While studying piano in college in Mississippi in the mid-seventies, I discovered I could make money with my ability at the keyboard. I played the pipe organ at a church in Hazlehurst, where my parents still live, every Sunday morning. During the week I played the piano for singing lessons and ballet classes in Jackson where I went to a strict, private, Presbyterian school called Belhaven College.
On the campus I bonded closely with a lovely singing teacher named Ouida Woody Bass and off the campus I worked with a former New York City Ballet dancer, one Albia Kavan Cooper, who enjoyed getting her little students to try and say what she called the longest name for a step in ballet, but actually the smallest exercise. It’s "petits battements sur le coup de pied," which means little kicks around the neck of the foot, or, in other words, the ankle. One little girl, when challenged to repeat the name of the exercise, confidently said, "Petits battements sur le coup de P-T-A!"
Also off campus, I worked with two very stylish singing teachers, Chuck and Evelyn McCool. She was always in a chic dress and her physicality and spunkiness reminded me of Ruth Gordon. Chuck always wore a jacket and tie. Their lessons usually lasted one half hour. For the first fifteen minutes I would sit in their waiting area while the student’s voice was "warmed up." In this waiting area I was surrounded by the McCools’ taste in unusual, contemporary artwork and read Vogue and W, to which they had subscriptions. Then I would be called in to play the usually modernistic art songs Mr. McCool favored.
One day, while I was reading fashion magazines, the door opened and a tall, handsome, flashy man about fifteen years older than me, stepped into the lobby. He had thick black hair, and wore a khaki jump suit that was unzipped low enough to show his hairy chest and gold jewelry. He asked me about myself and wanted to know if Mr. McCool was in attendance. I explained that he was, and that I was waiting for him to call me into the singing studio. When Mr. McCool came to get me he recognized this attractive man, his former student. He introduced me to the flamboyant man from New York City. I will call him Jim. Mr. McCool and Jim talked privately for a while, then Jim left and said goodbye to me.
I continued to work for Mr. McCool until I graduated from college. I was of course happy to be finally set free from school, and a friend of mine who had moved months earlier to Denver encouraged me to join him there. Eager to also be liberated from Mississippi I set out to join my friend in October of 1976 and found a job playing the piano at the Heritage Square Opera House, an old-fashioned melodrama playhouse at an amusement park in nearby Golden, Colorado.
Denver was wild in 1976, like so many other large American cities. My first encounter with street drugs happened in downtown Denver as I was walking to see the movie "Carrie." A man came up to me on the sidewalk and said, "Windowpane." I had taken some weak LSD a couple of years earlier, so I knew to what he referred, but I also chuckled to myself that he might be selling the kind of "windowpane" hosiery that my sisters wore ten years earlier.
There were also many gay bars in Denver and I must have visited all of them. I had several offers of sex, including one from a bar owner who came into his public restroom where I was urinating and offered to perform fellatio. I turned him down, just as I turned down all the others, having not completely accepted my homosexuality, feeling fearful and guilt-ridden, and in general immobilized when it came to the possibility of a sexual encounter with another person, although I fantasized about just such an encounter all the time.
Even though I was stalled in my fears and desires around the fleshy pleasures, I was enjoying my new life away from Mississippi. Then I got a call from Jim. He asked if I remembered him. I told him that I did, and he let me know that he was calling from Manhattan where he wanted to start a cabaret act and he was looking for a pianist. He asked me if I was interested in coming to New York and living with him in his apartment, where we would work on the act. For years I had had my heart set on getting to New York so I could be a part of real show business, but didn’t know how to set myself up there. Here was my chance, and I accepted, but only after making sure that Jim lived in a safe neighborhood. One heard so many horror stories about New York.
Driving from Mississippi to Denver several months earlier had been lonely and scary, so I convinced my mother to fly to Denver and drive back with me. She did so reluctantly. But I was too self-involved to notice that at the time.
After spending a few weeks in Mississippi, bragging to my friends that I was finally going to Manhattan, I flew to New York to live and work with Jim, whom I had only met the one time. He met me at the airport and was very friendly and affectionate. I certainly found him charming, and wondered if he felt an attraction for me. The flattering idea that he might find me appealing filled me with pleasure and dread.
Jim lived on West 83rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, certainly not a dangerous neighborhood, even by 1970s standards, in a two-room apartment with a small kitchen and a terrace that was larger than the entire apartment. I arrived in March, so the terrace was not in use. Jim hugged me and told me how glad he was that I was there. I was as responsive as I could be, which wasn’t much. He asked me what I would like to do. I had only been to New York once before in the summer of 1975 on a trip with my mother. I was thrilled to be back, more or less on my own, and suggested we walk down wintry Fifth Avenue, which to me at the time was very glamorous. We went for our walk and that evening it was established that I would not be sleeping in the bedroom with Jim. I was given a choice. I would sleep on the fold out mattress from the couch in the small living room.
During the six or seven weeks that I lived with Jim, we socialized a lot. We went to see performances and he introduced me to his friends at parties. We had dinner at the home of an accompanist who worked with Leontyne Price. We went to a chic cabaret show at Manhattan Theatre Club where I glimpsed Alfred Drake in the audience. On my own, I saw Comden and Green on Broadway, the classical music satirist Anna Russell at Town Hall, the original cast of "Side By Side By Sondheim," and an unsuccessful Paul Zindel play called "Ladies At The Alamo" starring Eileen Heckart and Estelle Parsons at the Martin Beck Theatre, remembered fondly for Heckart’s showy downstage speech with the marvelous bit of pulling off her eyelashes before she tore into the words.
