In these potentially darker days ahead … let’s have some fun, okay? It’s time to dance.
It’s very Summer of 1979 for me when I hear this album, but I’ll try to convey it in a way that I don’t think you’ve ever experienced before. And I’ll tell you why Madleen Kane’s album of that year meant so much to me.
Madleen Kane wasn’t the best singer in the world. She was no Streisand, that’s for sure. But then again, who is? Olivia Newton-John was making waves vocally, too. Madleen was a super-model who turned to music and found a niche for herself in the heady last days of the Disco era.
I’ve always been one of those queer boys who has been immersed in music from an early age. Any kind of music, really. My mother made sure of that. I heard it all. Classical (especially Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Schubert), Country (Freddy Fender, Loretta Lynn, John Denver, and Lynn Anderson), but mostly I was immersed in Broadway, Disco and R&B. I found a particular fondness for ANY music that told stories. Concept albums of the 70s and early 80s were king with me. Disco albums, oddly enough, had them in droves. In my world they took me places that my young queer boy heart needed to go.
During summer vacations, where the morning heat was already a blistering 89 degrees at six AM, I’d make my way from the coolness of my full sized water bed (yeah, you read that one right) to the music room to sing and dance for hours … often eight or nine of them STRAIGHT. Non-stop. I didn’t go outside to play with other kids — what the fuck did they have to contribute to my world? I’d go into our sauna of a music room, close the swinging door dad had up as measly protection from my disco onslaught, and slap on the headphones from early morning. Within an hour I was up on my feet, playing the music out of the speakers (a little softly at first – until the 9 o’clock hour hit, then all bets were off) and started dancing up a storm.
And it was all imaginary – in that near stifling music room of my parent’s house – sealed off from the rest of the world that didn’t understand how to connect with a gay boy.
When I discovered Madleen Kane’s classic Cheri I was beyond elated. It played on the only disco radio station we had in San Diego – K105 FM.
That album was a gayboy’s dream. The first song on the track was Forbidden Love. I knew what she was singing about. The collection of songs on the first side of the album are all tied to one another. They are of longing for that love that you can’t have. This album played through the headphones and speakers so many times that year (and for many years to come) that I know every subtle nuance in the orchestrations. And the arrangements mattered. The strings, horns and were beyond the trash you found on AM radio of the day. Kane’s words were a bold expression of how love should triumph over all. The gentle piano chords during Cheri coming out of the first musical break after the chorus had special choreography all on their own. That subtle chord progression explained the risk queers had in seeking love. I had it all planned out.
Hey, I was fourteen. As a lonely gayboy I needed this shit in the worst way. All of my straight friends were pairing up, I had no one. I had me my disco queens and those women put those words before me. I dreamt of Dancing Kings and wanted to make out with sexy young Princes. These women sang about things that I dare not even say to myself. Forbidden Love became my anthem. It’s the song I carry with me to this day.
My fifteenth birthday was right around the corner. Along with another candle on my cake and my voice finally cracking, I descended along into the last sweltering days of my summer vacation of 1979 and my freshman year of high school. Dark days of HIV/AIDS were ahead for me a few years down the road. But in that moment, I didn’t know. I just wanted to escape, dance and proclaim to a world of my own making how much these words of forbidden love and secret love affairs meant. Everything to me at that point in my life was secretive.
With John Rechy and Gordon Merrick – along with Andrew Holleran, Paul Monette, Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer and the others in my back pack – all wrapped up in book covers made out of paper bags so no one knew what I was reading, I escaped into stories of men who fell in love with other men – the way I wanted to. Their words, paired with these ladies, collectively, they gave me permission to express myself. These weren’t just some random words or notes on a page, some song that a singer sang – they were my heart, sweat and blood I felt coming back to me, pouring out of each and every track or page in a book. These ladies voices of love, seared into my mind and heart and married up with the salacious and soul searching words of men, authors, I admired that filled my teen years. Together they formed the man I was going to become. They never knew it. That wasn’t the point, really. It’s what I needed. It’s what mattered.
From that earliest time when I begged my grandmother to buy me my very first record – a 45rpm of Diana Ross’ Do You Know Where You’re Going To? (a rather prophetic choice, no?) I knew that music would be a heavy influence in my life. It would connect an often disconnected world for me. In them I could escape into what I couldn’t find for myself in the world I saw around me.
I was too young to get into the clubs in San Diego. Those days were still about four years off for me – underage queer clubs were just starting to pop up.
