While I was in high school I lived two lives. By day I was an industrious student, I was in the marching band and held a part time job. My nights however were spent 50 miles away in the gay clubs and parks of Kansas City drinking and dancing.Often times I would drive home as the sun was coming up just in time to shower and get to work or show up in class. I miss those times and the endurance I must have had. Now a full time job and errands in the same day is impossible without a nap.
The catalyst for this life of adventure was a boy I met when I was 16. His name was Terry Wayne but he didn't go by just Terry or just Wayne. No, You had to say both names together when addressing him and you had to drawl them out and run them together to make them sound like one word. Turrywain. Say it out loud. To pronounce it correctly pretend you're saying it through a mouth full of pudding.
When Turrywain bothered to show up at school he was a sophomore when I was a junior. He was easy to notice. He was well muscled from his job at an auto body shop and was pretty proud to show off his body in tight tee shirts and jeans. He had blond hair and blue eyes and an adorable disarming smile that always made him look innocent. Of course that only worked if you didn't know about the drugs, the underage sex and blackout drinking binges.
It's tough enough growing up gay in Missouri in the 70's but the rural influences can conspire to make life just a little bit worse for some people. Turrywain was one of those people. When he was 10 years old his 17 year old babysitter turned up pregnant by his father. I don't know what the proper ethical decision is in that situation but his father opted to divorce his wife of 18 years and marry the babysitter. Turrywains mother was upset.
For the next five years Turrywain spent his time between living with his father and the babysitter he hated and his mother who was in and out of jail as a result of her chronic alcoholism. He was driving at 14 out of necessity since often times he was the only one available to retrieve his mother from jail or from the streets after a bar fight.
By 15 life with his father was a war zone and his mother had taken to sleeping on the couches of various relatives. All parties involved decided for the peace it was time for him to get his own place. My parents didn't know that my new "friend" had his own place. When I would tell them I was spending the night with him they assumed I meant at his family home under the supervision of loving parents. Instead I was in his low rent one bedroom apartment surrounded by salvaged furniture and dreaming that I too was an emancipated minor.
The apartment was in a fairly old building and was apparently built when bathrooms and privacy weren't considered a huge necessity. He had to share the bathroom and it's bathtub with the other five residents on the second floor. For the most part they were decent people we never saw. One man however was a little off and would tend toward drunken violence. He was missing a lens from his horn rimmed glasses and would apologize after a rampage by saying "Sorry I'm just a little batshit" then poke himself in the eye through the missing lens.
Today if kids have a sleep over it's probably safe to assume they're watching movies, playing video games or surfing the Internet for porn. None of these activities were availalbe to us in the 80's so I don't know what my mother thought we were doing. If she thought about it at all I'm sure she had no idea of the true story.
Friday nights were typically a work night so the fun didn't even get started until about ten p.m. I was a manager of the local Diary Queen so it was easy to make sure the lights were off and the doors were locked by 9:30 whether the place was clean or not. My gym bag was always in my car with my going out clothes and my make up. It was the '80s don't judge me.
Although I've never been big into popular music and I didn't have MTV or even cable tv my outfits were not immune to the influence of popular culture. Basically I would dress like someone out of last years favorite music video. MC Hammer parachute pants with Culture Club inspired oversized tee shirts and purple fingerless gloves. Checker print or zebra striped headbanger bandanas tied at the wrist, waist, knees, elbows and around the forehead. Michael Jackson red zippered vest and best of all my George Michael blond tipped hair ratted up and feathered back or spiked up in a defensive posture depending on my mood.
After an hour of primping, styling, combing, spraying, tieing and zipping we were almost ready to hit the road. We'd crawl into my 1964 Ford Galaxie or Turrywains faded yellow Plymouth Duster with the red passenger door, red hood and nothing resembling a muffler and head to the 7-11 downtown to buy a couple of slurpees. The slurpees were part of the going out routine for one reason. Alcohol. Although we both looked old enough to get into clubs and to buy alcohol in Kansas we couldn't do so in our own town. So instead of buying liquor we'd steal it.
It was surprisingly easy. While I was buying our soft drinks Turrywain would be in charge of the hard drinks. He'd ask to use the bathroom which was normally employees only. If necessary he could do a pretty convincing pee pee dance would be directed to the back through the unguarded stock room. He'd return looking relieved with a little extra bulge in one of his many zippered pockets. I had a job and could afford alcohol but for some reason illgotten booze just tastes better.
Petty theft out of the way. Underage drinking underway we were ready to drink our slurpee dacquiris and drive our way to Kansas City and start our night in earnest.
Alcohol was becoming more and more important to me but nothing like it was to Turrywain. Besides stealing a bottle here and there he would flirt with anyone to get a drink bought for him. It didn't matter if it was a man old enough to be his grandfather or a chain smoking lesbian who mistook him for a rather muscled girl. Booze was booze and he became skilled at getting it and keeping it.
