Here is a mystery for those of you so inclined. When you buy a bottle of Beefeaters gin, which is a perfectly tasty gin and makes a tasty marinade as well for a chicken’s bosom (I don’t care what they tell you in cookbooks, if it doesn’t have nipples, it’s not a breast) you will find that it is 80 proof. The gin, that is, not the chicken. If Beefeaters markets a stronger version I have never seen it.
If you buy a bottle of vermouth—Martini & Rossi is nice and if you add a little of this to the marinade the chicken will be all the better for it—you will see that it is 32 proof. Simple logic tells you that if you dilute an 80 proof gin with even a little 32 proof wine, the result should be something less than 80 proof, right?
How is it then that when you order a martini on an airline they are likely to bring you a pre-made one in a little Beefeaters” bottle, and when you read the label on this it is 90 proof?
It is just such little oddities that make drinking the absorbing pastime that it is.
Here is another mystery. How can it be so difficult to find a good martini, particularly in a so-called saloon city like San Francisco but really, in so many places? It is not a difficult drink to make, requiring only a good quality gin or vodka, a few drops of a good dry vermouth, an olive with, if you like, a drop of two of its juices or, if you prefer, a twist of lemon peel, and lots of ice.
I won’t even dwell upon those establishments that attempt to make this noble concoction with rotgut booze but those of you have not read the unexpurgated version of Dante’s Inferno may not know that there was a special circle in Hell set aside for just such miscreants. This detail was eliminated from the revised edition under pressure from the liquor industry and the publisher’s marketing people, so you will just have to take my word for it, but I think you know by now whether or not I am likely to exaggerate.
A more common sin of bartenders—and Dante knew what to do with them as well, you may be sure—is to interpret the request for a dry martini as meaning straight gin or vodka. That is not a martini, alas, dry or otherwise. Something subtle and truly wondrous occurs with the blending of the two spirits, something that cannot be explained by mere chemistry alone but must be experienced to comprehend. Mind you it wants only a few drops of the wine—and this is another all too common failing—to do the job. If you do not trust your wrist absolutely the safest thing is to pour the vermouth into its bottle cap, a half a cap full at most or better, a third.
There are bartenders who, without asking and having made a perfectly good job of the proportions, spoil it all by handing it to you in a glass full of ice. This, too, is not a martini. I truly believe that a glass of ice water makes a good companion to a martini but it should be served on the side.
On the opposite side of the coin—and there is probably no punishment commensurate with the crime—is serving a martini insufficiently chilled. A martini must be ice cold, practically gelid, and preferably served in a chilled glass so that its brisk coldness will last. And eschew, please, the deplorable habit of keeping gin and vermouth in the refrigerator to obviate the need for ice. The ice is indeed necessary. That slight dilution of the spirits with the melting ice—the clearest, purest ice you can find—smoothes the edges, as it were.
And since it is perfection that we are after here—for a perfect martini stands as one of the purest examples of perfection in a too often imperfect world—we might as well address that “shaken or stirred” business. Never mind what James Bond says. He is British and the British are very good with tea but have never quite grasped the essence of the cocktail. Where would you go, I ask, in search of a great martini: a New York cocktail bar or a London pub?
Both shaking and stirring will chill a martini, of course, and I personally think that shaking became popular because it does so more quickly and we are always in a hurry, aren’t we? To be sure, there are drinks that are appropriately shaken; drinks, for instance, with fruit juices in them are meant to be a bit frivolous, effervescent, frothy even. Shake the dickens out of them.
Drinks that are pure spirits, however—the martini, the Manhattan or the Rob Roy as examples—deserve to be stirred. If you will make two martinis in separate shakers, violently shaking one and gently stirring the other, you will clearly discern two things. First, as any good bartender can tell you, stirring produces a colder drink, and the colder the martini the better. And second—this is easier to grasp if you use gin—you will find that the shaken method truly does leave the gin “bruised,” as evidenced by the oils you can see for yourself left floating atop the cocktail when you have poured it into its glass, while the stirred version retains that crystalline purity which is to be desired. Case closed.
