David Bowie was, for me and I suspect many others like me, a beacon of what freak could achieve. He not only didn’t apologize for being other, he cultivated its colors, reveled in its complications and possibilities, making it clear that somewhere there existed a world in which we outcasts were not only cool, but, desired. We could rule.
He played a role in my Bildungsroman, unpublished novel, Libertytown, and I include part of that here, this morning, because, well, here it is, going.
LIBERTYTOWN, the novel (an excerpt from Chapter 9, August 2004, u no what i mean)
It was that summer, my thirteenth, when I discovered my talent – not for theatre, but for appearing to know myself, an ability to hide the terror I felt inside behind an assumed sophistication gleaned from movies, books, and those Sunday New York Times clippings I’d hung on my walls, I perfected my imitation of who I thought I might be; a scathing wit possessed of an extravagant vocabulary and cultural frame of reference.
At Theatre Camp, I actively cultivated the persona of sophisticated libertine and I played the character with aplomb. It was my signal achievement of the summer, becoming someone I had never been, seemingly at ease and intimidating to both the other students and the staff. Unaccustomed as I was to being thought cool, interesting, urbane, or – most of all – dangerous, I embraced it with vigor and encouraged the myth.
The camp was at a college on the fringe of Baltimore an hour from Libertytown, and of the one hundred or so students attending ranging in age from thirteen to forty-something, only six of us were “dormers“, residing on campus, the others were all local. This resulted in we male theatre dormers, of which there were exactly two, being housed amongst summer students from other programs, most of whom were football players struggling to maintain eligibility. The night we resident campers arrived we were herded to the theatre building for a meeting where we were told the rules which consisted of no underage drinking and no drug use. It was a simpler time, much less fearful, and the notion now of a group of thirteen to sixteen year olds being given such unsupervised freedom would be actionable in most states. After the brief lecture, we were handed our meal tickets and given a tour of the areas of campus we’d need to know, ending back at the theatre building where we were seated and told to wait for our leader.
Lavinia Kazakh swept into the room, bellowing a bravura “Welcome fellow explorers and adventurers in the performing arts. “ She was a prematurely gray thirty-something fast riser in the department who’d begrudgingly taken on the summer program. Soon enough she would label many of us in that room “dilettantes and hobbyists,” but that night, Lavinia hid her frustration that we were children, or, worse, untalented children, by lighting lavender candles and patchouli incense and forcing us all into a cross-legged floor sit, hand holding circle in the center of which she stood – or, rather, twirled and posed and gesticulated as she bestowed upon we humble disciples forty-five minutes of imperious oration on the importance of the bohemian artist in the world, and the pride we should take in being considered “malcontents of unconventional stripe.” It soon enough became clear she did not mean this incited swagger to extend to questioning her superciliousness nor the benefit of spending hours pretending to be a piece of frying bacon, or chatting with trees. However, at the introductory session, she had not yet been disabused of her vision of how grateful we would all be to worship at her mime instructor feet.
When Lavinia finished her reception shtick she encouraged us, well – encourage is perhaps not quite strong enough a word – she demanded we proud malcontents begin to familiarize ourselves with the souls of our fellow adventurers, at which point I was approached by Carrie and Stash, both clad in safety-pinned adorned, torn garments of black and purple, the kind of painfully hip deviant poseurs who might appreciate my Earth shoes and erudition in ways my hometown peers could not, the faux-punk-Beat generation-cum-Bloomsbury/Algonquin-Studio 54 cohort I had always dreamed of befriending. Carrie, who looked like David Bowie with Joni Mitchell-long blonde hair, wore cooly her heroin addict thin frame, and impenetrable sneer of disappointment, was the speaker.
“We can tell you saw through that too. She’s so full of shit. We love fags. You are a fag, whether you know it or not. I’m infallible about these things.”
“She is,” Stash agreed, more personable but less well-kempt, she disdained personal hygiene in a misinterpretation that Patti Smith’s rats-nest hair implied a distaste for bathing, deodorant, and other modern ablutions. “She’s Carrie and I’m Stash, which is, alas, not about drugs, but short for Anastasia. My parents. Dicks. Russian. Stupid name. Anyway, you are a total fag, right?”
It was the first time in my life where the secret I’d never spoken seemed it might be a plus. I leapt.
“Yeah, I’m a total fag.”
The liberation of that utterance is still difficult to describe; the lifting of the weight as they came from me sounding, as they did, so guilelessly true, unpracticed, natural, was as if I had never before actually taken a deep breath. The feelings, urges, and shameful lusts I had tried completely without success to hide but which clearly shone brightly enough to invite the name calling and locker tossings to which I had been regularly subjected throughout my life were now an asset; there was such a throwing off of chains and fear when at last I was able, out loud, to not just own, but celebrate them. I immediately became a new person.
