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IT’S CURVED AND SILLY, AND YOU ABSORB ALL THE PAIN
BY AUGUST BERNADICOU
WITH PHOTOS BY WILL SHELLHORN

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In early March 2019, I emailed James St Oliver for the first time. After four days with him three years later, I am still shaken to the core. I wonder why me. Why did I take this on? Emotions click with each sentence I type as I try to process my experience with him. Maybe I failed.

 

James St Oliver… when he was 17 years old, his father maneuvered him into the United States Air Force, and he served as an Aerospace Ground Power Repairman stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Four years later, in 1966, he returned to the United States and moved to San Francisco. The Summer of Love expanded in his heart, and he became and edited VNG magazine. VNG was for the untouchables pushed aside by gay assimilationists and the heterosexuals they attempted to replicate. It was a forever open dialogue between the denied, forgotten, persecuted youth, drug addicts, transgenders, drag queens, and all gay men and women. James did not stop after he published his last issue of VNG in 1978. He worked commercially for community theaters and produced 186 episodes of the nationally distributed and entirely youth-run TV show Youthful Thoughts while raising over 600 foster kids. 

I knew I had to interview him. There was barely any information out there about him and VNG magazine. It was a blink, and you miss it footnote. VNG, to me, remains the most radical pre-Stonewall Gay Liberation magazine. It is a beautifully laid out living medium with a breath taken from every culture. Everything I love with an assimilation take-down stance.

James St Oliver by Will Shellhorn, 2023.

Within minutes of the interview, he said, “You'll see a vase, and it's got flowers in it, but you turn it around, and you find the flowers are all plastic and that they are taped on the side of the vase, and it's kind of an offense.” Just like that, an ex-hippie entered my life, and we had spoken consistently on the phone since then. What could I do to help him? Publicize his story and ensure his place is cemented in civil rights history. It’s a heavy burden, but one lightened by love, holding someone’s legacy in your brain, in recorded interviews and in a file cabinet under your desk. James, like so many of the gay elders in my life, had become a friend and companion. He would tell me I was the most important person in his life and that it had changed his life having me in it. He had changed my life too.

 

James’s gay elder story is similar to far too many: a pivotal mover and shaker with 300 boxes of material that needed to be archived, or it would be lost forever after he died. We began talking about a project to preserve it. James, in Victoria, Texas, and I, in New York City, could not devise a plan where we both could be together. I decided to reach out to a local university for help. The college job counselor was excited, but the project was tough. Victoria is a city with a population of 35,000. I did find an 18-year-old volunteer who I thought was capable enough, gay enough, and smart enough for the task. When he told me about crazy, old James, I didn’t think much of it until after l I was with James for four days. Their attempted collaboration bore no fruits. 

 

So much seemed obvious, I would inherit the rights to VNG, make a coffee table book, and get his beautiful materials placed in a prestigious archive. February 18, 2022, was the day I would help him. James would pay for my friend Will’s and my airfare and compensate us for our work.

 

I knew James was diminishing in capacity, based on his ten calls a day to me, each with a four-minute voicemail—there was also his lack of memory and paranoia about the Evil One who was breaking in on a multi-day basis. I was concerned and sad to see a friend in this state, but when he would say, “There is a column, and then there is a pilaster. A column is a beautiful thing in itself. You walk around it, and it's magnificent, but a pilaster is kind of a cheat. Why are you there? Why? Why are you a pilaster?” I figured he was still James St Oliver.

 

The flight was nerve-wracking. James could not remember when we landed and texted me between layovers asking me to write him a letter instead of texting. We landed, and then we went to his home, the most beautiful brick house in a run-down neighborhood. He showed us around. James, barely able to walk, toured his maze of a six-bedroom home with floor-to-ceiling boxes in every room. When we walked up the stairs, we realized we were in a situation I could barely predict.

