Life Teacher

My first Life Teacher—and unrequited love—arrived the spring of 1977 in the form of Kent Kelly. Like Ric, Kent was a couple years older than me. He was tall, ginger-haired, out, proud, and not willing to take crap from anyone—and I was immediately smitten. I don’t remember if I met Kent through GSO or at Jekyll’s, but I do remember he had no time for or interest in The Table.

Kent readily admitted that he liked me, but wasn’t interested in me—or for that matter, anyone—romantically. He enjoyed being single and reveled in the freedom it allowed. Those were harsh words for a starry-eyed 18-year old, but to this day I appreciate his honesty because it allowed us to dispense with the bullshit and grow a platonic friendship that far outlasted anything sexual that might have come about at that point in my life. Kent knew he wasn’t ready to settle down and also knew that I, as a “baby queen” (his words) had a lot of learning and exploring to do before even thinking about trying to settle down with just one other guy.

In simpler terms—and I say this with love—Kent was a self-professed slut and reveled in it.

After we both found ourselves living in Phoenix a couple years later, Kent became my ongoing dance partner and one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Even my mom—who constantly feared for my safety after I finally came out to the entire family—liked Kent and confided that she stopped worrying about me when I was out because she knew Kent was with me.

If she only knew…

During those first couple years after coming out, all my belief systems were in flux. I had been raised as a Lutheran, and like a lot of kids at the time, in high school I became devoutly religious. This was after all, the age of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. It was only after I came out and actually started learning about the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity that I flat our rejected it—at least the organized, brainwashing aspect of church itself. For years I skirted the issue by saying while I no longer considered myself a Christian, I still followed Christian principles.

Yeah, whatever.  As I said, everything was in flux.

During this period of change, Kent opened my eyes to other belief systems, and encouraged me to explore all of them. He—like my dad (who was not at all religious and only begrudgingly attended church when he absolutely had to)—was very much into astrology, and it immediately appealed to me. It was so much simpler to put people in twelve little boxes than to deal with the fact that people are fucking impossible to fully understand and totally random acts that come out of nowhere can sometimes send your life careening off in totally different directions. I soon learned to calculate a birth chart by hand (amazing, considering how horrible I am at math), discern the meanings of Houses and Signs and Cusps and Aspects and became obsessed with trying to figure people out through the position of the planets in the sky the day they were born.

This interest in astrology naturally led me down other metaphysical paths, and after seeing the double sunset in Star Wars for the first time—and dealing with the overwhelming sense of deja vu that accompanied it—I began researching reincarnation. Of all the belief systems out there, reincarnation made the most sense to me, and I adopted that as the foundation for my personal belief system for many, many years. Even now, as an admitted Atheist there’s still a tiny part of me that hopes—against all scientific evidence—that this is still what happens after we die. I guess it’s just hard wired in the human psyche to refuse to accept the inevitable.

Kent shared these views, and as our friendship deepened, we simply accepted as fact that we had known each other in some previous existence. I remember one dream in which we were sitting by a lake in the mountains. Overhead three large moons moved lazily across an early morning sky. In this dream, Kent was telling me that he would soon be leaving, but not to be upset because we would be reunited again. The sense of loss was incredible, and I woke up crying. That day I asked him what he thought it meant. “Probably just a past life fragment sneaking through.”

Later that summer he announced that Phoenix had grown too small and that he was moving to San Francisco. This sent me reeling, as it had come out of nowhere. (Did relating my dream to him months earlier plant the seed?) No matter what I said, nothing could convince him to stay. So, a week later, with tears welling up in my eyes after helping him pack up his battered orange VW Beetle, I watched him drive off, disco blaring from his open windows, as he started his new life.

The day he left, I gave him a card in which I’d copied a quote from Richard Bach’s Illusions, a book that became my “Bible” for many years afterward:

Do not be dismayed at goodbyes.
A farewell is necessary before you can meet again.
And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes,
Is certain for those who are friends.

