Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Furniture Mike

FURNITURE MIKE 

(excerpt from I LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS, a memoir by Fred Barton)


Funeral Mike phoned me at the hotel Friday night, shouting over disco music and raucous gay-bar hilarity.  “Fred?  Come out and par-TAY with us!”

Even if he hadn’t said “par-TAY” – no fucking way.  I had already gone to bed early, after the riotous Halloween party the whole CABARET company threw ourselves; no way was I going to drag myself up, get dressed all over again, and head into the night to party with the locals – especially the two I had the least interest in, out of the Buffet De Gay that had unexpectedly presented itself during that jumped-up week in Detroit.

I was still pouting from the romantic wipeout the day before; and I knew I had a “hot date” for the next night, Saturday, with Terry (I love it when that happens!)  So – sorry, Funeral Mike; I suspected you wanted me, or maybe you boys just wanted more glamorous hob-knobbing with us dazzling New York theatre people, but I just wasn’t in the mood for any more slumming and gay-barring with the locals.  All of us New York national-tour show-gays look down on the local boys, while skulking around the country trying to land as many as we can.  On top of that, I’m a lifelong snob with a massive inferiority complex; if I want you, I’m two inches tall, and if you want me, I’m Goliath ready to crush you ever so gently with a lofty bon mot and a nice-to-seeya and a skedaddle.  Poor Funeral Mike.  Unlike the other night, now I was no fun at all, and nothing he could say could drag me into clothes again and out of the hotel.  Maybe they reached my best friend in the show, whom I’ll call Paul P., who had mysteriously not shown his face at our Halloween party.  He was always up for trouble.  Let him go out with Les Boys.

Earlier that day, I was electrified to get a call from Terry Feinstein.  When God closes a door, he opens a window, and other pertinent quotes from THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  Terry had been there at the Woodward, Wednesday night, when it all started.  By Detroit standards (that’s my New York snobby thing again), he was all kinds of handsome, with the exaggerated biceps of the overcompensating gay work-out junkie.  He was a little older than me (I was exactly 30), and we actually had some smart-ish conversation at the bar, as opposed to the silly-gay-local-faggy blather of the others.  The glam touring show-folk from New York make a splash in these gay bars around the country, but glam I am not, and I’m perennially the Cheese Stands Alone and the first one left standing in the corner in Gay Musical Chairs, so I was astounded and thrilled when Terry actually called me on Friday.  According to my diary:  “He couldn’t have been nicer and arranged a date for tomorrow” – Saturday.  So I might actually have a swell time before the Detroit week was up, after all.  Terry was so nice on the phone, which was notable considering it was by the cold light of day and away from the irresponsibly silly, dirty-flirty nonsense of late-night cocktails in a dive Detroit gay bar.  So.  No need to drag out of bed Friday night to par-tay with Funeral Mike and his blond friend, whatever his name was.  I could hear at the end of the phone call that they were disappointed and probably mystified, since I had been such a barrel of gay laughs Wednesday when we met.

We Of The Theatre have a tradition I call the Front Row Cruise.  99% of musicians aren’t gay, but the Front Row Cruise is not just for the gay folk, and not just for the musicians in the pit.  Sometimes the chorus boys can see through the lights and catch the eyes of the handsome patrons in the front row, and you know they’re always bored enough to be trying.  And a successful Front Row Cruise can mean more than just a local roll in the hay.  Donald Chan, the conductor for whom I was Associate-Conducting CABARET, had struck up a flirtatious conversation with an attractive lady right behind him in the front row of the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami, and he and Susan were inseparable for the rest of the whole tour, and beyond, and for all I know they’re still together.  And then there was Joey Gomes sitting behind me on the opening night of THE SOUND OF MUSIC at Theatre-By-The-Sea when I was 20, a Front Row Cruise which led to the summer-long, sole extended pseudo-affair of my life (34 years later, Joey just sent me his wedding announcement, so I can die happy – for someone, if not for me.)

Wednesday night at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Theatre, I took my seat at the pit piano at 7:50PM, did the nightly scan for a Front Row Cruise, and what so rarely happens happened.  Directly in front of me, overhead in the front row of the orchestra section, was a Gaggle of gay men – three handsome young ones, and one of the least attractive elderly men I’d ever seen (see above, re: snob. Sorry, Andy – just describing the perceptions of my judgmental youth.  Now I’m probably approaching your age.)  I got the picture – the old guy paid for the tickets and the young ‘uns are his gay brood of some kind.  Whatever; – three handsome men right in front of me?  I love it when that happens!  And I love watching audience members watch the show – and if they’re handsome men, well, my tough luck.

Immediately, the eyes of the youngest of them fell upon me, in all my (dubious) glamorous New York pit-musician glory.  The kid was stunning – maybe 21, a very fine-featured, beautiful young man, with an interestingly sophisticated and intelligent face, marred only by a notably Italian nose of some kind; but with my pre-surgical misshapen jaw and orthodontic braces, I wasn’t about to hold it against him.

