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I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Tales from Gay Manhattan
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1985 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
Interview with the Drag Queen
At night, writing longhand in a spiral notebook at my desk, I can see my reflection in a window washed in lamplight, as if I were working before a mirror. I have a romance going that I am my characters, and can put on any of their faces at will. I can be all forearm and fist, or startled behind spectacles; I can wear my college sweatshirt, or hold my pen in an old-fashioned manner. When I view my reflection in the window, I am telling stories.
I say this because I recall that the drag queen recounted her saga into a great mirror that stood just over my left shoulder. She scarcely looked at me, or at her friend Paul, who had brought me to her.
"You must tell her story," Paul had urged. "This is gay history."
No, I was writing nonfiction then. I had no reflection. "I wouldn't know where to sell it," I told him. No stories.
"Try," he said. "Just take it down. Someday."
I was intrigued. Paul arranged it, took me to a shabby walkup where Bleecker Street meets The Bowery, introduced us, and — breaking his word of honor not to leave me alone — walked out. "You'll see," he murmured. "See what?" I answered; he was already at the door, waving.
"'Who was that masked man?'" I quoted, to cover my embarrassment. And: "Why does everyone I know run out on me after five minutes?"
This was eleven years ago. The drag queen was perhaps fifty. Black cocktail dress, spike heels, cabaret mascara, and opera jewelry.
"When Miss Titania gave an order, you obeyed or that's it, you were out! You were glue. You were grovel! I mean. Miss Titania was the very certain queen of the Heat Rack — and was she big, I ask you? Bigger than a Zulu's dingus on Thursday night. Big in spirit! Miss Titania had her court, and everyone else was dogmeat when Miss Titania got through. Ask anyone. I don't know where they are now, but you ask them."
My pen flew. "Where's Miss Titania now?" I asked.
The drag queen shrugged. "It's all gone, so that is no question at all to me. Now every man in the city looks like trade in those muscle shirts, with those demure little bags like they're carrying their makeup kit or I don't know what. I don't think there's a man in New York who isn't available. Once even the gays were straight; now all the straights are gay. New York doesn't like queens anymore, regardless. We're the old revolutionaries. They say we dressed up because we were flops as men. Born to be freaks. They say we didn't care what other folks thought." She lit a cigarette like a woman, blowing the match out; and held it like a man, between thumb and forefinger. "Well, it's not true. We dressed up so they could see how lovely we are. We hope they see it."
"What if they don't?"
"Then we say something pungent."
"Tell me about Miss Titania."
"She was ruthless. The Heat Rack was her court, and no one upstaged her. The dire episodes! Once an upstart southern belle came in out of nowhere — I suspect Scranton — and there she was, taking up space and flouting Miss Titania. I will never forget —'Mr. Sandman' was playing on the juke, and Miss Titania liked to sing along, you know, such as 'Mr. Sandman, please make me cream.' A slightly altered version of the original, as I recall. Well, La Southern Comfort cries out, 'Deyah me, it would surely take the entiyah football teyum? at Ole Miss? to make you-all creayum, I'm shuah?' And there was such silence in the whole place. Except for 'Mr. Sandman.' I mean. Even the toughest trade shut up. And Miss Titania. She looks at that no-good, lightweight daredevil, and smiles her famous smile and puts down her drink and fan. And suddenly, I don't know, it couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but Miss Titania flies across the room and rips the hair right off that southern girl's head — I mean her wig, truly; did you think I meant her skull hair? because, really, what an odd look you're wearing — and then Miss Titania rends the bodice of the southern girl's gown and pulls off her pathetic training bra or whatever she had on, and we are all roaring with laughter, so that southern girl runs into the ladies' and won't come out till the place is closed. We never saw her after that. Because you don't challenge the queen in her own court.
"And Miss Titania was the absolute queen. Even the Duchess of Diva, who presided over Carney's on Thirty-eighth Street — even she knew better than to tangle with Miss Titania. And the Duchess was a gigantic mother. She must have weighed three hundred pounds. Always wore black, for her husband. He died in the war. And did she have a savage streak. Everyone feared her. But Miss Titania had the prestige."
"Tell me more about the Heat Rack."
"Or the Pleasure Bar, or Folly's, or The Demitasse, or Club La Bohème, or sometimes no name at all. It changed by the week. To me it was always the Heat Rack, because that's what they called it when I made my choice."
"Between love and beauty. Surely you know that every queen must choose between living for the one or the other. You can't have both." She rose and presented herself to the mirror pensively. "I chose beauty, because I imagined that those who know about love can never have it. Do you think so, too?"
I was young then, and never thought about it. Now, in my window, I wonder. The woman across the way, in direct line of my desk, becomes unnerved at my concentration, and lowers her blinds.
"The bars today are just saloons," the drag queen goes on. "The Heat Rack was our fortress and fraternity, the only place where we made the rules. We rated the beauty and arranged the love stories." She sweeps through the dismal room, touching things. "The whole world is just queens, johns, trade, and cops. The whole world. And Miss Titania kept them all in line. Yes. Yes. Yes. And she was kind and beautiful."
