A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 1

Editor: Khris Lawrentz

Johnny D

This is a true rendition of actual events. It took place as I was coming out, and I went where I was sure I'd find men like me in DC.

"Do you want to go to a gay bar, or what?"

Was how I made inroads into gay DC. I was sitting on a bench in Lafayette Park, at the time I received the invitation from Phil.

Was I that obvious ?

Maybe it was where I was sitting, the most notorious place for fags and queers I knew about, and within easy reach of the White House, which made it easy to find. It was early evening, and on the weekend in late July or early August.

I'd made first contact. Leon's, the bar, was packed. From Leon's gay life flowed in all directions. I met Chris there. I took a room in his house for a time. He recommended I move in with Duncan, after one of his tricks had eyes for me. I met Big Mike at Duncan's, and I moved into his place on 19th Street, which was less than a block from Dupont Circle. I was finally living close to where the action was.

I met Johnny in Dupont Circle, where I hung out after work. Right off, Johnny told me, "I hustle." In those early days, I found hustlers and drag queens far more interesting than anyone else.

I didn't want to be one, but they had stories to tell, and I learned from what they had to say. Not many people wanted to talk to drag queens and hustlers. They didn't hesitate in telling me their stories, and like me, they were long past caring what other folks thought. That didn't mean they came clean. They told me a story, whose story was anyone's guess.

I didn't swallow anything whole hog, but I listened to what they said, when most gay men didn't say anything, and when they did talk, they fed you a line that was hard to swallow. The gay scene in DC was disjointed, fabricated, and as difficult to grasp as a greased pig.

If you were interested in learning anything, gay men would be the last to give up anything of value. The word enigmatic comes to mind. Gay men were rarely who they told you they were. You could meet a guy one week, and he'd tell you his story. If you met him a few weeks later, he'd tell you an entirely different story.

It was apparent to me, gay men had things to hide, but how did you get to know someone if they lied about who they were? I already had trust issues, and most gay men weren't telling you the truth, but when I met Big Mike, that began to change.

Mike had a regular job, and he spoke about his work, and he asked about mine. Some evenings, if we were in the apartment at the same time, he'd ask me to go to dinner with him, no strings attached. Big Mike was a regular guy, which did help, because I was only meeting irregular guys at that time.

At the time I met Johnny, I was sitting in Dupont Circle, watching the world rush past. While most men I met downtown were looking for love, I was looking for myself, and people with stories to tell interested me. In Dupont Circle people with stories crossed through the circle and sat in it each day. If I was lucky, one sat close to me, and because it was Dupont Circle, we felt free to talk.

Their stories would eventually help me find my way. I was looking for people like me, but once I got on the right path, I didn't know it took some time to find people who wanted to talk, and that wanted to be candid with me.

Johnny helped me, albeit unintentionally. I don't think Johnny helped anyone by intention. So, I named this portion of the story Johnny D, after a boy who mostly helped himself, but while he was doing it, he did help me.

Great stories start with the main character underwater, fighting for air. After an epic struggle, help from his friends, a dash of grit and determination, our hero sails off in his 40 foot sloop, with a gentle summer breeze at his back, and the man of his dreams at his side..

However, this story began in landlocked Dupont Circle.

I made my first trip to New York City with Mike, a few weeks before I met Johnny. There is no way to make it more surreal than it actually was. Had things not happened exactly as they did, there might not have been a story to tell.

I was in the midst of coming out. Getting my sea legs, so to speak, and Mike, who was raised in Tom's River, New Jersey, asked me to go with him to New York City. He knew all about New York City, because he didn't live far away from there as a young man.

For me, The City was quite an experience. Being from the DC area, DC was a big city, until I got a gander at NYC. It towered around us, once we came out of Lincoln's Tunnel. We parked the car and used the subway to get around.

I remembered streetcars once got us around in DC, but one day they stopped running, and the tracks were torn up, which made as much sense as anything else did in DC. The streetcars ran only above ground. The subway was underground. Ten years after they tore up the trolley tracks, they'd begun putting down tracks for the subway.