He locked eyes with me, this young man – for the next two and a half hours.  Hal Prince’s production of CABARET, starring Joel Grey, may have unfolded on the stage overhead, but for this young ‘un, I was the show.  Every thirty seconds, while his oblivious friends watched the stage, this young man’s eyes wandered down to mine, drilling right through me with a meaningful, intense, shy smile, and an impressive repertoire of flirtatious, sophisticated, subtly romantic head tilts and finger hints.  (I had done the same to a Broadway pianist once from my front row seat at the Mark Hellinger when I was his age.)  And I had a ball, returning all his loaded stolen glances soaked with the clichés of the romance novel, while the rest of the Gaggle next to him watched Joel Grey.

“You may see a stranger – across a crowded room, and somehow you know, you know even then – that somehow you’ll see him again and again.”

Oscar Hammerstein, you ruined my life.  Unaccustomed to being the object of attention from anyone remotely attractive, I spent nearly three hours starring in my own remake of Of Human Bondage, with a heavy dose of Lost Horizon.  And I was a sitting duck, a rare bird in the zoo cage, insistently stared at by the young man, stuck without the slightest way to communicate with this person or slip him my hotel number, with his friends and the 25 pit musicians sitting right there.  At intermission, I ran backstage to my best friend Paul P.’s dressing room, and told him what a sensational night I was having, with the most beautiful young man in Detroit actually making eyes at me every thirty seconds from the front row.  Paul was unimpressed; but he was the company’s gay all-in-one combination of Joan Blondell, Joan Crawford and Clara Bow, and surely in the two days since we arrived, he had already had five hot encounters, an orgy, and was no doubt expecting the handsomest man in town to be waiting that night at the stage door. My footsie-playing and eyeball-locking with some Front Row Johnnie was not bound to impress the likes of Paul. He mentioned that all of us were invited after the show to the local gay bar, which was hosting some kind of cast party.  Fun town, Detroit – who knew?

Back in the pit for Act Two, my remake of Brief Encounter continued – Handsome Young Audience Man and Lonely Pit Pianist locked in a world of their own mutual admiration-slash-crush society, an entire unspoken affair and decades of marriage and life together unfolding, while 2000 oblivious mere mortals around them watched and performed a Broadway show.  The unfortunate-featured old guy, host of these young men, looked down at me at few times.  No flies on him.  His little My Favorite Martian radar picked up something going on between me and his little acolyte; he looked amused, in the sardonic, gay-bitchy way of the been-there-done-that elderly queen smirking at the young uns’ attempts at subtlety. 

The three-hour show ended, and the spell was broken; the pit pianist was just a pit pianist, the young guy was just some young guy out with his friends. The Gay Gaggle got up to leave.  I was desperate to communicate SOMETHING to my paramour – but there was just no way.  Zoom in on my doomed face as they put on their coats and slowly shuffled across the front row to the aisle; Quick Cut to the young man, looking back at me one last time, dreamy-eyed, star-struck, and bereft, as he hesitantly followed his friends and disappeared up the aisle into the night, into history and into my diary.

Sing it, Judy Holliday!  “And I’ll never meet him; and he’ll never meet me.  No, he’ll never meet me.”

———

Plunged back into dreary reality, off I went with Paul P. and the other gay cast members to some local gay bar hosting a “cast party” for us.  I hate gay bars and I hate these locally hosted things, but it beats a lonely hotel room.

The Woodward, dating from 1951, is the oldest gay bar in Detroit – and by “oldest,” I could refer to the building, the décor, and the clientele.  It was a classic Mob-style joint (gay bars of the 20th century were exclusively owned and operated by the Mob, who could pay off the police and do all the things required to maintain an establishment catering to people with historically illegal predilections and behaviors) – a crummy joint on a crummy street (which would describe most of Detroit, of course) – with a grubby entrance on the back of the building.  The joint’s atmosphere inside was a 1951 time capsule, all ancient wood paneling and gayer-than-gay statuary and fru-fru, buzzing with the lurid hubbub of a déclassé speakeasy.

I immediately picked out the handsome Jewish guy sitting at the bar, pumped-up biceps, strikingly picturesque, a real stand-out from the other locals.  Giddy from that three-hour crazy silent-movie romance with the young stranger at the show, I felt untypically confident enough to strike up a conversation with the handsomest guy in the bar.  Terry Feinstein.  Nice guy, with a dash of smart New York-ish attitude that made me feel right at home.  Way out of my league, with that face and the exaggerated biceps, but he didn’t seem to be with anyone else, and I was feeling strangely competent enough to carry on a merry, flirty conversation.  Sort of like the normal people I’ve heard about. 