For the time being, I was just starting to get my groove on. Fashion was starting to become important. How I expressed myself really became important – even when I got slapped down for it (disco wear didn’t go down well in my high school – let’s just leave it at that).
But for now, here are a few of the ladies who gave me that sense of expression, they allowed me to soar, encouraged me to revel in who I was becoming. Never to fear who I was, nor to be ashamed of it. It wasn’t always so easy. Many a night I’d spend listening and dancing to them over and over again, if anything to bolster me up to face another hellish day of high school. By the time I was eighteen I’d had a few summer jobs and my music library had already expanded to well over 300 albums, 12″ disco singles and remixes. It was the beginnings of my DJ days that would dominate my life through the 1980s. So here they are – with the undeniable Queen of them all at the top (samples with BUY LINKS in artist name):
Until next time …
– SA C
So, a little Grandma time.
Since the earliest time I can remember, my grandmother was an integral part of my upbringing. Her influence colors what I do to this day some fifty years later. Growing up half-Latino, I was immersed in the culture from my first breath. For Latinos, or as I like to identify now – given my queer life – Latinx, family is everything. So much so, that your decisions in life are sometimes guided by (and even hampered by) what the family will think. Doesn’t mean you don’t buck the system, you just have to be a bit more clever about doing it.
As I said a few posts ago, my mother and father both worked day jobs. So from a very early age my maternal grandmother (and my mother’s sister, mi tia) held enormous influence over my younger years. That’s not to say it wasn’t filled with love and laughter – for there was plenty of that. Being the first grandchild, I was practically inundated with gifts, love and pride. Just the fact I was healthy and breathing seemed to be the only requirement for me to retain that lofty family status. The favorite. Only because I had the luck of the draw to be the first.
My brother (and sister, to a degree) both felt the weight of my being the favorite. I acknowledge that now, but at the time I did everything I could to deny it – even when I knew it to be true.
We had some very quirky things that were customary in our family. Traits that I don’t think many other families had. For instance, it was absolute sacrilege in my family that if Spanish Rice graced the dinner table, there was a complete order to how it was served, if you bucked the system there were repercussions. This came home to roost when my tia invited her then boyfriend, who sadly became her fiancé later – for the man was a compete idiot – and her boyfriend reached over to serve himself a helping of the rice from somewhere in the middle of the dish and the entire family froze on the spot. Conversations ceased, and all eyes moved to my grandmother, who as the grand matriarch of the family, we all gauged how she – and by extension, we – should react. She held up a hand and calmly said, “It’s alright. He doesn’t know.” Why that sticks with me to this day and why I still follow how to serve Spanish Rice in my own home is rather bizarre. But I still do it, confident that if I don’t she’d come from the spirit world and give me a whack across my hands.
It seems like a simple thing. You have a dish to serve at dinner, why not just scoop some up onto your plate, right? Turns out, not so much.
But nothing with our family was quite that simple. Many things were like that.
I’ll give you another: there was a room in my grandmother’s house that had ornate furniture – completely covered in plastic – which was so prevalent at that time, but here’s the thing: we weren’t allowed to go into that room whenever we were at her house. It struck me as rather odd because it was like having a fully decorated room in the house but couldn’t ever enjoy it. And it’s not like we were rich or something. In fact, having a “museum” like room only pointed out the fact that we were rather poor. The lesson to be learned here? Have something nice? You lock it away and don’t let anyone come near it. The only time we ever used the room was during Christmas. In those early childhood years we alternated between everyone coming over to my parents house and going to my grandparents house. It was a very special treat to go there and to sit in the forbidden room.
I never understood that forbidden room as a child until many years later when traveling down the road my grandmother used to take we kids down from my parent’s home in Spring Valley, to her house closer to downtown San Diego. I was on that road with my mother many years later who told me a story about a house very near to a busy traffic corner where we had stopped, waiting for our signal to continue. Oddly enough, we’d been discussing that museum room in her parent’s house the day before where I expressed my confusion over its existence.
“Did you ever wonder why your grandmother had that room in perfect condition? And why you kids were never allowed to go into it?”
Of course I jumped at the chance to hear why that room existed. It was a huge mystery in my childhood.
“Well, sure.” I added, hoping that I’d get some really deep, dark family secret. Ya know, like a body was buried underneath. Something really fucking scary to explain the step one toe in that room and you’ll pull back a stump feeling about it.
