Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 17

Hello/Goodbye

Sunday was for Monterey Bay, Carmel, and Santa Cruz. The kids swarmed around the amusement park, while we enjoyed the pleasure of the place. We had a quiet lunch, and once we'd filled the boys on hot dogs and soda, turned them loose on the rides again. They made the trip special, especially when Carl dragged me along behind them to get me on this ride or that.

At sunset we sat on a bluff near Big Sur, watching the sun slowly slip into the Pacific Ocean. We returned to the city with the boys soundly sleeping in the back seat. Carl and I weren't interested in sleep, but we hadn't slept much since his arrival. We held each other as we talked most of the night, sorting through our separation as best we could.

And it didn't seem to take long for the dawn to arrive. It was a day I didn't enjoy seeing arrive, but there was a chance I could make some progress inside the gay community. There was a meeting of gay men to discuss gay issues at The Center in The Castro that evening.

Argyll had made arrangements for me to speak after he spoke to one of the gay leaders he dealt with as the Gay Liaison Officer. He assured me it would be casual and he'd meet me there once he got off from work shortly after 8p.m. I was hoping this meeting might help to expedite my departure from San Francisco as Carl and I faced separating once again.

This was on my mind as we fed the boys a well-rounded breakfast of Captain Crunch with bananas and wheat toast. Carl had two bowls with two bananas while Argyll ate his yogurt and shook his head as the four kids gobbled their cereal. I wasn't hungry and decided on coffee and some fresh orange juice Argyll brought back from the market earlier that morning.

Matilda arrived during our breakfast and she brought a bag full of groceries with her for the lunch and dinner she'd prepare. To make cooking quicker, Matilda always came equipped with strange smelling concoctions that came out of bottles. I had to admit most of her exotic food was interesting and she was reluctant to share the contents. Although a few of her dishes were way spicy for my taste, most were delicious and all were eatable.

Carl watched Matilda unloading her supplies onto a kitchen counter as he leaned up against the sink eating another bowl of cereal.

"You are a big one," Matilda said in her brogue, taking her time looking Carl over.

"Matilda, this is my friend Carl. He's from Alabama."

"I didn't see him as Mr. Argyll's type. We've certainly had a houseful since you arrived, Billie Joe."

"I've never been all that good with people," I admitted. "Carl and I hit it off right away. And the boys needed a place to stay."

"You are a collector. You collect people who have a need. Don't let the needs of others put you under, boy."

"What does that mean, Matilda," I asked, pouring more coffee.

"People aren't always as they seem. Don't let the size of your heart get in the way of your vision."

Argyll brought Carl's uniform up, so he didn't need to dress in the car. It was freshly cleaned and pressed. Carl thanked him, but wasn't amused by Argyll's fastidious nature. He understood enough about Argyll by then to simply accept his generosity as graciously as possible.

I went with Carl to my room, where he changed. Seeing him back in his uniform reminded me of the first time we met. It also made me sad. Carl's coming was wonderful, except his intentions were to take me back with him. He was returning to the east without me. It was obvious that's not how he saw it before he arrived. For the time being he was satisfied that for me to leave now would be ill-advised, because the boys needed me more than he did. Carl didn't like it, but he understood, and I had a little more time to accomplish my goal.

By the time we got back in the kitchen, the boys were seated around the table with pencils and tablets at the ready as they waited for Ms. Cho's arrival. They were all bummed out because they couldn't go with us to see Carl off, but Carl sat at the table awhile and told them he'd be back to see them if no one else.

Matilda began tossing this and that into a pot on the stove. The smells were already mingling with the kitchen air. Denny stood up to see what was hitting the pot next as she chopped, mixed, and stirred things from each of the containers she removed from the bag she brought.

Denny perched under her arm as she moved precisely to mix just so much of this and a little pinch of that to Denny's amazement. To my amazement she worked around him like he wasn't in her way.

"How do you know I'll like it, Matilda?" Denny quizzed.

"You'll be hungry, boy. You'll eat if this is all Matilda fixes."

"I don't know what you're putting in there. I don't like everything," he said, worrying about his lunch before he'd digested his breakfast.

"Boy, this be like life itself. You dives in and takes out what you likes. You leaves the rest for someone else to takes out. Worrying about what it is don't do you no good, boy."

"It smells funny, Matilda," Denny advised.

"You smell funny. Get yourself back over there where you belong and let Matilda be doin' her cooking. I got me some frog tails in my other bag if you don't want none of this."

