Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

On My Own?

Sal always encouraged me to leave my bag in the apartment if we were going wandering. I didn't like the idea. It wasn't Agnes. Maybe it was Agnes, but separating myself from everything I owned didn't seem smart. There wasn't much I learned on the street that I could put to use, but keeping what I owned close was one rule that worked. When I decided it was time to move out of Sal's, I didn't need to pack. All I needed to do was walk away.

I felt a little bad, because Sal didn't understand. I would have taken time to explain it to him, but I didn't understand either. It was time. Funny thing about time, just when you think you have all the time in the world, it becomes time to move on. In the morning when we left Sal's I had no idea I wouldn't be returning. Standing on the street corner in front of the diner in The Castro, I had no idea why I'd given up a safe place to crash, not to mention the food, but when it's time it's time and here I was back in a familiar place.

Carl thought I was crazy when I put everything I was taking in one bag. He didn't understand the need for mobility. I'd left my working clothes at my brothers for him to send to me later. I was well fed and rested, which wasn't the case after my first trip west.

I could always find a place to rest my head in a pinch, but that wasn't what was on my mind. I was no closer to having some ideas concerning what I came to do. There had to be a way to reach out to politicians with the problem. This was a gay city. It was time to put out the welcome mat for the runaway and throwaway gay kids. They came to San Francisco expecting to find a friendly city only to discover they are invisible.

The kids in the park reminded me of why I was there. Sal reminded me of the attitude I had to defeat. Could I just walk into a political meeting and say, 'Billie Joe's here, listen up.' I wasn't the type to stand up in front of a crowd and order up their attention. I'd pulled it off at school once. That little stunt got me an A in speech class for the rest of the year, but that was school and this was the real world. Would adults even listen to me? I didn't know the answer, but I knew I had to speak up.

I picked up a paper and walked up to Golden Gate Park and sat under a lamppost to study the news about the city I expected so much from. I tried to put my memories to work, fitting my knowledge of the city with the current local events described.

What was going on and who might be willing to listen to my story? There was surprisingly little detail reported about the working of the city. There was less yet on gay aspects of city living.

Was it the same old-rich-dudes rule as was true of most towns? Did the same old farts run this city that seemed to run every city? The same farts that ran the country? Were all the young people so busy earning a living, paying the rent, and raising their kids that they had no time to interject what it was they wanted to be representative of their city?

I wasn't buying it. It would be too easy to admit defeat and go back to where living was easy for me. How long would it take for me to start realizing I had to do something for me to get on with my life? How long would it take for me to be back on a train heading right back here again? No, I was here now, and I needed to finish what I came to do before going back to Carl.

A familiar chill ran through me. How was I going to find someone to help? What if no one was interested in helping? Maybe if I had given Sal a chance, he'd have helped.

I took a pad from my bag and jotted down some notes, while I remembered the details in my mind. I'd get another paper tomorrow and do some more studying. Maybe there would be something to go on as far as how the city was run. I needed to have some idea of who might help if I talked to them. I stuffed the paper into the first trashcan I passed, put the pad in my pocket, and went back into The Castro.

It was night and my presence there felt familiar. There was something attractive about The Castro. Perhaps it was because it was the gayest spot in one of the gayest cities in the world and I was gay in a country that made being gay as tough on you as it was possible for them to do. I wasn't going to do much to change the country but I thought I just might be able to make a difference in San Francisco. Someone had to care. They had to know about the problem and they had to care about it, but who?

I stopped and talked to a group of kids. I asked the same questions but got less positive responses. I looked into all the young faces and no one was familiar. The boys all posed for me, seeking to be the one I picked to talk to. Each sought to be the center of my attention. Breaking away from their midst, they offered me their favors for a price. They laughed and giggled, sensing they'd embarrassed me. How young they were, but none knew or remembered Gene.

I wasn't there to find Gene.

