The Tao of Cho

Comedienne. Actor. Musician. Advocate. Entrepreneur. Five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee. When hasn’t Margaret Cho’s strong voice been part of our consciousness? It feels like she has always been here, like a friend you can always count on, lighting the path for other queer people, women, other members of underrepresented groups, and other performers, to follow.

Margaret staunchly supports the causes that are important to her: anti-racism, anti-bullying, and gay rights, all while fulfilling her successful creative side with a legendary stand up career that has yielded 10-plus comedy tours. In March, her new one-woman show, Live and Livid, comes to the Hampton Coliseum. We caught up with her via to dish on the bat-shit crazy political environment and her career in show business.

Outwire757: Are you on the road? 

Cho: I am. I’m here in Chicago waiting for takeout before heading over to my show.

Outwire757:Let’s start out with that. You’re coming here to Hampton in March with your new Live and Livid Tour, and I’m sure it will be full of Cho-isms except updated to reflect all that’s going on in the world. 

Cho: For sure. I think it’s just like the good time to get out on the road again. I’ve never experienced such a homophobic, racist, sexist time. It’s like you fight these battles your whole life, and it’s meant to get better. 

Outwire757:Now that you’re on the road again how have you audiences changed since COVID? 

Cho: I’ve toured during COVID in clubs, just working things out. And I think people are excited to be out and seeing live shows. That’s impressive, and I’m excited to perform. I think performers who haven’t been able to tour are also refreshed and excited to be out there. So there is a kind of meeting of enthusiasms. I think what COVID did, too, was align everybody to new information sources. Social media was much more current with what’s happening. Whether that’s Britney Grinder’s freedom to this ridiculous Republican senator crying over gay marriage.

Outwire757:Oh lord, that guy….

Cho: So weird. Why are you crying about straight people? Are you that threatened by gay marriage that you have to cry about it? Obviously, it’s, the weirdest need to control others. I think Republicans have a weird control kink. They need to control the gay people, and that’s even more morally questionable than drag. 

Outwire757: And then there’s that wacko in North Carolina who tried to cancel the drag show by shooting out a power substation.

Cho: And the power station also brings electricity to hospitals, to any kind of emergency facility, to your own home. 

Outwire757:It doesn’t make any sense, this crazy environment, and I’m not quite sure if social media is more to our advantage or detriment at times. It’s just sometimes difficult to tune it out. 

Cho: It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not. But I like having the information. I tend to think my sources are more correct and more impartial. But at the same time I’m also an avid watcher of the right-wing sources, conservative web sites, and I like look to those communities to see what’s going on so I can safeguard myself and see what they’re planning and what they’re saying. And it’s very shocking.

Outwire757: Know thine enemy. 

Cho: You’re right. My kink is watching them. How did they even get to that conclusion, that drag is somehow harmful? What they should be looking at is that now science is telling us that global warming is harmful for fetuses. So if you really care about unborn lives, take care of global warming. That’s going to work much better than fighting abortion.

Outwire757: It’s also true that churches are where we need to be looking for children who are being molested, and they are not legally responsible for reporting those incidents like schools and other organizations are. It’s not the drag queens. There’s never been one recorded incident of that ever.

Cho: Not a one. Again, deflecting. And then we’re in charge of defending ourselves even though we’ve never been accused. It puts us into defense mode as opposed to addressing their faulty logic and saying this is actually wrong, and you  don’t believe it either. I don’t know where they get it. 

And what about the Herschel Walker vampire versus werewolves discussion. That really kind of sent me. What about zombies versus ghosts? That’s actually a bigger battle. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to their absurd logic. 

Outwire757: I could not believe that election was even as close as it was. It was  a squeaker. And if it wasn’t for Atlanta, basically the cultural center of our country, Walker would probably be taking office

Cho: That’s depressing that it was so close. It should not have been like that. It’s really abomination. I mean, they give us so many abominations, including the abomination of ignorance. That’s really the problem.

Outwire757: It feels to me like every day we’re watching a cliffhanger unfold and what just happened with Congress passing the Respect for Marriage Act felt like being pulled back from the abyss right before we go over. But it’s not just the queer community in danger. I know you are a vocal advocate for all human rights. Where’s the intersection of all that for you?

Cho: Yes, it’s all connected, and I think it really boils down to what does it mean to be America? What does it mean to have equal rights? What does it mean to have a separation of church and state? We’re going into this very dangerous theocratic idealization for Christian evangelicals where they’re trying to justify Nazism, Yhey’re trying to justify these kinds of horrifying scenarios, and you can’t follow their logic because  they’re moving towards an authoritarian state. I think that the problem with Democrats is that we wish that we could not dignify it with a response. But the fact is that we have to.

Outwire757: I think that’s where the progressive movement falls a little bit short, because we’re so goddamn polite all the time. It’s time for that to end. We need to push a little bit harder and step up like you do through your comedy. Who are some of the bright queer comedians that we need to keep an eye out for? 

