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Remembering Elaine

Former D.C. resident credits Stritch with help in his sobriety

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Elaine Stritch, Shoot Me, gay news, Washington Blade

Elaine Stritch in the documentary ‘Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.’ (Photo courtesy Isotope Films)

By SPENCER HANKINS

An actual conversation:
Mom: I saw on the news where that lady you love so much died.
Me: Elaine Stritch? Yeah
Mom: That’s the one. How are you?
Me: I’m OK I guess. I feel like my grandmother has died.
Mom: (throwing epic mom shade) Well, let’s hope you were in her will.
Me: (Quoting “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty”) And you wonder why I drank.

I was aware of Elaine from a young age. Thank you, “The Cosby Show.” But it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that my real connection with Ms. Stritch was made.

I had decided to fight this demon that was on my back: alcoholism. A few months of sobriety, I was at friend’s house in Oklahoma and was whining (because that’s what newly sober gay alcoholics do) to a dear friend of mine who was also in “the program.” I was going on and on about my doubts that I could do this whole not drinking thing, when he grabbed me by the shoulders and said “If Elaine can do it, you can do it.”

I looked at him, confused, and said, “What the fuck are you talking about?”

He sat me down and we watched “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.”  I sat there for the next two-and-a-half hours, laughing, crying and relating to this complete stranger’s story, while falling in love with her honesty.

Every year, I celebrate her birthday, Feb. 2. In 2009, I celebrated by changing my profile picture to a picture of her taken for “At Liberty.” About an hour later, I had this message from Denise Winters, whom I didn’t yet know.

“Hi Spencer. I’m smiling that you are using the cover for ‘At Liberty.’ Elaine is fabulous! And I took that picture.” I lost my ever-lovin’ gay mind, because there I was, a sober alcoholic, working at his dream job in the theater in D.C., and talking to someone directly connected with a lady I’d idolized for several years.

In one of the tributes I’ve read in the past few days, someone wrote, “Like all addicts and alcoholics, she lived with fear. It followed her everywhere. And it was that fear, that extra hurdle she had to leap to get herself up there on the stage that made her performances so human.”

This is so very true: we alcoholics are driven by fear. Years ago, when I’d feel myself being driven by fear, I’d hear her screaming “WRONG!” like she did in the iconic “Company” documentary. Elaine had become somewhat of a higher power to me for a few years, until I was able to form one of my own. I’d always ask myself, “What would Elaine do?” On every trip I’d make to New York from D.C., I’d pray that this would be the one where I ran into her on the street or in a meeting. It never happened.

But one day in 2011, I received an email from Denise that had a video attached. Denise had been talking to Elaine about me (big gay gasp!), and they thought that a video message would be so much better than some black and white, glossy, autographed photo. I watched it and immediately began to sob. Here was this woman that I’ve idolized, addressing me directly, saying that she’d heard what I’ve been saying, and that she wanted me to take it easy because rumors could get around and we could both get arrested. She also said that when she got a quiet moment, she’d call Denise and we’d all go for tea. I’ve carried this video on my phone for the past three years. When I’m down, it always brightens my day.

She never got that quiet moment. I never got that tea, but it’s comforting to know she was willing to take time, when she had time.

Elaine, I hope you finally figure out what you called your “existential problem in tights,” and what Richard Burton meant by “almost.”

Spencer Hankins is a former D.C. resident and box office coordinator for Signature Theatre. He lives in Oklahoma where he works with addicts and alcoholics.

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PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Revue

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Revue at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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