There were even more than I remembered, and they were younger. These boys, not old enough to present anything of interest to most men, offered their services just the same. Some were neat and clean and dressed in brand-named clothes. It was obvious they didn't live on the street, but they acted no different than the ragamuffin kids who they ran with. These slick dressers with big smiles were first to disappear into the cars that hesitated only long enough to collect a quick and eager boy.

I saw them behind the counter at the motel with Fat Alfred. My skin crawled. They belonged in middle school and not in the middle of The Castro. The world I came to change was changing faster than I could keep up with.

As I walked on I noticed boys leaning on car windows on side streets. They bargained with the clients who couldn't stand the glare of the daylight. Some cars stopped, doors swung open with boys disappearing into them with familiarity. Arranged meetings had many of them here to meet the men who fancied their particular brand of affection.

It was hard to believe I'd been one of those boys the year before. Perhaps the older boys had deserted The Castro for some other meeting place where the drivers of the cars knew to go.

Why did the boys look so much younger than I remembered? Why did I feel so much older? Why did it seem impossible that I could have once been one of them? I'd aged a year or more last summer while I was on the street. I hadn't aged quite as fast at home, but I felt far older than my years.

I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground the year before, and now I'd come back to do something about a problem it seemed like most people didn't know existed. I was walking back into The Castro on a pleasant summer's evening and I recognized what was going on, because I'd been a part of it. The moving mass of humanity was oblivious as they stepped in and out of the stores. The boys were but fixtures on the street, like storefronts and lampposts, looked at and not seen.

I'd once been told that the last person you went to for advice about being a drunk was a recovered drunk, because each thinks he knows what it takes to beat alcoholism. In reality he only knows what it took to beat his alcoholism and all drunks are different. Maybe all street kids were different and all I knew was about the experience I had. I didn't buy it.

I had willingly headed for the street before it could seduce me. I didn't know my life was out of control. I simply followed the boys I fell in with. While I knew why I came to the city, it had little to do with what I found. If not for meeting people who cared about me, I'd have never left. I knew what it meant to be swallowed by the city and then being rescued.

That was the answer. That's what I was looking for. I was like those boys until someone took the trouble to guide me out of the darkness. I was going to find a way to guide them off the street. It was a start.

Once again I stopped to chat with boys holding up the side of a building. I looked like a tourist, carrying my bag full of belongings. Inevitably I was asking if they knew Gene, Donnie, or any number of boys whose names came to mind. They sat staring up at me their arms resting on their knees as they looked one to the other for some reaction. They offered no room for follow up and looked to one another to escape my intrusion.

"Hey," one of the smallest boys said when I was half a block away, merging back into the crowd. "What's he do I can't do for yuh?"

"What?" I said, a bit surprised by a twelve year old's proposition.

"For the right price I'll do yuh," he said, dancing along while trying to look at me and talk and not run into too many people walking up the hill as we walked down.

"What, I look like I'm doing business here?" I asked in all seriousness.

"Come on. You stopped to talk to us, didn't you? I know why you want those guys and I can take care of it. I am short of stature but long on talent," he said, selling his wares in quick time.

"What's your name?"

"Me?" he asked, unprepared for the question. "Tommy. You can call me Tommy."

"What do your friends call you?"

"What? You fucking with me or what?"

"I just asked you for your name. You're the one doing the dance," I said disinterested.

"Come on. I'm a reasonable man," he said, taking a few sidesteps with his hands jammed into his tight cutoff jeans.

He had dark hair and was likely Spanish. His English was flawless if a product of the street. He'd honed in on me for a reason, and I wasn't certain what it was. He kept up his pitch as I continued walking until I got to the diner. I stepped to one side so I was no longer married to the movement downhill.

"You going to buy me a Coke?" Tommy asked.

"Pepsi," I said, loyal to my brand.

"Whatever?" he said with exasperation. "I'm hungry."

"This food here will kill you, kid."

"I ain't a kid. Come on, let's blow this joint," he said.

