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.

Discontent at Back Cove

BackCove

“Sometimes I wish I could go back in the past,” I said as I looked over the waters of Back Cove in Portland, Maine. A colony of seagulls flitted about over the far shore, and a few large birds of prey, likely falcons I considered, soared over the green horizon.

My best friend, Tyler, walked at my side, hands in pockets, thoughtful. He’s one of the few people I can engage in deep conversation with. “Like to try and change your life?” he asked.

“I mean, yes. But that’s not what I mean.” I scratched my own head, trying to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t mean to relive my own life. Just in a weird way, it would have been amazing to live in a different era.”

Tyler waited for me to sort my thoughts, listening as a few joggers passed us.

“It would have been amazing to live in a time when trends were being set. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. To be a gay man in that era, who was on the front lines implementing change. Advocacy, exploration, pushing forward against all odds.” A pang of guilt hit me for even thinking that way, so I clarified. “I love living in this era. I love the skin I’m in. I love my life. And I respect and appreciate all who fought to make this world better. Just sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a, I don’t know, a trendsetter. Back then, gay people we celebrate now were still living hidden lives. And then the AIDS crisis happened and Harvey Milk and all the Pride marches. I don’t even know what I’m saying, I just wish–it would have been cool to see all that, you know? To have lived through all that.”

Tyler laughed, but stayed silent as my thoughts raced. These words, these feelings, had been building up in me for a while, and now they were cascading outward, trying to find some sort of clear path from my soul to my mouth. It was jumbled.

And so we walked in silence for a minute. I felt the ocean breeze against my skin, thick with the scent of blooming flowers. It was so green and lush here. My first time in Maine, a new city to explore, new ground under my feet. My soul always comes most alive during these times. I gave thought to what I was even trying to say. I wondered if feminists sometimes wished they could go back to help in the Suffragette movement, or if my Black friends wondered what it would be like to fight for Civil Rights among the Freedom Riders. A sense of nostalgia washed over me. Not nostalgia, gratitude. Not gratitude, envy. Not envy, hope.

I exhaled a deep sigh. “I’m not sure what I’m trying to say.”

Tyler chose a park bench to sit down on, facing the water. A large puddle sat at its base and I carefully placed my feet to avoid getting them wet.

“You wish you could be some sort of trendsetter?” he asked. Tyler understood me in a way most people don’t, and he could somehow sort through the nonsense.

“No? Yes? I don’t know. I want to make a difference. I want to do something huge.”

“That’s what she said,” he responded, and I rolled my eyes and laughed. Then he grew a bit sober. “You already are a trendsetter.” He listed off the things I’m doing, the things I’ve done. The book, the graphic novel, the story-telling performances, the advocacy and interviews, the upcoming documentary, and, above all else, raising two amazing kids. I smiled. Tyler knows me well. And he understands. He works himself hard and dreams big as well, in his classroom, in his advocacy work.

“Thanks,” I responded simply. “I just–I’m all in a jumble. I want to see the history. I want to face it head on. I want a huge success. I want a big win. I want to change hearts and minds. I want to matter. I want to feel it, the quest, the journey, all paying off.”

Tyler gave me the gift of his listening ear as I listed out the things I’d tried, the small successes I had achieved that had relatively low yield, and the many failures and unfinished projects along the way.

“2016 was about learning to follow my passions. 2017 was about doing the impossible, and seeing that I could do it if I put my mind to it. 2018 was about learning that quality goods don’t mean quality results, and that people who say they will show up don’t always show up. But it was about more than that, about pushing hard for myself and realizing that it is within me to build and sustain.”

Tyler nodded, knowing my journey well. “You’ve always been more of a fire-starter than a fire-tender. You still need to learn how to get the right people in your camp and keep them there, and then ask for help.”

I wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t. I was great at sustaining some things, and terrible at others. Then I surveyed all I’ve learned this last year, and took stock of those who were now in my camp. Volunteers, critics, story-tellers, film producers. I had a lot of plates spinning in the air, and realized I wasn’t spinning them myself any longer. I was platform building, yes, but I wasn’t the only one with a hammer.

More silence as I let the frustration seep out of me. I visibly sighed, then put my head in my hands with my elbows on my knees.

“Ah, the plight of the artist,” I said dramatically, and Tyler laughed. “There are a thousand alternate worlds out there. In one, I’m the faithful Mormon father, unhappy in my skin. In one, I’m the successful author, never home. In other, maybe I own a coffee shop or a bed and breakfast. But in all of them, I’m discontent, wishing for more, even while loving the life I have. I don’t think that part of me changes.”

“Well, maybe the quest, the search for a fire to start, is exactly what keeps you going. Maybe it’s that desire for something more that keeps the artist in you alive.”

And I kept those thoughts in my head as we continued walking around Back Cove. I thought of blue herons and mosquitoes, tides and shorelines, cloud and city skylines, of all I’ve done and all I’ve yet to do. The sun fell on the water and on me in equal measure, and for once, I welcomed the discontent, letting it grab hold of me and push me forward.