Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Heathen in the Parade

I’m pulling a float in the Halloween parade. I was just going to try to make it this year. Not make the float. Just get there this time. It’s something I’ve wanted to go to since I moved here—a small-town parade, my small-town parade, people waving flags, floats decorated with cobwebs and zombies, the high school band and horses with riders dressed as headless horsemen, marching down Main Street, past Bud’s store where you can still get Chiclets and Peanut Chews, the ice cream parlor, the firehouse, the feed store with the pigeon coop outside, the gas station that’s never opened and only takes cash, and a handful of antiques stores.

There used to be a beauty parlor but she moved out. That saved me because, though I liked her, especially since she had a horse, I didn’t like the way she was cutting my hair. I haven’t had a good haircut since my cousin Eric died twenty years ago. It was even worse when I was in Virginia and went to a place called Beulah’s House of Beauty, which was out in the middle of a cornfield and had a deer head mounted over the shampoo station, if that tells you anything.

Beauticians are funny. They’re like blacksmiths. You spend a lot of time with them and if you’ve got a halfway decent personality, you get a good bullshit session going. That’s how I wound up moving to Oklahoma in the first place. I blame it on the blacksmith. My beautician knew about it because she knew all the dirt on me including that I’m an ex-go-go dancer and one time I drank the holy water in church because Susan Donohue and I thought we could get to Heaven faster that way, but it wasn’t her. The blacksmith was the culprit. This was right around the time that the Internet came out. He just let it slip one day that his parents bought eighty acres in Virginia and it was dirt cheap. Eighty acres! You have to be rich to buy eighty acres in New Jersey! He told me to go look at a site called and that’s what we did right after supper that night (we were excited—only having an acre and three-quarters and four horses on it was tight, to put it mildly) and sure enough, he was right. Land was cheap down there. You could buy a few acres down there for the price of a haircut up here.

Right away we knew we were moving. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder if I would miss my family—we were forty-five minutes away, it wasn’t like you could just run over for a cup of coffee, what difference would a few states make?—or to worry about what we would do for work. I never had a problem getting a job before. The only reason I did that go-go dancing gig was for fun. (To be honest, I also bought a new car.) I actually had so many jobs that I won the award at my high school reunion for having the most jobs. They were colorful ones too. I was a dog catcher, a telephone operator, a donut maker, a groom at the racetrack, an editorial assistant; I worked in a health food store, furniture store, mental institution, and I sold vibrators to bored housewives at home demonstrations, kind of like Tupperware parties but dirty and funny... Anyway, you get the picture. Worrying about getting a job made as much sense as worrying I might tumble down a mountain in Nepal while on a hike. It just wasn’t in my reality. Plus, we thought it might be fun to open a tack shop.

But we weren’t going to be stupid and not look at any of the other forty-nine states in America. There were a lot to choose from! We ruled out all the cold states. We ruled out the states with expensive hay. The NFR was on. That gave us some ideas. The cowboys had cool names like Cord and Dusty and Blake. Sometimes the announcers did a little background story on them. They lived on big spreads with the ranch names over the gates—not just a little sign at the end of the driveway—wore cowboy hats even when they weren’t riding, and ate chili and chewed tobacco. Since we wanted to be cowboys, we thought it would be a good idea to move to one of those places where the cowboys were at. Texas and Oklahoma had the most entrants in the NFR, so we picked the one that was the cheapest—Oklahoma—and moved there.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know where Oklahoma was, much less that it was windy and there was nothing to do there except go to church and rodeos. I felt like we were in one of those late-night movies where the family breaks down out in the middle of nowhere but luckily there’s a motel up ahead. This family is really dumb so they are not rattled by the neon sign flickering, the tin can clattering across the parking lot, or the broken soda machine with the bloody handprint on it. The father says, “Hello? Hello?” and the children skip around to the backside of the building where red dirt and tumbleweeds blow, litter is all tangled up in the barbed wire fence, and there’s a fresh cigarette butt crushed on the ground but no one is in sight. You know how this movie ends.

