In his book Fascination, his memoir of gay life in 1970s Long Island, a leading proponent of the New Narrative movement recalls his coming-of-age in a “seedy, Burroughs kind of place.”
I grew up in Smithtown, a suburb of New York, a town so invidious that still I speak of it in Proustian terms—or Miltonic terms, a kind of paradise I feel evicted from. Smithtown, Long Island, kind of an MGM Norman Rockwell hometown, a place so boring they gave it a boring name . . . When I was 14 I began to go to New York on a regular basis, sometimes on the train, sometimes hitchhiking there, looking for a jungly eroticism I supposed Smithtown, with its manicured lawns and its country club airs, couldn’t afford me. I was right and wrong at the same time.
By day or night New York’s a seedy Burroughs kind of place, and hurrying down the street I could hardly catch my breath, there were so many affecting things to watch and so much architecture. At Gristede’s all the food’s so expensive I felt I knew why everyone in Manhattan’s so thin, but it seemed worth it, and thus I found myself buying things I never wanted before—simple things like: apple. Doughnut. Cup of coffee. I took a job clerking there for a month and famous people, like Jackie Kennedy, would come in off the street and buy these very same things. These would be my dinner; a fellow I knew in school had a cigarette, a cup of coffee and the Daily News when he woke up every morning, and he called it the chorus girls’ breakfast. I knew another guy who always carried the same book in his back pocket, like Bruce Springsteen that red bandanna. A book of poetry: Bob Kaufman’s Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. I loved him for that. I used to touch the book in his pocket and feel direct connection to the ancient rain of San Francisco, now my home, then only a mysterious flavor like guava, succulent, almost too rich. I used to tell him, “You are so cute with that book,” and he would smile, unwillingly, as though he’d pledged never to reveal his connection to poetry.
The subway ride to his house seemed endless. Sealed in with the dismal frightened figures of subway America, I couldn’t help but feel different and special, in that I was heading towards a love life that, I imagined, would have frightened them more, would have made them more dismal. “Loveland” I called it, as though it were an address like Rockefeller Center. It’s when you look into someone’s sunglasses and try to see his eyes, or the space you feel rolling over a cliff or a ramble. From these two fellows I took the sense that being a New Yorker involved high style, one was so camp with his “chorus girl’s breakfast” and his operatic airs, the other so serious, a walking dictionary of soulful poetry like Kaufman. “Camp” and “Seriousness” themselves became characters I could cruise first, then nuzzle, then accept or decline.
Life’s so much simpler here in San Francisco.
Then I was 20, still convinced New York’s the most dangerous place in the world. I came out of the subway once, for example, and Francis Coppola was filming The Godfather. The cameras whirled as I made my entrance. I blinked and smiled, and lingered till I heard the word “Cut.” One of the little people asked me to step aside so that Richard Conte, who was waiting inside the car, could get his face on screen. “If you want me to I will,” I said. “You guys making a movie? Can I be in it more than I am already?” He explained that it was a period piece and that was why everyone was dressed in forties suits and hats. “I love those suits,” I told him. “I love those hats men used to wear.”
“Sorry,” he said.
Out on the street it was four o’clock in the afternoon and girls were wearing summer dresses and acting soignee. My favorite time of the day. A large cloud, pumped full of black gases, loomed overhead. I felt goosebumps, perhaps because I was tripping. In my pocket a handful of red crystals, wrapped in pliofilm, gave me a kind of sexual energy I haven’t felt since, and plus I made money this way, and plus I felt powerful, ambitious, and also I had lots of friends (and what they say about New York is true: eight million people, each with a different story to tell and a different drug habit); plus I was a homosexual primitive like a Frida Kahlo mural the Feds tear down.
In winter up on Carey’s fire escape at East End Avenue and 86th Street I wrapped myself in a bearskin and sat there telling my diary the story of the novel I hoped one day to write. “This will make me famous,” I thought. And what was fame, I felt, but an extension of my present being? I was seeing a man who had picked me up hitchhiking when I was in junior high, out on Long Island where I grew up. We’d known each other for six years—I’d grown a foot taller and my hair had changed color and I used to wonder, “If I grow any taller will I still be loved?” His name was Carter, but I called him Carey.
The night we met I noticed how warm his car was. A piece of toast. I’d sat shivering in it, in a black jacket and white buckskin shoes. “Where are you headed?” he said.
“Take me to New York,” I said.
“Show me where it is on the map,” Carey said, producing a large roadmap from his glove compartment and unfolding it like an accordion across the width of the car. His right hand fell unerringly to my lap. The names of the roads on the map blurred before my eyes like sudden tears. “Show me where it is,” he said once or twice, all the while playing with my prick. That’s how I fell in love.
In many ways a cold fish, Carey was capable of surprising me with extravagant gestures that I thought showed some emotion. He gave me a hundred dollars once. Another time he came out of a taxi filled with balloons to cheer me up after a depressing exam in Linguistics. Still I used to wonder, “Now that I’m blond no longer, how much longer will we be tied together?” Even at 18, or should I say especially at 18, I knew balloons were corny and I squirmed and hoped to God none of my friends were watching. But as the taxi sped north up Third Avenue, the colors, the warm rubber suffocation, had the power to send fleets of taxicabs over the pier and into the blue and gray Hudson.