There was a single short toot from behind me as a big sedan stopped at the curb.

"Oh, gotta go. Snooze you loose, dude. See yuh, wouldn't want to be yuh," Tommy advised in parting.

"Tommy, don't get into that car," I yelled in my father's commanding voice.

It got about the same result my father got when he used it on me. It was worth a try. Tommy pulled open the car door and was immediately out of sight behind tinted glass. The dark glass alarmed me and my heart began to pound.

"Tommy, get out of that car," I yelled, sounding frantic.

I was powerless to stop him. Why did I want to? This was going on up and down The Castro. The car was almost immediately on the move and I used the only weapon I had. Stepping into the street, directly behind the car, pad and pen in hand, I stared at the license tag and began to scribble.

Immediately I found myself thrown off balance, while being physically yanked off my feet and back onto the curb.

"What is it you think you're doing?" the officer asked.

"Fuck!" I said to myself. 'No good deed goes unpunished,' I thought.

"Jaywalking is illegal in this city. You trying to get run over?" he asked, and my ears picked up the sound of a car door slamming.

I looked over my shoulder and the big sedan was pulling away from the opposite curb, Tommy was charging toward me furious. I smiled.

"You crazy or what? You're certifiable, asshole," Tommy screamed at me, bumping his body into mine. "He's certifiable. That was my meal ticket, you asshole. What's wrong with you?"

I fished a few bills out of my pocket and handed Tommy a ten. He yanked it out of my hand and stared at it.

"What's this? I could have gotten twenty. More!" he calculated as he spoke. "This guy is nuts."

"You said you were hungry. Ten should fill your pie hole and you don't have to do anything but eat food and tomorrow you'll be alive to have indigestion," the cop informed him.

"Nuts!" Tommy said, throwing both hands into the air before stuffing the ten into his pocket as he walked away.

"I wasn't walking," I said to the observant officer.

"He'll be back tomorrow and he'll get into another car," the officer informed me.

"Yeah, and he'll be alive tomorrow. That's all I wanted."

"Aren't you a little young to be a do-gooder?"

"Aren't you a little young to be a cop," I countered.

"I'm older than I look. Come on with me?" the cop ordered firmly.

"Why? I wasn't walking? Is there a law against jay-standing?"

"Okay, obstructing traffic without a parade permit. That suit you better? …and I'm still working on the rest of what just went on out there."

"Yes, sir," I said, figuring the honey approach might work in my favor.

He pushed me to the diner door, held his hand on my back as he turned the knob and held the door open for me to go in first. His uniform was baggy on him. He was tall but not as tall as Carl. He had darker hair and pleasant blue eyes that glared out from under his cop hat. Even the hat looked a little big on him. I thought of asking him if it was his fathers uniform, but I decided not to go there.

"Sit," he said, tossing his ticket book on the table in the last booth.

"He's okay, officer," the counterman vouched for me pleasantly. "He's a regular."

"Did I ask you anything? When's the last time I inspected your storage area? I got a feeling you got rats back there the size of warthogs."

"I didn't say anything, officer," the counterman said. "Sorry, kid."

The counterman went back to his wiping and the officer glared at me.

"What can you tell me about what just happened out there? This is your only chance before I start writing."

"I don't know. I didn't like what I saw and I did something about it."

"The kid was talking to you before he got into that car. You sure you weren't just wanting him for yourself?"

"He's a fucking little boy," I protested.

"Watch your language," he objected.

"Yes, sir," I conceded.

"Two coffee," the cop ordered.

"What are you going to do?" I asked, not so sure of myself.

"I'm thinking. There is the jaywalking. I'm not sure if I should write you up for that or give you a civic award for good works. Where do you work?"

"I don't," I said.

"You don't work and you're handing out cash to street urchins? You're independently wealthy or what?"

"No," I declared meekly.

"You aren't from around here?"

