Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Philadelphia for Tourists

Though growing up in Philadelphia felt claustrophobic, I have a newfound appreciation for it having returned to live there (part time) 20 years later. Following are some of my opinions as an insider/outsider.

Contrary to many people’s image, it’s a beautiful city - well, certain parts of it. And that’s the key. It has a split personality perfectly summarized by the nickname “Bostroit”. It is about the size of Boston and Detroit combined and has a historic city center with educated, affluent professionals surrounded by neighborhoods that are the epitome of urban blight.

Center City Philadelphia (the original city laid out by William Penn in 1683) has beautiful colonial and 19th century architecture, quaint cobblestone streets, great museums and restaurants and an urban density that makes it one of the most walkable cities in America.

However, it is surrounded by some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in America. Which is the image that tends to be displayed in the media – Killadelphia, the murder capital of the United States.

The average tourist never sees Killadelphia. The hotels, historical sights, museums and nightlife are all in Center City. You can spend a weekend at a Center City hotel and walk everywhere you want to go and never see the murder capital of the United States. The only hint of the poverty, despair and urban blight for which Philadelphia is known is the occasional aggressive panhandler or cracked out homeless person on the street.

It makes for an excellent weekend trip (and a week may be a little too much). The best way to experience it is just walking around. Yeah, you should go to the museum(s) and maybe take a tour of Independence Hall. But the joy of Philly is its streetscapes and architecture as well as its restaurants and nightlife. Walk all day, eat a nice brunch and dinner and have a few drinks.

Center City is generally considered the area between the Delaware River (Front St, equivalent to 1st Street) and the Schuylkill River and Spring Garden and South St.

Society Hill
The essence of Philadelphia, home of most of the historical sites, and the oldest (preserved) section of Philadelphia. The main tourist area (including Independence Hall) is Chestnut to Walnut from Front to 6th St. The nicer area, in my opinion, is between Walnut and South. Its like a living, breathing Colonial Williamsburg and is much less touristy. Possibly the nicest section of Philadelphia, it has beautiful blocks and alleyways filled with well preserved colonial homes. Perfect for an afternoon stroll.
– Chestnut to South St. from Front (1st) to 6th St.

Old City
Old City is considered the “Soho” of Philly. The title is a little misleading since this area tends to have later 19th century architecture (with the exception of Elfreths Alley, the oldest residential street in America and the early 18th century Christ Church). Art galleries and furniture stores abound. It is also a (straight) nightlife hub on 2nd and 3rd Streets just south of Market.
– Chestnut to Vine St. from Front to 6th St.

Rittenhouse Square
Centered around the Square itself, this area contains grand 19th century architecture, high end restaurants and shopping. Generally considered the most exclusive section of Philadelphia. My favorite stroll is Delancey Place between 17th and 21st Street, a quiet street of elegant townhouses. Walnut Street between 15th and 18th has the best (and most expensive) restaurants and shopping in Philadelphia.
– Chestnut to South St. from Broad St to the Schuylkill River

Art Museum
Benjamin Franklin Parkway, designed in the early 20th century as a grande boulevard, leads from City Hall to the Art Museum. A wide street with fountains and museums but without restaurants or shopping. While the “Art Museum” area is north of the Parkway and contains 19th century townhouses (newer and less grand than Rittenhouse Square), more worthwhile is Boathouse Row and the beginning of Fairmount Park on the other side of the Art Museum.
-Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Fairmount Ave, Broad St to the Schuylkill River

Washington Square West / Gayborhood
The best combination of quaint streets, restaurants and nightlife. Though it is the gayborhood, it has a lot of straight nightlife and restaurants and is increasingly an alternative to the hyper-straight Old City or high-end Rittenhouse Square (similar to Dupont Circle in Washington).
- Chestnut to South St from 8th St to Broad St

Avenue of the Arts
A nickname for Broad Street south of City Hall (the dividing line between Washington Square West and Rittenhouse Square), it contains the Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music and various theaters.
-Broad St from Market to South St

Other neighborhoods:
There is a lot more to see in Philadelphia if you have more than a weekend. Some interesting areas bordering Center City which are gentrifying, thanks to the real estate boom and increased interest in urban living, include:

University City - 30th St. to 40th St.
home to University of Pennsylvania and Drexel

Queens Village/South Philly - south of South St, east of Broad St.
the Italian Market (grocers market and Italian food) and Pats/Genos (not the best but the most popular cheesesteaks) are both on 9th Street. There are also some good newer restaurants and historic blocks of townhouses.

