Other than the steady sound of the rain on my umbrella and on the pavement, things were eerily quiet for downtown on a Friday morning. The streets hadn’t been closed off yet, but there was hardly a soul out and about when normally the streets would have been packed at nine AM. Bleachers were set up along Pennsylvania Avenue. The planned festivities included a small parade at noon - nothing like the one we have at Memorial Day and almost an embarrassment for a city of our size - but the children expect one and it’s all in fun. A bandstand had been set up across the way in the park, and today The Star would be highlighting some local talent, as well as bringing back a surprise guest and favorite son. Yeah, I knew the kids would have a great time.
I headed across the park over to Meridian, and then down to Monument Circle, and from there to the State House and behind it to the canal. Since the completion of the river park complex and the redevelopment of the canal, the focus of the Fourth of July celebration had shifted from the few blocks of parks between Pennsylvania and Meridian to the several miles of parkland along the river and canal nearby. This was very much a necessity, as people were increasingly favoring staying home in the suburbs, rather than having to deal with the crowds downtown. In more recent years, with lots of room to expand, free admission to the city and state museums and ample parking, the suburbanites had returned to the downtown area by the droves.
Rather than be left high and dry and lose out on the free publicity they used to receive,The Star decided to do something to attract people back to the traditional downtown area, which was actually a better area from which to view the fireworks, so they set up a bandstand in University Park. Indeed, 2008 would the tenth year of our hosting local talent in the park. All we had to do to make the people come was to have a great show and give people access to good food at a reasonable price.
Realizing I’d walked nearly a mile from headquarters, I decided I’d better hightail it back, or I might not be there when the kids started arriving for the festivities. Besides which, my own family would be arriving soon, and I didn’t want to miss seeing them, even though I knew from past experience they’d be fanning out and I’d only see them briefly - that is until it was time for the fireworks.
This year would be a little different. I was telling everyone to be back at the bleachers by seven o’clock tonight for our special guest star. We had reserved seating, but I doubted I’d be able to hold it for long once word spread as to who was performing.
Paul Levine was already milling around the lobby by the time I got back to Star building.
“You don’t have to wait around here,” I told him. “You’re on the approved guest list. You could have gone right inside.”
“I already found that out,” he explained. “Even though I’m no longer the president, I feel kinda like a mother hen. I made sure to get here early, and I’m waiting out here to make sure anyone else who shows up early is taken care of. It’s no big deal, Harold. I’m just doing what I always used to do for the GSA meetings.”
“That’s admirable, but there’s no need for you to miss out on all the fun. I’ll tell you what,” I said as I went up to Herbert, the guard at the information desk and told him what I wanted. Herbert typed in a few commands into his console and within seconds, a message scrolled across the visitors’ information kiosk that read, “Welcome North Central GSA.”
Paul smiled at me and said, “I guess anyone that comes in will know they’re in the right place when they see that.”
“So shall we head inside?” I asked.
“I see no reason not to, other than we’re a bit early,” he replied.
“No better way to keep ’em on their toes,” I said as I led Paul up to the Information desk, got him his Visitor’s badge and led him inside to where the food was set up. The servers were still in the process of putting the food out, but even still, it was an impressive spread.
“Wow,” was all Paul could say.
“I knew you guys would be impressed. Things are set up so you can take the food out to the street to watch the parade, for what that’s worth, or if you’d prefer, you can try to catch it from an upstairs window but, frankly, you’ll have better luck on the street. You can also take the food across to the park. The live music starts right after the parade and runs through 9:45, right up until the start of the fireworks.”
“9:45?” Paul asked. “The schedule only lists bands playing through 7:30.”
I smiled knowingly as I explained, “There’s always last-minute additions, and I know for a fact that we have some high-powered talent showing up late in the day.”
“OK, that’s cool,” Paul responded.
“Well it’s about time!” I heard a young voice call out as my son approached us. “I was beginning to think you were out on assignment or somthin’,” he continued as he approached with his blond, unkempt mop of hair and a plate piled high with the most unhealthy assortment of food imaginable. Twenty years of eating that crap would be enough to guarantee a coronary for sure.
“Paul,” I said making introductions, “I’d like you to meet my son, Bruce. Bruce, This is Paul Levine. Paul is with the North Central GSA. He’s one of a bunch of students who’ll be here today from the city’s north side.”
“Nice to meet you, Paul,” Bruce said as he attempted to pull a hand free from his plate without having the whole pile of food topple over. Finally, he gave up on trying to shake Paul’s hand with a sheepish grin.