It wasn't unusual for the boys to quiz Matilda about her exotic dishes, but they rarely got an answer that told them any more about what it was they were eating, but eat it they did and usually in vast quantities. I, too, wondered about some of those smells, but once she'd put it all together, you stopped wondering and started eating.

Saying goodbye to Carl was never easy. This time it was more difficult than ever. Being with him was as good as it got for me. I wondered if I wouldn't go to that meeting tonight, say my piece, and start planning my exit. I did so want to go back with him.

Then, there were the boys who were a constant reminder to me of the streets and the needs of the kids on them.

"I wish I was flying back with you," I said, while Carl and I held hands in the back of the car.

"Yeah, me too, but having those kids does change the equation," Carl reminded me.

"This might be bigger than I am. Do you know how much it takes to give those kids what they need?"

"Everything you've got, Billie Joe. Kids require a lot of care if you want them to have a chance in life. You've stuck your foot in it and you can't back out now."

I'd stuck my foot in it all right. I never knew how much I missed Carl until he was leaving me. I wasn't going to tell him how much it hurt saying goodbye.

Leaving him after he first returned had been different. It all seemed so simple at the time. I was going off to win a war and I'd be right back. Stupidity was easy when you were eighteen. I hated admitting how I'd misjudged the task. Anything that could help depended on someone else to get it going.

I'd been gone from Alabama for weeks and weeks and I was no closer to solving the problem I came to address than the day I arrived. If anything it was far more complicated than my young mind could grasp. I was one single person and the job required an army of concerned people.

That evening I'd get my chance to ask for help.

Argyll was going to meet me in time for the meeting of the executive board of The Center, which was open to the public. By the time I walked nearly a mile to the meeting, my determination was peaking. It did require some pumping up for me to be ready to face people with my request. I'd had maybe two or three hours of sleep a night since Carl arrived and the fresh evening air was just what I needed to revive me.

Meeting with the gay men I'd come to find the year before didn't excite me in the way it might have if I'd gone to talk with them the first week I arrived, but like the year before, I didn't know where to find the people who might give assistance.

They couldn't help but know something about the problem on the streets around them. Like society in general, they couldn't see the street kids, because it was easier for their conscience if they pretended they didn't know, but I knew where to find them now, and I'd get to say my piece. Even with my enhanced living circumstances this year, last years experience weighed heavy upon me as I finished my walk.

The meeting of the executive board of The Center was nothing to write home about. It started out with talk about funding gay concerns and various ongoing AIDS projects and gay pride events to promote The Center and its objectives. It was an easy crowd that only brought up small issues they considered important. They spent a considerable amount of time on someone's complaint concerning a business in The Castro that was 'ripping off' its gay patrons. This was followed by a lot of petty bickering about The Center's responsibility to protect the community it served.

Nine o'clock came and went and there was no Argyll. By that time I was ready to leave and walk home. I wasn't clear how these folks would be of any help to me. My purpose for being there became blurred in my boredom over their trivial concerns.

I was annoyed with Argyll. I was tired and bored and maybe even a little bit angry. Why all of these emotions picked this time to visit me, I can't say. The fact is they did and my ill-humor might have had me saving my argument for another day, but there was no way for me to know if there was going to be another day. I'd hit the street a year and a half ago and this was the first time I faced other gay men with the problem. Thinking tomorrow would be a better day wasn't in my mindset.

"There's a Mr. Joe Walker here?" the man who had been running the meeting asked. "I was told you wanted to speak."

I raised my hand from my back row seat, thinking I could still run for the door, except I'd never be able to return.

"You can just stand and address the issue I'm told is of some importance to us. If you'll introduce yourself and speak up a little so everyone hears you, please."

I stood and addressed the man who addressed me. "I'm Billie Joe Walker Jr. I'm here because of a problem on your streets. I think you know about it but you obviously don't know the details or you would have done something."

"I can't hear you, Junior," someone said from the far corner of the moderate size room.

"Billie Joe," I said louder, being angered by being called Junior. "I'll speak up."

My mind flashed back to the senior play. It was the last time I addressed more than a couple of people at the same time, except in Argyll's kitchen. This was a considerably smaller group but one I had no connection to. I felt awkward. There was no prepared text or easy statement to fall back on.

"I'm here to talk about a problem you have on your streets. There are kids out there. They are hungry and they have no where to go. Many of them are your kids. You need to take some responsibility for them. If this is a community it needs to act like one," I said, not feeling like I stated it all that well.

