His name was Omar, I think. He was probably in his fifties, with a considerable paunch and a greasy, salt and pepper ponytail drooping from the back of a backwards black flat cap. Sitting on a stool, under a dim backdoor lamp, he barely looked at Rhodie Mae’s old military ID and knew I was lying to him. After fondling my tits and pocketing the $10, he opened the door.
Anticipation gave way to panic as I took in the situation. Are these the women I will have to date? Is this what lesbians look like? Grand Central will always remain in my distant memory, the hardest, seediest, stickiest gay bar I have ever encountered. Located in Riverside, California, forever in 1987, it was within fifteen miles of three military bases. The women inside were not just butch, these were bulldaggers. I had never even seen other butches, let alone this rare tribe of government trained militia mullets. Not a femme in sight. I had walked into a prison porn and I was the bad little school girl. At that age, I was very proud of what I thought of as a natural ability in looking like I knew what I was doing. At least, I thought I appeared undaunted. I must have looked ridiculous. I had been to plenty of clubs by the time I was seventeen, but they had been straight, and mostly black. So I was dressed like I was going to an R & B nightclub circa Janet Jackson, Nasty Boys.
I took a seat at the bar, facing the dance floor. I was scanning the room, trying to find someone, anyone I could ask to dance. It was mostly boys dancing. The women were playing pool. I don’t remember how long I sat there. I couldn’t just leave without talking to someone. And then she came in. She was tall and beautiful… and feminine. I watched her for a while as she danced and talked to people. I was trying to gather the courage to ask her to dance. So I finished another Rolling Rock and finally pushed my stool out to get up. I felt a firm, meaty hand grip my left shoulder, keeping me in my place. The voice behind me said, “Sit down son, that’s a man.”
The butch’s name was Yoli. She laughed warmly and put her arm around me. She took me into the bathroom and gave me a line, then spent the rest of the night playing pool with me. That was my first time in a gay bar. It was only a week or two since I found out they existed, that there were other gay people and they had their own bars.
I had already had my first girlfriend a full year before I ever found out there was a whole big, gay world out there. We played softball together. She played center field and I was the catcher. The summer after our sophomore year, we spent every day together until it dramatically turned to more while “wrestling” one day. Our teenage passion went Thelma and Louise the night her mom found out and beat her. We ran away for about two weeks to San Francisco, a ten-hour greyhound ride away, because we had heard that’s where the gays went. We didn’t find any. We spent most of our time in the bus station bathroom, fighting because I didn’t want us to turn tricks. We came home to even more drama. Our romance ended the night her mom told me to kill myself and I swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills in her backyard. After finally being rushed to the hospital and having my stomach pumped, my parents put me in a locked mental health facility for two and a half months. It would be over twenty years until I communicated with her again. Upon my return to high school, I found that everyone had known where I had been and what I was. My girlfriend had to switch highschools, a merciful option not open to me. My mother does not accept punking out, not even from hell. My high school was in a podunk shithole called Apple Valley, California, about thirty miles south of Barstow, a larger shithole in the middle of the Southern California desert. These were communities founded by people just wanting to escape the growing diversity of culture in Los Angeles, so they could do some seriously creepy, ignorant shit out in the middle of nowhere. I even got kicked out of high school sports for being a lesbian. The irony of that would not become hilarious for some time.
I had actually been running away for years, but I was usually home in time for dinner. When I was eleven, we lived in a suburb of Phoenix, I started calling real estate agents about listings for land in the Sedona woods. I had this idea that I could live in a tent and work at Burger King or something. I just knew that my presence in the suburban landscape was more mutually corrosive than even The Breakfast Club could hope to portray. I would hop trains and hitchhike home as a day trip. I had a whole life only strangers knew about. My parents are dynamic, successful people and I am their only progeny. I was smart and strong and powerful, but I was not of their people. Growing up in the suburbs, doesn’t matter which one, you grow up in the dominant American model. It has a way of completely obscuring everything else. Nobody tells you about the other worlds that have been excluded from yours. They think there is no logical reason you would want an alternative, except that if you don’t fit in, they also have a way of squeezing you out like a zit on the nose of their pasty, doughy face. I made a habit of flinging myself at the nearest passing exoticism that caught my eye. Any misfit or marginalized individual was automatically my friend. I felt duty-bound to protect them from the injustice of the culture that had forged me, like so many young, bleeding hearts. It didn’t take me long to understand my relative privilege. I tried to minimize it. At that time, it didn’t make any sense to my parents or me for that matter, that I seemed to be rejecting my world of relative comfort and future social and economic certainty. I also felt unworthy of the pain I was in because I was smart and not unattractive and white. My secret life was my problem and I was the only shameful, slutty, chubby, oddly-masculine homo to blame. You know those white suburban kids with dreads or cornrows that inflect their speech with poser gangster rapper? They are being expelled by their own culture, or at least, that’s what they think. It is a completely unsympathetic behavior pattern, I will not deny. Kids are kinda dumb though and struggling for identity, all of them. I’m positive I’m also guilty of some youthful, idiotic cultural appropriation, but mostly, I tried to keep my mouth shut and learn. I had basically three tiers of existence. The person I was at home, the person I was with my school friends, and the no one I was when I was with strangers. I got to know some people who lived in the shadows. I knew lots of people who avoided the shadows. People told me their secrets because I was always just traveling through and I had become very adept at being whoever someone needed me to be, regardless of how ignorant I was of the actual experiences of individuals coming from non-dominant American cultures. I think of this as “cultural dysphoria”, easily as prominent and problematic as its distant, gender related cousin, but wholly more potentially offensive, philosophically and emotionally. Optimistically, someone born into some amount of privilege may develop a richer empathy with a broader world if one’s implicit social power is kept uncomfortably lodged up one’s ass like a weathered fencepost, reminding one, with each shift of body weight, of the humility of individual existence and the guilt-informed honor of personal accountability.
