I've lived in only two towns since I left the parental nest in Peoria at 18: Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) and Madison (Wisconsin). I guess I didn't move so often as most college students do. This was the result, I think, of making a real home in each place I've lived.
I've been in Madison since 1956 and have lived at my present address since 1964. For seven years before that I had a large flat with three or four other guys. In each place there was something like a family unit, either shared living space with roommates, or with lovers, or with both lovers and roommates. So the history of my personal extended family is a composite of smaller episodes. We didn't just live together, we made a life together, becoming real friends, making meals, taking taking care of housework, nursing each other when illness struck, shopping and handling household accounts as a joint project. We socialized together most of the time, and we gave fabulous parties.
Things are rather different now. For the first time in my entire life, I started living alone in 1978, when I was 43. I had one lover after that, but we never lived together.
Quite a large fraction of my social life in Urbana, indeed amounting almost to a family life among a small coterie of gay men there, revolved around an apartment block on the edge of downtown called Tuscan Court. It was really a dump, even by the lax standards of student digs. But it was the off-campus center of harpsichord music, as well as the focal point for many of my wilder escapades as a frisky 18-20 year-old.
The place was rented by Bill and Bob (just friends), one a PhD candidate in philosophy, the other a grad student in musicology. We had all met almost as soon as school started in the fall of 1953, because there was only one harpsichord practice room at the Music School, and we all had to use it. This led to some scheduling difficulties, but it also led to a hilarious lunch at a neighborhood dive called Prehn's: somebody made a gay remark, a reference to "swish steak," and everybody laughed, followed immediately by a brief, slightly awkward silence, then a look of astonishment and recognition all around and a loud group guffaw.
One of the harder things to communicate to straight people, I think, is the peculiar intensity of this recognition dance. It is the release from so much tension and stress. There is a strong bond there for a great many of us, I think. But seriousness to one side, this bigger laugh completely broke the ice among the six of us there that day, and from then on we were thick as thieves.
I would say there were two people of the six who enjoyed the mixed benefit of being sought after by one or more of the other four. One was a dark-haired, handsome mathematics grad student named Alan. The other was me, but I was one of the two hot on Alan's trail. People today talk about the "attitude" of young people in the bars. Trust me on this, they do not know what attitude is; as another friend of that period was to tell me years later in Madison, we were awful.
Alan was tall, curly, and cute. He was also fearsomely brilliant, having gone through the University of Chicago's College program in the days of Robert Maynard Hutchins and taken his B.S. in physics at Chicago before coming to Urbana for graduate studies in math (algebra). We met at a restaurant with some mutual friends. We lived together as a couple for nearly three years after that, though he spent the middle year at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, after being drafted into the Army.
I got my first taste of co-op living while going with Alan. He knew a group of three guys, two of them in the math program, the other one in business, all from Chicago. Gene and Gene and Marv had an apartment together, and the five of us made meals a co-operative undertaking, rotating shopping, cooking, and washing dishes for lunch and dinner daily. I was a good cook and an ace dishwasher (home training turned to good account, I guess). We all got along amazingly well, and the $1 a day we each kicked in to the kitty was more than enough to feed us (my, how things have changed, eh?).
When Alan came back from being in the army for a year, we took at apartment, finally moving out of the rather seedy rooming house where I'd been for almost two years. But this apartment was seedier yet. We did what we could to make a life together there, but it proved fairly difficult. We were always short of cash and there was no supermarket in our neighborhood; we had to make do with the local stop-and-rob. The growing difficulties of the relationship also eroded the family-living aspects of life in that apartment.
Wasn't there a horror flick called House on Elm Street? Well, my house on Elm St. was decidedly unhorrible. I had moved there after the breakup with Alan because a musician friend named Bob Lamm had offered me sanctuary. It was a somewhat tumbledown one-story duplex house wth separate front doors but the two halves linked by a shared tiny bathroom. The other half was occupied by a composer named Stan Farwig, a delightful, incredibly intense person. Bob and Stan got along fine. We were all good cooks; we ate well.
Bob and I went to the pool in the Men's Old Gymnasium every day. We had a way of striking up acquaintance (heh heh) with very attractive young men, whom we would invite to breakfast and wow 'em with crepes, eggs and chicken livers or cheese omelettes, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
We pick up little things from everyday life; this was where I learned how to make crepes and to invite young men to breakfast. It proved useful many times in later years.
I ended up living on both sides, more often at Stan's because it was a little larger. One unusual aspect, very beneficial for me, was the presence of not one but two grand pianos, so I could practice just about any time. I was no longer in the music school, in fact after the end of 1955 not in school at all, having been expelled for refusing to take ROTC, then an absolute requirement for able-bodied freshman and sophomore men. But I turned the expulsion into an advantage of a sort, since I could then work full-time at my physics department computing job, whch helped with finances considerably for our little family.
