Dear Mr. PIEFOLK,
We don't know one another but I'm also a baker. Bisexual. Cis-Male. Living in the mid-western state of Oklahoma. That's as much as I'm willing to narrow it down. But, I've been a long time reader and my friend mentioned you used to write advice letters. She's an improv teacher who used to know, and respect you in NYC.
I know you're in LA now, but what about some advice?
See, my problem is, I think my straight, white, cis-het boss is hitting on me? He's so homophobic and will make comments like, be a little less gay, or turn down that Gaga and turn up the baseball game, or sometimes he just tells me the customers like me but please be less gay.
He says it to my face. Customers like me a little gay, not a lot.
On top of that he's constantly putting his hands on my waist or grabbing my thighs with both hands when he stoops down below the baking table to get a pan, or a mixer, or a spatula.
Help me out? I like this guy, and he's fair, but I don't like being told "how gay" to be at work, or being touched like that, especially when such touching is followed up with weird jokes like "haha you're lucky it's not after five - I don't know what I'd do if I had a drink or two in me!"
How can I be the right amount of gay, and how do I keep this job, with a handsy-yet-nice boss?
If you can't answer, I understand. You're busy. But may I say? The writing has always been good, but lately, you're exceptional Mr. PIEFOLK. I only hope you're being nice to Mr. Michael.
Love for you, Brother - you can edit this if you need to!
I’m simultaneously bored and mortified for you. How boring your boss can’t keep his hands to himself. How boring he’s using his “straight privilege” against you in such an unacceptable way.
I almost didn’t use this letter, or answer it at all. I get so much email like this. But something struck me, here. Are you an out bisexual? And, are you out to your boss? If yes, you have lots of options. You can tell him to stop. You can quit. You can hire a lawyer to ask him for a settlement, if you feel he’s violating labor laws (he is).
But, what do you want from this? What’s the easiest, least stressful thing to do? I think the answer lies somewhere in-between quitting and just letting him do whatever he wants. I think you should confront him, and be firm. Talk to him face to face and tell him, no, I don’t like how you treat me and no, I don’t think it’s professional. Be sure to bring up the touching and how awkward it is to have anyone of any sexuality or gender or race – exploit the employer/employee labor contract. Say what’s not acceptable, and tell him you’ll give him a few weeks to think about it and adjust.
After a few weeks, if you think you can tolerate the new version of him, then mention how much better he’s behaving. If you think he needs improvement, you can point that out too – just always frame it as “us working together better” rather than “here’s a list of my unreasonable demands.” You get the nuance? It’s the same list, is what I’m saying.
If, however, after the period of adjustment is up, and you still feel unacceptable behavior is happening, explain you need a leave of absence to contemplate other options. If he fires you, you have a strong lawsuit claim, in most states.
Last pieces of advice? Grow a thick skin. Don’t take any shit. Keep your side of the street clean.
I hope this helps you, and that you stay happy in your situation. Believe me, it’s easier than running after a settlement that may never materialize. Don’t forget, he can liquidate his LLC and sell the equipment/lease at any moment, and not ask you permission or even tell you, until you show up to work in an empty building. What I’m saying is, ask for a reasonable settlement/renegotiation, and you might get it.
Love you, and next time send photos of pie, or noods (photos of noodles, that is).
NYC – Manhattan – Circa 2010 – Winter into spring. A book store. Early Evening.
Him – Look who it is…
Me – No! Stop it! No way! Hi! Hi. Hey. I’m okay.
Him – Well I have to say… you’ve changed a great deal.
(A pause. I shrug. He shrugs. He skulks away behind the stacks, like some grey literary panther of the 23rd St. Barnes and Noble. He, sinister, creepy - always a grimace draped across his face. Always a smirk when he flirts. Always, always winning. Bored, of winning, I mutter to myself, but it's probably better than the other...
He, a sad, beautiful, aging husk of a creature - still fat on whatever blood he can still draw from the artists surrounding him. Raising a single shoulder at me, he bats his lashes. Revolting.
Still, his pain inside, from where he tried to infect me. From where, maybe, he partially succeeded. Yes, I must admit, he did succeed. He caused a lingering pain, suffering, trauma, PTSD, you name it. Yes, I’ve already been in therapy about this, and will continue to be in therapy for this. Yes, this was a costly lesson I’ve been taught, and yet…
Empathy, or the shock of recognition, simultaneous.
My own pain, parallel to all this - inflicted by him, but also perpendicular to that - a simpler, inter-sectional truth - this is a queer human being. A person is, by definition, not a monster. So, he’s just William. Just a man, who, yearning for a more beautiful existence, dared to say “I am William, I Belong.”
