Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anything that you want me to


Hyde and Bush

At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. – Albert Camus

I

Around the first of May I found an apartment of my own, an eighth-floor walkup that was somewhat on the ratty side, but one I could pay for all by myself, in the Tenderloin.  It was still on Hyde Street, which was the reason I chose it, but on a radically different part of Hyde, just around the corner from the emergency entrance of St. Francis Hospital, and nestled in the residential neighborhood for the city’s best streetwalkers.  About half the apartments in my building housed prostitutes, since we were about two blocks up and three over from the stretches of sidewalk they frequented each night they were on duty. 

The other half of the apartments were populated mostly with gay men - some prostitutes, but most not - who were into the Polk Street scene two blocks down.  There were two significant gay scenes in the city:  the older Polk Street neighborhood, and the newer, more mainstream Castro district, where most of the gay population was in process of moving, and taking their business with them.  Castro was becoming a new political and economic center, emphasizing the power of gay businesses patronized by gays, and had an informal “mayor” in one of its own, a puppyish, engaging, yet hard-ball character named Harvey Milk, who owned a camera shop right on the block. 

Castro was where you lived and played if you were affluent, employed, and/or politically active.  Established gay couples were now frequenting the newer Castro Street, albeit to share in the cruising scene that characterized the onslaught of bars that had sprung up in many of the old businesses there, most notably Toad Hall.  Still, in those days, Castro was a place you could take your children or your mother in the daytime and have a shot at them making it down the street without too much explicit unfolding before their eyes, yet still participate in the transforming vibrance of the gay Mecca that was becoming San Francisco.

Polk Street, however, was still to most mainly a nighttime sex destination, steamy and implicitly dangerous, and drew an S & M community that made the easy come, easy go sexual lifestyle of one of the world’s largest gay communities a gamble at best, and potentially deadly at worst.  There was only one reason to be on Polk Street late at night if you were a gay man or a lesbian in those days, and that was to get laid.  The wild-eyed annual gay Halloween celebration was still in Polk Gulch back then, and mingled up the hill into the Tenderloin, inviting the whole illicit sex-for-dollars scene to come out and play, including my little building.  Even in the daytime, Polk Street denizens knew exactly what they were there to do, and they looked it.  And it was Polk Street that shaped the milieu in my new neighborhood.

I had a neighbor across the street whom I never actually got to meet in person, but I knew a whole lot about him, probably mostly things even his own mother didn’t know.  His window was directly in my sightline, directly across and very slightly below, so I could see clear to the back, as well as down and in.   Both of our apartments were studios, which meant that all of the living went on in a single room, with the exception of the hall-closet sized kitchens and the cubicles we called bathrooms.  In reality, I could see everything there was to see that was visible in almost every apartment in the building across from me, but the one I noticed the most was my friend at eye level.  That’s because he was the male version of Blondie, with some very notable differences.  I called him Puppet Man.

Puppet Man had two principal activities: making passionate love to a rubber blowup woman on a giant bed that occupied most of the space in his studio; and standing in the window, stark naked, each wrist tied with a ribbon, or something, to its corresponding ankle, making stiff, popping, bobbing movements like a marionette without a master.  When the curtains were open in the evening, there was no escaping him.  Rain, shine, hot or cold, Puppet Man came out like clockwork as soon as it was dark enough for him to illuminate his small flat like a stage set.  Sometimes he wore a derby hat and nothing else.  Thankfully, he seemed unaware of which lighting schemes caused him to be backlit so that you could only see his silhouette, which meant that about half the time he only appeared in shadow form.  The rest of the time, though, every inch of him was visible in all its glory, or lack thereof.

People didn’t like coming to my apartment because of Puppet Man, unless they didn’t mind a live naked marionette displayed there in full view, which, with very few exceptions, wasn’t anyone I would invite to my apartment.  My parents, who were so glad I had moved away from Graham that they were speaking to me again and had bought me a sofa bed for my new pad, cancelled their first date to come to dinner when I warned them about Puppet Man, and never agreed to another dinner date after that. 

After my parents, I didn’t warn people about Puppet Man any more when I invited them over.  Still, no one ever came to visit more than once the entire time I lived there, except Bob, who practically lived there until he left for Paris, which was soon after I moved there, and Bruno.  Bruno came twice.