Speaking of small worlds in the networked age, this writing, by a very circuitous route, brought me back in contact with Stan Farwig in July of 1997, something like 41 years after the last time we were in touch with each other.
During the frenzied summer of 1956 I saw a lot of an art historian named Mary Ellen Young. She was bright, creative, and terribly witty. She was about to start graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was about to move there because of my computing job. So it was natural, in a way, for us to hook up. I've always been distressed that it was to turn out less than ideally for her.
After a week of living in an addled college professor's wife's attic (she couldn't bear the idea that 21 boxes of books were about to arrive by truck), I managed to find an apartment at 630 N. Frances St.
Actually, it was a large room with a kitchen literally in a closet and a shared bath, close to campus and only a block from Mary Ellen's apartment. The rent was $13 a week! My place was in a great old house (now gone, replaced by a large brick apartment building). This house a turret on the top floor overlooking Lake Mendota. My next-door neighbor and I used to see this turret as a great place to mount a 3-inch gun and shell the ritzy suburb of Maple Bluff across the lake.
As soon as I got to Madison I fell in with a hard-drinking, clever lot of folks, some of them (through the Mary Ellen connection) involved with art history or (through my own devices) with music. I did not drink as a teenager, but when I was 21 I started going out nightly to bars with various friends. It was entirely social drinking, but it was enough to get fairly plastered almost every night. At that age I could put it away without having hangovers to deal with. By the time I was 30 it was a different story, and since I was about 40 I've barely taken alcohol at all apart from occasional beer or wine with a meal.
But back then, oh lord, we did put it away. The apartment next to mine was occupied by one Tom Corey. He was from St. Louis and was a very smart but completely wild kid. His biochemist parents had won a Nobel Prize (in 1937, was it?), which among its other effects somewhat cowed Tom. So he was something of a late-adolescent juvenile delinquent, and as I had skipped that part of being a teenager, I found it fun to do idiot-teen things with him. I recall one night out getting liquored up and driving out to a swanky country club to go skinny-dipping in their swimming pool, which we did without getting caught. I think we swiped a couple towels from the locker room, too.
On the other side of me lived a less lively but also very interesting guy named Jerry Pagel. My apartment was linked to his by a john that we shared. He too was part of the nightly bar klatsch. Mary Ellen and Jerry hit it off and in due course got married, though they split up only a year later. There was a lot of unhappiness there, for sure.
To name-drop in passing, another member of the same gang of nightly drinkers at the 602 Club was Richard Schickel, later to become a well-known film and culture critic. But we didn't really know each other apart from the booth at the back of the bar.
The 602 Club was a mixed bar, that is, gay people at the front and straight people at the back. Your scribe spent no little time in the less well defined middle. So it came to pass that I met a person named Arvid Wilhelm, who was to become my first Madison boyfriend. The focus of my nightlife shifted more toward the front of the bar.
Arvid lived two blocks from the 602, and after we had carried on for a while, I moved in with him and his (platonic) roommates, Robert McElya, Richard Torrence, and George Krautkramer. Each of these worthies really deserves some space here, for each had an influence on my life. But for the present purpose, the point was we had a regular family life there, not just living together but also taking meals, shopping, paying bills and in general having a smooth cooperative living arrangement. I spent seven years in that place, which was a house converted to two flats (we had the lower one).
The roster at 533 W. Johnson changed gradually, and included Don Roebuck, Ron Turner, George Stambolian, John Berge, and Morgan Usadel. In 1964 the landlord changed too, and when he proposed to raise the rent from $90 a month to $130 a month, we were outraged, so much so that my then boyfriend Ron and I decided we could easily get a whole house for that sum. (These numbers are almost laughable in view of the current realities.)
More than 40 years later I'm still installed in this small house on Stevens St. on Madison's near-west side. The people who have lived here with me include Ron Turner, Bob Roscher, Robert O'Reilly, Charles Herrington, Rob Anderson (no relation), Jane Hopper, David Benson, Steven Applequist, and Kevin Polleys. Only Ron and Steven were live-in boyfriends; the others were roommates, a couple of them straight. The old manse has seen a lot of life, a torrent of joys and a few sorrows.
I guess what it all boils down to is that from this long experience I was able to bring away a set of sensitivities and skills for living communally, and in the process most of the experiences and values common to ordinary American family life got included in a variety of settings. I think it was uncommonly good fortune to have had all that.
It seems a bit ironic now, having lived alone for over 25 years, that this family life was preparing me -- somehow -- to live as I now do. In some way, though it may seem contradictory, I now live as a family of one.