The next weekend, we were off to Rosarito Beach, Mexico – just south of Tijuana and Las Playas. The old Rosarito Beach Hotel was still a hang-out of all the stars and starlets after opening during prohibition, and the grand old lady enjoyed a reputation as provender for all forms of recreation not found in the states. Unlike most of the West Coast and the US, men could room together without question in Mexico. Across the border we weren’t “cousins” or business associates but tourists with American dollars – Mexico was still deep in deep economic depression.
We went to the beach to swim. I enjoyed swimming, but kept hearing kids on the beach hollering “Tiburon!” just to see who would come running out of the waves. I figured out they were hollering “Shark” I just laughed – how big could the sharks be? Then I noticed a taxidermized shark over the front desk in the lobby. It was over twelve feet long.
“Where to dine tonight?” I asked.
“Lobster dinner downstairs.” Russel said.
“Looks awful, and too much work digging the meat out.” I murmured.
Fredrick stepped in, “Let’s go into Tijuana for the evening. I need to check around.”
Dressed casually, we left for Tijuana, coursing the dusty roads and came to Avenida Revolucíon – the main drag. Church bells rang calling people to mass. Lots of activity on the streets. The vendors on the sidewalks were leaving for the day and the next shift of sellers came to their stations - streetwalkers.
Began cruising the sidewalks along the busy thoroughfare. I was appalled – as we strode through the Zona Rosa, there were children. Many indigenous children. Girls, plenty of them and boys – selling themselves. My steps slowed as I looked into their faces. They looked like my sister and me when we were young. Dark, straight hair, big brown eyes, light tan skin. One boy was barefoot, dirty feet, but he looked up at me and gave me a quick, obligatory smile and glanced around, probably looking for his pimp.
I stopped, grabbed Romy’s hand. “These kids – so young.” Concern clouded my face. “Where are their parents?”
Fredrick intervened before Romy could answer me, “I’ll explain later.” He took Romy’s hand out of mine.
Stopping in front of several bistros, Fredrick read the menus and we decided on a rooftop restaurant, upscale and with a view of the street. Food began arriving as we sat down, and the service was superb. Once again, everyone had lobster while I asked for the house specialty and got a plate of a whole sea bass, fresh tortillas, salsa. Incredible food, served with flair and a guitarist played softly, strolling between the tables. We watched the street scene, and sat back enjoying the cool of the evening settling around us.
Fredrick came to sit beside me and put his hand on my thigh, “Leave the kids alone. If you want a boy, we could wind up in jail. There’s money to be made blackmailing you with a boy and harder to get out of down here, everyone and their relatives want a pay-off. If you don’t pay, you’ll face swift justice on the streets. It’s not worth it. If you want a young man, I have phone numbers.”
“But they’re so small – so young.”
“That’s life. They’re feeding their families. Probably all the kids in their homes are working, just like their parents or sold into the trade. The depression hit them harder down here and the government’s even slower.” He said, “Leave them alone. Okay?” He tilted his head and smiled.
Didn’t want a boy, it was my heart that hurt seeing them working, so dirty and looking hungry. Yeah, I was thinking that I could have been that boy but for luck of being born in Oklahoma.
Fredrick got up and walked to the bar on the side of the dining area and struck up a conversation with the barkeep. Spoke in Spanish, I couldn’t understand him.
The image of the boy’s smile stayed in my head, I sat on the patio that night watching the boats passing offshore. Russel and Fredrick had found some kind of “invigorating” pills sold in a botanica and were trying them out. When their moaning and slapping flesh became loud, I shut the patio door and took Romy to bed. He only held me when I told him how it hurt me to see the boy…
The next morning at breakfast, Fredrick told us he had to leave for a few hours, jumped in the car and left us by the pool in our bathing trunks. Men’s bathing trunks were heavy wool, short pants that weighed and pulled themselves down when wet. We sunned; more tourists arrived, several teen girls flitted around Romy while Russel and I watched. Romy was a handsome man, sharp features, masculine, big eyes, wide smile. He had enough of that quickly and we went upstairs to change and walked the tourist shops. Russel and Romy found ceramics they were bartering over.
I wandered outside, standing near a newspaper vendor when I saw a flyer of what looked something like a Vegas showgirl. Underneath, “Muxe.” Never saw that word before. Was Muxe like moxy, mix, what?
