Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Me and The Boys of Baseball History

While recently watching a Dodger game on TV, a friend inquired: “What’s this - another attempt at trying to become butch?” I was highly insulted. Although I may not enjoy playing baseball, truth be told I’m terrible at it; I actually really enjoy watching the game.

As a teenager I basically grew up in a ballpark. My family had season tickets to Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. From age 13 to 18, I attended every home game the Mets played. My older sister, Jacqueline, was a huge fan and got me hooked as well. She was madly in love with outfielder Lee Mazzilli, while I had my eye on second baseman Wally Backman, who possessed the best buns in all of baseball. (Backman’s bubble butt aside, I really did enjoy the sport though, honestly!)

As season ticket holders, we were fortunate enough to secure two highly coveted tickets to Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice and let me and my sister attend the game, but we never imagined we would witness history being made that October evening.

With the Red Sox leading the series three games to two, Game 6 was crucial. At the bottom of the 9th inning, the score was tied at 3 forcing the game into overtime. During the top of the 10th, the Red Sox pulled ahead and took the lead, 5-3. But the Mets were not about to go down easily, and rallied in the bottom of the 10th to miraculously tie the game 5-5. With Ray Knight on third base representing the winning run, Mookie Wilson stepped up to bat. Shea Stadium was literally rocking as Mookie, with a full count, faced another pitch and hit a slow infielder grounder up the first base line. It looked like an easy out and the end of the inning, but Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner misjudged the ball. As the ball rolled under Buckner’s glove, Ray Knight jubilantly crossed home plate and scored the game winning run.

Fans erupted in joyous mayhem as the Mets pulled off a miracle. Like most in the stadium that evening, my sister and I experienced a surge of elation knowing we just witnessed one of the greatest games in baseball history. Two days later, we watched the final game of the series from our living room sofa as the Mets won and claimed the title of World Series Champs.

New York City hosted a ticker-tape parade the next day to celebrate the Mets victory. After hours of pleading with my parents, they actually agreed to let me cut school and attend the festivities. I was shocked yet thrilled; this was as miraculous as the Mets victory.

The next morning, my mother, sister and I boarded the M train from Queens for downtown Manhattan. We arrived to a delightful disaster as thousands of people crowded the narrow, congested streets of lower Manhattan. Police barricades lined the sidewalks in an attempt to contain the crowds, but served little purpose. As the procession of cars began heading north on Broadway, fans poured into the street for a closer look at their World Series Champs. My sister and I were right there amid the congratulatory chaos, snapping photos and calling out to our favorite players. Covered in white streamers and paper that endlessly cascaded down from every skyscraper above, we felt like we were in heaven.

Later that evening, back home in Queens, reality reared its ugly head. Tomorrow, I would have to return to school and face the wrath of Brother Roy, the Dean of Disciple. I told my mother I needed a note stating I was sick and explaining why I missed school, but she refused to lie. So my father wrote the note instead, which simply read: “Please excuse my son, Vincent James Arcuri II, from school yesterday as he had to escort his mother to a civic function.” Seriously?!?

When I arrived at school the next morning, an announcement was delivered that anyone who missed class yesterday was to report to the gymnasium. There, some 350 proud, teenage boys – all Mets fans, all still ecstatic from our team’s victory - assembled to face Brother Roy and detention. I felt an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and for once I was “one of the guys.” So I tossed that embarrassing note my father wrote, joined my fellow classmates and gladly served time for my team.

Finally Fitting Into My Past

As young men dressed in oxford shirts and ties roamed the hallways, hormones and testosterone raged through their pubescent male bodies causing facial hair, deep manly voices and uncontrollable erections. That was life at Archbishop Molloy High School, an all boys’ private Catholic prep school in Queens, New York. Like most high school settings, those corridors were crammed with cliques – from jocks to stoners, preppies to rockers, and hipsters to geeks. Where did I fit in? I didn’t.

With my 80’s bouffant, perfectly parted to the side courtesy of a mound of mousse, paisley tie and Bass Weejuns, my fashion style was an amalgamation of The Preppy Handbook and Greenwich Village gay. No, I wasn’t out, but even completely closeted, it was still pretty obvious. As a result, I felt isolated, tormented both inside and out. If I wasn’t called a faggot behind my back, the question was raised rather rudely right to my face: “You’re not a fucking faggot are you?”

At Molloy, you could be smart or stupid, fat or skinny, popular or a geek, it didn’t matter, you’d still find your place; but the one thing you couldn’t be was gay. Out of a class of roughly 320 students, I had the distinct disability of being one of the rare few.

