New Eyes for Saint Lucy
A Memoir of Jerome Caja
By Bryan R. Monte
Copyright 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved
It has been my privilege to have known, at the very beginning and the very end of my education, two visual artists, whose works hang in major galleries. These two artists, one dead and one living, have produced distinctive works which can be found in galleries and museums such as the Smithsonian, the San Francisco MOMA and the Saatchi in London.
I don’t know if my association with these individuals was by luck or fate or whether I just naturally gravitated to them. But being a writer who finds himself spending more and more time as an art critic for my literary magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, I find that knowing these two people intimately—their interests, aspirations and foibles during their childhood and/or (post)adolescence—gives me an added insight into their work with regard to its subject matter, style and format.
The Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” is apropos for my acquaintance with the first artist, Jerome Caja, the notorious bad boy of the San Francisco gay art scene in the late 1980s to mid-1990s. In September 1964 we were both pupils in Mrs. Kosowski’s dreadfully-overcrowded (45 pupils, 42 desks), Irish-, Czech-, Polish- and German-American, first-grade class at St. Clements (Catholic) School in Lakewood, Ohio.
In those days, the only way the overstretched teachers could keep track of their pupils was by strict, alphabetical seating. As a result I spent most of my time in elementary, middle and high school talking, working and socializing with pupils towards the middle of the alphabet such as Larry McMurtry, Megan Rowe, and Jerilyn Friedman. There was, however, a tall, thin boy at the beginning of the alphabet with short blond hair and glasses so thick they left red dents on his nose, (on the rare occasions he removed them), who caught my attention. Not only did he look interesting, but he was also good at storytelling and mimicking the mannerisms of some of the students and teachers out on the playground during recess. With these skills, he soon made himself known in the large class and had attracted a small group of friends (one of whom was myself).
There were other reasons, though, why Jerry was interesting and even unique. He came from one of the most well-known and devout families in a parish with ten and later eleven boys. His parents frequently attended mass, (daily during Lent), and were always involved in pancake breakfast fundraisers or ferrying boys to campouts for the school’s scout troops. (In contrast, I can remember my father taking our family home early from a parish barbeque because the man taking the tickets remarked: “Who the hell are the Montes?” even though, as he later roared in the car, “I have three kids on the God damn honour roll and nobody knows who we are!”)
In addition, Jerry lived just down the street from St. Clements, on Lincoln Avenue. I can remember going over to his house and meeting his other older and younger brothers who were almost carbon copies of each other. They all had the same tall, thin bodies, long noses, and dark Bambi eyes. The only difference was their ages. Jerry and I usually played with the dozens of green, plastic toy soldiers in the basement, lining them up for battle. That was, until one of his older or slightly younger brothers decided they wanted to wrestle. I soon learned to stay back and not join in because wrestling, for the Caja boys, was serious business. Board games and pieces flew into the air and chairs, lamps and tables were overturned as the boys tested each other’s strength. I imagine with eleven male siblings around the dinner table and two or three to a bedroom, there was probably plenty of competition for just about everything.
And there was yet another reason I felt attracted to Jerry, though I couldn’t really understand it at that time. Even though most think that a child has little knowledge of sexual orientation, when I was six going on seven I thought I had scanned some sort of understanding in Jerry’s head which comprehended why I didn’t enjoy torturing insects or small animals in my backyard or why I wasn’t repulsed by girls but enjoyed playing with them as much as with boys.
At any rate, I learned a lot that first year. I learned how to read. I taught my younger sister the phonics lesson I learned each day. Until my parents found out about my tutoring, they and my sister’s kindergarten teacher thought she was a genius. I learned how to pray. The nuns taught us the Our Father, Hail Mary and Nicene Creed in preparation for our First Communion the following year. I learned how to attend mass in the dark, stained-glass-windowed, parish church. Its clerestory walls had a mural of the saints’ gruesome martyrdoms—St. Clement, the parish’s patron, thrown off a ship with an anchor around his neck, St. Peter, crucified upside down, St. Lawrence, grilled over a fire, St. Sebastian, shot full of arrows, Saint Hippolytus, pulled apart by horses, and St. Lucy (patron of the blind and poorly-sighted), her eyes gouged out because a pagan man found them so beautiful he wanted to marry her. All these saints looked away from their torment with big, ecstatic doe eyes upwards towards heaven. From the nuns I also learned how to “turn the other cheek” when they struck me with a hand or ruler for disobeying or just because they were upset.
