Thursday, January 31, 2013

How I Escaped From the Hotel Diva

It was a warm, early February afternoon in 1987. It was Friday, I had the rest of the day off. So I had an idea: Why not see if the hotel where I was staying had a rooftop deck? Wouldn't it be nice to get some sun?

I took the elevator to the top floor of the Hotel Diva in San Francisco. I found an entrance to the roof, opened the door, and peeked out. It was just a bare, flat roof, with no formal sunbathing area. A sign on the door told me the roof was not for guests.

I returned to my room, grabbed one of those plastic laundry bags, and stuffed in it a couple of towels, some sunscreen, and the local newspaper. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and off I went to the rooftop, energized by mischief.

Onto the roof I ventured for a delightful two hours. Whenever I grew restless, I'd walk over to the edge of the roof and look down on busy Geary Street below, with the Curran Theatre across the street. The theatre had me thinking that I'd like to see a play soon. Or maybe I'd go to a movie that night. I'd just seen Woody Allen's latest, Radio Days, and was hungry for another good film.

Then it hit me. Radio Days! There's a scene in the film in which Mia Farrow and a man venture onto a rooftop and later discover the door has locked behind them! So I rush to the door, pull its handle. It's locked.

Since this event happened 26 years ago, I had no cell phone in my possession. I banged on the door and yelled, but no one came. The sun was starting to slip behind some of the nearby highrises. On one side of the building, which fronted an alley, there was a rickety fire escape. Relieved, I gathered my stuff and began my descent. The first hallway window I came to, directly off the fire escape, was locked. So was the next. And the next. When I reached the bottom of the fire escape, I discovered a two-story drop. There was a ladder built into the fire escape that would presumably stretch down to the street level, but I couldn't get the ladder to release. It looked as if I had a big jump to take.

By now it was dusk. I climbed back up the fire escape, looking for windows off to the side that might possibly be open. I traveled up what must have been six floors until, at last, I found one window open.

The window led into a hotel room. I called into the room, to see if there were someone who might help me. No answer. I listened closely, but heard no sounds coming from the room. It was difficult to be sure, however, because of the street noises below. I took a chance, creeping into the room as silently as possible.

About midway from the window to the door, I heard sounds coming from the bathroom. How shall I put this? The bathroom occupant had explosive diarrhea. I inched my way to the door, hoping to not make a sound. It was then I noticed my plastic hotel laundry bag had developed a hole in the bottom; my room key had fallen out.

I looked around and spotted the key, on the floor back towards the window. The man experiencing gastrointestinal distress went silent, experiencing a lull in his operatic evacuations. I froze for what felt like ten minutes but in reality was probably ten seconds. His stomach gurgled and rumbled, a signal that another wave was arriving, and when it hit, I quietly went back to retrieve my key and make my way to the door. Just as I opened it, the man in the bathroom experienced an explosion that made the Krakatoa volcano sound like a July 4th fireworks show.

As I hurried into the hall and back to my room, I felt a thrill. This had been the end of my first week in San Francisco, and my new life here promised to be full of adventure.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Uncle Poodle & Being Gay in the South

Will Uncle Poodle get his own reality TV show? If so, will I be able to watch it?

I didn't even know what an Uncle Poodle was until Tuesday, when I discovered he's Honey Boo Boo's gay uncle. I'd been researching potential topics for a short, farcical play about fairy tale characters and wondered if Honey Boo Boo might be potential fodder. After all, one of the definitions of fairy tale is "a made-up story usually designed to mislead." If that doesn't describe reality TV, what does?

So I Googled 'Honey Boo Boo' and discovered Uncle Poodle. I've seen perhaps three minutes of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It was an episode in which everyone was getting hosed off before jumping into a red-clay mud hole. (I wrote about it in my October 2012 post "Does Honey Boo Boo Get Spanked in School?") Three minutes was all the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo I could consume. I felt it presented negative, country Southern stereotypes so that viewers could feel superior to them (as if most people don't already secretly feel superior to Southerners).

Uncle Poodle and My Great Nephew

But now, I'm intrigued by Uncle Poodle, who apparently got his nickname because Honey Boo Boo calls all gay men her "poodles."

Uncle Poodle and Honey Boo Boo
Uncle Poodle's real name is Lee Thompson. He's the brother of Honey Boo Boo's father, Sugar Bear. (Now there's a fairy tale character name to love.) Uncle Poodle is openly gay in a place--rural Georgia--not exactly known for tolerance and inclusion. Apparently, however, the Honey Boo Boo clan loves their Uncle Poodle. They accept him for who he is--a gay man who also happens to be HIV positive (which he revealed recently).

