STORY: I grew up in a family of “eccentrics.” I’m a direct result of their quirks and quips, attenuated somewhat by the many years I spent un-learning much of what they taught me.
My mother’s family were products of the Great Depression and grew up very poor in Brooklyn.
Her family was working-class and extremely close. My mother is 50% Sicilian and 50% Eastern European Jewish, a fiery combination. There was a lot of fighting, “You’re dead to me!” screaming, and talking over each other, usually with food in their mouths. Given that many of my relatives had been born in Italy, food was always present and Sundays were an all-day foodfest.
My grandmother, Shirley, was often called “Diamond Lil,” because of the tons of jewelry her second husband bought for her. She was one of the youngest of nine children in her family. She told us stories about having to eat homemade onion sandwiches for lunch (homemade bread and mayonnaise with onions from her yard), brushing her teeth without a toothbrush, and regularly changing apartments with her family just to save $1.00. My mom inherited a lot of her eccentricity from Diamond Lil; the behavior was hard to change and accompanied by much psychological stress.
Diamond Lil use to tell me that I was her favorite grandkid. She used to say “come here” and I would go to her and she would give me all the cash in her wallet. “Go buy yourself something and don’t tell your mother!” she’d say. I grew up driving around with her looking for the cheapest gas available. She taught me to check labels closely at the supermarket, carefully calculating the per-ounce price, and to buy the cheapest available, usually the private-label brand. My mother would say “So, what? Who cares? It’s all the same shit” in her thick NYC accent. No doubt about it! The Depression played a huge role in shaping the character of my mother’s side of our family.
Diamond Lil died at the ripe old age of 97, after ten facelifts and weighing only 110 pounds, the same weight she’d religiously maintained since she was 17. Even in her later years, she was known for her long blonde hair, signature polyester hot shorts (with a crop button-up top, tying just below her bra), and high heels with stockings, covering her varicose veins—that way, when she told men she was 30 years younger than she actually was, they wouldn’t question her.
She had an iron deficiency, so my mother would make homemade burgers to infuse her diet with iron. Yet, she’d push it away and say, “I’m not going to gain weight. Every morning, I have a cup of coffee, half a scooped-out bagel, and a cigarette. That’s all I need!” Of course, part of her reason for saying this was to shove in my mother’s face how she’d kept her figure, while my mother hadn’t. Their relationship was tumultuous and pre-ordained the pattern of most of my mother’s romantic relationships.
My grandmother would be out with my mother and would say to her “In case anyone asks, I’m your sister.” She never worked a day in her life, starting out as a housewife for my grandfather. He died when I was two, but she quickly remarried a wealthy waspy man, Chuck, who took one look at her and was hooked. He showed her off like she was a 60-something Barbie doll. Of course, Diamond Lil knew how to handle her husbands. When my grandparents had a fight, she’d tell my mother and her brother to get her things and she’d go to her mother’s place until my grandfather came over and begged her to come back. That happened like clockwork. Chuck lavished her with jewelry and travel. She could have afforded new and sophisticated clothes, but the polyester shorts, crop tops, catsuits, and cheap heels remained her wardrobe of choice until she died.
When I was growing up and my parents had friends over, they often brought their kids. I didn’t really like the children of my parents’ friends, so, when my mother and father were socializing, I usually sat and listened to the adults. I was good at remembering stories and people. My parents often told me that “Children are to be seen, not heard.” But I wasn’t good at following directions, and, much to my mother’s dismay, I didn’t keep my mouth shut all the time. My mother’s other directive, usually uttered when I was sitting with the adults, was for me to “Go play in traffic!” She had a real way with kids and words. The other parents were mortified but chalked it up to my mother being crazy.
Ma often took me shopping with her. Babysitters cost money, she needed a friend, and I picked out clothes for her. She didn’t always agree with my opinions, but she frequently was guided by them. She had the worst taste ever. Nothing she chose ever matched—loud prints, lots of gaudy jewelry, big prescription glasses, and a huge purse, or “pahka book” (pocketbook), as she called it. My vision for my mother was more refined—I saw her with slicked-back hair, in a crisp white blouse with black or navy pants, and a chic pair of shoes, with a classic Chanel bag.
