Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Bryan Washington

My straight Canadian friend, a long time married Mom with two sons and bright granddaughters, said to me via email:  "This morning I read a short story in the Oct. 29 NEW YORKER. . . . it’s by Bryan Washington. It seems to be set in Houston, Texas, and the title is “Waugh” which seems to be the street where they live."  He has a book coming out called "Lot."  This story is from that book, which probably tipped the scales for being published in The New Yorker, since he was "published," a endorsement of prestige.

Here's the issue of the magazine.

This is an accompanying article about the author and what he does.   by Willing Davidson

This is his website:   This is his Twitter: @brywashing

Aside from this story, he sounds like a socially conscious journalist.  I'm sad that the illustration for this story in TNY doesn't identify the artist, since its a beautifully delicate image.  But it doesn't address the story, which takes sex and sexwork as just a fact of life that doesn't need any description or rationalization, except that it's a way to earn a living.  The actual story is about caring for people, either in a blunt way like letting them stay at your place, or in a carefully detailed but simple way about eating.  Then the story, which has been careful and true, goes deeper.

HIV hits everyone, but these people are wary because they are more exposed.  They know to get tests, to use safes, and to take the prevention drugs.  When "the bug" hits them anyway, the only answer they have is exclusion and rejection.  But the protagonist knows there is help in clinics and so on. He just doesn't use them.

What the story is really about is how people organize themselves around some slightly alpha person with more money, occupancy rights to a shelter, or more willingness to impose order.  But that can be smashed.  It has been this way since the beginning of clans, tribes, villages.  But now it happens in this quiet, sad way right in plain sight under bridge overpasses and the wastelands of abandoned industry.  Emil, the fuzzy savior, is from a place where work and loyalty are valued and observed as a matter of course.  We can only hope that Emil will save the protagonist, but he yearns for his earlier special friend, not just killed by the bug, but disappeared, wiped out..

Here's what Bryan Washington says about his writing, which has very little explicit sex in it, except to note the fact as part of life.

"But I think writing about intimacy is really only writing about the dynamics between people, and I’d be tempted to wonder whether anyone with those objections would be tentative about the pure fact of the acts themselves, or just who’s actually engaging in them, specifically."

Intimacy is another fact of human life and to make some forms into taboo secrets is to deny the reality of our differences.  It is to eliminate one form of survival in a murderous world.  How is the hookup between two men that makes the struggle possible -- even makes it bearable -- any different from any other two various genders sticking together?

"That’s what got you a regular, Rod said. You established patterns. Patterns became routines. Routines meant a sure buck most days of the month, and that’s what kept the lights on."

Since I began to be a little more open about writing with and thinking about Cinematheque, Smash Street Boys, Real Stories Gallery, I get some strange looks from locals.  A few are probably wondering whether they could, um, "make contact" but no more than when I was young and teaching, or when I was with Bob Scriver but not married in a legal way.  When I was clergy one man, a respected school administrator, remarked casually, "I'd like to see what you've got."  Even in the accepted structures and institutions of our lives, sex has become a patterned element that suggests special access, acceptance, a special tie, and some kind of weird transcendence through orgasm.  It's supposed to be a source of meaning.

But as I look at the people here, most of them over fifty, it's a good guess that most haven't had sex for years even though they've been married for decades.  They have nice homes and pickups.  Their children went away and are successful in cities.  

Some people have intimacy with others and some do not.  It is as likely to be intimacy based on drinking, shared history, habit, and the probably legitimate expectation that they won't be surprised.  This means that much intimacy is "same-sex," based on activities like fishing.  For a while there was quilting, but that has faded.

Something similar is true of the rez population just a few miles and a lot of stigma away from here.  Some people are attracted by their fantasies about that and some hate themselves so much for craving sex that offers no solution that they kill their partners.  They are often transients who don't belong anywhere, are carrying bugs of many types, and will not survive.  This village shuts them out.  For the most part.

I had funny ideas in the beginning of my clergy career.  (I've stopped calling it "ministerial" since in Canada their government representatives are called ministers and I served congregations on both sides of the line.  Once I told a border official I was a minister and she thought I was a senator so treated me with much more respect and let me through the port unchallenged.) I thought that being clergy would mean I could safely go among strangers, foreigners, criminals and even sexworkers without being in danger.  Now I know better, but it remains true that I can interact through writing without being beat up or infected.

Making contact with writing means a loss of relationship to some degree, although some people are more susceptible to print than others.  What counts is what you do with it, what it gets you to understand.  So Bryan Washington lets us see into one way of life among one kind of male person.  The lesson is as much in sameness as in difference.

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