The first time Bruno came was to help me move in.  He and Ray helped me gather up an old vacuum tube TV with a coat hanger for an antenna, a cast-off stereo record player from Jean’s house with mismatched speakers, and a swatch of dusty blue dumpster carpet, all of which they brought over in the two little red grocery pickups.  Bruno threw in a laminate drop-leaf table with two lemon yellow vinyl revolving chairs that he had bought just for me.  In the middle of the comings and goings, the sofa bed my parents had ordered arrived, and together with my paintings and photographs that covered the walls everywhere you turned, my hooker’s special began to feel like home.

After I had finished unpacking the kitchen things I had split with Graham, Ray left, and it started to get dark.  Bruno was still putting together the dining table, so I ran down the street to the Cala Foods at Hyde and California and picked up a few things for dinner, some spaghetti and hamburger for meatballs, fresh tomatoes and olive oil and garlic, a big head of broccoli, a crusty loaf and a bottle of Chianti.  When I got back, after hauling myself and the groceries up eight flights of stairs, Bruno was sitting in the window at the table on one of the lemon yellow chairs, looking out across the street, lost in thought.

“The table looks great!” I called out as I came through the door. “I passed a laundromat on the way back.  What are you looking at?” I asked, curious.


“Well,” he started, “I got done about ten minutes ago, and what I’m watching here is a little bit of a mystery to me.  But it reminds me of a song I’ll sing for you, Tranquilla.  Here we go – meep meep!  ‘Pull my string, and I’ll wink for you, I’m your puppet.  I’ll do anything that you want me to, I’m your puppet – meep-meep!’” 

He swept me around the room in his arms one turn before planting me in front of the window, laughing.

“You’re nuts!” I said, putting the groceries down on my new table.  

“Look!” he replied, pointing, just like Graham had done when Bob and I had first come out of the kitchen to see Blondie.

As soon as I started to focus on the vague figure in the window across from me, I walked closer to the glass, and there he was, unmistakable.  He had the light just right that night, so you could see everything he had, including his wiry, muscled limbs and the blank expression on his chiseled face.  He was wearing his derby cocked to one side, his straw-like blonde hair sticking out straight and shaggy from underneath it, and had one hand high in the air, wrist dropped, with a ribbon, or something, tied around it and pulled taut all the way to his ankle. His other arm was bent at the elbow, hand out to one side like a tap dancer, another ribbon tied around and falling slack down to the floor.  Suddenly he tipped his head to the left and his arms traded positions, while one knee buckled and the other locked.  Within minutes he had shifted again, jiggling each time, a live animated X-rated marionette show right in my own living room.

“Again?” I groaned.

“Whattaya mean, again?  Did you have a stripper before?”  Bruno cracked, somewhere between captivated and appalled.

“I decline to state.  You know too many people on the block,” I replied.  “But this is, I don’t know, what do I say?  This is, madone, non so, non capisco.  ‘E’s oobatz!”

“Eh, you’ve definitely got the hang of it, and so does he, if you know what I mean.  I’d agree ‘e’s oobatz, but definitely not stugatz.  I’d shut the curtains, but it’s kinda warm in here.  Do you mind him?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

“I can live with him if you can, and I guess I’ll have to,” I answered back, laughing at his observation, stugatz meaning big cajones, if you know what I mean.

So Bruno and I put a Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra 33 1/3 lp on the record player and crowded into the tiny kitchen together, chopping and boiling and mashing and feeding each other bits of sourdough dipped in sauce.  We settled into our little dining room/living room/bedroom-for-a-day like two old folks, and watched Puppet Man instead of TV.  “Salut,” said Bruno.  “Here’s to Tranquilla’s new freedom and her brand new home.  May she use them wisely.”

“Amen,” I said, clinking Bruno’s glass with mine, as we wrapped our ankles together under the table in my new nest, proud of what we’d made.

*  *  *

Excerpt from Jacki’s Diary

May 29, 1975

We’re heading into summer pretty soon, which means that Moscone’s campaign is going to heat up and us with it.  Barbagelata has a big following, all the conservatives who want to see the homeless pull up their own bootstraps even though they don’t have any boots.  These are the same people who’d like to see gays back in the closet and never had a Black person in their house except to clean it.  So this one’s going to be war, actually a holy war.  I’d be surprised if we didn’t have to use some special tactics to pull it off, because I think it’s going to be a squeaker.

We’ve got enough jungle cleared now and buildings up that we’re going to be able to move about fifteen people into Jonestown to live permanently, besides the workers.  Isn’t that far out, that we named a town after Jim, even if it is in the jungle half a world away?  By the time we’re done with it, it’ll be paradise. 

