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The Old Man and the Queer

The book’s title took me by surprise. So did the first line of the introduction: “I am the mayor of my city, I am the CEO of a billion-dollar company…and I am a bigot.”

“The Old Man & the Queer” by Jeff Comerchero, 77, and E.J. Radford, 25, weaves the story of the lives of two people, born generations and thousands of miles apart, and how a chance meeting opened both their eyes and their minds.

Many of those who live in Southwest County either know, or know of, Comerchero. I’ve known him for about 30 years. As a newspaper reporter and columnist in this region for most of that time, I observed his actions as a Temecula city councilman, the city’s mayor, a corporate executive, and the chief of staff of a County Supervisor. 

Jeff’s political views leaned hard right, but you could count on him to be a voice of reason and moderation as the growing city of Temecula faced new challenges. 

Eli, who identifies as non-binary using pronouns them/they, was named Elizabeth Hayley Radford at birth. In the early 2000s the family, which now included a baby sister, moved to Temecula. Their family’s Christian faith ran deep, and school and life revolved largely around the church. In the book Eli goes into great detail about inner and outer struggles with family, friends and faith.

On Father’s Day 2021 Jeff and his adult son received a gift certificate for a local hair salon. When Jeff’s haircut was finished he walked into another room where his son was finishing up. His son’s barber was covered with tattoos, numerous piercings, and a nose ring. “All I could think of was that I would never let this barber put a hand on me,” he said.

Jeff said he left the shop that day, not knowing if he’d ever return. Eli’s tattoos were an immediate turn-off. Born just after World War II in New York City, Jeff, who is Jewish, grew up surrounded by Jewish immigrants who had survived the holocaust. 

As a child he could not help noticing the numbers tattooed by the Nazis on those elders around him. He told me he also felt uncomfortable not being sure if Eli was a man or a woman. One thing he did like was the haircut and the service the shop provided. 

Once he got home he started questioning why he felt the way he did about someone he knew nothing about. 

“I never thought of myself as biased in any way,” he writes, “but my initial thoughts at the hair salon made me question that. Lying is a terrible personality trait and lying to yourself is even worse. Deep down I knew what I had to do.” And what he did was book another appointment at the salon, this time with Eli. Before long Jeff was a regular customer.

At first their chatter was typical of customer and client. However, as time went on the conversation expanded and an unlikely friendship formed.

“I’m inquisitive by nature,” said Jeff. “I realized there was a person behind all those tattoos.”

People make lots of assumptions based on appearances, the pair said. “As Jeff was able to be more honest, he became more comfortable,” Eli said. “And I realized he took the time to hear me.” 

One day, with Jeff sitting in the barber chair, the pair decided they wanted to share their story. “I said, we ought to write about this,” said Jeff.

In August 2022, the two began meeting weekly at a corner table at the Crave Coffee & Tea shop in Tower Plaza in Temecula. Laptops at the ready, they began to craft the story of their friendship. 

The book was released in February and the response has been positive, said Jeff.

“We think it’s an important story,” said Jeff.“The Old Man and the Queer: The Transformational Story of a Retired Mayor and the Barber who Freed Him from Bigotry” is available on Amazon, in paperback and eBook from Kindle and can be purchased using the link: https://a.co/d/2H8W7dg.

Written by John Hunneman

For three decades John Hunneman was a reporter and columnist for both The Californian and Riverside Press-Enterprise newspapers. He retired in 2020 after serving as the Communications Director for California State Senator Jeff Stone.

John currently serves on the City of Murrieta Parks and Recreation Commission and is on the Board of Directors of The Nature Education Foundation at the Santa Rosa Plateau.

He recently concluded two years of service on the Riverside County Civil Grand Jury.

John is a proud Vietnam-Era U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He and his wife Yvonne have lived in Murrieta for 35 years. Both of their sons graduated from Murrieta Valley High School.

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