“Bitch!” I grumbled, frowning as I attempted to reach the disposable lighter I’d just dropped. I grabbed my aluminum crutch in a murderous death grip and, using the foam rubber padded top end, reached out and dragged the flamingo pink Bic back to me with it. I guess I was as comfortable as could be expected with my broken left leg propped up on one of my chrome and black vinyl barstools--per doctor’s orders--so it was elevated higher than my heart.
I certainly intended to be a lot more comfortable as I reached for the Petoskey stone pipe filled with marijuana setting on one of the faux gray granite cube tables my father made for me. I changed position in the big charcoal wingback I was sitting in before lighting up. My moods lately had consisted mostly of violent outbursts of temper and periods of dark depression, due in part to total frustration like I’d never experienced before, nor thankfully, have I since. Never had I been totally helpless.
Since losing my driver’s license for my third offense of drunk driving--oh, now, there’s no point in delving into that tired old story!--and long before, I have always walked wherever I needed or wanted to go. Quite often, I’d even go bar hopping! Walking! By the gods, one time, I thought I’d never be able to walk again after a night of drinking in Cuban heels! I suppose I was a familiar sight to the residents of Queen City, walking about town, long flowing blonde hair billowing in the ever-present breeze from the Bay as I strode along the pink painted sidewalks. So while it is, indeed, devastating when anyone breaks a leg, it was tenfold more so for me--I’d also lost my means of transportation.
Then there was the pain. Not just in my ankle, where the spiral fracture in the fibula actually was and the pain was excruciating, but throughout my entire body. My back, where the vertebrae had been violently twisted and turned and displaced in the fall. My neck, where tense, stressed-out muscles knotted themselves into a taut ball with long pulsating fingers of pain shooting up throughout my head and down into my shoulders and back. The pain pills (What was their name again? I could never remember when visitors asked. Oh, yes! Percodan!) didn’t seem to even begin to ease the terrible pain.
But, by far, even worse than the horrible pain, was the helplessness. Oh, how I wept bitterly when I was all alone over my devastating disability! I couldn’t even carry my own cup of coffee! Although I asked everybody and believe me, they were More than happy to offer their suggestions gained from a similar experience (or a totally unrelated one, for that matter!), perhaps ten or twenty years prior to my own catastrophe, nobody could come up with a plausible solution to the aggravating dilemma of how to carry a cup of coffee with crutches.
Thank the gods for my renter, D.J. Priest, who, of his own accord had taken to making a pot of Java and setting it on the cube table in a black glass carafe within easy reach for me before leaving for work each day. D.J. was certainly a saint--how else could I have managed through this horrid ordeal without him?
I would’ve had to call on my beloved mother, Etha. In her youth, Mom’s dark, sultry beauty was often compared with that of her kinswoman, the legendary German screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr. Before the star’s passing, whenever I would inform Mom of the fact that she, with her flawless complexion, sparkling devilish hazel eyes, and hard-working, yet elegant hands, looked better than Hedy’s latest photos in a fan magazine, she would beam with pleasure. In fact, it was true, although over the years, Mom’s evolved into more of a cross between Martha Raye and Toti Fields with short, curly flaming red hair and a quick, dry wit. Dynamic and energetic, Mom has always seemed to be at least one step ahead of her time, lending an ear or a hug to anybody needing one and, whether she intends to or not, she’s always the center of attention. Everybody loves her! I’ve learned from experience over the years not to trust anybody that doesn’t. It’s never proved wrong, yet. Truly my best friend and fan, she’s only missed a few of my shows (invariably due to Northern Michigan’s winter blizzards) in a career that has spanned never mind how many years. Calling on Mom to help me was the last thing on Earth I wanted to do. Not because she might’ve been unwilling--just the opposite--but it would’ve disrupted her busy lifestyle. Besides, with Mom’s constant fussing and spoiling and my whining and nasty fits of ruthless bitchiness, in a short matter of time, we would’ve gotten on each other’s nerves and mine were already shot. And I wouldn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings for anything.
I considered myself fortunate, therefore, to have D.J. as an upstairs roommate. D.J. is a tall, rather well-built amiable Pollock in his mid-thirties with a hairy body (a rug could be made from his back!), massive brown mustache, and twinkling mischievous brown eyes. The type of gay man who, when asked if he’s tried the latest decadent sex craze someone has read about in a pornographic magazine will merely smile, lick his lips and leer at the youngest man in the group. We used to be an item many moons ago, but he’s a Cancer and a homebody and I’m a Capricorn--always ready for fun and adventure. We discovered over the course of time that we make much better friends than lovers and now, after all these years, we’re more like brothers. To Mom, he’s Son Number Two. That’s something I’ve realized about gay society--we tend to “adopt” one another. Since I’ve become an adult, I’ve adopted and been adopted by several people. Not just the Sisters, either. Being gay, sometimes we’re all we have because families sometimes disown gay family members. And absolutely everyone adopted Mom.