A hubbub at the door, and in came our host for this “cast party,” the owner or manager of the bar (one can presume a Mob middleman.)  He was a locally popular character named Andy K., an unfortunate-looking, obese, decrepit guy… with three young men in tow.  Andy K. was, of course, none other than the gnarly old man from the front row of the theatre, and his sycophants now striding into the Woodward were none other than the three young men from the front row, including the stunning young paramour to whom I had tragically bid a silent adieu as he disappeared into the night after our Affair To Remember.

“You know even then – that somehow you’ll see him again and again.”  Oscar Hammerstein, shut the fuck up; do you always have to have the last word?

I reached into my trusty Bipolar Toolkit, rummaged around, and planted in my head that ever-dependable gadget:  Euphoria.   Mystery Man had vanished into the impenetrable forest of the countless never-to-be-seen-again, who-knows-what-might-have-been individuals who have tormented me by checking in, flirting, and checking out of my life for fifteen years.  Now, twenty minutes later, he was standing before me, in a smashing suit (all decked out for a night at the theatre) – making an apparently habitual effort to seem more mature and sophisticated than he was (I did the same at his age) – and after that three-hour baroque silent-movie romance during the show, Jolson Talks!  Let there be dialogue.

I introduced myself to the merry quartet, and thanked Andy K. for hosting the party for us, and gushed about the coincidence of them having been in the front row right in front of me all that time at the show, and, well, here we are!  Andy K. moved away and took his apparently customary seat at the end of the bar, and My Future Husband and his friends introduced themselves to me.  The blond: I can’t remember his name, and didn’t, five minutes after I heard it.  But the dark-haired guy, and his friend, my paramour – those names I remembered, for the next 26 years.  They were both named Michael, and I was presented with one of those typical little cutesy in-joke gay gags that one finds in the small towns.  Since these two Mikes were friends, and hung out together with all the same crowd, they gave each other nicknames to keep things straight: The one who worked in a funeral parlor was known as Funeral Mike; and my paramour, who worked in a furniture store, was known as Furniture Mike.  What a gag!  Funeral Mike and Furniture Mike.  And whatever the blond’s name was.

Maneuvering Furniture Mike away from the others, I launched into an extroverted riff about the ridiculous miracle of the coincidence, and told him how happy I was to actually meet him, after being so sure I never would; and how this had all just made my night.  His young, keen, trying-to-be-sophisticated eyes flashed and we laughed and fumbled around to find real-life conversation after that kooky, three-hour eye-romance.  One definition of “pathetic” might be “two people trying to live up in conversation to each other’s previous visual fantasy versions of each other.”  But we pulled it off and chatted happily, albeit haltingly, adjusting to being real people actually talking to each other, as opposed to Oscar-Hammerstein-across-a-crowded-room strangers.  Pumped up by the reassurance of those three hours of ocular foreplay, I pounded away at conversation with that rarest of items in my life, the Sure Thing, this Furniture Mike, four eyes flashing and flirting with nine million megawatts of electricity in the air.  I love it when that happens!  What could go wrong?

My best version of Auntie Mame effervescence couldn’t hold him forever, and eventually he moved away from me to stand with the aged owner of the bar, and I kept him in eyesight while pretending to wander randomly around the party.  My antennae immediately picked up something funny going on over there, where he was talking and laughing with the bar owner: what is that – a little inside rapport, some hint of familiarity?  Returning to the side of Terry Feinstein, the handsome Jewish muscle guy, I asked offhandedly about Furniture Mike.  Terry replied in my ear, with the amused smirk of the gay gossip, gesturing surreptitiously towards Furniture Mike and the aged, gnarly bar owner:  “Can you believe he’s sleeping with that old SACK OF SHIT?”

I’m from a gay-free small town and was always dopey-green, even after eight years in New York.  That old guy – with that gorgeous young man?  What the fuck?  What could that possibly be about?  (I know, it’s hard to believe I had gotten that dumb in only 30 years.)  In my idiotic romantic haze, I thought:  “Oh, that poor boy.  No wonder he sees in me some New York glamorous alternative to some kind of weird, fucked-up, whatever-that-is situation.”  But I recoiled.  Everyone worth taking’s been taken.  Bad enough I’ve spent my life being shamelessly flirted with by the handsomest men in the world whose invariably gorgeous boyfriends and husbands suddenly pop up like Jack-In-The-Boxes over their shoulder, joke’s on you!  (Handsome partnered guys like to flirt with hapless single guys so they know they COULD still land a little prey if they wanted to.)  But to compete with someone three times my age and with a hundredth of the attributes, as paltry a list as I possessed?  Ah, the Eighties, when being gay was fucking torture, if you were still alive to enjoy it.  What could possibly lead a stunning young personable guy to be involved with some ancient and (to be as polite as I can be) unprepossessing, unfortunate-looking guy like the owner of this Mob bar?  Duh.

