Julie & Company

Heaving my Shubert Playwriting Fellowship overboard and high-tailing it out of Pennsylvania after less than four months would have been a more risky proposition had I not known that a group of old friends were waiting to take me into their fold in New York City.

Chief among those friends was Julie Brumlik.

During the relatively brief time that Julie and I had known each other, she had always struck me as better able to make a place for herself in any environment than I. She was a high-school dropout, but not for any shortage of brain-power. During nomadic phases of her life she has attended Universidad de las Americas, the University of Alabama, New York University, the New School for Social Research, the American School in Tangiers, and Moscow University without ever bothering to cop a degree. She did complete fourteen vocational courses, among them two culinary degrees, she tells me (one earned in New York and another earned in Paris) and is licensed as a medical assistant, helicopter pilot, and nail technician, among other fields. Her non-academic exploratory tendencies have led her to travel by bicycle in roughly eighty countries — “mostly alone, mostly lost,” she says — even though she now acknowledges that she “can’t change a tire” and “can’t read a map.” The latter deficit may suggest why getting lost multiple times is part of her lifetime resume.

Since Julie’s Mensa-level IQ made her restless in any educational setting, it's no surprise that life as a "co-ed" on the campus of Birmingham-Southern, a small though well-regarded Methodist college in Alabama, couldn’t hold her attention long enough for her to make it to graduation.

I was a theatre-major at that college when Julie was there. That's where the lasting bond was established between us that led me to become one of her several roommates in New York City.

I probably first encountered Julie glancingly during high school, since her brother occupied the dorm room next to mine at Indian Springs, and Brumlik family visits would no doubt have brought her there. But I can’t remember if Julie and I ever engaged in a substantive conversation during those visits.

It was only when she joined me as a student at Birmingham-Southern College that she and I bonded for good. From the first she was clearly cut from a different cloth than BSC's female student population at large. Besides palling around with theatre-types and editing underground treatises, she looked effortlessly amazing without being any kind of clothes-horse. Maybe it was her flaming-red hair that set her apart. She could wear a day-glo pink dress without looking gaudy, her hair could make the most brightly colored look restrained by comparison. I was in awe of but her innate sense of style. Maybe at some point she warmed up to bell-bottoms, beads, or other hippie regalia, but frankly, I never felt that she needed any ornamentation to look fabulous.

Julie wasn't stage-struck, but her affinity for creative people in general drew her into my circle of College Theatre friends. By then I had spent several years imbedding myself along with other thespians in what was light-heartedly called “Arnie’s Army” (in honor Dr. Arnold Powell, the College Theatre’s charismatic director and guiding force who encouraged students to call him “Arnie”). I was only moderately talented as an actor, but with Arnie as my role model I had begun gravitating toward toward both playwriting and directing, so my personality was right up Julie’s alley.

She didn't resist when I recruited her to stage manage The Sixth Story, the full-length play that I wrote while a junior at BSC and directed the following year for Dr. Powell’s Advanced Playwrights Lab. At the same time she and I launched and edited Granny Takes a Trip, an underground paper reproduced by Xerox that was whimsically named after a trendy boutique a fellow student had spotted during a visit to London. As an independent project that received no finds from the school, Granny was able to be transgressive at to a degree that couldn't be matched by the less free-wheeling Hilltop News, a student newspaper whose sails could be trimmed by wary faculty advisors.

Cans labeled "Keep Granny Green" were strategically placed in the snack bar, into which students sympathetic to Granny's mission dropped enough coins and bills to pay for paper costs and photocopying. This kept adult oversight at bay long enough for our paper to enjoy a healthy run. A conservatives minority within BSC's administration must surely have looked askance at Granny’s skeptical assessment of prevailing mores, but since Birmingham-Southern was generally liberal by Alabama standards, any attempt to suppress our paper would have been condemned on free speech grounds.

