I was 16, coming home on the subway from a party in Manhattan. It was 2 or so in the morning, and I was on the A train. Regardless of what romantic notion you may have of the A train because of Duke Ellington’s immortal song “Take the A Train,” that train is the last place you want to be at 2 in the morning.
What took my situation from bad-to-worse, the A train is (or was, this was 30 plus years ago) a local at that time in the morning. For those of you who deprived of the sheer delight – or utter dread – of an NYC subway ride, a local train stops at all stations on the line.
No matter where I boarded, I was going to the end of the line.
The “end of the line” on the A train on two occasions was not just my destination, but nearly a bad New York Post headline. One night while waiting for the A train I was stabbed during an attempted mugging. Another time while trying to defend a young white girl some thug put a gun to my forehead, pulled the trigger, but his gun jammed.
For asking him to be cool, I almost get shot in the head.
Take the A train? No. The Duke, a musical genius? Yes. Giver of great advice? No.
On this particular early morning, I was sitting alone with my feet up on another seat. My feet were up for a couple of reasons; the first was so I could look hard. Hard in a “do not mess with me because I’m hard and may have a weapon on me because I’m hard” kind of way.
The second reason my feet were placed on the seat next to mine was to discourage people from sitting there. Before the Rudy Giuliani era in New York, the subway was a Mecca for the homeless, and you don’t want a New York City homeless person sitting next to you.
After all these years I’m now a bleeding heart liberal, and I feel for those less fortunate than I. These days’ homeless people sadden me.
That’s these days.
At 16 what I felt for the homeless was an evident scorn. I may have felt that way because my mother, sister and I were truly just a grandmother and a paycheck away from being homeless ourselves. That perhaps hardened my heart towards homeless people. Maybe I didn’t want to be reminded that there for the grace of God go I… yada, yadda, yadda…bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, yadda, yadda and yadda.
I’m not that deep now, and I certainly was not that deep at 16.
The real reason I did not want a homeless person sitting next to me is that they stank.
You have not smelled stank until you smell an NYC homeless person. The smell is beyond horrible. Somehow NYC homeless people all manage to stink the same. The smell is indescribably bad to the point you’d almost rather die than get even a small whiff of it.
So, there I was, 16 years old at 2 in the morning riding the A train trying my best to look hard so a smelly homeless person would not sit next to me and force me to deal with my mortality.
At the Howard Beach stop a black man in his mid 20s boards the train. He made a beeline right to me even though there were plenty of empty seats. “Can I sit here?” He asked very nicely. I moved my feet so he could sit down. Frankly I was glad he asked because the train was waiting at the Howard Beach stop for some reason or another and since we were the only two black people on the train at that point I welcomed the company.
Howard Beach was known as hardcore crazy white boy territory during the time I grew up. In 1986 a young black man was beaten to death by a mob of white boys in a racially motivated attack. There have been incidents before and since. Black people knew not to mess with those crazy white boys in Howard Beach and not just because of racist attitudes there.
Howard Beach was also the home of John Gotti, the then-head of the Gambino crime family. I don’t like fish, so the idea of sleeping with them was not one that appealed to me. This was a place where African Americans had better fear to tread. I did indeed welcome this guy’s company because clearly we were on enemy ground.
Brandon was his name, and we clicked immediately. That may have been because we were both keenly aware that any minute a gang of crazy white boys could board the train and lynch us both. Our getting along so fast, I’m sure, was due to the fact we wanted to present a united front. Both hoping that would give the illusion we were two badass motherfuckers and any lynch mob should think twice about harassing us, strength in numbers and all that.
We sat at Howard Beach for another quarter hour when the doors finally closed and we could relax a little. The next stop was Broad Channel. Broad Channel was not nearly as bad as Howard Beach – it was more akin to crazy white boys lite, but still crazy white boys.
I realize I’m throwing “crazy white boys” around a lot. Back when I was 16 “crazy white boys” were my mindset and referring to white people in an all-white neighborhood where black people feared to tread was how I saw things.
