“I Was Saved by the Ladies of the Night.”
When I was a little boy, I lived in East Meadow on Long Island. I was light and free. I talked all the time and to anyone.
I have always known things weren’t what they appeared to be and I wanted to know “why?”
The answers I got came back to me as words and questions. I did not understand the words at first. What I did know was that when the words were spoken to me, I had better watch my step. I made sure I could get out of any situation I was in. And fast, before I could hear the words: girlie boy, fairy, pretty boy and fageleh.
The boys at school and on my block questioned me:
“Why do you talk like a girl?”
“Why do you act like a girl?”
Worse than the words and the questions was the tidal wave I felt coming at me. Even before it washed over me, my neck would stiffen and my stomach churned. The wave was so strong and powerful it blurred the boys’s faces, but I knew they were staring at me. When I felt most free and happy, out of my body and part of everything around me, right at that very moment was when the wave hit me and knocked me over. I never saw it coming. The boys didn’t like me. I was not like them. What I never understood was what this difference was. It was in me, but I couldn’t see it. There were no video cameras then and my family did not have a tape recorder. The boys said I talked like a girl, but, in my head when I talked and heard my voice, it sounded just like theirs. In those circles of deep voiced boys, in the gym, at Cub Scout meetings or waiting for the school bus, the world spun around and I could feel the waves coming into shore to hit me. I knew it would be best for everyone if I disappeared.
I decided the best thing to do was to stop talking completely. I had already stopped looking anyone in the eye, because that was when the words that hit me.
I was not alone.
I was with the ladies.
I first met them on the television in my family’s playroom. Our “Set,” as my father called it, was a black and white job, all that we could afford. At the bottom of the screen was a dull metal panel imprinted with the Magnavox logo, two brown and gray plastic dials to its left. The set’s constant yearning to be tuned in to one of its five channels forced one of us to get up off of the couch and walk over to the set and change the channel. When the channel dial broke off, my father showed us how to switch stations by using a pair of pliers to turn the metal rod inside the hole where the dial used to be.
My job was to move the rabbit ears Father had installed to aid our weak antenna. As he commanded me to move them “…to the left…” or “No, no, no….more to the right,” I touched the wallpaper behind the set, its repeating pattern of houses and meadows grown so hot from the set’s glowing tubes my fingertips felt as warm as the bottom of my feet did whenever I ran on the sand to escape the waves.
Later, my father bought a color television, answering, when I asked him why: “Now we can watch President’s Johnson’s war in color.”
Without saying why, my father moved the black and white set into my bedroom. That was when the ladies made themselves known to me. I discovered movies on “The Late Show,” “The Late Late Show” and “The Million Dollar Movie.” The movies started at 9 PM and played until dawn. The summer the ladies came into me was very hot. At night, everyone in the neighborhood left their windows open. I turned the lawn sprinklers on at midnight and left them running for an hour or two to cool things down. In the middle of the night, it was so quiet I could hear a neighbor sneeze a few houses down. If I listened hard enough, I could hear the stop light change its colors at the intersection two blocks away. Every once in a while, a breeze would come by and, though it could not reach my bedroom window, I could see the mimosa tree branches move outside the window. I lived in the night, in its darkness, quiet and solitude. I laid on my bed in my underwear, the television positioned so that when I propped my head up on two pillows, all I could see was the large black and white screen, as the light from the television bounced against the brown paneled walls of my bedroom.
I had already met the first two ladies in the playroom on the television series “Peyton Place.” Gena Rowlads played Adrienne Van Leyden, old man Peyton’s mistress from Boston, until Barbara Parkins accidentally knocked her down the stairs and killed her. Lee Grant was Stella Chernack, who had a very murky past in Los Angeles.
The first time Lee was on the show, my mother said: “She is so wonderful. This is her first job since she was blacklisted.”
My father laughed and said: “Roy Cohn wanted her to testify against her husband and now she’s doing this crap?”
If somebody tried to manipulate Stella, she would have none of it. Her eyes narrowed, she straightened her back and brushed the hair off her face with a quick flick of her hand as she gave her adversary a look that went right through him.
Late into the night, I discovered Lee Grant made her first movie, “Detective Story,” in 1951, before the blacklist. And that Gena Rowlands filmed one of her first movies with Rock Hudson in the tropics of South America. Soon, Geraldine Page arrived in versions of Tennessee Williams plays. Finally, Kim Stanley appeared in “The Goddess,” which was repeated nightly for a week on “The Million Dollar Movie.” I watched every showing. I did not understand it at first. I thought Kim was plain and awkward, but at the same time she was beautiful, she moved like a cat, floating like the mimosa branches outside my window. Then I understood, Kim was imagining she was beautiful. She believed she was the character, a movie star goddess in Hollywood.
