By Ed Staskus
I was planting Japanese yews in our backyard when our next door neighbor KJ came out his side door with several trash bags. It was late April and storms were predicted for the next couple of days. The weather forecast suited my purposes. Every new yew got a handful of slow release fertilizer and a promise of plentiful rain. KJ swung the bags up and into the trash bin. I hadn’t seen him since December. He told me he had been in Los Angeles all winter, pitching a movie idea.
“What’s the idea?” I asked.
“One-Eyed Charley is the idea,” KJ said.
“Who is One-Eyed Charley?”
“Charley was a woman in the 19th century who pretended to be a man so she could drive stagecoaches.”
My ears pricked up. My wife and I had just watched a restored version of John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach” on the Criterion Channel. John Wayne was the Ringo Kid. He talked low, talked slow, and didn’t say too much. A roly-poly man called Buck handled the reins and whip on the way from the Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico. He sounded like a teenage girl whenever he spoke. Curly Wilcox rode shotgun. He sounded like a he-man. The only people who messed with him were the local savages, who swore by cheap whiskey and unarmed men. By the time they found out Curly was armed to the teeth it was too late for a last shot of rotgut.
When I first met KJ it was the late 20-teens and he had just moved in. We talked for a few minutes, getting acquainted. He was easy to talk to. He was also girlish looking. When I mentioned him to my wife I told her a young woman who was a teacher with a Ph.D. was our new neighbor. The last person who rented the second floor of the two-family house next to us on the west end of Lakewood had not been a good neighbor. The only Ph.D. he had was in headbanging with an undergraduate degree in weed. KJ looked like a big improvement.
“She specializes in gender studies at Oberlin College,” I told my wife.
“She drives all that way every day?”
“I thought it was far, too, but KJ says it only takes her about a half-hour.”
KJ Cerankowski teaches Comparative American Studies and is a writer with interests in asexuality, queer theory, and transgender issues. He has authored numerous articles, including the 2021 Symonds Prize winning essay “The ‘End’ of Orgasm: The Erotics of Durational Pleasures.” His poetry and prose have been published in Pleiades and DIAGRAM. He is the co-editor of “Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives” and the author of the recently published book “Suture: Trauma and Trans Becoming.”
“I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live,” KJ says. “I gather the fragments that will never fit together to make a whole. I want the trauma to be poetry, but I cannot find the right timing, the right words, the right image. I ask how this constellation of events makes me desire or not desire, makes me desirable or undesirable, makes me like a man or a man.”
The year after I met our neighbor was when I began to realize she was a gal on her way to becoming a guy. She told me it was a long process, but she was committed to it. For people transitioning from female to male, the process includes hormonal therapy and surgery. Gender-affirming surgery includes chest surgery, such as a mastectomy, and bottom surgery, such as a hysterectomy. I knew there was loads of antagonism in the land about transgender anything, but it didn’t make any difference to me. She looked like she minded her p’s and q’s and didn’t run red lights, which was more than enough for me.
When somebody runs a red light in front of me and I have to stomp hard on my brakes, I don’t think about what gender they are. I don’t wonder or generalize about their race or income or social status. The first thing that pops into my mind is, “What an asshole!” After that I take a deep breath and go my way.
“You went to Hollywood to beat the drum for making a motion picture?” I asked KJ again, even though I knew there is no real place called Hollywood where movies are made. Hollywood is a state of mind, a global business, not a place.
“Yes, a friend of mine and I have an idea for a movie about One-Eyed Charley,” KJ said. “We had a meeting with Sony. They liked our idea and were encouraging but said it wasn’t right for them. ‘Don’t give up,’ they said. They sent us to their TV division where they thought it might work better. We are teaching ourselves how to write a screenplay.”
The Cambridge Dictionary last year revised their definition of “man” and “woman” to include people who do not identify with the sex they were at birth. “Man” now includes the definition “an adult who lives and identifies as a male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.” The updated definition of “woman” is “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.” It made sense to me since sex and gender identity don’t always adhere to one another.
