My life alters completely after deciding on the hottest day of July 1969 to stop at the first place that serves anything with ice.
Rhinestones and the Pursuit of Happiness
by BETTY L. MARTIN
On one of Houston’s hottest days of July 1969, my life literally took a left turn. That’s when I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to turn away from the stop-crawl traffic and into the first place serving anything with ice.
“Damn!” I exclaimed as a car swerved inches from my Firebird’s fender. But it wasn’t the traffic, the heat or the bad day at work that prompted irritation with my life at that moment.
Just that morning, I’d had a few harsh words with my parents about being a twenty-one-year-old college drop out with a boyfriend who my parents found objectionable in the extreme.
“Not that anyone would be acceptable, except a rich doctor, lawyer or oil baron.” I mumbled aloud as I fiddled with no results with my car’s air-conditioning knob.
It wasn’t Jeremy’s fault that he was poor. Though he did seem to take an inordinate amount of pride in his anarchist views and even his lack of potential customers who understood those views as he portrayed them on canvas.
“My art is not created for the rich collectors but for the masses,” he said, not particularly minding that the masses had yet to discover him.
It was definitely a deterrent for my family that he was a fan of Karl Marx and critical of all the middle-class values that my parents represented. And he was not shy about stating his own beliefs as the underpinnings of a much-needed people’s revolution.
“But to say ‘drop Jeremy or move out’ — that’s not fair,” I whispered for the zillionth time that day.
After all, I was a working adult. Just barely, on both counts, but still of age and employed in a full-time, if unrewarding, job. I had recently decided to put some of my hard-earned income toward the household upkeep to quell another source of contention on the home front.
“It’s not like you’re not eating the food we buy — that is, when you’re
not breaking bread with the communist,” my father had said.
When I made the decision to quit college, in part agreeing with Jeremy that academia was only training for participation in a failed capitalistic state, I had no idea I had opened the doors to home hell.
“What are you going to do with your life?” my mother had wailed the year before, when I first informed the parents that I would not be a corporate shill, even as a theater major. “Don’t you care that you are supposed to be setting an example for your sister? Do you want her to grow up to be a hippie?”
That blazing July day was made hotter by the memories and by my sluggish air-conditioning in a car I’d made only three monthly payments on so far, a red-orange Firebird I’d spotted at an auto show two months after getting a job as an airline reservationist. So sweaty and more than a bit out of sorts, I quickly made a left turn into the small parking lot of the Cabaret Club.
It was a down-at-the-high-heels bar featuring a glass case by the front door with black-and-white photos of entertainers stapled to crinkled silver foil stars.
Inside, the club would have to rise several notches to aspire to the status of shabby. The star-designed red carpet was threadbare and the sequined red velvet curtains had seen better days, as had the tinsel Christmas decoration around the stage. A drop-down plastic light fixture, mercifully turned off, and gold tassels on the worn red vinyl chairs completed the picture of decadence.
The atmosphere was of a long-gone glamor, and it reminded me of a 1930s musical on late night TV.
Seeing that I was the sole customer, I walked over to read the jukebox’s selection of rock and blues ballads and torch songs, inexplicably happy to be in the cool air after the push-and-wait traffic.
I found a tight-lipped bartender wiping glasses and ordered a white wine and glass of ice water, sipping alternately at my drinks while feeding quarters into the juke box.
Gradually, customers began to arrive. The bartender-waiter, who I later learned was also the show’s producer, Big David, seated the customers at tables in the tacky red and gold-tasseled chairs facing the stage.
I was already a little buzzed from two glasses of white wine when Big David came over and said the show was about to start. He asked if I’d like to be re-seated from a bar stool to an unoccupied table. I made the move and ordered a bottle of house white.