Ray is trying to line up a shipment of arms to go straight to Port Kaituma from Miami by chartered plane without even passing through the city this time, but we don’t know if that’s going to work yet.  We think someone is sniffing around Ray’s place, a nosy TV reporter, and we’re not going to take any chances with that, so I don’t know how that’s going to work out.  Funny thing is, Shelley works in his market right in the middle of everything and I doubt if she’s ever noticed a thing.  But that’s how she is.

It’s really hard to get guns into Guyana through customs from anywhere unless they’re legal, because every gun has to be licensed.  This is really a shame, because we have so many guns in the states we don’t know what to do with them.  Nice ones, too.  This is a problem we’re going to need to keep working on.  Mark and Ray are getting together on this again next week.  Jim has put out an all call for guns people already have, both registered and not, in case that winds up being the only way we can do it – just smuggling them in one by one.

We need to ramp up the supply of meds down there, too, especially now that we have a couple of families with babies and elderly ready to move in.  Once we start getting a real population, we’re going to need emergency meds on hand in case we need to keep things in hand.  You can’t be too careful when you have a large number of people in a confined space like that, trying to live in harmony. Sometimes harmony isn’t in human nature, so we need to give it a boost.  You can’t just ship in truckloads at a time, either, so we’re having to bring it in little by little, very carefully. 

We had to get a jewelers license so we can buy Jim’s cyanide - since cyanide is used to clean gold, that’s one way to get it.  I can’t imagine him ever really using it – my God.  If it ever comes to that, that might just be where I stop short.  Last time I placed an order for it, it was all I could do not to open my mouth to whoever would listen.  Some days I wish I had the guts.

But the settlement is looking really good.  The clinic is going up, the school, and the day care center.  The dining hall and the kitchen are going to be big enough to hold a small town, which is what we hope to see in there someday.  The fruit and vegetable crops are going to be a little sparser and harder to grow than we thought, so we’re probably going to have to ship in decent food if it’s going to be attractive enough to get people to move there.  If I know Jim, he’ll just tell people the fruit is falling off the trees and the place is a stinkin’ paradise.  But once we get the people all the way down there, they’ll be a lot easier to hold, especially if we have their passports.

Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez came to Temple services in SF within two weeks of each other this month.  You can’t buy cachet like that.  That will serve us well if things get tough with the press again.

June 10, 1975

I’ve been in Paris today making a deposit before I head over to the project in Guyana tomorrow with cash.  We’re starting to build up a good cash supply out there to meet the daily supply needs, but it’s been hard because we have to bring it in a little at a time, no more than $5,000 through customs, or you have to explain.  Jim likes having cash on hand in case of emergency, and so we can buy whatever we need when we need it.  We’ve been able to pick up a few guns in Georgetown that way, little by little.

But you’ll never guess who I saw tonight at Chez Denis – right here in Paris - eating escargot and drinking Chateau Lafite with Lorenzo Damiani.  Bob Bertrand, that’s who.  He’s Damiani’s chauffeur!  Damiani is the president of the Banco di Roma – it’s probably a good thing we don’t have anything in that bank, now that I see Bob here.  I knew he was going to work for the Banco before he left Berkeley, but it was something else to actually see him over here.  It was his 22nd birthday, too.  I missed his 21st, which was the day of Barb’s wedding, which I also missed because I was doing something or other for Jim, which is most of my life any more.  I don‘t even remember what I was working on that day, but I remember that I missed Barb’s wedding, and Bob’s birthday.  I think I was even in the US that day, but I still had to miss it. 

Sometimes I think I’m just too young for all this crap.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.  But then I think about everything we’ve started together, the risks we’ve taken, and the criticism, with people not trusting our motivations.  Even then I still have to remind myself how much good we’re doing.  At 21, I don’t have years to burn any more, and I want to make sure they count.

Anyway, there was Bob when I came in with my UBS banker, Henri.  Chez Denis is kind of off the map but has amazing food, so it winds up being a place for people in the know.  And of course Henri knew Lorenzo Damiani, although I had not met him in person.  So this year I got to say happy birthday, and he and I got to catch up while my banker and his boss chatted. 

Of course, he wondered what I was doing there - sometimes I wonder myself - but I just told it like it is, the simple truth.  I work for the pastor of the biggest church in San Francisco – the state, really - and we have a lot going on, including an overseas project, which I work on all the time.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  It’s even accurate, when it’s all said and done.  I’m just not sure it’s quite completely true, at least not any more, not the whole truth anyway. 

Still, it was so good to see him, a face from the real world out there having fun, and being free.  But I wouldn’t trade my life for anything, not anything in this world.  No matter what happens, I am in it till the work is done.  That’s how I do it. 