But with Jerry I always felt safe and by the end of the first year I felt I could ask or tell him anything. That was until our first cub scout campout together that summer. One night, Jerry and I lay next to each other on the floor of the tent in separate sleeping bags listening to the scoutmasters’ card playing and the whoosh of the Coleman gas lamp under the shelter ten or fifteen yards away. We talked for a while and when the others had fallen asleep, I asked Jerry if he would hold my hand. To my surprise, Jerry wouldn’t do this. I asked again, but Jerry continued to refuse. After repeated requests, however, Jerry reluctantly did as I asked, probably to keep me quiet. About 15 minutes later, however, he took his hand away.
The next day, everything changed. Freaked out by my hand-holding request, Jerry told all the other boys what I had asked and I suddenly found myself an outcast from Jerry and the rest of the troop who did their best to torment and/or exclude me from activities without the adult leaders knowing what was going on.
After I came home from the campout, I didn’t see Jerry for the rest of the summer and I didn’t go over to his house, afraid I’d be humiliated again. When school began in September, my distress was compounded when I discovered that Jerry and I were now in different second-grade classrooms—I in Miss Barbara’s class and Jerry in Mrs. Savage’s across the hall. Worse yet, Jerry refused to talk to me out in the schoolyard and wouldn’t let me come over to his house. He also made fun of me, throwing a limp wrist to mimic me (though I’d never done that myself) as I now became a part of his entertainment.
In my distress, I enlisted the aid of Mrs. Savage. I told her about how close Jerry and I had once been and how he now didn’t want anything to do with me. (I left out the handholding incident). I begged her to bring Jerry and me together so we could talk. One afternoon during recess, Mrs. Savage did as I requested and Jerry marched sullenly up to me in the playground under Mrs. Savage’s watchful, but somewhat distant eye. I told Jerry that I missed him and didn’t understand why he no longer wanted to be friends.
Jerry however, would have none of it. He called me “a fag” and said: “From now on, I’m only going to hang out with the cool people.” I didn’t realize our school had cool people being only in second-grade, but obviously Jerry did. I now wonder: could Jerry’s desire for fame or notoriety have been so acute, even at the age of seven, that he knew to get rid of anyone perceived as a liability?
Jerry’s desire to ignore or exclude me was difficult to maintain since we attended the same weekly school, scout and church activities together. It was torture sitting across from Jerry in the back of one of the fathers’ or mothers’ station wagons as we were being ferried to another weekend or summer campout. The connection between the Cajas and my family was also close. I can remember Mrs. Caja bringing a Ziggy cartoon book from my mother for me on the mid-week parents visit for scout summer camp at Camp Avery because my mother couldn’t leave my father’s side that evening at the family-run pharmacy. My request for Jerry’s hand was an open secret and none of the boys would share a tent with me unless the scoutmaster forced them. As Jerry led another group of boy’s on a hike into the woods to smoke, look at his older brothers’ porn or light an illegal fire, I’d lay on the grass next to my tent, reading a science-fiction novel about people travelling in a space ship at almost the speed of light, practicing my telekinesis, pushing clouds through the afternoon sky.
Jerry still found ways to punish me for hanging around. After shouting obscenities into the thick backstage curtains, upset because he was about to go on as the Virgin Mary in the nativity play, Jerry, at the last minute, stuffed me into his white sheet costume and pushed me out onto the stage. It was a non-speaking part so I kept my head down in the dim lights, hoping no one would notice me. Later that evening at home, however, my mother mentioned to my father what the man sitting next to her in the audience had asked: “Where did they get a girl to play Mary?” It was only time I can remember my father laughing uncontrollably—and not because something was funny. I began to understand what Jerry feared about my desire to get close to him, about being a fag and gender bending.
Another time, he set the cub scout pack on me literally. One winter, we were gathered inside a warm, wooden cabin in Beldwin Village in Lorain County because it was too cold and rainy outside to camp out in tents. Cooped up in this cabin, I made the mistake of looking at Jerry across the room too many times. Jerry had the boys hold me down while they and punched and pinched my bare torso so long that it burned a bright pinkish red called a pink belly. I was amazed that Jerry could be so cruel. He just looked at me and said: “You had it coming. I warned you not to look at me.” Perhaps this was the reason that my photos of Jerry at scout camp are always a bit fuzzy, taken with a simple Brownie camera and usually from quite a distance.