Northern Libertiesnorth of Spring Garden, Front to 5th St.
The gentrifying, hipster neighborhood with good live music venues though a little sketchy after dark.

[More to come, including a guide to the gay bars]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Coming Out, Philadelphia, 1984

Having grown up in suburban Philadelphia, I realize in retrospect how lucky I was to have access to a gay scene. A lot of my friends never came out until their 20s because they lived in the middle of nowhere and never met another gay man.

Which is not to say that I just walked by and went in. A lot of suburbanites (in Philly or NY or Boston or other big cities) never go into the city. Especially in the 70s and early 80s, cities were considered dangerous, foreign places (eg., Death Wish series).

At 15,with considerable stealth, I got the number for the Philadelphia Gay Hotline and called from a pay phone at the local mall.

With a deep, faux-mature voice, I said “Hi…um… I’m new in town and was wondering where the gay bars were”.

The guy on the phone seemed pleasantly surprised. Being 1984, I guess a lot of people were calling in a panic about AIDS, so my call was relatively benign.

With a friendly, comforting voice (probably sensing my newbie status) he said,
“Well, were you thinking of going out tonight or…”

“Yeah” I responded too quickly, my heart and mind racing in panic.

“Well, on Tuesday, Equus is pretty busy” he said.

“OK” I said. “What’s the address?”

“Hang on……um.. its 254 south 12th street”

“Great, thanks a lot. Goodbye” and hung up, feeling like I had just escaped a serial killer but elated and sexually charged.

As I didn’t get my drivers license for another month, I couldn’t take advantage of this valuable piece of information right away. The next month was interminable.

Finally in April 1984, on a Friday night at 6PM, I got an opportunity to make the trip to Philly in my Chevette. After cruising around the block a few times, I finally parked. With determination to look older and more confident than I was (being only 16), I braced myself and went in.

How disappointing. I had assumed that there would be men having sex or, at least, falling all over each other to get someone to have sex. I thought I could just walk in, have sex and leave. Wrong! It was my first realization that being gay wasn’t the perpetual orgy that I had imagined.

There were maybe 6 people in the bar, all of whom turned and stared at me as I walked in. Still determined to act cool, calm and collected, I walked to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender looked me up and down and asked for my ID. Though I was tall, I was innocent looking and looked 17 or 18 at most. Of course, being a good Catholic high school student, I had a fake ID. He served me the beer.

As people continued to stare at me, I realized that this kind of sucked. As a shy person, social interaction of any kind was difficult. Add to that my terror of being in a gay bar and I was a mess.

But I played it cool, drank my beer and eventually started to check out the crowd. It wasn’t pretty. But as a horny 16 year old, I was crawling out of my skin - thrilled that these were men who would want to have sex with another man. It was the first time I had ever met a gay man (if you exclude the pervy priest from 6th grade) .

After about 10 minutes, I noticed men were going to the bathroom down the side hallway. I thought “That’s it! That’s where they’re having sex”. I got up and walked to the bathroom. When I opened the door, the 2 men turned and looked at me as they peed at the 2 urinals.

Again, disappointment. Why did this have to be so complicated?

After waiting for one of the men to step away from the urinals, I stepped forward. The guy next to me was maybe 30-35, a little gut and bleached blond hair wearing one of those Esprit brightly colored sweaters. In retrospect, not someone who I would have ever found attractive. But I was 16 and horny and the fact that this guy had a dick was all that mattered.

I was pretty aggressive (again thinking that all gay men just wanted to get their rocks off).
“You wanna go somewhere” he said.
“Uhh…yeah” I said.
“Follow me. I’m meeting a friend here in a little while, but I know of this place around the corner where we can go”

We walked to a bookshop 2 blocks away. Though I don’t remember the conversation, he tried to make small talk. I’m sure I seemed as nervous as I was, but nothing was going to stop me from having gay sex.

We went into a booth. He gave me a blow job and I came in about 30 seconds. In his mouth.

And I knew I was gay. It felt awesome.

We zipped up and walked outside.

The next thing he did I will remember forever. He started spitting - repeatedly and emphatically. As if his life depended on it. Which, in 1984, was a logical conclusion. People were just becoming aware of AIDS, but no one knew exactly how it was spread. So he spat and spat and spat some more.

We said goodbye hurriedly and I went back to my car.

