Gene Elder interviews writer Taddy McAllister

*My Own Private Alamo. Original collage by Gene Elder

… leave it to Taddy to ask the real question everyone avoids …

Gene: So, Taddy, welcome. You look fabulous! I am so glad to get to talk with you and ask you some questions about our dear, dear San Antonio. I know you have been a dependable art patron and world traveler and lived a spell in Washington D.C. All topics worth going over. Here you are, finally, on the Chartreuse Couch. As you have heard: Inquiring minds want to know. Where do you want to start? We have plenty of time.

Taddy:  Let’s start with the subject of travel. I used to live in Washington and traveled all the time. Now I’m living in San Antonio with my elderly mother and I can’t leave her to travel abroad. However, my last trip started a project in which I am now immersed. This is the problem with foreign travel: One goes someplace and then worries about it for the rest of ones life. Here’s the story:

In 2012 I went to Sudan with two lady friends to see the Nubian antiquities along the Nile between Khartoum and the Egyptian border. This area is in the Northeast quadrant of that benighted country, far from Darfur over in the West and from the riven South Sudan. We had quite an adventure but came away sad and alarmed because the Chinese are building dams on the cataracts of the Nile that will flood all the incredible monuments we saw. This will not be the last civilization to find itself underwater, unfortunately.

So when I returned home I found myself thinking and thinking about this travesty, and I began to ask around how one could start a “Save Nubia” organization sort of like the old “Save Venice.” “Save Venice” of course was run by and funded by very substantial socialite types whereas getting anyone to care about Nubia, situated in a pariah state, would be a whole different kettle of fish. I talked to retired diplomats, I talked to Gil Grosvenor at National Geographic, I pondered and worried and then, bingo, my mother fortuitously invited me to a talk and dinner afterward for the Executive VP of the World Monuments Fund.

I’m afraid I dominated her that evening but she was enthusiastic and we began to communicate. I have now been to a day-long meeting at the World Monuments Fund offices in NYC and they are sending their Africa person to start an inventory of sites. Nothing has happened you understand; the first dam has been built, there’s probably no way to stop this unholy meshing of the Sudanese government and their patrons the Chinese, but that’s no reason not to try.

Gene: Well, this is very disturbing to hear. What else about this? Is there someone we all should write to? At least document the whole thing with a photographer and a book? And why are the Chinese doing this?

Taddy: The Chinese OWN Africa. They are everywhere. Either they do something as a quid pro quo, i.e. in exchange for minerals or something else valuable, or they underbid other companies and countries to get public works projects so they can get their nose under the tent.They are eating our lunch in Africa.

Gene: Yes, I have heard reports on this. Well, I guess they have learned the American way, and figure what’s good for the pot is good for the kettle. So what are you thinking can help this situation? Isn’t anyone else interested in saving this history. Say, in Europe?

Taddy: My hope was to find a seriously important person, like the Statue of Liberty campaign used Lee Iacocca, to front Save Nubia, someone of the ilk either of Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton …

Gene: Oh, GOD! Not those two! I wouldn’t trust them with the money. They would figure out how to make it work for them.

Taddy: … or a celebrity like George Clooney or Bono, who could get free press and relieve Save Nubia from some of the expense of the marketing campaign that would have to be aimed at the Chinese and Sudanese.

Gene: What you want is an opera personality. That is what you need. Several opera personalities.

Taddy: Of course, you could have Jesus Christ as your Chairman and the chances of budging the Chinese would be slim to none, so at present my hopes for saving these antiquities could generously be called quixotic. However, when the World Monuments Fund guy returns from Nubia with his inventory, then maybe things will start to happen. In the meantime, where the hell is my magic wand?

Gene: Well, I always go over to the Borglum Studio and discuss these things with Mount Rushmore. And I get results, too.

Taddy: I have to tell you a funny story about my travels. About 10 years ago I was coming through Immigration in Houston from a trip to Mexico. The Immigration officer was leisurely thumbing through my passport and looked up at me. “When was the last time you were in Yemen?” I said I was there in the year 2000 and had even been in Aden three months before the USS Cole was blown up. Next he asked, “When was the last time you were in Iran?” I answered I was there in 2001, but “before our troubles started.” Then he asked, “When was the last time you were in Uzbekistan?” I replied that I thought it was in 1998. He bored into me and said, “What were you doing in all these places?” I said I just went as a tourist. He said, “Well, I guess the moral of this story is don’t follow you around!” He stamped my passport and let me go.

Gene: Well, you look pretty suspicious to me. Which is why I have invited you to the Chartreuse for a proper questioning.

Taddy: I have been lucky to see much of the world before our recent wars eliminated many places as travel destinations. Mali, for instance. Libya. My traveling friend and I had to carry our luggage across a no-man’s-land corridor strewn with land mines to walk from Israel into Jordan. In Angkor we entered a restored temple, Preah Khan, and had to stay on the path and “Beware Land Mines.” There was also a sign in front of Preah Khan that said it had been restored by “UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund and Nancy Negley.” That was cool.

