Trey's Days No.3
My grandparents were visiting. Some neighbors were over too. I was in the fifth grade. Science class was getting interesting so I decided to demonstrate to the folks assembled what I had learned about centrifugal force by spinning a bucket of mud and rocks over my head. It was heavy and when it got exactly overhead it stopped dead in the air, mud and rocks came tumbling down on my head, and everybody except me and my Dad laughed. My Mom heehawed, cracked up as she and I would have done together if it had been anybody else but me. My Dad didn't laugh. He took me in the bathroom to clean me up and told me how proud he was of me for trying my experiment even though it didn't work. He explained that most of the time experiments don't work. That's why we call them experiments. And when they don't work we fix them and try again. He suggested I put something other than mud and rocks in the bucket. Then he and I laughed about it together and he told me again how proud he was of me. That's my favorite laugh; comforted by being able to laugh at myself in the safety of the bathroom with my dad wiping mud off my head like the aftermath of some rite of passage. I remember his tender touch. By the time my mother told me she was sorry she laughed, I was on to another related but much bigger experiment; pretending I didn't care.
Someone told me once that “I don't care” is the biggest lie in the world. I don't know. I came home one day from school and reported to my Mom that the boys at school were making fun of me and calling me names and I just couldn't stand it anymore. I cried. She was very sympathetic and troubled but had little to offer in the way of a defensive strategy other than “If you ignore them they'll go away. You can't let them see it bothers you.” I've been ignoring them now for over forty years and it would appear she has been proven right. She didn't say how long it would take.
Truman Capote used to be on TV from time to time when I was a child in the 1960s. I used to cringe. He made me even more uncomfortable than Liberace. His lispy little girl voice, his affected mannerisms, his snide sense of humor gave me moments of sympathy with the abusers who couldn't stand the likes of Truman and would gladly have stomped his face given half a chance. Our Memphis of the 1960s was a violent place and there were many targets. What other people thought about you could get you killed, apparently. One became less sure as time went on in that strange summer of 1968. Suddenly everything was different. It was a time to be careful. The Truman Capotes were wise not to draw attention to themselves, yet there he was for all the world to see on the television.
I hoped and prayed it was not true but somehow I knew instinctively that I had something important in common with Truman. I also knew instinctively that things would not go well for me if I didn't hide it. When my mother said “ignore them and they'll go away” she couldn't have imagined how the Truman Capote beacon shown from my forehead and how that blessed curse of being the fag who used big words rang like a gong in the bullys' ears. We Trumans, we queer boys had bully magnets, were bully magnets. We got to see a world not obvious to everyone, a world through the lens of the bully magnet.
Fairy, fagot, pansy, queer zinged like darts across the recess air making the company of girls a safety zone. Truman knew what I learned, that the Nelle Harper Lees were ports in a storm with their fantasy games imitating the adult world where ridicule was more subtle, less violent. Naming dolls and choosing their clothes seemed somehow less extreme than collecting bee stingers on a leather belt. Besides, where's the imagination in that? I did not know at the time something that Truman knew early on. Those silly girls games, those little safe harbors were the artist's training ground, a rough and tumble sport of the mind not for the obtuse dart zinger belt stinger boys.
And just as Truman found women in his life for whom his glaring homosexuality was not a challenge, all of us who grew up queer in the South at a certain time found them. My grandmother's Aunt Daisey Griffith who lived in the Houston Hotel in Dothan, Alabama was one. We would visit her there from time to time when I was a child. I was fascinated by the life of one who seemed to float on the cream of a world that had disappeared out from under her and she didn't seem to notice. She wouldn't be made to. Her fragile 4'2” frame would not outlast the old guard that watched over her delicate routine. Her husband Floyd had been in the timber business in Bonifay just over the Florida line and it had not been very long since they ruled the roost. It was not exactly clear who ruled the roost in south Alabama in the late 1960s. It was no longer a certainty that it would be the Floyd Griffiths.
As she came down from her suite to breakfast by the clock in the coffee shop on the first floor, her sweet world of pink Austrian shades and perfect little suits of jackets and skirts ran like a machine in a bubble. Meanwhile Alabama swirled around outside unheard except through the RCA color television, which had an off switch. And there was the newspaper by the front door in the morning, but the gentleman who delivered it and who had stood by the door of that hotel for two generations found his daily march little changed by the stories of marches, sit-ins and historic bus rides. Can two worlds live side by side and not know each other? We remember how they can.
The “Iced Water” spigot on the porcelain lavatory and the conditioned air that cascaded from the big metal vent near the ceiling insulated the Griffith suite from the sticky steamy world outside where black storm clouds brewed for people of all colors. That invisible difference which Truman dared to make so hideously visible added heat for the lightening of that storm. Truman joined a small band of voices giving spirit and image to what it meant to be one like he who took refuge with women at a time when one dared not challenge, when just being was the challenge. And that's what was so trying about Truman. Sitting there between Granny and Aunt Daisey in a cocoon where being invisible and silent was rewarded with vanilla ice cream, cool air and Miss America in color, the possibility of being visible and heard was a most uncomfortable challenge. One can't hide one's color but one can hide one's inner Truman, at least for a while. But then there's Truman, not hiding at all. A most uncomfortable challenge.
The mud is all gone now. Daddy's touch took it away and left the lesson of trying again. Truman on TV was part of that lesson too. It was Truman who refused to hide between the granny and the aunt, who refused to settle for vanilla ice cream and Miss America but fluttered off to New York and Italy and a thousand other places and into my living room in Memphis. Truman was the leader in the greatest experiment of all, to be oneself. If Granny and Aunt Daisey offered a moment of comfort from a by gone era, the anointing in mud offered what Truman was teaching . We have no one but ourselves to be, even when we have mud on our heads. If the world doesn't understand or isn't ready then maybe we have to become Other Voices, Other Rooms. Maybe we have to breakfast at Tiffany's when the Houston Hotel is long gone and all the Aunt Daiseys and Uncle Floyds have gone to live in the musty smell that rises from the felt of a roll-top desk. And when that time has come, and it will come, Truman will rise ever himself, for Alabama and all the world to see, shining, washed and new.