And I was calm. Because I knew - REALLY knew - after years of conjecture, denial and confusion, that I was definitely, absolutely, certifiably gay.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

West Village Gay Bars

Having lived here for a while, I’ve cycled through most of the gay bars in the West Village. When I travel, I’m always reminded how lucky I am to have an abundance of gay bars at my doorstep.

Each one has held my interest at some point. A few have closed, but a surprising number are still here 20 years later despite the insane increases in commercial rents in the West Village. For now, at least, the gay bars don’t seem to have fallen as quickly as most of the other long-time retail establishments.

Christopher Street's survival is due, in part, to its reputation as a gay mecca around the world. Every spring and summer, you can see the European and Asian gay tourists walking down the street with their gay guide books looking for the “hot spot” that doesn’t really exist.

Christopher Street’s survival is also due to gay minorities who have replaced the white Manhattan queens in a lot of the bars. Even when I moved here in 1990, Christopher Street was changing from THE place to be gay to an historical gayborhood populated by minority kids and tourists. Most of the young, trendy gay men went to Chelsea, even if they lived in the Village. When Splash opened in 1991, it was indicative of the mass exodus of "mainstream" gaydom to Chelsea.

But I still prefer the Christopher Street gay scene to Chelsea and Hells Kitchen. Its more diverse and less pretentious and preening. And somewhat cheaper if you’re smart about where and WHEN you go.

So here’s my round-up starting at the top of Christopher Street at Sixth Avenue.

Pieces -
Tacky, sweet, surprisingly busy, with a mix of twinks and older men. Though its popularity is due in part to its location as the first bar on Christopher Street, its also due to its friendly vibe, attitude-free bartenders and pretense free scene. They have lots of special nights and Liquid Brunch (until 8PM) on the weekends with $3 margaritas, mimosas and bloody marys. Definitely a drinking crowd who can occasionally get messy but a nice change of pace from the Chelsea scene. And people actually hook up here unlike a lot of the other bars.

One block off Christopher on 10th Street and Waverly, its known as the oldest gay bar in NYC and looks it. The quintessential dive bar with older men drinking at noon, burgers and beer and a bar that looks its age. Which is what makes it fabulous and entertaining. Its starting to get a lot of trendy Gawkers mixing with the old-timers. Not always comfortably, but generally they won’t turn away your straight friends. Also some hustler action with the meth-head hookers who cruise the corner. A great blast from the past and an escape from the glitzy new West Village. But at risk of becoming a zoo for “cool” straights to condescendingly watch the old natives who can no longer afford to live (or drink) in the West Village.

Stonewall Inn
The museum of gay history bar. Without exhibits. Though a lot of tourists come here to see where it all began, its primary customers are regulars who have been coming for a long time. But in addition to the messy 70 year old who has had 5 too many, it also gets after-work suburban gays and non-scene city guys getting together with friends. It’s recently changed hands and the new owners are trying new things to keep it alive including new, friendly bartenders to replace the surly long-timers who seemed irritated by customers (though in truth they need to be a little rough to deal with some of the hustlers and homeless addicts who often wander in off Sheridan Square). Some of the new events include “Stonewall Sensation” (a gay American Idol), ethnic nights and porn star appearances upstairs. 2-for-1 happy hour 2-8 PM.

A piano bar on the ground floor and performance space on the top floor. But my favorite is the second floor bar. It’s mellow with really nice, no-attitude bartenders, good $3 draft beer (yeah!) and $4 well drinks until 8PM. A good place to go to have a conversation without a scene. Mostly NYC locals not necessarily on the cruise, but open to meeting people. Combined with the social bartenders, it makes for a good place to meet new friends. Later in the evening when the shows start, the piano bar downstairs is more active with a mix of gay and straight people who love karaoke and cabaret.

The Monster
Kind of bi-polar. Older, cruisy gay men upstairs where you can look out the windows or sing along with the piano man. But downstairs, when its open, is a dance floor with a younger scene and great dance music. One of the most diverse crowds in NYC with a mix of young hip-hop boys, old school dancers, tourists and the occasional Chelsea boy. Sunday night Tea Dance is my favorite. One of the few places where you can dance in a low-key environment with a low or no cover charge. To me this place epitomizes the difference between the West Village gay scene and Chelsea/Hells Kitchen. Nightly, not so great, drink specials on mediocre beer and mixed drinks.