The dream proved prophetic. Kent and I did in fact, reconnect after I’d moved to San Francisco in 1986, but he passed from AIDS complications about eight months later. “It’s better to have lived six years in San Francisco than sixty  in Arizona,” was one of the last things he said to me; an idea that influenced my attitudes for years afterward.

Learning My Way Around

Shortly after my first night at Jekyll’s, Ric and I started dating. I don’t remember exactly how it began, but I have many fond memories of sleeping either at his place in front of the fire or in my dorm room—having pushed the two twin beds together after David moved out to make a single king bed. While I intellectually understood the mechanics of sex with another man, Ric was the guy who put all that theoretical knowledge into practice and showed me in no uncertain terms that what John and I had been trying to do that first time was definitely not how it was done.

Ric was a tender, passionate lover, and possessed all of the physical attributes I found so attractive in a man. He was also a lot of fun to be around. I have no recollection of what his major was or what he did when not at school because the only surviving memories I have of him are of spending time together at the gay table in Louie’s Lower Level (hereafter simply referred to as “The Table”) or of being in some state of undress. Ric gave me many tokens of his affection, but the one item that stands out was the second-hand army jacket that he always wore.

This fairy tale first romance came to an abrupt end when I came down with mono. A late bloomer, I guess this was something I should’ve contracted in high school, but since I wasn’t busy kissing anyone in high school (as much as I had crushes on guys all the way back to my freshman year), I had never been exposed to it. Needless to say, it hit me hard and knocked me on my ass for several weeks. Ric stayed away—not wanting to catch it himself even though he was the one who gave it to me in the first place—and I missed all my classes during this period, thus beginning the inexorable downward slide that was to mar the rest of my short-lived academic career.

When I finally recovered, Ric had become distant, not returning phone calls and appearing at Louie’s only infrequently. I soon learned he had started seeing someone else and I was understandably heartbroken. He never asked me to return any of the things he’d given me, and I kept that damn jacket for years afterward.

It was shortly after I’d returned to full health that I received a strange clipping in the mail from my dad. It was an article obviously clipped from one of the Phoenix gay rags about the epidemic of oral gonorrhea that was then sweeping the gay community. At the bottom he’d written, “Don’t give him anything but love.”

I hadn’t yet come out to the family, but after passing this clipping around The Table and receiving a unanimous, “Your dad knows,” it was obvious my that at least my dad knew what was going on and this was his roundabout way of saying he was cool with it. Why he was so cool with it only, pardon the expression—came out—later that summer.

Don, Phil, Chas, Kent, and James at my birthday party, 1977

By this time, the folks who gathered at The Table at Louie’s had become like an adopted second family. James Uhrig was a bookish geek with whom I shared a common love of writing and later became a librarian. There was also Jesse, on whom I developed an intense crush, and “Big John” Marion, a bearish black guy with an unabashed fondness for campus tea rooms and expertly deep-throating chocolate covered frozen bananas in the most public venues possible. There was also Brian Lea, with whom I shared a newfound love of disco and who just happened to live in the same dorm on the same floor I did. There was also Chas Dooley, a flamboyant black boy who was friends with Andy at Navajo Hall and who, along with Don Hines, became one of my dearest friends over the next few years.  Abe Marquez was one of the older (with older being late 20s) students at the table, who became a mentor of sorts and was the voice of reason among our rowdy little band.

One amusing memory is from about a month after Ric and I stopped seeing each other. I arrived at The Table one afternoon and it was abuzz with news that Ric had come down with hepatitis (I may be wrong, but I don’t think hepatitis had an alphabet soup trailing at that time) and was currently in a room over at Student Health. He had been told that anyone who had been in intimate contact with him—even as minor as sharing a plate of food or drink—needed to go right over and get a shot of gamma globulin. Since pretty much everyone at The Table had at one time shared something with Ric (cough, cough), we dutifully lined up and marched over to Student Health en masse and patiently waited as each of went in for our injection.

