A sole crystalline star lit a black Wisconsin sky. Paul Nathan McKey elbowed his fourth cup of coffee and collapsed on the yellow pad of carefully penned notes. His sole salvation was the prospect of a job with Model Cities in San Francisco. He’d spent the last nine months pouring overcase law when he wasn’t sneaking peeks at Roy Hopkins’ bulge in lectures, sincelaw school was his father’s decision, not his. It promised defending underdogs, but there must be better ways. Jim Garske, two years ahead in school, had escaped McCarthy Wisconsin and found work with the Mayor of San Francisco and knew they were staffing up.
But this famed city by the Bay? The upside was Beatniks and war protestors; weirdoes and addicts the downside. Yet, would any place accept someone like him, confused and thin? Paul grew up in a Catholic Lutheran football city in central Wisconsin; the big difference was he was raised in the Unitarian Church where his mother was raised as the daughter of an eminent scholar of the Progressives at the University of Wisconsin. From his earliest years, his affections juggled between his reclusive mother and his father, a former Army Intelligence officer who was an ardent Republican and fierce anti-Communist. Homosexuality in central Wisconsin was so heinous the word that it was never uttered, and unmarried uncles were always bachelors because it left open the possibility of marriage.
Finally, another winter of being confined to icy roads and frost bitten fingers were all it took. Paul would try California, and if that didn’t work, he’d try Boston, and if that didn’t work he’d end up in Chicago like the other ambitious young men from central Wisconsin. The jocks went to Denver to be close to slopes in Aspen.
Under cloudy skies, Paul walked haltingly to an interview with the Model Cities acting director, Brick Mayer, a former professional football player who had gone back to school to get a degree in City Planning. The Mayor had made space for Brick in the basement of City Hall at the last minute because federal money was an open spigot, and if he didn’t scoop it up, some other Mayor would, and who knows, he could make a name for himself. With Nixon in the White House, Democrats were looking for someone as young and exciting as Kennedy, and there was a solid crop of young mayors to choose from.
Paul stopped short when he saw handsome men in front of the Flagg Brothers shoe store who were not looking at discounted loafers. He’d heard stories of gay men, but imagined them as younger versions of the haggards at bus station urinals. Now boys in junior high rushed back, and urges he’d so violently repressed raged. That the men were like him was not a dream come true, but hard reality; homosexuals in San Francisco didn’t mess around. What did he do? Paul put his head down, threw all the switches that dismissed urges, however badly, and trooped on to City Hall
Before he got there, a homeless man was prying the wheel of his chair out of streetcar tracks in the crosswalk and another had stooped to pick up a half-smoked butt. They were not colorful denizens of seedy hotels in Hollywood musicals but smelly human beings standing in the way of his last hope. What a perfect excuse to stop thinking about what scared the bejesus out of him and to back to the dreamer who is smart enough not to dream seriously because dreams lead to disappointment. Back to the tortured young man who wanted to be Kim Novak getting on the bus in “Picnic.” Each square of pavement was a continent, and each honk a blaring reminder he was in over his head.
Paul was remarkably calm in the interview because Brick put him at ease after admitting his marriage was on the rocks and sympathizing when Paul said he and Elizabeth had argued over the timing of children. Even better, Brick seemed to want to know how soon he could start. Paul knew that meant it was a job no one wanted, but he then remembered the men in front of the shoe store, and as soon as the interview was over, he raced back to see if he’d just imaged the them, but they were real.
For a man whose father expected hard work, marriage, and a comfortable salary, this was a piss poor start. Paul had an Ivy League education and the start at a respected law school, and he had just said yes to a job at a program directed by Congress to eliminate poverty. When your models are Shane and Lady and the Tramp until Hair upsets the apple cart, you come to real life with very loose ideas. That you lived a sheltered life, even though you were blessed with a vivid imagination, your vision is still one-dimensional. But you are doing something for the greater good, and the federal government has all this loose change, so you might as well spend it.
Jim Garske suggested Noe Valley, a sleepy neighborhood with more sun than most and new framing and cheese stores as a good place for Paul and his wife, with a bun in the oven, to start. The apartment he found was the second floor above what had once been a store but was now home to the owner’s frail mother and her rat size dog with a broken tail. It had a great view, a steep walk to city transit one direction but a flat walk the other, and the price was right. In the first month an artist couple they met in the Lamaze class painted the walls of the small bedroom with fairy tale figures, and then their boy, Sam, was born.
The men at the shoe store never left his mind, but Paul couldn’t just stand on the street, so with trepidation, he ducked into a bar across from the Muni stop where he changed from the street car. A bright spring day turned into a den of noisy cigarette smoke, and no one paid attention to him, but how would he really know with his head down? He quickly boarded the next bus and allayed his trembling with knowledge that he had fulfilled his familial obligations with a wife and son.