During my freshmen and sophomore years, I felt completely alone, an outsider, lost. I hated high school and dreaded each day as I entered that brick fa├žade adorned with its gigantic cross that was supposed to represent comfort, yet offered little to no solace from the verbal taunts of faggot, fairy and fruitcake. All of which left a scar on both my pride and my self-confidence.

By junior year, I solidified a friendship with a guy who also happened to have the biggest muscles in the entire class. Okay, so maybe I did have a slight crush, but his friendship shielded me from the wisecracks which were now kept at bay or at least out of earshot. And although I now had my own circle of friends, there was still no one quite like me, until I met Sean.

While I roamed the halls with my head down, desperate to avoid conflict or confrontation, Sean, with his punk rocker hair and Buddy Holly glasses, held his head high with an air of confidence. I admired his bravado, but envied it at the same time. (How was he pulling this off?)

Together, we shared a secret kinship, an unspoken understanding, yet we kept our friendship at a distance. In fact, the only time we ever hung out was when we cut gym class together at Sean’s urging. (I usually forged a note from my father claiming I sprained my wrist and couldn’t participate.) But even then when it was just the two of us, our friendship remained strictly on the surface, never a mention of our silent bond.
That was almost 20 years ago; I hadn’t seen Sean since until he recently tracked me down through a networking website. Upon receiving his initial e-mail I was thrilled to discover he too now lived in Los Angeles. Through the years Sean had always remained in the back of my mind – wondering where he was and what became of him.

We e-mailed back and forth for several days, quickly relying on old habits, never mentioning or even broaching the subject of sexuality, yet once again we shared an unspoken knowledge. After a week of e-mails, we met for brunch. Our mutual anticipation and excitement was obvious as we greeted each other with a hug, both visibly elated to finally express ourselves. We spent the next three hours speaking openly of our lives and our loves. Sean even pulled out our senior yearbook and instantly we digressed to high school boys (okay, girls) pointing out all the cute guys and bonding over our mutual adoration for Chad Hamilton.

Grateful for our reconnection, we also shared regrets – wishing our friendship had flourished 20 years earlier. Sean revealed he also faced humiliation during freshman year, but his older brother quickly helped alleviate the situation and confessed that his so-called air of confidence was strictly an act. I wondered why we couldn’t have shared these insights and this connection back in high school.

We talked about it at length, but never concluded our conversation until a few days later when Sean e-mailed me with an apology. When I asked why he felt the need to do so, he confided that he was fascinated by me in high school, (his words, not mine) but needed to keep me at arms length. He was sorry we couldn’t have been friends, because God forbid we were, we would have once again been targeted as faggots and freaks and faced even further ridicule and humiliation. Sad, but true.
I responded candidly that I couldn’t care less about what happened in high school, an apology wasn’t necessary because I realized in reconnecting with Sean, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that he experienced all the same conflicts, issues and struggles that I had at Molloy, altered my entire perception. I did fit in – with Sean. Together, we went through the trenches and came out survivors, and now we could be true friends. And unlike the rest of our graduating class, we both still have full heads of hair, 30-inch waists, and are completely content – it’s good to be gay!

Can I Be Brief?

What made me gay? Was it nature? Nurture? Did my mother have a stressful pregnancy? (A theory I once read.) Or was it the fact that I had three older sisters, who influenced everything from my TV viewing habits — General Hospital — to my musical interests — The Go-Go’s — to my taste in men — Scott Baio. (The Charles in Charge years of course, not the present!)

Who really knows? And until scientific research unmasks the genetic code that predisposed me to an affinity for the same sex, we may never know, but I have a theory: it was the International Male catalog!

At the impressionable age of 12, this mail—or rather “male”—order catalog arrived on my family’s picture-perfect suburban street in Queens, New York and landed in our mailbox. We were quite accustomed to receiving catalogs. My mother, Lois, was addicted to catalog shopping—JC Penney, Lillian Vernon, Spiegel—you name it, we received it and she ordered from it. But never before had we received anything that resembled the International Male catalog. Page after glorious page, a plethora of gorgeous, muscular, male models appeared dressed in skintight clothes, flamboyant “pirate” shirts, and overtly revealing exotic and erotic underwear. This was definitely not the Sears catalog.

About a month later, a slightly different version arrived, titled UnderGear. HELLO! This was a gay boy’s dream come true. It was nothing more than forty pages of scantily clad, perfectly tan, toned, smooth men, provocatively posing in everything from boxers to briefs to jockstraps to thongs. Everything was on display, and I mean everything—biceps bulging, pecs popping, bare bubble butts in abundance and packages protruding. You could tell exactly who was circumcised and easily decipher the “growers” from the “showers.”