Then there were the many visitors. It’s certainly no exaggeration when I say that when I broke my ankle, a three-month long party began. I’ll never forget nineteen-ninety-three! People would come to Pine House (my humble abode), party until they passed out, wake up, go to work, and return afterwards to repeat the cycle. One sweetheart named Allen used to come and sing me to sleep. I wanted to marry him, but he always said I deserved better. Damnit! There were people coming and going twenty-four hours a day! Some were truly my friends, who were concerned for my welfare and brought, along with their sincere wishes for a speedy recovery, food, alcohol, drugs, cards, flowers, and pot. By the gods, I’d never received so many flowers as I had since the accident! Other people were, however, merely gawkers. Bastards I barely knew came under some preposterous pretense simply to see me at home, incapacitated, and without my usual makeup and attire. Not the usually gracious, though admittedly sometimes when provoked a volatile host, but instead, a hardly recognizable hollow shell of my former self. Pale and bloated, with a poisonous brew bubbling in my veins and overflowing with hatred for myself, my lot in Life, and the world in general. I was feeling completely unloved and unwanted, yet generally people surrounded me nonstop. In short, I was having the biggest pity party I could muster.
“Where are my friends now?” I wailed to the air about me, on the verge of tears again, as I had hundreds of times since the accident. I’d asked the same question many times in the past when I thought my friends had deserted me for one reason or another, and here I sat once again, all alone. I personally think that the feeling of loneliness is the worst sensation a living thing must ever endure--infinitely worse than any physical pain--and it’s even worse when it’s imagined, for the mind can trick you. Manipulating the rather mild feeling of loneliness into a full-blown case of depression, which I guess is about where I was at.
I glanced at the envelope on the table beside me. Very official looking with its typewritten addresses, I reflected, considering its contents. That was the last straw. The proverbial straw, as I would usually say. I always like to use big words whenever I can so people don’t really think I’m dumb just because I have blonde hair. I might not be the brightest light in the crystal chandelier, but I’m not dumb! It’s bleached, anyway. Being blonde just feels natural to me, so I bleach my hair. Most everybody forgets that fact even though they know. Especially my friends. They know. But sometimes they still forget. The more attentive ones could tell you lots of trivia about my many idiosyncrasies and past escapades, like the Bugman and the Black Velvet. I hope you never meet any of them!
Whether true friend or mere acquaintance, all the guests helped in some way--made a fresh carafe of coffee, rolled one of hundreds of joints (believe it or not, as much as I love Bud, I’ve never gotten the knack for rolling, though many an interesting man has shown me many an interesting way of doing it--rolling, I mean),prepared food, mixed drinks, or popped open a fresh beer.
I had, on my own, struck upon the idea of fastening a black denim cloth bag that seamstress Mom had made for me onto the handgrip of one of the crutches by unscrewing it and thus provided myself with a means of transportation for my books, writing materials, and anything nonspillable. At least I could manage that for myself! I thought of my many visitors as my salvation and when they weren’t around, like now, I was devastated for, true to my Capricornian nature, I love being the center of attention. Who ya gonna perform for when nobody’s there?
Lots of people were fascinated by the fact that here sat Benjamin Drake, known to many in Queen City as Ginger McRae, disabled. I guess I was a unique sight walking about town, day or night, with an enviable vitality. Now here I was, practically unmoving, so great was my distress. I felt like a wild, free animal suddenly caged and my utter frustration was obvious to all those who came to see me. An injured animal, at that!
How I became Ginger McRae still amazes even me. It was sort of like a minuscule version of of one of those old Hollywood overnight “star” legends, although, of course, it certainly didn’t happen overnight and I haven’t gotten big enough to make it to Tinseltown. Yet. From the time I set my Goodwill-clad foot onstage to enter a talent show performing “Cross Over The Bridge” by Patti Page, my career as a drag queen was pretty much confirmed and out of my control. I was the only contestant in the show and won twenty-five dollars at a private gay men’s club called the Bunkhouse North just outside Queen City. There never seemed to be any question of me not being a female impersonator. Even my stage name was chosen by a vote of the club members. Well, actually, I was given the choice between “Rusty” and “Ginger”, but I could already imagine the ribald possibilities of “Rusty” in my young brain, so I chose “Ginger”. Bless them, at least they let me choose my own surname or who knows who I might have been! “McRae” just sounded Right to me and I’ve been Ginger McRae ever since.
Three “famous” drag queens had come up from Lansing to Summer at the Bunkhouse North when I started going there. The unopposed leader of the trio, Tina Jasmine, was tall, six-foot-six, lanky with huge hands and feet, billed himself as The World’s Tallest Drag Queen, was a former Miss Milwaukee, had worked the Circuit (whatever that was), became a dear friend and roommate, and was a bitch.