I have been a martini drinker for many years, gin originally and still sometimes, but now mostly vodka. In the fifties everyone drank martinis. Writers, chefs, doctors, church ladies and even politicians, who are not otherwise known for their judgment.
By the mid-sixties something dreadful had happened to cocktails, however—not everyone drank them now and those who did, drank them on the rocks. You may be confident, however, that I eschewed such silliness and continued drinking my martinis as God intended, up in a stemmed glass.
By the mid-seventies civilization, in the fullest sense of the word, had deteriorated even further. Hardly anyone was drinking cocktails. The tipple now was the little glass of white wine and sometimes even that otherwise acceptable drink was bastardized with seltzer water, for reasons passing understanding.
I do not mean to imply that I have any objections to a glass of good wine, without the desecration of seltzer, of course. The grape and I have a long standing and honorable relationship marked by mutual respect on both sides. And I think as an aperitif before a luncheon, say, when a martini may be a bit much of a muchness, a glass of wine will do nicely. Nevertheless, there is only one proper appetizer for a good dinner and that is a martini.
I ignored the madness of “wine coolers” and continued to drink my martinis as I had always done, though there were those who looked askance at me and it became harder and harder to find a bartender who knew his business.
In the mid-eighties, recently arrived in San Francisco, I went to dinner with some friends. At the bar I ordered my customary martini, spelling it out for the bartender so that there could be no mishaps—dry, up, a drop of olive juice and both a twist and an olive.
One of my companions, new to me, offered what he thought was praise, lauding me for being so up to date—the martini, it seems, was again in fashion and he thought that I was adhering to the latest “thing.” Since then, the martini has gone once more out of fashion and once more is “in” again. You may be sure that my drinking habits have remained the same while the world had yet another opportunity to catch up to me.
My point is this: do it right and never mind what the others are doing. Or, in a line from The Opening of Misty Beethoven, “Never let the fact that they are doing it wrong keep you from doing it right.” If you wait, fashion will always in time return to the classics. Which may in part explain my new—or perhaps I should say, renewed—popularity, at my advanced age.
I seem to come back often to that subject of age, don’t I? I was recently in an airport bar in Pittsburgh and a large woman of a certain age took the seat next to me and told the bartender what she wanted without waiting to be asked. His reply was short of being outright rude but was nevertheless not altogether welcoming, either. She informed him in a booming voice, “sweetheart, I am a fifty-six-year-old former hippie. I no longer have to play the game because I already know the score.”
A good attitude, I thought, toward aging. Some years ago, in Sex and the Single Gay, I wrote: “What do you consider middle age? Well, ask any twenty-year old and he’ll tell you thirty. Ask a thirty-year old and he’ll tell you forty. Never ask a forty-year old.”
As I write this I am past the age of sixty-five. Not ancient by today’s standards but certainly past any definition of middle age. As Yogi put it, I find that it is growing late much earlier.
I think that it has been an incredible life, certainly one that little boy in Eaton, Ohio could not possibly have imagined in his wildest dreams. Despite some difficult times and a few dangers, it seems to me that it has been a charmed life for the most part. I don’t know why that is so but time and again it has proven true in my life.
Moreover, much good has come to me all on its own. I have more often than not been the happy recipient of kindness and generosity from others. I used to think that perhaps I was being prepared for some great role in life but I now think that was only a young man’s sense of self-importance. If there is any purpose to my good fortune, I think perhaps that I was only intended to pass it on, and I have made a sincere if sometimes misguided effort to do so.
I am, as I said at the beginning, a private person. It seems a bit of a paradox that someone who grew up in such a large and close family should be a loner, but it is really not difficult to explain. When you are crowded all together with a great many people in a small space, you learn to value your solitude. Just so they say that the meditative religions and philosophies flourished in those crowded countries like India and China where people live in an enforced proximity, the only escape from which is to turn within.
Even as a child I was inclined to wander off into the woods on my own and I think part of what drew me to books was the quiet and solitude that I early discovered in our old library, where there were endless nooks and niches in which a small boy could all but vanish. And admission was free, not an insignificant detail.
