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Visiting the Pulse Memorial

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I went to my first gay bar when I was 15.

I didn’t go because I was gay, of course. I went because a friend identified as gay and they would let us in to drink, or at least that’s why my 15-year-old “I’m not gay!” brain told me.

The people at the bar knew better. They didn’t let us in because they believed we were 19 (the legal drinking age at the time). I mean, come on. I’ve seen pictures of myself when I was 15 and I looked 15. But they knew what was really going on and they let us in because in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the early 1980s, there weren’t many safe havens for gay people. There was no internet or location dating apps. There were no gay-straight alliances in the local schools. There weren’t any positive representations of gay people on TV unless you count Paul Lynde.

The bar was the place where people could go and feel safe. It was a sanctuary. It was a refuge. Where you could be who you were, as feminine or as butch as you wanted to be, and dance and chat and be catty and gossip about who did what to whom and where or you could be serious and talk about the whisperings of some “gay disease” that was killing people in the big cities.

Even if the darkest of times – sometimes despite them – the gay bar was the only safe haven that existed for people like us, even if we didn’t recognize it at the time. The staff and the regulars protected us, especially when an older “chicken hawk” would try to move in on the young guys out on the dance floor. Inevitably, someone who worked there or one of the regulars would come over and chase them away so we could just have fun.

When I moved to California when I was 18, it wasn’t as easy to get into the bars, but I made it a few times. Long gone neighborhood places like the Apache, Job Site, and the Detour were usually easier than the big clubs in West Hollywood and they became my semi-regular haunts. I knew the bartenders and the DJs, and the doormen and they knew me. It was a great place to meet people. It was the only place to meet gay people.

When I turned 21 I got a job as a bouncer at a bar in West Hollywood. Over the next 15 years or so, I would graduate to bartender and then DJ, spinning in clubs all over town. The people I worked with became an extended family and while many of them, sadly, did not survive that particularly brutal era (the late 1980s especially), the ones that did are still special to me. I met one of my best friends there and we still go out to bars on occasion, although not as frequently and often with greater consequences the next morning.

Leaving at 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes made me a little unsettled. I didn’t always feel safe going to my car. But inside the bar was different. The angry, confusing, often hateful world stopped at the door and it was a relief.

No offense to straight people or their bars, but they aren’t the same. You may have a little neighborhood pub where “everybody knows your name” and you know theirs. The kind of place where they have your drink ready before you sit down, and they ask you how Mary or Bob is doing and commiserate with you about the grief your kids or your boss is giving you.

But it isn’t the same.

A gay bar is a safe harbor. It is a sanctuary. It is a refuge.

When the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando happened on June 12, 2016 it hit me hard. I was in Jamba Juice, getting my usual morning smoothie, and I checked the news while I was waiting. I read the story and burst into tears.

I knew that place.

I had never been to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. I didn’t know any of the people who died or the people who survived. I didn’t know any of the first responders or the community leaders or anyone else directly affected by the shooting.

But I knew that place. I knew the people. I knew what it was like inside and I could practically hear the music and the laughter and the dizzying tumble of conversations. I could feel the pounding bass of the sound system and see the DJ’s head bopping along to the tempo and their patient smile when someone requested whatever song was the most popular for the tenth time that night. I could smell the cologne – people often wore too much of it in the clubs, probably to drown out the other smell, which everyone who has ever worked at a bar knows. It’s sort of a sickly-sweet smell, a little sour and yet clean, too, like bleach trying to remove a stain that just won’t quite go away. I could taste the drinks – they were strong. You always get a bigger pour at neighborhood spots. I could see the bartenders trying to keep up with the orders and trying not to let their annoyance show when someone ordered anything more complicated, and therefore time consuming, than a gin and tonic. I could see the smiles and feel the embraces and taste the kisses, from friends and from lovers and sometimes – a first time – from someone that you wanted to be one or the other. And most importantly I felt what it was like once you walked through the doors.

It felt safe. It felt like a sanctuary. It felt like a refuge.

Standing there today, looking through a pane of glass at a waterfall that has been installed on the side of the building I sort of felt like I could still hear the music and taste the drinks and feel the feeling of what it must have been like there that night, before it all went to hell.

