Rags Watkins was born in San Francisco on Halloween night, 1948. After his parents separated, Rags lived in San Francisco with his mother Peggy Tolk-Watkins, a legendary lesbian, artist, nightclub entrepreneur, until he was around six. Rags was then shipped to live with his father and grandparents in McComb, Mississippi, where Rags had a somewhat traditional queer childhood: avoiding sports, experimenting with boys, and seeing a psychiatrist in New Orleans.

In 1967, Rags headed to Lake Forest College near Chicago to study art history. Around this time, he saw his mother for the first time in six years. While living in Boston in 1969, he had a two-week affair with a woman that produced a son, born in April 1970 and subsequently placed for adoption. To this day, Rags thinks of his son, and hopes one day to reconnect with him.

After Boston, Rags worked at the Michael Wyman Gallery in Chicago and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. In 1974, his mother died; two years later, Rags headed to New York, where he worked at numerous art galleries, including Artists Space, and also consulted for the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rags loved his work; but at the same time, by his own reckoning, he lacked the drive to fully succeed in the art world, preferring to concentrate his energies on his personal life. In 1981, Rags met John Lander, the first man he lived openly with. Together, Rags and John participated in ACT UP events, including a kiss-in at Stonewall Inn, and found solidarity in their community. As the epidemic raged, Rags lost countless friends, including John. He himself was eventually diagnosed with HIV. As devastating as AIDS was, Rags credits it with unifying the queer community, humanizing queer folks to the rest of society, and helping him come out. 

In 1998, Rags had a heart attack. Soon after, he found himself bankrupt. He spent the next decade working freelance in the art and design world, and rebuilding his health. In 2008, he met James Middleton. Together, they moved to McComb and bought a 1923 center-hall bungalow built from the heartwood of local pine trees. Rags and James worked together for several years restoring the home; but in 2018, they amicably parted ways, with James staying in Mississippi, and Rags returning to New York.

Rags Watkins’ life is, in some ways, a microcosm of the agonies that queer community has endured just to be born. His life has also been marked by Southern privilege, and the challenges of a nation still trying to repent of its racial sins. Perhaps not quite at rest today, Rags at least seems at peace. 
Natalie Tsui: [00:00:00] Speed.
Mason Funk: Okay. So start off by-
Natalie Tsui: Oh, wait. One second. Your shirt is doing ... It's puffy around your stomach. Can you just-
Rags Watkins: I have a fat ... I'm fat.
Natalie Tsui: No, it's just doing this weird puffing thing right there, you know.
Rags Watkins: Right here?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. Yeah. A little bit.
Rags Watkins: It's what happens with me. I'm sorry. Here, how about that? Is that better?
Natalie Tsui: That is better, yes.
Mason Funk: No, but he's not ... You said to sit comfortably.
Natalie Tsui: It's not natural though. Wait, actually, just sit comfortably and I can adjust it.
Natalie Tsui: [00:00:30] I think it wasn't from your stomach. So just sit as you were before. You are sitting very high now. But it's just a matter of it ... [crosstalk] I think it's the way that it's tucked.
Rags Watkins: Oh, let's just try this ... Let's, excuse me. Pardon me. Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Sorry. I just like this [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: No, it's okay. It's okay. I want to look good. [crosstalk] I want to look good. So.
Mason Funk: X, Y and Z.
Rags Watkins: As a code.
Mason Funk: X, Y, Z.
Rags Watkins: I don't use it. I just say, "Your zipper's open."
Mason Funk: I love that. Right. Okay, so we're speeding?
Natalie Tsui: [00:01:00] Yeah, we're speeding.
Mason Funk: So do me a favor. Start by telling me your first and last names. The way you would want to be identified on the screen. Like, Ragland, walk ... Or Rag, or Rags Watkins?
Rags Watkins: I prefer Rags Watkins.
Mason Funk: Okay. [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: So, my name is Rags Watkins.
Mason Funk: And could you spell it out for me?
Rags Watkins: R-A-G-S, W-A-T-K-I-N-S.
Mason Funk: Okay. And we're [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Drags, like rags.
Mason Funk: And don't look at this at all, okay?
Rags Watkins: Okay.
Mason Funk: [00:01:30] And literally don't look at the camera don't look at Natalie. Everything over here just doesn't exist. And please tell me the date and the place of your birth.
Rags Watkins: I was born in 1948 in San Francisco. And-
Mason Funk: The actual date, please. [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Oh, October 31st, 1948, San Francisco. Delivered by Dr. Francis Foster. 4:30 in the afternoon. Dr. Foster told my father to go and get jelly beans and marshmallows because it was Halloween. Trick-or-treat.
Mason Funk: [00:02:00] Okay. Good story. It was October-
Rags Watkins: 31st.
Mason Funk: Oh, I see. That's awesome. Okay. So tell me about, how did you come to be born in San Francisco.
Rags Watkins: My mother was there.
Mason Funk: So tell me about your mother.
Rags Watkins: My parents met at Black Mountain College. My mother was from New York. Brooklyn.
Rags Watkins: [00:02:30] She was a nice Jewish girl whose father ran numbers for the Mafia. My father was from McComb, Mississippi. From a pretty well established, fairly prominent family. After they met at college, my mother, who had been in San Francisco, before, previously, as a social worker in Point Richmond,
Rags Watkins: [00:03:00] convinced my father, and other people at San Francisco, at Black, Mountain College, to move out there. And they did. I think, around 19 ... either early 1948 or 1947.
Natalie Tsui: Air conditioning.
Mason Funk: I realized that.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah.
Rags Watkins: Do you want me to turn it off?
Mason Funk: Yeah. [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: I was gonna ask about that, actually.
Natalie Tsui: [00:03:30] This fan too. Just for safety. Although [inaudible]
Rags Watkins: What about the fan?
Mason Funk: Yeah. Is the long one?
Rags Watkins: Oh, I can turn that off. I've got a, wait, theres a wall switch for that.
Mason Funk: Can you hear it?
Natalie Tsui: I can hear something.
Rags Watkins: It may take a while for it to stop.
Mason Funk: Oh, its it's off. Okay, great.
Rags Watkins: There's another fan in the other room that makes a big noise.
Mason Funk: [00:04:00] We're fine. I think with the door shut-
Rags Watkins: Are you good?
Natalie Tsui: Is it the one that's squeaking?
Rags Watkins: It does squeak.
Mason Funk: Wait, I don't hear it. Seriously [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: But that might pick it up, though.
Natalie Tsui: It's, like, this, "Weeeeee."
Mason Funk: Oh really?
Natalie Tsui: Oh, it just did it.
Rags Watkins: Is that making noise?
Mason Funk: That's a bird.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, it's a bird. Okay.
Mason Funk: She just heard a bird.
Rags Watkins: Oh, okay. No, that's good. Okay. Never mind.
Natalie Tsui: I'm really bad at identifying sounds.
Mason Funk: I think you were hearing a bird. Just keep listening and-
Natalie Tsui: [00:04:30] Actually, I'm actually aboard.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Rags Watkins: I mean, you can use, you know, more is more, you know.
Mason Funk: And that can ... Yeah. I'll have you start over again the way you want to again. And, by the way, when you say Black Mountain College, tell us where that is, okay? Otherwise, no one will know. Just the state.
Rags Watkins: Okay, it's on-
Mason Funk: Just the state. In other words, so, 'cause Black Mountain College doesn't ... We just don't know where that is, probably.
Rags Watkins: Oh, okay. It's a famous school.
Mason Funk: Is it really? What's it famous ... Okay, so-
Natalie Tsui: [00:05:00] Rauschenberg went there.
Rags Watkins: Rauschenberg went there. And there's this big thing with Rauschenberg and, like, was, you know, why isn't gayness considered part of his aesthetic, you know, makeup? You know, why is that not taken into account or historically? There's a lot of interest around that now. Particularly since he has a show on at the Modern.
Mason Funk: Okay. [inaudible] okay.
Rags Watkins: The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mason Funk: [00:05:30] That I do know. I do know what that is. So tell me, again, but still tell me about [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: All right, let's go through this again.
Mason Funk: The average person. I'm no dummy. The average person might not know where Black Mountain College is. So tell me about where your parents met, where they were from and how they got to San Francisco.
Rags Watkins: Okay. Do you want me to start with my name and birthday and everything?
Mason Funk: No, that's fine. We got that.
Rags Watkins: My parents met at Black Mountain College which was in North Carolina, in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It's a fairly famous school.
Rags Watkins: [00:06:00] The remains of the Bow House wound up there, as well as at MIT and at the University of Chicago. My mother had been in San Francisco, where I was born, and convinced my father to move out there. And they did. In 1947 or 1948. So I was born in San Francisco in 1948 at Kaiser Hospital.
Mason Funk: [00:06:30] Okay. And tell me more about your mother. She seems to have become a quite well-known figure in her own right. Apart from being your mom. What was her name and-
Rags Watkins: Her name was Peggy [crosstalk] Peggy Tolk her name was-
Mason Funk: No, "My mother."
Rags Watkins: Oh. Okay. Do you want her maiden name? And do you want-
Mason Funk: No, I just need, "My mother's name was- "
Rags Watkins: Do you ... How much story do you want with any of this information?
Mason Funk: Well-
Rags Watkins: Just everything is surrounded with layers of folklore.
Mason Funk: Give me, like, a shorter version first. And then I'll come in with some questions. How's that?
Rags Watkins: [00:07:00] Okay, good. My mother was named Peggy Tolk-Watkins. With a hyphen. She was born Peggy Tolk. But, when my parents married, as an early feminist, among other things, she decided she was Peggy Tolk-Watkins. Ask me a question.
Mason Funk: What did she eventually become famous for in San Francisco?
Rags Watkins: She was pretty well known-
Mason Funk: Can you start with, "My mother," so we know who you're talking about?
