Column Inches #6 in The Boroughs
by Tony Phillips
Gay Pride. Something about it makes me feel like I’m ten-years-old and my mom is making me try on clothes. Maybe I need to relax, but the parades and portable marts tenting up Christopher Street just make me want to book travel. I don’t care that Avis has domestic partnership benefits and a hideous red and white tote to trumpet them. If they really cared about the gays, they’d hire Marc Jacobs to design something chic.
Stonewall was a riot. And not in a funny, ha-ha kind of way, but in a Spike Lee, "How come you got no brothers on the wall?" trash-can-through-pizzeria-window way. Back in the summer of ‘69, Stonewall trannies fought the power and fucked the police. It wasn’t about sausage and pepper vendors on the West Side Highway. It was about the beautiful shimmer of broken glass. In the 80s, en route to Suzanne Bartsch’s, Michael used to crow in bird feather drag, “They’re throwing diamonds at us, girls!” while bodega boys launched their beer bottles from across the street. As my good friend Williamson is fond of saying, “Gay Pride isn’t a parade, it’s a march!”
With N.W.A. on my i-Pod, I decide to reignite that original Stonewall spark and do something nascent this year. My alarm blares at the ungodly hour of 10 AM. Not recognizing the tones, I ignore them and they go away. When I finally come to, I’m terribly late for my noon rendezvous deep in the heart of Staten Island. I’m meeting performance artist and Bette Midler impersonator Donna Maxon as she readies for the stage of her borough’s very first Gay Pride event. If you ever want to see the full flower of all your OCDs in bloom, book an afternoon appointment on what Donna calls “Static Island.” Although it’s virtually cell transmitter free, she assures, “It’s not like anyone is going to stab you” when we shore up our plans.
I first met Donna at an autism fundraiser in the Abigail Adams House on the Upper East Side where she upstaged other party guests like Joan Jett and beamed, “That’s my kid!” when a video of her son Donald rolled for the big money crowd. Donna thinks of herself as a performance artist and an ambassador. She used to work for Citibank, but now she’s on the margins in an edgier way. “This happened to me,” she explains of her dead-ringing, divine looks, “I didn’t happen to it.”
“If you’re not running, you’re staying,” the surly, ferry gatekeeper brays. I’m running. Like Tess McGill in reverse, I somehow make the noon boat off Manhattan. When Donna greets me on the other side, it’s worth the schlep. And green: a verdant day in the country with Donna’s orange curls blazing brighter than the sun thanks to a spray-in color booster she used that morning. We hop into a sleek, black SUV with “Divine One” spelled phonetically on her vanity plate and she takes me on a breakneck tour with her GPS barking out directions, becoming more irate at each wrong turn.
First stop: two brothers named Six and Seven and their tattoo parlor. This dread-locked duo are down with Staten Island Pride because it starts at a decent hour, not like the Fourth of July parade that wakes them annually at eight am. They live on the parade route.
Then we pop into DiPaulo’s Barber Shop, painted a calming, cerulean blue, to meet Donna’s neighbor, AIDS activist and local barber. Joey was the subject of HBO’s 1993 Cable Ace Award-winning drama Blood Brothers: The Joey DiPaulo Story and runs a summer camp for teens with HIV between giving haircuts. We grab a nice lunch with Donna’s other son Bradley before she barrels up the drive to their Annadale split level.
The basketballs buried in the shrubs must belong to her two kids, but the Bette Midler Blvd. sign above the computer nook can only be hers. She futzes with the packaging on a box of Ardel black 105 fashion lashes, but applies them effortlessly like she’s tying her shoes. “The sun is not always our friend,” she laughs at her kitchen table, deciding against eyebrows. “I have to breath right, remember the words, look fabulous,” she lists everything she’ll need to do from the stage this afternoon, “it’s a lot to do.” Out of the corner of her eye, which she’s making up in deep blues and yellows, she spies Bradley trying to sneak past and calls out for him to put on a belt. “I’m not a diva,” she says, looking up from her makeup mirror, “there’s not going to be any breakdowns today.”
She returns from her bedroom wearing Manhattan black with rhinestones spelling out “Bette Midler” across her ample bosom. No one needs the prompting. The grass and boardwalk of Midland Park rule out heels, although Barry, her husband of 20 years, piles onto her pre-performance jitters by wagering, “I bet Tina is in heels.” Donna responds to this friendly rivalry with the local Tina Turner impersonator by grabbing her keys and throwing down the gauntlet: “I challenge any drag queen to get ready in 30-minutes!” We bump into Donald on our way out the door and in less than ten-minutes his mother is headlining with her opening number, “I’m Beautiful, Damn It!” Myself, five politicians and the 400-plus, girl-heavy Gay Pride crowd couldn’t agree more.