Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Gideon Kid, A Radio Store

 

 

The young male: his moody voice, his energy, his athletic prowess, the baseness of his muscles, the hungry hardness of his face, his profusion of hair, his indifference to danger, his willfulness, lack of feeling, deadness. Young males loomed, beckoned, entirely elusive. I couldn’t stand it anymore, had to find out what everyone else knew. I explored Castro Street.

Soon I’d be going away to college in New York City, but I was in such a hurry to find out what everyone else knew that I couldn’t wait a day longer. I was starving and scared. I hadn’t touched or been touched by anyone since Stephen back at Stevenson Elementary. But would I run into acquaintances on these streets? Would the police report me to my parents? I was betraying my Mami and Deddi, wasn’t I? They’d always said I was bad, but I was bad in ways they couldn’t imagine.

I slipped into a bar with wide open doors and sawdust on the floor and ordered a Shirley Temple. A woman in man’s clothes looking the spitting image of Gertrude Stein came up to me and asked why I wasn’t talking to anyone. A tall, emaciated man popped up out of nowhere and said, “You understand this is an S&M bar, don’t you?” I walked out. The next establishment I tried would not let me in because I wasn’t twenty-one. I wandered. Those were the days before the Internet when you could still see lots of physical people in the streets. I sneaked into a third bar and, when no one carded me, I ordered a Roy Rogers and waited for something good to happen. The door opened and a policeman walked in. No one paid attention to him, but I was petrified, so as soon as he’d passed me by, I put down my drink and left. I bought a newspaper and sat in my parents’ car—my unsuspecting parents: it was the first time they’d let me use it on my own—and turned to the personals section and an ad I’d spotted the day before: “Robert Will Massage Men.”  I was determined to find out what everyone else in the world knew, so I wrote down his number and went to a phone booth and called him. I made an appointment for five in the afternoon. “See you later, dude,” he said when he hung up. No one had ever called me “dude” in my life. “Robert” lived on Nob Hill. I rang his buzzer, and after he buzzed me in, I climbed the red-carpeted steps of an upscale building. Who was “Robert”? What would happen? What would he teach me? How would I be different afterward? I rang his doorbell. At first nothing happened. Then I began to make out the sound of chains, or a whole horde of people in chains, slowly, insidiously staggering to the door. I remembered a scene from one of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol I’d seen when I was little: a character in chains, within a mist of dry ice, chains clanging as he opens his mouth to deliver a monstrous rebuke to Ebenezer Scrooge. Now the actual chains of the door were being opened, and the many locks, one by one.  I turned and ran downstairs into the street. I never saw the face of “Robert.” In my rush to flee, I smashed into the car parked behind me. I drove for an hour, lost. I gave up: maybe it would be better to wait until New York City to satisfy my curiosity. In the meantime I decided on a legitimate activity I wouldn’t feel guilty about: I’d go to the movies. Maybe something about Roman history? I loved anything to do with Roman history. I bought a ticket for Caligula, starring Malcolm McDowell.

Caligula: “It took the media by storm”—“No treachery could equal his evil; no evil was more treacherous”—“The emperor who devoured Rome”—“A film that tells the truth as no film ever did.” This might be a vivid history lesson, something to take my mind off my quest to learn what every other human knew. I loved the concept of the Roman Empire and the melodrama of Rome’s fall, was always intrigued—ever since the ninth grade—that the Empire split in two, and after it fell in the West, it survived in the East another thousand years, where it became Greek, Christian, decadent, a mysterious civilization that has left us almost no literature or music . . . Instead of history, I saw things on the screen I had never seen before, mostly revolting, some exquisite and wonderful: I saw a Roman soldier lie back in the bordello ship scene that still disturbs my fantasies; I saw his rough bad-boy face look on impassively as his inflated manhood passed into the mouth of a slutty senator’s wife. Savage music played until the excitement became unbearable (his and mine) and gallons of glue poured out of him, some of it into her mouth, most of it down his brown shaft, the dramatic way wax drapes candles in a breeze. At home, my dog lay curled up asleep on his (and my) security blanket, my mother was busy with her incessant volunteer work for Temple Sherith Israel—she organized weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, and helped run the congregation—while my father dozed in front of the news. I was dirty, wicked. I would be punished.  

