He was one of the honest ones, and there never have been enough of those. “The truth will set me free, but it won’t get me laid,” I once overheard him say. He was standing with a small group of us at the back bar in Gabbie’s in West Hollywood, where we waited for one of the criminally-beautiful, and shirtless, straight bartenders to bring us our drinks. The truth will set me free, but it won’t get me laid. He was right, of course. At that point in his life, few would have anything to do with him, and even a few of those few, if not all of them, probably ended up wondering whether their time with him had been a mistake. We were careful weren’t we? Memories—especially those we are just walking away from—are often blurred by our longing to repeat them and just as often by our desire to forget them.
I didn’t know him well. I was a distant relation, a mere friend of a friend of a friend. Mine were but a pair of what one of his close friends called the “six knees of separation” that made us all kin of one kind or another. I would run in to him from time to time, at the drug store or grocery store, or at a party, where on most of these occasions I would find him in a corner looking out at the crowd over the rim of his Negroni, the only cocktail I ever saw him drink. He never looked lonely or out of place. He never struck me as a wallflower. Instead, he looked as if he wanted to be there, watching the room and the crowd, taking it all in and storing it away for future use, like a spy or novelist.
I first saw him at the Lost & Found, a dance bar in Washington, D.C. This would have been in 1979, the year My Sharona hit number one and murdered disco, starting our beloved disco divas—and many of us—on a downward spiral straight to obscurity. Still, we carried on. The soundtrack may have changed but our story remained the same. We still went to the bars in search of love, but if all we ended up with was a night of dancing, poppers and—fingers crossed—sex, that would have been enough to get us through until the next weekend.
Before the post-Stonewall cruise ship on which we had been so happily sailing struck an iceberg, leaving us all racing for the lifeboats, I would sometimes see him at the Club Baths on O Street. In later years on a different coast, I would see him in the sex clubs that sprang up when the bathhouses were shut down. I would see him in the gym, that place we migrated to in one giant herd to make the outside of us look indestructible, no matter what was going on with the inside of us.
I’m not certain he ever knew my name. If he did he never called me by it. We were never properly introduced, he and I. As certain of that as I am, he might have thought we had been at one time or another. Or maybe he just didn’t think it was necessary, since we had those friends of friends of friends in common and had often ended up in the same places, with the same people, and were therefore in that way intimate with one another and didn’t need a formal introduction when an informal one was obviously sufficient.
When I turned the page of the newspaper this morning and saw his name, the memory of my first sight of him that had been over the years sliding further away rushed back into the realm of the living, like the soul of a recently deceased who wasn’t quite ready, or appropriately dressed, for the pearly gates, and would, thank you very much, come back at a later time.
For some of us who lived in the suburbs, most of Washington, D.C. was unknown to us, particularly if our father was one of those white people who hated black people. My father was one of those white people.
I, on the other hand, loved black people for the fact that they were everything I was not. I loved the black men and women I watched every Saturday afternoon on Soul Train, an hour of devotion that was more my idea of Church than any house of God could ever have been. The only non-black dancer was an Asian woman with straight black hair that fell to below her waist. In later years, I would have called her fabulous, but in the late-1970s I had not yet learned how useful and important that word would become.
In my late-elementary school days, we were taken on the occasional field trip into D.C., to visit the museums, my face pressed against the cold glass of the bus as we crossed over the Potomac River into what to me was something akin to ancient Rome or Greece, since most of the federal government buildings—pointed out to us by the teachers—had been built to mimic the architecture of the past civilizations we had spent so many hours in the classroom studying. I have often wondered if there were other boys on that bus who, like I, imagined our entrance into D.C. as exhilarating as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra entering Rome.
In the museums our teachers made certain to hurry us past the paintings and sculptures that had any amount of exposed flesh, which of course were the very ones I wanted to stop and stare at. I was especially drawn to the paintings with barely-dressed or naked men and the statues with exposed male genitalia that created within me a desire I couldn’t begin to understand, but knew instinctively I would die for if need be.