Cho: Robin Tran is really important. She’s a Vietnamese American trans woman who is just so impressive to me. I’ve worked with her many times. There’s so much talk about trans people in comedy and trans bodies in comedy and politics, but very little heard from trans activists and performers that need to be on the main stage. We need to focus our attention not on cis voices, but on trans voices. Alok Vaid-Menon is an amazing nonbinary trans performer comedian. They’re just amazing. Patti Harrison also. She’s a trans women, very surreal, and so unique as a musician and a performer. Trans voices are bending my approach to comedy towards politics and political humor. They’re the voices that I’m really paying attention to now.

Outwire757: One of the things you have talked so much about is your negative experience on the set of “All American Girl.” In the years since then, you’ve stayed in the entertainment industry. How has the industry changed since then?

Cho: It’s changed a lot. It’s changed for the better, in a great way. I think that there’s so much more inclusion and visibility, and we’re seeing so many more Asian-American stories, queer stories, queer Asian-American stories. There still needs to be more, but I’m excited for the future of media for entertainment in storytelling. I love that there is a whole generation in between myself first doing television to now. They are really making great strides, whether that’s Joel Kim Booster or Bowen Yang or Billy Eichner, who I really love. I think there are a lot of great things happening.

Outwire757: I love those young voices that are coming up too. It feels a lot like the 70s when we had Robin Williams and Richard Pryor and those sort of people that changed the comedy game. I know you knew Robin Williams. It seems like I saw somewhere that he was like a father figure to you. 

Cho: He was a huge part of San Francisco comedy, and he was the one successful person we would see all the time. He was a father figure for all of us coming up through comedy in San Francisco which is a very tight community. I would always have to perform after him which was the worst if you’re a young comedian, Can you imagine following Robin Williams? I think that experience made me a lot more aggressive on stage. 

The first autograph I ever got was from him when I was really young. My father owned a bookstore in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, and Robin would come in. I still have it. It’s a copy of “The World According to Garp” with his picture on the cover. His story turned very tragic. But at the same time the immeasurable gifts that he gave to comedy and culture is really special. 

Outwire757: What kind of influence growing up in San Francisco’s gay culture have on you as a child and also your family? Because obviously, your parents really didn’t give a shit about their gay bookstore and clientele. When you came out to them, it seemed like they were accepting. But correct me if I’m wrong that when you came out as bisexual, they had a little bit of a struggle with that? 

Cho: They don’t understand bisexuality because it doesn’t exist to them. They only understand gayness like the lesbians with tweed jackets and suede elbow patches. They only understand academic lesbians and gay painters. They don’t really get that those archetypes of queerness are so stuck in gender and the 70s. They also look at the community through a separatist lens because they lived in that time before AIDS when the men were in one camp, and the women in another. Yes, there was drag but drag was its own thing outside of that. That was a different era of queerness, where everybody was serially separated. (Cho has since begun to identify as asexual.)

Outwire757: I always love it when you pop up in  these great cameos or ensemble roles in television or movies. We run to the movie theater or streaming to see what you’re up to. My favorite role of yours by far is as Charlene Lee in Randall Kaisers’ “It’s My Party” in 1996.

Cho: Oh, that’s a beautiful movie. Oh my god, it changed my life! It was my it was my first real encounter with an AIDS specific movie. 

Outwire757: How did you get involved in that? 

Cho: I actually auditioned. In fact, I went through a long process auditioning with Eric Roberts and getting into these people’s lives. I got to meet Roddy McDowell. It was his last film which is incredible. Olivia Newton John and I became very good friends. 

Outwire757: OK, I see your take-out was delivered. One last question: where is Charlene today?

Cho: Charlene, I think, is pretty butch now. That hair is gone. That movie really messed up my hair. That’s all my real hair. Every day it was so big. They teased it every day. I think there’s like a bump it in it at some point. It really ruined my hair. 

Thankful

Thanksgiving 2019

Thanksgiving mornings when I was a kid, I always woke to the smell of my mother’s delectable breakfast casserole. She prepared it the night before because she knew none of us boys or my dad were going to cook breakfast, and she had other things to do. She was an incredible chef, and Thanksgiving Day in our house was her day to shine.

We’d gorge ourselves on the casserole, and by one o’clock, we were hungry again. No fear: mom whipped out a pint of raw oysters—always oysters—with cocktail sauce and Saltines and a baked brie topped with raspberry jam and slivered almonds. Hunger crisis averted.

Around three, people would start showing up. In the early days, it was usually ECU students stranded in town for the holiday. Later, after mom got sober, they added friends from her AA group who also had nowhere to go, and Thanksgiving became this wonderful conglomeration of disparate people. The conversation and drinking—for those who still drank—would go on late into the night.

All year round, my parent’s house was like a stop on the underground railroad for folks in need of comfort and fellowship. Anyone was welcome, and  I learned hospitality and inclusiveness from them. I learned a home isn’t a truly warm unless you use that space to gather those you love and who love you back. Because life is empty without meaningful, loving relationships.

These were my thoughts when I woke up this morning. I swear I could smell her casserole baking in the oven (which, BTW, Andrew does a really good job at replicating). I lay in bed and thought about them, and my heart grew so full that I know there were there with me. 

I cried for minute, not out of grief, but out of gratitude that I had the most incredible set of parents. We weren’t the perfect family, but we always strived to be better. And entertaining was one of the ways that they achieved that. In fact, I still run into people today who tell me that they went to “one crazy party” at my house. 