Between Granny, my play, and general opportunities that Julie and I had to hang out together around campus, at the student snack bar, Julie and I grew close and ultimately become lovers. This unexpected foray into heterosexuality may seem surprising for a committed gay guy like me, but it was entered into with mutual awareness that my sexual interest in other males was not going to be abandoned. My sexual chemistry with Julie was a rare break from my normal patterns. There was no possessiveness on the part of either of us, which helped to keep the affair relaxed, if agreeably torrid.

Our affair had to be interrupted, of course, by my graduation from BSC and my acceptance of the playwriting fellowship that would necessitate a move to State College, a city lodged amid the Pennsylvania mountains that largely existed to service the storied university whose drama department was beckoning to me.

When I bid fond farewells to Birmingham-Southern and to Julie in June of 1968, I expected to be devoting two or three years to the pursuit of an MFA degree in theatre. Things didn't turn out that way, though, as I describe in my companion Pitstops reminiscence “Watermelon Sherbet at Penn State”. A crisis of artistic confidence shook my resolve, and I realized that a quick mid-course correction was called for in the interest of long-term survival. My fantasies of copping a graduate degree and possibly following in Arnie's footstepswere left in ashes as I checked which train schedules would get me to New York City.

By that time Julie had established a foothold in New York City, and, given our undergraduate history, it felt natural, once I arrived at Julie's doorstep with my suitcases in hand, to again be sharing Julie’s bed.

I had gotten a preview of what lay ahead a few weeks earlier, when I took advantage of Penn State’s Thanksgiving break to scope out Julie's Manhattan digs. I found her sharing her three-room apartment with an ever-shifting collection of our friends who had also fled Dixie. It was a mellow environment that promised a freedom I had begun longing for while weathering the stresses of graduate-school life.

In other words, deciding to move in with Julie once I had completed my semester at Penn State was an easy call.

Julie's nickname was "the Madame," in recognition of the nurturing oversight she provided to the diverse personalities who spent time under her domestic umbrella. She has since described herself as "the 'straight' one with a job who felt lucky to provide an apartment so my wildly creative friends had a place to stay."

A number of old BSC friends who now lived in the Big Apple gathered for a holiday reunion once they knew I was coming. I can’t remember, these fifty years later, exactly who the non-residents in attendance were that Thanksgiving, so for now I’ll stick to describing Julie's ongoing roommates at that time.

Besides Julie herself were Bruce and “Rika.” (When I wedge names between quotation marks, it means that I'm speaking of individuals who prefer I not blast their real names and youthful misbehaviors across the Internet.) A talented actor, Bruce had been a cast-mate of mine in several College Theatre productions while we were in school, and had performed excellently as "Manchester Wintergrey," the lead role in The Sixth Story. Rika, another BSC expatriate, was housed in the apartment’s only bedroom with her pet parakeet. Rika’s life history as an emigre from Germany had left her with a slight but noticeable German accent, an intriguing attribute for an Alabama college student.

Sometimes Bruce worked with a Manhattan marionette troupe based nearby. At other times he was proofreader for each of the early-generation computer-typesetting companies where Julie worked. Rika was a receptionist at a now-defunct outfit called Goodbody and Company, and when the day’s work was done she would gamely put up with her lack of privacy at home. That was a necessary accommodation, since anyone who needed the bathroom would have to stroll blithely, eyes averted, through a corner of Rika’s bedroom, no matter whether she was relaxing, sleeping, or making out with a boyfriend.

Bruce's open sleeping space shared a wall with Rika's and was positioned on the other side of the living room from the loft bed where Julie and I slept. I don't remember whether Bruce had a sofa to sleep on or had to made do with an air mattress on the floor, but whatever his set-up was, he was always in plain view.

Other Alabama friends, I soon learned, were likely to take up temporary residence in the apartment, assuming they could clear floor space for sleeping. Some were just vacationers from the South; others needed a base from which to scout for a low-cost apartment of their own. Julie was always happy to help.