Later, out of school and old enough to drive, but still too young to get into the bars, my forays into D.C. became not to the museums but to the porn shops on 14th Street, where age didn’t matter and I could buy a pack of cigarettes and, for $3.99, a shrink-wrapped package of three magazines with page after page of naked men. These were not the naked men I had seen in the pages of Playgirl (stolen from the drug store by slipping them into a newspaper) whose cocks, though lovely and enticing, were for the most part soft, and whose asses, again lovely and enticing, were just a pair of sometimes smooth and sometimes hairy cheeks with no hint of that heavenly terrain in between.
Back in my car, I would race home with a cigarette hanging between my lips and a hand on top of the package in the passenger seat, stroking the plastic, wondering what it would be like to have an actual man sitting next to me, my hand between his legs and his between mine. I couldn’t wait to get home where I would lock myself in my bedroom, drop my pants and underwear and rip open the package and look at the pages filled with photographs of naked men having sex, the photo spreads laid out like story boards, simple and to the point: kissing on one page, sucking on the next, fucking on the next, and ending at the moment of truth on the next with a pool of cum in a navel or sprayed into a patch of hair between the pectorals or—and this was the best of them all—shot directly onto a stretched out tongue, a pair of eyes looking up into the camera as if it were me they were hungry for.
It was at this age, barely sixteen, when the wanting to be touched by a man and the wanting to touch one was so intense, so vital it hurt. It hurt more than a stomachache, more than a sore throat, more than a freshly broken bone. It hurt with a pain I would not come to truly understand until decades later when I was in my fifties and knew that I could never have the beautiful young boys who were forever in my line of vision. This was not the pain of heartbreak; that I came to understand at an all too early age. No, this late-in-life pain was something much worse: pure and simple rejection.
Yes, there were boys my own age I wanted who were also growing hair in strange places and emitting body smells that were as intriguing as they were repulsive. The difference between the boys and the men in the magazines, though, was that the boys were obtainable. I could touch them, and did. Not all of them, but a few here and there who were, like me, curious and more than willing to swear not to tell. But it was a man I wanted, not a boy. It was my teachers at school, a couple of my neighbors, even my father and one of my uncles I thought of most when I masturbated. And don’t think for a moment I was the only teenage boy who had these fantasies. Not all those stories we hear about grown men taking advantage of innocent teenage boys are true. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Still, it’s always easier to believe the ones we want to be telling the truth rather than the ones who are actually telling it.
Eventually, I became a man, or at least an eighteen-year-old boy, which made me legal enough to drink beer and to know how to get a fake ID so I could be “legal” enough to drink liquor. I could, finally, walk into the bars in Dupont Circle and the Lost & Found, and the bathhouse, where the bodies were real, not frozen in paintings and sculptures as they were in the museums or in the porn magazines. The men in the bars and bathhouse were alive, pulsing and beating and sweating and bleeding with emotion and sex. I could get close enough to smell them. All that remained was to touch them, taste them, possess them, and, yes, love them.
Which bar I would go to depended on what night of the week I was going out. If it were an after-work weekday outing it would be happy hour at Rascals in Dupont Circle, followed by dinner at the Chesapeake House on 9th Street, N.W., just a few blocks from the F.B.I headquarters, which in 1972 officially became the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building, named after the infamous homosexual F.B.I. director.
There were other bars to go to for happy hour, but it was the clientele at Rascals that appealed to me. I was drawn to men in suits and ties more than I was to men in jeans and T-shirts, and it was the former more than the latter who tended to visit Rascals. Of course, what it came down to in the end was who was paying attention to me, regardless of what he was wearing. The fantasy, though, was important, the suit and tie representing success, meaning they had money. That these suit-and-tiers could be up to their balls in debt was something I never thought of. Debt was my parent’s most talked about problem, but was something I had yet to experience for myself. Some of the men wore wedding bands. Others no doubt had them stashed in pockets. These men—the handsome ones, anyway—intrigued me. I longed to know what they looked like out of the suits and ties (and socks and underwear) and found myself envying their wives the way I had envied the wife of my seventh-grade math teacher: she got to see him naked every day of her life.
What the food at the Chesapeake House lacked in quality was more than made up for by the nude go-go boys who danced along the bar that ran opposite a row of tables in the center of the restaurant and a parallel row of booths against a wall. The dancers had thin, lithe bodies that were neck-to-navel hairless. By the end of their thirty-minute shifts they glistened with sweat, like featherweight prizefighters after ten rounds, except that their faces—every one of them a rival of Ganymede—were without bruises and blood. The hair below the navel and on the legs—and presumably between the buttocks if hair grew there—was matted against skin that was pale as milk on one or two of the boys or tanned to a soft brown—except for the Speedo outline—on one or two of the others.
