Wednesday, January 25, 2006

My Story

Today I stayed home, nursing a cold. Once I couldn't sleep any longer, I decided to write. The past few weeks have opened up some incredible memories for me. Also some deep wounds. But over the past few days, I started to put the pieces together ... so I thought I'd write about it. 3,100 words later, here it is. Advance apologies for a long read.

For years I have questioned my being. I’ve always felt a bit out of place, but in reality, I’ve been in the middle of the masses for quite some time.

My issue has been one of emotion. Understanding why I have become the man I am today. It’s been a bit of a conundrum for me and I have listened to people offer solutions but I never quite process their replies, since they never quite know who I am to start with. So they are doing the best the can, with what they have.

This year I began a memoirs blog project. It has been an incredible experience for me – partly because I get to document my past and educate those friends and visitors that read the site. But mostly, it has allowed me to take a gift that I have always had and never used – that of writing – and stimulate it with a topic that I know all to well … myself.

The hidden gift in this discovery is that, for the first time, I have seen The Answer. I finally have been able to understand how I came to be who I am today. Sure I have mentioned elements of this answer from time to time, but I never quite processed it, until now.

To me, my biggest issues are being emotionally detached and being a control freak. In the past, I have embraced the reasoning that I’ve been through so much emotional pain that it was easier to just learn to detach myself from my emotions, so I could just make it through another day. And, I believe that is partly true. However, I now see that the reason I am emotionally detached is because I never was emotionally connected in the first place.

I was raised in an environment that had little traditional family structure – as those who have read some of my earlier posts in my blog have learned, I was out and on my own in many ways by the time I was 15. Emotional connections were intense and short-lived for me. I never got to experience things as most people do. My world was a sea of distraction from age 15 to age 30. Working all the time, partying to escape the pressures of work and the spiraling AIDS pandemic around me… heartfelt emotions had no real place in my world.

By the time I turned 30 in 1993, I had moved back into Center City and had been working at WXPN for 5 years. Things were starting to settle down – and I was beginning to reach out to meet people. Sadly, the only way I knew how was taught to me by the one man that ran my life from age 19-26; Mike Labance.

Mike was the owner of Au Courant and befriended me back in 1981. Quickly I was under his wing and helping him as he sold ads for the PGN. From there we created a side business in 1982 – that gave us the funding to launch Au Courant in September of 1982. I worked as his right-hand and general manager until 1986, when I simply had enough. I was 23 kid with an ulcer.

Mike was the King of manipulation. He got everyone to do whatever he wanted by controlling the situation around him. At first I was impressed and intrigued. In hindsight, Mike was a sad and lonely man. To hide from his emotions he smoked pot to the point that it was a major addiction for him.

You did what he wanted because he had control of the situation. The irony was he wanted to create Au Courant to get away from the lack of freedom that he felt he had at the PGN. He would complain that the publisher of the PGN was a control freak etc… the reality is that Mike became what he feared most.

There were times when I was woken in the middle of the night and told to come to the office to deal with a situation (the books or an account, etc). I would get up, stumble from my 2nd floor-rear apartment at 1302 Pine to the office on 12th street at 3am and he’d be there, stoned and on fire … and my job was to calm him down and put the fire out. I did this because I was 21 and living in an apartment that was paid for by the business. Sounds good, except that was instead of me getting a salary. I got about $50 a week to live off of and my rent was paid. In that situation, I learned how to network and make connections and get shit for free [drinks, dinners, etc] ... not because I wanted to, but because I had to, in order to survive.

When the speed I did got too much for my teeth, Mike asked our friend and advertiser Dr. Steven Grosse to take a look, since he was a dentist. Steven gave me an estimate and since none of us had insurance, Mike traded Steven’s ads for my dental work. That one trade deal haunted me for years. All About Control.

When Mike and Joe were heading off to NYC one weekend to attend/cover some gay pride gig, he called me from the payphone outside at 7am freaking out as to why the camera bag had no extra film inside. I told him that I forgot and that there were plenty of rolls in the safe at the office (which had now moved to 35 N. 3rd) – he demanded that I take care of this situation and that I come downstairs right now – so I did, barefoot and in shorts. He made me hop into the car and we drove down to the office in Old City and I went in and got the film and brought it out to him and put it in the camera bag.

Then he drove off.

So, I walked barefoot through the city back to my place at 13th street. This was what I went through for those 5 years. In hindsight, it was abuse. By 1986, I had enough. I hated my life. I had lost so many friends from AIDS and suicide. Those that remained had figured out how to personally cocoon themselves from the ravages of the era. Everyone was trying to escape. I was under such stress at work, suffering from an ulcer and high half the time, just trying to cope. I went to the office one day and Mike, in a pot-withdrawal fury, decided to fire the entire sales staff: leaving the survival of the paper up to me.

