He lived in the city. Almost literally so. He used his apartment as a place to sleep and write, but he spent the rest of his waking hours hanging out in the city, making a living room out of the cafés and bookshops and bars in his neighborhood, and housemates of the men and women he met there. He ate out with friends and had breakfast at a neighborhood diner or coffee shop, where he’d read the paper and write letters.
At first I thought the reason he spent so much time outside was because his space inside was so cramped. The walkup apartment on Christopher Street was a builder’s afterthought, an orphan from a larger apartment that had been renovated into a warren of small burrows.
It had only three very small rooms—a kitchen, a study and a bedroom—and could only accommodate the most essential of furnishings: a desk and chest of drawers in the study, a bed, a small kitchen table and a pair of chairs. There was no proper bathroom, just a closet with a toilet and a sink. He showered in the kitchen and served tea on his bed
It was obscenely expensive for what it was, though perhaps not for where it was, but he was happy with it. He was exactly where he wanted to be and doing what he always wanted to do. I knew many people with much more space but far fewer claims to happiness.
“New York is the most fabulous city in the world.” he said. “Why would I want to spend time inside an apartment? And besides, how can you expect to write if you don’t watch people?”
The sole window in the apartment was in the bedroom and it looked out onto a little pocket park and beyond to a street of brownstones. It was a grand window for such a place, almost as tall as the room was wide, a dramatic frame for the park’s elms and gingkoes. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he would prop himself up on his bed, which lay flush under the window, and watch the city of night recede, like a fairground closing up after the last visitor has gone. He’d see men making their unsteady way to the subway station in the first hours of twilight, crossing streets that he said Whitman and Crane and Ginsberg had walked. He once wrote me, “I live in a neighborhood haunted by poets and visited by men looking for comfort in the guise of sex.”
The letters he wrote me from the diner were composed with pen on paper. For him writing on paper was an act of embodiment, and our correspondence a way in which we could touch each other despite the distance that separated us. He told me a handwritten letter was a transcript of feelings as much a record of thought.
“I can tell when you’re excited or upset. Or sad. Especially when you’re sad. Your handwriting gets all angular. And you tie all the letters together, as if you’re trying very hard to write neatly. You don’t usually write that way. ”
“I’m never sad when I write to you,” I protested. But lying to him was like lying to myself.
His was a proud and energetic script of erect letters with ample bowls and decisive crossbars, mine an arabesque of long lazy curves and open loops. We were different in many unimportant ways, and our handwriting was no exception: the scripts of a soldier and a dancer. When he got excited his letters would tighten. The ascenders would higher and straighter, and the commas would fall more sharply. Mine would become expansive and ornate, the tails of y’s and q’s sweeping across the page in a flourish like the arms of a whirling dervish.
I would take the train down from Boston to visit him and he would greet me with the same marvelous fanfare of affection and in the exact way in which he always began his letters. Darling! he would exclaim. He made me feel like a sailor home on leave.
After I got settled in, which essentially meant dumping my duffel bag in the study and washing my hands, we’d go out and he’d take me through the rooms of the rambling house that was his neighborhood. We’d sit drinking caffè lungo and talk about our lovers and our work, the things we were writing and the books we were reading, picking up strands of conversation we had begun in our letters as if to say against all evidence that this city and our letters were of a piece and that we were not really apart.
Later in the afternoon we would make love to each other, the way we had when we were lovers at university, innocent and uncomplicated, without artifice or fetish, but also without the hunger that marked those years. Ecstasy had long yielded its place to gentle pleasure, and if we made love through our letters, we conversed when making love.
But we never actually spoke about that time, those first years in which we had been so insatiably, so recklessly in love. We both knew that if we did, we would inevitably begin to talk about what went wrong and why we had fallen out of love, or more disturbingly, if we had ever fallen out of love. We knew that once we began to speak, our recollections of those remarkable days would become clouded with the silt of our failings and carelessness. And so we looked back at that time, each in his own quiet reverie, as one gazes from water’s edge upon a lake on a still afternoon.
After I moved to Europe my visits became even more sporadic. We continued to write as faithfully as we always had, but our letters were increasingly troubled by a new and terrifying presence.
He told me his illness had already made enough claims on his body and work that he didn’t want to allow it further room in our letters. But it was consuming so much of his life that he found it impossible not to write about it. He recounted to me how his skin and gums and his very blood had fallen victim to infection. He told me of an onset of mania that sent him on a spending spree in which he ran through his entire savings in two months’ time.
He wrote without self-pity but with a novelist’s restraint and attention to detail, as if he needed to document his affliction and then forget, if only for a little while, the greater terror of what was to come. For him, our correspondence was another kind of room, one that was neither in the city nor at home, and one in which he rarely wrote about the future. When he did, even towards the end, it was with measured hope.
He guarded this pocket of respite from the trespass of the future as carefully as we had avoided the what-if’s and how-come’s that would have breached the close of our shared past. But the ink in which he wrote of night sweats and sores that would not heal seeped through to trouble my waking hours. Though there were countless practical reasons why I, an ocean apart, had to content myself with the occasional and all too short visit, it felt wrong to be away.
I tried not to think that there might not be another visit, but of course that time would come.
He was still a beautiful man, when I saw him the following summer for the next and last time. The onslaught of infections had spared the long mane of black hair he had inherited from his Syrian mother, and his blue-grey eyes—the legacy of his Irish father—had kept their light and brilliance, though they now were set in a much gaunter face scored by the lipodystrophy left by his course of retroviral therapy. His gait still had its familiar happy bounce, and he walked as if he were listening to some inner music.
We were sitting at a sidewalk café having coffee. It was the first thing we did when I arrived, and it had become a ritual of sorts. We hadn’t been talking very long when he reached for his bag and retrieved a pack of Marlboros, which he set on our small oval table. “Darling, I’ve shocked you,” he said. “But I’m dying for a smoke.”
He perched a cigarette between his long thin fingers and fished out a lighter from a pocket in his jeans.
“I quit for a while but I can’t really see the point now. And I have to be so fucking disciplined about everything else. And besides…” he paused to light the cigarette, sucking in the smoke in one long drag and allowing it to billow out his mouth and nose as he went to say, “It’s one of the few things I have any appetite left for… You must think me terribly debased.”
“No, no, it’s just… never mind.” I had never seen him with a cigarette but I was perhaps more surprised that he had never told me he smoked.
“May I?” I said, reaching for the pack. As with many of my interests at the time, I was a dabbling amateur when it came to smoking. It was an affectation acquired during a stay in Paris, and more a mannerism than a habit.
“You, too?!” he squealed, though he may have suspected I was only keeping him company (what smoker does not carry his own pack?).
We shared our tobacco stories and laughed with the conspiratorial delight of two school friends pulling off a prank. At some point we got to talking about movies and cigarettes, and of course about the scene in Genet’s Un chant d’amour where the two prisoners share smoke through a straw in the wall between their cells. “I sometimes think of it as that sadistic guard.”
