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15. Changes

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Writing for Wine Spectator was lots of fun, but it hardly paid my bills. The publisher, Marvin Shanken, understandably paid me no more than he had to, and I was hardly in a position to demand more. As a freelancer, I had no benefits or pension, although I did learn about the marvelous world of tax deductions for independent contractors.

With my increasing visibility came offers to write for other periodicals beside Wine Spectator, which would have greatly increased my income. I told this to Jim Gordon. He said he’d run it past the publisher, Marvin Shanken. Marvin replied (Jim called and described it this way): “Tell Steve he’s a great writer and we’re happy to have him. But he can’t write about wine for anyone besides us.” That hardly seemed fair: Wine Spectator had several freelancers whose work appeared in other magazines. Jim took my objection to Marvin, and then phoned back. “Marvin says that’s different. In those other cases, the writers already had reputations when he hired them. But you didn’t. Marvin created you from nothing, and he feels he owns you.”

Wow. What was I, a slave on a plantation? Nobody owns me. So I called Adam Strum, publisher of the up-and-coming Wine Enthusiast, and told him my story. It took Adam about three seconds to hire me; he said he would make me one of the most famous wine writers in America. And he did.

Of course, I remained a freelancer, with no benefits. The money was never great. Had I had a family with kids, I don’t think I could have afforded to write under those circumstances. But I was single and childless; I’d never had much money, and didn’t need a lot. There was something else that gave me some degree of financial reassurance: since the late 1980s I’d been involved in a family investment opportunity that paid very, very high interest. You had to be invited into it; I was, along with my cousins. The uncle who invited us insisted it was 100% safe. Of course, you trust your family; this same uncle had bounced me on his knee when I was a baby. If he said it was safe, it was.

I’ll have more to say about this; for now, let me just say that, years later, in 2008, I heard the name “Bernie Madoff” for the first time. But for the decade of the 1990s, I was just fine, thank you. Working for Wine Enthusiast was great. And those quarterly statements from the investment always made me smile.

* * *

But I have to revert back to 1983, when I decided it was finally time to come out to my parents.

Gertrude and Jack had settled into comfortable retirement in their condo, in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Margate. Aunt Ruth lived in the same development, as did Esther’s sister, Pinkie, and one of my mother’s Oklahoma cousins, Betty. Uncle Lennie and Aunt Esther lived nearby, in a fancy home on a cul-de-sac in the tony town of Tamarac. Jack took up golf, which he played with his brother Lennie. Even in old age, all of these relatives remained the best of friends.

My relationship with my parents had always been tense. As a little boy I went through an Oedipal period of intense love for Gertrude. At two or three years of age I’d lay in bed thinking of my mother and be filled with the tenderest feelings. But by the time I was seven or eight, I’d developed a strong antipathy towards my father.

There were good reasons for this. He was seldom home; he’d taken a job at a defense plant on Long Island, a long drive from The Bronx, and would leave home before I even woke up, and return in the evening. Friendly and jokey with others, at home he was a silent, grim man who did not talk to me or my mother very much. But a greater reason for my aversion to Jack was his violence. I’ve referred to his embarrassment about having a lousy job, about not being able to buy a home the way the rest of his family did. This shame, which he could never admit to himself, boiled over into rage at home. He was physically very abusive, beating me and my sister with his belt, and sometimes his fists. Angered by something I did or said, his face would turn blood-red, the veins popping in his forehead, and wham! Once—I couldn’t have been more than six—when I’d said a dirty word, he drove me to a deserted, dangerous part of The Bronx and threw me out of the car. “You’re on your own now,” he snarled, and drove off. Although he merely went around the block before retrieving me, I don’t think I ever got over the fear of being abandoned. I have nightmares about it to this day.

There was a period of a year, when I was about eleven, when we didn’t speak to each other. Nor was his relationship with his wife much better. They were strangers to each other. I’d see him pat her on her ass; she would flinch. They never held hands, the way my friends’ parents did. At night, Gertrude would retreat to her refuge, a green easy chair in the living room, and curl up with a romance novel. To make matters worse, my sister, six years older than I, had psychological problems; she was deeply unhappy. Our cramped little apartment was a psychodrama of Albeean horror.

