A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 5

When I left DC that afternoon, there was no way I could have guessed where I'd be at eight o'clock that evening. Yes, I was in New York City, but what I was doing, was so out of character, I hardly believed it.

Getting into a stranger's car was out of the question. It's not something I did, because I'd learned not to trust anyone, I certainly wasn't about to go to a strange city to look for an honest man, but seeing Carlton's face, I got no negative vibs from him.

Why would anyone get into a car with someone he didn't know?

Being hungry, seeing Carlton's face gave me some sense of him. He was clean, nice looking, and well-dressed. I had nothing to do but wait for Johnny. A nice meal at a good restaurant appealed to me.

If I got bad vibes from him, I'd get out of the car. I wasn't afraid of him. He was no bigger than I was, but from the moment I got in the car, we were talking. First it was about Johnny, then it was about him, and the conversation was working its way around to me. I'd already learned things I didn't know about the Philippines.

Some days, you just go with the flow, even when you have no idea where the flow will go.

Carlton struck me as an intelligent and warm friendly man, who went to 42nd Street looking for the company of another man. It wasn't easy for men to make contact with other men, because society was laid out in a certain way. Men were to be a certain way.

A man could get away with punching a guy in the shoulder, even patting his back, but to hug another man put you on shaky ground. Picking up a man twenty-years your junior, might look suspicious. Do it on 42nd Street, in New York City, you'd crossed the line into the gross conduct segment of life that could cost you big time.

A men who wishes to hug another man, is at a disadvantage. Gay men weren't simply frowned upon, everyone was on the lookout for such men. Heaven help you, if you were gay, and you were identified as such by men who weren't gay.

This left gay men few ways to contact each other, Society was clear on this. Gay men gathering, to do Lord knows what, won't be tolerated by polite society. These were perverts. A threat to the family, the state, God, and country, or was it, country and God?

People were always watching. People like the FBI.

When society insists everyone should be like the majority, the people who are different, unique, creative, and diverse, will find a way to get their needs met, in spite of the harsh consequences. You can watch all you want. I need a hug, and I intend to get one.

When caught doing this, they were labeled shameless perverts.

The ruling class doesn't like it. They'll do what they can to stop it, but some things are inherently unstoppable. All the intimidation and hand-wringing aside, some people will follow their instincts, regardless of how much intimidation is applied.

The harder they make it, the harder we try. There are some things you can't dictate.

The evening had turned into a learning experience. As little contact as I sought to have with strangers, Carlton had given me a lot to chew on. He posed interesting questions and revealed some intimate details about his life, as a gay married father and businessman.

I assuming Carlton was gay. I was in his car after all. That indicated to me, he was looking for the company of a man.

He'd told me things that could be dangerous for a stranger to have. I knew his car. Anyone could write down his tag number, but he talked openly, and we found a connection in his history.

Carlton wasn't reluctant to tell me about himself, when he knew nothing about me. He was searching for a connection, a point of reference where we might meet. He'd decided I wasn't dangerous, even if I did shoot my mouth off before I knew the lay of the land.

While Carlton was seemingly open, I had remained guarded, ready to leap out at any sign of things not being what they seemed. While Carlton was expressing his relationship to his history,

I wasn't contributing anything to that conversation. The problem with my history, it was mostly future, because I'd never looked back, and if Carlton was looking for answers to tell him who I was, he wouldn't find them, because I wasn't really anyone.

I followed my nose a lot. I played things by ear, being ready to bail out at a moments notice. If someone got too close, I knew only one way to put distance between us. My life wasn't an open book.

That was a good question, but I had no good answer. My life was complicated. I knew where I was, New York City. I knew where I came from, Washington DC, but I had no idea who I was, not really. My life so far had been more about survival than discovery. When you are surviving, you hesitate when you suspect a big cat is about to pounce.

I'd never had a solid identity. I managed to get here by blind dumb luck. By placing one foot in front of the other, hoping I didn't fall. Even after ten years, I was without an identity.

Who was I really and being with a nice man, who was telling me about himself, how did I avoid talking about myself? I'm no one, really, didn't seem to cut it, but I could play it by ear, one more time.

I had made it out of childhood by learning not to be there, when my parents were there. My parents didn't like me very much. This meant I was being disciplined and punished constantly. Until I learned not to be there, when my parents were there, I suffered. Once I mastered the art of being absent, when I was present, life wasn't worth living, but I was alive and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn't know why I was here. It served no purpose I could see.

I didn't know what made my parents so angry and mean. I did know, but it didn't make any sense. What did that say about me, having parents that didn't like me. What would someone think if I told them, even my parents hated me.