“It goes back to a girl that your grandmother went to school with. Her family had money. Your grandmother’s didn’t. But they put on airs that they did. Anyway, your grandma was very envious of this girl. From what I know, the girl didn’t rub your grandmother’s face in it. But because they had it, and it showed in the way they lived, your grandmother coveted that sort of lifestyle and expression of money. Not having it was hard on your grandma.”
I turned to look over my shoulder at the house half a block back from the corner we were sitting at waiting for the light to change. “So, what’s that house have to do with it?”
“That’s where the girl grew up and got married and ended up living. Your grandmother was very jealous of her.”
“Why? It’s not like they were best friends or anything.”
“Because your grandmother had always been like that – obsessed with money and power. It’s why that room is the way it is. If she couldn’t have an entire house like that she would have a room that would say how she wanted others to think of her.”
While I finally had an answer, It made me even more confused on what to do with that information. You have to understand that this revelation from my mother was years after my grandmother’s death. So it wasn’t like I could go ask her for her side of the story. Though, thinking on it now, I am not too sure she would’ve admitted it to me. Yet, I had more than enough examples where I’d experienced my grandmother’s obsession with exerting power and influence – she did it to my grandfather all of his life. She was a very formidable woman. A woman who loved the crap out of me, but also could be equally vicious if she was ever crossed. I was smart enough not to do that so for the most part that pointed barb of hers never was pointed my direction. But I’d seen her do it to others.
From her I learned perception is everything, even above family. Yet, from my mother I learned that you can never control perceptions from others – “…at best, all you can do is mitigate it. You can never control what they think of you.”
Got it – perceptions can be mitigated, but never controlled. A very valuable life lesson.
It’s why I am obsessed with writing about perceptions. They color everything you do, whether you want to acknowledge their presence or not. They are your guiding force. Growing up in a family obsessed with perceptions went a long way to forming the man I’ve become. Comng from the lower end of the middle class, perceptions ruled my entire world. It was also one of the reasons why my mother didn’t want Spanish spoken in the house. She didn’t want her children to deal with having an accent. It was her way of mitigating those very perceptions that could hold us back. So English was the dominant language. So much so, we practically became Anglophiles in the process.
But it wasn’t all about control, power and perceptions. There was a whole lot of love, laughter and amazing food along the way.
From my grandmother I learned my love of Mexican food and cooking. Family recipes and the love she poured into them now flavor what I make for my own family. From her I learned that you didn’t need precious measuring spoons or cups. “God gave you everything you need right here,” she’d tell me holding a cupped hand out in my direction. The message was clear: I’d learn to measure as she had, learning what a tablespoon, teaspoon and such looked like in my own hand. It was a long process, but one that I embraced because I wanted it to taste as good as hers did.
At least I didn’t have to learn how to roll the perfect tortilla in three rolls of the pin. My mother learned how to do it that way from her grandmother. If she failed to roll that perfect tortilla by the third roll, she got a rather hard whack on her hand for her “lack of effort” in getting it done. So I counted my blessings that no whacking of the hands happened with my learning how to cook. Refried beans from scratch? Yeah, I did that. Fideo, lord almighty, her fideo was legendary, with my mother’s coming a close second. but I learned that too. Chili Reinos, Spanish Rice, Albondigas, Pozole, Menudo, all of it. From her, more than anyone, my latinx heritage was secured. The latin women of my family ensured my love of my culture. The food, family life, ritual and traditions of our race. Viva la raza and all of that. I have to admit, I didn’t always feel it. Probably the queer kid in me taking root. And it’s a tricky thing for me to embrace wholly even now. I still struggle with it. Mostly because there is still so much of my heritage that stands against who I am. It’s a tough road to walk.
Yet, the food. The food is what brings me back. Every time I have Albondigas, I don’t just think of family, I feel them course through me, their memories and love flavoring the soup with each successive spoonful.
Being the first grandchild, I got to enjoy things my brother and sister didn’t. I get that. I feel a tad guilty for it, but it wasn’t anything I did other than being born first. So one such guilty pleasure was something rather silly but meant the world to a three year old boy: I had a specially crafted seat in my grandparents 1962 Cadillac.
Okay, it wasn’t a special seat made just for me. It was actually a double-wide arm rest but my little butt fit onto it and could nestle myself in the indent where the armrest could be stowed when not in use. So I sort of made it my own seat. Now, this was years before the whole click it or ticket sort of thing. We lived on the edge. Kids riding carefree in the back of pickup trucks with no seat belts, nothing to keep their butts on the bed of the truck. Hell, there were times my brother, sister and I would stand up in the back of my dad’s old Ford pickup, gripping the wrought iron frame he had in the back helping us stay in the damned truck.
