Last night, I had dinner at a local winery in Ithaca with nine mostly-40ish gay men who had each just finished two or three glasses of sweet, mostly-white wine. The mood was lively and everyone was laughing, discussing the food that had just been placed in front of them and the icy snow that was continuing to complicate traffic patterns outside. Then, just as we began clinking our forks and knives around on our plates, the man to my left, Joe, let out a gasp. "Whitney Houston just died," he said, iPhone in hand. "Dead at 48."
"Wait, what?," one of the younger men at the table asked. "Is this one of those fake Twitter deaths?"
"Nope. USA Today."
Three of the men at the end of the table were engaged in an intense conversation, so they missed the news about Houston's death. Then, noticing the frown on Joe's face and the quiet sense of disbelief that permeated my side of the table, one of the three, Michael, piped up, "Hey - did something happen?"
"Whitney Houston died," Joe said.
"Ohhhh, overdose?," Michael grimaced with a wink. "Or did Bobby hit her?" He laughed, assuming that Joe was kidding.
"No, she actually died," Joe said. "Cause of death unknown." Michael, embarrassed about his failed, tragic cause-of-death gaffe, went pale while his cheeks turned bright red.
The rest of the dinner was somber, with the guys sporadically sharing their memories about Houston's music and her celebrity. Toward the end of the meal, after the Whitney talk had subsided, Joe brought it up again: "Damn, I'm actually pretty sad."
For these men, Whitney Houston was a legend - an icon whose voice played an important role in key moments of their lives. She may not have known any of them personally, but they certainly felt like they knew her - after all, she had been a presence for so much of their adult lives. Gatherings with family and friends wouldn't have been the same without "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and few love songs could ever hope to compete with "I Will Always Love You."