“So where’s Mom and Sandy?” I asked Bruce. Sandy was our daughter, who was between her freshman and sophomore years at Northwestern University, in what was arguably the best school of journalism in the country. She was home for the summer, working at the paper. Needless to say, my wife, Peggy and I, were very proud of her. Not that we weren’t proud of Bruce, too, but at thirteen, he was much more into mischief than anything else.
“They’re around somewhere.” Bruce said with a shrug. Just then, Jeremy and David walked up to us. Bruce immediately recognized them and said, “Hey, you’re the guys who were on the front page of the paper!”
Jeremy blushed a deep red - it was so cute - but David took it all in stride as the confident young man he’d become. “That would be us,” David said. Recognizing Bruce’s predicament, he didn’t event attempt to shake his hand as he continued, “I’m David Reynolds and this dork is my partner in crime, Jeremy Kimball. And judging from the resemblance, I’m willing to bet you’re Harold’s son.” I was amazed. Almost no one ever saw the connection the way David did.
Apparently Bruce was rendered speechless as well. Finally, he said, “Yeah, well, I gotta go meet up with Larry. Se ya latter, Dad. Nice to meet you all. Bye.” And then he was gone.
“Sorry about that,” I apologized. “Bruce usually isn’t so rude . . . well, actually, he is, but he’s a teenager . . . a young teenager. He doesn’t exactly have any social graces.”
“Hey, it goes with the territory,” David said with his usual, lopsided smile that I’m sure the girls found irresistible . . . but then, that was me showing my heterosexual bias. I’m sure Jeremy found it irresistible, too.
Pretty soon, I was surrounded by members of the GSA and I was getting hungry watching everyone pig out while I had yet to get any food. I excused myself to go look for Peggy as gracefully as I could, but after twenty minutes of searching, I gave up and called her on my cell phone, only to hear her characteristic ring tone go off just a few feet away. We both turned toward each other and laughed. Finally, I got myself some food, which in typical news reporter fashion, I scarfed down.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the so-called new talent we were showcasing in the park today - it was all mostly aimed at younger audiences - and I certainly wasn’t interested in the parade, so my wife and I headed outside, umbrellas in hand, and over to the canal. It really was amazing how much things had changed since I’d first started working at The Star. Then, the canal was lined with boarded up buildings and warehouses that served as drug dens and havens for prostitutes and the homeless. Now, the canal sported a series of state-of-the-art museums, million dollar townhouses and upscale condominiums, not to mention beautiful parkland as it meandered its way up towards Broad Ripple. The canal was truly a waterway to nowhere - built in the day before railroads, it became obsolete before it was ever finished. Still, it had its charm and as a boy, I’d always enjoyed watching ducks waddle along its banks. It was nice to see the canal make a comeback.
Most weekends, couples could be seen in paddleboats taking leisurely rides up and down the canal, but today was special, in spite of the rain. For special occasions and holidays, the canal sported Venetian style gondolas and my wife and I decided to splurge on one, particularly as the rain was starting to let up and it seemed as if the sun might come out. Our gondolier helped each of us into the boat and then carefully wiped off our seats for us. We then took a leisurely trip up the canal past the crowds that were meandering along the canal banks, as music constantly seemed to permeate the atmosphere from several directions at once. If the intent was to simulate Venice at Carnival, they weren’t quite succeeding, but we had fun nonetheless. By the time we finished our ride, the sun was out in full force and we actually needed to put on sunscreen.
Peggy and I made our way back to the park by six and headed inside to grab some more grub. They had some great jambalaya and amazing Creole food the likes of which I’d never had outside of New Orleans. We loaded up our plates and went back outside to grab our seats and wait for the kids to show up. Before long, Bruce came by with a boy I’d never seen before. They were talking animatedly in some sort of jargon the likes of which made no sense to me. Finally it dawned on me - they were talking about a video game! At long last, Bruce introduced the kid to us.
“Mom, Dad, this is Eric. Eric, these are my parents.”
“Hey, I’m really glad to meet you guys,” Eric said, surprising me. It’s not every day a teenager is glad to meet their friend’s parents. Turning to me, he continued, “I really want to thank you for writing the articles on gay youth. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t written the first one back in January. I was sooo depressed when I started to realize I might be gay . . . and then there was this front-page story about it in the paper. My parents talked about it at dinner . . . about how great it was that gay kids were finally beginning to be treated fairly, and that’s when I knew my parents would be OK with it, so I told them right then I thought I might be gay. We had a long discussion that night. I learned a lot about myself, and I came to really appreciate my parents. I took my time and figured it out and, yeah, I’m gay, but so what? It’s only a part of me, but I’m still the same me I always was. Your article helped me realize that, and I’ll always be grateful to you for that.