I never got much more conversation out of Furniture Mike; I never got his undivided attention again, and was turned off by the revelation of his… situation, or whatever it was.   Besides, everyone else has more fun the more they drink and carouse; the more I drink and try to party, the quieter, duller, stupider, and eventually just morose I get, until a little voice sings in my head: “Time to go home.”  Funeral Mike and Blond Guy talked of plans for us all to party again Friday night, two nights away.  I heard that second chorus of “Time to go home” in my head and bid them all au revoir: handsome Terry Feinstein, and Funeral Mike and the Blond.  And just as I was leaving, that haunting, mysterious paragon known as Furniture Mike confidentially pressed his business card into my hand, the essential magic key to our next encounter, thus carved in the stone of certainty.

———

Thursday morning:  By the cold light of day, the first thing I heard in my head was Terry Feinstein’s lurid whisper:  “Can you believe he’s sleeping with that old SACK OF SHIT?”  The night of zany fun and the small-town Peyton Place scenario suddenly seemed not so zany and not so much fun.  What was I into here, with this kid and “that old SACK OF SHIT?”  What am I supposed to do with that card he gave me?  Clearly he was reaching out from whatever his situation was, and I’m cursed with empathy for those who reach out, even if I’m not sure I want to pursue the involvement.  My diary entry of the day:  “I decided to be thoughtful, despite reservations – and called Mike the Furniture Store Person who had been so aggressively fascinated last night.”

Furniture store number dialed.  Pick-up.  FAB:  “Hi, is Mike there?”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB (pause):  “Uh… is this Mike?”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB (up an octave):  “Oh, Hi, Mike, this is Fred Barton, from last night!”  Voice:  “Oh.  Hi.”  (Long pause.)  FAB:  “Uh, well…. I just wanted to say hello… great to meet you last night.”  “Voice:  “Yeah.  OK.’  FAB:  “Uh… So.  Hope all’s well at the store.  Are you going out later?”  Voice:  “No.”  FAB:  “Uh…. well… I’m leaving town on Monday, so I hope we can get together and talk some more.”  Voice:  “OK.”  (Long pause).  FAB:  “Well… I think it would be fun to do some talking away from the crowd and the bar music and all.”  Voice:  “Oh.  I guess.”  FAB:  “Uh… OK.  Tell you what.  I’m at the Hotel St. Regis next to the Fisher Theatre.  Maybe you can call me later, if you have time and feel like it.”  Voice:  “Yeah.”  FAB:  “Oh.  OK.  Well, you know where I am, and I hope I’ll be talking to you.”  Voice:  “Oh.  OK.”  (Long pause)  FAB:  “OK.  Goodbye.”  Voice:  (Click.)

WHAT.  THE.  FUCK.  WAS.  THAT.

Same story my entire life.  Sure, you gay bastards, get me all jumped up, flirt with me, romance me, tease me, and once I’m in the bag, kick my lights out.  Good show, boys, I know I can count on you fucks.  A million times.  Goodbye, Furniture Mike, whoever the fuck you are with your 90-year-old sack-of-shit Mafia bar-owner daddy guy, and treating me like shit on the phone after that whole fake hours-and-hours-long bullshit charade of “across a crowded room” and publicly romancing me all over that bar in front of your friends and my friends, and the next day treating me as if I’m some creep you never heard of.

My diary that day:  “Mike the Furniture Store Person was monosyllabic and utterly disinterested, so I closed the conversation and ripped up his phone number.”

Here’s the rest of Thursday from the diary, a perfect characterization of the entire CABARET experience:  “I went to rehearsal – Craig Jacobs forestalled negativity with his usual pep-style talk – and what followed was the usual 2-hour repetitive vocal-dance brush-up, with Don Chan beating everything to death – then Bonnie took over and made us all absolutely crazed with her inane, unnecessary dance break-downs.  We left at 5:00 absolutely a unified lynch mob… I was murderously depressed and dispirited by the never-ending rehearsal intrusions.”  (More on the Bonnie Walker rehearsal psychosis in a separate chapter.)

So now you see, if you’re following this at all, why I was so thrilled, the next morning (Friday), to get a call from Terry Feinstein, the handsome, muscular Jewish guy from the Woodward Gay-Gray bar Wednesday night, so nicely asking me out for a real date on Saturday night.  That Furniture Mike situation was crushing and mystifying – how could he have been so riveted by me by night, and so cold and monosyllabic the next day?  But I liked Terry a lot, and he was more my age and speed, and all kinds of goodlooking, so gangway, world, get off o’ my runway… Detroit, what a town!  Men coming out of the Woodward, er, I mean, woodwork!  I love it when that happens!  And that night the CABARET cast had that brilliant Halloween party, with hilarious show tune performances and outrageous costumes, and one of the first and only times we all had a good time as a company together on that endless, dreary tour.  And that’s the night I went to bed right after the party, and got woken up by Funeral Mike and The Blond and didn’t want to go out with them; besides, if Furniture Mike were with them as usual, I’d had more than enough of THAT.  I had Terry Feinstein to look forward to the next night, and it’s in the bag!  More going on in Detroit than in the last ten cities put together.

