A Meeting By The River
Friday night, Spring 1975 and I'm hanging out by the cigarette machine just inside the door of the Ramrod on West Street. Lights and shadows thrown by the abandoned elevated Westside Highway play against the plate glass window. In point of fact I'm being plastered up against the machine by a big, blond, bearded, burly man called Blaze, who's visiting from Los Angeles. I believe he is the first person I've ever met from LA, not to mention the only person I've ever known named Blaze and he seems impossibly glamorous to me as kisses me and laughs and then kisses me some more. I want to go home with him in the worst way, and he's having none of it, though he sure as hell seems to be having a good time. After what seems like an eternity of playing around and great aching frustration on my part, I wrench myself away and excuse myself, saying I need to get some air. Or something. I left Blaze looking around for his next victim and headed out and down the street to Keller's.
At Keller's I meet Don, small and neat, compactly built, darkly handsome. Also from Los Angeles, strangely enough. Must be my lucky night. And because I've just spent the last 1/2 hour kissing Blaze to no avail, I push Don back against the wall and kiss him long and hard. He seems to be enjoying himself too, but when I open my eyes I see he's looking over my shoulder. At Blaze. Who is looking at me.
Slut, he calls me. And laughs. Don laughs too. Few 20 year olds are reknown for their sense of humor. I was definitely not one of them. Blaze then introduces Don to me as his partner. Hmmm. Small world. We hang out together for a while, but a subtle tension in the air makes it abundantly clear that nothing is going to happen. With either of them, together or separately. I'm way too young, inexperienced and literal-minded to even try and comprehend whatever arrangement they have. After a bit, Don peels off and leaves me with Blaze again. Who asks me out the following evening. He kisses me some more and tells me he'll meet me tomorrow night, Saturday, at that new club that's just opened on West Street, between 12th and Jane. It's a date.
30 years has softened my memory, and I have no recollection of whom I actually did go home with that evening. Rest assured, I did. And no doubt I was as primed as a pistol. Bless the lucky man.
Saturday night finds me heading up West Street in my newest pearl buttoned western shirt and hoodie. There's a small crowd under the awning in front of the new club, which I seem to remember as a landscaping concern in previous incarnations. I would pass by and admire it's arboreal graphics as I made my way up to the Eagle's Nest from Keller's, most weekend nights. Now those trees had been replaced by a simple logo, spelling out the simpler new name: 12 West.
In the spotlights illuminating the crowd outside, I spy the glint of his blond beard. Excited, I race over to Blaze, and hug him. Only when I realize that he's not hugging me back, do I turn and notice he's with another man. Not being the brightest of youngsters, I smile and introduce myself. I've yet to understand that the Blaze has made this date with both of us. I look my rival over. He's not as tall as me, and he's definitely older. But then who isn't? We both have short, dark hair. He has a beard. I have a moustache. He's not the slightest bit happy to meet me. His name is Arthur, and he's apparently asked Blaze out, not knowing that that fuck would show up with a child in tow. It's his membership to this new private club that we're to avail ourselves of. Arthur is incapable of hiding his displeasure. But what the hell, he relents and the three of us enter 12 West.
A large vestibule and coatcheck greets us. I can hear some of the extended dance music that was new that year, everywhere. We turn a corner and enter a large square room at it's apex. The room is well lit; it's white brick walls bathed in a rainbow of everchanging colors. Overhead, a series of woofers and tweeters create a sound unlike any other I've ever heard. I've spent some hours dancing in Soho lofts like Flamingo, or stumbling over the cobblestones at the Firehouse. This is nothing like either of those. The only decor are a series of semaphore flags hanging overhead, perhaps a tribute to the river flowing sluggishly right outside the door. We've checked out coats and are dancing a trois. Arthur is thoughtful enough to supply the latest of dance accoutrements, Burroughs amyl nitrate poppers. He breaks one of the yellow mesh-enclosed ampules under his nose, then holds it under Blaze's nose, and then passes it to me. I follow their example and when I return, I find Blaze and Arthur dancing together. And then not. Blaze and Arthur are yelling in each other's ears and I'm ignoring it, enjoying the sound and sensation. Blaze suddenly says "See ya later, I want to check this place out" and disappears. It's the last I will see of him. But the music is too good and I keep on dancing.
Arthur's a smart man. He's checking out the gyrating 20 year old in front of him, and decides it's time to make lemonade from the lemons he's been dealt. He moves in and starts unbuttoning the faux pearl snaps on my shirt until I'm bare chested. I can see that he's checking me out appreciatively. Maybe this isn't going to be so bad after all. The music is heading for another peak and he pulls out another Burroughs ampule, this time holding it under my nose first. Ah, seduction. He runs his hand lightly over my sweaty chest as we dance.
Later, we're ensconced on a cushioned banquette, somewhere away from the music. Arthur is curled up next to me, offering me a rather thick, well made joint. We laugh about our friend Blaze, who has apparently moved on to greener pasture. Arthur wants to know if I'd like to go home with him. I do and we do.
We dated for a few months there, until he threw me over for my best friend. I wasn't happy about that, but somehow Arthur and I became running buddies. We'd hit the clubs, the bars, restaurants, plays, movies and parties. Yes, I was 20, and he was 34, but it suited us both. I got a crash course in arcane gay etiquette, and in turn I took him shopping for his first Schott Perfecto leather jacket, his first 501's and his first flannel shirts. Some people had a lot to say about our unlikely partnership, but were forced into silence when Arthur threw a surprise "You're Legal" party for me when I turned 21. He even invited that handsome southern boy I was crushing on so bad to be my special guest.
Arthur moved to San Francisco in 1976, just after NYC and the rest of this country celebrated the Bicentennial. We've remained friends for 30 years. The first time we visited him, he threw us in his car, drove over the Golden Gate and hiked us down the Tennessee Valley trail to the Pacific. We were so astounded to reach the ocean that Tim and I ran into the breaking waves with our boots on, laughing.
I spoke with Arthur yesterday. The news wasn't good.