She arrived at my apartment at 3 a.m. with a soft suitcase on her head, a handle positioned over one eye. I could see the netting in her matted blonde wig. Her broken eyeliner and stained lips were only partly intentional. If she had the money, she might have made more of herself. Jayne St. Mansonfield, the terror. She wore a thin cotton shirt, stiffened with blood. No makeup, no falsies. But she stood wavering on a pair of busted up heels. A pair we’d laughed about. The only pair a poor queen with size 11 men’s feet could find at a Goodwill.
“What happened to you?”
All her color was drained from her face. She’d always had an unhealthy pallor.
“Let me in. I’ve just been through an operation.”
My roommate was out for the night, a relief and a dread. Eddie was a terrible drunk, and once diagnosed with AIDS, spent as much time as he could in a blackout. I worried about him, but could never really connect with him, though he was the first person I lived with in San Francisco. Took me up to Twin Peaks and waved his arm over the city, right at dusk, as fog dragged over it, a dirty shawl. He had opened his apartment to me because we knew each other in Iowa City and had friends in common. By the time we reconnected, the funny, handsome, farmers’ son was nearly obliterated by the city.
He marveled at how I’d put down roots quickly, moving in a circle of San Francisco friends whom he might have found interesting in the past, but who were too complicated for him now. He was either drunk or fucking or both. Sometimes, between the bathhouse and the bar, or on his return to the one-bedroom we shared, he blacked out roadside.
Eddie seemed to me one of the gay men who came to the city to survive, but only just. Small-town Iowa in the late eighties was traumatic, lonely; I, at least, had a circle of out friends in Miami. I’d seen Grace Jones and Sylvester perform at tea dances in my teens. Gay life, despite violent bullying, had a celebratory aspect to it.
For Eddie, the leather bars and backrooms were a new world, and sex was popularity, communion. He let himself be eaten by everyone, and in turn consumed them. Sex was also revenge. When he found sex, he found a freedom he’d been denied and he was furious to discover it, furious that it had been withheld.
I entered my first leather bar when I was fifteen, and after the early shock and excitement of seeing someone in a public sling, my senses were dulled. Exposure to a lot of sex early on made it less promising. And once sex wasn’t inherently obliterating or transformative, I could approach it without expectations of it defining or saving me. My gayness, or anyone else’s, no longer seemed inherently interesting, though it could be. It wasn’t inherently anything in my view, which set me apart from many of my friends who believed it was transgressive or offered access to the sublime. I had grown up amidst the daytime talk show representations of gay men: forced to debate the church, evolution. (How could we be normal if we did not reproduce? How could we be anything but an aberration, a mutation meant to die out?) By the time I’d arrived in San Francisco, I rejected the idea that my sex had to stand for anything, that it carried a message.
For Jayne and for Eddie, the promise of transgressive sexuality remained, so long as pleasure was complicated, the body tested. Jayne’s performance work wasn’t sex, though frequently it involved genitals.
“This neighborhood sucks,” she said, taking a red diner seat in Eddie’s small kitchen. “You can feel the traffic in here. Even at this hour.” She carefully lifted the suitcase off her head.
“I like the hat.”
“I just came up with it!”
“How’d you get here?” I asked.
“I took the bus.”
“No one harassed you?”
“Are you kidding? No one dared speak to me.” She nimbly reached for a button and the shirt fell open. I turned away, queasy.
“I know, it’s really gross.”
At the center of her chest, a large black scab hung, ugly as a cockroach. It was edged in bright blood.
“They put me in trance tonight, and the idea was to give me a keloid. Like those African tribes. They have the ritual cuts, and then they pack them, sometimes with small stones. This is packed with ash, but it’s supposed to be more upraised than it is.”
“Gross. Close the shirt.”
“It really hurt, and it wasn’t supposed to. I just couldn’t get deep enough into trance. And they used an Exacto knife and the damn thing was dull. They kept pinching the flesh together and sawing through it.”
“Jesus, stop. I can’t listen to this.”
“It wasn’t supposed to hurt.” Confusion in her voice. Re-buttoning, head hung down, schmutz in the wig.
His legal name was Eric Love, and he worked a day job at Just Desserts on Church Street. I met him in my first days in the city. He worked in the back of the shop. For no reason at all, he would come out and ring up my order for half the price, or would charge me nothing at all, just packing a slice of apple pie or some cookies into a box and sending me off. This was accompanied by a sly smile, not a pickup, but an expression of an intuited affinity. That shared glance worked all over the city: I know you. You’re a freak, too.
