Jun 172016
 

Water on Cauliflower

The weeds in the garden have been growing, and after several days of hot sun, the tomatoes, cabbages and all the rest need a drink. So after mowing the grass, I pull out the young thistles and the worst of the clover and then hose everything down.

The shower spilling from the nozzle cools the air and coaxes a rainbow from hiding. A river feeds the spigot. Bright beads of water skip and race across waxy cauliflower leaves. I dip my hand in the pattering spray, wipe the back of my neck. Beneath it all, the cracked ground laps up its muddy brew.

The sensible beauty of this moment is astonishing.

 June 17, 2016  Moments Tagged with: ,
Jun 142016
 

I wanted to post “At Pegasus” by Terrance Hayes, another poem about dancing in gay bars, but I can’t make the formatting work. So I’m going to just link to it at Poetry Magazine’s site. (Find it here.)

If I figure out how to post the full text here, I will. Until then:

These men know something
   I used to know.

How could I not find them
   beautiful, the way they dive & spill 
      into each other,

the way the dance floor
   takes them,
      wet & holy in its mouth.

 June 14, 2016  Commonplace Book Tagged with: , ,
Jun 142016
 

AT THE OLD PLACE

Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.
Button’s buddy lips frame “L G T TH O P?”
across the bar. “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s
my soul delight. (Feet! feet!) “Come on!”

Through the streets we skip like swallows.
Howard malingers. (Come on, Howard.) Ashes
malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers.
(Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,
Alvin.) Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.

Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.

(It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s
heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,
and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
on toothpicks. And the interminable intermissions,

we have them. Jack, Earl and Someone drift
guiltily in. “I knew they were gay
the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.
How ashamed they are of us! we hope.

— Frank O’Hara (1955)

(via Andrew Epstein at Locus Solus)

Jun 132016
 

My first gay bar was the Palace Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska. Like me, the Palace lived something of a double life. By day it was a simple old-timey bar and theatre nestled inside Alaskaland, a sad sad tourist attraction that recreated the state’s gold mining past. But Friday nights, at closing time, the Palace would slough off its dead skin and bristle with new life as the various and sundry drinkers and chatterers from the early evening would take off, leaving behind the rest of us, the queer people, all there for the drag show and a late night of dancing.

Palace SaloonI was young, confused, and very much not out when friends first suggested I go to the Palace. They didn’t tell me much about what I’d see, but I remember the show like it was yesterday. One of the queens was a colleague from school, done up with sparkly lips, tall hair and towel holders stuck to the tips of her bust in a parody of nipple rings. She sang and strutted from one end of the stage to the other, magnificent and glorious, and I thought she was too wonderful for words. The other queen was pure realness. Rising up out of a flower in a sequined dress in nude fabric, she danced like a serpent as Fiona Apple’s “First Taste” slowly burned up the speakers. She was named Michelle Star.

My second gay bar was The Castle and it was set off a busy boulevard in a grimy section of Greenville, South Carolina. Friday and Saturday nights were packed. There was music and dancing and often shows. The man who cut my hair was the Grand Dame of the queens, but we had an understanding and never talked about the one world when we were in the other. The vibe of the place was good, my friends made it better, and I met some great people there.

The CastleStill, it was the South in the 90s and sex between men was a felony. So there were problems. By municipal regulation, the bar was a membership club: anyone could join, but once you did, your name was on file. Two police cars were parked outside the entrance, and officers stood on either side of the doors watching as you came and went. For all the community feeling and excitement inside, the bar sat there like a bunker in the darkness. Yes, it offered a place for men to dance and touch and kiss and whatever, but it also provided a focus for surveillance and a potential target for violence. This was the stage on which, newly and only barely out, I practiced being a gay man, and each night before I stepped outside to walk quickly to my car, I pulled out my keys and got them ready in my hand.

Not everyone was like that though. I remember one beautiful young boy who was there every weekend. He danced in the center of the dance floor, and more nights than not, took someone from the bar out to his car, and after a bit, they’d come back. At first I thought this was about drugs, but then one week as I was leaving I saw him down the row of cars in his backseat with a guy and realized that it was not. After this, each time he walked past the cops with someone to his car, I wondered if this would be the time he was set upon and beaten by passerbys and wondered too why (or how) he didn’t think about this.

This threat of violence was even more pronounced at the other gay bar in town, the 621. Or “The Nine,” as a friend (and my self-styled fairy godmother) called it. The Nine was a small, cramped and wretched place set beside the municipal airstrip and notable only for the line of cars and trucks pulled into parking spaces under the shadows of the trees at the back of the lot. Men would come to walk beneath the street lamps in front of the lined up cars. If someone was interested, they’d flash their lights and the guy would get in. I remember seeing this happening the night I got my friends to bring me there and it terrified me. There were no police, and everything happened in darkness. The scene captured my sense of the dangers gay life in the South entailed and I recoiled and hid.

My third gay bar was Unity in Montreal. It was there that I met the Beav and there that I discovered what big city gay life looked like. Standing in the catwalks looking down on the dancers or watching the city from the rooftop, I understood why generations of men had left home and gone to places like New York. I also understood why it would be easy to forget what life was like elsewhere and easy to take the privileges of city life for granted. I fought with friends about this last bit. Sometimes bitterly. But with these fights, I slowly crafted from my sexuality and my memories of life elsewhere, a political sense (and sensibility) that grounded me and made me a better person.