"Alabama. Actually Minnesota, Washington, then Alabama," I corrected, realizing my identification would tell the whole truth.

He tapped his finger on the table as he watched me. Then, there was a definite pattern to the tap. I looked at the finger and looked at his face as he looked into mine like no cop had ever looked at me before.

"What? …What do you want from me?" I yelled, frustrated by his unusual behavior.

"Be quiet. The pad. Hand me the pad that you put in your pocket."

"Sure," I said, rolling to one side to pull the pad from my pocket. "You won't like it."

The cop was immediately investigating my notes, which no one could possibly understand but me. He flipped through the pages, stopping from time to time. I knew what he was looking for and I knew he wasn't going to be happy with what he found. I had been too smart for my own good.

"Who's Carl?" he asked.

"What? What do you want from me? Carl is none of your business is who Carl is. Write me the ticket already. I don't like you."

"Boyfriend, huh?" he said in his most investigatory voice.

The counterman came with the coffee and he gave me a sympathetic glance, after hearing my protests. The cop kept trying to cipher my notes.

"Okay, where is it?" he asked, once he got to the last page.

"What?"

"That guys tag number. I want it," he said, tapping his finger again.

"I told you you wouldn't like it. I didn't write it down," I explained. "I was bluffing. I didn't expect it to work. It was worth a shot."

"You didn't write it down?" he reasoned. "I saw you write it down."

"You saw me act like I wrote it down. I didn't care about his freaking tag number. I wanted him to think I wrote it down. I got the result I was looking for," I said, proudly. "Write me the ticket and get off my back. This is getting old."

Feeling proud of myself, I tapped my finger on the table until he handed back my note pad. I took a good look at him and he was still staring at me. This was not about a ticket.

"What?" I yelled too loud.

"Don't raise your voice. We're still considering what to charge you with. Don't make it any worse than it already is."

"I didn't do anything," I protested loudly.

"So, why are you here, Minnesota?"

"You wouldn't understand."

"Try me. I'm very understanding. Let me see your driver's license," he ordered.

"I wasn't driving," I yelled in frustration.

"Identification please?" he said politely, taping his finger on the table for me to put it there. I pulled out my wallet and dropped the laminated Minnesota identification on the table.

"Let me see that other thing?"

"What other thing?" I asked.

"There's another picture ID in there. Let me see that."

"It's my RamTech employee ID," I explained, tossing it with the Minnesota ID.

"This one says St. Cloud, Minnesota. This one says Seattle, Washington. What's that about?"

"I told you. I lived in Seattle and worked there. I went to school in Minnesota."

"Oh," he said, looking at the front and back of both identification cards without writing anything down.

"What kind of cop are you?"

"I can be a very nice cop. I don't like seeing stuff on my street that I don't understand. I've seen a lot of weird stuff, but you take the cake, Billie Joe Walker Jr.. Help me out here."

"Hey, I'm the one needing help. You busted me and I gave my last ten dollars to that kid," I lied, sensing an interest that went beyond what he'd hauled my ass in for.

"What time is it?" the cop asked the counterman.

"9:22," the counterman said after looking at the clock for a minute.

"I was off duty at eight. Let's say I didn't see what I said I saw. Since I wasn't actually on duty at the time, I might cut you some slack if you give the facts."

"What facts. You know everything about me," I complained.

"I don't know. I heard it somewhere: Just the facts. It's a good line, don't you think?"

"What are you after? Maybe it's time I took a look at your ID."

"Just a couple more questions. You aren't a serial rapist or something. Come to town to have your way with our local ladies."

"Carl's my lover," I said. "That help?"

"No, not what I wanted to hear," the cop said with a distinct frown. "Where's he?"

"Alabama. He's stationed in Georgia. He lives in Alabama," I corrected, becoming more suspicious of his motives but not enough to give him a more difficult time than I already had.

"Oh, I get it," he said, perking up. "You like men in uniforms?"

