My second novel follows Paul and his friends through the AIDS years Spoiler alert, the all don’t make it.
The Stars party was the second of the mass dance parties in San Francisco. The first was the Night Flight but that night I was running a 103 degree fever and Michael stayed home to nurse me. The BAR the next week had a front page photo of a Rusty Dragon and Peter Berg, amidst a flurry of confetti. They were the sexist men in town and the minds of Hot Flash, the most unique shop in town with beakers sold as vases, Milan-style kitchen implements and an antique circus poster of a tiger. Every time I crossed the trompe d’oil mail scattered on the floor below the brass mail slot on the front door I as treated to another collection of exciting items like a T-shaped mayonnaise spatula I’d never see anywhere else.. In 1972 most of us couldn’t afford to fly so New York City was five days away. I paid little attention to what was going on in New York in part due to the distance but more because I was busy being madly in love with Michael and doing drugs and making friends with sex. Every now and then someone moved here from New York and brought something New York with him. Michael Maletta was such a man, and shortly after he arrived in San Francisco he and a group of his friends decided it was time San Francisco had a giant dance party like the ones they attended in New York. I had never thought about dance parties big or small, and I who avoided discos was completely caught off guard by the enthusiasm the party generated. One might ask why someone who had so much sex didn’t go to discos the busiest gay bars in town. The only reason I went to a bar was to meet a man to take home. The first time I went to the I-Beam a man agreed to come home with me and then half way into the night he says, “It’s so good tonight I’m going to dance until it closes. That meant I had to wait on he sidelines and by the time we got to my place he was sagging and no amount of dope and beer revived his spirits. Sex with a half-asleep lumpy pillow is bad sex. I passed it off as a fluke and always wanting to be the epitome of a gay man I went to the I-Beam a second time. My date and I danced for a while and then he who really loves to dance while I just do dancing hooked up with a man he’s danced with before and must have really liked it. The two of them soon had a circle of admirers egging them on. I have to admit the man is a very talented dancer with moves I expect from top-notch gymnasts. He and the other man were well matched and they deserved all the accolades they got and I was impressed with their dancing skills but that is not how you get a man to uncheck his coat, follow you in his car and finally cross your threshold. Waiting around for hours while my date is dancing and I’m itching to get naked kills my libido faster than pictures of Nixon. The second man made a valiant effort when we got to my place but he came very quickly and fell asleep.
The Stars party is in a wharf in the Bay. We can’t find a place to park anywhere close and end up walking a quarter mile from where we parked to the hall with a long line almost as long as our walk waiting to get in. There are as many excited smiling people strung out along the shoreline as celebrated the opening of the collection; the sense of community continues to grow. The space has a ceiling of parachute silk that billows with the heat generated by the dancers and looks like gay heaven with appropriately a thousand ecstatic acolytes instead of pearly St. Pete. We get drinks at the bare shoulder to bare shoulder bar and I have to pee. I actually had to pee long before we got there so now I really have to pee. I find the urinals on a platform at the back end of the space, so I climb the stairs and stand in front of a long metal trough and when I start to pee I look up and see the sea of dancers writhing below me like I was peeing in the middle of Union Square without the annoying shoppers. I wonder what the dancers see when they look at the men peeing; do they see the whole thing? I go down to the dance floor and look up and I can see men only from the waist up, the organizers’ sop to decency.
The pulsing music and sweaty men begins to feel tribal and that feeling of camaraderie doesn’t happen at the storefront; everyone there is on his own journey and while some men make dates it’s not a very sexual venue. Will my inbred sense of duty keep me from enjoying myself? Is sex the only time I let loose? I’m quickly swept up by the sense of community. The timbers of the building throb with testosterone and the dope infused air ripples with sexuality. There is no way I am not going to fling me onto the middle of the craziness. The thumping madness slides its sticky fingers into me and it won’t let go and I am floating over the sea of bare skin and when facing Michael we try to outdo each other with completely random twists and turns in a night of supple figures, a waterfront extravaganza of drugs and dancing. A couple sails past me like birds connected by wings and my body follows them and I become part of a nebulous disorganized chorus line of nearly naked men keeping time with each other. Inspired by the pulsing crowd around me I throw my mind into the thumping chaos that’s twirling around Michael who’s doing his version of the Charlestown with a big grin on his face. I’ve left the planet and as long as I keep dancing with sweat building at the top layer of elastic in my underwear I can sustain the addictive communal joy that I’m feeling that belongs to every gyrating man at the party. I am me and at the same time I am mass.