I did research. I sat in the library, the softness of its naugahyde couches making me feel like I was alone on my bed in the middle of the night. I read the plays or books the movies were based on. Sitting in partitioned booths, I ran spools of microfiche, their shiny surfaces projecting on to the screen in front of me black and white interviews with the ladies and the directors and writers of their movies. I had to know everything about what the night was showing me.
I made it through high school, staying up all night, watching the ladies as I sipped Pepsi with chipped ice, my cat Lady lying next to me, her all fours extended out in cat surrender. These women and others came out of the screen to me. I could feel the rooms they were in, the chairs and couches they sat on, the clothes they wore and the cars they drove in. I could taste the food they ate and the liquor they drank. I heard the people who talked to them through their ears.
In the morning, when I took a nap after spending my night with the ladies, the boys played baseball and lacrosse in the street in front of my house.
I could no longer see or hear them.
Fifteen years later, I had been living in LA for six months and trying to make it as a stand up comic, when I got a job as a nurse at Cedars Sinai.
My head nurse, Thordis, introduced herself to me, but I knew who she really was.
“Weren’t you the German bride in ‘Funny Girl?’” I asked, immediately recognizing her accent and hourglass figure.
Before she could answer, I said: “And the other night, I saw you on the Z channel in ‘Myra Breckinridge.’ You were whipping poor John Houston on a massage table.”
Quietly flipping her hair back like Stella Chernack, Thordis answered: “That was long ago…the sixties, darling. And always remember, this is Cedars and I am Swedish.”
Thordis had drawn blood from John Houston, I kept her secret. Besides, even though I was in the tribe, what if my patients found out that on the weekends I was really a comic, working as the MC of a male strip show at a club called the Dunes in Venice?
What if they knew that I, the nice Jewish punk who massaged their backs before bedtime, was–as an homage to Adrienne Van Leyden, occasionally and only occasionally and without my encouraging it–finding fifty dollar bills slipped into my satin shorts, the crisp bill prompting me to introduce a patron to a particular dancer?
One afternoon, bored after spending the beginning of my shift giving constipated movie stars from the 40s and 50s enemas, I found myself hanging out in Cedar’s lobby on my lunch break. Gena Rowlands walked out of the gift shop with a pack of cigarettes and sat down next to me.
“Admiring the art?” Gena asked, her left hand slowly pushing her thick blonde hair off her forehead, her right pointing her cigarette at the Miro print in front of us.
I might have possibly been pretending to look at it instead of her.
“Actually, I’m waiting to see which celebrities besides Faye Dunaway exit the AA meeting down the hall,” I answered.
And then I lost it. Not because she was laughing at my joke, but because she was doing the Gena Rowands thing with her hair, letting it fall over her face and then brushing it up past her forehead. She always did it before she told someone just how things were going to be. Or like in “Gloria,” after she pumped a car full of gangsters with bullets on a muggy New York City street in the quiet of an early summer afternoon. All I could do was babble away about how much I liked her in “Peyton Place.”
“Did Barbara Parkins kill me in that one? It was so long ago, I can’t remember. I did it to make money so we could finish ‘Faces.’ What is it you do?” she asked, her hair remaining mysteriously in place as we rhythmically blew smoke through our noses.
“I’m a comic,” I said. “I’ve been trying to get an audition at the Groundlings for months, but they won’t see me because I don’t have any stage experience.”
Gena stood up to leave, did the hair thing again and looked at me the way she eye balled the gangster right before she killed him.
“Tell them you were in the play John and I did here. It will get you in and if you’re funny enough, they won’t care that you haven’t been on the stage.”
Two months later, my director at the Groundlings, Tim Stack, was once again screaming at me, as was his wont. He was always on me about something, stage left, stage right, stage directions, stage whispering and some nonsense about cheating out.
“You have got to be the worst actor I’ve ever seen,” Tim said. “How were you ever in a John Cassavetes play?”
“John wasn’t like you Tim,” I said, pushing my imaginary hair off my forehead and fixing my Stella Chernack stare on him. “John let my emotions dictate where I should be on stage. We didn’t need to know where our marks were, because we made our marks emotionally. John would have slapped me silly if I ever cheated on my performance. Why do you encourage that?”
I took acting classes. I learned to have the most intimate of conversations on stage while looking straight out into the audience and not once into the other actor’s eyes. What I never learned, what no one has ever asked me is: how could a boy who was so terrified of speaking out loud and being seen become a man who only feels safe when he is standing in front of people and talking?
This is the why I can not answer.