Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Then Suddenly, Eight Years Later...

I started writing yesterday, but I couldn't concentrate and the damned phone kept ringing... not that any of the calls were for me, mind you, but I was at home for the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday and my computer has a dial-up connection using the single phone-line in the house, and every time a call comes in it interrupts me. Plus I hadn't quite processed the events about which I was writing, i.e. My Return to the Scene of the Crime.

In the last few days, when I mentioned I was doing a Court show on Sunday, my listeners would usually ask me what that meant... and I was hard-pressed to come up with a response. The Drag Courts differ from place to place... no doubt you have seen or heard about Paris is Burning, the ground-breaking documentary about the drag courts of New York (and the popularity of which documentary directly or indirectly inspired The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar... you notice how both major US-released drag films have incredibly long names, which happens a lot in drag as you will see below), but the Courts mentioned here are a little different from that.

First, there are two loosely affiliated Court Systems here in Alameda County (most Courts are divided by county), the Imperial ("The Imperial Star Empire of Alameda County, Inc," or simply I.S.E.) and the Grand Ducal ("Royal Grand Ducal Council of Alameda County, Inc"). They are separate corporate institutions, but considering the size of the drag community in Alameda County, there is a lot of overlap. The ostensible purpose of the Courts is to raise funds for local charities and projects; the more practical purpose is to create an organized community for gays in general and drag queens in particular. Each organization puts on shows and other events throughout the year to raise funds for the various organizations it supports (mostly AIDS services and GLBT youth services).

Fairly simple, no?

No... there are a lot of little things that make Court shows very strange and different from other shows I've performed in and other organizations I belong to, things that I had forgotten about or magnified in my mind over the last eight years. For example, in my day, I remember that the Courts drank a lot. Now, I may have been projecting, since I was drinking a lot at that time, and tended to drink a lot wherever I went, and Court people are more generous in buying drinks (and in many other ways) than the average bar patron... but it seemed to me that Court functions were rather more lubricated than day-to-day life. It's one of the reasons I stayed away from the Courts, and from performing at all in the East Bay, ever since I got into sobriety (aside from the simple fact that I was afraid of being remembered for the lush that I was, and reminded of the idiotic things I did).

The other thing that I "remembered" was that Court queens take themselves way too seriously. All the titles and the hierarchy and the bowing. I had forgotten about the bowing until Sunday night, but there it was. Taking oneself seriously is anathema to me (since I have a fatal weakness in that direction), and I tend to veer away from anything that seems to be puffed up on its own grandiosity... any group or person that conducts itself as if its actions were a matter of global importance. I mean, there are certain things that must be taken seriously, but one should have a clear concept of just how many people are affected by one's actions, and have a healthy understanding of one's own silliness and frivolity.

In the case of the Imperial and Grand Ducal Courts, there is little involvement or effect outside of the Courts themselves (aside from those who are benefitted by the money raised). All of the money raised comes from members of the Courts, pretty much the same roomful of people over and over again, and all of the entertainments are generally just excuses to perform... though I must point out that they keep the act of supporting charities a form of entertainment instead of a pious duty or a guilt-trip, something other fundraising organizations would benefit from learning.

Again, though, here I am projecting in a certain way. When I was in the Courts, there was a lot of back-biting, a lot of petty politics, a lot of Drama... but that may simply have been the people I was listening to; perhaps I was focusing on the bad in a way of making myself feel better about my own inadequacies, my drinking and my lack of money to either donate or to buy myself the fabulous gowns and jewels that are the feature and focus of the average Court queen. Instead of just enjoying the community that these people created, instead of seeking the support and love that were available in the Courts, I focused on the weaknesses I perceived in order to aggrandize my own ego (I used to do that a lot, and still do if I don't keep an eye on it).

Well, anyway, to return to the original topic, I did this Court show on Sunday. To be specific, it was the Grand Ducal Council of Alameda County's Annual Winter Extravaganza, "An Evening of Winter White, Silver Elegance & Sparkling Ice," the traditional event put on by the Royal Crown Count and Countess to the Grand Ducal Court. This year's Royal Crown Countess is my buddy and some-time co-star Christine SaDiva (ahem... Her Most Honored Grace, Royal Crown Countess Christine SaDiva, Silver Aquarian Amethyst Star-Crested Bastetian Wildcat to the Reign of Leather, Fur, & Fantasy, the Eleventh Dynasty for the Royal Grand Ducal Council of Alameda County, Inc... you see what I was saying about the long names and grandiosity... I mean, Bastetian?), who kindly asked me to lend my own personal brand of fabulousness to her event.