Homosexuality was an abomination in Eisenhower’s America; the most vociferous champion of decency was the Roman Catholic Church, and it controlled the spiritual lives of half the folk in Paul’s town. The town was so white Paul thought the Platters, who sang his favorite Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was just more American Bandstand. Unitarians believed in the goodness of everyone, so he struggled to navigate his own way, different and smarter. In junior high, Paul invited boys home and found ingenious ways to get them to strip down to their underwear. Often they were hard, and that gave him the thrill of recognition. Once, he called Jerry Thorny, and when he asked if he wanted to take a drive in the country, Jerry knew what to expect and quickly unzipped his fly when Paul pulled over and lit a Kent. On a subsequent visit, Jerry told him his older brother was in the Navy and played with him and his younger brother Bob when his older brother was home on shore leave, but Jerry was the only boy like that.
In his teen years, Paul tried out for the spring play and got a small part; in his junior and senior years he got major roles, and acting was so rewarding, he considered an acting career. During those same years he told himself that playing with boys was a temporary phase, and the urges disappeared once he got to the watershed of college.
In his first year in college, he watched rehearsals, and one of the actors, Billy Buttonwood, the leading actor on campus, asked to meet for coffee. Then one night, Billy called on the dorm phone and asked Paul to his room to give him a backrub. Paul knew the ruse and said no. Billy called back to say if he didn’t come to his room across the green by eleven, he would commit suicide. Paul was surprised by his calm when he told Billy they barely knew each other, and taking one’s life was an important decision he could make, but he should talk to someone like his minister first. This was college, and if the urges didn’t disappear, he would have make them disappear on his own, and from then on, Paul eschewed any contact with actors or anyone at his all-male college he suspected of being homosexual. He practiced walking slowly and deliberately without swinging his arms. Then he bought Playboy magazines and looked at breasts when jacking off to train him to be straight, but despite determined sweat, it was only boys in underwear that aroused him.
During the summer between junior and senior years he worked as a waiter in a restaurant near the Dells and met a man who kissed him and changed everything, but every time Paul hinted at living together, Lloyd changed the subject. That was the final straw. Paul was going to prove to himself he was straight. When he met Elizabeth, and they clicked on several levels, they had sex, and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. A marriage was hastily arranged with warm support from his father and mother.
Paul saw a Chronicle review of a show with nudity and had to see it, so one night when Elizabeth was visiting a friend he snuck out. He expected the show to be another Hair. It wasn’t.
It was glitter beards, gossamer penises, and LSD fueled voices warbling made-up songs out of tune. So much smoke he got high without a joint. The stage was a brew of spangled bodices and open crotches on sprites parading around in an alternative universe exhibition. Nonsense libidos ran pantomimes amid gauze and shameful cardboard sets, and the crowd roared. The Cockettes were out of control, and Paul was reeling when he stood outside in a world of churches that looked preposterous. The Cockettes collided with his notions of masculinity but compressed the abandon of an entire generation’s fucked up youth into an evening of anarchy that shook him to his core. The ferocity of actors confronting every stereotype was hard to grasp by someone who lived in the closet, but as rain fell, Paul’s newly awakened soul pushed back cartons of junk to see if there was room for air that smelled of sensimilia.
How could skinny kids take on the world with foolishness? Nothing made sense, but what if sense belonged to a life he could shed like snakeskin? Then, fear of being called a sissy shot bolts up his spine. But these sissies were being hailed by the mainstream press, and they’d captured the imagination of the upper crust, people he expected to be as stuffy as his father’s friends and then some. Like filings to a magnet, Paul kept going back to that night to find a thread, something more than penises that would allow him to squeeze out of the closet unnoticed.
One night, he sat Elizabeth down on the sofa left by a previous tenant and told her, “I’m want to explore bi-sexuality.”
She dropped her glass of wine staining their only new possession and said, “Not in my house, you’re not.”
Paul said, “I love you, but I feel I have to do it.”
Elizabeth repeated, “Not in my house.” The Cost Plus chandelier rattled when a bus passed.
When Paul had thought about staying with Elizabeth, the idea of bringing a man home felt complicated and likely to cause a scene. With Elizabeth saying what she did, she’d made it easy, and Paul felt his gut swelling. Now he was free, but did he have what it took to be gay? He’d make sure he had clothes that let gay men know, he was dangling his toe in their water. And gay men had a secret language, but could he learn it fast enough?
One night he stood across the street from a bar and watched men going in and out like they were shopping at Woolworths. With maddening ease they put their arms around each other and walked off into the night where they’d caress and touch in ways he’d heard about but had trouble imagining. To be so easy they must have had a mentor, and mentors lived in big cities, so if he’d had grown up there Paul wouldn’t be having so much trouble. Now he had to start from dirt, but could he deal with urges that drove him into the closet the minute his mother said, “Helen told me her Johnny said you touched his little thing.”
Whenever Paul asked about family vacations, his father said, “We have to save, but when I die, you and your brother will be generously rewarded.” If he told his father he was gay, he would never see a dime, and he’d be banned from the house, and that meant missing Christmas the one day it felt like a real family. Friends would shun him in public, and work would be a living Hell, if they didn’t fire him outright. For the first time, Paul had a decent apartment and was poised to move up, but if he came out he’d end up in Tenderloin hotels subsisting on canned food and hand-outs and kept from seeing his son.
