Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Gay Uncle in the Mist

David Kerr knew his Uncle Chuck was different when he would come visiting. David grew up in the suburbs of Austin, Texas and his uncle lived at the Y in mysterious Manhattan, doing odd design jobs and living a bohemian life. His parents worried that they would have to care for Uncle Chuck in his old age because he would have no resources. By the time he was a teenager David knew that his uncle was gay, but that didn’t mean he felt close to him. Chuck worked just enough to travel to Turkey, which he would visit repeatedly. Although he accumulated piles and piles of business cards in Turkey no clear business purpose was revealed.

He rarely saw his uncle as an adult, but out of a sense of loyalty, familiarity, and a regard for the other, David sent his uncle postcards, holiday cards, and letters. In December 2008 David received a phone call from the New Orleans coroner. They had found his uncle’s body when he hadn’t been seen for a few days. He was 77. In his apartment in the French Quarter the officials found notes on the desk and guessed who was next of kin. I thought it would be interesting to talk to David about the process of knowing an unknowable gay uncle who lived as a gay man long before Stonewall. They shared a middle name, but not much else.

Charles Allen Siegman - "Uncle Chuck"

Interviewer: What did you call your uncle? His name was Allen but you called him Chuck?

David Kerr: We just called him Uncle Chuck. Charles Allen Sigmund was his full name. Charles was his father’s name too. All of his friends in New Orleans knew him as Allen. So I guess as an adult he’d gone by Allen, which is my middle name. It’s a family name. My grandmother’s maiden name. But my Mother had called him Chuck since they were kids.

Interviewer: When did you first become aware that your uncle was gay?

David Kerr: When I was very young I knew my uncle was from another planet. He carried all his things in a little European net shopping bag. And he wore this Lyrca, speedo-like bathing suit. He had long hair and long fingernails. He was bohemian — like nothing that any of us had ever seen in Austin.

Interviewer: Did he come at regular times of the year?

David Kerr: He traveled a lot. He would show up on his way to his travels. My parents were always sure that he was going to spend all his money. There was always a lot of chatter and worry about him. Even if they hadn’t said anything, I would’ve known that he wasn’t like anybody else. As a kid I was too young to know that he was gay. But I just knew he was other, something different.

C Allen Siegman passports from 70s, late 50s

Interviewer: Did you know what he did for a living?

David Kerr: Well, he didn’t do anything. That was the other thing about his bohemian-ness. He didn’t seem to really have a job. He went to art school and he had been a painter, he had worked for a textile company. I had these curtains in my bedroom that he had designed, this wonderful cheesy western scene.

He did store window design in New York. But when my grandfather died, which was when I was five or six, he and my mother each got a very small windfall. He only worked enough to have money to travel. So, when he got that windfall, he didn’t work for many years after that. He just was very, very frugal. He was a lifelong vegetarian. He only ate off wood, chopsticks. I remember once we were having dinner and he said, “I forget how food tastes on metal utensils.” He didn’t believe in metal. He just seemed like a kook, and had this smell — patchouli and something else. He mixed his own fragrances.

I never saw where he lived while he was alive. But when he died I went to New Orleans and saw his apartment. He mixed his own cologne. He had all these little vials of patchouli oil and all these little spicy, scenty oils. The place had a very exotic look and very exotic smell.

Interviewer: So as you got older, did he seem to settle into a career?

David Kerr: Not really. In New Orleans he worked for a little tchotchke art shop, antiquey kind of place in the French Quarter. And his best friend there owned this shop.

Interviewer: How did your mother describe him?

David Kerr: My parents weren’t judgmental. It’s not like she came out and said, “This is the way not to live, or this is the way not to spend your money.” But it was clear that she was worried about him blowing all this money and not having a real job or career. That it just wouldn’t end well. And I’m sure more than once she told me that she knew that she and dad were going to end up responsible for him. But they didn’t.

Then a little later, when I was going through puberty — I guess I must’ve been 12 or so. And my dad had the talk, that horrifying talk. He took me to the church. Not because of the religious overtones, because they weren’t religious, but just to get some quiet. And so he talked about that it’s not abnormal to feel like you’re going through a phase where you’re gay. And he said that I shouldn’t tell my mother that I knew this but that my uncle was gay. He told me that it had been a big rupture in the family and that my grandfather had kicked him out of the house for a time. I never heard the full story because I wasn’t supposed to ask my mother about it.

