It was the first night of August, 1970. My brother and I shared the same bedroom. At three o’clock in the morning my father came into the darkened room and woke us up. Although the room was pitch black I could tell there were tears streaming down his face.
“Boys”, he said slowly. “Your mother is dead. Prepare for the worst. Nothing will ever be the same again”. And he was right.
In those days if you lost a parent either by death or divorce you were looked upon like there was something wrong with you. Your classmates all looked at you like you were odd. Perhaps they were looking at you for signs of mental decay. It wasn’t something so easily identifiable.
You held the hurt inside you, but it wasn’t really something you could talk about. No one wanted to listen, anyway. My friends had more important concerns, like sports and school. They weren’t even thinking about girls at that point.
Something new was in the air. Even the religious boys in my school couldn’t resist the lure of the new movement called glam rock. I remember hearing a kid or two singing “All The Young Dudes” as they walked to class. It was a long step away from the hippie dream of the past couple years.
Everything sounded differently, and everything looked differently.
Music gave me consolation from the loss of my mother and there was nothing more exciting than the records of T. Rex, David Bowie, Slade, Roxy Music, Sparks and an endless flood of glamour bands all dressed up like spacemen from a kaleidoscopic planet.
The glam club to go to in West Hollywood was Rodney’s English Disco. The club not only played great glam records that drove me crazy but also provided me with a crash course in gender bending. It was one thing to look at pictures of rock stars in eye shadow and lipstick, but to see it in person was something new.
Boys and girls alike dressed in silver and gold lame, bright satin pants with huge elephant flares propped up in sky high leather platform shoes. Every kid looked like a superhero. Not to be left out, I ran out to the Sunset Strip on weekends to get a cheap, affordable outfit to fit in.
Every night there was exciting, even the off nights. You never knew who was going to drop in. On a regular weeknight you could see Iggy pop, Kim Fowley, The Kinks, Rod Stewart or Candy Clark. And the kids dressed like mad peacocks. My hormones were ready to explode.
The next day I made the terrible mistake of telling a friend at school about the new glam club. His name was Artie and he had no capacity for confidentiality, so once I leaked my account of going to this cool pace he very loudly demanded to go, too. Very loudly.
“Let’s go tomorrow night. Field trip!” he practically yelled. Our classmates turned up their noses.
“I heard about that place…Nothing but faggots”.
“You’re going to check out the freaks, Artie? Look no further. There’s Andy”.
I sneered right back.
So friend Artie drove me there the next night. I was duded out in my little glam outfit, but…Artie. He was fairly conservative looking – shirt hair, beard, dressed in faded corduroy, heavy-set, not an emaciated glitter rocker type boy at all. As we hung out in the loud, colorful club all wrapped up in silver, he yelled in my ear.
“Look at that dufus in the make-up! He’s got a dog collar on!”
“Please!” I freaked out. “Not so loud! People can hear you!”
“I don’t care if they can hear me. That guy looks retarded. Ugh! Look at that girl, oh she’s so hot!”
“I’m going to get a drink”, I said, anything to get away from him embarrassing me.
The regret I felt was that my private safe harbor from overbearing religion by bringing in someone who peppered his comments with Yiddish expressions and Borscht Belt humor. Bringing in someone from the Boring World ruined my enjoyment of the Wild World. I wanted to kick myself. What a buzzkill.
I avoided Artie for the next few days at school. In between classes he spotted me and cornered me in the hallway.
“Hey!” he said, diving into a small bag of potato chips, crumbs hanging in his beard. “Where have you been? The kids at the club have been asking about you”.
“What? What club?”
“You know! Rodney’s. They guys from Sparks were there last night. It was great”.
“You went without me?” I was incredulous. “I thought you hated the place”.
“Oh, those guys are okay, They just look funny. I met this really cool girl there last night, and you know, she’s Jewish. We spoke Yiddish for a few minutes”.
He continued grabbing chips like it was his lifeline to survival.