In a city of outcasts, you didn’t have to work hard to find your people.
His most distinct attribute was a massive bar code tattoo on his outer thigh. He was soft-spoken, quick to laugh. The first time I invited him over, we ran out of things to share. Initially, he wasn’t talkative. I remember we listened to Princess Tinymeat and The Virgin Prunes, both Irish bands that upped the ante in regard to gender and musical nonconformity. “Let’s make some music,” I suggested. I had no instruments. We grabbed pots and pans and a wooden spoon, and wrote a song about the spoon that was idiotic and that he would hum for as long as I knew him.
The wooden spoon/will be stirring soon…
He was part of a group of neo-primitive performance/body artists whose work involved undergoing a number of physical trials. He was a model for the photographer Joel Peter Witkin, and in the work, “Penitente,” was crucified between two monkeys. In another, entitled “Testicle Stretch with the Possibility of a Crushed Face,” he was strapped to a decline board, heavy weights distending his scrotum. And yet, he was soft, open, drawn to darkness but not possessed of it. His body was an obstacle to something spectral. It had to be tested, overcome; pain was a conduit to that other, truer experience.
He was part of a fringe performance group, Kristine Ambrosia Transpersonal Communications, that organized complex trance events, often with Kristine receiving and transmitting messages. These rituals drew on mystical, fakir traditions, but wove in, oddly, South Pacific themes. At one vast warehouse event, Kristine reclined on an elevated platform in a mermaid’s outfit with a tail at least ten feet long. An early purveyor of technology, she tapped away at a boxy IBM and printed off direct messages from the gods, mostly dingbats, single words, streams of commas.
On that evening, Jayne explained that one member of the group was dressed in a dog costume with long, soft puppy ears. He was positioned in one part of the performance space, and people blew darts at his ass.
“I so admire him,” Jayne said, “He’s able to go deep into trance.”
“In a dog costume?” I asked, impressed.
“You should participate in one of Kristine’s events. She likes you.”
“I hate pain. I don’t like to see it. I don’t like to receive it.”
“Who cares what you like? Don’t let that limit your life.”
I told Jayne about Eddie’s neighbor who’d died a few weeks earlier. He was a collector of gay porn, and Eddie plundered it. There was so much of it, though, he had to build special shelving. It may have been Eddie’s last great project. The shelving began in his bedroom but had to be extended down the hall. We lived crammed in among the old 1950s physique magazines, the black and white sailor porn—a history of America’s mail order businesses.
“It’s actually too much porn,” I told Jayne. “We never look at it. It’s just stacked up.”
What was stranger than all that porn were the mini, reel-to-reel tapes the neighbor kept. I had hot glued a small recorder to the refrigerator. The reels were a little smaller than Super 8 films, and the speaker was built into the battery powered player. I pressed play and Jayne and I could make out the neighbor’s drunk, crooning sex talk, a slurred series of dirty phone calls he’d recorded and archived. A dark world that Eddie had transplanted into his own small apartment.
Initially, the neighbor’s creepy collections all seemed kitschy, an irreverence. But it all grew heavier as Eddie grew sicker: a prison of erotic paraphernalia that Eddie had rescued from the trash and from a hauling crew prepared to wear firemen’s gloves just so they wouldn’t have to touch a faggot’s infected trove.
* * *
I told Jayne that I worried Eddie was on a dangerous slide. At night, I’d hear scratching at the door handle. The first time, fearing someone was breaking in, I held a kitchen knife in one hand, calling out, “Who’s there?” from behind the door. Muttering. More scratching. Then I recognized the voice. He was sitting in the doorway, having given up on getting the key in the lock. I carried him into his bed.
He had a boyfriend who looked like a vampire, with darker rings than Eddie had around his eyes. The boyfriend was a tall, loping Spaniard with hair slicked back. I thought he’d murder Eddie, but he only murdered him in sex, which was more violent than I’d ever heard in porn films. As it turned out, the guy was a stalker, leaving notes on Eddie’s car or slipping them under the apartment door. Eddie told me they both had AIDS, that the guy was interested in some kind of death pact with him. But Eddie was already ravaged by the drinking and the disease. He didn’t want any more ravaging.
Despondent about a job he could no longer perform, a body he could not keep sober, an apartment he could no longer afford without a roommate, and a lover who fantasized his death, he told me he was going to hang himself along with his cat.
“Why do you need to kill the cat?” I asked him.
“In case they don’t find my body. I don’t want the cat to suffer.”
“Well, he still cares about the cat,” Jayne said. “That’s a good sign.”