It. I didn’t have to ask.
He said, “He beats me and degrades me and he’s got a gun down my throat, but, you remember, in the end, he doesn’t win.”
I remembered. The prisoner escapes with his lover to the woods, even if he’s still in his cell.
Our conversation slowly tapered off into a comfortable silence. We sat quietly smoking and watched the people coming down the street, the locals with their supermarket bags and the gym guys in muscle t-shirts and the tourists in their sensible shoes and baseball caps. He smoked unhurriedly and with great pleasure, slowing expelling a plume of bluish smoke that wrapped his face like a veil that rises in a breeze.
I thought of what we had shared in our letters all those years, the long and careful narrative of lovers and illness that we recounted, the stories we told of our minor glories and extinguished hopes. Why, despite the countless details of our daily lives that we shared so freely in our letters, did we omit this one?
We didn’t stay at the café very long. He said he was getting tired and wanted to take a nap. When we got back to the apartment, we took off our clothes and got into bed. I drew him close to me, just to have him near me really, and as I did, I felt his bones press against my flesh. But he slipped out of my embrace and slid down to my cock. I tried to pull him up to let him know it was enough for me to hold him. But he resisted my tugging. “No, I want it this way,” he said.
Afterwards we lay in bed with our heads on a pillow propped up against the sill of the bedroom window. Now and then a breeze would steal up and make its presence briefly felt before retreating again into the street. Sounds came in from the street as well, more insistently than the breeze. If at first it seemed just noise to me, this indeterminate wave of sound began to resolve itself into a motet of distinct voices. It was the city speaking to us. There were the usual players, dogs barking, kids shouting in the street, yells and whistles and horns and sirens, and much scraping and banging of metal. I could imagine the people walking along the street outside, like the ones we had seen at the café. Occasionally an odd sound, like the buzz of a saw, would make its entrance. And then, whenever the drone of cars rattling down 7th Avenue subsided, I could hear the chirping of birds.
I turned my head and looked at him and I knew that this was the way I wanted to remember him, with the city above and behind him, cradling him, its gifted noble son, in its embrace.
Our southern spring is now long gone. It departed as abruptly as it had arrived, like an ill-mannered houseguest who suddenly realizes there are better things to do elsewhere. One can barely recall the prospect of renewal trumpeted in that first riot of blooming wildflowers. An empty promise, after all. We should know better by now.
In its infidelity, spring is no different from those other times in the year that seem to promise a new beginning, a new vantage point, the vista we imagine from a hill we are soon to climb. The New Year, September, the advent of spring —each seems to offer us the chance to re-imagine and rewrite our life. But it is a prospect experienced more in its anticipation than in its fulfillment, and is as fleeting as the view from the hill once crested. Resolutions are quickly surrendered, and the new projects of September, begun with the same enthusiasm and hope that marked our expectations of the new school year, are abandoned.
For me summer was always the occasion of renewal, a gentler one with a longer event horizon of disillusionment. It, too, promises a new turn in life, but not one that presages the acquisition of new skills or the relinquishment of old habits. It is not a season for accomplishments. It is instead an invitation to that exhilarating unselfconsciousness that is found in both childhood and passion alike.
I think it has something to do with being naked. It is as if in ridding ourselves of the woolen sweaters and heavy shoes of less temperate seasons, we begin to put aside the burdensome distractions into which we are drawn the rest of the year, the intrigue and politics of work and school, the deadly commute and the clamor of bills. We shed layer after layer until in the end and for a short but blessed while, we find ourselves stripped of clothes and worry alike. We can once again feel our nakedness: the swirl of a breeze against our skin, the thin film of salt drying on our back, the tickle of grass between our toes. It is as if the world is trying to make love to us.
It is not then surprising that a summer house should have different memories from the ones that inhabit the home we make for the rest of the year. They, too, are lighter, less encumbered. You can tell from the attic. There are no trunks of wedding dresses and christening outfits, the costumes in which the set pieces of family history are played out. If boxes are stacked in the attic they contain no albums or tax records, no report cards or school trophies. It’s as if the inhabitants of the house lived in a timeless present, liberated from the need or desire to preserve memory. Of course, memories are captured and preserved, on film and in photographs and in stories we recount later. But none of these archives seem to be present in the house itself.
The attic in our summer house was such a place. Instead of trunks and chests and boxes, it had beds. Four to be exact, arranged in parallel rows of two on each side of the attic.
When I think of that house it is the beds I remember first. There were the beds in the rooms in which my grandparents, my parents and a widowed great-uncle slept. But there was also a pull-out sofa in the living room and a divan and a glider on the porch. There was even a pair of beds in the finished basement, which also housed a second kitchen and the long monastery table where we all ate.
And then there were the cots in the attic. The stairs were too steep for the old and young, and the space, with its exposed rafters, rough plank floor and army cots, was thought too rough for the women in the family. They were the beds of last resort, the domain of unmarried cousins and uncles, to be used when the sofa-beds and divans were all claimed by other guests. The attic was a makeshift barrack that seemed to exist apart from the rest of the house, a left over space for left out men.
The beds were there to accommodate guests, of which we had many. They were all family, if in a very broad sense of the term. The edges of this kinship—who was and who wasn’t family—were defined in accordance with the season, and expanded in summer to include little seen relatives eager to escape the heat and asphalt of the city.
My uncle Harry was one of these refugees. Technically, he was a first cousin once removed, but he was part of my father’s generation and thus called an uncle. In fact, however, he was only a dozen or so years my senior when I saw him for the last time during what was to be my last summer at the house. I was 16.
He had come down with his parents on one of their rare visits to the house. My family didn’t talk much about Harry. I knew how he was related to me, and that he lived on his own in the city and wasn’t married, but not much more than that. The men in the family, mourning perhaps their own foreshortened years in the pursuit of pleasure, said that Harry was having too much fun as a ‘bachelor’ to settle down. The women said that Harry hadn’t found the right woman to marry.
I just remember that Harry was cool, and very unlike my father and the other men I was accustomed to calling uncles. He asked me about school, but not in the perfunctory way the others did. He wanted to know why I liked English and what music I listened to and who my best friend was and why I liked him. He told me about his best friend and I told him about Simon, but not as much as I could have or secretly wanted to. I was still too unsure of myself.
Unsure but not confused. I didn’t want to be someone else. I couldn’t even imagine myself liking the girls the way the other guys in school did. No, I didn’t want to change. But I didn’t yet know how to be me.
I wish I could have confided in Harry. I wish I could have had him as an ally. Someone whose advice I could have asked about what to do with my feelings for Simon, or more importantly, someone I could ask about what to do about me. But I didn’t know how to ask him.