——————-

The next day, Saturday, after breakfast, the message light was on in the hotel room; the operator read me the curt statement:  “Terry called and has to cancel tonight.”  That’s it?  No explanation, no follow-up, no alternative plan?  Just “has to cancel tonight,” no phone number, goodbye, never see you again?  Good show, boys, I know I can count on you gay handsome bastards.  A million times.  Set me up, get me in the bag, kick my lights out, goodbye, never heard of you.

I also had noted that my best friend in the show, Paul P., wasn’t at the Halloween Party.  I just knew why he wasn’t there; he was where he always was:  having the hottest date in town with the hottest guy in town, because he never failed to be doing that, city after city after city; and he never failed to delight in telling me all about it, time after time, while I ate my heart out.

Paul P. lived near me in the West 80’s in New York, and he knew me (from my FORBIDDEN BROADWAY fame) before I knew him; I really made his acquaintance outside Zabar’s one summer day, when he was sitting on the sidewalk, all gay-tank-top-and-tight-shorts, gay-porn fantasy material with muscles and a head of blond curls, and he flirted with me.  It was never in the cards, Paul and I, although I would have gone there in a hot minute; but unlike the vast majority of gay friends, we got to the friendship part WITHOUT the obligatory introductory sex.  I rarely had gay friends of any description, so the Paul thing was an anomaly.  And like all gay friendships, this one came with a fucked-up dynamic built in:  He was in awe/jealousy of my talent and sort-of-fame, and I was WAY in awe/jealousy of his terrific looks and insatiable, and never unsuccessful, prowess.

The CABARET tour tested the friendship.  It’s a lonely submarine ride, a national tour, trapped with the same incompatible people inside an airtight tube (quite literally, given the number of airplanes and buses involved).  Paul and I were best tour buddies – but the stress began early, as I noticed how much he delighted in telling me in great detail, in inches and centimeters, about every latest fuckscapade (a sure-fire recipe for my insanity, but if he didn’t volunteer, I always asked for the details, masochist that I am); and in any one town, I had barely figured out a route from the hotel to the drugstore before he had already found the handsomest guy in town, or five of them, with a sixth waiting for him at the stage door by opening night.

Never deficient in the article of paranoia, I began to notice something else.  Every opening night party, every foray into the grubby, grim small-town gay bars, I had the weird but distinct impression that if I told Paul I had my eye on someone – within a half hour they’d be leaving together.  At one party I even tested it by picking a random guy I wasn’t attracted to, and telling Paul I had my eye on him; Paul left with the guy fifteen minutes later.

If you’re single, and on tour, you do all kinds of crazy things.  Once in Louisville, some guy “picked me up” at a Waldenbooks.  Once we got back to my room at the Seelbach Hotel, I decided against messing with this one – but, just for fun, I sent him down the hall to knock at Paul’s room; he did, the door opened, and in he went.  Later in Chicago, a handsome room service guy came to my door to pick up a tray, but I had never ordered room service in the first place.  He hung in the doorway expectantly.  I sent him away, like a dope, but suddenly I wondered if he were Paul’s return gift for the Louisville guy.  That’s a national tour.

So, there I was on Saturday, Terry Feinstein having canceled our date without explanation, and Paul mysteriously absent from our company Halloween party the night before.  My mind began to put two and two together.  At the show, I asked Paul why he wasn’t at our party.  “Because I was FOOLING AROUND!!….” he replied, with mock bass-to-soprano dramatic hilarity.  “OK, Paul, I REALLY need you to tell me who you were ‘fooling around’ with, because it will help me figure something out.”  “You don’t want to know!” he assured me, with the same mocking, fake-humorous levity.

Diary entry:  “At the show, Paul’s strange behavior regarding whoever slept with him last night gave me a severe cast of first-class paranoia; I begged him to tell me what happened so that I’d know if that was why Terry Feinstein stood me up tonight; he refused to tell me, making me assume the worst, and I spent Act 1 in utter suicidal misery.”

Everyone worth taking’s been taken; everyone worth having’s been had.  And true to form, I was the Little Match Girl, nosed pressed against the glass, watching all the world have their fun and very explicitly excluded and sideswiped off the road by the dazzlers with whom I’d been dumb enough to throw my lot by going into showbiz.  (That last sentence has been alternately discussed and scorned by a fleet of shrinks for twenty years, but I still think it’s fun to throw out there when I’m in a regressive pre-therapy mood.  I didn’t hit therapy until three years after these events.)

