Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Remembered Visitation

Many years ago I managed, or mismanaged, considering the eventual outcome of my tenure there, a venerable queer bookstore in West Hollywood, CA. Even then, the world was spinning faster than we realized: new technology, online bookselling, new assimilationist-politics, the first effective AIDS treatments and a frank exhaustion of what could then still be described as "the movement," had all contributed in their different ways to the decline or at least diffusion of the gay books, gay retailers, gay writing, publishing and culture. We were indeed by then, "everywhere," and fewer and fewer customers seemed to feel the need of our books and readings, of the open space and our company, of a neighborhood and of the businesses, the commercial and cultural centers that had defined for a generation at least, the bricks & mortar manifestation of community. Indeed, the community the bookstore served and had once represented seemed increasingly not to need or want anything much to do with books at all. This wasn't true of course. Books, and sex, and community for that matter, could now simply be had virtually, cheaper and more conveniently, elsewhere. The kind of community-based, comprehensive, and inclusive bookstore that A Different Light, West Hollywood, had always been, it frankly ceased to be while I was working there. The intention was still there, but the money wasn't. On the bookstore went, for a time, even after my time, but with new owners I never had the opportunity to know. What the bookstore had been and continued however haphazardly to be, was perhaps already an anachronism before I left. That store only ceased to exist a short time ago, but really it's business was over even before I was so gently, if unceremoniously informed that my services, thanks very much, were no longer required. I went out with the old business, the old owners, and the old ideals. Not a bad way to go, looking back now, but no easier for that at the time. I never went back.

Managing that bookstore was one of the highlights of my working life. It also rather broke my heart.

My memories then of the place are mixed. But for one afternoon there at least, managing that bookstore was the fulfilment of a childhood fantasy. Because I was there, and had the perfect excuse to play the host, I met one of my heroes.

In 1975, a British television adaptation of Quentin Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, premiered in England, to uniformly good reviews, some controversy, and a surprisingly large popular audience. It made quite a celebrity, at last, of the book's author, and a star of the young if already accomplished actor who played him so perfectly from youth to middle age. I watched a broadcast, a year later, when the film came to America & PBS. I was all of twelve or thirteen. I watched that movie, as I watched all such thrillingly queer things in those days, (Brideshead Revisited, I Claudius, Soap,) on a tiny, black & white "portable" that my father had rescued from a dump. I sat on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my older brother, kept the sound turned very low, and, holding the antenna and my breath, spent the first of many evenings with Quentin Crisp, at least, in this instance, as brilliantly portrayed by John Hurt. Changed my life, that evening.

It should be remembered that at that time, in such a place as the one in which I was growing up -- more representative then than it is now, one hopes, of the whole country -- there were then only the first distant echos of Stonewall. Anita Bryant rampaged through the country, and my nightmares, soon thereafter. The only information on the subject of homosexuality to which I had any access was already so archaic, and wrong-headed, if not actually barbaric, that I had little opportunity to imagine my life as likely to be anything other than a brief and unhappy struggle with my nature. The idea that anyone gay might or had ever not simply survived or learned to accommodate themselves to themselves, but accepted himself entirely, and triumphed, was still so new as to be at best more a hope than a fact, so far as I could find in the library. The lesson I'd already learned by this time from books was that Oscar triumphed indeed, but that Oscar fell. True, I'd heard of others since, living dangerously exciting lives in far off places like New York and San Francisco, but like those all but imaginary places, for one of Harvey Milk's lost, possibly otherwise rhetorical boys trapped in a small place, such lives were still largely abstractions. Oscar I'd studied, knew and admired, and I'd learned, I thought the lesson of his life and the lesson was in his fall.

Then I saw a small figure on a very small television screen, a ridiculous and embarrassing, if not actually impossible, person swaying down the streets of London, denying the possibility of further hurt from the familiar young thugs that taunted him by simply raising a bejeweled hand and confidently informing them that they could no longer touch him as he had already survived worse and was now, one of the stately homos of England. He had accepted himself entirely, even exaggerated those eccentricities he felt he could not help, conceded the possibility of the truth in every criticism and insult offered, refused neither beatings nor bigotry, disclaimed any superiority to even the worst and lowest of us, and to any truth beyond his own, had embraced and even celebrated his outcast state, and he had survived. Moreover, he had made from his life less a philosophy than a statement of fact, and he had done this with such brave wit as to be finally celebrated in time as a pioneer, a revolutionary even, and done so, uniquely, by simply being honest, not only about himself, but to himself. I was mesmerized, inspired, and frankly, saved I think, by just that glimpse of possibility.

