December 1st, 2015

PA Barns

Life Is A Banquet...

"Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" That quip, which the character Auntie Mame says throughout Patrick Dennis' book, play and movie by the same name, pretty much sums up its message and theme. It is a wonderful outlook on life. And since today is World AIDS day, I'm remembering the guy who first told me that line and who in many ways was my own personal "Auntie Mame". His name was Mike Bryant Ellis. He would have been 64 this year, but he passed away on June 1, 1994 from AIDS. Mike was the first of the many friends I lost to that awful disease back in the 80s and 90s when so many of my friends were sick with it and dying right and left. It is still a tragedy today, but nothing like it was back then when there were no drugs to treat it and contracting HIV was a death sentence.  Thankfully today it is become pretty much a manageable disease, friends aren't dropping like flies, and people are living well with the disease and a cure is apparently fairly close from what I read.
I met Mike in 1978 when I was 16 years old,  at the very first radio station I ever worked for -- KQPD in Ogden, Utah. Mike was the assistant program director, and I was a newbie radio announcer hired to work the worst possible shifts imaginable -- Midnight to 8am on Saturday and Sunday. What made it worse was that KQPD -- who's slogan was "Cupid -- Love Radio, Almost 102 FM Stereo," played what was known in the industry as "Beautiful Music" and what the rest of us called "Elevator Music". You know, the stuff you hear in the background of stores and elevators -- instrumentals of popular songs. "Almost 102" because it's dial position was 101.9. We broadcast from studios on the top floor of the Bon Marche department store in downtown Ogden Utah. I had to take the bus to and from work because I didn't have a car. You have no idea what it was like to try and stay awake at 3am while playing that music! But I wanted to be a radio announcer and you have to start somewhere. The photo above is taken at our favorite burger joint -- Millies, on 21st South Street in Salt Lake City sometime in the late 1980s. Every time I'm in Salt Lake I still stop by Millies, which thankfully is still there and hasn't changed one iota except for the prices, and have a burger to remember my friend. That's me on the left -- I don't know the date of the picture but it was a while ago when you could still get a 1/4 pounder for 99 cents.

Mike and I became fast friends. We had the same silly outlook on life, and the same love of radio and broadcasting, of old cars and trains and travel, and although he was 10 years older than me, we still had a great friendship that lasted until he died. We worked together at several stations in the Salt Lake City metro area as long as I lived in Salt Lake and Mike taught me more about radio than anyone I know. I still have a some cassette tapes of my early shows with his critiques of them.

Mike was, without a doubt, one of the bravest people I knew. He was proudly and openly gay. In Salt Lake City in the 1970s and 1980s this was not at all an easy thing. And me, a guy who was struggling to come to terms with being gay (in Salt Lake City in the 1980s) he was a role model -- teaching me the ins and outs of the underground gay community in Utah back then. He was my closest friend, mentor, and confidant, and in many ways, he was my Auntie Mame and I was his Patrcik Dennis. In fact it was Mike who first showed me this movie, which became one of my all-time favorites, and one that I can pretty much recite word for word along with the movie still to this day.

When I moved to Phoenix to go to Graduate School at ASU, Mike would make the drive down a couple of times a year. He'd stay on my couch and load up his old Caddilac with a lot of cheap liquor and take it back to Utah where booze was (and still is) sold by the state in state owned stores that are expensive and hard to find. I'd go to class, he'd stay home and play with my two dogs and watch TV, and at night we'd go out on the town or catch a movie or two.
After a few days in the sun and "away from the Mormons" as he'd say, he'd put the top down on his big caddy and head back to Zion, tanned, rested, and with enough booze to last him for another six months. Sometimes we'd take a side trip to Los Angeles to buy music for whatever radio station he was programming for back in Utah, and we'd take a day or so to ourselves and go check out old movie locations. Mike and I were both particularly fond of the classic "Sunset Boulevard" and one of the last trips we took before he passed away was tracing out the iconic locations from that movie. Mike was even smart enough to con the two of us into a personal private backstage tour of the Paramount lot where the movie was filmed under the guise he was doing research for a novel he was allegedly writing. Somewhere he found a book called "The Movie Lovers Guide to Hollywood", and we wore that thing out to where it fell apart. It's one of my treasured books to this day, complete still with the flags marking the pages of places he wanted to visit, the binding long gone and held together with a rubber band.
That trip was particularly trying for both of us. Mike had been ill for sometime, having been diagnosed with AIDS almost 10 years before back when the disease was first discovered and very little was known about it. Utah was far away from the epicenter of where research and drug trials were taking place, but Mike found a wonderful doctor who treated virtually all of the handful of Utah's AIDS patients back then and he was one of the early testers of what later became AZT, the pioneering first drug that was used to slow the progress of the disease. On this trip Mike was tired and weak and on more meds that I can count. His pill organizers had somehow come undone in is suitcase and they had spilled all over so that it looked like a bag of M&M candy had broken open inside. The meds made him tired and emotional and he broke down in tears at our hotel and I held him as he cried. Then we figured out what to do -- just sort them all out by size and color and shape - a pile of blue round ones and yellow oval ones and green/white capsules and so on and so forth. And from there we deduced that if there were 14 that meant two of these per day, and if there were 28 it meant four of them a day, and so on and then put them all back in his pill organizers and headed out to explore old Hollywood.