Theirs was not a striptease act. They hopped on the stage naked, danced naked, and hopped off the stage naked, clutching ones and fives and tens and twenties, and the occasional fifty or hundred, in their fists. For bigger tips they would squat in front of a patron and shake their cock and balls, much to the delight of the patrons at the bar, who were mostly men old enough to be my grandfather. They would stare at the genitals in motion in front of them as if they were being hypnotized, sometimes with a smile, sometimes not; sometimes while they continued to eat, not caring that the odds were high that a pubic hair would fall into their chicken Kiev or grilled salmon. There were signs posted on the walls that read, “Touching the Dancers is Strictly Forbidden,” followed by some municipal code number, but these signs went largely ignored. Testicles were taken hold of and pulled, cocks squeezed and stroked, a finger or two would disappear behind a scrotum, only to reappear and sniffed. I never witnessed an arrest, but did on occasion see a slap on the wrist by a waiter or bartender, usually accompanied by a wink.
Happy hour and dinner with dancing naked boys was a welcomed mid-week respite from my hum-drum existence as an accounts payable clerk, but it was nothing compared to Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at the Lost & Found.
It was a thirty-minute drive from my parent’s house to the Lost & Found. I shared the house with a younger sister and brother. My parents and another younger brother lived in an apartment in a neighboring city where my mother was the apartment complex’s resident manager and my father the complex’s maintenance man. I continued to live in my childhood home because my job didn’t pay enough to afford me my own apartment. I barely managed to pay my car payment and insurance. There were times when I couldn’t afford gas and had to either stay at home or not eat. Most of the time, I chose not to eat.
On any given Friday or Saturday night I would manage to scrounge up a semblance of dinner from what I could find in the refrigerator and eat in front of the television. My sister was usually there with me, nibbling on crackers, sipping a glass of white wine and chain smoking. I rarely saw my brother. He spent most of his time in his room in the basement, drinking six packs of beer purchased with the money he made from his pawning our father’s tools or fishing equipment he pilfered from the shed in the back yard. I didn’t have much in my room in terms of possessions, but I installed a deadbolt lock on the door nonetheless.
After dinner, I would shave, shower, brush my teeth and spend an hour or more trying on clothes while dancing in front of the mirror with Donna Summer or Chic on the record player. I wouldn’t leave my house until eleven o’clock. No one in their right mind got to the Lost & Found before eleven-thirty.
There was a three-dollar cover charge to get into the Lost & Found on Friday and Saturday nights. In exchange I got a ticket good for one cocktail. There were many nights when that one drink would have to last me an entire evening since I didn’t have the cash to buy another and hadn’t been lucky enough to meet someone who offered to buy me a drink. By the end of these nights, my beloved Tom Collins had no resemblance whatsoever to a cocktail and barely passed as sweetened ice water. The cherry at the bottom of the glass looked as lonely as I felt.
It was a Friday night when I first saw That Face at the Lost & Found. I was standing in line, waiting my turn with the one who manned the door in that claustrophobic anteroom just outside the bar’s main room, when That Face burst in from outside and fell directly into the arms of the man standing in line behind me. He and the man fell to the floor. They had fallen in such way that That Face lay across the stranger’s lap like Jesus just down from the cross. It took a few moments for those of who had witnessed his dramatic entrance to understand what had happened and to react accordingly: to go to him and ask. In a loud whisper and to no one in particular, That Face said, “I was mugged! No! I was held up! At gunpoint!” I could see by the looks on the faces around me and from the doubt I felt within myself that none of us were quite certain if we believed him. Some no doubt doubted him because of how he seemed to be confused about whether he had been mugged or held up at gunpoint. Others, myself one of them, refused to believe him simply because we couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to hurt someone so beautiful.
Edisol Wayne Dotson is the author of “Behold the Man: The Hype and Selling of Male Beauty in Media and Culture.” His fiction has appeared in “Forum” and his nonfiction and poetry have appeared in “Art & Understanding.”