“So anyway, thanks again for writing those articles. I’m really glad you did the anniversary story too. That was way cool.”
“Wow . . . I don’t know what to say. . . .”
“Man, I think that’s the first time I think I’ve ever heard anyone leave Dad speechless,” Bruce said as he laughed.
“Don’t count on it happening often,” I said in a quick comeback.
“Well, thanks again, man,” Eric said in parting. “I wanna go speak to David and Jeremy some more since I’ll be starting at their high school in the fall. I’m definitely joining the GSA!”
After he parted, I looked at Bruce in a new light. I’d never really thought about my own son’s sexuality before. Of course I knew he’d hit puberty and I expect he masturbated like all kids his age . . . it’d be unhealthy if he didn’t . . . but I’d never thought about whether he liked boys or girls. I’d heard him talk to his friends about the girls they thought were hot, but all boys did that, including gay boys who were trying to stay in the closet. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other whether my son was gay or straight, and I wanted to be sure he realized that.
“You know, Bruce,” I began, “I’ll always love you, know matter what, don’t you?”
“Dad, I like girls,” was his immediate reply.
“I’m not implying anything,” I said. “I just wanted you to know that I will accept you . . .”
“No, seriously, Dad, I really, really like girls. I’m straight, Dad and I know you’d still love me if I was gay . . .”
“Were gay,” I corrected him - I couldn’t help it.
“If I WERE gay,” he continued, “but I’m sorry to disappoint you . . . I’m not. But if it’ll make you any happier, maybe I’ll have a kid who’s gay someday so you can have a gay grandkid, if that’ll make you happier,” he said with his trademark, infectious laugh. I couldn’t help but laugh along.
Just then, there was a loud cacophony of guitar chords from the stage, followed by a rousing, “Ain’t that America . . .”
Even my son recognized the voice and did a double take. In the meantime, the chorus was in full swing and a thunderous cheer went up from the crowd as people started to realize who was singing from the stage. Soon the whole crowd was singing along to song after song. I couldn’t help but join in.
“. . . Feel’s so good. Ooo baby . . . feels so good. . . .”
“DAD!” my son interrupted me. “It’s hurt . . . not feel!”
“I know that,” I shouted back over the sound of the music. “I’m just not into that S&M shit . . . I mean crap . . . oh, never mind!”
Bruce giggled and rolled his eyes at me. It was a great father and son moment.
I went back to singing along. “The walls . . . tumblin’ down . . .” I was having a blast.
Finally, I heard the guitar chorus to one of my all time favorites. But the words that emanated from the stage were certainly something new:
Little ditty ’bout Jer’my and Davie Two American boys growin’ up in the city Jer’my’s gonna be a swimmin’ star Davie the pres’dent back seat Jer’my’s car
The whole park was in hysterics as the song continued.
Suckin’ on their hotdogs outside the Dairy Queen Dave on Jeremy’s lap He’s got his hand on his knee Jer’my say, hey Dave, let’s run off Behind a shady tree Dave say, I’ll have my way with you I’ll do what I please
Everyone was laughing and clapping and cheering, and when the song ended, the whole park erupted in a thunderous cheer. When the cheering died down, our special guest asked the crowd, “How’d you like the new lyrics?” The crowed again erupted in a loud cheer.
“Did you all see the front page of The Star this morning?” he asked. Yet again, a loud cheer arose from the crowd.
“Today we’re honored to have a contingent from the North Central GSA here with us as guests of The Star, in celebration of their special series on gay youth and today’s anniversary article, which was featured on today’s front page.”
Just then, there was a loud boo from someone in the park.
But our guest star wasn’t having any of that as he came back with, “What was that? Who said that? You wanna come up on stage and maybe share your opinions with the rest of us. Show your face up here in the spotlight where we all can see it? Maybe get your picture on the front page oftomorrow’s edition of The Star? . . .”
