mr. kettle & mrs. tee
The funniest thing I did that summer was to look for a job. My friends swore I was unemployable. After all, my previous work experience, in addition to pumping gas and washing cars at my father’s gas station, was collecting old newspapers and bottles from neighbors to bring to the junk yard.
My only real expertise was freaking people out on the streets by walking around in genderfuck. I made blurring the line between masculine and feminine an art and a science (Start with foundation, draw a star under the eye, add…). An activist friend told me I was “walking street theatre.” She said I should charge people for the entertainment. Hardly something I could put on my resume.
Going for job interviews dressed as a cross between Boy George and Kiss was more than challenging. It was an exercise in futility. Openings suddenly slammed shut, personnel directors got lock jaw and secretaries asked me where I bought that incredible blue eye shadow with a touch of glitter in it.
I was beginning to feel like I had a starring role in Mission Impossible when I spotted a hand-written flyer on the bulletin board of the neighborhood Post Office. The store seeking help was located inside a huge warehouse that had recently been turned into a shopping mall. The individual stores were lined up on either side of a wide main aisle that was paved in black and white tiles. Flimsy walls separated the individual businesses. They rose three-quarters of the height to the high ceiling that had exposed wooden beams and pipes of varying widths. Every few feet, florescent light fixtures hung on heavy metal chains. My destination, the record store, was sandwiched between Linens and Camera Supplies.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went in to ask for an application. To my surprise, I got hired on the spot. I didn’t even need to fill out any paperwork. Only a yellow index card with my name, address and phone number. The store was owned by two hippies. The store manager, Joe, was a straight white stoner with long dark hair who thought everything was “sooo cool, man.” To him, my style of dress was the ultimate in glitter rock. It was as if David Bowie’s musical alter ego had come to work for him. He dubbed me “Tony Stardust Dude.”
“You part of a rock band?” he asked me as I filled out the card.
I didn’t look up. “Nope. I’m my own act.”
“I can see that. I like it.”
A sharp contrast to the first time Mr. Kettle, the white mall manager, saw me at the register. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, his entire face turning a deep chili pepper red.
“What the hell’re you dressed for? The Circus? I wanna talk to Joe.”
I paged him and Joe came out from the stock room. Was I going to get fired already? I wondered if that would be a Guinness Book record: Dismissed after less than an hour on the job.
“You can’t allow your employees to dress like that,” Kettle told my manager.
“Why not? It’s his choice.”
“This is a family store. If someone wants to prance around in a tutu that’s his own damn business, but not while he’s working here!”
“That’s not very democratic.”
“Don’t give me that crazy hippie talk. I want him in appropriate clothing tomorrow or he’s fired.”
“Uh, you can’t fire my employees.”
“Then I’ll talk to your bosses.” He walked off.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Joe said, going back to his work.
Joe never called the owners, but Mr. Kettle did. They told him in so many words to mind his own business. Mr. Kettle had to get used to the idea of having a gender bender behind the register at the record store. Which might have been possible except that my friends visited me almost nightly. They didn’t all dress wildly, but they got on Mr. Kettle’s nerves nonetheless. He began watching our department like a hawk. He’d stand in the aisle and stare when someone was talking to me at the register. “Don’t you have work to do?” he’d ask.
“I’m minding the register.”
“You need company to do that? Maybe I should order some tea and crumpets, too?”
If the friend were dressed outrageously, he’d quip, “Another of your circus friends?”
So it wasn’t the best idea for Arnold, my African American boyfriend, to come in one night and serenade me with a love song. Arnold was a professional singer and did musicals at local theatres. He could belt them out with the best of them. His professional friends didn’t call him “Ethel” for nothing.
Arnold was almost finished his ballad when along came Mrs. Tee, the African American woman who headed up security. Tee was the first letter of her last name. No one knew her actual last name. A small crowd had gathered to hear Arnold. They were wondering who he was. “What group’s he with?” some people asked.
“Uh, what is going on?” Mrs. Tee asked, as Arnold took his bow. The crowd applauded, then began to wander off to do their shopping.
“Oh, Hi, Mrs. Tee, this is my boyfriend, Arnold…” I had never spoken to her before. I had heard that you didn’t mess with Mrs. Tee. She was a big woman with a stern face and short cropped hair. She wore small clip-on earrings that looked like they were family heirlooms and a plain brown dress that hung to her knees. On her feet were sensible black pumps.
“Hello, Mrs. Tee,” Arnold said and extended his hand to shake hers. She hesitated, then returned the gesture.
“You can’t go around singing in the store, Arnold. If Mr. Kettle…”
“Sorry, you’re right,” I said. “It won’t happen again.”
“You do have a beautiful voice, though,” she said to him, smiling.
