of Pomona, who then, in a gesture of friendship, was supposed to meet the Queen of Occidental, our traditional rival in football.  When they met, the poor girl from Occidental stared, dumbfounded, as Don romped and reveled at the news of his election.

         My memories go back even to my distant high school days in the 1940s and a blond kid in my junior year journalism class named David.  Back then being blond could automatically make you suspect (mercifully, my blond hair had long since turned to brown), and David, being very blond, reinforced the stereotype.  In no way flamboyant, he was gently femme, a likable guy who was simply, softly there.  And he could take a joke on himself.  When the class teacher read a bit of his writing that was much too rich, too lush, inducing laughter in the class, David smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m his straight man.”  (“Straight man” meaning the stone-faced partner in a comic team who acts as a foil to the comic, delivering lines that let the comic respond and get the laughs.)  The other kids liked David, an arch example of the feminine boy who wished no harm to anyone and simply wanted to blend in.  I have often wondered what became of him and how he survived.

         Another gay acquaintance from my graduate school years told me how, when he outed himself to a straight friend, the friend replied, “Well, you’re not obvious,” indicating that “normal” gay he could take.  But when the time came for gay liberation, it was the flamboyant drag queens who launched the Stonewall riots that got the ball rolling.  In the Gay Pride marches that followed, everyone took part: the supermacho leather crowd, the drag queens, and the legions of gay guys whom most people wouldn’t take for gay.  When I marched with the Whole Foods Project in June 1994, just a month after surgery for cancer, behind our contingent in the parade was a delegation from San Francisco.  Most of them were in T-shirts and shorts like the other marchers, but the front row and the leader took drag to a new level.  Instead of presenting themselves as women, or caricatures of women, their outlandish costumes made them come off as creatures from another universe: drag transformed into sci-fi.

File:Rogue drag queen (34994213423).jpg
London Pride, 2017.
Fae

         Of course there were gay detractors who denounced the parades as giving ammunition to homophobes, who could then show photos of militant drag queens and ask, “Do you want your children to be taught in the schools by these people?”  I saw many of the parades over time but never felt that they were a mistake, no matter how wild a few of the participants might be.  The parade was – and is -- the gay Mardi Gras, that once-a-year event where anything goes.

         A femme gay whose name became a household word was Andy Warhol, the Prince of Pop, whose art was in his own time controversial, but sells today for phenomenal prices.  My friend John, who knew him early in his career in the 1950s, described him as friendly, accessible, and “featherly,” a gentle, soft-voiced soul.  Photos from that period show a delicately featured young man with long blond hair and glasses, femme in the extreme.  But “femme” needn’t mean passive and mild.  By the 1960s his studio on East 47th Street, dubbed the Factory, was a magnet for avant-garde artists, writers, musicians, celebrities, drug addicts, and assorted weirdos, over whom he ruled tyrannically.  Only a near-fatal bullet wound from the radical feminist Valerie Solanas in 1968 ended that phase of his career.  He lived another nineteen years, but time was not kind to him; later photos show a gaunt face framed by long graying hair that often looked like a fright wig.

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Andy Warhol, 1977.

         A rare example of quietly assertive femme gay was Quentin Crisp, the self-styled “Stately Homo of England,” who at age 70, already a celebrity by virtue of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, came to these shores in 1978 to do his one-man show and, falling in love with New York, returned to stay.  He was persistently and unashamedly femme, and in getting himself accepted and even acclaimed as such, worked a minor revolution.  Perennially onstage and easily recognized by his painted face and black, wide-brimmed hat tilted rakishly, he coasted on his wit.  A gregarious loner, he distanced himself from the gay lib movement that had got its start right here in New York, yet benefited from the tolerance that movement generated.  In spite of himself, he was a part of it. 

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Quentin Crisp, 1996.
Ross B. Lewis

         The success of Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp shows that feminine gays could achieve a welcome notoriety and a degree of acceptance in New York that would have been inconceivable some years earlier.  When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band was produced Off Broadway in 1968, it was the one of the first plays with gay men in the leads.  Especially memorable was Emory, a flamboyant interior decorator who made the rest of the cast look “normal.”  Some of my gay friends took exception to Crowley’s portrayal of the gay world, but the reviews were generally favorable, and a film followed in 1970.