Although Lois never placed an order from either of these catalogs, a new edition seemed to arrive month after month, year after year, taunting me, teasing me, and titillating me with boys in briefs. I felt embarrassed as I casually perused these pages of soft-core porn in front of my parents, while plotting a way to sneak the catalog upstairs to my bedroom for closer inspection. I was like one of Pavlov’s dogs, foaming at the mouth with excitement. No wonder the sight of a man in a jockstrap still intrigues me.

All my gay male friends shared similar experiences; from Massachusetts to Florida, New York to California, we all received our copies of International Male or UnderGear. One friend discovered the catalog in a pile of magazines at his grandparents’ condo, which instantly became his new favorite place to visit. Another friend described the UnderGear catalog as his first Playgirl. He too would sneak away and stash it under his bed.

The masterminds behind these two publications must possess some intense honing device that can sniff out fey little boys across the country, captivating and corrupting us with their cotton couture collections and hypnotizing us with their hip-hugging briefs, ensuring our imminent gayness. Maybe this is why our culture has become so obsessed and intoxicated with perfectly smooth, buff boys in high fashion briefs.

Still to this day, both catalogs arrive in my mailbox several times a year. In fact, a new edition of UnderGear just arrived last week, the cover graced by a sweaty, perfectly chiseled chap wearing nothing but white boxer briefs, seducing me to turn the pages. And after all these years, I’ve never once ordered a single mesh bikini, sheer thong or padded butt brief, yet somehow they still find me. (Okay, well maybe once I ordered a pair of Onionskins—these super skimpy running shorts—as a gag gift for an ex boyfriend. Now you know why he’s my ex.)

Today, the collections are even more provocative and revealing with the emphasis on maximizing and enhancing. There are more bulges and bare asses on display than I could even count—I became way too distracted by the stud on page two in the Heaven Maximizer Bikini. But I’m sure, much like me and my friends, this tradition continues. Hundreds, thousands—who knows, maybe even millions of young, innocent boys across the country—are coming home from school and discovering these catalogs in their mailboxes and one by one, they turn the pages, mesmerized by the maximized and are instantly converted to queer.

Don't Call Me Queen

Back in the late 1980s (dare I admit it?) when I attended high school, masculinity reigned. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I attended an all-boy’s school, but the “butcher” you were the better. We as a student body revered our athletes—one of whom went on to reach major heights in the NBA—and admired and respected any guy who was muscular and masculine. It was a true sign of manhood.

Tolerance was not something we were concerned with or taught. You either fit in or you didn’t. Heavy guys were fat, unpopular guys were nerds, and any guy that didn’t conform to the mold of masculinity was a faggot. There was no class offered on tolerance, differences were not generally applauded, and race was not much of an issue either, considering 90 percent of the student body was white.

Gay kids like me often felt isolated. There was no place to turn for guidance, no role models to emulate, and certainly no gay/straight alliance or LGBT organization—like those that exist in metropolitan high schools today—to offer solace. But I survived, developed a solid circle of friends and, by senior year, all was well—even if I did have to hide my true identity.

Do I wish I could have come out in high school and lived an open and honest life? No, I don’t, because I’m certain it would not have been accepted. My high school experience would have been drastically different, with even more obstacles to overcome and opposition to face.  But the fact that gay students today have an available network of resources such as gay/straight alliances and other school organizations that create an environment conducive to coming out is remarkable and represents enormous advances in society and our educational system. But I wonder, are we becoming too accepting, almost to a fault?

Take for example, 18-year-old openly gay senior, Sergio Garcia of Fairfax High School. Garcia wanted to be a part of his school’s prom court—not as prom king, but as prom queen. He ran against a handful of female students and, after his peers voted, was shockingly crowned prom queen. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, he was quoted as saying he “felt invincible.” Fellow students expressed what incredible progress this was—a gay student no longer ridiculed by his classmates, but revered and awarded the honor of prom queen. Gender bending is hip with the lines of masculinity and femininity becoming blurred. But is this really the progress we as a gay community want? Did this unconventional act move us forward or just drag us backwards?

Traditionally, the role of prom queen has been synonymous with the female gender and the role of prom king synonymous with the male gender. But because Garcia is gay, this places him in the feminine role? Are we expected to accept and align “gay” with “girl”? I’m sorry, but this is not progress. Had Garcia been crowned prom king that would have been progressive.

