About my life and the ke.., p.24
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       About My Life and the Kept Woman, p.24

           John Rechy
 

  But nothing stopped the sex; nothing stopped the cruising. Life went on along with the violence and the denials.

  Those were the times I lived in.

  At the Carousel Bar at the very edge of Venice beach, queens dared to appear in drag—faces painted heavily as defiant masks. Tough hustlers, often tattooed, roamed shirtless, sometimes doubling as pushers. Among those who came to buy—or just to cruise each other from the beach—there were usually a few women, strident, incongruously elegantly dressed, women considered “fag hags,” slumming with wealthy homosexuals who were showing them “the lower depths of gay life.” The Carousel was a loud, dim, crowded, seething, smoky bar pulsing and pounding with the rock music that overwhelmed the sound of waves lashing the coastline not far away.

  I sat at a coarse wooden table with a man I had met on the beach earlier, a married man—or so a wedding band indicated. He had told me that this was his first venture into a world he had long wanted to explore. There was something sad about him, and I believed him.

  A white cold light burst into the bar, freezing everything.

  “This is the Los Angeles Police Department! All queers march out in a single file. Don’t try to run, we’ve blocked all the exits,” a harsh voice on a bullhorn blared from one of several squad cars suddenly parked outside—there had been the shrieks of halting brakes.

  “A raid!” screeched a queen, jumping under a table.

  Initiated patrons tried to scurry out, a few succeeding, others being thrust onto the sandy ground outside.

  “What the hell is happening?” said the man I was with. He was already sweating, trembling.

  “Just routine, man; just a hassle. Don’t worry.” But I did worry.

  Goaded by two cops with prodding batons, everyone in the bar who hadn’t managed to escape marched out, some slowly, defiant, blowing smoke from cigarettes into the faces of the cops standing in two flanking files outside. The cops flashed lights in everyone’s face. The slumming women and their well-dressed escorts breezed by, waving airy greetings and farewells as they made their way unimpeded toward the beach nearby.

  The cops were plucking a few people out of the ordered line, handcuffing them, to be taken away to jail—“for further investigation”—as examples. Some might be charged with “loitering” or “gathering in a known hangout for deviants” or having “no visible means of support.”

  “Identification!”

  The men so singled by a cop’s bark groped nervously in their pockets for identification, some spilling the contents of their wallets, then gathering them up urgently.

  “OK, now, get the hell out of here.”

  “Identification!”

  “I—”

  “You! Put your hands behind your back—”

  As we approached the inquisitory column, I was sure the cops would pull me out, or at least question me, as a hustler; I had seen them pull out three others, now handcuffed and inside one of the cars. Since the incident at Cooper’s Donuts, I had begun to fear the mere presence of cops, although I tried to hide being afraid. Now I wanted to separate from the man I had been sitting with so they would let him go—he was wearing a “respectable” sport jacket while I was wearing an open shirt and jeans. Apart, we stood a better chance of thwarting the cops’ prepared accusations.

  “What will they do to us?” the man asked me in what he intended to be a whisper, but it became a loud question when his voice cracked. I saw one cop, overhearing, look menacingly at us, as some men were allowed to leave, others were harassed, all were embarrassed, and some were taken in. Objecting to being manhandled guaranteed being shoved into the squad car.

  During a brief altercation, I whispered to the man, “My name is John Rechy. Tell me yours quick.”

  “No. Why?”

  No time to answer.

  “You with that guy?” the fat cop who had overheard the man’s question earlier shoved the blinding light at him.

  “Yes, yes,” the man gave the wrong answer.

  “You didn’t just pick him up?”

  “Oh, no, no, he’s my friend, we came here together—”

  “Then what’s his name?”

  “Uh, oh—uh—”

  The cop turned away from him and faced me. “He says you’re his friend, long time. So what’s his name?” he demanded.

  I shook my head, resigned.

  “Soliciting for purposes of prostitution!” the cop raised his voice.