First sun sends slivers of pink gold across the top of the motionless Bay when Michael and I are dragging ourselves back to the car. I am not the man I was when I walked into the wharf; I’m a loose monkey and the pulse still radiates through my body. The dancing and drugs and camaraderie brought me closer to Michael. He defers to me and I love him deeply. Is that good for a relationship? Is this something I should try to figure out? I know there are few books about gay relationships that I can consult or should I treat it the same way I treated getting in touch with my sexualty: trust my instincts.w?
the shots? I somehow inherited a embarrassing sense of entitlement but I am enamored by Michael’s blue collar roots. He hasn’t a speck of affection, not a whit of fear not a smidgen of dishonesty. With Michael you get what you see. He blames himself for his mother death of cancer when he was ten; has he transferred some of that to our relationship? Does he think if he makes my meals the best I could image and is equally turned on by sex that I will never leave him? He shows not the slightest sign of it but there is a difference in our educations, and despite my efforts to forget it it’s there. Should I have worried about that in the when we started dating? How does it determine the words I use and my take on life ? I am addicted to the moment, I often forget how I got there, even when I’m not stoned; I can only focus on one thing at a time and I give it my undivided attention, some call if obsessive. That focus does not mean I don’t think of Michael. Since our first night we have always slept in the same bed; sometimes at his house and sometimes at mine. I went with him to visit his parents in a cabin his father built in the mountains outside Mariposa and we slept in the same bed. We are both Pisces so we intuit a lot of what the other is thinking, at least Michael does, because he sometimes knows what I want before I know I want it. I have never felt this close to a man, physically and emotionally. I love touching him and him touching me and I could spend hours feeling his fingernails scratching the itch on my back into a frenzy.
Michael is one of a kind and I am the luckiest man in the world to call him my partner. We decide on partner because neither of us wants to mimic straight people and ‘lover’ sounds both straight and illicit. Love between men should never be illicit. If you can’t do it in your home town, move! Partner can also connote a business arrangement, so I don’t like that part of the name because we are more than partners we are the same person in two bodies. Naming our relationship is part what the community is going through; putting together a new notion of what makes a gay man. Every attempt at a name for gay relationships fails because it’s not inclusive enough, not specific enough or not funny enough. When I imagine the community I see men in Speedos and lean bodies spread into the distance in Dolores Mission Park. Everyone is smiling, the grass is greener than it’s ever been and men climb all over each, roll around laughing and pretend to be hurt when poked and then poke back. I mythologize gay men but what is going on around me is mythic. It’s never happened before in history. And it’s happening fast or maybe it seems fast because there’s so much that’s changed that I haven’t caught up with it. During my first seven days in San Francisco I kept seeing men and could tell by the way they held themselves they had to be straight only to discover they are gay. When I see a man who reminds of a boy I saw as a kid I assume he’s straight and when I find out he’s gay I have to take him home. He doesn’t know it but when we’re in bed playing I am working through unrequited feelings Those revelations kept happening through my first year out like the man who fixed my plumbing and the one who sold me Camels, I was certain they were straight; they weren’t I ask myself how did that gay man become so normal? If I looked closely he wasn’t completely normal because there was something about his crotch that made me look at it and beneath every zipper there’s a treasure.