Having an openly gay man earn the title of prom king and stand proudly in front of his peers would indeed represent true growth and a huge stride forward for gay teenagers across the nation. It would boldly redefine what it truly means to represent the traditionally “masculine” or “butch” role and solidly confirm that one’s manhood or supposed lack thereof is not defined by his sexuality. But crowning this young man as the prom “queen” only conveys the wrong message, one that accepts and perpetuates an archaic stereotype of homosexuality and reinforces an inaccurate portrayal of gay men as feminine, girlie caricatures.

I’ll be honest—I never had a desire to be prom king, but if I did, I’m certain I would never have received that title, simply because I was gay. I’m incredibly proud and thankful that a young man like Sergio Garcia is growing up in a much more accepting society, and that today’s teenagers comprehend that being gay is not abnormal or offensive. But by crowning this young man queen we are not only doing him a terrible disservice, but the entire gay community as well. And I certainly don’t want this “queen” representing me or my lifestyle. For once, let’s not settle for the term “queen,” but rather continue to fight to be “kings.”

Man's Best Friend Indeed

Despite my mother’s inability to realize or accept that her only son was a homosexual, she had no problem declaring that our dog, Thumper, was gay. Now, I’m not absolutely certain he was — my gaydar isn’t very attuned to animals — but he was definitely a conflicted canine.

Thumper was the most adorable white and beige spotted puppy, with long, crimped ear hair and a miniature black mustache. We noticed him almost immediately. His shy demeanor seemed tortured by the conditions and confinements of the cage that housed him at the North Shore Animal League America. My mother, my sister and I each took one look at him and knew we had found the perfect pet to adopt, instantly smitten by what appeared to be a precious puppy cocker spaniel.

He was so small, he could barely even walk; instead he appeared to bounce around like a rabbit, hence the name Thumper. He was a charming, playful pup, but it wasn’t long before we discovered behind Thumper’s innocent appearance lurked a darker side. After a visit to the vet, it was determined that Thumper was actually a springer spaniel—a hunting dog—who required at least three miles of running a day. Well, we lived in a residential section of New York City—there were no back woods or fields for Thumper to run freely in. As a result, he would often have sudden outbursts of energy and would frantically run around our dining room table. He also despised cats, and would leap into a fit of rage at the sight or sound of any pussycat. (How ironic.) It was so bad we couldn’t even say the word; we had to spell it out as if he was a child and we didn’t want him to understand what we were saying.

Then he started chewing anything, everything and everyone. Our brand new coffee table now had a lovely new trim—teeth marks. Almost an entire wooden arm of a chair went missing altogether. Plastic CD covers were rendered unrecognizable. Magazines and books were chewed, with pages and entire chapters missing (maybe he just didn’t like what we read?). His favorite delicacy proved to be paper products, especially tissues. Used or unused, it didn’t matter; he’d scarf them up like an addict inhaling a drug.

He would sniff through the wastebaskets, hunting for tissues. If the box were left on a table, he’d literally lick the tissues out one at a time. If you left a tissue in your pants pocket and just so happened to toss those pants over a chair at night before heading to bed, you’d awake in the morning to discover a half eaten pocket and a missing tissue. Nothing was safe.

One time during Thumper’s midday walk, he did his business as usual, but something wasn’t quite right. As I began picking up after him, Thumper appeared in pain as he scurried around in circles dragging his bottom on the pavement, desperately trying to dislodge something that remained. Fearful, I quickly held Thumper down on the pavement, reassuring him all would be fine—and then used some paper towels to grab hold of the problematic poo. As I began pulling, a long, flesh-colored object appeared, growing longer and longer. Instantly I panicked, horrified that I may have been removing Thumper’s intestines when all of a sudden —snap! It was released, and there in the paper towel appeared a knee-high stocking. Apparently, Thumper also had an affinity for women’s accessories.

As the years passed, Thumper continued to become a handful—his demeanor consistently irritable. He didn’t interact well with the women in our family at all, often snapping at them or attacking their shoes if they came too close to his long, feathered tail. At one time or another, Thumper’s teeth went through every female family members’ shoes. (Maybe he was just an envious, bitter queen?)

My father and I were the only ones unscathed, proving to be Thumper’s trusted companions, but Thumper definitely had a deeper affection for my father. Maybe even a little too deep. Day in and day out, he would sit directly at my father’s feet, incessantly trying to lick Dad’s hands, legs or feet. When Dad stood up, Thumper would follow him wherever he went. If my father went outside, Thumper would sit by the door, literally crying and whining to follow. He never left my father’s side, and it drove my mother crazy.