I am not a particularly social person. It is not that I dislike people. Indeed, quite the opposite. I feel a deep affection for my fellow creatures and I am an incurable optimist who believes that people are mostly good. I think that people recognize this, or sense it, and it is why there are those few who seem to enjoy my often not very scintillating company.
As I got older I got more comfortable with just being myself but when I was younger I was a chameleon, a mirror that reflected back to each individual what he wanted to see. This may be in part why I was never comfortable in groups, where I could not focus my attention on one individual alone. Reading another’s mind is difficult under the best of circumstances and all but impossible when there are crowds to distract you.
Whatever the reason, it is a fact of my life that I have never been able entirely to relax in the company of another person, however much I enjoyed that person’s company, and am only completely at ease when I am alone. There are many, I know, who cannot enjoy their own company, but I am not one of them. Truth to tell I find that I truly must have a certain amount of solitary time each day, to “charge the batteries,” in a manner of speaking. Without it I find myself weary indeed. But everyone who knows me knows this and mostly respects my need.
Some years back—in that time of crisis I have already mentioned—I sat myself down and took stock of the person I was. I think the description “a fully paid up bitch past his use-by date” (self-analysis is made much simpler when you have friends who are entirely blunt) may have been a little harsh but I could see that there was certainly some room for improvements and I decided I would try to accomplish them.
I have devoted much of my time and energy over the past twenty or so years to trying to be a wiser person and a better one—which may be the same thing, when you think about it. For all my efforts, however, I cannot see that I have ended up any better than anyone else. I would like to think that I have acquired certain virtues along the way but when I look more closely I see that, while I do indeed possess them and they are certainly virtues, there is not much virtue in my possession.
Which sounds confusing but let me explain. I believe, at least in theory, in the concept of reincarnation, if only because it seems to explain nicely some things which are otherwise inexplicable. Why, for instance, some people are born already crippled in one way or another. It is easier, I think, if one can see that as simply another chapter in a long running saga—a balancing, perhaps, of mistakes in a previous incarnation, or a soul’s necessary lesson in humility—than merely the cruel caprice of an unfeeling God.
I think, then, that it is a good thing to live my life as if I were going to be held accountable—if not this time around, then the next, or the one after that—for my thoughts, my words and my actions. If I am mistaken and there is in fact nothing after this life but oblivion, I will have no reason to regret, since, let’s face it, I will not know the difference. And if I am right then I will have taken out some very felicitous insurance.
Which is to say that while, yes, I try hard to be kind to and respectful of others, it is with one eye on my Karma’s path and so really is for the most selfish of reasons, isn’t it?
It is probably impossible to get through life without hurting others but I try to avoid consciously or deliberately doing so; it has been my experience, however, that when I do inflict pain on others I don’t even need to wait for the next go-round to suffer for that crime.
I don’t think that I am unusual in this. I believe that everyone who consciously or deliberately hurts another experiences a commensurate pain himself, though I do know that some are successful at hiding that pain from themselves. This does not, however, mean that they do not in one way or another suffer from it. It is much like the compost style of dealing with society’s garbage that was so popular in the fifties—dump it in a hole, cover it with dirt, and once it is out of sight it ceases to exist. Homes are built over it, shops, streets.
Unfortunately the garbage doesn’t go away, it rots and decomposes and produces methane gas, which in time can seep up through the soil—so that, years later, someone pauses to light a cigarette and, boom, the gas blows. It is not that single little match flare that causes the explosion, it is what is going on all those years beneath the surface, unnoticed.
However, as I have said already, I do not have to wait years to suffer for hurting others. I avoid doing so to spare myself the pain. So again my motives are entirely selfish and I can’t take much credit for my forbearance.
I make a point of honesty but the truth is that I am all too transparent when I try to tell untruths so I am unlikely to get away with them; and anyway, my memory too often fails me and when I try to fib my way through a situation I have the unfortunate tendency to confuse my falsehoods or forget what I have said and so trip myself up. This is embarrassing and usually fruitless, and I am essentially honest because it is easier. But doing what is easiest does not seem to me much of a virtue.
