He’s Funny That Way
That I both did and didn’t want to go to San Francisco only added one more conflict to the chaotic swirl of emotions surrounding a departure date. I’d agreed to do a teaching gig there because funds were running low, and Gene was between acting jobs (nothing new in that). Besides which, he grew up in California and feels that expatriate boosters of the Golden State should revisit every year. Four months away from home is nothing, really, but my New York parochialism always asserts itself before we take any trip, and I have on top of everything else this funny reluctance to deal with. Dread and queasiness lead people who are normally easygoing to behave badly. We pitch hissy fits with people we love and concoct insults that never would have crossed our lips if there weren’t a thousand practical telephone calls to make and several hundred pounds of sundry schlock waiting to be loaded into the car. Past experience had taught my main-man Eugene that, when those moody winds swept in, anyone within range better watch it, he was in danger of sustaining blows about the face and eyes. Lucky for Gene, he also knows how to dodge and feint like a Kung Fu black belt and, what’s more, to give as good as he gets.
Another convenient brunt for my bad temper was Teddy, our doorman. Hefting the unwieldies out of the elevator so I could load them in the car, I lobbed several tart comments his way, at which he grinned his idiot grin—one corner of the mouth going up, the other down—and said nothing, the most likely method of squelching the tenant confronting him. On a blazing day in August he should have been overheated, too, in his tightfitting gabardine uniform (Teddy is fat) and cap. Oh no. Unflappable efficiency kept opening the door of the aircooled lobby and sending this hapless Okie tenant out into the swelter. As much as I’d let him, Teddy would help me with the bags, somehow never losing his baby-elephant complacency. My physical clumsiness, which I try to see as an endearing fault, today felt like one of the afflictions visited on poor slobs that Miss Happen Stance likes to oust from their comfortable slots—why? because she gets bored, wants to be amused, and thinks a homo on a hot tin roof would make an interesting spectacle.
Gene and I had never lived in a doorman building before. Here’s how it happened. An older well-heeled friend of ours named Ralph Dunhill, who has several chi-chi addresses scattered around the globe, when he heard our apartment building in Chelsea was about to succumb to the wrecking ball, offered to sublet us a co-op he owned up on the East Side (at a nominal rent) until we found a new place. Was Bette Midler ever right when she sang, “You got to have friends!” There was just one problem: We couldn’t find new digs. Our gracious living requirements and our bank account were singing in a different key. Actually, they still haven’t managed to play in tune, so we’ve come to regard the clash and jangle as modern music. We looked and sniffed and turned down everything in our bracket that was shown to us. Our interim sublet continued on and stretched out into a residence pure and simple. Ralph didn’t seem to care. Those times when he wanted to spend a few days in the city, he stayed with us. No longer young himself, he was nevertheless (unheard-of trait) a fan of youth and beauty. But he didn’t like going out to troll for it. We’d invite a few studmuffins from our gym over for dinner to meet charming, silver-haired Ralph. Some of these, as we’d guessed they would, turned into projectile rentboys at the mention of a London flat or an April jaunt to Sicily—the usual upshot being that a match for the night or the month would be made. Everybody came out ahead, whether on the giving or receiving end.
When we first settled in at 77thStreet, we congratulated ourselves on the new perk of doorman service. It was nice to have a soft-spoken, efficient man in uniform take your packages, send visitors up after a polite intercom message, and whistle down a cab when you wanted one. Actually there were three doormen, two reliable elder statesmen to handle these tasks, and then Teddy, the younger, less formal third. None of them really approved of us, though, not even Teddy. Quite clearly we didn’t fit in with the genteel atmosphere of the building, wearing jeans and even T’s, our guests in equally informal attire. It takes an experienced Eastside doorman about five seconds to decide whether you own municipal bonds or not. Gene and I sometimes came in carrying plebeian sacks of groceries, whereas the building’s “nice” co-op owners had theirs delivered—through the service elevator, of course, according to civilized practice. Furthermore, although some few of the other residents were secret friends of Dorothy, our behavior was way too “out” to suit the tone of this particular enclave. Gene and I pretended not to notice the ironic smiles that went with the elaborately polite words greeting us as we waltzed in and out of the lobby every day. Despite which, Teddy began to cross the invisible line that protocol establishes in these situations. Given his obvious conviction that we had no class whatsoever, why did this one doorman want to be friendly? We didn’t know, but he clearly was angling to punch through those ice curtains his co-workers always closed against us. It made for a pleasant contrast. I mean, at first.