His wife I never cared for. She had a critical eye on me from the time I was 14. They lived in an apartment designed by Architectural Digest. Once I woke up there and only she was home. Anita gave me a steely look but fixed me a bologna sandwich, though she kept rattling the knife around in the mustard jar like she was having a nervous breakdown or something. I sat at her kitchen table, nervous myself, twiddling my thumbs and rapping the underside sharply like a seance. “Quit fidgeting,” Anita told me.
It was eight in the morning, and outside the sky was full of orange light, white clouds scuttling across the horizon towards Brooklyn Harbor. Under her cool black-eyed gaze, the white jockey shorts Carey insisted I wear seemed a little de trop at breakfast. I crossed my legs. Then spread them wide. “I’m reading a really good book,” I said at a stab. “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I thought this was a clever touch because Anita came from some Central American country or another, probably the same one Bianca Jagger did.
But she merely turned her head impassively and dropped the sandwich onto a plate, thrusting it my way. “Eat,” she said. “Eat and don’t talk.” How much of my lovelife she knew about I’m not sure. It was as taboo as anything in Lévi-Strauss. Carey had a respectable life and liked it like that. He was capable of affection, although not in public, usually in a car.
Even when it was happening to me, I thought, “This will make a good story someday,” but now that I think of it, it’s not that good at all. More important than its plot, it’s the quality of feeling that strikes me now—something out of this world, “outlandish” in its literal sense. I had a pair of white shoes and a black jacket I used to regard in the same way, draping them atop chairs and talking to them in the stylish, sophisticated accents of David Niven or Peter Lawford. “I love those shoes,” I would say to an imaginary visitor. “I love that jacket.”
At my high school graduation I saw his face in the crowd. Afterwards I tried to find him, though I don’t know what I would have done with him if I had. But anyhow I couldn’t. Later he denied having been there, but with one of those roguish twinkles that can pass for truth or a joke. “I was not hallucinating,” I said. “I saw you there.”
“I think you’ve been smoking too many bananas.” I never found his drug humor amusing, the way some people are turned off by bathroom humor.
“You were wearing your gray suit with a green tie.”
“The luck of the Irish.”
“You must have just gotten your hair cut.”
“Oh sure,” he said, “could you smell the talcum powder?”
“Bay rum I smelled,” I said, “and you had a hard-on.”
“Oh well then, that couldn’t have been I,” he said.
We drove somewhere in Westchester and entered an antique watermill preserved from Colonial times for its shock value. There, on its dusty wooden floor, he asked me what I wanted out of life. “Not to be like you,” I said, first to annoy him, then also because it was true, plus he had a hard-on. I really liked being desired. And I liked money and kept hoping he would give me another hundred dollars. He kept peering around afraid that the caretaker would spot us. I liked the dangerous aspects of our affair, I liked even the fact that he did not.
I thought that otherwise he would long since have tired of me and sought out someone else, someone younger, someone 12 or 13. He seemed old to me then, but working out our birth dates
I realized sometime later that he must have been 35 when we met, and since that’s my age now I get goosebumps. Here in San Francisco in October the sky is a pale and delicate blue, like a robin’s egg in a child’s picture book.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon as I write this: my favorite time of the day. A car is moving slowly down the street, pushed from behind by two sweating workmen in grayish overalls. I want it to roll down the hill. I want its trunk to leave their hands. I want them to stumble a bit in surprise, then begin chasing the car, as it picks up speed and strips its gears, then they fall back out of breath and grow fatalistic. Then the car plunges off the cliff and you see the faces of the lovers rising from the back seat, steamed in a kiss, the kiss they can’t feel, and you see the car hit a rocky mesa way down below. From vertiginous heights I watch and smoke a cigarette, humming a little tune and acting very debonair. I am reminded of a misspent youth—someone’s misspent youth, not necessarily mine.
Once Anita was knitting me a sweater and waxing sarcastic: how kind Carey was, taking a disadvantaged child out of the suburbs, bringing him to Manhattan! “Fresh Air Fund except in reverse,” she snorted.
“Well I need to get streetwise,” I said, “brush some of the country cobwebs off me.”
“Carey’s not the man to teach street smarts. We were mugged by three Guatemalan borrachos on Lexington and Carey told them to take the Lady Seiko that they didn’t even know I had.”
“He helps me with my school work,” I said.
She said nothing, kept rocking and knitting. Presently she spoke again. “Espera,” she said, her voice and face deadpan. “Espera Kevin.”
“Esperanto you mean,” I cried. “Talk English to me, you know I don’t understand that loco lingo of yours.”
“When you grow up I will talk to you, not now. If you want a sandwich you know how to make one, so go.”
“I don’t want a sandwich,” I said. “I’m so awfully hungry.”
“How are your parents and your brothers and sisters and boys’ school?”
“I guess everything’s fine,” I said, suddenly frightened. “Tell Carey I’ll wait for him in the car, okay? I’ll skip the sandwich all right?”
She shrugged. “If I see him I’ll tell him.” The needles began to flash in the light. “In English,” she added. “In the language you and he have.”