(L-R) Big John, Tommy (“Spider Lady”), and Jesse, 1977

Where are they now? Ric was claimed by the plague in the early 90s. (I found his panel in the AIDS Quilt.) I lost contact with James after his trip to San Francisco in 1989 although an internet search a few years back showed he was still alive and well. I don’t remember Jesse’s last name, so his whereabouts are unknown. I also have no idea what happened to John Marion, but I hope he’s still among the living. Brian was taken by the plague in the early 1990s. I ran into Chas in San Francisco in 1990 or thereabouts, with both of us promising to get back in touch. It never happened, and with such a common name, internet searches have been inconclusive. Thankfully there are no Charles Dooleys showing up on the Social Security Death Index with his birthdate or panels in the AIDS quilt with his name on them, so I take some solace in that. Abe is also among us, still in Tucson and doing well. We reconnected over dinner a few years back and even though thirty years had passed, it was like being right back at The Table in Louie’s Lower Level…

Fasten Your Seat Belts

Amazing video of the Space Shuttle during launch, taken with cameras and mics mounted on the solid rocket boosters that propelled the shuttles into space. All the sound is from the actual camera microphones and has not been faked or replaced with foley artist sound.

Amen!

And on a semi-related note, I tweeted earlier today, “I’m so tired of coddling stupidity because someone might be offended if you speak the truth and call them an idiot.”

If You’re Not Outraged You’re Not Paying Attention

I don’t think I’m alone when I say I think we were all a lot happier in the pre-internet world. That’s because most of us went through life, blissfully unaware of the majority of atrocities and the outright stupidity occurring in the world. I know that knowledge is power, and yes, while we have now have the collective wisdom of humanity at our fingertips,  at the same time we are also exposed to things that no one in their right mind needs to see. (Two Girls, One Cup will forever be burned into my consciousness as prime example of this.)

Just this morning, while going through my Twitter feed, I came across these items. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, because I would’ve been a lot happier never having learned of any of it:

She was jailed because apparently stoning her to death would be bad for international relations.

Maybe—like most toddlers think—if he stomps his feet and threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue he’ll get what he wants.

At least he didn’t use the N-word.

Stalin would be proud.

Don’t worry, it’s all okay because at least he’s not gay!

And on that subject, here’s another one for whom I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until he’s caught tap, tap, tapping his way into scandal in an airport mens’ room.

There are dozens—if not hundreds—of more examples, but just posting these was exhausting enough. There are times I truly regret that the Mayans were wrong about the end of the world, because this planet really needs an enema.

GSO, Jekyll’s, and Louie’s Lower Level

Apache Hall, 1977

Shortly after I came out to David, I decided it was time to start telling the rest of the world, and one momentous night in January of 1977, I made my way to what would be the first of many meetings of the University of Arizona’s Gay Student Organization, or GSO. Nervous as hell when I walked in to that room on the third floor of the Student Union, what stuck me most was how normal everyone looked. Until that point my exposure to gay folk was what the media had fed me. I remember my mother coming in my bedroom one night and turned on the television, announcing, “I want you to see what a homosexual looks like. (Mothers know, even if they don’t want to admit it.) On the television Truman Capote was being interviewed. No one in that room looked—or acted—like that. They were just regular people.

I grabbed a soda and sat down. Right before the meeting started a one older guy (and by older I mean 28—I was 18 at the time) came up to me and introduced himself. Phil Oliver was the first person (other than my grandmother, whom I had lied to at the time) who had ever asked me point blank if I was gay. “Yes,” I said, stuttering. “Yes I am.” He smiled and said, “Well then, welcome!”

And thus began a friendship that spanned more than a decade.

I returned to the dorm after this first meeting and was bubbling over with excitement. David was less than enthused, and as the days passed, it turned out that in spite of having a transexual uncle, David didn’t take the news of suddenly having a gay roommate all that well after all. The Friday night after my first GSO meeting, David—who hadn’t touched a drop of liquor in his life until that point—went out and got shit-faced drunk, returned to the dorm at 3 am, and apparently went door-to-door telling anyone who bothered to answer, “Mark is a queer!”