Leslie Harrington was shorter, pear-shaped, looked exactly like Karen Black when he was in drag, was disgustingly effeminate, was a Miss Something in Lansing, always made me laugh because at some time during each of his performances to emphasize a serious, highly dramatic point he would squat down tensing his body and making such a distraught face, to me it appeared he was trying to defecate onstage (a young, innocent observation not appreciated in the least by Leslie), became a friend and roommate, and was a whiny bitch.
The third and by far the most convincing and talented (sorry, Tina!) was Jaime Lee. He was medium-built, the very best Judy Garland I’ve ever seen (he also did Liza Minnelli, but his nose wasn’t really big enough), was also a Miss Something in Lansing, always made me weep when he did “Over The Rainbow”, fled the Bunkhouse North in the middle of the night after being confronted by Tina and Leslie with the fact that he hadn’t been divvying up their salaries correctly, and was an arrogant, evil bitch. With no eyebrows.
When those three did Bette Midler’s version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (to perfection, as far as I was concerned) as the entertainment in the contest I won, I was stage-struck.
Such were the trio that began to change a young caterpillar into a colorful butterfly, although lately, I feel more like a moth. I say, “began”, because others had a hand in my metamorphosis, which still continues and probably always will. I don’t want to get stagnant!
The “Downstate Bitches”, as they were referred to by the club members, taught me absolutely everything I needed to know to be a drag queen, from the proper application of stage makeup (to this day, if I “beat” someone else’s face they wind up looking like me) to how to hold my hands so they would appear smaller onstage. That never worked for Tina, though. I also learned my first phrases of gay vernacular. False eyelashes were referred to by most as Batwings. Earrings were Earbobs. Fake nails were, naturally, Claws. And rhinestones were Drag Queen Diamonds. Although they didn’t teach me too well! As I look back now, I think they didn’t want any more competition! As if little old me would’ve been any threat to those three seasoned divas! I may now be well-known, but I have never claimed to be a good drag queen and certainly nowhere in the realm of the three that got me started. One fan glowed when he told me, “You may not dance much, Ginger, but you sure do walk well!” I took that one home. Drag queens are funny that way, though. Gay men in general, I guess. Thirty is old to a gay man. Forty is troll. Fifty is fossil. And after that, you better have lots of money!
Anyway, from then on, Ginger McRae was pretty much a public creation, urged and ordered on by Tina, Jaime, and Leslie, who arranged everything to make me a Star. Sounds so egotistical, doesn’t it? There were endless lessons in lip-syncing, stage gestures, dance steps, and what a drag queen does and doesn’t do, which I really tried to follow, but I’ve always been a bit of a rebel.
I remember one incident in particular that rustled their boa feathers. I’d seen all three of them, at one point or another, work their way over to a table near the stage and take a drink while they were doing their numbers and, of course, it was a great way to gather tips. It made them appear to me as polished performers, so at ease onstage that they could do something else while performing like Dean Martin or Jackie Gleason. I thought I’d try it, not knowing there would be such a big reaction to it. I practiced and practiced at home until I thought I had the routine down pretty good and made sure I had a glass on a table waiting for me. So I did it. When I went back to the dressing room after the number feeling pretty good, however, the three of them stood glaring coldly at me like I was a stupid stepchild or something. After an unendurable silence, Tina spoke sternly, “What did you do out there?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, thinking I’d done something drastically wrong, like when the back of my skirt was caught up in my belt when I did “Like A Virgin”. The audience thought I was doing a comedy number, so it all was okeetokee, except with the three Bitches.
“Don’t drink when you’re performing!” Jaime snapped viciously.
“Why?” I was shocked. I thought that I’d pulled it off rather well, though of course, not nearly as smoothly as them.
“It’s not Ladylike!" Leslie whined. “You don’t want the audience thinking you’re a drunk, do you?”
“But you Girls do it!” I retorted defending myself.
“That’s different!” Jaime snarled.
“We’re old and everybody knows we’re drunks!” Leslie whined the obvious.
“Don’t do anything onstage we haven’t approved!” Tina stated with finality.
Unknowingly, my experiment went against their ideas of who Ginger McRae was to become.
After one of those shows at the Bunkhouse North is when I first heard of and met the legendary Detroit star, Barbra Strysand, who now resided in Queen City. The Great Star said in a very nasally voice and inclined head that he was “impressed” and that “someday we should work togethah”. I was star-struck. Then I got to know him.
For publicity purposes, I did benefit shows and whenever there was a gay event and a blonde queen was wanted for a little decoration, I was there. I was even hired to attend private straight parties to add some color, I guess. Didn’t have to perform or anything--just smoke as much of their pot as I wanted, drink as much of their alcohol as I wanted, and answer the other guest’s questions, which were numerous and bizarre. Rarely did I ever get hit on, the conversations more likely being my giving tips to both the females and the closeted males in the group. And they paid me! Photo shoots were arranged and taken every time my Look changed, which occurred with each new suggestion from peers and club members. Dresses were made and songs chosen with hardly, if any, consideration of my opinions or feelings. The three “Downstate Bitches” were hell-bent on making me a well-known star and I guess, in a way, they succeeded.
