My Friend John

Despite the glories and terrors of being able to google anything and anyone, some folks remain elusive. One is a friend who’s never far from my thoughts, and who keeps popping up in oddly synergistic random occurences this weekend as I recover from a bad flu/cold, worse work week, and antihistimine-induced insomnia.

I met John Deering my first night in Ithaca. Jane Lynch and Hugh Palmer, my housemates, took me to a local bar where we had gin with lemonade, and there was John, who was finishing up his MFA in costume design. He is enormously talented. He bore a striking resemblance to the late, great Michael Jeter; the “Everything’s Comin’ Up Videos” number in Fisher King is John to a divine tranny T. At some point, he said, “Well, you’re a fabulous girl.” What 23-year-old woman could resist that? We were inseparable, not just at Cornell, but for years.

Early in my year at Ithaca, Jane and John took me on a drive to see the town. I don’t remember who was driving because none of us had a car, and I do remember John was very drunk. When so, he called every man “she,” not to indicate closetedness but fairly indiscriminately, as you’ll see.

We passed by some vaguely dome-ish thing, and Jane said, “That’s Carl Sagan’s house.” Cosmos was on TV and still a pretty big deal, and Sagan, of course, taught at Cornell.

John: “I don’t care WHERE she lives.”

Jane (incredulous and, like me, still a little naive): “Carl Sagan is gay?”

John: “I don’t care WHO she fucks.”

(That little exchange has become legendary with a couple of production friends. When things get grim/tense/whatever on set, one of us will mutter, “Carl Sagan is gay?”)

John and I ended up in the city at the same time. We got drunk together, went to Paradise Garage on Varick and danced our asses off, he did my make-up, chided me when I got too fat to be an actress, and in general was my BFF long before anyone dreamed of using acronyms with such abandon. He and his partner in all things, Larue, a former drag queen and a kick ass model builder, were the double date of choice for me and Karl, my first husband. Each of them 10 years older than their respective spouses, they would look at us kids indulgently, then talk about hippie stuff.

My first JD flashback this weekend came to me when I saw that “To Wong Foo……etc…..straining title…” was On Demand. It’s an awful movie except for the fact that Patrick Swayze is utterly magnificent; Wesley Snipes also has one of his finer hours on screen. Swayze’s lessons to the gawky (and rather terrifying-looking) John Leguizamo on how to move with grace remind me so much of John coaching me how to rock the corset and farthingale he designed for me for a not very good but divinely costumed production of The Beaux Strategem at Cornell. Sitting backstage with me one night, a chubby rich girl neither of us liked very much tromped onstage. “Mama’s little princess,” I whisper-snarked. “More like Mama’s little Clydesdale,” he said under his breath. I could barely maintain character.

John was the biggest Sondheim fan I ever met, and so it was only right to delve into the unexpectedly yummy Finishing the Hat when I couldn’t sleep later that night. I couldn’t imagine it would be very interesting to just read lyrics, but of course, that’s hardly what you do. Sondheim is as brilliant writing about his work as he is writing the actual work. It’s particularly marvelous to read his thoughts on rhyme: why it’s important, how it works, how song lyrics get overstudied and gnarled quick. Whenever people turn up their noses at rhymed poetry, I just have to shake my head; Sondheim slices up the rhyme-scoffers in a manner worthy of Sweeny Todd, with a swift and blinding blade. It’s a joy to see passion expressed so precisely. The book features zillions of wonderful examples from his work: “analysis” with “Stella Dallas’s”, “take it slow” with “Daddy-O”. But even better, he constantly deconstructs his songs, and is often funny and brutal in his self-disparagement; he says that, when, in “I Feel Pretty,” Maria says, “It’s alarming – how charming – I feel,” she suddenly goes from being a Puerto Rican girl to something out of Noel Coward. It’s a rich soak of a book, one that I want to take plenty of time with, and I hope that wherever John is, he’s got his own copy (and if he does, I know it’s already covered with notes in his baroque scrawl).

John did an awesome Tallulah Bankhead impression, and he used to always tell me I had to see a movie called “Die, Die, My Darling,” in which Ms. B repeatedly tries to kill poor Stephanie Powers while periodically baying, “Stee-VUHN! STE-VUHN!!!” I had seen a few minutes of it at one point, but never the whole thing…until last night, when the On Demand Fairies, normally so cruel (or simply tasteless), were proving themselves insanely kind. There it was, in all its 70s Hammer Films awesomeness. Every time Tallulah said something crazy, which was basically every time she opened her mouth, I could hear John laughing.

I miss him terribly. Last time I was in the city, I went to the Chelsea Hotel, where he and Larue lived on the top floor for years – I once ran into Viva in the hallway when I visited them. But they apparently moved out around the same time that Dennis, I and the kids left the city. I haven’t seen them since 1999. Larue was HIV forever; he was diagnosed around the same time as Karl, but somehow kept on going. When I last saw him over 10 years ago, he was still going strong. I hope and pray he’s still around. As for John, he is one of my dearest friends, and I could kick myself for losing track of him. If any of you know where he is, for heck’s sake, let me know.

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