The Shoe Portraitist

[Excerpted and expanded from my preface to Early Barefootz, published in 1990 by Fantagraphics Books]

I had just returned to Birmingham from New York in September, 1969, and almost immediately fell in love. This was good for my battered morale. Also, it soon let me move out of my mother’s house, where I had been lodging since moving back south.

The object of my ardor was a Birmingham-Southern freshman named Don Higdon, an aspiring actor who had immediately attached himself to my alma mater’s “theatre crowd” upon enrolling at the school. Since my core set of friends in Birmingham were drawn from the school's College Theatre before I left for Penn State University, and since I had bounced back to the "Magic City" more quickly than planned, many members of my old gang were still in school when I returned from New York. So I slid back into my old groove pretty easily and became a regular presence at the weekend off-campus acid parties that had begun before I graduated and were still going strong.

Partying was an important activity for us theatre folks back then. The pressures that came with long hours of rehearsing plays and building sets while at the same time studying enough satisfy our teachers left us with loads of steam waiting to to be released recreationally. In times past alcohol had been the dominant fuel for these off-campus bacchanals, but by 1968 pot and acid were carrying most of the load for my crowd.

Don was the among new theatre majors who had joined the old partying gang that fall. He was a slender guy with riveting blue eyes and fine blond hair. Unlike some actors, he was noticeably quiet on first meeting. I briefly misread his reserve as blandness, but quickly learned better when he began introducing me to the many levels of his funny, philosophical personality. In certain ways he’d just begun to puzzle out who he was. As a matter of fact, he later swore that he didn’t realize he was gay until he developed a crush on me, considered my gender, and drew the appropriate conclusion.

You could say Don and I “met cute” in a romcom kind of way. My friends and I were tripping in an apartment near the BSC campus when a young man, whom I’d noticed around the campus but never exchanged more than pleasantries with, squatted near me on the floor, braced a sketch pad on his knee, and began drawing a portrait of my right shoe. He had a gift for likenesses and captured my Hush Puppy perfectly.

We chatted later in the evening when our hallucinations were on the wane and found we had much in common. In the weeks that followed we did much talking, tripping and bonding, and in the course of it fell in love.

Much of our bonding occurred in the presence Don’s and my mutual friend Mary. Mary, a few years younger than me, was a talented actress who had become a College Theatre regular during the latter part of my undergraduate period. She had discovered LSD along with me when acid arrived on campus in 1968 and was still there in the fall of 1969, happy to resume our friendship. She was drawn to Don when he arrived that fall as a new freshman, an attractive and cheery young fellow who was eager to be part of the campus theatre scene. Mary has told me in the years since then that she had a crush on me while I was still an outgoing senior, and it seemed clear that she had developed a crush on Don by the time I came back to town.

Since Don was was fond of Mary and she was drawn to both Don and me in a special way, the three of us tended to gravitate into each other’s orbits when LSD was coursing through our veins, forming a quiet tripping trio while the rest of the assembled acidheads enjoyed their own merry hallucinations around us. Before long the three of us agreed that it would be fun to break away from the party scene and drop acid without being distracted by others.

An opportunity to do just that came on November 22, which is an easy date for a generation who experienced the Kennedy assassination to remember. We felt no obligation to let somber memories of a tragic event in Dallas keep us from accepting cheerily accepting our friend Caryl’s offer of her apartment as a cozy Saturday night tripping site while Caryl was out of town for the weekend.

Most of our trip consisted of the typical mix of music, giddy banter, and cosmic visions, all made more intense by the intimacy that came with being three stoned friends who enjoyed uncomplicated affection for each other.

Things didn’t stay uncomplicated, though.

In the early morning hours when our respective peaks of acid euphoria were receding, the three of us fell fully clothed into Caryl’s bed. We were exhausted but still flushed with residual adrenalin, no longer actively hallucinating but not yet able to achieve the sleep state. So we rested and cuddled and grooved on music from the phonograph, while kaleidoscopic color made the insides of our eyelids entertaining to watch.

In time both Don and I realized an unexpected extra sensation being layered on top of the head-to-toe sensuality with which the drug was still gracing us. To put it inelegantly, both Don and I were popping boners inside of our trousers. And each of us was becoming aware of the other’s boner. And neither of us felt that the feelings we were sharing were anything less than a welcome enhancement of our until-then innocent cuddle.

Until that moment I had never thought of Don in sexual terms. For one thing, I assumed he was 100% straight and figured that he and Mary had some kind of “thing” going between them. But now Don and I found ourselves wordlessly turned on to each other. It was hard to know what to make of that, but it immediately changed the nature of our trip. And neither of us wanted the moment to end.

No zippers were unzipped or clothes discarded, but something very pleasurable was happening between us in the post-tripping darkness. We gradually became so lost in our shared experience that Mary’s presence alongside us became irrelevant.

Eventually, though, we noticed that Mary was no longer there. At some point she had slipped from beneath the bedsheets and left the room.

We were chagrined at how inconsiderate we had been by allowing our hormones to convert an intimate trio into two cuddlers plus a neglected outsider.

We climbed out of bed to see where Mary had disappeared to and discovered her sitting on the bathroom floor looking sad and lost. Swamped by guilt, we did our best to undo our insensitivity by lavishing her with apologies and affection. We had started our acid trip as a consciousness-expansion threesome and didn’t want to end it with one of us feeling abandoned.

Inevitably, however, Don and I sensed that what we had discovered about each other called for future exploration. In the weeks that followed, introspective conversations (spiced with necking when possible) made us yearn for a space where we could continue exploring our budding relationship, just the two of us. Acid would be part of that, naturally, but we had quickly become more than tripping buddies.

Come January, Don and I moved in together.

Our apartment was on the city’s west side, a few blocks from Birmingham-Southern’s green, hilly campus. We had a living room, kitchen, bath, and two bedrooms joined by a hallway. Since we needed only one of the bedrooms for sleeping and making love in, we decided that the other would be my cartooning studio. Not that I had the luxury of installing myself there for a full-time artist’s life; my recently acquired day job at a local television station would be paying our rent initially, not any cartoons I might turn out at home.

Our initial inclination was to be discreet about the fact that ours was more than a roommate relationship. Don was not yet open about his gayness to his college friends — not surprisingly, since he had only begun figuring that out about himself. And I felt a bit awkward as a 25-year-old former student who had swept into town and quickly drawn a 19-year-old freshman whom everyone thought was straight into a homosexual household. Was I some kind of predator? There were uncertainties about our sudden coupling that we wanted to keep between ourselves until we had had time to sort everything out.

But our planned discretion was not to be. Once we had moved furniture into our new apartment and were ready to rest, we decided to celebrate our newfound privacy by — what else? — dropping acid. We did just that, and a night's worth of pleasantness ensued, with much frolicking in our new bed and much exploration of each other’s naked bodies. Joyful hallucinations reinforced our sense that our budding love affair would be one for the ages.

We were still naked and spaced out the next morning when he heard an insistent knocking at the door.

Company? So early on a Saturday?

We scrambled for clothing and opened the door, where we were confronted by half-a-dozen of our mutual college theatre friends. They had impulsively decided to drop by unannounced for a look at our brand-new apartment. They brushed past us and began touring the space without our guidance.

A look at the wildly rumpled sheets in our bedroom allowed no interpretation other than the correct one. Our secret was out, and none of them minded a bit.

©1990, 2018 by Howard Cruse

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