Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 18

Getting Better All the Time

My disposition improved the following day. It didn't hurt when Father Flannery called to give me a rundown on the kitchen brigade and pantry he'd organized at the church. As soon as he got a supplier for Styrofoam containers, we would be in business. They'd be ready to supply meals in a few days.

When Argyll came in that evening, he brought the daily paper tucked under his arm. I dished him up some of Matilda's dish of the day that she'd prepared for dinner, while he smoothed out the paper on the counter in front of him. He folded it over neatly two or three times before sliding it over in front of me.

"Boy Crusader Lectures Board."

There was a picture of me speaking along side a picture of me shaking hands with Supervisor Wisner. The story outlined the conversation and added that I'd be taking my concerns to the LGBT community.

"What does it mean?" I asked Argyll as he shoveled food.

"It means you've been noticed.

"This is really good. Matilda's an artist."

"Noticed by whom?" I asked carefully.

"They always monitor the Supervisor meetings. Never can tell what might come up. You turned up. You do attract people, Joe. Handsome young guy crusading for the underdog, while being less than adroit at doing it."

"You can say that again," I said, feeling my embarrassment and searching the picture for signs of it. "It could help my adroitness if you told me how great I was doing."

"Probably not necessary, Joe. The story is offbeat. You're a charmer. Supervisor Wisner isn't known for his charm, but you had him eating out of your hand."

"He seemed okay. I didn't like his answers, but at least he listened and tried to help, even if he was passing the buck."

"He listened because he had to listen. Your topic is loaded and no supervisor can afford to be on the wrong side of a loaded issue. He's trying to get it to go away."

"Loaded with what?"

"Joe, it's the story that has everything. Gays, straights,

conservatives, liberals, kids, homelessness, and people wanting to change the status-quo. It's all perilous for elected officials if they get bad press. You smile. Say what's expedient. Get on to another topic as fast as you can.

"Any more of this stuff? I don't know why I'm so hungry."

"You haven't eaten anything but twigs and yogurt in two months. That could have something to do with it."

"You call Adam?" Argyll inquired, waiting as I got him another plate of food.

"No, I'm thinking of cutting my wrists first. Do you realize what a fool I made out of myself in front of those people. I don't want to go back there."

"You've got to. It's where the action is. If you are going to accomplish anything worthwhile, you'll need The Center. Call, don't mention your last appearance. Maybe he's seen the newspaper article and he won't mention it either."

"Maybe," I said.

"Do you want to talk about it? You never told me what set you off. I knew it had to be more than my working late."

"No, let's put it behind us. I can't let the past get me down."

"It was the past. It has something to do with your being here the first time," Argyll said.

"Very clever. I wasn't very smart letting myself end up on the street. I didn't come back because I was on the street. I came back because of the kids who are."

I dished up another plate full and watched Argyll dig into it with enthusiasm. It was rare to see him eat and enjoy his food. We were all bad influences on him.

"You better be careful. That figure you take such good care of might put on a pound or two."

"I'll keep it in mind," he said, not missing a bite.

"Where do we go from here?"

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

"How do I use this to make inroads into the LGBT world?"

"I'll have a few copies of the article delivered to The Center. It's self-explanatory. Word will get around. We place a call to George Carroll before you make another appearance at The Center. He'll run interference."

"You think it's smart seeking out the press?" I asked.

"Actually, the press sought you out when you come down to it. He saw you and thought it was worth a story. Ride the wave. What do you have to lose? Go in prepared and they'll take you seriously."

"George Carroll?"

"Bi-Line, George Carroll," he said, using his napkin on his lips. "Use what's available. We can't reach very many people. The San Francisco Chronicle reaches everyone."

"I don't want to make a fool of myself again."

"What did I just eat?"

"It be a little uh dis an a little uh dat, Mr. Argyll. It be like life itself," I said in a poor imitation of Matilda's accent.

"Good stuff that life," he said. "I need to change and shower. Boys watching TV?"

"Yeah, they finished their homework. I told them they earned an hour. We're going to the library to get books for them to read tomorrow. They're actually excited about it. I'll take them by the park on the way home and they can burn off some of that energy."

"They've watched that television more since they've been here than it's been watched since it was taken out of the box."

We sat with the boys in front of the TV until ten, and then we put them in bed. By popular demand I slept in Argyll's room with the boys between us. Donnie slept with his arms around me.