“Goddammit I wish I had a dick so I could be a fag.” Stash, with her kohled eyes, ravishing cheekbones, and bountiful breasts was the least androgynous of we three, who had become in those moments, what Lavinia would later call “the unholy trinity.” I continued my development of the new Parker character, taking my improvisatory cues from Stash.
“Not with those tits. You don’t look like a dyke either.”
“No. Fuck all. I’ve done some diving but I’m totally into dick.”
“Yeah. A day without dick is like a day without …”
“Dope.” Carrie was back into what I would later realize was likely no less a fabricated confession of personal revelation than were my own that summer. “You got any on you?”
“Shit, no. I didn’t bring any. You?”
“Fuck all. Nazi parents checked our bags. They sent us here to the gulag to get us away from all that. Like goddam theatre camp isn’t gonna be all about drugs.”
“And dick. I hope.” And I did. Though I had not yet touched a dick other than my own, though I had spent my life attempting to subsume my desire to do so, within five minutes of meeting Stash and Carrie, I had debuted fully formed the Parker appropriated from the ether of movies, books, media, and my imaginings. He had – clearly – been around the block, perhaps even, worked it. Without hesitation I’d shed who I’d been, the naïve Catholic boy, the unpopular, petrified pussy and become a proud, out bohemian Sissy.
We made our way back to the dorms, where we inaugurated what became our nightly posing as nodded-out junkies, nearly incapable of lifting our heads or coherent speech, a ritual of worshipping at the altar of Carrie’s collection of Bowie albums played on her fold-up stereo at volumes and in enforced isolation meant to alienate us from the three remaining residents; Betsy, a curly red headed white girl from California with “connections in the biz”, Lisa, an ingénue already on the wane and my first exposure to bulimic-anorexics, and the other male, Abe, “a Manhattan Jew,” as he liked to say, whose parents had – for reasons that were soon all too clear – sent him far from his home in the actual center of the theatrical world to study at a second tier Maryland college for the summer. He was my roommate.
I had arrived earlier in the day and claimed the top bunk, but when we reached our room, Abe, who had said almost nothing through Lavinia’s communist indoctrination session, tried to speak.
“I n-n-n-n-need to be … n-n-n-need to be … on top.” I thought he said, but he whispered, barely audible, his back to me as I was unpacking. I turned, not sure he’d really been speaking to me.
Abe turned to me, never raising his eyes from the industrial carpet.
“I n-n-n-need the top … the top … top … bunk.” This time it was a little louder, but equally slow, as if each word required gargantuan effort of breath and mind, as if, somehow, speech was unnatural to him, as if every time he spoke it was like a child learning to ride a bike; he couldn’t just do it, he had to concentrate on every aspect of it and so it was this painfully uncertain, wobbly exercise.
“You need it?”
He slowly raised his eyes to mine, and revealed something frightening, something angry, something pleading. He clearly thought I was taunting him by having required clarification of someone for whom communication was such torture. He would make sure I did not ask again by answering in what began as a whisper, but grew in volume as he hobbled closer and closer to me, getting louder and louder with every word, until I felt like Nell, tied helpless to train tracks, a locomotive hurtling toward me, looming huger and more thundering until I was pulverized.
“I can’t … I can’t … I can’t … I CAN’T SLEEP … UNDER SOMEONE!”
“Uhm … okay.” I grabbed my stuff off the top bunk and moved it to the bottom, wondering how I would make it through the next weeks with this psychopath. While I was, at the time, unusually thin, Abe was nearly invisible; where I was blonde and sharp and quick of tongue, Abe was dark and slow and stuttering, the simplest of spontaneous conversations a challenge for him. But God, or, Whomever, works in mysterious and unfair ways.
Abe was an acting genius.
Supplied with a script, Abe morphed instantly with no visible effort into someone else. It wasn’t so much acting as psychic channeling. That such a tiny little frame and agonized little psyche could contain all the people he became that summer fascinated me. And infuriated me. We would not be friends. I could not forgive his divinely ordained talent nor could he control his envy of my social dexterity, both of us resenting the other’s gift as undeserved fluke of nature, resentment aggravated by the incompatibility of my verbosity and his aphasic disorder.
Our second day of camp, we were divided into cutely named “discipline collectives” of fifteen to twenty students who rotated teachers throughout the day. During the four week session we would be instructed in mime, dance, improvisation, musical theatre singing, acting, classical acting, and for the few remarkably gifted among us, directing, and beginning the second week we would be cast in various shows to be performed the final day. I was relegated with thirteen other students I immediately perceived as the least talented into the Chekov Group. I’d never read Chekov, nor had anyone else in the group, but I at least knew – if vaguely – who he was, while others thought we’d been named after a STAR TREK character. It was clear we were outcasts of whom little was expected, neither as pretty nor as effusive as the other pods with their far better names; the Bernhardts who would concentrate on classical acting, the Barrymores who would focus on modern texts, the Isadoras who would focus on dance-based theatre, the Marceau’s who would concentrate on mime (for whom, of course, Lavinia was the mentor), and the Martins who would concentrate on musical theatre. We Chekovs drew as mentor a tired, wasted looking professor with shoulders so stooped as to appear deformed and prematurely gray hair, Dr. Peter Boynton, who substituted effusiveness for skill and was one of those adults who try to curry favor by sharing secrets and information with their students in tones denigrating the authority they themselves represent.