My brother and sister probably resented the fact that I was the favorite. No, thinking on it now, there is no probably about it. They definitely did. My grandmother made no bones about it. She came from an era where that happened and no one questioned it. My parents, on the other hand, weren’t so accepting of that sort of tradition. As much as my grandmother was obsessed with perceptions about the family, my father was equally obsessed with each of his children being treated fairly. It had become so lopsided that my parents had a rather large fight with my grandparents that they had to treat the three of their children equally or they wouldn’t see any of us at all.
My mother said that it broke my grandmother’s heart to be given that ultimatum, but it was necessary so that my brother and sister wouldn’t grow up to hate me. I got that and was thankful for my parents having the courage and foresight to nip that one in the bud. The thing is, I don’t know that they were all that successful in detecting when she did favor me. Because I can recall many times she did long after being given that edict from my parents. All it did was serve to drive it underground. She was just more clever on how she gave me a bit more than my brother or sister. On some level I knew it still went on. But I was a kid. You bet your ass I took whatever extra came my way. I’m not proud of that now, it’s just how it played out.
But anyway, back to my custom built seat. The Caddy was a huge influence on me. Later on I’d realize that it, too, was an expression of my grandmother wanting to appear rich when we were anything but. But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was, as a young boy, I had a small throne for the little prince to ride around in. From that I got that a little favoritism went a long way to building confidence. In those early years i felt like I could do anything. I had a confidence that when my grandmother told me I was special and I could do anything, I felt like I really could.
That didn’t last all the way through my childhood. But in those early years, it mattered. And that wasn’t because they stopped believing in me as I grew older. It was just that, as my queer self started to blossom, I realized just how removed I was from all of them. That’s where the self-doubt and hiding from them all began.
Yet, those few years in that Caddy, that specially designed seat my grandmother had made just for me, meant the world. I still can’t see one of those bullet shaped taillights on that car and not feel a bit whimsical for my youth. I’d probably trade a year off my life to be a young boy in that “special seat” one more time.
This last part doesn’t have to do with my grandmother so much as it does the influence she had on our lives.
I’m talking about the years I don’t remember quite as well that haunt my thoughts to this day. These are the earliest years of my life that I’d like to watch like a fly on the wall. Years when I was told that everything that had to do with me as a young boy were celebrated to the nth degree. In the Latin culture, boys are celebrated at birth, girls are lamented. This is because, for my people, boys rule and our lives are generally lived unfettered by “you can’t or you shouldn’t” – where that’s all the girls hear. For girls born into Latin families, their lives are seen as hard and unforgiving. To a great degree, though our family did its level best to keep things as an even playing field. my sister did deal with harsher realities than me. It’s one of the reasons to this day that I admire her so. In that adversity both within the culture and within the family, she found a way to prosper. I am sure she had to work nearly twice as hard as I did. I was there for her in every way I could think of, but I also know how much easier I had it by being born male. I am all too aware of the male privilege that I enjoy. Times are changing, but it didn’t escape my sight that my sister had a much harder time of it. But like those strong women of my Latinx family, my sister gave me probably the greatest gift of all – to never give up despite what life throws at you. Her perseverance in life feeds my own.
Love ya, sis. I think even Grandma would be proud of how we turned out.
Until next time …
Year: Summer of 1980
Place: San Diego, California
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
– Lewis Carroll
Talking was big in my family. We could never complain that we didn’t communicate. We did. And sometimes at volumes that would shake the rafters, too. So when I first heard this poem by Carroll, it said something to me. The desperate things listed in that stanza sort of represented the randomness of talks that went on in my house.
My childhood was a mixed bag of good and bad, not too far removed, I suspect, from most kids my age. My coming out was a slow meandering process. Oh, there was a moment when I said the words, “I’m gay. I like boys.” I even said it to my father, no less. But you’d have to understand my family. We were not the usual, everyday, hum-drum average Americana family.
And by meandering I mean it took me a long time to get to where I said those words. But it wasn’t like I’d kept it secret, either. Like I wasn’t dropping clues along the way. I mean, even I could see where I was heading. And, to be absolutely clear, it wasn’t from some deep-seated fear that my parents would lose their shit over my saying so, either. My parents were beyond cool and supportive, so much so that our house was the de-facto “Kool-Aid™” house (that’s a reference that perhaps only peeps my age might get, and just the Americans, at that). It meant that every kid in the neighborhood was at your place. We were that house.