I spent most of my time feeling inauthentic, wondering if I was a sociopath. I understood emotions logically, as theatric apparel, and performed them on cue. My own private sadness and anger felt inappropriate and indulgent. Looking back at how my own values were formed and how my physicality developed, I have come to believe that those who grow up in substantial existential conflict with their surrounding cultural expectations and norms, have a predilection toward various forms of sorcery later in life. Of course, this is frequently offset by wildly self-destructive behavior patterns and a profound skepticism concerning the legitimacy of human intimacy and trust, but we’re fun at parties. Cultural outlaws tend to be drawn toward the mysticism of the human condition, while secretly clinging to the belief that their own uniqueness may very well change the world. Because, when everything you do and feel is wrong, a natural reaction might reasonably be to make up a world where you’re right. And while live-action role-playing games serve many thousands of the misunderstood, I believe there are also other kinds of weirdos who may eventually confront the need to suddenly and violently invert their interminable self-hating inner narrative with a substantive attempt to reveal to the world that, actually, it’s you world, that’s wrong, not me. Is there a way an individual can become completely unhinged, productively?
Mercifully, once a decade, I was sent a sort of shamanic guide in the guise of a best friend. Their authenticity and strength as people in the world lent a transcendent quality to their characters, like yoda. In my teens, through high school, this was GeeGee Hayes. While calmly disregarding my existential flailing, she seamlessly transitioned from being the girl who took me to the NCO Club at George Air Force Base, which is basically a bar out of normal jurisdiction that served underaged girls so they would “entertain” soldiers, to being my personal bodyguard who walked with me between each class at Apple Valley High, psychologically slamming any potential threat against the wall before they said one word. Being certainly the toughest one of the five black people out of three-thousand at my high school, she was also from Los Angeles, and had allegedly shot some guy at a public pool when she was twelve. She is important to this story because she protected me. She taught me that I wasn’t as smart and privileged as I thought I was and that, as an outcast of sorts, I would need to become much, much tougher and more resilient.
At my mother’s insistence, and with Gee’s help, I finished high school.
After a few years of college at Cal Poly Pomona and a few more girlfriends, I moved with one of them to San Francisco. This time I found the gays. It was 1991. I was 21. I was still naive, and still a nerd, but the difference between LA lesbians and SF dykes was revolutionary. Within three months of arriving, I had shaved my head, gained thirty pounds, and purged my wardrobe of all pastels. My gender narrative had me cultivating the blue-collar, truck-driving, pretty-girl wrangling butch dip-shittery. While my outsider, culture-deprived, Opie-turned-white-trash Rizzo side had me awestruck with the cornucopia of transgressive freakdom San Francisco had to offer. San Francisco was once where all the disaffected, small town expatriates landed. Everybody who just could not make it work where they were and managed to find passage, found some kind of refuge there, a collaborative din of the damaged.
It is hard to say whether my fledgling butch identity merely morphed to compliment each new girlfriend or if the hollowness of each new apparition just pitifully begged for somatic legitimacy from the eyes of a new lover. Regardless, I hurt a lot of people. Twenty years later, there are probably still a handful that would not talk to me if we ran into each other on the street. I was cute for the very first time in my life, and apparently, this was too much power for me to handle. I simply experienced this as a blur of chaotic compulsion, untethered to any intimate connection or sense of self. I was a cocky and selfish and ill-equipped to make better of the cacophonous, kaleidoscopic upheaval that was San Francisco in the 1990’s. I didn’t even know it was special until years later. If Dominant Culture wages war within each new psyche, this decade, in this place gave space for riot. Whenever briefly unoccupied with my own defense, if the veils of shame and penitence fluttered aside, stunning gestures of coup found my spine.
The 90’s also gave me Pally.
Pally was completely unimpressed with my swagger. She thought my girlfriend collection was dumb. It’s like she could actually see a person past the facade and seemed to like me. Gee was my protector, Pally was my guide, a mentor of sorts. She taught me things by laughing at me, and thereby somehow illuminating the folly of so many of my attachments to norms of propriety and appearance. She taught me about rock and roll. She taught me about drugs. And there may have been some sex, in that Ancient Greek kinda way. I had a reverence for Pally, still do. I watched the way she saw people and aspired to her instincts. She helped the world seem less intimidating by showing me that it was just full of people. She even introduced me to my first wife, or more precisely, told us to date each other instead of both being in love with her, which we did, and it was a really good thing, for a really long time.
It’s so hard to sort out which stories to tell, that are truly relevant to the story of Pi, which is the story I intended to tell. I think they are all important to the story, but perhaps most important to reading the story is just enough to make it about everyone. My first time in a gay bar, the damage of the eighties, the dissent of the nineties, my personal flaws and struggles, and the significance of a couple of relationships are all part of an identifiable path. I ran away again to Minnesota at the end of 1999. I found my tent in the woods in an abandoned VFW in South Minneapolis, surrounded by runaways. I probably would have made more money working for Burger King…