When Dad came home from work and greeted my mother with a hug and a kiss, Thumper would jealously jump up on my father’s leg and start whining and barking for his attention. Well, my mother couldn’t stand this and would repeatedly yell, “Thumper, you gay dog, get down.” I know it sounds odd—a gay dog—but I think my mother might have been right.

After surviving a stroke and numerous other ailments, Thumper died at age 16. As far we know, he died a virgin—his sexual preference never truly realized or understood. But during his 16 years, he provided us with plenty of laughter and bizarre behavior, ample amounts of adventure and anguish, but through it all, we still loved him. He was family no matter what. And, in a sense, Thumper paved the path of acceptance within my family, while also providing plenty of companionship—well, at least to the men in his life.

Whatchoo Talkin' Bout Vincent?

While home for the holidays, I once again found myself nestled on my parents’ sofa, surrounded by an array of old shoeboxes packed with endless family photos. It’s a favorite pastime of mine — reliving and recalling the moments that define our lives: photos from past holidays, family vacations to Florida and California, summers at our beach house, my three older sisters’ weddings and my mother’s surprise 50th birthday party with Dennis, the half-naked male stripper. It’s an incredible journey through old memories, new discoveries, lots of laughs and a few tears. This year, though, I discovered something different while digging through those boxes—a letter I had written to Santa Claus.

The envelope was addressed: Santa Claus, The North Pole, New York, New York. No street address. No ZIP code. No wonder it wasn’t mailed. (Besides, when was the North Pole ever located on the island of Manhattan?) The haggard envelope had clearly seen better days and now included a recipe written on the back, but its contents were thankfully still in mint condition. In the upper right-hand corner, the letter had been dated 11/16/79. My rather impressively neat cursive handwriting revealed the thoughts of my then 8-year-old mind.

The letter began: “Dear Santa. I want to be on TV, but my family does not think I will make it on TV. My favorite TV star is Gary Coleman.” As I read it aloud to my mother, I couldn’t help but laugh, recalling my preoccupation with Gary and how I so desperately wanted to be him. It’s true—as a child I dreamt of growing up to become a pint-sized, black sitcom star.

I was obsessed with Gary from the minute he first walked through the doors of Mr. Drummond’s penthouse apartment back in 1978 on Diff’rent Strokes. He was adorable, made everyone laugh, was the center of attention, caused plenty of mischief and mayhem and always had a smile plastered across those cherubic cheeks of his that just begged to be squeezed. Yes, I was enamored by Gary—not in sexual way, but more as a role model.

I begged and pleaded with my parents for months, asking to write to Gary in hopes that he would help get me cast as one of his friends on the show—but we didn’t have an address. Then one afternoon, while eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich at our kitchen table, the phone rang. My mother answered. It was obvious it was my father calling, but I quickly deciphered from her tone that this was a conversation I should pay attention to. As she grabbed a pen and paper, she looked my way with a gleam in her eye and then repeated very slowly and pointedly. “3000 Alameda Avenue in Burbank. That’s in California, right?” I jumped out of my seat in a jiffy with joy; my father had finally tracked down Gary Coleman’s address.

That evening I composed my very first fan letter and mailed it the next day. My mother gently, yet firmly, informed me that Gary probably received thousands of fan letters and maybe I shouldn’t expect a response. As the days, weeks and months passed, I grew more and more impatient and less and less expectant. Then, one day, about three months later, a small manila envelope arrived for me in the mail, the return address read NBC Studios. My heart pounded in my chest as I tore open that envelope and pulled out a black and white 5-by-7 postcard. I almost died with delight.

The front of the card contained that signature image of Gary, hands folded, devilish grin on his face, and the words, “Sincerely Yours, Gary Coleman.” On the backside it read, “Thank you for your letter. Please keep watching our show.” I swore it was personally hand-written by Gary himself as I studied the ink for hours trying to determine whether it was real or printed.

I couldn’t believe it—Gary Coleman read my letter and was kind enough to send me a response. Well, this marked the beginning of a very long mail correspondence and the receipt of several more postcards, some with different images, but all with the same message. I soon realized Gary probably never read my letters, but it didn’t matter—those postcards were prized possessions. I framed two and hung them on my bedroom wall to complement the full-length poster of Gary that already hung above my bed.