They are both there - William Ivey Long the soon-to-be corroborated abuser, and William I Belong, the artist man-child. I almost love one of them, am completely disgusted by the other. Or, I don’t know, maybe I will learn to be disgusted by both? Maybe my therapist is right? Maybe this man is only pretending to be a designer, that his real job is actually corrupting artists? He likes to call us all “pimps and whores.”
I scoff a bit at his flirting. Wait for him to approach again. We both move closer to the books I know he wants to get his grubby hands on. He’s photographing photographs of dresses, pants, vests. I know his game. All that money and he won't even buy a coffee table book. Cheapskate.
His focus slips. His two separate forms snap back together into one, complete human creature. Things aren’t black and white, I remind myself, remind him. Life isn’t a metaphor.
Snap our of your reverie, Mr. PIEFOLK. This isn’t a fantasy.
It’s complicated, having a mentor abuse you, trust me on this.)
Me – Well, I have to say. It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s a life.
Him – What is?
Me – Theater. Story. Comedy. Music. Writing.
Him – Oh no, I meant to say you’ve changed.
Me – What do you mean?
Him – You were young and blond.
Me – Oh. We’re back in North Carolina? Yes. I was a high school swimmer. Yeah I was young and blond. Bleached from chlorine pools and sunshine, actually.
Him – Well I haven’t seen you much since then. You’ve changed.
Me – Have I?
Him – You know you have.
Me – Do I?
Him – It’s inevitable.
Me – Is it, though? Are things inevitable, or are most things… avoidable, depending on behavior patterns?
Him – I could do this all night!
Me – What are you doing here? Research?
Him – You’re always one step ahead.
Me – Sure that’s not a projection? You have a very sharp mind for business.
Him – I’ll take the compliment. I’m good at design, and design is not art. It’s art, as directed by an employer. When you add the money element, it becomes business. You have to stay ahead of the competition.
Me – Let me guess? You’re doing a period piece that needs specific costumes “only you can do?”
Him – I never should have let you see my modes-operandi. You’re too clever, by far.
Me – Or at least by half… It took me forever to figure out how you do it.
Him – Half of what? How I do what?
Me – Design.
(Pause. He is now intrigued on a new level. He realizes, perhaps I’m more formidable than he assumed at first.)
Him – And, how do I do design?
Me – Don’t you remember the Master Class you taught at The Colony?
Him – I remember your writing most…
Me – No, that’s a lie. You didn’t see the show I wrote in the Summer of 1996 at The Lost Colony in Manteo. You never see my shows.
Him – Okay, I heard it was very good and I was intrigued.
Me – It was okay!
Him. Okay?? You may be selling yourself short. You know I was very good friends with a writer for a while…
Me – Yes I know this one. It was… Paul Riser?
Him – No…. That’s a comedian. Mad About You.
Me – Oh right. Then it must be… Paul Rudnick.
Him – Uh… yes… Wow. You have quite a memory.
Me – I keep a journal.
Him – That’s important-
Me – And I always have. I have always kept a journal and I always will. Time, Date, Place. Important facts at least. I keep them in storage.
(Feebler, now, up close, but still a plump, cherubic-statured man. Middle aged, I think to myself - but, any plastic surgeon could have done that kind of subtraction. Actually old, I think, verifying the math in my mind. Retirement age already, or close to it. Pitiful but still full of spite and vinegar.)
Me – So, are you still doing the thing where you squint one eye to blur things out so you can imagine what they’ll look like at a distance?
Him – Why alter the formula?
Me – Yeah, you have a whole playbook don’t you?
Him – Protocols are good for business.
Me – Aren’t they though? I mean… you would know…
(We square off. It’s fully on and we both know it. We both have a moment. Mine is more about my heart pounding in my ears, my pulse racing, my fight-or-flight triggered, and me deciding to stay and fight it out. It feels important, somehow. I know the smart move is to leave now, but I’m so angry at him for all the lost work, lost resource, lost money. More than that – he wasted my time. Nothing in the universe is more immutable, more valuable – than time.)
Him – I meant that your body has changed.
(I pull out a business card. It says PIEFOLK.)
Him – YES! That’s what I meant! I’ve been keeping track of you! Your website! I need a designer for mine.
Me – I don’t know any designers, except you, sorry.
Him – Who did your site?
Me – I did. It’s called WordPress. Look into it.
Him – Oh, I will.
Me – Will you?
Him – I’ll have someone look into it.
Me – Brian Mear?
(He says nothing. His eyes flash green. Mine deepen to almost navy. What do I know about Brian? Have I been speaking with him? He puffs up, tries to stand taller. Still, I am taller than him. My shoulders back. My tone, calm. He can’t win this unless he provokes me, and right now I’m winning. He, I can tell, is aware of this, too. Interesting.)
Him – Yes. Likely Brian.
Me – But, you’re always hiring?
Him – Yes, I believe it’s important to pay people for their work.
