This post is dedicated to Jonathan Kemp, whose latest book Twentysix has just arrived from the printers and is available on order from Amazon. It’s twenty-six prose poems about random sexual encounters, or it was when I read an early version of it. When we were a couple, I made Jonathan write me in as one of the stories, but I might not have made the final cut; I wasn’t exactly a random encounter, nor am I exactly prose-worthy in bed. (This just in: Jonathan’s first book, London Triptych, is available as of today in the US.)
A couple of years ago, Jonathan sent me this video as a sort of birthday card. It’s mandatory viewing to follow the rest of this post:
The moment the video was over, my mouth was agape and little cartoon hearts could be seen popping joyously around my head. I’ve known many aging alcoholic drag queens in my day, but none could surpass Royce, even if she is a real woman. This wasn’t mere bitterness or curmudgeonry, Royce’s was cuvée de prestige vitriol of the finest vintage. I watched it over and over and over again. My roommate at the time was a big burly gay plumber named John Wood, who is more masculine than any straight man I’ve ever met, like something Tom of Finland could at best imagine and draw as a cartoon, but would never meet in real life. He and I stomped around New York belting “Oh, just SHUT UP! You know nothing! God on a wheel!” for an entire August, until one day John said, “We need to stop. I think we’re annoying people.”
Over beers the other night at Wurstkuche in the Toy District area of downtown LA, I tried to convince my friend Michael Mangia, the Lord of Gay Speed Dating, to come on a quest with me for Royce and Marilyn. Michael was born and raised in Hollywood, which means he was weaned on insouciance and chill. “They’re gone,” he shrugged. “Either they’re in a nursing home, or the hipsters moved them out.”
But I couldn’t give up. I needed to know what had happened to my grisly golden girls. I poured over everything I could find about them, going line by line again through an LA Weekly article that was written about Royce and Marilyn around the time the videos first appeared online, posted by an anonymous videographer. I Googled upon another rather sweet blog entry by a manager of the “world famous” Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, reminiscing about Royce tottering around Rodeo Drive and environs in the early 90s:
“In no uncertain terms this vision in period black Chanel suit, matching hat, handbag and shoes, set me straight on what was wrong with the world, covering everything from the recent reopening of the hotel itself, the new clientele, even down to the shoes I was wearing with my suit. All of this said, in one long breath, a few drawn out succinct sentences, direct and to the point with laser precision. As quickly as she had sailed through the double bronze doors of the entrance, she exited just as quickly out onto Rodeo Drive and continued majestically up the drive, attracting attention everywhere she went.”
The videos online were taped in 1999 in a hotel downtown, which is never specified, but after looking at the clues, I thought I had a lead. In another video, which is not as popular as “You Know Nothing” but much funnier, Royce does a sort of granny interpretive dance to Quando, Quando in a dive bar on the ground floor of what looks to be a hotel:
I gathered the bar was in their “garbage hole” hotel because you get a glimpse of a lobby at the beginning of the clip, and I couldn’t imagine Royce tottering very far through downtown LA, drunk, in heels and an outsized Hasidic fur cap and gold lamé top right now in 2011, much less at the turn of this century, before the Hipster Invasion. Sifting through articles, I managed to identify the dive as Hank’s Bar and Grill on the ground floor of the Stillwater Hotel on Grand Street. Was that the “shithole” Royce brays about in the video?
Let me add an apologia of sorts here. I’m not heedlessly insensitive to the fact that videos of two indigent old women stuck in a transient hotel, in an area of town far from the Beverly Hills they loved and haunted for decades, is actually deeply sad. There is a grotesque freak show attraction to what you are watching, for sure, but it doesn’t even elicit much schadenfreude from me; the pathos is too overwhelming. What mesmerizes me the most about Royce is the way she talks, the impressionistic, delirious patter that is, well, reminiscent of the way I think and speak when I’m on a rant.
This is the transcript of the first portion of Royce’s monologue in Quando, Quando video, just the way the manager of the Beverly Wilshire described her:
“Oh, that fleabag, that garbage hole. I love to dance. I do South American dances. I do sambas. I am a fantastic dancer. I’m not ringing my own bell. Quando, quando. Quando, quando. When I was three years of age I studied ballet. Paris. Hmmm!”
Until a couple of years ago, which is to say rather late in life, I never paid much attention to the way I rant. I just assumed everyone understood me as clearly as I understood what I was trying to express. Occasionally a friend would comment on how impressionistic and random my speech can get, especially when I am excited, but it didn’t seem to me to be anything few people could follow. And maybe living in London for so long, where the art of conversation is at its highest form in our language, allowed me to develop my true voice; the Brits, and creative writing professor Jonathan Kemp in particular, really got what I was trying to say, no matter how I said it.
It wasn’t until I moved back to New York that I realized I needed to start reining it in, to be careful of how I expressed myself. The revelation happened when I was dating I man I will call John because, well, his name really was John. Like John Wood the plumber, he was from Boston.
One day he said to me, “Dude, I only understand fifty percent of what you’re saying,” which was startling because I understood myself one hundred percent completely. Another red flag should have been when he looked at the stack on my bedside table and said, “I never read books.” But I ignored it because not only was John one of the sexiest, best looking men I’d ever been with, he also did this roleplaying thing in bed where he pretended to be in love and swept up by the romance of us. He got off on that, but it was pretend, regrettably.