I continue to be amazed at the way the city treats my community just the way it treats the Chinese, Latinos and now people from Thailand and Cambodia. We are all prosciutto and Parmesan in a pasta carbonara of fog and late night jazz. We are dancing ponies in a three ring circus and the ringmaster is a lesbian in tall shiny black boots and a crimson jacket with gold braid trim. Why does that surprise me? Perhaps time in Wisconsin borrowed moral attitudes so deeply into my psyche I don’t know they are there. I think of myself as an even-minded curious man, yet I’m surprised a gay man here can be anyone he wants from sex pig to symphony director or both and it doesn’t stop there and that’s the part I love: my generation is pasting together, molding and shaping tomorrow’s gay man, both the good one and the nasty one. No one applauds you for being yourself and no one’s handing out report cards, but the men here have something special going on that responded when they heard there was a place where they would be free of everything they’d been taught about sex and homosexuality. What was it that made them in some cases quit high-paying jobs and for others loved ones and risk crossing the country without the promise of a job or home to a city known only for its cable cars and Rice-A-Roni?. They were flying blind but an inner urge kept them pursuing a hope. Hope San Francisco is as good as the friend said and hope that I can find a job and a place to live they can afford because most of the men who come aren’t rich.
People in history moved because of famine, weather, planting conditions and always water and it’s only faiths that made large numbers of people give up what they have an step into the wilderness with a leader. I think it’s the same for gay men; we come to San Francisco risking everything for our faith in each other, our hope that when I get to San Francisco thoughtful gay men will make us feel at home. While we do that the rich are already in Ft. Lauderdale and Laguna Beach busily avoiding the world around a pool with a gaggle of scantily clad young boys.
When I look back San Francisco has always been a siren song luring the misfits and the adventures to its shores. The kind of complete acceptance one finds in San Francisco didn’t happen overnight. It grew out of sailors on leave with their wages in their pockets and sex on their minds. It took dirt farmers with dreams who crossed rugged mountains to pan gold in a stream. San Francisco wouldn’t be the city it is if it weren’t for people who believed preserving the past was important after the earthquake that destroyed almost half of the city. Did their shared grief plus the outpouring of food and clothing from the across America kindle a spirit of openness? Catholic priests founded the city and what they left behind is a crumbling tiny chapel and forgiveness. Or is it the fog that makes us love one another? That makes us curious of how other cultures deal with family and the arts? That makes us want to live in close quarters and touch each other?
The music suddenly stops and a microphone screeches when touched. A voice that bounces off the back of the wharf loudly announces, “Welcome to Stars. Every blessed denim one of you here tonight is a star. You are the stars that light the sky and our light can be seen for miles and because ours bends it can be seen around the world. As you pound away and shake the building remember a man or boy like you who’s looking up at your stars from a field or the sea in a distant land and says, someday I am going to live in that light. Before we go home we should acknowledge how lucky we are and use what we’ve learned here to make life better for the thousands of gay men we’ll never know and might not like. We are a tribe and our history goes back to a simpler time when besides getting a blow job all a man had to worry about was being clawed to death by a dire wolf. Now I want those of you who haven’t taken off your shirt to take it off and get on with partying! Thank you all for coming!”
Have you ever thought about the first act of gay sex? Was it the aforementioned Australopithecus afarensis blow job? Did some hairy forefather stick his uncut dick either up or down into another hairy man? Would all that hair become a chronic problem of gay Neanderthals talked about after a kill? Or did they do it around campfires the way we do around television but with TV emotions are vicarious and I’m sure there was nothing vicarious in a cave man’s head not to mention that if he saw it he couldn’t spell it. Somewhere in a distant past that keeps getting more distant a male of the species had sex with another male of the species and while we will never know who they were, we owe them big time. What would the world look like if homosexuality had run its genetic life and died? Bad hair and ugly furniture come immediately to mind, but think of how people would care for one another if we weren’t around. Bashing heads and dragging back to cave may have lasted much longer and the bridges wouldn’t be cables and soaring arches but thick planks and sturdy stanchions. I dare say without us love would be a lot less fulfilling for the poor miserable souls who attempted it.
I feel guilty that as the evening draws on that I’m not dancing my ass off like to men on the dance floor and I’m not having sex behind the stage where I see men disappearing: I’ve slowed down to take it in. Mad crazy communal dancing is not part of the gay schema in my head. The irresponsibility of men who have to dance bothers me just as men who need leather just to have sex bother me; it distracts them from being close. That gets back to that critical element for me: touch. When I ventured out as a kid and went to Teen Town at the YWCA on Friday nights and I tried to dance but did it badly but I found the dancing I liked was when I was holding a girl. The girls I held were big girls, girls with some heft and girls who didn’t wilt, so those few times I danced with girls emotionally I was dancing with a boy.