“Now when do we expect you back, Mr. Caswell? Early December?I’ll mark that in my book.” (The one formality Teddy stuck to was the “mister” bit, which was even more preposterous than usual, pronounced in his museum-quality Brooklynese.)
“Right, and if you’ll just hold the junk mail. Thanks, I’ve got this one.”
Heat volleyed up from the pavement and glared from all the black and silver cars doubleparked on 77th Street, including my Stratus, which needed a wash. I unlocked it and threw in an inordinate number of bags, the question of whether we’d need quite so much paraphernalia flashing through my mind one last time as I tried to fit everything in. Then, right behind me, up stepped a freshly pressed Empress Eugénie, with his little black duffel, plus picnic basket with a carefully wrapped bottle of Prosecco protruding from it.
“The duffel can go anywhere, but why don’t we keep this within easy reach.” He put them where he thought best, returned my dowhatyouwanttosweetie look with a snippy smile. A lean, blond icon in sunglasses and sandals, he’s an object lesson on how to be sultry-sexy at thirty-seven—which probably explains why he has the upper hand in our particular tandem. All I ever need do in order to push myself into a stimulating episode of self-denigration is look at us side by side in the mirror. I always wonder what he sees in me. But I don’t ask him because the question might introduce a hairline fracture and break the spell of enchantment. Renewed awareness of my amazing luck, of the imbalance between his visuals and mine, didn’t, even so, help me chill out, not at that moment. My cool cucumber of a spouse turned and walked back to the door being swung open for him, me muttering under my breath and following after.
Thanking Teddy, Gene swirled around toward me, flipped off the sunglasses and said, “Listen, Matt, I’m going to telephone and say goodbye to Ralph. Do you think you should stay down here and keep an eye on the doublepark?” It wasn’t a real question so I didn’t answer. The clipclap sound of his sandals on the tiles as he walked to the elevator reminded me of summer a year ago in Greece, where he’d first bought and worn them. Now that was a trip. We were capable of having a good time together, just not today. I slouched down on the lobby sofa. Through the grillwork shadows of the doors it was fairly easy to make out the car. Nobody likes waiting, but at least here inside you had shade and A/C to assist while you cooled your heels.
Teddy was my junior by about seven years, a fact no more reassuring than the thought that most policemen are younger than I am now. Authority figures, people in uniforms, should be as old as your father, or so an ironclad sense of suitability tells me. Teddy was the same age as my kid brother. And since most of the building’s tenants were in their 60’s or 70’s, an odd complicity had grown up between him and me, as representatives of a younger crop of humanity. Eventually though, I began to discourage the new tone. The tack I usually took was to breeze past each morning’s freshserved joke, nod, and then stride forth into imperturbable sunlight. Once, when Gene and I were going out together, Teddy gave us a leer and said (to the partner he figured as the “woman”), “Oh. Mr. Downey, are you carrying Mr. Caswell’s baby?” His double-barreled “mister” in the context of pregnancy really pushed the envelope, but that’s our boy. I glared at him and said, “Drop it, Teddy,” flicking him off my lapel, so to speak, like a crumb of pizza crust, as we fled the precincts and set out in search of company less crude. But that was then; on moving day, normal options didn’t hold. As long as my loaded car was doubleparked, Teddy had a captive ear for his ready wit.
Which he figured out immediately. Eyes dark brown and face round as a mushroom cap, he approached me, his fists dangling at his sides. “Mr. Caswell, did I tell you about my aunt?”
