Notes from The Underground
When Bollard editor Chris Busby informed me that this month’s issue had a “loosely themed” gay-pride thing going on and suggested that as a potential column topic, I snorted. First of all, I’ve already got enough crap in my head I want to dump. I don’t need anyone dredging around in there for more.
Next, I have just returned from a month on the road, where I gorged on crawfish and oyster po’boys in Baton Rouge, chased warblers on the Gulf Coast of Texas, taught at a writing retreat in Maine’s Grand Lake Stream and, capping it all off, performed my one-woman show in an Off-off Broadway theater in New York City. (I actually got a “move along” from a guard outside Madison Square Garden, where I was sitting on a wall, killing time until I could get into the theater, thus also launching my career as a vagrant.)
Plenty of material to work with, right?
Plus, who cares what a straight woman of a certain age thinks about gay culture? And what would I say? That I once looked up my Barbie’s dress? That some of my best friends are gay? (Well, they are. No, really. I’m not just saying that. Some of my best friends really are gay.) And the point of that would be… what?
But then I started pondering. The truth is, male gay culture impacted my coming-of-age more than probably any other force. Without it, would I own a D-cup bustier (the cups of which I filled with grapefruit for a photo shoot), or have an entire section of sequin and sparklewear in the back of my closet? Would I still have my father’s nickname for me (“Booze Booze”) in service? No, I would not. Gay men taught me panache.
The first outwardly gay friends I made were met through the theater department at USM, where I transferred my sophomore year. My prior three semesters had been spent at UMO, where I lived on what was called “The Hill” and was surrounded by Deadheads and other hippies and dope smokers. To fit in, I grew my Dorothy Hamill wedge into a stringy mop and wore, almost exclusively, jeans, t-shirts, ratty blazers and sneakers. The only two times I remember dressing up were ironic. Once, in a slinky black disco dress (recently discovered in a storage bin and happily back in service) to attend a mock “formal.” The other time, my naturally gorgeous tomboy roommate and I donned gowns (mine, a Gunne Sax prom dress; hers an Indian print/batik number) and combat boots and ran around campus with a silvery wand, turning people into frogs — a caper inspired by Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and other intoxicants.
I so didn’t want Beth (whom I idolized and was a little bit scared of) to think I was either preppy or girly — both of which I was — that when she unexpectedly came back to our dorm room once while I was experimenting with hot rollers, I threw a towel around my head as though I had just come out of the shower and sat there with my head baking until I could skulk down to the bathroom and flatten my curls.
Being recruited for the USM public-speaking team put an end to all that. We were expected to gussy up for competition: dresses, stockings, hair — the whole deal. In an instant, the blazer and sneakers were replaced with nail polish and stilettos. When my mother suggested a trip to Bernie’s Fashions, I was all on board. Our days of shopping together had ended the moment I got my license in high school, and especially after I starting modeling my fashion sense after Jack Kerouac’s. But this new womanly look I had to sport — that was her terrain. She bought me a beige suede-like coatdress, a black sweater dress that buttoned down the front and a two-piece black rayon number with red piping that made me look like a cocktail waitress from the Merry Manor. The cost was incidental. I think she was just relieved to see me finally dressing like a lady — even if I resembled one of the evening — rather than a 14-year-old boy.
Mike and Tom (not their real names) showed up on the scene the second semester of my senior year, the first of which I’d spent in London. It was love at first sight. They were handsome, witty, debonair and ready to take on a Dorothy Parker mascot to their relationship. The three of us became inseparable, a Mod Squad of sorts, although there was always a tussle over who got to play Julie. We had been cast in USM’s first touring show to England, and the three of us were appointed to be the writing team after there was a cast mutiny against the proposed staging of The World Of Carl Sandburg. Brown liquor fueled the late nights of our Algonquin Round Table in Mike and Tom’s beautifully decorated apartment, with its heavy drapes and carpets, art on the walls, dramatic lighting and Deco touches. As someone who was happy to couch surf out of my car, I couldn’t believe people my age lived like this. Of course, none of us had any money. Mike and Tom had created this magic by trash-picking (R.I.P. Portland’s large-item garbage pickup) and with thrift-store steals and flea-market finds, way before suburban housewives knew how chic shabby could be.
Oh, the parties. Sometimes it was just the three of us. We’d listen to “Ethel Mermel” and drink “gin and panics.” The event of legend involved a shaker of martinis and a purloined shopping cart, in which I was ensconced for the evening, legs dangling over the side, and rolled from room to room. But we could also fill that apartment. Once, poised atop an (unlit) woodstove, I lip-synched Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night,” dressed in a muscle shirt (à la her Easter album cover, except I shaved), to a room full of raving gay men — a performance I’ve yet to rival. There were late nights at the Underground (now Styxx), where we all danced so dirty it would make Patrick Swayze swoon. For the cast party of our show, Mike and Tom outfitted me in a see-through bikini thing that had flapper fringe strung around it. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I invited a couple high school friends from Bath to the party, but the look on their faces when they arrived to find me dressed in that getup told me I had become a different kind of Dorothy since my Hamill days.
Mike and Tom vetted all my haircuts and clothing, as well as the men I saw. It was their influence that made me take one look at the Brit I was supposedly coming back to, who was waiting for me at Heathrow, and think, “Not fabulous enough.” Later on that trip, after the tour and other travels, I met Mike and Tom in Paris on my birthday. There they were — one in a fuchsia jacket, the other sporting turquoise — piling out of a train in Gare du Nord just as I had given up hope our rendezvous would take place. The whirlwind ended in a seedy hotel room (most likely a brothel — none of our French was tres bon) with the radio beside our bed playing “An American in Paris.”
Mike and Tom provided the only stability I knew in those years. I spent much of my young 20s alternately fleeing from, and retreating to, Portland. I knew I always had a home and a community with Mike and Tom and their band of merry men. When my dad died suddenly, when I was 26, Mike and Tom were by my side, sitting around the kitchen table playing poker (what we Peaveys do in times of crisis), right at home with my crazy mix of family friends and relatives. When someone called that the next hand would be Follow the Queen, and Tom quipped, “All my life,” we howled until the tears rolled down our faces.
Alas, the threads of those halcyon days were destined to unravel. I eventually began spending more time with men who would actually put out. I cut back on the peek-a-boo couture and opted for undergarments in my own size. And the reckless abandon of that carefree gay culture would grind to a halt with the advent of AIDS. The world was changing, and so was ours.
No, that mad desire to live to the hilt couldn’t last. But for a time, my gay friends made me feel sexy and soignée and a little bit dangerous. They sent my small-town Yankee inhibitions slithering down the drain.
I had been over the rainbow, and there was no looking back.
Elizabeth Peavey will be teaching memoir writing at Maine College of Art on June 13 & 14, and at the Stonecoast Writers Conference in July. Openings still available. My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother plays at St. Lawrence Arts on June 6 &7. Info at elizabethpeavey.com.