From the Corner Office
1982, Madison, Wisconsin
The local TV station came into office. I sat in a folding chair waiting to be processed. The ceiling fluorescent lights seemed very bright. Cigarette butts were sprinkled on the linoleum floor. I was to be filmed as I waited for unemployment benefits. I was a first time visitor.
It has already been seven months of unemployment. Home interest was at 13%. The newspapers talked of recession. I was one of many people without work.
Both of my daughters, Laura and Suzanne, were away during the day for school. I was bored and depressed. I had read that exercise was good for combating depression. I ran each day in a forest area near our home.
It was an odd urban forest. Once you enter it, you have no notion that a large city is only steps away. It was humid and buggy. I hate humid and I really hate buggy. Despite my distaste, I ran, walked and plodded through the forest. I watched the squirrels and the occasional bird. There were Wisconsin Fall colors and the smell of piles of leaves. But I became interested in the cars.
The trail was narrow and cars would periodically emerge from sharp turns going very fast. Tires squeeled. Drivers seemed liked to race through the forest. Cars came very close to me. I could feel the wind as they passed.
I began to plan how I might end the depression. I thought,
“I just need to take 2 steps to the right and it would end.” …….
“No, I can’t do that.” “What about Sarah? What about the kids?”
My thoughts looped through that exact monologue every day for weeks.
Our financial situation was bad. American Express had very aggressive bill collectors and our two income family now had one income. We were going to lose our home.
So, into this dreadful scene of a very private horror, came the telephone call. Suzanne was in the basement playing with the cat. Laura was annoying Suzanne. Sarah was at work.
The loud telephone bell rang over and over again. We kept the phone in the hall. It had a long cord. I took the phone into our bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Hi Mike, it’s Tony. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing good!” I lied with that practiced fake enthusiasm we all learn.
“Well, the reason I’m calling is we have a job in San Francisco that you could do.” He went on to tell me the salary for a temporary job with a software start-up in San Francisco.”
“You’d have to move out here from for a while.”
I said yes without discussing this with Sarah and the kids. I felt trapped and this seemed an escape route.
A friend in Berkeley offered me a room in her big house and in a few days, I was gone. I left my family. I flew to Berkeley to live in a leakey attic room on the third floor of my new place on Ashby Avenue.
I did not sleep well. I awoke each day before sunrise and walked to a 24 hour donut store. It had that wonderful smell of greasy donuts and cinnamon and coffee. Oh, and tobacco: it was cinnamon, coffee, grease and cigarette smoke.
Even at 5:30a.m. , Ashby was busy with cars, trucks and buses racing toward the bay bridge. I didn’t have a car, so after my morning donut treat, I walked a mile to the BART station. The train was packed with standing commuters. In the morning they all were dressed sharp and they smelled good.
The train seemed to raise it’s voice to scream when it went under the San Francisco Bay. Standing and gripping the overhead bar, I would close my eyes and drift into semi-counsciousness as we sped into the City.
Never speaking to anyone, I moved throughmy morning routine. I felt very alone. The donuts seemed the highlight of the morning.
My new San Francisco job was to help a fledgling company with a big project. We had the task to convert all of San Francisco’s mental health clinics from paper records to a new computer system. I was one of the first employees, but others came rapidly. Hiring friends, we quickly expanded to 10 employees. We were all men and 1/2 of the men were gay.
San Francisco had become quite an assembly point for gay men and women. The Castro district was the scene. Along upper market, it was another world to me. Men wore a variety of outfits, lots of chains, short leather caps, and tight pants.
One day, soon after I arrived, the heel to my shoe broke off. I needed to repair it.
I asked:“Hey Bob, where can I get some glue around here.”
“I don’t think there is anything downtown here next to City Hall. At lunch, I’ll drive you to a hardware store.”
As it turned out, there were 5 of us packed in a car as we drove up Market Street in to the Castro. Along the way, my mid-western perspectives began to peel away. I stared out the car window at the various passing scenes that I had not seen before.
We pulled up about a block from the hardware store.
“OK Mike, it is just down the street. We’ll wait for you.”
I got out of the car and stood on the crowded noon time street looking at the outfits men were wearing, the couples holding hands. Finally, I saw a man wearing a dog collar while another man followed with a leash. I stared for more than a moment before I recovered and went into the store. I felt I had traveled far to a distant foreign place. I thought people were starring at ME. Finally, I darted into the refuge of the store.
When I returned to the car, I realized I had been the afternoon entertainment. The car was convulsed with laughter as they described watching me.
“You were standing with your mouth open.”
“We thought we were going to have to rescue you. You went rigid.”
“You were really shocked, weren’t you. “
That quick immersion experience was good for me. I soon became comfortable in my own role as the straight man with children. I was fine being me.
As a start-up, our little company had no office. We just worked at the customer’s site. In this case, we worked in the public health building directly across the street from the ornate golden dome of San Francisco city hall. We had a big corner office.
One morning a police officer came to our work place and told us we needed to close the huge swinging windows. He explained the Queen of England was to be driving down the street near us and all windows needed to be kept closed for security. It was a warm day and we were not pleased.
Our office contained a pile of construction debris that included several lengths of metal conduit tubing.
“Hey! Let’s make dart guns.”
