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My exaggerated life, p.31
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.31

           Pat Conroy

  I insisted before I went to San Francisco I was going to have some place in the South I could come to, to write. Moving west, I felt unsheathed from my home; I felt unearthed from the place I felt most comfortable in. So I bought a house on Fripp Island. It’s not a great house, but it’s a pretty house on the lagoon, and I think it saved my life later. I had just closed on this house on Fripp, and we’re getting on a plane in Atlanta to move to San Francisco. In the airport, Lenore does not understand why I’m so concerned about this hurricane I’m seeing on the televisions. It looked like a new planet is forming on earth, and I said Jesus God Almighty. So we head out there, we land, and I race for CNN. It’s a classic scene; the news guy’s hair is blowing. I think they only do one of those and show it for the next hundred years. The first thing I heard when I got off, the man says, “According to the latest calculations, meteorologists are saying that Hurricane Hugo will make landfall at a place called Fripp Island, South Carolina.” And I scream out in the San Francisco airport, “I’m fucked!” Lenore says, “It’s just a storm.” I said, “Look at that storm.” It veered north right before it got to Fripp and hit Charleston and north of Charleston, so it got my attention.

  By this time I had become very famous with The Prince of Tides. One reason my fame blew up was I spoke at the American Booksellers Association convention in New Orleans. The ABA was a big deal at that time. Walter Cronkite was giving the first talk, Carol Burnett was giving the third talk, with me squeezed in the middle. But it worked out for me very well.

  Those things were so unbelievably boring, they were happy to have Walter Cronkite, and happy to have Carol Burnett. Nobody knew who the fuck I was; the Southeastern Booksellers Association—in particular a South Carolina bookseller, Rhett Jackson—had fought to have me included. Of course Nan was worried that nobody would understand why. They’d be mad that I was in—she didn’t say that to me, but, you know, they’d be mad that I was picked over some better-known author. Also, she got really disturbed when people came up to take pictures. Back then, they didn’t have these cameras like they do now. They were all flashbulbs, and when they came up to take pictures, they would ignore me and do the people on either side of me. This really upset Nan. I said, “Nan, let me give you the old Citadel answer, okay?” And I said, “My blood is up, and I’m excited about this. Let’s see who they’re taking pictures of after the program is over.” It was one of my braggadocio moments when I realized Santini had risen.

  I saw Carol Burnett shaking and actually trembling.

  I said, “Miss Burnett, you seem nervous. You shouldn’t be.”

  She turns to me and says, “These are intellectuals.”

  I said, “Ah, they’re not intellectuals. Don’t worry about that.”

  She said, “Oh, they’re intellectuals. I’ve never spoken to intellectuals.”

  I said, “These are dopes. They’re all idiots. Don’t worry about it. They’ll enjoy you. They love your show. That’s why you’re here, so relax. You’ve been on stage before. You’ve been on Broadway. That would be scary; this is nothing.”

  But she couldn’t relax; she just couldn’t. I saw her fall apart that day. I’m thinking, you know, my God, if she’s nervous, I should be a wreck. But I was, for some reason, as calm as I can be. I was okay. I knew true tragedy in my life by then. I was married to Lenore, so I had already fucked my life up. There was nothing much more I could do to make it worse.

  In my speech, I talked about Mom, who had just died, and I was still emotional about her death. I talked about the printing end of The Boo and told the story of getting The Water Is Wide published, which they found, of course, hilarious, along with my befuddled first trip to New York. The speech went so well that Carol Burnett, when she got up, said, “I’ve got to follow that?” Afterward, I was mobbed. It took a while to get out of there. When I finally got down on the floor, as they call it, they’re waiting in line. The first person in line was Walter Cronkite, and my life had changed.

