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The Gulf Oil station at the corner of Drew and NE Cleveland Streets was engaged in continuous warfare. The cheaper of its two grades of gas was $.23 a gallon. The price had been higher earlier. Every so often, one station around town would drop its prices, and the others would have to follow suit, beginning a spiral that bottomed out about where the price was now. Then, prices would gradually rise until they reached the normal and outrageous $.28 a gallon.
Two weeks ago, our family had moved from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the Gulf Coast of Florida, where I would start first grade in the fall at North Ward Elementary School.
We were living in a house on the edge of the Country Club district with north-south streets mostly named for dead Presidents or generals of the Continental Army.
I’d already met a friend: Settle. His dad was a radiologist and my mother, a board-certified pediatrician, was a new ER doctor at Morton F. Plant Hospital; that's how we met. His first name was William, but his family called him by his middle name because his father was also William, or Bill. He would become my best friend until the incident eight years later when we were fourteen.
Mom liked ER work because of the set schedule, and she did not have hospital rounds or patients calling the house at all hours. She could have had a more lucrative practice, but she had a kid to raise, which was easier on a set schedule. The head of the ER group was thrilled to have a pediatrician in the ER.
I was exploring my new environs — the houses, the yards, the businesses — having walked south on Madison Avenue across Jackson Road and up to Drew Street. The yards of all the houses I passed were flat after a sharp slope up from the sidewalk, necessitating a set of four steps at the beginning of the paved walkways to their porches. The houses were all Florida-style, with verandas wrapping two or three sides and large windows to admit the warm air of the summer along with what little cool air might be available, mostly before afternoon thunderstorms. Live oaks, palms, and magnolias populated the yards along with a few citrus trees.
I was busy looking at the small businesses that lined NE Cleveland Street, a diagonal that ran south from Drew toward Cleveland Street; it was SR-60 in town, a main east-west arterial through the little city.
Ahead I saw an old black man approaching me, his white hair contrasting with his rich, ebony skin. When I walked to within twenty feet of him, I started to greet him, but he stepped off the sidewalk into the street and waited, head down, until I had passed. Looking over my shoulder, I saw him step back onto the sidewalk and continue his halting walk. In the few minutes of that encounter, my world changed, a permanent part of me formed, and questions about what I had just experienced seized me with a lifelong grip. I crossed the lightly travelled street and made a distracted walk home.
When I walked through the front door, my mother was reading a medical journal. She looked up and saw the confusion on my face. "What happened?"
"I don't know." Then, I described my encounter.
"Well, boy, you're seeing the worst of how people treat one another."
"I didn't treat him any way; I just walked by."
She and I had the first of the three "big" parental talks in my life — racism/bigotry, sex, and alcoholism.
* * * * *
Coming home from an afternoon of playing with Settle and another friend, I walked into the house to find my mother and father waiting for me in the living room with grim expressions. In the next five minutes, the world changed again. I had no concept of divorce, and I ran from the house in tears.
At that time, I wasn’t able to realize how hard my mother had worked to protect me from my father when he was drinking or how long she had waited for him to get help before she decided that the situation had become too dangerous for me. When I returned an hour later, he was nowhere. I would see him only three more times in my life. I knew the disaster was my fault. Why else would he leave? I knew it couldn't be my mother's fault.
Six years later, when I was fourteen, I finally learned what she had been through, and in the intervening years, she crooned a constant song in my ear: this isn't your fault. The fault, if fault exists, is with me and your father. You deserve all the love two parents should give. Through the bitter years when she castigated him in private to others for failing to be a father to me, she never belittled him to me.
The divorce was something I couldn't talk with Settle or anyone else about. Until I met the Old Man, no one could touch this wound, and I became fiercely protective of the victimized.
* * * * *
I was now reading Shakespeare — and questionable paperbacks by Ian Fleming — and I had met the Old Man. One passage in From Russia, With Love described the hero's sensation when the hard nipple of a woman pressed into his palm; it was the beginning of my lifelong love of turgid body parts. I was on my way to thinking for myself. Love, fucking, masturbation, pregnancy, acne, penile and other body changes, menstruation, and the secrets of the female heart — became talk Number 2, and from a protofeminist, at that.