I must have had role models as a child, the heroes of comic books and adventure stories, and I would find new ones at college, impassioned teachers and reckless poets, and a mentor in the guise of a therapist. But I had none when I needed one most, in those awkward years of my adolescence.
The day after he arrived, we went crabbing, my grandfather and father, my brother and me, and Harry. There isn’t much to do on a rowboat when you’re out crabbing, apart from checking the traps every 15 minutes or so. The men drank beer from a cooler and talked. My brother and I watched sailboats tack across the bay and seagulls dive for the remains of the sandwiches that we tossed into the water. Now and then I would steal a look at Harry.
The day was hot and he had taken off his shirt. Unlike the paunch my father and uncles carried, his stomach was flat and tucked into his bathing trunks like a sheet on an expertly made bed, the kind I’d been taught to make at Boy Scout camp. He wore his thick black hair slicked back with gel, and this too set him apart from the others, but that day the stiff sea breeze had loosened it from its moorings and it now swung over his eyes like a veil of tassels.
I remember the ridged delta of veins on his forearms when he pulled up the traps. I remember the way the muscles in his back flared as he rowed. The physicality of the man fascinated and unsettled me.
That night I slept in the attic, my brother and I having ceded our places on the sofa bed to Harry’s parents. I lay awake for what seemed like hours, restless and unable to sleep, straining to make out what my father and Harry were saying as they sat and talked on the porch below.
Eventually the drone of their conversation and the sheer exhaustion of the day lulled me into sleep and I awoke later in the night to find Harry asleep on the cot across from mine. I turned onto my side so that I could see him better but he was hulled in darkness. A streetlight shone through the attic window, bisecting the dormer with a swathe of silvery light that grazed the outer edge of our cots. It illuminated a strip of Harry’s body, nothing more than an arm and shoulder that clasped the edge of the mattress.
As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I could make out more of his body. I watched his torso slowly rise and fall as he breathed. I became aroused, and without seeming to will it at all, my hand slid down to my crotch. I watched him and made love to myself as quietly as I could, fearful that if I moved too much the springs in my bed would creak and waken the others. I felt I was breathing too loud but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. And then I didn’t care. There is a point when we make love, whether to others or to ourselves it matters not, in which time suddenly flattens, eradicating past and future, our watchfulness and sense of consequence. And then my brother vanished from his cot and the house emptied its guests, and it was just me and Harry and the pale sheet of light that stretched from the edge of his bed to mine.
Harry and his parents stayed only for the weekend. I wished he could have stayed longer. I liked being around him and I liked who was I when I was with him. Though I could not imagine a life as a man loving another man, since I had no images or stories with which to construct such a life, Harry nonetheless afforded me a glimpse into another world in which men did not marry and lived in the city in the company of other men.
I thought about him the rest of the summer, hoping he’d visit again, but he never did. Sometimes in the early afternoon, I’d steal up to the attic on the pretence of finding a quiet place to read, and lay down on the bed from whose vantage point I had watched Harry as he lay sleeping. I would slip off my shorts and call to mind the image of him shirtless as he rowed across the bay. Even in his absence he made me feel good.
Jared French (1905–1988) was a painter who worked in the style of magic realism and in the medium of egg tempera. Together with his wife, artist Margaret Hoening, and Paul Cadmus, with whom he was briefly lovers after college and with whom he remained life-long friends, he founded the artistic collective PAJAMA, which became known for their photography of life on Fire Island where the three summered together. For more on this artist and a look at some of his work, see Christopher Harrity’s article on French in the Advocate.
The year I graduated from high school, for the first time in the history of the school, the valedictory address was not given by the student who was first in his class. We knew that Dylan, the student who was selected in his place to be valedictorian, wasn’t even near the top. This being a competitive Catholic preparatory school, grades were important. Our class ranking was calculated and printed on our grade report at the end of every term in our junior and senior years. We knew who the highest ranking students were, just as we knew the names of the fastest runners and highest seeded tennis players. It was the kind of news that got around. I didn’t need to be told, though. I knew whose grade report had the number one in the box for class rank, because it was mine.
Dylan was a good enough student and a fast enough runner, and he could draw cartoons, which gave him something of the artist’s cachet, but he didn’t truly excel at anything. Except being popular. He was very good at that. I expect it came to him as effortlessly as good grades came to me.
A handsome, tallish kid with blond hair, Dylan was graced with the athletic build of the mid-distance runner that he was. There were guys in my class who were easy to imagine as animals, like squat, pudgy Matt d’Angelo with his afro of reddish brown hair or Mike Shaughnessy, a tall goose of a kid with wide hips and a big butt, who waddled a bit when walked. Dylan was one of those animal guys. There was something equine about him, the long strong neck and high forehead, the way his muscular legs tapered to a spare torso. Yes, I could imagine him as a horse.
It wasn’t just looks. Dylan was also confident and affable, a born politician who was comfortable talking to practically anyone at school. Unlike the other popular guys at school, who kept to themselves, Dylan actually did talk to most of the rest of us, if only superficially.
Popularity could be ranked, too, and though the rankings were never published we nonetheless knew who were at the top and who at the bottom. I imagine Dylan felt he deserved the nomination—as president of the Student Council, so to speak—though he must have realized this opportunity was exceptional. Popularity was just as much a value as scholarship, though not a virtue.
“At least they didn’t put it to a vote,” I said to my friend Simon, as we were leaving the assembly hall where the President had just announced the details of the commencement program. Dylan would still have won, of course, but this way I didn’t have to lose face and could be righteously angry about it all.
But oddly enough, I wasn’t very angry. Simon was. Sometimes I thought Simon looked out for me more than I did for myself.
“The bastards!” he said, in a voice just loud enough to be overheard without seeming to have been directed at anyone in particular. “This is simply unacceptable.” That was the phrase he used whenever he was confronted by instances of injustice or abuse: unacceptable. And unacceptable meant doing something to make it right.
I told him it was all bullshit anyway; the whole commencement circus was just a show for the parents, I said. I suppose I believed it at the time, if only as a way of shielding myself from the hurt of an injustice that could not be righted. Because there was no way I was going to tell my parents about this. They’d think I’d done something to deserve it.
I hadn’t, of course, but there must have been an explanation for this unusual break with tradition. Simon thought the administration was afraid of what I’d say if given the podium. He made me sound more radical and heroic than I was, as if I’d draw inspiration for my valediction from liberation theology or neo-Marxism. I might have given cause for others to believe this. But I think it was more the fact that I had decided to take a year off before going to college. It was not the kind of publicity a school wants that prides itself on getting its graduates into good colleges. Not the kind of student you wanted representing the school. Now Dylan, he was an ideal poster boy for the school.
No explanation was given for the decision. Which was worse. I wish I had been accused of something, instead of being found wanting but not knowing why. Uncertainty erodes our indignation at precisely the point we are least sure of ourselves. What if the President was right? What if he was just trying to make sure the day wasn’t spoiled for parents and students by an off-the-wall talk by a kid with half-formed leftish ideas who sometimes came to his AP Calculus class a little stoned?