When the crowd remained silent, he continued, “I thought not. You know, those kinda attitudes drag us all down. Just the other day, in preparation for this concert, I was readin’ some facts and figures on the Web about gay and lesbian youth. Did you ever stop to think about what homophobia does to us all? How it makes all of us guys act ‘macho’ to try and prove we’re not gay when we’re growin’ up? And you know what? Gay guys do it too, so it doesn’t really mean anything at all.
“Not only that, but kids have sex at a younger age, just to prove they’re ‘normal’, and that only leads to more STD’s and unwanted pregnancies.
“Homophobia leads to violence, not only against gays and lesbians, but against people who are just different from what some people think is normal. I look out at this crowd and I see men and women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans and, yes, even some white folks, too. What I can’t tell you is who’s gay, straight, transgendered, bisexual or any other variety of sexuality. And you know what? That’s a good thing!”
A loud cheer went up from the crowd as he continued to speak, “More than a third of gay and lesbian students feel like outsiders at their own schools and two-thirds often hear homophobic remarks. One in five have been assaulted and most have faced verbal taunts within the past year. Hey man, this is America! We’re better than that.” A huge cheer went up from the crowd.
Our guest star waited until the cheer died down before continuing. “On a more serious note, I looked at a survey done after Mathew Shepherd was killed. Almost half of all gay youth have attempted suicide within their lifetimes, and nearly a quarter have done so within the past year. The average age at first suicide attempt. The average age at the first suicide attempt . . . just thirteen years old. That is why what The Star is doing is so important. By telling the stories they told last January and again in today’s paper, perhaps there will be fewer lives lost . . . . Fewer cases like that of poor John, whose tragic tale was told in today’s paper.
“I’ve read John’s blog on the Internet . . .”
“You mean Brian Philips,” someone in the crowd shouted out.
“Well, yes, John isn’t his real name, but we’ve been asked to keep his real identity private for the sake of his family and I am honoring that. But anyway, I couldn’t help but be struck by the eloquence of John’s writing, and how beautifully he expressed his feelings, the turmoil he felt inside and the emotional conflicts that made him choose to end his life rather than live a lie when he felt there was no possibility of escape from the life his parents wanted him to live. To me, John’s words begged to be set to music, and that’s just what I did. So tonight you are about to hear the world premier of my newest song, “Why Do I Feel This Way?”
It had started to rain again, but no one seemed to care as the stage erupted in wondrous guitar harmonies, and then our guest star broke into song. The melody was haunting and although I’d read Brian’s blog, I’d never really felt the words this way before . . . they never connected emotionally before. Set to music, they moved me as only true poetry ever could. To me, it was one of his best songs, ever. In truth, it was one of the most moving songs I’d ever heard, made all that more real by the fact that the real Brian Philips had given his life for it. I was literally in tears by the end of the song, and I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t from the rain!
Our guest star ended by saying, “Pretty powerful stuff, huh?
“Well, thankfully, not all gay kids have it so tough these days. Like I said at the beginning, we have a real Jeremy and David here tonight, who were featured on the front page of this morning’s Star. How many people here think they make a cute couple?” A loud cheer went up from the audience, with more than a few catcalls and whistles. I could only imagine how embarrassed David and Jeremy must have been. “Jeremy, David, come up here on stage so the audience can get to know you a little better.” Well, this was certainly not something we’d planned. I expected they’d be there, but beyond that, I couldn’t be sure. Knowing David and his confidence, however, he’d have no trouble getting up on the stage, and sure enough, he was tugging a reluctant Jeremy along with him.
Our guest star shook hands with each of the boys and then put his arms around each of their shoulders as he stood between them. “Let me introduce these remarkable young men to you all. On my right is Jeremy Kimball, who this year won more events than any high school boy of any age to become the state swimming champion, and he did so at the age of fourteen. He was only a freshman, if you can believe it. He was also a center forward on the freshman soccer team last year, as well as running cross country. And while not being a world-class athlete and getting his picture in The Star, he also managed to get himself elected to the student council.
“This giant on my left is David Reynolds. Dave is also an athlete, grabbing second place among freshmen in the central region in cross country, and grabbing headlines in other ways, being elected as the first openly gay class president of the incoming sophomore class of his high school. I’ve read this guy’s interviews and I’ve seen him on TV and let me tell you, he is one shrewd politician. I have a feeling we’re all gonna be hearing a lot from him in the future.
“But enough about what great guys you are . . .” which got both of them laughing, “I understand that you have a big anniversary coming up!”
Even from a distance, I could see both boys get a dreamy look in their eyes. David didn’t waste time in stepping up to the mike and saying, “Yeah, on July 28, it will be a year since we became boyfriends . . . a year since we fell in love.”