Looking more closely, I noticed the flyer had the words “Zapoteca,” and “Oxaca.” Living in LA, I had a little Spanish, I pointed to the flyer where the vendor could see me, “What’s this? Muxe?”
He grinned, and wiggled his hips with his hand behind his head. “Hombre.” He pointed to the photo of the woman.
I pointed to the word “Zapoteca,” and raised my eyebrows.
“Indigino. De Oxaca – Yucatan.” I nodded – Zapotecs were an indigenous tribe living on the east coast of Mexico. Must be a troupe of dancers on tour. Lots of variety in Mexico. To my surprise, the vendor jerked the flyer down and handed it to me. I bought a newspaper from the capital, and one from Tijuana, and carefully tucked the flyer inside. Then the vendor offered me some Tijuana bibles. Only a quarter, I bought two – Maria might like them. Tiny booklets, only about the size of my palm, looked like they might have a short religious story.
Sauntering back to the hotel, we stopped and had our hair trimmed, scalp massages and had bought candies for Toddy’s children. Back at the hotel for lunch. It was one o’clock and Fredrick still wasn’t back. “Should we go look for him?”
“He’ll be back when he’s done.” Upstairs, I showed them my Muxe flyer and the newspapers, then the tiny little “bibles.” I opened one of them – why, how rude! Very blue humor and so funny. We were laughing with surprise and I couldn’t ever show them to a woman much less Maria. They were more like a dirty joke, being only six or eight pages long, but showed famous characters and personalities the US cavorting sexually in raucous, satirical situations.
Scanning through the newspapers in Spanish, it looked like the US paper in most senses. Classifieds, want ads, society columns. I read what I could while Romy and Russel napped in the afternoon sun. Russel was always gentle with Romy. Taking off my clothes, I sat to watch after I turned on the ceiling fan. They made love in their ways, kissing and talking about their pasts, occasionally giggling at their mistaken assumptions and escapades. They fell asleep embraced appearing more like father and son than business men or lovers. That felt like family to see them breathing, close and comfortable with themselves and each other. Wondered if Romy’s father had been as close to him, and knew with certainty I’d never be so close to my dad, but I closed my eyes and sent my father my love.
We napped for a while and put our bathing trunks on at around three, the pool would be in the shade by then, and decided we were hungry. As we headed out, here comes Fredrick, smiling. Romy and Russel went on to the pool. Fredrick pulled me back into our room. “Our lucky day.”
He took me in his arms, kissed me and said he found some security for me, and not to worry about anything. “Really? What do you mean?”
“We’ll talk later. What’s this?” He pointed at the pile of newspapers.
“Seeing what they’re doing down here. Have you ever seen a Muxe?”
“Heard of them…” He looked at the flyer. “Oh, yeah, this is like the cross-dresser shows in San Francisco. Interesting. This tribe has three genders - men, women and muxes…” He sat and read through the flyer, then the newspapers. “Did you check for Jonathan’s name on the list of arrests yet?”
“No, they have that here?” We studied the Tijuana paper for the police blotter, “Tourists are let off if they commit small offenses – maybe a night in jail to sleep it off, but if they cross the line it can be real trouble.” He said.
“Yeah. Changeable line, depending on the crime and the arresting officer. Tricky situation, but I don’t see his name here.” He stood, stretching, “Swim?”
“Nah, I’d rather rest.” We fell asleep together on the bed smelling of Romy and Russel’s nap.
Later we decided to stop in Tijuana at a private club and leave for home. Packed the car, checked out and stayed for dinner. Everyone ate their bugs again and I had seafood stew with hot tortillas.
It was late when we left Rosarito Beach. Fredrick drove us into Tijuana into a seedy area near the river. We went off on foot to a small bar with a sign on the front boasting the silhouette of a naked woman and a burro. “What?” I wondered. Heard about the donkey shows, women and donkeys having sex on stage; the idea was disturbing. Fredrick and Russel seemed to know where they were going as we passed the entrance to the bar and coursed a dim alley. There were sounds all around us, voices, laughter, then it got quiet as we neared the end of the dark passage. Russel gave five knocks on a narrow door.
“Si?” A voice answered softly. Fredrick leaned near the door and said a few words in Spanish. The door opened quickly and we went in to find ourselves in a dim room, filled with men. Were they all queer? Had to wonder, but noticed they were all nicely dressed, most drinking beer dispensed from a short, make-shift bar. The room was stuffy and hot - faces carried a sheen of sweat. Looking closely, I saw a number of the men were Mexican; it seemed, and almost half dressed in American clothing.
