18 April 2006

Easter Parade

I am tired. Not just tired in the sort of end of semester way we are all feeling now, but tired as in, “I need a year off” tired. To wit, I have been worked down to the nubbin this year: a new institution, three search committees, four new preps, two college committees, along with the assorted campus activities, events, soirées, lunches, political intrigues, and five separate trips from Cold City to Big Eastern City to see Mr. Gordo. I am, of course, behind in everything except my taxes, which were dutifully sent off yesterday, and have been lingering around the house today in homage to a sudden but hopefully transitory stomach bug but also neatening, hanging up clothes and hiding papers in plastic IKEA boxes, paying bills and washing dishes and dropping off laundry. This week has become, de facto, devoted to catch-up grading and preparation of course reviews in anticipation of finals either next week or the one after. I have also dedicated myself to avoiding at all costs campus, except to teach. But in the words of Depeche Mode, “the grabbing hands, grab all they can.” A recent student newspaper controversy engendered an “emergency” campus meeting last Saturday for which I was distinctly not present. Yesterday in class, my students queried me as to how I could possibly miss that meeting, to which I responded that I only have so much to give. The summary of the meeting by one of my more dedicated students left me exhausted just listening to it. A confirmatory phone call from a colleague who did sacrifice three hours on Saturday and was present certified the insanity. Campus drama? Calgon, take me away!

No, instead of sacrificing a sixth day of the last week to work, I decamped late Friday afternoon for La Vickstrix’s house in Little City, a mid-sized town with a regional comprehensive university where she professes, about two and a half hours outside of Cold City, for Gay Easter! Little City is dull as dirt, but the local department store has a sale rack to die for (oddly enough), and I feel strangely comforted by the bland assortment of contemporary commercial Americana which dots the landscape of Little City, on the outskirts of its sad and denuded 19th century downtown: Applebee’s, Outback, Target, Hollywood Video, TJ Maxx, Barnes and Noble. All these stores are clustered in strips circling around a modest mall that offers the intrepid traveler no surprises: two regional anchor stores, Gap, a Sunglass Hut, and formerly an Eddie Bauer (the last time I was in town La Vickstrix and I arrived just in time to see them hawking the shelving). Wandering among and between these nodes of commercial pleasure are the pod people, Americans of all sizes, decidedly heterosexual, not a few mullets, the occasional queen standing out like Jezebel at the ball. The brilliance of George Romero in situating his second zombie thriller Dawn of the Dead at the mall cannot help but be recognised as one also trolls the glossy pathways, in search of what one is never sure.

Of course, Cold City also has these things in spades (especially Jezebel Queens), but their placement in placid Little City and my secret pleasure at their assurances of continuity, stability, and cheap oil remind me of my occasional trips in my youth to visit my mother’s sister and my cousins in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties, a serenely surreal world quite different from my vibrant but inherently messy urban barrio (remember here that the word barrio in Spanish only means neighborhood; the “bad” that usually precedes the translation is an American invention).

Now, my mother and her sister were not exactly friends, if you know what I mean, so such trips always had a strange tension to them, which is one reason why they didn’t happen very often. My mother had chosen a fairly bohemian path, which in this case means having a child just barely in wedlock with an illegal alien and partaking in a working life, living alone and seeing men for both sexual and social pleasure. Her sister pursued a more conventional American narrative, marrying a bland Anglo junior exec at Jergen’s (yes, the lotion maker to your grandma), and moving through a succession of tract homes in the third ring suburbs of Los Angeles. What I remember most about these journeys to the edge of the expanding city was their profound exoticism. The first time I tasted American cheese was for lunch at my aunt’s house, on white bread with mayonnaise. I remember everything about this moment, from where I was (outside on the “deck”) to the plate the sandwich was served on (a Dixie paper plate with flowers on it). The whole concoction— plastic cheese, white bread, with mayonnaise, was such a unique experience for me at the time, for my mother generally made classic Chicano cuisine (this is a bit hard to explain, but I guess I could describe it as Anglo-Mexican fusion, to which most Mexican Americans might offer a guffaw): stews, lard, beans with a hambone, lard, tortillas, lard, fried and grilled meats, lard, salsas and sauces made from red chilies, lard, along with the white bread, Miracle Whip (Oh Mary, don’t ask), hot dogs, meatloaf, and (oddly) frozen potato latkes. The dynamic thing about Chicano cuisine is you never know exactly what or in what combination one will get.

