One summer night in Wallingford, near Dick’s drive-in
By George Howland Jr.
My boyfriend, Tommy, and I walked with arms around one another to the bus stop. It was the summer of 1979 and he was working graveyard at a print shop. We both had long hair and beards. My hair was blonde, and my beard was black; all his hair was brown. Both of us were way skinny. He wore jeans, a t-shirt and boots. I had on draw-string pants, a t-shirt and Birkenstock sandals with no back strap.
We were on North 45th Street, a main drag through Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, at the time a neighborhood of overwhelmingly white middle-class and working-class people.
I was living right up the street at Camp Blossom for Boys, an intentional community for gay, bi-sexual and straight men. I had spent 18 months putting Camp Blossom together as part of my effort to “fight the patriarchy” by changing men. Seven of us had rented a suburban looking house next to a gas station on First Avenue Northeast. Four gay men, two straight guys and me—the lone bisexual. Three of us were anarchists, one was an activist skeptic and the other three were gay guys who were curious about living with other men.
At the time, you didn’t see many gay couples in Wallingford. We didn’t care. We were proudly, militantly out.
I wore dangling earrings and androgynous clothing. The more stares I drew, the better. I wanted to confront people’s homophobia. I told everyone—my school district employer, my alternative public high school students, people that I met—that I was bisexual. The confrontations took their toll—my stomach was often convulsed with cramps.
Tommy and I passed Dick’s, a classic Seattle drive-in burger and fries joint, that had first opened in the neighborhood in 1954. All the cars and the take-out orange and white neon blazed on an otherwise quiet street. As we passed Golden Oldies, a used record store, I noticed a four-door sedan with four boisterous men pass us. The car came to a stoplight, pulled into the right lane and instead of continuing along the arterial, put on its signal and turned down a residential street. I wondered why the car turned.
Tommy and I were talking seriously; my circle mostly talked seriously in those days.
Suddenly the car was next to us again.
The back-right door swung open and a young man jumped out. He had black hair, a black pencil mustache and a face bloated with drink. He assumed a fighting stance: One leg back, one forward, both arms raised, one behind the other. His hands were extended—martial arts style. “C’mon,” he said, his jaw clenched. The three other young men in the car yelled encouragement.
Tommy and I broke apart. I stepped backward. I was suddenly very aware of my sandals and the fact that I couldn’t run in them. I kept repeating, “We don’t want to fight” with minor variations: “Hey man, we don’t want to fight;” “Let’s not fight, man.” Panic froze me in place.
At first, Tommy was confused. He squinted at the guy through his aviator glasses. “What?” he asked. Suddenly, what was happening became clear to him. He got pissed and disgusted. “Get out of here,” he said, dismissing the guy. Turning back to me, he said, “Let’s go” and motioned with his arm. He turned and tried to walk past the guy. As he did, the guy struck him full in the face. Tommy fell to the sidewalk; bleeding slightly; his glasses knocked off. Fortunately, he fell on his butt and kept his head from smashing into the concrete.
The guy jumped back into the car and it sped away.
Primal fear, a milk route and future plans
As I knelt to check on Tommy, a bus pulled into the stop. The driver opened the door and shouted, “Do you need an aid car?”
Tommy said, no. He tried to shake off the punch but seemed dazed. After giving him his glasses, I helped him to his feet. He said he was still going into work. I argued we should go home. Nothing doing, he said. I got on the bus with him—still terrified. I knew I couldn’t leave him alone.
We rode a milk route. The number 26 Metro Transit bus wound its way through Wallingford, Fremont, Westlake, Cascade and eventually downtown. Neither of us talked much.
By the time we reached the city center, Tommy—glassy-eyed—realized he couldn’t go into work. From a pay phone, we called someone—I can’t remember whom—with a car. We dropped Tommy at his house and returned to Camp Blossom.
Holly, one of my housemates, had made the basement bathroom into his bedroom. He had rigged up a kind of bed in a large window ledge. It was the only raised bed in the house, the rest of us slept on the floor on futons, foam or mattresses. I climbed into Holly’s bed and surrounded by my housemates began to cry.
I wept and wept and shook all over. I observed my weeping and shaking from a great distance. My detached consciousness was encouraged by my primal fear. Here was strong emotion, I thought, not the repressed, mediated reality I usually inhabited. I had broken through to reality, experiencing the depth of my sadness like a patient of R.D. Lang, the revolutionary “anti-psychiatrist.”
My housemate, Chip, who had been a nurse, worried I was going into shock. He put his hands on my legs, soothed me and encouraged me calm down. I followed his advice, figuring he, as a former medical professional, knew best.
Before that night, homophobia had been abstract to me. Now it had a violent body, a convulsed face and arms that could strike. Some people really hated me and wanted to hurt me simply because I shared romantic love with other men.
Back on the street, I kept watch when cars turned an unexpected corner. I reminded myself that next time I should read the license plate and yell out its numbers and letters to intimidate the driver. Even better, I should run away as fast as I could. Run toward other people.
But I remained out and proud.
I even kept wearing those damn Birkenstocks.