My favorite indoor place as a kid was the dark basement of our ranch house. The faux wood paneling was littered with paint-by-numbers of flying ducks and macrame owls that perched on limbs of driftwood. Above there was ceiling tile, stained rustily in places from water leaks. The floors were institutional linoleum tiles, beige and avocado, coming up in places. There was a huge brown sectional, decorated with a zig-zagged afghan, and a large wooden console with a convex piece of glass through which I escaped into other, far more delightful worlds. In decorating terms, today this fairly hum-drum 80s TV room would make the most popular coffee house on any street in Brooklyn. There may even have been a complicated Turkish coffee carafe wedged between dusty fondue pots on the top shelf of the laundry room. Let us agree this is true because it might as well be.
This underground level of the house, at times forgotten by my parents judging by the overflowing hampers in front of the washer and dryer, was all the inside world I needed or wanted. As soon as I woke each morning of summer, I made myself a Tupperware bowl of cereal and headed carefully down the steps. Ensconced on the sectional, I disappeared for hours into reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Rhoda. The latter informed my inner strong Jewish woman, the former mystified me, as I didn’t crack the Don Knots code until I was in my thirties. Maybe I didn’t understand how this uptight deputy wound up as the neckerchief-wearing landlord to my favorite goofball trio on Three’s Company.
My eldest sister, Moo, was strictly a reader through the long days of summer; the middle child, Bird, never settled at home for long. She often trotted off to visit neighbor ladies who smoked mentholated cigarettes while watching The Price is Right in darkened little living rooms. Mom thought Bird didn’t love us sufficiently; I was thankful to have no challengers for my sacred territory.
By the age of ten, I was treating the basement as a sort of apartment all of my own. It was true that the rest of the family piled in for evening TV viewing, but during the sleepy morning and humid afternoon hours, I was blessedly alone. Sometimes I heard a pair of feet thumping overhead, then the door at the top of the steps would whine open about a foot.
“Paul, you down there?”
“Are you going to go outside and get some fresh air today or just lay around in your underwear again?”
“The latter, mother.”
“Your sisters are going to walk to the pool…”
“Mother, may I watch my stories in peace?”
A resentful pause; then an all-too-familiar bait.
“Do you want a fried bologna sandwich?”
“Very well, mother, if you insist.”
“If you don’t…”
“No, I do. I’ll be up in a minute.”
I took special care of that part of the house. We didn’t have central air and the screens of our storm windows were always in some state of disrepair, so that all summer long there was what we called a fly problem. At eleven o’clock, when the boring game shows began to air, I’d gather up plastic tumblers of Coke with dead flies floating in the syrupy backwash. After I marched upstairs with them, I’d come back down with a butler’s whisk, a dust rag and a bottle of Liquid Gold. Polishing the wagon-wheel end table until you could see your face in the spokes, I’d air my grievances over the condition of the place to my dream-mother, television’s own Barbara Eden.
“Can you believe how this swine live, Jeannie?”
Unfurling herself from the plush brown depths of the sectional with a kittenish yawn, she’d shake out her pink balloon slacks and give me a sympathetic eye roll. “I know what you mean, Sheffield. I woke up this morning with Cheetos in my ponytail. These people are pigs.”
I never asked her to use her magic to clean the place. Not only would it have been rude to task a guest with the housework, I felt even then that the expectation of women to keep a tidy home was a sign of man’s centuries-long tyranny over the eyeshadow and wrap-dress sex. Ideologically speaking, my heart was in the right place. Besides, something about my daily act of martyrdom was as pleasing to my senses as the smell of lemon when I mopped up Kool-Aid spills from the steps.
There was a corner in the back of the basement where a piece of the sectional that hadn’t fit had been stuffed. It created a sort of banquet against an accent wall of marbly streaked mirror. The space struck me as sophisticated and somehow West Coast. Here I gave exclusive interviews to a then-young Barbara Walters, who my real mother had an unarticulated dislike for and whom, conversely, I had decided to worship. Besides which, she rubbed elbows with the elite of the entertainment and political worlds. It was hard to downplay the panache of a woman who could cozy up in a taupe living room with a sticky-lipped Lonnie Anderson one week, then sit down in the Rose Garden to talk hostages with Reagan the next. Between such engagements, she liked to catch up with me to discuss my latest, often gender-bending roles.