UnityEventually, I learned too that I had been wrong about the extent of the city’s tolerance: in just my first years in the city, a club was raided by the police and the patrons all brought to jail, books and movies ordered from the States were confiscated at the border, and incredibly, straight people’s bachelor parties still involved dressing the groom up as a woman and parading him before “les tapettes” in the village.

Gay bars in Montreal seem to have struggled these past few years. I suppose Grindr and the internet hook-up are part of the problem. The sense in the city that “everywhere is queer and safe and so why go to a gay bar with all those old guys” probably has an effect as well. And yes, my friends and I don’t help at all: when we go to the bars today (and we go barely at all), we spend too much time complaining about how things used to be better. Seen from the other side of the bar, that conversation surely looks like exactly what it is and it is impossible it isn’t a buzz-kill. We should give it a rest, not least because I think we’re wrong.

Recently, I spoke with a young gay man who was on his way out of the closet and had just discovered the bars in the village. His excitement was palpable and as he talked about all of the places he’d checked out and loved, I remembered my own excitement when I found these same places years before. Recognizing myself in him, my prefabricated and ready-at-hand complaints about how things used to be better all dried up and died. The bars mattered to me then. They mattered to him now. So we swapped a few stories about what we’d seen and done at the various places he was exploring. It was a short conversation but a great one.

Gay bars made me who I am. Not completely (obviously) but in important ways. I think they do the same thing for other gay men. They are wonderfully odd and vibrant places that at their best open us up to ourselves, our possibilities and make us into a community. They are easy to judge and nobody can be more vicious about a scene than an older gay man. But like I said earlier, we should give it a rest.

Straight people judge the bars too. Whatever they say aloud, too many people are put off by (and some are even disgusted by) the sex and the sexiness and the drink and the drugs and the queerness of it all, all of it offered in excess and none of it really about them or for them. Which is to say that gay bars are extremely important for queer people but that they are also precarious. Even though more and more people are getting past these reactions and judgments, too many still don’t even try, expecting and requiring instead that queer people shape up and inhabit the few newly available, socially sanctioned spaces they’ve graciously set aside for them. (Monogamous marriage is an example. Michael Warner discusses it and others.)

Obviously, this is on my mind because of the awfulness of what’s happened in Orlando. I’m upset and when I think about the people who died in that club, it reminds me of my own fear when I was young, living in the South, and, after a joyous night with people like me, having to step across the threshold and back into the dangerous world waiting outside. The shooting makes me angry because this Orlando club was like all gay bars everywhere in the States: it was always already a target.

That’s wrong.

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 June 13, 2016  Reflections Tagged with: ,
Jun 112016
 

happy-together-affiche1I love Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and have since first seeing it in the late 90s. I rewatched it recently, and it’s as beautiful as ever, but my reactions to it’s drama now were very different than they were then.

Circa 1999, I watched two men caught in a relationship they couldn’t find a way out of and I judged them for not making changes, for not doing whatever was required to get them out of their awful situation. When Leslie Cheung repeated his line about starting over, I remember thinking something like “you idiot, don’t you realize that you can’t start over?” and being frustrated that they both kept giving it a try. I remember believing that the late arrival of the young traveller Chang offered a way for Tony Leung’s character to love someone else. I remember believing too that even if it didn’t last, Chang could teach Leung to be happy if he would let himself be pulled up out of the darkness and begin to look at things clearly.

Older now and with some scars to show for it, “We can start again” feels different to me than it did then. I think we love the people we love. Sometimes they change; often they don’t. And mostly I think that what I called “seeing things clearly” at 27 was a way of ignoring the various difficult things-themselves that I simply wasn’t equipped to acknowledge, much less deal with. Like what people will fight for when they find themselves lonely and far from home and there is no easy way back.

Watching the film again now, I also felt more strongly than ever the constrained possibilities of the location these men’s drama unfolds within. They are caught fast and fighting to live and that manifests as fighting with each other.

All of this was as moving as ever, even if the movie felt unsettlingly different this time around.

IMG_0815

ps–This is the film where I found myself lost irremediably to the charms of Tony Leung

 June 11, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Jun 112016
 

How I Live NowI don’t know the book but I’d heard good things about this movie. So I was surprised how thin I found it.

The fact I can’t decide if I care about the two lead characters is part of the problem. The brother (played by Tom Holland) who dies? The youngest sister who is constantly tagging along? These I care about. But the main two? I just don’t know.

Jun 052016
 

Ex MachinaA small sci-fi film (it’s scale reminded me of Moon) that I enjoyed. Two things surprised me as I watched.

First, technical intellect and intellectual analysis are fundamental to the narrative situation insofar as they are assumed to underpin the possibility of AI in a near-future sci-fi. Yet, the story  itself pushes away from intellect and analysis, imagining a very cramped, “dude”-like notion of emotional life and placing that emotional experience at the center of the characters’ interactions. This is a nice magician’s trick: it makes asking for technical explanations of story events—explanations which would risk breaking the illusion supporting the fiction—a sign of a character not being up to speed intellectually.

Second, unless I’m missing something, the definition of AI offered by the film doesn’t depend so much on consciousness as it does on demonstrating enough autonomy to have become dangerous. This was unsettling. I guess I watched Short Circuit enough times as a child to have internalized a different expectation of a thinking machine.