After Broad Channel was the beginning of the hood, so Brandon and I needed just to chill (chill means just to be calm, but you knew that from reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, didn’t you?) until the perceived danger was past. Broad Channel came and went as did our gangster conversation.
Brandon asked where I was getting off, and I told him. Beach 60th Street. “You want to come hang at my house?” Brandon inquired. That made me a bit uncomfortable. The Howard Beach threat over, I now returned to my general suspicions of those not from my hood.
“I’ve got stuff I’ve got to do at home,” I said. Yeah, I had to get into my bed and give the impression that I was home all night before my mother got in from working the midnight to 8 in the morning shift at the nursing home this after she had the 3 in the afternoon to 11 at another job. She would be in no mood to lecture me or even hit me, after her 16 plus hour day she would go straight to the .38 and shoot me.
I couldn’t come out and say to Brandon “my mommy would kill me if I’m not home” that did not fit my hard-core persona.
“Come on. We can have some real fun.” Brandon said, his hand now on my leg. That hand was slowly but steadily creeping up. He seemed to be talking in a much softer voice and was smiling in a strange way.
Where had I seen that kind of smile before? Shit, I know where! I’ve seen it on me whenever I happened to glance in a mirror while alone in my room with some Vaseline and a Penthouse magazine.
Now I get it!
Brandon was a faggot and he wanted to ravish my young sexiness. Yeah, I said the ‘F’ word, I was 16, remember? Unfortunately, that was my mindset then.
Brandon still had his hand on my leg, and it was still creeping up. “What the fuck are you doing?” I said, trying to sound real hard. I wanted to look thuggish, but I was scared, so my voice rose and I sounded like I girl.
Not just any girl. Shirley Temple. So, imagine Shirley Temple saying “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Come on; it’s cool.” He responded even more softly than before. “Get your motherfucking hands off me, faggot!” screamed Shirley Temple. I was hoping, this time, he could see I was pissed and back off.
Nope. He squeezed my crouch. I guess he was into hardcore black boys from the hood with Shirley Temple voices. Then again, who isn’t?
I leaned back as far as I could on the seat and kicked him squarely in the chest. I wanted to kick him in his face but felt at the last moment if I leaned back any further I would have fallen off my seat. I hit him so hard he fell off his seat landed on the floor his head slamming against the subway floor. I may have sounded like Shirley Temple, but I kicked like Bruce Lee.
“Motherfucker, I’m not a goddamn faggot!” I shrieked at the top of my Shirley Temple lungs while looking to land my next kick right between his good ship lollipops. Brandon sat up his hands in front of him making a “no more” gesture. He looked up at me and said “Jesus, man what is your problem?”
It was with that I realized most of what I thought was going on, wasn’t. His hand was on my leg, but it wasn’t slowly but steadily creeping up. He did not grab my crouch nor had his voiced gotten softer. I had turned an innocent most likely accidental touch into a full on man rape in my mind.
So absorbed in my own horribly tainted view of the world I had imagined this was what was on his mind. To make matters as worse as they could be I then kicked away any guilt I felt at being wrong by responding; “Get the fuck away me.”
That was over 30 years ago. Today I would never use the ‘F’ word to describe a gay person. I hate to use the cliché some of my best friends are gay, but… some of my best friends are gay. My attitude towards gay people changed when I changed high schools in the 11th grade. My new school, the High School of Art & Design, had a diverse student body and being gay there was not a big deal at all. But being stupid was.
Stupid I was when I said something so gross my first week at Art & Design it could have tainted my entire time there. It was a gay guy named Frank who saved my ass by laughing at an insult giving the impression to everybody present I was making a joke. I wasn’t and Frank knew I was wasn’t. He whispered “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Michael, grow up.”
Thank god, I did.
After meeting and getting to know many gay people in my new school it dawned on me that they were no different than I was. They just happened to like sex with the same gender. Hell, in high school outside my loving relationship with the girls of Penthouse I was not having any sex at all, so they were one up on me.