         Acceptance, yes, but not without risks.  I recall a directors class at the Actors Studio in the 1960s where a gay actor presented a shapeless happening with himself, a younger gay actor, and a young women performing.  It wasn’t a play and was criticized as such.  At one point the younger actor did a monolog that began with his announcing, “I feel so oral.  In what followed he came off as decidedly gay, with discreet suggestions of oral sex.  An actor in the class told of seeing the non-play performed for the public, and of observing a straight guy in the audience, attending in the company of his girl, seething with barely suppressed rage.  He felt threatened in his manhood by the monolog, and the result might well have been violent.  And this in easygoing, tolerant New York.

         How it was in the rest of the country became apparent with an incident in Bangor, Maine, in 1984.  Charlie Howard was a flamboyantly gay 23-year-old, blond and slight of build, who if he felt like “sissying up” -- wearing makeup and jewelry and coming off as flagrantly femme -- did so.  Bullied in high school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he didn’t attend graduation so his parents wouldn’t hear the taunts he was sure to receive.  Coming to Bangor, Maine, Charlie made new friends, joined a gay-friendly Unitarian church, got an apartment, and adopted a kitten.  When a woman in a local market shouted at him, “You pervert!  You queer!” he got frightened and left, but as he did so, he blew her a kiss.  Then, leaving his apartment one day, he found his kitten on the doorstep, strangled. 

         Matters came to a head on the evening of July 7, 1984.  As Charlie and a friend were walking across a bridge over the Kenduskeag River, a car with five high school kids -- three boys and two girls who had been drinking -- stopped.  Leaving the two girls in the car, the three boys got out and attacked Charlie.  Charlie’s friend escaped, but the boys caught Charlie, beat him, and started lifting him over the bridge’s railing.  “Don’t,” pleaded Charlie, “I can’t swim!”  Ignoring his pleas, they pried his hand loose from the railing and pushed him over, then returned to the car and left.  Unaware of Charlie’s fate, they went to a party and boasted of what they had done.  But Charlie had drowned; his body was recovered the next day.  When they learned of his death, the two girls went to the police and told what they had witnessed.  Arrested, the boys were arraigned in court.  A photo of them in police custody and handcuffed, ages 15, 16, and 17, shows vividly just how young they were.  The judge had to decide whether they should be tried for murder as adults, or for manslaughter as juveniles.  Public opinion was sharply divided.  Some argued the three were just “boys being boys,” and insisted that Charlie’s outlandish behavior had provoked the attack.  His defenders staged a demonstration and labeled his death a hate crime deserving the most severe penalty.  The judge acknowledged the seriousness of the offense, but cited the boys’ lack of any criminal record and therefore charged them as juveniles with manslaughter.  They pleaded guilty, served up to two years in a juvenile detention center and, as required by state law, were all out by age 21.

         Twenty-five years later one of the boys, now a middle-aged man living in Bangor, said in an interview that he spoke regularly advocating tolerance of sexual deviation and thought of Charlie every day of his life.  A memorial to Charlie was installed on the site of his death, but in 2011 it was vandalized with spray-painted graffiti.  July 7, the date of Charlie’s death, is now celebrated as Diversity Day in Bangor.  Every year on that date people drop flowers into the Kenduskeag River, saying, “Charlie, this is for you.”

         I find Charlie Howard’s story heartbreaking in the extreme.  But beyond that, what do I conclude?  Some gay men are driven by a deep-seated urge to be flamboyant, to throw their gayness in the face of society, to be perennially and conspicuously onstage.  Maybe it’s their revenge for being gay, or a need for attention at whatever cost, or even a kind of death wish.  Certainly, like Charlie, they refuse to not be who they are.  But while “normal” gay men manage today to live quietly without too much to-do, their flamboyant brothers still court danger and sometimes even death.


Coming soon: The 9/11 Museum: My Descent into the Land of the Dead



BROWDERBOOKS  


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.




Review 

"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


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Reviews

"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

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The back cover summary:


New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)







Reviews

"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.


Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


©   2018   Clifford Browder