A Southern family's acceptance of a close gay relative isn't especially new, at least in my experience. Many people outside the South forget that Southerners, as a rule, are big believers in family. And if your uncle or brother or sister happens to be gay, so what? They're family. This is why it's not unusual in the South to meet a woman who votes Republican, listens to Rush Limbaugh, and yet loves her gay brother and his partner. I should know; I'm lucky enough to have such a sister, and three other equally supportive sisters.

One of my favorite examples of my family's "what's the big deal?"attitude occurred in the early-mid 1990s. I was talking to my great nephew, Banner, who grew up in a town outside Greensboro, N.C. Banner, who was about five or six then, suddenly pointed to a home nearby and said, "See that house? The guys who live there are gay." I breathed in, waiting for him to say something unkind. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders. "That's cool," he said.

The Liberace of Littleton

The acceptance of gays in the South extends beyond families, of course, and this isn't exactly 'new news,' either.

In the early 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Roanoke Rapids, N.C. newspaper, I became involved with a nearby small town theater company (thanks to Nick). In this town, Littleton, lived a flamboyantly gay man who played piano for the theater company's productions. Appropriately enough, he was nicknamed "The Liberace of Littleton." Despite his status as an unapologetically flaming queen in a small Southern town, countless Littleton parents hired him to give their kids piano lessons. This was a small farming/paper mill Southern town, and the parents adored the gay piano teacher. And not once did I overhear a resident speaking badly about him behind his back.

I hasten to add that many people who live in or are from the South have not had the most positive experiences being out. At the same time, we can't assume that someone who grew up on the 'more enlightened' West Coast has had an easy time being gay, either. I know of at least one gay man who grew up outside San Francisco and whose parents, after he came out to them, had nothing to do with him for 15 years.

But back to Uncle Poodle. According to recent news articles, he wants his own reality TV program in order to show what it's like to be "gay in the South." If he succeeds, and I hope he does, I'll have to watch at least one episode. But I suspect my own tolerance boundaries--for reality TV--will be severely tested. Especially if they start hosing each other down and leaping into mud holes.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Light in the Darkroom

It is my first week on a new job and already, Adrienne Ivey catches me in a lie.

The time is May 1981. I've just started my first real job out of college as a reporter for the Daily Herald in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. During my job interview a few weeks prior, the newspaper owner had informed me that not only would I be reporting, I'd be taking pictures as well.

"You know how to develop pictures?" he'd asked.

"Sure. My father's a professional photographer." The second part of my statement was true. As for the first part, I assumed I'd never have to actually develop film, as the newspaper had a staff photographer.

I assumed wrong.

That first week at work, one of my assignments is to write a story about an elderly woman named Grace who was being sprung from the local hospital after an extended stay. Her church is hosting a homecoming party for her. My editor, Dick Kern, who always mumbles with a pipe in his mouth and rarely makes eye contact, assigns me to cover the story. He wants photos.

"You'll need to develop the pictures," Mr. Kern mumbles. Phil, the paper's photographer, called in sick that day. "I need them before you leave today."

A Frantic Call to My Father

Heart pounding, I wait for the newsroom to empty after the noon press deadline and dial my father's studio in Greensboro. I'm hoping for an impromptu lesson by phone in darkroom techniques. My father had often tried to teach me such things when I was a kid, but my head wanted to fill itself instead with I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, and The Wild, Wild West.

"He's out on a photo shoot for the rest of the day," my father's secretary says. "Why don't you call him tonight at home?"

"Why don't I look for another job?," I wonder. I glance at the darkroom door. Maybe if I venture inside, I'll discover written instructions explaining how to develop film. I open the door and leave it open, so I can see because, being a darkroom, it is dark. My eyes glaze over at the bottles of chemicals, which look familiar and foreign at the same time. I open a drawer, then another and another. One of them contains a stack of blank paper. I keep opening drawers until a woman's voice startles me.

"What in Sam Hill are you doing?"

It's Adrienne Ivey, the paper's long-time city reporter. She is probably not much taller than five feet, with short hair red like the tip of a matchstick. As she speaks, she removes her small, rectangular-framed sunglasses, revealing the hardened expression of someone who'd grown up in a mill town (Roanoke Rapids). Deep crinkles circle her eyes as she sizes me up.

I decide to come clean, telling her I didn't have a clue how to develop film. I never expected that I'd have to actually do it, I explain.