“My Aunt Martha died. This is the one my mother didn’t speak to her anymore. Well, because: One night this was back in the Fifties before I was born they was going to a New Year’s Eve thing, a big fancy party over in Kew Gardens. Like I said I wasn’t born yet this is like my mother telling me the story. She got all dressed up—you know, she had on her fur cape with the squirrel heads biting each other—and they drove by first to pick up my aunt. Mother took one look at her and says, ‘What’sa matter, your lipstick is crooked.’ And when Aunt Martha tried to answer, my mother says, ‘You’re drunk, Sister.’ Didn’t I tell you this? Aunt Mart was really kind of plastered already cause it was New Year’s. They went ahead to the party anyway, and at the party they had some kind of party punch with vodka and cream de cocoa I think in it. So it was party time, and my aunt drank a lot of the punch and started asking all the men to dance. So finally my mother said we’re taking you home, and then Aunt Martha insulted her...“
“Hold on a second, Teddy, they’re going to give me a ticket.” I went out to the curb and talked, in that volcanic heat, to the unconvinced young woman in cap and uniform. The car would have to be moved. Now. No ticket, just this once, but I’ve been warned, so get moving, sir. I circled three blocks up and down and then, the meter nazi having plodded farther along on her daily rounds, slid into the same exact illegal space. But Gene still hadn’t come down.
Almost before I was inside Teddy restarted his story. “So anyway, after Aunt Martha insulted her—”
“Um, Teddy, let me phone upstairs.” I did. On the house intercom our voices crackled like cellophane. Gene had been comforting Ralph, who wanted to communicate the news that his mother had gone into Intensive Care. Ralph was devoted to his mother, so his trip to Finland and St. Petersburg would be a no show. Gene had done his best to find the right assurances and was sorry he’d taken so long. If I could just be a little patient, he’d be there in a jiff. The first thing my eyes alighted on when I put down the phone was Teddy’s face, brimming with narrative lust.
“So anyway, Mother wouldn’t speak to her after that, not until she apologized for saying what she did. Except that Aunt Martha never would apologize, she just moved out to California—this ain’t where youse guys are going, it was L.A. But nobody had her address, and they didn’t know what she was doing out there anyways. But then my mother got word from a mutual friend that Aunt Mart was dancing in a nightclub show. See, she’d always been very talented, she could sing, and she’d taken tap and modern. Aunt Martha was the kind of person she always got a kick out of showing off for people, like, at parties and things. Mother thinks I take after her.” Teddy laughed, both pleased and selfdeprecating, then went on. “But Mother was like real upset when she heard her very own sister was performing in a nightclub, to her that was just like if she’d a been a—a criminal pervert. And she felt guilty about it, like maybe she was partly responsible because Aunt Mart might not a gone to L.A. if Mother hadn’t spoken to her so nasty. You know what I’m saying?”
“Excuse me, Teddy, I want to check something.” I’d seen a delivery van backing up to the car. I wasn’t sure if they were going to block access, so, safer to ask. Out into the furnace. I went around to the driver and talked to him and his assistant. They scratched their beards and said they’d appreciate it if I could back up, say, a few feet. There was a furniture delivery for the Josephsons. The seventh floor, was that right, did I know? I said I thought it was, moved the car, and stepped back into the lobby, my hands sticky from the steering wheel. Cool air washed over me.
“They want to make a delivery, Teddy.”
“Oh? OK.” He looked outside to where the two men were wrestling a big carton out of the van. Then he turned back to me and picked up his thread. “So my mother felt guilty, and then she felt even more guilty, you know why? Because one day she went out to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandmother’s grave. It was Gamma’s birthday. What she found when she got there was, Gamma’s tombstone had tipped over flat on the ground, face down. She got to thinking about it and figured it was my grandmother being so upset about what happened to Aunt Mart. You know, from beyond the grave. Woo.” I saw a shiver run through Teddy, then he recovered and plunged in again. “My mother felt so bad about it, she got, man, like, real sick. The doctor put her to bed for two weeks. And she got my aunt’s address finally and wrote her. She told her she was very, very sorry and would you please come home. But Aunt Mart never answered. Never heard a single word. And after a while the family lost track of her completely and just gave up trying to get in touch.”