* * *
Jayne said I should put on my wig and we’d do a sleepover in drag. “That’s really doing drag. The rest is just Gay Pride or Halloween.”
“I don’t think of myself as a drag lightweight, but I admit I haven’t yet slept in my wig. Sometimes in makeup.”
“Oh, you have to sleep in your makeup. I’ve done nothing but touchups since the first time I did drag.” She laughed.
“That’s what it looks like.”
I didn’t often sleep in a wig or with friends. But Jayne wasn’t creepy. Eddie was out of town and offered me his bed while he was gone. I had been sleeping on a red leather chaise with my calves hanging off since I rented his tiny spare room. I figured if I washed the sheets, no harm, no foul. And the bed was luxurious: a queen.
Eddie had a make-up mirror in his room, Italianate edging, baby cherubs and all that. I applied a few rudimentary daubs of stolen Princess Marcella Borghese rouge, eyeshadow, lipstick. Jayne pulled my shorty wig down on my head and put her hands on my shoulders.
“There’s my girl,” she said. “Who’s the cheapest of them all?”
We sat on the edge of the bed, talking. Then she kicked off her dirty shoes and settled a few inches away from me, staring at the ceiling. She was a little like me, too insecure to make a first move even if she wanted to. Even more like me in that I didn’t think she wanted to. She was terribly shy. Lying together was close enough.
“Keep your shirt buttoned,” I said, looking at the top of her ash-packed wound. “I don’t need you bleeding out on the both of us.”
“Tomorrow we should go do laundry in drag,” she said.
“You sure know how to take the glamour out of it.”
“I hope you never thought you were glamorous, girl.” She drifted into sleep.
* * *
I moved out of that place shortly before Eddie died. He died in a hospital in Iowa of AIDS, not suicide. He was the first of many friends to leave the city to return home to die. Many others moved to the city to fight the stigma of the disease, to find a doctor who might recognize the symptoms they displayed and wouldn’t look on them with horror. A community can make a disease feel predictable, normal even. Everything we did or didn’t do to manage our fear, even our fears of being there for each other, or not being there, were normal.
We came to the city to live as artists, queer people, who’d found our lives intersected with AIDS, whether we were positive or not. The disease was a forced unmasking—all those people leaving and returning to small-town America, sick. And the families of the sick, forced, finally, to stand by their children or not.
Some returned home to their families and dropped their shame on their parents’ doorsteps. Shame is sticky stuff; those who shame others are never really rid of it. It returns.
The fact that shame is irrational, unreasonable, makes it that much more intimate. It’s an alienated obsession, an ink in the heart.
But admitting shame–its awful unreason—we didn’t do that. We never did.
* * *
I took a couple of Tenderloin apartments before settling above an old gay dive bar on Turk and Hyde Streets, called the 222. There was a small fenced-in parking lot next door, and people would throw down blankets and sell their things. You could buy anything there: a prosthetic leg still in a stocking, a washcloth, toothpicks, a set of teeth. Any crap you could steal from a drug hotel or an S.R.O. I called it “fashion fence,” and when my heroin habit took hold and I had no income, I told Jayne that I wanted to film an advertisement for it.
“Maybe I can make a few bucks off each of the sellers, draw a little attention to fashion fence on Public Access TV. I even have a jingle.”
I sang, “Fashion fence…For outdoor shopping conVENience.”
“Uh huh. That’s quite a get-rich-quick scheme. Advertising for the indigent. Speaking of which, I have to sell my photos. The ones Joel Peter took.”
It had been less than a year knowing Jayne. My life had spun out so badly, I barely noticed that hers had, too.
“That’s a shame. They’ll be worth something.”
“I’m sentimental about them. They hurt a lot, posing for them.”
She sat in the light-drenched front room of my apartment, on a Fifties aqua-colored sectional couch I’d purchased at Community Thrift. I’d painted the floors a lacquer black, and they were covered with shoe prints it seemed pointless to mop.
“I can’t afford my treatments and pay the rent here. I’m going back to New Mexico.”
She slipped her jeans off, injected into her quadricep. She was taking Alpha Interferon then and told me it burned.
“You don’t have a problem with needles, do you?”
“No,” I said.
She gave me the side eye. “God, I hope you haven’t gone down that road.”
Sweet Jayne. I was so happy you didn’t believe I was destined for that life. Grateful I wasn’t too dark for you to care.
* * *
While Jayne was in New Mexico, I decided to work as a dominatrix to afford my drug habit. I had no actual interest in S/M, and, had I been prettier as a boy, would have worked Polk Street without having to doll up. Getting in drag for an afternoon trick was a hell of a lot of work. S/M seemed like it would provide a modicum of control, so I read The Leatherman’s Handbook.