Likewise I avoid taking what is not rightfully mine but that is mostly because, as I have said, things have a way of coming to me and I am afraid that if I get greedy I will mess that up. Alas, I fear that fear is no great plus either.
I am a good friend to my friends and loyal, too, and I would like to think that, aha, at last I am entitled to take a bow. Yet when I shine the light a little more carefully into the dark corners of my behavior, even that looks a little less noble than it might.
Generally, one learns to interact with friends in early childhood, playing with others. As a loner I mostly learned about friendship from books and movies, which is to say, an idealized version of it. Men and women, of course, are not altogether ideal. “Fair weather friends” sounds harsh but I think that most individuals are friends to the extent that you walk through the part they have scripted for you in the movies of their lives and are inclined to leave you on the cutting room floor if you step out of character. That is not such a terrible thing. People have the right to their own lives and can include you or not or in whatever way that they wish, just as you can retain them in yours or walk away if that suits you better.
I would like to feel smug about my Three-Musketeers-one-for-all-and-all-for-one way of looking at friendships. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that my tendency to take the moral high ground in such matters is not much better really than a more subtle way of hectoring others to be good and loyal to me. We are back, in other words, to the idea of control, which is not something I can feel too pious about.
The only really good thing that I can see in all this is that, having uncovered so many failings and weaknesses in myself, it has made me far more tolerant of the shortcomings of others. (“Between the sins of the world and mine, I find the differences of degree, not kind,” as someone far wiser than I has put it.) Moreover, having forgiven another person, it is not so difficult to go on to loving them. That must surely be a good thing but it is not much, is it, to enter in the asset column, when the debit entries are such a voluminous bunch?
As for becoming a wiser person, the closest I have come to wisdom is in realizing how little I know and—this is the point I was working toward—in realizing how much I have to be grateful for.
I cannot too often express my gratitude to Mike and John of Bolerium Books and I am happy to do so once again.
Dr. Fabio Cleto worked tirelessly to bring me back to the attention of the reading public and I certainly owe him thanks for his efforts. And I owe Gian Piero Piretto a very special thanks as it was he who introduced me to Dr. Cleto, and so could be considered responsible for reviving my writing career—which I hope pleases at least one or two of you.
I am grateful as well to Rebecca Mead of UCLA for her research on my behalf. I have mentioned Todd Clark before and must do so again, though it will no doubt embarrass him to be singled out. And to Bruce Brown and Gary Dickson for support and encouragement. David McTarnahan volunteered time and again to solve the many mysteries of computers for me, else you would not now be reading this—and don’t take it out on him, either. Audrey Joseph has been a friend and a fan, and who would not feel grateful for that? Lynette Anderson has been there for me at every moment of need.
I am lucky, indeed, to have the friends I have (doubly so because I am quite sure that friendship with me is not an easy thing) who have encouraged me and supported me in more ways than I could enumerate here. Matt Ogden and Jim Walker, Joe Kelly and Gary Lea, and Tom and Ray and Matt, and Matt and Diane, and Russ and Heidi and Roby and George and…well, too many, I’m happy to say, to name them all here (don’t you just hope I never win an Oscar?)
And some of them are no longer available for me to thank, notably Lynwood Anderson and John Beard, among others. And Don Schaffer, who started with me when we were little boys and girls together. Well, we didn’t know the difference then. Truth to tell, I don’t think he ever did.
I can see that some of my remarks on the subject of friendship could be seen as cynical but I don’t mean them that way at all. I think there are few things in life—if any—more precious than friendship. Donald liked to say that a friend has the right to ask anything whatsoever of you and the obligation not to ask. That is perhaps a little too neat but it does express the essential truth, that friendship both confers privileges and imposes obligations, though we are generally quicker to embrace the former than the latter.
Chief among those obligations, one must suppose, is honesty. If I can’t believe what you say, how can I believe your friendship? And close after that one must surely be loyalty, which mostly brings us back to that business of forgiving. It is not, after all, when another is doing everything right that he most needs your friendship, but rather when he is screwing up. And your friend doesn’t need you to tell him he’s behaved stupidly. There is never any shortage of those willing to impart that information. Anyway, he probably already knows it himself.