Simon insisted we go to Chang’s after track practice. To make plans, he said.Chang’s was the closest thing we had to a hangout, and it sometimes seemed as if we did all our serious talking there. It was a noodle shop in the city, a basement place with a half-dozen formica tables and fluorescent tube lighting. The walls were painted in the kind of pale mossy green you saw in hospitals or locker rooms. There were calendars on the wall. Not many non-Asians came, which is why Simon liked it so much. He was big on authenticity.
So at dinner that evening we talked about a plan. Or rather Simon did. We could send an anonymous letter of protest, he said, to all the parents. We could form a student committee to lodge a formal complaint. We could threaten to write a letter to the newspapers.
None of this made much sense to me, least of all the student complaint. I had friends but most of them, like Simon and me, were on the track team, as was Dylan, so it was unlikely we’d muster more than a few signatures. But the problem wasn’t tactical. I didn’t want to make an issue of it. I told him so, as I picked out the pieces of tripe and lung from the 7 Treasures Pan Noodles he and I had both ordered.
“Why not make an issue of it? It’s fucking wrong!” he said. “And why do you order this if you don’t like it?”
“I keep hoping the treasures will change and one day I’ll find something new and orgasmic that I’ve never tasted before.” If Simon ate in pursuit of adventure, I was the romantic diner. Truth is, if we had been just a little braver and more honest with ourselves, we might have made love to each other instead of going out to restaurants.
“Simon, I already know I’m smart. I don’t need a speech.” I told him I didn’t want people thinking I was caught up with the whole “status thing”. I must have sounded ridiculous, as if I were a celebrity dodging the paparazzi, but if Simon noticed, he didn’t say anything.
What I couldn’t say to Simon was that I was uncomfortable with any kind of scrutiny. I had so fallen into the habit of being inconspicuous at school that I was prepared to make concessions to avoid drawing attention to myself. And since I already felt like an outsider, I thought I didn’t want or need the insignia of belonging. I was wrong.
It was only when I came out that summer after graduation did I begin to realize how wrong the school’s decision was. Even if I had ranted, which I wouldn’t have (my nerdish perfectionism would certainly have kicked in), but just saying, if I had, it would only have been for a brief ten minutes or so, not so tragic, really, and I would have made a fool of no one but myself. I should have had the time. I had earned it. Even if I were to use my time to sing or babble away in another language. You can only reject what it is first yours to have. But as I said, it took my coming out to make realize this.
I was right when I told Simon that commencement was a show, but wrong when I called it a circus. It wasn’t entertainment but a very serious show with a message that the education that took place within the school was an apprenticeship in conformity. Driven by the politics of interests, endowments and reputation, the commencement show was a masterful act of impression management that celebrated success in the most conventional of terms. The irony was, I had been successful in just those terms. In most of them, anyway. It was a valuable lesson to learn, and I suppose I should be grateful to the school for teaching me it.
Towards the end of dinner Simon reminded me of another talk the President had given. It was our very first day at the school and the entire freshman class had been gathered for orientation. Simon and I could still recall his opening words: “For each of you here, there are another three young men who wanted your seat.” I hadn’t heard myself called a young man in that way before, with the emphasis place on man. He told us how privileged we were to be here, to be part of this community of gifted young men, part of a tradition of brotherhood and scholarship. And then he went on to describe how this privilege brought with it great responsibility: to use our gifts and the knowledge and skills we were to acquire for a higher purpose: to serve God, to strive for justice, to honor truth. It would have been a good start for my own address had I been allowed to give it. Except the God part, maybe. I wasn’t ready for that.
“Hypocrites!” Simon said, again too loud. “I can’t believe you’re not going to do anything about this. But it’s your life, man. At least they’re giving you the Math prize,” he said and relaxed into a broad smile , as if he were embracing me with his expansive good nature.
“So what’s yours say?” He pointed to the fortune cookies that the waiter had brought with a refill of our tea, Chang’s concession to the walk-in tourist customers. Not very authentic, but Simon loved the absurdity of it. “Wow, real American fortune cookies, what a find!” he’d say when we ate at Chang’s with friends who hadn’t been there before.
I can’t remember what my cookie said. It was probably one of those syntactically awkward sayings that always seem so inappropriate or irrelevant when you read them, like “there is a time to be practical now.” But I remember Simon’s, if only because it quickly entered into that strange collection of inside jokes and obscure references that filled our conversation. “Believe in the goooness of your fellow man.”
We couldn’t decide whether the misspelling was a typographic casualty—a chipped off ascender on a glyph that should have been retired—or just typesetter fatigue. But it seemed perfect for the moment. Simon ordered us rice wine and we toasted to the gooeyness of our teachers and President. I could not have been better consoled.
I’ve tried to reproduce as faithfully as I could the dialogue between Simon and me, but many years have elapsed since then and some of this may be pure invention. But Simon could have said everything I have him say here. The only quote I am certain of is from the President’s orientation speech. That I will never forget.
The Mexican artist Emilio Baz Viaud painted this self-portrait at the age of 17. There aren’t many references to the work of this little known Mexican artist but Rudi Bleys devotes several pages to him and his (more openly gay) brother Ben Hur in his book “Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality (Sic) and Latin (O/A) American Art”. Bleys notes that Emilio’s portraits of his artist friends are “covert visualization of friendship, possible suggesting emotional and sexual intimacy between these men.” In any event, his paintings radiate an unabashed and infectious sensuality. Simon would have liked them, I think.
Unlike most people I know, I own nothing older than myself. No family heirloom or grandfather’s watch, nothing except for a tweed overcoat. I bought it when still a graduate student from a thrift shop in Cambridge that stocked the high-quality, if conservative, coats and jackets that have clothed genteel New Englanders for decades and that the same New Englanders, with their horror of wastefulness, sent to the shop when the time came through death or rotundity to dispose of them.
The shop was the place to go if you were a college student with a need for more formal clothes but without much money or sense of fashion. The labels often read Brooks Brothers and J. Press, though the only label to be found on mine said, Reine Wolle. It made me wonder whether its previous owner had been some German intellectual or physicist who had escaped Nazi Germany and come to teach at Harvard but of course the coat wasn’t that old. But judging from the cut and the supposition that it had been in the previous owner’s possession for some time, it was certainly older than me.
The truth is, I had little need for an overcoat at the time. I didn’t even own a suit that could be worn under the overcoat, so I wore it over jeans and crew-neck sweaters. I didn’t much go to the kind of place you’d wear an overcoat to, but I hoped that one day I might.