The welcoming communal quality of Julie’s place made it resemblance a classic hippie “crash pad”—except that it was blocks away from the threadbare East Village dwellings downtown where the city’s true hippies huddled communally. Our crowd couldn't quite call ourselves hippies, since our "pad" was a fairly well-appointed upper-floor space in a high-rise with The Victoria emblazoned on its awning. Our outlook was "hippie-ish," for sure, and Bruce and I could claim at least a little freak-cred as frequent LSD consumers. But if you wanted to be a stickler about membership in the counterculture, there was no escaping the fact we were enjoyed more creature comforts than the average flower child, even if some of us did have to sleep on the floor from time to time. Julie recalls that “our one-bedroom 7 East 14th St apartment was relatively swank by student standards, with the tub in a bathroom and not the kitchen, an elevator, doorman, etc.” Thanks to gentrification between then and now, the same apartment would no doubt be beyond the reach of any future analog to us 1960s rebels like us, who were trying to get by on a shoestring, as we were, she adds. "Those apartments are selling for nearly half a million dollars now."

Smoking pot was as far as Rika would go when it came to mind-expansion during her residency at Julie’s place, and Julie herself was barely a tripper at all. Bruce and I once persuaded her to drop acid along with us. She recalls "sitting in a coat closet watching phantasmagoric shapes seep through the cracks" but ultimately decidedthat she "wasn't very good at tripping." She preferred "a firmer grip on reality," she says now. She never threw cold water on the inclinations of others to expand their consciousnesses under her roof, though, and could laugh along with the best of us when we were high.

Julie was (and not surprisingly, still is) younger than I, but while I can fall prey to bouts of low-confidence, she never hesitates to be a trail-blazer when a challenge looms. So transplanting herself from conservative Birmingham to the City That Never Sleeps wasn’t a big deal for her. By contrast, I was an easily intimidated babe-in-the-woods.

For example, I had spent three days alone in New York in 1960, when I was sixteen. I insisted on walking anywhere I wanted to go. I was only comfortable on sidewall level when I had a yen to explore. The rumbling din of the subway stations and the crowds who raced down the station stairs to reach them felt scarily harsh to someone who had never lived in a city with underground mass transit. I liked sticking with sidewalks, where always having identifiable intersections within sight helped me stay oriented. Even when I embarked on a many-block-long pilgrimage from the Sloane House YMCA to the downtown headquarters of Mad magazine at 225 Lafayette Street, I did so on foot.

So subway travel remained alien to me when I arrived from Pennsylvania at Grand Central Station in 1968 to share my Thanksgiving Day reunion with old comrades. Buffeted by crowds of busy commuters who knew exactly what they were doing, I couldn’t even be sure how the turnstiles worked or where the tokens came from that were being inserted to make them turn. The token booths where token-sellers lurked were hidden from me by the shoulder-to-shoulder rushing hordes. I was too timid to buttonhole passing strangers to ask for instructions. Julie had described which subway I would need to board to get to her apartment, but some trains were going uptown, others downtown, and all the variously colored circles containing letters and numbers merged into a blur.

I panicked and telephoned Julie for help. She grabbed a cab and picked me up at a nearby street corner, betraying no impatience over my cluelessness. Soon our cab was barreling downtown through what seemed to this out-of-towner like impenetrable traffic. It paused in front of the Victoria House, and with great relief I felt my shoes resting on solid sidewalks again. Deposited by an elevator onto Julie’s floor, I strode across her threshold to a chorus of greetings from familiar Alabama refugees. A few of them would become my roommates within a few weeks, once I summoned the balls to make my decisive break from academia.

There were adjustments to be made, but it was good for the soul to re-acquaint myself with the warmth of a human camaraderie that I had greatly missed in chilly State College. And before long, Julie helped me to overcome my fear of subways.

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©2018 by Howard Cruse


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