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I was in the Sunday habit a few years back of taking a SMART bus to Ferndale. Riding with me were regulars, most of whom were off to church, or gave that halo’d impression by their dress or demeanor.
Motivated by whimsy from a half-hour drive of boredom and uneventful scenery, I dubbed these fellow travelers with romantic titles: The Dowager Empress, The Princess Royal, The Countess, The Waterloos. I made mental notes, although as the saying goes, “distance lends enchantment to the view.”
Dowager Empress and Princess Royal were aunt Jean and niece Lola. They were Catholic. Aunt Jean would dutifully — and quickly — cross herself when passing Woodward’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. She had raised niece Lola “properly from early on.”
Charitably, the two were wallflowers who blushed, rarely bloomed, lived mostly sight unseen. They had limited social life, using public transportation to get to shops and Big Boy restaurants for small and low-caloric 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 there: persons of heavenly color. I admired her spirit of integrated spirituality.
The Waterloos, Angie and Tony, were seniors. Tony told Stella, our regular Sunday bus driver, 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. Last Day’s judgment. 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 in 1956, gays nicknamed. Anonymity was a must. You told no one where you worked. Where you lived. Who you dated. It was a big no-no to out someone, especially to anyone who happened to be straight.
Among my closeted friends were Little Bobby, Marshmallow, Butch Jimmy, TD (Tall Dick — vertically speaking!), Estralita, Miss Bruce, Streetah Gayworth. Among dykes: Drano, Speedy, Rusty, Sky, Big Red, Big Mammoo, Mack, Bombshell Bobbaloo.
As my imagination then was a long way behind in coming out — I was shy, skinny, 19 — I tagged myself, rather hopefully I must confess, Big 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 his lover Paul — was Beads O’Bleach, given for hitting the peroxide bottle, with not infrequent patchwork results. (God bless you, Tom. Missed now some 50 years.)
Entertainer names were always used as forms of polite show-biz address. Miss Rae Bourbon. Miss Chunga. Miss Lola Lola. Miss Vicki Marlene. Others: Fat Jack. Tabu. Chi Chi Latrine. My favorite drag name: Gay Cocken! It has a faygeleh ring to it. Yiddish: Little bird. Queer. Gai Kokken. Go take a dump!
And not in the Bette Davis “what a dump” sense, either. Oy, vey!