October 30, 2007
By Michael Procopio
Age 6 to the present
The men in my family loved show tunes. My grandfather, being of Italian stock, listened to opera. My father preferred Broadway musicals. Original cast albums like Cinderella, Camelot, A Chorus Line, and Annie followed us wherever we traveled in his car. My older brother loved big movie musicals, specifically those produced by Arthur Freed and his friends at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Most directly influenced by him, I learned to converse in a language liberally peppered with musical references. We compared the events of our own lives to those which occurred in the movies, usually unfavorably, since it is often difficult to make homework and cleaning up after dogs more interesting than dancing around pirate ships or singing with Munchkins.
In my family, a boy singing songs from The Sound of Music was nothing extraordinary-- in fact, it was encouraged. The subtle changing of lyrics to suit any occasion was applauded by my elder brother. Sadly, singing "I Am Six, Going on Seven" in a voice approximating that of the eldest Von Trapp girl did not translate well to the playground of my elementary school. Worse, my impression of Ann-Margret's frenzied "Smash the Mirror" number from Tommy was not received with applause but with baffled silence, then derisive laughter, which I found confusing since my brother and sister had both loved the impression as I performed it the day before. Upon review some thirty years later, it seems reasonable that a six-year-old boy writhing on the on the grass and pulling at his hair while singing in an exaggerated vibrato might make other little boys uncomfortable. It was clear to them that I was different. It was clear to me that they simply did not speak my language.
By the second grade, my performances were much more subtle; intended for more intimate audiences. To offset the boredom of a long bus ride to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, I decided to entertain my field trip seat mate with what I thought was a subdued interpretation of Esther Williams' playful version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The boy sitting next to me had always been kind and therefore, I thought, deserving of my talents. Far from being entertained, he squirmed and moved as far away as he could from me without physically hurling himself from the bus. I thought he'd get it. I thought he'd understand. In a way, I think he did. I don't think he spoke to me again until the third grade. I rode the rest of the way to Los Angeles in silence; my status as a resident alien confirmed.
There were few opportunities to further humiliate myself since I did not sit with other boys at lunch or get invited to their houses after school or even play with them unless compelled to in group sports like dodgeball wherein they sharpened their throwing skills and I perfected my dodging abilities.
If a boy admits to liking show tunes, he invites trouble. If a boy who likes show tunes also admits to dreaming about taking bubble baths with Michael Landon, he invites danger. To my mind, liking musicals seemed a perfectly normal, masculine thing. Blowing kisses to the shadow I saw in the shape of Mr. Landon cast by my night light every evening did not. I'd never heard of another boy doing that, so I kept my mouth shut, which felt unnecessary, since everyone seemed to know anyway.
Names like "girl" and "sissy" were first muttered and then shouted at me. As we got a little older, the words "fag" and "homo" entered the vocabulary. I objected to "girl" since I had no desire to be one, Ann-Margret impression aside. "Sissy" I wasn't so sure about-- I was bigger and faster than most of my taunters, but I was mildly obsessed with people like Charo and activities such as watching Days of Our Lives. By the time fifth grade came and the abandoned fantasies of Michael Landon were replaced by thoughts of holding hands with a tall Brazilian-Swedish boy, I knew my taunters were speaking the truth when they called me a homo; I don't think they meant as a compliment.
The name-calling eventually lead to physical threats. The occasional sock in the arm or leg stuck out to trip graduated to stomach-punching and being shoved against walls. Once cornered in the library by one of the meanest boys I knew, I pleaded with him to leave me alone and warned him of the nearby presence of our school librarian. He laughed and suggested I cry to her as he punched me in the stomach. I weighed my options and decided the best course of action
was to bury my fist in his eye. I was surprised by how much my hand hurt. That never seemed to happen to people in the movies. The following year, the boy was placed in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. I briefly worried that I had caused his brain damage. At least, I thought, he wouldn't be bothering me again. For the most part, no one else did either.
The rest of my elementary school career was spent rather quietly. When forced to play soccer with my classmates, my attention turned to the nearby boundary fence covered in honeysuckle vines. Whenever the vines were in bloom, the class broke from play to swarm the flowers. I'd hum Lena Horne's version of "Honeysuckle Rose" from Thousands Cheer quietly and to myself, since I didn't think anyone would appreciate the fact that I had a song for nearly every occasion. Or understand. Except my brother. I'd tell him, since he was the only person I knew who spoke 'Musical' better than I did. As long as I had him to talk to when I got home from school, I remained relatively untroubled by my scholastic isolation.
When I was 12, three major events occurred that altered the course of my social life: I started middle school, entered into an aggressive attack of puberty and my brother moved to France, where he could watch musicals in French, thus combining two of his greatest passions. Though the news he sent of Gene Kelly dancing and singing with Catherine Deneuve made me nearly faint from excitement, our conversations were few, given the physical distance between us. The combination of being in a new school environment with a rapidly changing body and no brother to confide in made the issue of my own social awkwardness more acute. Since my body and voice had decided change without first consulting me, I decided I might as well go for broke, and change my personality too. Twelve-year-olds are famous for that.
I watched the other puberty-stricken people around me, noting what they wore and what they listened to and eventually learned how to be more like them, to blend in. Never entirely, but enough to be accepted, be invited to parties, and allowed to sit with others at lunch. Instead of humming Cole Porter tunes in public, I started tapping my feet to Adam and the Ants, the Go-Go's, and other musicians favored by 'tweens in 1982. I learned to speak the language of the people around me, to enter their world and shed some of my former reputation as an alien. I succeeded to some degree-- gaining friends and higher social status, but I never felt that I could be completely myself around anyone. On the outside, I could appear as normal-- whatever that was-- as I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt like an alien passing for human. The names Judy Garland and Fred Astaire never passed my lips in public, no matter how much I wanted them to.
As I got older and entered college, I found what I had secretly given up hope of ever finding-- people my age who spoke openly of Leslie Caron, Alice Faye and Donald O'Conner. People who spoke my language. People like me. And they didn't look like aliens, but rather attractive human beings who were proud of being different from 90% of the general population. Eventually, I learned to look upon my show tune-loving tendencies as a source of pride. Now, I sometimes sing them out loud specifically to annoy people. In fact, if you happen to walk through my neighborhood today and you listen very carefully, you might hear a bit of Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, or the sound of other musicals coming from the open window of my home and me singing right along with them. I don't really care who hears it. Unless it's playing too loudly during my downstairs neighbor's nap time. It's one thing to have fun annoying people from time to time, but it's an entirely other thing to be rude to one's neighbors.