Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

Sunday Night Drunks

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The old man grabbed Mike’s shoulder abruptly, then physically turned Mike to face him. “Saaaaaaaaaay! A little longer with me-saaaaaaaay!” He sang nonsense words in an off-key drawl, trying hard to harmonize with the inane music blaring from the overhead speakers. The words didn’t match at all.

“You know a guy like me and that’s over there,” he nodded his head toward the bar as he slapped Mike’s shoulder a few times, then he stumbled toward his bar stool, sat down, and took a swig of beer. He wore a long sleeve pullover and a ball cap over a pair of beige shorts, and he was likely in his late 60s. He immediately conjured images of Bobby Moynihan’s character Drunk Uncle from Saturday Night Live a few years ago.

Working hard to contain my laughter, I leaned in and whispered in my boyfriend Mike’s ear. “So that just happened.”

He turned to me, mock horror on his face. “What was that?”

And I just grinned. “Clearly, he is very interested in you. He tried serenading you! And then a guy like him and that over there!”

Mike fought off laughter. “What does that even mean?”

A feigned look of seriousness crossed my face. “Look, you have a free pass tonight. If you want to go home with that very handsome man, you are certainly allowed for tonight only.”

“No thank you!” Mike pursed his lips and narrowed his eyebrows, staring me down, then we both burst out laughing.

The bartender, a thick barrel of a man with a full beard, whispered an apology to us. “Guys like that, drunk this early on a Sunday night, well, let’s just say I’ve seen him do worse than that.”

We both ordered a gin and tonic, then sat down at an empty table to sip our drinks and chat. The bar was mostly empty. After a long weekend of hanging out with the kids, running errands, and working in the house, we thought we might head down to the local gay bar, the Sun Trapp, for an evening drink. I wanted to go early, Mike wanted to go late. It was a holiday weekend, I reasoned, so maybe it would be busy early, giving that Labor Day was the next day. So we compromised and arrived at the bar at 9:30. He was right, it was dead.

Random conversation between us varied from topic to topic. We discussed guys we used to date, our high school graduations, and what we had looked like as teenagers. We laughed at old family stories and held hands across the table. I watched through the window to where a solo man, clearly very drunk, gyrated on a dance floor all by himself to a techno-version of some song that should never have had a techno-version of it made. All in all, it was a lovely evening. I commented on how this didn’t feel like Salt Lake City, this felt like some small town gay bar in an unfamiliar place on a week night. And we laughed about that as we finished our drinks.

A half hour passed as we chit-chatted, and we decided we could do one more drink before heading home for the night. (I had to work in the morning, but he’d get to sleep in). We went back up to the bar to wait our turn, then heard a man walk up behind us.

He made a clicking sound with his tongue, appraising us uncomfortably, then he walked up to the side and looked us over. “Well, Charlie,” he said to his friend at the bar, “look at these gents. They don’t have an ounce of fat on them! Not that I’m complaining!” Mike gave an awkward laugh and avoided eye contact as the man continued. He clearly hadn’t looked closely, as there is at least one ounce of fat on me. “I mean, I don’t mean to be friendly, but as much as I enjoyed the view from the back, look at the view from over here! I better not be too friendly, Charlie, or the next words to come out of my mouth will be ‘drop your pants!'”

Mike gave me a look that indicated he wanted to roll his eyes. Just then the bartender indicated to the drunk old man that had been singing that his cab had arrived.

“I ain’t gettin’ in no cab!” he slurred. “I know I ordered it, but I ain’t going! And I ain’t cut off, even if you say I am or was!” He struggled to stand up from his stool, clearly outraged in his drunken stupor.

The new man continued speaking, and I finally looked over at him. He looked like a hippie, with a bandana around his head, and a long beard that extended past his rib cage. His face was old and weathered. He wore a baggy t-shirt to hide his ample stomach, and a pair of jean shorts.

“Not that anyone is asking me, but a few years back, I up and quit everything and now I’m driving a truck! I can have anybody I want back there. A while back, my brother-in-law told me he needed to find me a girlfriend, but I just told him, I don’t need no girlfriend, I just need me a sex slave! He called me crass, but I’m not afraid to say it! I’m 63 years old, what do I have to lose! Nobody wants any of this anyway! Now I just gotta find somebody who does!”

My attention went back to the previously singing man. “I’m not going, I say! I want one more!”

By the time I could turn back, the truck driver was hitting on a girl who had lined up behind me at the bar. “Well now, a pretty girl like you needs a drink! What do you want, honey?”

We left shortly after that and headed home. I contemplated all of the little bars in all of the little towns around the world, all with drunks just like these guys, early on a Sunday night, flirting blatantly with whoever walked in front of them. It was entertaining, but heartbreaking also in its way.

Sober and content, I drove toward home, jabbing Mike with my elbow.

“You were very popular this evening!”

He wasn’t flattered. Not at all.