Today, we’re all far too familiar with Gary’s sad fall from stardom. Unfortunately, the only time he attracts attention now is when he’s fighting with his fellow residents of Provo, Utah, or marrying a much younger and much taller 22-year-old woman. But Gary will always hold a special place in my heart and in my life, and every time I pop in a DVD of Diff’rent Strokes (yes, it’s another favorite pastime of mine), it’s always a magical journey back to my childhood—a time when a young, impressionable boy first became enthralled with the concept of entertaining others and believing that anything was possible. If Gary Coleman could become a star, so could I.
Well, I’m much older now, my dreams have changed slightly, and Gary’s no longer my idol, but there’s one thing I’ll never forget: “The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum.” And thanks to Gary Coleman and Diff’rent Strokes, I found my own beat.

A League Of My Own

In the suburbs of New York City, boys are raised with an edge, taught to be tough, to never shy away from a fight, to always act like a man. I, on the other hand, was nothing like that at all. While the other boys idolized athletes and action figures, I idolized pint-sized sitcom star Gary Coleman. While they played roller hockey, I reenacted scenes from Xanadu. And while they hung out perfecting their sporting abilities, I spent time with my mother practicing my crocheting skills. I didn’t partake in the same activities as the other boys in the neighborhood, but there was one exception I was forced to conform to—Little League.

By the time I was 6 years old, my father must have realized he needed to toughen me up. Since every other little boy in the neighborhood played Little League, he assumed I should too. One Saturday afternoon, while holding my father’s hand as we prepared to cross the street, I recognized the Little League office facade; instantly comprehending my fate, panic immediately set in. We had driven past the storefront numerous times, my parents always pointing it out to me and saying, “There’s the Little League office, maybe we should stop in there someday and sign you up. That would be fun, huh?”

“Um, no that wouldn’t be fun,” I thought.

But the McLaughlin brothers who lived across the street from us—and who were within two years of my age—both played Little League. So did the Fisher boys down the block, as well as the Gambino twins from around the corner. Everyone was doing it, so it was just natural that I should as well. They were boys; I was a boy—perfect!

But it felt far from perfect as I stood across the street from the office. As my eyes fixated on the door, I watched another father exit with his son, paperwork in hand, overjoyed that his little guy was finally going to play ball. I desperately tried to pull away from my father pleading, “No, I don’t want to, please don’t make me.” But Big Vince ignored my pleas as he held a vice-like grip on my dainty little hand and literally dragged me across the street straight into the Little League office. Within minutes, I was officially registered as one of the Giants, though I felt decidedly small.

I had no clue how to play, was deathly afraid of the ball and had zero skills! I couldn’t catch, hit, throw or run. The bat was too big, the glove was too loose and the cup was way too small. (Just kidding.) But seriously, there I was suddenly thrown out on the field with balls being thrown and hit at me, while my own were tucked behind a little plastic cup stuffed inside my Fruit of the Looms. I was completely frightened and petrified.

The coach would constantly yell at me to “get under the ball and catch it.” Well, back then I was too afraid, I never got under any balls. (Today—well, that’s a whole different story.) I usually played centerfield and always prayed for no fly balls, but inevitably some superstar slugger would swing for the fence and my prayers would go unanswered. The crack of the bat would jar me from thoughts of starring in one of my favorite TV shows or from admiring the second baseman’s curly blond hair. I’d look up to see a hard, round lump careening towards me while another one lodged in my throat.

As I stood there frozen, deer in headlights, hoping the ball would either curve to left field or fly over the fence, my teammates would start yelling at me to catch the ball. So I’d act as if I were tracking the ball’s trajectory, take a few steps forward, pretending I had every intention of getting under the ball, and then I’d gradually sneak back a half step or two, fearful of actually coming close enough to catch it. Then, I’d stick out my glove, hope for the best and close my eyes. As I heard the thud of the ball hit the grass, I’d think to myself; “Yes, I missed it!”

All the other boys were so into the game—running, catching, diving for the ball. Me, I tried to stay as far away from it as possible. When my time at bat came, I stood so far away from the plate I might as well have stayed in centerfield. But after a year of continued badgering from my coach, my teammates, my father and practically everyone else I knew, I finally moved in closer, nice and close, so I could hit the ball. The only problem, the ball hit me instead, right smack on the elbow. It hurt like hell and although I tried my best not cry, I couldn’t help it. (Tom Hanks would have been terribly disappointed in me.) Miraculously, I managed to escape with no broken bones and finally made it to first base only to discover that first base wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So bucking tradition and finally refusing to conform, I quit, thus saving myself and my father further humiliation.

By age 8, I was already a Little League dropout and I couldn’t have been happier. Now my afternoons were free to focus on my favorite activity—watching soap operas with my sisters.