We are not always ready for the things we buy. Some are better suited to a lifestyle, income or body that is beyond our means to acquire. Others require more skill to use or capacity to enjoy than we can muster. It’s almost as if they were bought by or for someone else. And in a way they are. They are bought, as my overcoat was, often with little foresight but great enthusiasm, for the person we want to become: the kind of person who would use or wear these things.
Though I eventually grew into it, ignoring its history and pretensions to make it mine—there was a time I’d wear it with my Doc Marten boots—I wasn’t entirely comfortable in the coat when I first bought it. It not only was bought second-hand, it also felt second-hand, at least at first. I was like a stepfather whose new partner’s children still didn’t like him. What my coat must have thought of me! What it could have said of its new owner!
Talking coats are found only in children’s stories now, but they were the kind of narrator one would find in the so-called novels of circulation that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries–stories told from the perspective of a thing or animal. These it-narratives offered an unusual perspective on an increasingly commercial society in which more and more objects changed more and more hands. Not surprisingly, many of these narratives are told from the point of view of a coin: there are the adventures of a silver penny, a sovereign, a rupee, and a Scottish guinea note. Or they are told by objects that change occupants, things like hackney coaches and the (very modern for the time) air balloon. But they were also books like The Genuine and Most Suprizing Adventures of a Very Unfortunate Goose-Quill, and The Memory and Adventures of a Flea, as well as tales of pens, thimbles, pin cushions, and dolls.
Coats had adventures, too. In 1762 a book was published entitled The Adventures of a Black Coat, containing a Series of Remarkable Occurrences and entertaining Incidents, that it was Witness to in its Peregrinations through the Cities of London and Westminster, in Company with Variety of Characters, as related by ITSELF.
The book begins at the end, with the black sable coat, now old and “curtailed by the degrading scissars of the botcher,” being joined in his solitary wardrobe by an unblemished “gay white coat”. White’s youthful arrogance spurs Sable to tell his new closet-mate the story of his life so that the young coat may profit from his misfortune. Sable goes on to relate the series of “conductors”—so he describes the men who have worn him—whom he accompanied on their way through the city to their (often unhappy) fate: a theater-struck Irish footman, a young man with aspirations to enter the service of a “man of distinction”, a confidence man—the alacrity with which the coat changes conductors is astonishing.
My coat didn’t change conductors much. I can’t be sure of the previous owners, but I suspect it was just one.
I wore it for work and play, at home and on my travels. I wore it in the best and the worst of my days with Matthew. I remember wearing it to my therapist’s office just a few weeks after buying the coat—if only because I couldn’t immediately figure out where I was supposed to hang it, and my indecision seemed to me at that moment one of the reasons I was there in the first place.
I remember that I was wearing it one very cold evening waiting in line with Mark outside a fish restaurant on a Boston pier. I was still in graduate school at the time. I don’t remember what we ate but I remember the overcoat because I had been carrying a flask of bourbon in one of its pockets so that we would have something to warm ourselves with while waiting. It seemed to me at the time a very man-of-the-world thing to do, the kind of thing that I imagined Mark would do but very much out of character for me. Mark, who was ten years my senior, had an overcoat similar to mine, but his was only a few years old and bought first-hand.
I wondered if Mark could sense that I had never carried a flask on me. If my coat could talk, he could have told Mark how uneasy I felt having it with me, how I would slip my hand now and then into the pocket to right the flask up from its side, running my fingers around the neck to see if any liquid was leaking out. It would have told him how desperately I wanted him to like me. I think now of Sable and his anxiety that he may be too large for the “young gentleman of graceful appearance” who is thinking of buying him. And so, as the man tries him on, Sable contracts the threads in his fabric to hold the young man tighter. To be a better fit. I, on the other hand, felt I was too small for Mark, not smart or worldly enough, and I expanded myself to please him.
But Mark, a much wiser man than I was, didn’t need to hear the coat to sense my uneasiness, nor did he want me to be anyone other than who I was, though I was too inexperienced to see this. He praised what he called my “foresight” and made a show of relishing the bourbon, an enthusiasm that seemed to me quite genuine (and reassuring) at the time, though I later learned that Mark didn’t like hard liquor much. And if he found my fumbling attempts to please him amusing or endearing, he spared me the embarrassment of telling me so.
If there are things like coats that we buy that are not right for us, there are also persons in our lives we are not ready for. It is as if Lachesis, in measuring the length of our life, had tangled the thread of our fate, with the result that some of our lovers come too soon in our life, others too late. But Mark and I met at the right time, I, trying to grow older, trying to become the man he was, he, yearning to be young in a way he had never dared to be. It was a relationship which by definition was doomed to be short-lived. Without being conscious of doing so, Mark taught me how to outgrow him, and I revealed to him why the years he sought to recover were forever lost. In the end, neither was a cause for mourning. Borrowed clothes never fit well anyway.
Of the clothes I brought with me from Boston, this coat is the only item that remains. My coat has a tale to tell, but it is now just as neglected as Sable.
I don’t wear the coat much these days nor does it afford me pleasure when I do, though few clothes do that now anyway. It hangs in my closet next to much younger clothes, the bomber jackets and gabardine that accompany me on my travels in the city and beyond. It could still be a handsome coat on a more graceful looking conductor or at least on a needier one. But I won’t give it away. Utility and pleasure and beauty are not the only reasons we keep things. Memory is another. And memory is the attachment that is last to leave.
For those interested, there’s a four-volume set of these it-narratives published by Pickering & Chattoo. Some of the individual tales can be found online in Google Books in a poorly scanned facsimile.
Glyn Warren Philpot (1884-1937) was an artist and sculptor whose early work brought him considerable renown as a portrait painter (he painted portraits of the poet Siegfried Sassoon and J. H. Whitley, Speaker of the House of Commons). But Philpot’s portraits of his friends and lovers, including his manservant, Henry Thomas, and paintings of the male nude, made his sexuality increasingly clear to a disapproving English public and his work remained controversial until his early death at the age of 53. A brief summary of the artist’s biography here.
This post has been assembled and reworked from bits and pieces of What’s Left of Nathan. Sorry for the cross-posting for those who have already read parts of this, but it was a story I felt was worth retelling (in a better way, I hope).
I still remember his name after all these years, though we spent only a brief afternoon together and I knew very little about him. Of course, I would have remembered him anyway because it was my first time, and we all remember our first time, whether celestial or horrific or simply confounding. But it was not only that. Michael was more than a man. Or less than one, depending on how you see things. He was an angel.
I know. You don’t believe in angels. I don’t either, at least not the the ones we’ve been accustomed to think of, those ethereal winged creatures in long robes and halo. But Michael was the kind of angel I do believe in. Odd, really, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in angels, of a sort anyway. Yes, I know that sounds preposterous. What is an angel who has no god to serve?