Boots and Saddles
Weird and small but good draft beer. Its been here forever, but recently changed hands. They tried making it new and hip and changing its name to BSNY (as in SBNY, aka Splash), but its too small and old school to ever be a hip trendy club. So I think they’ve accepted their clientele and are just going with it. Middle aged, social gay drinkers who have been coming to the Village for years and some locals. Embracing their demographic, they now have a go-go boy on a platform in the middle of the floor. Which is weird because the whole place is the size of a studio apartment so the go-go boy’s platform takes up a significant portion of the little available standing room and your face is almost in his crotch. But the crowd seems pleased as they stuff the straight go-go boy’s thong with dollar bills (or as I witnessed the other night, take out a bag full of sex toys and engage in a one-on-one conversational interaction with the go-go boy who is apparently on a first name basis with John). On the plus side (for me), they are one of the few gay bars with draft beer that includes some good dark imports. And they have 2-for-1 happy hour.

the classic Christopher Street bar that doesn’t try to change to keep up with the times. Wood floored, brick walled room with windows facing the street. You can easily imagine yourself being in the 1970s (though without the sexual carnival atmosphere). Low-key, not overly friendly or mean, mellow place popular with bears. Relatively attitude free and I’ve met a lot of random people here including tourists and locals. Generally middle aged but with younger and older guys mixed in. Not necessarily hard core drinkers or cruisers – more “have a few beers and see what comes along”. No great drink specials, but not expensive either.

The Hangar
the only “modern” bar on the strip, though its been here since the early 90’s. Pool table in the back. Mix of outer-borough gay men, tourists and locals. Pretty diverse crowd and cruisy. Nightly, pretty good, drink specials. Has a window to look out on Christopher Street.

African-American bar. The only one left after the closure of Two Potato down the street a few years ago (the original One Potato at 10th and Hudson closed in the early 90s). Not particularly welcoming otherwise. But if you’re white and want to know what its like to be an African American in a Chelsea gay bar, you should check it out.

the (in)famous bear bar that only gets a crowd on Sunday for their Beer Blast. Otherwise its pretty consistently empty but for a few older regulars, some tourists and random Christopher Street hustlers. But cheap draft beer for happy hour and Beer Blast. Bartender is either a sweet queen or a nasty dickhead. Nice on Spring and Summer Sundays when it occasionally spills out onto the street (though thanks to the new NIMBY attitude, this happens less frequently). And you can meet a lot of other bears (and the occasional blogger).

The Election – Pennsylvania

OK. The first of many posts on this election. Starting with my home state of Pennsylvania. Which is schizophrenically split between Philly (hardcore Democrats) and the rest of the state (hardcore Republican) with some gray areas around Philly and in Pittsburgh. A good indicator of America in that it has urban, affluent, progressive areas offset by great swaths of land where people struggle to make a living, go to church religiously, own guns and don’t understand gays (and yeah, they are kinda bitter).

And it went for Hillary in a big way. And that’s just the Democrats. A critical swing state along with Florida, Ohio, maybe Michigan, it shows how she is the only one who appeals to the average Joe/Jane (aka, Reagan Democrats and centrist Republiacns).

Yeah, the Democrats are kinda split and leaning slightly towards Obama. But what matters at this point is WINNING the general election and getting rid of the Republicans. I’m so sick and tired of losing to Republicans and living in a country run by people who seem like aliens to me.

Yeah, I think Obama’s great and in an ideal world where everyone is a progressive he could be a great leader. But its far from an ideal world and we have to accept that a majority of Americans are not overly informed. thoughtful or aware when casting their votes. That’s how we got 8 years of Bush.

So now is not the time to be electing one the most liberal, inexperienced Senators in America to run against an old, semi-centrist war dog. We HAVE to win. And if there is a choice of an experienced battle ax who has proven she can win the only states that matter versus the classic liberal Democrat (like it or not thats how he comes across to all those people who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004), we have to go with the one who can win.

In 2012 or 2016, we can elect Obama. Who will still be incredibly young. But now we need a centrist who can win Republican votes in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania (because honestly, the blue states are not going to suddenly turn Red at this point). And the only one who can do that is Hillary.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The American Dream - Cold Calling

In 1989, after my junior year in college, I decided I wanted to live in New York City. I had been here a couple of times, but wanted a chance to LIVE here and be gay. Though I ultimately wanted to be in San Francisco after I graduated, NYC was easier because it was close to Philly but still had a thriving gay scene. I also wanted to get away from working with my father who would have kept me enslaved all summer cutting lawns and painting the slums he owned as he had for the previous 10 years.