Me And My Manly Tools

A bright, neon-orange envelope arrived in the mail recently with the following question printed on the outside: “Will you do us a favor and test tools?” Perverse thoughts immediately entered my mind as a surge of excitement pulsed through my veins contemplating the word “tools.” Then I noticed the return address—unfortunately it read, “The Handyman Club of America.” Disappointed and flummoxed, I thought this must be a mistake. The only tools I’m interested in certainly wouldn’t arrive from the Handyman Club of America.

There must have been some confusion between my father and me. Even though he lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles, we share the same name and, after all, he earned his living working with tools. My father spent 45 years in the construction industry and recently retired as senior vice president from a major construction conglomerate. Clearly this must have been meant for him, because I certainly didn’t inherit any of those genes. Unlike my father, I’ve never had the desire to get my hands dirty, engage in any form of manual labor or build anything more than a substantial wardrobe. And whenever I’m faced with the tedious task of replacing a light bulb, I still have to remind myself, “Lefty loosey, righty tighty.” Truth be told, I don’t even know how to read a ruler. Honestly.

When I was 16 years old, my mother wanted to install a tin ceiling in our kitchen but didn’t want to pay the price. So my father had the brilliant idea of creating the appearance of tin by covering the ceiling with three-dimensional wallpaper. Since I was the only boy in the family, it was my duty to help dad hang the wallpaper and measure out the pieces. As he stood on a ladder at one end of the kitchen, I stood on the faux wood formica countertop at the other end and read the measurement.

“Sixty three-and-a-half inches and three little lines,” I confidently declared.
Chuckling with amusement my father responded: “Alright, don’t joke around, just read me the measurement.”

“Sixty three-and-a-half inches and three little lines,” I repeated once again, slightly hesitant.
“Come on, stop busting my chops and just read me the measurement,” he responded, his patience rapidly wearing thin.

This went on several more times before my hot-headed Italian father completely lost his temper and roared; “Stop acting like an asshole and read me the goddamn measurement!”
In an angered attempt at precision, I snapped back; “Sixty three-and-a-half inches, two little lines and one medium-sized line.”

The fact was I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to read a tape measure or a ruler. Sure, I know how to measure an inch or 7 or 8 or 9, if I’m really lucky, but who knows what all those little lines are in between. A third? An eighth? A quarter? I have no clue, and no one ever taught me, either.

But let’s be honest, sixty-three-and-a-half inches and three little lines weren’t that hard to comprehend. I found it to be a perfectly accurate measurement. My frustrated father, however, felt otherwise and immediately dismissed me from my duties. (Thank God!) But as the years passed, I never did learn the rudimentary task of reading a ruler and now, 20 years later, the Handyman Club of America expected me, of all people, to test their tools?

In fact, the only tools I own are a hammer and a set of screwdrivers, which sit in my forest green, metal Restoration Hardware toolbox, along with masking tape, Elmer’s glue, a ruler—go figure—some leftover holiday ribbon and a Magic Eraser (the greatest tool ever invented!). But that might change as the overly bright orange envelope promised more tools in my future and included several free gifts.

First, there were the free utility box labels, which were a complete waste since I don’t even possess a utility box in my miniature apartment. (Unless that’s what that metal box in the wall of the closet was that I covered with a picture frame when I moved in?) Then there were the free address labels, which would definitely come in handy (pun intended). And finally, there was a thin rectangular piece of plastic riddled with little holes, which apparently was my free drill bit guide. A drill bit guide? I don’t even own a drill or know what a bit is. I mean, sure I’m often been described as a “bit” much, and I use a “bit” of pomade to style and mold my hair. The hot straight guy at the gym who I have a major crush on—and who always holds my gaze a little too long—might be a “bit” gay (I can only hope), but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a “bit” before.

The accompanying literature went on to promise even more exciting tools in my future including a circular saw, a tape measure (great) and a three-piece damaged screw extractor set. Well trust me, the last thing I needed was a damaged screw.

The introductory letter stated that I’d been nominated to become an “official member of the club” because it’s no secret among my friends and family that I’m an outstanding handyman. Oh really? Who have they been talking to?

As a club member, each month I would receive a copy of Handy magazine along with a new tool to try around my home, report my thoughts on and then keep the tool for my own use, completely free of charge. It only cost a dollar a month to join the club and, well, I figured sooner or later I’d want to drill, hammer or screw something or someone, so I signed up. Let’s just hope one of those free gifts includes a tool belt to showcase all my manly tools.