There were a bunch more hoots from the audience before our guest star continued. “Your first anniversary as boyfriends. Well to mark this special occasion . . . and our great country’s birthday, we’ve prepared a special cake.” I was surprised. I hadn’t heard anything about this, and Jerry sure hadn’t mentioned it to me. Of course, once our events team gets hold of something, projects take on a life of their own and someone obviously had either decided a cake would make a nice addition to the show, or perhaps our guest star himself had come up with the idea after haring about the story we were running. In any case, an enormous sheet cake was being wheeled onto the stage. “I know you all can’t see this out there, but this cake’s just about big enough for everyone that wants one to get a piece. It’s decorated with an American flag in red, white and blue, and on the top, is says, ‘Happy Birthday America,’ and on the bottom, it says, ‘Happy Anniversary Jeremy and David.’
“Now, boys, what I’d like you to do is to cut a small piece and feed it to your boyfriend, with the operative word being ‘feed’, and then we’ll slice the rest of it up and distribute it to the audience.”
David and Jeremy were on their best behavior as they each took hold of a knife and cut the cake, feeding each other a piece of cake, while the band played the melody to the old song, Cut the Cake. Afterwards, they leaned in and gave each other a chaste peck on the lips. Just then, the band music faded away and was replaced by the sound of the symphony playing The Stars and Stripes Forever, coming through the stage speakers as the first of the fireworks started exploding overhead. I looked at my watch and, sure enough, the time was exactly 9:45.
We all stayed through the full program, in spite of the steady rain. When the fireworks display ended, our guest star played contemporary patriotic music as people slowly filed out of the park and made their way back to their cars. My family and I didn’t even bother - from past experience we knew that it would be some time before traffic would clear enough to even get out of the parking garage, let alone escape the downtown area for our homes in the suburbs. It was at times like these I wished we lived in a loft downtown.
Jerry Cohen caught up with me as we were about to head back inside the Star building. “Harold,” he said, “That was one hell of an article you put together . . . one of the best you’ve ever done. Why don’t you take tomorrow off? . . . You deserve it.”
“Thanks, Jerry,” I said, nearly speechless for a change. “Truthfully, it was one of my favorite assignments.”
“Not to change the subject, but you’re a fan, aren’t you?”
“A fan?” I asked in confusion.
“Of our guest star,” he clarified.
“Oh, yeah,” I answered. “Big time.”
“Why don’t you come with me,” he said as he led my family and I back into the park and back behind the stage, where the stage crew was busily at work disassembling the electronic gear. Off to the side I could see him pitching in, doing some of the work himself like a regular stagehand rather than the rock star he was, and this in spite of the quadruple bypass surgery he’d had a few years back.
Jerry went right up to him and said, “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet. This here’s Harold. He’s the fellow who wrote the article in today’s paper.”
Our guest star turned toward me and smiled - he didn’t have the hair he had in his youth, but his smile was every bit as genuine. “Harold, it’s a pleasure to meet you. That was a wonderful article. It really moved me, and it’s been a long time since a newspaper story did that to me. I’ve always enjoyed writing music about the underdog and while it might not have been cool to be gay when we were growing up, I knew some gay kids, and I wasn’t as nice to them growing up in my small town as I should’ve been. Tonight, thanks to your story, I started making up for that, and from now on everyone’ll know that I stand for equality when it comes to sexual orientation, even when it comes to ‘the heartland’.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Harold. Truly and honor.”
After I finally got my voice back, I answered, “The honor is mine. I’ve always enjoyed your music. It’s heartfelt, and filled with meaning. Thank you for coming here tonight, and for putting Brian Philips’ poignant words to music.”
“Harold, if it saves one life, Brian’s life will have been worth something more than just another sad story of a gay teen. If my music can serve as the conduit to make the saving of a life possible, then I’ll have saved a life, too. But it was your article that brought the two of us together, so in a sense, it will also be you who is saving a life. It’s not every day we get to do that in our work, now, is it?”
I looked up into his eyes and grasped what he was saying and, in that instant, I realized he was right. Most of the time I just report the news. I tell people what’s new in their lives . . . I report the news, but nothing more. But with this article, I’d done something so very important for a significant portion of our community’s youth. I’d helped them realize they’re normal, and that they’re not alone . . . there are many teens like them out there. Perhaps Ihad saved a life. Perhaps more than one.