After getting dressed that morning, Jared Laudenslager was still far from realizing his full potential as an American citizen, even when he looked in the mirror and wondered if he shouldn’t have stuffed his bra so much. Was a smaller chest more appropriate for a protest rally? Would Dr. King have had large hooters?
Jared had called in sick to his job at Burke-Gower Fundraising, Inc., a firm in downtown Pittsburgh that represented conservative to right-wing political advocacy groups. He cold-called people for the firm’s biggest client, an energy industry front supporting unrestrained oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
He knew how to talk to potential donors. He would good-naturedly (to forestall any offense) describe environmentalists as “nature freaks” who “want to keep us hooked on foreign oil” and “at the mercy of the next Saddam.” Domestic drilling “makes America stronger, and that makes families stronger” by knowing “they’ll have gas for their cars and heat for their homes.” And Jared would add that he himself had a family he wanted to keep strong. His nonexistent wife Beth Ann liked to crochet cute covers for the TV remotes in the neighborhood, and his nonexistent 12-year-old daughter Emily wanted new boots for her horseback riding class. “Hey, she likes horses, what else can I do?…Hey is for horses, after all, heh heh.”
“You have the gift of gab,” Jared’s supervisor, Ray Armagast, told him one day over gourmet pesto rolls in the employee break room. “You’re going to move up in this company.”
“Yeah, well, with His help, you’ll be head assistant supervisor in another six or eight months, knock wood.” Ray tapped his fist twice on the wood-look table where they sat. He was a Southern Baptist who wore a lapel pin shaped like a cross, a two-inch by four-inch cross in Army camouflage, “PRAY FOR THE TROOPS” inscribed on the horizontal bar, quotes included. Jared had been raised Catholic but now, outside of work, called himself a member of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Jeffrey. “Well, not exactly a virgin, heh heh, thanks to me…and a hundred pizza delivery guys, heh heh.” When someone would ask who Jeffrey was, Jared would smile and say “Never you mind.”
Jared had put on his white lace panties, his white padded bra (size 34C), his pink capris, his long-sleeved white blouse, his women’s turquoise cashmere sweater, his men’s jogging shoes (women’s shoes made his feet hurt), his white lace gloves, his imitation pearl necklace, his imitation diamond bracelet, his blonde bouffant wig, and his Halloween-style hard plastic mask of a white female face complete with thick red lipstick. He now stood outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in downtown Pittsburgh, holding a HOMOPHOBIA IS A DRAG picket sign, surrounded by dozens of other protesters. This was his first protest rally ever: a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender protest against the Southern Baptist national leadership conference, which was meeting inside the center at that moment. He and five other men in similar masks and attire, with similar signs, chanted “Holy hate / Ain’t so great” and “Gay fashion / Not gay bashin’” for the TV news cameras. The men even sang “We’re going to the chapel / And we’re gonna get married,” though Jared didn’t sing with much enthusiasm, since he had no interest in even meeting any guy at the rally for coffee.
Jared really did support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” he explained over wine coolers one night at Tubular, a retro-Eighties dance club in the Strip District (a former warehouse district in Pittsburgh now transformed into a locus for yuppie clubs and drive-by shootings), to his occasional sexual partner, Kendita Diaz (born Kenneth McCray), a pre-op male-to-female transsexual. “Plus we need plenty of petroleum so I can drive to the store to buy some scented aloe lotion, ’cause my job sucks. It sucks me raw.”
“Good heavens. Your poor organ.”
“Yeah. I guess I’ve developed a conscience. I feel guilty about taking money from families who must be struggling in this economy.”
“But think of it as doing a public service. If it weren’t for you, they’d probably spend their disposable income on booze or drugs or NASCAR tickets.”
“Stuff that would keep them happy. Postpone their suicides another day.”
“But what abaht those pests who really should kill themselves?”
“What abaht them?”
Kendita spoke like a New-England finishing-school version of Rita Moreno, but still bore traces of a Pittsburgh accent, as in “abaht” for “about.” Jared liked kidding Kendita about the accent in a semi-jovial manner.
Jared didn’t start realizing his full potential as an American citizen the day after the rally, either, when he got to work and saw someone had placed that morning’s edition of the right-wing Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on his desk. Jared usually didn’t read that paper, but everyone else at work did. The front page had a large full-color photo of an “unidentified protester” outside the convention center, his sleeves rolled up, his right forearm sporting a large, obvious, grayish-brown birthmark—Jared’s birthmark, the one shaped like Rhode Island, maybe Massachusetts at a certain angle, the birthmark his coworkers, including Ray, liked referring to in a jovial manner as “that thing,” as in “You gonna paint that thing green for Saint Patrick’s Day?” and “Hey, did that thing just wink at me?”
Jared took a look at the photo and regretted his subconscious habit of rolling up his sleeves to signify hard work, self-motivation, and self-confidence. He’d never worn short sleeves to work, not even during those unseasonably warm casual Fridays in November.
2005 (revised May 3, 2006)