my first christmas dinner at bubba’s

chocolatecakeChristmas of 1989, my first after having moved to New York City, would have been fairly lonely had my then brand-new-beau Bob not invited me to his home in Beaver Falls outside of Pittsburgh, PA to celebrate the holidays with his family, or should I say at “Bubba’s.” That’s what his family called his mother. Bob’s father’s side of the family was Serbian, and even though his mother is a lean, wise-cracking, back-woods Kentucky woman—someone who’s real name of Katherine or “Kitty” would have suited her better—nevertheless, as soon as her first grandchild was born, she was given the nickname “Bubba,” a Serbian term of endearment for grandmothers.

Now, Bob’s family is one of the wildest, most chaotic groups of people that this little son of a lockstep German woman has ever spent the holidays with, but that first Christmas at Bubba’s swirls in my memory as the wildest. Continue reading “my first christmas dinner at bubba’s”

working-class heirlooms

mom portraitMy sister Sally’s return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.

As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. Continue reading “working-class heirlooms”

the hairy pendulum swings

This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.

The Hairy Pendulum Swings:
How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century

When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.

In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.

And then came the 1980s. Continue reading “the hairy pendulum swings”

los angeles transformations: bruce of la


This biographical introduction was commissioned by Antinous Press for their 2008 hardcover volume Bruce of Los Angeles: Inside/Outside. It was intended to accompany the brief intro by New Yorker columnist Vince Aletti. Unfortunately, the publication became too unwieldy and my piece was cut at the eleventh hour for space.

Los Angeles Transformations:
Bruce Harry Bellas, 1919-1974

In the first half of the Twentieth Century most of Los Angeles California’s population was from somewhere else. Between 1910 and 1950, a booming economy, social freedom and the entertainment industry made Los Angeles the true “land of opportunity” for more than a million new residents. Hollywood in particular was a place where one could completely transform oneself. Through the magic of the camera, chorus girls became sophisticates, jocks became gladiators, cowboys became legends, and farm boys became notorious. So in the late 1940s, when Nebraska high school teacher and amateur shutterbug Bruce Bellas lost his teaching job, he too went to Los Angeles.

Continue reading “los angeles transformations: bruce of la”

meeting someone in new york

1990_02-Lg
East Village, circa 1989.

I had that classic shot of Manhattan from the airplane window as I flew up the Hudson on the way into LaGuardia, parallel to the City’s skyscraper grid, as if the flight pattern had been directed specially for Continental Airlines and the City of New York by Woody Allen or Nora Ephron. I swear I heard Gershwin playing, possibly on the crackly airplane headphones, but I can’t say for certain. As I watched the World Trade Towers, then the Woolworth, Con-Ed, Flatiron, Empire State, Pan Am, and Chrysler buildings rise and fold below me like a pop-up book, the words passed through my head: “I could meet someone there.”

Continue reading “meeting someone in new york”