To ease the pain and as a token of their concern, my dear friends came bearing gifts of drugs and alcohol which were always gratefully accepted and readily consumed, so much so that the days and nights seemed to blur together.
I took a third hit off the stone pipe and set it on the table. The bright cherry red high-heeled telephone that D.J. had given me for one of my twenty-first birthdays blared loudly and disrupted my thoughts. It startled me, so I picked it up with irritation and answered rudely.
“Jesus H. Christ! Who the hell sunk your fucking Cheerios?”
“Who is this?” I snapped, feeling anything but cordial.
“Rose. Are you alright, Little Sister?” The voice on the other end of the line was familiar and welcome to hear.
“No, I’m not alright! I’m in severe pain and nobody even gives a shit!” I pouted.
“That’s simply not true, my Little Dumpling Butt! I give a shit and you know perfectly well you’re my favorite turd!
Rose is jolly and whether I admitted it or not, I needed that. If anybody on Earth could drag me up out of the depths of despair, it was Rose. Dear Rose. Rose Elliott who, like me, is also known by another name, Elliott Rose, and who obviously chose his own stage name. We are two of a trio of drag queens in Queen City who bill ourselves as The Northern Stars. With all humility, I would venture to say that we’re rather well known, but my critics would say that I’m an egotist. Fuck ’em!
A little shorter than me and quite a bit more gravitationally challenged, when in drag, Rose reminds me of Sally Spectra on “The Bold And The Beautiful”, but with a lighter outlook on Life. Besides working with me at Rosegarden Nursing Home as P.B.W.s (that’s Professional Butt Wipers for those who don’t know), he’s always on the verge of getting a settlement from one of many lawsuits, most of which he wins (with the assistance of the family lawyer). His home is a veritable photo layout from “Better Homes And Gardens”. In the picture-perfect model kitchen, glass-doored oak cupboards display antique dishes and various knickknacks inherited from his mother. Ninety-some cookbooks placed neatly on oak shelves line the walls, with dozens of oak cabinets for storage of his countless small appliances and cooking equipment. White oak floors and an antique round oak table and chairs set completes the feeling of sturdy, timeless quality. The walnut-paneled living room is dominated by a massive overstuffed violet velvet sofa and accented with Queen Anne. A sparkling large lead crystal table lighter and matching ashtray are on the coffee table, while matching sterling silver framed publicity photographs of the third and by far, most acidic Sister, Barbra Strysand, also known as Stuart Archer, and myself are carefully positioned on the highly polished glistening end tables.
“Sissy, I’m sorry, ” I apologized, but I just can’t get used to this horrid helplessness and I’m really irritable.”
"Really? I hardly noticed.” Had it been anyone else, I would’ve verbally torn them to shreds!
“So what are you up to, today?” I attempted to lighten the mood. Besides, Rose always has the best dirt on everything, so I added, “Got any good dirt?”
We’re accustomed to calling each other several times a week and carrying on conversations for hours, I think our record actually being three and a half hours, taking periodic potty breaks and filling our coffee cups, of course.
“I was wondering what you’re doing this afternoon,” Rose seemed distant.
“Not much with this damned cast on my leg! Why?” I retorted.
“I thought we’d go shopping!” Rose was up to something. I can always tell these things. “It’s such a beautiful day!”
“What! It’s March!"
“So? It’s a gorgeous day!” It was, but I wasn’t admitting it to Rose. “So let’s go shopping!”
“Rose, I have a damned cast on my leg, I’m in major pain, I’m broke, and I simply don’t feel like it!”
“Why, I am not!” I responded, highly affronted. I was whining, but there was no way in hell I was admitting that to Rose, either.
“When was the last time you were out of that fucking house?”
There was a prolonged silence while I intently tried to remember.
More silence. I just couldn’t recall!
“I’m waiting,” I could almost hear Rose tapping his foot.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking!" I burst out in frustration.
"Exactly as I thought! That settles it! I’ll pick you up at noon.”
“Hey! Wait a minute! I can’t!” I wailed.
“Why?” Rose was being exasperatingly calm, yet at the same time, very persistent.
“I have a broken leg, that’s why!”
“You have crutches. ”
“I am not hobbling all over a mall on crutches!”
“Malls have those cute little electric carts for crips like you.”
“Well, I never!” Though it’s typical, I was aghast at his boldness.
“Oh, yes, you have, but let’s not get into that right now. Noon it is, then!”
“No, can’t!” But couldn’t think of a single excuse that Rose would buy.
“Just because. Why don’t you just leave me alone like everybody else does?” I was frantic.
“Because I’m your Sister and I love you. ” I slowly began to soften. Those three words have gotten me into more trouble, caused me more adventure and heartbreaks than you could ever possibly imagine. Rose continued, “Besides, I know you and I know what your house has been like since the accident. One big fucking party! Everyone knows about Pine House!”
I laughed nervously, “So what’s new about that?”