Accepting gay people, having grown up in the severe anti-gay atmosphere of a black housing project was not as hard as you would imagine for me. My mother had a “no prejudice” rule in our home. Remarkable when you know just how dreadfully bad her encounters were with racists growing up.
Changing my position on gay people wasn’t hard, but it was still a huge deal for me because of my environment. It represented the first of many sea changes for me in my existence.
When I was not in school, I was still a resident of Edgemere projects in Far Rockaway Queens, which at the time was well on its way to being one of the worst projects in New York.
I was living a double life, and I intended to keep it that way. There was no way in Hell I would have ever acknowledged that I no longer found gay people repulsive to anyone in Edgemere.
Oh no, that would certainly not do. Why not stand up for my beliefs?
In the African American community where I grew up, there was little love for individuals who accept gay people. I may as well have stood up for and proudly proclaimed the Klan as the greatest group since The Temptations. Repealing my position on gay people would have gotten me branded as such, my ass kicked or worse in Edgemere.
At 16, noble I was not. No longer being able to participate in any reindeer games would have had a profound effect on me. It did not occur to me till much later that may have been a good thing.
I don’t want to give the impression that all black people I grew up with condemned the gay lifestyle, not the case at all. Many saw gay people as having every right as anyone else. But even today unfortunately among some in the African American community I’m in the minority, at odds with those, still light years if not eons away from embracing gay people at least in public.
“I gotta find this guy.”
Dwayne McDuffie said as he and I searched the corridors of a New York City comics convention in 1992. We were looking for Ivan Velez Jr., the remarkable writer of Tales of the Closet. The book was a look at the high school lives of gay and lesbian students and what they experienced.
Exceptionally written and drawn with a simple yet effective style the book instantly drew me back to A&D and thoughts of Frank and his crew. Ivan is a man of little words outside of what he puts on the page. He’s a big, gentle, quiet soul who lets his work do the talking for him. However, when he feels he has something to say few can match his oratory abilities, so it’s best not to engage him on the wrong side of an issue.
I thought about Frank, Ivan, the creators and fans of Prism Comics and my brother from another mother Andy Mangels when I heard the news of the Orlando massacre. I thought about how it must feel just to want to love who you want and be slaughtered for it.
This outrage was an attack on Frank who I haven’t seen in 30 years, Ivan who thinks I don’t like him, Andy who knows I love him and another, Billy who avoids me but protects my future ex-wife.
A friend lost to time, another lost to differences, one here forever, and the last not a friend but I’ve got his back also.
Each has a right to live their life, regardless of their opinion of me or mine of them.
Ivan and Billy are wrong about me, but I’ll take a bullet to defend their way of life as I’m sure they would supporting mine.
I was wrong about Brandon; I was also sixteen, young, selfis,h and stupid.
In 2016 those who would deny, suppress or kill someone’s love for another have no excuse and I’d say stupid would be a step WAY up.
I thought about how stupid I was at 16 and wondered how on earth some who claim to love their God can commit cold blooded murder on his behalf. I wonder how Donald Trump could brag about predicting another attack then hours later issue a more humane statement and not express his outrage or even mention the LGBT community then blatantly lie about the murderer being born in Afghanistan.
He wasn’t. He was born in the good old USA.
So was I and as far as I know most of the people at the Pulse nightclub, that night was born here also.
This was an attack on a lifestyle, an attack on America and an attack on freedom everywhere. Yes, it was all that.
It was also an attack on Frank, Ivan, Prism Comics and Andy. It was an attack on my friends. If you fuck with my friends, you fuck with me because unlike some people I know I stand with my friends no matter what.
No matter what.
If you don’t, soon they will come for you. They will because no matter who you are or what you believe in, you’re at risk. If you let this horror go then the next before long knowing you stand for no one but yourself, then those who disagree will know you stand alone.
Malcolm X said a man who will stand for nothing will fall for anything.
And fall you will.