I found cheap summer housing at NYU and shared a dorm room with 3 other guys - a 32-year old Parisian taxi driver, 20-year old Bernard Tisch (as in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) and a 21 year old Israeli NYU business student who was taking classes to graduate a year early so he could start making money as quickly as possible. A fascinating group of people with whom I had nothing in common (though when the Parisian taxi driver offered me some cheap weed he had scored in Washington Square, I did finally find some common ground)

In NYC in 1989, there were still some remnants of the 1980s “Bonfire of the Vanities” culture. That summer, I worked at a Wall Street penny-stock broker making cold calls to rich people from a list of rich people some company had created. I worked with two classic, Queens-born NY strivers (one Irish, one Jewish) who epitomized the outer borough middle class kid come to Wall Street to hit it rich. They had more ambition than intelligence but played at the slick Wall Street broker game with determination. The slick-backed hair, the suspenders and the cufflinks barely camouflaged the middle class kid with the New Yawk accent and big-city provincialism whose life-long dream was to move to Manhattan. Tony Manero on Wall Street. It was the end of the era that started the whole myth that anybody can hit it big on Wall Street if they worked hard enough and really, really, really wanted to be rich.

In fact they were shucksters, confidence-men like most of the successful guys on Wall Street. “Churn and burn” was the motto. It dispelled for me the notion that stockbrokers were analytical, thoughtful stock pickers who lived the upper crust life that I so yearned to attain. It was a hard, depressing, desperate life. But at least they weren’t working outside on a construction site in the freezing cold and sweltering heat. Or, like my father, in the warehouse freezer of a meatpacking factory with little hope of ever striking it rich.

So I arrived every morning at 8 AM at the small office that I shared with the two of them and started dialing from my little corner table. I would use my innocent, educated voice and manipulative skills to try to get past the secretary to the “big fish” who had money to invest according to the “list of big fish”. Surprisingly often (maybe 20% of the time), I did actually get through.

At the point where I got through the to big Kahuna, I yelled at the Sherman McCoy wannabes “Go!” and they would pick up the phone and start their spiel. It amazes me how even wealthy people could be so ignorant as to put money in the hands of these guys, but America is full of blind optimists.

I did this for 9 hours a day for the entire summer. I finally just couldn’t do it anymore and left 2 weeks earlier than planned. But it allowed me to experience big city life and was an awesome resume-builder when I started to look for a “real” job the next year. In fact, I could say that its the reason I ended up in NYC instead of San Francisco.

Even though I realized I didn’t want to get stuck doing this for the rest of my life, I also wasn’t as appalled by it as your average Ivy league student. That’s because in high school, I was a professional cold caller for Evergreen Lawns. It was a ChemLawn type service that sprayed chemicals on suburban lawns to make them greener and more weed-free than their neighbors.

Again, I wasn’t as disgusted by this job as most suburban Philly teens because I was just glad not to have to work with my father cutting lawns as I had done since I was 11. The freedom from my father’s dictatorship was satisfying in itself. Yeah, it was kind of slimy. But I had an innocent voice and realized that if I just kept dialing new numbers (at dinner time and early Saturdays when people would most likely be home), eventually some people would say “Yes, I would like a free estimate on my lawn done by one of your lawn care specialists”. It always kind of shocked me and made me realize Americans are suckers and will buy pretty much anything.

I eventually was promoted to Office Manager. Which was an honor, but had its drawbacks. I am not a born manager. Especially of my friends and other teens who were my co-workers now turned subordinates. But because I was a pretty nice guy and lead more by example than demand by working harder than anyone else, they gave me respect.

The summer after high school and before I started college, the CEO tried to woo me into staying on, selling me on all the opportunities that lay ahead as an employee of Evergreen Lawns. Someday I could even be his right-hand man. I listened to him politely and feigned sincere interest, but I could see clearly the pathetic life that would lie ahead of me clearly exemplified by the adults who worked there. I was smart enough to realize you don’t stay in a $6 an hour job instead of getting an Ivy League education. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and start my new glamorous life as a pampered student of a high-class institution that would forever distance me from the possibility of living the decidedly unglamorous life of a working class peon.

