Pi Love, Ch. 4, Queering the Legion

always cover genitals during astral projection

always cover genitals during astral projection

Even before Facebook quizzes, the question of which super-power you would choose if you could would occasionally come up at parties or on first dates. For as long as I can remember, I have always chosen the ability to see the entire history of a specific location as my superpower. I imagine myself standing still, eyes open but not focused on the present. Maybe they’d get that cool opal cloud covering like Storm in X-Men or the old master in the opening credits of Kung-Fu. My surroundings would begin to morph into their previous incarnations, activated by the ectoplasms of the individuals that have occupied that space in the past. I can see them laughing, drinking, dancing, fucking, and dying in cyclical ceremonies of inhabitation.

I could solve crimes. I could see where rad stuff is hidden. I could reveal the mysteries of the ancient past. I imagine there would be lots of cool hats. Of course, at some point, I suppose I would have to travel to the pyramids in Egypt or Stonehenge, but for a long while I would be content standing and watching the past in old bars.

There is something special about the feeling of refuge and calm that bars create for the loyal misfits that assemble to form clots in them. That warm, tangy aroma of stale cigarettes and old beer that gets pulled over your damage like a fuzzy blanket when you open the front door smells like a secret that belongs to you. Bars are relatively safe places for the more intense versions of yourself that feel vulnerable in the daylight. Many bars are even made to attract a specific segment of the fringe that polite culture would like to forget. I believe in a kinship of consciousness that exists between the bold outskirts of an individual’s bar persona and the audacity necessary for true social transformation. I fully realize and am intentionally ignoring the many fantastically destructive scenarios that also occur at bars, because occasionally, rare moments of the singular clarity of the dangerous beauty of humanity are birthed only by the alchemic orgy of desperation, dance, sweat and alcohol. Bars briefly become Dionysian temples. These shared experiences also create unique tribes, bound thenceforth by special initiation. I could spend a lifetime rewinding through an old building’s secret rituals. Perhaps just to salve an internal longing to bear witness to a human intensity and turbulence that I fear is being irredeemably dulled.

not my favorite dyke bar, but I was there when it opened

not my favorite dyke bar, but I was there when it opened

The demise of dyke bars in the last ten to fifteen years is just truly sad. In 2006, I had set out to resurrect a dying paradigm. But, there was no alternative. How much queer history has happened in bars? I was truly worried about the kind of legacy we were creating without them. The cultural stability that gay marriage provides is a cushy gig if you can get it, but I had set out to remind the queers that we are at our most fabulous when we are laughing loudly at our own jokes, half in the bag, bedazzled with transgression. For this task, I required an old bar that felt forgotten.

I arranged to meet the owner of the old American Legion building the following afternoon. I do not recall the showing specifically or what the guy looked like. I remember only that I already knew that this was the place, even before I saw inside.

At some point while he was showing me the building, I wedged a rock or something into the jamb of an inconspicuous side exit. I came back some hours later so that the building and I could become better acquainted in private.  The ruins of this brotherhood of Veterans had summoned me. Somebody’s shadowy nostalgia stuck to the old school cafeteria tile, reanimating with my footsteps. The mold, the standing water, the rotten carpet, the smell, all faded from perception as I saw what was to occur here and as what had happened here came out to meet me.  The decay was meant to deter lesser advocates, and obscure the magic from the unworthy.  The building had been waiting for me.

The invisible interaction of past and present occasionally and fleetingly reveals its bustling machinations to the corner of your eye. Right now, I am trying to remember what I felt like and how the building felt to me as I walked through it for the first time. But, considering the unlikeliness of the building’s materialization within the parameters of my obscure geographical criteria and its availability within my shaky financial reach for the purpose of Pi, I have to wonder… what are the metaphysical desires of a space? How do people and events dent and deposit their creature residue onto a particular location, especially one that has been a place of gatherings? When first encountering the abandoned surroundings of a previously well-used structure, there is a natural inclination to sift through the remaining artifacts or make note of smooth, shiny irregularities of wear, fabricating likely or fantastic scenarios of explanation. But this innocent curiosity is not the totality of the negotiation of promise that is occurring. I projected my own desires onto the remains of another clan’s ceremonial hall. The wreckage granted me permission and also gave me a caved-in mirrored disco ball as a housewarming gift.

