Have you met the newer, slimmer me? I’m down 47 pounds from the last time I posted here. 2016 wasn’t an easy year. The photo shows my graduation day from Desert Regional Cardiac Rehabilitation. On February 7th they cut me down the middle and made four new arteries for my heart…of course this wasn’t on my list of “things to do” last year. So I apologize for the lack of posts. During the months that followed I thought the only good thing would be that I could finally catch up on my reading (stack of books above my desk) and finish up “It’s Not Far to Never Neverland” and “Will Thy Song Remain”…but alas, that wasn’t in the cards either. It seems there can be a nasty little side effect when they stop your heart for a few hours and put you on their jazzy new heart/lung machines to keep you alive. For me, it was the inability to sleep without horrific nightmares (which lasted a couple weeks) and a two minute long attention span (which lasted months)…so much for the reading the writing part.
Hey, I’m not complaining, I’m still here,
“Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door is now selling in SIX countries AND I have a new Author’s website Click Me complete with its own blog on the Pipeline page.
A very happy new 2017 to each of my followers, and high hopes we all live to see the end of the year if the person who will be running this country after January 20th doesn’t kill us all.
As I walked past the tall steel casement windows on one side of the pharmacy, I stopped to watch a supply truck loaded with huge, heavy “H” cylinders of Oxygen, CO2 and Nitrous Oxide back down the blacktop driveway to unload in the basement of Minnie Mae Anderson Memorial Hospital in Mount Clemens, Michigan. I worked here part time during my senior year of high school.
The stunning two-story red brick building with steep pitched roofs of gray and green slate tiles meandered through groves of old Ash and Oak trees alongside a waterway that connected the Clinton River with Lake St. Clair. It had been designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn and built in 1925 as Memorial Orthopedic Hospital to treat 6 month to 14 year old patients who contracted infantile paralysis.
It was an incredibly bright, beautiful, but cold day and for no reason I pulled up a chair and sat close to the windows watching the men work and letting the warm sun beat on my face and chest, knowing that soon it would disappear for almost five months. We were in the midst of another Michigan winter, when people learn to live in cold, overcast sunless days.
I watched as my 18 year old hands, not the ones with aging spots and loose skin with bulging veins that I own today, used a small metal spatula to count Doridan tablets (a popular sleeping medication) on a bright blue plastic pill-counter with a big, square, white letter “A” in the middle of it for Abbott Labs, one of the suppliers of the hospital’s pharmaceuticals. Pouring them inside a plastic bottle, I rolled a label onto the platen of an old Smith Corona manual typewriter and began entering the patient’s name, room number, medication name and directions, pulled it out and wet it on a sponge that sat in a chipped pottery saucer, and applied it to the bottle.
On a shelf above where I worked was a group of tall Smith, Kline and French brown glass bottles filled with Compazine, Dexadrine, Thorazine, and other anti-psychotic drugs. Above them, on another shelf, was my small Sony transistor radio in a faded, fake brown leather case, next to it, a white, rotary-dial wall phone.
It was lunch time, and for no reason I switched on the radio. The Village Stompers were singing “Washington Square” and I briefly thought how much fun it would be to go to New York City, but my train of thought was cut short by a breaking news announcement:
“In Dallas, Texas – Shots have been fired. First reports say that the President of the United States has been shot as his motorcade passed through downtown Dallas moments ago. They are in route to Parkland Hospital. Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.”
The radio went back to music, but I couldn’t tell you what they were playing. Feeling weak in the knees and not believing my ears, I went back to my chair by the window. Outside a hearse backed down the driveway and two men unloaded a stretcher on their way to pick up a body from the morgue. I stared off into nothingness past them.
When Jack Kennedy campaigned for the presidency, he came to Mount Clemens, Michigan where I lived. My mother went out into the corn field behind our home and waited for his motorcade to pass on its way from Selfridge field where he landed to downtown Mount Clemens, where he spoke to a group that included our high school class. As he passed he saw her standing alone in the field and leaned out to waive – just to her. It was one of the highlights of my mother’s life.
Around 2:30 PM Eastern Time, they broke into programming again and announced that President Kennedy had died. From that moment on there was nothing but news and talking on the radio. I didn’t switch it off, but my brain did. Uncomfortable being alone, I decided to walk upstairs to be among others. There were close to two hundred people in the building that afternoon but there was complete silence.
No one spoke.
Outside the traffic quickly disappeared.
Even the emergency room, usually a busy place was silent and empty.
Life had been switched off.
Some nurses just put on their coats and went home without regard to finishing their shifts. Some stood silently in groups with their hands over their mouths and tears streaming down their faces. Others walked around mechanically performing their duties with dead eyes.