I broke. I told him I had to go to a sales call and we’d figure it all out that night. He demanded to drive me there, since he was en route to visit George (our backer) in the hospital. Of course, I had no sales call, so I had him take me to a business that I knew the owner – so I could at least fake it. It was at the corner of 9th and Arch. He dropped me off and when I got to the door – it was locked. FUCK. He circled the block and when he passed by, and I was still there, questioned if I was lying or not. I told him that I was early and I’ll just wait for him to show. He drove off and I sat down on the step and gathered my thoughts. I never have felt that alone before or since. After like 5 minutes, I walked across the street to the payphone and called my Dad.

I told him that I needed him to come get me – that I needed to get out, that I was falling apart. He asked no questions (he never did) and said he would be at my place in a couple hours. Once I hung up, I called my friend Stephen and told him I was leaving. Stephen had been my closest friend since ’82 and we’re still good friends to this day. He knew first hand that I was falling apart. I told him he had to take my records – I had about 500 12” singles and LPs and Stephen had begun to DJ, so I figured he could use them.

So, I walked from 9th and Arch to my apartment at 13/Pine, crying the whole way home. I got to my apartment and grabbed trash bags and tossed all my clothes into them. I filled three bags. My Dad shows up early and together we carry my clothes in trash bags and my hundreds of records and my stereo out to his van. I left everything else.

We drove down Pine to 9th and Stephen was there and we carried all the vinyl into his apartment. I hugged him and thanked him and said goodbye. That moment killed me the most. I’m tearing up now as I just write about this whole experience. I got back into the van and we drove off… out of center city, away from my whole world. Away from the gay bars, the new wave, the independence, the drug dealers, Mike's control... everything.

I was free and I was scared. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing and I was afraid when the shit finally would hit the fan what would happen. But I knew I had to save myself. I would have died had I stayed.

I got to my father’s place – which was actually a house in Bridesburg section of Philly that he shared with a married couple ... i.e. I slept on the couch and lived out of my trash bags while there.

I severed all ties with my former world. Stephen was the only person I talked to at all for years. I knew how controlling Mike was and I knew that he never liked anyone to have the last word – so as long as I was alive, he had a vendetta.

I called Stephen about a week after I escaped. The shit was ALL over the community. Mike obviously flipped when he realized I had vanished without a trace. That and, since he had fired everyone else, he had to run the paper without a staff. The rumor mill was cranking in overdrive. First Mike told EVERYONE that I had embezzled $10,000 to support my drug habit and had left the country. The $10,000 figure came from the trade we did for my dental work. What was I gonna do, give back my teeth?! Of course, it was all lies – and I knew Mike so well, I knew his every step. I knew that he would continue to try to smoke me out by tossing out outrageous rumors, knowing I would try to defend myself.

What Mike didn’t realize was that the community had gotten to know me – since I was the one out there every day, while Mike sat in the office smoking joints. They knew that I hadn’t stolen any money, since they knew how friggin’ poor I was. They also knew how much stress I was under and no one really liked Mike anymore … so no one listened to his rants. Well, until he finally came up with one that stuck.

I had AIDS. I was dying and went home to carry out my final days. That struck many as odd, since I hadn’t said anything to anyone and looked healthy … but I did vanish without a trace, leaving my phone service on, my checking account open and loose ends all around. AND no one had heard anything since … hmm, perhaps this was the truth.

So, that stuck and it drove me nuts for a while. I wanted to let people know that I was alive and healthy. But I let it stick. Somewhere I actually liked the fact that the Bob Drake that everyone knew was dead. To embrace that, I began to refer to myself only as Robert from that point on. I was reborn.

The paper managed to continue without me and I got a little apartment on Roosevelt Blvd and a job at a WAWA in the Far Northeast by the fall of ‘86. Not driving, it took me well over an hour each way by bus to get to work, so that kept me busy most the time. Things we’re starting to settle in a bit until I got a call from my manager at Wawa. Seemed he had something to tell me and asked me to come in early. So I did and found out that he had gotten a call from someone named Mike Labance, warning him that I was a thief and such. I told him the entire story and thank God he believed me and he actually informed the regular cops that came into the store that I had a crazy man stalking me.

They asked but I didn’t file a report, since that would have only brought him closer – so I let it go, but the police made it a habit to hang out nightly at the store. I was a mess at this point. Always watching my back and also back to getting high to escape. I enrolled in a broadcasting school, which was a sham, but it did get me back into Center City after a year of self-imposed exile.

In January of 1988 I started at WXPN. A month later, on the front page of the Daily Magazine section of the Philadelphia Inquirer was an article titled “The War of WXPN”, which talked about the struggle between the old staffers and the new folk. Pictured was our then-GM along with some new-staffers, including myself.

The call came that day.