Little gusts of wind blew in like tiny angels and bent tulips at the lawn’s edge beneath the weathered windmill. The place was still, yet the gutsy wisps gave it a sense of becoming. The first spring flowers were out, and gray boards on the mill faded to insignificance as Paul sat quietly immersed in thought.
Before him was the task of finding who lived inside skin that stretched over his frame with dimples above his ass and whiskers encroaching on ears. Old definitions meant nothing, and since the Cockettes, Paul sensed something growing, but no words fit, and no theory defined it. Perhaps it was something beyond description, a sense without form or color. Paul was raised on certainty; his father believed you were either a Republican or a Communist, and America was the greatest nation on earth. But Paul read history and knew the genius of Renaissance Florence and the intelligence of Classical Athens, so his father’s world was incomplete. Paul had years of schooling, but now two thousand miles from home, he was an above average looking man who stood five foot ten and still didn’t know who was. He’d dreamed of Elysian Fields filled with naked men, and envisioned conversations with somber minds and brilliant scientists, but his measure was working class boys he grew up with, not Ivy Leaguers who spent holidays in the Hamptons. Foremost was love, and any man who loved him would be sun to his flower and water to his roots. In this whirlpool of sensuality he’d seen sane gay men, and he’d use his Pisces intuition to ferret out their secrets.
Paul’s coming out started in a gym close to City Hall. The building was large, and the clientele mixed by age and straight. The equipment was minimal, so he had to use the few free weights for biceps and triceps and pressed iron on the one bench to slowly work his weights up to 180 pounds.
By the light of the locker room’s single overhead lamp, the man in workout shorts did not look much more than thirty-five. He was solid, his smile warm and inviting. Why would a construction worker or policeman be interested in him? Paul walked into the shower’s steamy warmth pleased someone outside the office had smiled.
The second time Paul saw him, the man smiled and nodded as walked into the shower. When he came out, the man was at the door about to leave and smiled again and said, “I’m Jack.”
The third or fourth time, both of them had lingered in the locker room after getting dressed, and Paul asked Jack if he was interested in walking through the Tenderloin, as he did with Brick, who liked to wander through dirty book stores on their lunch breaks to, he said, “get better acquainted with the city.” If Jack was gay, Paul expected he would see a door; and he’d open it to a Cary Grant movie of clever gay men. Paul and Jack started at dirty book stores on Ellis Street and ended on Polk Street at the largest in the city. Paul feigned innocence when he saw dildos and quickly scanned magazines but didn’t linger over pictures with erections. Jack seemed to be watching but expressed no particular interest and never offered advice.
In early November, Jack asked Paul to come for dinner. Again, Paul had no further clues; Jack remained a nice man. He told Elizabeth that he was dining with someone from work but hoped it was more. They made light conversation in Jack’s small yellow kitchen while Jack sautéed in a copper skillet. When Jack put a plate in front of Paul, he said he’d seen smelt on sale and thought he’d try them. Paul had never had smelt, but that night the quality of the meal was a mere shadow to Paul’s hopes. They ate bowls of rich butter pecan ice cream on Jack’s arts and crafts couch where Paul talked about his family, but Jack only mentioned that he’d gone to school in New York. Jack took him home in his VW bug, and as Paul stated to get out, he put his hand on Jack’s knee and left it there a second longer than the usual pat. Paul then got out, closed the door, and did not look back when he walked to his door. He’d wanted Jack to make a move, and if he had, he would have responded, but Paul’s pat was all the risk he was prepared to take. If Jack mentioned it, Paul was ready to say he thought he was going to trip when he got out of the car. After years of dissembling, Paul was expert at finding believable excuses in seconds, not just when he needed to throw someone off his homosexual trail but was quick for other traits as well. Maybe that was why his father said he would make an excellent lawyer.
After a second dinner, Jack kissed Paul as he was about to leave and that opened the floodgates. Paul was in the midst of radical social change with an entire generation coming out simultaneously. The confluence of Hippie free love and mind-opening LSD was the perfect medium for birthing new personas, and after that kiss, Paul, who’d always been an outsider, quickly made his way up the gay ladder from kissing, to sucking, to fucking, and later on to even more. At twenty–four he had his son every other weekend and was fucking every night he was alone. “Am I making up for lost time?” he asked as he stood alone beneath a storm of steam in a gym shower that smelled of bleach and echoed footsteps.
Liberation took many shapes. African-Americans had thrown off the shackles of Jim Crow, and feminism had replaced it as the nation’s obsession. Hindu religions found eager minds, and Paul considered the Beatle’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s methods, but his attempts at transcendental meditation left him feeling inadequate because he never transcended. He tried a gay church festooned with tie-dye, and the first sermon about salvation felt right, but on the second Sunday, the sermon on Jesus left him feeling cheated. Jesus, for him, was love, not some intermediary between sin and a celestial that defied definition. Paul was raised Unitarian, so there was no fixed god, sin for him was relative, and God was nature in all its incredible forms and mutations. Being naked was Paul’s most intimate connection with the universe. Lutheran girlfriends in high school said he was doomed to Hell, but if he left the world knowing he’d made it a bit better for someone, he would have lived fully. More than once, he tried writing something to explain it, but ended up listening to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and let it go at that.