“This is my cat room,” he told us, innocent and white. He opened the door: four cats (three alive and one dead), a dog with patchy hair, and a five-gallon bucket filled to the brim with the by-products of their poor diet. Will, horribly allergic to cats, was worried about me. I almost fainted on the spot. The smell was thick, and I was inches from a dead cat. 

“We will put him in my crematorium, you know, the fire pit I have outside, or throw him in the creek.” 

“What does that mean, James? Where is the creek?”

I needed fresh air, so we moved outside, where there were even more boxes. We found some chairs, sat in a circle, and Will and I made a game plan. We made facial expressions to throw James off. We went back inside, and James offered us a glass of milk for the fifth time. “Do you want any whole grain bread?” All he eats. I ordered us pizza, and we sat on his bed, which had enough space for all of us. Will and I had to get out of there to strategize further. 

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James in his backyard by Will Shellhorn, 2023.

I called Andy, the college student who had previously helped James, and demanded, “Get us out of here!” Andy walked up to the front door to say hello to James. So much for getting out in a New York minute! Andy’s mother was driving, and she dropped us at Guadalajara, a Mexican restaurant we would later return to daily. We trauma-bombed Andy. He drew us a map, and we enjoyed double vodka sodas with orange juice. A fay drink for the fateless, homosexuals in rural Texas who got comments. My jeans may have been the tightest in the county. 

After dinner, Andy’s mother drove us to the Motel Six where we were staying. We pulled in at the same time that the police were running from motel door to motel door with their guns drawn. Trying to keep calm, I proposed the Americas motel across the street. We got dropped off, and I walked inside. Will stayed outside crying. We ran to our room; more tears. Okay, okay, okay, we have our map!  

 

The next morning, we were picked up by a queeny Uber driver. He had a hoop hearing and a fake Louis Vuitton bag. What are you doing here? “Get ready for this...” We picked up gloves and breakfast at Walmart. He also picked us up after we finished shopping. I asked him for a bar recommendation, and he told us two bars that we would be safe at. “I have gay friends, and they say to only go there.” Friends?

 

The first task was to get rid of the dead cat. “The cat isn’t here anymore,” James explained. “It hasn’t been a cat for a while. The taxidermist came last night and took him.” A late-night taxidermist service! 

 

Our right-hand man and stoner chauffeur, Andy, showed up. James’s memory was back. Andy is the chair of the Gay-Straight Alliance group at the University of Houston Victoria, where he studies History and English. James had attended one of their meetings but was convinced he attended more. He looked at Andy and said, “You are doing great work. How is it going with Gay-Straight Alliance?” Andy was defeated and let out, “I am the only member.” James, in James-form, said, “Is there no need, or is everybody satisfied?” When the old James surfaced, I felt like my friend was singing music. When he was coherent, he always has had difficulty finding the noun and the verb. That was James’s last sensible comment in that walking-up-the-stairs conversation. Andy turned to Will and me and said, “When I was helping James, he was a three out of ten, and now he is an 11. Whenever we drove around and saw Chevy Astro, he would pull over and ask the driver if he could buy theirs.” James had 3 Chevy Astro vans in his gravel and weed driveway. 

 

James watched us work upstairs. Trust issues. He had come out of bad relationships and suffered from PTSD from the war; “I am lonely.” James had not left the house in months, and the Evil One stole his cash and car keys. There is no way he could have driven one of the Chevy Astros he owned. His loneliness always hurt me. Not from a savior-complex point of view, but from one friend to another. Would James still feel lonely if we went on a book tour together or lectured at Universities? Here it is! VNG for the world to learn about. I imagined lonely James in 1967, returning from the ravages of war, publishing a magazine being read across America with no feedback from lonely readers in rural Texas, rural America. Controversial views that gave other people the tools to think beyond themselves.

We needed to get James out of the room. We had four days to go through 300 boxes. I climbed on stacks of boxes and handed them to Will, who looked through them and passed them to Andy to put them in their temporary place. I would take let’s-distract James shifts, talk to him, and try not to let my emotions overfill. A friend was dying alone, with no comprehension of the stakes. I often wished I was a medical professional.