Paul relented at intermission and assured me it wasn’t handsome Terry Feinstein with whom he had been “fooling around” the night before; so now I could relax and go back to my encyclopedia of non-Paul-related reasons why Terry would cancel the “date” with me.  See above, pre-therapy fun things to throw out when I’m telling one of my self-victim stories.  And being on national tour makes every stupid thing seem of huge importance.

———————

Sunday, October 30, 1988 – last night in town, a time for 1) packing and 2) reflecting on what turned out to be a helluva lotta drama and hysteria for a week in fucking Detroit.  I don’t love it when that happens.  What an epic series of set-ups and let-downs, and once again, despite all the titillation and near-triumphs, I was leaving a town with nothing to brag about (and Paul was leaving with all kinds of stuff to brag about.)  Time to get ready for Toronto.  But just as I planted myself in bed, a wild thought planted itself into my feverish brain.

Back to Thursday, when I called the formerly entranced Furniture Mike at the furniture store:  I suddenly had a horrible thought: – What if I had been talking to the wrong Mike?  All I said was, “Is this Mike?”  No last name.  There could easily be more than one Mike at any one furniture store.  What if I were talking to a total stranger?  That’s exactly how the conversation went – as if he were a total stranger who had no idea who I was or why I was calling.  There wasn’t the slightest trace of that dashing, crypto-romantic young man of the night before or the slightest acknowledgment of what had gone on.  I suddenly knew I was right – everything made total sense now.  I never talked to Furniture Mike at all, just some completely befuddled guy named Mike who had no idea who I was or why I was calling, and who got off the phone as fast as he could.  And – my heart pounded – poor Furniture Mike!  He had given me his card, pressing it furtively and significantly into my hand the night before, a signed, sealed compact that we would somehow work around whatever his situation was with Creepy Bar Owner – and the whole rest of the week went by and he never knew I had actually called and tried to reach him.  I was horrified and remorseful.  I jumped out of bed, called the Woodward Bar, and left a strong message with whoever answered, telling them to make sure to give my Toronto hotel number to Furniture Mike, who I now realized must have thought the worst of me for not having called him, and been crushed to have been treated cavalierly by some typical fly-by-night out-of-town show guy.  Oh, Furniture Mike – call me in Toronto, and I’ll explain the whole misunderstanding and sing “Some Enchanted Evening” to you at the top of my lungs, and we’ll take it from the top.

———————

Before leaving the Detroit hotel Monday morning, with some phonebooks and some detective work, I managed to locate Furniture Mike’s actual phone number and home address.  At least I could write to him, even if he never got the message I left at the Woodward and called me in Toronto.

At the Customs stop before Canada, I told Paul of my certainty of having spoken to the wrong Mike at the Furniture Store days before.  “No,” Paul said.  “You talked to the right Mike.” 

“How do you know?”

Paul replied:  “He told me you called him.”

OK.  “And when did he tell you this?” 

“When I slept with him Friday night.”

Paul defensively raised his voice, when he saw the doomed and devastated look on my fucked-up face.  “Oh, we talked about you plenty.  He didn’t like you the minute he met you.  You came on way too strong and he had no interest in you whatsoever.  Maybe you shouldn’t talk about yourself so much the way you always do.  Maybe you shouldn’t be so presumptuous and just assume someone wants you when they either haven’t made up their mind, or they HAVE made up their mind they don’t want anything to do with you.  You just made a fool of yourself, when he wanted nothing to do with you three sentences into the first conversation.  It’s not my fault he jumped at my invitation to come over, and we had a gr-r-r-r-r-rreat time!”

It’s the oldest story never told in the Gay World.  Gay #1 wants Gay #2, but Gay #3, best friend of Gay #1, swipes Gay #2 instead – either willfully out of competition, or out of happenstance, or usually a little of both. 

Even friendships of many years’ standing have their hidden stress points, a little hairline fracture that might never see the light of day.  But I audibly heard the “snap,” at that moment as we stood outside the Customs station on our way to Toronto, and though Paul and I made it into Canada, our longtime friendship didn’t.  I knew what I had to do, for my own self-preservation: I switched to the smoking bus for the rest of the trip to Toronto, even though at the time I was not a smoker; and I never spoke to Paul again for the eight months remaining of the tour, or thereafter when we resumed our separate lives in New York. 

Was I petty, breaking a long and generally terrific friendship?  But it wasn’t just over some irresponsible, giddy kid gallivanting around the showfolk in Detroit; it was the dénouement of a long pattern of completely unequal sexual competition, bragging and torment, and my own Achilles’ Heel, the social incompetence and maladjustment which had dragged me down since I was 13.   How much was Paul to blame?  He was just like a million other bragging, swaggering, high-success-rate, ridiculously high-sex-drive, overwhelmingly competitive gay types who make subtle, subliminal sport of diminishing their incompetent tag-along friends; add a dose of his professional jealousy of me, a touch of his barely-masked delight in watching my jealousy of his specialty, plus my own lively neurosis, add water and stir.