I met Michael in San Francisco. I had just turned 18 and had arrived in the city a few weeks earlier after hitching my way unexpectedly fast across the country. I might never had made it to California if the second ride that picked me up on I-80 West outside Paterson, New Jersey—a guy with a pony tail in a pink Chevy—hadn’t been headed straight to the Bay Area. His car had a major breakdown in Indiana; he bought another used car on the spot and continued to Oakland. I was in California in four days. It was one of the few times in my life I was tempted to believe in fate.
At the time I was sharing an apartment on Cole Street with two women I met in a hostel I had crashed at when first arriving in the city. It was a small place with just one bedroom, but it was all that we could afford or even wanted. One of the women would sleep on the couch, and one on the other half of my bed. I must have called forth the big sister in them, because they insisted I always sleep on the bed.
They usually took turns on who’d get the bed, but not always, and since they worked nights as masseuses in an “establishment” (that’s what Suzanne called it) and got back long after I had gone to sleep, I never knew which of the two I’d wake up to find next to me. A few times I had woken up in the morning to find a guy, too, in the bed, though nothing ever happened.
The last person I had shared a bed with was my brother, and that was back in grade school. And I was still a virgin, though at least I had stopped sleeping in pajamas. I was now sleeping with masseuses instead. As a way I suppose of imposing some kind of order on this menagerie, I decided to paint the apartment.
I didn’t see the absurdity of this gesture at the time. How could I have been sure that I would be living there the following month if I couldn’t be sure who I’d be sleeping with the following evening? But I must have some compulsive innate drive for domestic order.
Later in my life I would become that rare traveller who actually uses all the drawers and hangers and shelf space one is given in a decent hotel room. Shirts and trousers get hung up, socks, underwear and sweaters are laid out in the dresser drawers, dress and running shoes are lined up on the closet floor, toiletries get arranged on the bathroom shelf (why don’t hotel rooms have medicine cabinets?), the assortment of cables and chargers are stowed in the desk drawer. And then, of course, I hide the suitcase in the closet or under the bed. I set up house.
There was no house to create in this apartment. But painting it seemed like a start. Like planting a garden in a gold rush town, it seemed a way of taming the space.
I called the landlord, who okayed the expense and told me to arrange it with the superintendent. “Talk to Michael,” he said, “he’ll take care of everything.”
So I called Michael, with whom I’d exchanged nothing more than the usual pleasantries on the rare times when our paths would cross, and we talked a bit about colors, and then he called me back a few days later to tell me he got the paint and I should come up to his place and pick it up.
Michael lived in what turned out to be an even smaller apartment on the top floor. He greeted me barefooted in an unbuttoned chambray shirt that hung out of his jeans. He was a lanky man in his 20s with long blond hair and an unsubstantial beard. Elfin in a way, though there was nothing mischievous or sprightly about him.
He was making soup when I came up, and he invited me to stay for lunch. I can’t remember what kind of soup it was or what we talked about but I remember what happened next. After we cleared the dishes he asked me to help me make the bed. For some reason I didn’t think this was odd. Sheets are unwieldy, beds are made faster à deux, and seeing as he’d just fed me, I thought it only polite that I help.
So we made his bed and I wound up, I don’t know how, with my back against the bed and Michael in front of me. He slipped his hands under my armpits, lifted me slightly and then tossed me backwards on the bed. He then climbed onto the bed on top of me and nudging up to my crotch, slowly unzipped my fly.
“Michael,” I said, “I don’t know if I’m gay.” But my body clearly gave lie to my indecision.
“That doesn’t matter now, does it? You’ve got plenty of time ahead of you to figure it out.”
He was attentive and unhurried in his lovemaking, graceful in a way. I didn’t think my body was capable of feeling such pleasure. It felt at first as though I had slipped into a foreign body whose power exceeded my understanding or control. But Michael made it feel right, and so I abandoned myself to his ministrations.
He didn’t kiss me at first. He waited for me to draw him up close to me so that I could kiss him. I didn’t think of it at the time—it was not a time for thinking anyway—but I later understood how wise he was, letting me choose the moment to claim my desire, like an apprentice coachman asking to take hold of the reins for the first time.
As I kissed him, I could feel the gentle pressure of his lips against mine, warm, moist, full, and this was wonderful. But I also became aware of the bristle of his beard brushing against my cheek and only then, with this sense of hair against flesh did I realize, yes, I am making love to a man. And this was perhaps the most extraordinary of all sensations.
We all have a first kiss, though not all first kisses are the same. I don’t think many of my straight friends at school could date their first real kiss. They had been kissing in one way or another all through adolescence, moving from the first cautious peck to more adventurous longer kisses until that first time when mouths opened and tongues met. They were in a way continuously preparing for the first real kiss, and in their preparation had already acquired sufficient experience so as to render the difference between the first kiss of passion and its ultimate and penultimate predecessors simply one of degree. Their kisses lay on a continuum of ever deepening desire and were informed by expectation, if not right. Naturally they would kiss and kiss again and continue to find countless occasions to do so, in private and in public. That’s what straight boys and girls do.
I had no precedent or preparation for this, my first and so momentous kiss. Nor did I have the same expectation that I would find such pleasure, though I hoped with every fiber of my being that I would. And so it was not one but all the kisses my friends had had that were unloosed together in one rainy afternoon in a small apartment in the Haight.
It was not only the first time I was kissed in this way. It was the first time I felt desired. Michael lifted up the mantle of self-consciousness I was so often burdened with in school, the watchfulness I had exercised in ensuring that my lack of fit in a world in which by definition I could never fit would go unnoticed. He lifted it up and tossed it aside as easily as he released me of my t-shirt and jeans. It was gone, that feeling of not-being-right-with-the-world, the awkwardness I felt with the homophobic jokes I’d hear in the locker room after practice, the way I’d retreat into myself to become unremarkable, which is to say, not to give cause for remarks. Michael desired me and made me feel remarkable—and whole—in a most wonderful way.
It was a visitation of grace: that unexpected, unmerited divine favor revealed to us in the imparting of blessings. And Michael was its intermediary. The name was perhaps wrong; Raphael or Uriel, teacher or healer, would have been more appropriate than Michael, the warrior. But names didn’t matter.
I didn’t see him much after that afternoon and we never had sex again. By the time I painted one room I had met Noah and he had asked me to move in with him. But that was ok. Angels are not made for relationships. It was enough that he had visited me.
There are some words I just can’t say without feeling fraudulent or pretentious, or just plain silly. The slang of another generation, say, or the vocabulary of semiotics. The argot of trades. French words when the English will do. Words that sit fine on the written page but sound studied or precious when uttered. Words which, like low-rise skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts, only the young can carry off and others that cannot be uttered outside a closed circle of like-minded cognoscenti without the risk of self-parody (think ‘grammar’ as a verb).
