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Reflections on a day fifty years ago…

Reflections on a day fifty years ago...

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.

Everything stopped…everything.

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.

For José Sarria

For José Sarria

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.

Goodbye my friend

Goodbye my friend

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.

A Gift from Conor Walton

A Gift from Conor Walton

Allegory of Widsom
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 36 x 54 inches, 2011
private collection

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.


The Key
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 50 x 45 cm
private collection