Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 20

The Rest of the Story

By the time George Carroll arrived at our front door, the boys were in bed. Argyll stood behind me as I opened it.

"Do you know how hard it is to get a cab this time of night?"

"I have a good idea," Argyll said. "We needed the time to put the boys to bed."

"Jesus, I won't bite them. I promise. I just want Billie Joe's story."

"They don't need any more disruptions in their lives. We have a routine and now I have time to talk to you."

Argyll took us to the library and closed the door on us once we were seated inside. George sat his camera down next to his chair and removed his pad from his jacket. We sat opposite one another as he got out two pencils, shoving one behind his ear and taking the other one in his hand.

"Where are you from?"

"St. Cloud, Minnesota."

"You were here last year?"

"Two summers ago, the end of June through August."

"Your quest?"

"Not my crusade?"

"That's just a writer's tool to attract attention. It was Wisner's comment that led me to it. It caught right on."

"So I was told."

"Like it or not, Mr. Walker, you are at the center of the problem you've brought to the attention of our fair city. Powerful people have their eye on you. You've given them a good slap and they don't like it. Tomorrow I may blacken their eyes," George Carroll bragged.

"I have nothing against the ruling powers. I'm here about the kids. I don't care about those men. Don't blacken their eyes on my account."

"Why does a nice clean-cut Midwest boy come to San Francisco in the first place? You were what, seventeen?"

"I was sixteen. I turned seventeen on the street."

He jotted down everything I said and he wanted it all. I asked he not bother my parents. He agreed. I told him about the day I heard about Ralphie. It was surprisingly painless this time. I felt bad about the words I used but the intense sorrow I'd felt only a few weeks before was no longer with me. I had a better understanding and an acceptance that Ralphie was gone forever. Mr. Carroll continued to write as fast as I talked and as long as I talked he didn't interrupt. The words flowed easily.

Once we talked about Carl, he was satisfied not to pry too deeply into my relationship with him, although it wasn't so easy for him to get beyond Argyll.

"If Carl sanctions your being here, where does Argyll fit? From what you say, Carl isn't a man you trifle with. Argyll seems like a bit more than a trifle."

"Carl knows why I'm here. Argyll is a man of honor. He respects me and my quest. He understands the need and has been more than willing to take a role in getting it done. I'd say, after Carl, Argyll would be my best friend."

"I'd say you are lucky to have people like these. Most men I know spend much of their time back biting and complaining about what they don't have but want."

"It's not about me, Mr. Carroll. It's about the kids. I wish your story was more about them. The church has been wonderful. The Center can take on a lot of responsibility and they all deserve praise, but it's about the plight of the kids."

"Ah, yes, it is about the kids, but the kids have no face, as you've so astutely observed in speaking about their invisibility. You, Mr. Walker, do have a face. You have a nice face, and your voice is being heard, but more importantly, you have the experience to back it up. I'm giving you the chance to tell us about the kids."

"I told you the conditions. I'll give you what you want."

"What I want…. What I need is to get an overview of what motivated you in undertaking this crusade? You speak of boys you knew, when you were on the street. I want to know them and I want the reader to feel like they know you.

"You're… young and you seem to be focused like a laser beam. I've seen you in action, which isn't always pretty, but tonight, you grabbed them by the gonads and you didn't let go until you were done with them. I must admit, after seeing some of what I've seen you do, I was impressed. I don't know how seriously I took you until this evening, and that's why we're talking. Up until now you were a novelty. I think people are starting to take you seriously.

"You left Carl in Seattle?"

"SeaTac Airport."

"Yes, and you came here, looking for what?"

"It's a long way from there to here. There was Raymond, Ingmar, Kyle, and then, The Prince, and that's when I came to San Francisco to stay with Dennis and John and I met Harvey."

"That's a lot of people. Start where you're comfortable. Who was Raymond?"

"An obnoxious shit who pissed me off. Thinking about him pisses me off."

"Why's that?"

"I've never been patient. You'd probably say I'm spoiled. Raymond was a know-it-all who knew nothing and complained, oh man, did that boy know how to complain. I nearly kicked his ass, but once we were out on the road together, I realized he was all there was between me and…."

"And what?"

"I was brave when I left. I'd made up my mind what I had to do, but when it came down to it, Raymond was all there was between me and alone. I'd never been alone before and I'd never been away from home before. Raymond was all I had.