It was still pleasant weather, even if the calendar said it was early November, we were in shirtsleeves. Mike asked me if I wanted to go to a street fair in one of the city's many neighborhoods. It sounded like fun to me.

I'd never experienced anything like a street fair before, and I immediately saw the attraction, because I was hungry, and we could smell the food from blocks away. Once we got there, we sampled the cuisines from many countries.

A street fair is created when people set up a booth in front of their residence, mostly connected row houses, and they sell the most astounding food you can imagine. They spend days preparing for the event, and on each street is a different food experience, governed by ethnic origins. I was mesmerized by the smells, and my taste buds were bombarded with the most astounding flavors.

There were dozens of booths on each street. The delectable dishes were epicurean delights. We started in an Italian neighborhood. Flavors from the lasagna, cannoli, a vast variety of sauces for pasta, and sausages, meat balls, mushrooms, and a variety of peppers to choose from. It tasted better than any food I ate in an Italian restaurant. It gave new meaning to pig out, which I did. I couldn't stop eating. I didn't want to stop.

You could go from booth to booth to try whatever tickled your fancy, and everything was as fresh as fresh could be. It was the kind of home-cooking that these families enjoyed all the time.

Mike and I started in the Italian neighborhood, because Mike was Italian, and he knew just what to recommend. As a boy, he began attending street fairs with his family, and when he talked to them, they advised him when to plan a trip north from DC for the fairs.

He wanted me to have the experience too, and I loved it.

After we ate our fill, trying a dozen different dishes, we walked a few blocks to see what else we wanted to try. After a half hour of walking, we stopped at a Jewish section, having walked enough to fire up our appetites. With the smells mingling in the air, it didn't take long to be hungry again.

A dozen blocks farther along, we were attracted by the smell of Mexican food. I was so full, I could hardly walk, but I couldn't resist eating tacos, tamales, and carne asada, and I began running out of steam. Mike watched me eating as he held out a taco stuffed so full of goodies that it was literally dripping with flavor.

"I'm going to need a wheelbarrow to get me back to the car," I told mike.

"And a gay caballero to push it, no doubt," he said.

"Works for me," I said, but I managed to walk to the car, once we'd both cried uncle.

We became sightseers by the time we started back. We checked things out for the next time, when we came to the city for a night of feasting at the street fairs.

The quick trip to New York was the first of many I'd make in those years. The city didn't seem that far, once you were there, and I loved driving. After two hundred miles, I was just getting warmed up.

There were always people in Dupont Circle during the day, and my job at the time put me back on 19th Street before three in the afternoon. This gave me hours of daylight to enjoy, and I spent a lot of those hours in the circle. It was a crossroads of sorts in DC. Interesting people were always coming and going, or taking a seat on one of the benches located around the circle with a park atmosphere.

It was easy to slide into a conversation or just listen to what people had to say to each other. There were also musicians in the circle. Some would play guitars, take requests, or jam with friends. There were people who brought their kids to the park to listen to the music in the evening. It was a peaceful carefree time to be had by all. I liked the friendliness of the people, except for when I got arrested by the FBI, but that's part of another Dupont Circle story. Did I mention, in our society, certain people are always going to be singled out for special attention. That also includes the FBI, especially in DC, where there were apparently many agents per acre.

In DC, Dupont Circle was the only place where I saw black men comfortably interacting with white men. They were mostly younger men, and there was no sign of the tension that often accompanied meetings where blacks and whites came together.

In Dupont Circle there was a casual atmosphere most of the time. People came together with a laugh and a smile. Musicians played and sang. Music rang out as the last vestiges of another day had gone by, and parents gathered their kids up to walk home.

I knew about the two Americas. If truth be told, there may have been as many as a half dozen, or more Americas at the time. I'd traveled in the South. There was a harsh difference in the way white men were treated, and how black men were treated. If I had to pick a word to describe it, the word would be scary.