In the cafeteria, an old black and white television mounted on a wall bracket repeated over and over the latest developments. A few scattered people sat at tables chewing their food in silence. There was nothing to say and way too many questions without answers.
In a far corner of the basement, down a long, dark, narrow and winding hallway there was a place with thick walls that had large, crudely cut openings hacked into them. If you bent down you could enter a huge room that seemed to stretch for acres. The walls from floor to ceiling were decorated with old iridescent Pewabic tiles made in an artisan’s studio in Detroit around 1903. Their beautiful assortment of greens, blues and tans could hardly be seen because the space was almost pitch dark.
There was little room to move.
It was packed with old, abandoned gurneys with thick rubber mattresses, oxygen tents, iron lungs and other antique medical hardware no longer used but too valuable to throw away. Instead, it was shoved into here to die. I found an old stainless steel stool and sat looking up at the newer steel that was the floor of the medical library above.
I was in the bottom of the old swimming pool.
It was here, in the warm water that once filled this space that Sister Kenny, an Australian bush nurse and her followers valiantly tried to coax back to life the dead limbs of children paralyzed by polio in 1920s to 50s.
But today this quiet, dark spot was a place to get away and be alone. It was fitting that I should be surrounded by old medical equipment that day.
Two thousand miles away in a trauma room in Dallas, on another gurney with a black rubber mattress and surrounded by similar medical machines that can sometime work miracles, lay the mutilated, lifeless body of a president – his eyes wide open looking at the ceiling but no longer seeing anything.
Little did I know that the bright sun beating down on my face earlier in the pharmacy window and my dread of the coming sunless days would occur so suddenly – this time it wouldn’t be for just a few months. Everyone in the United States of America, on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963 had entered a prolonged period without sun.
Years later I would find myself in Dallas working at a furniture market in the Trade Mart building. It was here in a large covered atrium surrounded by a second floor balcony that President Kennedy was scheduled to arrive for a luncheon, but instead his motorcade sped past on its way to Parkland Hospital. A friend of mine told me there was someone he wanted me to meet and took me to a showroom overlooking the center of the Trade Mart atrium. Ruby Tedder was a gentile older southern woman with a face full of lines and a quiet demeanor that said she had seen it all. It was here, in her showroom full of porcelain dishes and candles and silver trays that the Secret Service had set up headquarters for the Presidential visit. Ruby knew each of the men on the President’s security detail by first name. On the dais below, President Kennedy’s rocking chair awaited him – and it was to her showroom the Secret Service lovingly carried that chair and covered it with a sheet after receiving a call from their counterparts at Parkland, telling them the president wouldn’t be attending the luncheon that day.
Fifty years have passed. No longer a teenager, I’m close to 70, but the thoughts, sights, sounds and smells of the day my president died are as vivid as though it happened yesterday.
- It Was Fifty Years Ago Today… (k1047.cbslocal.com)
The news that David Bromstad, a talented designer on a popular HGTV program has decided to host a segment working with the Salvation Army to assist them in updating their retail stores is all over the press. It’s newsworthy because David is an openly gay man – and the Salvation Army has been incredibly vocal about their disgust for all gay people. I was surprised when a comment I left on David’s Facebook page was responded to by a personal email from Jeffrey Glasko, Chief Operating Officer for David Bromstad, LLC. In a rambling paragraph he repeatedly insisted that David’s support of the Salvation Army is being undertaken as a way to show the Salvation Army that they are wrong and not really doing anything bad to the LGBT community. Then he castigates me and the hundreds of others who sent him messages of disappointment for insisting on the fact that David is making a huge mistake. Being an older openly gay man who has lived a lifetime witnessing the prejudice, hatred and even death that LGBT people have lived with for generations, much of which has been directed at us by “religious” organizations like the Salvation Army, I feel it is my duty to guard the advances toward equality we have all worked and many died for to this point. The road ahead is far from finished and we need each other’s support more than ever if we truly expect to be treated equally in all aspects of the Bill of Rights and Constitution. I’m afraid the younger Mr. Bromstad feels his entitlement to equality and being an openly gay man is just something that was always there. For him and many other younger LGBT people not to be sensitive to the continuing struggle just because they have made it on their own is discouraging. David Bromstad’s decision to put money ahead of assistance to a cause that not only protects his freedom, but that of tens-of-thousands of his LGBT brothers and sisters is astounding in its shortsightedness. He certainly has the right to his decision, but the LGBT community and the millions of friends who relish human rights also have the right not to support his career or the programming of HGTV. It’s not too late to change your mind, David. … And this coming holiday season we certainly won’t be dropping money in the kettles of the Salvation Army so they can finance their campaign of hate and bigotry against us even if David Bromstad does.