"Kids!" someone objected loudly. "It's the last thing we need to get associated with. Kids and gay men are a red flag to right wingers. They'd eat our lunch. We've got enough trouble. Let the city take care of the kids. That's what Social Services are for."

"Red flag!" I shouted too loud, and I looked for Argyll, who still hadn't showed up. "We're talking about hungry goddamn kids. Right wingers? Why the hell does anyone care about the hateful jerks that are often responsible for their gay kids being on the street? We need to lead in an issue like this, not depend on Social Services to know what's best for gay kids."

"You have a point?" the man in charge asked pleasantly.

"I was here. I was one of those kids. I came back to get them help."

"A young pup like you is going to come in here and tell us how to act? Look, Junior, gay men can't afford to be involved with kids under eighteen. The law is clear and there's nothing a good prosecutor likes more than a sex charge, true or not. Just the hint one of us is involved with underage kids, they'll be on us in nothing flat."

"What are you talking about?" I asked louder. "They're right here. You guys party, drink, and walk right past us like we're not there. Open your eyes and do something. You all grew up gay. You all know what it's like. How can you ignore kids who are out there because of being gay?"

"What were you doing out here anyway? You look pretty young to me. You look pretty clean and neat for a street kid," a man objected. "You don't talk like a street kid. They need to stay home until they're eighteen."

I was stunned by their antagonism. I thought I was bringing them an important message and their hostility shocked me. Everyone was staring at me and one guy got up to head for the door. The heat was rising in my face as I watched him leaving. My anger erupted.

"I came here to find you," I shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks. "I came here to find the 'gay' community. You couldn't see me. I was invisible."

"You should have stayed home," someone advised.

"I needed to find you. I needed to know you existed. I came here because of Ralphie, my best friend. He killed himself. He committed suicide. I couldn't live at home any more and I came here to find you," I said, and I felt the tears starting to run.

"Shit!"

I wiped them and more came and ran on my cheeks.

"I killed my best friend," I sobbed. "He was gay. I was gay. He killed himself. I killed him with my silence. I killed my best friend by doing what you people do," I yelled, sobbing and losing control. "I came here to find you and now that I've found you, I don't know why I bothered. This isn't a community. It's a bunch of goddamn queers looking after themselves. You've forgotten where you came from and what it's like out there."

One of the only women in the room sat down beside me and held my hand, pulling me into my seat as my sobs intensified. Everyone was stunned at my outburst. They'd only seen me as a kid. I was annoying them and they just wanted me to go away. I'd made a fool out of myself and now they stared at me crying like a kid. This was my best chance to do something and I fucked it up.

Just in time Argyll came in the door near where I sat. I raced to him, burying my face in the front of his uniform. I sobbed harder. He held me carefully. People buzzed as they whispered to one another but mostly they watched the drama I'd brought to them.

"What is it? What's wrong, Joe?" Argyll asked, holding me tenderly.

"Get me out of here. These assholes don't give a shit," I growled, reaching my hand out to the women who had sought to comfort me and she held it for the second I allowed before I turned away, pushing Argyll back out the door.

"Where were you?" I attacked Argyll as we drove home. "I made a fucking fool out of myself. I needed you there. They didn't want to hear it."

"What happened, Joe? What did they say?"

"They don't care. The law? Who am I? They didn't want to hear it. I should have known better. Where were you? I needed you. Why did you leave me alone?"

"There was an emergency. The station was shorthanded. I stayed to answer the phones. I wanted to be there but I couldn't. I was worried about you, Joe. I could see how tired you were after we left the airport. I know better than to question your wisdom but I was worried."

We were home before we could get into a good argument. I was livid with myself not Argyll. Why had I come back to San Francisco and what was I going to do now? My mind was awash in minutia. When I thought of Ralphie, I cried harder and harder. He'd been dead a year and a half and I'd hardly shed a tear and I sure picked a fucked-up time to start. I wasn't cut out to deal with something as vital as getting assistance for homeless kids.

My anger with Ralphie merged with the anger with myself for remaining silent while he suffered and died. Being his best friend, I thought he'd know he could come to me with anything. How could being gay be so entirely terrible that he couldn't simply say, 'Oh, by the way, I'm gay and I'm going to off myself.' I'd done nothing but run from it and there was nowhere left to run.

No wonder there were so many homeless gay kids. No one cared that they were out there, until they ran foul of the law. It was risky helping them. It was probably illegal helping under age kids. It was easier ignoring them. If their parents didn't care why should the gay community? They were busy being proud.

