Dallas and Grandma
from Jol's New York Minutes, Cubby.net, November 2003
I've been watching Dallas on Soapnet. They're showing back-to-back episodes all week leading up to Friday's airing of the episode in which J.R. gets shot. I am being reminded of my childhood obsession with Dallas and considering its effect on my impressionable young brain.
Disturbingly, I wanted to be J.R. back then. It's hard to imagine wanting to be anyone else on the show. J.R. is the one who makes things happen. Everyone else just reacts to or schemes against him. He is the center of the Dallas universe, and as an only child, I was learning to be the center of my little universe, so J.R. and I clicked.
Watching it yesterday, I found my sympathies switching over to Sue Ellen. This no doubt has to do with my gayification. As a child, I would never have allowed myself to identify with a female character, but now, with my gender programming thoroughly deconstructed and its matrix disabled, I am free to do so.
Sue Ellen was the focal point of last night's episode, as J.R. schemed to have her put away in a sanatorium, where she's apparently been before on account of her drinking.
The scheme: make it look like Sue Ellen is drinking again. The scheme works; over and over again,
the other characters ask each other the episode's favorite refrain, "Do you think Sue Ellen's
been drinkin'?" One perfect shot included the whole family—-except for Sue Ellen—-all standing
around in the living room with cocktails in hand, fretting over Sue Ellen's suspected tumble
from the wagon.|
Sometimes they confront her: "Sue Ellen, you been drinkin' again?"
There's a gay word that fits Sue Ellen perfectly: Fierce. Sue Ellen is fierce. From her classic-film-goddess looks to her lioness-like maternal protectiveness and occasional hysterical rampages, she's a delight. And she's the quintessential survivor, battling her psychologically abusive husband and the bottle, never failing, at least in the early episodes, to look great. These traits, I think, mark her as the gay-icon character, the Paul Lynde tragically trapped in the center square, slowly drowning the self in liquor and sex quips.
When I first watched Dallas, it was at my grandma's house. My grandfather had died, and my grandma was lonely and frightened in her big house. She had panic alarms in every room and even kept a .38 in her nightstand. So at some point it was determined in my family that I would spend the night with her on Fridays to keep her company.
I loved my Friday nights with grandma. I would go to grandma's work on Friday after school and watch her wheel and deal, chain-smoking as she balled out a never-ending succession of sweaty, greasy-looking girls, the drivers of grandma's fleet of mobile catering trucks—-those aluminum-sided ice-loaded lunch pails with wheels, transporting packaged snacks, and sandwiches all around Fresno to its various construction sites.
I remember grandma sitting in that smoky little wood-paneled
office, writing in ledgers, punching a calculator, counting stacks of cash and bundles of change,
and smoking, always smoking, those Carlton cigarettes, whose motto, "Carlton is lowest," referring
to the cigarettes' tar content, seemed like a guarantee on grandma's immortality.|
The truck-driver girls used to shake with fear during their audiences with her; if she was mad she would swear them up and down. And wandering amongst the trucks outside, I would listen to them as they would curse her out in the sticky hot parking lot, gathered around their trucks, icing them, hosing them down.
But it wasn't all yelling and anger in grandma's office; grandma had her friends. She seemed to give everyone a fair shake and become extraordinarily attached to the new girls and the consistent top performers and the veterans. And with them there were bawdy jokes and loud laughs and terrifying oaths uttered for comic effect.
She never cursed when she was alone with me, though, and her
explosiveness was never aimed at me. But I understood her explosive potentiality and my personality
never so much as flickered in her presence. I remember many a silent car ride, grandma listening to
classic country and hot-boxing the car with the Carltons. I remember not even asking for a drink of
water when I was thirsty. I always waited, praying to myself that she would offer me food or drink. |
Somehow, the experience of seeing grandma at work and watching Dallas with her were perfectly complementary. She was J.R., the center of her universe both at home and at work, and yet at the same time she was Miss Ellie, the soft matriarch.
That's a side I think only I got to witness, the softness and sensitivity. I don't think even her children saw that side of her. With them she was more like Sue Ellen, the fierce lionness.
But she was very gentle with me, and I loved those Friday nights, spending quiet time with her in front of the television and then going to sleep with her.
I worried sometimes that she would die then and there and
that I would be in bed with a dead person.
On Saturday morning, she would always sleep very late, and I would wake up early as I was conditioned by school to do, and I would sit in the kitchen, so hungry, and watch her little black-and-white TV, and there would never be anything on. And when she'd finally wake up I'd be starving, and I'd have to wait for her to hack violently for an hour as she calmed herself with her first coffee and cigarettes, gradually easing her body into its steady flow of toxins. And then she would get her bearings and cook me poached eggs on toast, which I loved, or, if she were feeling less well, Corn Flakes with sugar, which I loved equally well.
Watching Dallas and watching grandma, I formed my first impressions of the world. My understanding of people has evolved a lot since then, and my favorite part of Dallas now is how gay-friendly it is ... and how it reminds me of Grandma.
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