Today, be thankful not only for what you have, but what you had.

The Benjamin-Conrad Family Beach Photo Shoot

I’ve known Johnny Benjamin and Tony Conrad for years, and this is actually the second time I’ve photographed their family. But this one was definitely more fun and exciting. The day began with overcast skies, the threat of rain, and a howling Nor’easter. But we were determined, and we convened at a Chesapeake Bay beach in Norfolk. Just as we began the shoot, the sun popped in and out of the wind-driven clouds, making for some spectacular shots.

Miracle At The Post Office

My absolutely least favorite chore is a trip to the post office. I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than be subjected to the long lines, milquetoast service, and the crumbling, embarrassing building that used to represent one of America’s greatest achievements.

Situated between a bowling alley and an auto body shop, the low flat-roofed brick building has turned nearly black from lack of cleaning over the years. On the front are tall windows held in place by steel frames that look like bars on a prison cell. The parking lot is a pock-marked minefield.

No matter what time of the day, there are always about ten people in line and only one clerk on duty– who is the slowest postal clerk in the history of postal clerks. The countertops, windows, and shelves are piled high with envelopes, packages, and boxes waiting to be processed.

It’s dusty and dirty, and the big screen TV on the wall that should be providing valuable information to customers instead displays a message that seems appropriate: no connection. The space looks for all the world like a scene out of a dystopian film. Think of Sam Lowry’s office space in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  

As I stood in that perpetual line the other day, I my Aries impatience began to bubble, and I took a deep calming breath. There’s nothing you can do about it, I told myself, there’s nothing you can do about it.

In front of me was a young Navy guy with a huge package that needed to be weighed, labeled, poked, and prodded by the young female clerk with long gorgeous silver dreads, three-inch long fingernails painted the same color silver, and the perfect confident, nonchalant approach to her work that said, “Look I know you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated, too. So, Ima try to get you out of here as quickly as I can. But don’t test me because I ain’t playing.”

She was new here, and true to form she was the only one on duty.

Behind me were five people, all with the same blank expression that telegraphed the fact that they, too, hate the post office.

Suddenly the door to the lobby swung open, and in scurried a young boy about three in dinosaur pajamas. He was blond and blue, and he bore a huge toothy grin as he giggled his way into the service lobby. 

Behind him was his mother: tall, attractive, with graying hair and sweet look in her eyes. In her left hand, she held what look like a green nylon dog’s leash, and as I followed the course of that leash, I realized her boy was strapped into a harness at the end of it.

I have no problems with parents that feel the need to have this product available to them. But as I kept watching the boy squirm and attempt to flee—all the time laughing his head off—I understood. He was invigorated by being around people, and he was in continuous motion as he reached out to touch everyone around him, only to be gently reined in.

At one point he released a delightful laugh that actually made me chuckle. His mother saw me watching, and I said, “You deserve mother of the year. He’s a handful.”

“Yeah, he wants to hug everyone,” she replied. “Plus he’s on the spectrum, so that makes it even more interesting.“

The boy was staring directly at me during the exchange, that big grin on still on his face, then suddenly spread his arms wide over his head and made a move towards me. His mother pulled him back with a gentle “No.” 

“Oh that’s OK. I like hugs.”

“OK,” she said with a shrug which meant be careful what you pray for.

She unfurled the leash, and he barreled toward me, almost knocking me off my feet as he grabbed my left leg, wrapped his arms around it, and squeezed tight. He rocked back and forth, delighted yelps emanating from him. I rubbed his back and said, “Thank you buddy, that makes my day.”

His mother and I smiled at each other as she gently pulled him back to her side. I glanced at the other patrons, and some were smiling, too. Like the Grinch, I felt my heart grow three sizes bigger. 

It was then my turn with the clerk. I purchased my stamps and thanked her. 

“Have a blessed day,” she said. Why yes. Yes I think I WILL have a blessed day. 

I stopped in the lobby to stamp my envelopes, a chore which no longer seemed like a burden. A few minutes later, the boy and his mother walked out and towards and the exit. 

As they passed me, I said, “He’s a beautiful boy.” She paused at the half-opened exit door and turned towards me. 

“He is so lovable and loving, but it’s a lot of energy and work. He’s nonverbal, and when his mother found that out when he was three months old, she abandoned him.”

“That’s horrible,” I replied in disbelief. 

“I took him in, knowing all that,” she said. “I had already raised three kids, but I couldn’t let him go into the system.”

“Kids like him don’t survive the system,” I replied, “Bless you for saving him.” 

“Thank you,” she said with a tight, slightly sad smile. “I needed to hear that today.”

“And I needed that hug today,” I replied. 

Then she was gone, dragged out the door by a three-year old boy on a green leash who was on his way to make someone else’s day.

September

Jackson Square was deserted on this oppressive Labor Day Monday night inhabited only by the fortune tellers and tarot card readers who floated like spirits between candlelit tables. 

I was there because I had chased a guy to New Orleans for Southern Decadence. He and I had struck up an online relationship that I guess we both hoped would grow stronger when we met in person. Alas, the spark wasn’t there, so he spent the weekend at a blackjack table in Harrah’s while I discovered the pleasures of the Big Easy’s annual gayfest 

As the latest number in Eric’s Big Gay Failed Relationship Tour, he had flown back to Texas earlier that day without a goodbye. All the other revelers had headed home as well, and tonight I had the city all to myself.