Donnie had beamed when I returned from the airport with Argyll, telling me he was sure Carl was going to take me back with him. My word had proven to be trustworthy. It was the most important thing to Donnie. He finished settling down and accepted whatever efforts were made on his behalf from then on. All the boys seemed content, even with all the comings and going that filled their days.

For the rest of the week we stuck to our routine without much variance. On Friday Father Flannery came by with the tutor. He sat with Argyll in his study for an hour or more before I was invited into the conversation.

"Billie Joe, I'm meeting with our kitchen brigade tomorrow afternoon. I want you to speak with them. They've all read about you and I think hearing from you would excite them. Once they've met you, we're ready to start feeding the children Monday."

I agreed without giving much thought to what I'd say, but it was a start. I had called Adam the day before, but he was busy, and promised to call me back when he could schedule me to meet with some of the more influential members of the gay community. Adam did mention how concerned he was about my concerns and he sounded sincere.

Argyll took me to the church for the meeting. It was exciting, because this was the first concrete achievement. I knew it was only a start, but seeing it start meant there was that much less to do. We hadn't figured out the best way to supply the food to the homeless kids, but we did have food.

There were prayers and some church business that needed to be taken care of first before Father Flannery introduced me. As I stood up to address the dozen woman and several men that were the husbands, a flash blinded me. This time it wasn't difficult to find the culprit; he stood just behind the chairs that had been arranged in front of the podium in what was the kitchen area beneath the church.

"My name is Billie Joe Walker Jr.," I said, looking at the photographer to see what the hell he was up to, but the camera was down at his side. Now he stood with a notebook in his hand, jotting down notes even before I spoke.

"I'm here to tell you about the homeless kids on your streets. You've probably noticed them. They look very much out of place, young, disheveled, with no particular place to go. They often panhandle, looking for enough money to buy food, and when they can't get enough they prostitute themselves to get a meal or they eat out of dumpsters behind restaurants."

A woman raised her hand and I acknowledged her, stopping to hear her question.

"These are gay children thrown out of their homes? The ones you talked about to the Board of Supervisors?"

"Many are. Unfortunately many are thrown out because of strong religious beliefs held by their parents. They refuse to let them continue to live under their roof, or, in some cases, they are so hard on these children, they leave to find somewhere that might not be so harsh. Most kids, whether gay or not, don't want to live on the street."

"I've seen kids that fit your description. How is it you are so well acquainted with their plight? What brought your attention to them? You must have made an effort to discover this particular group. I'm told they avoid most institutional situations."

"A year and a half ago I was one of them. I knew the kids that lived on the street. They kept me alive. I went home and finished school but I never forget my life on the street. As much as I hated what being on the streets did to me, I came back to see what happened to the boys I was with while I was here. I couldn't get on with my life until I did something about it.

"Father Flannery offered to help with feeding them and that's why I'm here. It's a wonderful place to start. I want to thank each of you for wanting to help. If enough people learn about the problem and want to help, we might find homes for those kids before they are lost to the street."

"What did happen to them?" another woman asked. "The ones you were with?"

"Some died of AIDS. Some were murdered. The rest have disappeared. I haven't been able to find any of the boys I knew when I was here. All the faces are new."

"How old were the boys you knew?"

"Most were middle-to-late teens. I don't know where they went. I've looked for them."

"Where did they get AIDS?" another woman asked with concern in her voice.

"Right here. They weren't sick when they came. What they do here to survive makes them sick; kills them in the end. That's why meals are so important. It's a good start. Next, some kind of medical care so they are taking the medications that will keep them from getting sick."

"Not all of them get AIDS?"

"No."

"You didn't get it?" was a question that shocked even me. "I mean you're such a handsome clean-looking young man."

"No, I was able to go home. I've tested negative for HIV."

"I don't understand," another woman interrupted, seeming confused. "I work for the AIDS kitchen. We provide meals for men sick with AIDS. My understanding is they caught AIDS from… sex," she whispered the final word, but no one missed it. "But you say these are children. How can that be?"

"IV drug use can also spread the disease. Kids on the street have one thing to sell. They sell their bodies in order to eat. By feeding them we remove the incentive to do that."

Half the women were holding their hands to their mouths, seemingly shocked by the detail. I knew the position of the Catholic Church on gays. I didn't know if these middle aged and elderly women would want anything to do with gay kids.