“The others would never tell you this, my little Chekov’s, but there’s a competition between the mentors to see who has the most talented kids. Sorry Charlotte and Pat, I know you’re not kids. We’re lucky to have you two – grown-ups – I’ll be expecting you to jump in and correct me when I’m wrong.”
Pat and Charlotte were not kids, true enough, but two of the five adults who were taking the course. I learned little of Pat’s biographical details but that she was gray, overweight, old, and a high school chorus teacher who‘d been assigned to take over the drama program despite the fact that her theatrical experience consisted wholly of directing her church Christmas pageant: The Enemy.
Charlotte, on the other hand, was glamorous. Pale almost to the point of translucence, with hair dyed the blonde and arranged in what I thought was the style of Debbie Harry but which she’d meant to call to mind Marianne Faithful, she floated amongst us in a cloud of floral scent and unfiltered Gauloises, and despite the summer heat, wore always a vampirish black cape and long purple scarf that matched its lining. She was all the shades of a bad bruise, this blotch of inky onyx and violaceous shadow, evanescing into sallow, jaundiced flesh, edged with the shocking yellow coif.
While Pat was prone to saying things that made us view her with contempt when we acknowledged her at all, such as, “I know the world has changed and you’re not my students, but, as a favor to me, could you please – it just bothers me so much to see those sweet faces of yours saying – using the – that F word.” On the other hand, Charlotte’s favorite word was “cunt” and she affected a slightly British accent – which she’d somehow acquired growing up in Michigan – and gossiped of backstage goings on at Bowie concerts and how he and Mick Jagger fucked. She attached herself to Stash, Carrie, and me in a way that would now be frowned upon – a woman in her late twenties glomming onto a trio of misfit teens – but in 1974 – joined in our love for Ziggy Stardust and his ambiguous sexuality, Lou Reed and his drug addled diatribes, Mick Jagger and his lips, Patti Smith and her militant iconoclastic retro-romanticism, and Jim Carroll (who Charlotte, and thus Carrie and Stash, insisted I was exactly like) and his hustler death vibe. We idolized outcasts and pretended we too were anarchists. The Age of Aquarius hadn’t quite ended, and the sexual revolution was in full swing, and the scourge of AIDS was yet to infect us, the news was neither instantaneous nor filled with parents murdering their children, priests raping altar boys nor teachers molesting and marrying their teenaged students. I’m sure it was all going on, but it wasn’t polite to discuss it. We hadn’t yet become inured, un-shockable, and terrified like we would once Phil and Oprah had their way with us. So while Pat became someone else to distrust and defy, Charlotte became, along with Carrie and Stash, someone else to impress, another someone willing to recognize the me I longed to believe I was and feared I would never become.
I had not yet learned to recognize this fear in others. I was, at thirteen, incapable of conceiving that grown-ups could be as terrified – or, perhaps, more so – than we young people were. At the same time, I had never thought of myself as a child. My earliest memories have to do with wondering why I was trapped in the body and life I had. I had always wanted to believe that I was unique with a momentous destiny ordained by God to change the world. It was simply a matter of waiting for others to recognize my gifts. God had a special purpose for me, that’s what Sister Michael Immaculata had leaned into me and whispered when the test results for Maryland had been returned.
“Oscar Francis Parker, you have achieved the highest scores of any second grader in the entire state. Your I.Q. is in the high genius range. That means God has a very special plan for you. He has chosen you and you must always listen very carefully for His call, and not waste your gifts or disappoint the Lord.”
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties, when my therapist told me she wished she could throttle the now deceased Sister Michael Immaculata for having put such a burden on a child, that it ever occurred to me the nun could have been mistaken in telling me that. I firmly believed the Pope’s infallibility conveyed directly through his minions. Thus, I have just naturally assumed my entire life that I have somehow failed to live up to the gifts and expectations of the Gods – whichever of them by whatever name I happened to believe at the time – and if I could just try a little harder or be a little better (or a lot harder and better) then everything would happen, the inevitable miracle working I was meant to do would occur.
At thirteen, somehow finding myself a member of the cool and popular group at theatre camp, I believed that miracle to have begun. What difference did it make that I had completely invented myself, that the experiences I claimed in sex and drugs were almost entirely borrowed from books I’d read and things I’d imagined? From this perspective, here in my forties, having grown into someone more Pat than Charlotte, I know that Carrie, Stash, and Charlotte were likely no less invented than was I, but at thirteen, I had no idea, and so when Bernard approached and came on to me in his overt and challenging way, I was panicked about appearing the sophisticate I’d claimed to be.