Teddy scuttled over to hold the door for the two deliverymen, who were piloting a big brown carton into the lobby and then back to the service elevator, toward which Teddy shepherded them in a series of flitting but authoritative gestures. By now I was curious to know what had happened to his aunt (such is the brute power of story), and when he came back I asked him.
“I was going to tell you. See, last New Year’s my mother went to another party, also in Kew Gardens. A different house this time, but just like before, a classy level of people. Actually, she said a few of the same guests were there as at the other party, just kind of discrepit now. A lot of them had died since the first party. Anyway, just as they were about to leave the party, my mother had a mental experience, like. She heard a voice that was saying her little sister would be dead before next New Year’s. And she busted out crying right there. Because she and her sister had been real close when they were kids, it was only later they got sore and stopped speaking to each other. So my father asked her what was the problem, but she wouldn’t tell him, so he thought she had too many cocktails. He said let’s go home, Tess. And she didn’t even tell him what it was until last Friday, when they got the news.”
“You don’t mean your aunt died.”
“Yeah, Aunt Mart was dead. And some friends of hers got in touch with us.”
“Thank you. I didn’t really know her, she left before I was born, but she was a terrific person, and she was my aunt, so I loved her.” We blinked at each other silently.
“I’m going to call upstairs again,” I said.
Gene came down. We said goodbye to Teddy, who waved from under the awning outside. At some point during his story the car had been ticketed; there was the slip under the windshield wiper. I volunteered the appropriate profanity. Gene let this dereliction of duty on my part balance off his dawdling upstairs. As we buckled ourselves in, the delivery men came out of the building, visibly thrilled to be free of that heavy appliance or whatever. They looked at Gene and nodded goodbye to me. They must have figured out that we were (to borrow a 1950s bit of gay slang that Ralph pipes up with occasionally) “as queer as Dick’s hatband.” One of the men started whistling like a canary, the other one volleyed a gob of spit into the gutter. (But don’t they always, the cold war among demographic categories being what it is. Say what you like, none of us passes for straight when sized up by construction workers and delivery men. They seem to have better radar than the middle class. I realize that their gestures are as much comeon as insult. But my tactic is always just to whistle back even louder and let fly my own gob, so that they know I’m not fazed in the least.)
As we thrashed our way through traffic toward the Lincoln Tunnel, I began to retell Teddy’s story, which at least got us out of our grim, setjaw mood. There was also the relief of finally having got the trip underway. Oddly enough, during the week-long drive, Teddy’s name kept cropping up, for no special reason, in a thousand haphazard contexts. And because that old standard came on the radio one afternoon while we were analyzing his weird, moony innocence, we started adding the refrain, “He’s funny that way.” It was almost as though he became the mascot of the trip. “He’s funny that way….” Some of his choicer comments have entered the private, ironic phrasebook that every couple develops over the course of their years together. For example, whenever we get gussied up to go to some fancy soirée, one of us usually says, “Now don’t forget to put on your fur cape with the squirrels biting each other.” And so forth. Of course Teddy’s contributions amounted to only a small percentage of the rococo lingo and wry inflections at our disposal, but still.