By the time I was 12, I knew. Back then he used to spend a long time in Yugoslavia when I was a kid. I guess you could stretch your dollar further there.

Interviewer: Where did he and your mother grow up?

David Kerr: They grew up in Rocky River, which is just outside of Cleveland, Ohio.

Chuck Allen Siegman, center, with his sister Ruth (David's mom) at their Grandmother's birthday in 1939, Cleveland Ohio.

Interviewer: He goes to art school. He becomes a window dresser and bohemian and then travels when he has enough money, and —

David Kerr: He goes to New York and lives in the YMCA for years. That was his address. When he moved to New Orleans he moved to the Y. I don’t know if he moved to New Orleans because it was less expensive. I suspect that as New York got sort of gayer and more post-Stonewall, it wasn’t really a good fit for him.

Uncle Chuck's apartment in New Orleans.
Interviewer: As you get older, do you lose contact with him?

David Kerr: We never had much contact with him. In the Y, you don’t have your own phone, right? There’s a phone in the hall. So he never really had a phone. In college, when I came out, I came out to him in a letter. I sent him postcards. When I got a boyfriend, I would send him news. And very, very rarely would I hear from him. I can think of two postcards I got from him, and maybe two phone calls with him my entire adult life. I think it was more about his being sort of a monastic.

He didn’t like the phone. His friends told me that he believed if it was important it could wait until the next time he saw you. The woman who owned the store where he worked said, “You know, he’s probably my closest friend. But when he goes to Turkey, he’s gone, you won’t hear from him — you’re lucky if you get a postcard. And he’s not going to think about you for four months until he shows up. And then he’s back. And here he is.” He didn’t really connect with people over distance.

But what was interesting is, after he died, I realized I’d been one of his most frequent correspondents. He kept all the stuff I sent him. He had every postcard, every note, every Christmas card. It was all there.

And so that’s why I was the first person who was notified. One of my cards was on his desk. The coroner called me when they were looking for the next of kin.

Interviewer: Tell me how this all unraveled.

David Kerr: I get a call from the New Orleans coroner. At first, I thought, I’ve got to get my dad involved. My dad has to deal with this. But I kind of realized that it was a turning point in my relationship with my father. I could tell he was completely overwhelmed. And I didn’t realize until after it happened that there’s this point where it changes. I just said, “Dad, I’m going to go take care of this.” And he said, “Okay.” I mean, he was just like a kid. It changed my dynamic with my father. And I think because my uncle was gay, and because he was a connection to my mother, who’s been gone for 20 years, it just felt like something I wanted to do.

I flew out there and it was a mess. He hadn’t left any sort of will and had all this not-very-valuable jewelry in a safe deposit box. He’s of that generation of people who have safe deposit boxes and things stashed away in there. So it was quite a process because nobody had legal right to go in there.

Interviewer: Who decides you have the legal right, then?

David Kerr: I’m the next of kin. My brother and I were his last living blood relatives. We had to sign papers and do stuff with the bank. I went alone on the first trip and my brother came on the second. This was around the same time his friends held a small memorial for him at the shop where he worked. I got to meet his circle.

Interviewer: Tell me about that.

David Kerr: He lived downstairs from and was friends with the landlord and his partner. His apartment was just a mess. Bowls and scents and bottles and all kinds of stuff. Every piece of paper he’d ever had, it seems. All these little statues and screens, and all these jade bowls. I mean, that must’ve been 10 jade bowls, and all these brass cups, I think from Turkey.

Brass cups, statue, etc.

Jade bowls, and bowls, and bowls...

Interviewer: Did he fix things?

David Kerr: He did repair on old things for a few antique shops.

Interviewer: Do you know how long he worked in this antique shop?

David Kerr: He worked for a couple different ones but probably, you know, 13 or 14 years, so for a long time. And bags! He knit bags. There were probably 60 bags in his apartment.100 bags? These knit string bags.

Interviewer: What’d you do with all that?

David Kerr: I have a few of them, but we gave many away at his memorial.