I was feeling more than a little trepidatious about this performance. For one thing, it was being held in the Bench & Bar, the scene of my origin on the Drag Stage, the birthplace as well as the grave of the late and lamentable Jazz Princess Marlénè Martini-Dahling (before she was reborn as the Really Classy Lady Miss Marlénè Manners). Not only did I get my start performing at the B&B (as we affectionately called it), but I practically lived there for the bulk of my drinking career, spanning that event-packed age from 22 to 27. It was the place I "fell asleep" at the bar during happy hour on several occasions, the place I gave nonreciprocal blowjobs to two strippers in the storage room, the place I tricked from and hung out at and thought of as my home, the place where I triumphed on stage and where I threw up in the gutter (sometimes in the same night). It's the place I had my last drink, where the owner of the bar had suggested to me that perhaps I had a drinking problem.

It had been eight years since I last stood on the stage of the B&B, and on that occasion I had been so drunk that I was completely unaware that the spaghetti-strap of my dress had broken and my gym-sock "boob" was hanging out, until one of the other performers came up to me and fixed it in the middle of my number (I was doing "Jazz Hot" from Victor/Victoria in a white slipper-satin sheath). It was not an evening I particularly care to remember, though I have to remind myself of it every once in a while, to keep myself humble.

For another thing, unless there had been a major death-toll or other massive turnover of personnel, there would be other people at that show who would remember me from Back Then... people who might remember the time at the ISE Christmas Show that I slipped on an ice-cube from my own drink and landed flat on my back on stage with a prat-fall that would have made Chevy Chase proud (to name but one example from those messy last two or three years of my drinking days). There would be people whom I had not seen hide nor hair of since just after I quit drinking, when Caroline accompanied me to the Investiture of the 6th Dynasty (Grand Duchess SoHorny Beaver, I can't remember just now who was Grand Duke then), though I had considered them my friends at the time.

So, to say the very least, I was going to be revisiting a significant portion of my past, and I was feeling a bit nervous... not nervous that I wouldn't be fabulous enough (because let's face it, I may be forty pounds heavier and not nearly as young and pretty as I was, but I now dress much much better than I used to... and I don't fall down anymore), but nervous about remembering and revisiting the people and places I associate with The Bad Old Days, nervous about stirring up old emotions and old resentments. The kind of nervous I feel when I see a relative or old friend to whom I haven't spoken in years and years and years.

So to combat this nervousness, I did two things: first, I asked Caroline to accompany me, as it's always good to have a close friend at hand when tackling these little bêtes noires of the memory, epsecially a close friend who is honestly critical and unfailingly supportive, who knew you then and knows you now; second, I wore the most fabulous clothes and jewels I have that fit the theme (it was a silver-and-white theme, though I could only do silver-and-black... which made me look like a Raiders fan, but I didn't think of that until later)... namely the expensive and wildly glamorous silver-sequined and -beaded black evening gown I bought for the poise section of last year's Miss Gay Marin Pageant, which sparkles like diamonds, and every piece of silver-set CZ jewelry I own, as well as all of my best and sparkliest rhinestones, my rhinestone-encrusted silver handbag, and my silver lace and rhinestone shoes — and the pièce de resistance, my "boys" Collin and Clive, the silver-tipped brown fox boa with heads and legs and tails and all. I was so stunning, I stunned myself. And I performed my best and favorite piece, Ella Fitzgerald's "A Fine Romance."

Upon arrival at the Bench & Bar, I was pleased to discover that they had repainted and renovated since I was last there... that the cigarette smell was completely gone, that the pastel carnival colors were replaced by simple blacks and golds, that the rust carpeting and the blondwood parquet floors were replaced with glossy black flooring, and the dressing room was enclosed by a real wall and door instead of a tacky curtain hanging from a droopy wire. Even the old shelves of obsolete law books were gone, the last reminder (besides the portions of terracotta flooring and the gas fireplace) that the Bench & Bar was originally designed as a hangout for lawyers, handy to the county courthouse, before it turned into a gay bar in the late 70s or early 80s.

I was a little taken aback by the Aztec mural on one wall, testament to the fact that the Bench & Bar premises now operate at lunchtime as a Mexican restaurant (as it's still handy to the courthouse, as well as the State and County Admin buildings, and the new Social Services office building right next door); and memory was rekindled at the sight of the mirrors, the beamed ceilings, the pool-table, the restrooms, the mural in the foyer, and all the other structural inevitabilities of my old home-away-from-home. In general, it was all very familiar but nicely fixed up (kind of like me).

I was also amused, though I couldn't decide if I was pleased or not, that nobody recognized me. I immediately recognized several faces (though not necessarily names) from the old days, but they had no idea who I was. Of course, aside from the medium length red wig I was wearing (I used to sport my own hair in a pageboy style), the extra weight, and the facts that I'm older and wear glasses and subtler makeup, none of them had seen me for eight years, either.

