Thursday, January 11, 2018


Let’s start calling this young man “Toby,” as in “Tobe or Not Tobe.”

The continuing counterpoint to hospitals in this story is hotels — from top-of-the-line luxury establishments in major cities to sordid small motels that were stranded when the new highways by-passed their town and coped by "charging by the hour".  As the boy began to mature, he found work in the major hotel closest to the state capitol building.  The tasks mostly had to do with serving powerful men, from making sure their shoes were polished to hooking them up with their restorative and compensatorry vices: rich food, booze, drugs, and sex.  Maybe gambling.  Certainly gossip.  His view of the world became much bigger and far more cynical.

Abused youths develop parabolic dish antennae for “reading” people, esp. those with power or who might otherwise be a threat, like special knowledge or control of resources.  An hotel is an excellent place to develop and profit by this skill.  A clever boy willing to do sexwork would do even better.

The social layering of an urban hotel was architectural: basement or rear where the darker low-class people did laundry and cooking; front-of-the-house bar and restaurant with attractive people serving; a big conference area and/or ballroom for events; and the actual bedrooms with penthouse on top, possibly a bridal suite, and variously elegant hotel rooms.  The front desk, the interface with the public, hired staff with both style and charm, a diplomatic role.

Provisioning such a place required logistics and negotiating for bargains and delivery.  Reservations and room assignments also demanded a feeling for order and fittingness.  Toby’s mind had a bent for systems and work-arounds.  He knew people and how to persuade them.  The potential for gaming was high.

Years of crowding into a back booth at the Pancake House with his group of high school outcasts and oddballs, building castles in the air of what might be, fomenting strategies of defiance, arguing big theories of what life is all about, had prepared Toby for drinking in a dark upscale bar where deals were made, personalities sussed out, and connections with government opportunity were defined and explained.

All this was useful preparation for later when negotiating the labyrinth of AIDS activism.  But there was also a time of beach resorts where the climate was agreeably warm and sunny.  For a while gay men enjoyed an airplane-based society that moved them through such resorts, both as employees and as clients.  They enjoyed interacting with local brown people, understood how to handle folks who had enough money to just indulge themselves, and the beautiful men needed little more wardrobe than Speedos.  Swimming was advertising.  This was probably what caused an airline attendant to be blamed for the first AIDS cases in the US, though by now the first HIV carriers have been retroactively identified as decades earlier.

For Toby the beaches were places to swim, sun, and fish.  He was not attracted to the big tourist cruise ships nor did he envy yachts.  They were both places where one was trapped.  His style was small sailing boats, freedom.  He even built one.  In the Mediterranean he harked back to his old classic Western Civ classes in the advanced high school program so the Greek ruins and mythology came alive.  Being there was more than hedonism, also the pleasure of old stories and evocative fragments.  “Western culture” if you like.  The aesthetic gay community supported this.  The friends he made were not ignoramuses.

When the Cinematheque group began, it was not exactly in a hotel, but they called it in code “L'Hotel Sud.”  On the first floor of the Paris building was a classy brasserie, but up on the high floors the resourceful teens had created a studio home where they combined actual contact sexwork with video internet.  They watched out for each other and talked through what they did.  They were from multiple countries.  No one had really understood yet what HIV meant or that they should get tested.  There was no pimp or madam.  Rather they were a self-regulating democracy.

When Toby joined them, he moved them to a loft, where they reorganized to being artists of several kinds.  There was a darkroom and some boys fell in love with it.  No digital cameras yet.  Then, while playing football (soccer) in the park, the youngest boy collapsed.  Rushed to the hospital, he was the first of them identified as an HIV carrier.  Luckily, this was France where there was excellent health care and far more tolerance for those living on the edges.  

But this was still early days and it took expertise to manage the interacting meds and the cloud of maladies that afflict those with weak immune systems:  lung infections, stomach problems, small injuries to the skin that became serious, and always the emotional damage deriving from abuse and the physical side effects of drugs necessary to survive abuse and sexwork.

Over the years from his earliest times, Toby had worked with kids with problems ranging from a few compliant but very deaf small Chinese students in the San Francisco public schools who weren't learning to read, to doing drug triage in the emergency room of a major Los Angeles hospital.  There he witnessed the worst, which became the index for all his social action afterwards.  A young man came in raving and belligerent on drugs.  A cop tried to force him into compliance and drew his gun.  The boy struck a karate pose and the cop simply shot him dead.  There had been no way to intervene, no way to prevent repeats, no way to rationalize what had happened.

In Paris things went better, but still meant constant alertness.  Everything was discussed from in-house discipline to the uses of specific symbols as they began to make videos.  The boys governed themselves as Toby had believed in since his early days in Michigan at a mental health center where he helped to make that really happen.  After all, these free-spirited boys had been running a business for a good long time.  A few had excellent educations from Jesuit schools in Ireland -- where the priests had molested them.  Growing up during the “Troubles” had not made these young men weak.

The Internet was growing broader and extending around the planet, much of it driven by porn.  Everything was debated and debated again.  Should they let themselves be seen, be known?  They were stalked.  A poetry event blew up into violence.

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