As I mention this it occurs to me to wonder why it is that folk on the gay side of the fence develop and deploy so much special idiom while working out our aberrant destinies. I specialize in interior design, not sociology, but I can theorize that we use clever verbality as a first-line defense against… well, you know, all the walnut-brained lunks who think they’ve pronounced words of thundering originality as soon as they’ve called us fags. We tweak and hone our blithe condescension and stiletto putdowns as a way of proving, if only to ourselves, I AM SOMEBODY: tony bitchery as self-affirmation and survival technique. And once we’ve seen how effective it can be when used on the straight world, we can then direct it at our own kind, staging a festival, a reciprocal orgy, of personality roasting. Put two or three Queer Eyes in the same room and within six minutes at least one of them is going to have his beads read in agonizing detail. Do I need to point out that we’re all capable of aiming the same Star Wars ray guns at ourselves while we’re at it? Why else do we all strive so insanely to be flawless on every front? If we weren’t perfect, our Inner Mommy Dearest would reach for her correctional coat-hanger and get to work.
Anyway, Gene and I beguiled the long hours of the driving day by retelling all the old stories from our pasts, interjecting an occasional Teddyism for comic relief. As soon as the drive was over, though, we relieved our daffy doorman of his tour of duty; and never thought to call him once while we were in San Francisco.
Now it’s December and our West Coast interlude is over. We’ve been driving the reverse route back through all kinds of weather, and I’m ready to resume my former existence—as much as anything future can be former. As we turn onto 77th Street, Gene gives me a quick, excited smacky. The city’s been subject to several transformations since we left. The air is cold, it’s night now, and all the avenues are blaring with the litup fanfare of the last few shopping days. From the apartment windows on our block half a dozen Christmas trees in silver tinsel drag are winking and flashing their sugarplum-colored lights into the darkness. We slip on our jackets before beginning to unload. Who should come out to help us but—our very own Teddy! Strange, because he never works the night shift. But he’s been transferred—at his own request, he tells me, when he shakes my hand.
“Welcome home, Mr. Caswell, Mr. Downey,” he says. “Just in time for the holidays.” Well, sure: He’s due his bonus check any second now. You can see, though, that he is sincerely glad we’re back. And I feel a helpless, sickening rush of homecoming warmth toward him as well, which I will overcome eventually, just not tonight. Cooperating, we get everything smoothly into the lobby. Gene surveys the pyramid of cartons and bags and says apologetically, “Hope you can manage this. I’ll put the car up.” He twinkles a “ciao” at me and steps outside.
I’m waiting for our 1930s-vintage slow-boat elevator. Shaking his head at our “stuff,” Teddy catches me by the sleeve and brings me up to date on the building gossip. Until I interrupt him: “How’s your mother?”
“Oh, well, she’s getting along OK. She and my dad are going downta Florida right after Christmas Day.”
“You’re not going with them?”
“No, it’s not my vacation. I’ll stay and take care of the house. While they’re gone.”
“Won’t that be lonely? But you can throw a big party.” Bingo , Teddy blushes a big bright red, and it’s obvious that I’m on target about his plans.
“Mother wouldn’t like that, not in her live-in-room. She’d be afraid of cigarette burns on the live-in-room suite.” But practiced detective skills tip me off that he’s just going to ignore those restrictions and throw his party anyway. We’re looking in each other’s eyes; he knows I know. Wait a minute, is that—? Yes: He’s exuding a floral-musky-roach-spray aura. No, it can’t be, but it is: Aramis. (I have a Proustian flashback to 1975, an era when the little tot I am knows something is different about him, just not what. A little tot who can name any perfume he smells.) There’s more. Teddy’s left ear now sports a little gold ring. Aha, bet the building doesn’t like that. Now what do I imagine he’d say on being asked, “Oh, Teddy, have you gonegay since we left?”? A plan I instantly reject. He’s sure to say YES, and then we’ll really be defenseless against those messages of sassy cheer delivered in the lobby every evening. I will happily join other building residents as we muscle him back into the closet, at least for the hours when he’s on company time. (With a certain amount of concern in his voice, Gene will report, a week later—the morning after Teddy’s unauthorized wingding out in deepest Brooklyn—that our debutante has a black eye and a cut on his chin. But that will be only the beginning, only the beginning….) At last, here it is, the slowest elevator in captivity. It opens, and, as I step into it, Teddy beams his big, space-dish grin at me and waves, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Caswell! Happy New Year!”