Talking heads far and wide went ballistic. Daily Caller writer Mary Rooke said, “Fucking traitors to the truth. Cambridge Dictionary is only the latest. If we don’t stop them from erasing women our civilization is ngmi.” I knew what ‘fucking traitors’ meant. I had no idea what ‘ngmi’ meant. Mary Rooke didn’t bother defining it since she was too busy cursing up a storm.
“Remember, if you control the language, you control the population,” Steven Crowder, a popular conservative TV pundit, posted on Twitter. Since many former employees claim he runs an “abusive” company, where he often spits and screams at the hired hands, including his own father, makes underlings wash his dirty clothes, according to the laundromat, and exposes his genitals, according to the New York Post, I ignored his tweet.
“Transgenderism is the most dangerous extremist movement in the United States,” Tucker Carlson said on FOX News. Since he has a laundry list of most dangerous extremist movements, I ignored what he said, too. I would never get any sleep if I paid attention to the never-ending warnings of his kind. The end of the world is always near on FOX News.
Charlotte Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812. She was orphaned early in life and delivered to an orphanage. She soon enough dressed up like a boy and ran away. She ended up near Boston cleaning stables. A livery owner took her in, raising her as his own, and trained her to handle horses and drive coaches. When the Gold Rush started happening in 1848 she went west to find her fortune. Instead, no sooner did she get there but a horse spooked by a rattlesnake kicked her in the face. She lost her sight in one eye but didn’t lose sight of the prize. She realized she could do better as a skilled stage driver than panning for gold in some God-forsaken stream bed in northern California. She put on a black eyepatch and rode both whip and shotgun for the California Stage Company. She got so good with her whip that she could slice open the end of an envelope from twenty feet away. She could cut a cigar out of a man’s mouth without drawing blood.
She became One-Eyed Charley. Some called her Cockeyed Charley, but only behind her back. She became a ‘Jehus,’ one of the best and fastest coach drivers in California. Jehu was a Biblical king who in the second Book of Kings is described as a man who “driveth furiously.” She carried goods and passengers up and down the state for nearly twenty years, mainly on the passages between Monterey and San Francisco, and Sacramento to Grass Valley.
She was short and stout and a hard-living son-of-a-gun, a loner who chewed tobacco and drank like a fish. She could curse like the devil. Charley had more than her fair share of manpower and could handle all takers in a fight. She slept by herself in station relay stables, curling up with her horses. She kept her whip close beside her. It was a five-foot hickory shaft with buckskin lashes 12 feet long. She kept the lashes well-oiled so they stayed as limber as a snake in the sun.
One-Eyed Charley dealt with would-be thieves whenever she had to. She was hauling gold bullion for Wells Fargo when she shot and killed Sugarfoot, an infamous road agent, near Stockton after he tried to hold her up. Wells Fargo rewarded her with a solid gold watch and chain. “Indians and grizzly bears were a major menace,” the New York Times wrote in 1969. “The state lines of California in the post-Gold Rush period were certainly no place for a lady, and nobody ever accused One-Eyed Charley of being a lady.” Even though the introduction of thorough braces to the underside of coaches created a swinging motion, making traveling easier and more comfortable, stagecoach work was hard work. Anything might happen trying to control a six-horse team over mountain passes.
“How in the world can you see your way through this dust?” a passenger asked her one bone-dry summer day.
“I’ve traveled over these mountains so often I can tell where the road is by the sound of the wheels,” she explained. “When they rattle, I’m on hard ground. When they don’t rattle, I gen’r’lly look over the side to see where I’m agoing.”
Talking to KJ over the backyard fence I noticed he was sounding more like a man than I had noticed before. He was looking more like a man, too. His hair was cut short. He wore a form-fitting t-shirt that only betrayed a flat stomach. He looked more handsome than womanly.
