Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel

We were going to head up to Syracuse this weekend.

Tim's cousin had passed away, and we were to meet up with the rest of his family to attend the memorial taking place on Saturday. We had planned on flying up Friday, spending the long holiday weekend visiting Tim's old haunts, hanging out with his siblings and casting an eye on the local real estate market.

It would have been nice to get out of the city, and the rut I've been in since the holidays. Work and a lingering illness have both conspired to leave me grim and cantankerous. Some of you may have seen me once or twice in a cantankerous mood. It's not pretty, is it?

Like any other project management type, I rearranged my week in preparation for our departure tomorrow morning. I got the laundry done early and rescheduled my bi-weekly haircut appointment for Wednesday.

Now, John has cut my hair since 1974, and trimmed my beard since shortly after it appeared in September of the following year. We were introduced to each other by my late, lamented friend Arthur, way back in those plummy days when he and I were involved in an oddly successful cultural exchange program. Through the years my grooming habits have evolved from a once a month mowing to the every-other-Friday-morning-at-8:30 that it's been for the past ten years or so. I like the ritual of getting up early, hauling out the laundry and heading for a cafe on University Place, where I can sit in the window and drink my coffee, watch the world go by and listen to the extremely well progammed music, always thoughtfully selected. Sometimes it's jazz vocalists, sometime a British Invasion band. Sometimes it's a new jangly tune, or some long lost treasure I haven't heard in decades. Sometimes, in my vulnerable early morning state, I'm moved to tears.

As I sat there on this grey and rainy February day, I was intrigued by a turn the music was taking. The mix seemed to heavily favor dance music of the mid 70's, an atypical choice. There was a fair amount from the Philadelphia International stable, then the music veered from Lou Rawls, to be followed by Tavares. I had been lost in my reading, but the combination of "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" and the LP version of "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel" made me raise my head and smile. These songs are so time-and-place specific for me, never failing to momentarily transport me back decades. As the songs faded, I grabbed my umbrella and headed for my barber.

John and I exchanged our usual pleasantries as I grabbed a magazine and he prepped me for my haircut. Robed and toweled, I sat back and concentrated on the sounds of combing and clipping while John commented on how quickly my beard grows. "It's more white than black now, too", he helpfully pointed out. Noting my scowl in the mirror, he added "At least your beard is white; we have a lot of friends whose beards never had the opportunity". It's true; I had to agree. Once there was a rowdy gang of us that frequented John's chair; now the shop is quiet and mostly patronized by neighborly older gentlemen.

As I regarded my face in the mirror, "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel" began to play again, this time on the radio. I smiled, recalling the summer of 1976.

It was the last week of June, and hot as blazes. It was the weekend of Robert's 36th birthday. In years past, he traditionally spent this weekend as a guest of one of his many friends with houses that abutted both bay and beach in the Pines. Not so, this year. There were no such invitations forthcoming. We'd met some eight months earlier; been a couple for the past 2-1/2 months. It seemed to me that the notion of Robert dating a 21 year old rubbed people the wrong way. It wasn't until some time later that I became aware of the two other men he'd been seeing concurrently. Both were socially prominent in this small community. They'd deigned to tolerate each other. I was just too much. I hadn't realized my function as his escape valve from that high pressure situation.

Stranded in the city, Robert was mad and growling. Brightly, I promised him a wonderful weekend, wondering how I could compete with the carnival that was taking place out on the South Shore. It wasn't necessary. Robert showed up at the door of my Sixth Street railroad flat on Friday night with a grin and a small suitcase, fanning seven one hundred dollar bills at me, telling me to pack my bag. I was young enough not to question him.

I'd been to Fire Island several times before, mostly day trips, with the occasional overnight stay, when I was lucky enough to charm my way into an invitation to do so. Robert and I, along with his friend Jeffrey, had even taken an early ferry out to escape that year's overheated spring, spending the day huddled in the wind against a storm fence on the beach, dreaming of the season to come.

It seems to me I can't remember the chronological occurences of that long ago weekend. Instead, vivid memories fly out at me like pages from some precocious child's picture book. I do remember checking into the Boatel, a three story cinder block horror overlooking the deck of the Blue Whale. The room itself was grim: a bed and some ancient rattan furniture. A shared bath. But our balcony overlooked the harbor, and the room overlooked the daily tea dance ritual.

I remember:

Walking the beach arm in arm, graciously greeting the amazed and more than slightly put-out faces of the gentlemen who had neglected to invited us.

The sandy sheets and oil slicked skin when we returned to our room.

The bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor at the side of the bed.

Waking up to the pulsing music from the deck below as it filled the room, and sent us, sunburned and satiated, to shower and shave and join the throng.

The amusing melange of chemicals we managed to ingest during the course of that evening.

The phosphorescent water breaking over me as I stared, slack jawed, from my seat on the water taxi, as we headed towards dinner in Cherry Grove.

Robert handing me my very first hundred dollar bill to pay for dinner, which mostly went uneaten, due to that same amusing melange of chemicals.

Dancing barefoot and shirtless at the Pavilion, my white painter's pants rolled up around my calves, as the two gentlemen looked on.

Collapsing in a heap on the bed in the early morning hours, the music still insistently playing.

Robert whispering in my ear that heaven indeed must be missing an angel.

The next morning we agreed to share a grudging birthday Bloody Mary with Bill, one of the two gentlemen in question. As we sat on his deck overlooking the Atlantic, I saw that Bill was wearing a small amulet, a medal I recognized as Robert's. Noticing my eyes fall on it, he fingered it, lifting it from the chain around his neck and winking at Robert. Foolishly, I took his action as a formal and open declaration of war; a battle I would ultimately win.

We spent the rest of the day jumping like dolphins through the rough surf, our swimsuits worn around our necks for safe keeping. We returned to our room just in time for the final tea dance of the weekend. Full ferries were pulling out of the harbor as men got once last dance in, heard one more song, snagged another kiss that would carry them through to the following Friday afternoon.

Showered, Robert and I stood on our deck, watching a late ferry head out into the setting sun. The evening was warm and I had wandered out, a thin towel knotted at my waist. I gazed out as Robert wrapped his arm around me and waved to Bill on the top deck of the boat. I could well gauge his expression from my perch. As the ferry left the harbor, I raised my arm in farewell as the sky filled with lead and gold.

"You haven't even looked at your magazine", John said, gesturing to my lap. I looked up, surprised to be sitting on 12th Street.

I shrugged. "I guess I'm just not awake yet".

John turned off his trimmer, and lifted the hexagonal gold framed mirror off the counter. With a sweeping motion he showed me my cleanly shaved neck, the back of my head, and lingered on my bald spot, waiting for me to frown or comment.

"Excellent", I said, and stood up.

I paid him, confirmed my next appointment, and headed out into the cold February morning.