Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Two Bumbling Southerners with Big City Dreams

As many times as I’ve seen it, All About Eve never fails to take me back to my first trip with Edward, to New York City for New Year’s Eve, 1980-81.

At the time, we were in our early 20s, terribly naïve, and woefully underfunded. The weather was bitterly cold, windy, snowy off and on. And we had a fabulous time, especially laughing at each other’s social gaffes.

My faux pas occurred in the dressing room of a men’s store in the Village. I‘d tried on a pair of jeans and, when the snooty young sales assistant asked me how they fit, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question.

“Will they draw up?”

He launched one overly plucked eyebrow into the air like a missile. “I’m sorry?”

Thinking he must have not heard me, I repeated my question, only louder. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Edward a few feet away, rearranging his mouth into a small ‘o’ in an effort not to laugh out loud.

“What are you trying to ask me?” the sales clerk demanded to know.

Finally, I realized the problem. This Yankee didn’t speak Southern. So I translated my original question into, “Will the jeans shrink when I wash them?” To compound my humiliation, the clerk sighed and pointed to a label on the outside of the jeans: “Pre-shrunk.”

In my peripheral vision, I could see Edward’s right hand race to make an emergency landing over his mouth, to stifle a guffaw. It was a struggle for me to politely hand the jeans back to the haughty clerk and walk calmly out of the store with Edward. Once outside, we hooted and howled, leaning against each other, barely able to walk.

Bergdorf’s Doesn’t Have a Roadkill Section

Edward’s turn came when he insisted on visiting the Bergdorf Goodman fur department.

The department, which at the time was the store’s largest, was as quiet as a church sanctuary. Not knowing what to do, I stood more or less still, watching Edward reverently inspect and finger the garments, as if he had done this before, which of course, he never had.

A young male sales clerk — practically the twin to the arched-eyebrow edition in the Village — approached me. I barely breathed, fearful of committing another faux pas.

“May I help you?” he wondered.

“No thank you,” I replied, mischievously adding that my companion could use some assistance. I pointed to Edward, who was out of hearing range. The all-black-wearing sales associate smiled wearily and aimed himself in the direction of the unsuspecting Edward. I followed, to eavesdrop upon the exchange.

“Good afternoon,” the sales clerk began. “Which type of fur are you interested in?”

The question took Edward by surprise. I could see the thought bubbles popping over his head. After a brief hesitation, he responded, in his best attempt at a refined accent, “Do you have anything in…varmint?”

I could not believe my ears. Nor, apparently, could the stunned sales clerk. He thought for a second. “Could you possibly mean marmot?”

Edward’s face paled. “I’m so sorry, yes, that’s what I meant. Marmot.”

The clerk happily flashed a condescending smile. “I’m afraid Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry marmot.”

“What were you thinking?,” I asked Edward once we’d escaped the fur salon. “Why did you ask for varmint? Did you expect Bergdorf’s fur department to have a roadkill section?”

“I couldn’t think!” Edward replied. “I was so…intimidated!”

Between us, the response became infamous. Over the years to come, when one of us would commit a gaffe, the other would sometimes say that “Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry varmint” or simply, “varmint.”

All About Eve and Big City Dreams

The next afternoon would be our last before heading back to North Carolina: Edward to Charlotte, me to Greensboro. A fresh snowfall slowed Manhattan traffic but not much else. I’d discovered in the newspaper that there was a Marilyn Monroe film festival happening at Carnegie Hall Cinema. The double feature that afternoon/early evening was All About Eve, in which Marilyn had a minor but memorable role as an ambitious starlet, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her first big starring successes.

I’d never seen Eve but knew its stellar reputation, so I suggested to Edward that we go. Eagerly, he agreed.

On that late Sunday afternoon, as snow fell and the loud city grew quiet, we ventured into the faded elegance of the movie house tucked into a Carnegie Hall corner. The sold-out audience, primarily gay men, was enthusiastic and excited, almost as if Eve, released in 1950, were being screened for the first time. There was a collective excitement, a shared bond among strangers that was unlike anything I’d experienced in a movie theater.

During that screening, Edward and I both realized that, despite still being naïve North Carolinians, we were having, at last, a taste of our big city dreams.

The audience roared its approval at the film’s deliciously delivered lines, of which “Fasten your seat belts” is but one of many. We were to quote Eve to each other often in the future. We knew many lines by heart: “One good burp and you’ll be rid of that Miss Caswell.” “Neither your name nor your performance entered into the conversation.” “Enchanté to you, too!”

Or this exchange between Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter:

Thelma: “Voilà!”

Bette: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Thelma: “It was nothing he didn’t know.”

Bette and Thelma laugh about 'that French ventriloquist'

We repeated that exchange so many times through the years, the shorthand became “voilà!” to which the other would unfailingly respond with some quip about “that French ventriloquist.”

That French Ventriloquist

Edward and I (and often Nick) took many trips together over the next 30+ years, including a tour of Italy and Switzerland that, at one point, required Edward to anxiously steer a stick-shift car over the Alps.

Two bumblers in Venice (1992)

Fast forward to Ft. Lauderdale, February 2016. It was the night before Edward and I were to begin an RSVP Caribbean cruise, which would become the last trip we'd take together.

I hadn’t seen him in at least six months, and the toll that the many years of debilitating pain and memory-impairing painkillers had taken on him had become for me suddenly, agonizingly apparent.