August talking to James about his archive by Will Shelhorn, 2023.

We ate our Mexican dinner and then returned to our roach-filled room at the Americas, and I cried. What am I supposed to do? I am watching a man dying. A man I care about. I was probably the only person in his life. He cannot continue as he is, but he has been committed to this peculiar, very isolated lifestyle. If something happens, no one will know for days, and all of his life's work will end up in the garbage. Who could I call?  Could I help save James St Oliver and VNG magazine? Was “save” the right word? 

 

James called me later that night. “August, can you give me that young man’s number? We used to be scholastic partners, and his mother is a saint.” “Sure, I will in the morning. You know how you were talking about a haircut? I’ll take you to one tomorrow. Good night.” I woke up several times in the middle of the night by fits of tears. I prayed for answers and strength, trying to reassure myself that James would be okay and that I would provide him the tools he needed to live the rest of his life in safety and peace. The morning came too soon. I had had a dream I was walking through James’s apartment and found a set of gold keys. It was getting close to crunch time. 

 

My plan to take James for a haircut backfired when he immediately said he didn’t have time for one. It was barely 8 AM, and there was not even a barbershop open. I gave him a haircut outside and asked him pointed questions. When the questions were not pointed, he strung together words. Reviewing the tape of our conversation, one  particular word trail sticks out, “Finding the most is the finding. Finding the most and the best. This is the best, the bestest best, or the best with the worst ending, or the worst that would turn out to be the best.” 

 

At this point, I was used to his temper and made sure I took my job as a barber seriously—I wanted everything to be perfect for James St Oliver of VNG magazine fame. With his memory fading and speaking in the present tense about his parents, I asked him about radical figures of the past like Reverend Ray Broshears, a hippie-militant-pseudo priest who at one time founded a group called the Lavender Panthers that paraded around and protected the San Francisco streets with guns in hand. I also asked him about Anthony Bourdeau, who knew James in 1966 and co-founded VNG the group from which VNG the magazine sprung. Anthony would soon play a pivotal role in our rescue VNG mission.

 

“[Anthony] having sex with him was not like having sex with him. It was like playing with another child. Not that he was childish, or neither was I. And we did do it from time to time. But that was not the thing. We were playing. And I think we would say, let's go play or something. Sometimes it was reckless, and sometimes it wasn’t. Hello, two birds. Well, now the two birds are together, I think, on top of the pole. I think if I can see them clearly. Oh, yeah, there's two of them. Probably mates. Getting ready for spring, huh?”

 

We knew we were in for trouble when James’s wifi disconnected. TV was a valuable use of his time. The taco salad I sponsored only bought us an hour of time. He did not know his internet provider, but I decided to call AT&T for him to help him get his wifi password. I knew it was futile, but I wanted to help him. TV distracted him from us and paused his loneliness. Phone calls were tough for him. He would spend all day trying to pay bills with long-expired gift cards. Steve at AT&T was confused by this young man trying to help reset a Wifi password as James shouted, “Tell him I am a 79-year-old totally disabled veteran.” When the man said, “I have a security question for you,” my heart dropped. We would never be able to access his account! “Who is your favorite actor,” I asked James. He screamed from across the room, “Sydney Portier! Do you want milk?” We found our new future plan: load up Sydney Portier movies on our laptop. 

 

The mess of boxes we found were all entirely useless. Thousands of white towels. Closets full of white towels. When he was a foster kid, which I don’t know if I believe based on our previous interviews, he never had a towel. He ensured all the foster kids he raised in all four group homes he managed had white towels. He kept every file on the children he raised. Hundreds of files. Why did he still need the white towels? We initially tried to help with his reckless hoarding but knew nothing about hoarding, the disorder and activity. The psychiatric intervention, like our search, was futile. “James, why do you need 8 mattresses that are stained?” It was a predictable answer, "I’m going to start a commune, and eight people will live with me.”

