Friday, January 12, 2018

DOMESTICITY IN THE SEVENTIES



Rewind to that hippie wedding in June at the bride’s hometown.  All is hopeful and bright, if a little unreal, but that’s the nature of weddings of all kinds. 

The groom is working with a very large, very black, rather controversial academic sociologist, doing studies meant to address dysfunctional families.  The researchers actually live with the families for a short term to observe their dynamics.  Also the groom is on the board of an organization meant to help people with mental issues and urges the development of ways to let the people govern themselves.  And he’s on the board of the County Office for Young Children.

The events of the Seventies are so abrupt and emotional that it’s hard to keep a sequence straight.  The paternal grandparents go to Florida and the young couple follows.  Toby begins classes at a community college.  His most beloved free-spirit aunt is found drowned and he can hardly bear it, holding himself responsible for not saving her and yet refusing to attend the funeral or otherwise be reconciled.  The next year the couple returns to Michigan for the birth of a daughter, then come back to Florida for the adoption of a little boy the new mother knew from working at a school for special needs children.

This child became the focus of a literary scandal.  Toby was overjoyed to have a son in a family that hewed to the Old World theories of patriarchy.  A photo labeled “the men of the family” showed paternal grandfather, father, Toby, and the adopted boy.  He had been a foundling with much damage that could be attributed to fetal alcohol abuse, gestational problems, and other syndromes that produced problems, but he was beautiful.  Actually, he looked like his new father had in childhood.  He was old enough to go fishing.

The internal damage, which Toby had so believed he could somehow cure with loving attention, careful guidance, and maybe medication, turned out to be entirely inadequate.  The boy had emotional melt-downs, smeared feces, became violent, could not be trusted near the baby.  He had to be returned to the institution.  They had not been told that he had previously been adopted by a family with the same results.  He spent the rest of his life institutionalized.  Once again Toby was unable to intervene, but he could not walk off, either, and would return to visit the boy.  They had bonded and the boy was always joyful to see him, but eventually the caretakers thought it was too hard to settle him again and asked that Toby not visit.  After that, he observed from a distance as the boy became a man, at least physically.

Either because of this emotional trial or possibly in postpartum depression, the young mother sank into trouble.  Toby couldn’t comfort her or find the right help.  A female friend who lived in Taos suggested they come be with her and they did.  After that the wife claimed Taos as her hometown, but there was a divorce and Toby was awarded custody of the small daughter.

It was the International Year of the Child.  He had secured a grant for a United Nations program focused on art about children.  The project was located in San Francisco.  He painted a huge mural on the outside of the building that may still be there.  By now he had become a gifted photographer and lived with another photographer who loved to take pictures of the daughter.  On the one hand, with the help of a housekeeper, the household could not have been more typical.  Toby and his daughter sometimes ate at the Glide Methodist Church, a counterculture force for good, and they loved Cecil Williams, the visionary pastor.

But there was another aspect.  The explosive new culture of gay men was occupying whole neighborhoods.  Toby now accepted his love of men, poetry and photography.  He was soon involved in the dynamics and connections.  Flamboyant theatre, demonstrations and celebrations in the nude, erotic poetry made into little stapled booklets with wallpaper covers to sell to tourists.  The building where he lived housed many queens and crossdressers who did sexwork for a living, but the daughter didn’t understand that last part.  She was impressed when there was a small fire in the building because the firefighters included the resident queens in all their glory wrestling hoses.  Educated in Montessori schools and then progressive international high schools, eventually college, she understood that people were vividly different and accepted that as a good thing.

Small cadres of professional street photographers went out at night, supplied with film from Harvey Milk’s shop.  Mapplethorpe was sometimes part of the group, or Imogene Cunningham.  Toby persuaded her to put on a grandmotherly black dress and crawl through a giant pipe for a story on Mother’s Day.  He could not resolve his feelings about his mother who still called on the phone regularly to micro-manage her granddaughter.

He did not micro-manage money.  He spent to the limits, including those of the budget on the UN Children’s Year project, assuming that he would find a way to make more.  But after the UN project, which left him with a wealth of experience, insights and contacts, there were some times when money was short.

Someone suggested that he try prostitution.  In terms of counterculture sexwork and the developing gay male ethics, why not?   Knowing nothing about the formalities but having friends “on the game”, he went to them for help and even moved in with a co-op of women.  (No pimps.)  They taught him self-protection: demand money up front, let someone know where you will be, do not go to the trick’s place, and so on.

He and a partner set up a “playroom” lined with black plastic sheeting.  A sex worker gives the client what they want, but the client doesn’t always know what they really deeply want.  It took a bit of talking to use that parabolic dish satellite receiver to find the key, the kernel.  Then the provider found some way to touch it.  Sexwork is done in the brain.

After advertising a bit, he developed a reputation for stunts, like arriving somewhere in a limo and stepping out nude.  His clientele came to include many cops and military men.  Their concerns were about violence, anger, PTSD, the burden of authority, pain and limitations after injury — all of the issues of his childhood.  Empathy made him effective.  Years later this experience made him able to relate to youngsters in a uniquely authentic way.

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