House lights dimmed and corner spotlights illuminated the parting red curtain that revealed a bouffant-blonde woman in a pink satin dress and dripping in jewelry. The bartender-now-announcer introduced Miss Gale Galore as music filtered through the bar’s sound system from an unseen record player and Miss Galore began copying each movement and note of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” an act minus only a bevy of chorus men to be a convincing double from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Then the headliner, Miss Tiffany Rocks, took the microphone and did a Southern comedy routine pitted with risque double entendres. I laughed, too, along with the audience, at Ms. Rocks’ vividly elastic face, her thick eyelashes that flicked dramatically three times after each punchline.
I had somehow stumbled into a magical place with several of the kind of musical-comedy actresses that I had aspired to become. For a moment, I truly regretted dropping out of my last college and its theater arts program.
At intermission, before the second show, I was thrilled when Big David came to my table with an invitation from Tiffany Rocks to come backstage.
It was then, as I stood in the doorway of the reefer-reeking room and seeing the “ladies” changing costumes and wigs — and speaking at least one octave lower than they did on stage — that I understood where I was.
Seated at a lighted makeup table, head wrapped in a stocking sock and wearing a kimono, the star extended her hand like the queen she was.
“I am Tiffany Rocks, but you may call me Madam V,” the star said. “And you must be Dorothy, lost as you are in Oz, I presume?”
“‘She’ll get you, my pretty — and your little dog, too’,” Miss Galore cackled witch-like in front of her lighted mirror, retouching her sooty-eyed makeup.
“Shut up, Beatrice Bitch,” Madam V said. Her elaborately made up brown eyes were enormous as she took in my white blouse, gray skirt and jacket. “Now, how did you come to be here, Sunshine?”
I had just begun my sad tale of traffic hour when Madam V held up her hand, signaling silence.
“I mean, why are you in a gay bar, honey? You have figured that part out, right?,” Madam V spoke without missing a syllable as she re-applied lipstick.
“She didn’t know!” Miss Galore laughed.
“Well, the point is, are you having a good time?” Madam asked. “Are you enjoying your wine or would you like a little wake-up call from the mother ship?”
Out of the kimono’s sleeve, she pulled a tight, fat joint she installed into a foot-long cigarette holder. With a flick of a gold lighter — “a gift from an admirer” — she fired it up and passed it to me.
I held the long holder and inhaled everything, the smoke and the people in the tiny dressing room between its row of make-up lights and mirrors and wall of colorful costumes.
“Yes,” I exhaled. “I’m having a ball.”
“Well, that’s all one needs in life,” Madam said. “That and good pot and clothes. Surely you aren’t thrilled with that outfit?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, it’s hideous, for one thing, and it doesn’t say anything about who you are. You are a person. What you are wearing screams ‘secretarial pool.’ Or ‘corpse.’ It’s boring,” Madam V said. “I can stand anything, except to be bored. You must change immediately.”
She rose and began rummaging through the drag hanging like a rhinestone, satin, velvet, gauze, net tapestry behind her.
“You’re a tall girl. I’d say a size 12? I’m sure I have something that would fit you,” she said.
“Madam V, you can’t re-dress the customers,” protested the third drag queen, Miss Bobby, who was preparing to make her debut in the second show.
“If I can dress you, Miss Bobby — and you know that dress you have on is part of my drag, honey. You stole it, you slut — then I can dress the world,” Madam V said. “Here! Here’s something that says to a man, ‘Come and take me, but only after you’ve passed the audition.'”
She held out an empire-cut paisley dress with open Grecian sleeves.
“Put that on,” she said. “You’ll look gorgeous.”
Taking the dress, I looked around for a change room.
“You silly, silly girl,” Madam said. “You are in a dressing room and we’re all just girls here. Just get out of that outfit, Sunshine, before I scream. It offends me.”
Gale Galore insisted on doing my makeup and hair. By the time I posed for their inspection, I felt glamorous and even beautiful, as the girls assured me I was.
“There! Now you look like a queen. I don’t mean a drag-queen, honey, but a true princess,” Madam said, clapping her hands. “Now you’re ready for my party — which I’ve just decided to have. It’s upstairs, in my chateau. After the show.”