"He was raped. The guy came at me. He'd given us a ride in a black car with those really dark tinted windows. I fell asleep in the backseat. He pulled off on a ramp in southern Oregon, below Roseburg somewhere. When I woke up he was coming after me, reaching over the back of the seat trying to grab me. I'd had just enough karate when I was nine to react to him. I drop kicked the mother fucker's head into the windshield. It stunned him long enough for us to get away from the car. We hid in the woods all night. The next day we began hitching south, keeping our eyes open for that car, but he was gone."

"You weren't hurt?"

"No, I wasn't. Scared shitless for the first time in my life maybe? Raymond was hurt some and that's where Ingmar enters the story.

"We ended up working on a truck for Ingmar the moving man. He wanted to protect us, after hearing our story. His nephew, Kyle, was sweet on Raymond. I think he wanted to protect him." "Kyle was gay?" he asked.

"No, I don't think he was. He just liked Raymond. I didn't get the impression he knew much about having sex with other boys."

"I don't understand. If he was having gay sex wouldn't that make him gay?"

"That's not very good logic. Lots of guys have gay sex and they aren't the least bit gay. I think it has something to do with being horny and how horny they are. A lot of guys will do most anything to solve that little problem," I said with my best analytical answer. "I don't think it makes them gay."

"That's a new one on me," Mr. Carroll said.

"I stayed on the truck until we got into Fresno and then I left them to go to San Francisco. It wasn't easy leaving Ingmar's protection, and Kyle was a sweetheart. I even hated leaving Raymond, but he was so dizzy over Kyle, he didn't mind."

"Why San Francisco? It's just a city. You're a kid, or were a kid at the time."

"It was the gayest city I knew about. I thought if I could find people like me, and I didn't know any in Minnesota, my life would be saved from doing what Ralphie did. I wanted to go somewhere to find acceptance."

"Okay, you got off the truck. What happened?"

"The Prince picked me up. He wasn't much older than I was, but he said he came from European royalty. I believed him. He had a house and seemed totally self-absorbed. I don't know anyone who is royalty so that's my best guess. He took me into San Francisco to stay with Dennis and John. They were lovers who had a place in town. I was going to stay there with them, while I found what I was looking for."

"What happened?"

"Harvey happened. They brought him home for sex and when I caught on, I left when Harvey left. He took me to the street kids. I didn't realize I was one of them at the time. When you end up on the street sometimes you're the last to know."

"Harvey stayed with you?"

"No, he left me at a place they called the Party Hotel. I was nearly raped there. That's where I met Ty. He was my first protector. Ty was tough as nails and sweet as chocolate. He messed up the guy who tried to rape me, then, we took off together. That's when I realized I was on the street."

"Messed up?" George inquired.

"Ty wasn't someone you wanted to tangle with. He knew how to take care of himself and he took care of me. The guy who tried to rape me wasn't going to try that again for awhile."

"What happened to Ty?"

"Ty had a friend, Walt, where he could stay. When Walt got critically ill—he had AIDS—Ty ended up staying with him and leaving me alone at a motel room. I don't guess I was exactly alone," I rectified.

"He left you with someone?"

"More like a small army. It was a safe place off the street. Word gets around and people keep coming. They need to shower, sleep somewhere safe. I met Gene, Jake, Sharon, Donnie, and a whole bunch more people. We were doing pretty good there and it wasn't like being on the street. Then, the cops came. It was a rude awakening. I escaped with my pants in my hand and ran naked across the rooftops, following Gene. He was street savvy and he showed me how to get away. I lost everything in the motel room, clothes, money, everything. I was truly homeless after that.

"I cut my foot. I was barefoot. No time to stop and put on my shoes. Gene took me to Jesus."

"Gene was religious?"

"No, I don't think so. Jesús was Jesus to me. He was a Vietnam Vet. He'd been a medic there. He took care of my foot. He gave me his best pair of shoes and his dress shirt. I only carried that one pair of pants with me, so he gave me his clothes. I've always thought he might have been Jesus. I'd never known anyone to give away their best things to a stranger."

"Sounds like quite a guy. Where was his place?"

"Down by that row of warehouses below The Castro and off to the right a mile or so. He lived in an Amana refrigerator box. I don't know about Amana's products, but if they are anything like the box they ship them in, they're first class merchandise. Gene and I lived in that box until it was time to go."

"Time to go? You had to be pretty smart to keep yourself alive. If you were safe there, why go?"

"I was stupid for being out there in the first place. I was smart enough to hook up with people like Ty and Gene. I was sure I knew how Jesus felt. He saw so much his mind broke."