Paul was taken aback when men looked directly at his face. In his family, that was rude. He picked up a sharp #2 pencil to write.
Men look me in the eye! How shameful! But heroes, like Rusty Dragon, do it because being out for them is not being out to your mother’s friends but being out to your lust. Unencumbered by straight men’s issues, their sexuality is natural and humble, and they redefine masculinity. I bought the flannel shirts and boots like theirs, but that’s not it. Rusty and his partner Peter Fisk are originals and define style. I’ve made some horrendous fashion faux pas, but now I’ve got a look that suits me. Next is mastering nonchalance.
Months later he attended a weekend retreat for gay men that generated bushels of transforming energy. The men had not been what Paul expected, i.e. cute and muscular, but each had a human story that taught him how different gay men are, even when they share that essence that gets ants in the pants of everyone else.
Paul lived by experience, and when he was forced to find part that felt solid, he trusted instincts not his mind and used his overnight stays as an anthropologist to observe how the man arrayed his spices; colored walls, like one that was covered entirely with Kraft paper, and got the most intense pleasure in bed. For someone who’d been shy and retiring, coming out had Paul ready to try everything and do it well.
The sexual revolution fit nicely with openings made by other social transformations, and men like Paul who’d been restrained all their lives had to learn to talk about sex without embarrassment. Then he had to learn human anatomy, massage and brown rice recipes. Then he bought a douche hose.
Paul did not know Jack was an SM top until the first night they went to the bars. He also didn’t know Jack planned on taking someone home and expected Paul to fend for himself. After breaking all tethers to the world, Paul was being forced to find a man to take him to a strange abode. Trembling in a room of towering men in panther black leather, Paul huddled out of sight. When he sought comfort, he found Jack in back where he’d staked out his claim. When he told him leather scared him, Jack smiled and said, “They just want to get fucked.”
Desperate, Paul reluctantly agreed when a man sidled up and asked him home. The man in full leather had a German accent, was about Paul’s size, but with short blond hair beneath a motorcycle cap. Once in the man’s apartment lit only by the blue light of his bedside clock, the man stripped Paul and told him to bite him. This was what gay men do? Paul fumbled when he tried to find a place to chomp down, and with his first bite, the man yelped,” Harder, harder.” Paul didn’t remember the rest of the evening, only that he somehow fell asleep and made it home the next day.
His next foray with Jack was equally unsuccessful. This time the man in full leather
had an elegant apartment with a view of the Bay and so many pillows his bed looked like the front range of the Sierras. This man wanted to be choked, and only after Paul lay down and fixed the man’s gullet between his legs, as instructed, was he able to exert enough force to let the man ejaculate. Paul spilled no seed, fell asleep and went home certain that coming out was the worst mistake of his life.
On his third night, when Jack had said he wasn’t going to bring someone home, Paul saw him leave the bar with a man in leather jacket and jack boots, and Paul bolted. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but there must be other bars nearby, and one would be civilized. The first was long and narrow and lit by candles. The bar’s few patrons listened to classical music with their hands on the bar. Paul ordered a glass of wine, breathed a sigh of relief and watched votive candles make patterns of brilliance on polished oak wetness. Later, when he lit a Camel, he noticed a man with glorious long blond hair and beard looking his way. When they made eye contact the man smiled and asked if he could buy Paul a second glass. After some inconsequential conversation the man said his dog was waiting in the car, sweet music to his ear, and Paul went home with him in a flash. That night he encountered the largest penis he had ever seen like drawings in Physique Pictoral.
Paul returned to the same bar every Saturday night for the ensuing months and never saw the man, but a passel of men who believed in love befriended him and became his family. With a photo in front of him with them arm in arm on a cool summer light, he opened his journal and took the cap off his fountain pen.
Handsome men I never expected are smart and alive in so many ways. One’s a chef, another translates Swedish; one’s a librarian at the Sierra Club and Clay, my favorite, deals mushrooms and hikes the Sierras. Where did they come from? Each has made a tremendous home from flea market finds they honor by placing them in just the right light or next to a toy metal truck. No big time shit, just simple objects living in harmony with the majesty of pampas grass; the surprise of beach glass, or a Twenties porcelain girl with a steel ball bearing in place of her broken head. They’ve tapped into something utterly human from what had been hidden in years of neglect. I immerse myself, and smoking dope makes it magical. With Montgomery Ward banished, each day is another wonder.
Paul wrote this months later.
San Francisco has ignited the rebel in me and unleashed pure sensuality. I rebel against centuries of false morality by speaking openly about what I do in bed and laugh at shame. I’m part Wisconsin progressives and California hippie and come to play as the Samuel Adams of Seventies homosexuality.