The day was done, and we were exhausted. When I said goodbye, James quickly shot back, “Next time you come, we will make a plan, and you will give me notice.” I was defeated and insulted. Andy drove us to dinner. I stepped into Guadalajara and left my pride in the car. 

Every night when we got home, we called Anthony Bourdeau. He had not seen James in years, but how much had James really changed? He went from a hippie to an ex-hippie. A go-getter since the beginning. The first night I talked to Anthony, he told me I should call protective services on James. There was also animal abuse. But first, of course, “steal VNG!” 

“Well, the problem is,“ Anthony explained, “you're letting your conscience step in the way. I used to work for a guy, and he would lie. He would sell necklaces that belonged to a Romanian princess. No, it didn't. He was outrageous. I'm not encouraging being dishonest like he was, but whatever you pick, there's a reason why it’s got to go to New York. And it's true. Social welfare would come in to get him another place, and they would contact relatives to dissolve the estate and use the money from the sales to support him, or his son just comes in and throws everything away, and sells it, and good luck.”

 

We were approaching our last full day. We had a full agenda: finish upstairs, organize and clean, and peek around the other rooms. Will asked James, “Do you have a basement?” James said no and then he told us that he did have a garage. A garage! Yes, people who do not live in walk-up apartments in New York have garages. I also assumed James did not have one because his collection of cars was kept outside. We hid behind boxes upstairs and discussed how to delegate our efforts. Andy and I walked to the garage. James was in the laundry room washing white towels that had rat shit on them. It was another project we gave him. He assured us they would be cleaner than a hospital.

 

The garage, as expected, had boxes stacked to the ceiling, file cabinets, and children's bikes. I am convinced he did not raise foster children in Victoria, Texas, but he said he did. We opened the garage door, squeezed past James, and walked around to the front of the garage. I saw a narrow walkway and picked up Andy to see if he could spot the path. We found one! Will came down, and we made our way through. All we saw were termites and rat leftovers. 

 

“James, is there anywhere else you think we should look? We haven’t found VNG yet.” He said he had to have a storage unit, but did not know the company's name. It was next to the KEB grocery store. “Andy, write this down!” By this time on a Sunday, the storage facility was closed. We still had tomorrow, which was, conveniently, a national holiday. 

 

We asked Andy to leave so we could finish our work upstairs and ask James to pay us for our work and, of course, the flight. While we reorganized upstairs, we made sure to match James's demands that lighter boxes be placed on the perimeter, so he could move them and look through them. He could hardly walk, but he could move boxes. We had temporarily put three pallets of unopened boxes outside for more space. Practically happening during the blink of an eye, they were back inside, lost in James’s “organized” mess. 

 

Before we showed off our work to James, Will and I knew we would have to go in the cat room one more time. At this point, Will’s cat allergy had completely subsided, and our antibodies were peaking. There was nothing, and we knew that before we went in. When I was leaving, a cat bolted out of the room faster than lightning. I was jealous.

 

I cannot put into words how important it was to me that we left Jame's home better than how we had found it. Not only did we vacuum the entire place, but we also exposed a desk and floor space for him so he could skim through the boxes that we had already checked at least twice. Excited to make James happy, I held his hand and helped him upstairs. 

 

He was disappointed that he had exposed floor. The stairs and hallways did not have a box in sight. We showed him the main box room. He retorted, “I don’t want a desk. You have left everything accessible for the burglars now.” Worse than this, of course, we did not “secure the perimeter,” which was critical to James’s safety. His ex-military came out when he would say, “secure the perimeter.” I turned the other cheek and told him about the cat. Walking toward the cat room, he said, “Thank you for telling me so promptly.” He opened the door and screeched, “Back, back, back!” He whispered, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” and quicker than it had run out, it ran back into the cat room, stepping on its fecal matter.

James calling his cat upstairs by Will Shelhorn, 2023.