Of course, after 4 years of college and my stint on “Wall Street”, I realized that life wasn’t going to be so effortlessly glamorous and would require humiliating servitude in corporate sweatshops. But it was still more exciting and possibility-filled than my life at a chemical facility in working class Philadelphia.

And I realized that the American Dream is a myth. There is never a completely fulfilling “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. There are only more rainbows with promises of even bigger pots of gold. Happiness comes not from the money we have but the people we love.

Turning 40 in Reality

How coincidental that just as I’m turning 40, a new reality show starts called the “Big 4-0” documenting people turning 40. Sort of like “My Super Sweet 16” for old people. And if the first few episodes are indicative, it shows that Americans don’t really grow up. They just keep trying to pretend that they’re young like those “relevant” people on TV and advertisements who are all under 30. Its seems to be people who never had a blowout “Super Sweet 16” and now, with a little more money, are recreating their childhood.

Being born post-“baby boomer”, I never thought of myself as a part of a huge demographic. But I guess the Gen-X’ers are the first generation to be part of the whole “Real World” reality TV phenomenon. So now, even in turning 40, I can feel like I’m less important and more boring than the average person my age and that my life is a little less exciting and over-the-top than most other people.

Though, as in all of the reality TV shows, I wouldn’t want to be them. I think the whole reality TV thing is based on the idea that the viewer can feel morally and intellectually superior and thereby feel better about themselves.

But I hate having to compare myself so directly to other people. Its been shown that it’s the root of unhappiness. Its less important how much we have, than how much we have relative to those around us. Which is why living in NY (or LA or any other above-average income town) is a guarantee of unhappiness. Because someone always has more - more money, bigger house, hotter boyfriend, better job. That is the source of unhappiness – wanting what you don’t have and in most cases don’t need.

In reality, the only way I can be happy about being 40 is by not comparing myself to other 40 year olds or to what America says I should be or have at 40. No, I don’t have a job, or own a home, or have kids. But I have a roof over my head, food on the table and the love of the most wonderful man in the world (which, if I lived in Egypt or Iraq or Afghanistan, I could only dream about).

In fact, I have fulfilled my childhood dreams. Maybe not as rich, but I also don’t have a wife and kids which, like so many dreams force-fed to me in childhood, needed to be tossed out the window when I learned who I am and what real happiness is. And that, in reality, is the joy of turning 40 – ignoring what the world says you should be and having the wisdom to know who I am and what brings me happiness.

The Eagle on Sunday

Went to the Eagle last night for their Beer Blast rooftop party. Possibly my favorite place in NYC. Normal looking guys who are my age in a relaxed environment conducive to talking. Delicious, cold, Red Hook draft beer for $3 which in NYC is a steal (and a great find since good draft beer at a gay bar in NYC is a rarity.) And I LOVE being able to be outside, drink beer and walk outside to a deserted street to smoke.

Got there at 5 and planned on staying for 2 hours and having 3 or 4 beers. Then our friends Mike and Kurt texted us at 7 and said they were coming. So we had another 3 beers and didn’t leave until 10. Waay hungover today-which is weird since I usually don’t get a hangover from beer. But I just found out that Red Hook has an alcohol content equal to Colt 45. And I had 7 (!!!) so I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.

When we first got there, we were the only ones on the roof. Then some kid (28-30) came up and just kind of stood near us, glancing at us occasionally. He was acting so shady and weird I thought he was on meth or something even though he looked normal. But I’ve learned from prior interactions at gay bars that my preconceived image of a meth head - scrawny, gap-toothed and bug-eyed – is simplistic and na├»ve. At least in the early stages of addiction.

After about 15 minutes, he turned and said “Well, may as well do it now”.
I immediately went into my “Lets pretend this person doesn’t exist” defensive social anxiety mode.
This was followed by a 10 second silence while he stood there and looked awkward while I tried to pretend like he had never said anything and wasn’t even there.
Then he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a stack of 3x4 pieces of paper and I thought “Oh great, a Jesus freak who’s come to a gay bar to try to convert people”.

He says “I was told by people in my group this would be a good place to come”
OOOOOO K ? My crazy-person detection and defense system kicked into high gear.

Then he brings my paranoid backstory crashing down by saying “I don’t know what your status is but I run a support group for poz guys” and hands me and R one of the flyers from his stack.

It was one of those experiences that reminds me I really shouldn’t be so defensively anti-social. Turns out he was just recruiting for his group at a place where there are probably a good number of poz guys.