Gene: You really are a traveler. Well, we can come back to world affairs again, but let’s talk opera. You are also a big opera lover and now we have the Tobin Center in San Antonio. Tell us about other cities and their operas and why you go there and what kind of opera would you like to see happen on the San Antonio River.

Taddy: Good! Opera! My mother and I have subscribed to the Houston Opera for 35 years, we spent decades going to Santa Fe every summer, I subscribed to the Washington Opera for over 20 years and now try not to miss a Met broadcast. I met many opera luminaries during the San Antonio Festival heyday in the 1980s and had many opera adventures. Now I’m just a mousy lay consumer of opera sitting anonymously in the dark thrilling to the music. I thank my mother for introducing me to opera when I was a teenager and the Met traveled to SA every spring. She was always assigned by the Symphony to host Richard Tucker and we got to be friends. I’ve seen several Rings: Berlin, the Met, San Francisco, Opera Arizona. We spent a week in Flagstaff one year to see that last one.

Gene: So what’s your favorite and why?

Taddy: I’m like most people in that I love the compositions of Verdi and Puccini. I love Wagner. Oddly, I don’t much like Mozart, the foolishness of the operas. They’re like being subjected to hours of I Love Lucy. I don’t have a favorite single opera. What I have is the craving for those first notes when the lights go down and the music starts truly to “soothe the savage breast.”

Gene: Well, I am putting my foot down on my opera support. I don’t want to see Tosca again, or The Ring, or Salome and any of these old stories of love and death. I want the new stuff. I really liked Nixon in China and I want to see Harvey Milk and the recent British opera about Anna Nicole. And I recently read an article in Opera News about a Horton Foote opera.

Taddy: I agree and always love to see something new. However, when one is in the audience when favorite old music starts, one can feel the entire audience inhale then exhale with love and satisfaction.

Gene: OK, what about other cities? When you travel what things do you enjoy about other cities that you think would be a good thing for San Antonio to incorporate? We don’t seem to be using our resources to their best advantage.

Taddy: Oh, I think you’re wrong.  Our River, our antiquities, all the good new restaurants, the scale of the city are all attractive and well-marketed.

Gene: Well, that is good to hear. Then tell me your favorite restaurant.

Taddy:  Sea Island. Just kidding!  My favorite Mexican restaurant is La Fonda Alamo Heights. My favorite Italian restaurants are Tre and Piatti.  My favorite deli is Central Market. My favorite steak house is my own kitchen. I don’t eat in overtly Christian places; it just encourages them.

Gene: Hahahhaah! That is very funny. I really don’t mind Christian places. But I can’t think of one. Next topic. You have served on cultural boards over the years. Give your advice about how to do that to young art patrons who are wanting to be on an arts board. It isn’t all that easy or enjoyable as many think. What boards have you liked?

Taddy: In the 1980s when I was in the restaurant business here in S.A., for intellectual stimulation I sat on many boards and did projects, fundraising and problem solving for all of them. Unfortunately I got used up — no ones fault but my own, just thought I could do it all — suffered from burn-out (which I discovered was an actual thing and not just some pop-psychology affliction) and ran away from home, returning to my old stomping grounds of Washington, D.C. where I had lived before.  I just dropped my furniture off and headed to Prague, where I spent six months teaching.  I said I was so burnt-out I had to go all the way to the Iron Curtain to get away from my responsibilities. So I’m not the one to ask about sitting on boards!

Seriously, the young need to sit on boards and do civic work because if they don’t take over from us old spavined types, nothing will get done. I absolutely URGE them to make themselves known to organizations in which they’re interested so they can take on the work of their generation.

Gene: Yes, I agree. I think it is the responsibility for artists to get involved, in everything. That is the whole point of art and why I started Political ARt Month. Now I want to cut to the chase about something. Your mother back in the ’90s came out in the newspaper as being a supportive and loving mother to your sister Eloise who is a lesbian. I know Eloise and she was a very valuable force with HRC at that time. Tell us about your family and how this revelation of having a gay sibling and daughter affected you and your brothers.

Taddy: She had been a bit promiscuous as a teenager so when she came out at around age 20 we were shocked! I remember asking her, are you sure? She thought that was funny. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to us to toss her out on the street. It was never an issue. Some years later the HRC honored our entire family and at the reception before the dinner when people came up and thanked me for being there, I kept saying, why ARE we here? That night the theme was “A Family Reunion” because so many gay people were disowned by their families. We found this very mysterious,  but at least it explained why they honored Eloise’s family, although we continued to think it was unnecessary. Her coming out was a long time ago, some 40 years now at least.  I hope gay people’s families aren’t still disowning them.

Gene: Very interesting. As you can imagine all us gay folk tell each other about our straight family members and what it was like for them to have us in the family. My parents took it rather well. But you have to understand that they learned that I was gay when they came to visit me and came to the San Antonio Country on a Saturday night, with their best friends, and neighbors. I was the manager then, 1973. That is how they found out I was gay. I just shoved it in their face. My mother cried for a long time. We have to remember that their generation of women were taught if your son turns out to be that way it was the mother’s fault. Psychology had figured that out for us all. Domineering mother and passive father. Which was not the case. I was determined to teach them what was going on in the world. And they learned. Well, back to Washington D.C. What did you learn about national politics by living there?

