Sunday, August 15, 2010

Carl Chopin

Aloha, Friend

Today I re-post a tribute (from LAST August)
to a great friend that I lost a long time ago.

I never fail to think of him during his birth month, and smile at his "issues" about sharing it with National Clown Month!

You were no clown Carl.
I'll never forget you.

"Keep true to the dreams of your youth. "
Friedrich von Schiller

"The youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires "
Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age."
Victor Hugo

"What though youth gave love and roses, Age still leaves us friends and wine."
Thomas More

"The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife."
Will Durant


I was 15 in a new neighborhood.

The High School I attended was a big, modern red brick factory, a "good" school. But I found it rather dehumanizing.

While the Beatles sang, and I attended the first Earth Day in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, my school was run by crew-cutted, career educators who believed in instilling certain values in the boys and girls in order to stem the tide of psychedelic social rebellion that they abhorred.

School was all about proving them right, and the independent, inquiring student WRONG! Criticism had not yet been supplanted by "self esteem." Athletes were idolized, artists had better focus on some REAL career and choose a college before they threw their lives away. . .

North East High School
seemed like a strange anachronism to be stuck in.

Famed doumentarian Fredrick Weisman thought the same and used it as the setting for his cinema verite` documentary
"High School."

Audiences laughed, but I had to take off my love beads and low slung bell bottoms and go to school there!

Then I met a boy who lived a couple of miles away and attended another school, a "worse" school where he was the butt of abuse for being dark and quiet with amazingly expressive brown eyes.

The bullys loved to see pain register in those eyes
and called him The Mexican.

He was actually Jewish, with a grandfather who had escaped poverty, sanctioned abuse, and a forced 20 year stretch in the Russian Army, by leaving Russia on horse back; and who had a picture of himself smoking a hookah with some sepia Turkoman traders. "Fuck the Czar" he always began when asked about those days. I cannot hear anything about the Czar on the History Channel or anywhere else without muttering "Fuck the Czar" under my breath in tribute to the old man.

One time, Carl (my friend) tried to shock grandpa by inviting him to smoke some hash with us.

"Hashish?! He asked incredulously.

"You want to smoke hashish!? - Hashish you EAT!!!!!"

We laughed about that for years.
Heck, I still do!

Carl's family was blue collar too, and we soon became inseparable.

We were both carrying some baggage, OK, full baggage cars FULL of baggage.

We hid out together in his bedroom and he taught me everything about classic films, though people called them "old movies" then, and they papered late night TV clotted with commercials.

He showed me the classic movie goddesses and heroes.
We learned about history, sociology, and culture.
Together we gasped at Busby Berkley's choreography,
and Cagney's style.

We especially loved the film noir of the 50's which spoke well to the lingering, sooty Philadelphia that we lived in.

Our lives entwined.

I had a chance (as a thoughtful troublemaker) to get into a new alternative high school that was a progressive experiment of the times, Parkway.

Carl, moored in high school torment applied among thousands and got in fairly! A bonifide miracle!

But Parkway's head master, a charming Englishman called John Bremer (sp?) would not accede to my Principal's request to de-acquisition me.

I had to cut school and show up at his desk to articulate my absolute need to be in MY new school-reality, he took a liking to me and I was the only part-time student in the 150 student school. Mornings in prison regulated by bells, afternoons in the modern world of education. (Kevin Bacon was one of our stairwell card players, a fellow student that I was kinda scared of.)

Perhaps this is daily bifurcation of my High School days explains why I am such a hybrid bridge builder. (freak?)
Ultimately I became full time and ultimately graduated from Parkway.

Carl and I went to school together every day, & spent all our time together. We schooled ourselves in mind expansion and film culture at night as the adults slept.

Sometimes we'd drive to Chinatown in his mom's Mercury at 3 am for Wor Shu Op (Pressed Duck) at the old South China on 10th street. One night, Jerry Stiller walked in to get take out; he was performing in town with his wife: Stiller & Meara. Their kid, Ben, was in footsie pajamas - not comedy movies back then.

