Dear Hero in Prison

I don’t learn much from good people who are trying to be better. I learn more from bad people who are trying to be good. Like my best friend Buddy from Northampton, Massachusetts. Buddy was a butch queen from Boston. A butch queen is a gay man who looks masculine but has queenie-attitudes which he can barely disguise. Buddy was in his late 50s when I knew him. He lived in a rented cottage in an old motel near Rt. 90, just outside of Hadley Mass.

Buddy delivered every story he told in a thick Southie accent, laced with scathing wit and sarcasm that only a queen could deploy. I met Buddy in AA. He always started his story by introducing himself; “Hi, I’m Buddy. I’m an alcoholic, and I’ve spent more than half my adult life in prison.” This was no doubt true. Buddy had a 30-year career as a drug dealer, selling mostly pot and pills. He used to say that if he knew you and you were gay, he charged you $20 for a dime bag. If you were straight, he charged you $50. Buddy was always a loyal member of the gay community.

When he wasn’t selling drugs, he was in prison for selling drugs. And when he wasn’t in prison, he was a a gourmet sous chef. He said that he cooked at every major restaurant in the city of Boston. He could tell you which ones had the worst rat problem, where if you ate there you were taking your life in your hands.

Buddy managed to get sober in prison and racked up over a decade of sobriety. That was a miracle if there ever was one. He had a running commentary on everybody’s story in AA, pointing out where people were obviously bullshitting. Buddy was the funniest guy in AA. He had the same stand-up commentary on everything in the world, on every pretentious politician, religious leader and Hollywood celebrity. Buddy told me stories about his years in prison, about his lovers and boyfriends. He had no trouble getting it on with the men he loved, in prison or out. I used to listen to Buddy for hours and I would laugh till I pissed my pants. His sarcasm had a way of deflating the power of the tin-pot despots that tried to run our lives as gay people.

Buddy wasn’t well most of the time that I knew him. He was dying from incurable hepatitis. He said that he got Hep C when he was wounded as a soldier in the Viet Nam War. He claimed he got it through blood contact with a soldier who lay next to him in the hospital. Knowing Buddy, he could have got it from anywhere. He could have got in the war, or in prison, or on the streets. It didn’t matter; he was on the last round of chemotherapy, and if this didn’t work, there was no hope. But that never seemed to dampen his fierce pride and sense of humour. He would go to his grave laughing at the world, making queers feel like we had won the epic battle against humiliation and defeat.

Recently I got some sad news about one of my youthful friends, Sarah. When I knew her in my mid-twenties, Sarah was a beautiful young lesbian who was in a relationship with Sydney. Sydney and Sarah were the first lesbian couple I had ever known outside of a bar room. They were artists who lived in one of the old textile factories in downtown Providence. Sydney spoke French fluently, having gone through grade school in a French academy. She had wild blond hair that stuck straight out of her head in every direction, like Phyllis Diller. She was always ebullient and seemed to sparkle with brilliance at everything she did. Sarah had the classic beauty of a Greek statue, and a mood tinged with the air of Greek tragedy.

Sydney played the drums and Sarah played bass. As I became friends with them, we began playing together as a band, myself on guitar. (Yes, I was in a lesbian rock band in my 20s.) We tried to play the kind of punk rock that was popular at the time, but I wasn’t very good at it. I always wanted to play something more complex, more emotionally nuanced. We practiced once a week in the factory building. There were times when I would show up and practice had been suddenly cancelled without notice. This happened a few times, so I asked Sarah what was going on. She told me that Sydney was a heroine addict; she had gotten and high and wouldn’t be able to practice. We never got out of the factory building, we never played out anywhere, but we a ball playing together. And Sydney and Sarah was the first lesbian relationship I had seen up close. I was deeply impressed by their for love each other. That helped me to come out fully as queer; they showed me there was something worth coming out for.

Late December, the bad news broke about Sarah; she had been arrested for allegedly shooting her girlfriend. As I tried to find out more about this tragedy, I got reconnected with our old friend Sydney through Facebook. I couldn’t believe how she good looked, almost thirty years later; I was blown away. She had survived heroine, which was amazing in itself. I told her that I had moved to Canada, that I was living in Halifax as a Canadian citizen. She said some years earlier she had married a Canadian woman, but that relationship ended. She was with another woman now, living in Florida so she could take care of her aging mother.

I saw a picture of Sydney playing air guitar with her eyed closed in rapture; she was awesomeness personified. She still plays the drums. I don’t know what kind of drugs she does or doesn’t do these days, but she looks healthy and as ebullient as ever. Sydney’s heavily into S&M now; she’s a dominatrix. Her profile says that she’s “self-employed.” Sydney was always self-employed as long as I knew her. I never knew what she did for a living, but she always managed to get by. She posts pictures of various pieces of fantastic S&M equipment on her page, proudly displaying her predilections as a dominatrix. I don’t know if she does it for love or for money, or possibly both.