We talked a little and turns out he was a really nice kid. But I was left feeling a little sad and shocked that this young, shy kid who looked like he just got here from St Louis was positive. A reminder that HIV is still prevalent and pervasive in the gay world of 2008 NYC even though we live in this state of denial.

Like most gay men I know in NYC, I think of HIV as something from the past that we escaped and is no longer a threat. We believe that kids today, because they have so much information and awareness of HIV, don’t still contract HIV. But we’re wrong. The stats are there in the little annual blurbs that appear in the gay blogs. But its easy to read the reports, think “that’s horrible and maddening and stupid” and then forget about it. We go to the gay bar where everyone looks healthy and assume we live in a post-AIDS world. We don’t. And its good to be reminded of that.

So Chris, thanks for being out there and having the balls to do what you’re doing. And sorry for judging you before I even knew you.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Life and Death

I’m a 39 year old gay man who grew up in the Golden Age of the 1970’s, then came of age during the Plague Years of the 1980s. So just happy to still be here. Never thought I’d reach 40 since it seemed that most gay men died in their 20s and 30s when I was coming out. I remember praying to reach 30 and was convinced for most of my adult life that I only had 5 more years to live at most (the average time between diagnosis and death in the early days).

Then I reached 30 and the “death sentence” of AIDS began to evaporate and I allowed myself to live a little more slowly. For the first time, I began to consider what a regular life lasting 70 years might be like. And began to worry about maintaining my health, caring for my family, saving for retirement, finding a boyfriend.

But its still hard to shake the fear that I might die tomorrow. Its almost engrained in me since I spent so much of my life assuming I would die young. (In addition to the specter of AIDS, my Dad died from cancer when I was young and my sister was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage IV cancer at 38.) So I still believe in living for today and not counting on tomorrow. But I’ve tempered that with preparing for a longer life that I might need to pay for.

My fear of dying young (and a soul-sucking, life-absorbing job) lead me to stop working at the age of 35 with the intention of taking a year off. I just didn’t want to die before 40 without ever having lived life on my terms. My father put off all happiness until retirement but then never made it there.

Almost 5 years later, I’m unemployed and living off savings but I still think I did the right thing and would do it again. I’ve had a chance to LIVE life without the sociopathic, soul crushing stress of modern corporate life and to be truly who I am.

I’ve been able to care for my sister as she struggled through a death sentence, poisoning by chemotherapy, and a nervous breakdown; to protect my nephews as they evolved through the demanding and impressionable first years of their lives; and to comfort my mother as she aged and dealt with the potential death of her firstborn child. These are the most important things I have done in my life.

And if I died tomorrow, I would be happy. I’ve had more life, love and happiness than I ever expected. Everything else is gravy.

Why Blog?

So why do I want to do a blog? Well, duh! Become an internationally famous writer with legions of fans hanging on my every post who think I’m the most insightful, erudite, lovable guy they have ever met in cyberspace.

But seriously, I just need to write. Whether anybody ever reads this or not, I just need to write my thoughts down. I love playing with words and editing my thoughts. And the possibility that someone might read it makes it waaay more fulfilling and meaningful than just writing in my diary.

Oh… and I’m unemployed and have way too much time my hands.

My inspiration is Joe My God because he seems wise, humble, insightful and succinct. Though I admire his writing, I can’t promise any of these qualities since I have limited self-discipline.

I also much prefer textual interaction to actually having to meet and talk to people. Its been “diagnosed” as social anxiety which is a good description since any type of social setting creates anxiety for me. But more simply stated, I’m just shy. Always have been, probably always will be, even though I’ve spent years in therapy and tried various pharmaceutical products to get rid of it. The only drug that seems to work is alcohol, but we all know where that leads.

So I’ve just learned to accept that I don’t enjoy social engagements and stopped punishing myself too much. Trying to find a happy medium of maintaining contact with the world, while not creating stress by trying to fight who I am. Coming from a long line of farmers who lived in relative isolation and only had to see people once a week at church, I feel like I’ve made huge strides just by living in a people-packed metropolis and having a relatively “normal” modern urban life.

With that said, I’ve avoided working because of the stress of dealing with people. Which brings me back to on of the reasons I started this blog. I’ve got time on my hands.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Beginning

Well that was bizarrely easy. I've been planning on starting a blog for 2 years but assumed it was going to be overwhelmingly complicated for a non-tech savvy guy like myself. It took me 30 seconds. No wonder every thomas, richard and harold has one.