"I like Carl. If you're off duty and you're not going to write me up, what do you care what I'm doing here?"

"My street, remember? When I see something that makes no sense, I want to make sense of it. What does Carl call you?"

"Carl calls me by my name. What do your parents call you?"

"Argyll."

"Argyll?" I said with a smirk.

"Don't laugh. It could happen to you. My mother is eccentric. My father was holding out for Benjamin—'The Graduate.' The future in plastics convinced him. He's an investment banker. He was away when mother put the name on my birth certificate."

"Billie Joe," I said.

"That you?" he asked and watched me nod. "I like Joe. Sounds… butch. You better put your ID away, Mr. Joe."

"Your name is Argyll and you wear a uniform that's a couple sizes too large. What kind of cop are we talking here?"

"I'm the gay liaison between the Department and The Castro. I'm still growing, by the way. I'll fit this uniform one day."

"The jaywalking ticket?"

"Oh, that went away right after I looked into your eyes. You couldn't tell? They are quite lovely."

"You're trying to pick me up?"

"No, I didn't try. I did pick you up. The question now is, can I keep you? I'll feed you and give you a clean place to stay."

"I have a lover?"

"Yeah, and I don't want to see his picture. He's probably a hunk and a half and I'd be forced to hate him."

"Yes, he is. "

"I'm a part optimist, part masochist. Come stay with me. I'll grow on you, Joe. I'm an affable guy."

"You're serious? How often do you take home guys you threaten to ticket"

"Never. Never met one I wanted to take home with me before."

"You're funny. Why me? The Castro is full of hot men."

"Maybe it's not so much how hot you are—and you are hot— as it is curiosity over what you thought you were doing when I found you. That interests me to no end."

"I was here last year. I left The Castro about this time last year. I was a street kid."

"You? No way. You're so… so… middle class. How'd you end up here?"

"I came looking for a gay community. I expected people that incorporated all aspects of gay life. I was very young and even more immature. What I found were gay people quite willing to exploit me and the other homeless kids. No community."

"So that was no accident out there. You actually kept that kid from going with that guy?"

"Seems like."

"That makes me more curious. You really give him the last of your money?"

"No. I lied. I have backup money."

"Are you lying about being on the street?"

"No," I objected. "I came looking for the gay community. I lost my money and possessions when the cops raided a motel room I was staying in with other homeless kids. That's about the time I became one of them. They showed me the ropes and kept me safe."

"You, no way," he said.

"Way. That's the way it happened."

"How'd you beat the street?"

"A sick gay guy had a place and my best friend, Ty, took me there. I stayed until I went back home to finish high school. I decided I had to come back and do something."

"Do something?" he thought. "You gave the kid money to stop him from going with the guy in the car? You don't have enough money to give all of them money for food."

"I came here to do something. I did something. There's no grand plan. I'm about a day from heading back home, but I've got to do something. I can't know the danger and the damage done to these kids and not try to do something about it."

"I'll be damned. I was right about you," Argyll said thoughtfully. "I usually am, you know. Right about people. Get your bag and let's go," he said, standing up and pushing his coffee away.

"No, wait a minute. I'm not sure about this. I see the way you look at me, Argyll. I'm with Carl. He may not be with me at the moment, but I'm with him."

"Yeah, I know. Come on. You hungry? I'm starved."

We walked high up on Geary Street. He unlocked the front door of a small building and we walked to the top floor. He unlocked three locks before opening the heavy wooden door, holding it for me to enter.

The entryway was big and wide, like a room, but it was for hats and coats with one nicely upholstered long seat without a back or arms. The apartment covered the entire top floor. It was done in a shinny reddish wood with lots of leather. I looked for things hanging from the ceiling but a chandelier over the dinning room table was the only thing out of the ordinary.

"It's crystal," he said, as I stared up at all the dangling clear glass. "It's from the nineteenth century. My father lives here when he's in town. He hasn't been in town for five years. He has a company in Houston and offices in London and Paris.