When I came out of the closet to everyone else, I decided not to reveal the secret to my parents until I could tell them in person. The holiday season of 1983 was coming up. I arranged to visit Gertrude and Jack for ten days; that’s when we’d sit down and have “the talk.” Three days before my flight was scheduled to leave, Uncle Lennie phoned late at night. Eugene was with me as I heard the news. “Your dad died this evening,” Lennie said. He’d had a massive heart attack. He was only 67 years old.

I was stunned. Eugene said he thought a long drive would do me good. We drove down to the Peninsula and through Hillsborough up to Skyline Drive, as I shared stories about my father. As part of my coming-out to my parents, I’d planned to bring along a photo of Eugene to show them; I was very proud how handsome he was. But now, there wouldn’t be a “talk.” Instead, I’d be going to Florida for shiva—the Jewish ritual of mourning—and a funeral.

“Sitting shiva,” as it’s called, is an ancient rite. The bereaved is supposed to sit on a box or stool (so as to not be too comfortable) for seven days. Mourners who visit bring food, typically sweets. There’s no gnashing of teeth or hysteria, nor is there any “Irish wake” celebration, merely a dignified period of quietude. Jack and Gertrude had lots of friends; scores of people came to offer condolences. Soon, the kitchen was piled high with cookies, cakes and pastries.

I chose not to come out to Gertrude under those trying circumstances. But I did have “the talk” with Uncle Lennie. I showed him Eugene’s photo, told him all about my situation. Lennie, the old V.D. doctor, said, “Well, I always knew.” He didn’t judge. But neither was he particularly empathic; he received the news with a certain stolid acceptance. When I finally came out to Gertrude, by letter, a few months later, she replied back with her own letter. I still have it; it makes for painful reading. She said, in essence, it was too bad I’d turned out “that way,” but what could she do? She had to accept it. For her part, she hoped she hadn’t been part of “the problem.” She would “pray for” me. Implicit in her reaction was bitterness that I would never give her grandchildren.

It wasn’t the huggy-touchy response I’d wanted. But she just couldn’t. Years later, when she was very old and I’d persuaded her to move to California to live in a retirement community (where Esther also lived), I invited her for lunch at a Jewish deli. I wanted to try again to have “the talk,” but to do it in a public place so she wouldn’t have a fit. She’d now known I was gay for more than twenty years. She’d met, and liked, Eugene. But we never, ever talked about it. I couldn’t tell her anything about that aspect of my life: going to the Pride Parade, seeing drag shows at gay bars, playing the celebrity guessing game (Who is? Who isn’t?), not even about Shanti Project. She let me know, in her own potent way, not to go there.

But at this point in her long life, I felt, she didn’t have a lot of time. We were either going to talk now, or never. I really wanted to close the gap, to cross that last bridge, before she died. Over hot pastrami sandwiches, I began by telling her I wanted to talk about my childhood, about our unhappy household, about my father’s violence, about the emotional coldness between my parents—topics that had been verboten all my life. I said I wanted to better understand Jack, dead 24 years. I wanted to figure out why I was gay.

Gertrude began to cry. “I don’t know how you can say those things,” she sobbed. “We had a very happy house. You were a happy kid, until—” Until you became a homosexual, was the unstated lacuna.

I realized then that my mother was incapable of having the conversation I wanted. She’d completely erased the past and replaced it with a T.V. sitcom, something out of Ozzie & Harriet: happy mom, happy dad, happy children, happy home, happy times. Sitting there in the deli, watching my mother’s tears, seeing that she really couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with reality—it was too much. She’s close to 90 years old, I told myself. Let her be. And so I let the thing drop. In the time she had left, we never again spoke of me being gay, or about anything connected to my childhood. It was what Gertrude wanted.

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