We couldn’t find any seats so we stood near the bar; several men close by introduced themselves casually with smiles. I took my coat off, heated with the alcohol and closeness in the room. Heady smells of men sweating, different colognes. Fredrick was talking with the barkeeper as the crowd buzzed. There wasn’t really anything going on until I heard a deep, resounding beat of a drum from the side of the room, it continued for several minutes as the crowd became silent. Then spotlights came on at the end of the room and a man in odd dress came out with the huge drum under his arm. Long plumes of feathers, thin and iridescent waved from his headdress. He wore little other than gold armbands and a bright red loincloth.
The crowd started chanting, “Moo-shay, moo-shay…” Soon, under bright lights and onto a small stage, a figure appeared, looking at the floor with toe pointed. The Muxe!
Long hair, studded with flowers, she lifted her eyes, and gracefully opened her long, golden arms. She wore nothing but a long, traditional full skirt covered with embroidery and ribbons. Her chest was bare, small breasts with tiny dark nipples, she began swaying and glancing at the crowd coyly. Make up, lipstick and big, flashing black eyes. What a beautiful smile. Gracefully she swayed and began a song, I couldn’t understand a word, but I was transfixed with the form of a man-woman, moving with the grace of a ballerina, but in the body of a boy – looked like Romy’s body when I met him. Her voice carried an ancient melody with the drumbeat. The crowd was silent, perfectly still.
The Muxe continued with songs, dancing slowly and as her show continued, her movements became more suggestive, then, she dropped and stepped out of the long skirt to reveal a tight, red satin pair of shorts covering small genitals, clearly defined. Narrow hipped, and with a small, rounded butt, she strutted, leaned and posed. Very graceful and limber. Seems like a lot of the men in the room were rearranging their underwear a number of times during the performance.
Several men approached the stage, mumbling, reaching toward the Muxe. They were bodily removed from near the stage and taken to the back of the room, no real disturbance. I understood their desires, I wanted to touch her skin, too. So alluring, tempting. Fredrick was sweating, had his jacket over his arm, but fumbled around in his breast pocket for a few moments, then approached the stage, smiling at the Muxe. She smiled back. Instead of reaching out toward her, he stuck his business card in the waist of the drummer’s loincloth and nodded. The drummer smiled, nodded and we left. Good thing we did. As we drove off, there was a line of police cars waiting to raid the place. Not sure if it was the donkey show or the Muxe, but I was glad to get out of the super-heated room with my super-heated britches.
On the long drive back to LA, I fell asleep in the back with Romy, head filled with images of that beautiful boy dancing on the stage to an ancient drumbeat.
Ah, Sundays. Had one more day to get ready to get back into the work routine, and I was very grateful. Working hard gave me these opportunities – there was so much in the world I never imagined. I wanted more.
The week after the holidays that year, the Muxe, Justicia came to stay for a few days. Russel and Fredrick were taking her to the North Shore in San Francisco. New clubs and new shows were opening – He’d be a star, I was sure.
Justicia was so beautiful when he came to our house for dinner – same graceful, fluid movements, soft voice. Serafina was agog. Justicia wore his hair in a chignon with a comb and a deep brown shawl over a peasant blouse. Wore a long, gathered skirt and sandals of his people. Justicia was a gorgeous person without makeup or anything extra. As we ate, I noticed him looking around, inspecting things in our home, noting how we spoke and ate.
In the face of young Justicia, I saw myself as I walked into Russel’s house the first time and knew what he was feeling. Silently, I told him to stay strong, stay himself – a native boy with dreams and his feet firmly planted on the earth. Wanted to hug and kiss him, yet I felt his mind was elsewhere.
Work moved along through the months and turned to years with Romy and I solidly in the leadership role and flourishing as we bought more rental properties; our work expanded as the airport grew. Greenhouse was in delivery to the biggest decorators and landscapers up and down the coast and the orders didn’t stop. Work became easier when we learned what was important and what could be taken care of later. More celebrations and family visits, all was working out well. Serafina began working full-time with Toddy and his crew, working the maintenance schedules for him. She took short vacations, taking Ona and Maria to the beach with the children; always with our precious Holmes.
Like Romy predicted, we made it and brought plenty of others alongside us on both coasts.