"You're rich?" I said.

"On the verge of being disowned in fact. I might be homeless soon. Daddy didn't want me to become a cop. He sent me to Stanford to study law. I merely added enforcement to the program. The old man wasn't amused. He keeps threatening to make me live on a 'copper's' pay. Luckily this place is paid for and has doubled in value twice over the last five years. The old man is a sucker for investments. Can't bare the idea of selling it and thus I keep on living here."

"You're rich?"

"Do you want to go out, or do I order in?"

"On a cop's pay? You can't afford to wine and dine me."

"No wine. Besides, I have credit cards. We can eat and we can shop."

"You can eat and you can shop. Who pays the credit cards?"

"Well, that's complicated. There's this annuity my grandmother left me. She outlived granddaddy by a ways. The cards are drawn on the annuity, so I never see any bills. It's kind of nice if you are living on a cop's salary."

"It must be nice," I said cynically, remembering Sal's box full of cash and the matchbox where he lived.

He ordered Chinese, because they delivered late. He signed when they came to the door. We sat at the dining room table, which would have fit ten more people effortlessly. I felt uneasy because I knew Argyll wanted more than I was going to give him, but I had nowhere else to go. I reasoned I wasn't betraying Carl or my promise to him. I had no intention of sleeping with Argyll, but was I using him then? Of course I was. I needed a place to stay and he was willing to provide it for his own reason. I'd try to find a way to repay him, but that looked like it might be hard to do.

There was a library full of books neatly set upon handsome bookcases. Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and the rows of classics went on and on and on. Each book was bound beautifully in sets. The print was flawlessly elegant. The feel of a finely bound book still gave me an erection. It was exciting. The smell was glorious and even Mr. McMichael's bookshelf full of books paled in comparison.

I sat down in an overstuffed chair in the library and started reading. Before I knew it Argyll was shaking on my arm.

"Hey, Joe, you can't sleep here. Come on," he said.

He was wearing a pair of navy blue boxers with big red dots and that was all. Argyll was… thin. Skinny would be harsh and he did have some meat on his bones, but very little. He looked sixteen as I followed him back through the house.

"You like books?"

"Yeah, I like to read but never have time with this many books around."

"I've read all of those. Most of them. There are a few that never interested me."

"How long have you lived here?"

"Most of my life. My parents lived here, when Daddy worked in the city."

"How long have you lived here alone?"

"Five or six years, I guess."

"How old are you?" I quizzed.

"You decide to become a cop?"

"Just curious," I said, as he swung open a door to a bedroom with a huge bed in the center.

"I'm twenty-one."

"You've lived alone since you were fifteen?"

"I told you my mother was eccentric. She divorced my father almost six years ago. He was already living in Houston. She moved to San Maritz or Monaco. I don't remember. We had a butler that lived in until I left for Stanford."

"I'm not sleeping here?" I said. "The last place I lived the entire apartment would fit in your bedroom."

"Wouldn't that make it crowded in here?"

"Very funny. Where do I sleep?"

"Joe, this is my room. I'm showing it to you so you know where it is. If you need anything just come in and yell. I sleep sound. You shall sleep in the guest room, which is substantially smaller. Follow me."

He opened the door to a room across the hall. It was way smaller than his room but way bigger than my room at home.

"I trust this will do?" he asked. "I put your bag on the chair in your sitting area."

"Oh, thanks. Thank you, Argyll. I don't know what to say. I do need a place to stay, but I didn't expect this."

"That's enough for now. Sleep well," he said, backing out of the room and shutting the door.

I sat on the bed, bouncing on it a few times, using my butt to test it. I found myself smiling at my good fortune. Life certainly was filled with its little surprises. I lay back across the bed, musing at how fast my circumstances had changed. I knew this too would pass, but I hoped not before I woke up in the morning.

I fell asleep without bothering to undress or pulling down the covers.

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]