Dude is one of those words. I feel ridiculous whenever I say it, which is almost never. Bro is another. I can’t use these words without feeling as though I were in costume playing a role in a period drama or borrowing a term from a foreign language whose meaning I know only in its rough contours. I doubt if I even pronounce them properly. Something happens to the ‘u’ in dude when real dudes use the word. I don’t know exactly what it is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t rhyme with ‘mood’, which is how I say it. I’m sure I also miss nuances in the way these words are used, just as a foreigner might when negotiating the fine boundaries between the formal and familiar forms of address that exist in so many other languages (“Don’t bro me if you don’t know me”).
For me, dude and bro are words you need to grow up using in order to use them comfortably. They are so deeply enmeshed in a particular (in this instance, straight male) culture that you cannot bring them into your vocabulary by a simple act of will. At least I can’t. These words are more than a form of address; they signal belonging. Dude says you are one of us. And I clearly wasn’t.
This same culture also had words for exclusion, ugly, hurtful words like faggot. I recognize, of course, that dude and faggot are not two sides of the same coin. Not all the jocks and alpha males at school used them both; many used neither. But the words came together often enough in speech for the caustic traces left by the one to bleed into and corrode the sound of the other.
Maybe gay guys in high school and college today use this form of address all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover Gaybros, a group on reddit where guys presumably get together to talk about “guy stuff… sports, video games, military issues, grilling, gear, working out, gadgets, tech, tv, movies and more.” There’s certainly a lot of dude-ing on Gaybos. And a lot of dudes. Gaybros claims it now receives over 200,000 monthly unique visitors.
The group was founded just over a year ago by Alex DeLuca who, like many of the guys on the forum, is in his early 20s.In an interview he released on YouTube, DeLuca explains why he started the group:
In the course of the last decade or so, being gay or bisexual has become increasingly more acceptable, but the challenge is it has done so with a very narrow definition of what being gay is. So for guys like me who like sports and Xbox and paintball, they don’t really fit this definition and I think a lot of young men out there are afraid to accept who they are because they feel that if they do, they’ll have to change when the reality is they don’t.
Though the group’s tagline is about gathering around shared “male interests”, most of the posts have nothing to do with football, cars or video games. If it they did, the group would be essentially no different from other interest-based groups such as gaymers or gay engineers. Instead, a good number of the threads seem to be about coming out and the first uneasy steps to meeting other men. It’s less fishing tackle and the Red Sox than dating advice and progress pics.
In DeLuca’s words, what draws the Gaybros group together is the “desire to promote self acceptance and build an inclusive and supportive community where people are free to be themselves.” And reading through the posts I get the impression that this is indeed a kind of safe space where someone who is coming out or have just come out can find advice and support or maybe even a hook-up.
Though as a forum Gaybros is hardly unique in this aspect, the more experienced posters are generous with their support and the advice they have to share is often on the mark. Topics range from the pedestrian (“I’m only 18 and I’m already balding”. Answer: “Balding is not a turn-off, insecurity about one’s appearance is”) and the disarmingly naive (“I have a cub build and I’m a bottom. What are the chances of me getting laid there?”) to the practical (how to bottom, with sound advice that I need not repeat here). But many posts touch on core concerns of self-acceptance and coming out.
The language in these latter instances is often couched in terms of issues of masculinity. A characteristic post in which one contributor talks about his first visits to the University’s LGBT group notes “I feel like a loner being the only masculine one there.” The recurring discourse on masculinity has led some in the gay media to accuse the group of perpetuating stereotypes of traditional masculinity, of simply promoting a more liberally couched model of the earlier decades’ straight-acting homosexual male. In their rejection of effeminate men (despite the group’s claims to inclusiveness), the members’ appropriation of dude and bro, it is argued, ironically serves the same end of demarcating boundaries of belonging.
But I suspect it isn’t really about masculinity, even in the caricatured version that runs through the site, a masculinity not defined in terms of strength and virtue but instead reduced to a set of mannerisms, quality of voice and “interests” . In another, perhaps more revealing post on the same subject we read, “I used to avoid my school’s lgbt club because it’s always been so politically focused, and everyone was so sure of who they were while I was lost in the woods.”
This phrase, “so sure of who they were”, is key to understanding the appeal of Gaybros, at least to a segment of younger gay men who are coming to age (and coming out) and who are not yet particularly self-confident or comfortable with their sexuality. Reading their posts, one gets the impression that these men find little with which to identify in the scenarios of gay life and identity that they have witnessed or seen portrayed in the media. They don’t see how they fit with this “very narrow definition of what it means to be gay”, in DeLuca’s words.
At first I didn’t understand what he meant by this “narrow definition”. I’m usually struck by precisely the opposite: the glorious variety of gay identities. As I read more of the threads, I discovered a recurrent theme of discomfort with “flamboyant” gay men, or men who are “radicalized” or “trendy”. In fact, these are all code words for men who are at ease with their sexual orientation in the ways that many of the bros aren’t. Men who are sure of who they are.
This discomfort is perhaps also a matter of class and geography. DeLuca’s “narrow definition” is a veiled reference to the lifestyles of buffed and sophisticated gay men in Boystown and Provincetown or whatever the local metropolitan equivalent is. In late March, a week after Slate published a piece on the gaybros, HuffPost Live’s Ahmed Shihab-Eldin hosted an online discussion about the group with Deluca and one of the subreddit moderators, Tim Karu, as well as the show’s producer Mitchell Williams and HuffPost Gay Voices Editor Noah Michelson. At one point Williams and Shihab-Eldin grill the Gaybros about the organization’s putative exclusionist masculine ethos. But the irony is that DeLuca and Karu are—at least visually—much less stereotypically “masculine” than the attractive gym-toned HuffPost’s host and producer. Shihab-Eldin is the hyper-masculine, “narrowly defined” gay man that some of the younger Gaybros seem to be uncomfortable with. Many of the bros, judging from the pictures they’ve uploaded, are really the guy next door: not the all-American jock next-door of the movies but the proverbial average (gay) guy. Which, I suppose, is also true of a lot of other gay men, at least in terms of appearance. With the exception of perhaps a higher percentage of headgear, the photos of the Gaybros are not all that different from ones you’d find on gay dating sites.
What does set the bros apart, at least the younger ones who log on for support in their journey to greater self-acceptance, is their naïveté and lack of self-assurance. It is also their lack of knowledge about the history of gay activism. In the end, Gaybros is a kind of halfway house (and hopefully a place of learning) for men needing a safe space–and mentor–to come to terms with their sexuality. I imagine a good number of them come looking for a way to discount as far as possible the role sexuality plays in their identity. They seem to want to say, it’s just sex. But of course it’s never only sex. It’s also politics and culture and, yes, identity. Luckily for these young guys, there are older, wiser bros who not only provide a broader perspective on what it means to be a man but also remind the cubs of their share in our collective responsibility in the fight for equal rights.
Responding to charges that the bros are creating a community that raises divisions within the broader gay population, excluding more effeminate men, DeLuca said that at Gaybros “we care about interests and character, not mannerisms… Gaybros is all about not having to change who you are just because you’re gay.”