Rags Watkins: [00:07:30] Okay. My mother was well known as a nightclub entrepreneur. And eccentric and artist and out lesbian in San Francisco. And she was also quite an outrageous character.
Mason Funk: What are some of the things that she was outrageous for or that she-
Rags Watkins: [00:08:00] I was reminded, yesterday-
Mason Funk: Sorry.
Natalie Tsui: [crosstalk] your shirt is doing that thing again. So if you could just pull that one over.
Rags Watkins: I could change shirts.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, actually, I wonder if I can tape it so that it stays shut.
Rags Watkins: Or we could pin it. There are lots of pins.
Natalie Tsui: Thank you. Okay, let's just see if this will work. Because I think it's just the cut of the shirt, you know. I'm just gonna get in there. Do you mind if I get in there?
Rags Watkins: No, I'm not ... It's not-
Natalie Tsui: [00:08:30] Okay. So I'm just gonna go like this. And then-
Rags Watkins: Being touched by people is not one of my phobias.
Natalie Tsui: Okay. That's good. There.
Rags Watkins: Let's see if that's gonna work. Does that work better?
Natalie Tsui: Don't touch it. I can't tell if you're touching it. Oh yeah. Yes.
Rags Watkins: Oh baby?
Natalie Tsui: Yes.
Rags Watkins: It's good?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. You're good.
Rags Watkins: Okay. Great. Okay.
Mason Funk: Okay, so you said-
Rags Watkins: [00:09:00] So let's start? Where are we gonna start?
Mason Funk: Earlier you said she was an outrageous character. So what do you mean by that?
Rags Watkins: She was, I was reminded yesterday, talking to somebody else, that she once punched someone for coming onto her girlfriend who wound up in the paper. So that was fairly outrageous. And she [crosstalk] she was a big fan of, or a had relation, a newspaper relationship, with the San Francisco Chronicle,
Rags Watkins: [00:09:30] columnist Herb Caen. So a lot of my mother's more outrageous deeds were chronicled by him in the paper of the same name.
Mason Funk: Approvingly? Disapprovingly? Or just-
Rags Watkins: She loved it. There was a time when I had all the clippings, but they've gone missing. And she was not above using me as, you know, part of the publicity. I can't remember what she ... At some point I'm quoted saying something. I don't remember what. But, you know, it was, "Isn't that adorable, my little son?" So, you know.
Mason Funk: [00:10:00] Oh, so you're like a prop for her.
Rags Watkins: I was a bit of a prop. And, at some point, she did realize that. And she realized that I was a person, not a prop. And that she was in no way prepared, really, to parent me. At this point, my parents had divorced. Or were living separately, is more like it. And
Rags Watkins: [00:10:30] so I was sent to live with my father here in Mississippi. I was sent to live in McComb, where my father had grown up. And where he had grandparents. My grandparents, his parents, who were able to supply support for him because he was busy being a young architect and trying to make a life. And he wasn't happy about moving back to McComb. But he did it for me.
Mason Funk: [00:11:00] You mean he moved back here so that he could bring you back here [inaudible].
Rags Watkins: He moved back here so that he would have a place that I could be taken care of.
Mason Funk: Oh, no, did you [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Which happened ... Which my grandparents did. And I had a much more conventional upbringing, from the time I was five on, living in McComb with, you know, sort of normal kindergartens and normal, you know, whatever normal is. What passed for normal here, then.
Rags Watkins: [00:11:30] My mother, my life with my mother was very not so normal. And there were people coming and going from the house. And, at some point, in the first grade, I would not go to school. And she didn't know how to deal with that. My Grandma Sadie, in San Francisco, was quite a character herself, who was often my nanny.
Rags Watkins: [00:12:00] And took me to museums and lots of things. So it wasn't normal, relative to Mississippi, in that, for instance, there were museums to go to. Wherein, in Mississippi there's just church and the country club, you know. That's it. Football. Football. [crosstalk] Which I have no interest in.
Mason Funk: Were your grandparents, on your dad's side here in McComb, so you say they were a family of a certain standing?
Rags Watkins: Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:12:30] So who were they? Who were your parents and your grandparents? And start by saying, "My grandparents, who helped raised me."
Rags Watkins: Right. My grandparents, who helped raise me, were from fairly prominent-
Mason Funk: Wait [crosstalk] second. I see your eyes sneaking over here to the camera.
Rags Watkins: Sorry.
Mason Funk: Just don't go there. Just talk to me. Okay. Grandparents.
Rags Watkins: My grandparents, who raised me in Mississippi, were both from pretty prominent families. My grandmother's family,
Rags Watkins: [00:13:00] my great-grandfather, who I knew, he lived to be 96, had been the mayor of the town several times. He had the major dry goods store in town. He was the first, I'm told, highway commissioner in the state. I suspect it was for the county. You know, he was a figure. My grandfather's father worked for the railroad.
Rags Watkins: [00:13:30] And was the paymaster for the Illinois Central, which ran from Chicago to New Orleans and back. McComb was a railroad town in those days, and was until recently, when the Illinois Central closed its shops there.
Mason Funk: So what did it mean to be paymaster?
Rags Watkins: He got a railroad car. He got his little office in a caboose. I have a shaving mug
Rags Watkins: [00:14:00] that has a picture of the car on it and his name on the bottom. And he was W.R. Watkins the First. My grandfather was W.R. Watkins Junior, William Ragland Watkins. I was, my father was William Ragland Watkins the Third. I was spared that burden by being Ragland Tolk-Watkins.
Rags Watkins: [00:14:30] They're all last names. It's a southern thing, an Americanism, you know?
Mason Funk: Yeah. Yeah.
Rags Watkins: Could be worse. I could be called Tiffany. You know?
Mason Funk: So you came down here, and even though you got here at the age of five, fairly young, did you feel a bit, how did you feel about moving back to Mississippi?
Rags Watkins: Now?
Mason Funk: Well, no, how did you feel as a kid moving to Mississippi?
Rags Watkins: [00:15:00] Well, I had come down and had visited my grandparents in the summers. So I sort of knew what it was. But I missed my mother. As imperfect as that life was, it was my life. And, when I moved down here, I was ... I guess I was a tough kid,
Rags Watkins: [00:15:30] relative, in terms of good manners, and that kind of thing. Relative to the local standard. I had friends around the corner. Three sisters who I refer to as The Girls. And they were Catholic girls. And their uncle was the local Catholic priest. And they were very strictly ...
Rags Watkins: [00:16:00] They grew up with a lot of boundaries. I had grown up with no boundaries. And so they claim now that they whipped me into shape. They say I was a tough, mean kid, and they whipped me into shape. I'm still friends with these girls. I love them. We disagree about politics. But we love each other.
Mason Funk: So, wait, what did that mean for them to whip you into shape?
Rags Watkins: [00:16:30] I'm not really sure. Except we figure out how to live with each other. But we would do things in the back ... We would play movie stars in the backyard. I was Tony Curtis. There was Elizabeth Taylor. There was Jane Russell. And there was Debbie Reynolds. I think Jane Russell is still alive. But maybe not. Anyway, we also played horses. That was fun. And we're friends to this day.
Mason Funk: [00:17:00] Wow. And they still live here locally?
Rags Watkins: One lives here locally. Two have left.
Mason Funk: I want to backtrack a little bit, because, in your notes, you mentioned that your mom, as you said, that she sent you to Mississippi 'cause she was afraid you were gonna turn out to be gay.
Rags Watkins: Yes. Everybody was afraid Rags was gonna be turned out to be gay. Now, she was a flaming lesbian, of course.
Rags Watkins: [00:17:30] Knocking girlfriends through plate glass windows and things. And, you know, other completely outrageous things. She was, by the way, very interested in civil rights for gays. She always followed everything in the paper. But she didn't want it for me. My father was also rather ambiguous and admitted to me, at some point, that, you know, as a young man, he had had experiences with men.
Mason Funk: [00:18:00] So why do you think your mother was afraid you were gonna turn out to be gay?
Rags Watkins: Because she thought it was a hard life. And that the world was intolerant. I think that was primarily it. I mean, some part of it, I think, reflected her own unhappiness and unsettled-ness. I can't tell you that ...
Rags Watkins: [00:18:30] I just lost it. There was ... There was some point I was gonna make. That she was, herself, phobic about gay men. I understand. She had her lady clothes and she had girl clothes. And she had, I'm sorry, she had her regular clothes,
Rags Watkins: [00:19:00] which were from Brooks Brothers. I still wear Brooks Brothers. I dress like my mother, to a certain extent. And, apparently, she would sit at the door of the Tin Angel, which was the better known of the clubs she did, and she would refuse gay people entry, gay men entry. You know, she would sort of sit up there like this, you know, big peg. She could be a big of diesel dyke
Rags Watkins: [00:19:30] when she felt like it. And then she had these lady clothes that her girlfriend or me made for her. Which were very elegant and made out of all kinds of all kinds of wonderful upholstery fabrics and Fortuny Fabrics, which was an Italian textile maker. And it was all pretty exotic in Sausalito when I was growing up.
Rags Watkins: [00:20:00] But, anyway, I gather that she, I mean, she was ambiguous about, she was ambivalent about her own sexuality for that reason. And, also, I think she was a very troubled person. Period. Even if she had been straight. I mean, she was badly treated by her father, who considered her an embarrassment. He was sort of the level of ... He was basically sort of the ... He was the black sheep of a good family.
Rags Watkins: [00:20:30] But he was essentially a thug the way Trump is kind of a thug. You know, like, women are supposed to be beautiful and feminine and, you know, serve his needs, you know. He was a gambler, you know. He was a gangster. Low level Jewish wise guy. And he treated her badly. Go to Schraffts she has to walk behind the whole family, you know. And she has to pretend like she's not with them. All that stuff. So, I mean, she had a lot of damage.
