Wednesday, September 29, 2010


It has been raining steadily for several days here in New York and that has a lot of people depressed. It shouldn’t though. Apart from the lack of sunlight, which really is a problem for those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, there is a lot to like about inclement weather. When it is lousy outside you can sit at home and do nothing without a shred of guilt.

In the past two days I have lounged around in my sweats and tee shirt, eating comfort food with my feet up on the ottoman and catching up on all the shows on my DVR. (Watching an entire season of “Being Human” was worth a week of rain.) I have spent an inordinate amount of quality time with my cat. In fact, he now thinks that I am the one who is overly affectionate. He probably wishes I would learn something important from him: uneventful days are meant for sleeping.

There is something comforting about rain in the city. It softens things. It muffles the endless cacophony of traffic sounds – horns, sirens, car alarms – and best of all, it forces people to keep their car windows closed and the thump, thump, thump of their music mostly consigned to their own space. It’s the exact opposite of the first nice day each spring when everyone responds by making as much noise as they can.

Everything looks sharper on a rainy day. Maybe that’s because the rain washes all the pollution out of the air. The streets are cleaner as well. One good downpour washes more trash from the gutters than the loud, and mostly ineffective, street sweeping machine does in a lifetime.

Aside from pests and vermin, weather is about the only part of nature that still exists in the city. It is bigger than the city. Watching a massive front move across the weather map reminds us that, from the storm’s point of view, we are an insignificant ground feature along the route. Throw in some good loud thunder and a pyrotechnic display of lighting, and we are realize that nature is still bigger than any power we have created and it is one thing over which we still have absolutely no control. Think about that, my thumb twiddling apps devotees!

Not everyone is fond of rainy days, especially if you have to go somewhere. Mass transit gets overwhelmed (much to the irritation of regular riders). Pools of water accumulate from dripping umbrellas in trains, lobbies, and elevators. These same spaces turn into steam baths from all that extra moisture. Glasses fog over and newspapers become limp. For commuters, it’s hell on wheels.

But to a contrarian such as the Bitter Old Queen, these past few days have been heaven. I am lifted up from my usual melancholy while everyone else is dragged down. The playing field has been leveled, however momentarily. How I love a rainy day.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Man on the Bus

I met a man who lives in a bus. His bus is parked in a campground near Binghamton, New York. It is a classic 35 year old Silver Eagle, which for years was the trademark coach of Continental Trailways. Trailways had been the chief competitor to Greyhound until Greyhound purchased it in 1987.

The man in the bus used to travel all around the country with his partner who passed away ten years ago. However he is not alone. There is a very lucky cat named Murphy who lives in the bus as well. Murphy is fond of lying on the dashboard, basking in the sun, and watching the world through the huge picture window.

Eagle coaches are still manufactured, primarily for conversion to motorhomes. They are especially popular with country music singers, perhaps because Willie Nelson tours in one. Bus conversions can be quite luxurious. They are often custom fitted with satellite TV systems, high tech lighting effects, leather furniture, and all the usual comforts of home such as showers, dishwashers, laundry and air conditioning. New conversions begin at about a half million dollars.

The bus I camped next to was not so luxurious. It looked like it hadn’t been driven for a long time. I assumed that it no longer could be driven. I was wrong. It’s owner makes candles and for many years travelled the country selling his goods. He bought it 20 years ago and did the conversion himself. He is handy with carpentry. He took me for a tour of his home on wheels. You enter through the single front door, as in any bus. The driver’s seat was serving as a catchall for empty boxes and old magazines. He had a living room in front: sleep sofa, recliner, and a make shift desk for his computer. Yes, he has telephone, internet, and cable TV.

Next is the kitchen. It is serviceable although he hadn’t used the stove in several years. I wouldn’t trust it myself. It was the kind of kitchen that they describe as “dated” on HGTV. The bathroom was pretty decent. Several years ago he had replaced the Jacuzzi tub with a glass walled shower. The bedroom was at the back of the coach, big enough for a queen size bed. The walls were covered with an odd assortment of unfortunate paneling.

The candle maker then took me for a tour along the outside of the bus. He showed me the enormous storage space in the “basement”, what you and I would think of as the luggage compartments. There was air conditioning equipment down there, a generator, and two enormous tanks – one for fresh water and one for waste water. He was very proud of the fact that it could hold two months worth of waste. That’s a lot of shit.

He opened the doors across the back of his bus to show me the engine. He didn’t know how many miles were on his bus – many millions, he estimated – but it was not the original engine. Over the years he had replaced many of the running components. The manual transmission was a source of constant trouble. But it still ran well, he said.

In a few weeks he will be heading down to Virginia for the winter. When he fires up the engine, Murphy will get nervous and hide under the couch, but unlike my cat, Murphy never leaves home. It goes with him.