One Winter Friday night about two thirty in the morning the lights came up and the DJ announced "You don't have to go home but you can't stay here!". I wasn't done with my drink so Turrywain did me the favor of finishing it off for me as we walked toward the door. I was used to him inhaling a drink so I didn't think to ask where his had gone.
The bar we were leaving was on the side of a hill and during our time inside there had been a freezing rain coating the sidewalk with a perfect sheet ice. I gingerly stepped out onto the frozen slope and turned to see how Turrywain was doing but he wasn't there. He had vanished. I thought at first he had gone back inside but the other former patrons were looking down the hill. There almost a block downhill was Turrywain on his butt sliding backwards toward the next street. A long spiraling line carved into the ice by the rivet on his sergio valente jeans. He probably could have stopped himself sooner but one hand was busy holding up the drink he had smuggled out of the bar.
Kansas City doesn't come to mind when you're trying to list cities that have a thriving night life but closed bars didn't mean it was time to go home. We had two options. We could go to an after hours club which meant we could still dance but would have to go out to the car to make our own drinks or we could go to the Liberty Memorial Park. The latter is a World War I memorial with a few acres of open lawns surrounded by trees with a wide road winding through it. The center piece of the park looking over Kansas City is a 217 foot tall tower which we commonly referred to as "The penis to the sky". From about 1 am to about 4 am all through the Summer it was the center of gay life for hundreds of miles around.
Some guys would have to drive two to three hours to get to the city just for a safe night out with other gay men. So when closing time came they weren't weren't ready to make the drive all the way back home and so they'd go to the park. We always referred to the park as "the Mall" as sort of a code. We would ask men we thought might be gay "do you go to the mall?" or "haven't I seen you at the mall?" if they responded with "which one?" we could guess they were probably straight.
Even though it was the dead of night there was usually a party atmosphere. The winding road through the park made for a leisurely drive where you could look for your friends or men you might want to be your friend. Music would be blasting from open car windows and a few boom boxes. People would congregate in small groups around open trunks for drinking, smoking pot and probably more. There were usually a few shirtless guys throwing the football or frisbee on the lawns under the floodlights. There were always a few guys on roller skates making the rounds ahead of the patrolling police cars warning everyone to hide any activity they didn't want seen. It had the look and feel of a huge tailgate party.
At four or five in the morning we would start our drive home slightly less drunk and most likely with Turrywain asleep in the car next to me. We'd roll into his parking spot at his studio apt just as the sun was coming up. He'd put on his Escape Album by Journey and we'd fall asleep to it. For a while anyway. This was the days of vinyl and the record would skip during Open Arms and one of us would have to get up and move the needle. About the third or fourth time it would skip I'd go home not wanting to try to get ready in the bathroom he shared with the other tenants. I would shower, change and go to work to open the restaurant I had closed just a mere eleven hours before. Turrywain would inevitably be late to work but would make it through the day with the benefit of the little pink pills he kept in his freezer. He had a huge bag of them and I never really got a good answer as to what they were or where they came from.
Since I didn't have the benefit of little pink pills I would start my morning at the restaurant with a pot of coffee and cleaning up the mess I had left the night before. The place was nearly always dead so I would tell the other employees I had to do a bunch of paperwork and I sneak up to the office and take a nap. My entire day would go by in a daze and every thought felt like my brain was wrapped in cellophane. I'd tell myself I needed to stay home tonight and get some rest. By halfway through the day I was convinced I had to at least stay in town since I was obviously exhausted. By nightfall and for some reason that always perked me up. Regardless of what I had told myself earlier I was now ready for some hard core self negotiation. Didn't I deserve a night out after working all day? I had a nap so maybe I'm not as tired as I thought I was. If I go for just one drink then I can come home early. By the time I was closing the restaurant I already had my outfit picked out in my head and I was humming Journey tunes.
The next year Turrywain had disappeared to one of the other small towns scattered around the state. That didn't stop me from going to the bars in the city and didn't stop me from telling my mother I was staying at his house. Some nights I would just sleep in my car parked along one of the hundreds of dirt roads around town. Eventually I met other gay men in town and developed a circle friends I could both carpool to the city with and sleep in their couches after. Since these guys were older and more responsible it also meant my chances for survival were much higher.
By older I mean late they were in their 30's which at my current age I realize that wasn't older at all. One of these men, Nick, decided to take me under his wing and show me the real gay life. Nick didn't bother with spiking his hair or wearing eye make up. He wore glasses like mine but somehow his made him look a lot better . He always wore collared shirts and ties and often suits in a town that was mostly jeans and t'shirts. He was very charming never seemed to be judgmental and was very interesting to talk to. This was probably because of his job. He was a funeral director.
From what I gathered as difficult as it is to land a live man for yourself it is even more difficult when you handle so many dead ones. For someone that dealt with tragedy and other people's depression so much Nick was surprisingly upbeat. Sometimes he'd have me over to the funeral home on his lunch break to keep him company when it was slow. I'd come in and see him in his suit vacuuming the floor with an open casket behind him. He'd stop and see where I was looking and say very matter of factly "oh.. that's Mrs. Miller, her family isn't coming by until this evening. I got her done early". It was odd to see a dead body just out like that with the lid open. At least put some plastic wrap over her to keep her fresh.