It was the day after Easter, and Paul saw him as soon as he entered the bar standing tall and rough skinned, and profoundly secure against the mirror. Michael Adam Schoen was the Toad Hall bartender who, two days earlier had said “That one’s on me. I get off at eleven” when Paul tried to pay for a second beer. That night they drove in Mike’s pickup to his ground floor apartment in the Haight and made magic on his water bed until they collapsed utterly infatuated with each other. Paul had been meeting men in bars for a year, but Mike had that elusive quality you feel but can’t explain; one that fits perfectly like frogs and ponds. With a bottle of Southern Comfort and excellent joints they celebrated love on waterbed weekends, except ones when Paul had Sam, and then they slept together without strenuous activity. Sam had a flair for drawing and found spots to keep busy with a pad and pencil That made his visits smooth for Sam and Paul who was always toldSam he loved him, the most important thing Paul could give his son.
Mike’s parents grew up down the road from each other outside a small Missouri cross roads where his father ran limousines from Springfield to Kansas City during Prohibition for men who carried guns and drove black Cadillacs. After the war, his father found work with an aircraft manufacturer in Southern California, and that’s where Mike was born. His mother died when he was twelve, and Mike blamed himself, and his father made Mike cook for him and an older brother who treated Mike like his slave, but Mike was more interested in other things and spent study hours at the Pier in Long Beach where he became proficient in fellatio. Mike took knitting to class and had a boyfriend living with him in his father’s house until his stepmother discovered he was more than a boarder. His father told the boyfriend to leave, and Mike left with him. At nineteen with a hundred and ten dollars and a beat up Ford, they drove to San Francisco and set up house in a friend’s garage.
Mike was drafted and served in Viet Nam, and wounds sent him home the day before the Tet Offensive which would have turned him to hamburger. After coming stateside, Mike came down with Hep C, his boyfriend deserted him, and he was left to survive on peanut butter and Brussels sprouts he grew in the yard. Bartending was not his chosen profession but great money, and it gave Mike celebrity, so Paul was meeting the crème de la crème of the newly liberated handsome and most enthusiastic men. It was a time when sexual prowess determined where your face appeared on the totem pole, a thankful relief from the usual measures of power and wealth.
As he lay gently rocking next to Paul beneath a halo of candles, Mike told him, “Coming out’s never over. There’s always more.”
Paul remarked, “Does that make me a practicing homosexual?”
Mike slapped his butt in return and said, “For you, more like full blown.” Mike had been, as he said, “Around the track a few times,” and had come through unscathed. His wisdom was simple, and Paul strived to emulate his confidence.
The first time Paul told him he was going on a date, Mike said, “Have fun.”
Paul asked, “What if it’s lousy?”
With Mike, Paul learned that his body was an instrument he had to care for, tune, and use to make music. Mike also mentored him on the difference between liberating emotional monogamy and a restrictive sexual monogamy. He also taught him exercises, like Kegals, that strengthen sphincter muscles. Their rules for playing were that they had to be home by two, and only talk about it if it was fun. They seldom had conflicts because Paul liked playing with friends and Mike the anonymity of bookstores.
Paul came home after playing with someone who yelled at his roommate to get the hell out of the house in his presence. He told Mike about it who said, “Just because you put your dick in someone, doesn’t give you the right to act like a teenager.” The more Paul played, the more he realized he could use sex and knew he had to have his own code when he saw others abuse it. Paul cringed when he heard stories of men destroyed by drugs. Mike considered them with a look Paul never understood; it wasn’t contempt, more like sympathy. Paul was a practical Midwesterner, and Mike’s lack of affectation made him the very model of a modern homosexual
Paul idolized Mike and wondered if he’d be as calm after he’d been around the track a few times as Mike had, but he did like running as if he’d been secretly programmed to explore the essence of sexuality. But what quirk of fate made someone who came from the Northern Bible Belt thrive on a ritual that he’d been taught to loathe? Searching for answers, Paul tried self-help books, but soon they all sounded the same, and he gave up.
Mike was building a cabin from junk yard doors and windows on a creek in Sonoma County fifteen miles down old logging roads from the coast. It was at a party at the cabin with Mike’s friends that Paul was introduced to LSD.
The day started on the hot redwood deck with glasses of warm grapefruit juice and skillet biscuits. Mike carefully sliced the tiny square of dark brown blotter in two and put half on Paul’s tongue and took the other to his tongue with a wet finger. Mike advised, “It’ll take about half an hour, and if you have problems I’m here.” While the two of them made out, the others loved playing in clear air and hot sun. Wind whistled through redwoods, and the creek chirped songs of broken rock and pebble legends. Mystical air held nary a cloud to obscure men in each other’s arms where a blade of grass was a county of veins, and where the human body was a museum of treasures to be examined with careful hands and a close eye.
By the time sun crested and Paul was in another space, passion was no longer a theme but rubbery strands of hot blood and insanely soft flesh. When skin burned like Hades, he and Mike stood under the outdoor shower to chill but even the iciest cold couldn’t quell their passion. They rested, smoked another joint and went at it like kids with their first Popsicle.
On his haunches in the creek with ice cold toes, Paul’s psychedelic mind saw his father in the loopy crown of a redwood; his face at peace as if he approved. His father remained there for seconds, minutes, or hours because time had no meaning. Then he vanished, and a red stone veined by quartz in the creek told Paul that light and dark exist in all of Nature’s creations.