Taddy: How to pass a bill and throw a dinner party. That Members of Congress put their pants on one leg at a time. That what you learn in Civics is not even the tip of the iceberg.

Gene: Goodness! That was a quick tour. OK back to family life then.

Eloise has a partner and they both raised an adopted child who has turned out rather well. Tell us about that.

Taddy: The biological mother of Eloise’s son, her ex-partner and still-friend, has one of those off-the-charts IQs and she produced for us a prodigy, Wyatt, who is 18 and a senior in college studying electrical engineering at the University of Illinois.  Naturally we’re enormously proud of this kid even though he is no blood relation to us, which I have to remind my mother when she is bragging about him.  Eloise adopted Wyatt at birth and he carries her last name.  Wyatt is co-parented with little conflict.  In fact there is a kind of good cop-bad cop aspect to it, not in the policing department but in the roles they play, one a pillar of strength, the other with the same kind of IQ problems the boy has.  Very high IQs are fraught with issues.  As Eloise once said, it took a lot of margaritas to raise Wyatt.

Gene: Now that is a good story for HRC and others. I hope to speak with Eloise. OK I see we have a caller.

Let’s go to the phone and see who it is. Why Susan Yerkes! I know you are calling with a question.

Susan: Hi, Taddy! Glad to hear you are snuggling on the Chartreuse Couch with Gene. Sorry, I think I dug all the change out of the cushions when I was there. You’ve talked about your passions for politics and family and travel, but I’d like to hear another of your passions — the fabulous Beezie, boon companion, immortalized in a couple of your most charming books.  I also hope you’ll tell Gene about your involvement with Tony Amos’s ARK project in Port Aransas, and the great things he’s doing down there.

Taddy: Susan, pal, I can’t believe what clean questions you’ve asked me!  Beezie, a foundling, came into my life as a tiny kitten 13 years ago and he’s been stuck to me like a limpet ever since.  He’s a complicated guy, half John Wayne and half mama’s boy.  When he’s not eating other animals in the yard he’s tucked into my armpit sleeping tenderly. He’s my boon companion and fortunately for him, a good little traveler because he’s slept across many states, counties and towns.  On one car trip from Washington to Texas he slept through Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People.  He prefers hamster videos.

As for the ARK, the Animal Rehabilitation Keep at Port Aransas run by the famous naturalist Tony Amos, Mother raised the money to build it some years ago and every summer on my birthday in August I raise money for its various needs and projects.  As we speak we are building a pelican enclosure with last summer’s birthday money to keep the wild pelicans away from the handicapped ones.  The wild ones eat all their food and snap at the volunteers.

For the past two winters the ARK has been inundated with cold-stunned turtles. Last week they released something like 230 when the water got above 50 degrees. It takes a convoy and an army to release 230 turtles on the beach!

Gene: Thank you Susan for calling with that question. I didn’t know to ask about that. OK. Final question. Have you ever seen a UFO? And then you get to ask me a question. I let my guest ask me the last question.

Taddy: I think so.

Gene: You think so! You think you have seen a UFO? Well good.

Taddy: And here’s my question: Heterosexual sex, penis-into-vagina, is so much easier than oral or anal sex. I think it’s one of the reasons some straight people are repelled by homosexuals’ sex. The other reason is most straight people can’t conceive of doing it with one of their own gender. I for one would gag at the thought of putting my face down in some woman’s lap, yet it doesn’t keep me from loving my lesbian sister and my lesbian friends and I assume they feel the same, i.e. they couldn’t imagine heterosexual sex yet love heterosexual friends and family.  Why do YOU, Gene, think some straight people are repulsed by queers, to use a turn of phrase?

Gene: Well, leave it to Taddy to ask the real question everyone avoids speaking but it on everyone’s mind. I think sex is a really strange behavior for everyone on some level in the first place. And many really dislike the whole business. Let’s start with the Catholic Church.  But when you find the person you are atracted to, then it all makes sense. Wouldn’t you agree with that? I suspect that most of us don’t even think about others’ sex lives. But I am sure that the idea of gay sex really conjures up the most horrible images for those straight individuals, which is why they have to speak out about it. And they are repulsed. And they have a right to their feelings. But that is not the complete picture.

We are finding out that life is not so black and white. I think a lot of people are basically scared of their own feelings. We discovered this with homophobia and gay bashing. Most straight guys are out looking for a good time with women and are not really bothered or concerned with what gay guys are doing on Friday nights. But it turns out that those guys who wanted to spend their time picking on gays were really fighting their own gay feelings. It has been a real awakening these last 40 years as all 50 states have had to educate themselves to just what this is all about.

My favorite quote is from a great little movie from Canada titled I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing: “Isn’t life the strangest thing you have ever seen.”

Gene Elder is the Archives Director for the HAPPY Foundation, a GayBLT history archives. [email protected]

 

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