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I was born April 12 at 10:10 am and I moved straight into our family home on Clinton Avenue in the Bronx. I was number seven of ten kids. In birth order there was: Barbara Ann, Ronald, Steven, Stanley, Beverly, Reginald, me, Phillip, Phyllis, and Valerie.
My family is one-eighth Jewish on my grandmother's side, so I won't blame something like Catholicism for my mother's house full of kids. I think it's more that my parents were deeply and madly in love with each other and liked to express that affection in, well, the most elemental way.
Sometimes, to my dismay, quite loudly.
Despite the amount of love in that house, from the beginning we were like the Kennedys of the South Bronx. There was always some sort of horrific tragedy besetting us. My mother, Mary Elizabeth Cohen Jenkins, buried six of her children before passing away herself. At age ten, Reginald fell and never recovered from a concussion. Barbara Ann died of breast cancer at age twentythree. Steven left us at age forty-four from an aneurysm. My baby sister Valerie died of AIDS at age twenty-nine. Stanley died of a heart attack at age forty-eight, and Ronald died too young, at age fifty-four, from throat cancer. Consider this my first bit of advice don't smoke.
My family is like some Greek tragedy come to life, with characters dying off left and right. I don't mean to sound callous or flip about it, but it's a fact of my life that I've experienced a lot of loss. I've had to learn to mourn and move on. I'm a firm believer that you must move on. I'll get more into this philosophical stuff later.
Growing up, my mother ruled our house like a five-foot-three-inch dictator. She could be very strict and, let's say, "physically communicative" if she felt she was being disrespected. But I don't mean that in a bad way. It never had to do with her being a mean or evil person. She was simply scared that if one of us kids disrespected her, then we would feel it would be okay to go out into the world and disrespect others. If you were breaking rules in the house, she was afraid it meant you would break laws out in the real world and end up in jail. She wanted to raise us better than that. If it took an occasional wallop upside the head to get that lesson through, well, that was just her way. And to be perfectly honest, it worked. Not that I'm advocating anything.
Dinner was at seven o'clock every night, no matter what. There were too many mouths to feed, so there had to be some order to the chaos. She would always set a place for every single child in the house. If you missed the seven o'clock sit-down, you missed dinner completely. The first chance was your only chance. If any of us missed more than one meal, we'd sneak into the kitchen for a bowl of Cap'n Crunch or Froot Loops after everyone had gone to bed.
Raising children can be like raising dogs. You have to lift up your voice to let them know who's in charge. When a dog is fighting in the street, it's fighting for power and control. It's the same thing when a child throws a tantrum. Kids will test the boundaries constantly. And my mother made sure we failed that test every single time, at least until we were old enough to make our own decisions and choices.
My father kept out of all of this though. Julius Montrolius Jenkins was a quiet man and mostly stayed to himself. He worked at the Humboldt Dye Works and would get up every day, Monday through Friday, at four thirty am to head out of the Bronx and into Brooklyn, in rain, sleet, sunshine, heat wave, or snowstorm. He'd bring his hard-earned paycheck back home to Mother, keeping just a little bit in his own pocket for hanging out with his best friend, Mr. Sol, who owned an auto repair shop in Hunts Point. On weekends, my father would help Mr. Sol fix cars and drink cocktails, and every Sunday, he would sleep in and watch sports all day.
My father was the goto man in our neighborhood whenever tax time came around. He did everyone's returns for them and got paid either a bottle of scotch, a very small amount of cash, or nothing at all. Despite his selflessness, for some reason he wasn't a physical man that any of us hugged. Yet he was a verbal man, and when he spoke, we listened. But our mother ran our lives. That's not to say that I didn't love him. I did, very much. But for the most part he left the parenting to my mother. He always deferred to her when it came to house rules or handling us when we broke the rules, of which she had many.
A good example is her feelings about house parties. We children were never allowed to go to a house party under any condition. I suppose because inside a house there are closets that you can disappear into for Seven Minutes of Heaven and empty bottles everywhere, just waiting to be spun. One night, when I was in the sixth grade, my parents went out with some friends, and I snuck out of the house. A girl down the street was having what we called a "pay party." In order to get inside, girls had to pay thirty-five cents, boys had to pay fifty cents, and couples had to pay seventy-five cents. I was positive that I would make it back home before my parents.
The party was everything you want a party to be at that age. It was packed with kids from my school, the music was fantastic, and all night long I was lost in the embrace of a slow dance with a beautiful girl. I don't remember her name but I remember the band that was playing was called Black Ivory. When what was about to happen happened, I was, shall we say, aroused. (Yes, I was attracted to a girl. It's actually perfectly normal. Don't judge me.)
I was young, I was happy, and I was in a state of sexual bliss when suddenly the needle on the record screeeetched across its surface and the room fell silent. Like a scene out of a bad teenage comedy, the room suddenly filled with harsh light from above and I froze like a cockroach revealed on a kitchen counter. All I heard was a little girl's frightened, trembling voice whisper, "H-hello, Miss Mary."
