Homo At Large

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The great big Tyendinaga pow wow was last weekend, and I’m surprised how uncomfortable I felt while I was there. I’ll get to that later. Here’s an article from a local newspaper.

Native American pow wows have become so common these past, oh, fifteen years. The largest, from what I’ve heard, takes place annually in Albuquerque and the biggest in this area, in downtown Toronto at the Sky Dome, is the last weekend in November (this year: December 1 and 2). At Tyendinaga, we’re regularly at the first part of August.

I always enjoyed the one in Nashville that’s in October. Funny, all I remember is that it’s just off one of the Old Hickory Boulevards between I-24 and I-40, east of town. I heard it’s one of the largest in the Southeast. There’s another each September in Mt. Juliet but last year they moved it — still in Mt. Juliet — to the end of that road where that new outdoor mall is now. Hot as hell, and there’s no trees. Same with the other one.

My friend Benny and I used to like going to the one at MTSU each March. Indoors. They didn’t have it this year. So we didn’t go.

I flew home last year specifically to be at the Tyendinaga pow wow. At the time it seemed important. I suppose Mom just said, "come home" so I did. I’m that gay. Last year was such a strange year and that visit seemed to encapsulate it well. My grandfather had died in February and everyone was saying Grandma hadn’t been herself since. (She died in October).

So when it came time for the pow wow a couple of my uncles who live away came home, too. Mom and I arrived late and, when we found her, Grandma just seemed so … alone, surrounded by family. Alone, she sat in a medical chair-slash-walker. Alone, she looked out into the circle at the dancers.

I’d heard that a cousin of mine visited her earlier and she didn’t remember his name. The thought terrified me when I went up to say hi. "Oh! Hi Joe," she said, and all was well.

Mom and I spent the entire day there. Perhaps because we knew my visit would be so short, perhaps because all we’d later do is go home.

My experience this year, by comparison, managed to make last year’s pow wow seem fun, jovial. I live here now so there was no homecoming feel. I couldn’t browse the vendor booths with the same shoppers’ enthusiasm, the sense that if I miss anything now I’ll not have the chance later. Fact is, I know many of the vendors and can stop at their stores at any time.

And I have regular access to all the people. The people. There seemed, this year, to be so many more people I knew. This was the single most frustrating, and embarrassing, part of the entire two-day event. So often I’d look straight through someone a relative, an old schoolmate, just anyone I should’ve recognized and then, not even two, three seconds later, I’d realize who that person was. I’d swing around and, snubbed, they’d have moved on to something else.

A girl I went to grade school with was working at a food booth her mother owns. Midday Saturday I stood in line, awkwardly, with another friend from when I was five years old, and I stared at that girl. Part of me knew who she was — my friend Jodi (who I’ve also known since we were five) laughed when I told her this story the next day — but part of me wasn’t sure enough to say anything.

So humbly I found my way back there Sunday afternoon. I got to the front of the line. "Hey," was all she said, a small smile. My great big gay self looked back and practically cheered, "Hi!" I said, "As hard as this may be to believe, I didn’t recognized you yesterday. I got my food and sat back there and stared at you for the next five minutes until I was sure. How dumb is that?"

She said, "Oh no, I knew immediately that it was you." Make me feel dumber.

I realized how much a struggle it is to be social, or acceptably anti-social (?), in a community where you or your parents or your close friends all pretty much know everyone else. I mean, I wouldn’t have made it back to my seat if I’d stopped and talked with everyone I "had that feeling" that I knew.

Honestly, I felt guilty for moving away so long ago and forgetting whatever it is that most people do in these situations. Because I’d been gone so long, I know there are some (relatives, old friends, acquaintances) who now, today, are bitchin’ about "how that stuck-up Joe had the nerve to look right at me and turn away."

I thought about what I’d done if this were Nashville and I was out with a friend, but that doesn’t get me anywhere. Back there, I (at least) felt kind of comfortable living in my own world; nobody cares terribly if you’re snubbed one day and embraced the next — depending on your relationship, of course.

Here, it’s family. Or worse, it’s friends of family. Or family of friends. Everyone.

And everyone is different. Mom asked me to drop the truck off at a neighbor’s garage one day a week ago so he could look at it. Of course, she’s lived here forever and knows the mechanic well. Me? Hell no. But I agreed to drop the truck off.

I pulled into the lot and figured the least I could do is ask whomever I see first if it’s okay to leave the keys in the ignition. I got out of the truck and immediately I saw someone. From the distance of that (small) parking lot, I said, "It’s okay to leave the keys in it?" feigning my best "don’t use words like whomever" voice. And dialect.

The guy looked at me as though I’d just invented stupid. He said, "If ya want to." I thought, shit, it ain’t up to me. So I said, "I do" and then walked home.

And I felt so unnecessarily awkward as I walked home, like I’d done something wrong. I mean, I’m giving you business so the least you could do is act like you appreciate it. Later, though, I remembered I’d never personally met the mechanic and there’s a tiny possibility I’d just asked some random person where to leave my keys.

Conclusion: I have got so much to learn.