“Mr. Miller, tell us why you chose to star in this Of Human Bondage redux?”
Still a little high on Barbara’s effusive descriptions of my seaside estate in the opening, it took me a moment to focus on the question. On screen, it would appear to be a satellite delay, despite the fact we were curled up together side by side in the sunny breakfast nook of my pool house.
“Oh, Barbara, so formal! Call me Paul or Sheffield or Destiny, please.”
“Alright, Destiny. But to the question…”
Here is where I knew the producers wanted me to ‘go thoughtful’ while they ‘zoomed in for a close-up’. I also knew from past experience and from the sting in my left eye that I could squeeze out about two full sentences before the tears came.
“Well, Barbara, I had seen Of Human Bondage on WTTG out of Washington last Sunday afternoon when that hail storm cancelled our family run to Tastee Freeze, and I immediately thought, ‘Here it is. This is it. The role I was meant to play.'”
“The role you were meant to play,” Barbara repeated, nodding significantly. “But taking on a character that Bette Davis made famous…that would have to be daunting.”
“I never take on a project lightly, Barbara. And I called Bette to make sure I had her blessing.”
“Did you really?”
“Yes I did. It was important to me.”
“Destiny, what did film legend Bette Davis say to you when you called her Park Avenue condominium with brass wet bar and doorman service?”
“Well, Barbara…” And here came the tears, because of course. “I’m sorry…”
One of the boom operators slipped a Kleenex into my hand, barely detectable in the final edit, and I gifted him with the merest smile. A rugged blond with a drooping mustache, he preferred to boom operate in faded denim cutoffs and a snug-fitting cinnabar t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘California Dreamin’ in juicy bubble letters. I say preferred, but for all I knew, it may have been Barbara’s mandated uniform. Come to think of it, all the men on her crew wore the same outfit, even Hank, who clearly would have been more comfortable and less alarming in baggy coveralls.
“Barbara, Bette was very supportive. I’ll just say that.”
“Why so mysterious, Destiny?”
But I would never say and that was why Barbara always described me as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unwatchable’.
When I was eleven, my parents put the house on the market and started building a new home on the other side of town. As the sprawl of our everyday lives began to sift into boxes and boxes became piles on the back of pickup trucks, I took pains to defend my basement wonderland. I lobbied that we pack it last, as it was after all the TV room and laundry, but the result was that the rest of them used it all the more. Unable to explore my world of make believe in front of that particular audience, I found that I had few chances left to say a proper good-bye to this last stronghold of childhood fancies. Then came a morning when my burly uncles clattered down the stairs to take out the sectional in pieces. I had hidden my favorite accessory behind the interview banquet and rushed to grab it before they returned from the truck.
When I pushed my arm down between the cushions, my fingers brushed the chilly neck of a splatter-glazed bottle. It was where my other Barbara lived, my Jeannie-mother, when she wasn’t reclining on the chocolate velour cushions, agreeing with me that perhaps Mash’s Charles Emerson Winchester III wouldn’t be such a jerk if Hawkeye wasn’t such a slob. I stroked the bottle once more, wishing every wish could be true, all at once, a madly delightful escape out of the world of a misunderstood gay kid in the 80s and into the bottle, a round room with Technicolored pillows, swags of chiffon, and mad-cap adventures that returned to a familiar safe place every twenty-odd minutes. Hearing the men open the basement door, the deep rumble of their voices as they shared a dirty-sounding laugh, I climbed up onto the back of the banquet, pushed aside a ceiling tile, and tucked the bottle away from sight. It hurt to leave her there – my soft, blond mother, our dreams and adventures, our laughter – but the future loomed mysteriously, threateningly, and I felt somehow she wouldn’t survive out there in its bright glare.
In defiance of the changes I didn’t want and of the sweating brutes who called my mother sister, I sank Indian fashion into the center of the last piece of the sectional and folded my arms. They thought it was funny to carry the piece out with me on it rather than to wheedle me into moving. And I thought it was funny, too, but not for the same reason. It simply pleased me in a bittersweet way to be carried out of my kingdom on a throne. A star deserves no less.