“Right now, I’ll bet you’re sitting there, stoned to the bone, feeling sorry for yourself, your wild imagination making you think nobody loves you or cares about you when, in reality, you’re being overwhelmed with attention and this is probably the first time you’ve been alone in days.” Damn Rose, anyway! He always hits the nail right on the head! “Now, would you like to tell me again why you can’t go?”
“I’m in pain!”
“Wah! You’re being a pain! I highly doubt, with all the drugs flowing into that house, that you can feel much of anything, much less pain! Bring your pills and your Fudge!” Rose always has an answer for everything! Fudge is Mom’s code word for marijuana when she’s talking to us about it and we Sisters sort of picked it up.
“I’m broke!” I was desperate, but relenting.
“That, my dear Ginger, is a very lame excuse. I just got a settlement, remember?” I did, but I always feel so guilty when someone pays my way although I knew Rose wouldn’t have offered if he wasn’t sincere.
“I don’t feel like it,” I answered meekly, not knowing what else to say. Surrender by this point was imminent.
“Now, you look, Young Lady!” The heavyset redheaded drag queen began his final battle assault. “I’ve had just about enough of your whining bullshit! Who’s the person who’s always lectured me about living Life to the fullest? ‘Live each day as if it’s your last!’ Who the fuck was that? Hmmm? I always thought Life is just a big shit sandwich and every day you’re forced to take another bite. Now I finally want to do something with my Life and you’re fucking whining and combitching about your fucking leg! There are worse things in Life than having a broken leg, you spoiled little bitch! Now,” Rose spoke with final authority, “You are getting out of that bathhouse of a home and you are going on this sperm of the moment shopping spree! Like it or not!”
“Oh, all right!”
“I knew you would!”
“By the gods, you English people are so stubborn!” I was completely exasperated!
“Just like our bulldogs! And like you’re not! Fucking little German-Irish Lass! Besides, I want to tell you something.” His tone of voice made a little red flag pop up in my brain. I listened more intently.
“I’d rather not discuss it over the telephone.” Still aloof.
“Is it dirt?”
“I suppose. Sort of.” Evasive.
“I’ll tell you later...on the trip.” Secretive.
“Hey! Trip? Wait a minute! Where the hell are we going shopping?”
“Saginaw.” Rose was so calm and quiet about this latest revelation that I totally forgot his prior mysterious behavior.
"What? Saginaw! I can’t go clear to Saginaw with a broken fucking leg!”
“Don’t start with your fucking shit again, Missy!”
“Don’t call me, ‘Missy’! You know it always makes me think of that fat obnoxious bitch from Mackinaw Island!”
Ignoring me, Rose continued, “I’ve already discussed it with Barbra and she said she’d...”
That did it! “Oh, no!” I vehemently interrupted, “I am not going anywhere with that evil old bitch!”
“Why? Barbra said she’d go if you go and we’ll fix you up in the backseat with pillows and everything else, plus I’m footing the bill, so what’s the fucking problem?” Was it possible that Rose really didn’t know?
“Is Babs still pissed at me?”
“Pissed? I don’t think so. She certainly didn’t seem like it. She’ll only go if you go. Why?”
“Don’t you remember about three weeks ago, I told you she sent me a nasty note?”
Rose was thoughtful, “Yeah, I do seem to recall you mentioned it to me, but I didn’t read it or anything.”
“Well, I’ve received two more since then, each more vicious than the last. Hold on,” I said, grabbing the letters from the granite cube table next to me. “I got the last one in today’s mail and I’ve got all three right here. I’ll read them to you although it’s going to be hard with all the misspellings and poor typing.”
“She was probably drunk,” the redhead on the other end of the line stated flatly.
“Oh, I don’t think so--she mentions something about being on the wagon again in one of them.”
Rose laughed heartily, “Bullshit!”
“Well, at any rate, basically, in the first note, she’s pissed at me because I was rude to her at our last show at Gayz R Us.” It was true. I never denied it. I had been a bitch to the great Barbra Strysand, but only in self-defense because he’d been so vile to me in the first place. Barbra decided to take the night off, but attended the show and brought as his date a man whom I’d been with first. When he informed Barbra of the fact, then bragged about my body and techniques as compared to the Great Star’s, it irked Babs beyond his ability to maintain his composure and character. He lashed out with a barbed tongue heckling all night long, until I’d had quite enough and started lashing back. Evidently, my tongue can be as sharp as his, for he was suitably shocked that anyone, especially a much younger performer, would have the audacity to speak to him in such a way. The Diva was down and dirty and so, he quickly realized, was the Ingenue.
“You were pretty fucked up that night,” Rose recalled. “But the only times that tired old tramp ever quits drinking is when she runs out of money and then that doesn’t even stop her. She empties the cans of soda pop her father buys for her into a pitcher, then returns the cans for deposit, so she can buy a pint of cheap vodka!”
I was shocked, “No! Really?”