I climbed the steps of Saint Louis Cathedral and sat on the cool marble porch in the darkness. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. 

I thought about the sequence of events over the past year that had led me to this moment, beginning with my tenure as marketing manager at an internet startup in Norfolk. The company, Great Bridge, was one of Landmark Communications “new ventures.” I had already worked in two previous new ventures that had failed miserably after only a few months, and I should have known better this third go round because now it was certain that Great Bridge was going to meet the same fate.

I had been in San Francisco in the days prior to my New Orleans junket to help convince Sun Microsystems to buy out the company. All I remember about those few days was standing in the middle of the bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Fran, some douchebag marketing person from Sun in my face talking about “the big idea.” I was so sick of that jargon and those inane conversations, and I tuned him out, walked over to the bar’s magnificent floor to ceiling windows, and watched an amazing sun burn out as it sank into the Pacific.

My career had wobbled wildly since moving to Norfolk in 1997. Now it looked as if I was about to be unemployed for the first time since I started working at 14. 

On top of that, my best friend since high school, was battling ovarian cancer in Atlanta, and she was losing. Two months earlier, I traveled to see her for what would be the last time. She was emaciated, and her eyes were sad. Her husband took her daughter—my goddaughter—out for a few hours so she and I could spend some time alone.

We sat on a swing in the backyard, and I held her hand. We had been through so much together since we were teenagers: growing up in dysfunctional families, the pain and joy of high school, a failed marriage, a new marriage, and finally, giving birth to and raising a wonderful little girl. Now, at 40, she was dying. 

We sat in comfortable silence for a while. She was the only person in my life with whom silences didn’t feel awkward. Finally, I asked, “What do you want me to do?”

Laurie looked right into my eyes and said, “Make sure my family is ok.” I know then this was the last time I would ever see her. 

As I sat on the steps of the cathedral with the storm grew closer. I recalled that promise to my dying friend, and I shed a few tears. Just as I was contemplating heading back to the hotel, the low soulful baritone of a man singing an old hymn flowed out from the darkness beneath the porch archways behind me.

“Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

I listened for a moment, entranced. Then as if God himself was coming down a deafening clap of thunder rattled the Square. I hurriedly headed back to the hotel, the message loud and clear: big changes were coming. 

Back in Norfolk the next day, at a companywide meeting, the president made it official: Great Bridge was closing on Friday, September 4. All employees would receive a severance based on their salary level, and I was happy with mine. What made me happier, though, was to be out of the internet business. It had been a terribly nasty and stressful journey full of greedy, boastful people for whom I didn’t really care.

That last day was a gorgeous late summer offering: sunny and cool with cloudless bright blue skies. I collected my check before lunch, literally skipped to the parking lot, and drove home to my condo by the Bay. Tom Petty’s Free Falling came on the radio, and I sang it louder and more joyfully than Jerry McGuire. My plan was to do nothing but sleep, sit on the beach, and deal with the PTSD that had characterized the past two years. 

I was going to let the next “big idea” find me.

The following Tuesday morning, my cell rang at 9:30. It was my brother. He never called this early, and I knew something was up. 

“Turn on the TV!” he yelled. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

The rest of that day was a slow-motion nightmare. Like everyone, I watched the horror in Manhattan unfold. At one point, I contemplated packing a bag and evacuating. The fact that I lived right next door to the world’s largest Navy base did not escape me. I somehow got a grip and opted for a calming walk on the beach.

The day was another stellar one, except there was no one in sight. I mean, no one. The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and the port had been closed, and the normally busy traffic coming in and out of the harbor had ceased. All air traffic had been grounded. The only sound was the gentle breeze, broken by the road of three F-16s leaving Langley, headed for DC. 

I could have been the last person on earth.

The next few days were a blur. I watched from the beach as the USS Enterprise departed for the Middle East, draped in American flag bunting mimicked by the throngs of flag-waving people watching from shore. I talked to Laurie later that week, and I could tell she was failing. I stayed up almost all night every night and slept late into the next day. I drank way too much.

I also passed many of those days writing things like this in my journal:

9/16/2001, Norfolk

“I know I will survive all that’s happened lately. I know it will ultimately make me a better person. But tonight, grief has me in its grip and is shaking me to the core. Death is all around, and that long black cloud is coming down.” The world had changed, and I was beginning to understand that I had changed with it.

Four days later, I got the call I had been dreading. It was Matt. “Eric, she’s gone,” he said.

“I knew that’s why you were calling,” I said, my breath catching in my throat. “Was she at peace?”

“She was, and she had no pain,” he said. “And you’ll appreciate this: her last words were, ‘I can’t fight this anymore, and I want to go home’.”

I smiled at the thought. She and I had always shared a similar spirituality, and we both knew that we have been on this planet many times before and would be here again. I also knew that she’d be waiting for me when I went it was my turn to head home.

I told Matt that I would rent a car in the morning and drive down. I damn sure wasn’t going to fly. 

“Would you like to speak at the service?”