Then I looked through another pane of glass at the spot where the police used a battering ram to break through the wall, so people could escape the hail of gunfire. Then I looked through another and saw the names of the dead. The list went on… and on… and on…

The interim memorial that is there today starts with a message board of translucent panels that wrap around the base of the sign out in front. On it people can write messages of hope, sadness, grief, consolation, or, in some cases I saw, just their name – a statement, I believe, that they paid witness to this hallowed ground.

A tall wall has been put up around the building on three sides, covered with photographs sent in from around the globe. There are none of the night of the shooting. These are all of people coming together, mourning, grieving, and, ultimately, hoping and praying and taking action that will try to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.

There are several windows in the wall allowing people to see the building itself, but they are done tastefully and always with an eye toward honoring those that lost their life – their names, the waterfall, the breach wall.

In front is a smaller fence that people can leave notes, photos, or tributes. All of them are collected and saved.

Finally, an electronic kiosk allows visitors to sign a guest book and learn more about the “Pulse 49.”

At first, I was a bothered by the rush of traffic whizzing by on the street a few feet away. Not only was it noisy, but it felt offensive somehow. “How dare you go on with your lives when something like this exists.” There should be a stop sign out front and everyone should be required to come to a complete halt, look at the place, and recognize its importance and only then will they be allowed to drive away.

But eventually that faded away and I could hear the music again.

The One Pulse Foundation was created by the owner of the club, Barbara Poma, to support construction and maintenance of the memorial, community grants to care for the survivors and victims’ families, endowed scholarships in the names of each of the 49 angels, educational programs to promote amity among all segments of society and, ultimately, a museum highlighting historic artifacts and stories from the tragedy.

The interim memorial was unveiled in the spring of 2018 and they are hoping to have the permanent facility finished by summer of 2020. They are currently working with the families, the community, and the local government to go through the design phase and are actively working on the capital campaign. They are negotiating to buy two adjacent lots, so it will take up a big chunk of a city block and are looking to places like the 9/11 Memorial and the Oklahoma City National Memorial as blueprints for what to do. This is not a government led effort – it is the owner of the bar putting together a world-class organization that is drawing support from everyone from major corporations like Disney to anyone who wants to contribute in whatever way, big or small, they can.

When I asked what I could do to help, other than write checks, I was asked to share my story since that was the most effective tool anyone has to create connections to tragedy.

I wasn’t there, but I knew that place.

For more information or to donate, please visit onepulsefoundation.org.

Please feel free to share this.

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50

$50 for 50 by 50 Index

50

I’m going to be 50 years old in September of 2016.  The thought of that both hurts my head and makes me itch in unspecified ways.

But it also makes me feel incredibly lucky.  Considering all the crap that has gone wrong with me over the years, not the least of which was a fun little joy ride with cancer, the fact that I have made it to 49 is quite the accomplishment if I do say so myself.  Add in the facts that I have a job (that drives me crazy, but it’s a job), I am very well paid, I get to do stuff outside the job that makes me happy (I’m writing TV movies!), and I have friends that I adore, and it all adds up to a pretty good total for almost 50.

I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion and considered all sorts of 50-related things: a bucket list of 50 items, trying to take a bunch of weekend jaunts so I could say I had visited all 50 states (I have 13 left), and the like.  But the realities of my schedule and my attention span led me to keep nuking the various options as being too time consuming and/or too pain-in-the-ass-ing.

So instead, I have decided to do something proactive and yet not have to actually get out of my comfy chair to do so – I’m going to give $50 to 50 different charities before I turn 50 years old.   This page tracks who I have given to so far with links to my blog postings about them and the charity itself:

1. The Trevor Project
Providing suicide prevention hot lines and education programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.
thetrevorproject.org

2. AIDS Project Los Angeles
Provides services to persons in the Los Angeles area living with HIV and AIDS.
apla.org

3. The Innocence Project
Legal services and resources designed to help people who have been incarcerated wrongly.
innocenceproject.org

4. The Neon Museum
Rescues and restores classic neon signs from businesses in Las Vegas.
neonmuseum.org

5. Brussels Terror Attack Victims’ Fund
Fund for the victims of the March 2016 bombing of the airport in Brussels.
gofundme.com/prayforbrussels

