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John Herbert

John Herbert

“You’re going to like him,” said the assistant manager at the bank.

I had arrived in Toronto just a few days before. My high school principal had said, “You have the wrong attitude. If you leave this school today you will starve in two weeks.”

I arrived in Toronto that night from the frozen winter landscape of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I thought I had a friend in Toronto. I arrived to find I did not. I was 18. Drinking age was 21. I did not let that stop me. I walked into The St. Charles, a notorious homosexual bar. No sooner had the waiter dropped a beer in front of me then the police walked in. I panicked. An older man across from me said, “Drink your beer and talk with me.”

As I did the police walked through stern faced and censorious.

“You’re new in town. Do you have a place to stay?” said the man.

“That man you went home with last night is a terrible person,” said a much better dressed man I met the next night who said he worked in the motion picture industry. We talked. I said I wanted to work in film as an editor. He said, “I’ll help you.”

“Turn around,” he said when I got to the bottom of the basement stairs in the house he took me to. He had said, “There is a bed in the basement.”

I looked up to see him standing at the top of the stairs with a hammer in his hand. He said, “Give me what I want or I will kill you.”

I said silently to myself, “I’m not getting caught like this again.”

“If I had warned you would you have believed me?” said the man I had met the first night. His name was Billy. His mother had been a prostitute. I learned she had put him to work at ten fellating her customers to bring in extra money.

Billy had contacts. By day he was a schoolteacher. He taught emotionally disturbed children. He was perfect for it. By night he provided boys for many powerful people.

It was through Billy I got the job at the bank.

At that time (the mid 1960s) banks would call if our account was overdrawn thus giving us a chance to cover it. The assistant manager gave me a card for a man named John Brundage. I called him.

At noon walked the tallest, most effeminate man I had ever seen. Everyone behind the bank counter treated him with contempt. Not wanting grief I followed their lead. This went on for several weeks.

“In walked the tallest, most effeminate man I had ever seen.”

One day I called him. I asked if we could meet.

He came by the small room where I lived.

He told me the story of his life. He told me the story of the play he had written out of that life.

When he left I said to him, “You know tomorrow when you walk into the bank I am going to treat you the same way I always do.”

He said quietly, “Yes, I know.” He added softly, “We all must grow at our own speed.”

Those powerful words so softly spoken were the needed fertilizer for my soul. I shot up the extra half inch it takes to stop being a boy, to start being a man.

The next day when he walked into the bank I said, “Hi, Jack, how are you?”

He never noticed the change. Everyone behind the bank counter did.

“Are you a queer?!” I was asked.

From that day the contempt they heaped on him they heaped on me.

It was easy to bear.

I had gotten rid of my self contempt.

That was 1965. At that time it was illegal to be homosexual in Canada. I came out when coming out could get us killed. I did that because I knew that if I did not do it I might as well be dead.

Oppression makes us weak or it makes strong depending on how we meet it.

John died in 2001. To the end we were friends.

W. H. Murray in THE SCOTTISH HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION wrote, “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

That commitment I had made the moment I walked out of that high school principal’s office.

David Mamet writes in TRUE AND FALSE, “The American educational process prepares those with second-rate intellects to thrive in a bureaucratic environment. Obedience, rote memorization, and neatness are enshrined as intellectual achievements.”

Post card from Emo Philips.
Reg Hartt when he arrived in Toronto at 18 and Reg Hartt today.

It took balls to be queer in those days. Nothing has changed. It still does.

This, I feel, is how it should be. John Stuart Mill in ON LIBERTY writes, “The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honor and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond to wise and noble things: I am not countenancing the sort of ‘hero worship’ which applauds the strong man of genius for forcibly seizing on the government and making it do his bidding in spite of itself. All he can claim is freedom to point the way. The power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself. It does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, that the counterpoint and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It is in these circumstances most especially, that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times there was no advantage in doing so, unless they acted not only differently but better. In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.

“Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”

Those few powerful words softly spoken gave me the courage to be truthful.

In THE POWER OF MYTH Joseph Campbell states when we put our foot on the path of the hero the first person we meet is an older woman who helps us. The second is an older woman who does us harm.

Reading that I realized two things. The first is that I have been on the path of the hero since I was six. The second is that the older person is not always a woman.

I don’t see heroes as comic book or movie characters in tight spandex costumes who are gifted with super powers.

I see truly heroic people as ordinary folk who daily go about the business of our lives.