But of course you do change. Not your interests, obviously (as if it really mattered if you’re into grilling and gadgets). But you change in other, more important ways. Or perhaps you just realize and embrace the ways in which you have already been changed and use this experience and perspective to foster another kind of change, the one that happens when you fully embrace your sexuality, a change that is both political and personal.
Oh, and by the way, judging from some of the posts on the NSFW gaybros subreddit, the bros are just as horny as the rest of us. And though far from campy, some certainly seem to be warming up for it.
The world of fairy tales are filled with heroes and heroines but it is often the things in these tales we remember best. One Prince Charming is more or less like any other, and without their props and entourage, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are nearly indistinguishable versions of the same character (a young Cameron Diaz comes to mind). But there’s no mistaking ruby for glass slippers, a glockenspiel for a pipe, or the lamp with a genie for the one the widow has. Indeed, in some tales, it’s almost as if the roles were switched: the Princess becomes a prop for the pea and a young prince the set-piece for a sword in stone.
These are wondrous objects, golden apples and golden fleece, cloaks of invisibility and rings of power, flying carpets and magic wands. And they do extraordinary things: an amulet will charm the object of your desire, a flute will escort you unscathed through rings of fire.
But perhaps the objects we remember the most are those that do something not for the one who possesses it but rather to him, things that empower—or undo—the protagonist, the crucibles of integrity and folly. The one trait that runs through all these very different touchstones of worth and failing is that our heroes and heroines, once they come into possession of these things can never be the same again. The very use of the object sets off a fundamental change in the way these characters see themselves and the world around them.
Magic masks of self-transformation and the like are only to be found in sagas and tales. But most of us have something we own or wear that makes us feel a bit different. A car or a flattering dress or a favorite pair of running shoes. Our bike or scuba gear or leather jacket.
Mine was a pair of red boots which, for a time, were magical in their own way. I also had the same kind in black, but the red ones tell the story. They were like the ruby slippers in reverse. They didn’t bring me home; they led me away. They let me change myself. Not in any profound way, certainly, and only for a while, but it was a transformation of sorts. Perhaps it wasn’t even a change. Maybe it was only an interlude of experimentation. Now the boots have lost the magic. I’ve grown older and can’t coax it out of the leather any longer. They’re just a pair of boots right now, albeit with a store of memories.
They’re oxblood red, to be precise, not cherry red, though the classic Doc Marten boots do come in both colors. Mine are the 14-eyelet model. You can get them with 20 eyelets but I didn’t think I had the stature to pull off wearing them. As it was, it took forever to lace them up. Once I timed it. It took me 7 minutes.
The boots are standard gay skinhead gear, and like much of the rest of the gear, subject to a strict code. And like many of the magical objects in fairy tales it comes with rules about how and when they were to be used. I think it’s precisely because the gear is part of a fetish scene that the rules are so strict (it’s weird, actually, when you consider how many of us grew up not fitting in with the conventions of the straight world, only to become so exacting when it comes to standards we later set ourselves) . Lacing is part of this code, both the colors of the laces and the method: straight bar lacing, a variation of the classic European boot lacing method that eliminates the underlying diagonals but looks messy if not done to precision.
The code is not exhausted in the laces. Hair is shaved or cropped with #2 clip guard max. Braces—the kind that you clipped on—are usually not wider than ¾ inch, crossed in the back, though guys often let them just hang from the hips. Lace colors send messages, not about politics or football teams but sexual practices. Polo shirts can be Fred Perry or Lonsdale or Ben Sherman, but not all the colors. MA1 and Schott bomber jackets are standard issue.
Home-bleached jeans are worn. Before gear shops started selling pre-bleached jeans, you’d do it yourself. And there were definitely ways a skin would bleach jeans and ways that looked as if his mother did it for him. Of course, these are jeans you could only wear with the boots, because they’re cut at mid-calf to allow for one fold of a cuff that then sits at the line at the top of your boot.
I acquired the gear, which I’d wear to gay skinhead gatherings and bars in Berlin and Amsterdam and London. The gear didn’t make me stronger or wiser or more loved. But like a magic carpet it took me on a journey to places I otherwise wouldn’t have gone and never will again. In this gear I explored aspects of my sexuality that I didn’t know existed, though of course it was just the kind of guy I was meeting and not the boots. And my readiness. ”You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas,” Glinda says to Dorothy.
Friends sometimes asked how I could “identify” with a sub-culture that’s been associated with homophobia and violence. I told them that by appropriating and re-using the elements of traditional skinhead gear as part of a fetish scene, gay men were subverting its homophobic roots; it’s an entirely different scene with gay skins, I would say. I pointed to the button on my MA1 with the SHARP emblem (Skinheads against Racial Prejudice).
I told them I was intrigued by the unpretentious character of the scene. I told them I liked the core emphasis it placed on comradeship. I told them about the friends I had made. But I think they were unconvinced. I didn’t comment on their army camo pants or their cop fantasies or their biker leather jackets.Or the whole top-and-bottom discourse.
I still wonder, though, if they were right in the end. Maybe the homophobic legacy of the traditional skinhead scene was such that no amount of subversive bricolage could ever remove the traces of this pollution and Doc Martens boots don’t belong on gay man’s feet. It honestly didn’t feel that way at the time; it was just play to me and to most of the guys I met. But perhaps there is no such thing as innocent play once we grow up.
My friend Dieter tells me I was borrowing ready-mades of a sub-culture that was not my own to appropriate their paradigm of masculinity. He actually talks like this, though admittedly it doesn’t sound so weird in German. He was right, I suppose.I wonder, though, if it’s not all that different from what happens with other expressions of appropriated—and thus, interpreted—masculinity in gay culture: bears or daddies or gaybros or gay bikers. Or the guys who spend countless hours pumping iron in the gym to sculpt a body of proportions that even Michelangelo would be at loss to sculpt.
Aren’t these all in some way hypertrophied (if also ironic?) expressions of traditional images of masculinity: aggression, strength, providence, technological mastery? Aren’t these just ways of experimenting with possible expressions of masculinity and gay sexuality? And the comradeship? Isn’t that, too, very much a part of the sub-culture of bears and the agenda of gaybros?
I got into the scene as my relationship with Matthew was ending and stayed in it until I felt I was too old to be going around in bleached jeans and oxblood stompers. You can find guys my age at a skinhead night at a Berlin fetish bar but they’re the exception. I still find these boots sexy on other guys, but I know I won’t wear them again. And knowing this brings an odd sense of loss: the recognition of a closure that also recalls memories of a special time of exploration and play.
The boots just sit in my closet now. There’s no one I can give them to, not even the Syrian guy who painted my house and whose newly arrived cousins have only one pair of shoes each. No one tells you this in the beginning but these boots are a pain to walk in.