Diamond Lil’s brother, Uncle Murray, was married to Aunt Gracie. She had a high-pitched squeaky voice with a New York accent and was very animated. You couldn’t miss her when she spoke. Murray and Gracie were both redheads, but by the time I knew them, Murray’s hair was grey. Still, Gracie always referred to him as “Red.” They had retired in Fort Lauderdale. Whenever they came to visit us in LA, often for weeks at a time, they would stay with us, even though we didn’t have a big place. No one in my mother’s family knew what a hotel was!
Gracie always took us to Pic ‘N Save and bought us trinkets. Grace also taught me about the TV series Dynasty. We watched it together regularly. She was 91 and I was only 9, but I loved everything about it—the campiness, the costumes, etc. It was so very gay.
In the spring of 1988, my father left my mother, prompting her to undergo a nervous breakdown with psychotic episodes. She went to Murray and Gracie’s in Fort Lauderdale for three weeks to recuperate, though she probably should have gone to an institution. Of course, that would have cost money and my mother didn’t believe treatment was worth paying for.
Murray and Gracie had a son, named Dougie. Dougie was gay. It was never really talked about, but we all knew. While I’d heard stories about him, including the fact that he was supposedly schizophrenic, I never got to meet Dougie.
When my mother returned home from Murray and Gracie’s after her breakdown, she told me that Dougie, despite being 37 years old, was living with his parents. Apparently, he sat around all day in his room, watching soap operas and smoking cigarettes. His room was decorated with black and white photos everywhere. I imagined they were by Ansel Adams and Annie Leibowitz. I doubt he had any by Bruce Webber with naked men in them, but who knows.
In 1992, when I was sixteen years old, I was forced out of the closet with my mother after a friend told her I was bisexual. Her reaction was “How can you be sure? You can’t know if you like peanut butter or not until you’ve tried it!” Perhaps, I should have found her response comforting, but the entire situation was daunting to me.
One weekday, soon after she’d found out I was “bisexual,” she suggested we have lunch at the local Chinese restaurant, where we grabbed the $5.99 lunch special. “Come on, get your things. We’re going for Chinks!” she said in her thick NYC accent, which stood out in the San Fernando Valley of southern California. Then, she’d whisper “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
At the end of our “lunch date,” she pointedly asked, “So, what is it this week? Boys or girls?” I took a deep breath and replied, “It’s boys. It will always be boys!”. Her fork dropped, hitting her plate with a loud thud. As it turned out, she was in shock.
I begged her, “Please, don’t tell anyone the news. This is my thing to figure out.” Having no clue how to navigate the situation, I was terrified and surprised by her reaction, considering the years I’d spent as her “fashion consultant” and that she’d always turned to me to ask if an actor or any man who came into our presence was attractive. How she hadn’t already figured out that I was gay was beyond my comprehension.
When we left the restaurant, she was in a complete funk. She ended up indulging herself with an eight-day dramatic episode during which she didn’t eat. Other giveaways that she was depressed—she carried the same tissue in her hand for days and she was quiet, the ONLY time that ever happened!
Late one afternoon in the midst of my mother’s self-inflicted drama, she and her second husband, Sam, returned home and announced they wanted to speak to me. We sat on the L- shaped sectional sofa, with me at one end, my step-dad in the middle, and my mother, with her three-day-old tissue on the other end.
“Your mother told me about your ‘situation’ and we love you. We want you to get tested. If you have AIDS, we want you to get on AZT immediately.” Sam said.
I was furious! I angrily blurted out “Thanks for keeping my secret, ma!” Then, I screamed at her, “This JUST happened! I only just started going out and I’ve barely kissed anyone.”
At that time, we lived on the edge of Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley, home to the Kardashians, though we had a landfill behind our house, while they didn’t. I went to the prestigious Calabasas High. Most of my fellow students were from wealthy families and were given brand new BMWs when they turned sixteen, while I owned a ten-year-old Nissan Sentra with the name “Sunny” embossed on the leather steering wheel handle. All my friends even called my car Sunny. The vehicle had 100,000 miles on it, but it was my freedom to get out of the valley.
