Shimmies, Struts, and Switches

[Dedicated to Barry. RIP.]

Hollywood, some time in 1976

I left the theater alone.  He never showed up.  It was a shitty movie and I almost left early.  I didn’t because I kept hoping that maybe he would show up.  Also, too, he cowed me into waiting.  The last time he was late, and I got tired of waiting for him and split, he got mad.  Then he guilt tripped me about it.  So on this “date,” I stayed, mooing plaintively, even though the movie really stank.  But he never showed up.  I left the theater in a huff as soon as the credits started rolling.

The worst part about the whole sorry affair was that I had brought it on myself.  I never should have let it go on as long as it did.  Faux permeated every nook and cranny of this so-called relationship.  We never ate out together.  We only met in darkened theaters.  I could only go to his place late at night, presumably after his neighbors had gone to bed, so that no one would see me.  Then I had to leave super early for the same reason.  Getting home that time of day was a bitch, too.  Buses don’t run well that early.  Like a fool, though, I went along with his, shall we say, quirks.  I figured, OK, sure.  He’s closeted.  Fine.  I was there once, too.  But then, he never came to my place despite my many invitations.  His usual line was, “I never go south of Pico.”  That should have been my first clue.

My next came as I left the theater.  Head tilted down, my driver’s cap low over my eyes, I spotted my purported date across the street on Hollywood Boulevard camping it up with a group of his girlfriends, no closet door in sight anywhere.  I stood and stared.  And of course it did not escape my notice that they all looked alike:  white.  The “south of Pico” comment suddenly became very clear.  What a fool!  My old black radical buddies would have had a good time clowning me.  “You fell for that trick, muthafucka?  Har, har, har!”

So I now had a choice:  call him on his racist bullshit, dishing all the black-a-tude I could muster, or just let it go.  The former would likely have given me loads of satisfaction.  I could have sullied my “ex’s” reputation by calling him out in front of his tribe.  Dinge queen!  Dinge queen!  He’s nothing but a dinge queen!  His friends’ squirrelly little faces would have rumpled up like a wad of paper as their feet inserted distance between themselves and the untouchable, causing the untouchable limitless humiliation.  So delicious.  But it wouldn’t have happened like that.  He simply would have turned the tables on me, pretended not to know me, or worse, dismissed me as one of the crazies that lingered in Hollywood.  And who do you think his friends would have believed?  A Negro crazed with rage or one of their own.  Yeah, right.  My years of black militancy already told me the answer.

So I let him pass.  The reverse humiliation flung at me would have been one thing.  But this asshole probably would have called the cops over to deal with me.  Then his triumph would have been complete.  Hell no.

Walking usually relieved my fuming psyche, but this time it intensified it.  The funk got real and deep.  Gay pride was breaking out all over for everyone but me.  Another revolution duped me, left me sitting on the curb.  Another set of promises – liberation, freedom, happiness – went unfulfilled.  The Black Liberation Movement left me for road kill after The Pink Purge.  The Gay Liberation Movement only needed me to fill quotas during photo ops – I was the rainbow – or to act as a gofer.  You can get the lunch order from the deli.  You can go to the Copymat and make duplicates of the flyer.  You can wash our feet and clean our latrines.  I was the gay male Beulah.  The only thing missing was a do-rag.

By the time I had reached West Hollywood, I had worked myself into a real self-pity soufflé.  When I’m that down, and I mean rock bottom down, I find a shovel and dig harder to make myself feel even shittier.  So I drifted into Club Heaven, a space where my charcoal black ass could be thoroughly ignored.  My goal was to secretly mock everyone who made me invisible.  This had become a game I excelled at.

I got a beer at the bar then sat on one of the stools.  I looked out towards the modestly crowded dance floor.  It was early yet and most had yet to awake from their disco naps.  As always, the dim lighting made it hard to see.  It felt like looking out at the ocean at night when the fog settled in.  You heard the waves, but could only just see them break.  So I only saw bodies that came closest to the bar.  Beyond that was darkness, apart from the whirling, glittering disco ball.

“I Play the Fool” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band came on.  Perfect!  Let the pity-pot party get down!  I scanned the room with my arms spread wide, inviting all to behold the fool in all his glory.  Then I remembered.  They can’t see me.  I’m invisible.  What a fool!

Before I had time to further debase myself while deconstructing how the song lyrics applied to me and my situation, I got distracted by a lone dancer.  So far as I could tell, he had no partner shaking tail with him.  One could have lingered under the darkness that cloaked the dance floor, but it seemed unlikely.  This one, a skinny white boy in white jeans, danced alone, and not just a small wiggle sort of dance, but a full on, we-be-getting-down sort of dance. And he smiled like he hadn’t a care in the world.

The first thought to cross my mind was, “whose fool is he?”  No one else paid attention to him, strutting around.  Maybe he’s the crazy uncle let out of the cellar for a hot minute.

Then his smiling eyes looked directly at me and he began doing the rope-pulling thing, like he wanted me to join him.

I sat frozen with my beer.  I wasn’t prepared for this.  My mission was to mock the denizens of this establishment in the comfort of my invisibility.  Perhaps he didn’t get a copy of the script.  Just as I started to feel my cynicism melt away, he twirled around the other way. His back faced me now, so I thought OK, he really wasn’t trying to get me to join him.  But then he switched around and started rope pulling at me again while shimmying the bejesus out of his shoulders.

Alright, I thought, maybe it’s time for us fools to get together.  I put my beer down on the bar and walked out towards him.  He wasn’t impressed.  When I got close enough, he snatched my driver’s cap and put it on and then started imitating my slump of a walk, while still in rhythm.  I wanted to get mad, but couldn’t.  He had me dead to rights.  Then he grabbed me on the shoulders and started to sway me, back and forth.  He was like a chiropractor, trying to loosen me up.  It began to work.  I found my own grove and he let go of my shoulders.  We shimmied together, in sync.  Then he went loose and wild again, turning and twisting around.  Now I began smiling.  How could I not?  I had Terpsichore herself giving me dance lessons.  She ignored my pity-pot slump and seemed determined to slap me out of it.

Get over yourself, he said to me with shimmies, struts, and switches.  And in time I had.  I started imitating his moves.  Then he imitated me imitating him.  We carved a path throughout the dance floor.  Eventually a circle formed around us, the two fools dancing and camping. We danced through four more songs, without a break.  Finally, I had to take five.  I asked if he wanted a beer.  Not yet, he said, as he twirled into the next number.

I found my beer, right where I had left it and finished it instantly.  I ordered another.  Terpsichore kept it up for another two or three songs before he finally came over and sat next to me.  I got him a cold one, which he guzzled impressively.

I almost spoiled everything by asking him why did he lure me onto the dance floor. Bookishness still governed me.  I had to ask questions.  He wisely refused to answer with words, just as he told me to get over myself with only his body.  Words would have ruined the spell.  He just laughed.  I laughed with him, while slowly, knowingly nodding my head.

During my time as a black radical and then as a gay radical, I intellectualized my oppression, hoping to find the key to freedom through cold, clinical, dedicated, disciplined calculation.  What a fool!  Here I found someone who embodied liberation not through turgid speeches or writings, but through raw power, through doing.  I had been out for six years, but he was the first person who really showed me what fierce looked like.

Shimmies, struts, and switches.  That’s what we were fighting for.  From that moment on, I accepted nothing less.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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