And the parents of our friends were just fine with my parents watching over us all. To be clear, it was a gaggle of kids, up to twenty or so at a given time. Not just one or two (though that sometimes happened, too). My parents ran the house with a firm hand that every child has the right to express themselves – and in safety, too. No judgments, other than you better not be hurting someone else while you were busy expressing yourself or there’d be swift action from my parents on that topic. But our friends knew our house was a very safe place. And we could explore anything we wanted to (within reason – though to be honest, that gamut was fairly wide as my father and his twenty-two brothers and sisters always got into trouble on the reservation (in Wisconsin and in Washington state). My dad was full-blown Rez kid. And yeah, you read that one right – twenty-three kids, eighteen of whom found their way to adulthood. My mom, on the other hand, was a cloistered (nearly nun-like) woman. Their marriage was a learning experience for us all – but in the best way possible. It’s a family joke that when we have a family reunion we have to rent Rhode Island. Our family is that big – on both sides.
A lot of kids can’t connect with their parents. But every damned kid who came to our house connected with mine. “Your parents are so cool” was a very common and recurring theme throughout my life. It still is today.
So I was in the MOST supportive environment a burgeoning gay kid could be. So why’d it take me so damned long to say those words? I mean, I’d figured it out fairly well by the time I was eight or nine. Not the sexual aspect so much as that boys were infinitely more interesting to me. I knew it back then. Probably even earlier but I just hadn’t fingered it as a strong theme in my young life. And there were a few girls along the way who totally screwed with my blossoming fabulous gayboy life. So it definitely took me a while to get there.
So why were my parents so accepting and supportive? That had to do with my father.
My dad wasn’t a scholarly man. He’d only made it to the eighth grade on the Rez and then had to find work to help supporting the large family. It was fairly commonplace for guys in his situation. But what made my father mythic in my eyes was that while he wasn’t so book smart, he was one shrewd and savvy man who had the street smarts to see right through people and situations. He even ended up going to night school and got his high school diploma in 1972. As a young boy it was sorta cool to see my dad do the graduation thing (the school had a ceremony for the adults in his class). I got to keep the cheap satin-like robe and hat and wore the shit out of it for YEARS after. I loved to run through the house or outside with it on and it billowed in the breeze.
From that point on, my dad was a voracious reader, whatever he could get his hands on. I saw that words mattered to him. It was a very big influence on me and why, from a very young age, I cultivated words no other kid my age would use. Part of this was helped along by my mother, from around when I was at the age of five when I was already reading and writing quite a bit. Not long essays, mind you, but still had started to find words of great interest to me. I was a very precocious child, especially with the written word. The dictionary was one of my favorite books. It was a catalog of words and ideas for me. My mother recognized this and we played a nightly game where she would find difficult words for a five year old (like facetious or impenetrable … things like that) and would challenge me to find them in the dictionary and to re-write the definition. By the time she came home, I had to spell it and to try to use it in a sentence. This went on for years. It was one of the cool things I did with my mom. My dad was always around when I would “give my report” of what I’d discovered. I had so much love for my super-involved parents.
Yet, through it all, there was always a look in my father’s eye. It had been there all along. For the longest time I never knew what I did that brought it out in him. I knew was never in trouble when I saw him look at me that certain way. My fear was that he was judging something, taking stock of some measure of me, and the jury was still out. It wasn’t until I said those infamous words (well, to me, at any rate) that my mother provided clarity on it.
“It was because your father knew two things when I became pregnant with you. The first was he knew I was pregnant before I did. He told me so. The second was that he knew you were going to be gay.” (Well, she used that word when I was a teenager, but I don’t know if they used that word when I was still a collection of growing cells in my mother’s womb.)
My dad and I had a special relationship, too. From the time I came home with them from the hospital, I preferred contact with my father. Whenever I cried as a baby, I only fell asleep and was comforted if I was in his arms or asleep on his chest. It didn’t help my father and his sleep patterns much. In fact, he said to my mother on more than one occasion that he nearly freaked out when we were both napping together (with me on his chest) and he would wake with a start because he thought I was slipping off of him.