My mother stormed into the crowd of kids, grabbed my arm, literally gave me a kick on the butt and a smack on the head, and told me to "bring my black ass" out of there. She dragged me across the room and headed to the door, and as we passed the little girl whose house it was, she looked at her, nodded curtly, and said, "Say hello to your momma for me," and flicked the light switch back off for the rest of the partygoers.
I guess that's why they call it "tough love." She was tougher than the hide of an Hermès Birkin bag. It didn't matter if you were her son or her daughter; she treated all of us the same and didn't play favorites.
Many people I know in the fashion community have strong mothers, too, and in a way, I think many people who dress in drag are trying to emulate or honor that early defining presence they knew. Whether the relationship is good or bad, strong women tend to leave an undeniable impression on their children, one that shapes their attitude or dress. Or in my case, both. My mother was a major fashion inspiration. Though she often wore simple housecoats with penny loafers and usually had a Pall Mall Gold in one hand and a small glass of scotch in the other, with an empty Hellmann's mayonnaise jar full of ice water nearby to use as a chaser she could dress up fabulous when she wanted to. I remember looking at chic pictures of her from the fifties and sixties. In her wedding photographs she wore a perfectly tailored navy blue coat with an off-white lining that had big hand-painted navy blue flowers. One day I found her wedding dress in her closet, and when I pulled it out I discovered that the print was repeated on the dress itself. She had paired it all with navy pumps and a pillbox hat with an ivory veil. It was a classic look, yet still a bit daring since it wasn't a traditional wedding dress. My mother certainly knew how to make an impression when she wanted to, both in the way she dressed and the way she acted. I definitely inherited those strengths from her.
The first time she discovered me in her closet, rifling through her Sunday best (or as she called them, "my going-out clothes"), she had a fit and started screaming, "Stay out of my goddamn closet! Playing in my good clothes what, you want to be a girl?" I remember thinking, Hell no, I just want to wear nice, pretty things. She was the one who told me that pink was for girls and blue was for boys. I wanted to know which jerk made up that stupid rule. But for years when I was young I separated the two colors in my mind. In fact, when I first started playing dress-up with my sister Barbara's clothes, I was drawn to yellow, because I thought it was a color with no gender. I'd wear one of Barbara's old Easter dresses with a crown made of paper and make-believe that I was a fairy princess. I felt beautiful but my brothers would tease me mercilessly. It seemed so unfair. More than anything I wanted to be beautiful. It wasn't about being a woman; I just wanted to live inside the fantasy that women's clothes afforded. I still don't have any desire to be a woman. (But I suppose if I had to be one, I'd like to be a woman of the 1950s with a tight waist, large bosom, and a big skirt. Or maybe a 1920s flapper.)
Halloween became an incredibly important holiday for me as a kid, because it was the one time where I could wear a dress and not get teased. The first year I discovered this, I dressed up in Barbara's beautiful graduation dress. It was white lace, with a full skirt below the knee, long sleeves, and a jeweled neckline. I slipped on a pair of white wingtip Mary Janes with two-and-a-halfinch heels, filled up an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Red with iced tea, and went trick-or-treating as a drunk bride.
I think back on my childhood as a generally happy time except for one thing we couldn't afford the things I really wanted. At the beginning of each school term my mother would sit back in her armchair, light up a cigarette, and look at the newspaper circulars for sales. When I was eleven years old, right before the beginning of the sixth grade, she picked up the latest newspaper and started flipping through it. By this time she was an expert and quickly found what she was looking for.
"Okay, here are some pants for $7.99, and some shirts for $4.99, and a pair of shoes for $10. Get two pairs of the shirts and pants and one pair of shoes. That should do you." This was the first time I had been allowed to do the shopping on my own, so she opened her purse, got out her wallet, and gave me some cash and the stink eye, telling me to get exactly what she told me to and that I'd better bring back the change and the receipt.
Well, I knew how to handle this. I was already extremely tall for my age, so the lie about how none of the pants that I tried on fit me would come easily enough. I figured I could also say something about how the crush of frenzied consumers made it impossible to shop, that the crowds had already picked over everything that was on sale.
I had to lie and scheme, you see, because I had my eye on a pair of $25 shoes. To this day I remember them vividly, every detail. The brand was Thom McAn. They were lace-ups with burgundy leather sides, a black center, and stacked wooden heels.
My plan almost worked. I got one cheap pair of pants and one inexpensive shirt and spent the rest of the money on the shoes. When I got home, my mother nearly believed my story, until she asked for the receipt and change. I had totally forgotten I was supposed to bring proof back with me. I just looked around pretending to be confused and said, "Huh? What receipt? Look, I got shoes."