“Only a rare breed of man could be depended upon to ignore the gold fever of the 1850s and hold down a steady job of grueling travel over narrow one-way dirt roads that swerved around mountain curves, plummeting into deep canyons and often forded swollen, icy streams,” wrote historian Ed Sams in his 2014 book “The Real Mountain Charley.” On one trip over Carson Pass her horses suddenly veered off the road and the rare breed of woman was jolted off the box. She landed between the wheelers, the two horses at the rear of the team. She hung onto the reins as she was dragged on her stomach in the dirt and gravel. She somehow managed to regain control and got the team back on the road, saving the stagecoach and its passengers. She spent the night soaking and disinfecting her wounds in a tub of carbolic acid.
Brother Whips were the road warriors of their day. “I think I should be compelled to nominate the stage-drivers, as being on the whole the most lofty, arrogant, reserved and superior class of being on the coast, that class that has inspired me with the most terror and reverence.” Henry Bellows, president of the United States Sanitary Commission, said during a trip to California.
One-Eyed Charley wore gauntlet gloves to hide her womanish hands and a wide-awake hat to keep the sun off her face. She wore a loose linen duster to conceal her figure and fend off rain. She carried a bugle to announce stage arrivals. She could be testy, for good reason. She blew a horn but didn’t blow her own horn. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender were all of them illegal at the time. “It was a crime,” Mark Jarrett, a textbook publisher, spelled out in plain English. “People didn’t go around professing what their real identities were. They hid them.”
After transcontinental tracks got to the west coast, railroads branched out and muscled out stagecoach businesses. One-Eyed Charley put her driving days behind her, opening a saloon, among other ventures. She retired to a ranch near Soquel in the early 1870s, raising chickens. She voted in 1868 even though women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920. When her one good eye perused the ballot and she decided on Ulysses S. Grant, she became the first woman to vote in a federal election in the United States. She would have used her whip on any man who tried to keep her from the polls. Stepping over his prone body she doubtless would have unleashed a stream of tobacco juice on the unfortunate creature.
“Why this woman should live a life of disguise, always afraid her sex would be discovered, doing the work of a man, may never be known,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote in their 1880 obituary. “The only people who have occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley Parkhurst are the gentlemen who have so much to say about ‘woman’s sphere’ and ‘the weaker vessel,’” the Providence Journal wrote soon after her death. “It is beyond question that one of the soberest, pleasantest, most expert drivers in this state, and one of the most celebrated of the world-famed California drivers was a woman. And is it not true that a woman had done what woman can do?” The Journal didn’t want to speak ill of the dead but no matter how expert One-Eyed Charley was in the saddle, she was not a sober nor a pleasant person.
“How does a nice Polish girl from Parma know how to pitch a movie in Hollywood?” I asked KJ. “That’s not to say you’re a girl anymore, but you’re still from Parma.” Alan Ruck, an actor who portrayed Ferris Bueller’s best friend almost forty years ago, is the best known movie personality from there. The Miz, a famous wrestler, is the most famous person from Parma nowadays.
Parma is a southern suburb of Cleveland. It is the biggest suburb in the state of Ohio. It where scores of Ukrainians as well as Poles live. There is a district called Ukrainian Village and another district called Polish Village. Eastern Orthodox Christians like Ukrainians are conservative about sex. Roman Catholic Christians like Poles are even more conservative about sex. There is no Transgender Village. There are no plans to found one anytime soon.
“I’ve been taking Polish language lessons,” KJ said. “I was taking weekly in-person classes until the pandemic shut everything down. After that I kept up on Zoom, but now that I’m working on our movie, I’ve had to put that to the side.”
“Now that you’re back in town, what are your plans for the summer?” I asked.
“I’m going to Chicago this June for a year on sabbatical,” he said. “In fact, I’ve got somebody from Oberlin coming to look at my place any minute now.”
“You’re not going to be sub-leasing to any One-Eyed Charley’s, are you?”
“No, but he or she might be a Two-Eyed Charley,” KJ said.
Photograph by Chris Crisman.
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”