It’s Joan, Laurie’s mom, asking me six hours before the service. She is a small, diminutive woman, from all outward appearances meek and unassuming. And yet, she is the one who stood by her daughter’s side for over a year. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her to watch her oldest child die.

I have always had mad respect for Joan. Back in the Seventies she took both her daughters out of an abusive marriage and started all over again. That was no easy feat in those days, especially for a woman who had no formal education or work experience. 

She had practically raised me as a teenager. I spent more time at her small duplex than I did at my own house, and that tiny dwelling became my refuge. Laurie and I gathered there with our friends on Friday nights to watch “Dallas” or play cards. We skipped school and sat on her bed, smoking Merits and listening to Foreigner or Styx records. 

Joan knew but didn’t really care. She had seen worse.

When I was with Joan, I was always reminded that many families aren’t comprised out of your immediate one. Over the years, I had taken to calling her mom. She was a sight better than my own mother, who at that time was battling alcoholism.

I thought about speaking at the service. I knew that it would be tough for Matt to get up and speak. And I knew Joan was asking me because she was aware of that. 

I had stood up at every pivotal event in Laurie’s life. I was in her first wedding in 1983, although I knew then that she was making a mistake. Five years later, I drove home from Greensboro in the middle of the night after she called me in hysterics to tell me that she had uncovered her husband’s infidelity. I found her curled in the bathroom floor, crying unmercifully. 

I was at her pinning ceremony when she became a nurse. When she married Matt, I was there, lighting candles and toasting. I was in the hospital waiting room in Raleigh the night my goddaughter Sarah was born, and I was on the altar at her Christening, proudly accepting the role as her godfather. I remember her joking with me that if she went before I did, I would have to grow up and be a father figure.

I told Joan that I would speak, that I had no idea what I would say, but it would be an honor. 

Matt, Joan, Sarah, Laurie’s sister Barbara and I piled into Joan’s Park Avenue. On the seat between Joan and me was the wooden box containing Laurie’s ashes. The sky was gray and drizzling. 

We stopped by Barnes & Nobles to buy Sarah a “Bob the Builder” book, a mundane chore on this exceptional day. While we were there I discovered what I was going to say. I bought a single red rose and the small paperback which would serve as the foundation of my eulogy. 

We passed a cemetery on the way to the funeral home. I turned to see gaggle of geese fly low over the mute, gray headstones. Matt steered the car into the lot of Lutz Funeral Home, put it in park, and we sat silent for a moment, all of us close to tears. 

“OK, we can do this,” he said. Joan was crying softly. Somehow, we got out and went inside, Matt bearing the box. The moment had come to say goodbye.

Here’s what I remember from the service:

Before it began, I walked past the funeral director’s office and overheard Matt talking to him about the untested vocalist who was to perform “Ave Maria”. It was Laurie’s favorite song, and Matt was concerned. The last time they had hired a vocalist on someone else’s recommendation had been at their wedding seven years earlier. She had mutilated “Ave Maria”.

“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment,” I heard him say. “I just don’t want my wife coming back to get me because this girl screwed up the song.”

I walked into the empty chapel with Sarah by the hand. We were alone. It had taken her a few hours to get used to me last night, but now she didn’t leave my side. We walked up to the altar where a family portrait of the three of them stood next to the box of ashes amid a sea of flowers. I laid the single red rose next to the box while Sarah wandered up on the stage. The tears came, and then Sarah tugged my hand. 

“I know where mommy is,” she said.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the chair next to her. “And up there,” she said, pointing up.

I smiled and wished we could all remember what it was like to be a child, in touch with the forces on the other side, in tune with the fundamentals. As we get older, life dulls the signal.

People, some familiar, most not, began flooding into the Chapel. I never have been at entirely at ease in situations like this, regardless of the occasion: weddings, graduations, and funerals. I always wanted to laugh or fidget nervously. But today, I felt this heat radiating from somewhere within, and it calmed me.

The holy man, the same man who married Matt and Laurie, got up to speak, and before I knew it he was calling my name. I pulled my heavy body out of the pew and walked to the altar. When I looked up into the faces of the mourning congregation I knew the time had come for the final testament. 

I told those people how Laurie was the best friend I have ever had. Ever will have. I told them how she was the first and only person up to that point who accepted me as I was from day one and loved me unconditionally for it. I told them that she was not only that way with her friends, but with her husband, her daughter, her sister, and her mother.

Then I pulled out the small paperback with the blue feather on the cover. “Illusions” by Richard Bach. I read the very same passages that she and I adopted as our mantras so many years ago, back in the woods of eastern North Carolina.

“The mark of your ignorance is your belief in tragedy. What the caterpillar calls a tragedy, the master calls a butterfly.”

“Do not be dismayed at goodbyes. For a goodbye is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again is certain for those who are friends.”

And finally: “Your true family is measured not by bonds of blood but of respect and joy in each other’s lives. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.”

I returned to my place in the pew and the sorrow came, horrible, overwhelming, inundating. Sure enough, she was gone. An unknown hand passed me a Kleenex from behind. As comforting as those words from Richard Bach were 25 years ago, today was an utter loss. And it hurt so badly. 

It was the first of a long, continuously unraveling realization that Laurie was dead. That so many people were dead. And that I was going to die, too.

