by Alejandro Morales
In 1999 I graduated high school and in the fall I moved from my mom’s house in the Hudson Valley to a tenement building in New York City’s Upper West Side, to study musical theater. My first taste of city life came when my mom’s sedan pulled up to the curb of my new home, and I encountered my very first 16-foot tall, inflatable union rat. The tenement building where I’d be living, The Stratford Arms, had been acquired the year before by the conservatory I’d moved to Manhattan to attend, and was undergoing renovations. Ducking past the picket line in my skater jeans, clutching a doomed houseplant to my chest, nobody called me a scab, but I couldn’t help but sort of take the whole thing personally.
Coming of age in upstate New York, I felt I could go pretty much anyplace knowing there was some chance, however remote, that I would feel welcome. But in a city where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Broadway hopeful, the welcome mat for last year’s Drama Club President is worn all the way through. In its place, I was greeted by a towering, sneering, hissing rodent who bore gnarly yellow claws and a grudge, and that was only the beginning. Even my dorm room was a disputed territory, with a native community of roaches comprising a well-organized and fearless insurgency that held its ground against an occupying force that truly had no knowledge of its culture, and no contingency plan. The rat and the roaches had staked their claim first; the pest was me.
One day, I was in my room grooming myself. The shower and toilets at The Stratford were communal, but for 750 dollars a month, the free market provided me with a sink and a mirror, which I used to style my dyed-blue locks, apply glitter to my cheek, and smear my pillowy lips with watermelon gloss. On this particular day, I was standing over the sink, adjusting the arrangement of tiny half-moons and stars on my eyelids, when a monster cockroach emerged, Godzilla-like, from behind a bottle of contact lens solution. Don’t let anybody tell you everything is bigger in Texas until you’ve shown them a New York City cockroach. It was big enough to choke with two hands, and equipped with body-length antennae that it whipped menacingly in my direction as though it planned to carve a crimson R into my forehead, as a warning.
I let out a shriek so high-pitched Mariah Carey broke into a cold sweat across town, and then sprang into action, scouring every available surface with my outstretched hands in a vain search for a roach killer, while keeping my vision fixed on the medieval beast in front of me. Finally I settled for a can of hairspray, flailing it in the direction of the roach and letting loose a fragrant, effete spray of product.
And then, another.
Having emptied the contents of the can, I succeeded in annoying the roach. It leaped down to the ground with a thud that sent hairline cracks through the linoleum, and came after me. I put to use some of the football moves I had absorbed in high school — by injection — and faked right, faked left, faked into the hallway, and then slammed the door shut when it scurried out after me. I locked the door for good measure.
When you live in the center of the universe, it’s “Go Big or Go Home,” and from disgruntled union workers with their inflated Shame Rat, to the primordial insects that waged a constant battle from any and all available points of entry, to say nothing about my cutthroat musical theater classmates, Manhattan’s inhabitants engaged in several fierce rounds of one-upmanship to register their disapproval of my presence, so that I would go home. I took a lesson from my insect nemeses and stood my ground, but I didn’t pay close enough attention to roach motels. If I had, I might have noticed some significant parallels taking shape.
Looking back and seriously considering my motivations for moving to New York City, I think Broadway success was a secondary priority. What I really wanted was to find friends who were like me, who were gay. In high school I’d only had one gay friend, and because we were basically stuck with each other we fought like cats; I’m not exaggerating; he literally filed his fingernails into points and was known to claw. Having felt alone and starved for community all those long years in suburbia, the New York City under-21 club scene presented an inviting smorgasbord of brightly colored sweets: eye-candy, ear-candy, and the kind of illicit candy certain drag queens sold from tiny baggies they kept hidden in their stilettos. And just like that, I fell into the cliché your average mom calls “The Wrong Crowd.”
Instead of engaging and building a real gay community from the ground up, my new friends and I just went straight for the Ecstasy of togetherness. Moreover, we tranquilized our ambitions, drowned our sorrows, and – what I’m saying is that we drank and did a lot of drugs. We made nightlife our only life, and like foolish six-legged pests who don’t know when a thing is too good to be good for you, we swapped toxic chunks of wasted time between us until we killed off what little community we had to begin with; I don’t keep in touch with a single one of the guys I’d considered my friends in those days.
Thoroughly poisoned by the spring of 2000, I had become a musical theater dropout with a substance abuse problem, and an eviction notice secured my spot on an old couch in my parents’ basement back upstate. As I spent the decade getting back on my feet, I explored different avenues of gay community and eventually found my niche with the Falcons, a GLBT (and allies!) soccer club that welcomed me with open, err, legs. Bad metaphor. Anyway, in the end the survival lessons I learned from the roaches of New York City have stayed with me for life. Armed with little more than sheer will, stubborn determination, and some help from my friends, I can now thrive even in the most unfriendly of places.
Good luck trying to get me out of Philly.
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