Big Jimmie's Hot Date, 1932
PHOTO CAPTION: My grandfather, Georgie Ray (Shrake) on right; unidentified bandmate on left. Blossom Heath, Grosse Pointe, MI. Early 1930s.
After Grandpa Shrake died in 1991, Grandma Shrake started to experience senility. When I came home to Detroit after my internship in D.C. the next fall, my dad told me, "She's funny. If you ask her something, anything, now: She'll tell you the real answer." He did a soundless laugh, a look of elsewhere in his eyes.
He was telling the truth about his mother's newfound involuntary bluntness, as I soon found out. You could ask her, for example, "Which child was your favorite?" and she would name her favorite, without hesitating.
She also volunteered her own searingly honest comments. "Well, Scottie," she said to me one day, shaking her head mournfully. "I think you just got mixed up with the wrong crowd."
Though she didn't officially know about it, this pronouncement thrown into a conversation about something else was an oblique reference to my "sexual preference" or "lifestyle choice," as some people called it back then. An utterance seemingly produced by her weakening cognitive state, but also softened down just for me by her native kindness and generosity.
Grandma and I were watching TV one day, and a story came on about how the local school board was planning to include mentions of homosexuality in the Sex Ed curriculum, and the ensuing, predictable protest from Concerned Parents Against Homosexuality or whatever it was called.
"I don't know why people get so worked up about this 'homosexuality' thing," she said raspily, waving a hand at the TV set. "It's been around since the beginning of time."
Then she launched into a story to illustrate this.
Her husband, my grandpa, was a band leader and radio show personality in Detroit in the 1930s. He went by the stage name Little Georgie Ray. One night at the speakeasy where Grandpa and his band often played, called Blossom Heath:
"We were all sitting around the table, your grandpa and his band and some of their girfriends and wives," she said.
"They had just finished playing. Just then one of the trumpet players, Big Jimmie Dawson, stood up, big strapping guy, and said 'You'll have to excuse me now, I have a hot date.' I asked, 'Who's the lucky girl?'
"Well, don't you know, the whole table went silent. Nobody said a word for what seemed like a whole minute. No one would look at me.
"When we left the club, I asked what had happened and George said, 'Why, he's never dated a woman in his life!' Boy, did I feel like a fool! I was the only one at that table who didn't know! Big dumb oaf that I was."
Amazingly, she was telling me that in 1930something, one of the musicians in my grandfather's band was what we now call "out."
The older Grandma and Grandpa Shrake I knew never struck me as particularly liberal. And I certainly would not describe them as sophisticated. So, to this day I sometimes question whether I interpreted the "hot date" story right.
I know what she tole me had to be true, because poor Grandma wasn't in a position to dissemble at that point. She also wasn't delusional or suffering from dementia: There were no untrue stories, just inopportune true ones. All you had to do was ask.
Through the gathering fog around her, tenderness and love for me are what made her offer up the Blossom Heath story, to comfort me during what she could (contrary to all our expectations of her) surmise was a rough coming-out period for me.
Looking back now, I see an irony built in to the story and its telling: Everyone thought she knew Jimmie was gay. No one thought she knew Scottie was. Message: You can't fool me twice.
Her memory had to fly a long way backwards, but she found a story from 1932 that spoke comfortingly to me in 1992. Big Jimmie had a hot date, with a man. And no one at the table had a problem with that.
— SM Shrake