The chateau was a garage apartment only marginally less flashy than the club downstairs. Turquoise exploded everywhere — in satin drapery, couch covers, scarves and peacock feathers. It seemed impossible that so many people could fit into such a small space, a space where one only needed to breathe to get high.
On the scene were mostly gay men — hairdressers, antique dealers, real estate agents, a dentist and a firefighter — but there also was a small contingent of male and female actors, models and practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.
I didn’t want to leave. As I made my farewells, hours past dawn, I hugged Madam V, who, sans makeup and wig, was in regular jeans and t-shirt — a man but for the plucked eyebrows and red polish on her long nails.
“And where is it you’re going, Sunshine?” Madam asked.
“Home. Well, my parents’ house.”
“Why don’t you just stay here? You work in the day when we’re asleep, so we wouldn’t be climbing over each other — well, not that we’d do that anyway, honey — and the rent is cheap,” Madam said. “Besides, maybe we could borrow the keys to your car in the evenings before or after the shows. For emergencies only, of course.”
“What kind of emergency would happen between midnight and 8 a.m.?” I asked.
“A need for fast-food takeout or a pharmacy run.”
“It’s OK with me, but I don’t think pharmacies are open then.”
“Honey, it all depends on where you shop,” Madam said.
It was decided that I would have my own room, an unused area that was originally designed as a dining room and separated from the turquoise living room by French doors. A built-in corner armoires would serve nicely as a dresser and closet.
When I returned home, I packed a few outfits needed for work and a few others I thought might marginally pass muster with Madam.
“But who are these people?” my mother asked. “You can’t just go to work and come home the next day — dressed like a harlot, I might add — and announce that you are moving in with a group of girls.”
I explained to mom, without adding that they were not all girls (in fact none of them were, technically, women). I explained that all of my future room mates worked and that I was going to share rent and have my own room.
“I know you and dad have put up with a lot since I quit college. I know you were hoping that I’d be out of here, in my own place, so you could redo my room. Well, now you can.”
I kissed her mother’s cheek and promised to visit often without actually providing an exact forwarding address. On the way to Madam V’s and Gale Galore’s — and now my own place — I felt myself morphing into the name Miss V had bestowed.
I was free. I could do anything. I was Sunshine.
When I got back to the flat later that afternoon and brought in my suitcases, Madam was still asleep in her room and there was a row in progress.
“I know there were three joints in my space — in the pocket of my other jeans — and they’re not there now,” said Miss Bobby, one hand on her blue-jeaned hip. “Somebody went into my space and took my shit.”
“Somebody’s very negative today,” said Gale, pink-faced as she slowly let out smoke from her hit. “Here, Miss Bobby, take a toke.”
“Yeah, smooth it all out,” said Big David as he crunched on a handful of Cheerios from a variety of munchies on the coffee table which held his hash pipe and his tobacco-filled cigarettes.
Miss Bobby took a hit off Gale’s joint, then studied it like it was a scientific specimen.
“Hey, I think this is one of mine. It’s got my special roll.”
“Everybody’s got your special roll,” said Big David. “Two papers, some spit and a wad of weed. Only your wad is always a little smaller — not that we don’t love you anyway, man.”
“Au, contraire. I’m not a man. I’m a lady. In fact, I’m a queen and don’t you forget it.”
Big David reached for the joint, but Miss Bobby made a quarter turn away from the outstretched hand.
“Whatever you are, you’re boring AND you’re bogarting,” said Madam V as she emerged, still in jeans and t-shirt, from her crypt.
“Let her have some extra hits. She obviously needs it,” I said.
“See? I knew she would be a genius,” Madam smiled a welcome and smacked air kisses.
Soon after moving in, I found the parties after the Cabaret closed its doors were a routine that was hard to tune out in my small room. I tried placing towels under the French door, but they were invariably moved when a new, drunk or stoned couple made the inevitable search for an unoccupied space and were surprised to find me instead.
I settled for ear plugs and, following Madam’s lead, I posted a “Do Not Disturb For Any Reason Including The End of the World” sign outside the French doors. Madam’s version outside her turquoise bedroom, where extra drag was stored, added: “This means YOU (unless you’ve been Invited!)