“And you know that goofy guy with the carrot topped head? He invited all of us to his hotel room after the club closed. It was pretty cool”.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “They like you making fun of them?”
“Nah, I stopped once I figured they were alright. Hey, let’s go after Shabbos. Josh is coming with us!”
I thought I’d shit. Instead I backed out. The great irony, as I was going to learn soon enough, was that for all my bravado I didn’t change Artie’s life. He was about to change mine.
Rodney’s English Disco closed down a year later. As the rabbis in school taught us, like is mostly about loss. Nothing stays around; everything eventually vanishes. I was still distant friends with Artie, more distant than usual because he kept up his nightclubbing ways. Now he was bragging about a club called the Sugar Shack which played disco.
“It’s just like Rodney’s, Andy”, he cracked open some peanut shells.
“No, it’s not. It’s just a disco. I fuckin’ hate disco!”
“You don’t understand. The Sugar Shack is the coolest club”.
Telling me wasn’t enough. He had to show me.
Picking me up from home one night I asked him, “Hey, what time does Serpico go on?”
“Showtime starts in an hour. I think we can make it a half an hour before it starts”, he promised. I grabbed my coat.
While he drove Artie talked about good times at the Sugar Shack. “In between the disco records they snuck some Suzi Quatro in”
. “Oh”, I was bored. “That’s different. I guess…Hey, I thought we were going to Westwood to see Serpico”.
“What?” he accelerated the car. Suddenly we were speeding.
“This isn’t the way to the Crest Theater. Where are we going?”
Artie’s face broke into a nervous sweat. “Oh, uh, I thought we’d stop off somewhere before the movie. You know, we’re still kind of early”.
“The film’s going to sell out and we won’t get in”.
Artie didn’t say anything. He just turned up the music on his 8-track player and drove even faster. I felt like I was being kidnapped.
Not only were we not headed to Westwood, but we were definitely going east towards West Hollywood, Santa Monica Boulevard in particular. When we reached a club with blackened walls with even blacker windows Artie pulled over and parked.
“Come on, this won’t take long. You’ll really like it. Just like Rodney’s English Disco!” he charged towards the club like a bull. I eyed him suspiciously.
Once I got in I knew I’d been set up. The PA was playing “The Hustle” and “Get Dancin’” at roaring, deafening levels. I looked around and there weren’t platforms to be seen. Just lots of men and more men in denim and open polyester shirts dancing around in the darkness. Not a woman in sight.
I’d seen posters of gay bars whenever I walked around Santa Monica Boulevard so I knew what to expect: a lot of Burt Reynolds and Steve McQueen clones walking around displaying tough macho vibes and betraying it with feminine coquettishness.
“Isn’t this great?” Artie gushed. “I’m getting a beer. How about you?”
“No”, I was steamed. I felt shanghaied into going to this club because he knew I’d never want to go here. I was fit to be tied.
“AND NOW IT’S TIME FOR THE MISTER STUD 1975 CONTEST!!” a voice barked over the sound system. The crowd hooted and hollered. “CONTESTANT NUMBER ONE, PAUL PARKER HE’S LEAN, HE’S MEAN AND HE’S READY FOR ANY SCENE…TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER! PAUUUUL PARRRKER!!!”
An athletic man with sandy blonde hair began dancing to “Boogie Wonderland”. He was barefoot and I thought he was trying to be Tarzan but I was wrong. First he pulled his sports shirt off, displaying his muscular chest. The club roared their approval.
Artie came back with his beer. He was enjoying the show. The dancer then pulled his white denim jeans down. Another big round of approval came up. All he had on left was a microscopic bikini.
The song was almost over so I thought he was done, but he definitely wasn’t. His show-stopper was ripping off the bikini to the screams and swoons of the crowd. Dancing wildly, I saw this tiny dingle swinging up and down furiously to the music.
“Oh my God!” I looked away.
“Ahahahaha!” Artie was choking with laughter.
