How the hell did I make it to 50? (Dancing on the Cliff’s Edge, Part 1)

Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever. Paola flies in from New Haven to surprise me at my 50th party at the Landmark in Fresno.

Warning, adventurers: This is a looooong read. One that you might want to pick up, lay down and pick up again. Kinda like a book. And this is just the first part. And as I got into writing this in mid-June – and realized I was at a point where I couldn’t get out – I envisioned this being the framework to the last chapters of my eventual book, which I hope you’ll still want to read someday. It’s seven months’ worth of crap in one distended, distorted, festering nutshell. But one way or another, good or bad, I’m still looking for that final chapter – and soon:

Saturday night, June 4. The Landmark, my bar/restaurant of choice in Fresno’s Tower District. My 50th birthday party. One of my friends, Eny, had baked me a sheet cake, and about 50 people sat in the backroom and watched the birthday girl blow out all the candles in one short burst — something that surprised and delighted me, since I’ve gotten so fat and out of shape again lately. (Someone should’ve bought me a lap band …)

It wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night, though. Hardly. A little after 9, I was talking with someone and looked up and there was Paola, one of my dearest friends. We’ve known each other since the mid-’80s, and she was my girlfriend for four years in the late ’80s-early ’90s. And she’s been in my fan club all along, even those long stretches when I renounced my membership. She was also one of the first people I came out to, when I was home for three weeks in August 2008.

And she was standing there. From New Haven. In Fresno. Carrying a box from Pepe’s, one of New Haven’s world-renowned pizza places. Except she wasn’t bringing me a pie — inside were several copies of the New Haven Register from two days before, with my commentary on gender identity on the front page. It was a gift from Uncle Ricky, the Register’s features editor and my boss when I was the paper’s entertainment editor/music writer.

(My Spider-senses were telling me earlier in the day that someone was gonna surprise me, but I didn’t think Paola. But I should’ve known better — she threw me a surprise party for my 30th.)

Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever.

It had already been one of my best birthdays ever. I had walked in Fresno’s Pride Parade that morning (in a rare June Fresno rain) and received many whoops and cheers from the friends drinking on the Landmark patio; had talked to my mom and my brother Ken; had spent a good chunk of my free time sending quick thank-yous to the hundreds of friends who had sent their best wishes to my Facebook wall; and my friend Amy the Redhead, a force of nature who’s been extremely encouraging and supportive of me, not only drove me to the Landmark so I could drink that night, but also helped me set up, ducked out to the Dollar Tree to get even more decorations, and gave me a wonderful gift.

And there were plenty of gifts both the night of the party and leading into it. To name a few, Mom sent me much-needed cash. Tuesday afternoon, I got packages from two close friends at home. Drew bought me my very first Barbie — the new Debbie Harry model — and Colleen sent me a beautiful glazed blue glass-bead necklace and a pair of silver hoops; I immediately put on all the jewelry, took a photo sitting at Revue a short while later, and it turned out to be the shot that ran on the cover of the Register. Before I left the house for the party, there was a box of 50 mini-roses from Marice, another New Haven friend. And Drew sent a mixed bouquet and vase that were waiting for me at the Landmark.

But Paola was the clincher. After my initial screams of shock and joy (“Fran, you’re embarrassing me”), and after introducing her to my Fresno friends — to see her standing in front of me side-by-side with Heather, my closest friend in Fresno, was priceless —  it was time to do the cake. And in between the candles and the first cut, I stood there and recited a speech I had written just milliseconds before.

“I’m humbled,” I said. “Six weeks ago, I didn’t think I was gonna even be here right now. I’ve just been astounded at how much support I’ve gotten from all of you. I mean, Paola has been there the past 25 years, and God knows Heather’s been through most of my bullshit the last few years. I just can’t believe I even got to 50. I just can’t thank you all enough.”

And this is where I should’ve broken down in a pile of tears. Instead: “All I can say is ‘WHOOO!'” And I brought my fist down like a golfer who just hit the 60-foot putt of his life to win the Masters.

Well, despite still being jobless, I decided to celebrate just getting to this point. And found that maybe I’m not as useless as the job world seems to think. Maybe. Besides, I truly didn’t think I was gonna be here for my birthday. Or anywhere. I wasn’t planning on it, anyway.

*****

On Good Friday, I was standing at water’s edge of my favorite West Coast beach, north of Santa Cruz, and contemplating returning one last time, walking in to the frigid Pacific if I didn’t have a job by my birthday and not walking back out. I was resolved not to be unemployed and useless and 50. That would just be absolutely pathetic, and I wasn’t going to be pathetic. After all, I felt pretty godawful pathetic, with all the bitching and moaning I’d done to friends, either in emails, phone conversations or on Facebook.