She is not speaking to me.
"The johns you respect. The trade you screw. The cops you ignore. Life is so simple in the Heat Rack. Now I'll tell you the difference between queens and trade."
She is looking hard at me for the first time.
"Queens are afraid that every horrible insult hurled at them is true. Trade is impervious to insult."
I take notes.
"That's why these Stonewall men all look like cowboys. They think if they play trade they won't have their feelings hurt. I would imagine that is why you've got dark glasses on right now."
"I always have dark glasses on."
"That's fascinating, no doubt. But how nice of you to wear a tie for me, all the same. The johns always wore ties."
In my window, it's always T-shirts. Once I came home from the opera so keen to write I sat down in my suit. Then I looked up and thought, "Who is that man?"
"The johns were so nice. All those years at the Heat Rack, never did I have to buy my own drink. Of course, they were living for love, so they were always getting wounded."
"What does trade live for?"
"To torment queens. That's why Miss Titania had to enforce the regulations so strictly, to keep trade from cheating the johns and breaking their hearts. Or making a ruckus, which they always did. Or showing off their stupid tattoos with a lady present. And some of them never washed and you could smell their asses all the way across the room. Now, the Duchess of Diva, she let trade run rampant in her court. Mind you, I'm for a free market. But you give trade their liberty and what do you have?"
"A world in which beauty passes the laws and all lovers go mad. I'm sure you know this, a writer. Do you write poems?"
"I yearn for poetry. But no one rhymes anymore. No one lives for beauty. Everything is ... meaning. There's always a message now. What's the good in a message when a pretty picture tells you everything you need to know?
"Now, I can tell you, on some nights the Heat Rack was the prettiest picture you ever hoped to see. In summer, let me say. The johns in the dark corners or sitting in the back booths, out of the way. And trade all around, some shirtless and so still, not looking to see who saw them. Three or four, perhaps, loafing at the pool table — not even playing, I expect, just filling out the tableau, making silly jokes and rubbing each other's necks and getting pensive. And the queens were near, doting. You would look for a moment at all this, all around, and it was like a painting. It was magic, regardless.
"But you can dote too much. And trade will take control if they can. That's why Miss Titania ... once ... I shouldn't tell you this, I suppose. You Stonewall boys don't understand the patterns of love discipline. What do you live for, you cowboys? What stirs you? Does the sight of a trade's crack, all trembling and open to assault ... does it stir you? Do you want me to stop?"
"Well, once Miss Titania determined that a certain trade would have to be disciplined. A beautiful galoot, big and dark, the cruel kind. Like your father or some such. Tales of the Woodshed? Big, breezy galoots, so lazy and mean. This one was called Carl, and he was swindling the johns. He'd go with them but wouldn't let them do anything. Then he'd flex his huge muscles and say they'd better give him a tip, and he'd empty their wallets. He even pulled this on the queens! I mean, in Miss Titania's court, you never smooth a queen! Well. So Miss Titania and the Duchess of Diva made a date at Miss Titania's place with this trade, Carl. Funny name for trade. They're usually Blue or Tex or so what. Miss Titania and the Duchess, they knock Carl out with a mickey ... do they still call them mickeys?"
"Oddly enough, that's exactly the word a friend of mine used recently when some guy got into his apartment and —"
"Who's being interviewed, anyway?" she cried, all chin and cheekbones.
"It was a rhetorical question. So Miss Titania and the Duchess strip Carl and tie him to the bed on his stomach, and they call the court over to watch, because you have to humiliate trade to reform them. And I thoroughly approve of this, because they can become almost sweet after they've had their asses whipped. The Duchess of Diva — whose sense of tact, I must tell you, runs way to the left of disreputable — wanted to tie Carl down face up, so she could whip his chest and cock and even his face. She would have, too. But Miss Titania knows what's right. Except as she was getting ready to whip that boy's ass, Miss Titania begins to realize what a beautiful thing it is to tenderize a man like that. Sweeten him up. Make him so sweet. It's a dreamy thing. Meanwhile, Carl is coming to and the Duchess is telling him off but good about how he'd better not try his tricks in her court, which is very funny because he's so groggy he doesn't know what planet he's on. And Miss Titania is just gazing upon him. How his shoulder skin ripples as he's struggling against the rope and how his ass quivers as she lays the whip so gently upon it. And then Carl is bellowing like a bull, how he'll kill us all. But Miss Titania knows that a beautiful stud was born to be whipped, and to see him stretched out nude and helpless is the most beautiful thing in the world. And his ass is so lovely as she parts it to inhale the stink of him ..."
I would rehearse dialogue in my window, but how does one look saying this? Because truth is not beauty. Is not.
"... and she knows that he must be whipped, and how good that would be, and of course the Duchess is shrieking, 'Let's rip him up!' all over the room. She has no sense of timing. But Miss Titania spreads Carl's legs wider and wider as she strokes his thighs. She must calm him down, it's true. And then he's quiet. He knows he must be sweetened, and that is the secret that queens and trade share. You couldn't hear a sound in the place as Miss Titania soothed Carl's hole with her tongue and slowly worked it open, and Carl's groaning like a wild beast who doesn't care what anyone knows about him. I truly believe that that is the most beautiful sound in the world. Don't you?"