Rags Watkins: [00:21:00] And I appreciate that. Her mother, however, was wonderful. Interestingly, when Irmine her girlfriend, when I lived with her, when they broke up, her mother went to Irmine and begged her to come back. That's sort of beautiful. I mean, you know, she didn't approve of the relationship. But she loved her daughter. And she knew that Irmine was a good influence.
Rags Watkins: [00:21:30] And so, you know, I love Sadie for that. I'll tell you another Sadie story, if I may.
Mason Funk: Okay. Just tell me who Sadie is before you go on.
Rags Watkins: Sadie is my grandmother. Sadie Goldstein Tolk. My grandmother. And she was a milliner. And she was considered from a less good family on the Lower East Side in New York than my grandfather's family. He was, you know, he was a 19th century German immigrant.
Rags Watkins: [00:22:00] She was a Russian immigrant. You know, so, I mean, class and education, it exists. It's a big thing in the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. Anyway, I can't remember the beginning of the story.
Mason Funk: You were gonna ... Oh, okay.
Rags Watkins: Sorry.
Mason Funk: There's a story about Sadie.
Rags Watkins: It was about Sadie. Oh.
Mason Funk: Sadie Goldstein Tolk.
Rags Watkins: Yes. She was wonderful.
Mason Funk: [00:22:30] Start off again. Sadie Goldstein Tolk.
Rags Watkins: Goldstein ... Sara ... Sadie Goldstein Tolk, my grandmother, when my grandpa, Steve Tolk, had to leave town because the mafia was after him, told the neighbors that he had gone to Africa to show films to the natives. This is the kind of delusional and ... This is the kind of delusional and,
Rags Watkins: [00:23:00] I don't know, charming person that Sadie was. When she moved to San Francisco, and my mother moved her to San Francisco from Brooklyn, she went to live in the Hotel Bernard. My mother's crack was, "Thank goodness it was ... His name wasn't ... " Goddamn it. I can't remember the name of the hotel. Mark. Because there was the Mark hotel there,
Rags Watkins: [00:23:30] which apparently was her expensive fancy downtown hotel. Another thing about the Hotel Bernard, ladies of the evening lived and operated out of the Hotel Bernard. It was downtown. And it was in, you know, close, near the Tenderloin. And she became these girl's mothers. She did the same thing later in life
Rags Watkins: [00:24:00] with bikers in Manhattan Beach when she finally moved south to live ... Be near her other daughter.
Mason Funk: I've lost track if this is your grandmother or your mother.
Rags Watkins: Oh, sorry. My grandmother did the same thing when she moved south from San Francisco to be with her other daughter, Helen. She became the mother to all these bikers on the ... She lived on the beach in an SRO. She became, you know,
Rags Watkins: [00:24:30] Grandma Sadie to them too. She also liked a thrift shop. She let herself spend a nickel a day at the thrift shop. The Sausalito Salvage Shop. She was a charming person.
Mason Funk: What, and we can't spend too much time on this, but I just want to know what eventually happened to your mom? How did her life pan out? [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: It didn't pan out-
Mason Funk: Mention your mom.
Rags Watkins: [00:25:00] It ... My mother's life eventually sort of deteriorated. I mean, she's someone who needed, very badly, to have somebody take care of her. She was an orphan. She used to sing that song Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. She sang a lot of folk songs. But that's one that certainly is telling that I remember. Finally, she was just too impossible
Rags Watkins: [00:25:30] and nobody could put up with it. And she drank and she had nervous breakdowns. And had to be taken away to, you know, several mental institutions. She was put on Thorazine. You know, she just tore her way through the California system of welfare, basically.
Rags Watkins: [00:26:00] She was a pauper. She was somebody who had made and lost over a million dollars. The problem was she didn't pay any taxes on it. She's a person who's absolutely helpless. Absolutely helpless. But charming. Charming. She would charm you 'til the birds came home. I mean, she was ... But, you know, a mess, really.
Rags Watkins: [00:26:30] Just a terrible mess. And, finally, she got colon cancer and died. So that's what happened.
Mason Funk: And how old were you when she died?
Rags Watkins: Twenty-six. Twenty-six. I was, at some point, my father had decided that he wanted to get legal custody when I was 12. I decided,
Rags Watkins: [00:27:00] or she decided, she was so lonely she decided she needed me back. She needed some reason. So she proceeded to say I was gonna stay with her. My father came out. He said, "Okay, let's have one more trip." Meaning he and I would take a trip. We went to Disneyland. And then I didn't go back, I went back to Mississippi. I did not go to San Francisco. My mother, at that point,
Rags Watkins: [00:27:30] proceeded to have another child, because she was so lonely. I mean, she was, it was, it's heartbreaking, but impossible. I mean, finally the kid was put up for adoption and, you know, that's a family story. But ... And, of course, I'm in touch with this person. And, I don't know, I mean, she was heartbreaker.
Rags Watkins: [00:28:00] And everything that surrounded her is kind of, you know, wonderful and hilarious or very sad. It goes both ways.
Mason Funk: Great. Well, thank you for sharing that part of your story. Now, you, sir, Rags. How would you describe, say, you know, the three Catholic sisters whipped you into shape.
Rags Watkins: Yeah. They're wonderful.
Mason Funk: Taught you the do's and the don'ts. Ways of McComb.
Rags Watkins: McComb.
Mason Funk: [00:28:30] McComb. And how did the rest of, say, your childhood kind of play out? You ... Where did you, how did you fit, not fit in, into, kind of, like, McComb?
Rags Watkins: As long as there weren't sports involved, I was fine. My grandfather. But this is the kind of mixed message. I mean, this is, like, this part is about McComb, and then it's also about a little, sort of, I think, dysfunction in the family. In this side of the family. I mean,
Rags Watkins: [00:29:00] you know, it's not restricted to one side or the other. My grandfather, I was living with my grandparents, my father initially had a room across the street in somebody's house. We had an apartment later. But, living with my grandparents, my father, my grandfather, William Ragland Watkins Junior, loved baseball.
Rags Watkins: [00:29:30] So he bought me a baseball glove. But he didn't throw the ball with me. I had this beautiful glove. It smelled great, you know. It was a beautiful object. I liked that. But I didn't want to play ball. And so the only person who would practice with me would be my grandmother. So, you know, so there was that. And I couldn't really throw. And I couldn't really swim very well either, even though my sainted cousin
Rags Watkins: [00:30:00] Sally Johnson tried to teach me. And God knows I took tons of swimming lessons and stuff. But everything but sports was fine, you know. Everything but sports was fine. Cub Scouts was fine, you know. I got to wear a dress in Cub Scouts 'cause we did a square dance, you know. Oh, it was Boy Scouts, it wasn't Cub Scouts. And so I got to swear a skirt and, you know, and dance around. I was, you know, we did that and that was fun.
Rags Watkins: [00:30:30] And everything was sort of normal. People would call, you know, mean kids would call me sissy occasionally. But I was lucky because I had the advantage of being, you know, the fourth Rags. You know? I may have been the first Ragland Tolk, but I was the fourth in my line. And we had a place here. And people were generally, you know, very deferential.
Rags Watkins: [00:31:00] The black people were very ridiculously deferential. I remember being called by, we had this marvelous yard man, one of the most beautiful black men I've ever seen, but completely surveil. I mean, he would have been a god anywhere else. Eddie. I don't even know Eddie's last name. But I was called Master Rags growing up. And then I hit puberty and I was Mister Rags. There's a lot of that here.
Mason Funk: [00:31:30] So tell me a bit more about when you said you were the fourth Rags, so just deconstruct that, or just walk us through that from the point of view of people who aren't-
Rags Watkins: Who live here?
Mason Funk: Aren't southerners. In other words, for, you know-
Rags Watkins: Okay. Would-
Mason Funk: Explain this as if you were explaining it to aliens.
Rags Watkins: Okay.
Mason Funk: How just the codes, the structures, if you're the fourth Rags [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: In these small towns, everybody knows everybody. It's a very- [crosstalk]
Mason Funk: [00:32:00] Sorry. In these small towns in Mississippi.
Rags Watkins: Oh. In these small towns in Mississippi, like McComb, where I grew up, or Magnolia, where I may be choosing to live, everyone knows everyone. Everybody knows everybody's parents. Everybody knows everybody's grandchildren. Everybody knows everybody's cousins. So when you say Rags Watkins, you want to say,
Rags Watkins: [00:32:30] for instance, "Which one?" Even in my 50s, my father and I would walk into a restaurant, and if we would see people, this has happened to me, "Why look, there's Big Rags and Little Rags." I'm a 50-year-old man. You know, my father is a 75-year-old man. But he's still Big Rags and I'm still Little Rags. So there are other ... We have ...
Rags Watkins: [00:33:00] My cousin, Sally Johnson, my relative, Sally Johnson, who's really my father's first cousin, is referred to as Cousin Aunt Sally. You can't identify someone here, or people can't, in Mississippi, identify someone, without basically going through an almost complete family tree. It's if you're not from here, you feel like it's completely irrelevant to you.
Rags Watkins: [00:33:30] I have this problem all the time. People says, "Well, you know so-and-so." And then they'll say, "Who is the cousin of, who is the sister of, who is the daughter of, who is the," you know. And that is supposed to place them. If you were in New York it would be business. But, here, it's intensely personal. And it's all biography. And genealogy.
Mason Funk: [00:34:00] So, and then you mentioned this, what did you call him, yard boy? Eddie?
Rags Watkins: Eddie. Yeah.
Mason Funk: So that's, like, the tip of the iceberg of, like [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Absolutely.
Mason Funk: So talk about this part of living here and the relationships that you remember from when you were a child between the white folks, the black folks. How, and I'm really interested mostly in what misperceptions people from the outside might have. What they wouldn't understand if they weren't from here.