Back at Laurie and Matt’s house, I wandered through the sea of unfamiliar faces, working the PR persona that I had become so adept at wearing in stressful situations. The acute sadness that poured out of me at the service had dulled into a gentle heartache and I found more comfort among the people that also loved and missed Laurie.

Matt is in the kitchen with Sarah and his parents gathered around the table. Joan and Barbara are sitting in the living room with their Aunt Bett, a 75-year-old nun. Laurie’s estranged father sits silent and alone in the den watching television. That’s pretty much the same thing he had done for the past 40 years. 

It felt as if we were at one of the many parties we threw over the years, and these are all our friends, come to have a good time, to drink, to laugh, to share stories.

Laurie is upstairs, late as always, in the “Lab” as we used to call it putting on makeup, curling her hair, and getting beautiful. Typical Leo. It was about now that I would go up there and burst into the bathroom.

“What in the hell are you doing up here, incubating?” I’d say, feigning impatience.

Without looking away from the mirror, she’d glance up at me and raise her eyebrows. “Perfection cannot be rushed,” she’d warn. “Go away.”

I’d laugh, knowing it was all part of our shtick. Then I’d go back to the party, killing time, anticipating her entrance, which was usually a gentle drift down the stairs, nonchalant and casual, somewhat removed.

Instead, I find myself sitting next to her Aunt Bett. This is one grand old dame. A bit overweight, possibly a lesbian, very Midwestern. This woman had traveled all over the world in her life, learning four languages and visiting places most of us would never even read about. 

I sit in the uncomfortable dining room chair next to her. She gently places her hand on my arm and gives me a mysterious Mona Lisaesque smile.

“You’re quite the poet,” she says. “Your words at the service today revealed that.”

I thank her for the compliment.

“You know, Laurie talked about you often. She told me a few years ago that you were her best friend.”

The tears were suddenly close and threatening. Somehow I managed to shelve them for the moment. “She was my best friend, too,” I gurgled. 

“But I bet a lot of people don’t really know what that means to you,” she said. I gave her a small nod. No, they really didn’t. 

She leaned in close. “I think I know what it means,” she whispered. “I think it means that you are a very independent, reserved loner, despite your gregarious nature. And she was the only person who truly understood the real you.” I looked directly into her eyes. “And I bet you don’t think you’ll never meet another person who knows you like she knew you.”

I felt my shoulders slump. She had pegged me, and that was too close for comfort.

“You’re a very insightful person,” I said with a feeble smile.

She sensed that I was tottering on the edge of despair and gripped my arm for a brief second, smiled, then turned her attention elsewhere. 

Just as a woman of God should do.

From my journal, September 26, 2001, Atlanta:

Tonight, I’m sitting at a desk surrounded by her pictures: her and Matt at their wedding, her and infant Sarah, her with Joan and Barabara. And of course, she and I at the peak of Mount Mitchell smiling broadly. We all loved the North Carolina mountains and spent many a long weekend as an extended family in Ashville or Blowing Rock.

Across the hall, Matt sleeps in their bed, alone. Everyone else is asleep as well. We’ve stayed up late the past few nights, reminiscing, laughing, crying, grieving, remembering. 

Earlier tonight, Matt suddenly said, “You know what, we’re all here now. Why don’t we drive up to Asheville and scatter her ashes this weekend?”

It was decided, and the next morning we made the journey up to Laurie’s favorite spot, Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway to cast her ashes into the wind. Meanwhile, 900 miles away, New York City continues to sift through ashes of another kind.

We all must become intimately acquainted with grief. What we do with that is contingent upon our ability to allow it to lift us up or cause us to succumb to the darkness. 

From my journal, November 27, 2001, Norfolk:

Two months since Laurie’s death, the attacks on New York and DC, and the failure of Great Bridge. I feel like I had dived into a deep, cold, black lake and I am just now regaining the surface.

I am changed. I don’t understand the complete picture yet, but I know the events of September have fundamentally altered my perception of life on this planet for the better. And just in time. I was no doubt headed for a breakdown of some kind.

As sad as I am over losing my best friend, as distraught as I am over the sorry state of humanity, and as anxious as I am about being unemployed, there is this bright, calm center in my heart and mind where none existed before. Gratitude for all that I do have? Gratitude for the experiences of the last two months?

A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that I was alone walking along a beautiful forest path, It was autumn, and a gentle breeze sent vibrant leaves tumbling to the ground around me. I came to very narrow and rock-strewn creek crossed by a narrow footbridge. As I looked up to the at the other side, Laurie was already standing there grinning at me. In my dream, I grinned right back, and in my dream, I heard her voice say, “We were right. And it’s beautiful.” With that, she gave me a final grin, turned, and vanished into the forest 

There’s so much of the story yet to be written, but right now, I don’t have anything else to say.

For now, I’m floating, waiting the next big idea to come.

Epilogue, posted to Facebook, September 21, 2021

File this under “A Universe That Works in Mysterious Ways.”

Remember my blog post last week about my experience of September 2001? So yesterday I saw a post on my goddaughter Sarah’s IG page that she was on the OBX.

