Fag! Queer! Fruit! These words were thrown around a great deal in Birmingham, Alabama elementary schools and high schools to attack someone’s masculinity. I might have been guilty of it myself, back then, during the late 70's. At one point during high school some of my friends even drove past gay nightclubs to egg the people leaving. If you had called them one of these monikers, you had better be ready to fight. But my personal perspective changed not long after high school. And it can be attributed to one person…Michael. But let me back up a few years. I worked many jobs at Eastwood Mall, the local shopping center east of Birmingham and the first enclosed mall built in Alabama. I started to work there in 1977 at 16 in my first job, Baskin Robbins, and then later when I was 18, I helped my friends, Ross and Pam at Executive Lounge, a small bar in front of a pizza restaurant where we were able to drink and not be carded, a few years earlier than the formation of MADD. Then, I airbrushed t-shirts in front of the department store, Newberry’s for a little over a year. During that time, a lady from Piece ‘o’ Cake Bakery asked me to draw a “Smurf” on a cake for her. More and more frequent were her request for all sorts of characters that she asked if she could just teach me to decorate cakes. It paid more than the airbrush job so I jumped at the chance since I was still living in my car during that time. I slowly earned enough money to move to Southside, an eclectic suburb just south of Birmingham in an efficiency apartment with all utilities paid for $225. Oh, those were the days. Well, life was good. I was making enough to fill my refrigerator and had little worries. I was the decorator that got the fun jobs building trucks, dinosaurs, and nudes out of cakes where as the lady that hired me took the more formal wedding cakes. They even set me up in a glass-front office so people could see me work. But as with any businesses, the orders dwindled and they had to close. I was in need of new employment. Money got tight and my “fair-weather” friends from Eastwood slowly disappeared.
One week while looking in the Sunday classifieds, I saw where Mountain Brook Western Supermarket was hiring a cake decorator and deli assistant and was hired a week later. Mountain Brook is a wealthy area that caters to a more affluent demographic than I was use to at Eastwood. I hardly knew anyone there and the way the social structure was dictated, deli workers were not usually part of the cool baggers and cashiers circle. But one night, at the wall where everyone hung out to “smoke and joke,” I was getting on my Kawasaki 880 and I hear my name. The guy all the girls loved and all the other guys gravitated to was motioning me over. He was skinny as a rail but had a handsome face and a strong chin. His hair was blond on top with darker sides, cut in a short “mullet,” popular for 1983. “Come hang for a minute.” The only time we had talked before was about the latest Star Trek film, in the small break room in the back of the grocery store, but he introduced me as if we had grown up together. For the next several weeks Michael and I found we had much in common, mainly, comic books, science fiction films, and orchestral rock groups. In high school, it wasn’t cool to mention these passions, but with Michael, it was like I found my long lost brother. We were nerds and didn’t care what people thought. We both could recite Wrath of Khan and sing every Kansas song verbatim. We found that we both had a comic we were drawing and loved the other’s work. I still use his signature “Herman” laugh, “Hur, hur,” with mutual friends. We shared clothes and borrowed each other’s music and comic books. We spent hours on end watching movies we rented while we taped them to blanks. We drank and sang at each other’s apartment until the police would come relay a request to stop from our neighbors. We declared our future plans of drawing comics for DC or Marvel. He introduced me to all of his friends from Montevallo where he had gone to school and I showed him the mines below Altamont Road, on Red Mountain cresting the south side of the city, so we could literally take our parties underground without bothering anyone. Those were some of the happiest times of my life. I knew that, besides the occasional girl, Michael liked men also, but I didn’t care. He was the coolest person I knew and I loved him regardless. I never hesitated to return his hugs and kisses hello or goodbye as I might any girl I had as a close friend. It was natural and innocent. He never tried to be more than we were, brothers. If one of us needed help, the other would of given all he had. I have never had a closer friend.