"Okay then, how come I get hard when I think of boys, too?"
"Boys your age get hard when the wind changes direction. Who do you think about when you masturbate — girls or boys?"
"Either . . . both."
"Boy, you are a complicated soul. As far as I can tell, you don't get to pick the objects of your desire."
"I think that whoever arouses you is built into you. But you should be very careful about telling anyone else about this. The current medical consensus is that homosexuality is a sickness and that bisexuality doesn't exist." At eleven, I now had a name for my complication. "A lot of experts think that boys who don't have a strong father and have a strong mother become homosexual."
"No, and I'm a pediatrician." She laughed, concluding, "All physicians think they are experts, me included. Look, do you think that Daniel struggles because he is black or because the people around him treat him as if he were inferior?"
I had met Daniel some weeks earlier at an enrichment program for black kids run by an old socialite from New York. He was my age. On weekends, my mother and some schoolteachers worked with the kids on basic reading and math skills, and I just hung out. Along with Settle, Daniel was my best friend.
I answered: "Because white people think he's less than they are?"
"Yes. I think it's like that for homosexuals, too."
"But I do think of sex with girls — a lot."
"Exactly. You don't fit the model, but for many people, the fact that you think of sex with boys is all they will see, just as all some people see is Daniel's skin color. But, you'll find friends who see you for what you are — at heart, a good person. You need to be very careful, even if all you're doing now is thinking about sex with other people."
I had no idea that all boys didn't have talks such as this one with their mothers, although later in life I laughed at the thought of Settle's mother talking with him about sex.
Daniel wasn't a classmate, because he went to the only secondary school in town for black kids. He and I shared meals at each other's homes, though I never clearly understood the courage he showed by venturing into my neighborhood, where many of our neighbors were staunch segregationists. I have to admit that his mother was a much better cook than mine.
Neither Settle nor Daniel ever included the other in their little cliques. In fact, Settle couldn't understand my friendship with Daniel at all, but since I didn't want to subject Daniel to unpleasantness, I never forced the issue by including both of them in the same activities. I didn't mind telling Settle that his parents' ideas about race were a crock of shit. Settle's parents interpreted my friendship with Daniel as charity and thus barely acceptable, but Settle knew better. The watershed was to be a year away.
* * * * *
When we had gassed up yesterday on the way to church, gas at the Gulf Oil Station had risen to $.31 a gallon — inflation of three cents a gallon in the eight years we had lived in Clearwater.
I was in a decided minority. Sitting in the pew at the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in the northwest corner of town, my face was a pale moon in a dark firmament. Listening to Rev. Davis's sermon was nothing like hearing the droning homilies in the Episcopal Church I usually attended when I attended at all. Here people talked back to the pastor, shouting encouragement and agreement with rumbling "amens" and "that's rights." Mr. Davis's sermon was a performance; he drew the congregation steadily toward an emotional connection with worship.
The music was tinged with a deep connection to suffering, as well, and not at all like the sedate and controlled choir of Anglicans I was used to hearing. My discomfort with this freedom of emotion and its expression surprised me a bit, but then, I was always contained. I was learning from a Buddhist teacher, the Old Man, and gravitating to silence as my sacrament. Yet, the feeling in the small, crowded, hot church wasn't oppressive. I sat next to Daniel.
After the service, Daniel and I greeted the pastor on the church steps and then walked to his house. I never felt unsafe in Daniel's neighborhood, and the people who lived around him always made me feel welcome. Once we relaxed around each other, we behaved as other eighth-grade boys behaved.
Anyone who tells you that eighth-grade boys can't detect sexual tension is a damned liar. In my case, I felt it with boys and girls, and I felt it with Daniel. Two years into our acquaintance of three years, he and I had become familiar enough that he had shyly asked if he could touch my blond hair and my arm.