Rags Watkins: [00:34:30] It's kind of like working in an art gallery, living in Mississippi. The relationship with black folks and white folks. You're their best friend, but don't forget, for a minute, that you're less than they are. Or they are less than you are. Sorry. Freudian slip. You know, you share everything with,
Rags Watkins: [00:35:00] you know, you've got housewives. I grew up in, you know, non working, you know, it was important to not work. And to be at home. And everybody had, you know, a maid, or a yard man, or, you know, some people had two or three. If you had a lot of children you had a couple of people who helped with the kids. Sometimes you had them in shifts. And they were your best friends because they're the woman of the house,
Rags Watkins: [00:35:30] cause they're alone with this person. And so you became friends. I mean, you were having real life together. But they went home at night. You paid their social security and you resented it. My grandmother did. I remember my grandmother paying the help, Rosa, Rosa Hodges, this beautiful ironer. Grumpy. Grumpy. And $3.50 a day. .
Rags Watkins: [00:36:00] $3.50 a day. A day this woman lived on. And they had a love/hate relationship for years We've had other, there were other people who worked for us. The last person who worked for us, Ula, is still around in a nursing home. And I'm friends with her daughter, Joanie Nobles, on Facebook. So things have sort of changed a little bit.
Rags Watkins: [00:36:30] But, in those days, you know, the blacks lived in the black neighborhood, and the whites lived in the white neighborhood. And that's just how it was. And poor old Eddie, he was a wonderful man. There are other wonderful black people who put up with a lot of bullshit from white folks. There was a wonderful guy named Hosey,
Rags Watkins: [00:37:00] who's last name I don't know, who was the janitor at one of the schools here, at Hughes School. That man was a saint. 'Cause he put up with, you know, he put up with kids who were torturing him all day. And he was just patient. Good, patient man. He just [crosstalk] took the shit and moved on.
Mason Funk: Yeah, the tapping of your feet. If you tap your feet, we can hear it, sorry. Yeah.
Rags Watkins: [00:37:30] This is gonna be better.
Mason Funk: Oh, there you go.
Rags Watkins: I will tap my feet.
Mason Funk: That's better. Okay.
Rags Watkins: This will be a foot silencer. But that guy was a saint. And there are people around who will testify to his sainthood-ness. But they were definitely [crosstalk] yeah, looked down on. One time, when I was in my brat phase, and I didn't know any better, I mean, in Sausalito I grew up with black people and Chinese people and, you know, all kinds of people. My mother had been,
Rags Watkins: [00:38:00] my mother Peggy Tolk-Watkins, had been the first, Odetta's first manager. So, you know, and Odetta was from Birmingham. So, I mean, I knew southern blacks who weren't exactly cutting my grass, you know. Or waiting my table. I mean, I knew them as friends. And Japanese, I mean, I knew the artist Ruth Asawa in San Francisco
Rags Watkins: [00:38:30] and her husband from Georgia and their kids who were my age who I always considered my cousins, you know. And still consider my cousins. I'm still in touch with them. So coming down here was kind of a shock. But I didn't make any ... I just knew that nigger was a bad word. And I remember, at some point, under a bad local influence,
Rags Watkins: [00:39:00] I think a young boy and I, and I don't even remember who that was, and I sort of did a nigger, nigger, nigger thing at one of my grandmother's neighbor's, the help at somebody's house. And, I don't know, it was weird because I just thought it was, like, it didn't occur to me, 'cause I was kind of color blind, as a very young child,
Rags Watkins: [00:39:30] just 'cause that had been where I came from. I just thought it would be like calling somebody a stupid, stupid, stupid. Or, you know, I knew it wasn't a compliment. But it didn't occur to me that it was as bad as it was. Of course, I was made to apologize. And I went over there. And that was my first, that was one of my earliest lessons in,
Rags Watkins: [00:40:00] I guess, in race, really. And in respect. And, you know, we don't do that.
Mason Funk: What were you told, specifically, to go say when you were told to go apologize?
Rags Watkins: I don't remember. But my grandmother was pissed. And she took me right over there and that got fixed up.
Mason Funk: [00:40:30] One of the ... These people that I mentioned to you, my husband's friends from Brookhaven, the three women, he came down for one of their weddings, and this is just kind of in line with what you were saying, what this woman had, this friend of his had been raised in this, in a family very similar to yours, it sounds like, with an African-American woman helping to raise her. And-
Rags Watkins: That's how it's done here. It's how it was done.
Mason Funk: [00:41:00] But she wasn't ... But she didn't come to the wedding.
Rags Watkins: How odd.
Mason Funk: And Jay said, Jay expressed some kind of surprise at that. And apparently he was told, "Well, she won't feel comfortable at the wedding." Is that [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: That is, I've heard this before. Let's talk about funerals.
Mason Funk: Oh, okay.
Rags Watkins: At funerals, everybody who has ever worked for your family shows up. And they pitch in and they help. Usually, if they're women, you know, in the kitchen.
Rags Watkins: [00:41:30] It's kind of beautiful. So I don't know if she wouldn't feel comfortable. I don't know the validity of that. I mean, she might not feel comfortable. She would, I mean, what happens is they wind up in the kitchen at funerals. Maybe they would want, I don't know about weddings. I'm trying to think what ...
Rags Watkins: [00:42:00] I'm trying to think if, with my sister's wedding, the one that was here, if any of the people who had worked for us came. We had a marvelous woman named Annie Alexander. Oh God, she's a fabulous person. Who worked for us. And, I don't know. Annie may have been there.
Mason Funk: [00:42:30] So, from the point of, obviously, an outsider, when you describe Eddie, or when you describe this woman, Annie Alexander, as a fabulous person, what exactly does that mean? Does-
Rags Watkins: Kind.
Mason Funk: Yeah? Let me ask you this, was it a kindness that felt like it was born of, what I can only think of, as subservience?
Rags Watkins: With Eddie, I don't know. I think Eddie, my grandmother said, "Oh, Eddie's wife is really cruel to him and beats him up." So Eddie may have been a wimp.
Rags Watkins: [00:43:00] I mean, he may have been beaten down from the very beginning so badly by life that it was that. I know other people who he worked for, people my age, whose families he worked for. And it's the, you know, they got the same act. So I think Eddie was, basically, a gentle person. And I think he didn't know anything better.
Rags Watkins: [00:43:30] I think he didn't know anything better. Annie didn't know anything better. But she had a spine. And she had good sense and she had good values. And she had a real sense of self worth.
Rags Watkins: [00:44:00] And, you know, she wouldn't take ... My father was unhappily married to a step-mother, one of my two step-mothers, when my sisters were young, because the first step-mother had died. And it was not a good match. And there was a lot of drama. But Annie was very protective of my sisters
Rags Watkins: [00:44:30] and did not take any, she wouldn't buy into any of the step-mother's bullshit. And, I mean, Annie was a real person. She was a real person working under duress in this odd post-plantation, post-Civil War place. And, you know, if she had been born 40 years later,
Rags Watkins: [00:45:00] she would have been, you know, would have had a completely different life. She had the brains. She was everything. But she was a good Christian and a good person and she did what was possible for her. And we loved it. I loved Annie. I thought she was great. I loved Eddie.
Mason Funk: Well, let's-
Rags Watkins: As little as I knew of him. As was possible to know.
Mason Funk: [00:45:30] I have one more question, and then we'll take a little break, 'cause we'll turn on the AC and swap out the card. Do you remember any examples of times when African-American folks behaved not according to the codes?
Rags Watkins: The Civil Rights Movement. The '60s.
Mason Funk: Yeah, so tell us about that. 'Cause, obviously [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: I didn't see any of it because it-
Mason Funk: Tell me what you're talking about.
Rags Watkins: I didn't see any of ...
Rags Watkins: [00:46:00] Any pushback from black people in the south when I was growing up. I was away at boarding school. But I came back for the Civil Rights period for about a year and a half, two years I was away. But then I came back to the results of that in the, you know, post integration, the post Civil Rights Movement, which was the beginning of
Rags Watkins: [00:46:30] some real push towards integration in the schools and everything. I gather there was actually quite a lot of it here. There was something called the, I think maybe the East McComb Walkout, or the, anyway, a lot of black students walked out. There were demonstrations here. I missed all of it. Apparently, Pike County has more church bombings than any other state.
Rags Watkins: [00:47:00] Any other county in the state. Which I also didn't know. There's a family that I was fairly close to, the daughter, and I'm still friends with her, and they were driven out of town. It was a messy time. I have no first-hand knowledge, however, of black people behaving badly, here. Or behaving in any way other than was completely understandable. Even these bad city council meetings in McComb are completely understandable
Rags Watkins: [00:47:30] I think the standoff is, you know, it's what happened. In McComb, McComb was, more context about McComb. McComb was the commercial center. It's different from towns like this town, Magnolia, which is next to McComb, or Summit, which is on the other side of McComb, in that they preexisted, McComb is a commercial center. It was the railroad that did that.
Rags Watkins: [00:48:00] And so people, back to this idea of intimacy, knew each other. And, you know, this neighborhood is, you know, you go down, this is a pretty mixed neighborhood. You would have always had that here. You would never have had it in McComb. You would have had one side of the tracks for the white folks, and the other side for the black folks. That's kind of how that went.
Mason Funk: [00:48:30] Yeah. Okay. Let's take a little break. And you can stretch. Walk me in, do you think? Through the backdoor?
Rags Watkins: I don't know. It's probably changed. Let me go look.
Mason Funk: Oh, I see. Okay.
Rags Watkins: This house has all, every room has a door or a window you can jump from. Hi Henry. Don't worry. You just stay there. It was James.
Mason Funk: It was James. Okay. In other words, you cannot get trapped in this house.
Rags Watkins: You can't. No. Well, she, apparently the piano teacher was terrified of fire.
Mason Funk: [00:49:00] Oh. Interesting.