I put out an ad as Mistress Cane, and only then realized how much work canes were. They had to be soaked or oiled and were expensive. Leather, too, was expensive. I had a habit to attend to and I was hardly going to spend money on a playroom. I wouldn’t have furnished one if I had kids.
I made do, though.
Once, after my street was closed off for a police incident, I dragged a traffic barrier upstairs to convert into stocks. I used a tree branch instead of a cane. I wore a rubber dress, rather than a leather one. Dominance on the cheap. Eighty bucks an hour (to undercut the competition). It was a short-lived career.
I would call my friend Veronika Klaus, who performed standards and was a sympathetic ear, to complain of my tricks.
“I don’t think I’m having a sex positive experience,” I told her.
“Oh honey, I know.”
“I thought I was doing something wrong.”
“There’s no doing wrong. Only not doing wrong enough.” She could make every conversation sound like a standard.
I was a lousy sex worker, uncaring. But I was a born dominatrix when it came to my heavy metal drag band, Chastity. We had fewer than a handful of delirious live performances at Club Uranus and at the Firehouse. A Joan Crawford rock opera that incorporated samples from Bad Company and Kiss overlaid with a few lines of ridiculous Crawford dialogue. We sang, danced, and costume changed over a short blast of prerecorded material. In the afternoons, I would drill the band on choreography and we’d practice our thirty-second costume changes behind a rigged-up sheet.
One of the finer moments of my performance life during that period was American High Heel Wrestling, a show loosely organized by the club promoter Ggreg Taylor, who asked the miniature painter and trash drag performance artist Jerome Caja to do an event for Prevention Point. Prevention Point were advocating clean needle distribution, and as a user, I responded to the event in self-interest.
I found an enormous American flag at a thrift store. It was several square feet, large enough to mark out the area of the floor where we’d wrestle. I told Jerome we should call the event American High Heeled Wrestling; we had the flag after all. We decided to have tag teams. I brought my friend Mark on board, and the two of us stole padding from a carpet delivery truck that magically appeared one afternoon, unattended. We then had to run down the street with a cumbersome roll of foam but thank god we had it; we tossed each other around that wrestling mat with a violent abandon that shocked us everyone, ourselves included.
Jerome had the advantage, of course. She was the reigning champion of all things “underground” at that time. Whether dressed as Olivia Newton John in shit-stained running shorts, Medusa, or wearing heels with webbed duck feet, she was singular, fantastic, imagination turned inside out. But I had my own people, rooting me on. I wore my one black stretch tank dress and a pair of Fluevog heels.
I wore a storied wig. Black, waist-length, and knotted up. It made me look like an Italian fishmonger’s wife. We “borrowed” velvet ropes from the Lumiere Theater, where many of us worked. Young men in jock straps held the theater ropes and marked out the wrestling ring. The lights came on and a crowd of hundreds pressed forward. A soundtrack by Twistofine Daniels thundered over the loudspeakers announcing the start of the fight with an atonal collage that blended Rocky’s Theme, Chariots of Fire, Meco’s Galactic Funk version of Star Wars, and Stockhausen’s Hymnen. Jerome was carried into the ring as though on a dais. I stood in one corner, flexing, hissing, whipping my hair around when my drag name, Rena, was announced. A name I imagined suitable for roller derby, a name with elbows.
The violence rapidly escalated. Jerome tore off my wig. In return, I swung her around by her babydoll nightie until it tore off. She was nude and furious. Our tag team partners jumped in and a fistfight broke out. Hanna Barbaric was the ref, announcing the rounds but never pulling anyone off the other. A friend of mine, Mitsi, who was then a stripper at the O’Farrell Theater, skated around us, topless and wearing a strap-on dildo. By round three, I was terrified we might die in the ring. I was pinned by Jerome’s tag team partner and had the wind knocked out of me. When I finally could get air, someone blasted baby powder in my face. Just then, a kiddie pool full of whipped cream was lowered from the ceiling.
The crowd started throwing bottles in the ring. That’s when I realized that the energy had shifted; we’d gone from Jerome vs. Rena to good vs. evil, life vs. death.
That is where it seemed everything could go, with that reckless, fatalistic intensity so bottled within us.