"Hmmm, not much different than mine, except the color," he said about my skin, smiling. About my hair, he commented, "Now, that's different."
I had then touched his arm and felt the tight curls on his head — not wiry, but soft and, I thought, lovely. I wasn't brave enough to share with him that when I had touched him I got hard.
I could see even through his clothing that he had a lean and muscular body, but social norms about same-sex attraction were becoming very clear to me, especially those of his community and church. We did talk about girls who interested us. He never hinted that he found any white girls attractive, while I told him that I thought a couple of the girls I saw around his neighborhood were. He seemed genuinely abashed, but the politics and history of white men relating to black women were unknown to me.
We both loved baseball and spent a lot of time on the street in front of his house playing catch. Other times, we lay on the grass in his back yard and talked of the future. I thought Daniel very bright, and I shared books with him as he shared with me music his father bought on trips to New York — jazz, and I mean Bop, and the beginnings of modern jazz. His gift to me was far more valuable than anything I gave him. Still, I was haunted by that first touch and always have been.
* * * * *
The price of gasoline at the corner of Drew and NE Cleveland was still $.31 a gallon, and it was the year that the friendship between Settle and me ended.
A little talk with him during our ninth-grade year began the most rewarding and disheartening year of my life. Because I had known him as long as I had and we shared most of our secrets with each other, I thought that sharing the big secret would be safe. Settle and I were both athletes; he played football, and I was on the swimming team. He had a great body, but he had become a brother, and I never thought about having sex with him.
He had come by an 8 mm black-and-white film called "Happy Feet," featuring a not-unattractive man and woman having oral sex and fucking. Afternoons when his father was at the hospital and his mother was out socializing, we would watch the film in his room and beat off. We never touched each other, although we looked at each other a lot. I was smaller in stature and had a bigger penis, and I think Settle found my dick interesting from a competitive point of view. We were both finding our way to the joys of sharing orgasms with another person. I did notice that after we shot, Settle seemed uncomfortable, while I was just happy.
One Saturday afternoon, we had returned from a tune-up run and had flopped in his back yard. I took the chance. He didn't react well, at all. He never really spoke to me again, and by the time school ended the next Monday, a lot of people treated me differently. My mother had been right — bisexuality didn't exist in most of my schoolmates' views, so I must be queer. The vote was almost fifty-fifty between those who believed Settle and those who didn't. I was at least smart enough when asked to point out that I had gone out with a more than a few girls and to suggest that people could check with any of them. Because I really did like girls that way, the reports from those quarters cast doubt on Settle's narrative. I never denied my attraction to boys, but I never proclaimed the desire, either.
I had been practicing with Old Man, Abe (pronounced Ah-bay) Sensei, for five years, and when the local purity bullies decided to make an example of me, the encounter didn't go well for them. That episode cast more doubt on Settle's revelation, because, after all, queers can't fight. By the end of the school year, I had girlfriends and had begun a succession of encounters with boys who mostly were curious or wanted to get head, an act unthinkable from their girlfriends. My policy of quid pro quo for any acts with boys assured that those relationships stayed private and friendly. Oddly, my lack of shame at having sex with other boys seemed to put many of them at ease.
I formed a more steady relationship and lasting friendship with one of my workout partners at the dojo. Then a little later, I met John, the first boy with whom I was in love. He was a tortured Catholic who, while gentle and thoroughly queer, never reconciled his sexuality with his family's religion and who barely abided the thought that I liked girls. We remained friends for life, though, even after I married a girl.
That ninth-grade year gave me a slight taste of the prejudice Daniel must have felt his whole life.
* * * * *
I had a driver’s license and a two-year-old, red, 1965 Mustang with a black-vinyl roof — the small 265 cc V8, not the 280, and gas was $.35 a gallon. A couple of bucks worth of gas could still take you some place, assuming you had a couple of bucks. Mom and I were now living at a house on the north end of Clearwater Beach. The same year as my Mustang was born, Lyndon Johnson had pushed the Civil Rights Act through a Democrat-controlled Congress, unwittingly setting the stage for the Southern revolt and a dismal political future. A black cop in our county promptly sued the school board, which was dragging its feet at integrating the school system. Daniel still toiled away at the all-black high school in the north end of our county, and as the civil-rights movement and the Viet Nam war cranked up, we drifted apart. I think Daniel's friends didn't think having a white friend was a good idea. I missed seeing him regularly.
