What it took to rise
Sunday in the Park
March 3, 2017
What I miss the most about the '70s is Tommy. And not caring if I wore a bra or not, because those perky little twins could stand up on their own then.
I miss the music and lack of cell phones and the days before AIDS. I miss living at Lake Tahoe with San Francisco just four hours away. I miss the wild sense of discovery and feeling that somehow it was up to us to change the world.
Watching the television special "When We Rise" this week made me realize I lived through a piece of extraordinary history. At the time, it was just us, pushing the edges of convention and hot tubs and unfair laws.
When I met Tommy, he was the friend of my older friends who had the store next to me in Tahoe City. Mine was children's clothing, theirs was Christmas year round. We both opened in 1973 in the middle of town, across from the lake and down from the giant evergreen that divided the road. By 1977, they had sold the store to their friend's son, Tom, who wanted a career in merchandising.
The television series unearthed feelings/pieces of my past I carefully had recycled like a pair of bell-bottom jeans.
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He had recently not graduated from college. I remember the story when his family arrived for his graduation: He slid behind their seats, tapped them on shoulders and said, "I bet you thought I'd be up there." He had failed to gather the credits needed, but he knew his east coast parents had already told their friends about his planned career in retail so he let them come to the ceremony. They could create another story after that. He figured, why deny them the joy of attending his (almost) graduation?
He was an imp like that. Which is why I loved him. By 1977, I was divorced with two small children at age 26. I had a business to run, a family to raise and a little living to do. Tommy certainly thought so. And every other weekend, when my ex had the responsibility of the children, I would hire someone to work the store and run away to San Francisco, because everything was happening there. Everything. And having married too young to my high school sweetheart who turned out to be abusive, I wanted to taste all my just desserts. Tommy also knew just where to send me.
On a business trip one weekend, Tommy suggested I see Peter Allen perform. Liza Minnelli's ex, he had a show that was supposed to be INSANE …in a little place in the Castro.
I had no idea what "in the Castro" meant. I took a single woman along who worked with me. When we arrived at the theater we were greeted by a little "Game of Thrones" style man, which seemed strange but not strange enough on its own. Our tickets were general admission and I kept thinking it was odd, because it was we who were being led to the front row, passing row after row of the most handsome men I had ever seen. Tommy had set me up of course, and made certain we were seated and treated to the wildest show I still have ever seen in my long life.
On nights at Tahoe, I wanted to go out I would go over to Reno, an hour away. And if I had no sitter, Tommy would volunteer to take the kids. He loved them without measure. And they him. His parents would come out from New Jersey from time to time and be certain Tommy and I were "a thing." And we let them think that. It was easier on Tommy that way.
On weekends in Tahoe, when I didn't have the kids, we would go dancing and clubbing together, he being the perfect wing man, as in,"if you don't go for him…I will." Tommy saved me from myself more times than I can count.
I left Tahoe in 1979 and moved to Park City. Tommy was the only one for years who knew my ex had threatened to kill me. I figured leaving The Lake would be sad, but I needed to start over. Shortly after Tommy sold his store and relaunched himself in Beverly Hills. He became the manager of the Valentino boutique there. It was his life's dream.
My mother needed a triple bypass in the mid-1980s and I came back to a very different San Francisco. Her doctor said there was a new disease that only seemed to be hitting gay men, transferred somehow through blood. I would have to find five people with my mother's blood type to secure enough blood for surgery. I needed to know about their lifestyles, the doctor said. That same summer Rock Hudson announced he was suffering from AIDS. He died a few months later. When I think about the word "surreal," I think about those six months.
My daughter attended college in southern California and Uncle Tommy cared for her with clothes and dinners and advice. From time to time, we would reconnect — a holiday here and work trip there. He was happy and in love. His longtime partner died of AIDS in 1989.
The next decade was hard for Tommy. He couldn't hold a job due to his illness. When I was getting ready to open the Eccles Center I went to Los Angeles to see Alvin Ailey for the first time. I joined Tommy for brunch the next day. I didn't recognize him. He was bloated, spotted and moving so slowly. We laughed and retold old stories. The next year he was gone. "Pneumonia," his parents told their friends in 1999. I had Fed Exed him a letter days before telling him what I thought we all wanted to hear at the end: He had loved and been loved in return.
The television series unearthed feelings/pieces of my past I carefully had recycled like a pair of bell-bottom jeans. And it made me miss all the Tommys who lived in the shadows before they lived, briefly, large. I can't explain how all this makes me feel, except I'm gonna download some Peter Allen music ("The Boy From Oz") and dance around my house all crazy this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.