Sunday Mop Up 09/17/06
About two years ago, I began calling a gay chat line on the telephone. I found this to be a very surreal experience, with most callers using the line for phone sex, others using the line just to be stupid and obnoxious and abrasive. There was another group of people I discovered who called in to check in with other friends they had made on the line, complete strangers except for these conversations which covered all manner of topics. Over time, I’ve gotten to know several really nice people. People I have no other way of reaching except via this phone number: Bobby in West Texas, Tony in the Bronx, Tony in the Poconos, Jeff in Philadelphia, Gary in Chicago, and – in a round about way, Michael from Ft. Lauderdale.
Michael was not someone I was immediately interested in talking to. He tended to jump into a room and act like an idiot. It was obvious that Michael was an older gentleman with a thick east coast accent that made him sound, well, Jewish. Because he sounded like an old man, he was teased mercilessly by the young callers. I realized fairly quickly that he had been calling for years and was legendary at being a bit of a buffoon.
Eventually, Michael’s antics began to get under my skin. I would listen to him act like an ass, then listen to the ridicule. The nice-guy friends I called in to talk to never chided him and he would often drop the Idiot-act and try to participate in our conversations. The young guys who only called to be ugly to each other would have none of that. Since Michael had a distinctive voice, if and when he tried to speak, he was put down and shouted down. The punks would not allow the man to be a part of any discussion. So, he would just act like a moron right back to them. I couldn’t believe that Michael didn’t see that his actions were fueling the cruel attacks that people were launching at him. The phone line has a feature that allows you to talk one-on-one with each other, by punching in a numeric code given to you when you first call in. If I type in your code, and you type in mine, we can talk in complete privacy.
About a year ago, whenever I heard Michael being picked on, I would swap my code with him, and we would talk privately together.
Turns out that Michael was a smart and articulate retiree living in Florida. He had made a very comfortable living in the garment industry and split his time between Ft. Lauderdale and Connecticut in his retirement. He had married early in life, fathered a son, and then had to divorce his wife when he realized that he was gay and could not live a lie with a woman. He came out to his wife, broke her heart, and was filled with guilt and shame. He never allowed himself to find a longterm relationship with a man and had lived for many, many years alone and desperately lonely. He didn’t deserve Happiness, he told me, so he never sought it out. He knew no other gay people. The phone line was his feeble attempt to find gay friends and a sense of belonging to a community. And that had backfired when he turned himself into a cartoon, a clown. He didn’t know what else to do but accept his persona and be the butt of the jokes. At least people knew who he was. Negative attention is, after all, still attention.
The more I talked with him through the months, the more he expressed a desire to stop being a caricature and insist upon being taken seriously on the phone line. He would call in and speak like the mature, sane man he actually was. But, he always sounded like a Jewish grandpa. The punks were relentless. I really kinda hate young, arrogant, snotty gay boys. Sorry, I had to throw that in there.
Back in April of this year, Michael called in and was distraught. I could tell right away. When I asked what was wrong, in private, he didn’t want to talk about it and hung up on me. A week later, I ran into him again. When I asked what was the problem the week before, he got flustered and said he didn’t want t talk about it. At least he didn’t hang up on me. So, we talked about other things. He had started seeing a therapist to deal with his guilt and shame about his sexuality. I was very proud of him and told him so. So we talked for two Saturdays (Saturday was the day I always called the line) about his therapy.
The third Saturday he told me what was going on. He had some medical tests done, and a lump was found in his lungs. Michael has inoperable lung cancer, which has spread throughout his body.
He stopped calling the line after that. The last time I spoke with him was in early May. He vanished so quickly, the Retards on the phone line started asking where he had gone. They seemed to miss him. In a weak moment in August, I told the callers what I knew. The jackasses replied that it was about time an old troll like Michael die. I couldn’t bear to hear their ugliness. I went off on them. They simply turned their mockery toward me. I became the butt of the joke.
I was sure Michael was dead. No one had heard from him in months and months. Then, a few weeks ago, he showed back up on the line. His voice trembled and wasn’t very strong. He’s very sick. He moved from Ft. Lauderdale to Connecticut to live with his brother and his brother’s wife and children during the summer. A month after that, his brother was killed in car accident. He’s so weak he has decided to move into an assisted living facility adjunct to the hospital, which is caring for him. He moves there next week.
I’ll be talking to him regularly, directly, from here on. I want him to know that he has a friend who cares and that he can talk to any time he needs. I’m considering visiting him on the east coast sometime before he dies. Is that crazy?
I wonder about what my life will be like should I ever get to the point that I am old and ill. Will I be alone? Will anyone care when I am dying? Michael’s family had mostly turned their backs on him when he announced that he was gay. My family didn’t do that, and I am certain that when I need help, my family will be there for me. In that respect, I am very blessed. Michael is teaching me about courage and bravery as he faces his mortality. I tell him that I love him every chance that I get. I'm grateful that I have the opportunity to talk with him a little longer.
Life is a precious, fragile, bittersweet thing.