Somehow, we all knew how to do this. We stopped working on our computer terminals and grabbed sheets of printout paper. We rolled the paper into tight long darts and began firing across the large workroom. Others in the room were not happy to be poked by paper darts, but we kept at it. The darts got more and more well designed and with a quick puff of breath we could shoot them quite a long way.
“Lets open the window just a bit”
“Yeah, let’s see how far we can shoot these things.”
We had only fired a few before one dart shot across Grove avenue and right past a security guard at the door.
“Run, Run” someone yelled as 5 grown men scrambled out the door.
I was a member of the group. I was the oldest but I didn’t feel old. We laughed until we could not stop.
“Stop it you guys, I gasped”
We held our breath trying to stop the care free hysteria. We had to try to stop laughing.
A few months later, I looked out of the big corner windows. I could see the United Nations plaza in front of City Hall. It was a Sunday morning. I worked almost every day and today I was alone in the Public Health building.
The previous day (Saturday), there had been a huge demonstration. A terrible new disease was ravaging the community and demonstrators stood on the steps of city hall to protest. They wanted more done to deal with AIDS.
On Sunday morning, I saw the sanitation workers cleaning up the trash in the plaza. The workers wore masks and gloves. News reports told of muni-drivers running busses from the Castro were wearing white surgical masks.
“What was happening?”
“Could I catch this?”
I went to my dentist. The office was in the Castro District. The dental hygienist now had a mask and a large plastic visor over her eyes. I had never seen this before.
“What was happening”
At this point, we were all pretty ignorant about AIDS but we knew something horrific was underway. It was contagious, but how? The scene on Castro now included some very ill, very thin men. People were dying. People were becoming frightened.
At work, I overheard some of my gay friends talking about AIDS.
“They are trying to blame it on us.”
“They want to close the bath houses. Why should we do that?”
“This is some kind of conspiracy. The disease was created by the CIA.”
In this setting, I met Jimmy. He was tall and skinny with genuine red hair. Although 6 years younger than me, we instantly become close friends. We liked the same music. We ate at a local diner. We both liked grilled cheese sandwhiches. Jimmy like to order “I’ll have a Grilled Cheese Samwich”.
Jim and I went on long walks all over San Francisco. We talked constantly about our families, gossiped about our coworkers and what was happening in the world. Jim had never married but loved children. My children loved him.
I suddenly had a real best friend.
Walking one day, I asked Jim: “How do you know if a man is gay. You seem to know from secret cues.” “What do you see?”
“I just know. It’s obvious to me.”
Jim lived in the Castro and would sometimes invite me to parties. Often I was the only straight man present.
Yes, now --- I just knew I was the only straight man.
Jim and I often climbed up on the back stairs of our workplace above the Orpheum theater. We sat in the stair well. We liked talking alone on the stairs . There, We could conspire on how we could change our future lives. We dreamed of becoming rich. We played The Fantasy Game. The rules:
You can dream without restriction. No limits. Anything was possible.
“Maybe someone will buy our company and our shares will be worth a fortune.
We will go public.
We’ll buy homes and drive fancy cars. “
“I’ll buy a Porche”
I said: “I’ll take Sarah to Paris.”
Jim threw in: We’ll get a real office on the bay.
We will eat in the best restaurants. No more diners.
We’ll pay off all our debts.
I said: Jimmy. Some day you and I will sit at a table on a balcony overlooking Lake Como drinking wine.
Neither of us had been to Lake Como, we just like the sound of that statement and the image. Plus it fit the rules of the Fantasy Game.
About 6 months later,
Jim did move into a grand home in Pacific Heights with his new lover, George, a wealthy restaurant owner. Jim began to live a different life style.
Jim and I and Carol (the only woman in our company) became 3 drinking buddies. Almost every night we walked ½ a block down New Montgomery to the Pied Piper Bar in the Palace Hotel. This was a truly grand bar with a giant mural of guess what? A huge pied piper mural was painted behind the bar. The piper was leading the children of Hamlin away.
Because none of us drove to work, we could drink after work, sometimes at length. Carol was recruited to play the Fantasy Game and we all sat in darkened elegant bar and watched the other patrons. We came often and watched the show like an evening soap opera:
Carol watching the bar said: “Oh look, she took off her shoe and is rubbing his leg.”
Look at those CFM shoes?
Jimmy, stop flirting with the waiter.”
At the end of an hour or two in the bar: “OK, I’ve got to go” I want to catch the next train back to Berkeley.
Carol said “ I’m going down the stairs for the muni to the Mission”
Jim took a different train up to the Castro. We went our different ways every night.
We didn’t talk about AIDS. It was front page news every day. Our company began to build a database for the public health department. We did it for free. The printer near my desk would list the hundreds of names on paper as it folded back and forth into a tall pile. The printout showed AIDS in big letters. The pile of paper got bigger and bigger.
On Saturday morning, I took my car from Berkeley and drove to Jim’s house in the City. Jim didn’t say why I was invited. It was an unusual invitation. Some of our mutual friends from work were already sitting in Adirondack chairs Jimmy’s sunny back yard. I sat next to Carol.
I knew Jim had been to the doctor. He had sores on his face. I imagined why we were invited there, but I forced dark thoughts away. “It could be acne? “Couldn’t it?” “Don’t be paranoid,” I told myself. “Don’t be so negative.”
Jim told us he had lab results.
We were sitting in a semi-circle and Jim stood with the bright sun behind him. I tried to look at him through the shadow. I thought, “what I should say”.