Serving mass together was also torture. As the two of us put on our black cassocks and white surpluses alone in the same room next to the altar, I began to feel like one of those clerestory saints being hacked or burned to bits in some sort of simultaneous earthly torture and holy communion. (This is perhaps the archetype of all my future relations with tall, blond, athletic men who I pursued or rather observed mostly from a distance after Jerome’s rejection and my social humiliation/isolation. Those blond, mostly straight men to whom I was undoubtedly attracted later in high school, but to whom I almost never expressed my need for intimacy as I had with Jerry). I also noticed that the priests seemed to like Jerry and paid him more attention even though he cursed when he tripped in his cassock going up or down the marble steps, he didn’t know all the prayers and he sometimes drank the leftover, consecrated wine instead of pouring it down the drain.
The last time I remember spending time with Jerry was in the church basement for a scout meeting. I was 12 and had made it to Star Scout with merit badges in marksmanship, cooking, coin and stamp collecting or philately (which brought lisps of appreciation from the guys in the troop) camping and hiking. I’d also recently been inducted into the Order of the Arrow after a 2-day hike and sleeping out alone without a campfire or flashlight under the stars at Beaumont Scout Camp in the woods of Northeast Ohio. I had hoped to make Eagle before I started high school, but I soon realized that wasn’t possible. Even though I was still in the scout troop, I had once again done the unthinkable and was about to leave St. Clements’ for the evils of public school. I explained to nun after nun and priest after priest who pulled me out of class and into the hallway that spring before I left, (some of whom graphically described my soul burning in hell), that my departure was due to financial considerations— the tuition having recently been increased from hundreds to thousands of dollars per student per year, a price my father wouldn’t or couldn’t pay.
At this last scout meeting in June 1970, someone had left a long, thick rubber hose on the floor of the church hall. Jerry got it into his head to tie the hose between two supporting posts to use it as a slingshot to launch himself into the air and across the hall. Instead of making him airborne, however, the cord spun and flipped Jerry over, smashing his head against the floor. Everyone was horrified by what happened, even the assistant scoutmaster, who was present. Jerry fortunately remained conscious and rubbed his short, blond-haired head repeating: “Fuck” or “Shit, that hurt,” over and over again. I don’t know if he sustained any injuries as a result or whether he was taken to hospital. That was before the days of MRI scans.
For twelve years I didn’t hear anything about Jerry. Then in autumn 1982 while attending Berkeley, my mother sent a half-page clipping from one of Cleveland’s daily newspapers. Almost as large as the article was a photo of Jerry as a seminarian with shoulder-length, blond hair surrounded by a group of adoring, but troubled, inner-city youth. It didn’t surprise me that Jerry had decided to go into the priesthood. Growing up in such a large, devote Catholic family, the law of averages predicted that at least one and maybe two Caja boys would receive a “calling.” And, becoming a priest would give Jerry the opportunity to be in front of people again in the spotlight at least once a week. Looking at Jerry’s wavy, androgynous, shoulder-length hair, though, I wondered if the Catholic Church had become more liberal or just desperate for new priests. Surely that hair made Jerry looked unmistakably gay. I wondered if he had ruffled a few feathers at seminary. A year later I graduated from Berkeley and in 1984 I got a scholarship to Brown (probably because of No Apologies, my gay literary magazine, I had founded in San Francisco the year before and continued publishing at Brown).
The next time I read about Jerry was in late 1989, two years after returning to San Francisco after graduating from Brown and teaching high school writing courses in New England. By day I worked as a microcomputer technician making rate charts and data back ups at an insurance company. By night and in the weekends, I covered the gay news as a radio reporter on a show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley. While preparing my script one night after work, I saw a photograph of a drag queen with stringy blond hair, big, Bozo eyes, and double rows of light and dark lipstick on the front page of one of San Francisco’s gay newspapers. It accompanied a feature story about a man named Jerome who had become the mistress of Wednesday jockstrap Jell-O wrestling at Club Chaos just around the corner from where I lived on Valencia Street. The photo piqued my interest because there was something familiar about those big eyes and long nose. I realized Jerome was Jerry when he identified himself as a “recovering Catholic” who had sex with men in Cleveland’s Edgewater Park.
Through my press contacts, I discovered that in between seminary and his refereeing of the Jell-O wrestling, Jerry had come to San Francisco in the mid-80s to get his Masters degree at the Institute of Art. For his graduation he had worn a transparent gown he’d made of plastic pouches filled with different coloured liquids and floating, fake goldfish. (Reportedly, Jerry was also naked underneath the see-through gown, but I have yet to see a photo which confirms this).
