Remembering All That We Have Lost

“Gay Man Stabbed in Heart Survives,” read the front-page headline in the BAR, a gay newspaper I picked up while strolling on Castro Street.

Then I looked at the picture. It was my old college roommate Larry Johl. I recognized him immediately from his long very blond hair. As students at Washington State University we had lived together in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective in Pullman, Washington, a little town near the Idaho border. That was in 1973-74 before we had each decamped to the gay mecca of San Francisco. We had been in touch, and I had once been to his apartment on Broderick Street, furnished tastefully in deco style with castoff furniture and cheap (but not cheap-looking) window treatments.

Larry Johl
My portrait of Larry, 1973

Our get-together in San Francisco in the late ‘70s had revealed that Larry worked at a boring, low-paid office job in some bureaucracy. He described himself as a snow queen, meaning that he preferred to date black men. I later found out that snow queen was the term used to describe black men who prefer white men. The subculture’s term for white men like him was grunge queen, but I think he probably didn’t use it because of its racist overtones. He had a cute, angelic-looking boyfriend whose picture graced his bedroom chest of drawers.

I should note here that Rosa Luxemburg, whose giant portrait graced our dining room wall, was a Polish revolutionary socialist theoretician who was assassinated in 1919. Our hero. Margarethe von Trotta made a film about her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLo4TuBRN6U.

When I thought back to our collective living arrangement at Rosa’s, in a huge house with 11 others, I remembered Larry had a thing for black men even then. It was Larry who introduced us to the music of the gay icon Sylvester. How did Larry discover him? How did Larry discover gay culture? It seemed like he had emerged a full-blown raging queen from his tiny desolate hometown of Soap Lake, in the eastern Washington desert, the middle of nowhere. He told me that as a kid he’d been a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and had filled secret scrapbooks with her pictures cut from magazines. Perhaps he’d been a queen from birth, living testimony for the argument for nature over nurture.

RLC2
Rosa Luxemburg Collective. Larry middle top, me middle bottom row

Larry didn’t come out to us at Rosa’s but we knew. He personified all the stereotypes—limp wrists, lilting voice, and the neatest room in the house. In the collective, Larry was the roommate most concerned with beauty and fashion. He bought hair products by the case, it seemed. His hair really was strawberry blond. But it did look bleached, so perhaps he bleached in secret and then tried to mask the consequences with product. One time when we were on a road trip, all piled into a VW bus, Larry got out to smoke a joint and lit his hair on fire. Which must prove something about product.

Our Welsh roommate Keith couldn’t believe Larry’s wealth of information about popular culture. “He never reads. How can he know so much?” It was true. We seldom saw Larry studying. How did he pass his exams? He seemed much more interested in music. One semester he spent his student loan money on a stereo. I guess after that he depended on the kindness of strangers, or the kindness of friends.

Larry was central to our countercultural and political activities. He excelled in tasks organizational. His specialty was the media blitz. With our dissident friends, we had formed the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism in response to a student Christian crusade. The Jesus freaks’ slogan was “One Way” and they’d proselytize holding up an index finger. It was annoying as hell. Our slogan became “No Way,” our sign a zero made with index finger and thumb. During registration week when students poured into the student union and all the organizations set up their wares at the entrance, Larry sat at our table and showed slides of all the churches in town, a tape of Elton John’s Burn Down the Mission playing continually in the background. Then, when we staged a debate about the existence of god, Larry took on media/outreach and managed to fill the auditorium to capacity.

NoWayJPG
League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism button

We were desperate to change the direction of national politics, refusing to pay the federal phone tax that funded war and staging die-ins at ROTC functions. The FBI came knocking at the door after Larry sent a threatening letter to president Nixon. I don’t believe he was arrested. He had only put in writing what we were all thinking.

I think my brother Don would say Larry brought him out of the closet. Don didn’t live with us at Rosa’s but he visited frequently. In those days our sexual identities weren’t so clearly defined. We all experimented with gay as well as straight sex, although in retrospect the women seemed much freer than the men. The women swung like kids on a new play set, while the men tended to gravitate to one corner or the other of the sandbox. Neither Larry nor my brother Don was ever interested in women at the orgies we sponsored. They would carry on afterwards dishing male anatomical details, which I invariably missed.

After I saw his picture on the front page of the BAR, I called Larry. He was out of the hospital. He told me he had been cruising Buena Vista Park at 2 a.m. when he was attacked and stabbed. His attackers then tried to pull off his leather clothes. He was saved by a punk couple who got him to the hospital just in time. He had lost almost all the blood in his body. The gay bashers were never caught.

