There are two basic truths about myself that I figured out at a very early age. The first was that I wanted to be a writer. My first story, written when I was six, was called “The Flying Rabbit.” One of my greatest nightmares is that Mom has a copy of it somewhere she’s going to embarrass me with someday, but I think I managed to destroy them all.
The second thing I figured out, after playing “show me yours I’ll show you mine” with the other kids on the block, both girls and boys, was that I liked boys better, though it wasn’t until I was 26 that I worked up the nerve to admit, to myself and the rest of the world, that I’m gay. (It’s also how I came to know that I had the largest penis on the block, but I don’t like to brag. Okay, yeah I do.)
To start at the beginning: First, there was a big bang. About 13.7 billion years later, in 1961, I was born to William and Grace Butts of New Orleans. (That’s right, Will and Grace.) I was the youngest of six in a large Roman Catholic family. Because my father was a veteran of World War II who had come home, married and raised a large family, I was one of the last of the “Baby Boomers.” This made it hard for me to fit in with other kids my age, because most of them were the first lines of “Generation X.”
It wasn’t until I turned 40 that my mother finally stopped calling me the “baby” of the family, and then only because I insisted.
I spent the first twenty years of my life in New Orleans; enough to become thoroughly infused with her culture. I’ve been to many a Mardi Gras, I know how to pronounce “beignet” and I know how to spell “Tchoupitoulas.” Even though I’ve lived in Minnesota for over three decades — longer than I lived in New Orleans — my home town is still a very big part of me. (After all, you can take the boy out of “N’Awlins” but you can’t take “N’Awlins” out of the boy.) The city is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, but I know they will: they’re proud, strong and stubborn people.
My family still lives down there, though none within the city of New Orleans. They’ve all scattered to various suburbs. I don’t get down to visit enough. The last time was in 2014, and I took my roommate with me to meet my family.
I look almost exactly like my father did when he was my age. I’ve even grown a goatee like his from time to time, but usually end up taking it off because it’s going gray in the same places Dad’s did. Some mornings when I look into the mirror, he looks back. That’s kind of spooky.
Being the youngest, I was always the one put upon by my family. I was always the last in line, always wearing my brothers’ hand-me-downs, and always the one who had to give up his room if we had company coming.
My siblings — all my elders — always felt it was their right to discipline me, though their idea of discipline was more like abuse. Some of them even used to tease me by telling me I was adopted. (Obviously not true, considering that I look more like my father than any of them!) And through it all, Mom would lament to teachers and other parents that I was “spoiled.” I eventually found the courage to point out to her that this was untrue… sometime in my forties. Some other childhood issues I have buried deep in my memory, because to bring them out into the open would do more damage to my family than any benefit to me would be worth.
I was an unpopular lad as a child: the other kids found it amusing to taunt me because of my unusual last name, and often these taunts were accompanied by flying fists. Often I would come home bruised and bloody. My parents and teachers told me that I probably brought this all on myself. That’s another thing I eventually set Mom straight about.
Around the time I was in sixth grade, my peers learned a new name to call me: “faggot.” This hurt not because of what they were calling me, but because deep down inside I knew it was true.
Middle school was even more traumatic, as not only was I bullied by the students, but some teachers and administrators started getting into the act. There was the office clerk who doubled as a security guard we called “Sarge” who had it in for me. Mrs. Watson, my eighth grade science teacher, lectured me for an entire period in front of the whole class on how worthless I was and how I would never amount to anything. That kind of thing really leaves a kid with issues. Determined to prove then all wrong, I tested for admission to Benjamin Franklin High School, an elite academy for gifted students housed in a decrepit old courthouse on Carrollton Avenue. Mrs. Watson laughed at that: she announced in front of the class that she would give me five dollars if I passed that test. I got in, but she never paid up.
Franklin High School was a strange place where I met strange people from outside the little world I had been hitherto confined to. Meeting new people exposed me to new ideas, but I was socially awkward and had trouble fitting in. I ended up banding together with friends from my part of town who also went to school there.
At the end of my sophomore year, it was determined that I didn’t have a sufficient grade point average to continue at Franklin, so I was kicked out and sent to the district school, Marion Abramson Senior High. We endearingly called it “M.A.S.H.” since the TV show of the same name was at its height in those days. Initially unhappy at Abramson, I soon got used to it and found myself making more new friends there working with the school newspaper, yearbook, and the drama club. I acted in three school plays: I was the interactive narrator in Our Town (come on, every high school theater has done Our Town at least once!), an alien bent on destroying the world in Visit to a Small Planet (a personal favorite) and the butler in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. (And no, I didn’t do it!)
I graduated from high school in 1979, then attended two semesters at the University of New Orleans, where I majored in Substance Abuse and dropped out at the end of my freshman year. After drifting from job to job, I left New Orleans in 1981 and moved to Minneapolis.Share