Saturday, October 17, 2009

Outrunning the Express Train

By the time I post this, another anniversary of the day the earth shook will have passed, twenty years in fact. It was October 17, 1989 and at 4:25 pm I'd finally knuckled my way through traffic, jaws tight, much gnashing of teeth, inching across the Bay Bridge to take my daughter to an acting class in San Francisco and then head to the McKesson corporation for a meeting.

I worked in the theater as managing director of a company in Oakland so really was not conscious of the sports mania around me. But almost everyone around else was in baseball heaven around the fact that the Bay Area was having it's own version of New York's subway series, the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants. I just wanted the darn traffic to end so that I could get where I had to go.

After seeing my twelve year old down the stairs of a very large, very solid looking office building, essentially in the basement of the building to her youth acting class, I still managed to be on time for my meeting, about ten minutes away by car. I walked into the office of the program officer for McKesson's foundation, hand extended to say hello and thank her for her time, only to hear a crunching, grinding, deep wrenching sound and discovered that I could not stand up. We both ended on our knees in her office. That was probably the proper place to be given what was happening around us and the devastation not too far away. I suspect we both silently prayed our way through what was the longest fifteen to twenty seconds in my life.

Once the moving stopped, and I could catch my breath, we looked at each other, nothing broken, no blood, and both bolted for the door. As any Californian will tell you, when it begins to shake, head for a doorway. In my ten years in the Bay Area, we'd always managed to make it to the doorway. Always. Now the only thing I wanted to do was to get through the door and down the stairs.

I don't remember anymore which floor we were on. I don't remember the pounding rush down the stairs, it could have been silent for all I know, the only thing I remember is the pounding of my heart. The stairway was dark as the power was out, there were no flashlights, and a ton of humanity with one goal, get out of the building.

When we hit the ground floor and rushed through the front glass doors, still intact, I couldn't figure out why there were so many people who'd gotten no further than a few feet from the building. Then I began to see, bricks and masonry on tops of cars, hoods and trunks, tops of cars bashed in with huge huge chunks of buildings on top, glass all over the street, buildings with yawning gaping holes where things used to be. It was eerily quiet, with the exception of the sirens. I finally understood that this may have been the big one.

I thought of my daughter in the basement of that big, solid looking building and my heart almost stuttered to a stop. I heard someone say something about a fallen span of the Bay Bridge, they heard it from a portable radio someone had. The bridge that my daughter and I been not twenty minutes ago, for almost a full thirty minutes because of the game.

My feet began to move and my brain caught up with them. "Where was my car, were the streets passable, the traffic lights aren't working, will they let me drive, where was my car?" My brain seemed be on a loop, fear, panic, think, fear, panic, think. I opted to walk rather than chance the streets, plus there were bound to be after shocks. I've never walked as fast in my life.

In the days before the ubiquitous use of cell phones we used public pay phones. And they worked. And they weren't vandalized. But I digress. But that day the system was over loaded and no calls were going out nor coming in right then. I couldn't reach her school, nor my husband and sons across the Bay, nor my office. I kept walking, and fear took three steps to my every one.

When I got to her building they'd managed to safely get the kids up the stairs and into an open air parking lot with no wires around, and not enclosed by buildings nearby. You think about these things in earthquake country. When she saw me, she grabbed me by the waist and hung on for dear life. She'd heard about the Bay Bridge but didn't remember if my meeting was in San Francisco or back across the bridge in Oakland. She'd been all but rooted to the same spot since they'd fled up the stairs with the noise of the earth moving around and through them, loud beyond measure seemingly following them, chasing them up and out of the dark to the outside. She was velcroed to me for the next two months. ("Really, I'll be in the bathroom for only five minutes." I'd come out and she'd still be there waiting. This was two weeks afterward.)

Now joined cheek by jowl to each other and not yet sure how much damage had been done, and if our family had survived, we made our way to a restaurant with, miraculously, power and television. There I saw with mine own two eyes the price one pays for living in California. Nothing however prepared me for the collapse of the freeway. It too had been a parking lot that afternoon on our journey across the bridge. And now it was...gone, collapsed, on top of countless people, missing my across the hall neighbor by twenty feet. Twenty feet became the difference between life and death that day as she watched cars right in front of her just drop out of sight amidst a cloud of smoke, dirt, dust, and debris.

My daughter wiped tears from my face, tears that I was unaware were even sliding down my face. So close, we were so close to having been a statistic.

I decided to make our way through the hordes of dazed and stunned people to my car and try to figure out how far north I had to go to find a bridge open to get me back across the bay and then head south home. Just as we stepped outside the restaurant, courage in hand and fear on a tight rein, I saw a colleague, the face of someone I knew. Brian was wending his way surely but very slowly home on foot, I had a highly dubious chance of making it across the bay that evening but I had a car. We got my car, went to his place and spent the evening glued to the television and trying the phone every five minutes until finally around 11 pm, Eureka, a dial tone. Brian graciously allowed me to go first as a woman with a family in harms way.

Undoubtedly my relief was all but palpable when my husband picked up the phone and I learned that he and the boys had made it through okay, that our apartment was fine, we'd sustained almost no damage at all. Now that he'd heard from us, our daughter in school back east could rest and stop calling every fifteen minutes, he could relay that the two of us were safe and sound and had a place to stay.

