Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they were.
I got a huge bottle of Halston 1-12 on eBay for ten bucks and free shipping but it didn't quite remind me of getting ready to go out in Philadelphia in 1984, but Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Tea—even as I am opening the box, which hasn't changed in 40 years—is able to put me right back into the pyramid at the top of the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the 1970s. This sensory umbilical cord has never weakened, much less been severed. It persists, powerfully, to this day. Like C.S. Lewis' wardrobe, there is always an exciting trip waiting inside.
I don't remember how old I was, or when it was that we went to New York, or how many times we went (I think it was more than once). I just remember that I was a teenager, that Amtrak was so crowded we had to stand the whole way from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia—how my mother bitched!—and that she was using a set of pink luggage.
I remember the luggage because my brother said "Oh MOM! It's the color of PEPTO BISMOL!" Always the exaggeratedly queer inflection, a sort of mash-up of Phyllis Diller and Margo Channing.
Actually, Tim Curry in Rocky Horror is spot on, as if he had modeled the manner of speaking on Bruce—which I have occasionally thought he did.
I had no awareness that my brother had been briefly rather famous, or that he was interesting or even infamous, or that he was gay or talented or doomed. I thought the hotel was a little depressing, with heavy glass doors that didn't seem to match the architecture and frightening, glacially delayed elevators. I must have been in something like 9th or maybe 10th grade (or was I even younger?), and all I thought about was God and sex. I knew that Bruce knew this, somehow, and I avoided him.
I had no interest in New York City, or my family, just like kids today occupy only their own sphere of interests. Nothing about childhood has changed; it's only us that have changed.
Down on the street, I was faced with newsstands full of pornography, and from choices like Blueboy and Mandate I chose Honcho (it seemed the dirtiest) and ran up the stairs of the pyramid with the magazine tucked into my shirt as my mother called after me. I shoved it under the mattress on the floor all the way at the top (you reached it by climbing a short ladder) where I was to sleep that night. I wonder if Bruce found it after we left.
Bruce used to drop his tuxedo cat "Chaplin" from the top of the pyramid to the bottom; apparently the cat loved this. He cradled Chaplin in his arms and blew onto his belly—again, another ritual enjoyed by both. Chaplin ate only cottage cheese and Brewer's yeast powder, and after Bruce died and my mother started getting ill Gary and I took him to live with us in Washington DC. He lived to 20.
These are stories of the family that wasn't able to engage my attention when I was 10 or 14 or 16, or something. There are many more. But my family was all gone by the time I was 42. They were all selfish and flamboyant and alcoholic, and, unsurprisingly, my genes don't work in my favor in a small Maine town—or anywhere, really, and I've come to prize the steadiness of the personalities that surround me as if it was an art.
And today I am nursing my hangover with peppermint tea, and I am back in that big room.
One big room. It felt colossal, and white—all white—with the bank of three arched windows like a theater box that looked down on West 23rd Street. The ceiling—if there was one—I don't remember one—seemed remote as the heavens. At one end of the room a white chair and matching love seat formed an el, surrounded by nothing. It was terribly spacious.
I guess Bruce had no ginger ale or coffee, and so I had my first cup of this stuff that smelled so exotic, the large tea bag like an area rug at the bottom of the small cup. Of course, I hated it. Like his baked peaches with—I don't know what was on top. My mother winked slightly at me as if to say "Eat it and be nice."
From another spot upstairs you looked out on the Hudson River. I stood there for a few minutes. Downstairs, Bruce pinched my mother's ass or something and I heard her say—in her somewhat masculine voice she reserved for anger, yet not without a trace of being slightly pleased—"Bruce! I'm your MOTHER!" He enjoyed breaking taboos.
Their relationship had been complicated and intense. He was about 14 when my mother left the family and moved in with my father. Bruce's father remarried quickly—the piano teacher!—and Helen told me Bruce idolized his mother: "He thought she was so beautiful." They took a painting class together (my uncle in Maine also took a painting class about the same time; what was it about painting classes in the early 1960s?) and clowned for photographs on the beach. They were friends.
On one of my trips to Pennsylvania in the 1990s my mother and I went to pick up a large trunk of Mr. Campbell's photographs and memorabilia from down in the rec room (I remember Helen's free weights—free weights at 70!), and when we got it back to my mother's apartment we found a bunch of snapshots, bound together in those yellow Kodak booklets, taken during one of the family's vacations at Beech Hill Pond. In the picture, Bruce is very young, wading in the shallow water as his mother sits on the rocks with her legs pulled up to her chest. She is all in white—white Keds, white shorts, and a simple white pullover—relaxed and looking at her golden boy standing in the lake. The photo was luminous and posed like a Vermeer—instantly frameable, unforgettable.
After casually flipping through one of the booklets of pictures, my mother asked me to take them all back to DC with me. Because it was not (exactly) my family, not my vacation, not even my lifetime, I left them with her. She gave them to her oldest son and they were stolen from his car before dawn one winter morning as it was parked on a Philadelphia street.
So these trips back have their value, not advertised on the box. Celestial Seasonings, the hippie tea my brother served me in some big city that didn't make much of an impression on me (the copy of Honcho was just burly guys in leather—never my thing).
How mundane yet elegiac, our memories.