"…I tore my mind on some jagged sky. I saw so much I couldn't unwind…," George lamented, being someplace else for a few seconds.

"What's that mean?"

"You would not believe it. It's a Kenny Rogers song, when he was with the First Edition. 'Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in,'" he sang softly. "'I saw so much I broke my mind.' It's part of the lyrics of an old… old Kenny Roger's song. It was another world, Billie Joe"

"Isn't he the Ruby guy? 'Don't take your love to town' kind of thing?"

"That's the one. He sang rock and roll in the later sixties; the Psychedelic Era. A bit before your time."

"Psycho what?"

"Psychedelic. You'd have fit in I believe. You could go downtown and never need to worry about a place to sleep or where you'd eat. Everyone came together for a brief minute. I was a kid but I remember the seventies. All us kids were in the wind, looking for the best pot, somewhere to crash, and the free food. Someone always knew where to go to find it. Homeless kids wouldn't have had any trouble getting fed. All of us were homeless on the weekends and in the summer, especially in the summer.

"People cared about each other back then. The people I knew anyway. There was Jelly Bean, Cosmos, Rainbow. Whose interviewing who here? You say you don't know what happened to Gene?" he asked, steering us back on course.

"In the wind?" I asked curiously.

"When you were moving from one place to another, we said we were in the wind. When you got off on the highway coming here the first time, you were in the wind."

"Oh, I like that. I've looked for Gene and I've asked the kids about him. No luck.

"After we had to leave the Amana box, Jesús was quite mad, you know. One night we came in from our usual dumpster diving and food gathering and Jesús was screaming and hollering something fierce. Gene said he'd gotten liquor somewhere and we shouldn't be around him.

"I was sorry to see Jesús that way. I wanted to believe in him, but he was only a man in trouble. My foot was mostly healed by then and we never stayed anywhere too long."

"My God! We absolutely must do a novel, Billie Joe. This is great stuff. Running naked across rooftops, being healed by Jesus, kids taking care of other kids, I couldn't make this stuff up."

"Sorry, I've already picked out my biographer. If I'm ever ready for that I'll contact him and he gets the first shot. I'll keep you in mind as a backup."

"This is right out of Dickens. Who'd believe this kind of stuff is going on today in America? Where'd you get to once Jesús freaked out on you?"

"We ended up back at the Party Hotel. Some of the people who had been in the motel room with us when the cops came were there. The cops busted some of them but most got away and the rest were back on the street in a few days."

"Social Services didn't lock them up?"

"I don't know where they sent them. It didn't take long for most of them to hit the street again. The youngest ones had the most difficulty getting free. They tried to get them in the system. The ones they couldn't charge with something they eventually let go."

"So back to the place where it all started?"

"Yeah, and that's where I lost track of Gene. He went out and didn't come back. We were held up there for a week or more. People came and went. It was all a fog. We were drinking, there were drugs, and kids from the suburbs came to stay and party on weekends. That was as wild as it got. Guys were out on the street making money. They'd bring back bags of food and it didn't stop for a long time.

"It was crazy. I didn't know where I was and I didn't care. One day merged into the next. Hell, I didn't know if it was day or night half the time. There were more new people and they brought more food and more booze and I just stayed put, until everyone disappeared."

"I went out to find some food or get some money for food and just as I was about to get into a car, Ty grabbed my ass and slapped the shit out of me. He told me he better never catch me getting into a strange car. He had this idea he could save me. He talked about it all the time.

"He took me home to Walt and Walt was not quite as sick. He told me he wouldn't have kept me in the apartment, but if he threw me out, Ty would leave with me and he'd die. I didn't understand but I didn't want to.

"Walt contacted my parents. They wanted me back. He made arrangements through Todd, Ty's case worker. He set it up for my father to come and pick me up. I stayed with Walt and Ty until then. I went home, finished high school, and here I am."

"Wait a minute. We got a year you've left out. What happened when you went home?"

"I'm saving that for my biography. You can read it once the book is finished. I'll call it The Return Home."

"Fitting if not inspirational," he said, wanting more.

"What do you expect from a kid?"

"You're a hard man to persuade. I'm right here, Billie Joe. I can write it. People here will love it. I'll have them clamoring for more."

"Oh, I'm sure you can but the guy I've picked out speaks my language and he'll say it like I'd say it. You'll say it like a newspaperman and I'm not a news story once I leave here. For me it's a piece of my life. For you it's a story you'll finish."