* * *
A few moments in the life of a wig:
Hanna Barbaric lent the wig to me for an evening when we went to see Camille Paglia on her speaking tour for Sexual Personnae. Paglia got down on her knee to kiss our hands; Hanna (or Mark Spainhower), was nearly seven feet tall and the author of the essay on George Romero that appeared in ReSearch Magazine’s Incredibly Strange Films. We stood out, in the grand lobby of Herbst Theatre, amongst the seasonal subscribers to the City Arts and Lectures program. I later wore that wig in a Popstitutes performance on Castro Street, where Jerome made a sundae in his plastic pants, and I bathed in garbage and pudding, and washed the wig out in the toilet. That night, Diet Popstitute, who worked at Haagen Dazs and had secretly opened the shop up for some after-hours performance entertainment, emptied powdered sugar over the entire place. It was not open for business the next day. The mop job went on all night, and only made it worse.
At the end of Hanna Barbaric’s life, she began to get warts on her face, Molluscum Contagiosum. Formerly, she wrote about horror films and conjured a terrifying presence in drag. But the warts were humiliating. They couldn’t be burned off. She’d wake up to two or three new ones where the old one had been burned away. She dreaded waking.
Her dreams became very vivid, and she remembered them in minute detail. Every night, it was as though she had been traveling.
She warned me about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. There were so many demons to prepare the soul to encounter and overcome. “It’s a gauntlet up there,” she said. “There are hundreds of demons waiting to rip your soul into shreds.”
She stayed in. She was a vain person, savagely witty or mean. She once told me that she’d been invited to a solstice party. “I can’t get you an invitation. It’s just for the pretty boys.” Well, she was only articulating an unspoken caste system well-known in gay life. She also said something to me that struck me as difficult but true: “You’re not a writer until you publish.” She had me there, because as defensive as I felt, I believed it.
Perhaps it was Hanna’s harsh delineation of writers from non-writers that made my first publication seem so great an achievement. I probably would have barely recognized it otherwise, but it shut her up. At least about writing.
She wanted to talk to me every morning on the phone for hours. I had just started working as a Case Manager for the State of California, and the phone would be ringing before I reached my desk. It was a miracle I got that job, in active addiction. I wanted to hang on to it, but I couldn’t hang onto much.
In retrospect, I can imagine how alone she felt. How frightened. But at the time, I just wanted her to understand I was at work. I couldn’t listen to every dream about her father, the San Diego cop. She was at his boots, looking up into the dead space of his eyes. I couldn’t respond to the horror she felt in watching her appearance transform.
She told me she reached a radio DJ by phone and requested her favorite song, “River Deep - Mountain High.” The Ike and Tina Turner version. The ferocity in that song is almost unimaginable. It’s a song that demands such a fearless vocalist, a wall of sound to support that voice. It’s a pop song that destroys pop conventions, a song of love that’s so relentless and unconstrained and like a tantrum, it’s hard to remember it’s about love at all.
When I told Hanna I had to be brief, she was enraged and demanded I return her wig.
I stuffed that wig into a brown envelope and sent it less than two blocks away to her place on Eddy street. Within six months she was dead. A friend told me she said she hated me, that I’d never returned her wig.
I complained of her to Jerome, who painted her hanging in that same wig, the chair kicked out from beneath her heels.
“That queen’s so dramatic,” she said. “I got a good painting out of her though.”
A few years later, I had a vivid dream of Hanna. She demanded I stop talking about her and, for the next twenty or so years, I did.
She was the first friend I was not there for when they passed. There were others. It was a record I couldn’t correct for a million and one reasons.
When I talk of having been there, I also have to talk of having not been there.
* * *
Jayne returned to San Francisco. Just for a few days, because she missed the city and her friends. She was really down. In New Mexico, she was staying in a house next to her mother’s, alone.
Her health had radically deteriorated.
She said she was tired of dying, had almost forgotten what living felt like.
There was nothing to catch up on.
We sang our old song, The Wooden Spoon. Stirring soon.
“And speaking of spoons,” she said, “do you have any heroin?”
“Of course,” I told her.
We dreamt together on the old 1950s sectional in my living room, the police barrier not far from the window with ropes wound around it.
Heroin’s so vivid, but it’s almost like you’re not supposed to remember any of it. All that nodding out, and no real images or thoughts to take from it.
It was like we were traveling fast. An escape without a destination.
She flew back to Albuquerque the next morning. One, two months later—she was dead.
I sometimes wonder whether she’d left anything for me on that last visit. A cock ring or an earring, or even something she didn’t intend for me, a receipt or a key to her old place. The way she’d always dump some shitty broken lipstick in my bag. I have the feeling she wanted to leave something, but I may have overlooked it.
I woke up out of a nod and she was gone.