By Dhyan Atkinson
The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was crafted by the gay guys downstairs when I was living in San Francisco. One of them was an airline steward who flew regularly to Hong Kong. One year he came back with a whole suitcase full of little satin animals. All of them were about the size of the palm of your hand and they were lovely! White satin horses with satin piping for the saddle and bridle, white rabbit fur for the mane and tail. Elephants. Swans. Puppies. Giraffes. Seals. Tigers. Dragons. Each one more beautiful than the next. That year the only ornaments on their tree were the satin animals.
But they didn’t stop there. The tree was strung with tiny white lights and garlands of pearls but the best thing by far was that they had covered the tree with live flowers. They attached little flower tubes to the branch tips to hold the water and covered the tree with roses, carnations, lilies, and baby’s breath. The tree was breathing-takingly beautiful.
This one memory always spills the whole treasure box of wonderful quirky memories of being friends with a house-full of gay guys in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Michael was my closest friend. I was a 20 year old fresh from the suburbs of Kansas City. He took me on excursions to China Town, Fisherman’s Wharf, a real Mexican bakery, the Castro district, and the cliffs where the hang-gliders floated in and out of the banks of fog like pterodactyls.
He had a car. I didn’t. I would beg. “Michael, take me to the ocean!”
I could take the bus during the day but it was lovely to go at night.
“No! You always get wet and get my car full of sand.”
“Not this time I won’t! I promise!”
“You said that last time! I was vacuuming out the car for days.”
“Please, please, please?”
And he would give in. He always did. And we would walk along the sand with the night breeze in our faces and the sound of the crashing waves in our ears trying to stay in that space where the sand is wet and firm but not too close to the wave line. Of course, we would get to laughing and talking, running, spinning, dancing and sooner or later one wave would come up the beach farther than the others… and we would both get wet to the knees dragging sand into the car despite the most sincere of intentions.
Michael and I took the bus one day to Market Street and went exploring downtown. As we were coming home we stood at a bus stop and he nudged me with an elbow. “See that guy over there – the one with the bandana hanging out of his back pocket? That means something. He is signaling that he is available and his preferences.”
“Really? What are his preferences?”
Suddenly Michael shut up like a clam. “I’m not telling you that.”
“Oh come on! Tell me.”
“Not a chance. You don’t actually want to know.”
“But I DO want to know. Okay, if you won’t tell me I’ll go ask him.”
“You will do nothing of the sort!” an alarmed Michael hissed at me. And to make double sure I didn’t, he grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me down the street to another bus stop. He didn’t let go of my arm until we had passed the guy who, it turned out, was waiting for another bus. To this day I have no idea what that particular bandana signal meant. And I’m still curious!
One time my housemates arranged for a group camping trip to Yosemite. I signed up and invited Michael to go with us. As the days passed one housemate after another had to cancel until only Michael and I were left. We decided to go by ourselves. As we headed out of the city in his car, Michael became increasingly nervous. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked as we drove through a sleepy little small town much like my grandparents’ little town in Nebraska. He was acting like we were driving through Watts.
“They burn people like me at the stake in places like this,” Michael told me.
“You are with a woman!” I retorted.
“They can tell,” he replied darkly.
But for the life of him he couldn’t actually be discrete. Our first morning in Yosemite he came out of his tent wearing a blue and white kimono, Japanese sandals, and carrying a large waxed paper umbrella. I will never forget him sitting on his heels poking with a stick at the fire with his umbrella over his head.
When I came back from the ashram in India Michael invited me to stay with him for a few days before I left for the Midwest. His roommate, Robert, took us to lunch. He had recently gotten a job catering and entertained us with tales of extravagant courses and statues of ice. At one point in the description he used the phrase, “The food that was happening on the table.” I let that pass for about two beats and then stopped him, “The food that was HAPPENING on the table?” I said. “What in the world?” But that was the way they were… even the English language was polished up, rearranged, and presented like the most innovative of hors d’oeuvres.
One last story, I would never have found this out except that I was actually staying in the house that one time. One of Michael’s housemates slept in a clown suit. Yes, he did! It was white with big multi-colored polka dots and sported ruffles at collar, cuffs and ankles. I encountered him first thing in the morning in the hallway, shuffling grumpily toward the kitchen, an overnight shadow darkening his jaw, headed for the coffee. My little blue eyes just popped open in surprise. “What’s the matter with you?” he growled. “Never seen a grumpy clown in the morning before coffee?” Well, actually, no!
Those were the days when AIDS was just starting to devastate the gay San Francisco community. I lost contact with Michael, Robert and the grumpy clown after I left SF but I worried about them over the next few years. Michael wasn’t but everyone else in the house was very promiscuous. I hate to think of people for whom “food happened on the table,” who went camping with Japanese paper umbrellas and whose Christmas trees blossomed with live flowers… so free spirited, colorful, creative, crazy and fun… dying of AIDS but I suspect some of them did.
But they live for me again each Christmas when I remember their shining tree.
© 2014 Dhyan Atkinson. Dhyan has been a writer since she was a child. Today, through her business Five Essential Skills, Dhyan teaches business skills to small business owners including personal historians.