“Oh, grow up!” Rose snapped with disgust. “Why do you think she always serves Coca Cola out of Tupperware?”
“Wow! That never occurred to me! Barbra’s really rich, though, isn’t she?”
I was sure those stories I’d heard were true. How else could could he possibly live without any visible means of support? Babs is simply not the sort of person to hold down a job. One time, he had four jobs in seven days. When I asked him why he responded as if it were the most ludicrous question he’d ever heard, “I’m simply not going to settle for a position that I’m not satisfied with!” And Barbra Strysand is not the big-time drug-dealer type.
Rose continued, “Yes, that’s true, but she gets it through a monthly allowance from her father, Oral Archer, who doesn’t appreciate the fact that his son is a female impersonator, no matter how famous.”
I giggled, “Barbra’s father’s name is Oral?”
“Yes, but never mention it! She’s sensitive about it!”
I giggled again, “Why does she get the money in an allowance?”
“Christ on a crutch! You’re so fucking dumb! The way old Barbra drinks, she would’ve drank the whole thing up by now!”
“What whole thing?”
I heard deep rattling breathing on the other end of the line and could picture Rose struggling to maintain his patience with me. I was really very sorry but he had me totally confused with all these startling revelations concerning the famous drag queen. “When Barbra’s mother, Agatha Crabtree-Archer, was assassinated, they got a huge settlement. Millions.”
This was a shocker of soap opera proportions and I asked incredulously, ”Assassinated? Who the hell was she? And who got the huge settlement?”
“Babs and her father!”
“Yes! Now pay attention! Oral has total control of the fortune and gives Barbra a monthly allowance, even though the better part of the settlement was actually left to Barbra.”
“Wow!” I was astonished.
“Besides which, the father is rumored to be at least a millionaire in his own right because of his interest in electronics.”
“Stop saying that! Now, as for Agatha, she was some big-shot investment banker who went to Brazil in order to check out rumors of shady land dealings and was assassinated by a bomb planted in her hotel suite. I remember it. Made quite a few international headlines. Big news.”
“How do you know so much about Babs?” I asked, genuinely interested in the subject.
Rose laughed, “Listen, Sweetcheeks, I’ve known that tired old bitch since dinosaurs wore diapers! I’ll never forget the first time I ever saw Barbra perform! Granted, she is a lot older than me, but I’d been performing since the tender age of fourteen as Heavenly Heather and already had four years of stage experience under my bra when I first met Babs. Oh, how green the Great Star was back then! Not at all the cold, hardened, calloused bitch we know and love today.”
“Speak for yourself!”
Ignoring my remark and with a slight note of sadness (or possibly regret?) in his voice, Rose concluded, “But she went on to become Detroit’s most famous drag queen while I, because of, uh, personal reasons, retired from public life until you dragged my fucking fat ass out to do shows at Gayz R Us.”
I decided it was best to skate around the Personal Reasons issue, so I asked, “How did you ever do shows when you were only fourteen years old?”
“I had a gay uncle who would pick me up at my house where I’d crawl out my third story bedroom window and shimmy down a tree. He’d take me to the bar, be my personal body guard while I was there, then bring me back home after the show.” Rose laughed, “Think of that!”
“Wow! Did Babs always impersonate Barbra Streisand?”
The big redhead laughed again, “Hell, no! She started out as Society Susan, but once she started impersonating the Great Star and became Barbra Strysand, the audience wouldn’t let her do anybody else. One time, she did Cher and was damned good, too, but the foolish crowd didn’t realize what versatile talent they were witnessing and began hollering, ‘Why’s Babs trying to do Cher?’ and Barbra was humiliated. I’m sure that was the last time she ever attempted anyone different, other than Halloween, of course.”
“Gee, that sounds sorta sad. She was trapped by her own creation.”
“So why did she insist I do Marilyn Monroe?”
“Consistency in your career and the fact she thinks you’re perfect for it. You already kinda acted like Marilyn Monroe before you ever started impersonating her.”
Perfect for it! How I came to impersonate the great sex goddess Marilyn Monroe was another strange step in the metamorphosis of Benny Drake into the performer known as Ginger McRae. As I have mentioned, from the beginning, I was always billed as Ginger, but Rose was right, I’d done the music of Sylvia, Charlene, Lena Zavaroni (whatever happened to Lena?), Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, Dolly Parton, Terri Gibbs, Shelley Fabres, Leslie Gore, Patsy Cline, Julie Andrews, Leslie Uggums, Whitney Houston, Connie Francis, Melissa Manchester, and Diana Ross, among others, and there was never any consistency in performances, hair, makeup, and so on, until one night when I was visiting Barbra Strysand.
His third floor apartment is modest in size, but exquisitely decorated. A firm believer in reincarnation to the point of fanaticism and claiming to have been the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in a previous Life, the apartment is, therefore, decorated with tasteful genuine ancient Egyptian artifacts, a few Oriental treasures, and Barbra Streisand everywhere! Autographed photographs, framed magazine covers, and pencil renderings by Stuart, himself, abound throughout the flat, dozens being in the foyer alone, which the host always refers to as the Hall of Flame. All tied together with the exotic and dramatic color scheme of peach (not coral!) and black, with gleaming brass accents.
