Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Michael Tolliver Lives (So Do I!)

Here you see my very first exposure to Tales Of The City.

I received the above from my dear, departed friend Arthur, who sent it to me mid-winter, 1977 as a sort of Valentine during the first year of his residence in San Francisco. Arthur and I had been all sorts of running buddies in New York, and upon his relocation to San Francisco during the previous summer, he became one of that city's most tireless boosters. We played a sort of snail mail can-you-top-this, each of us sending clippings and notes so the other could see what they were missing. I sent Arthur invitations from the most clever discos and all the news of Christopher Street and beyond. He'd return photos and bar rags, so I'd know exactly what he was up to; all the fun I wasn't having. Three months after this exchange, I trumped him by sending clippings from every local paper detailing the deadly fire at the Everard Baths, that prelude to the disasters that followed.

As you can see, Arthur has sent me "Love from the City that knows how...". I took great umbrage at that, being all of 22 years old. I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I was sure I didn't like it.

The article itself was clever, though I had no idea who this Michael and Mary Ann were. I didn't quite grasp all of the references. Some of them seemed quite sophisticated and even daring to be appearing in newsprint. I pondered over such arcana as Oil Can Harry's, The Glory Holes, Fifties Queens and Grace Cathedral. I had no idea what an It's It was, or why one might want to consume more than one in a single evening. Michael seemed very exotic; both wise and jaded, a denizen of a city as foreign to me as Vale of Kashmir.

It wasn't until the following year that I was actually able to actually pick up the collection of these serialized chapters, and was disappointed to realize that the main focal point of the story seemed to be a singularly unpleasant opportunist named Mary Ann Singleton. I was not much interested in her foray into the provincial mating rituals of Men and Women of the Marina. I mean, I'd already read Cyra McFadden's "The Serial" the year before, and had had my fill of hetero high jinks. Michael doesn't even appear until page 45 of so, if you don't include a brief walk-on at the Safeway, where he rescues his boyfriend from Mary Ann's clutches.

It seemed that Michael was my age, but so much wiser. Even in my penthouse on 12th Street, I felt hopelessly inexperienced and woefully unsophisticated in comparison to his romps through the City.

But I did enjoy the book to a degree. I resented the truly byzantine plot twists required to keep a daily newspaper audience interested. The author, a nice looking man with a moustache and floppy hair, had an interesting voice, and when he wasn't sending his characters after child pornographers or trying to update Black Like Me, had a chatty and animated style that held my interest.

Unfortunately, by the time the second collection was published, I'd had my fill of Mary Ann and the Episcopal Cannibal Cult, and didn't read another Armistead Maupin book for the next couple of decades, until Tim brought me to San Francisco, and I understood. Upon my return to New York, I hit the Strand and assembled my motley shelf, volumes One through Six, all different editions. I plowed my way through, reveling his his love for the city, hating the mechanical plotting, and learning to completely despise his heroine. It wasn't until the final book that the author revealed his hand, showing Mary Ann for the bitch she'd always been. In an odd way, I felt vindicated.

My first encounter with Mr. Maupin occurred when San Francisco and I were still new. It was one of the crowded, rowdy after-work Friday afternoons at the Edge. There were men in jeans and men in business attire. There was a slightly manic air about the room, and it was clear that many of the assembled had started the weekend early. Tim and I found a place and were about to settle in, when I turned and faced an older gentleman about my height, whose eyes were literally inches from my own.

Now, Tim and I had enjoyed a rather silly adventure the night before, when we'd entered Daddy's and literally had to peel some of it's inhabitants off us. One benighted soul approached me with his arm outstretched, zombie style. I gulped and glanced over at Tim. The man in question wrapped his arms around me, settling his cheek on my chest and looked up at me with seemingly puppy dog adoration. Quickly, and out of desperation, I shouted "Look!", and pointed to the street. The man turned, freeing me, and I yelled to Tim "Run!", and we did, laughing out of the bar. If you're going to act like a cartoon, you might get treated like one.

The gentleman at the Edge the next evening wobbled a bit, and fixed me with what seemed to be the same doggy stare. In our extremely close proximity, I noted that his eyes were among the saddest I'd ever seen; he seemed to be silently beseeching me. After the previous night's escapade, I smiled and excused myself. As he wandered off, I heard the man behind me mention something about Tales Of The City, and I realized I'd been locking eyes with the author. But the author had moved on, finding fans elsewhere in the bar who recognized him and who rushed over to acknowledge his stardom. I felt awkward after our encounter, and watched a bit from afar. He seemed more happily engaged, and Tim and I continued our evening.

A couple of years ago, I was standing in the Dugout on a Sunday night as the bar began to empty out. I was bouncing from the jukebox to the bar and back again, as it my wont to do. A man bounded up to me, pointed to my chest and asked if I was from California. I was wearing my California Golden Bears t-shirt. I laughed and said: "Nah, I'm from Brooklyn, I just like the shirt!", and smiled. He mentioned that he was from San Francisco and I told him I would be heading out there in a couple of weeks. I noted my then-mania for walking the many staircases in the City and he laughed, telling me he'd once lived beside a prime example. As we talked, a considerably younger man walked over and joined us. We'd been discussing neighborhoods we liked when his companion volunteered that the two of them lived in Parnassus Heights. At that point my new acquaintance frowned and introduced himself as Armistead, his friend as Chris. He felt the need to mention that he was a writer, and I had the opportunity to say: "I know exactly who you are!". They were in town working on the film adaptation of The Night Listener, which they were shooting at the Jersey City Medical Center. The three of us fell into a rather deep conversation about East Coast winters and we discussed the casting coup they'd felt they pulled off. The two of them stared intently at me, all the while caressing and petting each other as they looked me over. It seemed odd, the now empty bar, the three of us held deeply enthralled by our conversation. Or whatever.

