Tuesday, September 26, 2006

..."the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes"...A Prequel

Summer of 1976.

The dark and sullen, aviator-wearing, facial-hair-experimenting gentleman is me. The ball capped, plaid-shirt-wearing man I'm about to attack is Robert.

I'm all of 21. He's just turned 36.

The scene? The automatic photo booth located at the long gone 59th Street entrance to Woolworth's, just across the street from the both Bloomingdale's and the D & D Building. These days it's the current location of the Bloomberg Building.

The store smelled of fried chicken and mothballs, as many Woolworth's did. Look how clever and even fashion forward I was then! I managed to turn Robert's cap backwards between the second and third pictures. Actually, I'm moving in for the kill. My technique is not more different, to this day. The errant arm around the neck, the unfocused, in this case cross-eyed, stare. And whamm-o! Mission accomplished.

Robert and I spent 19 years together; a few of them as wonderful as this looks, some that were pretty damned miserable.

But that's actually not what I want to talk about today.

For the past month or so, I've been stewing over this slight bit of writing that appeared in the New York Blade. I'm almost sorry to focus any more attention than it already has received.

The writer, who was three years old when this picture was taken, had viewed a DVD copy of "Gay Sex in the '70s", a documentary about the first years of gay freedom, and was much chagrined by what he saw. In fact, he found himself scornful of the men portrayed.

With blinding hindsight, he asks how men in the 70's could have been so stupid. How could they have danced on the edge of the precipice, so unmindful, nay, uninformed of the unknown consequences, and thereby ruining everything for all the generations yet come?

His scorn for a generation of men he never knew is palpable. He feels like he's watching a "foreign film", which makes him wildly xenophobic, if that's the case. He's clearly revolted by "the fashions: the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes". And of course, he's completely horrified by the film's depiction of the many modes of anonymous sex that were available then, and amazingly enough continue to be available, albeit in mutated forms, to this day. He compares sex in trucks to the Holocaust, which is specious at best, and pretty damned insulting to all parties concerned. He asks himself "how those men in the 1970's could have been so stupid", and surmised that they didn't know any better. Good one, Sherlock.

Mostly, he just can't make the deductive leap and imagine what it might have been like to live in that era. There's no empathy here, no understanding of the cultural events that might have lead men to celebrate their sexuality as an intrinsic part of their identities. Seemingly no attempt has been made to actually research this subject, beyond the viewing of the film, and perhaps a bit of Googling.

The men today are "more clean-cut and better groomed than they were 30 years ago", and he acknowledges that many of them engage in the same risky behavior that doomed their forebearers. The question begs: Just who is more stupid here? The men who had no idea what was in store for them, or those that have been fully indoctrinated in the last 25 years of AIDS culture.

I'm thinking the major problem here is that so many people have no frame of reference regarding the men who lived and loved in the 70's and 80's. They never known any, and they're making no attempts to seek out the survivors. I've had twenty year olds tell me how it's all so much better now, how we're much closer, much more real, and we really don't need that gay thing anymore. This is one of the great tragedies of the plague years: the loss of an entire generation that has never had a real chance to tell it's story. A culture disappeared. The majority of those men? Long gone. The remaining few? Shell-shocked.

I've been skating around the edge of this subject for quite some time. I've been conflicted about consistently blogging stories of those years, and being labeled a memorist. I have a pretty great life right now, though it's a dual existence. I carry those years with me at all times. I walk through a freighted city, heavily populated with ghosts.

I hope you'll indulge me in further explorations of our mutual pasts. I was there, in the bars, the clubs and yes, the piers.

Let that picture up there show the men we were. Some of you know the man I am.

Apparently, I've survived to tell the tale.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

..."the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes"...


This film strip, cut from an weathered contact sheet and pressed like an old boutonniere between the leaves of a book, seems more than a little like a relic from a past long gone age. Oddly enough, I can remember exactly when these dark early morning photographs were taken.

It is the dawn of August 17, 1977 and I have just just taken occupancy of the apartment pictured the day before; the very apartment I live in to this day.

Robert and I had just spent a year living in my railroad apartment in a tenement on East 6th Street off of Second Avenue. The second story walk-up, with it's loft bed, wood burning fireplace and bathtub in the kitchen was fine for one twenty year old, but a bit tight for two soon-to-be burly guys.

