I was an excellent houseboy at first. Mondays I’d do the laundry: sheets in the morning, towels in the afternoon. Tuesdays I’d vacuum and shake the sand out of the area rugs. Wednesdays I’d clean the three bathrooms. On Thursday I’d grocery shop for the weekend. By 4 p.m., I was done.
I then took a quick jump in the pool and headed over to Tea Dance and sat on the railing, watching the parade of beautiful bronzed Fire Island men come and go as I sipped my Blue Whale.
At first, Tea Dance was an after-work ritual; not an obsession. But my houseboy duties and schedule began to deteriorate rapidly by mid-July. I’d cram everything, cleaning, cooking, and laundry into Friday morning, finishing literally minutes before the guys walked off the ferry. The Fire Island social scene became my main obsession. I was a fixture at every Tea Dance along with other Pines’ regulars, like Lady B, a four foot overly tanned woman somewhere between 55 and 85 years old. No one knew, or dared to ask, her age.
Lady B would show up at Tea Dance in a bikini top hanging perilously low on her emaciated chest, a piece of thin batik fabric barely covering her private parts, and a floppy straw hat with holes in it. She never wore shoes. She was already drunk, waving an empty Moet bottle in the air and screaming in an accent that could either be from France or from Canarsie, “I’m LADY B!”
In mid-July, I asked a bartender who she was.
“Her?” he asked, barely glancing up. “She’s Trude Heller’s lover.”
“She’s fabulous,” I replied.
He chuckled and continued rinsing out glasses.
Trude Heller owned the famous Trude Heller’s disco in the West Village. She was also a producer, most notably producing the 1965 Supremes Concert at Lincoln Center. I never saw Heller, the owner of the namesake West Village disco, on Fire Island, but Lady B was always at Tea. Lady B lived in Trude’s house on the ocean. It was easy to figure out which house it was by the empty champagne bottles littering the beach. Lady B would just hurl them off the deck.
I had to meet her. One Wednesday afternoon, neighboring houseboy Billy and I were smoking joints when I suggested I dress up as Lady B and go to tea. He thought it was a great idea, and we quickly got an outfit together that very closely resembled her signature look. I wore a tube top, John’s hat with the flowers, and two dish towels pinned around my waist.
“Ugh! I don’t have a champagne bottle. The empty Chardonnay bottles just laying around aren’t right,” I whined.
“I’ll be back!” Billy said as he ran to his house. I looked out the kitchen window and saw him rummaging through the trash cans on the board walk. In no time he was back with an empty, if slightly soiled, bottle of Asti Spumante.
As we walked to Tea, I was nervous. My heart was pounding. Lady B was formidable, and I didn’t want to mess with her. I prayed she would find my impersonation humorous. I certainly didn’t want to go home with a lump on my head from an empty Moet bottle.
The crowd was thick that afternoon. Billy and I couldn’t see Lady B as we made our way up the steps, but she was there, roaring, “I’m LADY B!!” over and over again from somewhere deep in the crowd.
She sounded exceptionally inebriated. My costume was recognized as I moved through the crowd. People started nudging each other and I heard someone say, “Oh, look. There’s another Lady B.”
The six or seven men directly in front of her parted when they saw me coming, giving us a direct path. Then someone nudged her, and Lady B stopped screaming. She turned around, looked at me and stared.
“Who the hell are you??” she yelled.
My answer, totally unrehearsed, came to me in a flash.
“I’m Lady A! If You’re Lady B, then I’m Lady A!” I screamed.
The crowd gasped. Everyone stopped talking, waiting for Lady B’s reaction. All you could hear was the muffled sound of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” coming off the dance floor.
Then Lady B flung her head back and let out a huge guttural laugh. She ran over to me and threw her arms around me, spilling warm Moet over my left shoulder. I was shocked.
Shocked, yes, that the intimidating Lady B threw her arms around me and loved the joke, but even more shocked because the bottle wasn’t empty after all.
Charles Baran, an actor, singer, comedian, and screenwriter from Queens, recently played Jack Sable in the world premiere of S.P. Monahan’s Aunt Jack at Theater for the New City in New York. Previously he managed several architectural and interior design firms in Manhattan.
Fag-U-lous story!!! I absolutely adored your tale of Lady B in a Fire Island disco in the 80s. Love to read a collected book of all of your character sketches and well-written anecdotes from back in the day.