  “You’ve got it all wrong, officer,” the man I was with was pleading. “I didn’t know what kind of place that was. I’m married. Look.” He brandished his wedding band.

  The cop shook his head mockingly, sneering. “Married, huh?—and pickin’ up hustlers.”

  The man was about to cry; perspiration had turned his face bright under the scorching white light.

  A hustler I had seen selling drugs, just behind us now in line, tried to run. The cop interrogating us rushed with his stick at him. I turned to the man I was with, “Run, run!”

  He staggered away as the cops watched, laughing, allowing him to escape, their intent fulfilled.

  I turned to run. A cop grabbed me.

  “Come back here, queer!”

  My face burning with accumulated rage, I heard myself say, “I’m not queer, man.”

  The cop who had grabbed me studied me. “OK, then, get the fuck out of here.”

  I walked along the beach, the sea breeze cooling my face.

  Again, I had lucked out, so close to being busted, freed only by sudden circumstance. But I didn’t feel the vast relief I should have felt, that I wanted to feel.

  I’m not queer, man, I’m straight.

  A man with whom I had already made arrangements on Hollywood Boulevard took me to a cruising bar—“I want them to see me with you,” he said. There, among attractive homosexuals seeking mutually responsive contacts, I saw, as out-of-place as I must have looked there, another hustler. He was easy to identify—the stance, the talk, the look—and he, too, was with an older man. We kept glancing at each other across the crowded bar, holding the stare, sending silent signals. We maneuvered to come closer within the bar, our companions not aware yet of the secret exchange. Keeping my eyes locked with the other hustler’s stare, I went to the restroom, fully expecting that he would follow me. After a few seconds—during which I waited, pretending to be washing my hands, arranging myself in the mirror—he walked in.

  “Hi, man.”

  “Hi, man.”

  “Let’s make it,” he said.

  “OK,” I shrugged, not regretting the easy acceptance.

  In the bar, I told the man I was with that I had “suddenly remembered” I had to be elsewhere. It was the staple excuse to move away from someone already committed and now to be left. The man’s eyes narrowed, as he saw the other hustler speaking to the man he was with.

  “Sorry,” I said.

  “You’re a son of a bitch, you know it, punk?” the man said. “You said you were a straight hustler, and now you and that other punk—” I moved away, feeling a mixture of emotions, sorry to hurt him, sorry to anger him, but feeling a more powerful draw, an entirely selfish pull.

  I waited outside the bar, smoking. Again the monstrous insecurity. What if the guy in the restroom had merely set me up, to humiliate me, challenge my hustler pose, asserting his stronger one? What if—?

  There he was. “I have a car, but no place,” he said.

  “I don’t have a place,” I lied.

  We drove up somewhere into the Hollywood hills—beyond a scattering of houses, a sprinkling of lights. In an area of clustered trees in a field of bushes, he parked and we got out.

  There, cautiously, nervously, each of us waited for the other to act first. Simultaneously—this had become essential—our hands roamed over each other’s body, pulling down each other’s pants and shorts, which gathered at our feet, our exposed cocks already aroused as we tugged at each other’s shirts, to push them up, remove them, so that we were almo
st naked within slabs of light that filtered through the branches of the trees.

  Our bodies pressed together, hard cock against hard cock, rubbed up and down, sideways, moist with sweat. He grabbed my cock as I grabbed his, and I felt the strange hardness in my hand, so hard, as he must have felt mine in his as we parted to look down at what was occurring between us. I put one hand on his shoulder, luring him down.

  “Blow me, man,” I said; a contest, a one-sided conquest.

  For a moment, my words seemed to have ended any further contact—he pulled away, but then moved back again. “You blow me first, man,” he said, lifting his chin at me, “and then I’ll do it.”

  But it wouldn’t happen; it had become too crucial a challenge, a draw, checkmate. Both understanding that, we pressed against each other, pulsing cock against pulsing cock, hips gyrating against each other—and we came.

