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Buddy Ebsen

Buddy Ebsen

Hilton Als
34 Snaps

It’s the queers who made me. Who sat with me in the automobile in the dead of night and measured the content of my character without even looking at my face. Who—in the same car—asked me to apply a little strawberry lip balm to my lips before the anxious kiss that was fraught because would it be for an eternity, benday dots making up the hearts and flowers? Who sat on the toilet seat, panties around her ankles, talking and talking, girl talk burrowing through the partially closed bathroom door, and, boy, was it something. Who listened to opera. Who imitated Jessye Norman’s locutions on and off the stage. Who made love in a Queens apartment and who wanted me to watch them making love while at least one of those so joined watched me, dressed, per that person’s instructions, in my now-dead aunt’s little-girl nightie. Who wore shoes with no socks in the dead of winter, intrepid, and then, before you knew it, was incapable of wiping his own ass—“gay cancer.” Who died in a fire in an apartment in Paris. Who gave me a Raymond Radiguet novel when I was barely older than Radiguet was when he died, at twenty, of typhoid. Who sat with me in his automobile and talked to me about faith—he sat in the front seat, I in the back—and I was looking at the folds in his scalp when cops surrounded the car with flashlights and guns: they said we looked suspicious; we were aware that we looked and felt like no one else.

It’s the queers who made me. Who didn’t get married and who said to one woman, “I don’t hang with that many other women,” even though or perhaps because she herself was a woman. Who walked with me along the West Side piers in nineteen-eighties Manhattan, one summer afternoon, and said, apropos of the black kids vogueing, talking, getting dressed up around us, “I got it; it’s a whole style.” Who bought me a pair of ­saddle shoes and polished them while sitting at my desk, not looking up as I watched his hands work the leather. Who knew that the actor who played the Ghost of Christmas Past in the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol was an erotic draw for me as a child—or maybe it was the character’s big beneficence. Who watched me watching Buddy Ebsen dancing with little Shirley Temple in a thirties movie called Captain January while singing “The Codfish Ball,” Buddy Ebsen in a black jumper, moving his hands like a Negro dancer, arabaesques informed by thought, his ass in the air, all on a wharf—and I have loved wharfs and docks, without ever wearing black jumpers, ever since.

It’s the queers who made me. Who talked to me about Joe Brainard’s I Remember, even though I kept forgetting to read it. Who keep after me to read I Remember, though perhaps my reluctance has to do with Brainard’s association with Frank O’Hara, who was one queer who didn’t make me, so interested was he in being a status-quo pet, the kind of desire that leads a fag to project his own self-loathing onto any other queer who gets into the room—How dare you. What are you doing here? But the late great poet-editor Barbara Epstein—who loved many queers and who could always love more—was friendly with Brainard and O’Hara, and perhaps the Barbara who still lives in my mind will eventually change my mind about all that, because she always could.

It’s the queers who made me. Who introduced me to Edwin Denby’s writings, and George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” and got me writing for Ballet Review. Who wore red suspenders and a Trotsky button; I had never met anyone who dressed so stylishly who wasn’t black or Jewish. Who, even though I was “alone,” watched me as I danced to Cindy Wilson singing “Give Me Back My Man” in the basement of a house that my mother shared with her sister in Atlanta. Who took me to Paris. Who let me share his bed in Paris. Who told my mother that I would be OK, and I hope she believed him. Who was delighted to include one of my sisters in a night out—she wore a pink prom dress and did the Electric Slide, surrounded by gay boys, and fuck knows if she cared or saw the difference between herself and them—and he stood by my side as I watched my sister dance in her pink prom dress, and then he asked what I was thinking about, and I said, “I’m just remembering why I’m gay.”

It’s the queers who made me. Who laughed with me in the pool in Lipari. Who kicked me under the ­table when I had allotted too much care for someone who would never experience love as suchness. Who sat with me in the cinema at Barnard College as Black Orpheus played, his bespectacled eyes glued to the screen as I weighed his whiteness against the characters’ blackness and then my own. Who squatted down in the bathtub and scrubbed my legs and then my back and then the rest of my body the evening of the day we would start to know each other for the rest of our lives. Who lay with me in the bed in Los Angeles, white sheets over our young legs sprinkled with barely there hair. Who coaxed me back to life at the farmers’ market later the same day, and I have the pictures to prove it. Who laughed when I said “What’s J. Lo doing in the hospital?” as he stood near his bed dying of AIDS, his beautiful Panamanian hair—a mixture of African, Spanish, and Indian textures—no longer held back by the white bandana I loved. Who gave me Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal, and let me find much in it that was familiar and emotionally accurate, including the author’s use of the word moralism, to describe the people who divide the world into “us” and “them,” and who brutalize the queer in themselves and others to gain a foothold on a moralish perch.

It’s the queers who made me. Who introduced me to a number of straight girls who, at first, thought that being queer was synonymous with being bitchy, and who, after meeting me and becoming friends, kept waiting and waiting for me to be a bitchy queen, largely because they wanted me to put down their female friends, and to hate other women as they themselves hated other women, not to mention themselves, despite their feminist agitprop; after all, I was a queen, and that’s what queens did, right, along with getting sodomized, just like them, right—queens were the handmaidens to all that female self-hatred, right? And who then realized that I didn’t hate women and so began to join forces with other women to level criticism at me.

It’s the queers who made me. Who said: Women and queers get in the way of your feminism and gay rights. Who listened as I sat, hurt and confused, describing the postfeminist or postqueer monologue that had been addressed to me by some of the above women and queers, who not only attacked my queer body directly—you’re too fat, you’re too black, the horror, the horror!—but delighted in hearing about queers flinging the same kind of pimp slime on one another, not to mention joining forces with their girlfriends of both sexes to establish within their marginalized groups the kind of hierarchy straight white men presumably judge them by, but not always, not really. Who asked, “Why do you spend so much time thinking about women and queers?” And who didn’t hear me when I said, “But aren’t we born of her? Didn’t we queer her body being born?”

It’s the queers who made me. Who introduced me to the performer, Justin Bond, whose various characters, sometimes cracked by insecurity, eaglets in a society of buzzards, are defined by their indomitability in an invulnerable world. Who told me about the twelve-year-old girl who had been raised with love and acceptance of queerness in adults, in a landscape where she could play without imprisoning herself in self-contempt, and who could talk to her mother about what female bodies meant to her (everything), which was a way of further loving her mother, the greatest romance she had ever known, and who gave me, indirectly, my full queer self, the desire to say “I” once again.

It’s my queerness that made me. And, in it, there is a memory of Jackie Curtis. She’s walking up Bank Street, away from the river, a low orange sun behind her like the ultimate stage set. It’s my queer self that goes up to Jackie Curtis—whom I have seen only in pictures and films; I am in my twenties—and it is he who says, “Oh, Miss Curtis, you’re amazing,” and she says, in front of the setting sun, completely stoned but attentive, a performer to her queer bones, snapping to in the light of attention and love, “Oh, you must come to my show!” as she digs into her big hippie bag to dig out a flyer, excited by the possibility of people seeing her for who she is, even in makeup. 

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