In my mind, I had the date set for my walk of no return: June 3. I figured 49 would have a much nicer ring in the obituary than 50. Besides, after two years and three months of no job, of despair and grinding, tearing uselessness, I figured the universe was telling me this was never gonna happen, I wasn’t worthy of a job and I should get used to it.

I had danced along the edge of the cliff so often these past couple years, between the anxiety and stress of both my gender transition and the lingering, relentless unemployment, that I was starting to lose my fear of falling off the edge. Death seemed much more preferable to being dead-ass broke, deeply in debt and knowing that no one wanted to hire me, nor had anyone wanted to for a long time. This was as close as I’ve ever come to going over.

But some friends did some yeoman’s work pulling me from the cliff, just as I thought I truly was going past the edge. And on the night of my birthday, I was celebrating not just wondering how the hell I got to 50, but the people who got me there.

*****

The last time I was near the cliff was last November, when I was in deep despair on two fronts – the joblessness had gone past a year and a half with absolutely NO encouragement; and my family was still being weird with me about my transition. And in my mind, I was seriously entertaining thoughts of ending it back then. If I didn’t go home for Christmas – rather, if I didn’t feel I’d be welcome coming back home again – I was contemplating walking into the ocean Christmas morning. I just couldn’t deal with the Twin Towers of Anxiety anymore. At that point, it just felt as not only had I not made any progress at all on either the job or family fronts in over a year, but that I was actually behind Square One.

But strange things happen sometimes. I had some long family talks, starting a week and a half before Thanksgiving, at the worst of it all; I followed that by coming out to quite a few of my relatives over the next three weeks, and by the time I did go back to Connecticut for the holidays in mid-December, the Tower of Family/Transition Anxiety was down. Gone. That was a HUGE and incredible sigh of relief. And with the conquest of the family anxiety went the rest of the anxiety about the transition. As far as I’m concerned, save for the gradual body changes caused by my hormones, my transition ended in mid-December. After all, I had incredible support from my friends on both sides of the country.

But I’ll tell you – for all the time I spent building a surrogate family for myself in case my real family turned me away, it didn’t really compare in the end. In my case at least (and everyone’s story is different), without the actual flesh-and-blood family on board, it would’ve been enough to send me over the edge for real. Because it would’ve meant everything I was taught about this God of love growing up – of a Jesus who said to love one another as he loved us, to not judge, to love our neighbors – would have been bullshit. Which would’ve been awfully hard to digest after 49 years. It would’ve meant all the time, effort and energy I had expended being a good person and trying to do everything right would’ve just been a huge waste of time. It would’ve meant that my life was, at its core, a misspent waste and a huge lie.

But thankfully, it all worked out well. And actually, starting the coming-out process with my relatives eased things with my immediate family. I’d have to think that “What will the family think?” had to have been on my folks’ minds all that time, and having a few of my cousins and aunts and an uncle on board, and letting them know that all was fine – and they were fine with me – couldn’t have done anything but help.

And as time has gone on, my folks have grown more supportive, now that they understand and/or at least accept it on a certain level. My mom has told her friends from her social circle at church. And, paralleling my coming-out process – I started with my closest friend in Fresno, Heather, then my closest friends at home, then worked outward – Mom started with her closest friend, who had her back as she worked outward to her priest, the other friends in her circle and a couple of the neighbors.

So now with the one tower of anxiety gone, I could double-down on the Joblessness/Uselessness Anxiety. I joked about it, but at the same time, I was dead serious.

*****

One thing I did all the time I was home for the holidays was send out résumés. One reason was because I wanted a job so bad, and could sense my unemployment running down, and was dreading the possibility of me still being out of work and the benefits running out. The other was because the rules for receiving my unemployment had changed, seemingly arbitrarily. In order to keep my benefits coming, I now had to jump through a hoop I hadn’t before: I had to apply for six jobs each two-week period and document them on the form I had to mail back to Sacramento. Even if I wasn’t qualified for these jobs – just to show that I had applied for something.

Despite the holiday slowdown of the job market, I managed to crank out 17 résumés in the four weeks I was home – got four done the day after Christmas, when I drove home from a fill-in radio show on WPKN in a blizzard and knew I wasn’t gonna be going anywhere for at least a day. My last Saturday back home, rather than watch my New Orleans Saints take on Seattle in the playoffs, I holed up at the Starbucks in Orange, two towns west of New Haven, and produced four more résumés. I had actually had a dread feeling about my defending Super Bowl champs going into the game – seven running backs out with injuries – and I felt my day would be a lot more productive in the long run if I sent my life story to four more employers.