Me – I don’t often get to be the one paying. I run my site on a shoestring, and I’m still never far away from tending bar, but I like paying artists when I can. It makes things more convenient for me.
Him – That it does. Artists… all kind of workers. It’s a convenience. I LOVE the design of your site.
Me – Do you?
Him – I think you know I do.
Me – Awwww you’re so flattering.
Him – It’s too bad you’re a writer…
Me – Oh, I had a whole design career.
Him – You do?
Me – I did. I don’t any longer, nor do I want that anymore. But yes. I designed quite a bit for a brilliant avant-guard theater director named Bob Fisher. I also designed at Chicago City Limits, for Victor Varnado, and Paul Zuckerman. OH! And I made some beautiful angel wings for an actor who played a statue in And What of the Night by Maria-Irene Fornez.
Him – Those little regional gigs and off-offs – they’re eventually going to be the good old days…
Me – Chicago City Limits is still the longest running Off-Broadway show in Manhattan, so it’s not an off-off, and you know it. Upright Citizens is more than 99 seats, which makes it an Off-Broadway designation, yet comedy is still not regulated by Equity or any other competent Union, so it’s a gray area the American Theater Wing is happy to ignore – and you already know all of these things. You’re tight with the ATW – I’ve checked.
Him – Well… thanks for the quick education. If I didn’t know, now I certainly do!
Me – Oh, beg pardon. I am a respected teacher now. I suppose I was using my teacher voice, on my teacher. On my mentor.
(We pause. Nothing has been said, yet, at all. We are still staring one another down. My breathing has returned to normal. I know I have to be calm, or risk losing this exchange. Neither of us are willing to risk losing. The stakes are way too high. William’s eyes flash at me. Grey, like mine. Green like his. Blue, but icy. Pale. Almost misty, in the vapor.)
Him – So have you done any porn?
Me – WHAT? No. Don’t be silly.
Him – You don’t think your site is silly?
Me – Julie Klausner says it’s “White Trash Martha Stewart, but gay, and cool in a Brooklyn way.”
Him – Who’s that?
Me – Julie? A writer you’re soon to be aware of.
Him – OH WILL I? We’ll see…
Me – We will.
(A pause, then…)
Him – I will.
Me – I bet you do.
Him – That’s a bet you can win.
Me – I can win any bet.
(A pause, then)
Him – Just make sure the odds are in your favor. I was going to say – everyone is doing it, these days. My favorite porn star right now is a concert pianist, as well, but his real money, people say, is what he’s selling after his concerts.
Me – Not interested.
Him – Everyone sells it.
Me – Not true. You don’t sell it.
Him – Of course I do! I just agreed with you. I think having employees is convenient. I’m in Theater. We’re all pimps and whores. Sex sells.
Me – I don’t agree with what you just said, however, about art, about sex, about design. I don’t sell sex. Nor do I buy it.
Him – Is that so?
Me – I guess it’s up to the world to prove otherwise? There’s a reason I never take the apron off.
Him – It’s a lot like a loincloth.
Me – Except for two differences.
Him – What are those?
Me – 1) It covers and exposes different areas, and 2) I decide who touches me, during my fittings, because designers are my employees, now. I’m the writer and the architect of my site, of my destiny.
Him – Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.
Me – I know dog turds, when I smell them.
(We laugh. Me, from terror, from suppressing rage. Me, from years of swallowing my pride. I laugh because it’s the medicine I need in the moment. I laugh, with my abuser, about my abuse, about business in general, about the trauma of his sexual harassment, about the trauma of capitalism – how it ruins everything it touches, including the United States.
We laugh, my mentor, my abuser, and I – about how we all know what dog turds smell like. We all know what war is. We all know what genocide is. We met at The Lost Colony – a show that celebrates a race of people who miraculously survived a genocide, who didn’t even have the dignity of naming themselves Native American Indian. Before the White man came, there were just “people.”
They mostly shared, bartered. We taught them, but we taught them nothing useful. Only about money, and property, and law, and owning things, owning people. We taught them lessons nobody should ever have to learn, and then we called them drunk, stupid, lazy. Then we taught them our flimsy forms of “justice.”
William and I laugh. All of our pain, fear, frustration, finding whatever cathartic moment it can, in the moment of a laugh.
William finishes just before I do, smirking, churlish, catlike, suddenly.)
Him – Well I’m glad you’re not doing comedy anymore! That’s not the type of joke Mom and Dad want to hear on Network Television.
Me – I said I was a writer. I never said I wasn’t writing comedy, or performing. Or teaching. I’m doing all those things as well as launching musicals.
Him – Good for you!
Me – Like I said. Designers are my employees now. I earned that.
Him – How so?
Me – Let’s call it the school of hard knocks.
Him – Now it’s a Cinderella story, all the sudden??