"What will you be once you leave here?" he asked unhappily, maybe trying to get me to see he could make me someone I couldn't become without him.

"I'll be Carl's lover and I'll be doing whatever he says to do. It's the promise I made him if he let me do this, I'll do what he wants afterward."

"I can't imagine anyone telling you what to do. You're strong willed and self-assured and you're still a boy. I wouldn't want to be called to negotiate with you once you've made up your mind."

"Maybe not, but that's where love comes in. I love Carl enough to know that whatever he wants to do is what I'll want to do with him. I've loved being with him almost from the first minute we met."

"You don't like being here… with Argyll?"

That wasn't something to which I'd given thought, especially in those terms. When I thought about it the idea of Argyll and my mission were now all tangled up together in a way that was difficult to separate in words. With Denny, Danny, and Donnie on the scene, it was even more complicated and not a question I could answer yes or no.

"If I have to be with someone besides Carl, I couldn't pick out anyone better for me than Argyll."

"Better for you or easier for you?" Mr. Carroll asked, after watching me squirm to answer his previous question.

His questions had become more pointed and more difficult to answer. Pitting Carl against Argyll might be a great journalistic tool, but I could separate the two of them, knowing I always loved Carl most and Argyll and the boys were a close second, but they were second.

"We're getting off track. Dwelling on my living arrangements is non-productive. It is what it is."

"Yes it is," he agreed. "These are questions that will be asked later. I'm getting out in front of the public interest. People always want to know who they're pulling for. Wouldn't you rather they get your story from you rather than from speculation?"

"This isn't about me. I don't care what people speculate. They have too much time if they are spending it on me and who I live with and who I love."

"Why come back to a place that was no picnic the first time around? What do you want to accomplish?" he fired the next question as quick as I rejected the last.

"All I can," I said, letting the questions hang there for a minute. "I want people to be aware of what's happening on their streets. If you tell them they'll know. If they choose to let it happen without making an effort to solve the problem, then they'll need to live with themselves. I'm their town crier, you might say, and all is not well. If some of them get involved it'll be fine."

"Town crier," he said, shaking his head and smiling. "Right out of Charles Dickens. There is poetry in your message, Mr. Walker. What makes you care so much?"

"Caring about each other is what Jesus taught us. We've forgotten and our lives have become more about stuff, having more stuff, buying better bigger stuff.

"You want to achieve happiness, Mr. Carroll, come with us one morning when we deliver meals. The look on the faces of those kids, the smiles, the infrequent 'thank you'—those are the moments that keep me here thinking I can do more.

"Come on along and hand out a few meals to hungry people, and see if it doesn't alter you for the better. You don't need to buy the food, it's all contributed by the Catholic Church's parishioners and a couple of pantries that help. Simply hand them out and look at the expression on the faces of the people you feed. That's happiness coming and going. Everyone wins."

"You've convinced me. I want to report on every aspect of the effort.

"You know about Jesus?" he asked thoughtfully.

"I went to Sunday School every Sunday until I was twelve. My father is very religious."

"You said Todd made arrangements for your father to come and get you."

"Yes, I did."

"He wasn't so religious he didn't want you at home with your family."

"I can't tell you my father's reasoning. I can't tell you much at all about my father. We lived in the same house and he laid down the law, but we didn't know each other. He wasn't crazy enough to think his religion meant he had to disown his son. I was his."

"What was it like going home? You don't need to tell me about the year you spent back there, but just what it was like to go home, after experiencing so much."

"Hard, it was very hard. I was closed in. I felt like I couldn't breathe. I was angry. I was very angry."

"What about?"

"I don't know. I was a kid."

"What happened to the kids you were with," he leafed back through his notes. "Harvey, where'd he end up."

"He died of AIDS."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. How about Ty?"

"I talked to Todd and Ty's back with his mother. He's in school and doing fine. Ty was smart. He'll make something of himself."

"That's good. He got out virtually unscathed?"

"He's got AIDS," I said bluntly, waiting for the words to sting him.

He was caught off guard by the comment. For the first time he looked out of sorts.

"His friend. The fellow he lived with?" he moved on quickly.

"Walt died of AIDS."

"Oh!"

"No one comes off the street unscathed, Mr. Carroll. It alters your DNA. The smell, the hunger, the loneliness alters you. The fear isolates you. I still have dreams about the car with dark tinted windows."

"You seem fine to me. You are focused and determined. I don't see you've been altered beyond repair."