Paul and Mike lay in each other’s arms on the grass bank and watched ants file by in a never ending parade of afternoon purpose. Paul’s gut swelled, and his ground-down self emerged as fresh new shoots. Mike, lay behind him and gently took in the curves and muscle of his body. “Nice ass,” he said in the throaty dialect of an honest man. “Give it all it asks for,” “I’ll go easy,” Mike whispered before he slicked his palm and covered his knob before slowly slipping it in.
“Yes,” Paul whispered and gave in to lushness. For hours they invaded guarded memories, and tenderness circled them like classical laurels.
“Take a sip,” Mike whispered as he held cool water to Paul’s sweat- streaked face.
In a voice that came through time, Paul whispered, “I love you;”the first time he’d ever spoken those words to a man.
That night around the campfire guests cajoled and teased each other as they gathered around Paul and Mike with his ready stories of traveling to little known corners of counties no one usually talks about. The wannabe poets, the lovers, the late night athletes and crusading novices wearing little or nothing were pleased with their own inventiveness and the company of crazy-happy others.
Standing in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets, Paul did not expect the car to keep coming, so he hadn’t moved. Yet it did, with tires squealing like a frightened child within inches of his thigh. “Get outa here fuckin’ homo!” The man screamed as his car sped past.
San Francisco’s reputation as a haven for gay men had outside toughs coming in on weekends to start fights, but Paul had never witnessed such hatred. That experience made him determined to get involved and fight homophobia. He would start by building a collection of books about gay men and lesbians because great revolutions start with ideas passed around in pamphlets and book s. Paul gave a talk to a gay men’s group that got the attention of Nigel Williams-Smith, a British Lord who kept a pied a terre in Pacific Heights so he could do what he couldn’t do back home in Sussex. Nigel was huge, standing six foot six and equally proportioned with huge hands and feet. His towering presence made him a favorite of leather queens who loved being seen with him head to toe in black leather, but Paul knew he only wore it for show, and in bed Nigel was a pussy. Nigel called Paul at his office and asked if he could meet him for lunch downtown. The thought of a friend who could write a huge check for his collection of gay and lesbian books had Paul looking up English history so he could say something intelligent.
Struggling through a forest of potted palms, Paul found Nigel at a table in back wreathed in smoke. “So good of you to come,” Nigel said. “I’m curious about your nasty books.”
Paul asked, “What interests you?”
Nigel gently rested his oval cigarette on the rim of the crested crystal ashtray, and said, “Your American rubbish.”
“What do you mean?” Paul looked nervously around at much better dressed patrons.
“Those paper books you gobble like hard candy.” Nigel said.
“You mean Ferlinghetti?”
“I’m afraid I have not heard of the gentleman. Ones with wank drawings.”
“Like Tom of Finland?” Paul felt sweat building in his pits.
“I’m afraid I have not heard of that Finnish gentleman, either.” Nigel lit another cigarette while his first burned.
“Where did you see this book or books?” Paul asked.
“I’m embarrassed to say I was cottaging.”
“We dare not speak its name.”
“Like a dirty book store?” A waiter tripped and dishes clattered on the floor.
Nigel said, “I want copies. No one will see them.” He leaned back and tapped his goblet to signal the waiter. “I’m sure it can be done without embarrassment.”
The waiter arrived with a frosted pitcher, and when he saw Paul asked, “Are you staying for lunch? Nigel interjected, “Dear Lord, my deepest apologies. This handsome young man is indeed having lunch if you would be good enough to retrieve a menu.”
Paul said, “Not sure I can help. I don’t do bookstores.”
“Well, then whatever do you do?” Nigel’s lips were thick, his moustache tobacco stained.
Paul checked, and people were looking at them and said quietly, “Mike and I do it at home and sometimes with friends at the baths.”
Nigel squashed his newly lit cigarette. “Perhaps we shall talk about other things.”
“My dream is a community library. Would you be interested in helping?”
“They’d make a bloody fuss if I touched the least at Sturbridge Manor.”
The waiter placed a menu in front of Paul who paused to look at the waiter’s muscled forearm before saying, “I’m looking for people to serve on our board. Someone of your stature would help with fund raising.”
Nigel slicked his mustache, “I’m sure I would, but you must appreciate my family never engages in such things.”
“I beg your pardon. Are you ashamed of being gay?”
Nigel intoned, “Dear boy, gentlemen do not use those words, nor do we ever speak of such things in public.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Paul looked around again. People were listening.
Nigel saw Paul looking and whispered, “I’m sure you appreciate the delicacy.”
The waiter arrived and asked if Paul had decided. He said, “I’m leaving, so thank you, no.”
Nigel started and announced, “Get me something, but do not mention it to a soul.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. What’s your address? I’ll send my proposal as soon as I get home.” Paul took the hastily scribbled note, thanked Nigel, and hopped on Muni.
