Came for the Stories, Stayed for the Pets

One of the joys of writing Randy Shilts’ biography has been the experience of interviewing so many people who knew and loved him. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to travel and meet each person in their own setting, so that from mid-2015 until the COVID-19 shutdown, most of my encounters have been in person. While some of these meeting places have included offices, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, I’ve been personally touched by those individuals who’ve welcomed me into their homes.

For a book that’s packed with intimate stories, the experience of talking to someone in their own environment adds to the kind of depth and connection I want Randy’s biography to convey. Over the years, a number of these people have become friends. But meeting their four-legged family members has brought me another sort of joy and friendship. Because Jaxon and I have two dogs and a cat of our own, getting to know these fabulous furballs has added to the bond I’ve formed with their humans. It’s also given us another touchstone for talking about Randy, whose inner circle included one very special canine companion. But first, let me introduce you to a few of the lovable lil’ buddies who’ve helped grace this journey of mine.

Miguel: The Bunny-Hopping Hunter of Northeast Portland

My first visit to Portland came in November 2015, when I was in the early phases of my research. Randy had lived in Oregon from early 1970 until the end of 1975, first in Portland and later Eugene, making a small number of lifelong friends along the way. One of those friends was Linda Alband, who later became his business manager. The first time I met Linda was also my first encounter with Miguel, her black and white kitty with a bright pink nose and quizzical green eyes. Miguel wasn’t especially affectionate, nor was he indifferent or hostile. He would sort of give me a thoughtful once-over, as if still trying to figure me out, and then he’d hop away. And when I say hop, that’s exactly what I mean: he walked like an old rabbit, carrying his back legs in a measured, but not especially hurried, gait.

Miguel, the Manx kitty.
Miguel, the Manx Kitty, tries to figure me out.

“Miguel was a Manx kitty,” Linda explained. “Because he had that little flap of skin/tail, he was classified as a ‘stumpie.’ There are different classifications of Manx kitties based on the length of their tail or the absence of a tail altogether (a ‘rumpie’).” According to Linda, Manx cats originated in Asia and were prominent on sailing ships to control vermin. The name “Manx” is particular to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, where the breed was said to have swum ashore following a ship wreck.

Given the island’s isolation, the Manx cat’s trait of a compressed spine, especially around the tailbone, was not bred out of the population. “Because of the tailbone compression,” she told me, “rumpies and stumpies don’t walk like normal kitties because their back end is less stable.” It also makes tree climbing more difficult, and when they run, they tend to hop, like a rabbit, with their back feet. But, Linda tells me, they can still run really fast and are capable of substantial jumps.

Linda found Miguel at the county animal shelter when he was already a mature adult. He was found traumatized at a very busy intersection, and she later concluded that he’d probably been raised as an indoor cat by an elderly person, and then thrown out when that person either died or went into a nursing home. “He turned his head and looked at me, and I fell in love with him at first gaze,” she remembered. However, Linda told me, “He wasn’t so immediately smitten.”

To say that Linda and I spent a lot of time together on that visit is an understatement. Over several days she showed me around the city, pointing out the various haunts where she first knew Randy as a mouthy, still-trying-to-be-straight hippie who worked as a parking lot attendant at Portland Community College. Through that extensive time together,I was able to really get to know her and the depth of her friendship with Randy, resulting in an interview that lasted nearly six hours over her kitchen table. Over the course of that day, as Linda recounted to me the full extent of their 24-year friendship, our conversation was only interrupted a few times by bathroom breaks, trips to the fridge, or Miguel signaling that he wanted to go outside or come back in.

Linda’s devotion to Miguel was unquestionable, and we quickly bonded over our affection for our pets. “He loved to be held like a baby and have his tummy rubbed,” she recalled. “In this position, he’d sometimes grab my face between his two front paws and lick my chin.” Despite his less-than-stealthy hop, Miguel could move with surprising quickness; on at least one occasion during my visit, I remember him coming inside with a hunting trophy. “One time he came in and had something in his mouth, and it turned out to be three dragon flies,” Linda told me. “From that, I surmised that they mated in the air and he caught a three-way.”