Even though the gay community was my beat, I had missed Jerome’s splash on the gay drag/art/sex/literary scene, probably because when he was at Club Chaos, I was in bed as I had to go to work the next morning. And it was still a few more months before I literally ran into Jerry by accident, one cold, windy, January night walking up Castro Street. All 6’7” of him, hard skin and bone, literally collided with me in front of the Castro Theater. He was wearing his trademark high heels and fishnet stockings. I also could smell beer on his breath and figured he was drunk. I said: “Jerry, it’s me, Bryan.” Jerry just stared at me and said: “That’s great, baby, (burp), but I got to go,” and he continued walking down Castro Street. I don’t know if he recognized me. I would have liked to have invited him for a cup of coffee at the 24 hour donut shop down the street, but once again, he didn’t want to talk.
A month later, I heard about Electric City, a weekly LGBT TV show broadcast on San Francisco City College’s cable channel. Electric City had heard about me too. They suggested I do the gay news for them. From the beginning I was a bit apprehensive. This rag tag group of druggy, leather and drag queens was a little too over the top for me. In addition, I believed radio was a much more intellectual medium. What you said on the radio was more important than how you looked or what you did while you were saying it. Against my better judgment, I consented to a tryout. As I had expected, I spent hours in makeup or in front of a camera doing many takes for the same news segment I could have delivered live, unshaven and shabbily dressed on the radio in 10 minutes. I soldiered on, however.
As I was taping one day, Jerome walked in the door. I had heard Jerry was part of group, but I hadn’t seen him since I’d bumped into him in front of the Castro Theatre. Jerry said hello then went into a back room to get ready for a short promotional segment. They filmed Jerry lying flat on an ironing board and, by some sort of trick photography, blotted out the board and made it appear as if he was flying through the air. That day or a week or so later the crew asked me to stretch out my arms over my head and jump up and down. Then, they adapted this video to make it seem like I was jumping while holding the Electric City logo.
At the beginning of April, Jerome had a big art show in a space (a former shop) at Collingwood and 19th Street then called the Art Lick Gallery. The name of the show was “Compact” and I remember trying to look through the white sheets taped over the windows while Jerry hung his very small, framed miniatures painted with nail polish on “found” materials (such as used McDonald’s French fry cardboard holders, junk mail envelopes, plastic restaurant tip trays, recycled paper or tin foil). Some, due to the erotic subjects like “One, Two, Three, Pee on Me, nail polish on tin or “The Foot of Christ,” enamel on toenails (1991), reminded me a Roman art work or early Christian reliquaries. “The Birth of Venus in Cleveland,” nail polish on plastic tip tray (1988) is a self-portrait of Jerome wearing only fishnet stockings and a bra, standing in an inflatable children’s wading pool in a backyard. In the background is a clothesline on which laundry dries, the line attached at one end to a column atop which is a statue of the blue-robed Virgin Mary. This scene, (except for Jerome’s nudity and transvestitism), was familiar to most Catholic families in the Lakewood whose large families (four child minimum on my street) played in backyards that included hand-made shrines to the Virgin made from upturned white washtubs with a statue on a pedestal in the middle. And Jerry’s Marcel Duchamp/Salvador Daliesque (re)interpretation of Bartolome Estaban Murillo’s “The Immaculate Conception” by painting Bozo clown faces on the Virgin and the angels surrounding her in the clouds, placed Jerry’s painting solidly in the Postmodern movement since his unique sign(ature) over Murillo’s work hijacked and upended its motif and critiqued Catholic tradition.
Although I’d been on the radio for a while, very few of my friends and none of my co-workers had noticed or even commented on the show. Once the Electric City promos were broadcast, however, friends, co-workers, even strangers in the subway stopped me to ask me if I was that guy on TV. I realized then the power of TV over radio. I also realized I might be able to make a name for myself and maybe some real money. My natural cautiousness and the desire to stay out of the spotlight, however, kept me from pursuing it. I decided that even with TV’s increased recognition I was going to stay with radio. Then I invited the cast of Electric City to be interviewed by me on the radio in May or June 1990. The night of the interview, however, no one showed up. Through Rink, a photographer friend, I heard they’d got their dates mixed up (even though it was in the station’s published calendar) and were sorry about it. Due to a conflict with my fellow program members shortly thereafter, however, I decided to leave the show and the station, so I never got another chance to interview Jerry or Electric City on the radio.
I did see Jerry, however, one last time, just a few days later, at the head of the 1990 LGBT parade even though I didn’t recognize him. Wearing a Hare Krishna orange-coloured outfit including a skull cap, (which completely hid his long hair), big round glasses, a round gold disk hanging from one ear and a bagel from the other, an orange sash, leopard lingerie and a Kielbasa sausage hanging from a chain link necklace, Jerry created a new persona: Konnie Krishna. As he walked the parade route, people around me asked: “Who is that stealing the show?” and I couldn’t answer them.