I was working at a very hip, chic shoe store in LA, which earned me enough cash to get by, and I was partying nights downtown. On Thursdays and Sundays, my friends and I often went to Studio One, the famous gay disco of that era. Although I was only sixteen years old, I had a fake ID and could get in. I was skinny with long blonde hair, the epitome of a “twink,” making me very popular.
Sunny broke down from time to time and I had to take the car to a repair shop just past Sherman Way, the street that separated the nice part of the valley from the dodgy and somewhat dangerous part. In 1992, cell phones weren’t yet widely available, so, if your car broke down unexpectedly and needed to be fixed for several hours, you couldn’t easily call friends to come to pick you up. You just sat there, waiting for your car to be fixed. When that happened to me a few times, I started venturing out and walking down Sherman Way.
There wasn’t much to see, but there was a vintage store that I liked and an adult bookstore that I soon stumbled upon. I was both terrified and embarrassed to walk in. It took a few tries before I finally did. I remember feeling my cheeks turn bright red the first time I entered. Once inside, I walked around and took it all in. I saw booths with curtains at the entrance, but I had no idea what they were actually for.
I observed men emerge from them and noticed brief flashes of movies on projectors. I certainly didn’t know sex was taking place inside the booths. After all, it was 1992, people were dying of AIDS and I was being taught in school that you’d die if you didn’t wear a rubber during sex.
One time while Sunny was being repaired, I felt adventurous. I wandered down the aisle in the video store, picked out a VHS porn tape on sale for $7.99, and found the gumption to buy it (Buying things on sale had been ingrained in my brain since childhood. Paying full price for the VHS tape would have made me feel guiltier than the act of buying gay porn). I bought the video, hid it in my jacket, and couldn’t wait to get home and watch it. The porn movie had been made in the late 70s, so there was no soundtrack. Just a construction site and actors all sporting mustaches. I was in heaven!!
A few months after that, Uncle Murray and Aunt Gracie came to visit us for a few weeks. My mother, good Jewish martyr that she was, schlepped to LAX Airport (an hour each way) to pick them up and then schlepped them home. God forbid, they should rent a car!
I was outside washing Sunny when they arrived. Even though at seventeen I’d been openly gay for more than a year, I was still scared of sex and my “cherry” had not been popped. Yet, I was on my third boyfriend, coincidentally also named Sunny. He was a hot 6’1′ Latino, who was the doorman at the coolest nightclub. Sunny the Man was very sexy and everyone wanted to be with him. Needless to say, insecure seventeen-year-old me had him on a tight leash.
One time, my mother walked in on him giving me a blow job, and immediately ran out. She was never one for knocking or respecting others’ privacy. Sunny was mortified and left via the window. My mother later said to me, “Who was that looker? I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed for spilling crumbs.”
When Murray and Gracie arrived, they got out of their car, said hi, and hugged me. Then, everyone except Gracie entered the house. She continued making small talk with me. Once my mother, my step-father, and Murray were inside, Gracie pulled out a large Ziplock bag with what appeared to be quarters in it. I had no idea where this was going. She handed me the bag and, in her squeaky NYC accent, said, “Here, these are from Dougie. He gets them at the video arcade, but he doesn’t use them. He just goes there to make friends.” Her Depression Era “inner child” was telling her not to waste what turned out to be tokens.
I suddenly realized they were for use in private video booths at an adult book store like the one I’d briefly visited on Sherman Way, though I still hadn’t yet figured out exactly what went on inside them. But, after another minute, it finally struck me—Dougie was cruising the book store for men and having sex there. I felt my face turning bright red with embarrassment! Gracie clearly had no idea what went on there or that she was dispensing tokens for porn, cruising, and blow jobs to a minor. I was in shock. My mouth may even have dropped open.
Years later, I told my mother the above story. All she could say was “Well, she meant well,” which was true. However, this overlooked the fact that I was under legal age at the time and anyone I might have fooled around with, while using those tokens, could have been arrested for statutory rape!
Gracie died soon after that and Dougie went to live in an institution. He apparently had been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and they continued giving him medication for that disorder. It was years before they determined he was actually bipolar. Dougie still lives there. And, I’ve still never met him.