(Trigger Warning: Homelessness, Homeless Youth)
by Jim D.
Several years ago, pre-Katrina, I went to New Orleans, one of my favorite cities, to visit for a few days. My first day there I wandered aimlessly around in quieter streets of the French Quarter, as I always do, just letting the feeling of the place seep into me once more. It was a beautiful day, and I was leaning up against the outside of one of the gay bars, watching the few people who were going and coming in the streets. I noticed a young guy walking toward me from down the street, with a definite limp, pulling his suitcase behind him. When he got closer, I could see that he was maybe around 20, blond, nice looking, with simple but decent clothes. He walked by me, looking at me as he did, and I was very struck by his eyes and facial expression. Almost empty of any emotion or feeling, although he was clearly sizing me up. (I should add here that I’m over 50). He kept walking, stopped a couple of times and looked back at me (and I was watching him); and after half a block he turned around and came back to me.
First words he said: “Do you know where I could spend the night?”
And he started off down the street again, limping, pulling what he had behind him. Of course I knew what he had wanted, but I wasn’t into taking a stranger in, for money or not, even though I was already haunted by the look on his face, and the feeling that his limp was something that needed medical treatment which he couldn’t pay for.
Two nights later I went into one of New Orleans’ sleazier gay bars (which is saying something), away from the main tourist area. This one had a reputation then as a place where you could buy more than beer; and being a good tourist, I wanted to see what the vibrations were.
Go-go boys on the bar, in underpants, pushing drinks and who knows what else. The old courtyard area was out back, beside what used to be the kitchen and servants’ quarters of what was once a typical old French Quarter house. Customers could sit in the courtyard and the boys were coming and going between the bar area in the main building and the little rooms on two floors of the “annex” which they were using for changing clothes, and I gathered maybe as a place to sleep, since the rooms had small beds in them.
Altogether, they seemed to be having a good time, as lively and enthusiastic as a group of beer drinking frat boys at a Yankees/Red Sox game. When I went back into the main bar room, I saw “my” guy from the street, being directed by one of the other boys over to a box in the corner where he could stand and dance (I assumed that the more “experienced” boys got the prime bar top positions.) He got up, and started to…sort of…sway to the music. He certainly wasn’t trying to do much moving around with his lame leg. Underpants, tennis shoes and socks, same blank look on his face as when I saw him on the street…definitely not part of the frat scene yet.
I was sitting at the bar watching him and the other goings-on, and the guy sitting next to me said: “He’s new…and straight.”
After drinking my bottle of water, I knew that place had done all it was going to do for me; and I went over to “Mike” (made up name for this story, I have no idea what his real name was), and put a $20 bill in his sock. I also motioned to him that I had done it, so he would be sure to know it wasn’t just another $1 bill and lose it.
He leaned down, took it out, and said “Wow! That’s the most anyone’s given me!” Then he looked at me and said: “How’s your day going?”
“Pretty good. Yours?”
“I’m homeless.” And then: “You can take me with you if you want to, but you’ll have to pay.”
“No thanks. But I appreciate it. I hear you’re straight.”
“How’d you hear that? PLEASE don’t tell anybody.” He thought it would cut into his tips and maybe other profits…shows how little he knew about gay men!
“A guy at the bar told me. Don’t worry. You can trust me not to say anything.”
So then he stood up again, started his half-sway on the box in the corner, and I patted him on the foot and waved goodbye and left.
I was pretty much overwhelmed by the whole experience, and half a block away I stopped and thought of going back to give him some more money. My trip down there would cost over $1000 and he had been overwhelmed with a $20 bill. But I heard that voice which tells you not to just hand over money to strangers, and I kept on walking.
There’s no more to tell, except that I’ll never forget him. I live in Manhattan now where there are thousands of homeless kids on the streets every night who came here to find security. Many driven from home because they are gay and often surviving by selling themselves as Mike was doing and ending up with addiction or HIV or worse. Yet, for the rest of my life Mike will haunt me and will be my symbol of young people on the outside, gay or straight, just hoping to survive another day, and maybe with no dreams beyond that.
I still don’t know the answer to whether I should have gone back and put some more money in Mike’s sock. But I do know that I now occasionally ignore that voice, and give something to strangers. And that at my funeral service, I want “The Theatre” by The Pet Shop Boys to be played, in honor of Mike.
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