Me – I believe she wore an apron.
Him – She also talked to birds.
Me – Not a crime!
(A pause, then…)
Me – But, you know what is a crime, don’t you?
Him – I have to run.
Me – One more thing…
Him – No I truly have to go.
Me – Paul Rudnik.
Him – What about him?
Me – Is he the one?
Him – The one what?
Me – The one who taught you to squint your eye, when you’re designing.
Him – Michael, I’m tired. What do you think I’m doing when I squint when I’m designing?
Me – I think you’re trying to remove depth from your vision. Just a bit. You’re trying to see what things look like from far away, like a theater designer. You’re trying to see if you can sell your sexy idea. Because you’re an important business man, and other people are immature artists. Also, like I said, I’m employing designers now, so get your resume together.
Him – Oh, you can’t afford…
Me – To miss this opportunity? I can’t. I want to know if Paul Rudnick is the one who taught you the phrase.
Him – What phrase?
Me – “Writers are the true artists of the theater.”
Him – Where did you hear that?
Me – On the fireworks dock. Out in the Roanoke Sound. In Manteo.
Him – Stop this.
Me – No, I think I will continue to remind you.
(A pause. Nothing.)
Him – Go on?
Me – You were visiting for your Master Class. You said diminutive things about my designs. You doted on your pets. You tried to avoid me.
Him – You made some wild accusations…
Me – Agnes Chappell called me on the phone and talked me out of suing you for sexual harassment.
Him – I’m not feeling well. I have to go.
Me – Fred glad-handled me out the door of the theater department at Florida State.
Him – That’s not true. I don’t have anything to do with those things, anyhow.
Me – You don’t know what is true, then, if you don’t have anything to do with it?
Him – What’s your point?
Me – “Writer’s are the true artists of the theater.” You said that, after I finally cornered you. I wanted answers. I wanted you to promise me you would help me in my career.
(His eyes flash emerald, then fade to a grassy jade. Mine royal blue, green flecks, yellow. I’m winning this, I decide.)
Him – Why did you think I could help you? I’m not a writer, or a comic, or a musician…
Me – Your best friend is one of the most prominent gay writers of our time. Do you not hear yourself? Do you only talk? Do you never, ever listen? Even to yourself? That must, by far, be the easiest form of delusion – self delusion.
Him – It looks like you would know…
Me – I thought you liked the way I looked?
Him – I said you’ve changed. That’s all I said.
Me – Oh right. You prefer young ones. You told me you like to be “daddy on top.”
Him – I’m not sure I remember that, specifically, but you’re starting to open my eyes…
Me – Well, as you said, you’re sleepy and you don’t feel well, and I’m sorry to have to be so brutally candid, but you don’t look all that well. You look….
(A pause, then…)
Me – Maybe a bit tired.
Him – This certainly hasn’t made my day any less exhausting.
Me – It’s not the highlight of mine either. Enjoy your “design.”
Him- Yes. I’m an adult with real work to do.
Me – I know. You don’t remember? You told me your secret. You just copy the dresses from old art history, or just regular history books. You’re not an artist at all, you just trace other peoples dresses and copy them.
Him – I never said I was an artist.
Me – I know. You’re not. You’re a designer. I’m an artist.
Him – Oh, is that what you call it?
Me – That’s what Paper Magazine, VICE, IT Post, employees of the New York Times, Eli Wallach, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Bradley D. Wong, Michael Stipe, and the editor of Salon.com have said. And those are just parts of the highlight reel. I’m not mentioning Time Out New York, or Jane Borden, or any of the network execs that have, do, and will continue to court my influence.
Him – Is that all reality is? Perception?
Me – The clothes make the man, they say.
Him – They do say that.
Me – Well, I must be off. I have a show.
Him – This late?? I hope it pays well!!
Me – I’m sure that’s not your concern, but yes, it does. It’s an industrial with The Upright Citizen’s Brigade National Touring Company.
Him – Well then… scurry off!
Me – Oh, sure – I simply must take my leave. But remember, I’m watching you.
Him – And I, you. You should consider doing porn.
Me – You should try and get a few more Tonys. I’ll never hire you, but I might give you a courtesy meeting, at some point.
(Finally his bloodshot eyes flash a sinister crimson. He's losing ground. He knows it. Now the grey panther is a mangy old tomcat, at best.)
Him – Everyone sells it!
Me – No. Just the ones who have to.
Him – Now THAT’S funny! You should right that down.
Me – Oh. One more thing?
Him – What’s that?
Me – William… I belong. Me. I belong too.
Him – Not sure I buy it.
Me – I’m never selling anything to you. It’s not for you to buy.
Him – Still….
Me – Goodbye! Oh and remember!!!!
(I’m leaving now, thorough a glorious pair of revolving doors. I mouth this next part through the window, at him.)