Keep in mind I haven’t seen her or any of Laurie’s family in 20 years. So I messaged her, she replied, and today, almost 20 years to the day that Laurie died, I drove down to meet what I thought was just going to be Sarah and her boyfriend in Manteo only to find not only my goddaughter, but Laurie’s sister, Barbara, and her mother, Joan.

It was cloudy down there most of the day, and as I headed home west across the Wright Memorial Bridge at sunset, the clouds broke open. The most glorious beam of sunshine illuminated the road in front of me and cast orange diamonds on the Sound. 

I’m just getting home and my heart is full from a wonderful day of laughing, remembering Laurie, and reliving tons of fantastic memories with people who’ve been in my life since I was 16. 

Thanks, Laurie, for arranging it all. 

Free At Last

December 2011

It wasn’t until about a year after my father died that I finally exhaled.

It was one long gargantuan release that began in the depths of my soul and crept through my bone-tired body. I couldn’t stop until every bit of it was expelled into the universe like a huge black cloud of poison.

At that point, it had been six years out of a total of 10 that would ultimately be characterized by sickness and death, anger and fear, and stress so unrelenting that at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive it.  

I refer to that time as the Tipsy Teapot. That was the name of a quaint little café in my North Carolina hometown that that my parents loved. It was also a spot-on metaphor for my family’s chaotic and often violent history. 

Let me short hand it for you. The Prince of Tides meets The Royal Tenenbaums. Dysfunction meets genius.

Now, with my father dead and my mother in a nursing home, not far behind him, the teapot had stopped tipping so violently, and my brothers and I could relax our grip. A little bit.

But it brought me to the realization that I was damaged goods, a product of a highly dysfunctional upbringing. And that damn teapot would always be tipping to some degree for the rest of my life.

My brother called me the other night. He had experienced the worst of it. He was molested by a family acquaintance. That, coupled with the fact that he inherited our family’s long-running alcoholic gene had resulted in a miserable sentence of substance abuse that nearly killed him. He had recently sobered up, and we were now able to explore our mutual experiences.

This night, we simply picked up where we left off, which was right in the middle of our marathon 40-year long therapy session. I had consumed a couple of martoonis, and he had probably smoked a fatty (sober was always a suggested guideline in our family). Our conversation was long and uninhibited, and I went outside so as not to infringe on Andrew’s peace.

“I love mom, and I want what’s best for her,” I said, “but I can’t help it, I still resent how she neglected us when we were kids.”

“I know, Eric, she has always just taken and taken, and here we are at the end, still giving her everything,” Jon said. “I know she can’t help where she is now, and she needs our help, but I’m still pissed over everything that came before.”

We continued along this path until I grew weary of hating on her. You have to invoke a lot of bad mojo to maintain that negativity.

We hung up after a quick “later,” and I went inside to my husband-whom-I-cannot-marry.

“So how’s Jon?” he asked.

“Oh you know, same conversation different day,” I replied.

“I don’t know why you two keep going through that same procedure and digging up all that stuff,” he said. “I guess you’re just programmed that way.” He turned back to his cooking show.

I let it go as best I could, but I wondered if I would ever feel anything other than a tumultuous jumble of guilt, resentment, and sadness when it came to my family.

Andrew and I watched the rest of America’s Test Kitchen. Bridget made some delicious-looking chicken and slicks, and Adam tested meat grinders in the Equipment Corner. This is what normal is, I thought. Andrew had demonstrated that love did not have to walk in the room with drama in its hand.

Late that night, I awoke in tears. The last vestiges of my dream were slipping into the abyss, but I still saw my father’s face. He was grinning at me, that same easy, goofy grin brought on by a dirty joke or too much booze.

He had been here, I was sure of it.

I thought about him, and I sank deeper into the realization that he was really gone. My tears began to spring from some deep well of sadness that I had not allowed myself to tap into after his death.

I didn’t want to wake Andrew, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my office. The house was dead quiet and cold. Outside, the oppressive mid-winter’s night pressed against the windows. I sat at my desk, head in my hands, and let the huge lumbering wave suck me under. I cried for my father. I cried for my mother. I cried for a world full of the neglected children. I cried for the abused animals in the Sarah MacLachlan SPCA commercial. I made myself cry over anything so I could begin to get it all out.

My sadness began to come from another place, from a vision of the little boy who never had the chance to be that kid without worries; that kid who never experienced unconditional love from his parents without the expectation of something in return; that kid who was never free from the burden of the awful family secrets of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction; and that kid who always struggled to get through the goddamn day by keeping the peace and not upsetting anyone.

I had never grieved for that boy. Sure, I had thrown my share of woe-is-me pity parties. But I had never been able to pull back to 60,000 feet and truly feel what he went through. It was comforting to finally acknowledge him, to see his early life through the telescope of years for what it was. He was a mess in so many ways. But to be fair, many times his life was really fun, exciting, and full of lots of cool adventures and incredible people that many kids would never experience.

There’s a scene with Meryl Streep and Gene Hackman in “Postcards from the Edge,” Carrie Fisher’s hysterical and touching 1994 autobiographical film. Streep plays a recovering drug addict who’s tortured by the memories of her dysfunctional childhood. Her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic played by Shirley MacLaine, is at the root of her self-loathing. Hackman’s character gives her a piece of advice that has stuck with me for decades.

