In the fall of 1962 my mother, Betty, took a teaching position at Division Avenue High School in Levittown, NY. My parents had just divorced mom went back to work, not taking any alimony just to get out of the marriage. She probably never would have seen any of it any way.
As I remember it my mother and father spent an awful lot of time being nasty to each other.
She sniped; he would goad her and be very nasty. My father somehow managed not to pay child support and, based on the speed with which he had a place to live with a woman he soon married, that he was probably not faithful to my mother and she knew it.
It was better when they split up.
We did have less money without my father. On the other hand he was kind of tight-fisted with the cash and blew a gasket when he discovered the hidden vacuum cleaner in my closet when he was trying to fix the door that had come off the track.
My mother was a class of 1938 NYU school of commerce college graduate. It was 1962, her options were far fewer than women have in 2015 and salaries were minuscule.
She became a teacher of business subjects that year teaching Regents typing and Gregg Shorthand and transcription. At Division Avenue she met some new friends among them: John Burch our boarder, Tim a tall angular man who taught biology, Dan strong slight build tall and blonde, Dan taught History. And then there was Julio.
Before there was AirBNB, there was the teacher bulletin board-my mother rented out a tiny bedroom for a tiny income to a fellow teacher by the name of John Burch who looked a lot like Paul Giamatti in the film Sideways. Mr.Burch was an English teacher and he stayed with us in our Levitt house, while he waited for his family to move into their new home in the area. He was a gentle being. Probably too soft for some of the “hoods” he faced at Division Avenue in 1962.
John Burch drove with my mother to Division Avenue High School each morning. Mom drove a 1956 Turquoise and white two-tone Ford Victoria with chrome trim in which the passenger-seat only reclined. My mother would take off down Trapper Lane and all you could see was Mr. Burch’s nose and a wisp of his already thinned out hair flying in the breeze from the open window. I remember laughing so hard and not being able to stop, tears streaming down my face watching John Burch’s nose fade off as she turned the corner.
One day Mr. Burch left us. We said our good byes and within a day or two a Mr. Julius Nicholai Schmidt came to stay. Mr. Schmidt a diminutive man with long black eyelashes that framed his dark brown O’s of his eyes. He was a Spanish teacher whose family had run from Castro’s Cuba. Mr. Schmidt (or Julio as I used to call him) had one leg shorter than the other with a special built up shoe to accommodate the difference. Julio was a bit of a snazzy dresser always in a jacket and tie (no one wore sweatpants or elastic waist jeans in 1962) and though bald, wore a black toupee that suited his style just fine. Having Julio with us was like having a party every night. Julio and my mother would make paella and bean dishes, drink scotch and sometimes, even dance to Latin jazz. He was a good buffer for me; my mother was less unpredictable with him around.
Once, after Julio moved into the brand new Mitchel Lama apartments on the upper west side mom took me to a New Year’s party to welcome in 1963. I was 11 years old, tall for my age and wore my special “grown-up” red – pencil-skirted dress.
When we got to Julio’s place and the door opened there were some of the most beautiful costumed women I had ever seen. Dazzling in sequins, feather boas and sparkles, high hair and fabulous makeup.
I remember at first feeling out of place not dressed right (a story that has continued my whole life) and stayed out on the terrace. One of the sparkling ladies said “Come dance with us sweetheart don’t stand out here on your own, “ and then in a moment there I was dancing to some of the best dance music I had heard in my young life, men and women, women and men all mushed together shimmying and shaking, feathers flying.
As I remember it was a wonderful night. My mother was busy being a queen bee and I was mostly left to my own devices in this crowd of costumes and celebration, that meant that for that night she was not embarrassing me or picking on me in some way. I could just be.
And then there was Tim and Dan. They both taught at Division Avenue High School they lived on the upper west side. Tim was a biology teacher who drove with Dan in a 1962 Ford Falcon to Levittown from West End Avenue each school day, Dan taught history and then became a librarian. My mother, Tim and Dan became fast friends. They had many interests in common, good music and theater chief among them, good parties, good booze along with a curiosity for ideas old and new. Both Tim and Dan were tall men from Arkansas who had come to New York as many do to find their lives.