I wonder what it would be like to live on a bus. Anytime I got bored with the view, I could just drive somewhere else. If my neighbors became tiresome, I could get new ones. When it got too cold, I could go somewhere warmer and when it got too hot, I could head north again. No packing required. I could live life on the run without leaving home. Just like Murphy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Passing of a Friend

I don’t remember exactly when I met Marco. It must have been one of the first times I visited Puerto Vallarta. Each time I returned I could count on finding him at one of the usual spots and I could count on receiving a warm welcome. Marco was the unofficial social director for gay visitors to his town. He was always organizing something: a day trip to a nearby scenic locale, an afternoon at the casino, or a pool party at some wealthy acquaintance’s home.

He never had a stable home of his own. He often stayed with an older French Canadian who spent winters in Vallarta. The rest of the year he spent a few days here, a week or two there, sometimes house sitting, sometimes staying with friends, sometimes perhaps doing whatever was necessary for a bed to sleep in. He did odd jobs to make pocket money. He often made the rounds of the beach and bars and popular restaurants handing out leaflets promoting various businesses that cater to gay tourists.

New Year's Eve 2009
Marco was fond of dressing in flashy clothes, costumes really. He had a card printed up that introduced himself as a Public Relations Specialist. A friend of mine scoffed at the pretentiousness of it but I admired him for it. Vallarta was full of drifters who sold their bodies in exchange for a meal and enough money to buy the next day’s drugs. Marco was attempting to earn a legitimate living even if it required major subsidies from generous friends.

When I received word that he had passed away a few weeks ago I felt that something precious was lost from my life. Not only had I lost a friend but one of my last links to Vallarta. I have written before about my changing relationship with Vallarta, a place that I once believed would be my future home. Vallarta is the place, and Marco was the person, who brought Luis into my life.

Over the course of two years Luis and I had one of the most romantic, volatile, passionate, disappointing and doomed relationships of my life. After it flamed out in a particularly painful episode, I cut off all communication with him. I did not respond to his emails and I rarely spoke of him, although I often thought of him. But the passing of Marco required that I break the silence. Luis is now in Mexico City and I could not be sure he would have heard the news. (He had not.) It’s as if Marco is still playing matchmaker.

Marco died from AIDS. When I last saw him, this past April, he was thin and lacked energy, but seemed reasonably well. I was shocked that he was gone just 5 months later. I was also angered. In 1995 the number of AIDS deaths in the U.S. peaked at over 50,000. Over the next two years the death rate fell dramatically and now hovers around 18,000. Seen another way, in 1995 AIDS was the leading cause of death for U.S. males between the ages of 25 and 44. Today it has fallen to fifth place, behind injury, heart disease, cancer, and suicide. Far too many, of course, but getting better. This trend is due to aggressive efforts at testing and treatment. The situation in Mexico is far different.

Although the rate of AIDS infection is far lower in Mexico than in the United States, diagnosis and treatment lag behind. I could not find reliable data to prove it, but I am certain that the life expectancy for HIV infected people in Mexico is far lower than in the U.S. There are many reasons for this, including the inadequate health care available for the poor in that country. I’m not suggesting that AIDS is not still a devastating problem in the U.S. nor do I mean to imply that there is good health care for the poor in the U.S. But I suspect that Marco would still be with us if he had lived here rather than Mexico.

Whatever the implications of Marco’s passing, whatever the statistics are, the fact remains that a dear friend, a person with a good soul, has been taken from us. He will be missed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Almost Heaven

Camping again. This time in the hills of West Virginia. But try as I might to hear any faint trace of “Dueling Banjoes” filtering through the rustle of the leaves in the breeze, the only music I hear here is Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Kelly Rowland. Yep, I’m in another gay campground. After visiting my sister north of Pittsburgh, Ranger Rudy hauled Penelope Pop Up, my cat Osito, and me up some very back country mountain roads to a place called Roseland Resort.

Once again I had trouble hitching Penelope to Rudy. The hitch didn’t want to seat itself completely on the ball. The last time that happened I was pulling Penny back to her home, a field full of RV’s where she rests when I am not using her. (No place to keep her in New York.) As I drove over a bump, the hitch had finally settled into position. So I decided to drive around the block at my sister’s development hoping for the same luck. I drove over the curb, across every bump I could find, and slammed on the brakes a few times. The hitch didn’t budge. I turned a very sharp curve onto the steep hill back to my sister’s townhouse then backed into her driveway. Penelope tracked perfectly through it all but the hitch was still sitting too high on the ball. Oh well, it seemed to tow well enough so I bid my sister farewell, loaded Osito into the truck and we were West Virginia bound.

About a half mile later there was a bang and Ranger Rudy began to swerve erratically. I didn’t have to look to know what had happened. I managed to get Rudy and the unhitched Penelope off to the side of the road. The tongue of the trailer was on the pavement, the emergency chains had dragged it to the side, and the trailer brakes had applied. I could not swing the tongue jack down to raise it back up and I could not lift it by hand. I was stuck.

Fortunately the disaster had occurred across the street from an auto repair shop. Two burly men came to my assistance. All three of us could not lift the surprisingly heavy Penny so they retrieved a hydraulic floor jack from their shop and wheeled it over. That did the trick. This time the hitch engaged the ball correctly and I was safely underway again. (I have yet to unhitch it; I’m not going to unhitch until this trip is over and Penny is back in her field.)