  But it was Lenore who saw how famous I’d gotten with The Prince of Tides long before I did. I just did not get it, because I’d sit in a room all day writing. When we got to San Francisco, she had lined up society people that she wanted to be with and told me I had to give her a year because I had ruined her social life in Atlanta. I never wanted to have a social life in Atlanta, and had no idea she wanted to have a social life in Atlanta, but how I ruined it for her: There was a huge article in the Atlanta paper before the Olympics came to town about the history of the Piedmont Driving Club. Everybody knew the Piedmont Driving Club had to do something, because the world population was coming to Atlanta, and its most important business organization did not allow black membership, women membership, or Jewish membership. At that time, the club was male and white and WASP, and that was it. The article gave the whole history of the club, and at the end it quoted a guy named Sims Bray, one of the past presidents of the Piedmont Driving Club. When he was asked why Jews were not allowed entrance, he said, “A club is like a home, and I would never invite my Jew friends to my home.”

  For a Southern gentleman, that was crudely put. Then I found out that a Jewish friend’s thirteen-year-old son read it in the paper and was weeping at the kitchen table. I told her, “I will make sure Sims Bray has my name on his lips when he dies.”

  So I wrote a letter to the editor which I think could have gotten me elected chief rabbi of Atlanta. I said, I would like to invite all my Jew friends to my home anytime they want to come, and all my black friends, please feel free to come. And all my women friends, come on in my home, you’ll be welcomed anytime you come. I like anybody to be able to walk into my home, because home means something different to me than it does to Sims Bray. I said because of Sims Bray’s statement, I am sending a donation to the National Organization for Women, and the NAACP, and I’m having a hundred trees planted in the State of Israel. They are calling it the Sims Bray Memorial Forest.

  The letter was one of my overdone, bring-me-their-heads moments, there’s no question about it. Well, kaboom, that hit. Next day this guy appears at the door enraged—Sims Bray Jr.—and I said, “Sims Bray Jr., I’d like to welcome you to my home.”

  He said, “My father’s not an anti-Semite.”

  I said, “I’m sure this is embarrassing to you.”

  It was an explosive thing, with letters to the editor for weeks. But one thing I don’t care about: I don’t mind what people say about me. They can say what they want. They’re Americans; I’m fine with it. I don’t give a shit about people giving me shit. It is not a requirement to like old Conroy.

  But Lenore is utterly dying. She said, “Now you’ve truly destroyed my social life in Atlanta.”

  I said, “We have no social life in Atlanta that I know about. How can I ruin it?”

  “You ruined it for good.”

  “Lenore, I’m trying to be a writer. I don’t want a social life.”

  I did not know Lenore wanted a social life, but boy did I find out. In San Francisco, she told me I owed her a year for the pain I caused her socially in Atlanta.

  I said, “Lenore, you know me well enough by now. I don’t give much of a shit about that.”

  She said, “Well I do, and you owe me a year.”

  Next thing you know, I’m invited to every party by the upper crust in San Francisco that I had no desire to meet or socialize with. The year I got out there, we went to a society dinner every night of our lives. Finally she had a place where she could make a great social life for herself. So we went to the mayor’s house; we went to the governor’s house; we went to this house; we went to that. Head of Pacific Electric Power, ambassador so-and-so. I went around every Goddamn dinner party on earth, meeting with the richest people in San Francisco. She loved it, enjoyed it, reveled in it. I have to admit the people I met were nice. They were great. What I could not stand is why Lenore wished to be around them. That I never got over. If she had said it’s the party of the year one more time, I was going to throw myself
off the Golden Gate Bridge.

  I also admit I am absolutely fascinated by the tribe because I have never been good enough to breathe any air that was available on earth. I came from such a dog-shit social situation that I realized everything was cut off for me, and everything always would be cut off for me. But what I can do is simply observe and enjoy. I’ve always liked the articulation and the rituals of the upper class a great deal. These beautiful houses, the sense of history, the sense of being part of history, the sense of being part of a legacy, of passing a torch—I liked all that. I liked the way they lived. I liked the things they had. I liked walking into a room where things were properly placed and things had certain value. I was always attracted to that. Where the upper class disappoint is they almost never embrace what is new, or different, or radical, or somebody who would rock their world or change them in any way. They are not people to do that. Anytime I was in one of my fights in my life, I look around, and those people are never there. I looked around, and they were never there. And I don’t think they like the iconoclasts they produce.