Rags Watkins: And the doors are the thinnest, I've never seen such a thin door. I mean, you could just do that and get your hand through it.
Mason Funk: Okay. So tell me about your father and-
Rags Watkins: I-
Mason Funk: The story.
Rags Watkins: I was gone when all of this happened. But the story is-
Mason Funk: All of what? Sorry.
Rags Watkins: When, I'm sorry, I was gone when the Civil Rights Movement was occurring in McComb.
Rags Watkins: [00:49:30] First there was a list of people who were very against all of the violence that was occurring. People were being harassed. It was all coming from the white side, of course. People were having crosses burned in their front yards. People were, I mean, I just, I couldn't take it seriously, initially. I don't think I really even took it seriously
Rags Watkins: [00:50:00] until maybe I was an adult. But I remember my father, apparently, stood at the door of the church greeting people on ... Is this gonna be a problem with the dog?
Mason Funk: Yeah. If the dog barks.
Rags Watkins: The dog will bark.
Mason Funk: Oh, yeah.
Rags Watkins: We have to, okay, we have to do something here.
Mason Funk: Make an adjustment here. Okay.
Rags Watkins: Yeah, we have to make an adjustment here. Here. Hi buddy. Hi honey. Let me get James to take him out.
Mason Funk: [00:50:30] Okay. Okay.
Rags Watkins: Jamian. James? James? [inaudible] Oh fuck. [inaudible] He's sort of disappeared.
Mason Funk: [00:51:00] Oh [inaudible].
Rags Watkins: James? Fucking hell.
Mason Funk: All right.
Rags Watkins: In the Civil Rights Movement, in Mississippi, there were people coming and going all over the place. You never knew who anybody was, really. Or you didn't know who a lot of the strangers were
Rags Watkins: [00:51:30] or why they were here. And, certainly, you didn't know if they were making trouble or if they were being helpful. So my father, at church, the Episcopal church in McComb, stood at the door, at some point when this was happening, and he would basically welcome people. And he would sort of screen for troublemakers. And I ...
Rags Watkins: [00:52:00] In other words, not Civil Rights workers, but disrupters, who apparently were around kind of shaking things up. So I remember that. That story. There was a family, the Heffners, who were run out of town. There's a book by Hodding Carter called So the Heffners Left McComb. And he was very sympathetic to them. They also went to the Episcopal church.
Rags Watkins: [00:52:30] And talked to them. You know, went by and he ... They were basically blackballed. They were basically ostracized by a lot of people in McComb. And nobody would defend them, locally.
Mason Funk: Why were they ostracized?
Rags Watkins: Red, Red Heffner, everybody here has a picturesque name. And he was Albert Red Heffner.
Rags Watkins: [00:53:00] And he was trying to be a go-between between the preachers in town and in the black community and the white community as a way of sort of cooling things down and bringing things together. I mean, it was a noble act. But a lot of the white folks here didn't like it so much. And Albert Red went to the Episcopal church and the Episcopal church was standing up, doing what the Episcopal church does, which is stand up, you know, for this kind of thing. And they were, you know, trying to make peace,
Rags Watkins: [00:53:30] and trying to, you know, be genuinely helpful. And, as a result, the church was, I guess, somewhat targeted. Certainly the priest who was here, at the time, Colton Smith, was trying to do that. And, as a result, had to leave McComb. And the Heffners, who were part of the congregation, were trying to do the same.
Rags Watkins: [00:54:00] As I say, a noble act. And they were completely taunted and their house was circled, you know, by crazy white people whose names I know, but won't repeat. And they had to leave town. They received threats, everything. And, as I say, there's this book where you can read all about it.
Mason Funk: [00:54:30] Okay. Let's switch. I realize we continued in that vein-
Rags Watkins: I can say one thing about myself, which is that, when I came back from boarding school, I was asked by the principal, the superintendent of the school, if I would go over to the black high school, which was huge then, and I'm not really sure what I was doing. I mean, at the time, I thought, oh, ha-ha, I'm being a paid integrator.
Rags Watkins: [00:55:00] And I went to the speech class and I guess I was, like, you know, like a white person they could touch, or have interaction with somehow. It was never really clear to me what I was doing there. Except I was being a non hostile white face. And I would go over, you know, I think three times a week. The school would pay for my gas. And I, you know, went over there and I did that.
Rags Watkins: [00:55:30] And got to be slightly friendly with a few of the kids my age there. You know? But you do what little you can. I don't think I understood the importance of it so much, except I knew it was important at the time. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Mason Funk: Great. Okay. Let's talk about your sexual coming of age. [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Right.
Mason Funk: [00:56:00] How did that happen? How did you figure out who you were? Did you have a dramatic coming out? Or not dramatic?
Rags Watkins: No. I mean, I think I knew. I mean, I was, I mean, I've always been interested, let's see. There's always this, with my mother, there was a lot of nudity. There was a lot of let's swim in streams naked. We had, in California,
Rags Watkins: [00:56:30] we had a house in Russian River. And there was this stream that went in the backyard. And I remember lots of that. So I was always aware of bodies. And I was always more interested in men's bodies than women's bodies. But I was never ... And then I did this sort of normal playing around that kids do. And then it became clear to me that I just liked men better than women.
Rags Watkins: [00:57:00] But it was ... In high school I had, sort of, on the QT boyfriends, if you want to call them boyfriends. I dated women. And there's a big celebration in McComb, Mississippi called the Azalea Trail. And it has a court. And it has a king and a queen. And it has what would you call, anywhere else, or what you might call debutantes.
Rags Watkins: [00:57:30] So I was an escort for one of these ladies. And so I did all the stuff. I had a very charming girlfriend in high school. Very lovely, funny and all of that. And I wasn't having sex with girls, but I was having sex with boys. When I could. Later, I went to New Orleans and I would fool around with ... In New Orleans. There's a shopkeeper who I was having a little fling with.
Rags Watkins: [00:58:00] And then I was looking for sex. I mean, in that sense, I was no different from any other horny teenager. But I had to keep mine quiet. Now, I have other friends who, there's a brothel in McComb, Mississippi at that time. Because it was a railroad town. And, apparently, the girls switched out. And they sort of worked their way down in the, you know, I'm finding all this only now, really. And I had friends who did that.
Rags Watkins: [00:58:30] But, you know, I didn't, as far as women goes, I didn't sleep with a woman until I was 19. But I was always interested in, not only bodies, but sex. And I am still interested in sex. However, it changes as you age, obviously. So I tried very hard to be straight. Because my mother didn't approve of it. And my father was afraid I would be straight.
Rags Watkins: [00:59:00] Gay. Was afraid I would be straight, oh well. And, so, you know, I went to ... I had a lot of psychiatry growing up, from the time I was five. I remember when I got out of the draft, which everybody was doing at that time, in the Vietnam War, this was the late '60s, I got a letter from my psychiatrist
Rags Watkins: [00:59:30] and he had asked for letters from earlier psychiatrists to see. And the letter ... So I wrote to this man to get it from him. And the letter he wrote back said I had a confused sexual identity. I didn't know if I was a boy or a girl. Or, you know, and there was all this fear surrounding my sexuality at the time.
Rags Watkins: [01:00:00] So it was very different from now. So, you know, I had a lot of you can't be gay drummed into me. And also, in spite of the fact that my mother was, you know, really out there, man. And my father had fooled around. But there was some great fear around this. So, you know, eventually I went to a shrink. I had a girlfriend. Who I'm still in touch with.
Rags Watkins: [01:00:30] We lived together for a year and a half. We had a fairly conventional, I guess, sex life. At some point, she dumped me. At that point, I told her that I had been gay. Blah, blah, blah. And I like women. And, as friends, and it certainly is easier in the world was then being gay. It's still probably, being straight, I'm sorry. It's still probably is.
Rags Watkins: [01:01:00] And I had a nice time. But it just didn't really work out that way. And I got ... I graduated from college. I got involved with the art world. And, you know, I got come onto and I let it happen. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with it. Still. At one point, I broke up with my first serious boyfriend because I had this ...
Rags Watkins: [01:01:30] Cause I still hadn't found anybody who would say, "Go, it's okay to be gay. You know, it's all right."
Mason Funk: So, let me ask you this, the psychiatrists that you went and saw, were they of the persuasion that this was something that you needed to be cured of?
Rags Watkins: Yeah.
Mason Funk: So tell me about-
Rags Watkins: Well, in several ... In one case I thought I needed to be cured of it. In college I thought, you know,
Rags Watkins: [01:02:00] I've got to, I've gotta be cured, you know. I've gotta, you know, I've gotta fit in. So that was the first one. And then the second one, I wasn't, the one I had in New York, I wasn't really sure if ... I still wasn't comfortable, in spite of having had this great boyfriend, who was also in the art world,
Rags Watkins: [01:02:30] but in Philadelphia. And I broke up with him. And then I dated women for about five minutes. But, in the meantime, I dumped this, you know, to this day, one of my favorite boyfriends.
Mason Funk: So what were the psychiatrists, like, give me the drill. Like, what would they say? What was their mentality? How did they, why did they think you were drawn to men and how were they gonna fix you? And make sure to refer to them as the shrinks you went to see, or something like that.
Rags Watkins: Right.
Mason Funk: [01:03:00] In other words, explain this to someone who has never been to a shrink [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Who tried to do that.
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Rags Watkins: I don't know that it was so much a drill, as it was my own inner ... My own inner thing. It was maybe what I brought to it. Certainly, in college, more in college than afterwards.
Rags Watkins: [01:03:30] You know, he thought, with my father, I had had too much mothering. I remember that. But I suspect that means that it was a little suffocating. I think he was trying to get at, you know, "You're being suffocated with too much attention from your father." And then I guess I was curious about it.
