Happy Birthday Mike Gellert

Back in 1984, most of my friends had a porno mustache. I could have grown one myself, I guess, but it wasn’t really my thing. That’s not to say I wasn’t guilty of other dubious fashion statements forty years ago – obviously, I was. Here, for instance, I’m dressed like a black-jack dealer on a break from my duties at The Moulin Rouge. And speaking of rouge, yes, I’m wearing some. As are my old friends, Pat Paul, (porno-stash to my left) and his brother Mike Paul, (porno-stash to his left) and Michael Gellert, (porno-stash to my right.) Together, we were a barbershop quartet called Tyson Street.

I won’t even try to explain why four unapologetically virile, masculine men would dress from time to time in matching outfits and slather on pancake and rouge to compete with other male foursomes in elaborate singing contests, but we did, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. This photo was taken, I think, after a competition in Pennsylvania where we came in seventeenth. (17th!) Funny – I remember thinking at the time that we had a shot at winning the whole thing. Then, when they announced that we came in seventeenth, (17th!!) I remember laughing with my mustachioed friends.

“Seventeenth?” said Pat. “The judges must be tone-deaf!”

“Obviously,” his brother said. “Or drunk.”

“Maybe they just hate mustaches?” I said.

“Or maybe they penalized us because you can’t grow one?” said Gellert.

We laughed some more at the incompetence of the judges and felt not a shred of embarrassment at coming in seventeenth. (17th!!!) At least, I didn’t. Probably because I wasn’t capable of embarrassment in those days – a quality I sometimes wish I’d never outgrown. And who knows, maybe I haven’t? I still think of these guys every time I sing an unsolicited jingle on my podcast in four-part harmony – maybe the sponsors like it, and maybe they don’t? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It amuses me to harmonize with myself, and so I do. https://bit.ly/4aD0JzE Maybe more sponsors will come as a result? Or maybe, The Way I Heard It will drop to seventeenth on the charts, (17th!!!!), and I’ll pay the price for my own indulgence? Time will tell, as time always does.

I miss the days when I could harmonize with my friends – not on the stage or in matching outfits, tarted up like French whores – but in a stairwell, or on a street corner, or in a restaurant, where unsuspecting diners were delighted (were they?) to hear us ring out an old chestnut at the top of our lungs. Or better yet, on a sailboat anchored somewhere in the Chesapeake, where innocent passersby weren’t subjected to the sounds of a 17th place quartet, fueled by a cooler full of beer. There are friendships, and there are friendships held together with beer and close harmony. Those friendships are the best.

Anyway, Mike Gellert, (porn-stash to my right) turned seventy years old today, and I wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge his dotage. Gellert has always been nine years older than me, and therefore perfectly positioned to talk me into trying a great many things I would have never attempted as a young man, far beyond the business of wearing makeup and matching outfits and singing for glory and medals. For instance, Mike Gellert was the guy who introduced me to sushi.

One night after quartet rehearsal, Gellert bought me my very first spicy tuna roll at a sushi joint called Kawasaki. I couldn’t believe how good it was. The Spider Roll was even better, and The Baked Crab Roll better still. I was still marveling over the concept of eating raw fish on purpose, when Gellert told me to try some Green Tea Ice Cream.

“It’s the best ice cream you’ll ever have,” he said.

“Really,” I said. “Ice cream? In the middle of a meal?”

“It’s traditional,” he said. “Cleanses the palate. Try some.”

With that, Gellert popped a chunk into his mouth and made some sort of yummy sound, rolling his eyes as he chewed. I followed suit a moment later, biting into the smooth and creamy dessert with great anticipation. But of course, it wasn’t Green Tea Ice cream – it was a chunk of wasabi. Green, yes, but the opposite of smooth and creamy. It was in fact, the hottest thing I’d ever tasted, but in my gluttony, I had swallowed the whole chunk before my tastebuds could send a message to my brain to reverse course, and I promptly fell to the floor in a sweaty, convulsive heap. Gellert, meanwhile, spit the green magma into his napkin, and laughed for the next thirty minutes as I wept on the floor, gasping for breath.

Mike Gellert has been working for the same company for 55 years. He’s a salesman in the restaurant industry, and in that capacity, introduced me to lots of other epicurean delights over the last four decades. Indian, Moroccan, Thai, and so forth – the hotter the better. But mostly, Gellert is a gifted musician. His entire life is a series of events, set to a soundtrack composed by him. Gellert arranged all the songs that our old quartet used to sing, and today, he directs the Harbor City Music Company Show Chorus – one of the premier acapella choruses in the world. But back in 1984, he was also a regular in The Baltimore Opera Company, and persuaded me to audition for a spot in that chorus.

“They’re desperate for young guys with low voices,” he said. “And it’ll get you into the union.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s the opera.”

“The music is better than you think,” he said.

“Is it?”

“Yes,” he said. “And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

“Will I have to grow a mustache?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But you might have to wear one from time to time.”

Gellert may have understated things a bit. He taught me a short aria from La Boheme, which got me through the audition and into the chorus. But then, in no time at all, the artistic director had me dressed up as the ugliest angel in Christendom, complete with a fright wig that smelled like a wet dog. In the final scene, I was lowered from the ceiling of the Lyric Opera House in a paper Mache sun before a sold-out house, whereupon I was instructed to scoop up a dead heroine who had sung her last note, and escort her corpse to heaven. I can still see the tears streaming down Gellert’s face as he laughed from the wings, watching me try to look saintly while clutching a slippery 200 lb soprano in my arms, as we were slowly hoisted toward the catwalks in a spectacular finale.

I’m struggling to believe how my old friend can be seventy. As always, I’m still nine years younger, but still…don’t they go by in a blink? I’m sitting here with my 91-year-old dad this morning – who is doing better every day since his heart attack last week – and wondering how quickly the next thirty years will go, if I’m lucky enough to have them. Maybe Gellert will have some insight. I’m meeting him for dinner tonight at a sushi joint. Wish me well, and him, a hell of a happy birthday.

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