You will encounter in your travels folks of your own age who chose the institutional path, who became administrators rather than doers. These folks chose to serve an institutional authority in exchange for a paycheck, and these folks are going to be with you for the rest of your life, and you who come up off the street, who live without certainty day to day and year to year are going to have to bear with being called children by these institutional types; you will, as Shakespeare tells us, endure ‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes.’ It is not childish to live with uncertainty, to devote oneself to an idea rather than an institution. It’s courageous and requires a courage of the order that the institutionally co-opted are ill equipped to perceive. They are so unequipped to perceive it that they can only call it childish, and so excuse their exploitation of you.”– David Mamet, TRUE AND FALSE. (Edited).

John Herbert wrote the only play by a Canadian author the entire world stood up and cheered. He helped me transition from a boy into a man.
John Herbert was a handsome man in his youth.
John Herbert made a good looking woman.

“Most teachers say you should go to school to get your degree to have something to fall back on. Aside from being a huge lie, that also creates a very high level of mediocrity, because nobody who really believes that is going to take the leap of faith required to be a serious artist. Stay out of school.” — Ellis Marsalis to his sons Branford, Delfeayo and Wynton.

My high school principal told me I would starve in two weeks if I left school that day. I am sure he said that to many others.

I know that many other young people are told those same words today.

Had I not left I would never have met Billy, I would never have met John Herbert, I would never have had the life I am having.

“My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.” — George Bernard Shaw.

“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education,” — Bertrand Russell.

“School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” — Ivan Illich.

“We get three educations. The first is from our parents; the second is from our schoolmasters. The third is from life. The last makes liars of the first two.” — Montesquieu.

I had wonderful teachers in the first and second grades who taught me everything I know. After that, I’m afraid, the teachers were nice, but they were dopes…I have a lack of ideology, and not because I have an animus against any particular ideology; it’s just that they don’t make sense to me…they get in the way of thinking. I don’t see what use they are…University and uniformity, as ideals, have subtly influenced how people thought about education, politics, economics, government, everything…We are misled by universities and other intellectual institutions to believe that there are separate fields of knowledge. But it’s clear there are no separate fields of knowledge. It is a seamless web.”-Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs was my friend. She taught me that when we see wrong being done and do nothing we are the greatest evil.

The way the world is going there is not much we can do about it.

We can do small things. In THE LAST JUDGEMENT those saved are told, “You saw me hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, in prison, a stranger and you helped me.” They ask, “When did we help you?” They are told, “When you helped the least you helped me.”

The damned are told, “You saw me hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, in prison, a stranger and you did not help me.” They ask, “When did we not help you?” They are told, “When you did not help the least you did not help me.”

That we can all do.

I was one of the least when I met Jack. He helped me tremendously.

I woke up thinking about him which is why I wrote this piece.

People take courses to become expert. The courses do nothing but harm.

A television program got in touch to do a piece on my work. I was told they had read good things on the web. After we finished talking I surfed the web where, to my surprise, I found this:

I read that mediocre people dream of doing extraordinary things that will make them famous while extraordinary people do ordinary things extraordinarily well.

John Herbert, by his life, showed the best thing any of us can do is stand up.

Ed Keenan, a Toronto writer who came by to do a piece on me, said, “Reg, you are the only man in Toronto who stands up.” .

I’m not, of course. The truth is, however, there are never enough people who stand up.

Aditya Shanker came to see my cartoon festival. He stayed to live here. We fought religious intolerance against homosexuality in India from my home in Toronto. 

Some get upset, rightly, because the attitudes of THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH towards LGBTQ people are wrong.

Don’t get upset. Walk away from them.

Help those you can. Welcome the stranger.

We create a new world by leaving the old one.

We get a new life by shedding the old one.

John Herbert was a hero. He was a true superman.

He was an inspiration. I should be so lucky.

In the 1960s the “good” queers held private parties in their homes.

The “good” queers spoke of the people who went openly to queer clubs and bars as the trash.

I have always been proud to be trash in the eyes of “good” people.

Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali said, “It’s good taste not bad taste which is the enemy.”

I say the same.

John Herbert: Fortune and Mens Eyes

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1969) Trailer — Sal Mineo & Don Johnson

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1969) — 16mm — Sal Mineo — Don Johnson — Michael Greer


Sal Mineo interview — 1975

Ronnie Dyson — Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)

Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

Rufus Wainwright — When In Disgrace feat Florence Welch

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