Nothing was written; the library was nothing more than an idea. He sat in front of his Selectric and gazed at the ceiling. Why were book collections so important? Volume determines some, but he envisioned a font of ideas. Everyone in the community was excited to be in San Francisco, and if they were like Paul, they had to be re-defining him or herself. He thought about what gay men had in common, and after staring at veins, typed: “oppression, lack of confidence….. want to love and be loved…. not decorators or hair stylists.” Maybe what he needed was a collection of positive ideas, not a formal building, but something that encouraged men and women to think about what makes a community and what sustains them.
When he talked it through with Mike over dinner, Mike suggested a gay café, and Paul asked, “Will they use it?”
Mike admitted “It’s hard to stop ‘em from thinking with their dicks.”
“That’s what I mean. Sex always trumps, and I’m as guilty as the next guy.” Paul knew all too well employment was secondary to physical pleasure for gay men in San Francisco.
Mike smiled and put his hand on top of Paul’s. “That shouldn’t stop you.”
That night as Paul lay next to Mike, he thought the worst thing to do when you’re having sex is to think about it, and sex is the last thing you want on your mind when you’re trying to concentrate, and he fell asleep irritated.
At work the next day, on one of their excursions through the Tenderloin, Paul asked Brick if he ever thought about sex and big ideas. Brick was taken aback and stared at Paul stupefied, but after moments of silence said, “Einstein and the others must have been studs.”
For Paul, the idea of straight people thinking about sex intelligently was as radical as him coming out. When Brick changed to problems with his wife, Paul was relieved; he needed time to digest what he’d just heard.
When Paul said he’d have to raise money to buy gay books and start asking friends. Mike, again helpful, offered, “Sex sells. Use it to get their attention, and make sure you’ve got lots of liquor.”
That night they got stoned and spent hours getting into every orifice with tender touches and slippery passion. They fucked like very intelligent rabbits and made love like concubines who meant it. As he fell asleep, Paul reminded himself he was a very lucky man.
The next day with fog a knowing mother, Paul started a paper he called Keeping Gay Culture Alive. He wrote about the need for men to come out and enjoy the splendor of sensuality. He wrote about reading gay authors, and reading histories for times where gay men played major roles, but weren’t mentioned like all wars, and times of great social change like the Progressive era in Wisconsin. Gay men and lesbians would also be among the lines of people escaping famine and war-torn counties who poured onto the docks in cities like New York. .He quoted Winston Churchill. “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” He got carried away with possibilities and then realized he had to write something for Nigel Williams-Smith. What he’d composed wouldn’t be understood in a quick read; he needed to write something short and sweet. After a frenetic afternoon of head scratching, Paul came up with, “Culture is passed from generation to generation through literature, and if you believe gay is a culture worth preserving we need books that hold our history. Your generosity fosters our culture.”
He ran the statement by Mike who approved, and put it in an envelope. He would deliver it to Nigel in person.
Paul’s phone rang at the office, and he feared it was the disgruntled Supervisor upset that Model Cities money was going to Hunters Point not his neighborhood that had no poor people. Instead it was Mike calling to say he’d just booked them into an apartment in New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. This would be their first trip together, and Paul thought about it all week with Mike encouraging him with stories of costume balls, anti-bellum mansions steeped in history and the best food in the world except San Francisco.
After a long flight with two stops, they finally made it to New Orleans and took a cab to the address on Chartres Street. Using the key from the downstairs tenant, a miniature bayou woman in her eighties, they opened the double shutter doors to a Belle Époque apartment of tall ceilings and equally tall windows that opened onto a wrought iron balcony. Thick red velvet shades had been drawn, and both were sweating like women in labor. When Paul looked up after laying his pack down on a deep red Persian carpet, Mike had a full hurricane glass with a stalk of celery in his face insisting he start with a Bloody Mary. When Paul turned to grab the glass his elbow collided with an antique Chinese vase that flew across the room, crashed against the wall and scattered in shards. He got down on the floor to clean up the mess, and a shard sliced through a finger leaving a crude gash. When Mike saw blood he grabbed a sock, wiped off the blood, and once staunched, he kissing it saying, “You’re better whole.”
A bugle’s high-pitched song pierced beer and cigarette air on Bourbon Street where hundreds in various states of dress and undress clogged the narrow street of crushed beads and discarded chicken bones. The further they went, the denser the crowd. They stopped outside a bar where men on the balcony above them threw beads to the crowd. A fat man in oil stained pants and his thin girlfriend in a frilly frock stopped and looked up. When he saw the crowded balcony, he opened his pants, turned and mooned a blubbery butt. Gay boys showered him with strings of green and purple beads. Gay men blessed them as the horrified priest standing next to them covered his face.
Minutes later, Mike tried to grab Paul, and yelled, “The guy’s pissing from the balcony.” Before Paul could duck, warm piss was running through his long hair. Paul screamed, “Jeeessus!” He shook piss from his hair and turned on Mike screaming, “What the fuck!!”
Mike’s response was, “It’s play time.”
As they ducked inside the bar, a round mustached man faced them in the dark vibrating space and asked, “Do you want to go across the street and dance?” Paul said he wasn’t a dancer.
The man said, “If you change your mind, I’ll be there.” Paul smiled, and when the man left, he checked with Mike and asked, “What do you think?”