*  *  *

III

By summertime, Bob had graduated cum laude from Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages, and departed for his new life as a Parisian, to become the right hand man of Lorenzo Damiani, the president of the Banco di Roma.  We surprised him before he left with a dinner at Le Bouc, his favorite French restaurant out by Ocean Beach, which had the desired effect of making him cry shamelessly.  Before he left, Barb prayed over him, and had a vision that he would one day become a healer, and be a blessing to many. 

So Bob was setting up housekeeping in Paris by the time his 22nd birthday came around.  He had called me as soon as he had a telephone in his Montparnasse flat, so I already had his number, and Graham and I got together around the phone at the Hyde and Vallejo apartment and called Paris to sing to Bob, 9:00 am his time, 12 midnight our time.

 “Oh, man, I miss you guys,” he moaned.  “What am I supposed to do out here all by myself?  The only date I have for my birthday is the old man, Damiani.  I guess at least I know he’ll take me someplace nice.  But I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty lonely over here being brand new and knowing I’m not coming home any time soon.  I don’t suppose you guys could grab a quick flight?” he asked, half serious.

“Are you kidding?  Whoever said two can live more cheaply than one knew what they were talking about,” I said.  “We can both hardly afford to pay our rent, let alone eat and pay the power bill.  But I wish we could, I really do.  Maybe after I graduate, if you’re still there,” I answered sadly.

“Well, don’t ask me today if I will be, because right now I feel like I’m shipwrecked on a desert island.  But we’ll see how I feel in a month.”

Considering the cost of international long distance, we said goodbye, and then Graham and I looked at each other, amazed at how much had changed again in just a few short weeks.  He threw his arms around me, somewhat to my discomfort.

“Any regrets?” Graham asked, hanging on a little too long.

“What, me?  Of course not, I’m having fun being my own woman.  You’d really like my neighbors.  I’ve got one for you even better than Blondie,” I quipped, pushing him away and resisting the urge to say “meep-meep.”

“Don’t be cruel,” he said flatly. “But I can guess what you probably see from the window where you live.  Don’t look too close if you know what’s good for you.”

“It didn’t take me long to figure that out,” I said. 

“You call me any time you need me, you hear?” he said, softening.  “I haven’t stopped being your brother, you know.  In fact, you can come back any time you want, really.  Why don’t you spend the night?  It’s after midnight.”  He looked down at the floor sadly.

“No, the last cable car is going to be out front in five minutes, and I can walk from there.  I’m good for now, but thanks for thinking of me,” I answered, kissing him on the cheek and rushing off to do homework before 3:00 am.  That would give me just enough time to finish the last few sketches in the collection I’d been working on for Drawing IV, and a half hour of decompression before I squeezed in four hours sleep in time for my 10:00 am class.

When I got home, the streetwalkers had already left for work, leaving the floor dark and dead quiet.  The constant hum of the cables under the cable car tracks that had lulled me to sleep for the past two-and-a-half years was gone in my new digs.  The only sounds that broke the night, and only when you went into the bathroom and opened the window, were the moans and howls of kinky sex wafting up the shared airshaft, mostly from gay men who had picked up a short-term lover at Kimo’s bar.

I fumbled for my key, finally finding it and reaching to put it in the lock, only slightly unnerved by my surroundings.  To my surprise, the door drifted open easily, and the shock of that caused a cool, dead calm to fall over me, a deliberateness that I only ever possessed when I was presented with a threat.

Instead of going in, I shoved the door open and watched it swing all the way back, then reached my arm inside and flipped on the entry light, illuminating the entire studio front to back.  Nothing.  I took one step inside and pushed the bathroom door open with my foot, looking straight into the bathtub with its shower curtain pulled all the way back – nothing.  No one.

The only place left was the kitchen, at the far end of the apartment.  I hesitated for only a moment, and then reached over to grab a long umbrella with a spear tip out of a canister in the entry.  I held it out in front of me like a bayonet, and crab-walked fast on tiptoe across the hardwood floor like a fencer, or a scorpion.  My killer instinct, adrenalin laced with stupidity, was in full overdrive, and I believed, somewhere in the animal part of my brain, that I could impale the intruder on my little umbrella, rendering him incapable of ever scaring anyone again.

I arrived at the kitchen and jumped straight up in the air, umbrella pointed straight out in front of me, and landed with both feet planted apart in the doorway.  The whole kitchen was lit up in the phosphorescent green of the neon light coming from the emergency room entrance outside.  Nothing.