"Yeah, well, you're gonna be doing a lot of things around here you never expected," Adrienne quips. Her gaze lands on the stack of paper in the drawer. A smile that is partly a smirk, an Adrienne trademark, creeps across her face.

"Let me enlighten you, pun intended," Adrienne says. "You see that stack of paper? That's what you print pictures on. When the paper hasn't already been exposed to light. Which it has been now, because someone left the darkroom door open."

I try to swallow. "You mean..."

Adrienne nods, still smiling at me in her particular way. She picks up the stack of photo paper. "This is every bit as good as Confederate money."

"Is there any more paper?" I ask, hopefully.

"Of course not," she says, smiling.

What if Mr. Kern Finds Out?

I apologize profusely, mortified at my stupidity, fearful of being reprimanded, afraid of--dare I say it?--being exposed. Like an astronomer studying the night sky, Adrienne knows exactly what is going on in my head.

"What will Mr. Kern say when he finds out?" I ask.

She kooks at the useless paper, at me, at her watch. "He ain't gonna find out shit,"she says. With the stack of paper in hand, Adrienne walks out of the darkroom and heads toward the press room, with me close behind. She stuffs the papers deep into an enormous trash bin, then stirs up other rubbish--banana peels, old newspapers, leftover lunches and such--until the photographic papers become invisible as well as unusable.

"Thank you Adrienne," I say when we return to the still-empty newsroom. "But what will I say when Mr. Kern asks me--"

"Good Lord child," Adrienne says. "You'd like to worry me to death." She lit a cigarette, studied me. "I can handle Dick." After a beat, she smiles mischievously. "Maybe I should rephrase that."

Gaslighting Mr. Kern

About an hour later, Mr. Kern returns from his lunch break. Adrienne informs him there is no film-developing paper. "That can't be," he responds. "I just bought a bunch last week."

"Well, there's none now. How do you expect us to develop pictures?"

I say nothing, busying myself at my desk. Within a few minutes, Adrienne not only assures Mr. Kern there's no paper; she convinces him it's his fault and to go out and buy more. I go on to my assignment, after Adrienne tells me to meet her back at the office later that afternoon, to show me how to develop film.

I do as I'm told. As we work together in the darkroom, the photos I'd taken of an elderly woman, transported on a gurney back to her home, begin to take shape. They're not bad, I think; my father would probably like them.

"See?" Adrienne says. "I told you that you'd be doing things here you never expected."

Adrienne and me, mid 1980s

I wrote about Adrienne in my last post, "Southern Storytelling - The Preacher and The Cigarette." I have another Adrienne story I'll share later. It takes place in the middle of the night--at a murder scene, no less.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Southern Storytelling - The Preacher and The Cigarette

The setting is Margie's Diner, a reliably greasy eatery in the small industrial city of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., in the early 1980s. It's a workday afternoon, and Adrienne Ivey, a lifetime resident of the city and the local newspaper's top reporter, sits in an upholstered booth. She sprinkles salt on her chef's salad, takes a deep drag off her cigarette, spots "The Preacher," and sighs. "Here we go," she thinks.

The lanky man lumbering toward Adrienne isn't an ordained preacher. The Preacher is simply his nickname, one he wears proudly like a new Stetson hat. He earned the nickname because he's apt to preach. He tells you exactly what he thinks whether you asked for his opinion or not, and usually, you didn't ask.

"Afternoon, Adrienne," says The Preacher, towering over her. He glances at the empty seat across from her and then back to Adrienne, with all the subtlety of a silent film actor.
Adrienne Ivey at her desk
"Be my guest," Adrienne replies, knowing she has no other alternative but to be rude. As The Preacher takes his seat, Adrienne alternates between bites of her salad and deep draws from her cigarette. The Preacher's nose twitches. Small talk is exchanged; who's been at church lately, who hasn't, that sort of thing.

Adrienne exhales more smoke, this time a bit closer to The Preacher's nostrils, which flare with indignation at each of Adrienne's exhalations. The Preacher tries to ignore the smoke and continues with the small talk, which consists primarily of his opinions about who's up to no good.

Finally, Adrienne lets out a stream of smoke like something you'd see from a rocket ship blasting off. "Adrienne," The Preacher says, his voice lowering, "I'd rather commit adultery than smoke a cigarette!"

Adrienne narrows her eyes, looks squarely at The Preacher, and says, "So would I, Preacher. But I've only got 30 minutes for lunch."