Tim finally bound up the stairs, exhausted, and took his place by my side. I introduced him, but he was too tired to take notice of who I was talking to and I soon begged off, bidding my new and clearly disappointed acquaintances a good night, as I took my boyfriend home.

Mr. Maupin's new book arrived yesterday and I've already read a couple of chapters. The voice is clearly Armistead's, and not that of callow young Michael. One could chalk this up to the many years between books and the fact that the author is a decade older than his character and no longer feels the need to pretend that he's anyone other than who he is. Here's Michael at 55, a report from the front. Here's Armistead at 63, handily surviving all the latest hurdles thrown up before us gay men of a certain age.

I'll tell you how I like it, soon enough. I might even pick up a few pointers.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Another Country

"I grow old...I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me."

-The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot

I've written a bit on this subject a little over a year ago here, and posted some additional thoughts here.

At the time, I was feeling under-appreciated, and was dealing with my diminishing powers of attraction. Yes, I know, shallow. So be it. The feeling certainly haven't gone away, and as expected, has only intensified this past year. It's been made abundantly clear to me to that men of a certain age are at best tolerated, and at worst, scorned and shunned in this social whirl we call Gay Life 2007.

I'll be 53 this year. In the ordinary work-a-day world out there, that's no big deal. I'd still be working, giving my children cause to roll their eyes, and no doubt bouncing a grandchild or two on my knee right now, instead of sitting at this computer ranting. I can clearly remember my grandfather at my age. He seemed infinitely old to me.

Among our so-called brethren, I seem to be viewed exactly the same way.

I have a fairly large number of friends and acquaintances and we travel grouped in various permutations thereof, as is our wont to do. I've been wondering why I sometimes find myself at the sidelines of a group, going completely silent, and feeling as if I have nothing to say or do with anything that's going on. As if I'm suddenly locked out. I certainly don't feel a part of any sort of community at large. It's as if a door is closing.

The sort of men that used to find me attractive mostly no longer do, which was a quite a shock, and took some getting used to. It's not a matter of whether my mojo's working, because it does work, if only for a much more select and rarified group. I've become an aquired taste, like anchovies. I'm a fetish object: the (much) older man. I have my fans, thank you! But I've continually seen men's eyes take on that opaque cast when they're introduced to me these days, their handshakes making very clear their complete and total disinterest.

"it's hell to lust for your tormentors, to know from the beginning that your deepest need can only betray you, only expel you from the tribe. So when you grow up, you find a tribe of your own, with guys just like you, to keep from feeling that way ever again. Only you do, sometimes..."

-Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener

In the past five months I've had a couple of experiences that, if I wasn't the stubborn man I am, would have sent me home permanently. Both occurred in waterholes I've frequented on an irregular basis, Therapy and The Boiler Room. Both times I was with a fairly substantial crowd.

At The Boiler Room, a young man was leaning against the corral, his legs sprawled out directly in front of him, into the passage. As I approached, instead of moving them in to allow me to pass, his legs remained there until I was standing right up against them. I felt as if I was back in grammar school, dealing with the class bully. Would he let me pass? In fact, he would not. Instead, he fixed me with a challenging glare, while all conversation halted around him. I looked at him, thinking it must be some sort of joke. It was. On me. I decided to step over him and head to the bar. Upon my return, he was ready for me, and I, him. Back in the same position with him, I reached out, and grabbed the front of his skinny ribcage in my fist, using it to balance myself as I stepped over him again. He gasped in pain as I walked away.

I thought this might be an anomaly, an encounter with some rude drunken fuck who was looking to make my night, or anyone's, miserable. As this seemed so random, I chose to let it pass.

Until I was in Therapy a few weeks ago, making my way towards the bar. I couple of young men were sprawled decorously across the service area, and as I jockeyed myself into a position where I could order my drink, I noticed one of them fix me with the exact same challenging glare. This time, both boys looked me up and down, in that cartoonish Marlene Dietrich sort of way. The taller of the pair reached out and ran his hand across my chest. I smiled, just to be friendly, and reached for my drink. The young man then leaned forward and said:

"You let just anyone touch your tits like that?"

I didn't answer, because I suddenly knew where this was heading.

"You're disgusting!", he spat, as they both laughed and quickly walked away.

I found a quiet place to stand in that very crowded bar; I had to collect myself before I could rejoin my friends. I stood, pinned up against the wall, listening to the sound of my own heartbeat over the thump of the cruddy music.

Perhaps Open Season has been declared on me.

I know, you probably think I should stay home, that I'm too old to stand around in bars anymore. I'm beginning to see why men my age seem to drift off and desert their bar stool after a while. We're just not welcome. I know what those glances mean now.

"He wants awfully to be on the inside staring out; anybody with their nose pressed against a glass is liable to look stupid".

-Truman Capote, Breakfast At Tiffany's

I think of all the men I know who are in their late thirties and early forties, who think their lives are going to be all over for them shortly. They won't be, not by a long shot. Gay life is just entering a new and unfamiliar phase, a journey with all the old points of navigation missing or long gone. We're each going to have to go it alone. Again.

Getting old in our community these days is even worse than you can imagine.


You're all going to get here sometime.