I bought it the next week. It was for sale, contract-for-deed. What that means is that as long as your check for the down payment clears and you keep up with the monthly interest and tax payments (almost $6000 a month), the owner will hand you the keys to a building you can’t actually afford and you have two-years to get a successful business up and running and create enough credit to convince a traditional bank to pay the owner off and give you a regular mortgage. If you’re unable to secure the financing after two years, possession of the building reverts to the former owner along with all the money you have already given him as well as any improvements you have made to the building.

My half of the down payment was the entire inheritance my mother had given me in addition to half of the total amount that my secret investor was going to invest. I had not even started a business plan yet, which was apparently necessary according to everyone that liked to tell me what was necessary. I also had no plan for how I would continue to make the monthly interest payments, but the urgency and clarity of the vision I had in my head demanded that I proceed. At the time, it felt very much like the point of no return. I constantly had the sensation I was in a movie, one of those movies where improbable things happen to and for the protagonist toward the climactic fruition of a specific dream.

I would quit my regular, low-wage job the next week. My partner, Patricia would move out of our house three weeks later. My only source of income would be my home equity line, about $40,000. With this, I would be paying my house mortgage and bills, the interest payment on the building, and within a few more weeks, I would be paying my best friend to keep me company in my new haunted, moldy castle. There was no other money in sight yet. I had a very limited understanding of even how much money it would take to rehabilitate this derelict shell into a permissable business. I had a laptop, a cell phone, and an old phone book that I found in the building. At this point, a few of my friends tried to talk me down. I just told them that I had been called by god to open a dyke bar. The part of my brain that could not face my real-life grief and self-hatred made anything reasonable or practical taste terrible.

I am sure there is technical diagnostic language to explain my mental state at that time, something fancier and more precise than merely delusional. Also, traditional psychology is not inclined to encourage uncommon states of consciousness in an otherwise functional cultural participant. The correlation to dangerous outcomes is too unnerving. However, I also believe that finding yourself temporarily unmoored to mundane practicalities can open unexpected conduits between the part of you that has been broken and the place in others that is unsatisfied. Most people, if given the opportunity, would rather not give a fuck about all the things about which they are supposed to give all their fucks. I felt like I surreptitiously locked onto an invisible low-humming frequency that called out to the romantics and the lost. It was like my fairy godmother sobered up for a minute.  I found, at this time, with shocking regularity, that people and things seemed to gravitate toward the success of my unlikely endeavor, usually exactly at the juncture they were necessary.

The day I rode my bike all the way to some office building in St. Louis Park to sign all the building contract documents and get the keys to Pi, the scenery on the path changed. I had left the Shire for sure. The acquisition of the building meant that I could start my liquor license application. The gravity of the financial doom I was now facing certainly compelled me toward the task of writing a business plan. But on the first day in my new broken-down, smelly-ass building, it was just me and Benny. I don’t know where the fuck Gandolf was. It was hard to know where to start. What would be our first task?

The building and I had a new relationship. I was the one who held the keys. My instinct was to let the building know that it had a responsible new caretaker. I also knew we would have to win over our new neighborhood. We were surrounded by other functioning businesses. I think I had even already had a conversation with a proprietor directly behind us, across the alley, that had revealed her extensive concerns about our future patrons uncontrollably urinating all over her parking lot. I also knew that we would eventually need to get formal approval from the Seward Neighborhood Group to advance our liquor license application. My endless teenage hours spent mowing, raking, and detailing my parent’s various suburban yards suddenly unearthed my father’s wax-on, wax-off karate wisdom. The very first thing we did on this leg of our journey was clean the yard.

Pi had a twenty-four space parking lot and a patch of grass out front. The parking lot was full of cracks, through which a prairie had been trying to emerge for the last several years. We spent an entire Minnesota August day clearing weeds, mowing the lawn, and trimming the bushes. I think I might have even purchased weed-killer for the parking lot, a modern evil that my progressive politics had previously prohibited. I remember Benny and I making jokes about our yard work that seemed like an inconsequential gesture toward the tidal wave that was our to-do list. But, if there is anything that growing up in suburbia teaches you, it is that the maintainance of your yard is the foremost indicator of your sense of responsibility and accountability as a neighbor.

When we would later canvas the surrounding businesses and residential areas for support, almost everyone mentioned their appreciation for the new tidiness of our lot. They believed it would discourage suspicious behavior in the neighborhood and showed that we would be responsible and accessible business owners. Thanks mom and dad.

The old Legion smiled on us and liked its new haircut.

 

 

Pi Love, Ch.1 Lost Boy

image

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 was hellu fly.

I was hellu fly.

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.image

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.image

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.

backward baseball cap in the middle.

backward baseball cap in the middle.

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. image        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…