“Can we go to the movies now?” I whined. Artie ignored me.
Well, we got to see more contestants and more wieners for Mister Stud 1975. There was more frantic stripping to disco records as the night went on, and even Artie got bored after awhile. He took me home and I was fuming with rage.
It was nothing personal, though, I later found out. He pulled the same stunt with my brother and his friends. After awhile I just went to the movies by myself. The gay bar shanghai treatment became his modus operandi every weekend.
I didn’t see Artie for a few months after that. A little Artie goes a long way. Finally he apologized for the subterfuge.
“Could you come with me to this girl’s house? I have to talk to her and I’m kind of nervous”, he worked at a dramatic stammer.
“I don’t know”, I sulked. “I kinda wanted to practice my saxophone”.
“Come on. I’ll buy you a Moby Jack and fries”.
“Well”, I realized it was still daylight so there would be no night club frolics. “Okay. What’s this girl like? You never told me about her before”.
We walked to the car. “It’s weird. I have to deal with her brother before I can talk to her”.
He drove me into West Hollywood, not far from the club. We pulled up to a beat apartment building with an upended plaid sofa on the sidewalk and a bunch of soiled diapers in the gutter. We went up to the third floor and Artie knocked on the door.
“COME ON IN! I’M NOT DECENT!” a voice yelled.
We entered to a messy apartment with an open bed, scratched records all over the floor along with men’s and women’s shoes, pants, bras, fashion magazines, smeared makeup, lipstick containers, and whisky bottles. Lots of whisky bottles. There were about four youngmen in there. Two had clothes on, one only had a pair of pants on, and the last was completely naked. The nude jumped around a lot.
“Hi, what’s happening?” a dressed young man with wavy blonde hair asked. He looked bored and slightly annoyed to see us. “Are you holding?”
“Oh, I know him. You were here the other night”. A brunette with curly hair mumbled.
They didn’t seem to like him much.
“Is Sandra here?” Artie asked nervously.
“Oh, he means Billy. That’s Billy’s drag name”.
“Excuse me, could you not talk while my favorite record in the whole world is playing?”
The nude boy jumped right by us and screeched, “PARDON MY NAKEDNESS!”
“Um, yeah”, Artie stammered. “Sandra Billy”.
“Oh, well she’s at work”, the blonde deadpanned. “She’ll be home soon”.
“What did this guy get me stuck in now?” I thought. It was always some situation. Artie kept telling me he wasn’t gay and I kept getting further and further into the life without even asking for it.
The youngman in only pants had a sad Sal Mineo look about him. He stared at me with his big brown eyes.
“Do you know Billy, too?”
“No”, I said. “My name’s Andy. I just came with Artie”.
“PARDON MY NAKEDNESS!” the nude boy ran around the room.
The blonde laughed. “Look how scared he is. Seeing another naked boy. He’s going to go home and tell his mom. AND YOU! PUT SOME FUCKING PANTS ON!!!”
“I’m not going to tell my mom”, I said. “My mother died four years ago”.
The Latino boy in the pants’ eyes welled up. “Your mother’s dead? Is she really?”
“Yeah”, I lowered my voice. “It sucks”.
“PARDON MY NAKEDNESS!”
“YOU! I SAIDDDDD PUT SOME FUCKING PANTS ON!!!”
The boy began tearing up. “Did you love your mother more than anyone in the whole world?”
“Yes, I did”. I was more nervous than sad.
“I’ll bet she loved you more than anything in the whole world”, he almost burst out crying. “She must have been the greatest woman you’ve ever known. Everybody needs a mother’s love. It’s the most important kind of love there is”
“You’re right”, I smiled sadly.
“PARDON MY NAKEDNESS!”
“GODDAMMIT IF YOU DON’T THROW SOME FUCKIN’ PANTS ON RIGHT NOW YOU NELLY QUEEN I’LL THROW YOUR SCRAWNY ASS OUT!!!! NOW!!!”