6. Los Angeles LGBT Center
Services and programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and adults in Los Angeles.
lalgbtcenter.org

7. Esophageal Cancer Action Network
Advocacy and education programs designed to inform about Esophageal Cancer and its causes.
ecan.org

8. Bill Foundation
Rescues shelter and street dogs in Los Angeles
billfoundation.org

9. Southern Poverty Law Center
Tracks, monitors, and reports on more than 1,600 hate groups.
splcenter.org

10. First Book
Provides books to children in need.
firstbook.org

11. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
HIV/AIDS service organization based in New York with programs nationwide.
broadwaycares.org

12. #YESWECODE
Provides technical education and mentoring to underserved youth.
yeswecode.org

13. Modest Needs
Crowd funding of specific short term emergency needs for families and individuals.
modestneeds.org

14. Puppies Behind Bars
Arranges dogs to go to prisons where they are trained to be service animals for wounded veterans or law enforcement canines.
puppiesbehindbars.org

15. Historic Savannah Foundation
Leads the preservation efforts of historic homes and buildings in Savannah, Georgia.
myhsf.org

16. Fisher House
Manages residential facilities near VA hospitals so the families of wounded service members can be nearby.
fisherhouse.org

17. Girls Inc.
Dedicated to empowering young girls to be smart, strong, and bold through education and mentoring programs in the US and Canada.
girlsinc.org

18. Equality Florida’s GoFundMe Campaign for the Victims of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting
For obvious reasons.
Pulse Nightclub Victim’s Fund

19. Orlando LGBT Organizations’ GoFundMe Campaign for the Victims of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting
This is a different one than #18 but doing the same good work. Both deserve a donation.
Pulse Nightclub Victim’s Fund

20. One Orlando Fund
Another organization that is supporting victims and their families of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
OneOrlando.org

21. National Compassion Fund
National crime victims’ organization raising money for the victims and families affected by the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
NationalCompassionFund.org

22. Free Speech TV
National, independent news network committed to advancing progressive social change.
FreeSpeech.org

23. Physicians for Reproductive Health
Works to improve access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, especially to meet the health care needs of economically disadvantaged patients.
PRH.org

24. Assist the Officer Dallas
Benefits the families of police officers affected by the shooting in Dallas.
atodallas.org

25. Water.org
Providing clean, safe drinking water to communities around the globe.
water.org

26. Habitat For Humanity Los Angeles
Building affordable housing for those in need in the Los Angeles area.
habitatla.org

27. Rosie’s Theater Kids
Providing access to arts and arts education to underserved youth.
rosiestheaterkids.org

28. $50 for 50 by 50 #28: Planting Peace’s Crowdrise Campaign for Baton Rouge Police Officers
Support for the families of the officers killed and injured in Baton Rouge.
Planting Peace

29. Americans for Responsible Solutions
Gabby Giffords PAC to advocate for common sense gun control legislation.
americansforresponsiblesolutions.org

30. Everytown for Gun Safety
A coalition of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and those affected by gun violence.
everytown.org

31. Violence Policy Center
Works to stop gun death and injury through research, education, advocacy, and collaboration.
vpc.org

32. Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
A coalition of 47 national organization working to reduce gun violence.
csgv.org

33. The Dizzy Feet Foundation
Supports dance education in the United States through grants which support programs serving low-income populations and educational institutions.
dizzyfeetfoundation.org

34. Children’s Defense Fund
The child advocacy organization that Hillary Clinton worked for.
childrensdefense.org.

35. Compassion & Choices
Working to expand and protect end of life options for the terminally ill.
compassionandchoices.org

36. Safety For All: Yes on Proposition 63
California state ballot measure that would ban the possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines and require a background check to buy ammunition.
safetyforall.com.

37. Horizons Foundation
Works to provide support charities, organizations, foundations, and groups working on behalf of the LGBTQ community.
horizonsfoundation.org

38. $50 for 50 by 50 #38: States United to Prevent Gun Violence
An alliance of state groups that works together to prevent gun violence.
ceasefireusa.org

39. Stop Handgun Violence
Stop Handgun Violence is committed to the prevention of gun violence through education, public awareness, effective law enforcement and common sense gun laws.
stophandgunviolence.org.