Well, as it turned out, my day would’ve been a huge waste regardless. The Saints lost, and I’m glad I didn’t see Marshawn Lynch, who hadn’t run for 67 yards in three seasons combined, put on one of the greatest highlight-film TD runs of all time and make the vaunted Saints D look like a Pop Warner team. It was a fitting back bookend to my time home – my first weekend, I suffered through my Giants’ colossal choke job against the Eagles, with DeSean Jackson adding the final insult. But the upshot of being industrious: about seven hours of wasted time I could’ve spent with family or friends. Not one peep from any of my four résumés. A “You suck, Fran” would’ve been nice. Then again, with 99 percent of my résumés I haven’t even gotten the decency of a response.

*****

Actually, I did have an interview the day after I flew home. It would be my second interview out of all my time out of work.

The first was in May of 2010; a nonprofit in New Haven that produced student journalistic videos about positives and negatives in the juvenile justice system, was looking for an executive director. My dear friend Colleen, who has written extensively about juvy justice, alerted me to it; I applied, and one of the board members lined me up for a phone interview with him and two other board members. Colleen and a newfound friend of mine on the West Coast – Phoebe, who had been The Fresno Bee’s political editor before my time there and had written about juvy justice as a reporter – helped me get up to speed on the topic. I did my own homework as well, and had a lot of questions for them.

Well, I spent 40 minutes on the phone with them, sent the board member who arranged the interview a thank-you email … and then nothing. This board member told me they’d get back to me in a week or two. Well, after three weeks, I figured I was perfectly in my right to call him. He said that he would get back to me within two weeks. It’s now 15 months. Not even the decency of a thank you or letting me know what happened. Another huge waste.

This second interview came about indirectly from Colleen. I had applied for a job in New Haven, and while this company decided to go with someone local, I had known the woman in charge from my time at the Register, and she not only was encouraging – and supportive of me, as Colleen had told her about my transition – but she told me to keep looking at their website for job postings. And there was one right up my alley.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, a last-two-weeks-of-June extravaganza of music, theater, visual art, performance art and forum discussions with a truly global scope, was launched in New Haven in 1996 and immediately became one of the city’s go-to events. I covered parts of the festival its first eight years. As much as my job as the Register’s entertainment editor/music writer chained me to my desk, I tried to sneak out to see events when I could – many concerts; the Abbey Theatre of Dublin at Long Wharf Theatre; the Metropolitan Opera’s free performances that drew 35,000 people to the Green as sundown turned to twilight. And I had had several great interviews with musicians who performed there over the years: Henry Threadgill, Seamus Egan, Vernon Reid, Mavis Staples, Mark O’Connor p(l)aying his Hot Club tribute to his friend and mentor Stephane Grappelli, David Harrington of The Kronos Quartet, Susan Tedeschi. Little Richard.

It was an event I truly believed in. And they were looking for a PR coordinator. The rub: It was only a temporary job – January through July. But with five months in benefits left, I went for it for three reasons. For one, it would get me home – family, friends, pizza, proximity to New York, back on WPKN. The job would only be temporary, but by the nature of the beast, I would make plenty of contacts. And between the festival job and being back on the air, it would easily make me one of the highest-profile transpeople in Connecticut, which I felt couldn’t help but open some doors.

So I applied, and a week before I flew home, the marketing director called me to arrange a date for an interview. And there I was on the midday after I flew home; my mom wanted me to come into the living room, where she and Albie were watching TV, to see how I looked – “You look good” – and then it was off to New Haven. I chose the day after I flew in because if this worked out the way I wanted, and they decided to hire me, I was ready to cut the trip short, fly home after Christmas, rent a huge truck and drive all my stuff back East.

I arrived at the office tower on the southeast corner of the Green a few minutes early to fix myself up and straighten out the hair that got so disheveled in just a half-block walk in blustery, 20-degree weather. But I was ready – my first face-to-face job interview as my better half. A year and a half before, David, one of the job counselors at the LGBT Center in San Francisco, had told me that if I were going to interview as a woman, I’d better own it. Just as with my audition for “Jeopardy!” in San Francisco five weeks before, I owned it. I wasn’t nervous; I was excited.

And then I was pissed.

The marketing director had my résumé in hand, as well as a publicity packet from the previous festival to hand me. The session got off pleasantly, but then he said, “Well, this wasn’t in the ad, and maybe I should’ve mentioned it, but the job is only part-time February through April and full-time for May and June.”

Ohkaaaaaaaayyyy …

“And what do you mean by part time?”

“Ten hours a week.”

I could feel the expression drop involuntarily from my face and he could see it pretty plainly, too.