As we were getting into an Uber to go to dinner, Edward wondered aloud if he’d remembered to bring his hotel room key. He dug into his pants pockets, to no avail, and then dove into his omnipresent Prada bag, found the key, and said, with an attempt at humor, ‘Voilà!”

Instinctively, I responded: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Edward stared blankly at me. He didn’t get the reference. “All About Eve?” I prompted.

“What about it?” he wondered.

I didn’t respond at first, as I wasn’t sure how. “It meant nothing,” I said, without making eye contact. But the truth was, it had meant everything.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Edward Norman — The Unexpected Roommate with an Elizabeth Arden Fixation

Before I met Edward Norman, I resented the hell out of him.

It was February 1980. I was a college senior living in a compact campus apartment at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The apartment had four bedrooms, each barely large enough to accommodate a narrow single bed, a small writing desk, an armoire, and if you didn’t exhale, a package of Chiclets. My three roommates and I, all gay men aged 20 to 21, shared one toilet and one shower. Somehow, it worked, mostly because the four of us got along.

But one bright February morning before class — a Tuesday, I believe — my roommate Tom gathered us to make an announcement: “My best friend Edward is moving in with us. You’ll love him. He’s just like me.”

When I recovered from the shock, I had questions. Why was Edward moving in with us?

Answer: Edward has just been offered a job in Charlotte as a stylist and educator for a major beauty school. He was starting work immediately and the commute from his parents’ home, 90 minutes each way, was impractical.

Next question: When was Edward moving in?

Answer: Tomorrow.

And then, I wondered: Where would Edward store his clothes?

The answer: On a shower rod.

In our apartment, there was an odd bathroom layout with a toilet closet, two sinks running along the narrow hallway, and then a shower with two curtains. The first played the traditional role of a shower curtain, keeping the water from spraying beyond the skinny shower stall. When you finished showering, you stepped out on a small tiled drying area — which had its own curtain. That curtain’s job was to prevent others in the apartment from witnessing (and in our apartment, commenting upon) your toweling-off style. Edward’s clothes, Tom explained, would be placed on the exterior shower rod.

The day Edward arrived, I was hospitable but not overly welcoming. Frankly, I wasn’t happy about a fifth addition to the cramped apartment, especially when I was told he would be moving in and not asked if he could.

The first thing I noticed about Edward was how many clothes he was lugging into the apartment. And what clothes they were: bold silk shirts, primary-color pants, and shoes, shoes, shoes.

My next impression of Edward was formed by the vast skin care collection he sprawled across the long bathroom countertop. Elizabeth Arden this, Jergens that. Under-eye creams. Face toners. Face moisturizers. Hair care products, most of which I’d never seen before. Concealers. Foundation. An eyebrow curler.

Over the next few days, Edward worked long hours and I barely saw him. But the clothes! There was no escaping them! I had to squeeze through them to take a shower and again to exit the shower.

My resentment grew.

That Sunday afternoon, the five of us were lounging around the living room. I was on one side of the room, Edward on another, closest to the front door. He wore his brown bathrobe, which perfectly matched the color of his hair, which was, of course, dyed. His face was green—a beauty mask of some kind.

I could hear that our hopelessly straight frat boy neighbors were holding a beer bash. We’d all kept our distance from them, not wanting to incite homophobic catcalls.

And then, a wicked idea popped into my head.

“Edward,” I said sweetly. “Would you mind getting the newspaper? It’s on the doorstep.”

Edward seemed surprised that I’d specifically asked him for this favor. He, too, couldn’t have helped hearing the rowdy frat boys looming just beyond the door. Perhaps he realized I was daring him. Or maybe he was just trying to make nice with his new roommate. Either way, he rose up, stepped outside, bent down, and picked up the Sunday Charlotte Observer.

It should be noted that our front door was all glass, like the kind of door you’d push past to enter a store.. I could see Edward in all his Sunday-is-my-spa-day glory, newspaper in hand.

I raced to the door and locked it.

My roommates hooted. There was Edward, all brown bathrobe and green face, tapping on the door, mouthing the words “Let me in.” Unable to contain my laughter, I shook my head, “no.” Around this time the frat boys became aware of him. The homophobic catcalls began.

I don’t recall how long I made him stand outside. Probably 15 seconds, but I’m sure to him it felt like 15 days. At last, I let him in.

Once inside, I expected Edward to be angry at me — who wouldn’t have been? To my astonishment, he laughed as heartily as the rest of us. He genuinely appeared to have enjoyed the joke I played on him.

My resentment toward him dissolved into admiration. I’ve always adored people who are the first to have a good laugh at themselves and their predicaments. To me, it’s the polar opposite of pretentiousness, which I loathe.

That Sunday night, after the lock-out prank, my close, unwavering friendship with Edward began in earnest and continued for 36 years, despite our geographical distances, until his death in October 2016.

On that Sunday night in February 1980, I stood at the shared sink, having just brushed my teeth. I couldn’t help but marvel at all of the skin care products running along the countertop when Edward approached. He carefully explained to me what the products were for and why, even though I was only 22, I should start using under-eye cream immediately. He illustrated the correct way to apply it—dotting under and around the eye with a pinkie, never rubbing.

“One day,” he said with a wry smile, “you’ll thank me for this.”

It didn't take long for Edward (left) to influence my fashion style. Here we are, preparing for New Year's Eve in Manhattan, circa 1980-81