  There was one time at one party I went to, I saw a guy sitting alone so I went over to him, started talking. We had a great conversation. He was being ignored by everyone. The next day I come down to breakfast, and Lenore says, “Pat, you’re a genius. I don’t know how you do it, but you’re a genius.” I said, “What are you talking about?” Lenore, I did not know this, read the society page first. We were all over it that first year, to my horror and embarrassment.

  But the guy I was talking to was married to the society editor, and she praised me to the sky, because of her husband she dragged along to these things. No one would ever talk to him. He was not important to anybody. And my genius was I spotted the social editor’s woebegone husband sitting in a corner and wooed him because I knew it would do Lenore great service in the society pages of San Francisco.

  Anyway—parties—I was not meant for them. I could have been a quiet, contemplative Trappist monk eating canned peaches. I would have liked that. I think I would have enjoyed praying and having no one bother me. Except of course I would piss off the director general somehow and be thrown out of the order.

  The first time I had seen Tim Belk in San Francisco was after he moved there with his wife Diane when I was still living in Beaufort. At that time, I didn’t know what gay was; we were so naïve then. I certainly didn’t know what guys did to each other. Tim says even now, Pat, you don’t know they’re gay unless they’re wearing a dress. He knew when he was three, he told us later, but still he got married to Diane. A year after they were married, she said “Pat, can I ask you a personal question?”

  “Sure, Diane, go ahead.”

  She said, “I just want to ask you how long in theory does it take for a man and a woman to make love after they get married?”

  I said, “Well, it depends, Diane. It depends on a lot of different factors. I mean, you have the ceremony and you ride away in the car to where the honeymoon is. This could be, you know, hours away. Then you get to the room and sign in. You go in there, you get undressed, and after you get in the room, I’d say at the longest, ten, fifteen minutes.”

  Her face just dropped, and she says, “Pat, Tim’s never made love to me yet.”

  I said, “Well, you know, he’s shy.”

  And she said, “He says he’s just not ready yet.”

  I said, “Yeah, different guys take different amounts of time.” But I felt terrible for her.

  Later Tim would say the reason he got his divorce with his wife, Diane, is, “Pat, we had irreconcilable similarities.”

  It was after I had been fired from Daufuskie Island that I got a Ford Foundation grant to study nontraditional schools in San Francisco for three months to see if that was something that would be good for the South. They called it a leadership development fellowship, and the idea was to develop leaders in the South by giving us a different experience outside the South and then sending us back to the South where we would lead our asses off for the rest of our lives and then die. I want to say the Ford Foundation Fellowship came through in the spring or summer of 1971, after I’d lost the trial to get my job back. It paid $7,500, which saved us. This grant pulled me out of the first desperate situation we were in, but I had to move three kids and Barbara and two fucking dogs …

  My job was to look at these hippie schools in the communes around Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco. They weren’t worth a shit. I remember sitting around in a circle with the students, and their teacher’s passing a joint. This is a biology class; the teacher’s saying, “Now, yesterday, when we had the microscope here, did any of you have any feelings when you saw that paramecium dude eat that amoeba?” So these kids, “You know, yeah, I felt some compassion for the amoeba.” I’m listening to all this horseshit, and I thought it was just ridiculous. And of course, I’m from South Carolina with a Citadel degree: everything these people hated and were against in American society. But anyway, I went to about five schools there and made a devastating report about them when I got back.

  I thought, What a bunch of idiots, wasting these children’s time and my time. But I got to see Tim Belk.

  At night, Tim would tell the girls, Barbara and Diane, y’all need a night out, you girls, on the town. Pat and I will babysit. He meant Pat will babysit and I will go to gay bars. Then Tim started taking me out. We’d go to a restaurant, and then we’d go barhopping. Tim played in a piano bar called the Curtain Call, and one night Marlene Dietrich walks in and sings “Lili Marlene,” one of the magic moments of all of our lives. It was just a great thing.