Thirty three years later, An Englishman in New York (available at Logo Online), continues the story begun in that first remarkable film. It is a story now so familiar to me from Quentin Crisp's other books and media appearances that I know it almost by heart. And knowing the man as I feel I do, I can say, seeing him alive again if only at secondhand and in a fictionalized form, I am if anything fonder of his memory, having met him but once, than I am of almost any of my other ancestors in the life. Quentin Crisp remains the hero he was to me at thirteen, and how many of the heroes of our youth can be said to still be that when we reach middle-age? So what a pleasure to see John Hurt again take up the role that endeared him to me all those years ago! What a thrill to see the great actor again suggest, with the simplest, and therefor most difficult and beautiful acting, all the rich humor and pathos between and behind the witticisms. John Hurt's remarkable portrayal plumbs all the depths of emotion in this difficult role without compromising his subject's integrity, subtly conveying Crisp's underlying and quite genuine humility, even as he says the many practiced, provocative and outrageous things that made his reputation as a writer and entertainer, and even something of a sage. Quentin Crisp, in the latter part of his life, maintained an ironclad integrity that did not always serve him well with his adored and once, briefly, adoring public, and his sometimes seemingly naive, or at least misguided insistence on never saying anything he did not mean and intend to say, and his refusal to retract anything once said, had lasting and unfortunate consequences for him. The new film unflinchingly shows this. Yet Hurt's remarkably subtle and sympathetic performance shows us this sometimes maddeningly stubborn, even rather inflexible personality, and allows us to examine his failures and flaws, without once losing the thread of his profound humanity. In what was a long but in many ways intentionally, if ironically modest life, Quentin Crisp was never less than true to himself, even when he was wrong. John Hurt's mature performance is a rare opportunity to experience again all the wonderful and contradictory charms that made Quentin Crisp such a complicated, and undeniably sad, if ultimately admirable and even lovable man. What a gift to have him back! And to have John Hurt again assume him for us!

This second telling includes much that is painful to remember. Crisp came to New York and stayed, embracing everything he found there, from the brash and noisy life of the city's busy streets, to the new celebrity that his writing and the first film brought him, as the most glorious fulfillment of his fondest wishes. He once said, when I was present to hear him, that only in America, and with Americans, had he ever understood what it was to be loved, as "Americans seem to love so indiscriminately, one need only be present to be included." That he lived to find himself excluded, yet again, this time from the gay society he had himself sacrificed so much to make possible, was an irony he obviously found painful, but refused to think exceptionable, or unfunny. And then, in the midst of a devastation he could not possibly have foreseen and frankly did not understand before he made an unfortunate joke about it, saying publicly that "AIDS is a fad," and thus ruining himself with his beloved audiences for years thereafter, Quentin Crisp again experienced a rejection to equal any he'd ever known. He survived that too, as the new movie so movingly shows, and lived to find himself again, if more modestly, celebrated. Much I did not know, much he never said himself about the later years of his long life, I learned from this new movie; his secret charity, his devotion to and promotion of younger artists, his deep and abiding, if not untroubled friendship with his American editor, the truly painful degeneration into very old age that he accepted, as he accepted everything, very much on his own terms, insisting at the end on dying in Britain, where "less fuss" was likely to be made about the corpse.

My one encounter with Quentin Crisp, I owe to A Different Light Bookstore, where he came one day, surrounded by attentive friends, to sign some books, have a cup of tea with the dazzled staff of the bookstore, and indulge all too familiar questions with all too familiar answers. He was impossibly frail by then. He shuffled in on the arms of two attendants and asked for a chair almost immediately. He wore carpet-slippers and old clothes into which he threatened to disappear entirely once seated. The little knot that held the last of his long hair aloft shifted dangerously forward and back when he nodded politely to every suggestion made. His famously resonant, nasal voice was faded to a still distinctive whisper. The huge rings on his impossibly delicate hands by now weighted his gestures and often as not, he kept a finger at his chin while he talked, or let his hands rest in his lap.

He was good enough to sign a drawing I'd made of him years before, and another I made while he sat there. He was kind enough, predictably, to admire them both, though I don't know that he could see either of them, or the artist all that well, even with the relentless California sun blazing in through the window. (Both drawings were subsequently stolen from the store -- a theft I can never forgive, not because of any value in the things themselves, but for the autographs and brief comments he'd put to each.) More even than his kindness though, I remember most his patience. That was what he'd taught me long before, that life, and the endurance of it, need not be a contest with the world so much as an ongoing opportunity for reflection, no less profound or painful for bemusement, and that acceptance must be practiced rather than demanded to be won. There was a stillness in him that came from more than age. His was a disciplined serenity that allowed for engagement, but expected and assumed nothing but indifference if not hostility, that he lived for the company of his fellow beings, but met and returned their affection always with pleasant surprise. It seemed to me, sitting with him for an hour, that he refused nothing, even flattery, but never expected a thing, and that he might have been just as content to sit alone in a corner and watch the day go by as he was to have so many younger men, a few of them quite accomplished in their own right, sitting at his feet. When asked for his signature, in his books, or on my sketches, he simply said, each time, "If you think that would be useful."

His was a life of unusual, even unique utility. I don't know that he ever fully understood the good he'd done. Even if he did, I doubt he would ever have admitted it. Like so many younger men, I tried that day in the bookstore to tell him something of what he'd done for me, for all of us present, for everyone represented by that bookstore, and for the generations that seemed even then not to need the bookstore, or his example, anymore. I don't remember what I said to him. I doubt I said anything even as well as what I've said here. I do remember his response to everything I and others said that day:

"How kind of you to say so."

Manners from Heaven, indeed, as he titled one of his books.

"Formality should be maintained from the cradle to the grave -- and beyond," as he stated in the introduction to that book.

Very well then. Thank you again, Mr. Crisp, for a lovely afternoon, and, as always, your example.

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