There is a larger question. Why can’t I expand my thinking to incorporate men who love to dance into my life? My dream of a peaceful community that stands as a model for the rest of America is admirable, but I’m cutting out huge swaths of the community when I dismiss men who aren’t working at being good at touching. My Midwest blinders are keeping me from seeing the breath of the gay community, not to mention my ignorance of Lesbian history and love.
We drive home and when I turn onto Market Street Michael smiles to let me know I’m the most important person in his life and lays his head in my lap. As I keep driving I know it’s foolish to think I will change my ways, ways what upset Michael even though he says nothing. I have years of experience under my belt of consciously trying to become another person and I have a 99% fail record because I am who I am. Twist me into someone else based on what I’m guessing upsets Michael is a fool’s errand. We are close to the short drive to our garage and think I’m not sure what love is all about but I’m going to take a risk and not change what I do but be aware that some of what I do hurts Michael. His landscaping is a prime concern but so is the food he feeds me. I made friends through sex and the collection occupies much of my time, but I am emotionally monogamous. Michael is my be all and end all. He and I share a love of life and we like playing house. Will the good outweigh the bad ? Is our love strong enough for both of us to grow as humans? Can we not find a balance but a common understanding that each of us has flaws as well as strengths? I decide I will be as honest I can be and see what happens
Michael’s nap in the car doesn’t diminish his ardor and we cap the night with delightful and mutually satisfying romp of love making. That night I don’t sleep as I piece together my conflicting notions of what love is. The next morning when I think Clay’s awake I am full of excitement to explain my new understanding of love and how it will strengthen our relationship. I’m slowly down my breathing when he answers the phone and before I can begin patiently walking him through my carefully constructed and many times rehearsed description of my definition of love, he blurts out, “Jim just told Bill he needs time alone. He’s not being huffy and throwing things and from what he says he’s bending over backwards to make sure Bill will be fed and has his permission to keep attending the men’s group.”
I floor below me just collapsed and I don’t know what to say. Bill and Jim are the cornerstones of my gay life. They are what I aspire to be; they are everyone’s model gay couple. I ask if it has anything to do with the drug they took in South America and Clay poo poos it. I wish the call had come at the end of the day instead of the beginning because all day I can’t avoid the sinking feeling in my gut. My world is no longer firm ground but quicksand. How can the perfect couple fall apart? Late in the afternoon I stop myself short. Bill and Jim are mature men who probably know more about gay relationships than anyone, so I should let Jim show me what’s going on for him rather than image something. Will he trust me? What if he doesn’t know himself? The I stop and ask myself, why do I want Jim to make me feel good about what he’s done; it’s his godammed business, not mine.
I get home, turn on the five o’clock news and sink into a wingback chair, one of a pair. With the story of a five car pileup in the background Michael leaves his muddy boots in the hall and sinks into the other wingback chair. He picks up the root beer I put out for him on the table next to his chair. I’m mess and once he’s comfortable I tell him about Jim. He stares out the window for a minute and he must have seen the shock on my face because when he turns to me and says calmly, “They’re the perfect couple and you care about that because you’re still working out what makes gay men special and I’m not sure you’ll ever get there, but if Jim he says he needs time alone you have to let him be alone. Some guys find answers in solitude and it drives other bonkers but you have to trust Jim is an adult and he won’t harm himself.” I wasn’t so sure thinking for someone whose life had been intertwined with Bill’s for years, stepping away from it has be a shock and he could use some company. Michael must have read my mind because the next thing he says is. “Do not try to find him! Leave him alone!
“But if I did that I’d want company.”
“Are you thinking of leaving are you? You’re not for sure?” I’d never seen that look on his face; he was scared at his core.
“Of course not. I love you tons and you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m not going anywhere.”