“Oy vey! Those dirty bastards, Gin!” Babs lamented. “That letter on the table is to inform me that they’re shutting off the cable! Pigfuckers!”
“Why are they shutting it off, Babs?”
“Don’t call me, ‘Babs’! My name is Barbra! That’s B-A-R-B-R-A, thank you!”
“But I always call you ‘Babs’, Babs.”
“And you’re the only person who gets by with it and don’t you evah forget that!”
“Gee, thanks, but you still never said why they’re turning off your cable.”
“Oh, that. I got cable turned on for no money. They threatened to shut off my cable and I paid no attention. They’ve left it on for three months and now they’re billing me. I said forget it! You should’ve turned it off when you said you were going to. So I didn’t pay the bill. Isn’t there supposed to be a Grace Period or some bitch like that? Legally, I mean?”
“Well, I suppose so, but how long has it been since you paid the bill?”
“Bill? Paid? Why, nevah, Dahlink!”
I was flabbergasted by his honest innocence, like he didn’t have a clue. “There are worse things in Life than having your cable shut off.”
Barbra brightened, “I did just get a new membership at the video store!”
I briefly felt sorry for the video store before saying, “See? Things are looking better already!”
“I suppose so. You know, Dahlink,” Babs began, peering at me over the top of his semicircular reading glasses which perched precariously on his prominent proboscis, “Tom said I have a good eye.”
Shutting one gray eye and then the other, my host asked, “Which one do you think it is?”
I laughed, “You’re too much!”
“Most men think I’m just enough! Come on,” the diva ordered, stood up quickly and swept into the white kitchen, where older, but classic appliances glistened beautifully as if freshly polished which, in fact, they probably were. I followed quickly behind like a Springer Spaniel puppy. I watched quietly as he flung open the snow-white cupboard and grabbed two antique crystal stemmed glasses. Closing the cupboard door, he proceeded across the wide entrance hall with its glistening black enameled floor to his boudoir. I followed. He stopped in front of a simply styled, yet elegant black lacquered cabinet that had various old Egyptian artifacts on it. Most of the ancient Egyptian things Barbra has are authentic, having been given to him by some long-ago lover, rumored to be a member of the Rockefeller family. He picked up a pair of brass lotus flower tongs and, lifting the crown off a large bust of King Tutankhamun, extricated three ice cubes for each of the glasses. Replacing the crown, he next grabbed a tall, slender ebony cat from which he unceremoniously removed the head and laid it on the cabinet. Fascinated, I watched as Babs reached above the cabinet and, grasping a framed painted scroll of Osiris welcoming some long-forgotten pharaoh to the Underworld, flung it open to reveal a medicine cabinet-like device filled with shot glasses and other bartending paraphernalia. He grabbed a shot glass and filled it to the rim with the clear contents of the cat decanter, then emptied it into one of the stemmed glasses. He patiently repeated the process with the other one, then closed the scroll cabinet.
“Same as mine, Ginger?” Barbra asked over his shoulder.
“Sure!” I responded brightly, believing firmly in the old adage, When In Rome. He set down the shot glass, carefully examined the contents of the antique ones and splashed a bit more into each one from the decanter. He replaced the cat’s head.
“Here,” Babs said, shoving one of the goblets into my hand. He grabbed the shot glass and his drink and we returned to the brilliantly white kitchen. The pure alcohol in the glass accosted my nostrils and made my eyes watery as I quickly followed my host. Barbra carefully set the shot glass down into the huge old white enamel kitchen sink and moved silently to the Leonard refrigerator where he got out several bottles of pills and a clear plastic pitcher of brown liquid. He filled the stemmed glasses with the liquid and took one pill out of each bottle. Big, small, round oval, octagonal, and every color of the rainbow. He replaced everything in the Leonard, put all the pills in his left hand and clutched his drink in his right. “I forgot to take my vitamins today,” Barbra responded to my quizzical stare, then downed the medicine with a big gulp of the drink.
Just then, the telephone rang. Babs ordered, “Come on,” and swept into the living room, black satin lounging pajamas fluttering, to answer it. I obediently followed. “Archer residence. Can I help you?”
There was silence while the caller spoke.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mister Archer isn’t in.”
“This is Mister Archer’s houseboy, Ramone. Could I take a message?”
“Very well, then! Have a splendid evening! Good night!” Barbra calmly replaced the golden receiver in it’s cradle of the antique-style phone on top of the black and brass end table and turned to me, “Pigfuckers, Gin!”
“Why did you lie, Babs?” I asked innocently.
“I was sort of avoiding certain facets of Life. Precautions, you know, Dahlink.”
“Bill collectors or ex-lovers?”
"Really, Ginger! You can be so rude sometimes.”