"I'm here, aren't I? I returned to a place where I knew hardship and life without any future. I could be home with my lover. I could be in his arms. I've been altered. Maybe if I can succeed at this, the rest of my life will belong to me."

"But what of Argyll and the boys?" he asked, unsure of what I was telling him.

"I don't know," I said, not knowing what would come of all my love affairs on two different ends of the country. "I don't know."

"Are you happy, Billie Joe?" he inquired with concern.

"I suppose. I'm alive. I've got more than I deserve. I love someone. I have a friend like Argyll. He didn't have to help me. He took in our boys. My life is blessed, but am I happy?"

"But you said you don't have anything of your own," George challenged me.

"I don't own anything. I've got more wealth in my heart than I can tell you about. I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams. I could be on the street tomorrow, and believe me, I know that, but it's today and I'm wealthy with hope and desire. If I can get done what I came to do, then, I'll be happy. Then, I can think about tomorrow."

"You want to begin a movement. You want people to care about one another unconditionally. I wouldn't mind living in that world."

"No, it's easier than that. I want gay men to care about their own, starting with our kids. We all grew up gay and know how damaging it can be if you have no one you can tell, or feel comfortable with, no hand to hold, no affection to share. We need to be there for everyone who is LGBT or LGBT friendly."

"Jesús? Is he still out there?"

"I've looked for him. I have Argyll drive me around there with a meal now and then. I would like to make sure he's fed. I'd like to give him a few dollars, maybe get him inside somewhere; get him treatment so he can put Vietnam behind him at last."

"You certainly have some strong feelings about him. He made a big impression on you?"

"Jesus is what it's all about. Feed the hungry and cloth the poor. Wasn't that his message? That's how I remember Jesús."

"Jesús is hardly a gay homeless child. The meals are prepared for the homeless kids, aren't they? What does Father Flannery say about expanding the mission?"

"He helps hand the meals out in the evening. Once we've hit all our regular stops, we go to the Mission District and he helps hand them out to the homeless there. There's no name on the meals."

"I suppose that's as it should be. I think I better quit before I get off track again. I want to stick with the boy crusader end of the story. Is there anything else you want me to know before I go with this?"

"No, I don't have anything I want you to know. You've got the story you asked for and I just want you to leave my family alone. I'll talk to you any time you like, but don't be following us around and flashing pictures. We're just now getting the boys settled in. None of this is about them."

"It's a good story, Mr. Walker. I don't usually leave so much unsaid, but under the circumstances, I agree and I'll keep my distance and I'll call you if I have any questions. Let me give you a card and you can call me if you have something you want in the articles."

"Articles," I asked, as he removed a wallet from his wrinkled jacket to give me his card.

"Yes, I'll be running with this on Saturdays until something comes of it. Publicity can't hurt. Here's the card and I'll get out of your hair."

I walked him to the door, and he went out without hesitating for pleasantries. It was late and he was probably tired too.

I found Argyll reading in bed with the boys sleeping beside him. He looked over top of his glasses as I came to the door.

"How'd it go?"

"Fine. He got what he wanted. I don't know what he wants to write, but he has the facts up until tonight. He won't write about the kids, Carl, or you."

"You sold me out. How will I ever get my fifteen minutes of fame?"

"You're famous to me," I said fondly. "Won't that do?"

"You drive a hard bargain, Joe. How about a hug, while I think it over?"

I sat beside him and leaned against him, feeling his arms wrap around me. I almost fell asleep. There was a comfort that came with being there.

"You've had a big night. You opened the door for The Center's involvement and you did your first big-time interview. You do know the San Francisco Chronicle goes all over the world? You'll be famous."

"It goes to Fort Gordon, Georgia. Carl's getting it mailed to him every day. He wants to keep up with my activities. He gets today's paper tomorrow."

"I can't imagine anyone less likely to be reading the Chronicle," Argyll quipped.

"What's that crack mean," I said, sitting up away from his arms.

"It means Carl is a country boy through and through. I can't imagine him having an interest in the big city by the bay. It is the city where you are, however, which makes all other rationale mute."

"Yes, it is," I agreed.

"You ready for bed yet? We've got to be up early to get up to the church."

"I want a dish of ice cream. I've still got a few things I want to think over. I'll be in later," I said, standing to leave the bedroom.

George Carroll had opened the door to my past in a way that I didn't expect. Sleep wasn't going to come easy and I read until I couldn't hold my eyes open any longer.

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