Summer fell upon our two bedroom apartment in the Castro, its closed walls and cluttered appearance an oasis away from the sprawling flat we shared near Stanford. Stu’s parents had bought both places, rewards of the guilt they held for missing his birthday, his graduation, his you-name-it-they-missed-it.
“So which is it?” Pete asked, a thick Jack Frost smoke leaving his lips. Our cohorts, lacking sufficient imagination in their severely blissed-out states, often returned to the same general fodder: if it weren’t for Stu’s wealth we’d all have been sequestered into a dump that ranged from a cardboard box in Daly City to a ground floor apartment near Hyde and Post.
“You mean I have to choose between shit-mines and crackheads or leaving the city?”
“What would life be without the transgendered sex-workers, the tweakers who try to eat the mine they left on the lobby floor, the semi-conscious bodies paving the way from their SRO to social services?” I had mused, enticed by the idea of eccentricities and grit before I had understood what that really meant, what the Tenderloin really meant to its inhabitants.
I’d always been safe, passed from my affluent childhood to Stu’s adulthood. I’d made stupid decisions, sure, but something or someone had always been there to catch me. I didn’t understand that people lived without a safety net or that people still jumped, still acted, still believed, without one. I’d lived on a cloud that floated somewhere above real problems and I couldn’t imagine what it was to not have that cloud, to not be able to see that cloud through a mass of fog. I’d never felt alone in a society that ridiculed me. That came later.
“Give her the shit-mines!”
“Give me the shit-mines.”
“Box got a window?”
“Sure, Stu. I’d cut you a window.”
“Looks like you’re on your own, doll,” Stu laughed. “I’ll take the box.”
“Why would you wanna live in that ashtray?”
“Box can go anywhere.”
I guffawed at the thought of my cautious Stu toting a cardboard box with him down the street to anywhere. He’d been all over as a child. I’d seen family albums with him swaddled against his nanny’s chest in luxury hotels from Paris to Singapore while his parents added pictures of themselves biking along the River Spree or riding elephants in Thailand. He’d been everywhere, all right, but I don’t think he’d seen any of it.
“Anywhere,” Pete puffed another cloud into the air. “Damn, Stu, why you gotta be romanticizing the poor?”
“Not romanticizing,” Stu sighed. “Is the truth.”
“Whose truth?” Pete argued. “Not my truth,” he stood and walked to the window. “Not my truth, Stu. Not Penelope’s truth. Ain’t their truth,” he tapped the glass, hard. “You could be anywhere right now but you’re here.”
The mellow had worn away. Pete was entering another of his manic episodes about societal injustice, about hierarchy, about the unfairness of all that is capitalism, about some such half-baked belief he held that day.
“Penelope isn’t poor.”
“I’m right here,” I announced, though I’d willingly let him fight that battle if he wanted it.
“Sorry, Penelope,” Pete grimaced. “You ain’t poor, baby. You’re kept.”
“Don’t insult her,” Stu stood. “No reason to insult my girl, Pete. She’s been nothing but nice to you, letting you stay with us and all.”
“Letting me stay. You wouldn’t have to let me stay if I could be anywhere. If I could go anywhere. Can’t go anywhere, Stu. Can’t go nowhere. Got nowhere to go,” Pete shrank back to his seat on the floor and took a cigarette from his pocket. “There’re three types of people, Stu. That’s it. There’re those like you who could go anywhere but don’t. There’re those like me who got nowhere to go. And there’re people like Penelope who go where the gettin is good and no further. That’s it.”
“And where should I be trying to go?” I asked, not certain if what he said was meant to be a compliment or just the very opposite. “Where would you have me go, Pete?”
“Everywhere, babygirl. You should go everywhere,” he stroked my hand on the table and I pulled away. “Shouldn’t be settling for this – for this going nowhere.”
“What you gonna do about it, Stu? Nothin. You won’t do nothin. Won’t go nowhere. If I were you…I could do anything, go anywhere.”
“What do you know about going anywhere? At least I’ve been somewhere. You been nowhere but here. Here on my sofa, smoking my shit, drinking my shit, insulting my girl,” Stu sneered. “You been nowhere.”
“Like I said, got nowhere to go. If I had the money you got, boy, I’d go places. It’s all wasted on you.”
Stu leaned against the window. “You don’t get it, Pete. I have a responsibility.”
“No, Stu. You don’t get it. You got a responsibility to go somewhere. To see what I can’t, to do what I can’t, to feel what I can’t. You’ve got a responsibility to me, to us. You gotta do it. Or you’re just like them, just like them out there toiling away their lives in cubicles. Or just like those in the TL, doing who-knows-what to who-knows-whom for who-knows-what. A waste. I won’t be a waste, Stu. I’m going to do things.”
:: check back for Part 2 on Wednesday ::
-M. Ray Hall