In those fifteen seconds on my knees in the office I'd prayed and promised. I prayed for the safety of my family and I promised that when the next earthquake came, "God, I won't be here." When I got back to work, after making a pilgrimage to the Cypress Freeway where they were still trying to locate survivors two days later, I announced, "I'm outta here."

What was so amazing to me was that everyone else wasn't saying the same thing. Instead they tried to talk me out of it. I finally explained that for me and mine, living in California is like living on railroad tracks. You know sooner or later that express train is going to come running through, and me, I'm getting out the way, getting off the track. I'm bowing to the superior strength of mother nature.

If it were just me, I'd have done what one woman did. Packed up her car, walked away and left everything else in her apartment with a note on her door, "Take it, it's yours, I'm not coming back."

Ten months almost to the day we left California for Chicago. We'd survived tremors, shakes, minor quakes and shrugged them all off. We'd survived the annual fall fire season. We even survived mud slides where the homes of two neighbors gave into gravity and soaked land and slid down the hill. We'd survived floods in the rainy season. And I said good riddance and good bye without a backward look at some of the most beautiful country God ever created, but I suspect he meant for us to enjoy it, passing through on our way some place else.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Low Down on the Down Low, Southern Style

"I've never had so much gay sex with straight men in my life as I did in Charleston!" His words had my head spinning in complete and utter disbelief. As my blonde friend spoke, his brunette friend vigorously nodded his head in agreement.

At first I thought maybe these two guys were talking about another Charleston, they must have been mistaken. But no, they meant Charleston, first to fire a shot in that war of northern aggression, the site of our nations first rebellion, first to secede, South Carolina, USA.

It was a beautiful glorious day in San Francisco around 1985, the sun was shining, it was warm, and if you've been to San Francisco in the spring you know warmth, spring and northern California are not on speaking terms on even a good summer day. I was giving a ride back across the Bay to a couple of theater colleagues, two gorgeous and very funny young white men who'd just moved back to the Bay Area after two years living and working in Charleston at the Spoleto Festival.

We were having a fabulous time singing along with Sylvester at the top of our lungs, windows rolled down catching the wind as we rolled across the Bay Bridge, the sun seemingly following us on it's way toward Hawaii and no traffic in sight.

Sure there are gay men in the South. I knew that but he explicitly said "straight men." (Even black folks from the big city of New York have stories about music directors, and choir directors in Black churches that everyone just turned a blind eye to and pretended ignorance. "Oh, meet Mr. Black, he's Mr. Gray's roommate.") So no, I didn't know any gay men in the South back then but, certainly there must have been many. It was just that most, no, all of the gay men I knew from the South had left; they'd fled screaming on the first thing smoking out of the South to environs more friendly. And it seemed that all of them had moved to the Castro District in San Francisco in the mid 80s!

"Can you believe it, we had to move back to San Francisco to get a rest." Huh, say what?

"These married men would get up in the morning, put on their suit and tie, kiss little Johnny and Suzy goodbye, buss the wife on the cheek, grab their briefcase, hop in the car, and stop at my house on the way to work for a little topping off before heading to the office. It was fun and exciting at first, but I just couldn't juggle them all anymore. It was just exhausting"

By now I was flabbergasted. All the gay men I knew were, well, openly gay. This was my first glimpse into a subculture of folks who are not just undercover, or in the closet even, but men who are actively passing because they have compartmentalized that part of themselves that likes sex with men. They were gay, I kept insisting. Then they must be bi-sexual? Right?

Very patiently, like trying to explain "blue" to a blind person, they kept saying, "No, not gay, straight, they just like a little diversity." So I had questions, how could this be? Mind you, this was pre-E. Lynn Harris, pre-down low as something that everyone is familiar with, whether you're white or black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay or straight, the down low has now become a part of our lexicon. But it was 1985 and I was being schooled.

After the about fifteen-hundredth time I'd said, "But I don't understand, how this can be going on in the South?" Their response was, "Honey, let me tell you about living in the South. You can do anything in the South that people do in other more "liberal" (fingers as quotation marks) parts of the country. People do drugs, sell drugs, there are bootleggers to get around the laws in "dry counties," (fingers as more quotation marks), people screw their best friend's wives, or husbands, sisters or brothers, fathers rape their daughters, people steal, lie, cheat. You can do anything, just don't put it anyone's face! It's the veneer that's important, not the substance but the surface."

So there you have it! The low down on the down low. It's a southern thing. Well no, not really. But you get my point, the down low is about preserving the surface, the veneer of things, no matter how ugly it may be, how much "stuff" is roiling and boiling underneath, as long as things are civil and serene on the surface, as long we observe proper decorum and demonstrate good manners, it's all good. And that is very Southern.

There's something else that has stayed with me about the ride that day across the Bay Bridge. Within four years of 1985 I lost 22 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 85% of them within a two year period. Sylvester's voice was also stilled. The sheer loss of talent and creativity is incalculable. I don't know but certainly have ample reason to suspect that the two beautiful young men I'd given a ride that day, may also not have survived what felt like a tsunami of death. There were no drug cocktails back then, no one-a- day regimens, getting the result of your tests took two weeks, and though people were dying to get into drug trials, (pun intended) at that point AIDS was a virtual death sentence. So the chances that they made it out of that period alive are not great.

It makes me wonder though, what ever happened to the wives of the husbands in Charleston who needed a little "topping off" on the way to work?