Shortly after that trip he became too ill to work and went on disability. He had to move into subsidized housing, and my Mom and my step-father Ron would get his meds and visit him and make sure he was OK. He was hospitalized and I flew down from Seattle to visit. He recovered from that bout, but several months later was again hospitalized and never recovered, passing away on June 1, 1994.

In those pre-Internet days we'd talk fairly often, but we exchanged cards and letters almost weekly. I still have a box of his letters and cards and I pull them out and re-read them, laughing along with his sarcastic outlook and observations, and reliving a thousand wonderful memories of a guy who had about as much influence on my life as my own parents did.

When Mike passed he was indigent, however his estranged Father had left a burial plot for him at a cemetery in Ogden. In Utah indigent burials are rotated between funeral homes, and in what had to be one of the most ironic and funny twists of fate, and entirely appropriate for my friend and mentor, the funeral home up in rotation when he died was Larkin and Son's in downtown Salt Lake City -- the biggest and fanciest one in town and where all the Mormon officials were prepared for burial. And it so happened that same week one of the leaders of the Mormon Church had passed his body was being taken care of by Larkin as well. We didn't have a traditional funeral for Mike, just a memorial service with some friends, but a few of us wanted to accompany his body up to Ogden, and so we went off to Larkin -- in jeans and t-shirts since it was summer. We all walked into this stodgy old funeral home which was getting ready for a full-out big-wig Mormon funeral at the same time. The reader board in the lobby listed who was lying in state in what room etc, and it said "Mr Ellis -- departs for Ogden, 1pm" which we found terribly funny. We found the mortician in charge who wanted us to pay for the drive up, but none of us had the funds to do so. He was laid out in an indigent coffin made of fiberboard and held together with drywall screws. I was driving a rented Toyota 4-Runner and offered to drive him up myself, although the coffin would hang out the back a bit -- I suggested we could nail a red hanky flag to the back like a load of lumber. Gay men of my generation will get that joke and understand why our little rag-tag group fell apart laughing and the why staid and very Mormon mortician didn't understand nor think it was all that appropriate. They did manage to find an older hearse and said they'd take him up, and so we all caravaned up to the cemetery in Ogden, 30 miles up the road.

When we got to the cemetery there was no one around, just our small group and the two people from Larkin. We carried the coffin to the open grave and watched as they lowered him in and covered it over. Mike loved and collected old Caddilac cars and he had several, including a classic 1959 that was his favorite, and a yellow 1970 convertible that was his "everyday" car. As we were carrying Mike from the hearse I noticed across the way a yellow 1970 Caddilac convertible parked in the shade -- there was no one in it. The car was there the entire time, we never saw anyone, and we all did a double take to make sure it wasn't Mike's car.  After it was all over I asked about a marker. The state didn't pay for them, and none of Mike's friends had any money and neither did I at the time so the grave was unmarked.  I still wonder about that old Caddy sitting in the shade though -- but it seemed fitting, and maybe it was Mike watching I don't know.

A few years later I had some extra funds and decided to buy a marker for his grave. I handled the transaction over the phone from Seattle and a few more years later while on a motorcycle trip down there Tony and I stopped by to see it. Mike was my "Auntie Mame" -- teaching me about life and how to be happy and to face adversity and to laugh through it all, and most importantly to be myself. He taught me to be a radio announcer, and how to be brave in the face of a deadly illness and to live life openly and honestly. All the things Auntie Mame taught young Patrick.
That's why his marker says what it says.  It's kind of hard to read but the second line under his name says "Life is a banquet..."  And today, on World AIDS Day, I will raise a glass to my old friend whom I dearly miss -- Scotch, because I HATE gin which Mame adored as did Mike -- and remember that, as Auntie Mame and Mike said; "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!  LIVE LIVE LIVE!!!"
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