What did make sense was an aunt who was at the house one time, and she'd heard my brother and I being punished. Afterward, while I was eating breakfast, She said to herself, "What would make a man treat his children that way?"

Overhearing my aunt's reaction to the insanity at my house, gave me an inkling, what went on at my house might not be what went on in the houses of other kids. I didn't live in those houses.

What did I do about it? I knew the answer. I'd keep my head down and my mouth shut. This was the house where I lived, and it didn't matter what happened in other houses.

Not wanting to be alive, never came to mind. I was alive.

Realizing I was spacing out, doing a thing I never did, thinking about my childhood. I had to reveal something about myself.

"I didn't read until I turned thirteen," I said, instantly wishing I could grab those words back.

He didn't need to know that I was stupid.

"You, had trouble reading? That's hard for me to believe."

I had never gone back to where life began for me. I'd always been where I was, and I made the best of it. I wanted nothing. I asked for nothing, but when I was as low as I could get, I found myself being born. I was 12 the year I was born into the world.

In high school, the thought came to me, it's like I'm in a play. Someone pushes me out on stage, and there I am. Everyone else has a script, and knows their lines, and I have no idea why I'm there.

That's how life looked to me.

"I was... slow," I said, searching for words that made sense.

"I find that hard to believe. You are an intelligent and perceptive young man. I can't imagine you couldn't read at thirteen," he said.

"That is where it gets complicated. If I tell you how I got here from where I was, it won't make any sense. It makes no sense to me to be where I am. I have literally arrived here by putting one foot in front of the other, and by following my nose, and here I am, in New York City. I have no real reason for being here, except, I like New York City, and I recently came here with a friend, and I've come back."

"That's difficult to fathom," he said, taking quick glances at my face. "What I see, and the image you project, would make what you're telling me impossible. If you like, you can explain it to me."

I had no life at all before I turned 12. That's not completely accurate. I did become partially aware of the world around me at ten. Certain events had me wandering outside my house for the first time. Before that, I stayed in my room. I was safe there, most of the time. My parents never came into my room during the day."

"Surely you went to school," he said.

"Yes, I did, but I was never there. Not really," I said. "My body was in class. I wasn't there."

"Come again," he said, being confused.

I knew the feeling.

"When I turned 12, there was so much life coming at me, in such a short period of time, it was difficult for me to connect to it," I said. "I observed it. I knew it was there. I wasn't connected to it. It was like watching a television show. I knew all about it, but I wasn't in it."

"Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't believe what you are telling me. It's hard for me to relate what you're telling me to the boy sitting next to me. You are definitely not slow," he said.

"Can you give me a little more to go on?"

"It's not something I can explain easily. I won't make a lot of sense. I don't know if it does make sense. I can only tell you how it started, and what happened along the way," I said. "I've never thought about, thinking about it. It was what it was. It's over now."

"You said you couldn't read. How is that?" he asked. "I came here from my country, when I was seven. I learned English, and I taught my parents English. I read all the time. How do you not read?"

"You'll need to shut up and listen. I'll try to explain it, but I've never given it that much thought. It takes all my energy, just to be here. There isn't a lot of time for processing the meaning of life. My life is what it is. I lived it as it came at me," I said.

I could see him struggling to understand what I was telling him.

"I know you're telling me the truth, Rick. There's no way I can equate what you're telling me with the boy sitting next to me."

"I need to tell the story the way it happened. It's the only way I know to tell it," I said. "It's not something I enjoy thinking about."

"OK, I'll be quiet. I want to hear what you have to say," he said.

"Intelligent enough to call you a know-it-all," I said.

"We're all entitled to one mistake," he said, lightening things up.

"Let me put it this way, I'm a survivor, and that's how it is I couldn't read, when I started 8th grade. Oh, I could read, 'Dick and Jane ran up the hill with spot the dog,' but that's as far as I got," I said. "I had trouble focusing on words in general, especially words in textbooks. It was like trying to read through the wrong end of a telescope. My brain simply couldn't focus."

"Which brings me to the point I'm trying to make. In what couldn't have been that long ago, how is it a boy who couldn't read at thirteen, has learned enough, since then, to impress a successful businessman?" Carlton said. "I've picked hustlers up on 42nd Street before. None was as sharp as you."

"One day, I walked into the classroom of the teacher from hell. Once he knew I couldn't read, he made me read in front of the class the first thing every day," I said. "It was the first order of business before he moved onto that day's lesson."

"You obviously learned to read," he said.