However, over the course of the first few weeks, Jim and I only rehearsed twice for his cabaret act, which I found a little odd but never said anything. I looked for other work and briefly discussed with an ordinary-looking male stripper named Jiminy Cricket, an acquaintance of one of Jim’s friends, the idea of playing the piano for his nightclub act including songs from the Off Broadway erotic musical "Let My People Come," Jiminy Cricket’s vision of cleverness.
New York was, of course, wilder than Denver in the obsession-with-sex department in 1976. In New York, the sexual revolution had definitely entered the cultural mainstream. And I had never even had what I would call real sex, only adolescent horseplay. How could I play the piano for a Times Square stripper?
Jim, in the meantime, tried dropping hints such as letting me know that one of his friends I had met was an occasional porn actor, or imparting the seemingly nonchalant information that we lived near a section of Central Park called The Rambles where men had sex. I was fascinated, but Jim got nowhere with me. I wasn’t about to have sex with him or anyone else. Lying on the fold out mattress trying to sleep at night I could hear him disappointedly telling some of his friends on the phone that I didn’t share his bed, and sometimes he would call a pal in Los Angeles and they would have phone sex.
In spite of my relative sophistication – sophistication with regard to literature, not real human behavior – it never occurred to me that I might be perceived by Jim’s friends as a kept boy. Seeing my naiveté, one of these friends conveyed to me on the sly the news that it was possible that Jim desired my presence in his home to make an ex-boyfriend jealous.
This "friend" told me the whole story: It seemed that Jim had had a fling with a photographer who was well known in the classical music field. Among other duties, he photographed opera singers and classical pianists for their publicity shots and he was very successful. The photographer lived only blocks away from Jim’s 83rd Street apartment with his older, longtime companion, with whom he shared not only many years, but property upstate as well as in the city. The photographer had had his fill of his brief affair with Jim, and didn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with his long-term partner, but Jim was still hanging on to the memory of the back-street romance, hoping it could be rekindled. I cynically realized that I was a mere youthful presence in Jim’s life to make the photographer resentful, and I was hurt, but also titillated, that I had been used as a pawn. Fearing confrontation, I never told him that I had found out the truth. I also realized my days were numbered.
From the beginning of my stay, I tried to be a good roommate in the small apartment. I cleaned up after myself and attempted orderliness. I washed dishes in the tiny kitchen area. One day, not long after I had found out my raison d’etre in Jim’s manipulative sphere, I was cleaning a plate, and I accidentally chipped it. This tiny chip on a precious plate gave Jim his excuse to ask me rather angrily to move out. By this time, I was certainly ready to leave, but I had no idea where I was going to go. Jim had not asked me to pay any rent, since I was not to be paid to be his pianist for the fictitious cabaret act. I didn’t have enough money to get an apartment by myself. So, I resolved to go back to Mississippi, grow up a little more, get a job, save some cash, entertain my Mississippi friends with my shocking tale of having been used in such a way, and move back to New York a year later on my own terms. And that’s exactly what happened.
Four years later, in 1981, was the last time I encountered Jim. Traveling with American Ballet Theatre on my first trip to Los Angeles, I went to the home of some friends of a friend. We got completely zonked on some very powerful marijuana and watched the premiere broadcast of one of Lily Tomlin’s TV specials. In my daze after the broadcast I met an attractive guy in one of the bars on Santa Monica Blvd. and offered to give him a ride home. As we were riding and talking, he noticed his roommate walking along the boulevard in the same direction. He asked me if we could give the roommate a lift. Suspecting this was my new acquaintance’s way of avoiding intimacy, I unenthusiastically pulled over and peered out the passenger window to see this roommate. It was Jim! I was embarrassed, my "high" disappeared and I quickly dropped both of them off at their home and sped away, horrified and amused that Jim had ruined another moment in my life, but also glad to be away from the awkward confrontation with him. He seemed not discomfited by the encounter.
Perhaps his self-involvement kept him from being phased by this gauche rendezvous, not unlike my own conceit that didn’t allow me to see my mother’s resentment regarding our cross-country trip. The last I heard of Jim was that he was a self-help guru. When I heard that news, I wondered, "How the hell did that happen?" Now, thinking back, conceivably that self-involvement is exactly what a self-help guru needs!
Also on reflection, I occasionally ponder with regret all the sex I turned down when I was younger. But then I have to remind myself that if I had partaken of all that was offered, I might not be alive right now, typing these words. I feel as if I’ve lived with terrorism my whole life. First, there was growing up sissy in Mississippi, then came AIDS and wondering for years if I had the HIV virus, and now the threat of political terrorism that the government and the media tell us is omnipresent. If I can survive the first two, I can survive the last.
There was recently an article in The New York Times magazine about repression, but the article frustratingly focused only on repression brought about by an obvious trauma. What I was suffering from in Jim’s apartment, and in the gay bars of Denver, and everywhere I went in the 70s, was a more insidious, unseen, intangible sexual/emotional subjugation, which I have tried to shuffle off now that I am able to recognize it in my past self and in others. And as dangerous and stifling as that kind of repression can be, it ironically may have kept me alive.