It was an “only in San Francisco” event on Friday, September 6, 2013.
By some accounts a thousand people packed Grace Cathedral. Then a long line of limousines and several busses took five hundred mourners, a marching band and honor guard to Woodlawn Cemetery to honor José Sarria. They lowered his ninety year old cancer ravaged body into a grave he had bought next to an eccentric man called Emperor Norton I. Jose had personally resurrected Norton for the annals’ of forgotten San Francisco history.
The group at the cemetery that day included huge, towering drag queens dressed in the most beautiful period black mourning gowns they could muster and black veils. Accompanied by “Emperors” and “royal family”, they represented “Imperial Courts” all across the United States, Canada and Mexico. To tourists and outsiders they looked outlandish but to those of us who knew them, they represented decades of tireless work and fund raising for hundreds of charities benefiting the LGBT community. There was little humor on display, although José would have wanted it. No one competed for attention. The day was his and everyone knew and respected that. He had planned it down to the smallest details, including the group singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” before they lowered him into his grave.
José was called many things that day, but perhaps the most touching and accurate accolade was referring to him as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT equality movement. Disenfranchised like the rest of us back in the 1950’s and 60’s, he had the courage to say no and do something about it. While the rest of us hid in our closets, business suits, offices and from our families, Jose put on a dress, sang his heart out while waiting tables in a gay bar and demanded equality every chance he got. When that didn’t work, he joined with anyone who would listen and started forming organizations to help make things better for gay people in San Francisco, and everywhere else.
On that Friday, everyone at Grace Cathedral listened to the beautiful eulogies, and the rest of us read them as they came in from around the world. And in almost breathless sadness, we watched as José was transformed from the loving, talented, often brash and hilarious man he was, into an historical figure to be referenced only in the past-tense and our hearts sank as the loss became real.
He was my friend and I will miss him. My heart goes out to Tony Ross and everyone who loved him.
You’re invited you to come visit at http://www.LouKief.com
The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 9th, 1880 read: “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is dead”). In the article that followed they reported: “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain.., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
In 1849, after receiving a forty-thousand dollar bequest from his father’s estate in England, Joshua Norton first appeared in San Francisco. He got involved in several successful real estate ventures, but when he bought into Peruvian rice at exactly the wrong moment, he lost everything he had made and his father had given him. Distraught, he vanished, surfacing in the city a few years later, but this time severely mentally unbalanced, anointing himself as the Emperor of the United States. Accepting San Franciscans quickly adopted him and his long list of eccentricities, following his antics daily in the newspapers. To survive, Norton issued currency in his own name, and oddly enough it was honored in many local businesses, including the finest restaurants and stores. For almost thirty-years he spent his days roaming the streets, examining the conditions of the city’s cable cars and sidewalks while wearing an elaborate array of military costumes. He seldom relinquished his tattered top hat.
On January the 8th, 1880, at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Ave.), he collapsed and died on the street. Instead of a pauper’s funeral, members of San Francisco’s Pacific Club made sure he received a proper burial. That Sunday as many as thirty thousand San Franciscans lined two miles of city streets as his funeral passed. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in a grave that had been bought and paid for by the citizens of San Francisco.
In 1934, when the city needed space to grow, the voters made the decision to move all the graves in San Francisco to Colma, just outside the city limits. Locals insist that today, Colma has more residents underground than above it. The remains of Emperor Norton were moved and now rest peacefully in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The grave is marked by a stone inscribed “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”.
Joshua Norton had become a lost footnote in San Francisco history. In the 1940’s, José Sarria came along, heard his story and decided to adopt him.
After being discharged from the Army, José decided to stay in San Francisco. He began waiting tables at The Black Cat, becoming known for his campy performances of arias from the opera Carmen while he worked. He soon earned an affectionate reputation as “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street”. Near the end of every evening he stood up and encouraged people in the bar to be open and honest about their lives. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay; the crime is getting caught”. He would tell them. When the bar was ready to close, patrons would join him in a chorus of “God Save Us Nelly Queens” sung to the tune of the British national anthem. Occasionally he’d push the crowd outside for the last verse, serenading men in their jail cells across the street that had been picked up earlier in vice raids.
José Sarria wasn’t just a drag queen with a pretty face. He had been the target of vice arrests in both bars and public places, and it was his suggestion to gay men to start demanding jury trials in self defense. Soon the courts were overloaded, and judges began demanding that prosecutors have actual evidence against people before allowing the cases to go to trial.