Thanks, buddy.

He moved out shortly thereafter, and began rooming with an Iranian student down the hall who—in his words—didn’t bathe for the remainder of the semester.

It was probably after the second or third GSO meeting I attended when someone in the group suggested we reconvene downstairs in Louie’s Lower Level—one of the union’s many eateries.

It was then I discovered “the table.”

I’d eaten at Louie’s a hundred times during my first semester on campus, totally oblivious to the fact there was one particular table where all the gay boys on campus congregated. Really? It had been there all that time?

Like I said, oblivious.

It was through GSO that I met John McGuire, another freshman who ventured into that GSO meeting for the first time the same night I did. I don’t think either of us was really all that attracted to each other, but we were both virgins (yes, hard to believe at this point, but it’s true) eager to find out what this whole gay sex thing was about, and less than a week after David had vacated our shared room in Apache hall, I had my first play date.

It was a disaster.

John didn’t kiss, and the extent of our play was some mutual masturbation.

This is what we were being condemned to hell for? That hardly seemed worthwhile.

Turns out we weren’t doing it right, and very shortly thereafter I met someone who showed me how it was supposed to be done. Rick Hathaway was not a member of GSO, but he was a regular fixture at Louie’s and there was more than a little flirtatious chemistry between us. One Friday night a group of us were sitting around the table and Rick turned to me and asked what my plans were for the evening. “I’ll probably just go back to my room and watch television,” I said. “Nonsense! Tina and I are heading over to Jekyll’s. Come with us!”

Jekyll & Hyde’s, 1977

Jekyll & Hyde’s—billed as Tucson’s “Newest and Gayest Disco” had recently opened and it was apparently the place to go. Nervousness swept over me; my first gay bar? “Um…okay,” I said.

Rick gave me his address (a few blocks west of campus) and told me to come by around 9 pm. Tina would drive.

Butterflies in my stomach don’t even begin to describe what I was feeling as I walked over to his house, and when we got to Jekyll’s itself…what can I say? It was amazing.

I’d never been to a disco—much less a gay disco—before, so this was a totally new, alien environment. The lights, the music—OH MY GOD—the people. I met my first drag queen. Rick and I danced. I met more souls than I had during the entire previous semester. We closed the place down and then went for breakfast at the adjacent Denny’s.

They dropped me off at my room around 3:30 am that morning, and it was all I could do to force myself to go to sleep. Adrenaline was coursing through my system like never before.

Welcome to the University of Arizona

My disappointing, short-lived college career began one hot August afternoon in 1976. When I entered high school I had initially dreamt of becoming an astronomer, but harsh reality forced me to admit that I would never be able to master the mathematics involved in securing a degree in the field. A newfound love of architectural design coupled with the much less stringent mathematical requirements for such a degree sent me following in my father’s footsteps with intentions of becoming an architect. Both Arizona State and the University of Arizona had excellent architectural schools, but the reason I ultimately chose U of A instead of ASU was more practical than anything else: by going to U of A, I could move out of my parents’ house and have the freedom to start taking those first tentative steps out of the closet—and freshman calculus (see mastering mathematics, above) was not a requirement for admission to the architectural college there like it was at ASU.

I moved into a room on the third floor of Navajo Hall, a reinforced concrete relic from the late 1920s built under Arizona Stadium. It was obviously not one of the newer residence halls, but it had the largest rooms of any dorm on campus, and that was important to me. It was also one of the few at that time that had central cooling.

My first roommate was an Asian gymnast, whose name completely eludes me now. I knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to work. While I can now look back and say that undoubtedly some of my gay contemporaries might’ve jumped at the chance to room with a ripped 18 year old athlete, our class schedules were completely different and we had absolutely nothing in common.

Within a few weeks I had transferred to another room. My new roommate Karl, was a tall, blond, civil engineering major who had an enormous penis and wasn’t at all shy about it.