But these were their kids, our kids. This was the next generation of LGBT growing up alone and unwanted. If they wanted to say they represented a community they needed to reach out to everyone, include everyone.

They needed to help their own kids. They needed to give them a place to go when they had no place to go. If there was risk, there were friendly attorneys who fought for justice for the least among us. If there were laws, they needed to be addressed and changed to give gay kids a chance to survive their childhood.

There was no excuse good enough to justify kids living and dying on the street.

My surly demeanor stayed with me all night and Argyll kept his distance. I slept alone in my room after the boys went to bed in Argyll's room, which they'd done while Carl was there. I'd not been disturbed after everyone else was up in the morning. I lay awake, thinking, for a long time before I got out of bed.

I strongly considered having Argyll take me to the airport before he went to work. I'd fly home to Carl and put my past behind me for good. Argyll was elsewhere in the house and I sat with the boys as they crunched their morning cereal, trying to read the box all at the same time.

Argyll came in and stood with his hand on my shoulder. I sat silent, knowing how lucky I was. I could feel his concern for me and he suspected leaving was on my mind. Neither of us spoke the words.

"I talked to Supervisor Henderson yesterday. They're going to address your issue Wednesday evening at the regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Do you want me to call him and tell him you're decided not to be there?"

My face flushed. I felt the heat run through me. Whatever I said was going to dictate the direction my life would take from then forward. Was I going to finish what I started or was I going to do what I did after Ralphie killed himself?

"I'll be there," I said, thinking things were moving too fast for me to keep up with them. "I came to do something. I can't back out because it's hard. I'll listen to what they have to say."

He patted my shoulder twice and went to get his yogurt out of the fridge. The boys battled over the nearly empty box of cereal. Argyll opened the cupboard and took out another box, setting it on the table and peace was restored to the kitchen. Nothing seemed to upset Argyll, except maybe when something upset me.

"Matilda will be late. I told her to get some extra sleep. She's been here twelve hours a day most days. Speaking of which, you might want to catch up yourself. You look terrible, Joe. I don't want you making yourself sick over this thing. I don't want you going to pieces in front of the Board."

"I won't," I assured him. "I didn't sleep much while Carl was here. I'll rest today. I'll be ready for tomorrow."

"I don't think they don't care, Joe. I think it's the third rail gay men face most of their lives. Helping kids is promoting a gay lifestyle to the enemy. They don't understand the number of homeless gay kids out there. Did you read those books I gave you? They have a lot of information in them. They have the numbers."

"I'm reading them, Argyll. I only have so much time."

"One gives statistics on homeless kids. You might want to read that section. I'll mark it for you. The numbers are startling. You need to be prepared for their questions and have some prepared statement you can fall back on if you get flustered. Cold hard fact will shut up the naysayers."

"Thanks, Argyll," I said, going over to give him a hug.

He smiled and set down his yogurt long enough to return the hug. Donnie starred at me as I returned to the table. I walked behind his chair and hugged him from behind, tickling him until he begged me to stop. I hugged Danny and Denny the same way, without the tickling, but they laughed anyway before asking for more milk for more cereal.

My anger had passed and about Argyll and the boys I felt better, more focused. I was going to be ready to speak to the Board. I wasn't going to yell, cuss, or make a fool of myself in any other way. I was going to take it easy that day and get a good night's sleep that night. I wasn't going to lose control again.

The Board had an agenda to adhere to and all I could do was sit and listen. I listened to the flow of the conversations as the Supervisors discussed one issue after another, while the audience waited for their turn to comment on each subject.

For what seemed like hours they talked and weighed comments and concerns from the audience as the topics were examined. I'd slowly slid down in my seat and was ready to nod off, when Argyll gave me a sharp elbow to my ribs.

"What?" I asked, annoyed.

"You're on, Joe. He wants to know what you want to do about the street kids."

"Oh," I said, trying to pull myself together on my way to the microphone. "Thank you."

"Thank you? Thank you for what?" Mr. Wisner asked, leaning in toward his microphone with the top of his bald head shining in the overhead lighting. "You had something to say. Then, I'll have something to say. You go first so I know what I'm talking about."

He pushed the microphone away from his face and sat back in his seat, staring at me, but we were separated by most of the room. I felt exposed anyway as the thirty to forty people waited for something to happen.

"Thank you," I said, biting my tongue for saying it again. "For giving me a chance to speak. I'm here about the street kids, as you said. They need your help. They're in danger every day and you should be doing something about it."

"Who are you again?" Mr. Wisner asked, leaning forward to get his lips close to the microphone.