"They would stop getting AIDS if they could get fed?" the woman who worked at the AIDS kitchen said.

"They can't go home?" a woman inquired. "You said you went home."

"There are people, parents, who find homosexuality so despicable, so sinful, they disown them," I advised. "They have no home to go back to. I did, because I ran away from home. Once I understood the risks on the street, I went back home."

"Their own children," one said, holding a hand up to her mouth as if she was horrified by the words she spoke. "What sin could allow parents to disown their own children?"

"We're homosexual. That's enough for some Christians."

"That's awful," another woman added.

"Yes," I agreed, sensing no hostility from the Catholic ladies.

"If we feed them will they accept it? Where do we go? What do we do?" Father Flannery asked. "We have a kitchen. I feel most of our ladies still want to help, but if we prepare the meals, how do we deliver them to the kids?"

"I'll get the word out. At first we'll need to take the food to them. Argyll has offered to help in the morning, but if you're sincere and honest about your intensions, they'll come for a home-cooked meal if no strings are attached."

"No strings attached?" Father Flannery spoke up.

"None. No preaching. No conversions. No cops. No social workers. None. Keep in mind, the people they trusted and depended on to care for them and love them put them on the street. Trust won't come easy. They sense anything that smells like government agency, you'll never see them again. Most of them would starve first."

"We need to try," Father Flannery said. "While we're all sinners, the greatest sin is these kids being forced onto our streets. It's our responsibility to extend the sanctuary of the church to them."

"Yes," several women said out loud.

"These are God's children and they've been horribly mistreated. We must do what we can to help," Father Flannery explained.

"Do what you can do to help with them in mind, not with your sense of spirituality in mind. Trust me. Let them come and eat and see people like you that care enough to feed them. Let them simply come to eat and feel safe here. You'll win them over a lot quicker if they don't think you're trying to sell them something."

"Ladies, we'll be preparing meals starting 6a.m. Monday morning. All of you wanting to assist us come Monday. We'll do breakfast and a bag lunch to start with. You can see me after we break up so I can take your names and the times you are available. Your husbands may wish to help with deliveries. We'll allow Argyll and Billie Joe to develop our delivery schedules."

I didn't see anyone who didn't volunteer. I couldn't believe it. I wasn't expecting so many church ladies to respond to the needs of these particular kids. My spirits were elevated as we were getting underway.

We sat together to discuss the final arrangements. There was a need to come up with a number of meals per day and what times we'd deliver them. Argyll and I would be delivering the meals between 8a.m. and noon, when the three boys would be with Matilda and their tutor.

Argyll seemed satisfied with the way things were turning out. He was as giddy as me over the idea it was finally happening. I looked at him as we drove toward the park, realizing what a find he was. There was almost no way to explain to him how his kindness and compassion made me feel. I leaned in his direction, kissing his cheek, making him blush.

We picked the boys up from the park near the church where we'd dropped them to burn off a little energy. We took them to a movie and went out for spaghetti, which all of us loved. I was flying so high it was difficult to come in for a landing that evening.

It was happening.

On Sunday I got up to feed the boys so Argyll could sleep on his only full day off. When he got up he decided he needed orange juice and went out to the market. I offered to go for him but he decided he might want something else to go with the juice.

Once back and after he ate, he called me into the library. He opened the newspaper and folded it out on his desk, indicating for me to get closer.

The article read, "Boy Crusader Goes To Church."

The article was topped off with a picture of me facing a group of people in the basement of the church.

"What's with the boy crusader deal?" I asked, amused by the idea.

"Supervisor Wisner alluded to your being a boy, remember? Then, he called your mission a crusade. Boy Crusader!" Argyll explained. "It's dangerous to give reporters any ideas. This one seems to have an interest in you."

"Yeah, I guess. I didn't put the two together."

"Obviously Mr. Carroll did. He's decided you're a story people will focus on."

"Was that him at the church, standing in the back with the camera, trying to look innocent?"

"Yeah, I'd say that's him. For some reason he's interested in you."

"He isn't interested enough to talk to me, though? How'd he know I'd be at the church."

Argyll thought a minute before saying, "Father Flannery read the first article. He called to announce the church's role."

"It's still my mission. I'd think he'd talk to me about it."

"Probably learning what he can before going to the horse's mouth," Argyll observed.