While I was still deeply in the closet, our next door neighbor, Andy, was most certainly not and from the very beginning he read me —as they say—like a cheap dime store novel. He knew my story even if I wasn’t quite sure of it myself, but was never cruel or malicious about it. If anything, I remember Andy being genuinely interested helping me come out, but I stubbornly refused to give in.

That changed somewhat beginning one Friday night in October. For some reason I found myself at the Flandrau Planetarium, touring the exhibits, when I made eye contact with a handsome boy on the other side of the room. I finally got the nerve and started a conversation. His name was David Miller, a guy from a small town in West Virginia.He too was a freshman, and we immediately hit it off. Despite my hopes, it was obvious he wasn’t gay, but we became good friends. He even came back up to Phoenix with me for Thanksgiving with my family.

I don’t remember exact details at this point, but David and I started hanging out more and more, and once Andy got wind of it, he started ribbing me about having finally found a boyfriend. That wasn’t the situation, but one thing led to another and Karl eventually got word of it. That began the end of our friendship and my time in Navajo Hall.

While the timing is fuzzy at this point, sometime around Thanksgiving David’s roommate had unexpectedly quit school and moved out, leaving David with the unpleasant prospect of having to pay for a single room. When he suggested I move in, I jumped at the opportunity since the situation in Navajo was rapidly deteriorating. He lived in Apache Hall, another older dorm (in the 1970s, all the dorms at U of A were “older”) that sat immediately west of Arizona Stadium. It was a 3-story red brick structure built in the late 1950s with cinder block interior walls and uncarpeted polished concrete floors. It reminded me of a prison minus the bars.

Shortly after the start of the spring semester, I decided it was time to stop kidding myself and everyone else around me. It was time to come out, and I felt my friendship with David was solid enough at that point that he would be the first person I told.

He took the revelation well, and after a long pause confessed he had a secret too. My heart fluttered. Was David about to come out to me?

No, but it was almost as good. His mom’s brother was Christine Jorgensen. “We don’t talk about Uncle George much any more.” I had no reason to doubt him; very few people really knew about Christine so I took it at face value.

We stayed up that night talking until nearly dawn, truly surprised he’d taken the news as well as he did.

(To be continued.)

Great Idea, But…

The other day I got this awesome idea to begin writing my autobiography. I was thinking of My Wholly Unremarkable Life as a title.

This was prompted in no small part by reaching the age where I really should start writing some of that shit down, lest it slip from my memory at some point in the future. While my dad retained all his mental faculties right till the end, my mom suffered with Alzheimer’s, so I probably have a fifty percent chance of losing my mind at some point, and I’d really like to retain the written memories if nothing else. While the events themselves remain clear, with each passing year, pinpointing exactly when things happened gets a little bit fuzzier, and I know I’m in trouble when I look at my music collection and ask, “Was that 1978 or 1979?” (There was a time I could tell you which season songs were popular, but that is long gone.)

From late 1987 until my cancer diagnosis, I had been religiously keeping a journal of my life adventures. I can’t stand to read through any of it at this point because it’s painfully obvious from my own words what an asshole I was for the vast majority of my time in San Francisco—but it does come in handy when I’m faced with trying to recall exactly when something happened.

I gave up journaling with the cancer diagnosis. I didn’t want to wallow in self-pity and be forced to read it after I came through the ordeal, and it just seemed like it was a perfect time to stop. I also thought that my budding blogging career would take up the slack, and in many respects it did—until I systematically deleted my blogs not once, or twice, but three times total. I wish I’d at least kept a backup of the most recent one (the one I wiped before moving to Denver), but alas…

We move forward.

Anyhow, I’ve tried to start writing down some of my experiences, but I’m finding it difficult. I start on one thing and before I know it I’m off on some tangent. But I’m not going to give up, even if it means “publishing” individual chapters here.

Stay tuned, and I’ll try not to disappoint.