So there was no separation, no bad and distant relationship with my father like all those psycho faux doctors used to say back then that distant fathers were the reason why boys like me sought comfort and sexual relations with men/boys because of that missed connection. I was waist deep in love with my father. He was epic in my eyes. He was a fair and honest man. I couldn’t respect him more. And I’d like to think I made him proud as his son. He said so. I wanted to believe that. But the gay thing was a sticking point – not with him. That was all me.
So that occasional (but persistent over the years) look my father would give me was his polling whatever I was up to, probably trying to gauge if he was right about me all along or not. I think he knew well in advance I was before we ever had that talk. And in my family we talked about everything. Nothing was off the table. Well, except for inane gibberish. My parents couldn’t tolerate what they called “stupid talk.” You know, unsupportable positions in conversations. We kids could bring to my parents whatever we wanted to – no judgments. None whatsoever. Total safe zone.
I made sure to take advantage of that at every turn. Like our having “the talk” (about sex and where babies came from) when I was five. Yes, FIVE. My mother only today remarked as we reminisced about this very moment in our past how she inwardly thought ”Oh shit, we’re here already?” My barely three year old brother and two year old sister looked at my parents with wide-eyed amazement. And I didn’t want some kiddie version of the events. When I asked I was rather assertive that I wanted the truth. I always been like that.
So, without going into some long, boring medical harangue, she simply explained that I was what they called a natural birth. My mother said my birth was, relatively speaking, fairly good – even if I liked room service so much I wanted to say an extra month (I was due in July but was born in August).
“You just slid right out.” (Meaning through the birth canal)
To which my brother said, “See B, you slid out and I slid out.” No doubt my brother thought slides were actually involved in the birthing of babies. I don’t recall if my mom corrected him on this point at that age or not.
For the record, my brother was a BIG baby. There was no sliding out for him. He was full on C-Section – eleven pounds, nine ounces of C-Section. I wasn’t tiny either, for that matter: nine pounds, two ounces. So, that part of “the talk” happened when I was five. But nothing was held back from us. If my parents thought we had an honest question, it deserved an honest (if age context aware) answer.
I should point out that there was very little that was sacred or not to be spoken of in our home. Every topic was on the table – and invariably was talked about. Kids who ate dinner at our house got an earful. We even once had a debate on the birth of words (lexicography) and how they came to be. This was encapsulated with the familial classic line from my mother:
“I mean, who got to call a rose a rose? What if they had called it shit? Oooh, this is a lovely smelling shit. I want a bouquet of this shit.”
We laughed for a good five minutes on that one alone. A girl who lived down the street, named Kelly who we’d known all of our lives, was there for that dinner. I’d like to say she was shocked by the subject matter, but she’d been around us since she was like four or five. She was right in the thick of things and laughed right along with us.
“Think how funny it’d be if people wrinkled their nose and said, ’Ew, did you smell this rose? That’s some nasty assed rose.’”
You get the picture.
So why this meandering to get to the point of when I admitted to my father I was gay? Because it’s indicative of how things worked for my young gayboy life. It was all happenstance, with minor milestones along the way. That’s not to say it was boring. My life was definitely not boring. I was keen enough to notice that.
You see I worked up the courage to say those words to my father because of the books I’d been reading of late.
It started after a family visit to the local mall that had sprung up a few years before. It was one of those new indoor malls people were raving about. In a warm weather city like San Diego, anything indoors, in the comfort of air-conditioning, during the oppressively hot summers was a welcomed thing. I went to the mall with my family on a particularly hot afternoon when we were trying to escape the heat.
Once we entered the mall I broke away rather quickly. My family didn’t have any reason to guess where I was off to – the bookstore – where else? It was a home away from home. I was always in there, usually looking through the SciFi and Fantasy section. This time, however, I couldn’t find anything that satisfied. About an hour into perusing the shelves and lightly reading a book here or there I was growing restless that I couldn’t find any resolution to my quest for some new place to mentally escape into.
So I began wandering around elsewhere, going through other shelves. Eventually I happened along the self-help and then onto literature. I had no way of knowing as I fingered books along the literature shelves that I stopped on a book with a salacious title: The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy.
Within its pages the possibilities of what had been stirring in my mind and body (through intensely avid self-exploration) had been percolating, bubbling up from time to time as my teenaged testosterone practically poured from my pores.
2:25 P.M. The Pier.
