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Gary Nelson

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'Life's Candy, and the Sun's a Ball of Butter': How Show Tunes Got Me Through My Hardest Moments

Posted: 03/28/2012 6:01 pm

I had a few friends when I was in grade school, but not many. After all, if you feel different from everybody else and act accordingly, you are pretty much alone. That all started to change, though, when I entered junior high. I had discovered show tunes from all the great composers of the '50s and '60s. With this new love, my aspirations became far greater than doing anything else I could imagine. I was going to be a star. An added bonus, after endless hours by the hi-fi lipsynching to my ever-growing repertoire, was that I had developed my own philosophy of life. There was not much theory behind it. It was fairly simple. All I needed to know about life was found in the lyrics of my favorite songs:

"Life's candy, and the sun's a ball of butter." (Funny Girl)

"There's a place for us, a time and place for us." (West Side Story)

"People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." (Funny Girl)

"Consider yourself at home..." (Oliver)

There's a place I can go in my mind where I can hear my own voice, complete with its own armor, spinning these songs. Everybody has it unless it's been beaten out of you. It saved me and got me through some of the roughest spots in my life. One particular day in junior high, my bladder was full from lunch, so I slipped into the boy's bathroom nearest my algebra class. As I opened the door, I was surprised to find someone facing me. A pimply, curly-haired boy was holding a can of Aqua Net hairspray in one hand; the other held a silver-plated butane lighter. He stepped aside and let me enter. As I turned toward the wall with the commodes, I heard the sound of a blowtorch. It sounded just like someone had turned on a gas barbeque grill. Then I smelled the unmistakeable aroma of burnt hair. I felt the top of my head and was surprised that I still had some hair left on my scalp. The boy who had just singed my hair was laughing hysterically, almost to the point of tears. It was at that point that I noticed that there was a third person in the bathroom who was much bigger and meaner-looking than the first one.

"Get that faggy ass good, one more time, man," he said.

The pimply boy came toward me with his homemade blowtorch. Left to my own resources, I defended myself. I started singing exactly what came to my mind at that very moment:

"Don't tell me just to live and sit and putter; life's candy, and the sun's a ball of butter. Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade. I'll march my band out. I'll beat my drum. And when I'm found out..."

By this time I had the two of them off-guard. They just kind of stood there, saying nothing. Another student entered the bathroom, and I was saved before I had to sing the next verse. I quickly left my tormentors and found my way to a safer place.

As I whiled away the days of seventh grade, it occurred to me that I should take my talent to the after-school chorus, which was planning on performing Oliver. After a two-minute audition, I was in, sharing the top row riser with all the other overweight and underweight teens who happened to be too tall for their years. When we sang, "Consider yourself at home, consider yourself part of the family," I knew I was where I belonged.

By the time I entered college, I had changed my mind about becoming a star. There was always that most important ingredient vocal performers have, which I seemed to be lacking: a good voice. But that never stopped me from singing. Even today, these little triggers will go off in my brain if someone says a line that reminds me of a show tune. If I don't catch myself, I just sing out loud like I did nearly 50 years ago in the boy's bathroom.

Probably the most challenging part of my life was when I took care of my best friend and lover as he excelled and then withered away into the bittersweet drama of AIDS. Everything that goes along with caring for a terminally ill person was all new to me. I was stunned when after one of Robert's hospital stays, I was expected to administer a medical drip through a port in his chest. Staring at the bag, the tubes, and the electronic monitor, I just prayed that everything would go fine, and I wouldn't get a bubble in the line that would prove to be fatal for him. Humming, "Lean on me when you're not strong," while I was preparing the IV drip, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I wasn't the right person to be doing this, but I did it anyway. I loved him.

I'm older now. I can go to most public bathrooms without a fear of being attacked, but that doesn't mean I'm safe from harm. As a gay man approaching the outfield of my life, I still have things to worry about, like an enlarged prostate, sun-damaged skin, and whether I wil get beaten up by thugs if I decide, on some rare occasion, to go out to a club. Worry is an old friend of mine. I try not to show it, even when I feel most vulnerable. It attracts the wrong kind of energy that I just don't want in my life anymore. Instead, I have found that all I need to do is "hold my head up high, whistle a happy tune, and..."