I'd fled from Brooklyn and moved there in 1975, some months before my 21st birthday. I'd saved $1,600.00 from my factory job and knew I could easily swing the $135.00 necessary to pay the monthly rent. Those were different times in Manhattan. The East Village was filled with vast Ukrainian families, fading hippies and nascent punks. There was a smattering of young gay guys embroidered around the edges, due to the neighborhood's relative convenience to Christopher Street. In those days, the East Village was considered the bedroom of the West Village. A cab ride from Ty's cost $1.25, including tip. Of course, the Budweisers we drank were all of .75 cents. It seemed that bartenders could make a very decent living on all the quarter tips we left. Broadway theatre tickets were all of $10.00, a movie 3 bucks, concerts a mere 5 or 6 dollars. The living was easy.

I lived there, enjoying my relative solitude, until I met Robert on the very eve of my 21st birthday. After an atypical nine month gestation period, he moved in with me, with the idea that we'd find a new place when my lease was up.

I knew I didn't want to live in a railroad flat again, if I could help it. A full bathroom would be nice, a shower most welcome. We walked around the neighborhood, looking at the "Apt. for Rent" signs. There was an apartment on St. Mark's Place that I entertained for a minute. I like the idea of being Mark on St. Mark's Place, but the rooms were too small, too cramped after 6th Street. Wandering a few blocks further, we came upon another sign on 12th Street. I recognized the building as one I'd spent the night in, some years back, with a man who took me home from the Ramrod. I forget his name. There was a management office on premises, and we walked in, expecting nothing. The woman in the office curtly gave us a key to an apartment on the 5th floor. Upstairs, I recoiled at the miniscule boxy darkness that confronted us. We closed the door without walking in, and went back down to return the key. On an off chance, I asked if there was anything else available in the building. She looked us over and mentioned that there was an apartment that had been vacant for the better part of the last year. The reason? Too expensive for the neighborhood, such as it was. Robert and I were both what-the-hell kind of guys and decided to have a look. The rent? $350.00.

We rode the elevator to the top floor, getting off in a skylit sunny oasis. We turned the key and entered a bright white apartment. A small vestibule, a decent sized kitchen. Turning the corner we found two windows and a french door leading out onto a terrace. I looked at the keyring and found the key that opened the french door. We stepped out to an 11th floor rooftop terrace that commanded 270 degree views of Manhattan, from the Chrysler Building down to the Verrazano Bridge and back up to Williamsburg. We looked at each other, amazed. We went back in and spotted the small wood burning fireplace in the corner. I walked into the bathoom and found it huge by Manhattan standards. I checked the toilet to see if it flushed, for some reason. I never bothered to notice that the apartment had no closets. Or that the bedroom was so miniscule as to hold only full size bed and a bookcase. We would have been happy sleeping on the floor. We never realized that living in a penthouse in a badly maintained East Village building would be akin to taking up residence in a trailer, albeit one with a view. We went back down and signed the lease.

In the 70's, we all helped move one another from apartment to apartment. You'd help move the boxes, and the host would buy beer and take you out to dinner when it was over. We called in our acquired favors, gathering our friends on a Saturday afternoon, and the move was over in a couple of hours. Even the piano movers managed to deliver my old Mission upright without too much damage. Dinner for ten was at the Ukrainian National Home.

That night we danced, as usual, at 12West. After dawn, we wandered the empty Sunday morning streets, walking up Second Avenue to our new home. I noticed I could see it from the churchyard of St. Mark's on the Bowery against the brightening sky.

Once home, I opened all the doors and windows to let the air streaming up from New York Harbor fill the apartment. I stripped off my clothes, soaked with sweat from a night of dancing. Robert and I wandered out on the terrace naked, completely oblivious to the world waking up around us. We returned inside to collapse on the sofa, which was still in the middle of the living room waiting to find it's home. Drinking coffee and listening to quiet, soothing music, I wrapped myself up in an old silk army surplus parachute and read the paper, occasionally contemplating my new vista.

That's when Robert took these pictures in quick succession.

