When I became “education coordinator” for animal control, I thought it was a step in the direction of “professionalizing” myself. No more scrounging around in decrepit places -- this time I would rent a “nice” apartment, so I settled into a very nice, sort of “French” garden apartment. The reason I thought it was French was that the windows were all the way to the floor. Probably built in the Thirties, the bathrooms had been clustered around an air shaft. A person who really meant to could crawl from the window in one apartment through the windows into the other two apartments that adjoined. The window across the shaft was never opened, which was fortunate since the bathtubs were right under the windows, but I opened mine when it was hot and so did the next-door apartment. Thus I became a part of their intimate lives.
They were two gay men, one a little younger than the other, a little softer and needier. He had the low-pay job and did the “femme” work: dishes and dusting. Sometimes the two of us would sit out on the stoop with our coffee or pop or beer and he would tell me how frustrated he was to be always the backup, always the homemaker. He sounded just like any wife.
The other man worked in a nickel plating plant and came home exhausted, blackened, and angry. He was a dark man in every sense except not African American -- some kind of Mediterranean. He was the dominant one and very hard to placate, to calm. Sometimes they got into terrible fights, throwing each other against the walls and yelling obscenities. I worried about calling the cops. Portland cops were not homophobic and would not abuse them, but still... officers called to domestic violence were liable to overreact. I decided that I would not call emergency unless I heard a shot or someone yelled for help. Neither ever happened.
Maybe in an attempt to be more like a family, they adopted an adult dog. This was not a success. She was the worst dog I ever knew. No mystery about how she got to the humane society (not animal control). A cross between an English sheepdog and an Afghan, she had every possible worst trait of both breeds. Energetic, distracted, destructive, unteachable, uncontrollable, unhousebroken, hairy, noisy ... They named her Sadie. She only lasted a week before they couldn’t stand her any longer and took her back.
But that’s not the point of the story. The rest of the story is that on an August weekend, very hot, I was reading in the bathtub with my window open. It was evening and the neighbors decided to take a shower together. The dark one was in his usual foul mood. The soft one began to gently soap him down. If I got out of the tub, it would make noise: they’d know I’d been there and listening. Anyway, I’m a writer. I might write about it sometime. It’s been thirty years -- I guess that’s long enough to wait.
They rinsed and then ran cool water to sit in together. And each began to tell the other stories about their past, seeking intimacy and trust, grieving over old losses and injustices. I’ve never heard a heterosexual couple in such unguarded moments, but I don’t suppose it would be that different. That’s as far as I’ll go.
This was the apartment where I was living when I took my own small dog for a walk first thing every morning. It was a frosty fall morning when I pulled on jeans and jacket over my pajamas, put a baggie in my pocket and set out on our usual route. Some of you have heard me tell this story before: how I turned the corner and found the street full of football players with hearing aids and giant anti-nuclear war puppets. It was a very nice neighborhood and the president, Jimmy Carter, who was campaigning for re-election, had stayed there overnight instead of in a hotel.
The football players got us organized behind a silk rope they had set up, like at the Oscars, and the President walked down the row, graciously shaking every hand. He had no idea that I had a baggie of warm dog poop in my pocket because I hadn’t come to a garbage can yet nor did he know I was wearing pajamas. The secret service didn’t know it either.
Maybe it was a more innocent time. Carter was certainly a more innocent president. He got in his limo and left and so did all the others. I finished my mission and got dressed for work. Nothing else happened.
Is there any connection at all between these two stories? I don’t think so. Except that when I first moved in, it was late and I was sitting on my bed reading when I heard the window next to me, which was ground level, slide quietly up. In front of it was a chest with a silver tray of perfumes on it. I had enough money to buy serious perfume in those days. Two clean pink hands reached in and took the stopper out of my flask of Mitsouko, very powerful exotic stuff. No longer on the market.
I was both scared and angry and leapt to my feet, slamming the window down so fast I almost caught the hands but I couldn’t see the person. I called the cops. First question they asked was whether the hands were black. The Mitsouko had spilled and I suggested that they go sniff the hands of locals. They had no intention of doing anything like that. The bedroom reeked of the stuff but I was afraid to open the window again. The next day I bought wire mesh and secured all my fancy French windows plus the bedroom window.
Much later my dish-washing neighbor confessed he’d just been curious about my perfume and that I’d scared him as much as he’d scared me. So maybe that’s the thread of these stories: that we are always mis-perceiving things, that knowing the realities might be very surprising -- even unpleasant. But sometimes reality is pretty funny and sometimes it’s quite moving. You might not know for a long time.