We were both very concerned about Sarah. After Sydney and Sarah broke up, Sarah did a couple of stints in psychiatric hospitals. She seemed to go downhill in her 30s and never really recovered. And now this: just a few days before Christmas, she was arrested and charged with shooting her girlfriend. The cops found the woman on the bathroom floor. There was a bag of heroine and a needle next to the body, but there was a bullet wound in her chest. A handgun was found in the woods near the house. Sarah was spending Christmas in prison, waiting to be arraigned for first-degree murder.

So these are just some of the people I have called my best friends over the years; a butch-queen drug dealer; a heroine addict-cum-dominatrix; and another who’s prison for murder. These are the people I hung out with, the people who taught me how to live and love myself as a queer, who taught me how to survive as a rebel in society. (I could have also added my good friends the transsexual hookers in New York City, but I already wrote about them in Buddha and the Sex Trade, and this post is long enough already.) Like I said, I don’t learn much from good people trying to be better. I learn more from bad people who are trying to be good, to survive and laugh and love in the face of death.

I guess that’s why I can’t really warm up to the folks I’ve met in Buddhist circles. They always seem to be the really nice people, the ones who always did the right thing anyway. They’re mostly straight, middle-class professionals, always soft spoken, polite, never angry or brash, never causing trouble anywhere. For the same reason, I can’t relate to the Buddha either, as a kind of mythic personality. The story goes that Siddhartha Gottama was born nearly perfect and become completely and utterly perfect as a fully awakened Buddha about the age of 29. That was around the same age that I finally got sober and fully came out as a transgender butch queer. It’s hard for a recovering faggot like me to warm up to a guy like that, who was born perfect and was always perfect until the day he died. I guess that’s why Buddhism appeals to the super-normal good people you usually find in Buddhist sanghas: good people trying to become perfect.

I find it easier to identify with the myth of Jesus of Nazareth. He was also born perfect, a ‘god-man’, like the Buddha. But he was born dirt poor to a single mother. They were the subjects of a brutal Roman dictatorship, so the story goes, forced to leave their village to make an account of themselves to the Roman police state. Besides being poor, Jesus was always trouble; he was always getting into trouble. He didn’t usually intend to cause trouble, except when he drove the money lenders out of the temple. But he was always getting into trouble, with everybody, everywhere he went. He had disciples, but at various times they betrayed him. Jesus would gather followers by the thousands when, so the story goes, he amazed the crowds with miracles. But then the crowds turned against him too. When the populace had to choose between having Pontius Pilot execute Jesus or Barrabas, the militant rebel, they chose Barrabas. Sorry Jesus, we have our priorities. And you’re just “last year’s” messiah. In the end, so the story goes, the dictators did to Jesus what they’ve always to done to misunderstood troublemakers: they beat the shit out of him and sent him to a horrible public execution.

So I guess that’s why I’ve always found it easier to identify with Jesus than with Buddha. I don’t know what it is to be a nearly perfect person who then becomes absolutely perfect. I have no model for that. I do know what it is to be poor, misunderstood and struggling all the time, hated by society and betrayed by your supposed friends. I know what it is to be trouble everywhere I go, a troublemaker who really just wants the world to be a better place, but sometimes has some unskillful (i.e. “fucked up”) ways of going about that. I know what it’s like to keep trying to be a better person, to keep loving, keep forgiving even though people dis you as a queer all the time.

There are a few Buddhists I can identify with. Noah Levine is one that I have a lot of respect for. He was doing hard drugs by the time he was ten years old.  Before he reached his 18th birthday he was charged with several felonies. He literally woke up in prison; he began meditating as he was coming down from a shit-load of drugs overnight in jail, so that he wouldn’t kill himself. He got sober but got tattooed on every inch of his body. And now he’s a Theravadin teacher, trying to show other people how to use the Buddha’s eight-fold path to stop the addictions and learn a better way to live. I learn a lot from people like Noah, bad people who are trying to be good.

It would be so cool if I could walk into a Buddhist sangha that wasn’t full of people who are always so nice, who always have it together, always have a good job, never did drugs, never had naughty sex with naughty people, never cause any trouble with anybody anywhere. It would be really cool if there were more Noah Levines around, more troublemakers, more ex-cons, more queers who aren’t afraid to be flaming faggots just for the hell of it. It would be cool if there were more Buddhists that didn’t look down their noses at the poor, the addicted, the criminal, the queer, and the troublemakers. It would be cool if the Buddhists in these sanghas actually came from the streets, from the wrong side of the tracks, so they had a lot of empathy for people who have struggled with life. It would be cool if there was a sangha of flag-waving rebels who get into trouble with the world because they want so much to change it to be better for everyone. That might be a kind of Buddhism that I could live with.

by the Editor, Shaun Bartone

“Dear hero in prison” is the opening line from Morrissey’s song, “Last of the Famous International Playboys” from the album, Bona Drag (1990).

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