Rags Watkins: [01:04:00] I mean, in retrospect, and now, going forward, I can say that, you know, life is an experiment. And so I guess, to a certain extent, I was experimenting with a straight identity. But it didn't take. It didn't take. I mean, I loved this woman, but, you know, we're not gonna get married and have babies or, you know, it just isn't, it's not gonna be where I go.
Rags Watkins: [01:04:30] And I think I was also interested, it wasn't just about gay, it was about ... It was a larger, even a larger identity thing of being like a conventional person instead of, you know, not ... So I could go in my mother's direction, which is wild and crazy. Or I could go in my father's direction which was, like, completely buttoned up and, you know, all about, I don't know, being a fabulous middle class person,
Rags Watkins: [01:05:00] or something in doing all the bourgeois stuff. My father was very involved in, among other things, he had gone to Tulane in New Orleans. He was very involved in whatever that was about. Whatever New Orleans was about. Whatever bourgeois life is in the south. And New Orleans is a high point 'cause they've got parades around it, you know. And they have real debutantes and real balls.
Rags Watkins: [01:05:30] I mean, to the extent that Mardi Gras is real. I mean, it's real. But it's, you know, it's just a higher level of the Azalea Trail in McComb, really. With a lot more money involved. And he was seduced by that, having been to New Orleans for school. And I lived with him. And so I wanted to please my father. And I tried to, you know, I always tried to be a good son.
Rags Watkins: [01:06:00] So, you know, so I'm torn between that. I can also say, growing up in this environment, it's on topic and off topic, is that Rags has two mommies. And it's fine to talk about it in San Francisco, but you cannot talk about it in McComb, Mississippi. I was always very discouraged from discussing my mother. Discussing her girlfriend.
Rags Watkins: [01:06:30] Discussing my life out there. Everything. People I've grown up with always thought I was from New Orleans. They didn't know I was from San Francisco. They have no clue about who my mother is. They just know who my grandparents are. They know who my father's family is. They know nothing about my mother. So everything about my mother had to stay secret when I was growing up. I had to have a whole, sort of,
Rags Watkins: [01:07:00] I had to have a secret identity as being from California, and having this wild life, you know, with my mother, and being gay, and glamorous. She's, now, she seems to be becoming a famous lesbian.
Mason Funk: So it's weird. Because, on one hand, everything is ... Your mother's life has to be a huge secret, but in the meantime that very same reason, that very thing she's displaying and living, is also in you. I can only imagine what that's [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: [01:07:30] And so is what my father displaying living. So I'm kind of, you know, I don't ... I still don't fit easily anywhere. And it has less to do with being gay, which now seems one of the more normal things you can be in the world, than, you know, just a world view difference.
Mason Funk: The tension between the crazy bohemian life and the ultra-
Rags Watkins: [01:08:00] Conservative bourgeois life. Right. My partner, James Middleton, suffers from my split. He has a more unified background. I mean, he has his own problems. But he doesn't have quite as dramatic a split as I do.
Mason Funk: How would you say that, in this day and age, how does that split, and make sure to tell us what the split is what we're talking about, how does that continue to be something that you're working out?
Rags Watkins: [01:08:30] Well, the whole idea of who I am privately and who I am publicly, I'm moving more toward public. Whatever that is. And I guess I find out things about myself when I do that. I have a great deal of anger. And I'm sort of realizing I'm angry. People, other people identified it before me. But, you know, I can kind of deal with that a little bit.
Rags Watkins: [01:09:00] I just work with resolving it. Those splits. I try to embrace them. I try to live them more. I was very, back to the psychiatrists that I went to, who were, either by their doing, or my doing, were encouraging me to be straight. Oh God, I just lost it again, I'm sorry.
Mason Funk: That's all right.
Rags Watkins: [01:09:30] It's getting so complicated. There's so many layers. I finally did find a psychiatrist, a therapist, Rachel Thomas. She had pearls. She had a cigarette. She had her purse sitting right there. She was like one of the Italian ladies from the neighborhood. She would say, "Rags, I think you're shitting me." And she would do that. She was marvelous. And her husband taught theater.
Rags Watkins: [01:10:00] And she had gone to Yale. And she was like a lady, I live in an Italian, a formerly Italian neighborhood in New York, and so she was like one of the ladies from the neighborhood. Except that she had this brain and this level of elegance that was wonderful. And, you know, she'd spend a lot of time, she'd tell me the truth about homosexuals.
Rags Watkins: [01:10:30] "Homosexuals are not named Bruce, they're named Sheldon. That is a homosexual name. Sheldon. That's the difference."
Mason Funk: That's funny. I've always thought of Bruce as a gay name.
Rags Watkins: No, Sheldon.
Mason Funk: Okay. But what does that [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: She was great ... What that means is so what? So what? It's not important.
Rags Watkins: [01:11:00] And that helped me. And then, also, I think the AIDS crisis, and it was, and continues to be, internationally, and here at home, and, I mean, it's not going away anytime soon, helped me act out. The idea of my first boyfriend, who died of AIDS, not my first boyfriend, but my first, the first man I lived with openly,
Rags Watkins: [01:11:30] and I, John Lander, from Canada, Canadian, went to a kiss-in that Act Up did. And it was just a silly gesture out in ... Across from the Stonewall Inn in San Francisco ... In New York.
Rags Watkins: [01:12:00] And it was, you know, just something lame. It was early in the movement. And it was just lame and we stood there and somebody reacts and we kissed. And then we went home. And it was not in any large way transformative. But then I, you know, I sort of got, that sort of interested me. And then John died and more people died. It got up to 50 and I stopped counting.
Rags Watkins: [01:12:30] I'm not talking Rock Hudson, I'm talking about, like, people I knew. Would have had dinner with. And then I sort of did ... So I got encouragement from this psychiatrist. I got encouragement from what was going on in the world. There seemed to be an occasion that needed to be risen to with HIV.
Rags Watkins: [01:13:00] I started going to a church in New York, St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson street. And the rector that had decided, at some point, because that was the epicenter of the gay scene in New Orleans ... In New York in those days. And there were a lot of people kind of wandering around, even pre- AIDS. And he said, "You know, we need to minister to,"
Rags Watkins: [01:13:30] he said, "these people." You know, this is the local community. And so that's who we have to reach out to. And so it became known, eventually, I think, as the gay church in the Village. But I started going there. Not because it was gay, but because I had been going to another, because of AIDS, and a lot of other things, I had started going back to church. And I got pissed off at the church I was going to, which is irrelevant, actually.
Rags Watkins: [01:14:00] More important was that there was a ministry that the two churches shared. A homeless person ministry and people slept in basements. And you would make these guys sandwiches and set up the beds and take the beds away and, you know, just be a human being or them. So it would be at one church one week, and at another church the other week. So one week I went to that church and I just liked the way it felt. It's a beautiful new building. It's fabulous music, you know. It just felt like a real live place.
Rags Watkins: [01:14:30] And I went there once and I tried it and I stayed there. And they were very big on, apparently at the height, or the depths, of the AIDS crisis, there was, like, there were, like, two or three funerals a week. It was serious. And so they ... It became a very, I wouldn't say militant, churches aren't really ... the Episcopals are too polite to be militant. But, you know, so I started marching in Gay Pride.
Rags Watkins: [01:15:00] I had done it once before. But I started getting a little more ... I got more support for who I was. You know? And the big support ... The important thing of support, I mean, for young folks, for anybody, it's support. It's recognition, approval, respect, support. You know? And it helped me. It helped me.
Rags Watkins: [01:15:30] And then, after my previous lover died, then I wound up meeting, after John Lander died, I wound up meeting James Middleton, who you met earlier, and who's around here somewhere. And we connected and, you know, we've been together. All my other boyfriends are dead too. Which is heartbreaking. They would have been my family, you know, now, if they were alive.
Mason Funk: [01:16:00] But, in a weird way, it sounds like, what you're saying, is that the AIDS epidemic, it almost, like, it gave you something to hang your [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Yeah, it was like the Civil Rights thing. Back to my mother. She was an old Commie. So, you know, I was kind of set up to be interested in actions and causes and,
Rags Watkins: [01:16:30] you know, that sort of thing. And then there was the Civil Rights Movement and then there was the AIDS thing. Now, I know people who are much, much more involved in AIDS activism than I am. Much more. But, you know, it's been a help to me. I putter along, I do what I can. Despite, I guess, primarily living a decent life and, yeah.
Mason Funk: [01:17:00] Hold on a second. That was a train.
Rags Watkins: Oh, it's gonna be here or a while.
Mason Funk: Is that so?
Rags Watkins: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let's just-
Rags Watkins: Not a while. But it'll be here, you know, it'll pass through town.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Could I just-
Rags Watkins: And the- [crosstalk] I mean, I don't know the train schedule. But-
Mason Funk: Okay. Let's pick up again.
Rags Watkins: But, you know, I think you're fine. I think that's just about crossing the intersection.
Mason Funk: Right. Okay. So, you were saying you were raised by your mom was an old commie. And so you kind of came, oh no, you said, you know [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: [01:17:30] She was an old Commie.
Mason Funk: The question I had was how do you think the epidemic changed the lives of, or changed the entire trajectory-
Rags Watkins: Complex and trajectory, yeah.
Mason Funk: Of the LGBTQ community up until the present?
Rags Watkins: I think it gave a lot of people a purpose.
Mason Funk: Tell me what you're talking about.
Rags Watkins: [01:18:00] As far as purpose?
Mason Funk: No, I mean, like the AIDS epidemic. Don't say "It".
Rags Watkins: Oh, okay. I think the AIDS epidemic gave a lot of people a purpose. I think it basically humanized the face of the gay community. Everybody has a gay brother, everybody has a gay uncle. Everybody has a gay cousin. Everybody knows somebody in a store or at their church or, you know, in life, who's gay.