Romy and I started meeting with Russel and Fredrick at some of the new Long Beach clubs. These clubs were opened and catered to homosexual men, and I suspected some of the men were undercover cops, but the clubs were open, though the sodomy laws were still in effect. Through that time, more lawsuits were filed in Sacramento chipping away the oppressive laws; we kept sending checks.
When the holidays came, I packed gifts for Mom and Dad, everyone in Philly and took it to the post office. Serafina called me into the living room after the phone rang the next Sunday, my dad called. All was going well for him and my family – all working, bought a row house and they were grandparents several more times.
“Have you seen Jonathan lately?” Dad asked.
“No. Has he contacted you?”
“No. Just wondering – your aunt, his mom moved in with us. She’s taking care of your nieces and nephews, but she worries about Jonathan.”
“I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
Maybe my conscience nagged me into it, I went down to the police department the next week and asked about any information on Johnathan McCann. Had to wait almost an hour till one of the captains came out and took me aside. He had a small card in his hand. “Is this your cousin?”
He showed me a very small photo pasted on the card, name: McCann, Jonathan. Seemed he’d been hauled in from San Ysidro several years ago. Hard to recognize him with a six-inch by one-inch black stripe across his forehead, right above his eyebrows, a perfect rectangle.
“What’s the black on his forehead?”
The captain gave me a half-smile, “Tattoo. We did the best we could, but well – we did the best we could. Safety measure. He’s over at the county jail now, I heard.” Then he left.
My curiosity got the best of me, I drove over to the county jail and asked to speak with someone in authority, and was escorted back to hear the strangest tale. A big, uniformed man escorted me to his office – this was becoming more mysterious by the moment. No one said he’d died, or was sick, I wondered what the heck he’d gotten himself into in San Ysidro. Dusty border town right at Tijuana, filled with mostly shops and services for travelers – not a drinking town.
We waited in a small office while a secretary was asked to leave, “Mr. McCann, this is bad news, and it could be worse.” He began with a half-smile explaining the black tattoo. Seems like Jonathan was presented to the customs officials at the border, escorted by several Tijuana police. The Tijuana police said he was causing problems in a certain part of town, alluding to La Zona Rosa, and the Tijuana police found he had from similar charges in the US. Jonathan crossed the line into the street justice in Mexico… They dumped him at San Ysidro with a warning that he’d serve the rest of his life in jail if they caught him in Mexico again.
“Your cousin wasn’t feeling so well, and he – he’d been tattooed.”
“A tattoo doesn’t make you sick, does it? Why a big, black stripe on his forehead?”
“The black stripe is covering another tattoo, and yes, the first tattoo is associated with a medical condition. Your cousin came over the border with the word “Unoco” on his forehead.” He chuckled, “Seems the guy who gave him the tattoo couldn’t spell. We tattooed that black stripe over it.”
I cocked my head, “Unoco?” I tried to figure that out, “Does that mean ‘unique?’”
“Means eunuch.” The officer sighed. “In Spanish it’s spelled ‘E-u-n-u-c-h-o.’ Your cousin was castrated and the tattooist couldn’t spell. I can only guess that the problems he caused across the border were sexually-related. Someone fixed his problem for him. Guess we won’t hear of any more problems from him now – he’s in for twenty-five from some old warrants and some state offenses. We won’t discuss the federal charges...”
“Can I see him?” My stomach was turning thinking of a rough castration and painful tattooing. “His mother is worried.”
“Come back tomorrow morning after eight.”
Jonathan refused to see me, and I found out he was kept in isolation but for meals. I went home and called Mom; we decided to tell everyone he retired in Mexico now more to salvage the family name than anything else. After I hung up, I sent a check to Jonathan’s mom to help out with whatever she needed and went back to work, relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about him for a long time.
At lunch I called Fredrick, seemed like he might have had something to do with Jonathan’s current physical state after the street justice he explained. He only said that there were many ways to protect one’s self. Refused to say any more, “Don’t know anything about it…”
Maria and her husband retired after years with Russel and Fredrick. Shortly thereafter, Russel and Fredrick took their bedroom in the pool house to avoid the stairs. A few housekeepers came and went until Serafina took that situation in hand. The annual parties were smaller affairs with Romy’s and my business associates, a newer, younger wave of entrepreneurs and professionals including several performers. Yep, LA had several more clubs and bars for the brave homosexuals of our area. Long Beach was always popular and attitudes in the society became less rigid as more men and women announced their preferences in public.