Mike said, “He’s hot. Do it.” A redhead with thin blue veined skin and beer stained shorts bumped Mike to get his attention. Mike smiled, walked past him and came back with huge cups of beer. As he handed one to Paul, Mike said, “Here’s to fun!” They toasted, drank, and were soon mesmerized by a collection of men from all over the world with more color than men in San Francisco. Men in San Francisco worked hard at being masculine, but in New Orleans they doted on antiques, but once in bed, Paul guessed the language was universal if a bit more lubricated.
They left the bar and wandered through the adjoining neighborhood of elegant Nineteenth Century brick townhouses and courtyard gardens with banana trees. They stopped when they saw a man waiting in the shade of a giant live oak. “Where’s a good place to get a drink around here?” Paul asked.
The man was slightly shorter than Paul, wore work clothes, a close cut beard, and had skin that lived in the sun. His head was a mass of black curls, and his dark eyes smiled when he asked, “You mean the leather bar?”
“Sure, that works,” Mike said. “Where you from?”
The man said, “Lafayette,” in the dialect of the bayous. When Paul heard Cajun, the man was no longer simply a man but an embodiment of New Orleans’ red beans, jazz and fish left out in the sun. They thanked the Cajun and found a cab. The driver pointed to the building, and they walked through an unmarked door on the side of what looked like a stable. The door creaked as it opened, and they were met with a wall of acrid cigar smoke. This bar was as crowded as the one on Bourbon Street, but men were dressed in full leather despite the heat and hugged the walls like armed guards. Loud Caribbean music shook the building, and a mob in back hooted and carried on like girls Chrome belts and wristbands were the only light in the dismal space. After a second beer, and standing shoulder to shoulder unable to move, Mike, said, “We’re outa here.”
Outside, they saw no cabs and started walking under huge trees that met in the middle of the street like a dome of foreboding darkness. After blocks of derelict warehouses and abandoned homes they found a cab. Heavy with drink, they dragged upstairs and fell asleep before making love.
Paul woke to grunts of mechanical a sweeper outside. He put his feet on the rag carpet and noticed Mike was gone and jumped up. He was not in the bedroom, and when he opened the door to the bathroom he saw him snoring softly in the tub in his underwear. Without hesitating, Paul turned on the shower, and Mike bolted screaming “Please, NO!” Paul turned off the water and asked Mike about the rest of his clothes. Mike grinned and said, “It was cool, and until you, nice and dry.”
Mike got up, went to the kitchen, threw water in his face, and asked if he knew about any good places to eat. Paul suggested Café Du Monde, and as soon as they sat down, the same round-faced man they’d seen at the bar walked up and introduced himself as Tony and sat down at their invitation. The café was brimming with tourists and regulars indulging in sweets and coffee with chicory. Tony ordered a plate of piping hot beignets, and Mike and Paul gobbled the greasy donuts like starving children. Powdered sugar on Paul’s mustached made Tony laugh, and that broke the ice. Paul showered Tony with questions about growing up, his business and his partner, anything that explained people who cherished Voodoo worship and a history of vice. Tony invited them home, and they walked out of the Quarter to his Mercedes and drove out Magazine Street and parked behind a large double Camelback building
Tony asked, “Would you like something to drink? I’ve a fine Port.” After filling crystal glasses, Tony pulled a vile of cocaine from his desk drawer, tapped some on the glass topped coffee table and cut it with a razor. Paul watched when he wasn’t drooling over the magnificent wood hutches, regal portraits, and an eight foot leather sofa. Tony rolled a bill and offered it; Paul and Mike bent down and snorted lines. Tony followed suit and asked. “Tell me about your city with the Golden Gate.”
Paul exclaimed, “I can’t believe it’s real. We’re reinventing ourselves.”
Tony took a few minutes to reminisce, and spoke slowly. “Doug and I started almost thirty years ago selling oak furniture on the street. We kept finding better grades of furniture but we never had time to relax or travel.”
Paul asked, “You and Doug still do it?”
“We’re partners in everything.”
Paul persisted, “But you sleep together?”
Mike watched Paul’s reaction when Tony said, “I’ve had a boyfriend or two.”
Paul asked, “How long have you been together?”
Tony responded, “Like I said, thirty years now. Going to England is the high point. We meet our friend Sylvia in London who takes us to sales and knows where to look. We send back at least one container of great pieces.”
Paul couldn’t take his eyes off the artwork and furniture, elegant but more livable than anything in Archectural Digest. Paul modestly asked Tony about the cost of a painting. He told Mike the painting was for a friend, but told Tony it was a surprise for Mike. When the secret transaction was done, they thanked Tony’s and got on the St. Charles Avenue street car and held hands as they passed under trees that arched the avenue lined with rows of grand homes and decadence lurking behind thick velour draperies. Paul’s mind drifted to what his life was all about and how much he’d changed. He was having more sex than he’d thought possible and fantastic friends which he would never have known if he’d stayed in Wisconsin. When he saw a long line of jovial people waiting outside a fancy restaurant in a restored mansion, he connected with people in New Orleans where living well was rewarding, and his father’s expected successful law career was now gone for good.