Robert is long gone. New York is not the city it once was. However, I'm still here in these rooms 29 years later.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Countdown

The following is a transcript of Keith Olbermann's special commentary last night on his MSNBC show, Countdown, immediately prior to a 9/11 speech by George W. Bush:

Half a lifetime ago, I worked in this now-empty space. And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what happened, and was yet to happen, as a reporter.

All the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends, two in the planes and -- as I discovered from those "missing posters" seared still into my soul -- two more in the Towers.

And I knew too, that this was the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen, of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more, as our ancestors.

I belabor this to emphasize that, for me this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.
And anyone who claims that I and others like me are "soft,"or have "forgotten" the lessons of what happened here is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante and at worst, an idiot whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President.

However, of all the things those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast -- of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds -- none of us could have predicted this.

Five years later this space is still empty.

Five years later there is no memorial to the dead.

Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us, by cowards and criminals.

Five years later this country's wound is still open.

Five years later this country's mass grave is still unmarked.

Five years later this is still just a background for a photo-op.

It is beyond shameful.

At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial -- barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field -- Mr. Lincoln said, "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Lincoln used those words to immortalize their sacrifice.

Today our leaders could use those same words to rationalize their reprehensible inaction. "We cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." So we won't.

Instead they bicker and buck pass. They thwart private efforts, and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere. They spend the money on irrelevant wars, and elaborate self-congratulations, and buying off columnists to write how good a job they're doing instead of doing any job at all.

Five years later, Mr. Bush, we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets. And look carefully, sir, on these 16 empty acres. The terrorists are clearly, still winning.

And, in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed but did not enact, you have done nothing about it.

And there is something worse still than this vast gaping hole in this city, and in the fabric of our nation. There is its symbolism of the promise unfulfilled, the urgent oath, reduced to lazy execution.

The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity, here, and throughout the country. The government, the President in particular, was given every possible measure of support.

Those who did not belong to his party -- tabled that.

Those who doubted the mechanics of his election -- ignored that.

Those who wondered of his qualifications -- forgot that.

History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics. It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.

Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.

The President -- and those around him -- did that.

They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, "bi-partisanship" meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused, as appeasers, as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, "validate the strategy of the terrorists."

They promised protection, and then showed that to them "protection" meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken, a despot who we now learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated al-Qaida as much as we did.

The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had 'something to do' with 9/11 is "lying by implication."

The impolite phrase is "impeachable offense."

Not once in now five years has this President ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space, and to this, the current, curdled, version of our beloved country.

Still, there is a last snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness: even his most virulent critics have never suggested he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11.

Half the time, in fact, this President has been so gently treated, that he has seemed not even to be the man most responsible for anything in his own administration.

Yet what is happening this very night?

A mini-series, created, influenced -- possibly financed by -- the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavellis, continues to be televised into our homes.

The documented truths of the last fifteen years are replaced by bald-faced lies; the talking points of the current regime parroted; the whole sorry story blurred, by spin, to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent, and the party in office, seem like the only option.

How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections? How dare you -- or those around you -- ever "spin" 9/11?

Just as the terrorists have succeeded -- are still succeeding -- as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero.

So, too, have they succeeded, and are still succeeding as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans.

This is an odd point to cite a television program, especially one from March of 1960. But as Disney's continuing sell-out of the truth (and this country) suggests, even television programs can be powerful things.

And long ago, a series called "The Twilight Zone" broadcast a riveting episode entitled "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."

In brief: a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extra-terrestrials disguised as humans. The electricity goes out. A neighbor pleads for calm. Suddenly his car -- and only his car -- starts. Someone suggests he must be the alien. Then another man's lights go on. As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced. An "alien" is shot -- but he turns out to be just another neighbor, returning from going for help. The camera pulls back to a near-by hill, where two extra-terrestrials are seen manipulating a small device that can jam electricity. The veteran tells his novice that there's no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then, "they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves."

And then, in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves tonight: "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men.

"For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own -- for the children, and the children yet unborn."
When those who dissent are told time and time again -- as we will be, if not tonight by the President, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus -- that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of it, we are somehow un-American...When we are scolded, that if we merely question, we have "forgotten the lessons of 9/11"... look into this empty space behind me and the bi-partisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me:

Who has left this hole in the ground?

We have not forgotten, Mr. President.

You have.

May this country forgive you.