Every Halloween, after midnight when the festivities of the day were officially over, police arrested drag queens under an old city ordinance making it illegal for men to dress in women’s clothing with ”intent to deceive”. Fed up, José went to attorney Melvin Belli, and the two of them found a way around the law by giving out handmade labels to the drag queens in the shape of a black cat’s head. They read “I am a boy”. After that, when stopped, men in dresses would show the label, proving they were not attempting to deceive. This put an end to police raids on Halloween.
Working with others, José Sarria helped start the League for Civil Education (LCE) in the early 1960’s. The organization gave educational programs on homosexuality and offered help to men who were being persecuted for being gay after being snared in police raids. He ran unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 for the same seat that Harvey Milk won sixteen years later. His résumé of work on behalf of the gay community in San Francisco is astounding. He was instrumental in starting many organizations to benefit gay people, including SIR, the Society for Individual Rights, and The Tavern Guild which initially was a group of bar owners who hired attorneys to post bail for their patrons when they were arrested in bar raids. He was also instrumental in establishing the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a system that today has chapters in cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico, raising millions of dollars for charity.
I watched the people I had naívely held in distain before coming to California and grew to respect them. It was the drag queens who proved to be the bravest, most fearless fighters for gay rights. While masculine gay men wearing business suits cowered in their closets, the boys in dresses and wigs were out in force, defending our rights. They adopted their alter egos and campy names not only because they were fun; they did it to give themselves a tiny measure of anonymity to protect their livelihoods.
Three years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, it was a group of San Francisco drag queens who, late one night in August of 1966, had finally had enough of being harassed by the police. They fought back in Compton’s Cafeteria on Taylor and Turk in the Tenderloin. They decided it was time to start fighting, not just for gay rights, but for the most basic of human rights and dignity that we were promised under the Constitution but were being denied. Along with their Stonewall counterparts in New York, they began the long walk down a road that eventually led to the White House in 2012, and convinced Barack Obama to be the first president in history to demand and obtain human rights for all LGBT people in America.
José Sarria was the first in a long line of characters, both men and women, in The Imperial Court of San Francisco. At 7:02 AM in the morning of August 19th, 2013, Jose died. He had purchased the plot next to Emperor Norton in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. He will reign in perpetuity as “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton”, and no doubt future generations of gay San Franciscans will continue their annual pilgrimages to the graves and remember both him and the Emperor Norton.
If you are a San Franciscian and believe in human rights, you owe it to him to stop what you are doing long enough to line the streets of the city as his funeral passes by. He was a fighter for everyone who believes in their rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. … Into the streets, San Franciscans, a very good man is passing by for the last time.
This morning at 7:02 AM a San Francisco legend and treasure… and my friend, Jose’ Sarria passed away quietly at his home. He was 90 years old. I felt like someone punched me in the solar-plexus when I got the news. Perhaps because I’ve been living with Jose’ in my mind these past couple years while working on Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door. Whenever I had a question or wanted to make sure my facts were straight, I’d call him if I knew he was having a good day. He was always there for me, like he was for everyone who lived in San Francisco for so many years. At the end of his life, Jose’ lived in a little cottage behind his friend Tony’s house in Albuquerque. When he began to get really sick Tony was always there for him. There aren’t enough different ways to say thank you to him for taking charge and loving a dying man like he did.
On the Sunday after January the 8th, 1880, when Emperor Norton I collapsed and died at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Ave.), as many as thirty thousand San Franciscans lined two miles of city streets as his funeral passed. A few years back, Jose’ bought the plot next to Norton’s and had a headstone put on it. It is my sincerest of hopes that by some miracle, the good citizens of San Francisco will once again line the streets, beat the drums and come to say goodbye to Jose’ Sarria. If you are gay, you owe it to him. He was the first one to stand up and fight for your rights.
God bless you, Jose’ and rest in peace.
Today we received a wonderful surprise. Chris Rayan at IMPACT Magazine let us know that he has reviewed “Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door”…. And what a review! I am so proud and honored that this fine publication would consider including the book in their magazine.
Here is a direct link to the entire interview:
Allegory of Widsom
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 36 x 54 inches, 2011
This week the universe led me to Conor Walton. He is an incredible artist who lives in Dublin and has shown his work around the world. I garnered the courage to ask him if I might use two of his paintings in the book I’m working on called “The Awful Grace of God” and he was kind enough to oblige. I hope you’ll take a moment and visit his website and paintings. While you are there, treat yourself to some of his Essays.
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 50 x 45 cm