Dinners Chez ma tante were classically Anglo circa 1976, wholesome meats spiced with salt and pepper, frozen vegetables, maybe an Iceberg lettuce salad with Thousand Island dressing, and flaked mashed potatoes, which struck me as singularly alien, served in a formal dining room on china. My mother and I usually ate in front of the television, watching Three’s Company or The Jeffersons or Taxi. Tortillas were never served at my aunt’s house. It was in one of these dream suburbs that I discovered what a cul-de-sac was, where I first went ice skating (in an enclosed arena gloating under the blazing Southern Californian sun), where I first saw an automatic dishwasher. The very quality of the living space was dramatically different. My mother and I were ensconced in a small “artist’s cottage” from the 1920s made from wood and mortar that had no foundation and was tilted in all sorts of strange directions, like the Winchester House, but had a wonderful view of the San Gabriel mountains, louvered windows in the bedrooms, and a garden filled with jade, aloe vera, river stones, and bougainvillea.

My aunt’s houses (all of them, really), by contrast, were made out of sheet rock and stucco, had cathedral ceilings with exposed beams and gas fireplaces with huge mantles made of brick, where on the second storey my cousins had their own bedrooms with large closets equipped with accordion doors in wood veneer, and carpeted throughout, with even green lawns leading up to the tasteful wooden door in a retro hacienda style. The contrasts between my home and this away were extreme, and it wasn’t that I thought of these places as repulsive, per se, but they were extremely foreign to me, and to this day I prefer to reside in old, knockabout places with history, nicks in the walls, and old plumbing. Although an avid fan of the adventures of the Brady Bunch, I preferred to keep this particular vision of Californian utopia at arm’s length, for something about it struck me (and still does) like living on the moon, or in a test tube. We shall leave aside here how American fantasies of domestic space moved in two generations from warmth to cold, lived to antiseptic.

La Vickstrix, strangely enough, resides in an apartment complex that shares a lot with the vision of American plastic utopia so pursued by my aunt and her assimilative proclivities, although in La Vickstrix’s case I think it is more a case of convenience than aesthetic desire. The space is uniformly American mass produced architecture, which means sheetrock walls you could punch a hole in if you look at them the wrong way, standard double-paned windows, an enclosed attached two-car garage with an automatic door, and a sliding glass door which looks out onto a small concrete patch (the "patio") and an uninviting lawn. The very anonymity of the space is the stuff of serial killer nightmares, except for the fact that the entire space has been crammed full of La Vickstrix’s rather baroque period furniture, foulards here and paisleys there, everything (or most everything) coated in a thick layer of gold. It’s like an alien spaceship from Planet bisabuela crash landed on the sterile American Petri dish of standardized living, and the effect is bizarre, to say the least.

Because Vicks keeps most of her research material at her university office, the house is strangely quiet of the intellectual noise of egghead clutter many of us so often hear in our own homes, with just small shelves here and there with books and monographs. How could there be more competing with the attentions of her tchotckes taking up every other inch, including gilt framed photos, gilt angels hanging off the lamp shades, and faux (gilt, natch) Fabergé eggs on little stands? And she wonders why she can’t find a man! I’ve told her, “My dear, you’re going to have to butch it up if you want to find love. Nobody wants to do their grandmother!” She sighs, rolls her eyes, and sullenly pouts as she fluffs the fleur-de-lis pillows with gold lasso trimming. The singular aesthetic is Borderlands Louis Quatorze.