40. $50 for 50 by 50 #40: Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center
Provides innovative resources for students, parents, educators, and others, and recognizes bullying as a serious community issue.
pacer.org/bullying

41. Stupid Cancer
Addresses young adult cancer through advocacy, research, support, outreach, awareness, mobile health and social media.
stupidcancer.org

42. Cancer Sucks
The organization is run by volunteers that have all been touched by cancer and focused on raising as much money for cancer research as possible.
cancersucks.com

43. Baton Rouge Area Foundation
Relief for the victims of the historic flooding in Louisiana.
classy.org/events/louisiana-flood-relief-fund/e91206

44. Cancer Support Community
Ensuring that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community.
cancersupportcommunity.org

45. Livestrong Foundation
Working to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.
livestrong.org.

46. Atlanta History Center
The Atlanta History Museum at the Atlanta History Center is one of the largest history museums in the nation, featuring award-winning signature exhibitions that tell the story of the region’s people, from its earliest settlers to the international city of today.
atlantahistorycenter.org

47. Lowndes County Interpretive Center
Museum and teaching facility dedicate to the Selma to Montgomery March.
nps.gov/semo/planyourvisit/index.htm

48. The Clinton Foundation
Builds partnerships between businesses, NGOs, governments, and individuals everywhere to work faster, leaner, and better; to find solutions that last; and to transform lives and communities from what they are today to what they can be, tomorrow.
clintonfoundation.org

49. Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders
Providing housing assistance, counseling, and other services to seniors in the gay community.
sageusa.org

50. Charity Navigator
Tracks charities and rates them based on a variety of criteria so you can choose the best ones that will be using your donation wisely.
charitynavigator.org

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21 Words

This will be my last post before the surgery.  I feel as though I should be witty, or wise, or at least pithy but at this point I think the best I can hope for is coherent.  I guess what I am really attempting to gain is a little bit of that much longed for perspective that everyone always wants, thinks they have, and then forgets about as soon as life gets hard, scary, dangerous, or annoying.

My day, tomorrow, is fairly well planned at least in my head.  I’m going to get up at around 5am.  Note that I didn’t say “wake up at 5am” but rather “get up,” because I don’t want to presume that I will actually be sleeping tonight.  Stranger things have happened – Sarah Palin for example – but I think it’s best to stick with “get up” and that will cover any eventuality.

After checking my e-mail and staring at the empty refrigerator for awhile, I’ll go take a shower and greedily use as much of the hot water as I can because it will be my last opportunity to bathe for the next several days.  I apologize in advance to anyone who comes to visit me before I am able to have some alone time with warm water and soap again.

Somewhere around 6am, I’ll call a cab and then wait outside until it arrives.  I always take a cab to the hospital for any kind of procedure, surgery, or test if it involves me not being able to drive myself back home.  It’s not that there aren’t lots of people who would be willing to take me to the hospital if I asked, it’s just that I prefer to go by cab.  Part of it is that it allows me some alone time to gather my thoughts and mentally prepare for whatever I’m about to face.  The other part of it is I figure that if I can survive being driven to the hospital by a Los Angeles cab driver, I can survive anything.

When I get there I will also continue with my other little hospital tradition, which is walking up to the receptionist in the admitting room and stating, with a cheerful voice, the reason I’m there.  In this case it will be thusly: “It’s a beautiful day for an esophagectomy!”

The surgery itself is scheduled to start at 8:30am and should take three to four hours.

Now… and this is important… the one thing I don’t plan to do tomorrow is die.  It’s not on the agenda as far as I’m concerned.

But here’s the deal: I hate things left unfinished.  I don’t always need to have a nice tidy bow wrapping it all up because I understand that life rarely affords us the opportunity to do so, but I do need to have some measure of closure.  I loathe ambiguity; nothing frustrates me more.  It’s like a TV show that gets cancelled after the season ended with a cliffhanger.  Did Angela really end up with Jordan Catalono?  Did Harrison choose Brooke or Sam?  Did Jessica get killed by the firing squad?

So with that in mind, I offer some thoughts and ruminations that will act, I suppose, as my version of closure should my plans go awry tomorrow.

