La reine est morte!
I grieve for Eric Engles, queen extraordinaire. My dancing buddy from our gay-glorious days in 70s/80s New York tripped his last light-fantastic on May 9.
Eric was blessed and cursed with a plethora of idiosyncrasies: utter disdain for authority, numerous addictions, steadfast loyalty, and uncommon generosity. His sense of humor—rapid-fire, salacious, low, or highbrowed—was peerless. Fueled by world travel and voracious reading, his brilliant intellect—caustic, swift, merciless, cruel—cut hypocrisy to the quick, and could pivot upon you in a fiery flash. A debate was like a barbecue: opponents skewered, grilled, burned.
Eric embodied the personas of court jester, fishwife, a debauched Catholic cardinal, a heretic destined for burning at the stake. Perhaps “Ding dong, the witch is dead” is a more accurate epitaph. Witch or queen, wherever Eric’s soul lounges, I have no doubt my dear friend is claiming the Oz reference, stoically amused, the regal reference, his due.
Pride fests loom worldwide, and thankfully, I can celebrate another year of gay joys. As denizens of Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and Villages East and West, Eric and I marched down Fifth Avenue for many Gay Pride Parades, two Colorado boys discovering and experiencing life as gay men. My friend’s death has accentuated my gratitude. I live a fabulous life!
That declaration did not occur easily. Fears of coming out of my closet festered into a painful desire to be someone I was not: straight, athletic, smarter, richer, prettier, taller. But oh, those relentless urges to express the real me conquered my fears until all I desired was to be gay. (Taller? Really?) I cannot thank God enough for my rich life, all the gay men and women I met along the way, and myself for the courage to be who I am. We do not grow unaided, and we do not give ourselves enough credit for our courage to be authentic.
Eric and I made it to our 60s, no mean feat considering we survived the AIDS plague.
Last year, I turned 64, and during a musical segue on NPR (where else?) I heard the jaunty ditty “When I’m 64” by The Beatles. I smiled because I had reached the countdown to zero calculated with junior high buddies in 1967, the year of the song’s release. We goofy teenage boys were 14, joked and giggled about, well, everything, imagining the year 2017: flying cars, moon colonies, time travel, SEX! Our futures promised endless tomorrows. Old age was inconceivable.
During the plague years I had wondered not about WHEN I’m 64, but IF I’d ever be 64, hell, 34.
AIDS smashed the gay world into a billion splinters. Shame, stigma, and death shadowed its shibboleths: sex, drugs, dancing, disco, fashion, theatre, the gym. Their excitement and pleasure mutated into shallow clichés. Perhaps they already were, but Eric and I were having too much fun to notice. Those who have experienced the ineffable joy of dancing with our tribe know what I mean. It’s a joy I have never replicated.
Our creed? Party ‘til you drop. Many partied into their graves. But the gay community rallied. Therein lies good grief, not as in everyman Charlie Brown’s melancholy cry, but as in the gay community’s ability to transform unfathomable grief into something good: art, compassion, health, and social reform. The pandemic may be considered as old, tired, and boring as those who lived it.
Regardless, it is our story, our shared history, a holocaust that should never be forgotten, a devastation far from resolution. No matter the story or achievement, we stand on the shoulders of our foremothers and forefathers wearing combat or cowboy boots, stilettos or ballet slippers, cleats or wingtips, ice skates or flip-flops.
Our youth forge new stories, new achievements. We stand on their shoulders already. Everyone in our community is a rebel; we challenge the status quo.
Eric was in-your-face gay, a purposeful rebel; I was on-the-fence gay, an unwitting rebel. In 70s New York, as the love child of the zeitgeist of the 60s sexual revolution, gay life exploded. It was defining itself, its nature secretive and seductive, an allure I was compelled to experience body and mind, heart and soul.
The irony is, our fight for acceptance cost us our invisibility. Progress comes with a price. Explosions like gay parades down Fifth Avenue tend to be noticed. I do not want to return to the past, but when I scrolled by a headline about homosexuality becoming homogenized, I could not read it. First, my life style became a cliché, and now, I am like everyone else? Quelle horreur!
As American humorist Dorothy Parker wrote: “Heterosexuality isn’t normal. It’s just common.” Who wants to be normal? And we are certainly not common. Every life is unique. But gay lives? Oh my Lord and Taylor, Needless Markup, and Sex Tits Avenue! If gays had ruled the world, the only wars fought would have been over whose toga draped better. Imagine Project Runway as Project Appian Way. Instead, for millenia, gays had to fight for their right to live.
And live I did and do, privileged to experience aging. At 50, I awoke to overflowing nose and ear hair, as though my body had whimsically decided to produce nasal and aural Rogaine-like hormones. At 60, my feet, already size 11, grew an inch, and my ears seemed to be in a race to match them. My nose swelled to the size of an avocado pit, and my neck skin sagged like a Thanksgiving turkey’s wattle, threatening to reach my nipples. Well, that’s what it felt like. No need to call me a WHAAA-ambulance. Investing in tweezers and trimmers, shoes and v-neck T-shirts, is a small price to pay for life.
In 2005, Eric and I parted ways and rarely spoke. It happened in Bangkok, like an Asian Casablanca. Eric played Ilsa, Ingrid Bergman as a drunk Divine. I played, well, Rick/Bogart, but our beautiful friendship ended. Friendship divorces are as sad as marital. Lyrics from the 30s classic “Thanks for the Memory” reveal my ambivalence:
“You may have been a headache, but you never were a bore.”
To retain a thin thread of contact, I occasionally sent Eric postcards, the last delivered the day before he died. On the back of a garish cover of a 50s pulp novel, Office Sluts, I wrote, “Ah, the good ol’ days.” Gone is another member of my dwindling tribe who remembers them.
Good new days abound. I have a loving and incredible partner. I can still touch my toes and comb a full head of gray hair. Aging grants me the privilege of considering myself a silver fox.
This summer, The Boys in the Band—Mart Crowley’s iconic dissection of 60s gay life, a play that epitomizes gay clichés—celebrates its 50th anniversary, with a Broadway premier featuring A-list gay stars. How’s that for progress? And how I wish the Eric I had loved and adored could accompany me and my partner when we attend the show, because that is how Eric and I met. In a 1974 college production, he played Emory, the Connie Casserole femme; I played Larry, the artistic slut.
Our futures do not promise endless tomorrows. This PrideFest, let us each celebrate our joys—gay, lesbian, queer, bi, straight, pan, trans, two spirit, drag, you name it. However you live your fabulous life, rebel, and rejoice!