"Me being the horse?"

"But a handsome horse to be sure," Argyll smiled.

"You mind if I cut this out. I want to send the articles to Carl."

"You really think he wants to read your press clippings?"

"Sure. I don't keep anything from him. It's kind of neat, don't you think?"

"Yes, it could help get people involved. You've definitely gotten your feet wet."

I sent the articles with my next letter to Carl. It did let him know I was accomplishing something.

On Monday we put out half the meals in The Castro. The rest went to the homeless in the Mission District. I was disappointed but Father Flannery reminded me that word would spread and hungry kids would find their way to the food. He didn't seem like a priest. If he had anything against me for being gay he never showed it.

The second day, when we still had to put half the meals out in the Mission District, I was disappointed again. Argyll left me off at the church on his way to work.

"Almost brought two meals back to you. We ran into some down and outers on our way back here. I don't know where the kids are. Maybe we're going out too early," I said.

"Billie Joe, the kids didn't know you were coming to feed them. Word will spread. We need to have the meals out the same time each day. They'll find us. Be patient," Father Flannery reassured.

"The women work so hard fixing up nice meals. It's a shame the kids aren't getting them."

They did find us; a few more kids were around for delivery each day. I tried to interact, while Argyll sat in the car, but they viewed me with suspicion. They wanted to know what I was up to, but they kept their questions simple, taking the neatly wrapped containers and moving away. Some looked back at me a couple of times, confused by my gift.

By the second week a dozen boys were waiting near the corner where we parked. They became more interested in the meals than the guy delivering them. The Castro was barely awake and the boys disappeared swiftly with only a few sitting in a nearby doorway to eat their meal. I told them I'd be back at 6 p.m. with more food and each boy checked my face to see if I was serious.

Near 6 p.m., we went in Father Flannery's car and returned to the somewhat busier streets, giving out all the meals in about ten minutes.

There was a doctor coming to the church the following Monday morning and we passed the word for anyone who had a health problem. We told them there would be food at the church and we'd soon have clothing for them. Attached to each meal was a business card with the address of the church on it.

Dr. Bock was retired and agreed to stay all day with a nurse volunteer who also helped with meal preparation. Only six boys came for medical treatment, but they stayed to eat there, leaving with fresh socks and underwear Argyll bought. They were happily laughing the last time I saw them. We were reaching them.

Father Flannery told them they could come by any time between 10-6 each day to get fed, which was a great way to get the hungry boys to come to us. Word was spreading and I could identify two dozen different faces between the church and the corners where we set out the food. Each day there was one or two new faces that appeared.

On the following Friday I was making the morning rounds, handing out the meals with the address of the church now printed on the containers. As I stood talking to one of the friendlier kids, an older boy, maybe my age, took a hold of my shoulder to get my attention. I turned to give him one of the meals.

"What the fuck you think you're doing with my boys?"

"Doing? Your boys? Just how did you come by them? You're a little young to have almost grown kids. You must be older than you look."

"They work for me, see, asshole. I don't know what you're after, but no freebees. I don't want you fucking around with my boys. You fuck with them and you got to fuck with me. Am I making myself clear?"

"I'm feeding them. You should try it, makes for a happy productive work force. Just what's your business with little boys?" I asked, stalling for time, waiting for Argyll to notice I hadn't returned.

"I don't answer your questions. You answer mine, see. What are you do-gooders up to? I don't like the smell of you. Am I making myself clear?"

"Excuse me, is there a problem?"

"No problem. This asshole is fuckin' with my boys. I don't like that," the insistent boy said, turning to find himself face to face with a cop, minus his hat. "Oops! Nice day, officer. We were just having a chat about the weather."

"I'll ask you one more time. Is there a problem?"

"No problem," he said meekly, glancing at me to see if I was going to rat him out.

"I'm memorizing your ugly mug, see," Argyll said in the kids voice. "I see it anywhere near these kids, I'll run you in on contributing and a half a dozen other charges I'll think up by the next time I see you, see."

Argyll stood tall and looked formidable in his tailored uniform. His voice was filled with conviction and my nemesis was convinced he should be moving on, and he did, disappearing around the first corner.

"You kids have any trouble with that guy or anyone else, talk to me about it. I'm out here every day," he said, before walking back to the car.

"He's a cop," one kid said, digging into the warm food.

"Yeah, he's here to see to it no one gives you any shit," I said.