"Billie Joe Walker, Jr." I said, as he jotted it down without looking at what he was writing.

"Mr. Walker, I have a list of agencies in the city that are responsible for this problem you've brought to our attention. It's never enough help but the homeless are a particularly difficult problem to face. They're here today and gone tomorrow, but there are agencies for them."

"These kids aren't going to seek out the help of city agencies."

"No, I somehow knew we'd have an objection of one sort or another. You need to speak with the agencies on this list to find out what is now available. It'll give you a place to start. I can't solve the problem here in the time we have, and you're devoted to it."

"Yes, sir. Thank you. As I was saying, they've been thrown out of their own homes. They don't trust adults," I advised him. "If the agencies will work with us to begin helping them we might reach them that way."

"Mister…, Mister…, I'm not here to argue with why they are or aren't where they are. You asked for help. Here it is. It's what I've got," he said, waving one sheet of paper and then he waved another, holding both, unsure which had the proper information for me. "You've got to meet us half way."

"It's important you know that the adults they trusted betrayed them, Supervisor Wisner," I said with reverence. "These kids aren't going to put themselves into the hands of the agencies," I said, feeling a bit more comfortable as people seemed to be listening. "We need to be creative and offer them food and medical care first, and then, they may come to trust us. We need you to know what we're doing and maybe speak with the agencies to see if they won't compromise. What they are doing isn't reaching any of these kids."

"These are gay kids? I assume the ones thrown out of their homes are?"

"According to the statistics, I believe a large number are gay kids, but I'd tend to believe most of the homeless kids that come to The Castro are gay children. The numbers are difficult to pin down because of their circumstances. Admitting to being gay is a certain recipe for more abuse at the hands of adults."

"You talk to them and have some idea of their needs?"

"Yes, sir. I was one of them. I'm an adult now and they don't trust me that much. I came back to San Francisco to help them. That's why I've come to speak to you."

"You're young for a crusader. You're not much more than a boy yourself," Mr. Wisner said, and I was blinded by a sudden flash of light that distracted me.

"Old enough to know these kids need your help, sir," I answered.

"How old is that, Mr. …Mr. …Walker, Jr.," he said, trying to read his scrawl.

"I'm nearly nineteen," I said, fudging a little.

"Nearly? That's how young you are, you see. I'm nearly a lot older than that, but I'm not going to give you a number. When you get old enough to have the power to do things about injustices, you stop telling people your age. When you are a boy, you always bump it up. When you no longer need to be almost nineteen, you'll be a lot better positioned to almost do something about the problem you came here about.

"I've got the list of agencies for you. I had my staff look into the problem you mentioned at our last meeting, and these agencies service those particular problems. It's the best I can do for you at the moment, but it's a place to start."

"Another words you aren't going to do a damn thing?" I charged, regretting the words before I'd spit them all out.

"Mr. Walker, I've done something. I've gathered a list for your purpose," he said, waving the paper in the air. "This is where you start. Some arrangements can be made to get some aid. Have you heard of The Center?"

"Yes, sir, I think I've heard of that," I said, trying not to cringe.

"Good, I'm giving you the number of an acquaintance of mine, his name is Adam. He is in the middle of everything The Center does. If you talk with him he might have some suggestions for you. They hold open meetings at The Center to discuss business matters and funding on gay issues, but I don't recommend you discuss this issue in their open sessions. They'll need to consider all the ramifications and an open meeting will simply confuse the issue with distracting input."

"No, sir, distracting input would be a bit premature. Thank you. I'm sorry I sounded sarcastic. It's been a long week and I appreciate your effort."

"Yes, tell me about it. It's okay, Mr. Walker. I'm used to being told where to go. A lot of folks have opinions on that, when I can't do as much as I've managed to get done for you. You speak with Adam. You tell him Supervisor Wisner sent you. You explain your concerns to him. That's the best I can do at the moment, but you are free to keep us posted."

"Yes, sir, I appreciate your time and effort."

"Thank you, Mr. Walker. It's good to see such a young man involved in making things better for people who don't have it easy. I commend you for your attitude and wish you luck on your crusade. You can step down and get the list. I'll give you one of my cards so you can reach me, but there are things beyond our control here. We've got to obey all existing laws. Keep that in mind"

"Thank you," I said into the microphone, before working my way toward the dais to pick up the information.

Before long we were on our way back home.

"That went well," Argyll said.

"Yes, it did. He isn't such a big asshole," I said.

Argyll started laughing.

"No, not so big."

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