I met Miguel again the following year, during a visit which coincided with the 2016 election’s traumatizing aftermath. As I’ve written before, I spent a good portion of that trip walling myself off from the outside world, avoiding the news and focusing as narrowly as possible on Randy and the research. Miguel offered a merciful respite from all that, providing a few moments of escape whenever I’d see him placidly hop through Linda’s living room on his way to the back door.

At the time of Miguel’s passing in 2018, his compressed spine area had become so arthritic that he could no longer walk, but scooted around on his butt. At the end of his life, Miguel went peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, including Linda and her housemate Richard. Not long after, she made another visit to the animal shelter and fell in love all over again with Selena, a 3-year-old American Bobtail who, despite having a stumpy tail of her own, has no direct relationship to the Manx breed. From what Linda tells me, Selena has made for good companionship during COVID-19, and I’m excited to meet her whenever I get back to Portland.

Ms. Selena now presides as the Princess of Portland. Photo courtesy of Linda Alband.

Building Trust With Jasper

The last time I traveled for research was in early 2020, a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded most non-essential travel. While most of my journeys had been to bigger cities like San Francisco, this one took me well off the grid to rural North Carolina, where Randy’s former research assistant, Jennifer Finlay, now lives and works as a small-town librarian. It’s fair to say that I went into this visit with a lot of uncertainty, as it took a little more than four years to build a relationship with Jennifer. Later, she said that she agreed to meet me because, with my background in social work and HIV, she felt I’d know how to help if the interview started to go badly for her.

Knowing that Jennifer still carried a lot of trauma from the end of Randy’s life, I took my visit very seriously and built in a lot of time for us to get to know each other. As it turned out, I discovered a very similar dynamic when she introduced me to Jasper, her grey and black tabby, who darted in and out of the room when I first arrived. It was very likely, she told me, that Jasper would keep his distance, as he had more than a few trust issues of his own.

“Jasper came into my life because of the ex,” Jennifer explained. He’d been a rescue from another county’s “we kill ‘em all” shelter, which was stressful enough, but soon after his arrival, her ex-partner found another kitten on the side of the road, which relegated poor lil’ Jasper to “third wheel” status in that human-feline lovefest. When Jennifer’s relationship ended in 2013, her ex left and Jasper stayed. Over the years the pair gradually became friends, but as I noted, he didn’t quite know what to think when a burly, middle-aged male Northerner showed up. If I was going to make friends with Jasper, I’d need to use the same approach I was taking with Jennifer: patience, openness, respect for boundaries, and compassion.

In the days leading up to our interview, Jennifer and I did a lot of the typical “getting to know you” activities: a little sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine (North Carolina barbecue!!), talking about our lives in general, and sharing plenty of Randy-related anecdotes. The true bonding between all three of us, however, would happen after hours, when we’d sit around in the evening, dorm-room style, and decompress on her tiny loveseat with YouTube videos. Jennifer introduced me to her favorite kitten live streams, while I taught her the ways of Robot Chicken Star Wars. Jasper, meanwhile, was showing signs that, maybe, he was beginning to accept this strange newcomer. From darting past us to the kitchen, and then back again to hide upstairs, he would venture over to curl up on Jennifer’s lap for a while before finally, tentatively, spreading himself across my knees.

Jasper decides to give knees a chance.

When the interview happened, it was, as expected, a gut wrencher. Our recording time spanned several hours, with plenty of breaks for self-care, followed by dining out on big, indulgent burgers as a way of eating our feelings. Occasionally I still get Jasper pics texted to “Uncle Michael,” to which Captain, our ginger tabby, responds with photos of his own. While winning Jasper’s trust was maybe not the top achievement of my visit, it helped validate the relationship-oriented approach I’ve taken from the beginning of this project. By seeing and responding to the ways people form meaningful attachments, and by affirming the ways they express love and care, I feel like I’m inviting them to bring those more complicated feelings into their conversations with me about Randy. And speaking of Randy…

Let’s Hear It For The Dogs

If it’s not clear by now, let me state, for the record, that I’m equally fond of both cats and dogs.