“Not rude, just realistic. So which was it?”
“Collectors! Pigfuckers! Why don’t they take the hint I don’t have any fuckink money?”
“I’m financially embarrassed.”
“Bullshit! You’re just Jewish!”
“Really, Dahlink! Oy vey! The monetary mix-ups I’ve had to endure!”
“Write another bad check?”
“You’re so crass!”
“Does your father know?”
“I have to make the checks good.”
“Checks? More than one? Babs, the cops are gonna take you away one of these times when they come to tea. How did you run out of money?”
“You know perfectly well that I’m not good with finances and really! I still had checks left!”
“Babs!” I laughed. “Gay men should never have checking accounts! It isn’t natural! I’ve only known a couple of gay men who were successful with a checking account and the rest, including myself, eventually wound up in jail!”
A couple of hours later, as we lounged on Barbra Strysand’s sumptuous black couch, a strange glimmer came into his granite-gray eyes which I at first dismissed to potato juice but, as always, Babs never ceases to amaze me. From his daze, he spoke slowly and evenly, “You could do it, Ginger.”
“I could do what?” I replied, immediately suspicious, given Barbra’s track record and seesaw moods. Was this to be one of his drunken radical plots to blow up Gayz R Us because of some slight he’d received from Oswald Beamer, the owner? Or something worse? I involuntarily shuddered at the thought of the possibilities.
“You could really do it,” Babs repeated, seeming to sober somewhat with whatever scheme he was devising.
“Okay, what?” I gave up.
For the first time, my host looked directly at me. His grayish-blue eyes were almost fanatical, but his words were soft and serene, “For some time now, Dahlink Ginger, I’ve been watchink you. Studyink you and thinkink.”
I was rather shocked and more than just a little creeped out, but managed to maintain my composure as I asked, “Why?”
“It’s time for you to make a change in your act,” the diva declared, smiling.
I laughed nervously, “Are you suggesting Country?”
“Don’t be vulgar!” Barbra snapped, rising unsteadily from the couch and walking over to his vast collection of old records. “I have somethink I want you to hear.” With that, he removed the vinyl disc from the cover that I couldn’t see and placed it on the turntable of the ancient hi-fi. A familiar voice filled the room and upon recognition, my mouth dropped open. Noticing this, Barbra spoke with disgust, “Shut your mouth! I’m your Sistah, not a date!” I listened in silence until the first side of the album was done, when my host asked, “Wot do you think, Dahlink?”
“I think I didn’t know Marilyn Monroe ever cut a record.”
“Well, she did, I’ve got them, and her music is goink to revive your career!”
“My ‘career’? Babs, are you crazy? I don’t have a career! And Marilyn Monroe was the absolute epitome of sex! She was voluptuous!”
“Simply a matter of makeup and attitude, Dahlink!” Barbra spoke brightly. “A little more paddink in certain areas--say, you wouldn’t consider plumpink up a bit, would you?” Barbra smiled.
“Certainly not!” I snapped back.
“Oy vey! More’s the pity! I was afraid of that! Say La Vee! Paddink it will have to be!”
“I think you’re nuts! I’m nothing like Marilyn Monroe!”
“Oy vey! You’re more like her than you even suspect!”
“How?” I demanded.
“Othah than the eyes and hair color?”
“People are drawn to you like a moth to a flame, as though you were a helpless child and they all want to help you.”
“Nonsense! I think you’ve finally pickled your brain with all that vodka!”
“That’s very unprofessional! Do you want me to help you to become the best Marilyn Monroe evah (othah than the genuine article, of course!) or not?”
“Well, actually, no...”
“Fine! Now, here’s where we’ll start...”
“I’ll bet any amount you put vodka in your oatmeal!”
“Oatmeal?” Barbra screeched with obvious disgust. “I’m very pleased to say, Dahlink, that I’ve never eaten oatmeal!”
“You’re joking!” I said, surprised.
“That is quite an idea, though, Gin. You wouldn’t even taste the vodka! I never thought of that! Congrats!”
“But oatmeal looks like poodle vomit!”
“Yuck! Why poodle vomit?”
“That’s the only breed of canine my family has!”
“Besides, I think that’s how Brittany probably has her oatmeal. I certainly wouldn’t want to put myself down at her level for any reason! Oh, and with a little milk, of course.”
The idea of vodka and milk started my stomach churning, so I decided it was time to change the subject, “I still think you’re crazy about me doing Marilyn Monroe!”
“Oh, do you? Ask Rose then! We’ll call her right now!”
I felt compelled to interrupt, “It’s three in the morning! Rose will drive here and kill you!”
Completely ignoring me, Barbra continued, “Rose thinks the same way I do! With just a little trainink...”
“Training? All the training in the world cannot make an audience believe that I’m Marilyn Monroe!”
“Stop beink silly! Nobody will evah think that you’re the real Marilyn Monroe, because everyone, with the possible exception of you, knows that she’s dead! Damn those Kennedys, anyway!”