Michael was clearly relieved. “On a lighter note do you remember that German guy at the Catacombs?” How could I not remember him? His body was a series of nicely molded muscles that allowed him to move like a serpent. Of all the men I saw that night he stood out because while there was a lot of competition, he was the most enthusiastic. “Sure, I remember him.”
“He’s going back to Cologne on Monday and wants to play with us.”
“He wants to play with us?” At the Catacombs he played with one man after the next and I didn’t think he even saw either of us.
“He thinks we’re a hot couple.”
Flattery goes a long way with me, so I say, “He’d be fun to play with if we can keep up with him.”
Michael gulps the last of the root beer, puts the empty mug on the table and wipes a speck of dirt his eye. “I gotta be honest, fisting’s not my thing.”
I don’t ask why he encouraged us to go to the Catacombs because I don’t want to upset him and say, “I can live with that.”
He wipes is eye a second time. “I think you should. You love being fucked and he’s a generous player and he will treat you gently.”
My head clamped down on the idea of fisting but my body didn’t and I say, “Maybe if I top him.”
I can tell Michael is vacillating between supporting me having sex with the German and being hurt and he finally says, “You said you wanted to try everything.”
I was caught in my own boast. “I’ll only do it if I don’t have to take his hand.”
“The way he was going I don’t think that will be a problem. Do you think you know what to do?”
I collapse one of my hands and it forms a small knot. “If I grease it up nice, I should be OK.”
“You are the master of touch.”
I poke him in the ribs. “You’re just saying that because you love me.”
He grabs me and we roll over on the bed and as we are rolling around he says, “Someday you’ll have to admit you’re good at something.”
After putting it off for almost four weeks and a series of phone calls reminding me of the offer my decision not to take the job as the mayor’s assistant is final and I decide I’m going to tell Ruddy Washington who as now working in city hall of my decision in person. I could have called but something inside told me I had to do it in person. I don’t know what it was, possibly wanted to show him I wasn’t cowed by the majesty of city hall’s Beaux Artes marble hallways and magnificent arches, that I wasn’t caught up in the thrill of being a short walk from the center of power, the woman who can make or break a community organization with the stroke of her large black Mont Blanc pen. I want to walk proudly as a gay man up the grand marble stairwell that looks like it was copied from a Florentine palace. I want to say to the center of political life in the city that I am part of a changing world where gay men who’ve been treated like piss ants will someday soon sit as equals in the Board of Supervisors’ Chambers with their gold chandeliers and imposing podium.
My balloon of high-minded intention is momentarily deflated when Ms. Susan Scarpula, Mr. Roosevelt’s secretary looks at me with a look bordering on distain when I introduce myself with a proper jacket and rep stripe tie. “Oh, you’re the one.” She says like I am just one of the hundreds she sees every day. I didn’t rank in her mind so Ms. Scarpula didn’t bother with making introductions, so I step into his office and Ruddy wheels his leather chair big enough to curl up in around when he hears me. He’s gained weight since I saw him and he looks like a freshly caught giant tuna stunned from being caught. He looks at me over his glasses. “You said you made up your mind and I’m delighted you will be joining the mayor’s team, Chum, and she will be, too.” I explain that I am not taking the job with the excuse that the collection is now a major player in the gay and lesbian cultural renaissance while in reality I don’t want to be cooped up in an office and spend my days responding to constituent demands on the mayor even when they come from my community. In other words, I’d rather be doing what I can to advance gay and lesbian culture than worrying nights about how hard I should push the mayor to pay for keeping one of our much needed organizations afloat. You would have thought I just killed the mayor. Ruddy gets up with such force he hits his chair and it sails across the room and comes to rest at the door. “Are you telling me that your little collection is more important that working for the mayor? Are you afraid of getting your hands dirty? Mayor Goodman has given us hope and you want to destroy it?”
I don’t remember what I say to him, but minutes later I’m standing on the steps of City Hall with a feeling of fizzy elation in my stomach. I actually stood up to power. The scrawny kid from Wisconsin told a big-ass attorney holding the second or third most powerful position in San Francisco government that his life is more important than the Ruddy’s. Politics is a contact sport and I am not embarrassed to say I want none of it.