One year, after a full night of ritual drinking, Carl went to South Philly to join the Clown Brigades of the New Year's MUMMER's PARADE. If you are at all interested in folk life, you MUST see the Mummers Parade in Philly! Carl, drunk as regulations and custom demand, lurched up the street with a mob of other civic-minded inebriates doing the "Mummers Strut."

Man, I wish I had film of THAT!

It was a men-only parade (it's a whole culture: pipe fitters in sequins playing banjos in the snow).
Man, I want a Tastykake!
(Spell Check offered: "Testicle" as in: "Man, I want a testicle!" LOL!!!!

Carl and I learned about life together. We grew up a bit. We sold pot for bus fair (allegedly) . "Your boyfriend's gay" my helpful parents pointed out. Guess I'll hang out with a football player; thanks.

Once, he accompanied me on a driving trip with another friend of ours to Vermont so I could interview at Goddard College. Carl interviewed on a whim. Two weeks later we heard: they wanted to give him a scholarship. They sent me a regrets letter. Just like Parkway!
It changed his life.

He "came out" and became a campus star. Faculty member (and famed lesbian author) Rita Mae Brown told him: "Carl, if you were a woman I'd marry you." He started interpreting Joni Mitchell songs in American Sign Language, bringing the lyrics alive to hearing and deaf alike.

Then he got an internship working with warehoused autistic kids. No one cared what Carl did, as long as no one got hurt or loud. He taught them sign language!

The loved his deep eyes that looked into their souls and showed his pain and beauty to them. Several of the kids were "mainstreamed" after that. Unheard of!
But that was Carl.

I went to college at Franconia in New Hampshire (for a year, long story) and we saw each other when we could, but by then we knew that we'd always be close. Before Facebook and Tweeting, we drove around northern New England in old Volkswagen's and Volvos.

30 Miles through a crystal cold night to St. Johnsberry for all- night Duncan Donuts sounds very good when you are lonely and young and free and eager to meet.
And talk.

Eventually, Carl graduated and moved to New York City as he had always dreamed. He was a professional sign language interpreter in the courts - learning everything about a fascinating reality.

Superior Court Judges mothered him. He was free of his abusers, had respect, and had learned to respect himself.
It was the best time ever to be a gay man:
The 1970's in Manhattan!

He was so excited when they asked him to be one of the first sign language interpreters to perform on the front of the Broadway Stage.

There he was in the playbill!

Chopinsky had been shortened to Chopin.

He was beautiful, sought after, and sharing the stage with Tommy Tune, Honey Coles and Twiggy in "My One and Only."
Just one of many productions that featured him.

During intermission, the hearing audience was buzzing about how they couldn't take their eyes off the guy signing.

And Tommy Tune was dancing at his peak then!

When I went back stage, Twiggy was swigging booze straight from the bottle. . . . Sure wish I could find that Play Bill.

Carl had had a lot of emotional and physical wear and tear in his life. We talked about being elderly together and reminiscing about the "good old days."

Bette Middler and Barry Manilow were performing to gay audiences at the "baths" before she was discovered. Bruce Springsteen was playing a bar in Philly every weekend;
Disco all night, and liberation, and a lot of hope for the future.

Then lots of guys started to get sick.

Carl's kidneys failed and he went on relief and on dialysis.
His outer beauty (so important to us then) dimmed - but his soulful eyes grew only richer and deeper.
I can close my eyes and look into them still.

I visited him before moving to Hawaii.

But we would always stay close.

In an instant, a pause, a look, a note, a phone call, we were instantly closer than any two people could be.

So much of each other, so many memories and landmarks shared. . . .

My mom heard from someone in Philly that he had died when she tried to find him for me.

I guess all of the reminiscing of the past weekend (Woodstock) and all the looking at old performances on video, has brought Carl closer than he usually is.

A famed psychic once told me that two friends who have passed accompany me through life.

Perhaps I'll tell you about the other friend on another occasion.

We used to say: "If I close my eyes, you are still there.

There is more to our friendship than what can be touched or heard."

So true.

I often wonder how middle-aged me looks to forever young and handsome Carl. Some day we'll laugh about it.

If your friend(s) of adolescence are still in this world, call them today. Tell them Carl and I say