If it seems like I am favoring kitties with this story, it’s because the time I spent with Miguel and Jasper was a little more extensive. However, in 2016, I also had the pleasure of meeting Roper, a docile little chihuahua who lived with Randy’s ex-lover, Steve Newman, and Steve’s husband at the time, Dale. Steve was another gracious host who had a lot of deep feelings to unpack, and we spent the better part of two days forming a personal bond as he showed me around his hometown of Sarasota, Florida.

Roper the chihuahua
Roper was wholeheartedly devoted to his morning naps.

When And the Band Played On made Randy famous, Steve was, somewhat painfully, watching from the margins. After their relationship ended, Randy had kept him at a distance, even though Steve – a well-known Bay Area meteorologist – would join the San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom as the founder of EarthWeek, a syndicated column detailing climate-related news from around the world. But Steve took notice when Randy adopted an energetic young Golden Retriever named Dash. Shortly thereafter, Steve took in a puppy of his own from the same litter, a brother named Skye, and pretty soon the two men were arranging play dates. It wasn’t that Steve was trying to rekindle their old relationship, but that he wanted some sense of connection to Randy that was positive and respectful, without being tied to any conflicts of the past.

Pets are undeniably part of our families, and Dash was especially so for Randy. Before I met either Linda or Jennifer, I’d seen both of them in a home movie that’s included with Randy’s papers at the GLBT Historical Society. The video was a camcorder recording of Dash’s fourth birthday party in 1992: a warm, sunny day at Randy’s home in Guerneville, far enough from the Bay Area to actually feel like summer. Dash and his doggy friend, a border collie named Wendells, got plenty of treats that afternoon, including an entire pizza, and Jennifer got into a water fight with some of the other guests.

Randy Shilts with his dog Dash
Christmas with a dash of Dash. Photo courtesy of Linda Alband.

As the sky darkened toward the onset of evening, the humans retreated to the kitchen to make a birthday cake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream while the dogs barked and rolled around in the yard. It was a moment of repose that, in hindsight, seemed both joyful and melancholy to me. Soon after, when Randy’s health took a series of turns for the worse, his friends were rendered powerless to offer much assistance or care. While Dash remained ever-present until the end of Randy’s life, neither Linda nor Jennifer ever saw their favorite Golden again after Randy’s passing. But, I also learned that before Randy had Dash neutered (for which he made Linda call and schedule the appointment), he arranged to let him sire another batch of puppies with a friend’s Golden Retriever, Lady Maxine. So, I can’t help but occasionally wonder if any of Dash’s descendants are still romping around the Northern California countryside.

Where Someone’s Always Glad You Came

Bonding with my sources over their pets has been more than just a way to make quick friends. It opens up an entire vocabulary for relating to each other around relationships, feelings, and values. By sharing stories about the animals we’ve known and loved, we come to know something more of each other through the experience, and it offers a very visceral connection between the past and present. To this day, both Linda and Jennifer remain fiercely loyal not just to Randy, but to Dash as well. Steve even showed me a home video from one of Dash’s play dates with his brother Skye.

For me, coming home from a research trip means settling back into my surroundings, recuperating from the long travel, and unpacking not just my belongings, but also the multitude of thoughts and feelings I’ve brought back from that particular journey. There are always deep stories to process and discoveries to recount, but first comes the moment that I think most pet people live for: the elation of my own four-legged family when they realize I’ve come home.

Obviously, this particular experience is more common with dogs, and our two pit mixes, Bella and Zuzu, never fail to disappoint. But I’ve even noticed Captain coming around to check on me after an extended absence, in his own self-important way. After spending every single day of the COVID-19 pandemic with our animals, I can’t imagine what they’ll think the first time Jaxon and I go on vacation. I do, however, have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be feeling when we come home.

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