 

*  *  *

 

They did not fight violently anymore: they’d settled into a permanent cold war. One night, a few days before I left for college, I stood in the dining room and listened at the door to what they said in the kitchen. “A few innocent phone calls!” my father insisted. “You have no class,” she said. It was worse than their shouting, the slow, soft insinuations, the deadly little threats. She went on (in German), “As long as Alex is still here, I take no action.”

We drove to Santa Cruz one Sunday for no reason other than to get out of the fog of the Sunset District. No one spoke in the car. My mother was—in her proper, buttoned-up way—beginning to die of unhappiness. What did she have left? She had no marriage. We strolled along the boardwalk and without looking at him she said, “Here you can find them cheap.”

I was not sorry to leave my parents that year at the end of August. It was time. I loved our big home, with its many rooms and its spider webs and the sound of gunshots day in, day out, from the rifle range by Lake Merced, but I couldn’t breathe there, not in that atmosphere of deceit and cigarette smoke that stank up every corner of the house. Henry and Vera, both around sixty then, looked their age. With them I spoke English, but a German-accented child English. And I still called them Mami and Deddi. I could never bring myself to say Mom or Dad—that was too American, too masculine. But since it had become awkward for me, at eighteen, to keep saying Mami and Deddi, I usually didn’t address them at all, which hurt them. When I went away on student trips abroad during high school, they had begun to sign letters Mom and Dad, but I could never bring myself to utter those foreign, sacrilegious words, and neither could they.

 

*  *  *

 

I said good-bye to my parents and my grandmother and my dog and I left for New York, for the “intellectual atmosphere” of Columbia.   

I came from San Franzisko (as I spelled and pronounced it around my parents) and felt no freedom there. That night I went down to Greenwich Village and I was free. I was dirty; I would of course be punished for what I was contemplating, but I was free.

New York: I was just a shy, awkward, fawn-like creature flung into the steel immensity of buildings and permanent hysteria of the subway. The city had no soul. It was still late summer and everywhere I felt delicious muggy air envelop me, smelled the discouraging smell of roach spray. In my new living quarters I saw cockroaches scatter every time I turned on a light, and a tipsy roommate came in late to tell me, “Just one more unpleasant thing about New York. You’ll be killing them day and night.” Roach spray, the stink of the subway below, the hundreds, the thousands of gruff strangers who rushed by me, the waves of people, the menace of the slums right around the corner, the monotony of salsa and hip hop and no sky in sight, ever, only endless rows of lighted windows, only brick, steel, ambulance sirens, police sirens with neurotic wailing. In this cage, I found freedom.

I avoided the subway that night and walked all the way from Morningside Heights to Greenwich Village. I slipped into the first bar I could find. It was called The Ninth Circle Steakhouse and I was happy to find out it was no steakhouse.

I’d arrived early, but gradually the place filled up with men. It was a dark room with a big moose head on the wall and a jukebox in the corner. Freedom! I focused on the youngest men. By midnight the Ninth Circle was packed and someone nudged me and pointed to a nondescript man standing alone by the jukebox drinking beer: “That’s Andy Warhol.”

Gideon kid, a radio store—the jukebox song made no sense; it went on and on and I still didn’t understand; what was I hearing or mishearing? Gideon kid, a radio store. A nasal male blabbering as if from far away, with a kind of telephone voice as heard on a radio call-in show, followed by a sassy female singing endless nonsense—but nonsense so catchy that once heard it could never be forgotten: Gideon kid, a radio store. What did all this mean? I wanted my home, my bed, my dog.

