Bette Midler and Memories of “P,” the Best Drag Queen Ever

As I work on my book about the late 70’s and early 80’s right before and after AIDS hits, I am going through so many inspirational music genres. Of course, Disco has the main stage, but so do Broadway Musicals.

Right now, it is Bette Midler. I have listened to her Bette Midler: Live at Last over and over the past few days as I write about the drag queens I hung out with between 1978 and 1980. Hung out is not really what I did. I fawned over them.

P

Paul Wegman as Miss P

I followed my favorite queen P like a puppy dog. I was so enamored of P I could not be in her orbit for a long enough time. I was 17 when I met P. She was the emcee at the Parliament House, a gay complex here in Orlando. I lived for the drag shows… Thursday through Sunday nights. I loved sitting up front, in the vulnerable section of the audience. The lights were always glaring over the first few rows and P could see who was there easily.

Her ability to banter with anyone was uncanny. She took great chunks out of people’s armor, illuminating their naughty sides, baring their shameful sides and highlighting their most wondrous parts as well. Her brash social commentary operated without any polite bullshit enveloping it.

It wasn’t until I was out of the drag queen community and came out as a lesbian, reading everything I could about the gay community that discovered Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. In there, Judy Grahn, a poet and historian, shares a bit about the history of drag queen speech:

“…incessant witty verbiage, gossipy, outlandish, repetitive, poetic, and philosophical in the most elemental sense. Sensual, barbed, informative, revolting, political – Fairy speech is a living art.”

Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn, page 86

Also:

“…splashy entrances and exits, louder than anyone and funnier, more daring, taking up a lot of space and always with a smart remark, a critique, a commentary cutting through hypocrisy, conformity, or rigid manners, revealing the bones of the matter.”

Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn, page 86

Drag Queens will have a prominent space in my book. They taught me a lot about communication and honesty. I struggle with that a lot, so am tapping into P and the others to be brave and keep writing.

Bette Midler

P loved Bette Midler, “singing” to her Live at Last album so many times even I memorized the words. As I listen to Ms. Midler sing, I can see P lip syncing to “Shiver Me Timbers,” guiding the audience through, “C’monIWannaLeiYou” and sharing hilarious Sophie Tucker naughtiness.

I wanted to add this small part about Ms. Midler because I want her to know how integral her voice was to my growing up.

When P became a friend, his name was Paul. Paul and I worked at Subway Sandwich Shop in Winter Park, near Rollins College. I was even more enamored of Paul than I was of P (which, looking back, would have been a pretty hard thing to do!). He teased me as if I were his kid sister, playing pranks on me like, on my first day, sent me back into the old parking lot to pick lettuce behind a brambly bush. I can see him still, cigarette dangling from his lips as he sliced the salami, laughing at my blissful gullibility; anything to make Paul happy. (I really did think there would be lettuce to pick back there.)

We had a small transistor radio that played above the slicer and whenever Bette Midler’s “The Rose” came on, Paul stopped whatever we were doing (except making sandwiches, of course) and swept me into his arms to dance with him. I can still feel his warmth against my body. That song encompasses everything I feel for Paul.

This book I am writing. Paul is my Muse. I talk to him as I write. “Do you like that? Did I describe it right?” It might be fiction, but it is autobiographical fiction. Paul wants me to get the words down as he saw them, too.

I’m writing, dear one. I am writing.

Paul Wegman died of AIDS August 24, 2004. He is missed by so many.

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