Monday, December 31, 2012

what are you doing new year's eve?

My best, bittersweet New Year's Eve memory is that of my parents dancing around the living room to Guy Lombardo "Auld Lang-Syne" or Glenn Miller's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." By the time they were raising me and my younger sister, the last of their eight children, they didn't often find much time to dance. They both were working two jobs. The economy in the 1970s was much like it is today. Mom's health issues were just beginning to manifest themselves, and Dad was approaching 60. And yet dancing on New Year's Eve seemed the most natural state for them. After all, that is how they met.

It was 1940, and as the stories go, my dad's brother Dick, who had already met my mom a few weeks earlier, took my dad to Mrs. Jones' Dance Studio where my mom was one of the ballroom dance instructors. In my imagination, the story of their meeting is like something out of a movie: Glenn Miller's music crackling on a phonograph, a mirrored dance-hall ball spinning overhead, and suddenly a tall smiling man in a white suit walked in the door.

Monday, December 24, 2012

my first christmas dinner at bubba's

Christmas of 1989, my first after having moved to New York City, would have been fairly lonely had my then brand-new-beau Bob not invited me to his home in Beaver Falls outside of Pittsburgh PA to celebrate the holidays with his family, or should I say at "Bubba's." That's what his family called his mother. Bob's father's side of the family was Serbian, and even though his mother is a lean, wise-cracking, back-woods Kentucky woman--someone who's real name of Katherine or "Kitty" would have suited her better--nevertheless, as soon as her first grandchild was born, she was given the nickname "Bubba," a Serbian term of endearment for grandmothers.

Now Bob's family is one of the wildest, most chaotic groups of people that this little son of a lockstep German woman has ever spent the holidays with, but that first Christmas at Bubba's swirls in my memory as the wildest. The whole family was there, running from room to room, jabbering and worrying: grandkids with toys, cousins with casseroles, brothers-in-law in front of the football game, and his dad, a good-natured retired house painter who was recovering from a car accident, which of course, had everyone a little more on edge than usual that year.

Bob was most nervous of all because, on top of everything else, he hadn't told anyone in the family about "us," and wasn't sure if anyone would figure "us" out. To me, it seemed they were all so distracted by their own concerns and doing their best to stir up such a crazy-as-wet-hens celebration, that the little redheaded stranger in the forest of giant Serbians would be the least of things for anyone to concern themselves with that day.

Monday, November 5, 2012

working-class heirlooms

My sister Sally's return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.

As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. I secreted the package under my arm and headed for my classroom knowing that the content was something that had belonged to my mother. Sally had just spent the week of Thanksgiving cleaning my father's house. She and my eldest sister Em had decided they would surprise Dad when he returned from visiting my brother in Chicago, by clearing away the piles of sweepstakes offers, Readers Digests and grocery store circulars that tend to gather in the home of an 82-year-old widower.

Friday, October 19, 2012

the hairy pendulum swings

This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.

The Hairy Pendulum Swings:
How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century

When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.

In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.

And then came the 1980s.

Monday, October 8, 2012

los angeles transformations: bruce of la

This biographical introduction was commissioned by Antinous Press for their 2008 hardcover volume Bruce of Los Angeles: Inside/Outside. It was intended to accompany the brief intro by New Yorker columnist Vince Aletti. Unfortunately, the publication became too unwieldy and my piece was cut at the eleventh hour for space.

Los Angeles Transformations:
Bruce Harry Bellas, 1919-1974


In the first half of the Twentieth Century most of Los Angeles California’s population was from somewhere else. Between 1910 and 1950, a booming economy, social freedom and the entertainment industry made Los Angeles the true “land of opportunity” for more than a million new residents. Hollywood in particular was a place where one could completely transform oneself. Through the magic of the camera, chorus girls became sophisticates, jocks became gladiators, cowboys became legends, and farm boys became notorious. So in the late 1940s, when Nebraska high school teacher and amateur shutterbug Bruce Bellas lost his teaching job, he too went to Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

week one: september 2001


My city buried in dust:
fine cement powder
coats my teeth,
burns my eyes,
stops my tongue.
All week long,
endless smoke billows over Wall Street,
filling the canyon end of Broadway,
wafting through my head
like the smell of fire in the walls.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

meeting someone in new york

I had that classic shot of Manhattan from the airplane window as I flew up the Hudson on the way into LaGuardia, parallel to the City's skyscraper grid, as if the flight pattern had been directed specially for Continental Airlines and the City of New York by Woody Allen or Nora Ephron. I swear I heard Gershwin playing, possibly on the crackly airplane headphones, but I can't say for certain. As I watched the World Trade Towers, then the Woolworth, Con-Ed, Flatiron, Empire State, Pan Am, and Chrysler buildings rise and fold below me like a pop-up book, the words passed through my head: "I could meet someone there."

The words did not come with the excitement of school-boy expectations, but rather cautiously, with a slight sense of foreboding. I was still a priest, after all. And this would no longer be the pastoral suburban hillsides of the enlightened Berkeley that I had just left. It was bigger, grimier, unreflecting, relentless. From above, its shining monoliths opened and closed to reveal deep sooted crevices well suited for contraband and anonymity. I could see myself getting lost in there, without anyone knowing. Lost, with all the connotations of disappearance, misdirection, intoxication, swept away.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

entrance day, 1976

36 years ago today, my mom and dad drove their 18-year-old son across Kansas to drop me off in Denver at the Jesuit novitiate. The three of us sailed across the flat hot Plains in their recreational vehicle (a retirement investment that they never quite got to use in retirement) for arrival day the next morning. The two of them sat quietly in the driver and passenger seats below, while I perched on the bed above them, peering out the long narrow window, watching for the first sign of the Rocky Mountains to appear on the endless horizon ahead. Years later my mom would tell me how worried she and dad had been for me throughout the whole 13 hour trip across Kansas and eastern Colorado, something they kept to themselves at the time, allowing me to be deep in my own feelings.

Behind me in the kitchenette portion of the RV was a steamer trunk packed with the few selected belongings I was allowed to take with me to the novitiate. We had been given a specific list of clothes, toiletries, a journal, a bible. We were not to bring record albums. Limit our books. No money. Few keepsakes. It was religious life after all, and all we would need to follow Jesus through the eye of the needle would fit into a steamer trunk. Of course, I had carefully painted my family name large and decoratively across the top of my truck, which was probably the first negative mark on my record the moment the second year novices greeted us curbside and helped us carry it through the front door.