Jim twisted his body away from the young man’s spidery touch. Not yet. He wanted more sun …
… He looks into the gutted pier. Years ago it supported a carnival street, brazen in its garish tackiness, a discord of colors and “architecture” waning furiously. …
… A gladiator, Jim stares at the arena under the pier. … He sees shapes of vague geometry. … Jim moves fully into exile country. Just as he knew, there are many other outlaws here. At least six shadows materialize into bodies as they glide closer like hypnotized birds. Against a pole, two men are pasted to each other. Muted sighs and moans blend with the lapping sound of the ocean beyond.
Knowing that a loose circle of ghostly figures is focusing on him as he stands in a pocket of dim light, Jim pulls out his cock as if to piss. Quickly, a tall slender young outlaw holds Jim’s cock. … For seconds only, Jim inches farther into the dim-lit cave within the darker cave, so that his gleaming body being adored will be visible like a pornographic photograph.
This was pornographic poetry. There was a carnal cadence to it. My mouth watered, my pits became moist, a flush of blood coursed throughout my body.
My hands were shaking as I read these words. I began to sweat all over. I looked up from the page and glanced around, sure that everyone in the store was staring at the teenage kid discovering his sexual awakening from these bold words about sex between men. It was no longer conceptual in my mind. Here I had in my hands words that completely turned every terrible and horrific word about who and what I was turned on its head. How? Because this man survived. He survived and wrote about our experiences. With furtive glances around I continued to read as Jim (or as he sometimes calls himself Mat, sometimes Jerry, sometimes John) continued his next sexual conquest. One after another. It was gritty, carnal work. I’d never really seen porn, well, definitely not gay porn at this point, but this was somehow more salacious and tantalizing than what I imagined porn being. I knew I had to have this book. Part of me was frightened about what was within its pages; the other part of me couldn’t wait to devour every sexually charged moment. It wasn’t that I wanted to go out and replicate every part of it, but just that I would know the possibilities, of what sex between men could mean, was truly earth shattering.
It was then that my sister showed up and startled the shit out of me. It was as if I’d been in the shower doing my teenage boyhood pleasures and labelling it under the guise of ablutions and my sister suddenly whipped the curtain aside at the height of my pleasures.
I nearly dropped the damned book. It took me about a second or two to realize she would have no idea what I’d been reading.
“C’mon. Mom and Dad said to come get you. We’re going to get something for dinner.”
Shit! I didn’t have any of my money with me (this was before ATM cards and things of that nature). I needed cash to get the book. After shooing my sister out of the bookstore, I scrambled to find a place to hide the fucking book (literally, a ‘fucking’ book). I think, if I remember correctly, I hid it behind some gardening books. I knew I had to come back when I remembered to bring my wallet with me and buy it.
I did, a day or two later. I made a paper bag cover for it so I could read it anywhere I went. I read that damned thing in nearly one sitting – taking a short nap to recoup and then finished it in the early morning hours, only to reread it again the next morning.
After about a week of this, I wanted more of what he had out there. I began to search him out. On one such afternoon scouring the shelves for more of his books, I happened on a title that at first made me recoil (mostly for its religious overtones – which I had started to pull back from) only to find that I kept coming back to it over and over again. Finally, and thankfully, I gave in and pulled it from the shelf. I remember it being just above my head and I leaned to the right as I angled it from its resting place. As soon as I saw the cover I became overwhelmed and quickly pulled it down and began to scour its pages like a parched man to water.
Peter lifted his arms in the air and wriggled his body in closer against Charlie’s, making a deep animal growl of lust and longing in his throat. He dropped his hands on Charlie’s shoulders, still growling, and kneaded his neck with strong fingers and ran them through his hair. “I know,” he said, smiling into Charlie’s eyes. “I love everything about you. Your looks, of course, your huge cock, but lots more than that. I love everything you say, I love your voice, I love the way your lip curls here when you smile.” He put a finger on the spot. “And that’s just the beginning. That’s just the first day. Think of all the other things I’ll find to love. Golly, when I got out of that train this morning and saw you, I knew something tremendous was happening. Darling, dearest love, dearest, beautiful lover, precious love, my champ.” The words poured from him in a gentle croon as if they had been locked away for years, saved up for this occasion.
As I turned the pages I saw that this had a completely different tone. This stirred me in another way. This was the love between those men I’d been religiously rereading about Rechy’s semi-autobiographical exploits (it was label as a sexual documentary) but now it had the romantic leanings. It was set in a time period where there was still a grace in speech and manner in the upper classes.
I’ve mentioned this before both on my blog, and on the podcast: but Rechy satiated my lust while Merrick warmed and filled my heart. Together these men and their words gave me a reprieve from the hurt and loneliness that overwhelmed me at school.