Rags Watkins: [01:18:30] You may know it, you may not know it. But the point is it's humanized those people. And so you realize, oh, gay people aren't so bad. Gay people are just normal people, you know. Having normal lives. And, you know, and, you know, and that was it. And, for a lot of people, you know,
Rags Watkins: [01:19:00] it humanized the face and it created a whole well of sympathy, of support. It, you know, people came out of the woodwork. As many straight people, probably more straight people than gay people. I think it was a healing. It was a high, terrible price to pay. Terrible.
Rags Watkins: [01:19:30] But I ... Excuse me. But I think it's really, it has a silver lining. I hope. I think it does. I believe it does.
Mason Funk: Still comes up, it seems like.
Rags Watkins: It still comes up, yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah. It must be, like, you can go days and days and weeks and weeks and months and months without, kind of, like, remembering.
Rags Watkins: [01:20:00] Right. I had a terrible experience, or a telling experience, shortly after the boyfriend I broke up with died, because I wanted to be straight. He and I had gone to the same dentist. And I was at the dentist's office and he said, "Oh, what's happened to your friend Michael Quiggly, I haven't seen him for a while." And I just lost it.
Rags Watkins: [01:20:30] I just fell apart. And I, you know, I just burst into tears. And, you know, I thought I was all kind of pulled together and stuff. Maybe a year later. It comes up. Not for a while. I try not to think about it. Self preservation. You know?
Rags Watkins: [01:21:00] I try to do things to help. At St. Luke's they have an AIDS dinner which, you know, so people ... It's been going on since the '80s. And now it's kind of dwindling because of the drugs, you know, have changed things.
Mason Funk: How about down here in Mississippi? I know you weren't living here. But did you have enough contact down here in Mississippi
Mason Funk: [01:21:30] to know what it was like to be living in Mississippi during the epidemic? How people here coped and didn't cope?
Rags Watkins: I didn't. I didn't know any gay people down here.
Mason Funk: Okay. Okay.
Rags Watkins: I had ... My life was ... I was down here for Christmas, a little time in the summer and funerals. Now, I'm down here more often. And I've been going to weddings.
Mason Funk: [01:22:00] Of probably like [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Of straight people. Nieces and nephews and-
Mason Funk: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rags Watkins: That sort of thing. And to have my sisters, you know. They're happier occasions. But-
Mason Funk: Been to any gay weddings down here?
Rags Watkins: No, not here. I've been to some in New York. I've been to a couple in New York.
Mason Funk: Just, out of curiosity, have you and James ever thought about getting married?
Rags Watkins: [01:22:30] We did. But I'm too ambivalent.
Mason Funk: Why? What's your ambivalence about?
Rags Watkins: My father was married three times. I saw too much drama. I don't have children to protect. It's primarily, and then there are financial reasons, you know, that having to do with Medicare and taxes and all that crap. But it's really because I'm ambivalent.
Rags Watkins: [01:23:00] And I have to say, you know, I've never been totally middle class anyway. I mean, I'd like the party. The party would be great, you know. Wear a big dress. Get, you know, appliances. But it's not for me really.
Rags Watkins: [01:23:30] And I'd rather, you know, I had meant I kind of liked the old sort of, I mean, I like this sort of, if not the bad boy thing, I kind of like the outsider-ness of it a little bit, you know?
Mason Funk: Do you think we've lost something in the marriage equality movement?
Rags Watkins: No.
Mason Funk: No? Okay. You're not one of those people who thinks that we sold out?
Rags Watkins: No. Some people do. I mean,
Rags Watkins: [01:24:00] I know that argument. It, you know, it's like anything. I mean, I know a lot of straight women in New York, and they are very happy being straight single women. They don't need men. And it's not because they would rather be with women, they like men, they sleep with men. They don't want to be married. I mean, it's, you know, you don't have to be married to be happy. So, there you go.
Mason Funk: [01:24:30] Yeah. Hey Natalie? Do you have questions?
Natalie Tsui: No.
Mason Funk: Not right now? I'll give you a couple more times, or give you a chance in a minute here. So we do, to wrap up, I have four standard questions I ask everybody. The first one is if somebody comes to you and says, you know, "Rags, I'm thinking about coming out," whoever this person might be, what dollop of wisdom, or from your own experience, would you offer that person?
Rags Watkins: [01:25:00] I would encourage it. The sooner the better, really. I'm only ... If I have a regret about my own it's that I didn't have ... That I didn't come out sooner. And that's my only regret. And that I had so much fear around it. Because, I mean, even people, people were way, people my own age were way ahead of me in dealing with all that stuff
Rags Watkins: [01:25:30] when I got to New York. I mean, there were people my age, and they had been out forever. And it was okay. And, you know, they had all the variety of lives that anybody might have. That any population might have, you know. It's, you know, some of them had, like, very conventional lives. Some of them were total party kids. Some of them were, you know,
Rags Watkins: [01:26:00] did the whole Fire Island thing, which intimidated me terribly. I don't know why. It's because of this. Because of my background. I mean, I know why. As a friend of mine said, recently, a woman, she looked at me, we were talking about all this stuff, I guess. And she said, "Oh, Rags, you never had a chance." And, at first, I resented it. The way we all resent the truth. But, you know, as I think about it, she's, you know,
Rags Watkins: [01:26:30] and I look at my life I think, well, yeah. You know? I guess not. So, you know, I wish I had had more support growing up. So I would give that to anyone who asked my opinion.
Mason Funk: Right. Did you come out to your folks eventually?
Rags Watkins: Yes. I came out to my father, who always knew. Or feared. Or something.
Rags Watkins: [01:27:00] Oh, I can give you an early example of shame, but that will be maybe later. Child-
Mason Funk: Maybe go ahead.
Rags Watkins: Oh.
Mason Funk: In other words, we're near the end, so, go on back.
Rags Watkins: I had a childhood friend. My father and I would go to New Orleans on the weekends for the psychiatrist. And because he wanted to date. And 'cause he'd been to Tulane he knew all these people.
Rags Watkins: [01:27:30] And we would stay with this marvelous family, the Barrets on, the Barrets of Webster Street. And there was a boy and a girl about my age, and then there were somebody older and somebody younger. But the ... And, you know, kids are curious. And so I fooled around with the little girl a little bit. And I fooled around with the little boy a little bit, the way kids do. At some point the little boy came up here and we were in, we were at my grandmother's house,
Rags Watkins: [01:28:00] and they were sitting around boozing it up in the other room. Oh, they were having cocktails, sorry. The Barrets would have been more 'cause that's how they were. They were like my mother. They were like my California family. It was the same kind of looseness and, you know, they weren't like ... They were like my mother, but they weren't nuts. And they were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Later. But, anyway, so Sean came up and we were in my grandmother's house,
Rags Watkins: [01:28:30] and everybody was in the next room. And we were being, 'cause we had fooled around, and we were little boys, you know, we, little boys have these sort of problem dicks that do things. And so we were lying on the bed sort of doing this on the bed and we were being like slaves who being forced to hump the sheet, or something like that. I don't know. It's little boy play. I mean, it was perfectly innocent. And so I guess we were making noise. And my father came in and discovered this and had to tell my grandmother
Rags Watkins: [01:29:00] what was going on. And then Sean got all upset. And then he left. And then we were never friends again. And it was a real ... 'Cause he was like my brother ... He was the nearest thing ... I was a lonely kid, 'cause I was an only child. And so he introduced me to Mad Magazine. Down here there's something in New Orleans called Morgus the Magnificent. It was a horror show on Saturday night, you know? And, you know, he was like my big brother.
Rags Watkins: [01:29:30] And he was showing me the way. And so I really kind of depended on him. I realize now, as, you know, a man, I could ... A fellow man person who I could be friends with. And it just destroyed our friendship. It was my first experience of kind of sexual shame. As, like, a gay thing. Later, now, thanks to Facebook, we're kind of in touch.
Rags Watkins: [01:30:00] And they eventually moved away to Florida or someplace. So I lost touch with them. But now we're sort of back in touch. Anyway. Poignant.
Mason Funk: Yeah. For sure. For sure.
Rags Watkins: Poignant.
Mason Funk: Do you think you'll ever see him again?
Rags Watkins: I saw him once in New York. And, recently, he said on Facebook, "We should get together? It's been too long." And I hope we do. He became a doctor.
Rags Watkins: [01:30:30] And he has this great wife and these two completely kinky totally interesting kids who I guess in their 20s, or something. And I'm sort of interested to see ... I'm kind of interested to see ... They're people I ... They're still people I'd like to know. By the way, in San Francisco, I still know people who I see. And I have kept all of my ... I have kept relationships from every part of my life.
Rags Watkins: [01:31:00] And I keep them pretty much up to date still. I'm very sentimental about that. And I guess, coming from no place, I need to hold onto things. So. Ask me another question.
Mason Funk: That's one of my defining characteristics as well, interestingly. I have relationships from [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: It's nice though. It's nice. The only sadness is that they're not all in one place.
Mason Funk: Right. It's a good reason to get married. Okay. Here's my next question.
Rags Watkins: [01:31:30] Sure.
Mason Funk: [crosstalk] What is your hope for the future?
Rags Watkins: I have a lot of health problems. So that they don't kill me before I can have some kind of third act, or whatever one has, at the, you know, when you've done what you thought was going to be a career, or whatever that is. When you've cashed in your chips.
Rags Watkins: [01:32:00] I'm sort of at ... I recently ... I was an art dealer so I sold something and it's now allowing me to retire. And that, and social security, and Medicare, please, single payer healthcare, please, universal. So my hope for the future is that I stay healthy and, you know, sort of just see what the rest of my life is,
Rags Watkins: [01:32:30] you know, what this experiment, what this turns into, you know. I've got more brains than I had before. I've got a better sense of self, I think, than I've had. I will continue to make mistakes and, you know, the rest of it. But, you know, I'm kind of curious. I suffer from depression, big deal. So does everybody. I don't know. Have a life, you know. Try to be helpful where I can be helpful, you know.