Found and began training two new men to take our positions, Fredrick and Russel stayed in the background with advice and counsel. Never required or even suggested exchanges of “appreciation” with the men we mentored, I was more like Toddy – keeping that rare commodity of love closely guarded. Times had changed, at least people could talk about homosexuality without whispering. Affection among men was more open, more relaxed, especially in the bars and we kept our young men by paying them what they were worth.
We all had more than we needed, our families were provided for and the year Toddy’s girl graduated UCLA we partied hard with a house full of college students. Unfortunately, many would be drafted into the military. Another war in Europe was escalating, and it would change our lives and the US forever. Americans had a few years to breathe easily at the tail of the Great Depression yet we were now joining allies to deal with a dictator in Germany.
Again, we wouldn’t know how bad it would become until years later.
Fredrick and Russel often reminisced about the “good ol’ days” when we worked with our young managers. One Sunday afternoon, I loaded everyone in the back seat of my baby blue Cadillac along with our proteges and drove us down to San Diego to show them what Russel and Fredrick pulled us out of before our “good ol’ days” began.
Romy showed them the canyon that burned, the place on Otay where we’d made love for the first time under Orion and with assistance of sardine oil. That brought back memories of living under the open skies and being loved while holding on to our dreams. The young men listened, yet had no context for the poverty and desperation Romy and I had lived. These boys had education, maybe they’d been poor, but from the looks of their bodies, they’d never been hungry. They had good minds for business and new trends – didn’t need the CCC training in leadership, these young men were proud and knew more of the psychology involved with business.
San Diego was a changed town, military and their families, suburbs, none of the old shanty towns remained. We found a place on the beach for dinner and enjoyed the sunset listening to Russel and Fredrick recount our lives for us. As we returned to the car, Fredrick mentioned he’d kept a diary, “Red, leather-bound on the top shelf in my library. Next to the scrapbook.” He whispered.
A diary? Fredrick was like that, keeping all kinds of records and notes, though he was subtle about it and I understood why. Personal information from his diary would be provocative, I was sure of that.
The time was nearing, Romy’s hair was still thick and silver, mine was white. We managed more with words and memos than with being on the sites. Our young men did well.
Fredrick and Russel retired to a quiet life in the pool house, staying close. A nurse came daily. Fredrick pushed Russel in his wheelchair to dine by the pool in the evening, and I watched closely. They were more intimate in their touches, whispered words, and I suspected what would happen; said nothing. When Russel weakened to the point of not being able to arise, it was a few days later we found them embraced on their bed, bodies cold. All of Russel’s pain medications were gone, and so were the loving men who’d taken us under their wing’s years ago. Found it hard to cry, instead I was proud – proud to have given them some peace through their lives and now their passing. They’d lived their half-lives in public and full lives with us inside a discrete compound, shiningly successful and highly-respected.
Following in their footsteps, our young men stepped into leadership roles in the business with much more aplomb than Romy and I had done. Good thing they were there – my parents were older. Romy and I attended their passings from the back of the funeral home so we could stand together – I was a sobbing mess. Several years later, Serafina passed and Romy’s family came for the services. I stayed home though I cried at losing the wonderful woman who’d loved me like her own. Toddy, always a sterling friend stood in for me. He and Ona greeted everyone along with Romy, and took photos for me. Toddy and his family stood beside us till the very end, good friends and their loving children were ours, too. We were “onkies” to them like Russel and Fredrick.
GM stock and Hertz allowed Romy and I to retire and advise from San Diego – got a place on Coronado Island, met a few friends from the Hillcrest area and often went out deep-sea fishing with them. Life was quiet, and it was good with an open horizon every morning, clear skies and sunny days.
Before we moved, I had the good sense to go through everything Russel and Fredrick left. Photos I packed carefully – so many loving memories. Found the scrapbook. There was the photo of me, Romy and Russel on the night I got the roadster, looked red-faced and surprised, newspaper clippings, a lot of people I didn’t know. Found a few odd ivory and brass items and tucked those away till I could find out what they were. Didn’t stop till I found the red, leather-bound diary in Fredrick’s things and carefully tucked it into my suitcase along with the books about sexuality, practices and gender. He had quite the library but none of it included the changes we’d seen in our lives.