Well, Mary Elizabeth Cohen Jenkins narrowed her eyes and got a closer look at my shoes, instantly realizing what I had done. She made me take everything back to the store and return her money. Because of my attempted trick, there were no new clothes for me at all that semester. It was right then and there that I knew if I wanted things in this world, I was going to have to go out and get them myself. I would do whatever it took to make enough money to get my own clothes.
So I got a job delivering The New York Times.
Now, this was no little white-boy job in the suburbs, where I was riding around on a red bicycle with cards in the spokes, streamers on the handlebars, a golden horn, and a basket full of rolled-up papers to toss at someone's perfectly manicured lawn. (That said, at least I delivered the Times. I had taste, even then.) This was the hood and I had a shopping cart. I worked my butt off every weekend. And as proud of me as my mother was, she worried about me being out there alone. We lived in a rough neighborhood and newspaper boys have to carry cash on them on collection day. My mother always told me to stand up for myself. If a gang came after me, I was to make sure there was a wall behind me so no one could sneak up. And she told me to always fight back. Because once someone realizes they can pick on you, they will continue to do so.
I was lucky enough to never get picked on too bad out on the streets. If someone called me a faggot I'd just say, "Yeah, and?" That's about as far as it would go. I think maybe people sensed some sort of toughness in me. Not only was I tall, but I'd already faced down my most formidable opponent on many occasions my mother. And people could see it in my eyes. But what did happen with that first job is that it instilled in me my work ethic. I suddenly had my own money to spend on anything I wanted. And the first thing I did was go back to buy that pair of Thom McAns that my mother had made me return.
The day I finally got them, I bought some extra supplies before heading home. I ran straight up to my bedroom and went to work adding taps to the bottoms of the shoes, so they would click everywhere I walked in them. And I walked with a purpose. It wasn't just some clackity-clack sound you could hear me coming from two blocks away on a quiet day, with strong and powerful, even strides. I guess you could say I wanted to be seen and heard.
In a way, those shoes were my first pair of high heels.
My older sister Barbara and I were pretty close at this time. She had graduated from high school and was out on her own working at a payroll company. She used to pick me up on the weekends to take me out to restaurants, which was the biggest deal in the world to me. I was so wide-eyed and innocent and it seemed impossibly glamorous to have these people come to your table and ask you what you wanted to eat and wait on you hand and foot. Most of the kids I knew at the time had never even been to a restaurant. It was unheard-of. The idea was, if you can make food at home, why the hell would you go out and pay for it? But Barbara always wanted to treat me. I didn't realize it was because she was dying.
No one told me anything. The first time I realized anything was wrong was when one of her breasts disappeared and she began spending a lot of time in the hospital. All I noticed was that her body was changing, but no one would tell me much except that she was sick. I was confused and scared but not exactly worried. I was still a kid and I just didn't realize it was a sign of something much worse.
One day I was sent with my sister Beverly to shop for the week's groceries, and when we returned home one of my neighbors was sitting on the front steps, sobbing. She looked up and noticed me, and said, "I'm so sorry to hear about your sister."
"What?" I asked, totally confused.
"Your sister just died."
All I remember next is screaming, dropping the grocery bags, and running up the stairs to the fifth floor and finding my mother, sitting there, totally numb and in shock. I just held on to her and cried. She remained so stoic and still, but the tears streamed silently down her cheeks.
It was my first experience with death. The funeral was awful. Everyone was crying and I remember thinking I just wanted everything to stop. I went and saw the body. My sister was laid out in her white lace graduation dress in a pearly gray coffin. Her hair was done just like it had been in her high school graduation photo five years before Shirley Temple curls and a side ponytail. She was wearing peach lipstick. For some reason, that detail is burned into my memory.
I couldn't make it inside the church for the memorial service. I stayed in the car and cried. Grief paralyzed me. I watched them carry the coffin up the steps. But once the terrible day was over, the experience was done for me as well. Over the next few years and then on through the beginning of the AIDS epidemic people began dying all around me. I learned early that you must grieve when someone you know passes away, but once it's done, it's done. There is nothing you can do, so it is best to just move on as well as you can. I don't mean you should forget about them, but there are healthier ways of mourning the loss of a person, like getting involved with a charity if they died of a particular disease. I've walked for breast cancer to raise money in tribute to Barbara. And I've gotten involved in speaking up about AIDS. I've had a huge number of friends, loved ones, and roommates die from the disease. Recently, Malcolm Harris, a friend who is the founder of the Designers for Darfur campaign, asked if I would come and give a speech at a party called the Latex Ball, which is basically a big annual voguing competition. I didn't really prepare anything, thinking it would just be a fun lark. When I arrived, I walked out onto the runway and was suddenly confronted with thousands of young gay, lesbian, and transgender kids. I was overcome with emotion, and all of these words came tumbling out of my mouth about how we all have to unite in order to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. It was all I could do to keep myself from crying, because I didn't want any of these kids to have to face what I did when I was younger and the epidemic first started spreading.
Copyright © 2009 by Alexander Jenkins