While the domestic space may need some, um, work, La Vickstrix herself is nothing if not the consummate "hostess with the mostest," truly a gay daughter of the Mexican old school. I love arriving at La Vicks’ house, buzzed from my drive at high speeds swilling Diet Coke and lighting cigarette after cigarette, burning through my Extra Gay Driving Collection on my IPod, barreling down the interstate in the middle of nowhere, past fields and silos and farm houses, eventually descending into the river valley that holds Little City. In my moment of arrival, I can recapture briefly the sense of strangeness and familiarity from my aunt’s house, as we lay on La Vicks’s bed and yak, the cool breeze of the central air humming away in the background like a technological lullaby, Will and Grace on mute.

I have known La Vickstrix for about ten years, and she is one of my closest academic interlocutors. Happenstance and luck have brought us closer together, as Cold City and Little City are relatively close, although neither of us would have expected to end up in this little patch of the country back in graduate school, but here we are. We met at a particularly debauched Chicana/o Studies conference in the nineties, and instantly became fast friends, a relationship cemented by her frequent trips to the Bay Area in the same period when I lived there. She was not always La Vickstrix, for originally she was La Sally, so named because her glasses at the time bore a disturbing resemblance to those of Sally Jesse Raphael. The glasses are gone, but the attitude, honey, is still there. La Vicks is a true intellectual interlocutor and colleague, which is to say she watches out for me and I for her, with opportunities, organizing, and networking. She rules the roost of her current institution, in only the way a gay Chicano who thinks she is the Queen of Spain can. While I too have my diva moments, my insecurities and Sagittarius rising mean I have poor follow-through. La Vicks is more deliberate, but unlike most academic Divas, thinks in terms of communities and networks and connections (must be all that musty upper-crust study she does).

Vicks had planned a small Easter soirée, which included principally yours truly, her ex Ms. Clinique, with whom she shares her baroque Petri dish, a shy and über-sweet man who makes me look like an amateur with her collection of beauty potions, lotions, and (crushed) hopes in jars, as well as an assortment of other queens both affiliated with the local university or Little City homosexual institutions (i.e. the local library). In fact, all we were missing was a representative from the local cruising park (who no doubt couldn’t make it because he already had plans… with his wife) and the bars, of which Little City remarkably has three, one for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the skanks (of both genders). Vicks might cynically argue we indeed did have representation from these other cohorts, but in any event it turns out we were a cozy little group. In addition to Vicks, myself, and Ms. Clinique, we had two other professors from her institution, a local librarian, and for dessert, were joined by the gay brother of one of Vicks’ colleagues who was visiting from New Orleans, who is so refreshingly unjaded he is naturally entertaining.

Dinner was standard Easter fare, just more of it: Ham with pineapple and maraschino cherries, and Lamb with mint jelly, and asparagus wrapped in bacon, and potatoes au gratin, and a salad, and popovers, and a homemade cheesecake with strawberries, and a basket of Godiva chocolate bunnies, and champagne and wine, and tequila and anise afterwards, and coffee, and tea. The Chicano/Mexican/Latino hostess methodology depends on an overwhelming of the senses and stomach, which is why Chicanas/os tend to leave Anglo homes hungry (with the exception of certain white ethnics, Italians, Irish, Jewish, who can pile it on as much as any decent Mexican housewife).

Sometime after the clearing of the table and the second cigarette, I realized, as I looked around, that although we were in this strange domestic space of demented baroque glamour, we had here, in Little City, on a Christian high holy day, created a gay communitas, however fleeting and temporal. We here were six gay men, different races, ages, bodies, politics, fashion sensibilities, joined together by professional and personal circumstances but who also shared a sexual identity that was both awkward in its formal dimensions (sexuality being a fairly weak bond in some ways) as well as powerful (alternatively, sexuality being a potent bond in other ways).

Some of that depended on profession (although gay men, in my experience, make terrible academic networkers, contra the experience of many lesbians in academe), some of it on friendship outside of the academy, and some of it on chance. But I do feel that the energy created between gay men (or perhaps any group of self-identified people) is special and dear, even as intellectually we can recognise that such affiliations are temporal and contingent. I am reminded of Dorian Corey’s description of the ball houses in Paris is Burning: “a group of people, joined by a mutual bond.”