He laughed, squinting as he looked up from the doorstep where he sat.

"Cool," he said, sounding like it was okay with him.

"Where you from?" I asked, pushing it a little too hard.

"Not that cool," he advised me. "What's your angle, dude."

"No angle. I was out here last year. I came back to try to help you guys. There's a free clinic at the big church eight blocks up this street. They serve meals up there all day. A doctor's there on Mondays, if you have something wrong or aren't feeling well."

"Church?" he said without sympathy, shaking his head knowingly as he ate.

"It's cool. No one is going to convert you. They want to help is all."

"Yeah, I'll keep it in mind. Thanks for the food, dude," he sang, standing up and handing me the empty container.

"You make a friend?" Argyll asked as I sat back down in the front seat of the black Jeep we used for food distribution.

"No, you did. He was happy we were there. Who was that guy anyway?"

"Probably procuring for a pimp. There's money in boys in case you haven't noticed. Always someone willing to exploit them."

The number of boys eating at the church increased daily. Women started collecting coats, shoes, and hats to make available to them. Father Flannery asked some of the women to stay once they'd finished their cooking chore to talk with the boys, because most of them didn't have a woman in their life. It was a complete effort to offer the boys the essentials in life they'd been denied at too early an age.

Some of them sat and talked to the women and each other, laughing and acting like kids. I sat down with Tang, drinking a glass of ice tea early the following week. He liked to talk while he ate and he usually sat alone, waiting for someone to join him. I brought him a new pair of socks and a shirt without any holes in it to replace the one he wore. Once he was done eating, he put on the new socks and shirt and put the old clothes on the table in front of me. He looked thoroughly pleased.

"Later, my man," he said, heading for the door.

"Later, Tang. Be careful."

I moved his old things to the seat beside me so I could trash them as I left. A woman I'd seen in the kitchen any number of times sat down next to me.

"You're special, Billie Joe," she said like she had some intimate knowledge of me. "I'm Verna."

"Oh, hello. I've seen you lots of times. Thanks for cooking for the kids. In case you haven't noticed, they love the food."

"Yes, I've noticed. My lover calls me Vernon," she said without missing a beat, offering me her hand.

We shook on it.

"Vernon," I said, unclear on the dynamics of the comment.

"I want to thank you for bringing attention to the homeless gay kids. You see, I'm not what I appear to be. I wanted to speak to someone about it. I hope you don't mind," she said, smiling pleasantly.

"Vernon, I don't understand," I said confused but suspecting something larger was at hand.

"Because I haven't told you anything. I'm a man, Billie Joe. My wife is a real woman and we have two children. They're adopted of course, but I'm their father."

"You're a man?" I repeated, trying to process the meaning of the words.

"Because of my age, when I was born and grew up, you were stuck with what you were born with. I was born with all the equipment a woman is supposed to have, except in my mind, feelings, and desires, I'm a man."

"Not an impersonator?" I reasoned out loud.

"No, a drag queen is indeed an impersonator. That doesn't make them gay. Many drag queens are straight men. Many simply like to dress up like women. I do wear pants and men's shirts, but I don't impersonate a man. I am a man. There's a difference."

"How have you managed all this time?" I asked, knowing she was in her sixties or older.

"Like most of us, I took it one day at a time. I took men's jobs and I dated woman. I was always a woman as far as the men were concerned, but I was a man as far as the women were concerned. Being transsexual is complicated if you aren't totally committed to your identity. To succeed and to find any happiness, you've got to come to terms with who you are."

"That's amazing. You must be one tough cookie," I observed with respect.

"I've been accused of that. I can be tough or I can be tender. I know what's called for from experience. You represent someone who sees wrong and does his best to right it. I want you to know there are some of us that can't simply come out and tell you in public what we think and feel, but I can tell you in the confines of my church. I wish you all the luck in the world in accomplishing what you've set out to do. I've got to go now, but I couldn't go without finally telling you about me. No one else here knows, so I trust you'll keep this as a private communication between like minded men."

Vernon stood and eased back to the kitchen. He didn't wait to hear me say I'd honor his privacy, knowing I would. He walked like a man and carried himself consistent with that. I realized how much larger the world was than I thought. There was no way I could even imagine what it must be like going through life in a woman's body. How hard was that for a guy?

Respecting Vernon was an easy thing to do.

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