As our hair thinned, Romy and I read though Fredrick’s diary at night. When younger, Russel and Fredrick had hobnobbed with the royalty of Los Angeles and almost been outed several times, but they were slick and found ways to get out of their tight spots. Found the details when Russel blackmailed Sepulveda. Seems Russel, ever the entrepreneurial strategist, had become something of a procurer though never demanded an outright finder’s fee he wanted the insurance his procurement brought him. Alongside the names of some of the heads of the biggest government contractors were the names of the young men Russel had sent to them – the honchos had proclivities for youthful bodies. There were almost a hundred names of business owners and politicians in those pages along with the full names of their part-time flings.
A lot of those young men were business owners now as well… No wonder Romy and I had been treated well by so many wealthy Angelinos. Then, it occurred to me that Romy and I had never been introduced or ‘loaned’ to anyone else, in fact, we were kept on short leashes in town, tied to the businesses. That made me recall the “lessons” Fredrick had given to me the first night we met; lessons I hadn’t followed.
There were notes about meeting us; Fredrick had doubts about us being able to manage, but Russel had championed us. Fredrick was the one who wanted to start us out in the manual labor at the airport, testing our perseverance. Then I came to the part where the tides turned. When I suggested the car rental franchise, that seemed to gain respect from Fredrick. When Romy began working the books with Fredrick, he came to fully support us and saw how our different talents and inclinations were working together. We never competed against each other or Fredrick and Russel, I hadn’t noticed that, but it was true.
Toward the back of the diary, I came to several pages involving Jonathan. It began with a recap about Jonathan’s relationship to me and Romy, and our extortion during the job interview. There were a few names mentioned, Spanish names, and Fredrick’s notes included more Spanish words. Encoded, and from what I could gather, Fredrick knew several officers in the Mexican Army – they staffed the checkpoints along the border.
Somehow, Fredrick had put out a reward among the military men and had given them a mugshot of Jonathan, told them he didn’t care where he was found, and explained that he had to be taken to the San Ysidro crossing and offered up as an escaped convict. “Then, let LA handle it.” It made no mention of castration or tattooing, but Fredrick had encouraged the men to make sure he couldn’t bother any women again. Several pages later there was a note regarding the misspelling of the word “eunuco” and something about three-hundred dollars in cash. The LA jail had tried to black-out the word with additional ink, to protect Jonathan, but they couldn’t cover the word entirely.
Wondered how Jonathan was doing – I called the jail and found out he’d hung himself after being assaulted again. No tears, instead relief. His fight with the world was finished. The stinging words of living a half-life waned as I considered Jonathan, he’d lived a very small life, and after reading Fredrick’s diary, I realized half-lives, double-lives, sexual secrets flourished and probably had through all time. Romy and done nothing evil to anyone compared to what I’d read.
After the war in Europe, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and into the Korean and Vietnam battles, Romy and I kept abreast of what was happening in the world, and California – a very different world now.
Pink triangles were a sad, but recycled symbol now in America. Homosexuals were still treated poorly in the general population yet were gaining footholds in society and the word “Pride” seemed to appear with the word “Gay” often. Living half-lives were becoming living three-quarter lives as queers began developing institutions like holy unions and working on marriage equality – still chipping away. There were crimes and violence in gay areas, and there probably always would be, but now homosexuals formed their own security forces to guard their communities until tax-funded policing would occur. Society balked, yet the young homosexuals protested along with the leaders of the gay communities. Sure, some of the families had shunned their young queers, but there were more parents and families in support now than we’d ever seen.
Being older, Romy wanted to return to the church. I felt no need to repent and needed absolution from nothing; I dodged traditional churches he suggested. On a Sunday night he took me to the intersection of North Park and 30th. Old neighborhood, tightly packed with small duplexes and homes built during the Second World War. He parked in a bowling alley across the street and we walked toward a church, well it had a cross in front – two adjoining buildings with red tile roofs. On the top of one, “God is Love,” an ancient sign read.
“C’mon.” Romy prompted me. I was miffed being drawn into this until we went up the steps to the sanctuary. A small brass plaque beside of the door read “Original Foursquare Sanctuary of San Diego…” Sister Aimee’s church! I stepped back to look again. This was one of the first churches she’d established, and all the warm, familiar songs, the music, the stories from the radio came rushing back to me.
“Welcome.” A young woman at the door handed us a bulletin and motioned us through the foyer. We went inside to see a small choir practicing and sat among women, men, all ages – some children and families, older people; looked like people who lived in the area.