Some friction rose over who was paying for what, which proved that communism didn’t really work in a practical application. I hoped Gale and Bobby would stay, since my rent would increase if split between a smaller group. I told Jeremy about this, but it only led to another argument. It seemed Jeremy and I argued a lot since I moved in behind the Cabaret Club.
My living arrangement became decidedly more familiar, even reminiscent of the parental homestead, after Jeremy came to the apartment to pick me up for a movie.
“Bring him in. Don’t be rude,” Madam V called out between tokes before getting ready for the evening’s first show.
I had hoped to whisk Jeremy away from the apartment, as I usually did, as soon as he knocked on the door, thus skipping introductions with my roomies and Jeremy’s inevitable questions. But it was not to be avoided.
“My stage name is Miss Tiffany Rocks, but you may call me Madam V,” Madam said as she held out her hand to Jeremy as if for a kiss. “You must be Jeremy. I’m one of the sisters of the sacred sanctuary here. I understand you are a communist.”
Jeremy was struck dumb by the sight of Madam in her kimono, her polished red nails clutching the cigarette holder and surrounded by the deep-turquoise-fried living room. He ignored the hand.
“Oh, he’s going to be a boring communist, too,” Madam said.
“All communists are boring,” Gale called from the kitchen.
“And what, exactly, is the movie you’ve chosen for our Sunshine?,” Madam asked, one eyebrow arched as she took another hit.
“Easy Rider with Peter Fonda,” Jeremy said as if in a trance.
“Surely not,” Madam said. “I believe there must be a place in this world where Hello Dolly is playing. Much better to see that. Lovely songs, flowers, Barbra Streisand. Yes, much nicer.”
Gale Galore came in from the kitchen, munching on take-out Chinese and already in her pink taffeta Marilyn outfit, ready for the show’s first number, except for wig and faux jewels.
“So what madly expensive place are you taking Sunshine for dinner?” she smiled demurely at Jeremy.
“We’re going to Eas…. a movie — and then she’s coming to my place,” Jeremy said.
“On the first date? I think not!” said Madam, batting her false eyelashes furiously.
“It’s not our first date.”
“It is your first date from this chateau after meeting the family,” Madam said. “So it’s the first date.” She held up her hand like a stop signal. She would broach no opposition.
“We don’t have the money to eat out at an establishment restaurant,” Jeremy protested.
“A gentleman always pays for dinner before his dessert,” Madam said as though handing down Biblical prophecy. “Are you at least going to pay for the movie tickets?”
“We’re going dutch. As an artist, I don’t have money to spend on things like mainstream movies,” Jeremy began to sound sullen. “I prefer artistic films, movies in which the artist is sharing his vision of the world.”
“He means cheap,” Gale said.
“Money isn’t everything,” Jeremy said. “I believe in a system where each member of society contributes for the good of the society and is rewarded equally.”
“And that everybody is supposed to dress the same,” Gale said. “And in drab colors, too!”
“Horrors!” Madam said. “Money may not be everything, but you need it if you want to ascend the ivory tower of life in style.”
Impromptu, Miss Gale went into her act:
“A kiss on the hand is quite continental. But diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she whisper-sang.
“Have her home before the end of the second show,” Madam said. “That’s at midnight. Don’t be late.”
As she spoke, I saw my mother’s face slowly transposing itself over Madam V’s bone structure.
As we made it to the inside doorway, I heard Madam call out, “He’s not nearly good enough for you, you know.”
Once outside, Jeremy grabbed my arm hard enough to cause me to yelp and push back at him.
“What the hell was that?” he whispered.
“That, Jeremy, is a real commune — to me, it’s home,” I said, rubbing my arm.
I walked with him a few steps and then stopped suddenly, the words of my parents, Madam and Jeremy tumbling over in my mind.
“And you know what that last part was? That’s what you call truth. You really aren’t good enough for me. Goodbye.”
I batted my eyelashes three times, turned around and walked straight back into my chateau.