Mason Funk: [01:33:00] Those are good hopes.
Rags Watkins: You know? I'm not gonna, you know, I'm not gonna be the king of anything, or, you know, I'm just ... Most of my life's behind me. So, I mean, this is who I am. So I guess I would like to, like, fully be whatever that is. So that's it. And also do a bunch more traveling, you know. Which I like to do.
Mason Funk: [01:33:30] Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Rags Watkins: Because it's too interesting an opportunity not to. Nobody ever wanted to hear it. Like this. From this point of view. I mean, I've had a lot of psychiatry. And a lot of yak with friends. People don't really, mostly people don't want to know your story in a broad way.
Rags Watkins: [01:34:00] And this is an opportunity for me to put it together. And to talk about it. And you are providing the grid. You're proving the framework for me to do that. And that's very valuable to me. I think it's valuable to anybody to, you know, have a good sense of where they come ... Where they came from. What formed them. How they dealt with it. Who they are.
Rags Watkins: [01:34:30] I mean, it's good. It's ... How could that be bad? How could that be bad?
Mason Funk: And, final question, this project's being called OUTWORDS. And, essentially, it's this, hopefully on a national scale. Nooks and crannies. All different types of people in the queer community. What do you see is the value of a project like OUTWORDS? And if you could mention OUTWORDS in your answer.
Rags Watkins: [01:35:00] Well, the value of the OUTWORDS archive, I guess that's the best way to put it, it's an archive, is just to show that we gay people are all kinds of people. I mean, it's only one part of who we are. It's only one part of, you know, we're a broad community. We're a lot of people. I mean, we're a lot of different people. I mean, there are drag queens,
Rags Watkins: [01:35:30] there are, I don't know, there are all those various fetishes. I mean, I don't know where the line between, you know, one category and another of a human being really, I mean, we're all ... We're part of that continuum of human ... Sorry. Of who humans are, you know. And it's ... I mean, I think ... I think that's a valuable lesson. I went to,
Rags Watkins: [01:36:00] I sometimes go to a nude beach in New Jersey called Sandy Hook. It has a gay part. And it has a straight part. And the gay part is much more modest than the straight part. So, I mean, any stereotypes you may have about who any bunch of people is, you know, if you really look at who people are, all people, all sexualities, all races, all colors, all religions,
Rags Watkins: [01:36:30] we're pretty diverse. I mean, humans are a diverse group. And, you know, and we are, what, 10% of that diverse group? So, you know, I ain't got no agenda. There's nothing to be scared of. I just want to live my life, you know. And I think that's all really anybody wants in some kind of peaceable state. That's what I think the value is. So, you know.
Mason Funk: [01:37:00] Awesome.
Rags Watkins: So I'm one of those.
Mason Funk: Awesome. That's fantastic. Natalie, did you have any questions before we wrap?
Natalie Tsui: Okay, I have one question, which is can talk a little bit about your career?
Mason Funk: And talk to me.
Rags Watkins: Okay. My career. I think my career was largely based on my history.
Rags Watkins: [01:37:30] And, it sounds sort of sad, but getting back to, maybe going back to California to be in a creative ... My roots of being in a kind of creative community with characters. And so I had no strong vocational direction.
Rags Watkins: [01:38:00] I could have done architecture, which my father did. And I was told I could ... I was told by my father that I could be anything I wanted, except a hairdresser or a decorator. Sounds like dog whistle? Gay dog whistle?
Rags Watkins: [01:38:30] So I wound up, when I got to college I discovered there was this thing called art history. And I had a friend who was taking it. And it looked sort of interesting. And he had been in the Whitney program. And so I learned that there was, in addition to artists, there was a larger, kind of, professional group of people who worked in the art world. And that interested me.
Rags Watkins: [01:39:00] And, also, you know, I was young. It seemed kind of glamorous. And it wasn't just, you know, like, sitting around bending wire and being earnest or whatever you're doing in the studio. It was ... It looked like a big world, you know. And I liked museums. My beloved grandma, Sadie, [crosstalk] would take me-
Natalie Tsui: I can see the shirt, the tape in your shirt [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Oh, sorry. Oh.
Mason Funk: So, go ahead.
Rags Watkins: [01:39:30] My beloved grandmother, Sadie, Sadie Tolk would take me to museums in San Francisco and so I loved museums. And I knew Ruth Asawa in San Francisco, so I knew about the creative process. My mother made paintings. She had a show at the de Young Museum. This is one of the many facets of my brilliant, insane, unstable mother. So she was also an artist. Painter.
Rags Watkins: [01:40:00] And so it sort of made sense to study art history and get a job in the art world. So I did that. And I was interested in ... My boyfriend, Michael Quiggly, was also in the art world. He had worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia at Penn. And he, after I met him, there was all this art.
Rags Watkins: [01:40:30] It was like File Magazine, which was the Canadian group- [crosstalk] general idea with A. Bronson and those people, who I later met. So I got very interested in that sort of, I don't know what you would call ... Maybe that's identity art. I'm not sure, really, where you put it. It's its own thing.
Mason Funk: Don't talk to Natalie. Don't talk to Natalie.
Rags Watkins: Okay.
Mason Funk: I know she spoke, but don't talk to her.
Rags Watkins: [01:41:00] Okay. I got interested in, sort of, more conceptually, more intellectually-based material. And so ... And so then I worked for, I worked for the state council in the ... I'd worked in Cincinnati at some point at the Contemporary Art Center there. Let's see, what did I do? I left school. I worked at a gallery in Chicago. Then I got a job
Rags Watkins: [01:41:30] at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a guy named Jack Bolton. Then I left there, and I was sort of introduced to the New York scene. And contemporary international art. And then I decided to move to New York because it was where my mother was from. I think everything is biography, if you have too much biography. And I kind of think I have too much biography.
Rags Watkins: [01:42:00] And I moved to New York and I worked for the state council in the arts, freelance. I worked for a dealer named Carl Solway, freelance. Then I got a job at a place that was ... Has turned out, historically, to be important in contemporary art, called Artist Space. And then I worked in ... And that was kind of the most interesting arc in my career. Then I met the boyfriend who I kind of ...
Rags Watkins: [01:42:30] Who I sort of stuck with and came out with. John Lander. And I just became more interested in my personal life than my career. Which is maybe a problem. Because the art world is, like, if you want to succeed it's a religion. It's an art world. It's like being a movie star. It's like everything is focused on that, you know.
Rags Watkins: [01:43:00] Everything is focused on that. And it's gotten much worse, actually. So I worked at a gallery of no consequence called Concord for four years when I was first with John. And then I worked for a secondary market dealer named Jason McCoy. And he was Jackson Pollock's nephew.
Rags Watkins: [01:43:30] So he had access to pretty interesting stuff. And that was fun because I got to learn about the secondary market. And then I worked for a couple other galleries. An old gallery called, what is that place called? James Grahams and Sons, which has been around since the 19th century. And nothing was as interesting as Artist Space. And I didn't really like commerce. Except was sort of seduced, initially, by the money.
Rags Watkins: [01:44:00] I met a lot of people. I met enough people in museums. And I liked them. I met curators. Primarily curators. And I was ... I'm still, one of my best friends is still, is somebody who worked at the Museum of Modern Art. And I sort of help him now and then. He's retired. But I knew, you know, and I sort of moved around in that world.
Rags Watkins: [01:44:30] But I wasn't really, I've never been a killer. And you have to be quite ... It's an art world. The first place, you have to give your life to it. And you have to be more avid than I am. And so I was never really much of a dealer. And, at some point, when I was 47,
Rags Watkins: [01:45:00] I had a heart attack. And so that, I had already had HIV, and, you know, and that was sort of the, you know, my health has been kind of, I've been dealing with heart issues and diabetes issues. So it really didn't go on, I guess, oh, and then I tried to, then I decided, since I couldn't work, I would reinvent myself, not as a hairdresser, but a decorator.
Rags Watkins: [01:45:30] So I did some design work. And, you know, and that's kind of petered out. And I'm perfectly happy for it to peter out because I hate dealing with people. I hate dealing with clients, as they're called. Clients. And it's not about any, I mean, art is more interesting, because at least it's about ideas, you know. And I'm not really very interested in conventional interiors.
Rags Watkins: [01:46:00] As you can tell. And so, you know, I wasn't really very good at that. I was not as ... I was ... It ain't me. So that ... Does that answer my fabulous trajectory?
Mason Funk: Yeah. That's good.
Rags Watkins: I mean, I'm somebody who had potential. But I didn't have focus or the need or, you know, I ... It's ...
Rags Watkins: [01:46:30] I feel sort of guilty about it. I feel like I should have been, like, a regular conventional, you know, like, mocker. But I'm not. You know, it, like, my friend Ruth said, you know, as far as that life goes, I never had a chance. It's taken me a lot of time to accept it. But it's okay. I mean, it is what it is. As the annoying expression goes.
Mason Funk: That expression.
Rags Watkins: Should I-
Mason Funk: [01:47:00] Excellent.
Rags Watkins: That's it.
Mason Funk: Do you have any other questions?
Natalie Tsui: That's it. Yeah.
Mason Funk: All right, we should [crosstalk]
Rags Watkins: Have we covered everything?
Mason Funk: I think we did a good job covering, yeah.
Rags Watkins: Good.
Natalie Tsui: Is there anything you feel like we missed?
Rags Watkins: No. I mean, there are secret things that I don't want on camera that I'll tell you about. But I won't allow them to be filmed. Could you turn the camera off?
Natalie Tsui: Should we cut?
Mason Funk: Yeah, we should.
Natalie Tsui: Okay. I'm gonna-

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Natalie Tsui
Date: July 10, 2017
Location: Home of Rags Watkins, Magnolia, MS