“Why are we here?” I was still uncomfortable.
“This place welcomes everyone and I want you with me. If you don’t like it, we’ll leave.” He put his arm on the back of the pew behind me.
My thoughts returned to Sister Aimee. She’d struck out in bad times, long before us. Her followers poured the foundations, raised these walls I sat in the middle of in that moment. She’d given me hope during our times at the camp, reassuring me that there was good in humanity. I recalled how Romy and I had clung to each other for the strength to hold onto our hope – divine intervention that we stayed together to finally find Angelus and it was true, the goodness of humanity had kept us together. A meal here, shower there, a pair of shoes, a little work along our way… No empty words from that Sister Aimee whose work dressed us for the day we met Russel and Fredrick. She had no dribbling pipelines, what she did was real, not an abstract concept or a plan, but food, clothing, and hope. Bounty from others who had enough to share… I felt it around me as these thoughts coursed my mind.
The service started and the organist began playing, soft tunes, like the winds through the canyon, the sea breezes in our ears the first time Romy and I walked the beach together. My mind drifted back to those days …
“Come thou font of every blessing…” The choir began and I knew the font of every blessing – the earth offering up nopales, the hearts of a farm woman and her children, a gas station owner, a Native American tribe, Toddy, Russel and Fredrick, so many hearts were the font of blessings. The sky with rain clouds, precious water, and the wide horizons reminding me of my place on this earth beside my lover – the very heart of the universe had poured out blessings on us. Yes, Romy and I had one heart – pouring back our blessings on those around us. Half-lives? No, we hadn’t lived half-lives at all but were fully incorporated into cycles of life and love around us. It all depended on your situation, your perspective and where you’d come from – we had it all and more to share.
We stood and read, sat and prayed, and my mind wandered back to Angelus, all the people coming for food and clothes, a place to sleep. Jonathan came to mind. All the goodness around him and he couldn’t let go of his desperate need to make people around him feel less than him – it only had the opposite effect. In my mind, I searched through all the blackness of space for his spirit, and couldn’t find it.
As everyone sang the doxology, “…from whom all blessings flow…” Russel and Fredrick came to mind clearly, all their wisdom, their loving ways with little chastising, I thanked them from every molecule of me; their spirits filled me to overflowing as I realized that I’d taught them a lesson about their own love for each other; how precious it was. That church service awakened things inside me I never knew I had – an expansive feeling for earth and all the people on it, and the man beside me; our lives in the flow of all time.
The moments of my first time at the beach came back, “We’re gonna make it – I know we will.”
My heart overflowed with gratitude.
People stood. Smiling Romy took my hand and led me to the fellowship hall. Urns of coffee gave off clouds of steam as the worshippers stood about chatting and selecting a cookie they liked. Children bustled about playing and teasing each other. Men openly hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks; women did too. Others in the room were unperturbed by this, and the open affection in a mixed crowd was new to me for a moment, then I welcomed that unease; this was how the world was supposed to be – people offering each other small blessings. A hug, a brief embrace, a smile, no matter who they were – many kinds of love and love is a rare commodity.
We joined a group of men who were talking about their recent trip to San Francisco, recognizing many of the names of the clubs, and areas claimed by queer folk. I smiled, remembering our first trip to San Francisco. “Do you remember when we first went to San Francisco?” I asked as we left the building.
“Sure. Was I surprised when we were in the Tenderloin. I’d never seen so much out in the open – I was shocked.”
“On the farm we didn’t have names like chuck or brisket, we butchered, and processed the meat, cut it up to dry or smoke… When I first heard the name ‘Tenderloin,’ I thought about you. Still do.” I paused, trying to figure out how to say it, “When I first saw you, so young, so brave… When we bathed by the river and you tickled me and I told you to stop… I’ll admit I wanted you, such a tender young man, smooth, soft skin – your tender loins.” I chuckled.
“I remember that too well. Dang, I was horny, but you shut me down. Didn’t like it, but I accepted it and came to admire your self-control. Respected you for your determination. If you hadn’t stopped things, well, let’s just say our lives would have been very different. We probably wouldn’t be here now.”
He patted my thigh. “My tender loins…” He chuckled. “Only a man with a tender heart could have taken me in and loved me – treated me the way you did. My tenderhearted Dave, these old loins aren’t so tender anymore, but your heart – your heart never changed.”