I’ve said it 1,000 times: I loathe nostalgia. But sometimes, I can’t help myself.
Yesterday afternoon, I was standing in line at the only grocery store in my neighborhood. (I use the term “grocery store” loosely. Yeah, technically the place sells groceries, but it feels like everything on the shelves fell off a truck from Slovenia. Translation: shady.) Anyway, I was standing there, watching the steampunks ahead of me pay for their ramen with pennies, when Diana Ross’ 198o hit, “I’m Coming Out” started blaring from the boombox behind the counter.
I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that song for the first time: the Sunshine Skate Center, halfway between the Asteroids machine and the carpeted half-wall that wrapped around the skate flooor. My friend, Robin, was singing along and seemed to know all the words — but then, she seemed to know a lot I didn’t.
Now, I’m not a huge Diana Ross fan (snatch my gay card if you must), and frankly, I’ve never liked that song, but I have to admit, it’s sort of a time capsule. To me, it’s about the evolving Civil Rights movement, and particularly about gays and lesbians, who by 1980 had finally begun to appear in film, on TV, and on the news — not as monsters or outcasts or circus freaks, but as fairly normal people who just had a thing for cashmere sweaters and pleated pants. “I’m Coming Out” was celebratory, a moment of jubilation — an all-too-brief moment that ended a year later when people began dying and we became vilified overnight.
But really, what was striking during that moment in the grocery store had nothing to do with me. What was more interesting was the cashier’s reaction to the song. He looks to be about my age, or maybe a little older, and he’s generally brusque. I’m pretty sure he’s a Russian ex-pat Jew — mostly because I think he’s related to the owners, who are all Israeli, and he tried to chat me up about Passover this one time when I was buying matzo. (I’m not Jewish; they were just out of rice cakes.) Also: he speaks with a thick, eastern European accent, and I’m 99% certain I once overheard him speaking in Russian on a cell phone.
Regardless of his religion, nationality, or creed (as if I’d know the man’s creed), what’s important was his expression when “I’m Coming Out” came on: this beefy guy who’s been around the block, this man who’s ordinarily gruff and distant, he was beaming. Literally beaming — like that creepy baby/sun thingamajig on Teletubbies. He started singing along, smiling, clearly happy to be alive.
And here’s what I want to know: where was HE when he first heard that song?