Thursday, September 15, 2005

Wall-Staring In Bars With Lesbians

Technically, she wasn't really a lesbian.

To say that I grew up sheltered would be a massive understatement. I never had an actual conversation with someone who wasn't white and Jewish until I reached college. The good part about that: when I did meet people from other religions and races, I came with no preconceived notions or prejudices. The bad: I felt a bit like Woody Allen's character in Sleeper, waking up to a new world. In my case, of course, the world had existed all along.

I never met anyone who was openly gay or lesbian until graduate school. My program of study was in an arts-related field and required a lot of time spent in Soho and Greenwich Village. During that period of my life (my wayward years) I was blessed to work at a job with a wonderful group of people who I actually enjoyed spending time with - not just a few people, but every single one of my co-workers was someone I wanted to get to know. One of these was LM, a brash and sardonically funny woman 2 or 3 years my senior, who smoked incessantly and always regaled me with a play-by-play of her latest therapy session with a doctor she viewed as an incompetent, but whom she just couldn't leave.

Though LM called herself a lesbian (and even included it proudly in bold on her resume), she would flirt with anything that moved, and admitted openly that though she preferred women, she was actually bi-sexual; she employed the term lesbian because bi "didn't mean anything politically." For a sheltered boy, all this was quite an eye-opener, and fascinating. Being an incredibly open, frank and forthcoming person, LM was happy to share her thoughts, opinions, and experiences, which led to many deep, occasionally existential, often touching, and always thought-provoking conversations.

LM's mother had been a nun in a convent who could not fight her urge to have a child, and left the convent in search of an intellectual man who would enable her to fulfill her desire; she found him in the form of a Jewish university professor, whom she contacted only twice more - once to tell him she was pregnant, and again to say she had given birth to his child. They had no real relationship with each other, and neither wanted one. LM's mother later married a gay man, who helped raise her daughter.

LM always imagined what it would be like to meet her biological father. It haunted her, and she yearned for it. As her father was somewhat well-known, she kept tabs on him, knew where he lived, knew of his other children, kept track of his career. She would create different elaborate scenarios in her mind of how she might run into him and how it would be. Once, she even saw him from a distance, but did not approach. This was the one area where she was not impetuous, was downright scared: "Hi. I'm your lesbian daughter by a woman you had a one night tryst with. I have many neuroses and now I'm here in your happy home." In the face of potential parental rejection by a father she did not know, her normally bold, tough exterior was hobbled by fear.

As a result of her dad's Jewishness (to which she attributed her neuroses), LM was intrigued by all things Jewish. She was always very respectful and accomodating of my religious needs, suggesting kosher restaurants we could go to, and never asking me to do anything on shabbat. She did, however, feel the need to broaden my horizons and loosen me up - she introduced me to some great bookstores and record stores, museums and cafes. I drew the line when she wanted to take me to Hell, a bar/dance factory where you have to feel along the wall to find the entrance door. She just shrugged ok when I dropped her off and repeated that I would not be accompanying her.

The office we worked in was a very convivial atmosphere. Any excuse would do to call for an after-hours drinkfest ("hey, it's Tuesday!"). Not being a big drinker, and not entirely wayward during my wayward days, I would sometimes go and not drink, just to observe, and sometimes not go at all. I never understood the appeal of getting blasted on a regular basis, and was especially surprised that this would continue after college.

I asked LM about it during one of our "broaden my horizon" excursions. LM had decided to take me wall-staring, which for the uninitiated goes something like this: you find a dive bar somewhere in the Village, one that is the size of a large broom closet, with a faded sign outside; the bar stools should face a brick wall, where there should be X-mas lights hanging in June. You go to the jukebox and put on some tragic-sounding French music, sit at the bar and drink, and drink, and drink, and stare at the wall until you get horribly depressed and then numb. As she started on her fourth beer, I turned to LM, and I asked her: "Why? I don't get the appeal. I don't get wall-staring, I don't get any of it. Why does everyone always want to go out drinking?"

Being the very open, honest, and forthright person she is, LM looked at me and said, "because when it comes down to it, no matter who loves you, no matter who is in your life, you're really completely alone in this world, and so you drink, to forget how lonely you are."

I was never so glad as I was at that moment that I believed in G-d. That was the beginning of the end of my wayward days.

11 comments:

Stacey said...

Wow, MC, what a story. I have never heard of wall-staring (and here I thought I was so worldly - LOL)!

"I never had an actual conversation with someone who wasn't white and Jewish until I reached college."

Wow, you did live in an insular world. I can't imagine it. Although I have to say that at college (and since then) I have encountered many people who have never met a Jew.

Sarah said...

Wow.

On so many levels, wow.

yitzig said...

Michoel,

Very inspirational. It also touched me on a personal level. Too often I find myself mistaking nostalgia for my own wayward days with actually wishing for them to come back. It's so simple to remember the fun and the good times. One forgets the meaningless of it all that leaves a person feeling shallow and empty inside. Thanx for the reminder. Yashekoyach!

MC Aryeh said...

Stacey - Can't vouch for how universal a concept wall-staring is. May be Greenwich Village specific, specific to LM and her friends, or even bar-specific!

I have only met one or two people who had never met a Jew before, but as almost all my time has been spent in NY or Israel, I guess that is not so surprising. Would love to see you write a post about your experiences with that...

Given that I did not grow up in a shtetl somewhere, I am often shocked at just how sheltered I actually was growing up...

Sarah - Thanks for the wows.

Yitzig - There is a lot of good that I took from that time, and it definitely helped to shape who I am today. So I think I recognize and appreciate both - the meaninglessness and the expansiveness/wonder of it, if that makes sense.

Elster said...

Mc - excellent tale. You are a most interesting character.

sistersoul said...

excellent post shmi, i believe it was with you and e the brother that we were walking in the village and i saw my first drag queen. i definitely remember shrieking. good times, good times

MC Aryeh said...

Elster - Thanks, I think...

Sister Soul - I remember that! Your reaction was priceless...

Jack's Shack said...

Very interesting post. I knew wall staring by a different name, but that really doesn't matter.

Sounds like college really opened things up for you.

torontopearl said...

And I had to travel to Israel, to see two openly gay men for the first time!(while I was just sitting, people-watching while on the promenade on Tel Aviv beach)
What a tremendous irony I'd thought at the time, more than 20 years ago.

(I certainly don't live in a shtetl or insular world.)

MC Aryeh said...

Jack - What was your name for wall-staring? College did open things up for me, but not as much as grad school did...

Pearl - Greenwich Village would have been a much closer trip...

NeshamaSearcher said...

I loved the last line of this piece. I try to explain that very notion to my friends when they ask me why I, an outgoing, popular, party girl am deciding to become religious. I try to explain to them that we are too thoughtful of creatures to not have a creater and to not have a worldy purpose (as Peter Berger suggests). I try to explain that the lonliness they feel (as an NYU student ive engaged with friends in much wall-staring) is not inevitable and is not True with a capital T. We can't know in this life for sure whats right and what wrong, so why not have the comfort of Hashem.