  Tim had a lot of fans at the Curtain Call. I did not notice that all the people in the bar were men. And I didn’t know they were gay because they didn’t wear dresses. So Tim and I are sitting at the bar, and we’re talking. We’d always talk about literature and music, which, in the world according to Santini, was pretty gay talk. Anyway, I feel a tap on my shoulder, and one of Tim’s fans from the Curtain Call says, “Pat, can I have this dance?” I take a look around, and through this gauzy curtain I see all these guys dancing with each other. And I said, “Yeah, I can do this.” So we go through the gauze. When we get there, I say, “Do you mind if I lead?” He said, “A pleasure.” So, I twirl around. He kisses me on the cheek; I kiss him back. I sit back beside Tim, and I said, “Tim, you got something you need to tell me?” And Tim goes outside, he cries, and he said he’s been this way since he’s three.

  That was the beginning of just diving into gay life out in San Francisco. He took me everywhere to show me the gay netherworld. He took me to leather bars, and he took me to Southern gay bars. We went to all kinds of places, with the guys wearing chains, and my favorite was a leather bar, tough guys wearing spike armbands on their biceps. They all looked like Green Bay Packers. Tim said, “Don’t mess with these guys.” I said, “Do not worry.” One of them walked up with his lover, and I had never seen this in my life. He’s got this big dog collar on this guy and a huge belt. He walks the guy up and says, “Heel.” And the poor guy heels. He ties the guy up outside and says “Stay.” So I go outside and say, “You want to talk about how this happened to you?” Tim nearly died. He’s fighting and wrestling me to get me away.

  He says, “That’s exactly what I didn’t want you to do. You said you’d be open-minded.”

  I said, “I am open-minded. I just want to know what happened to the guy.”

  But it was a new world for me, and I enjoyed it. The guys were wonderful. They couldn’t have been nicer to me.

  Tim got mad at me a couple years ago when I thanked him in one of the dedications, “For my gay friend in San Francisco.”

  He calls me and said, “You outed me.”

  I said, “Oh, yeah, Tim. You’ve kept it a big secret. No one would ever suspect you’re gay.”

  He said, “Well, they don’t know it in South Carolina.”

  I said, “Tim, puh-leeze. If there’s anybody in America who doesn’t know you’re gay, let me know; I
’ll give them a phone call. We can get rid of the last one.”

  With South of Broad he said, “You made me too much of a queen.”

  I said, “I couldn’t make you enough of a queen if I’d put a crown on your head.”

  When the AIDS epidemic broke out, I called Tim from Atlanta. I said, “Tim, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing. Just quit right now.”

  “Pat, Pat, it’s a new Tim. You’re talking to Sister Mary Immaculata. I run past cucumbers at the market now. I don’t even think the dirty, dirty thoughts that kept me going as a young man.”

  But he’d already got it.

  Because of Tim Belk, I got involved in the AIDS epidemic when I moved out to San Francisco. We had our part to play in that, which was like nothing I’d ever seen. Nothing has quite made me that sad. Every knock I’d make on the door, a guy would open; he’d be dying. We would hear about Southern boys abandoned by their Southern families, dying alone in San Francisco. We looked for about ten of them. We almost always found them in the most squalid conditions, dying. I found one kid dead. And these are the best-looking guys—or they were before AIDS got them—the best-looking men you’ve ever seen in your life. They were all impoverished, and we would try to make their lives better. I would call all their parents, and the parents—you can just imagine. Some of these people were pathetic: farm people and religious people who just did not understand. Then I met with the director of Open Hand and delivered meals for a while. It turned out to be a large job, much bigger than I thought it was going to be. That took up a lot of time. Tim—I was worried about him all the time. He was dying. There was no question. He was dying. A few years later he was one of the first to get that new drug cocktail which saved his life, but at that time he was dying in front of my eyes.

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