Baseball & Twinkies: The All-American Male

Every June, I travel home to New York for my annual family reunion. It’s an event I eagerly anticipate and wouldn’t dream of missing, even if it includes numerous sporting activities, all of which I completely suck at, except for one.

The reunion is for my mother’s side of the family — the Millers — and although my mother only had four siblings, the Millers definitely don’t lack an ability to procreate. This year, we reached a total of 75 in attendance and of this extended family, I’m the token gay.

I came out to my relatives in my early 30s, here and there over the course of a few years, and just in case I missed anyone, I even declared my sexual preference on national TV. To my relief and delight, the entire family—and I mean everyone—collectively accepted me with open arms and rather than ostracizing me or treating me like an outcast, the opposite occurred. Once my sexual preference was established, they respected and admired me for having the courage to live my life truthfully and, more importantly, to share it with them. I’m one of them; no different, no better, no worse—and their love, much like their sense of humor, is abundant and endless.
Due to the sheer volume of participants, the reunion is held in a public park on Long Island. We arrive early on the designated Saturday morning, gather around 10 picnic tables, form a large circle and claim our territory for the day. Each family brings their own food and beverages, as well as a game or contest for all to participate in.

As we arrive, hugs and kisses are dispensed at a rapid rate. We mix and mingle in cliques either within the circle or just outside its perimeter. The kids run amuck playing games, while the adults catch up and dish the dirt on who’s lost or gained weight; who we suspect will marry or divorce next; whose spouse we like or dislike and whose kids are most likely to be arrested, gay or to have lost their virginity since last year’s reunion. You know—standard family fare. Then once lunch is finished, the activities begin.

The softball game is one of the most competitive events of the day, second only to the egg toss. (My uncles, Cliff and Rich, both in their early-70s, still try to achieve success each year by playing with a wooden egg. They’ve yet to succeed!) The softball teams are organized by birth date, odds versus evens, so we’re pretty much guaranteed the same team year after year. The batting order is arranged according to height, and since I’m a whopping 5-foot-5 and three quarters (that’s without shoes), I end up right behind all the kids ranging from ages 2-12. They, of course, all manage to hit the ball or swing until they do. Then I step up to the plate, swing three times, miss three times and I’m out. As if that’s not embarrassing enough, there’s always Uncle Cliff to deal with, who lovingly refers to me as Hollywood and is always the designated pitcher for the opposing team.

“For Christ’s sake, Hollywood, if you kept your eyes open, you might hit the ball. You’re worse than the little kids. What the hell’s the matter with you?”

Uncle Cliff’s comments are never meant to be malicious, but rather to amuse and always arouse a round of laughter. He could easily pass for Johnny Carson, and his comedic style consists mainly of one-liners, double entendres and the occasional “pull my finger” joke. When he and my other uncles, Rich and Don, get together, it’s like spending time with Moe, Larry and Curly, but with a lot less hair.

While almost every male over the age of 21 belts the ball out of the park, I’m lucky enough if I manage to graze it and claim a single. When that happens, one of the uncles can usually be heard muttering; “Jesus Christ, Hollywood, it’s about goddamn time.” But I don’t allow their humor or my lack of skills to upset me, because for the past seven years I’ve been victorious at another game: the Twinkie eating contest.

The concept is pretty simple; the first person to consume the entire Twinkie wins. You don’t even have to eat it; just get it off the table and in your mouth without using your hands. We break it down into age groups for the kids, but when it comes to the adults, we all just dive in, literally.

The first year, the participants consisted of me and seven female cousins. We all sat around one picnic table, four on each side, Twinkies lined up in front of each of us. The women began tying their hair back, licking their lips and stretching their jaws in preparation, while nervously looking my way as I sat there calmly with my hands tucked under my legs. I was all set.
My sister Pamela gave the official countdown, and then in one full swoop, I went down on that Twinkie. Taking the entire thing in my mouth within seconds, I leapt to my feet victoriously. I’ve never seen such a look of shock, horror and sheer amazement on the faces of so many of my relatives before.

The women, with their mouths full of half-eaten Twinkie, faces covered in cream, were appalled at how quickly I consumed an entire Twinkie and with such precision. The men were horrified at first, and then in utter awe as my cousin Mario asked me to teach his wife a trick or two.
That was eight years ago, and although several of my cousins, both female and male, are determined to take me down and steal the title away from me, I was once again victorious this year. Eight years straight, the undefeated Twinkie champ. As I began my victory lap around our circle, Uncle Cliff pulled me aside and said, “Congratulations, Hollywood. Now if only you could learn to play with balls.”