Tuesday, 2 August 2016
Book Spotlight: One of These Things First by Stephen Gaines
by Stephen Gaines
Open Road Media
From New York Times–bestselling author Steven Gaines comes a wry and touching memoir of his trials as a gay teen at the famed Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic.
One of These Things First is a poignant reminiscence of a fifteen-year-old gay Jewish boy’s unexpected trajectory from a life behind a rack of dresses in his grandmother’s Brooklyn bra-and-girdle store to Manhattan’s infamous Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, whose alumni includes writers, poets, and madmen, as well as Marilyn Monroe and bestselling author Steven Gaines.
With a gimlet eye and a true gift for storytelling, Gaines captures his childhood shtetl in Brooklyn, and all its drama and secrets, like an Edward Hopper tableau: his philandering grandfather with his fleet of Cadillacs and Corvettes; a giant, empty movie theater, his portal to the outside world; a shirtless teenage boy pushing a lawnmower; and a pair of tormenting bullies whose taunts drive Gaines to a suicide attempt.
Gaines also takes the reader behind the walls of Payne Whitney—the “Harvard of psychiatric clinics,” as Time magazine called it—populated by a captivating group of neurasthenics who affect his life in unexpected ways. The cast of characters includes a famous Broadway producer who becomes his unlikely mentor; an elegant woman who claims to be the ex-mistress of newly elected president John F. Kennedy; a snooty, suicidal architect; and a seductive young contessa. At the center of the story is a brilliant young psychiatrist who promises to cure a young boy of his homosexuality and give him the normalcy he so longs for.
For readers who love stories of self-transformation, One of These Things First is a fascinating memoir in the vain of Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted and Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors. With its novelistic texture and unflagging narrative, this book is destined to become one of the great, indelible works of the memoir genre.
The whole neighborhood knew Rose, who owned the bra and girdle shop. She was a neighborhood luminary. She was barely five feet tall, honey blond, with hair teased like cotton candy sprayed with shellac. Her jokes were corny, but she kept them coming. She had her following too. Customers dropped into the store just to say hello. She always had some cheering advice, usually, “This too shall pass,” and a few stories. She could be touchingly sweet, even as she told dirty jokes. Every day she wore the same immaculate outfit—a blouse, a skirt, white nurse’s shoes, and a freshly pressed, spotless smock with a folded, clean handkerchief in her pocket she often used to dry my tears.
One afternoon at the Culver Luncheonette I was sitting with her at the counter, savoring an onion bialy with butter and tangy American cheese, along with a tall glass of ice-cold chocolate milk made from U-Bet syrup. It was so good I absently whistled. Twice.
Arnie, balding, doughy, in an apron behind the counter, called to his partner, “Hey, Irving! What whistles besides birds and fairies?”
So I took a big sip of chocolate milk, one time, two times, as if I didn’t hear what was just said, and I pretended that sipping the delicious, cold, thick chocolate milk was all that mattered in the world. It was a stupid joke because people whistle, birds chirp and sing, and who knows what fairies do? But I got the point. They just said it, out of the clear blue, with immunity. I guess you have to hate a child to say something like that. I dared not look at Arnie and Irving because acknowledging them with even a glance would make me complicit in their taunt, but I couldn’t stop myself, and when I peeked they were both snickering.
My grandmother got very quiet. She looked deeply aggravated. I knew she would have stuck up for me except that calling attention to it would probably only make it worse. Anyway, she wasn’t much for confrontation. So we stared straight ahead out the window, one bite, two bites, and then Muna frostily asked for a check. At the cash register she raised herself to her full five feet and said to Irv, “I’ll never come back here again. Never."
But she started going back in a week. You couldn’t blame her; it was the only place to get an English.
From then on, every time I walked past the big glass windows of the Culver Luncheonette, Arnie and Irving minced around inside and curtsied to me like a girl. I prayed they would get tired of it, but it continued to amuse them. I considered telling my father, but I was too ashamed. What could I say—they tease me for being a homo? And then what would he do? Storm the ramparts of the luncheonette to complain that his son was being mocked for being a fegele? I had to stop walking past the luncheonette altogether. I began to cross to the other side of the street, and I walked with my face turned away, toward the wall. Even when I went to the Culver Theater, which was right next door to the luncheonette, I walked all the way around the block to get there.
About the Author:
Steven Gaines is the author of Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons; The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan; and Simply Halston, the biography of fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick. He is the co-author of The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles, among other books. Gaines is a co-founder of the Hamptons International Film Festival and lives in a small hamlet on the East End of Long Island.
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