Then we found each other. It was an ethnic face, a face with character—he looked like the soldier from the bordello ship scene in Caligula. Maybe Italian? An assertive, arrogant kind of face, and the body of a boxer. Suddenly our eyes met while we were both swigging from our bottles. I wasn’t experienced enough to hold back. I walked up to him and asked, “You go to Columbia?”

“No.”

“I thought I saw you up there.”

“No.”

“You know by any chance what time they close here?”

“No.”

The extreme current of men pushed me against the young man; I felt the solid chest he had.

“What’s your name?”

“Eduardo. We’ll go outside.”

We sat down at the last free candle-lit table in the garden. Eduardo smoked and looked at me—but what were we going to talk about? The hostage crisis? Carter? The election? I began wondering what a life with Eduardo might be like, what it would be like to share meals with him, take in a play, travel with him. I was happy. “A lot of your friends come here?”

“Don’t believe in friends.”

Or, at any rate, the conversation went something like that—those are the highlights. Our talk was, after all, unimportant. He looked at me but he also looked at everyone else who passed through the garden that night. When a table in the corner freed up, we moved there and he put his arm around me. It didn’t seem possible that it was finally happening—so this was what all my peers had learned years before. A little more talk occurred, perhaps, before his face came very close to mine, right in front of mine: “You get voted best eyes in high school?” he said, and then his face was closer than anything or anyone had ever been, and I opened for his mouth: lips, tongue—union. I’d never been this popular, felt the old Alex fall away and someone new, hot, and popular take his place. This stranger was feeding me the new me, and I couldn’t get enough. It seemed so natural to have his tongue and mine together (why had I waited so long?). I tasted the liquor and the cigarettes on him but that did not ruin any of the excitement. Neither of us closed our eyes: it was the strangest and the best view of a human I’d ever had. He’d become a part of me. Wasn’t I a part of him, too? It was so natural, the way our tongues found each other, slid around each other like puppies in the mud. Neither of us could break it off. To know, after all this time, what another mouth tasted like! This was what mouths had really been designed to do; everything else was just a build-up to this act. I became Eduardo and liked it. Where would we go now, to a tropical island? But it wasn’t “we”: I was Eduardo/Alex, the being I’d been born to be. “Stop, in the name of love!”—this song, unlike the other one, had words that made sense; people approved, singing along. While we made out, I felt his hand undo the buttons of my shirt and feel inside. I loved his hand in there and could not ask him to stop, but he broke off: “Wanna go to the Anvil?”

“What’s that?”

“C’mon.”

As we made our way through the crowd, I enjoyed the sight of many men staring at Eduardo. We walked, sometimes stopping to kiss, in West Village streets full of men, though it was almost four a.m.  We walked through the meatpacking district near the river; the area scared me, but Eduardo laughed and told me to trust him that it was safe. We came to a lonely little building raging and thumping and nearly jumping like the climax of a poltergeist movie. Whenever the front door opened, the place raged and thumped even louder. Eduardo paid, our hands were stamped (why?) and we worked our way through a smelly crowd of men drinking, smoking, dancing, and slipping money to the go-go boys. If Eduardo hadn’t made much conversation in the garden of the Ninth Circle, the noise here was going to be even less conducive to it, so I knew to keep quiet. I put my hand in his back pocket while we watched others. I was wondering about our plans, wondering why we hadn’t taken a taxi to his home or mine, but it was too loud and too late to ask anything like that. I noticed the attention he got from the young men; one person in particular was staring: my Eduardo stared back. The person approached and the two began talking—or shouting over the music: “I could fall for you!” the person yelled at Eduardo, who liked what he heard and drew the stranger close to him. Suddenly (every minute I was learning something new in this new world) they were making out. With my hand still in Eduardo’s back pocket, I squeezed to let him know I was there and what about me? The two got closer to each other until it was no longer possible to get any closer without turning into one man. As gently as I could, I withdrew my hand from my friend’s pocket and took a step back. But the crowd was so thick, a press of bodies immediately came through the space I’d left open and before I knew it, I’d lost sight of my friend.