"Yes, but learning to read wasn't as important as making a friend, while I was doing it. I'd never had a friend before, and Tommy became the most important person in my life. He gets credit for the boy you see before you today," I said. "He became the secret ingredient for any success I had. Tommy wasn't just a friend, he inspired me. He didn't know how important his friendship was to me, but I made it a point to show him how much he meant to me."

"I want to hear more about that. I'm enthralled," he said. "I only had one close friend while I was growing up. How old were you two?"

"We were thirteen. Tommy's a couple of months older than me. If enthralled is something dirty, I'm still not a hustler, and Tommy was straight. He married his high school sweetheart, Bonnie. He never knew that I was gay. It just didn't come up."

Carlton started to laugh.

"It means, I'm captivated by what you're telling me. Don't leave me hanging. I want to know what happened. We can talk over dinner."

Carlton made a right turn into a circular driveway.

"And here we are, Evelyn's. You don't mind wearing one of my jackets, do you? You're OK otherwise, but they insist on a jacket after six p.m. It's been dry cleaned. You're about my size," he said.

Once we stopped at the entrance to the restaurant, Carlton reached into the backseat to pull a sports coat off of a hanger. He handed it to me, before opening his door to get out.

I slipped into the jacket, once I stood beside the car. It fit fine.

A guy in a red coat came toward us, taking Carlton's keys out of his hand, once he reached the open driver's car door.

"Enjoy your meal, Mr. Calderone," the valet said with a smile.

"Thank you, Jeffrey. I always do," Carlton replied, moving toward the entrance, holding the door open for me.

"That sports coat fits you better than it fits me," he said, as I moved into the spacious area inside the door.

The front of the restaurant was large and brightly lit. An immaculately dressed man came hurrying our way.

"Mr. Calderone, how nice to see you. Your usual table OK?"

"Yes, Max. Is Mr. Eastbrook here?" Carlton asked.

"Oh, yes, he's always here early in the evening," Max replied.

"Let him know I'm here, will you, Max," Carlton said.

"As soon as you are seated. He'll be happy to know you're here."

We walked by a dozen, mostly empty, tables, and we were seated off to the far right side of the spacious dining room.

The restaurant was dimly lit. Each table had a candle flickering at its center. There were overhead chandeliers that emitted enough light for the waiters to see where they were going. Following Max, I was sure we wouldn't get lost. Without him leading the way, I'm not sure I wouldn't have walked into one of the tables, before my eyes adapted to the lack of lighting. I wasn't sure about eating food I couldn't see. It was a big dining room, but there was an intimate feel to it. Mirrors on the wall near where we sat, expanded the light a little.

"Ah, Carlton, so good to see you," a man said, as he moved in our direction, a minute after Max departed.

Carlton stood and greeted the man by taking both of his hands in his. It was a cordial meeting.

"And how is Mrs. Calderone and the girls?"

"Fine, Frank. She's spending the holiday in the Hamptons with the girls. I'm stuck here, trying to keep the business moving forward. My young friend would like a turkey dinner, all the trimmings, of course. I trust you have a modicum of turkey lurking about for tomorrow's feasting?"

"I've never seen so many birds, Carlton," Frank said. "We have them coming out of the oven faster than I can count them. We'll keep them in the walk-in cooler tonight, and tomorrow, we'll take them out one by one. We went through seventeen turkey's last year, and we almost had to send out for more. We've cooked twenty today. We've prepared almost all the dishes ahead of time. It's not a difficult meal to prepare. We just need to prepare a lot of it. They'll start coming in tomorrow at noon, and we'll be serving Thanksgiving dinner until ten tomorrow night, or until the last diner cries uncle."

"Rick would like to get a head start. Can you handle that for me?" Carlton asked, releasing his friend's hands.

Carlton sat down, and Frank turned toward me.

"Turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, of course, both mashed potatoes and our sumptuous candied yam casserole. There's a broccoli casserole, peas, and rice Pilaf. You'd like gravy on the turkey, dressing, and potatoes, I suspect."

"Yes, sir," I said. "You make it sound marvelous,"

"I'll be back to make sure you aren't disappointed. My chefs will be anxious to get your opinion of the meal," Frank said. "And you will want your usual, Carlton?"

"Yes, and pick a nice white wine for us. Not too sweet, but not too tart," Carlton said.

"As you wish," Frank said with a slight bow, as he backed away from our table, disappearing into the shadows.

"You eat here often?" I asked.

