Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Summer Camp

I'm collecting my thoughts, and books, for June. Last year's display table was a celebration of our history, a collection of biography, a reclamation or bringing out, as it were, of our past. I made table signs, as I still was allowed, now and then, to do in those days, using photo upon photo of our famous, infamous and too little known faces. Those images provoked considerable curiosity and made a kind of a quiz: "Did you know? Does she belong in this gathering? Was he really?" I was glad of the chance to challenge my coworkers and our customers. I was glad of the sales.

This year, I've decided to go off in an altogether different direction. Our aspirations would seem to have settled very much to earth. Once, before the plague, we danced and marched to a revolutionary bacchanal and liberation meant, among other things, fucking, dancing, drag, fun, defiance. We forget this. Most that would remind us of it are dead. In their absence -- still so keenly felt -- we have drifted, or been led, off the streets and out of the bars and into the courts and legislatures, we've occupied the suburbs, had what's left of our hair trimmed, lost our mustaches, bought strollers, invested, conformed and advanced. We have lost more than most of our illegality. We've survived, some of us longer than anyone might have imagined even a decade ago, and many if not most of us, at least among the boys, have become established, even respectable to a degree that might astonish or even break the hearts of the best of us that came before.

There's nothing regrettable in this, so far as it's gone, which is far further than I myself might have dreamed. I am by no means nostalgic for a past, even my own, that was so hostile as to undo more of us than even disease and neglect did in the days only just going. The world, for us, is a better place in just my lifetime. But I do wonder sometimes that in our rush to better ourselves, we don't sometimes forget too much. Last year I made it my mission, in however small a way, to memorialize some of our own, to call fresh attention not just to the struggle and the sacrifice, but also to the individuals who brought us as far as we've come. The faces, the images of our past were easy enough to find. I could copy and download these. Our actual history, our books, the evidence of us that can still be owned and read, was harder to come by. So much is gone. So much, if available at all, is priced to be purchased now only institutionally or accessed digitally or preserved as artifact rather than fact -- a fact being, for most people, a tactile thing, requiring the reality of being seen, held, read. A book is a fact only so long as it is read. It is all well and good that our stories are now to be preserved, that our lives are no longer subject to editorial apology and justification, to bowdlerization and emendation, that discretion has progressed to it's proper, other meaning and that rather than being hidden, the value of our history and herstory, of our lives and the lives that came before and contributed to the making of ours, are now to be understood, interpreted and remembered at our discretion, and with a discrimination not external to ourselves but arising from our liberation. I worry though that the democratic nature of liberation is not lost when the only record and memory of it is left to historians, librarians and archivists. Revolutions die not when they end, but when they are left to the interpretation of specialists. Even so, I gathered what I could to sell, and sold what I could.

This year, I want something more of the dance than the march. The signs for my annual table display I've reluctantly had to request from the professionals -- so as to keep to the generally dull standard of professional presentation of which I've already grown painfully weary -- rather than make the signs myself. (From such small concessions to "standard" and uniformity is the creativity and autonomy of each of us eventually wasted, but leave that for another day.) This year's signs will, hopefully, read:

"Summer Camp"

And on the table will be books by Patrick Dennis and Quentin Crisp, Joe Keenan and Brian Bouldrey, Gertrude Stein, Florence King, Jane Rule. There will be glossy biographies of movie goddesses and DVDs of "Mommie Dearest" and "Butterfield 8," of old musicals and melodramas. I've been hunting up paper dolls and hilarious old pulp paperbacks with titles like The Man from Auntie and Strange Sisters. I've asked for the biggest, ugliest costume jewelry the Gifts Department can find, and false eyelashes and fire-engine-red lipsticks from the Cosmetics Counter -- yes, the bookstore actually has a cosmetics counter. I've squirrelled away a copy or two of The Case of the Not So Nice Nurse and a few other treasures I could not reorder new. Ronald Firbank will not be represented. It seems there are now no immediate plans to reprint. Other equally disastrous gaps too sad to enumerate will probably be noticed by no one but me.

Watching "Make Me A Supermodel: Season Two," I was shaken from my usual contentment and filthy-mindedness, when a beautiful girl, already weak from not eating, was made to weep for not entirely losing the shape of a healthy woman. A fat old modeling agency queen with a tape-measure and the soulless wet eyes of a rabid bulldog did this, made this girl cry, for not conforming to the diseased standard of gay misogyny! On an earlier episode, I watched a whole pansexual panel of equally soulless monsters euphemise their homophobia as they snidely humiliated and dismissed from the competition -- with, we were assured, the kindest of intentions -- a beautiful, blond androgyn for being "unmarketable" and "too specialized," his looks "too strange" and "too refined," his walk insufficiently "strong." I burned with shame to think such creatures as were perched on that judges' panel could still exist, that we could still produce such deformities of sensibility and give them power over the fate of such exquisite youngsters. It was like watching angels in Hell.

I thought to write to the producers of the show, to organize some kind of protest. My instincts were old. Then I mentioned something of what I'd seen to a young, straight, female coworker.

"I pity everyone involved" she sighed, and I had to laugh. She was absolutely right, of course. Last bark from a dying breed, was what I saw. The end can't come too soon.

Meanwhile, it still seems worthwhile, at least to me, for a month, on a display table in an independent bookstore, to remember when summer camp wasn't left entirely to the bullies.

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