I am camped on the narrow spine of a ridge with majestic views of the surrounding hills in all directions, mostly carpeted with oak, maple and walnut trees. On the next ridge a huge flame springs into the air day and night, like an eternal torch. It roars like a jet engine. I’m told that it is a gas well burning off methane. I wonder why the energy of the methane could not be used.

It was hot when I arrived but the next morning brought gentle breezes and billowing cumulus clouds decorating the vivid blue sky. I decided to hike one of the many trails that encircle the property. The trails are hilly and, for an out-of-shape person like myself, strenuous. Arriving huffing and puffing at the poolside café, I had lunch. The breeze picked up somewhat and the clouds thickened. A gust almost toppled my umbrella table, but relative calmness followed.

Things were less tranquil up on the ridge where Penelope Pop Up was parked. The wind was whipping up the hillside with a fierceness that launched anything that was either not heavy or not securely tied down. Penelope’s canopy awning had pulled free of it’s stakes and was wrapped backwards over the roof, flapping violently. It’s support poles were still attached and splayed about threatening severe damage to anything in their reach. I struggled to retrieve the awning but the wind, now howling, made it impossible. The seam where the awning attaches to the roof was torn almost half its length. In the end I had no choice but to tear it the rest of the way so I could free the awning, roll it up and prevent further damage.

The wind continued to howl the rest of the day and throughout the night. Penelope was buffeted about to the point that I worried that it, and Osito and I, would be blown off the ridge and, like Dorothy, we might find ourselves in Munchkin Land. We were safe, but sleep was difficult and Osito was alarmed.

My eye doctor friend and his partner were also camping at Roseland, but they had wisely opted to rent a cabin rather than staying in Penelope with me. I joined them for dinners which we prepared in their kitchen. The winds had subsided somewhat but it had turned sharply colder. We bought some wood from the camp store at one dollar per stick and looked forward to a nice fire in their fireplace. Unfortunately our expensive wood resisted all efforts to light.

Roseland provides an abundance of activities; it reminded us of a land based cruise ship. There were theme parties each night. I recycled a costume from a long ago party for the Roman toga night. It was amazing to see how many men in a remote campground had brought elaborate costumes for multiple events. I was slightly annoyed with how many of my fellow campers were obsessed with sex. When are people going to realize that a hot tub is better for relaxing your aching back than for stimulating your hyperactive front?

I was favorably impressed with Roseland and with its new management. The facilities are superior. There is even an observatory on the highest hill with nightly programs presented by the resident astronomer. I was not so impressed with the drive up the mountain from the Ohio River. It took almost an hour to go 20 miles over crumbling narrow roads with steep hills up and down, through hairpin turns and endless switchbacks. Not the kind of driving where you can relax and enjoy the scenery.

This trip was meant to be a dress rehearsal for an extended road trip through the south that I might take this winter. Of course that assumes I will solve the cranky trailer hitch problem, repair or replace the awning, fix the plumbing leak (again), find out why the brakes don’t always work, and steel myself for endless hours of hauling a 3000 pound trailer with a little V6 Ranger. Airplanes and hotel rooms are starting to sound a lot more attractive.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


It’s official! I am no longer unemployed; I am retired. From now on I will receive two meager checks each month – one from my retirement annuity and one from Social Security. Together they will allow me to live slightly above the poverty line. Who says old age doesn’t have its rewards?

Funny thing is that retirement doesn’t feel any different than unemployment. I still have very little to do and a lot of time to do it. There is some financial security that comes with retirement, that is, as long as I don’t live too long. More importantly, there is a sense of legitimacy about it. Being unemployed implies that something is lacking in oneself whereas being retired is an accomplishment. In fact if you are unemployed but you can pass as being old enough to have retired early, I suggest you go with that story during introductions. You’ll get a lot more traction from being retired as opposed to being some poor chump who can’t convince anyone to hire him.

On the flip side, you can be unemployed at any age but most people associate retirement with old age. I’m ready to embrace my retirement but arriving in the sixties has not been as easy to accept. I would love to take a ten year period from my life, any ten consecutive years that didn’t amount to much, and just snip them out. But who wouldn’t? There’s a multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry that keeps alive the hope for finding the fountain of youth.

Then again, I wouldn’t want to be young either. The angst, the search for identity, the zits! No thank you. Like most people of a certain age, I’d like to have whatever wisdom and experience I amassed over the years to be housed in a 30-something body. Not the particular body I had when I was that age – as long as I’m fantasizing about the impossible, I may as well ask for something better. Let me pick the body and face I’d like to have from a catalog. Then, knowing what I know now, I’d rerun my life making adjustments to my history as necessary.

Until the total body transplant is perfected, I’m stuck with the one I currently inhabit, old and decrepit as it might be. I’ve seen worse. Now that I am retired, I can let all that go and turn my attention to the more important things in life. As soon as I figure out what they are.