I asked Larry what he intended to do next. He said he was just going to live life as he had, maybe with more passion and vigor. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” he told me cheerfully. He figured all the time in the future was free. He had been spared death, for the time being.

By that time in the early 80s we knew about AIDS but there was no test available yet and of course there was no treatment. Gay men were just dying. You would see your friend, a young man you sang with or worked out with, looking healthy and vibrant. Then he would get a diagnosis and two weeks later he would be dead.

When I asked my brother Don to tell me his memories of Larry, he remembered that they had seen each other in the late 80s. By that time Larry must have known he was HIV positive. He told Don that when he died he wished to be cremated and he wanted someone to distribute his ashes from a window of the 24 Divisadero, the bus that took Larry from his neighborhood in the Western Addition to the gay bars in the Castro. He said he wanted all the queens to prance behind the bus and stomp him into the pavement with their platform shoes.

Mormorial
Memorials were posted at the corner of Castro and 18th. This one is for Dennis Peron, the marijuana activist.

I never saw Larry again, and when I tried to call, his number had been disconnected. I couldn’t find mention of him anywhere. I was pretty sure he had died of AIDS. The BAR had been printing obits for gay men since 1972, but it never published his. Did he, like many gay men, go back home to die? That was hard for me to imagine. Did he die alone or did he have a network of friends to care for him? Was he one of the ones who perished within weeks? Don and I felt negligent, that we had not come to his aid when he was dying. I sure hope someone did.

Eventually I found a notice of his death in the Ephrata, Washington paper, a slightly larger small town near Soap Lake. He had died in 1990. He was 39. But there were no details and so I just had to imagine his last years and days. Also in the Ephrata obits I found a Carl A. Johl, born 1914, who died in 2009 at the age of 94. I guess Carl was Larry’s father.

Some of the Rosa Luxemburg Collective roommates reunited again after 35 years. I had to come out to them as a lesbian. Then it fell to me to explain Larry’s fate to this assemblage of straight folks. I fear I failed.

RosaShirt
At the reunion Bob shows off a Rosa T-shirt

Lesbians and gay men lived in different universes, different cultures, which we were continually inventing back in the 1970s and 80s. As a close student of lesbian feminist culture, I had no trouble discoursing on its development. But I was instantly aware that I didn’t really know the culture Larry lived in. How to explain his cruising escapades and his obvious sluttiness? The story seemed to suggest that he was responsible for his own demise, at least as I imagined my straight comrades might see it. We were a progressive bunch who believed in free love and revolution, rejecting nuclear war and the nuclear family. Still, I sensed disapproval in their shocked emailed responses.

MEDay
The Castro was the scene of celebrations and demonstrations

Or was it something like envy? Larry had found himself in San Francisco and he was finally free to live an openly gay life. I think he was happy. Perhaps he and I were two collective members who succeeded in transcending the conventional lifestyle that we countercultural dissidents had all worked so hard to reject.

The 24 Divis is a crosstown route that goes from the rich white neighborhood of Pacific Heights clear down to the poor black neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. It was the bus that for decades carried me from my neighborhood in Bernal Heights to the Castro to gay bookstores, bars, demonstrations, and film festivals at the Castro Theater. My wife and I often stop for a beer at Harvey’s just to cruise the crowd on the corner through its big windows.

Harvey's
With my wife Holly at Harvey’s. The pics on the wall are from pre-AIDS times.

The scene is still vibrant and colorful, but there are times, especially in winter, when walking in the Castro I see the ghosts of the young men who died of AIDS and then I’m overwhelmed with grief, so very aware of all that we have lost.

This story originally aired on the MUNI Diaries podcast, hence the references to the 24 Divisadero bus. I had such a hard time reading that last paragraph without breaking down crying. I share this grief with an entire generation of people who lived through the AIDS years. We have not forgotten.

Single Life

At 71, my father, Carroll, has been single for two years.

“What’s it like?” I ask. “Do you think it’s different from single at 30, or 40?” I’m in a relationship at the moment, but considering the impermanence of modern lesbian relationships, this is information I intend to store for the future.

He looks at the sky and smooths his gray mustache. “Probably not,” he says.

We sit on the deck of his tiny trailer in a run-down resort in the California desert. We are drinking vodka and grapefruit juice, perhaps a bit too fast. Vodka is his drink, not mine. He likes whiskey, he says, but his system just can’t take it. Gin gives him an asthmatic reaction. But with vodka, he says, he’s never had a hangover.

He has returned home from his travels to a stack of mail and he reads it as we talk, half-glasses perched on his nose. “This GD insurance company. I’ve been fighting with them for months. Who’s this from? Oh, my friends the Carlsons. You remember Ben and Karen. They’re coming to visit.