A few weeks later, while resigning from the radio show and handing in my keys at the station, I saw Jerome’s name with Steve Abbott’s and a few other San Francisco writers I’d published in No Apologies. They were involved in a big reading in San Francisco, but somehow had forgot or neglected to invite me either as a writer or a reporter. I felt betrayed and excluded once again. I stopped writing gay news stories in my spare time and started teaching ESL and creative and technical writing evenings after work to save money to leave town. Since my insurance company had already been through three reorganizations going from 17 to 12 to 7 offices nationwide, I figured I wouldn’t survive the next one. In addition, even though I’d been looking for another job for the last year and half, I hadn’t had one offer since most businesses downtown were downsizing and/or moving out of town.
Moreover, almost a dozen friends had sickened and/or died of AIDS related illnesses including two ex-partners. San Francisco was turning into a ghost town. I started imagining seeing people on the street that I’d known years ago, who I later discovered were (long) dead. I also thought that even though I had tried to be “careful,” I probably didn’t have much time, so I figured I had the opportunity for one last adventure.
In 1993, I moved to the Netherlands with a one-year job contract and a journalist quality camera. I lived in two small rooms in a barely heated attic for two winters. By spring 1995, I had my own apartment, lived a Spartan life and, through some 16-hour workdays, created a slightly profitable computing and English teaching consultancy. Later that summer, I suddenly and inexplicably felt moved to start writing a long poem about Jerry, which I worked on for months in between projects. On the phone in early November just after my birthday, I mentioned the poem to a friend in San Francisco. He paused, then choosing his words carefully, told me that after a long illness, including the loss of his eyesight due to CMV, Jerome had just passed away of AIDS-related illnesses. (I discovered later he’d died on my birthday). The synchronicity of wanting to write a poem about him in the last months of his fatal illness and the date of Jerry’s passing wasn’t lost on me. I wondered if somehow Jerry, in his distress, was somehow able to contact me as my parents had before they passed—sending their fatal heart attack and stroke pains to me thousands of miles away so I packed my things at work or made plane reservations at home even before the phone rang.
After that, I spent the next few years running my business, securing my permanent residence permit, and developing my first serious, long-term relationship (at the age of 41!). I went from teaching courses at a private college to getting a job and tenure at a public one. During this time, I lost track of Jerry’s artwork and its legacy. On one of my yearly visits to San Francisco, though, poet Ed Mycue, mentioned that there was a book about Jerry on sale at bookstore at 20th and Valencia, once again, right around the corner from where I had lived in San Francisco.
On a table next to the window I found a prominent, fanned stack of large, orange-coloured, hardback books: Jerome: After the Pageant, by Thomas Avena and Adam Klein. On the cover behind his painting of the Bozo clown-faced angels and the Virgin, was a Jerry himself with big glasses and lips. Inside I discovered various photos of Jerry with which I wasn’t familiar. The most interesting was a photograph of Jerry’s paternal grandfather and his brother-in-law dressed in women’s clothing and his paternal grandmother and her sister dressed in men’s. There was also a very uncharacteristic painting, “Still Life with Broken Doll,” (1988), interesting for its distortion in perspective. The traditional bowl of fruit and vase flowers on a red table cloth tilted perilously downwards as if they were about to fall off. A doll with its right arm broken off was also splayed across the tabletop. The room also has a yellow chair and walls of deep blue. Outside, beyond on the orange curtains and pumpkin on the windowsill, is a white picket fence and another house painted in Van Gogh-like thick, eerie strokes as if a strong wind or a tornado, were about to blow it apart.
As a result of knowing Jerry since he was in elementary school and his family’s contact with mine, I think I have a very good understanding of how his Catholic background, which persecuted him for being gay, “inspired” paintings such as “Sacred Heart Circle Jerk,” “Rape of the Altar Boy,” and “The Last Hand Job.” His “The Holy Spirit Getting New Eyes for Saint Lucy,” painted in 1988 seems particularly prophetic as Jerry lost his eyesight months before he died. I wonder if in heaven, God, in his Infinite Mercy, restored Jerry’s vision, as he did St. Lucy’s, her eyes found miraculously intact in her corpse just before her burial, usually portrayed as being brought back to her on a golden plate in the beak of the dove of the Holy Spirit. For those of us left behind, I only hope we can learn to see as well as Jerry did and to make something beautiful and unique from our lives no matter how long or short they prove to be, no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter who includes or excludes us.