I’ve had a good life.  I don’t know if it was a great life but it was good and that’s better than a lot of people get.

I had friends.  Several were amazing and life-altering.  Most people don’t even have one of those in their life so in that regard I was truly blessed.

I knew love.  Not in the traditional, romantic sense, but it was still a true, undeniable, soul-mate type of love.

I had fun.  Maybe not as often as I should have and perhaps with less gusto as I could have but it was fun nevertheless.

I did some cool things.  I had not one, but two plays produced in real, honest-to-God theaters and they won a bunch of awards.  I rode a camel in Egypt.  I drank ouzo in Greece.  I wrote books that were published and people bought them and read them.  I won $30,000 on a slot machine.  I drove a race car.  I visited the Britney Spears Museum and saw the biggest ball of twine.  I shook hands with the man that would be the President of the United States.

I tried to be a good person.  I didn’t always accomplish that.  I had my moments – some extended – of selfishness and vanity and pride and hedonism and sloth and greed and all of the other things that make us human but I’d like to think that, for the most part, I merely waded in the pools of my various sins rather than wallowing and reveling in them.

I certainly was not always nice to everyone all of the time but I don’t think I was ever cruel.  Well, not intentionally cruel.

Regrets?  I’ve had a few.

I don’t think I took enough chances in my life.  I’m not talking about risky stuff like bungee jumping or wearing white after Labor Day, but rather the chances we can take, both big and small, that can turn a good life into a great one.  For instance, I think I would have had a career as a writer if I had more often ignored the blasted Midwestern work ethic that constantly whispered in my ear saying, “You need to have a job and a regular paycheck and health insurance and security.”

I think that chance-aversion also applies to my emotional life.  I’ve always been reserved, private, and cautious when it came to other people and I think I missed out on a lot of stuff because of it.  I pushed people away or didn’t pull people close enough and so my life has been more solitary than it needed to be.  It certainly is the reason I’ve never had a real romantic relationship.  Well, that and the fact that I never met Anderson Cooper.  He would’ve loved me if only our paths had crossed.

I regret that I didn’t do something about my chronic heartburn earlier.  That’s a big one right now.

But I think my biggest regret is that I never really figured out a way to feel comfortable in my own skin.  It’s like I never fit into the life I tried on for size.  It was probably the fat kid thing that I never got over, but whatever its root was, it limited me.  No one can be completely unlimited without winding up jailed, committed, or dead but if you live a limited life you might as well be all of the above.

So if I may offer some advice, either to you or to myself if/when I live through all of this it is as follows: don’t be so fucking afraid.  Take a chance or do something new, every day, even if it’s something small.  Eat at a restaurant you’ve never visited.  Take a different way to work and pay attention to what you are driving past.  Introduce yourself to that guy at the bar or that girl on the bus or the person at the bookstore looking at the latest from your favorite author who might just wind up being your new best friend.  Get a tattoo, learn how to dance, sing karaoke, go bungee jumping… whatever that thing is that you have wanted to do but haven’t… why not?

And also this: be passionate.  If I were the divine overseer of this universe, I would make it a requirement, sort of like picking a major in college.  Everyone would have to have one major and one minor passion, whether it be an artistic endeavor, a sport, or model railroading to name a few.  As long as it’s something that gets you excited, makes time fly, and gives you something to dream about, it counts.

And finally, I guess, just this… thank you.  As a writer, I like to think that every person is a story.  Stories are meant to be shared, so thank you for sharing yours with me and letting me share mine with you.

Do I have any last words?  Well, I suppose I’ll go with the ones that I took the time (and the pain) to have tattooed on my body – 21 of them incorporated into a tribal design on my arm, chest, shoulder, and back.  They are my words to live by.  I did, to some of them.  Others, I fell short on.  I hope you find your words, embrace them, recite them to yourself every morning when you wake up, and not just live by them, but live up to them.

Courage.  Integrity.  Joy. Life.  Devotion.  Indulgence.  Desire.  Commitment.  Chance.  Creativity.  Family.  Passion.  Peace.  Tolerance.  Acceptance.  Beauty.  Art.  Perseverance.  Inspiration.  Aspiration.

Wait… there’s one more. What is it?  Oh right… Perspective.