The door flew open and a bookish black youngman in glasses came in. Artie spun around.
“Sandra! “Artie gushed. “I thought I’d come by since you haven’t been returning my calls”.
“Oh. Arthur”, Billy scoffed as he walked by us. “I don’t like surprises”.
“PARDON MY NAKEDNESS!”
Billy frowned. “Girl, cover that thing. I’ve seen more of your package than I’ve even seen of mine”.
An hour went by with the five youngmen ignoring Artie and me. They talked as if we were invisible. I was so bored.
I kept whispering to Artie, “Let’s just go. He, I mean she, doesn’t care about you. Forget about…her”.
“No!” Artie was steadfast and proved it by trying to ask Sandra a few things, only to be dismissed.
The dressed brunette jumped up from the crumpled bed and announced, “WELL, I’M HUNGRY! ANYBODY ELSE HUNGRY? LET’S GO TO DANIELLE’S!”
“I’M NAKED AND HUNGRY!”
“GET DRESSED OR YOU DON’T EAT!”
Sal Mineo piped up. “Everybody be nice to Artie’s friend because his mother just died”.
“Ohhh, that’s so sad. You’ll get through it, I promise, sweetie”, the naked boy said as he was struggling with a t-shirt that was three sizes too small for him.
We followed the car with the two dressed youngmen, the no-longer nude and Billy. Sal Mineo rode with us. On the way there Artie griped about Sandra to him.
“I’m so nice to her. She seems to like me when she’s Sandra, so I don’t know why she keeps treating me like I don’t exist”.
“Oh, well, she’s the coy type, you know. The coy type! Hard to get. She gets things by playing hard to get!”
“I bought her drinks, I took her to the –“
“Turn here and park!” he practically yelled. He rolled down the window and yelled at his friends. “GET US A GOOD TABLE!”
Dinner at Danielle’s was as good as a dinner can be when the menu is stained and laminated with silverware that looked like it came from a soldier’s rusty mess kit. We got to see two sky-high tall transvestites attack each other in the middle of the restaurant, almost falling over our table.
Sandra/Billy never did hook up with Artie, and feeling crushed he drove me home feeling ejected, dejected and rejected. I was just glad to be home with my saxophone.
Two years later I had my own apartment, where I had a very strange dream. I dreamt I was a baby again and my mother was young, healthy and happy. She was dressed in a Greco-Roman toga in white and bathed me in a small spring. While she bathed me she laughed and sang quietly. It was the most tranquil dream I’ve ever had. I didn’t want it to end. I woke up feeling happier than I had in years.
In the following days after I thought more and more of my dream, and rather than feel happy I was stricken with a terrible melancholy. Life is mostly loss, like the rabbis said.
One night I wearily sat down at the bus stop on the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica. I quietly waited for the bus to arrive.
Two youngmen sat down at the bench by me.
“Oh! That bartender, if he watered those drinks any more than he did you could breed turtles in them!”
“That’s the T, Mary”.
“And that butch door man! Yikes!” They both laughed.
Three more youngmen showed up and just laughed non-stop, probably drunk but harmless.
“I told him to put that thing away!”
“You told him? I think not!! I did. You needed help, bitch!” They all laughed.
A very sullen youngman who looked like Jethro Bodine with a duffle bag walked up to the bus stop sign and slammed his bag down as loudly as possible. He then spread his legs challengingly and folded his arms.
“Ohhhh, my, Miss Butchness”, one boy giggled quietly.
“Yesssss…men at work!” One’s eyes widened.
“Tragedy at work. Too, too tragic!” the other muttered.
“Footlocker daddy, hohohoho!”
My melancholy dissipated as I looked all around me. The bright, colored lights of West Hollywood felt like a carnival that didn’t want to end, ever. By the time the bus pulled up and we hopped on I was smiling.
I was smiling because all the boys on the bus were laughing and some of them had mothers, some of them probably lost theirs, but it didn’t matter because they knew the carnival will never end.