The moderate members of the school board saw the point to which history was steadily tending and stepped up their attempts at gradual integration. The big news at Clearwater High my senior year was the presence of its first black teacher, Joseph Freeman. I was at once relieved that the step had been taken and concerned for how the man would be treated. I hoped to be assigned to one of his Social Studies sections but wasn't. Trish O'Hara, who had a crush on me, but whom I didn't fancy, brought us together.
At the time, I didn't know why this man was chosen, but I think I do now. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a rare Ivy Leaguer in our little berg. He was tall, slender, and dressed impeccably. Most important, I think, he spoke without a drawl or a lapse into what would become known as Black English. He was engaging, fearless, and handsome. He read widely and was cultured in a way that the rest of the Social Studies faculty wasn't. He loved jazz.
Trish asked me to come and meet him after school one day. She told me I could help resolve an issue with a paper she had handed in to him.
"I cited you, and he wants to meet you."
"You know, I quoted you, and you appear in a footnote."
"You can't do that."
"He liked the quote. He just wants to meet you, since it hasn't been published."
"Great! Just great!"
Leaning back, ass against his desk, Mr. Freeman was finishing a discussion with a member of the varsity football team. Freeman had a slightly amused look as he explained gently and directly that the world didn't turn on the football schedule and that grades in his classes were based on performance in the classroom not on the football field. A none-too-happy jock brushed by us on his way out.
"Miss O'Hara. This must be your expert."
I walked to him, my hand extended. "Richard, sir."
"They call me Mister Freeman," he said, his eyes smiling.
I laughed because he did resemble Poitier a little and because he assumed I would catch the reference. He handed me Trish's paper opened to the quotation and the citation. "So, are these your words?"
I winced a little reading them; they were rather pompous. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"Okay. I do check citations in student papers, and this is the only way I could check this one." He put the paper down, and the three of us talked a bit about the subject of Trish's paper. On the way out of the classroom I wondered where this guy came from, and I worried a bit that he seemed to see me clearly. I supposed that he would have to be very careful in dealing with students. I wanted to know him more closely.
We talked two or three times a week after school in his classroom. I told him about my waning friendship with Daniel (leaving out the erotic attraction). He mused about how male friendships seemed either to last forever or fade over a few years. "Men have a hard time with friendships that don't support one another's illusions," he said one afternoon. I didn't then understand what he meant. We talked about what I was reading and listening to. He loaned me LPs of Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and Nina Simone. For graduation, he gave me a copy of Bernard Malamud's The Natural because I had told him that Daniel and I enjoyed baseball.
I'm not certain that I was as contained as I thought. The Old Man had told me that my attraction to boys wasn't the end of the world, and he had become the most important male influence in my life.
Over the summer, I visited Joseph in his small home off Grove Street. One day as I was leaving, Joseph handed me a copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room. Eventually, reading that book would lead me to the rest of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes.
My mother simply raised her eyebrows when she saw the book as I returned to my home. "Anything you need to tell me?"
The question wasn't in the least accusatory. Since I hadn't started the book, I didn't understand the motivation for her question. "No," I replied, I'm sure, clearly bewildered. My bewilderment seemed to mollify her. I read through the night in my bedroom with the off-and-mostly-on signal of WLS AM radio playing in the background. Each hour brought more confusion and anger. Did he think that I should be ashamed? Did he think that someone like me couldn't love anyone, man or woman? I looked about my mostly neat room. Did he think that I lived in the squalor of Giovanni's room, that my life was a dirty room?
I read: "We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened, I am sure he was frightened, too, and we shut our eyes." The description of David's first sex with another boy. Did he imagine my exercises with other jocks and think that we were frightened, that I was frightened? What was there to frighten me in the joyful exercises of passion, if not of love? Besides, my room was clean.