The South scared me, and I was a white man. The conditions for black people weren't merely substandard, if white people were forced to live like black people were, they'd call it subhuman.

There was only one thing worse than a black man complaining about the conditions he lived in, and that would be for a white man to say this was unacceptable. You dare not say it in the South, or you could find yourself hanging next to a black man who agreed with you.

I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but traveling through the South to get to my grandparents' house in Florida, was eye opening. The disparity in accommodations were stark. Separate and as far from equal as one could get, and still be in the South.

My sin was more serious than being black, but my sin could be hidden, even when it came to the worst society has to offer, but I could be invisible, except when it came to the FBI of course. They spotted me one day when I was in Dupont Circle.

Who knew they wanted little old me?

The FBI knew we were all guilty of something, and they kept their eyes on us, even in Dupont Circle, it turns out. Maybe, especially in Dupont Circle, where people mostly got along. If that wasn't suspicious, what was? What did all these people have to say to each other anyway? The FBI wanted to know.

It was rumored that J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the FBI forever, had something on everyone. Deep in the bowels of the FBI building, there was a room only he could access. In that room were J. Edgar's private files. Should anyone go off the reservation, especially a politician, J. Edgar invited them in to discuss what he had on them, and how he'd hate for such a thing to get out.

Problem solved.

It was said, 'Hoover is the most powerful man in Washington,' because he has dirt on everyone. As new administrations came to Washington, Hoover would call the new president's chief-of-staff in for a chat. Any talk of retiring him, as many presidential candidates threatened to do, that talk ended. LBJ, who threatened to fire J Edgar, gave him a lifetime appointment, after his meeting with the wily Hoover.

In those days, the FBI investigated whoever Hoover told them to investigate. The agents knew what he wanted, and they went about getting it. Even FBI agents feared the boss. If they wanted to stay agents, they'd do what they were told.

At the time, in Dupont Circle, racism and homophobia were on holiday. People saw each other as people, nothing more. Everyone had a story, and in the circle, if you sat on the grass, or one of the many benches, you were likely to hear one, before you got back up, and that's how I met Johnny.

Dupont Circle was the kind of place where everyone felt comfortable. It was wide open, with a half dozen streets leading to it, and 17th Street went under it.

There was plenty of foot traffic, some going to a drug store, theaters, and a restaurant that were right there, and 19th Street, where I lived, ran toward the north, away from the circle.

I liked living within a block of such a cosmopolitan place. I got home from work between two and three, in the afternoon, and any time I had nothing to do, I walked south, dodged the traffic, and went to sit on the well kept lawn. One day, Johnny was sitting nearby.

There was something about Johnny that attracted me. He stuck out from the crowd. Maybe it was his swagger, when he came over. Perhaps it was his boldness. I knew he was a hustler, because It was the first thing he told me.

"I'm Johnny Davis. I'm a hustler," he said, when I looked his way.

"That's nice," I said, having nothing else to say. "Don't let me cramp your style. I don't do hustlers."

Johnny sat down anyway. I was going to hear his story, or someone's story. With hustlers, you never knew when they were telling the truth, but it didn't mean the story wasn't well told.

I found that showing no interest in hustlers, intrigued them. Since most hustlers pretend they're the cat's meow, not succumbing to whatever charm they had, made them curious. It also could mean, he liked the idea of not spending the afternoon, fending off my advances. It was hard to know what might be on a hustler's mind. Johnny wanted to talk, and he sat down and began talking. I often found myself with men who were drag queens or hustlers. I wasn't attracted to them, but something about them was unlike anything I'd experienced before. Their stories were usually unique.

Probably, it was the nature of the stories they told that fascinated me. I knew little about being gay, except I was attracted to guys. At the time, I suppose drag queens and hustlers lived on the edges of what would become, the LGBTQ experience.

None of us were acceptable in polite society. In many instances, we hardly accepted each other. The letters that would come to identify the entire gay spectrum one day, weren't thought of yet, when I was uncovering gay life, as it existed in DC at the time.