Three years later, Michael met a guy named Mitch at Club 21, a drag club downtown. For anyone who doesn’t know, a drag club usually has a stage that put on shows with gay men that are dressed as women, lip syncing and dancing to various pop songs and show tunes. And ever since I experience The Lighthouse, the first drag club I was ever taken to when I was 17, I can tell you these men take the shows very serious and I bet more than half of you would swear they really were women when they were in drag. Michael had, over the last few years, dropped any bisexual life and admitted to himself that he was totally gay. Something I, and the rest of his close friends, already knew. Mitch got him a good job in Hoover, a city just south of Birmingham at TechSouth a division of BellSouth that created the Yellowpages for the Southeast. We literally cried when he left Western and vowed to stay in touch. As with my friends at Eastwood I felt that I would never hear from him again. But every week we talked and two months later, Michael called and said he had set me up an interview and to say I knew Mitch. I was scared out of my mind, having never worked a corporate job like this, but as my interviewer questioned me, he asked, “So, Greg, you and Mitch are friends?” “Oh yeah, that Mitch, what a guy!!” I held my breath, looking to see if he bought it. In a week Michael and I were back together working second shift with some of themost interesting people I have ever met. On second shift were the younger people that got the work done but never shied away from a desk chair race down the halls or going to a bar for lunch. We had the best accuracy but the least ethics. It drove the first shift people crazy. A year after I started TechSouth, I was promoted to the graphics department and Apple computer signed a contract with BellSouth. I was trained on the tiny Mac II computers and given a new program, Illustrator 88, an empty office and all the free time I needed to learn. It was “a dream come true” making good money, with my best friend and meeting new friends everyday. The first thing I created on Illustrator was Jessica Rabbit from “Who shot Roger Rabbit”. That should give you an idea to the seriousness we gave to our work. At twelve midnight we got off work and headed to Michael’s or my apartment and played till dawn.
At one point Michael was living in some nice apartments in Southside, with Chuck, a straight friend of Michael’s from Montevallo that he introduced to me and whom I still consider a good friend to this day. Chuck was moving out so for the first time in our friendship, Michael and I were roommates. We were like little kids while the parents were away. At about the same time, he started seeing Candy, a drag queen that worked at Club 21. I had gotten use to Michael’s provocative lifestyle but it was like a French comedy trying to explain to my dates why there were false breast and butt pads laying around the apartment. Friday afternoons were fun watching three of our drag queen friends work on their routine at the apartment. They all knew I was the straight one and treated me like a den mother. Some nights I would go help with their outfits backstage at the club and beamed with pride with Michael as they preformed, like we were pageant parents. After I had a bad breakup with a girl I was dating I asked Michael if he thought maybe I was gay and that was why I couldn’t find my true love as he did, time and time again. He said lets find out and ran to his bedroom. I got to tell you, it was at this point I seriously regretted telling him and dreaded what he was coming back with. Jumping over the back of the sofa and plopping down beside me, he held a handful of Playgirls. He quickly turned to his favorite stud. “So what do you feel when you see him?” “Embarrassment, repulsion…” “Ok, and what about him?” “About the same.” “Case closed…you’re straight.” We laughed for hours as he would open the magazine and I would make a disgusted expression.
One thing Michael always talked about that I didn’t share as passionately was the ocean. Now, granted, I love the occasional beach trip, but Michael wanted desperately to live on the beach. The years rolled on and Michael’s obsession increased. During that same time, Michael and I were saddened as we started hearing of some of our friends contracting AIDS. Finally after a bad breakup with a man much too young for him, Michael had finally had enough and found the courage to get a resume together and start looking for work near a beach. I didn’t think much of it and thought his passion would fade. But one afternoon at work Michael showed me the letter from Longboat Key Swim and Tennis Resort Club near Sarasota, Florida, offering him a job. Michael had been saving money for the move and had a friend already down there to move in with. I knew how much this meant to him and bit my lip to hold my emotions and support him. The next three weeks were agony as Michael was so excited about the move. All the gang at TechSouth pitched in on Michael a nice VCR player (this was the early 90’s). I gave him my Spock standup and we hugged and cried. And just like that, he was gone.
I missed him so much. We called each other religiously and a year later I saved enough money to go visit him. Every night was cocktail hour for Michael and if he wasn’t at work he was fixing our drinks. He wasn’t a sloppy drunk and honestly he was a lot of fun when he did. But I could tell he was different. Maybe the location, maybe the new lovers and friends, but it wasn’t the same. No more movies, no more art, just partying. Michael was concierge at the hotel and also drove the limo. Right before I got there, he had drove Aerosmith to Disneyworld. He seemed to have a good time but of all the time I was there we spent one brief day at the beach, Michael’s original reason for moving. I didn’t question it but thought it strange. One thing that kept coming up was Michael’s attempt to persuade me to move down with him, and because of my affection for him and that I missed his company so much, I damn near did it. But this was Michael’s dream, not mine. As much as I missed him, I would be moving for the wrong reasons. But I was feeling a protective side of me wanting to move down if for any reason but to keep an eye on him.