Wielding the umbrella, I scuttled back to recheck the bathroom before eyeing the deadbolt on the front door.  The door was the only way in other than to scale the front of the building, up eight floors of fire escape, to enter through the kitchen window, an unlikely prospect.  The bolt was retracted into the door, unharmed, where I had forgotten to lock it with my second key.  The doorjamb was also without a scratch, no damage.  Whoever came in had probably done it with a credit card.

I slammed the door and turned the deadbolt into place, leaning against the door before I allowed myself to start trembling.  I stood there, taking deep, dizzying breaths, finally coming into the awareness that whoever it was, was gone.

Turning to look around the apartment, I saw that everything was there – my table and chairs, my dumpster carpet, the sofa bed, my record player and coat hanger TV.  That was all I had, other than a plant my neighbor, a 19-year-old hooker named Ruby Sunset, had given me, a full grown coleus plant with delicate fuzzy pink-centered leaves that she had grown from a cutting.  It was gone from its spot on top of the TV.  And suddenly I was mad again.

I marched through the apartment looking for it – first the bathroom, then looking under the sofa bed, the only hiding place big enough, and finally in the kitchen.  I stepped into the phosphorescent green light and snapped the switch on the wall beside the door.  And there it was, in the sink, it’s tall proud head snapped off, the leaves crushed, all of the soil and its thick juicy branches crammed into the garbage disposal.  Almost as if it had been murdered.

A sick feeling came over me.  Who would do such a thing?  I turned off the light and looked out the window over the fire escape.  Had anyone been watching me hippity-hopping through my apartment like a female version of Inspector Closeau?

The only window lit up across the street was Puppet Man.  He was standing there, stock still, arms straight out and slightly up, legs slightly apart, almost like the Vitruvian Man.  Very uncharacteristic for him, since he was usually in motion.

And then I remembered.  Just a few nights ago my friend Lorraine from high school had been in town.  She was my church friend from high school, the one who had taken me with her to meet God just when I needed him most.  She had been in town after a mission trip to Washington DC and was sitting at my dinner table when Puppet Man came out last.  While she was not obviously offended by him, I admit that right then, sitting across from Lorraine, I felt some resentment toward Puppet Man, resentment that I could not have a respectable guest in my home without him wagging every part of himself in our faces.  That night, I took him personally. 

After Lorraine had left, I called the police.  When their car pulled up, Puppet Man immediately turned off his lights and shut his curtains.  So when the police arrived in my apartment, all I could do was point to the window where he used to be standing and describe him. 

I watched them cross the street, the lights going on behind the curtains right about the time they would have arrived at his apartment.  In five minutes they were gone, and as soon as they pulled away, Puppet Man ripped his curtains open and stood there, looking, so it seemed, straight at me for a good five minutes, hands at his sides, just long enough to be disturbing.  But then, from that distance, it was hard to be sure what he was looking at.  Then he ripped the curtains shut again.  I had not seen him in the window since, two or three days before.

And now he was back, still and spread-eagled and proud.  As if he were making a statement.

Watching him stand there, I came to terms with the fact that I had walked into a new world, a world I didn’t understand, but one I intended to live in until I didn’t need to any more.  I would not go back to Graham.  I refused.  This was my life now, my world.  And Puppet Man was in it.  OK.

I turned the light back on in the kitchen, opened the window, and stepped out on the fire escape.  I looked right across at Puppet Man, lifted my arm, and waved.  “Hi,” I yelled.  “Hi.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”

“Shaddup, bitch!  People have to work tomorrow,” somebody screamed.  “I’m sorry,” I yelled one last time, and stepped inside.  Puppet Man dropped his arms and stood a moment, shut his curtains, and turned out the light.  Since his window was shut, I doubted he had heard me, but at least he might have seen me.  I turned back to the sink, and went about the business of digging out as much of the soil and plant carnage as I could from the drain.  The next day, the building super came with his handyman and got the rest of it, warning me to be careful about locking my deadbolt. 

The next night, Puppet Man was back again, bouncy and snappy as ever.  As I sat at Bruno’s table finishing a paper on the similarities and differences between Friedrich Murnau and Alfred Hitchcock for History of Film, I raised my arm and waved.  I could have sworn that for just a second, Puppet’s left hand broke rhythm and waved slightly, almost imperceptibly.  And although it could have been my imagination, I believe the wave was for me. I never had another break-in while I lived there, clear until Christmas.

2 comments:

  1. Love the pic of the E. Tower. Thanks for visiting my blog! Donna

    ReplyDelete