We were out of there before the year was up. Moved in, put up a big sign over the gate at the end of the driveway—Smokin’ Bandits Ranch—unpacked, opened a tack shop, ate a bowl of chili, and then took the sign down, packed up, sold all the tack for half of what we paid, and hightailed it out of there.

Then we went to Virginia. This was where the blacksmith said to go in the first place. This was the place! Virginia was on the East coast. There would be more of a Jersey influence in Virginia. In Oklahoma we weren’t wanted. One time someone told us, “Go home you fucking Yankee,” when we complained about buying a set of bum tires. We didn’t even know we were Yankees until we moved there! The Yankees we knew was a baseball team. We were hurt. We were so excited when we bought those tires….

There would be more of our kind in Virginia. People moved down there from Jersey all the time. Look at the blacksmith’s parents! Plus they had old houses. Old houses with antebellum porches, farmhouses with metal roofs, Victorians and Greek Revivals and cabins and all the antiques to go with them. Right up my alley. And it was pretty. The rolling green hills and red barns and churches with steeples looked fake, they were so pretty.

But a number of factors came into play that made me realize almost right away that this wasn’t the place either, though it took us seven years before we finally gave up. Number one, we were Yankees there too. Number two, we moved next door to the Evils. Number three, there was nothing to do there either except go to church, and since we were broke—no one was hiring telephone operators, dog catchers, or donut makers, or buying flooring (I suspect it was our accents—they didn’t trust us—and then the economy crashed)—we couldn’t even afford to drive to the apple festival.

A couple of times I hitched a ride with one of my few friends to a writers’ thing, but even there, in a room full of big readers who you would think would have open-minds (and maybe they did, I was too scared to find out), I didn’t have fun. It was more of what Virginia is all about—church and old farmhouses, meaning Christian and historical fiction. There was no edgy stuff about bartenders named Chickie who has a Shel Silverstein poem tattooed on her back, eats a macrobiotic diet, and sleeps with the dishwasher when she has a bad night, like what I write about. So I was afraid to be myself. I never brought my good stuff to read. I edited myself too much when I was composing—I’m a heathen! How can I write this stuff?! I should be writing about Margaret Spoonacher who saved the Battle of Whatever when she deflected a bullet off the metal hoop in her skirt! Therefore, no fun.

You’ve got to be yourself if you want to have fun. You also have to be yourself and stand up for what you believe in, if you want to sleep at night. I didn’t like it that I was afraid to say something when someone referred to a black person as “colored,” like this was still 1960, or that I didn’t speak up when the local pastor called gays evil, or that I was scared to say what I really thought when my neighbor bragged about the little puppy mill she had going. Oh, they’re so cute, was all I could muster, feeling like a hypocrite. I didn’t want to rock the boat. Yankees have a bad reputation for moving south and then trying to change the way people do things. I didn’t want them to think I was doing that! I was even afraid of writing a letter-to-the-editor. What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t like what I say? They won’t buy flooring from us and they won’t invite Kelly to Krystal’s birthday party!

I probably would have died from a bleeding ulcer or loneliness if my mother didn’t get sick and make me want to go home. The ironic thing is, just like in The Wizard of Oz, everything I was looking for was right here. There was cheap land in South Jersey the whole time. It’s the country down here with rodeos and red barns and cornfields. There are churches, if you want, but you don’t have to have them, and there are even churches that not only welcome gay people, but don’t pull that “hate the sin, love the sinner” shit, churches that don’t believe there is anything at all wrong with being gay. I go to writers’ groups and apple festivals and Saturday is the Halloween parade and we have money to put gas in the tank so we can pull those goblins and zombies on a float covered with cobwebs.

I always read my stories out loud to Kurt before I put them on my blog. He said, “You’re going to publish that?” He was surprised because he knows that I have been worried about what people might think about me being an ex-go-go dancer. He, himself, doesn’t care. In fact, being a boy, he likes to brag about it. But I’ve always worried about it. Now I’m not. That is the point of the story. I am being myself and I like it. He said, “They’ll still be your friend here.” And then, “And if they’re not, fuck ‘em!” I feel safe here.