Up and down my anxiety went. I read: "Somebody," said Jacques, "your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour - and in the oddest places! - for the lack of it." Joseph knew I had no father. Was he warning me that people like me would always lack love? I was stunned by what I thought the cruelty of the suggestion.
The next morning, after breakfast, I went to Joseph's little house, book in hand, without calling first. I wasn't concerned about being rude or interrupting anything. Before he could greet me, I almost screamed, "What the fuck? Is this what you think?"
"Come in. Sit down and take a breath. I see that Brother Baldwin made an impression." I sat on the plain couch, almost vibrating. "Now, what do you think I think?"
"That I'm . . . queer and that I hate myself."
"I don't know if you're homosexual, but I don't think you hate yourself. Why do you think Baldwin wrote his character that way?"
"Because he thought homosexuality was dangerous . . . dirty."
"Baldwin is queer, and he doesn't hate himself, at least not when I last talked with him."
"Oh . . . but why did you give me this?"
"I don't want to pry, but I saw the way you looked at some of the boys at school. I wanted you to think about being different and the messages people who are different get."
"Are you . . . ?
"Considering that you must have read that," pointing to the book, "overnight, I suppose that's a fair question. No, I'm heterosexual, although a lot of people take me for queer, and I'm not offended if they do. You feel like sharing?"
"Well, my mom describes me as bisexual."
"Yeah. I find girls very attractive — but boys, also."
"I'd like to meet your mother."
"Okay. Now I know what she meant last night."
"What she meant?"
"When I came home with the book, she asked if I had anything to tell her."
"I had no idea that your mother would be familiar with Baldwin."
"Oh, crap, she must think you and I might be . . ."
"I hope you'll tell her we're not! Your answer to my question about why Baldwin wrote David the way he did is wrong. The secret to David's deep uncertainty about his ability to love and his confusion about sex is his relationship to his father. I know your father isn't at home, and I wanted you to think about how men learn about how to love, whether they're queer or not. I must admit that I thought you might prefer boys. You need to read the book again."
As I was agreeing to do that, a soft knock at his front door interrupted our discussion. He answered the knock and ushered a pretty and very white woman into the room. "This is Rebecca, Richard."
"Oh, you're the one your classmates are citing in their papers."
I looked at Joseph. "You had to tell that story?"
"I told you, it's never happened to me before."
"I'm sorry I barged in." I knew that Rebecca would soon know all about the conclusion I had drawn after reading the book and thus about my sexuality, but I thought it would be nice to have more friends who knew. I also realized that Joseph had an additional problem. Not only was he desegregating the high-school faculty, but also apparently, he was involved with a white woman.
Later, as I thought about him, I realized that he must have spent time in New York, and that maybe there his relationship with Rebecca wouldn't have been such a problem. I reread the book over the next week. This is what I most strongly remember reading: "People can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life."
* * * * *
By the end of 1973, the price of gasoline had risen to $.39 a gallon. I was completing graduate work on T. S. Eliot with Professor J. Bentley.
I was hopelessly lodged between New Criticism and the coming locomotive of post-modernism. Along with Elizabeth Drew, I was trying to find analogs between "The Wasteland" and C. G. Jung's work. When I walked in the door of our apartment, Ann was on the sofa crying. This was the first time I had seen the woman I loved deeply bereft. "What . . .?"
"They killed him."
I nearly collapsed. "What do you mean?"
"Someone beat him to death near his house."
The crime was the end of a long line of lynchings stretching back to just after the Civil War, though no rope was involved. I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
Among my keepsakes of Mr. Freeman is a black and white photograph taken on Parents Night the first year he taught in my high-school. The photo is shot from behind, and you can't see his face as he looked out on the mob of unsmiling white faces.
In the end, my anger had no resolution. His killers were never caught. To this day, the anger has not abated. Mister Freeman wasn't a symbol of anything to me. He was a teacher and a man who wanted to be sure that I never had to live in Giovanni's room.