Eat, drink and be Mary

Savannah Morning News column

June 21, 2015

There are a lot of things to overthink in life. A drag show should not be one of them. Note the motto of Hamburger Mary’s Bar and Grille in Jacksonville, Fl.: “Eat, Drink and be Mary!”             Trust me, you may walk in to this block-long establishment on Beach Boulevard, take a seat, look around and have questions. You may wrinkle your brow, shake your head and think what the heck is going on. You may even sneak out your Iphone under the table and check out Wikipedia’s description of drag shows. But that’s when you have to sit back and read the other motto: “ Hamburger Mary’s, where everyone can be Mary.” Drag shows are kitsch. They’re fun. They’re gender-bending. And they’ve been going on a long time. Even Shakespeare employed men to dress up as women in his productions.

Not that Hamburger Mary’s or Jacksonville, Fl., was on my bucket list – or my radar – for the summer. With long days, beautiful night skies and endless possibilities of travel, the summer looms wide open.

But when I found out my neighbor, one of those genuinely nice human beings who walks his dogs in the middle of the street, always says hello, makes sure the garbage cans in the lane are upright, picks up trash, maintains a polite demeanor, participates in the local neighborhood association events and dresses in a low-key manner (not unlike myself) would be performing at Hamburger Mary’s (and that he was carrying the moniker of Miss Gay America and donating a portion of his proceeds to the Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth), well, I just had to go and see for myself.

Don’t ask me to explain. Let’s just say for that night at Hamburger Mary’s my neighbor and I were not dressed anything alike.

The phrase that works best for me is female illusionist.

I could dress this way if I wanted to (it just seems like too much work). I could wear all that make-up (with lots of help). I could lip-synch those songs (except I can’t seem to remember lyrics).

Is this what defines a woman? The fancy clothes, the outrageous makeup, the outlandish jewelry? No, no and no. The closest I could come to a reversal of roles is a woman I knew in Key West who used to dress in a traditional man’s suit and sing (not lip-synch) Sinatra songs. Her motto was, “Can she be Frank with you?”

When I talked to my neighbor on the way out, the voice sounded the same, but I did not know who I was looking at. I knew one person but was looking at another.

At a drag show everyone has a good voice (can you say recorded music?). Everyone can dance (some better than others). Everyone on stage can put on a show (and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg).

Let’s be clear. The performers were men. (A few, I am told, were transgender, ala Caitlin Jenner, but for the Miss Gay USA competitions transgenders are not allowed). The heels they danced and strutted in, knees flying, hips twisting, were narrow and three stories high; the dresses, cut low and jammed with baubles and beads, sparkled and fit oh-so-tight. This was eye candy. Lots of pouty mouths arched eyebrows and painted lips that trembled during singing.

You and I should only look so good.

And yes, the legs were firm, the arms muscled and defined, the hands huge, the fingers laden with big and bold cocktail rings.

“So that’s how you do it,” I gushed to a greeter, whose dark face powder started from the cheeks and traveled upward.

We sat down, we ordered dinner and then someone came around to trade in tens and twenties for single dollar bills (for future tips).

Will they be making seventy-five cents to a man’s dollar, the way women in the real world do? We don’t know. In this case, probably.

And then there were a few announcements.

“How many of you are here for the first time?” the emcee asked the polite, mainstream looking crowd (of course, this was the early show, the first of three). A slew of hands went up.

“How many of you are straight?” Even more hands shot up, probably more than half the audience. “Aha. We call you ‘virgin Marys.’” No embarrassment. No holding back. More laughter.

No matter. This was entertainment. You like Tina Turner singing “Proud Mary” or “What’s Love Got To Do With It”?  You like drama and costumes, old music, exaggerated flirting with a menu and ambiance somewhere between Club One (in Savannah) and Applebee’s? You’ll like Hamburger Mary’s.

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Rethinking communal living

Savannah Morning News column

June 14, 2015


This is camp season.

I want to go to camp.

Sometimes I look around and think the world is divided into two sides: those who hated camp, those who loved it. I loved it. Campfires, cabins, bunk beds, someone else doing the cooking, sports, competition, arts and crafts (lanyards!), swimming in the cold lake, singing, canoeing, tennis lessons. What could be so horrible?

It helped that I had two uncles, athletes both, who decided when they got out of World War II, they would raise money and start a camp in West Branch, Michigan. And so they did. It was communal living at its best. Maybe that’s what I liked the most.

Where is the camp for adults? Who is going to start this?

At Camp Michigama we went away for eight weeks. Yes, there was visiting day in the middle where we saw our parents. Yes, we got letters (remember them?); my grandmother would include individual pieces of Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum. My mother would send a dollar for canteen. There were no phone calls. There was a camp nurse. It was a good break for the parents, I am sure, but who thought of them? Not me. I was with my peers and the counselors.

I don’t hear about camps anymore. Day camps, yes. I just got finger printed so I could gain entrance to take a young three-year-old into her weeklong camp. Wonder what my parents or my uncles would think of being finger printed. That was a more trusting  age. That was camp: community living. Maybe that’s what I miss the most.

When people hear about “communal living” these days it’s mostly in reference to the hippies of the 1960s (I was one of them – sort of) and their social experiment that didn’t end so well. Back then the more common term was communes. One study I read said there were as many 2,000 before everyone drifted back to the city. So what happened? We were too young. That’s what. And then we fell for the capitalistic, individualistic model of mortgages, single family houses, a television in every room, minimum two computers per person (you have to count a smartphone as a computer, let’s face it), multiple bathrooms, a washer and dryer in each property.

How many of you can say that is working? I think some people might say they’re a little lonely. We keep talking about our search for community, our desire to interact, yet there we are, living alone or with our partner, be it husband, wife or other. It seems a little silly, even solitary. As long as I could have my own bedroom, where I could keep my “things” (a pair of scissors, tape, a hammer, a printer, a window that opens and closes) it might work. As long as we all agreed on noise and cleanliness and there was a bookkeeper to handle the money and it would be multigenerational it could be great.

It can be another version of the “Golden Girls.” One will cook, the younger one will drive, one will keep the conversation lively, one will garden.

Occasionally I spend time in someone’s house on a nearby island. It’s a large house so often there are six or seven people there at one time. We each have our own bedroom. The kitchen is the center. In the morning everyone wanders down, either makes or pours a cup of coffee, then someone else cooks breakfast. Same thing for lunch. Same thing for dinner. Someone washes the dishes, dries the dishes, puts the dishes away. There’s no written schedule; it just all gets done. It’s a very comforting feeling to be around people and to be by myself too.

A few years ago I met someone who moved here from Atlanta and bought a five-bedroom house. Why so many bedrooms, I asked George. You don’t think I want to live by myself or with maybe one other person, do you?

Around that same time a friend of mine went to San Francisco for a workshop on intentional community. Nothing has come of it. Yet. But it got me thinking. When I google the subject I learn that intentional communities, defined as people who live together on the basis of explicit common values, stood at 1,055 in the U.S. as of 2010, up from 325 in 1990.

Could this be a trend? Is this trending?

Until it is let’s go to camp.