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Harry in Chicago


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Shortly before I go to swim and shower at the gym, Harry phones up from Chicago. He’s on his Sprint mobile phone. He barks through a tincan in a windtunnel for three minutes, then disappears, phones back. I tell him to phone me on the landline. He says he can’t because he’s outside, and he doesn’t have long-distance on his regular phone and it’s cheaper for him to call on the cell. I don’t quite follow. The connection fogs out again. Finally, third time around, I explain that I meant he should phone me on my landline.

Harry is one of those people who like to talk on the phone, and like most of that ilk, he likes to say the same thing over and over, which makes it doubly difficult for me because I don’t like to talk on the phone and I have a low boredom threshold. He keeps telling me how wonderful Chicago is and how glad he is he’s there, because he could find an affordable place to live, which he never could in New York. (Subtext: New York will not dote on me and I don’t have the money or connections to live there, so pooh on New York.)
Harry is now in his early 50s, but he got frozen into the mindset of a 20-something actor/waiter of the Nixon/Ford/Carter era. I could give you a laundry list of examples of this attitude, but then I’d be halfway into a novel. Suffice it to say that he sneers and carps at young people—I guess that would be anyone under 40—especially young gay men, who are far less cool and brilliant than Harry’s young peers were thirty years ago.

Harry’s been an offstage presence in my life since I was a kid. I first heard of him 32 years ago from a crazy girl from Chicago, daughter of a Sun-Times editor, who’d been in the nuthouse with him in Evanston, circa 1971. Harry’s story, in brief, was that he was very messed up. He and his younger sister went through a series of foster homes when small children, finally becoming adopted by a well-to-do childless couple in their forties. Harry worked as a child model and commercial actor, playing teenagers till he was about 25. Then he found he could earn oodles of money as a waiter and maitre d’, and that discovery shaped the next fifteen years of his life. Some people become accountants and lawyers, some turn to crime, others work in restaurants.

In the 80s Harry was a part-owner of a restaurant near South Street Seaport. Somehow his investment came to grief, so he parted ways with his partners and used his remaining capital to start a gay bookstore in Ft. Lauderdale. This failed and he went bankrupt. He then went to Vietnam and Bangkok to promote himself as a restaurant consultant. He was right in time for the economic downturn of ‘98-99. He wound up teaching English in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

He’d come armed with a presentation binder filled with encomia from restaurant associates, as well as headshots of himself as a young man when he appeared in ads for Strawbridge & Clothier and Seven-Up. The headshots greatly impressed the boys in old Sai-Gon, who made the intended inference that Harry was a bigtime American movie actor. Thus Harry, who likes oriental boys, had a grand old time in the Far East. But then there were visa and legal problems, and he washed up again on American shores, where he begged his semi-wealthy parents for a small stipend that would enable him to reestablish himself as an expert in the wine and food trade.

It was around this time, the year 2000, that I finally encountered Harry in the flesh. He’d taken a share in a nasty hi-rise apartment in Flushing, living with a half-Jewish woman many years his senior. The flatmate tried to seduce him sexually, then turned on him, finally calling the cops and accusing him of having beaten her up. Harry got hauled off to the pokey and spent the next six months in a horrendous legal maze, dividing his time between attending court-ordered Anger Management classes and asking his parents for enough money to pay for two hair-weave pieces. (His signature blond thatch had started going thin after 35.)

That whole year, 2000, was a hellacious time for poor Harry. Fortune kept tossing him nuggets that turned into fools’ gold. Dorothy Sarnoff, the public-speaking guru, flattered him and encouraged him to write a book and set up a successor business to her own. But then it turned out Dorothy was senile and apparently was under the impression that Harry was her nephew. Suddenly she wouldn’t see him anymore, because (he said) either her mind briefly cleared and she realized the mistaken identity, or maybe she’d found out he’d been arrested for beating up an old woman. Other promising jobs and prospects would pop up, then suddenly be withdrawn. Still an undischarged bankrupt from his Florida days, Harry now decided he was unemployable because his arrest and bankruptcy kept showing up on his records. Toward the end of the year, when he was still attending Anger Management sessions, he got a few months’ work demonstrating recipes at an upscale grocery chain in Manhattan. He lived in a room in the Greenpoint YMCA.

Finally, in early 2001, he cadged enough money from his parents to move back to Vietnam.

Last time I saw him he was back in Manhattan for a few days, preparing for a move to Ecuador, again as a teacher of English. Oh boy, I thought.

Now he’s back in America because he never finished his BA, and he needs a minimal degree to continue in his TOEFL career.

He’s the only person who’s had a career as chequered and scary as mine. But my life has not been as bleak. I’d like to keep it that way.

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