Sweet 17

Sweet 17

It is 1971. Lorraine Geiger, my mother, is embarking on a new life as she joins her husband in the dizzying world of  the NYC Fashion industry. Their recently acquired apartment is beyond their wildest dreams.  My dad, Bert Geiger, who has not come out as gay yet, has been befriended by Antonio and Juan, two fashion illustrators, who are giving up their coveted Carnegie Hall Apartment to return to life in Paris. They turn their key over to him.

Once  I am transported from rural California to our new apartment, I can see that this a a fresh new era for my parents. One that will involve relationships with gay men and artists, who will be their playmates, and all of  NYC, their playground. At first, the novelty of this alien city is exciting. But as fall turns into winter,  I find myself feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I miss my friends, my outdoor world of wild flowers meadows and horses, all a far away dream left behind in Pasadena, California.

 In the new world, dinners in our tiny 10th floor breakfast nook, looking down on 56th Street traffic, often include Bill Cunningham, who lives on the 13th floor in his tiny studio packed with archival photos, negatives and a narrow sleeping cot. Suzette from the 12th floor, a flower arranger for upscale venues,  joins us regularly.  Bill, who has been the fashion photographer for The New York Times for decades now, is a life time friend of  my dad and our family. 

According to my mom, dad and Bill have been lovers, and still may be. Bill pays special attention to me and I love it when he calls me “Muffin.” “Muffin, what do you think about Manhattan? It must be so different from L.A. for you.” I know he is sincere, though I l realize that he calls just about everyone “Muffin”.

There are many other eccentric characters who live in the Carnegie apartments and they frequent our apartment for cocktail gatherings. I really can’t relate to many of them or their interests, in particular. 

 Edita Sherman, photographer, known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, also lives on the 13th floor, a good friend of Bills. On her studio walls hang her black and white portraits taken of movie stars during the 30’s and 40’s. She dresses in period costumes, with wild accessories and hats, insisting on being the center of attention at all times. I find her too bizarre. And annoying.

That October, when I am turning 17, my parents tell me they are having a birthday gathering for me. The party is set up in the large two story mirrored and windowed living room, which doubles as my parents’ bedroom. It will be a buffet style dinner and guests will gather, eat, and drink around the white formica coffee table at the end of the king size bed. 

On the evening of the party the doorbell starts ringing and guests stream in. I don’t have any new friends of my own yet at the Public City High School I attend. It has bars on the windows and gang members beat up kids as well as teachers, on occasion. I hate it there.

My dad excitedly tells me that the cake is being custom made by one of his new friends, Alan Angeli, who has a bakery in the West Village.  I accompany dad to the door when the bell buzzes again, and in walks the acclaimed master, presenting his confectionary work of art. 

Alan is a tall effeminate man, with long blonde hair, bedecked with a colorful feathered hat. His handmade suede jacket is painted with scenes from Dante’s Inferno.  Bill is snapping away with his camera, “ Marvelous Alan! Isn’t that fun!” There are yelps of glee when guests see the edible sculpted penis between frosted breasts with pink nipples. This, I assume, is my birthday cake. I try to go along with the fun. But observing the adults acting more and more like children, as the wine and liquor flow freely into the evening, I become disheartened and disgusted.

I  am drinking my own bottle of Mateus Rose and quietly slink up the spiral staircase to record the menagerie of strange characters in my sketchbook.  Now I am feeling invisible, detached. Baffled. Angry.

Suddenly Bill gets inspired:  “I want all of you to stand on Bert and Lorraine’s bed!  Everyone surround Alan!” he directs, “And light the candles on the cake!” The guests gladly take their positions around Alan who is holding his erotic masterpiece, with candles lighted. Penis and breasts all aglow. Bill glances up to the balcony and calls out to me, “Muffin, don’t you want to come down?” gesturing with his hand to join in. “And blow out the candles?”  Self conscious, I shake my head, “No!” and resume drawing. But it feels good that he even notices me.

The track lights are now turned down low.  From the balcony,  I observe the adults dancing below, shapes writhing to a blasting Rolling Stones song, reflected in the mirror. It’s my Rolling Stones album.

Bill takes more photos. Guests pose, shriek and clown around in front of the camera, Edita pushing to be upfront and central.  Later in the week, Bill prints up a large black and white copy in his darkroom at The Times in commemoration of my 17th birthday.  “Here Muffin.” presenting it to me. “This is for you.”  I am not in the photo. 

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