Saturday, June 1, 2013

I knew guys just like this.

Frank Rich wrote a really interesting article on a gay friend he had known while growing up:

I knew guys just like this.

My father was in advertising and there were a lot of art directors, film directors, and set decorators who were just this sort of brittle, well-educated homosexual with exquisite sensibilities.  There was a huge break between those that had come of age before the counter-culture (who put much stock in being well dressed and erudite) and those of the hippie generation (who later became the core of Disco culture).

I remember in particular a fellow who lived down the street from us, a Mr. Sloan who, in the seventies, was probably in his sixties.  He often would walk down the alley in the late afternoons to see who was out, joining them for a cocktail and perhaps staying when they threw a few steaks on the grill.  He was often our guest and, like my father in those summers, drank wine spritzers years before they became fashionable.  He wore nice clothes, but dressed carelessly.  Old frayed khaki trousers, huaraches, a carelessly buttoned red paisley silk shirt, a gold chain around his neck, again years before those became fashionable.

He was obviously homosexual, yet nothing was ever said about it.  His stories (and he was a treasure trove of good stories) would often begin with an ambiguous statement like, “In the late 1930’s I was traveling in Europe with an older gentleman …”  And his stories really were truly amazing.  He had met Hitler at a reception at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin just weeks before the war began “… and let me tell you, Göring was a much more charismatic fellow …”  Had crossed the Atlantic on the Andrea Doria’s sister ship and then came back on a tramp steamer.  Had participated in the first protests against HUAC in San Francisco in the 1950’s “… because people were losing their jobs for being a little pink — and, who isn’t a little pink?”  Had tried peyote in the same sweat lodge that Aldous Huxley had visited.  Often commented on public figures as if he had inside information “… Jim Thompson?  Oh, he’s a fairy …”  The guy knew more ways to win a free drink in a bar than anyone I’d ever met; things like how to make sugar burn, or six triangles out of eight matches.

Mr. Sloan took an interest in me.  He would often pick up the TV guide from the Sunday paper and circle the movies that he thought I should watch (“All About Eve,” “Brief Encounter,” and “Death Takes A Holiday” were typical).  He told me to read P.G. Wodehouse and Gore Vidal.  He was very sharp, witty, and brought this out in me, patting my wrist when I made a clever quip, “Oh, Jeff, that’s a good one!”

He smoked constantly, his fingers were tobacco stained and his deep baritone voice was raspy at times.  He worked for a rather prominent interior décor firm (I want to say Colby’s?) and every morning, on the Today Show, they would run an advertisement showing a well decorated room with Mr. Sloan narrating about how in order for a room to really fit in a home it had to express the character of the people who lived there.  At the close, the announcer would intone, “… these are the words and the work of one of our experienced designers …”  (These ads continued to run for years after Mr. Sloan’s death.

Then, in 1974, a deep recession hit and Mr. Sloan was laid off.  At first he was fairly light hearted about it, claiming he could live well enough off his unemployment check “… and it gives me time to paint.”  But then the unemployment checks stopped coming and he had to dip into his savings.  And then, just as the recession was lifting, he was diagnosed with cancer and the firm wouldn’t rehire him.  He was at that point, a broken man.  Very sick, unemployed, unemployable, living on money borrowed from friends.  My father gave him $20- (a substantial sum at the time) to walk the dog once or twice each week.

 About six months after his diagnosis, Mr. Sloan died.

There was no funeral.

Much as I had liked and admired Mr. Sloan this was a stark lesson to me.  I was probably sixteen, and seeing more boys than girls by a wide margin at the time, but I decided right then that I was going to get married and start a family.

That I wasn’t going to die alone and unloved.