We did so many things together with Tim and Dan and Sam and Al and a famous illustrator named Joshua. Once we went to the City Center on 56th Street to see Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The opening piece of music was Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex complete with eye-gouging. For some reason we got the giggles at that part. What was so funny about gouging out eyes will still be a mystery to me, but we got the kind of giggles that are infectious hard to contain and one by one our entire row started to laugh. It was then that the usher came by and tossed us out into the street until we could compose ourselves. She muttered something about “setting a bad example for the child.”
We returned after intermission and were better behaved.
In autumn Tim and Dan bought a cabin in the woods of Massachusetts near the towns of Heath and Dell. My mom and I drove up with them to spend the weekend, in her now newish car: a 1961 butter yellow Mercury convertible. In the chilled autumn air we drove with the top down, me in the back with Dan, the heater running up front as we sang made up “Gregorian style” chants, switching to jazzy made up “skats” and then sliding into an actual genuine song that we sang in some kind of strange multi-part harmony. At some point we just were quiet and looked at the scenery and breathed the night air as we climbed higher into the Berkshires.
That weekend I helped Dan at the edge of the property do some pruning to cut down overgrown brush and weedy trees. It was the first time I had ever seen a pair of “loppers” and thought, “how great to have a man around who knew how to do this.” Dan took off his shirt in the warm afternoon sun and I saw his tanned muscular body rippling as he worked. I was a little kid but by this time I had a bit of a pre-teen crush on him and seeing him like that just fueled the flames of being “in-like”.
That night we took flashlights and walked along the road following the stone minute-man fence lines to Joshua the illustrator’s house. The house was built in the 1700’s and sported low ceilings, a wood-burning stove. George Washington could have slept there.
Although the house has been electrified Joshua designed it to keep its revolutionary war period feeling. Our faces were illuminated more by the light of the fire and the candles that were scattered around than from the light fixtures. It was said in the most hushed of tones, “That the house had ghosts.”
There were others who joined us that night, friends of our friends who had gathered for their weekend in the country. They lived in little towns nearby. We played games like charades, the adults drank scotch, bourbon and wine and then we gathered by the fireplace, toasted marshmallows and Joshua shared ghost stories.
On the walk back to Tim and Dan’s house we heard a crunching sound like footsteps coming from an open field. Then we heard it again. Was it a ghost like Joshua talked about? Was there someone there? I was really scared, but I didn’t want to show it in front of Dan, though he did take my hand like a dad or an uncle would to reassure me.
We drew closer to the sound. It happened again, there a footstep a crunch of the leaves. “Who is there?” Tim and Dan say aloud. “Who is there!?,” they say again. My mother and me, two scaredy-cats creeping toward the sound hiding behind the two tall men. We get as close as we dare as Tim and Dan shine a flashlight into the darkness.
Six sets of big brown eyes stare back at us. “Cows! Cows!” Tim and Dan say aloud and we each break out into peals of laughter. We laughed the whole rest of the weekend just by saying, “Cows! Cows!”
Years later, after I graduate from high school my mother tells me a “secret” about her friends Tim, Dan, Julio, Joshua, Al, Ken and Sam. A best-selling children’s book author of 50 titles, a famous illustrator and artist, a well -known film-maker, a biologist and several educators amongst them.
They were gay. Homosexual. Not into women. Julio’s New Year’s party in 1963 had more men guests than women, though I did not realize it at the time. Julio was a cross-dresser as were many of his friends. He was also gay.
And then there was the biggest heartbreak: Dan would never have asked me out. I still thought one day I would be old enough that our age difference would not matter. I was crushed.
“Nancy we have to keep it a deep dark secret or they would lose their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods, it is illegal to be gay.”
So I thought, that makes you a “fag hag” a not very flattering term I had recently heard used about divorced women who hung out with gay men. Mom was not gay she just loved the company of her friends who happened to be male homosexuals, simple as that. (And I am guessing was more enjoyable than the dating scene.)
The following summer my mother marched in the Gay Pride parade in Provincetown in solidarity with her friends. In time they drifted away, Tim bought a beach house and got married to a famous woman photographer and then they were all gone from our lives. Mom moved on to other friends, other schools and even a few boyfriends. She tended to dump the good ones whom she could marry and have a good life with, that tended to infuriate me.
The events of the past few days made me think of those days and I hope that at least one of those smart, fun and interesting gentlemen is still alive to witness the gay marriage decision last week handed down by the Supreme Court. And I know that even with that it’s time to get ready for the backlash, battle lines are being drawn and next year is 2016.
May a rainbow come to you after the rain and your heart be your guide.