I move the stack of mail around and spot an envelope with recognizable handwriting. It is a card from my brother, Don, a notoriously poor correspondent.

“Dear Carroll,” it says, “Hope you are enjoying life in the desert. Everything is fine up here. I recently moved into a new apartment with a new roommate, a college student at the university. I’m working really hard on the Little Theater production of Cinderella, and work is going fine. Hope you had a good holiday.”

“Have you talked to Don lately?” says Carroll.

“Not too long ago. He seems to be doing fine.” I don’t elaborate. Why should I explain, when Don does not, that he plays the part of the fairy godmother in Cinderella? I have met the new “roommate,” a young man who clearly does not have his own bed.

Carroll leans back in the old metal deck chair and gives me a look, but asks no more questions. He has never wanted to know the details of my brother’s private life, nor mine, and we have never told him in so many words.

“That was something, Liberace dying,” he says.

“Yes, it was sad.” What I think is Don hasn’t had the test. I’m terrified that he is positive. For a moment I wish I could talk to Carroll about it.

“I don’t think it’s right that people should be able to hide the cause of death like he did,” he says.

“I think it was a terrible thing they did to him,” I say. “He should have been allowed to die in peace.” Carroll makes some more protests, but he’s not much of a fighter and I don’t feel very argumentative at the moment.

I go back to riffling through his mail. “What’s this?” I say, turning over an envelope with flowery handwriting.

He has saved the good stuff for last. “From Irma,” he says, opening the envelope and scanning the card quickly. He passes it to me.

A teddy bear in a lacy bed looks forlornly out from the card. “I think of you daily and miss you enormously,” it says.

Somehow I have the feeling this thinking and missing is not reciprocal. “How sweet.” I take a swig.

I suspect Carroll had been seeing Irma before my mother died, but I try not to hold that against her. Carroll was a little too pushy about it was all, wanting everything to be okay. He insisted I meet her, and the one time I did, she seemed fine. She told me Carroll was the first man who’d appealed to her in fifteen years.

“You’re obviously putting some distance between you and Irma,” I say, pulling myself out of the chair.

“She drinks too much for me,” he says. “I tell her I think she’s an alcoholic and she doesn’t like that.”

“I was just getting up to freshen our drinks,” I say, thinking Irma’s habit must be serious. For as long as I can remember, Carroll has had a drinking problem. Cracked up two company cars. Always had a pint under the front seat. During my childhood many a dinner was eaten in the tension of his absence.

I duck into the trailer’s kitchen. “Are you trying to cut down?” I ask through the screen door as I assemble juice, vodka and ice.

“The doctor bugs me about it. I try to watch myself,” he says, “but when I’m with Irma I drink more. It’s harder to control. I don’t want to get mixed up with an alcoholic.”

“I think that’s smart,” I say, resisting the burden of my mother’s anguish.

The trailer is spare as a monk’s quarters. Only one picture—of my brother Terry’s children—is displayed on the kitchen table. There are no pictures of my mother or the four of us kids, and none of her things are here. She collected old things, I believe because she wanted a link with history. When she died, Carroll ignored our objections and sold the farm and the contents of our childhood home. “What do I want with things?” he’d said. “I’ll die soon anyhow.” Then he bought a pickup and went on the road. Later, he tried to make it up to me. “Take it,” he would say about objects I expressed interest in, but there was nothing I really wanted then.

I walk back out, hand him a drink, sit across from him and pick out another large envelope. “Who’s this from?”

He smiles, devilishly I think. “That’s Eleanor, my South Dakota girlfriend.”

This one has a serious message lettered on the front.

“I hope only that you can love me just the way I am,” it says. Inside a handwritten message adds, “I do hope someday this can be so.”

“What does this mean?” I ask.

He ponders the card. “Can’t figure it. She’s a pretty hippy gal. Maybe she thinks I want her to lose weight.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Oh, I’ve commented on it,” he says. A fat girl survivor of years of badgering from thin parents, I decide I’d rather not get into this.

“Who’s your girlfriend here, the one your neighbors were razzing you about?” I ask.

“Blanche? She’s a class above the rest in this place. Likes to have a good time. Likes to dance.”

I have never thought of Carroll as particularly handsome. But in his set he is the belle of the ball. Last night at the local resort dance he never lacked a partner. Women approached me and asked, “Is that your father? He sure is cute.” I haven’t seen such flirting since my generation of lesbians all discovered each other.

We look out on the slough, where fishers glide by in rowboats toward the Colorado River. Fish aren’t biting tonight. The local colony of ducks flap wings and chase each other in a frenzy of mating. I wonder why my father and I so often seem to find ourselves in the company of mating animals. I hope he senses my discomfort and doesn’t call attention to this ritual.