The idea we were people, just like them, didn't occur to those who prefer hatred over acceptance, disapproval over understanding. From what I could see, people were more alike than they were different, but any little difference made each of us less acceptable, until you were reviled. Mostly, gay people were reviled.

I never had the urge to cross-dress, and hustling required more ego and hutzpa than I had. For some reason, I attracted drag queens and hustlers. They may have been role-playing, but they had stories to tell, and more than one told his story to me, and I listened well.

I'd seen George at Johnny's drag bar, on 8th Street, near Capitol Hill, but I ran into him at the Hubbard House, on the circle. George performed as Diana Ross. He moved his lips to her songs. It was before they allowed the drag-queens to use their own voices.

It was a strange time in many ways, and it was all new to me.

When I met George at the Hubbard house, he looked up at me through soulful dark eyes. I could see the makeup on his face, which made me certain he was a singer at Johnny's, but he was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. He saw the recognition on my face.

"You can sit if you like. Have a cup of coffee with me," he said in a husky voice. "I've seen you at the bar?"

He looked around, before saying it in a low voice.

"You're... a singer," I decided on.

"Yes, I am," he said.

George looked like a man, except for the makeup. He was friendly. The idea I'd sit down with him and drink coffee, surprised him. I told him that I found what he did interesting.

"Good word, interesting," George said. "Most times, if someone recognizes me from there, they don't acknowledge me. The clientele is mostly white, and being, like we are, is one thing, but socializing with one of us is another," George said.

"The black drag-queens look like women. Some have shoulders that might not agree, but most look real," I said.

"Black? That's not the usual word that's used. At the club, they call me Nigger George," he said, in a sentence that stopped abruptly. That's when I knew, everything George told me would be the truth.

George using the N word made me uncomfortable. I didn't wonder if they called him queer. I shouldn't like being called that.

"It must be difficult," I said. "I shouldn't like being called queer."

"Hon," George said. "You think you've got it bad. Try being a gay Nigger drag-queen, one time."

"I can't imagine it, George," I said. "I can hide what I am."

"You're lucky, but when you can't hide, you reach a point, when you say, fuck it. I'm going to be me, whether or not anyone likes it."

I didn't understand what George was telling me at the time. I realized he had it way tougher than I did. I didn't know why he went in drag. I didn't think to ask him. It did make life harder for him. I calculated that he was gay, but I didn't know, and he didn't say. I never knew why men went in drag.

It was the first down to earth conversation I'd had with a black man or a drag queen. I didn't see George out of drag again, which meant, I only saw him at Johnny's bar. I always smiled his way. He smiled back. We had a connection, after we spoke.

Like I said, I was curious, and I got a lot of information on being gay from the people who were living on the edge, but weren't we all living on the edge of something?

A few furnished me with bits of wisdom I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. After hearing what George said, I considered how I treated people more carefully. George told me about his truth, and from time to time, other people told me about theirs. Because I wasn't sure of my truth yet, it helped.

The year I moved in with Big Mike, on 19th Street, I was still searching for my truth, and people living on the edge attracted me, because, in my mind, I lived on the outer regions of acceptance.

I wasn't prepared to renounce society, and go rogue yet, but I wouldn't comply more than was necessary. I still had to make a living, which kept me just inside of accepted social boundaries, but I kept one of my feet on the outside of acceptability at all times.

That's how I felt about it. That's how I made it work. I wasn't welcomed by society. Why would I want anything to do with people who would reject me should they find out I was queer. I'd been on my own for most of my life. I could rough it for a while longer, but I'd never trust people who hated me, because they were following the prejudices preached by the powerful.

People like Johnny had stories. They were mysteries. I wasn't interested in a hustler's hustling, but after Johnny told me he hustled, he sat down to talk. OK, I suppose I'm a good listener. I told him I didn't do hustlers, but he sat down anyway. So I listened.

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