She looks at me now, quite frankly. "To be sure. And what do you call the most beautiful sound?"
The drag queen looks away as if she would never look back again. "Who's she?"
"Miss Titania rimmed and rimmed," the drag queen insisted. "It was the most spectacular rim job since Scheherazade. Even the Duchess of Diva held her peace as she looked on, and there wasn't a soul in that room who wouldn't have given a year of life to be in Miss Titania's place. Carl's head was swaying on his neck like a broken toy, and he kept saying, 'No. No. No. No.' I wonder why he said that. He was crying. A big, dashing, empty fuck-monster like that, crying. Can you imagine? And when it was done and Carl had been rimmed inside and out, the Duchess of Diva untied him and all the court looked upon him. He had not been whipped, yet he was sweetened. As if he had been cleaned out in his mind. He would give no trouble from now on, because everyone had watched. They saw him, do you see? But Miss Titania saw nothing. She was swaying in mid-air as if in a trance. I believe she was in a state of grace, truly. And Carl went into the bathroom and he wouldn't come out."
"Just like that southern queen who offended Miss —"
She flared up like a lighter. "How dare you? It's not the same at all!"
"Well, in outline —"
"Trade is not like queens! Now, do you understand? And they never will be!"
"Which would you rather be, if you could choose and start all over?"
She is quiet. "I lived for beauty. That was my choice."
I take notes.
"You don't think that is sufficient, you Stonewall cowboy. Do you? I suppose you live for music. How grand."
"Music is a form of beauty, isn't it?"
"No. Beauty is not music. Beauty is a pretty picture. I told you that. Oh, no — no, I'll give you something for your piece. Yes. Someone asked Miss Titania once, 'What is beauty?' You know what she said? And I quote: 'Beauty is the death of the drag queen.' There!"
She sighed as I wrote. Eleven years ago there was no place to print such tales as this. "Just take it down," Paul had said, and he added, "You'll see."
She lit another cigarette. "It's true. We had to die so you cowboys could live. Not that we wanted to. No one asked us, regardless. But people who believe every horrible insult are of no use to anyone now. That is not part of survival. No. This society believes in trade. Even if all the trade is imitation. Cops and johns, that's all that's left. That's all that's real. The need and the threat. Where's beauty now, penscratcher?"
I looked up from my notebook. I looked at her and she looked back. She smiled.
"You think we have no feelings," she said. "Is that it?"
"Feelings, dressed like this? Feelings? In a place called the Heat Rack? The Demitasse? Feelings, that I am thrilled by the simple sight of a tie? I don't have feelings, right? Yes? Yes?" She screamed in that dreary room; I hear it yet. "Say yes!"
And I said, "Yes." Because that is the impression they infix.
She calmed down quite suddenly. "Yes," she said. "Yes, thank you." She nodded. "How right you are. We don't have feelings. We learn to live without them."
That sounded like the end of the last stanza. I rose to go.
"Where will your piece be printed," she asked, "and when? I must order copies for all the gang."
"You still see them, then?"
"Alas." She raised her hand, palm to me. "Not for a terribly long time. But wouldn't it be dramatic to track them down for the occasion?"
"Do you think you could find Miss Titania?"
"No one will ever find Miss Titania. She was the first to die, you see. Now, tell me — The New York Times? McCall's? Would they want a picture, dare I hope?"
"Let's wing it," I said, while visualizing the editors of the Times coming upon that line about the Zulu's dingus. And McCall's!
* * *
"What did you think?" Paul asked me on the phone a bit later.
"I think Miss Titania is the one I should have interviewed. There the story lies."
"You jerk," he said. "That is Miss Titania."
That was Miss Titania, my window tells me, eleven years later; it took that long for me to believe my ears. My eyes I trust by the moment, but who is that masked man? Who tells me these terrible tales? I wish I could choose between beauty and love; I wish life were so trim; I, too, like a pretty picture. But I think the meaning matters more. Staring straight into my window to the disgust of my neighbor, I am bewildered, saddened, offended, and amazed. God make me as honest a storyteller as the drag queen was.CHAPTER 2
The Straight; or, Field Expedients
When my windows are not reflecting the local countenance, they give out on a great hole from which an office tower has been rising, somewhat feyly (I think) referred to on the hoarding as "Third Avenue at Fifty-third Street."
So be it. But in the early 1970s, it was all brownstones — especially one, a great box of stories that I would gaze upon from my desk. There was the ancient couple, top left, who never washed their windows. There were the Spanish-speaking queens, middle right, with the yapping chihuahua and the live-in Puerto Rican who watered the hanging garden on the fire escape in the nude. There were the bohemians next to them — he played cello and she painted — and my friend Alex just above. Next to him was a plain straight couple; the woman was seldom seen, the man always around.
Excerpted from I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 1985 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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