“The ducks are sure sexy tonight,” he says. “ ‘Let’s chase each other ‘round the room tonight.’ Ever heard that song? They played it at my sister Jesse’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

“It doesn’t look like much fun to me,” I say, watching a drake hold a hen under the water.

“Probably is for him,”  he says.

“So what about sex?” I plunge in. “Do these women you’re dating like sex?”

He’s pleased I asked this question, pleased to have a chance to talk about it, I think. “Hell, yes, sure they do. Irma can take it or leave it though. She can be cold but I don’t care about that. I was never one to demand sex. I never in my life said ‘I’m not getting any here, so I’m going somewhere else.’ ”

I’ve finished my drink and want another, but am afraid to break this train of thought. “What about Eleanor?” I ask.

“Now Eleanor is a different story. She’s quite a bit younger than me—fifties I guess. you know those middle-aged women, they’re sexy.”

“Yes I do,” I say, feeling middle-aged. “So you just returned from a tryst.”

“Well, you know my cousin Buford died. I had to go up. But the funny thing about Eleanor, she doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s real involved in the church, and she’s afraid someone will find out about us. I kind of get a kick out of it. She kicks me out by five o’clock so they won’t see me there in the morning. But she is something in bed. I tell her ‘if your church friends only knew what goes on in this house…’”

I have developed a sudden interest in a broken thumbnail and am picking at it intently.

“Eleanor thinks I’m really sexy,” Carroll says. “But I’m really not. You know, she expects too much of me. They all think I’m sexy. I can’t figure out why.” I rip the thumbnail off and it begins to bleed.

“So what about Eleanor? Are you getting serious?” I ask, sticking the thumb in my mouth to stop the bleeding.

“Naw. I know she’d like to get married, but I’m not gonna do it. Don’t you worry. I don’t intend to get married again.”

“What makes you think I’d worry? You’re an independent person. You can make your own decisions.”

I hug myself. The sun has gone down and the evening is suddenly cool.

“Well, what do you say we get cookin’?” Carroll raises his furry black eyebrows at me, gets up and moves into the trailer.

The prospect does not excite me. His bachelor diet of sausage, Spam and fried potatoes gives me heartburn. “Let’s try something different tonight,” I say, opening the refrigerator, which contains little more than ingredients for various alcoholic concoctions. I pull out the biggest thing in there, a heavy rectangular package. “What’s this?”

“Government cheese,” he says. They give it away to senior citizens every two weeks at the surplus store. I want you to take that with you when you go.

“No thanks. I could never eat all this. I live alone, remember?”

“No, I want you to take that.” He is using his sergeant voice. “I can get plenty more where that came from.”

“No, really, I don’t like processed cheese. I would never eat it.”

“You take that,” he insists. “Give it to your friends.”

“Look, I appreciate the offer,” I say. “Maybe we can cook something with it tonight. Does your oven work?”

He finds some matches and kneels down in front of the little propane stove while I start turning knobs on and off looking for the one that controls the oven. “I never did figure out how to use this thing,” he says.

I am watching as he works at lighting it when the air around his head explodes with a whoosh. He is knocked backwards and ends up sitting on the floor against a counter.

“Dad, Dad,” I yell. “Are you okay?” I get down in front of him and his eyes finally focus on me. I can see his thick eyebrows and lashes have been singed. He rubs the melted nubs of hair on his arm. I discover I am crying.

“Knocked the piss out of me, but I’m okay.” He looks puzzled.

“I’m kind of upset,” I blurt out. “I’m afraid Don might have AIDS. I can’t stand to lose him, too.”

Carroll’s face betrays no anger, only resignation. “He’s always gone for men, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” I say, and more to atone for indiscretion than anything else, I add, “and I love women.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says, “but I’m glad you’ve been quiet about it.”

I give him a hand up, then wipe my eyes quickly on my shirt sleeve. He smoothes the ruff of hair around his bald head and tucks in his shirt. I decide to cook something on top of the stove.

“Hey, I want you to see something, he says. “Look at my gold nugget.” He pulls what looks like a huge nugget from his pocket. It is attached to a gold chain.

I’m immediately skeptical. One of his favorite pastimes is making up stories about found objects or people he sees in passing, or family history. Years pass and fiction melds with truth. “Where did you get this?” I laugh.

“Well, now, some people might think this is strange,” he says, eyeing me as he places it in my hand. “You know your mother had a lot of dental work done over the years and she had her teeth pulled the week before she died. This is made from her gold teeth. I want you to take it.”