Recently Centre of Gravitas, my soul sister in blogging, as I find we are so often thinking of similar things thousands of miles apart, wrote of the necessity of LGBT community, and the ingrained homodistrust of heterosexuals. This reminded me of something an old colleague said to me years ago, when she stated that she categorically distrusted heterosexuals, and that all we could depend on were ourselves (LGBT folks). Of course, we are all bilingual for the most part: most LGBT people interact with heterosexuals every day, although we do have our dismissive, secret names for them. Many of us, myself included, count heterosexuals among our closest friends. But one thing that underlies the concerns that both CoG and my old colleague articulate is the fine line most LGBT folks feel, not necessarily from our heterosexual acquaintances but from society in general. How close are we to being declared sexual deviants? How acceptable are our social and sexual practises? Will we be thrown over for the str8 marriage, the child, the family? How close are we to violence? Many of us have very traumatic histories of heterosexism, which often times are indeed quite violent, and from a young age. I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions, but do wish to recognise here the special power of affiliation among and between LGBT people that is distinct and unique, and not solely grounded in persecution. LGBT folks do need to form coalitions and strategic relationships among each other, but aside from these are the coalitions of volition that we also nurture.

One of the reasons Paris is Burning resonated across the spectrum of gayness was its recognition of the synthetic nature of many LGBT communities, which some have read simplistically as an uncritical reconstruction of the nuclear family. Rather, the power of these synthetic bonds is precisely their transformative power on quotidian LGBT experience, their saving grace, if you will. It is an oft cited truism that LGBT folks are raised in alterity, since most of us continue to be products of heterosexual unions. And there are certainly tensions within LGBT communities over how different we really are. But it just takes a few incidents to realise that indeed many do consider us worthy of something less than respect. But the specific joy of coming together as LGBT people is both a reaction to hate as well as an action of affirmation and recognition (“I see you”), in a subculture so often dedicated out of necessity to secrecy, hiding, invisibility.

Where we LGBT people sometimes run into trouble is in thinking that the coalitions and alliances that can often bind us tightly to each other are natural, organic, biological. No. We create community, and we also destroy it too, when it no longer suits are needs, with other acronymic entities as well as with str8s. But it is the moment of existing that needs to be appreciated, and not the loneliness of the before, nor the maudlin expression at its loss after it is gone. “Change, or die,” said Moraga. And we six gay men in Little City, for a lovely evening of laughter, confidence, debate, and food, had community on Easter Sunday.


La Lecturess said...

What a lovely tribute to community--and what a great holiday you seem to have had.

I too wound up spending Easter dinner with a(n otherwise) gay gathering, as I so often spend the "family" holidays of Thanksgiving and Easter. And even as an outsider I've marvelled at and been warmed by these provisional and synthetic communities. Sometimes the best families are the ones we create ourselves--or that are created, ad hoc, around us.

GayProf said...

Hail, Amazon Sister! I agree that we build community on more than just shared persecution. What concerns me, though, is that many don't want to build a community at all.

MRG said...

As always, great, great writing Osoraro. After reading your post I reconfirmed something I always knew: the Easter Bunny is gay.


Frank said...

A stunning piece of prose, as usual, Oso Raro. As a uncouth rube from the Suburbs with little gay contact outside of the blogosphere, I do have to admit that I'm slightly confused about the genders of the people you mentioned. Are you using the practice of some of our homosexual brothers of using feminine pronouns for fellow homosexual brothers, or are there some biolgical females in this story? Or am I just affirming the hated phallocentric, heteronormative gender distinctions of the Patriarchy by even asking such an unlettered question?

Anonymous said...

Oh Mary! Ms. Frankie is con-few-zed!

La Vickstrix with the Pinga

LaSuegra said...

It's touching to hear some of myself through my child's mouth sometimes. I just wish you could pick up the phone more often and stop smoking already. I thought you were going to stop when you submitted your dissertation. Incidentally, and I'm sitting here with your Aunt Graigola, you wrote a whole long piece on NY, she remembered to me, and you only mentioned me at the end and so unflattering. You couldn't mention living at home all those summers and vacations in Brooklyn?