Mike contacted my boss directly. Thankfully she’s a New Yorker and knows crazy when she hears it – so she told him to fuck off and he did. But I was still freaked out knowing that at any moment this man would snap and I was his target. Life continued, but much of it was a fog. I went out a bit to places like Revival and such – but most of my party trips were in NYC, since I could just get lost in the millions of lost souls. In the early 90s I learned from reading Au Courant that Frank our founding editor had died of AIDS. I really cared for Frank and it killed me inside that I couldn’t say goodbye or even pay respects. Shortly thereafter, Mike publicly disclosed that he too was positive and was going to do a first person column on his situation.

Once I read that he was positive I really began to flip. This man was dying so there was no reason that he wouldn’t run me down if he saw me on the sidewalk. He was already dying. What’s to lose?! I pulled away from everything and locked myself in my apartment and just got high whenever I didn’t have to work. During this time, I lost my oldest and closest friend Phil Maynard as well as Hunter Muir, the only man I had loved, both to AIDS. I was a mess. I was alone. Detached was an understatement.

The skies lifted a bit by 1993. I had gotten some advancement at XPN and was officially the Promotions Director of the station. I was focused on my work and I was going to move back into Center City. I remember the day I opened the Daily News and there was a picture of Mike and an obit of his death. I clipped it out and saved it (along with many others) and then went out to celebrate. That was the only time I ever celebrated a death and it felt good. Things were starting to fall into place for me – my Dad who had been by my side through all of this was excited for me and even helped me pack things up in my apartment, readying it for the movers.

I moved into Center City (into where I am today) in June 1993. It was a busy month, I turned 30 and I felt as if a brand new chapter was being created. The month was a blur and work was crazy but I was finally enjoying it all and had drastically slowed down with getting high … life was good. I told my Dad [pictured] about the place and he was excited to see it, once I settled in. Five weeks after I moved in, he was dead. He never did get to see my house or me. He died in his sleep and, as the only child and the only family member in Philadelphia; I was responsible for all the details of his funeral and burial. His family (my grandmother, uncle etc) all lived in Maine, so they couldn’t really do much. I put my emotions aside and pulled my shit together and took control of the situation. Sadly, I never let go, nor did I ever go back and claim my emotions that I had ‘temporarily’ put aside. I didn’t cry at all during that whole time – and to this day I haven’t cried over the loss of my father.

From there I just buckled down and took charge. Work was obvious and productive, but I felt the need to control everything. I was tired of surprises. I was tired of the roller-coaster that was my world for a decade. I wanted stability.

So, I took control. I gave up drugs, since they got in the way of me being in control. I didn’t allow anyone to get to my emotions. I only courted people that I was able to manipulate. I took everything I learned from Mike and applied it, since that’s all I really knew how to do. Strong people only frightened me; since I felt that they would find a way to control me and I would spiral. So, this laid the foundation for where I am today.

This is why I hate the feeling of no control. I’m not a control freak by regular standards. Instead I adapted control as a tool of survival and it overtook my world at levels that I just now understand.

I crave for the time when I can just put down my armor and let someone in. It’s totally not as easy as some friends make it sound. I’ve held this stance for so many years that I feel like my muscles are frozen in place.

I think that the blog project and these posts are allowing me to chip away at a coat that is way past its use.

I slowly feel like I am able to breathe again. And let me tell you, it is a great feeling.


Liz said...

You look like your dad. I can totally relate to your story believe it or not. Many of us go through abusive situations only to find ourselves at a turning point. Control was once a tool that served me well, now it only stands in my way. At 33yrs of age, I found myself at a turning point. I took responsibilty fo my life and I have never been the same. Robert you and I know the joy of setting something free and moving on. We are very lucky. Let's have dinner soon.

Babyraven said...

WOW. What a story. I read every word, rapt. Robert, I'm constantly bowled over not just by your experiences, but also by your writing. I already knew you were a talented man, but I feel like every story read shows me another side to your skills.

Thanks. :)

yoko said...

Thanks for sharing such a personal story. Best wishes to you with continually discovering yourself and the world you live in.

Jackie said...

Wow. Anything I say would just sound corny...just - wow. Just wanted you to know I read it and am glad that I did. Jackie.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I am crying a little over here. God! I remember after I had met you around 1982 that Mike had taken me aside and told me that he didn't like me coming around Au Courant and then told me that you would appriciate it if I never talked to you again. If I saw you out, I would kind of just disappear into the woodwork. After about 3 years, you did once see me, talked to me and asked how I was and told me that I looked great. I was like, I'm OK and stuff. But after that I sort of did my disappearing act.

You are a strong person to have gone through so much. You are a very talented person, a gift box of multi-talent and multi-tasking. I am glad you made it off the drugs and you found yourself. Your dad sounded like an awesome guy.

Much love.

Valorie Zimmerman said...

I'm so glad you posted a link to this blog again. I had read some of the older posts, but lost the link. You are truly an amazing man, Robert. You have such courage to delve into the pain of the past as you are doing. Thank you so much for sharing not only the pain but the joy you have experienced. I love you.

Anonymous said...

I love you, Robert.