  Self-consciously, we rubbed off our own come with our hands, as if to wipe away evidence of what had occurred between two hustlers who had posed at not being gay.

  I laughed.

  He laughed.

  We drove back to Hollywood. “Shit, man, that’s it,” he said, “I just hadda make sure I’m not queer—and I did, I’m not.”

  “Me, too,” I said. “The same with me.”

  26

  I made friends with a very kind man named Dick who was from McAllen, Texas. We met at Schwab’s lunch counter in Hollywood, the place where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered but wasn’t really. Sitting next to me, he was so immediately friendly and warm that I dropped the hustler pose. He had been a chorus boy in Hollywood. During World War II he had choreographed shows for the USO, his highest accomplishment until he bought a barony from a pauper nobleman in Italy and became the baron de Mondar, knighted among Pasadena royalty in a ceremony that included a sword touched to his shoulder as he bowed. We got along so well—no talk about sex—that he invited me to a dinner party that weekend in his home on upper Hollywood Boulevard.

  Velvet draperies, velvet furniture, velvet everywhere. The house was dominated by a painting lit from above by a single light, a glamorous Egyptian queen who looked amazingly like Joan Collins. “It was painted by Cleopatra,” the baron told me—I was the first to arrive. “It would be worth a fortune except that she forgot to sign it.” The painting had been given to him by his honored guest tonight, the famous performer Liberace.

  In the winey predinner gathering on my friend’s flowery lawn, Liberace focused his attention on me, to the chagrin of his two muscular companions. Assistants? Bodyguards? Current boyfriends sliding out of favor? A strange little old woman wearing a tiara was also there, responding, “Oh,” to every comment she heard; I assumed she was a princess from Pasadena.

  Liberace whispered something to the baron, and I was seated next to him at the dinner table. Conversation was light—mostly about antiques. Liberace had just opened a store for his many admirers, middle-aged female tourists. My mother had confessed to me that she enjoyed his performances terribly.

  The meal had hardly progressed when I felt his hand under the table landing on my groin. I must have winced at the surprise, since the baron asked, “Are you all right, John?”

  I removed Liberace’s hand unobtrusively under the table, especially since his two burly companions were glaring at us—one had ducked quickly to peer under.

  The evening was over. The three—the two companions sullen—left.

  When I was alone with Dick and the frayed princess, who had passed out drunk, the telephone rang. It was Liberace. He wanted to talk to me. He was crying, lonely, depressed. “Please come, please. I need someone to talk to.”

  I felt sorry for him, the celebrated but isolated star. He had become mortified at what he had done under the table. He probably wanted to apologize.

  The baron dropped me off at Liberace’s mansion, atop a hill in West Hollywood; the house was bone-white even in the night, with marbly pillars.

  Liberace led me in himself, holding a white poodle while three or four others tangled at his feet and yipped at me.

  Inside, everything was black and white—including, I noticed now, the poodles skidding around, the black ones with a white ribbon, the white ones with a black ribbon. I felt dizzy, as if all colors had been drained out of my vision.

  Liberace wasn’t crying now. He was smiling his famous toothy smile. “Please sit down,” he exhorted me with a slight lisp. He indicated a place next to him on the couch.

  I sat on another couch. He jumped over. I stood up, annoyed. “You said you were lonely and wanted to talk.” In my hustling activities, I was carving strict demarcations. If I was on the streets, clearly available, what was expected was allowed to happen, the proposition. When I was in another atmosphere—like the dinner party at the baron’s home, and, I had thought, here—I could not slide into another mode, as a hustler.

  “I am lonely, very lonely, and I do want to talk to you.” His fleshy hands pulled me to him.

  I pushed him away.

  “Do you like jewelry?” He flashed rings that seemed to contribute the only dissonance within the black and white mausoleum of the room.

  “No, I really don’t,” I said.

  “I have a beautiful place in Palm Springs,” he said. “Would you like to come with me?”