My previous post about Southern storytellers brought Adrienne, and this story, to mind. Next time: Adrienne catches me in a 'white lie' during my first week on the job--and saves me from a dreadful fate.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Are Southerners Natural-Born Storytellers?

"Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers...great talkers."

Eudora Welty
The above quotation comes from a woman who epitomized Southern storytelling to generations of readers, Eudora Welty. The Mississippi writer's quote evokes images of Southern folk in creaky rocking chairs on weathered front porches, drinking bourbon out of Mason jars, swapping stories late into the night, to an hour when even the crickets and 'lightning bugs' (aka fireflies) have retired.

But was Welty right? Are Southerners inherently good at spinning a compelling yarn? Or is it a myth, perpetuated by the enduring reputations of Southern writers (Welty, William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor and such)? And if it was true in Welty's time (1909 to 2001), is is still true today in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging?

Truman Capote
I think there is some reality to Welty's quote, but there's also some wishful thinking behind it--which, come to think of it, are frequently the ingredients for a good Southern story.

It's true that Southerners tend to be 'great talkers,' but that's not the same as being a great storyteller. Ask the typical Southerner a question about, say, a favorite food, and he or she is likely to tell you the entire recipe or the name of the restaurant that serves the particular dish plus directions for how to get there--all without a pause.
Flannery O'Connor

One of my closest Southern friends has this habit, especially when talking about someone else (something we Southerners love to do). He'll start off with an interesting piece of information but soon gets bogged down in irrelevant details. When I see this happening, I try to stop him by saying "Mother's maiden name!" This is code between us that means: Stop before you tell me everything I don't need to know about this person including her mother's maiden name!

I've known some fascinating Southern storytellers, but they're usually not great conversationalists. Recently, I ran into a man I knew years ago when I lived in Charleston. He was seated at a table in a San Francisco cafe. Once I said his name and he recognized me, his one-man show began. What followed were a string of hilarious, witty, and at times poignant stories. But not once did he ask how I was doing, as I had a few stories of my own to share. When I tried to tell him, he changed the subject back to himself. Narcissists, whether of Southern, Yankee, Midwestern, or Japanese extraction, are often fascinating but ultimately tiresome people.

Southerners, in general, often have a heightened sense of drama and frequently possess a terrific sense of humor, especially about themselves, which helps a lot when telling a good story. The Southerner's slower sense of pacing also contributes, as does the accent. Some Southerners are keenly aware of their region's reputation for good storytelling and feel a duty to preserve it, as well. There's even an organization called the Southern Order of Storytellers, based in Atlanta, whose mission is "to bring storytelling to wider audiences and help make storytelling once again an integral part of culture and entertainment."

Finally, there are lots of eccentrics in the South--people who know they are outside the mainstream. Rather than denying it, they flaunt it; eccentricity is their calling card. These are the characters who tell the richest stories, or who are the basis of stories others tell about them.

In other words, a Southerner isn't by nature a great storyteller, but the South has its fair share of them. But for how long? The Internet, globalization, and other forces are flattening out regional and cultural differences, so it's only a matter of time before Southern storytelling becomes yet another lost art form.

In the meantime, however, we have Leslie Jordan.

Jordan is a gifted actor from Tennessee best known for his roles in Will and Grace and Sordid Lives, the film and the TV series. During a recent one-man show in San Francisco, Jordan held his audience in rapt attention for two hours as he spun one Southern story after another, many of them featuring eccentric characters (himself included). If Southern storytelling is a dying art form, Jordan is single-handedly keeping it alive. I'll conclude with two examples.

Leslie Jordan
An anecdote Jordan re-enacted on stage was about how, as a boy, he would hang out in the local beauty parlor with his mother. One day, in walked the town tramp, her torpedo tits "entering before she did." Jordan's recounting of this story was full of small details, from the clothes the woman wore to the cigarettes she smoked. At one point, the hair stylist asked the town trollop if she wanted her hair teased. "Teased?," the woman responded. "I want it terrorized!"

In another anecdote, Jordan recounted a chance meeting with a Southern drag queen who called herself Kitty Litter. Jordan had been friends with Kitty in Atlanta years ago, in their wilder days. During their unexpected encounter years later, Kitty asked Jordan if he still drank; Jordan said he stopped long ago. "Me too," said Kitty. "I only have a little Peppermint Schnapps now and then to sweeten my breath."

And then, after a beat, Kitty added, "Sometimes, my breath is so sweet, I can hardly stand up."

----- What do you think? Are Southerners great storytellers? Do you have a great 'Southern' story to share? Let me know in the comments below.