He’d never even asked for my name.

I walked away, walked down the stairs wondering what went on down there in the basement. This was the darkest part of the Anvil but it was packed, the walls lined with males. The bordello ship in Galigula didn’t even come close to the freedom in this dungeon.  I took off my shirt, felt hands over my chest, my nipples, warm hands taking hold of my backside and taking care of my zipper. I was strong now, confident. Through a crack in the wall I made out the first signs of daylight, but it was much too early to leave and why would I ever want to leave? I knew that now, more than half naked, I was the prey of many hands and bodies. Someone gave me a bottle to sniff and I inhaled deeply and soon it was as though I’d been grafted onto the crowd: our brains, our souls, our needs, were all one. I was one with the great machine, devoutly focused on our play, so that the real world dropped away. I tasted lips almost as good as Eduardo’s and nipples meatier than I could ever imagine. I believed I was getting an unbelievably late start in life when it came to basics most people learn in their early teens, so I gave myself permission to dive in, experience all that was offered, experience new kinds of relationships in which males just used males and you never found out or cared who anyone was: these were the fantasy people, just brute clones of an ideal Young Male whose job was to achieve pleasure for himself and maybe someone else along the way, and then take off. I tasted five or six mouths, and after those mouths I tried to make my way toward a boy like me, maybe just out of high school but more rugged than me. I struggled through a network of bodies, and when I finally stood in front of him, he smelled like good saliva and dropped his briefs and I saw something so perfect, so exciting, the sight of it gave me more pain than pleasure. I bent down, thrilled, obedient, so this finally—  . . .  But when I felt for my wallet, it was gone. I pulled up my pants, put my shirt back on, broke away and ran up to the bouncer, explained almost incoherently what had happened. The bouncer put a matchbook in my hand: “Don’t start a fire.” In the basement I lit matches near the floor; I saw boots and shoes stepping slowly, as if the men had reached the last stages of a dance marathon. No luck. I searched all over the floor; I must have ruined the atmosphere for more than a few people. In that wallet I’d still had a check for three thousand dollars payable to Columbia University. And a second check for my everyday expenses. Both gone.

I left the Anvil as the sun was coming up strong over the hot steel city. I could have tried walking home, but I found enough coins in my pocket to afford the subway.

Many on the train were already digging into the bulky Sunday Times. I heard someone say a cheery good-morning even though it was obviously still very late at night for most of us. At Columbia I climbed up the subway stairs still hearing Gideon kid, a radio store and then, exhausted, found my room and collapsed on the bed.  In search of pajamas, I lifted myself up using the last bit of strength left in me and, with the help of a combination and a miniature key, opened up the ancient Samsonite suitcase with its peeling stickers from the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong and the Intercontinental in Paris and the Okura in Tokyo. Tucked into my pajamas, I found a neat note in a lime-green envelope:

 

Alex, my dear,

 We wish that you have the most wonderful College time ahead. Take advantage of just everything that College has to offer and which fits with your studies and or makeup. We hope that you will let us share in your life as much as possible, as you are all we have and love. Walk with pride and think with pride of your home as we are proud of our “Elternhaus” or parent house. And we’re always as close as the phone. God bless you!

                                                                                                Yours loving Mom and Dad

 

 

 

 

Alex M. Frankel is a poet and nonfiction writer currently living in Los Angeles. His reviews appear in every issue of The Antioch Review, and work has also appeared in Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets, Bloom, Blue Lake Review, Cider Press Review, The Comstock Review, Cottonwood, Faultline, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Sanskrit, Talking River, The Temple, and Wordriver, among others. His chapbook, My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black, has recently appeared with Conflux Press, and his book, Birth Mother Mercy, came out at the end of 2013. Frankel’s poetry has been nominated for the Best New Poets and the Best of the Net anthologies. He recently won the Golden Ox Award from Oxford Magazine.