So anyway, in all these memories there were a few things I had forgotten about Court shows. Such as that performers sign up for one number rather than two, and that the lineup is first-come/first-perform (though titled performers such as emeritus Grand Dukes/Duchesses or current office-holders are put on at intervals, and the current people go last). I am accustomed to troupes where everybody shows up and turns in two numbers, and then the emcee makes the lineup based on who's ready first and who is like or unlike whom (never put two comediennes adjacent, never put two balladeers adjacent, never make a newcomer follow a grand diva, etc...it's Showmanship 101).

So, thinking that the lineup would come out and not knowing where on it I was, I went and changed into my performance outfit as soon as the show seemed about to start... but since I had arrived later than most of the other performers, I was stuck in the crowded busy dressing room for the bulk of the show, all ready to go (in a beaded gown so I couldn't sit down very easily, and that gown carried the bulk of my impact as a performer so I couldn't go out and watch the show) and with no clear idea when I would be on. It was a little nerve-wracking.

And then there was the bowing. In a Court show, the host and hostess (in this case the Royal Crown Count and Countess) sit at the side of the stage and are the first to tip the performer. You bow to them when they do this... I quite forgot that, until the others started with the tipping. See, in Living Sober shows, people come up and put their tips in a big white shoe; at Galaxy shows and other such shows, they hand them to you while you're performing; in both instances, one acknowledges the tipper in whatever way one wishes, and there is a certain demarcation line between the performers and the audience, so performers tend to not tip each-other. But in Court shows, tipping is a very formal affair: people come up in couples (or singles, if one's official escort is not there), arm-in-arm, in a line, and there's precedence and bowing and all that sort of thing involved. Since these are fundraisers, and we donate all our tips, this is a Big Deal; and since most of the Court are performers as well as audience members, the tipping is very much more a part of the performance than it is in other places (and another element that smacks of Taking Oneself Too Seriously).

Still, I had a wonderful time. After I performed, all of those familiar faces finally recognized me as the drunken but somehow fabulous young gamine I had once been (even in cheap unbeaded dresses and jewelry made from Christmas garlands, I had the talent and stage-presence I now command, plus the youthful energy to do it all the time), recalling the best of my past performances (such as the time I was spinning around on the dance-floor and got too close to the edge of the stage runway, but instead of bumping into and/or falling over the catwalk, I leapt three feet straight up in the air and landed perfectly en pointe on the stage... though to tell the truth, I'm pretty sure I levitated on gin fumes from the seven martinis I'd downed, and have sometimes wondered if I hallucinated that performance), and inviting me to take part in future Court functions.

So I have a foothold in the East Bay again. I still plan to run for (and win!) the title of Miss Gay Marin (which is also a very limited thing to be, as it's pretty much an in-house Galaxy Girl title and has nothing to do with anything outside of what individual Miss Gay Marins choose to make of themselves), but it's nice to know I have some stage access closer to my place of residence.

I am somewhat leery of getting too involved in the Courts, though. As I've discovered in my participation in the Miss Gay Marin pageants, I have a competitive streak in me that isn't one of my most pleasant qualities. Though I have managed to keep my rabid lust for a tiara from hurting other people (I didn't even try to kill Candie Swallows when I was her first runner-up and would take the crown if anything unfortunate happened to her), but I still tend to do myself a bit of damage. Financial, mostly... I've already spent over $100 for one dress for the pageant, and I still have to work on my Creative Costume and my Performance outfit; plus, I tend to soothe my competitive anxieties by buying more and more fabulous things for the pageant (which isn't too bad, since I can use them indefinitely after they've been debuted). I spend sleepless nights and hours upon hours and loads of money searching for that End-of-the-World-Fabulous-and-Never-Performed-Before Song. I tie myself into knots trying to anticipate the Poise Question and formulating witty and heart-felt responses to any number of possibilities gleaned from current events and popular culture.

Now, if I brought that kind of mentality to the Courts, I'd be screwed and in debt almost immediately. A friend of Court days, Honey Hush, told me, after she stepped down as Empress of the 13th Dynasty, that she had spent almost $20,000 during her reign, what with gowns and catering and travel and donations, and yet the ISE only raised about $8,000 to forward to it's roster of charities that year. You don't have to spend that much money (and I think she was able to take a lot of it off her taxes as a small-business owner), but I know my own weaknesses.

Well, we'll just cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, I think I'll start stocking up on beaded gowns and matched jewelry parures. And you can never have too many furs. I'll post the pictures as soon as I get them back (I still don't have a large Memory Stick for my digicam, so I had to rely on old-fashioned film). I mean, I was stupefyingly fabulous the other night! When the show was over, I was loath to get out of face, I was so fabulous!

I figure, if I don't toot my horn, who will?

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