Our friendship wasn't limited to lunchtime with corpses. Once in a while he would invite me to out with him and his friends closer to his own age. I didn't have my own phone and this was before everyone had cell phones so all calls would come to the one phone I shared with my family. If I was lucky I would be the one to answer. If I wasn't lucky my mother would answer and I would have to explain to her why a slightly effeminate man in his 30's was calling her 17 year old son. She was always suspicious and would ask what was going on but would never hazard a guess. If she had I bet it wouldn't have been that I was being invited to a drag show with a funeral director who didn't realize I was half his age.
Nick and his friends went to nicer bars than I did so I would have to change how I dressed when I'd go out with them. My pants would only have one zipper and it was in the typical place. I would drive to a public parking lot in town that was out of the public eye and pull out the polo shirt and Members Only jacket I had hidden in the trunk. I hid some of my clothes in the trunk so my parents wouldn't know how much I was spending on clothes. I'd pop the collar up on a lavender polo and mousse the highlights using the rear view mirror.
One particular night we climbed into his brand new mustang and as we pulled away he told me then we were be picking up his friend Tony to go with us. I had met Tony before but didn't care for him too much. He had a habit of reminding people his name was "Antonio" which nobody would pay attention to and would just call him Tony anyway. He was dark skinned and hairy and though he was the same age as Nick he hadn't aged nearly as well. He also had a very large nose that kept him from being handsome. Overall I felt very neutral about him but was a little annoyed that we'd have to take a detour to get him and I'd have to sit in the back seat.
As we drew closer to what I assumed was Tony's neighborhood I noticed a little old lady under a street light dressed all in black including long black gloves
As we drew closer to what I was assuming was Tony's neighborhood I noticed a little old lady dressed all in black with long black gloves, a pillbox hat and a veil. This was very out of character for the area since it was a farming town populated rednecks and big bottomed women. Come to think of it she was out of place in about any situation except a funeral in Spain or possibly Sicily. I thought she was waiting to cross the road but as we got closer she lifted a black gloved hand and waved a white lace handkerchief. At that very moment a breeze caught her shawl and skirt making them fan out around her. She suddenly looked twice the size and very threatening. Not unlike the cliche Halloween cat arching its back. It was like seeing a ghost.
I opened my mouth to point her out this strange apparition to Nick and to make sure I wasn't the only one to see her when he said "oh". It was the kind of "oh" someone says when he is faced with a pleasant surprise like a dessert he didn't order, or finding a destination was closer than you thought. He didn't have to say anything else because I knew what would happen next. The little old lady dressed in traditional European mourning attire from the top of her sneeded head to her black tights and clunky square shoes was Tony or as he corrected when he got into the car. "Antonia".
The drag show we went to was the first of what would be hundreds over the coming years. It wasn't as polished and didn't have the production quality I would see later in Las Vegas or New Orleans but it was my first and was exciting. It wasn't just the performers in drag that night. The bar was known for it's cross dressing patrons and Antonia was very popular. This left Nick and me to ourselves a lot. He would narrate for me. "That one is supposed to look like Madonna", "That one is a truck driver", "She is a pro boxer" etc.
On the ride home the two of them chatted about everyone else in the bar and what they were wearing and how well they did or didn't pull it off. We dropped of Antonia and after watching her disappear into the night like a retirement home ninja I had to ask Nick "why does he dress that way? . "OH I don't know really why any of them do but it's fun" he responded. "no," I corrected "why does he dress like an old lady?". "oh... well ... I'm not sure really. I think he wears the black hose and gloves because he's so hairy and it just grew from there." he said diplomatically. I was unconvinced "it looks more like he's in disguise than in drag" I didn't know why people did drag either but I knew the others looked bigger than life and sometimes better as women than they did as a man while he most certainly did not. He laughed because I think the same had crossed his mind. "well, he's my friend so I just support him where I can. I even gave him a bunch of my old make up from work." a contemplative look came over his face "Come to think of it, I hope it's removable. Nobody I've ever put it on has ever had to take it off"
Several weeks later my mother found a flyer with a black and white picture of one of the drag queens from the show in my wallet. I grabbed it away from her but she still asked "oh my god was that you?". I couldn't believe how ridiculous that question was. I mean really, I would never dress like Tammy Wynette and I'm not nearly 300 lbs. A few years later I found out I look like Stephanie Powers when I'm in drag. But that's a different story.
It's funny looking back and thinking how much fun that double life was. I still go to bars but pay my way and almost never get drinks bought for me anymore. How I dress during the day is how I dress when I go out. I buy my own alcohol and don't risk drinking and driving. I see the occasional drag show but somehow it's lost the appeal it had when it was all new. I guess it's true what they say. Life is wasted on the underage.