Throughout much of Michael’s life he had an alcoholic father. Though his mother remarried, every once and a while Michael’s dad would periodically show back up in his life. He loved his father, but in introspective moments, Michael pledged to never be like him, and resented his father for the alcoholism that ended his parent’s marriage. But as our phone calls got less frequent, the one constant was the sound of Michael stirring his plastic cup of Pepsi and rum. A year or so later I got a happy call from Michael. He was in love. He excitedly talked about the place they had next to one of the canal inlets and how utterly in love he was. He was also unusually drunk. Before, it was hardly noticeable but now he was slurring his words. The calls were more and more spaced apart and harder to understand. Then nothing. Several years later, after my wife and I were married, a drunk Michael calls, “I’b in Arizona, hahaha, can yob believe zit!” I was shocked that he moved away from the beach and was really starting to get concerned. “Michael, what the hell are you doing?” “I’b fine, I moveb zup here wit Trevors ‘cause of his sjob.” “Are you ok?” “Oh, hellll, sjeah, I’z scuper!” “Well, I love ya and if you want to move back here, we have room.” “Tanks, buddy. Yours a good frien’. Gota run, love ya.” The call uncharacteristically ended abruptly. I hung up the phone and sat quiet for a moment. “Damnit” I swore under my breath and I stared out the window …”damnit, Michael.”
A year later, the phone rings and Cynthia answers. “I think this is Michael.” I pick up the phone and listen to the quiet voice on the other end. “Hey, buddy.” “Where are you Michael?” “I’m back in Florida.” I heard the familiar plastic cup of ice. “What happened?” “Trevor is an asshole!” “Why are you speaking so soft?” “I’m living with this lady that I know and she’s asleep.” “Michael, come stay with us for a while, man.” I pleaded. “I’m fine. Trevor left me and I was stuck in Arizona but mom sent me some money to move back to Sarasota.” “Are you there now?” “No, I’m above Tampa until I get some more cash together.” “Do you need money?” “No, no, I’m doing fine, just going to stay here for a while.” “God, Michael, I wish you would move back home.” “Sarasota is my home. Don’t worry.” “Well, I do. I love you.” “You too. You should move down here with me.” “Michael, I think Cynthia might have something to say about that.” We both laughed and for a moment it felt like old times. After our usual farewells, the call ended. Two nights later, another call, a drunken Michael telling me how much fun he is having, then nothing for well over a year.
Then, a longtime friend called me and said she saw an obituary for someone with Michael’s name. “What!! No way! It’s got to be another Michael, I thought, as I looked up his mother’s number. It was true, she said, he had died, alone in a Salvation Army home in Sarasota, cause of death was a failed liver due to alcoholism. I didn’t feel grief at first, but blind anger. Why, with all the people that loved him, would Michael not let us help? We lost so many of our friends to AIDS, to something that was incurable, so why the hell would Michael not let me help him with something this easy to fix, I naively thought? To this day, I can’t answer that. I have always had a hard time understanding alcoholism and other addictions. Why not talk to me about what was happening to him? Was it pride? Was it embarrassment? Why? Michael had followed his dreams. He had the courage to drop everything and to leap. So why this? Why suffer alone? For many years I have tried to figure that out, to understand his reasons for, like a animal sensing his death, cut off all ties and wander off alone. It haunted me til last night.
Yesterday evening a fairly new Facebook friend chatted with me and asked me if he could ask a personal question. I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be. “Are you gay?” As when the few times I have been asked this before, all I could think of was how Michael taught me that this wasn’t an insult. To be mistaken as someone that is gay was nothing but someone's way of understanding me. Unconditional love is what Michael was about. Gay or straight, who cares, if you love someone you except them as they are. After I finished chatting with my friend, I thought of my journey, of my understanding of what gay is and why now that question always made me smile. Then it hit me...That was it! That was the one thing I had forgotten in my selfish investigation of Michael's reason of disassociation with me. One thing I had forgotten until last night is of all the many things my relationship with Michael taught me, the most important was to except him unconditionally as he did me. To look beyond the superficial, beyond the immediate fear and judgments we tend to make when someone is different and to just except them as an equal. I might not understand my friend’s decision in his final moments…but I chose to except and love him a long time ago and should remember that pledge now instead of trying to dissect the last insignificant moments of his life. I needed to focus on the obvious. I am a better person from knowing Michael. And for that and the happiness we shared for a much too brief time, thank you, brother. I miss you everyday.