—————

Ohfercryinoutloud, it was just some road trash gone wrong, add it to the list of a million romantic-sexual misadventures and wipeouts, fuhgeddabouddit, move on, Toronto is a new town, new Front-Row-Cruises, new gay bars to terrorize, new people to see!  But for once in my life – what if I shot an arrow back across the grand canyon between my Jud’s “Lonely Room” and the frivolous gay world that always drove me batshit – and sent a little feedback?  Ensconced that night in the gorgeous Toronto hotel, I laid out the hotel stationery and pen, and after a practice run, I wrote, in longhand:

Toronto, October 31, 1988

Dear Furniture Mike,

My best friend Paul told me that you and he had a great time in Detroit, and I’m glad to hear that with all of us sweeping in and out of your town with CABARET, the crazy week was not a total bust for you, and that there was fun to be had.

Of course I was disappointed not to see you again, and I’m really sorry I made a bad impression on you.  If I came on too strong, or was too talky or loud, or whatever I did at the Woodward party that made you think twice about me, I really didn’t mean to.  The fact is, I’m so rarely in that position – I’m so rarely singled out by someone like you for special attention, and when you and I had that long “romance” during the show – well, I guess I just felt a rare burst of confidence, and I was really astounded and happy to actually meet you afterwards, against all mathematical odds – so that confidence maybe translated into some kind of entitlement or presumptuous certainty that we were going to have a great time, you and I – which was how I interpreted what seemed like a certainty during the show.  And you were impeccably polite in person, so I just had no idea I had screwed it up with you, and didn’t pick up on your change of heart.  I couldn’t understand why you were so perfunctory with me on the phone the next day, but now I see it clearly.  I really didn’t mean to put you in an awkward position with me on the phone; you couldn’t have known this, but I’m all kinds of a truth-oriented guy, no matter what the truth is, so you could have told me what you were thinking, and it would have been hard for me to hear, but I would rather you had felt you could just tell me the truth, and we’d have laughed it off, hung up, and on with the show.  I’d have understood, and probably had a better few days after that – as I know you did.

I know how it is when the crazy showfolk come into town.  We’re only there for a week, and suddenly you have an army of handsome, interesting guys from flashy, panache-y New York descending on the hotels and on the Woodward, your nightly hang-out.  What’s not to love?  It’s huge fun for us, finding the kind of welcome we got from you and your friends in Detroit, and I imagine it’s tons of fun for you.  But not all us tour-boys are just out for fast sex with the hottest guy we can find, then boom, we’re off on a bus, never to be seen again.  (Just most of us.)

One of my problems with the gay world is that I came into it with a completely Hollywood, black-and-white-movie romantic conception (all those late nights during high school years watching Fred Astaire movies.)  I’ve been working in the theatre since I was eighteen, but I still have never gotten the hang of the superficial slam-bam thing – and that’s all I’ve ever found in New York – with all the most gorgeous men in the world, it’s quickie slam-bam all over the place, and I’m well aware there’s something weird about me that doesn’t get it, can’t play the game – and frankly I know I’m no one’s idea of a #1 great catch physically, so none of the whole “gay scene” shtick comes easily to me.

I’m only laying this on you to explain why, on that night we met, I reacted as I did.  It was the perfect Hollywood scenario.  A stunning young man in the front row, and a New York sophisticate, out of his element in the real world, sitting directly below in the pit – and we truly had a total simulation of an old-fashioned Hollywood romance in those few hours.  I know, you think I’m totally off my rocker – you’re a young guy, you were just having the fun of silently, secretly flirting with some traveling pit musician who happened to be in the zoo cage in front of you, and it cost you nothing, was all kinds of fun, and you could walk away without a second thought.

So the last thing you needed was to actually bump into me at the Woodward, with me laying the whole extravagant “we’re together at last” thing on you.  I get it.

But I just wanted to share with you how it looked from my end.  I know my former friend Paul is gorgeous, cute, fun, easy-going, uncomplicated, and a master of seduction and a good time.  I’m a little complicated, maybe a little ill-at-ease and a bit of a piece of work… no wonder I fell for our being in a fake Hollywood world for three hours, before the real world butted in again.  The gay world is shallow, superficial, ridiculous, cruel, very occasionally a blast, and there are a million unpredictables.  It’s no crime to flirt with the glam out-of-towners; some Front-Row-Cruising and eyeballing is no big deal, right? And it’s no crime if someone like me, a little intense and dramatic, who falls for you out of proportion with the frivolous situation, is not your cup of tea, for whatever reason.  By the cold light of day, away from the flashy lights and the party, inside us slightly odd ones lurk real human beings who might really like you in a way you may not expect or be used to.