These were words that literally (beyond the figurative “literature” nature of the work) saved me. They saved me from feeling and thinking the worst of myself. I owe these men my young gayboy life. Nothing short of it. When words came my way from nasty, scared-of-anything-that-wasn’t-like-them straight boys (who oddly enough, weren’t always so straight and narrow – but that’s for another time, too), who found it necessary to belittle me, spurn me, cast me out away from them and rattle my world.
You’d think friends, family and a supportive home environment would help that. To a small degree, it did. But only just so. What I needed was connection. What I needed more than anything else was not to feel alone. To feel like I was not the only gay in the village. I didn’t have that. The boys who I thought might be like me kept me at arm’s length as well. So there was an in crowd there that even I couldn’t penetrate.
But those words from Merrick and Rechy informed me. They were my light; they were the passion for my own life, for thinking that if I could just get to the other side, I’d be okay. So when days were tough because I was teased, I took refuge in their words. Those paper bag covered words, hidden from everyone, were alive in my head and heart. So their words helped me lick wounds and try to get through another day.
All of this, the discoveries that I found within those pages were what were rolling around in my head when I found myself eating lunch with my father. I don’t know if my mom and dad had worked it out to have her take my brother and sister out to the store so he could talk to me about it, but somehow it was just him and me.
So there we were, eating somewhat silently when he asked those words that would shift things irretrievably from how it was before. A definite milestone.
“So is there something you want to tell me?”
Yeah, that made the bite of sandwich I had just taken suddenly swell to the size of our cat in my throat. And for the record, we had a big fucking cat.
“Uh, like what?”
He sighed. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“What? About my liking boys and not girls?”
“Yeah, I do. I’m gay.”
It was silent as we ate some more. His eyes would search out mine; there was no malice there. No disgust. Inside, I lost my appetite, but I kept eating because it was something to do – eat up nervous energy in the form of a deli sandwich and chips.
After letting me stew in my anxiety for a bit, he finally gave me a release.
“You know, sex with a woman is an amazing thing.” He looked at me and then shrugged as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and said words that totally amazed me: “But I suppose it could be just as amazing with another man, too. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone and no one is hurting you, and you’re happy, that’s all I ask for. It’s all your mother and I want for you. For all you kids.”
That was it. That was my epic coming out. No drama. No rattling and screaming and hurtful words. My parents are truly the coolest parents on the planet. That’s why when people say it now, I get where that’s coming from. Believe me I totally appreciated hearing it and was proud of that each time it came my way.
Despite all of this, despite the love I had from them, from my friends who sort of figured me out, I still felt this disconnectedness from everything around me. Only those books, and the people I held dear, kept me going. Those books said to me one thing that was irrefutable: a life outside of the thirty-seven levels of hell in high school was not only possible, it was a foregone conclusion – if I made it through my final year of high school.
It was the summer of my junior year. I was half-way through my four years of high school. I looked back on the previous two years. It had been tough. I had endured verbal abuse and down-cast eyes from many kids over the years since the third grade. The last two years were the most brutal, because now it had a sexual edge to it. But you see, I knew that I would have a way out. Sure, having family and friends who still loved and cared about me gave me a leg up when I felt the lowest. They helped. It all did.
This was the beginning of my writing career. It would take me several years to actually start to pen something, but the power of those men’s stories planted the seed that words, words that I’d been cultivating since I was a boy, had power. On some level something started to germinate. When I was bullied, I would use words as my weapon. It didn’t always work, but it did often enough to let me know words did have power. I had to learn to master it, harness it, make it something I could truly use to keep me safe.
But I also learned, through my non-scholarly, but infinitely wise, father that how you used them mattered.
His compassion and empathy for my oh fuck me, I’m really gonna do this moment made me realize just how lucky I was. He was the true measure of a man to me. When others questioned my masculinity, I realized just how fucked up their view was. I’d seen the best. I don’t think I always told him that as often as I should. But he was.
Love ya, Pops. I’d give just about anything to have five minutes more with you, just to explain how much your empathy for your eldest son when I needed it most, mattered in ways that have lasted my lifetime. I try to be that guy every damned day. I’m not always so successful, but it gives me something to shoot for, a goal that lights my way. In that, even though you’ve been gone for over seventeen years now, it’s like I still have you here with me.
Moments of what contentment that I can only imagine I felt in my baby boy body napping on his father’s chest. And that’s the most amazing feeling of all.