I helped James down the stairs and told him we would get lunch tomorrow before we left. It was time for us to get paid. I had spent thousands of dollars and wanted cash for a nice meal and a stiff margarita. He had also said that he would pay my friend and me "handsomely," and when I told him the cost of our ticket, he said the price sounded “delicious.” 

 

Devastation followed. “VNG was your project, not mine! You picked the worst time to come. It’s more expensive to travel to Victoria, Texas, on a three-day weekend.” His eyes were sharp and glossy. He continued, “If you would have had me helping you, we could have been done days ago.” Will was emotional, and he was on the verge of tears. They were similar to when we pulled up to the Motel 6 and saw the police raid, but this time he was exhausted. He said, “But, James, we did all this work to help you. We worked so hard.” James tried to make sense but didn’t. He was aggressive and looked at us as if we were the Evil One. Will ran outside out of necessity. Both Will and I cried a lot in Victoria, Texas. Will could also draw his tears from a place of anger. One night before we went to bed, he said, “If he does not want to save VNG, I am going to! He can’t let his legacy end up in the garbage.”

 

The last time I saw James St Oliver was heavy with emotions. I begged him for money. “James, you really don’t get it. No one else in the world would do this for you. Take days off from work, front thousands of dollars, and make sure your house is safe. I bought you lunch and groceries. I did this from the goodness of my heart. I love you, James. We have talked about this for years.”

 

“Well, August, if you would only have a conversation with me right now about this, we can talk. The Evil One has stolen all of my money, and this was simply not my project or my idea or how I would have had you spend your time. Do you see my lights? Those cost money.” He forgot that I had lights too.

 

I walked outside to Will. We cried on the corner. It might as well have been raining. There were no Ubers to be found at this time of night. It was a cold night in Victoria.

 

His neighbor walked over, confused, asking questions to get a gauge on us. “Why are you here?” It didn’t matter. We called Anthony crying. He is a religious man and calmed us down. I asked him to call James later to see what was happening in his mind. Gently pry. Our conversation ended when the phone vibrated with a notification from Uber. Lucy L picked us up in her Honda Civic and asked, “Who are you, and why are you in front of James St Oliver’s home?”

 

The story made little sense to her. She told us that James has had issues with the law and is banned from Walmart and KEB. We had also heard he abused his ex-husband. I could not believe it initially, but now I am convinced it is true. When she pulled up to our motel, which confused her even more, I asked her if she could pick us up in twenty minutes. We needed to get our composure. 

 

We looked visibly different as she drove us to Guadalajara. Our tears had dried, and we were numb. We told her all of the good things James had done. We omitted that he was gay but told her about Project Fresh Rainbow, the nonprofit James started which helped LGBTQ juvenile delinquents get their lives back and made them find a self-purpose on Youthful Thoughts, his youth-run TV show. The day before, James had told us about Leon Hangst, whom James helped with Project Fresh Rainbow. He was a “vicious” juvenile career criminal. James had helped him get his life together. He made sure he always had a white towel. James bought him new shoes and placed him on the staff of Youthful Thoughts. He became a Washington D.C. mover and then got involved with the wrong types of people and was shot. James recounted his story with tears, “I mourned that day,” he added, “ that memory for years. I'm still trying to shed that, wondering did I do that?”

 

She dropped us off at Guadalajara. She was crying and told us we did not have to pay her.

James talking about Leon Hangst by August Bernadicou, 2023.

After dinner, I called an Uber. We asked our waitress if we could order to-go drinks. She said yes, if we got some food to go. We ordered a cheesecake, grabbed our drinks, and walked outside. 
 

As soon as I opened the door for the Uber, I knew we were in trouble. There was a meth pipe and old clothes. Our driver looked malnourished and thirty years older than he should have. He forced Will to sit in the front seat. He confidently sat down, and our driver screamed at us, “You need to be careful who you get in the car with! Always say your name when you get in the car! You can’t trust anyone!” Deep breath, buddy. We only have two miles to go. 

