COUNTDOWN TO NYE
Tales of Times Square: Sessums on the City Pride Month reflections by celebrated author and journalist Kevin Sessums
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we asked Kevin Sessums — former Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Contributing Editor at Tina Brown and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, theater critic at Towelroad.com, author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain, and current editor-in-chief of sessumsmagazine.com , an online magazine of culture, conversation and current events — to reflect on his intersections with Times Square, LGBT history, and the theater over the years, drawing on his life and work. We will share these installments, prepared throughout the month, during the week leading up to World Pride on June 30.
A TIMES SQUARE MEMORY
By Kevin Sessums
During Gay Pride month, I’d like to focus on the subject of mentoring. Many LGBTQ people, when we are young and grappling with whatever letter in that acronym we find ourselves gravitating toward, begin to mentor ourselves as we search to see ourselves in the greater world. And then we all have that moment, which is itself so beautiful to behold in the anthem of just such recognition “Ring of Keys” from the Tony Award winning musical Fun Home, in which we see someone walk into our line of emotional vision and verify that we are not alone. As we get older and move away from the familial and the familiar, we set out to keep seeing ourselves in the world until maybe someone finally sees us, some older gay person perhaps with no ulterior sexual motive, just a kind soul who happens to be a kindred spirit and who sees in us some sort of native intelligence and a capacity to be inculcated with culture and knowledge, passing on to us what he or she has learned from an earlier person from an earlier gay generation. If we are lucky, we become a part of a lineage of mentorship as we receive it before passing it on ourselves. Armistead Maupin calls it our Logical Family, which he uses as the title of his memoir. Put it on your reading list.
And yet sometimes I think we as a gay culture have lost this crossgenerational generosity. Old gay codgers like me can bemoan the lack of curiosity about how hard we fought so that future gay codgers of this newest generation in June 2019 celebrating our shared pride could have a lack of curiosity about what it was like to struggle and hide in plain sight as we did in our own now long-ago struggles. I think we should stop complaining. Look around. And reach out to a young gay person. Stop bemoaning. Mentor.
Sometimes mentoring can take another path. Mine did back in 2003 when that path so often wound its way through Times Square where I discovered how being a mentor not only could change a child’s life but also could change mine. I was orphaned early in my own sissy childhood back in Mississippi. My father was killed in an automobile accident when I was 7, and my mother died the next year of esophageal cancer. My maternal grandparents did an amazing job raising my little brother and sister and me. But I was always seeking some outside guidance to fill the emptiness I felt at suffering parental loss, whether from a coach or teacher or minister. I never really found what I needed - there were no formal mentoring programs in my small hometown back then - so my decision later to become a mentor was a way of completing an emotional circle.
Knowing of my goal to become a mentor, a friend told me about The Family Center here in New York. The organization helps children who have a parent suffering from a life-threatening illness. Its Buddy Program connects children to mentors. After going through an extensive interview process and a weekend-long workshop, the volunteer is matched up with his or her “little buddy.”
I was still waiting for the right “little buddy” when I volunteered at The Family Center’s Christmas party in the basement of a Harlem church. I was assigned to the bead-stringing table, where some rambunctious kids were making necklaces and bracelets for their mothers and sisters. A small 7-year-old Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn sidled up and introduced himself to me. “Hey, man, I’m Brandon,” he said. “What’cha doin’? Beads are stupid.”
I explained the jewelry-making process to him while keeping an eye on the other children. “You want to join us?” I asked.
“Are you crazy?” he answered. “I’m already bored at this party. But so what? I’m always bored,” he said with too much sadness, making me stop for a second. He waited until I looked at him, until he was seen. “Come on. You’re bored, too, right?” he asked.
“I certainly am,” I said with my own sadness, though I had to offer a slight smile at his blunt assessment of the situation and his having seen me as well. “So why don’t you pull up a chair, Brandon. Let’s find a way not to be bored.” Brandon and I ended up talking for a long time. He even made a necklace or two for his sister and mother. I had found the child I would mentor.
I was his mentor for the next decade, and boredom was never a part of our relationship. Empathy was a part, as was anger at times. But a hard-earned love for each other was finally the basis of it all. I can’t imagine my life now without Brandon having been in it as a child. He is now 23 and still a part of it.
Back then, The Family Center suggested spending alternate weekends with each other, for a total of six to 10 hours a month—though Brandon and I usually spent more time together than that. We went to museums and the movies, played basketball, and rode miles and miles of bike trails. During those early years, I ate more fast food than I’d ever eaten before - until Brandon learned his new favorite word: brunch. He found that he’d rather eat eggs Benedict than Egg McMuffin.
Brandon’s own story is his to tell. I can say it is quite a complicated one. At 14, he became the same age his mother was when she gave birth to him. My mentioning that to him back then - he really hadn’t thought about it - prompted our first grown-up conversation about forgiveness and understanding. The little boy with the tough-guy act I’d met so many Christmases ago had matured into a young man who knew that toughness can be a shell that protects the tenderness inside.
Once Brandon and I, on our way to see Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, were having dinner in Times Square, Brandon’s favorite place on earth. During dessert, I asked him what his favorite memory was of the by-then seven years we had been hanging out together. Would it be one of the Yankees or Knicks games we had attended? Would it be the time, in my role as a celebrity interviewer, I’d persuaded Mariah Carey to sing “Happy Birthday” to him on my tape recorder? Or when I introduced him to Marisa Tomei at my local flea market in Chelsea? How about the first time I took him on an airplane? The first time he beat me at bowling? His first horseback ride on Cape Cod, where he would come to visit me for a week each summer?
“I think it was the first time we played that board game Clue when I was a little kid, and I suddenly had an accident in my pants,” Brandon said. “You didn’t make fun of me. I had really bad diarrhea. And you took care of me. That’s it. You just took care of me.” He paused, knowing he had surprised me with that answer. “I tell you things I don’t tell nobody else,” he said softly. “I’d have a lot more pain inside me if you hadn’t been around.”
I’d have a lot more pain inside me, too, if Brandon hadn’t been around. As we walked toward the theater where Equus was playing that night in Times Square, I pointed out the place where we had seen The Lion King seven years before. It was the first Broadway show we had gone to together. He’d even held my hand that day, frightened of the matinee throng in his favorite neighborhood.
During the intermission that day at The Lion King, we had hurried to the bathroom. I had told Brandon to meet me in the downstairs lobby when we each finished. But the place was so crowded, I couldn’t find him. Finally, I spotted him. He was cowering over in a corner, his little face a fist of tears. I folded him in my arms and swept him back up the stairs toward our seats. “I will never abandon you,” I promised him as we made our way through the crowd. It was then I realized it. I had wanted to hear those exact five words ever since I was a 7-year-old child myself. I had no idea that when I found them - when I finally heard them - I would be saying them to someone else. In that moment, a healing began. By becoming Brandon’s mentor, I had become my own.