“You should come and see me at the TLA. I’ll comp you.”
“I think I’ll do that.” Since the crowd had dispersed, she walked off to check out things in the rest of the store.
When Arnold left, Mrs. Tee came back over to my register. “He’s a very nice young man. And good looking, too.”
“You like him a lot, huh?” I nodded. Obviously she was anything but shy. I didn’t mind. I figured it was the only way to educate straights, and if by some chance she was one of Dorothy’s friends, then I might be helping her come to terms with her own feelings.
“Where did you guys meet, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“At a gay conference at Temple University.” Temple, the local state-funded college, was a hotbed of leftist political activity, including anti-war, feminist and gay groups. It was where working-class kids like myself got a higher education.
Mrs. Tee spotted Mr. Kettle coming down the aisle. “Gotta go.”
Mr. Kettle gave me a suspicious look. “Is anything wrong here?”
He walked off to catch up to Mrs. Tee.
Sometimes I went days without any interaction with Mr. Kettle, which was fine by me. Mrs. Tee, on the other hand, always came by to talk. If I went to the food counter for something to drink, she’d sit on the stool next to me. She asked a lot of questions. How did I know I was “that way?” What did my parents think? What about Arnold’s parents?
She was also curious to know about where gays went to meet each other. I became convinced that Mrs. Tee had a secret that Mr. Tee didn’t know about. Was there even a Mr. Tee? I asked her one day and she said he was dead. That cinched it for me. I decided I was going to get her to come out. How I would do that, I didn’t know. Maybe I would just ask her. I planned to do it on more than one occasion, but always chickened out at the last moment.
One night, three drag queens, two white and one black, passed my register and headed for the Women’s Department, which was across the aisle and a little to the left. Every eye in the store suddenly was on them as they checked out the selections on the racks.
I had seen them hanging out in Rittenhouse Square in the center of the gay neighborhood. I didn’t know their names. When one of the white queens went into the women’s dressing room to try on something, Mr. Kettle was summoned by a sales clerk who didn’t know what to do.
Mr. Kettle stopped at my register on his way to the women’s department.
“Friends of yours?”
“Nope. Never saw them before.”
“And if I have my way, you’ll never see them in this store again,” Mr. Kettle said. Mrs. Tee approached from Linens where she had been checking out a group of kids who were hanging out near the back.
“Get ’em the hell outa my damn store! Now!” Kettle screamed to his security chief as he stomped off to the women’s dressing room. I got Joe to cover the register and followed Mr. Kettle and Mrs. Tee as they left on their mission of eradicating bad influences from our “family store.”
“They’re not bothering nobody,” Miss Tee said.
“I don’t care, I want them outa my store!”
“Mr. Kettle, you need to go to the office and take your high blood pressure medicine. I got everything under control.”
“If you had everything under control you wouldn’t’ve let them come in.”
“What am I supposed to do, ban all people who don’t dress the way you think they should?”
When they arrived at the dressing room, Mr. Kettle banged on the door with his fist. “Come outa there right this minute!” The queen peeked out.
“You have no right to be in there.”
“I’m buying this dress. You like?” The queen opened the door and modeled it for him.
“It’s very nice,” Mrs. Tee said.
“Is there a problem?” one of the other queens asked.
“Everything’s fine,” Mrs. Tee said.
“Everything’s not fine. I can’t have this in my store. You three will have to leave immediately. Or I’m calling the cops.”
“Nobody’s going nowhere,” Mrs. Tee countered. “Now, if you want that dress, fine. If you girls want to look some more, that’s okay, too. I’m head of security. I think Mr. Kettle is overreacting.”
“Good,” said the black queen, “cause I’d sure hate to go to the Human Rights Commission first thing tomorrow morning to file a complaint about discrimination.”
“I wanna see you in my office when you’re done here,” Mr. Kettle said to Mrs. Tee before taking off.
“Now ladies, go back to your shopping. Sorry for the interruption. And the rest of you,” she said to the onlookers, “mind your own business. The show’s over.”
Mrs. Tee obviously had no problem holding her own against Mr. Kettle. I learned that in an even bigger way a few days later. I was about to go on dinner break when Arnold paid me a surprise visit. We grabbed something from the lunch counter and headed into the stock room. It was crowded with sale items that didn’t fit on the display shelves and empty boxes that needed to be broken down. Fortunately we had enough room to eat in the front near Joe’s desk. We set down our food and placed two folding chairs side by side.
“What’s up?” I asked him.
“Oh, nothing, I was lonely. I miss you.”
“It’s only been four hours…”
“I know. C’mere.” I sat in his lap and we kissed for a while. We fed each other French Fries in between smooches. There wasn’t much light so it felt real private. For some reason I felt nervous about what we were doing and scooted over to the other chair. He held out his hand to me. I continued eating fries with one hand and holding his with the other.