 

As soon as we turned left onto Houston Highway, our driver’s face tightened. He pounded the steering wheel and said, “Oh, fuck!” I felt obligated to enquire, “Is everything all right?” “No! I forgot my sharpest knife!” I slyly said, “Will,” and hopped out of the moving car. Will jumped out shortly after me. He had not processed our driver's comments yet. “Isn’t it good he forgot his sharpest knife?”

 

With our to-go drinks in hand, any well-deserved self-pity we had been trying to push away for days evaporated, and we walked along the highway back to our motel. Is that a white car? When we saw the Americas’ faded sign, we ran to our room. I already did not feel safe staying there. Was our driver there waiting for us? I barricaded the door, and we closed the blinds. I felt physically safe. My emotions pounded. Despite my feelings for James, he had affected my entire life over the phone and now in person.

 

We decided to call Anthony to hear about his conversation with James and tell him about our latest “adventure.” He told us he asked James where the magazines could be. He said that James said they were in his storage unit. He continued, “Then he started talking about different-size boxes. The plan for tomorrow. Storage unit. No chance of getting money. The only hope if you want money is to try and build him up first to where he thinks that it is where he wants to go. He wants to be famous.”

 

Our last day. Will was asleep, and I called the storage unit. “Hello, I think a family member has a storage unit at your facility, and he lost the key...” “What’s his name?” “James St Oliver.” “Usually, we charge $50 to break the lock, but I’ll do it for free.” He told us they were open until 4:00 PM that day, the same time as our flight. Will ate the required-for-drinks cheesecake that had not been refrigerated. “It’s probably fine.” 

 

As we walked down our least favorite highway, I remembered the dream I had. I found VNG magazine at the bottom of a box. They were all miniature and sewn together. When we were a block away from the storage unit, I texted Anthony: We called the storage unit this morning and said we were James's family member and they immediately knew who the hell he was. I told them that we will bring James a bill for the month of February ASAP. I think we have a fighting chance here. Keep the prayers coming. We may need u to impersonate James If they want to call But I doubt they will need us to based on the phone call.

 

When we walked in, the man knew who we were. The plan was always to let me do the talking. I first made it clear we needed James’s bill so he could pay it. “Can you make it as detailed as possible?” Then we joked about James. He said James calls him weekly, which is fine in Winter when they are slow but unfortunate in Summer. Grinding my teeth, I forced out, “You gotta love him.” I kept my exaggerations flowing. 

 

He said we would have to call James since we were not on James’s list. I was surprised we had made it this far. I called Anthony, and he didn’t answer. I stepped outside and called James. I never wanted to talk to him again. James was having none of it. He started talking about making low-cost copies of VNG. I assured him we would run to him after and show him everything we found. He told me that he really needed to be there and that later that day, he would rent a truck, drive it to his storage unit, and we could bring everything to his house and go through it together. I was livid, “James, I have traveled halfway across the country, spent thousands of dollars, busted my ass, and taken your abuse. I am doing this out of love, and you don’t make any sense. Do you know what happened last night? Our taxi driver threatened us with a knife, and we had to jump out of a moving vehicle.” Our flee down Houston Highway struck a nerve with James. He was convinced it was a homophobic move, and he was probably right. He said, “Let me talk to the man who is working.” 

 

As he spoke with him, James told him, “They are here because I used to edit a magazine called VNG. They can go through my storage unit, but I need you to watch them the entire time.” Whatever. We were in. The man told James that there was a fee for a new lock. He complained about having no money, and I loudly said I would pay for it. Nervous that the man was going to watch us, I paid upfront. We grabbed our empty backpacks and made some turns in some hallways. He cut the lock and said, “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

There was nothing in the storage unit but white towels and cat litter. I kept hearing James’s voice, “Do you want any milk?” Paralyzed with defeat, we tried to laugh but could not. I’ll never forget what the James St Oliver, who was my friend, once told me: “Life is not straight. It’s curved, it’s silly, and you absorb all the pain.”