  I walked down the hill to hitchhike back to my room.

  Dick called me excitedly. “I have some gifts for your mother.”

  “What?”

  “Yes, from Lee, Liberace. I told him what you told me, about your mother being such a fan. He sent her some beautiful goblets, and a replica of his piano. It actually plays a part of one of his favorite pieces.”

  I mailed the gifts to my mother. She was thrilled. “How wonderful to know such a great man and he too is a wonderful son,” my mother wrote.

  * * *

  The temporary legal-help agency that sent me out on jobs called me about a job that would take me, all expenses paid, with a good salary, to San Francisco. The job was with the attorney general’s office, representing the state of California in the ongoing, years-long litigation over water rights on the Colorado River.

  When, at dinner, I told my sister that I was going to San Francisco, she asked me, “Will you look her up?”

  I knew whom she meant.

  “I’m not sure.”

  If I did, would she pretend not to know me?

  In San Francisco, I worked in a building whose windows faced Market Street. At its corner there was an arcade, where, I quickly noticed, hustlers hung out in the daytime. I avoided looking out at the thriving activity. I went to work at the office dressed more and more casually, finally in jeans. I thought that might sustain a needed feeling that I was only temporarily straddling two worlds, one in this office, the other just outside.

  I became friendly with the office manager, an attractive red-haired woman named Nadine; she was in her mid-thirties. She often told me that I was “sexy,” and I told her that she was very “sexy” too. Nothing more than that.

  Often, for lunch, we went to a cafeteria next to the building where the office was located. Once, as we walked in, we caught sight, at the same time, of two effeminate middle-aged men. They were ahead of us in line. When we had gone through the serving line, the two men were already seated. As we passed them, one said something to the other, and they both stared at me smiling.

  “You’ve made quite an impression with those two,” Nadine whispered.

  Responding to the terrible cruelty that would jab at me unexpectedly, I said, loud enough for them to hear, and in a derisive tone, “Yeah, I know—those guys do like me.” I had done that to confirm my posture of masculinity with Nadine, even though I had no inclination to extend my relationship with her.

  During the next few days I looked for the two. One day they were there. Putting down my tray on a table Nadine had chosen, I walked over to them. As I approached, I saw a look on their faces that stamped itself on my mind: anger and hurt and, yes—although I wou
ld have preferred to reject this impression—a touch of fear, and that shook me the most.

  “I want to apologize—” I said quickly, to try to assure them I intended no further hostility.

  They looked at me, cold.

  “I said something nasty a few days ago, about you, and—”

  Their stare was even colder.

  “It was hypocritical of me, and I want to apologize.”

  Their stare was unflinching.

  Although I felt even more depressed about the incident than before the intended apology, I was glad they had reacted as they had, had not accepted my apology, had not released me from guilt, had ensured that it would remain festering.

  Soon after, I was in the office on an idle day—the litigants were in court. I looked out the window. I saw a man approach a hustler at the arcade across the street. I stared. I could almost hear the transaction, echoing from all my own previous times—the asking about how much, the response, the qualifications. I stared out the window as the man, in a business suit, walked off with the young man, who was swaggering, sleeves chopped off his T-shirt, faded jeans. I felt a pull so powerful that I was almost dizzy with excitement at the prospect of returning to the world I had abandoned in this orderly office of laws. I gave notice that day to Nadine that I was not working there any more.

  * * *

  The Castro district had not yet become the gay haven it would turn into. It harbored a mixture of men and women, many young and seemingly free-spirited; they sat lazily on steps, often smoking marijuana—an illegal act they flaunted.

  At a corner on Market, where the trolley that rode up and down Nob Hill filled with giddy tourists, one cool afternoon, a slender man picked me up. He looked like a businessman, in his forties. After preliminary arrangements—he was shy, nervous, looking about—he invited me to his home, “a few blocks up the hill,” he said. He walked slightly ahead of me as if cautious that someone might recognize him and identify the situation.

 
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