I like to recall a remark someone once made of a mutual friend, who had just made an utter fool of himself: “it’s easy to overlook his faults because they are common and to be grateful for his virtues, which are not.” Honor your friends despite their faults and be grateful for their virtues.
* * * * * * *
Needless to say, though I have said it already, I am ever thankful for that bunch of loonies—I mean, my family. We are an enormous bunch so again I cannot name everyone here. I have mentioned Fanny already, and Pat and Ann, but I cannot not mention Karen, who helped me with the history of Eaton (and I must add in a great many other ways over the years) and Ruth and Eve and May and Al, who is no longer with us; and there was a difficult period that I might not have survived without the generous help of my brother Sam, who has always believed in me even when my own faith weakened. There is a long, long list of nephews and nieces as well, and grand nephews etc. It would take many pages to list them all, so I will settle for saying that it has been a comfort and a blessing through every trial and tribulation to have my family’s love and friendship.
The staff at our Eureka Valley Branch of the San Francisco Public Library System were helpful beyond the call of duty and cheerful about it, too, which is a refreshing evidence that civilization may not yet be at its end. Some historians date the beginning of the “Dark Ages” from the destruction of the library at Alexandria. Certainly the library has always been a cornerstone of civilization and in any list of unsung heroes, I think the librarian should figure prominently. Ours just happen to be particularly wonderful.
It is encouraging, is it not, that when children were polled recently as to their favorite forms of media, books still topped the list? I hope some of them read this. Well, some of the older ones at any rate, though it is my belief that children are far wiser and understand far more than people give them credit for. Left to their own perceptions children are almost invariably accepting of gay-ness. Alas, their tolerance too often proves intolerable to adults.
I have quoted here and there from other works. I intended to do so within the confines of the “fair-use” provisions of copyright law and have certainly not in any instance wished to step on anyone’s copyright toes. And surely any who consider my usage of their material will find that it was inevitably flattering and could only do their causes good. If I didn’t like it I didn’t quote it. Except, that is, for Dr. Wertham, whose remarks were too priceless to ignore.
I am the first to admit that my memory is not perfect. It is surprisingly difficult to verify exact dates and such for material from the era of which I have written. I have made every effort to see that my facts were correct but if I have gotten a date wrong or misspelled your name I humbly apologize.
I am particularly grateful to all of you who bought this book.
If you borrowed it, please send me my royalties.
* * * * * * *
As a matter of record, I went by The Burnt Place not so long ago. Or rather, I went by where it had been. The house is gone, and the big pine trees and the rock that we used to ride for a horse. The creek has shrunk almost to nothing.
The Streetcar is still where it was, though. When my brother, Pat, explained that he had been born in it, the woman in the house next to it opened the door and let us look inside. There was nothing to see, really, just the sort of things everyone stows away. If there were any ghosts of the family who once made their home there, they were silent on that occasion.
It looks very nice from the outside. It has been painted white and a foundation added underneath and a proper roof on top. It looks hardly at all like a streetcar, only a very respectable storage shed. You would never guess what a poor thing it had once been.
Still, had there not been a Streetcar, where might my brother have been born? There is always something to be grateful for.
Oh, those chicken bosoms, I nearly forgot. When they have gotten good and tipsy from the gin you can drain them and cook them just about any way you normally would cook chicken breasts. They are good slathered with butter and simply baked, but I like to pat them dry, dip them in a batter—you can use any batter you like, or just dip them in some milk—and then dip them again in finely crushed corn flakes. You’ll need a fair amount of corn flakes, depending upon how many bosoms you have gotten drunk.
Line a shallow pan with some foil and lay the bosoms in it. Drizzle them with some melted butter (don’t be stingy, baby) and bake them at 350 for forty-five minutes or so, without covering or turning them. I call this “stewed chicken” but you may call it “Victor’s Bosoms”, which will almost certainly disconcert your guests, and what is the point of a dinner party, after all, if you are not going to have fun?