You think maybe, maybe you should have mentioned this?!? Ten hours a week? I knew their budget had been cut back, but so few hours for so big an event? I didn’t know whether to be flat-out angry that he couldn’t be clear and straight about this in the ad in the first place and that he totally wasted my time; or flat-out crushed/disappointed that this wasn’t gonna get me home; or whether I should be “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and think, “Well, you did interview face-to-face as your better half, and you did own it.” At this point, though, I didn’t even know whether to count this as an interview. But while all this was raging in my skull, I kept my interview smiley-face, though the disappointment beneath was palpable.

So anyway, we continued on for another few minutes or so with pleasant talk and conversation about the festival, but we both knew this wasn’t gonna work. A half-hour and I was gone. A couple days after Christmas, he sent me a rejection email. And a month later, he was gone, too – left for a college job. Maybe he did me a favor, long run – but it was still a huge disappointment that I wasn’t gonna be able to come home for good. And it seemed so close …

The time home prompted a sea change in my priorities. Until then, I was looking for a job in the Bay Area first and foremost, then New York, then Connecticut as a last resort. Since the holidays, it’s been anywhere between New Haven and New York, followed by the Bay Area. But just somewhere. I just wanted to be wanted somewhere. Anywhere.

*****

One other thing happened when I was home. I broke down and joined Facebook.

I had been militantly against joining the millions of lemmings socially minded people who had been zucker(berg)ed into the Evil Empire. For one thing, many of the people who had been telling me for a couple years, “Oh, you’ve gotta get on Facebook!” were the very same ones telling me two years before, “Oh, you’ve gotta get on Myspace!” And two years from now, they’ll be telling me, “Oh, you’ve gotta get on Zork.com!” or whatever new social site fad comes strong. And more important – I had read so much about Facebook and Zuckerberg’s apparent, Ivy League-arrogant, disregard for people’s privacy that, even though I’m out trans and really had nothing to hide, I wanted nothing to do with the site.

Well, the first Monday night of the year, I was hanging at Paola’s place, and she was in her workroom, on the Mac; I walked in and she was looking at a Facebook page: “The Grotto, New Haven – Where Are They Now?” The Grotto was downtown New Haven’s underground music club – literally – for five years in the ’80s. It opened near the end of 1983 and closed in late ’88. And many great bands were seen there and many Rolling Rocks were consumed there and many quarters were shed into the slots of Pole Position and the shuffle bowling machine (where I would occasionally play Flash bowling for Rocks and win). And many longtime friendships were forged there.

And this page had at least 150 photos of people I hadn’t seen in years, in bands long disbanded, in a dark, stalactite-filled barroom and performance space, long since converted into part of the gleaming, multi-floored Gotham dance club complex on Crown and Church streets. And comments from people I hadn’t seen in years. And a picture of yours truly when she was the “Desperately Seeking Susan” version of Madonna for Halloween 1986 – and not only won the costume contest and six months’ free admission, but was hit on more times in my life that night than any time before or since, man or woman.

And I got sucked in for the next hour and a half. And Paola finally said, “I’m not suggesting you drink the Kool-Aid, but …” And two nights later, I was back at her place, asking her to help me navigate the setup and the privacy settings.

That night, I sent my first friend requests – Paola, then my friends Lexy and Drew at home and Heather in Fresno. And within two days, people were starting to find me and my friends list started to skyrocket. For a month and a half steady, there wasn’t a day where I didn’t get a friend request; at the thick of it, I was “friending” about 20 people a day, between people finding me and me finding them.

As of now, six months later, my Facebook friends list numbers close to 900 people – most are truly friends from about every corner of my life – ex-colleagues from my three newspapers, Grotto pals, musicians international to local I had befriended in my writing days, even college classmates and a few frat brothers (yes, I was in a frat, but it wasn’t a knuckleheaded bunch in the least), along with a few relatives and the stray acquaintance. A handful of high school classmates as well.

The most wonderful part of this whole Facebook trip is how many dozens of people hadn’t known about my wild trip the past 3 ½ years, looked me up, saw my profile with the pretty woman staring back at them, and then sent me invites. That has said volumes.

And a couple of things have happened that I wasn’t expecting. One was the coming-out commentary in the Register at the start of June – it started with me making a comment in reply to a Facebook post about New Haven parking meters. The whirlwind that resulted from it has been wonderful. Not only did several people from my ’80s resurface, but I’ve also made new friends back home in response.

Speaking of resurfacing, that leads to the other unexpected consequence of joining Facebook: kind of a healing process.