My anxiety was well-founded. “What’s going on in here?” a voice suddenly asked. I let go of his hand.
“Uh, Mr. Kettle! Sorry, I’m on my dinner break.”
“Obviously not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. I wanna see you in my office now. And get him outa here, only employees’re allowed in stock rooms.”
I must have been shaking visibly, sitting there in front of Mr. Kettle’s desk. I had only been in the office once before, when I had to bring him some paperwork from Joe. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. It was helping to pay my way through college, which was keeping me out of the draft.
Our union stewart, Gladys, a thin black woman who had worked for the store for many years, was seated to my right. She was shaking her head. “Mr. Kettle, there ain’t nothing you can do about it. He was on his own time.”
Gladys wore an elegant gray skirt and a red blouse. Her lips were painted bright pink and her cheeks were smeared with a little too much rouge. She held on to a plain black purse with a gold snap, sometimes opening and closing it for no apparent reason.
“But he was in my stock room.”
“Correction. He was in the stock room that you’re renting to the record store,” Gladys replied. “If they want to do something to him, that’s different. They’ll still be subject to union rules, though.”
“Those damn hippies won’t do nothing. You know that. I want something done–tonight. I’m not fooling around this time. He’s had enough chances. He just doesn’t care about what anybody thinks, he just does what he wants. It stops right here and now.”
“They were sitting there eating, for Chrissakes, is that a crime? Arnold’s a very nice boy.” Mrs. Tee suddenly asked. She was standing near the door with her arms folded over her chest as if she were keeping watch. She had been silent up to that point, as I had been. I figured that it was best I not speak until someone asked me a question.
“Weren’t you listening to me? I don’t care. I want him outa here!” Kettle shouted. “I’ve been putting up with this nonsense since that record store opened. If it isn’t the loud obnoxious music that they play that gives everybody a headache, then it’s the way they dress and behave. They just don’t have any common sense over there.”
“You can’t do it, goddamn it. You heard Gladys! What’re you deaf or something? Now, you stop this bullshit right this minute!” She had raised her voice to Mr. Kettle before, but never used language like that. Nobody raised their voice to Kettle, let alone cussed. He shot her a disapproving look. She glared back at him.
“Then what do you suggest I do, Mrs. Tee?” Mr. Kettle asked in a quieter voice.
He got louder. “So he can just go on doing whatever he wants, wherever he wants and whenever he wants?”
“Welcome to America.”
“It’s got nothing to do with that. It’s got to do with human decency. You can’t possibly approve of what he’s doing?!”
“Maybe I do.”
“What? Are you nuts?”
“Mr. Kettle, you don’t seem to understand that some of us don’t agree with your outdated attitudes about things.” She paused. “I’ve been keeping my mouth shut for a long time.”
“Mrs. Tee, don’t say something you might later…”
“I ain’t gonna regret saying nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s about time somebody said these things. The truth is, Mr. Kettle, I had a brother who was like that. He was the sweetest guy you ever wanted to meet. He didn’t harm nobody. You hear me? He didn’t do nothing to nobody. He wasn’t in no gang, he didn’t do no drugs. He liked to dress in women’s clothes and put on makeup and go out dancing on weekends. Everybody liked him. They didn’t understand why he did what he did, but they knew he was a good kid. Some people judged him. They got all righteous about God and the Bible. That was their thing. I never argued with them. What was the point? Now I wish I had. I should’ve said something. When those ladies came in the other night, I saw my brother. He would’ve come in here like that, all sassy and proud. Sometimes he loved to get a good rise outa people, you know what I mean? And why not? It didn’t do nobody no harm. It might’ve shook them up a little bit, but that’s okay.” She stopped. Her jaw became tighter, her lips quivered. She seemed as if she were about to cry. “Do you know what they did? They killed him, Mr. Kettle. They left him in an alley all bloodied and broken…the police ain’t never arrested nobody for it.”
“I’m sorry…” It was the first time I ever heard anything vaguely resembling compassion from Mr. Kettle.
“Sorry ain’t enough. You gotta do more than be sorry. You gotta open up your heart and let the understanding in. I know it ain’t easy. But you gotta do it. And don’t ask me to judge cause I won’t. I don’t know why people’re the way my brother was, and I don’t care. They just are. That’s good enough for me.”
“Amen, sister.” It was Gladys. She was smiling.
“Now if you got something to say that isn’t about your own problem with gay people, then I suggest you say it. Otherwise, Gladys, Tony and I got work to do.”
“Just get the hell outa here,” Kettle murmured.
We didn’t argue.
originally published at sanfranciscosentinel.com, c 2004.