There was some talk about you at the bar, and the comments really surprised me.  I’m sure it’s no big deal to you; you’re all friends in a small social world which you understand and know better than I do, or have any reason to.  Whatever your real life is really like right now, I hope you know one thing, and here’s what I saw from the minute Fate dropped you in the seat six feet in front of me at the theatre, and I saw it again when I spoke with you:  you’re an exceptional, fine guy and you deserve the best, and everything you want, and I sincerely hope you get it – what the old movies used to call “your heart’s desire.”  Like most normal guys, you were out for some harmless fun, and if I didn’t fit that bill for you, I hope you’ll always look back and remember that for at least a few let’s-pretend hours, there was some strange musician from New York who saw something in you, and you saw something in him, and we had a fleeting Hollywood romance, like those movies I grew up on. 

I won’t remember some kid in Detroit grabbing some harmless fun with someone who turned out not to be me.

I’ll remember my guy in the front row.  I’ll remember you.

Sincerely,

Fred

———————————————


EPILOGUE

The chances of my ever seeing the joint again were slim to nonexistent, but in mid-1991, three years after the CABARET tour, I walked once more into the Woodward Bar in Detroit.

Three years? Correction: three thousand years.  I finished the CABARET tour in 1989, did some more TV music, did a production of TOMFOOLERY in Wilmington, Delaware, went to Helsinki and Copenhagen and back, and back to Copenhagen again for another romantic catastrophe, had major double-jaw surgery, got my first computer, did another production of TOMFOOLERY in Wilmington, moved to Los Angeles, had a nervous breakdown, got a Masters in Film Scoring at the University Of Southern California, and the day after I left USC, I got the job as Associate Conductor of the LA production of CITY OF ANGELS.  The show lasted at the Shubert Theatre less than 6 months, and we were swept out on an ill-fated national tour, and that tour brought me back to Detroit in mid-1991 – and to the dingy, ominously grubby back-door entrance to the Woodward.

I walked in and stood gazing at the scene.  There sat Terry Feinstein, in the exact same position at the bar.  And in his appointed spot at the end sat the “SACK OF SHIT,” the popular, eccentric character who fronted the bar: Andy K.  I had a feeling their three years had been somewhat less dramatic than mine; I wonder if they’d ever stood up and gone home since the night I had left with Furniture Mike’s surreptitiously proffered card burning a hole in my hand.

Sliding in next to Terry, I said, “Remember me – Fred?”  Not a blink or hesitation:  “Hey, yeah, of course, howahya.  Back in town with a show?”  “Yeah; I cannot believe I’m seeing this place again.”  “Same old same old.”  I’d love to provide you with more scintillating dialogue, but just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

After a few pleasantries, I cut to the chase.  “So – any chance Furniture Mike is coming by tonight?”  He cut to the chase.  “No, he killed himself.”

Over the next cocktail or five, Terry filled me in.  At some point, Furniture Mike must have extracted himself from whatever was going on with Gnarly Old Bar Owner, and gotten himself a more appropriate lover (which is what we used to call them, before the antiseptic “partner” word came in, desexualizing gay couples even more than the gay community had already desexualized itself in its quest for heterosexual acceptance, and to distance itself from a sexual definition connoting death and destruction.)

One day, so I was told, Furniture Mike called his partner (I mean lover) at work, and asked when he’d be home.  “Usual time,” was the lover’s reply.  Furniture Mike:  “OK, great, just checking, because I have a surprise for you.”  Then he hooked up the exhaust pipe to the window of the car and killed himself, leaving the lover to come home and find his body.  No one ever knew why he did it.

Among my other flabbergasted comments:  “After I met him three years ago, I sent him a long letter.  I wonder if he ever got it.”  Terry thought about it, and said, “You know, we were all out on the patio or something once, and I remember him talking about a strange letter he had gotten from someone.”  Three years later, I was hearing confirmation that Furniture Mike got my “strange letter.”  Whether he “got” it is an unknowable.

I went to the end of the bar and re-introduced myself to Andy K.  “Remember me?”  He pulled his head out of his cocktail, screwed up his swollen eyes, and stared at me with an amused look.  “Oh yeah – you’re that musician.  I remember you.  I was so mad at you that night, Furniture Mike making eyes at you all night and you talking to him.”  (A wry little smile.)  “You know, I was fucking him.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

“He killed himself.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

Back in New York, after the CITY OF ANGELS tour folded, I called up my former friend Paul for the first time in three years, buried the hatchet, and we’ve been talking regularly again to this day.

I wonder whatever happened to Funeral Mike.




© 2014 by Fred Barton

2 comments:

  1. Superb writing, and fascinating. Please, sir, May I have to some more?

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  2. I just read this again, and it keeps getting more interesting since the heterosexual world wasn't all that different at the time, and I'm reminded of my own insecurities which used to send me into a tailspin. Nice to know I have company. If this were a novel, I suppose it will turn out that Furniture Mike faked his death.

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