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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.