Method actors have always freaked me out.
But that got me thinking—well, to be honest, obsessing—about the way I think and speak and the kinds of men I can be with. And I started to understand that great sex and good looks did not a relationship with me make. I needed both of those, plus a mind that could grasp intense abstraction on the fly. Not something you find on Manhunt.net, which is where I’ve met a few Johns Of That Ilk.
Someone I communicate with easily, and who is way more abstract and impressionistic than I am, is fashion designer Mary McFadden, officially a National Living Treasure, among her other accolades. Mary is more than just a close friend, she’s my very own Auntie Mame. Given that I have known her since we met in the garden of a party at MoMA when I was twenty-three, I quite possibly owe a lot to the way I express myself to her influence; she has determined major events in my life, like getting me into film as a writer and simultaneously introducing me to India, as well as to the man who would become my brother-in-law, and on and on.
Like Royce, Mary can go off on tangents and create realities that seemingly have bearing to this world, but are often outright fantasies, sort of like verbal Steampunk. The best thing is, she gives lectures in major museums around the country accompanied by a slide show of historical works of art that have inspired her collections throughout the years. She tells me that the lecture has been tidied up considerably since I last read a transcript of it, but at one point it was nearly pure fiction. But it sounded so credible and accurate that nobody questioned it for years.
My favorite example of one of Mary’s riffs is when she gave a Thanksgiving prayer/toast in front of a group of about twenty people in New York, all of whom were foreigners, with the exception of me and her daughter, Justine. Mary, whose imperious demeanor and tone of voice make her absolutely convincing, soon went off on a delirious side trip about how Benjamin Franklin decided the colors of the American flag should be red, white and blue because those are the colors of a turkey’s feathers. “And that’s why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving,” she said in conclusion. “May Allah bless you all.”
So yesterday, undeterred by Michael Mangia’s attempts to dissuade me from my quest, I set off in search of Royce and Marilyn, starting with the Stillwater Hotel, which is only a couple of blocks from my gym. I was incredibly excited, although it seemed probable that they were either dead or in a nursing home, or indeed pushed out somewhere by the hipsters.
When I walked into the lobby, two things hit me: a) this was indeed the location from the very first seconds of the Quando, Quando video, and b) it smelled like a mid-level hotel in a mid-sized city in India: disinfectant, curry and mildew. My eyes followed my nose to the end of the hall and settled on the entrance of Gill’s Indian Restaurant. The old India hand in me instantly processed the tamarind undertones of the curry scent as being particular to a mid-level hotel in the Punjab. These were Sikhs; Gill is an alternative last name to Singh for that religious group.
There was nobody at the front desk, so I ventured to my right, following the traveling shot in the Quando, Quando video, into Hank’s Bar, a true dive with two barflies of the female gender perched at opposite ends enjoying a liquid breakfast/lunch of scotch on the rocks and beer.
And there it was. The dance floor where Royce busted a move for Quando, Quando. I was standing in the middle of it. I was living an internet legend, in my gym gear.
Back out in the lobby, the only official people I could see were in Gill’s Travel Service, which again looked like something that had been transported from a Government of India-run Ashok Hotel in Ludhiana, Punjab. An old Sikh gentleman with fantastic white mustachios, beard and turban was entering something officious into a ledger book by hand.
“Sat sri akal!” I boomed in my best impersonation of a Punjabi warrior, hoping to immediately elicit Mr. Gill’s affection by greeting him in the respectful Sikh way. He looked up, absolutely unimpressed, and grunted to a middle-aged woman—his daughter?—to his left, who in turn handed me over to a young Latina, the putative front desk manager.
“How can I help you?” asked the Latina as she quickly led me away from the grunts of the curmudgeonly Mr. Gill.
“Yes, um, I was wondering. Is this where Royce and Marilyn lived?”
“It is,” she replied. My head was swimming with excitement. How wrong you were, Mr. Mangia! All of that speed dating has made your judgments snappy.
“Are they still here?”
“No. Marilyn passed away, and Royce lives in the Olive Building over on 8th and Olive.”
That was a block and a half away, so I scooted over there, but what I found was sadder and more dispiriting than anything in the videos. If Royce thought the Stillwater was a “garbage hole,” it is the World Famous Beverly Wilshire Hotel compared to the Olive. That this is Royce’s final home, what seems to be an urban hospice for indigent women, is heartbreaking.
I didn’t go in. I couldn’t, anyway; there was no reception, you needed an electronic key to get in, and two elderly Korean women with walkers were blocking the entrance. I didn’t want to move them just to disturb a cantankerous old woman who was not ending her days with the dignity she had so passionately embraced.
I got it. I wouldn’t want me to come barging in to that scene.
As I backed away from the Olive and made my way up the street, it was the first time since I was a young man that I fantastized I had enough money to make magic happen, to whisk Royce away to a place where she might fade out in even a little bit of the style to which she has always so fervently and vocally believed she was accustomed.
UPDATE: Royce sadly passed away in early 2012.