I recite it silently: “She did it to you, her mother did it to her, and on and on, all the way back to Eve. And at some point, you have to say, fuck it. It stops here. It ends with me.”

Without really thinking, I picked up my trusty old Tarot cards, wrapped in the teal bandana I bought in Tortola 15 years ago. I spread them out in a fan on my desk, closed my eyes, and pulled one. I opened my eyes, turned it up, and there, like the baby Jesus had heard my questions, was the two of Wands.

I contemplated the intricate and colorful portrait. A regal man in red flowing robes is holding a small globe and stands on the roof of a castle. He’s looking out over a vast terrain to his right and the ocean on his left. The globe represents a world that is his oyster with huge potential. He understands his ambition, and he knows what must be done–if he can make the choice to release the past and embrace broader life experiences.

He was me.

I smiled, the last of tears drying on my face. I silently thanked my father for waking me up with the message, made my choice, and went back to bed.

Spring At The Hermitage: Chris + Thomas

I’ve known Chris for almost as long as I’ve lived in Hampton Roads, and when Thomas came on the scene, I knew….I just knew…what would soon follow. These two are crazy in love. After they became engaged and started planning their April nuptials at The Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, I also knew that I had to photograph my friends in that spectacular setting.

Eighth Annual Outer Banks Pridefest Has It Genesis In A 25-Year Old Grassroots Movement.

I moved to the Outer Banks in the early 1990s to take a job as Director of Marketing and Public relations at The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama, and it was a dream come true in so many ways. Seriously, a job at the beach in theater marketing?

I was a 30 year-old out gay man. My family knew, my co-workers at The Lost Colony knew (90% of them were gay, too), and I had nothing to hide.

I simply assumed that the many gay locals I met were out as well. Surprisingly, that was not the case. The Outer Banks then was generally not an LGBT-friendly community, Lost Colony notwithstanding. My impression was that many of the locals considered the gay enclave clustered on the north end of Roanoke Island to be a necessary prerequisite for having a thriving and professional theater company.

But, boy, if you were a gay native of Dare County, you stayed deep in the closet.

There were no gay bars and social or support outlets in Dare County. When we wanted to go out on the town and dance with our people, we’d pile in someone’s car and make the two-hour (or sometimes three, depending on traffic) trip to Norfolk for the weekend. In the harsh winter months, it seems as if all we did was huddle up at someone’s house and drink ourselves silly.

Finally, a group of my Lost Colony friends and co-workers decided to create those missing social opportunities. The name of our fledgling group was the Outer Banks Gay and Lesbian Community (or GLC for short—because we had to have a secret code).

We began by approaching those few businesses we knew were gay owned. At the time, that was Sam and Omie’s in Nags Head and Art’s Place in Kitty Hawk. We asked and they enthusiastically agreed to host an occasional private party just for us: invitation  only, closed to the public. Plus you had to know the secret code to get in if we didn’t know you. Privacy was paramount. There were many prominent people who joined our group as long as we guaranteed it.

We also built a newsletter mailing list by quietly networking and spreading the word—quite an undertaking in the days before email. I wrote it on the computer in my office and printed copies on the company Xerox machine. I figured that was OK after all the gay community had done for The Lost Colony over the years. We funded the postage out of our own pockets.

We started holding GLC Beach Days during the warm months at Coquina Beach (we called it CoQueena). Those beach days were some of the best of my time on the Outer Banks. We flew a ginormous rainbow flag on the dune so that any weary gay travelers on Highway 12 would know where to find our safe spot.

We always had a big crowd. We held ocean kayaking races, fishing tournaments, and best tan competitions. Afterwards, we wrapped it up with a visit to the Oasis Restaurant on the Nags Head Causeway to hear Laura Martier wail the blues.

Eventually, we started collecting donations to fund the newsletter. We collected enough to take out classified ads in regional gay publications such as The Washington Blade and Our Own Community Press (in Hampton Roads) promoting our private parties and beach days to tourists. We often had vacationers join us as a result, and I made some great friends, many of whom I still count among my besties today.

I moved to Norfolk in 1998, and the group kept plowing away. Eventually, my new life took precedence, and I lost the pulse of what was happening with the GLC.

Then eight years ago, one of the GLC’s founding members, David Miller (who has been associated with The Lost Colony since the colony was lost) founded OBX Pride, Inc. and produced the first-ever OBX Pridefest.

Imagine that! A full on, in your face gay pride celebration on the Outer Banks. It was exciting and somewhat disconcerting at the same time. How would the community accept this public display? It had its challenging moments, but in the end all was for naught. The local norms had evolved in both attitudes and acceptance, and the timing was finally right.

Today, hundreds of visitors from Richmond and DC to Raleigh and Charlotte, both gay and straight, come to celebrate. The Dare County Tourist Bureau is our primary benefactor. The list of businesses that participate in the three-day event has grown impressively long. And I am involved once again as a board member and marketing director for Pridefest.

My husband and I are headed down to the eighth Annual Pridefest this weekend, and I’m excited to see my friends from the GLC days.

But most of all, I’m excited to be home again in a place I’ve loved for 50 years and know that our little grassroots underground movement helped change it for the better.