Coming Out Across The Country 1979

In the spring of 1979, I was cast in a production of The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman at the Theatre Intime on the campus of Princeton University, where I was just finishing my freshman year. I was cast in the role of Karen Wright, one of two teachers in an all girl’s school who is accused of being a lesbian by a troubled young girl named Mary Tilford.  This is hardly noteworthy. The only really cool thing was that the role of Joe, Karen’s fiance, was being played by Richard Greenberg, now a Tony Award winning playwright, author of over 25 plays on and off Broadway, but at the time we did the play, just a Princeton sophomore, apparently smitten with me, according to our mutual friend, Joe. I remember an awkward movie date we had during the rehearsal period. I thought he was very funny but we had no chemistry. By the way, according to our peers, we were brilliant in the play. And Richard has made the Wikipedia page on Theatre Intime, along with Jimmy Stewart and Roger Berlind. I, alas, have not.

The young woman who played Mary Tilford, let’s call her Kate B. , lived in my dorm, Foulke Hall. Shortly after the play closed, she began a rather tempestuous affair with another student also named Kate – we’ll call her Kate R. The spring semester ended and we all disbanded, I to my Dad’s condo in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco.  I had been dating much more significantly in my mind than in his, as it turned out, a senior political science major named Dave N., who had promised that he would come to visit me in San Francisco that summer.  He had been close friends with our Resident Advisor in Foulke Hall, and I had been running with him and a group of seniors. I had been in the best shape of my life in that period, running 5-10 miles a day. I remember sobbing hysterically in the sun room on Chestnut Street, my stepmother Joan comforting me after I received his Dear Jane letter.

After the summer was over, the two Kates, B. and R., and a third friend named Kate W. and I decided we would drive back across the country in Kate W’s aging gold Volvo.  I have a snapshot – that’s what we oldsters call a photograph printed on photo paper – taken on the morning when we left SF. The picture was taken in a neighborhood in Berkeley. The four of us are leaning on the hood of Kate W’s car, four molls, each  looking tougher than the next one; I had pink cat lady sunglasses and a striped yellow dress on. Kate W.  and Kate R. had shiny aviator sunglasses. Kate B. also sported a pair of pink child’s sunglasses.  When I flip over the picture, it is inscribed “Coming Out Across the Country” August 28-Sept. 2, 1979.

Image 4

And there-in lies the tale. Kate B. and Kate R. were deep in the middle of their affair – they were all over each other in the front or back of the car. We had a great drive – talking about any and every subject that caught our fancy. We sang silly songs, stopped at truck stops to eat. We had little to no money for hotels – I remember all of us sleeping under a picnic table in a park along the way. We stopped in Salt Lake City and visited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.   You really could hear a pin drop from the back of the congregation. They had a room at the back of the sanctuary where nursing mothers could take their babies – it had a program monitor so they could hear the service but the windows were sound proof so the babies could wail away and no one would be the wiser.

We almost crossed the Rockies in Denver, the golden laden Volvo groaning as it neared the top of the Sierras and then it coughed to a stop on the berm of the Interstate.  We were pretty unprepared for such an event. This was the era before the cell phone. Not even the big old-fashioned brick telephones existed for us – they were still four years away; not even a twinkle in Motorola’s eye.

First Cell Phone

Our response is what any 19-year-old car full of 19-year-old college coeds would be. We jumped out of the car and put our thumbs out into the air. And some good samaritan without nefarious motivations pulled over and took one of us to the nearest gas station, where we used a pay phone to dial a tow truck. We then got towed down into Denver to a car repair place where the Volvo was resuscitated in about a half day. We decided after that experience that we would stop to assist every car that was stopped on the side of the road for the rest of the journey. And we did stop several times. As a parent now, I shudder at the idiocy of our youth.

And all along the way from Berkeley to Princeton, the three Kates and I mulled over the prospect of the third Kate’s  and my coming out. I didn’t want to be inhospitable; in fact, in retrospect I remember some torrid kissing that happened with a lacrosse player in the stairwell of Henry Hall the next year.  But I was in no way interested in getting romantically chummy with Kate W. As much as I liked her – she was great – it just wasn’t going to happen. And there was some pressure in that little Volvo packed with hormonally charged women. I don’t remember having to fend anyone off -but I will say that it was a long six days out there in the middle of America.

 

 

 

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