I was in the Sunday habit, a few years back, of taking a suburban bus to Birmingham. Riding with me were regulars, most of whom were off to church, or gave that halo’d impression by dress or demeanor.
Motivated by whimsy by a half-hour drive of boredom, uneventful scenery, I dubbed these weekend travelers with romantic titles: The Dowager Empress, The Princess Royal, The Countess, The Waterloos.
Looking up now and then from my newspaper, I made mental notes on this group of not unreasonably friendly faces, although as the saying goes, “distance lends enchantment to the view.”
Dowager Empress and Princess Royal were Aunt Jean and niece Linda. (They were Catholic. Aunt Jean would dutifully – and quickly – cross herself when passing Royal Oak’s International Shrine of the Little Flower.) Aunt Jean had raised niece Linda “properly from early on.”
Charitably, the two were wallflowers who blushed, rarely bloomed, lived mostly sight unseen. They had limited social life, used public transportation to get to shops, Big Boy restaurants for small and low-caloric, treaty non-adventures.
Countess was middle-aged, a school teacher. Prim, proper, pleasant. She got off at People’s Community Church. She was white. The congregation, persons of heavenly color. I admired her spirit of integrated belonging.
Waterloos, Angie and Tony, were seniors. Tony told bus driver Stella he was “an energetic 85,” his girl friend, a “keep-pace 67”. They were health food faddists, living on combined SS incomes. Angie, once a ballerina, chatted on and on about her glory days. Tony was an “expert” on New Testament numerology. 666. That sort of nonsense.
Abruptly, the Waterloos went AWOL. I learned sometime later from SMART driver Stella that Angie had died in Tony’s arms following a brief illness. (I never saw ballerina-bereft, “energetic” Tony again.)
What’s in a nickname? There was a time when gays and lesbians lived and survived with only a nickname to negotiate by. Sometimes campy, sometimes exotic, a colorful bit of ID rainbow.
When I came out, gays all went by nicknames. We led a double life. Anonymity was a must. You told no one where you worked, where you lived, who your dates were. It was a big sin to out someone as gay, especially to anyone who unfortunately happened to be straight.
Nicknames did provide a clue as to whether or not a new face was “family,” “a friend of Dorothy” – reference to Judy Garland’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
Among my friends were Little Bobby, Marshmallow, Butch Jimmy, TD (Tall Dick – vertically speaking!), Estralita, Miss Bruce, Streeta Gayworth. Among dykes: Drano, Speedy, Rusty, Sky, Big Red, Big Mamoo, Mack, Bombshell Betty.
As my imagination then was a long way behind in coming out – I was shy, skinny, 19 – I called myself – rather uneventfully, I must confess – Al. (Alexander the Great might have opened many doors, both private, public and revolving.)
A friend, Tom Ingersoll, a police precinct captain’s son (later caught in an after-hours police raid) took perverse delight in bestowing secret put-down nickies on rivals. Victory Garden. No No Nannette. H. Livonia Beckons. Lovely Hula Hands. Tiny Tears (who cried non-stop during President Kennedy’s televised funeral).
Tom’s nickname – bestowed by lover Paul – was Beads O’Bleach, given for hitting the peroxide bottle, with not infrequent patchwork results. (God bless you, Tom. Missed now some 37 years.)
Entertainer names were always used as forms of polite show-biz address. Miss Rae Bourbon. Miss Chunga. Miss Lola Lola. Miss Vicki Marlane. Fat Jack. Tabu. Chi Chi Latrine. My favorite drag name’s a classic. Gay Cocken! It has a feygeleh ring to it. Yiddish: Little bird. Queer. Gai Kokken. Go take a dump!
And not in the Betty Davis “what a dump” sense, either. Oy, veh!