A HAPPY MAN—Harry’s Story
(And Mine, Too!)
By Sydney Gay
(Continued from last month)
I Laugh Then I Cry
My husband and I moved to Ajijic, Mexico twelve years ago, the way we moved here seems like a miracle to me. Perhaps a miraculous childhood had something to do with it.
World War Two, one year old, I live in the New Orleans French Quarter above a saloon, my parents named me Sydney Gay, the beginning must have been lovely life of kindness and care, I am not conscious of all the details until the first miracle, a soldier walks into our home, a gruff angry man, the opposite of kindness, fear enters our family, its name is Daddy. A week later he ships back to Germany, but before he leaves I tumble from a second floor balcony and land unconscious on my head, for how long? I don’t know, the next memory is hearing grandmother say she’s okay. No doctor is called, no money for a doctor.
By age three I experience the second miracle, a surprising but welcomed event that cannot be explained by laws of science; a marvelous sensation, a mystery, a thrilling exhilarating heart-racing experience that endlessly inspires; it happened this way: The early part of each day is spent with grandmother who owns a small grocery store adjacent to the saloon, a few blocks from Bourbon Street. At seven am she rolls out a huge barrel of pickles with a sign that says “Help Yourself,” then she rolls out a barrel of fresh baked French breads, three feet long, the same size as me, the aroma is euphoric.
While grandmother is busy with customers I toddle into the street, a torn piece of lace hangs from my shoulders like a cape, (I see what happened as clearly as if it happened yesterday), cars whiz by, I have no concept of danger, I am simply lost in a feeling of love so huge that a childlike song bursts out of me.
I am singing about God, I don’t even know who or what God is, nevertheless, I am filled with a spirit more powerful than any human in my life ever matched. Suddenly I notice people laughing and two hands yank me to the sidewalk, “Go home, kid.” The miracle is that I never forgot that song.
Age four, the war is declared over, but brutality learned overseas is a two- edged sword which continues to cut and slash. I soon realize my father is mentally ill, but he is also handsome and a good talker, attractive to ladies and he loves gambling, which is easy to do in the French quarter gay life of night and day cabaret. There are no pre-schools, so my early education comes from strip joints, saloons, barrooms and gambling halls. When I enter a normal school teachers will say, “Gay is precocious, she knows too much for a kid her age.”
Third Miracle: By age five I am conscious I live in two worlds, one that loves “gay” people and one that murders gay people without guilt or regret. My family’s regular “gay” entertainment is Club My O My*, not much more than a big stage, a tin roofed shack, every show sells out, seats are long benches, same as pews in a church building, before the curtain rises shots of bourbon are passed out and if you’re a tiny kid who needs to make wee-wee, grandma pulls down your pants, puts you on the floor and tells you to pee. The adults are half drunk and nobody cares.
Suddenly show time, men impersonating movie stars dance and sing, I know all the routines, my favorite is Doris Day wearing polka dots, elbow-length gloves and giant high heels which sparkle up my brain cells. I also see the audience, soldiers, sailors, women, children, truck drivers, pastors and priests, I remember grandmother saying “Those priests better keep their hats on their laps.”
The shows are great fun, I laugh, but then I cry, because there are times entertainers will be murdered in alleyways, heads beaten with baseball bats simply because they are gay. Try to imagine what it is like for a child to see the people she loves killed because they are gay. “So, Mom?” I ask, “How come you named me Gay?” and she says because gay is a beautiful name. “I named you that because I wanted you to be happy.” My mother is my third miracle.
Fourth Miracle: Age six, father’s gambling forces us to quickly move out of the quarter, which means piling in the back of a pickup truck, sitting on top of suitcases, scooting down a highway, clutching side rails so we don’t fall out; our next home looks like Mexico, it has fruit vines and banana trees, children of former slaves prepare our meals, nobody explains anything to me, in the annex of an old plantation I sleep in a room used by servants, my parents sleep in a bed owned by a dead woman named Dorothy Dix.*
I guess this is the time to better explain the miracle of my mother: no matter how bad things are, she tithes beauty and wellness into the situation, she uses her hands to decorate the barren ugliness, sewing curtains, painting walls, making pillows, determined to “leave behind” something of value so the next person has a better life. Anyway, it is in this place I come face to face with the Divine through a tiny black servant, Leola, who cannot read or write, but Leola’s ability to love has a powerful taste. She has the Holy Spirit, the power preachers want; when I think of her, which I often do, a rumbling travels through my body, the song of slavery, of people overcoming pain.
Because of Leola I learn what the KKK is, how they burn down the homes of the poor, how they eviscerate, gut, disembowel and hang her people from trees. The Klu Klux Klan might appear any time of day or night, worse yet they are disguised as neighbors. There is a famous song about this by Abel Meeropol. In 1937 he wrote Strange Fruit, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from pop’lar trees, blood at the roots, blood on the leaves.”
Leola might look like a slave and be treated like a slave, but she knew how to survive, she rose above every sorrow in the light of love that only Christ talked about. I was just a girl named Gay, but at age six I am enfolded by this black woman who had seen it all. I was the only white child who knew she wore a secret coat of armor, Psalms 35/36 and 37.
*Club My-O-My: New Orleans Vintage Drag | New Orleans Historicalneworleanshistorical.org/items/show/367
The Club My-O-My was a female impersonator club that originated and ended in the French Quarter. It flourished after first being kicked out of an informal.
*Dorothea Lynde Dix - Women’s History - HISTORY.com