I’m not fond of Prospect, my hometown. (Luckily, I moved there when I was 4, so when someone writes my obit, (s)he can write “She was born in Brooklyn” and be done with it.) I went through beaucoup hell there growing up, lots of torture for the crime of being myself – and that was without the gender thang thrown in. And when my parents are gone, I won’t ever have to see the damn place again.

Well, it was inevitable that someone from my childhood – or maybe a few people – would pop up. The first was Terry, a few days after I joined; I hung out in his neighborhood as a teen and later worked with him at my first newspaper in Waterbury. He was no surprise. Stacie, back in March, was a surprise. I didn’t know her well – she was in my kindergarten class – but she was cute in that blue-eyes-and-freckles Irish way and always seemed nice. And we reconnected because, unknown to me, she had been the high school girlfriend of a longtime friend of mine, and she saw my name on a comment I made on one of his photos. And she and I have talked quite a bit since, and it’s been great to get to know her as an adult.

Carolyn and I were in sixth grade together; she was from Beacon Falls, the other town in our school district, and I actually ran into her when I first started hanging out in New Haven in ’83; she went to college with my first New Haven girlfriend and some of our mutual friends. She contacted me after the Register piece ran and had the most wonderful things to say. She complimented me for being myself, told me how beautiful I looked and how she remembered me being a nice kid and a very unhappy boy in middle school. (And she’s gotten to be quite the gearhead in middle age; can’t wait for a ride in her purple ’70 Road Runner if I ever get back home.)

Bradd has been a big part of the healing process. He grew up in the same neighborhood as Terry, where I hung out because I figured it was the only neighborhood that would have me, the loser with no self-esteem. I had a weird relationship with him at best; at times he was okay with me and at times he could mean to me for no reason, and he was a lot stronger than me, and I never knew what was gonna set him off, so I kinda kept my distance. We did talk on the phone for about 45 minutes one night in February 2006, after the death of our mutual childhood friend Rick, but that was a couple years before my gender epiphany.

Anyway, he told me, he saw a comment I had left on one of Terry’s photos in late May, thought it odd that this woman had Fran Fried’s name, clicked on the profile and said “Holy shit!” And once he got over the shock, he started reading about me, exploring my blog. And he apologized if he ever said or did anything to hurt me. Well, it took me writing back and forth a couple times before I got it all out – let him know the hell I went through in general back then – and, well, the adult Bradd has been very supportive. We’ve talked a bit since.

I guess, just as I wasn’t nearly the person then that I am now, the same applies to everyone else as well. And that includes both childhood friends and nemeses. Recently, a couple more ex-Prospect people – both now living down South, one a neighbor in childhood – have come on board, and with positive results. And another old neighbor, who still lives up the street from my folks, found me this very afternoon. As I said, it’s a healing process. And it’s something that’s started to come about as a result of Facebook.

Stay tuned for Part 2 …

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8 Responses to “How the hell did I make it to 50? (Dancing on the Cliff’s Edge, Part 1)”

  1. Keith Hyatte Says:

    Fran,
    This is great and informative. I applaud your ability to share your fascinating and painful life story. I learned more about you than I ever knew. We have a lot in common, believe it or not, especially the ultimate swim scenario. Here is hoping that finale never goes down. I genuinely wish you success with the job prospects, and soon. I am staying tuned for part two.
    xox

    • franoramaworld Says:

      You sure you wanna stick around for Part 2? It does get ugly, hon — a shit sandwich atop a shit salad, waiting for the shit entree … Just warnin’ ya …

      🙂

  2. LouAnn Says:

    Hi cousin. I am happy that yuou have found peace.
    Lou

  3. It's Drew! Says:

    Great read, Frannie! And that happy ending you’re going to write isn’t just the last chapter, it’s a teaser for the next book.

  4. David Says:

    Hello Fran
    Keep up the good work…looking forward to the next installment.
    David

  5. Kelli Elam Says:

    Yay, I made it! I mean, I read this whole story, really Fran. 😉 Now, I must admit, I don’t read everything you post/publish, but for the most part, yes. You’re a wonderful write, Fran, with a fantastic memory, and I must admit I’m a bit envious. But anyway, WAY more important than all of that, is that you ARE still here, with “us”, thankfully, and your desire TO live shines through in your writing, to me anyway. And, as always, I wish you all the best in your job search, and as much as you’ve suffered through these past few years with that, I hope that justice serves, and your next job will be your “dream job”–I’m going to keep believing that! 🙂 Keep smiling, Fran! Your best days are still ahead of you. (HUGS)

  6. The winter of discord, discontent, dislocation and discombobulation (Dancing on the Cliff’s Edge, Part 2) « Franorama World Says:

    […] For part one of this epic, click here. […]

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