Interviewer: At the memorial, what sense did you get of him?

David Kerr: People really loved him. But he had a certain kind of formality. There was a religious order that he knew. I think they were Catholics. And he befriended one of them. And so he was kind of a fixture over there. But he didn’t have a cell phone until after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. So for most of the time he lived there, he would just show up.

There was this artist he was close to and I was looking for her. All I knew was that she showed her art on a certain square certain days. I wandered around asking the artists if they had heard of this person. And I didn’t find her there. But she came to the memorial. And she just loved him. She had a picture of him walking in this sort of caftan — he must’ve either made them or gotten them in Turkey. There is the great photo of him walking away. But she said he would just arrive. He would show up at his regular places everyday.

They found him because he didn’t show up at the shop or the square for a few days, and that was really unusual. He made jewelry, too. Here’s a ring that he made. It looks very 70s. Here’s Margaret, who owned the shop. Margaret thought of Uncle Chuck as a member of her family.

Memorial for Allen Siegman, New Orleans, January 2009.

Interviewer: He minded the shop and did some repairs?

David Kerr: If she wasn’t there, he would hold down the fort. They came to know each other when she broke her foot and just couldn’t get around. So she needed help in the shop to do things. That’s when they became friends.

Interviewer: What happened when Katrina hit?

David Kerr: He and his landlord, who had by this time lost his partner, decided to stay. They were fine through the storm. They had some very low flooding, but not very bad. The problem was there were no services, no electricity, no food. After close to a week, it was clear nobody was going to come back. They got on one of the planes that flew out.

This was a time when you just got on a plane and they just flew you to wherever the plane was going. They ended up in Arizona or something and made their way to Austin on a bus. He stayed with my dad and stepmom in the RV for a month.

Interviewer: So, you have no idea really what he was doing in Turkey.

David Kerr: No. There were thousands of business cards but I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. I’m sure he had friends there, but you couldn’t tell if the cards were just a rug place where he shopped, or someone he knew very well. I did find out he had been learning Kurdish—a bookseller in New Orleans told me he’d gone to great lengths to get a Kurdish language study book.

But Uncle Chuck was very enigmatic. I think this was probably his being from the pre-Stonewall era. If he any kind of intimate relationships there was nothing about them.

Interviewer: No evidence?

David Kerr: Either he didn’t have “gentlemen callers” or he hid it. His gay landlords upstairs had no sense that he ever had a visitor. So he was either really monastic, or his sexual life was hidden. But I felt like I got to know him, by seeing his stuff and seeing how he lived. I just never realized that not everybody is on this planet to connect with people. At first I thought it seemed so sad how solitary he was, but now I don’t think that was his project. I think he was very in his mind. He was on a different program, you know?

Interviewer: Did you keep some of the stuff?

David Kerr: I’ve got a bracelet. And I kept a bowl. I kept this brass sea serpent. That was amazing. My therapist had been telling me about this Jungian archetype serpent/gremlin, which represents however much you plan or get ready, something can throw a wrench into the works. He pulled a book off his shelf and showed me a drawing. And then between that session and the next time I see him, I got the call about my uncle. I went to New Orleans. I went through all of his stuff. And I found this little brass statue, exactly the same as the drawing that he’d been showing me. It was just like a little wrench in my life, unplanned. But a gift too. I wish I could remember the name of this figure. [He later remembered it was Mercurious]

Brass figure Mercurious.
Interviewer: So have you thought some about how it fit, how your uncle’s story fits into your story?

David Kerr: We were both gay men. But we were on different planets. I am grateful to have learned more about him and to be connected with him after his death. Coming out and being gay was a big part of my identity as a young adult. If we had been in touch, I suspect he wouldn’t have had any idea what to make of that. But while he was a loner, he was independent. Nobody had to take care of him. He lived by himself until the end and died in his bed and did exactly what he wanted to do. There is something amazing about that. It felt like this wonderful gift, you know, to be able to drop in. I never gave up on keeping in touch with him, even though I probably didn’t give it much conscious thought. But the gesture was received and, in some way, treasured. Whatever it was we did have this relationship, this bond. I don’t know why I kept writing him all those years and rarely getting anything back. But it felt really good to know that we’d connected in some way.