"If I'm lucky, a couple of times a week. My business is a few blocks away, and believe it or don't, Frank will have a meal delivered to me at my office, if I'm too tied up to come in. I like the service, and you won't find better food. I've been coming here since Frank's father ran the restaurant. Frank was a waiter. His father died three years ago. Frank took over and the food and service is even better."

"You are getting the usual?" I asked.

"Fish. I like mine grilled. A small salad, rice, and wine, usually. I don't want you to think I do this all the time," Carlton said,

"You just said, you eat here a couple of times a week," I said, confused.

Carlton sat up very straight. He looked serious, except there was an appearance of amusement on his face.

"You take things so literally. I need to be careful around you. I do eat here a couple of times a week. When I'm in the mood, I come here every night. The food is that good, but when I said, I don't do this all the time, I don't drive down that street to pick up someone, very often. I can't remember the last time I went there," he said. "But I know I will find young men down there, waiting for a guy like me."

"A guy like you, meaning not a man of color, and not a Filipino man, but a gay man," I said, sorting through his comments.

Carlton looked away from my face. He clasped his hands in front of him, looking at me again.

"You really make this hard. I don't know if I'm gay. I have a wife, children, I'm a successful business man. Someone outing me could jeopardize it all. From time to time, I need to be in the company of another man. It's a hunger that I can't satisfy at Evelyn's."

The idea of Carlton being married with children, was a new wrinkle for me. Was I surprised he had a wife and kids, not in the least. It brought up questions I couldn't answer, which wasn't unusual. I was a gay man who had little experience with gay men. I didn't know what secrets were hidden behind the stories gay men told.

Carlton was more open than most gay men I'd met so far, but what he told me created more questions than answers. What he told me was new information. I had no thoughts about it, but I added his information to other information I'd gathered. It might paint a picture.

"A man who goes to 42nd Street to pick up hustlers," I said bluntly. "You don't think someone hasn't noticed you?"

"The greater notice, of course. Someone at some time has probably jotted down my tag number. Someone one at times has taken notice of my face, after I picked a boy up down there. How many men do you suspect might drive down that street each evening, looking for an available boy? Men a lot more aggressive than I am."

"It only takes one to bust you," I said.

"I have no illusions about what I'm doing," he said, glancing at me. "In the context of it being threatening, well, the need for companionship becomes stronger than my need for cautiousness."

"And when I do that, it's usually a disaster from beginning to end, because they are hustlers. Young males tend to be unpredictable and less than refined. Because I know no other way to find a companion, the risks are built in to picking one of them up."

"Why do they make it so difficult for men to meet and not feel guilty about it?" I said.

"Guilt comes with any situation involving two men wanting to get to know one another better. I don't believe that many guys can go through life and not meet a man who fascinates them. When they meet such a man, you must wonder how far it might go," he said.

"I've never thought of it that way before. I'm attracted to a lot of men. I just ignore it. I take one good look, and I move on," I said.

"I'm not talking about physical attraction. There are too many attractive men to count, but not men you can have a meeting of the mind with. Not a man you feel like you need to get to know him," Carlton said.

"You're talking homosexual feelings. If there is one thing society won't condone, it's men who act on their homosexual feelings," I said.

"Not having them but acting on them?" Carlton asked.

"Your guess is as good as mine, but men who feel an attraction to other men, are homosexual, and they must be condemned," I said.

"Are you a homosexual, if you have some homosexual feelings?"

"You're moving into a realm of things I avoid. I have no interest in society's view of how people should act, if they want to be acceptable. Whatever that is, I have no interest in it. This society leaves a lot to be desired, when it comes to how people should live. Which brings us back to 42nd Street, and why hustlers go there."

"Which brings us back to men who go to find companionship," Carlton said. "I keep hoping I'll find a nice likeable young man."

"They're hustlers. They're supposed to be a little dangerous and unpredictable. They are role playing. They'll be whatever you want, within reason, for a price," I said, knowing a little something about hustlers.

"Few impress me as being anything other than what they are, hustlers," Carlton said, looking at his hands. "I'm always hoping to meet someone who doesn't act like a hustler, but this is the first time I've accomplished that. I know, you aren't a hustler."

"No, I'm not," I said.

Carlton looked at me. He seemed to be trying to find something.

"As soon as I saw you, I knew you weren't hustling, and I knew you were probably a cut above the men I usually meet there, and when I do meet someone, it's a quick meal, and I can't wait to get them out of my car. I remind myself it's an expensive way to come by dinner partners. I pay them to eat, and they act like...."

"Butt-heads," I said.

"And they were having such a delightful time," I said.

Carlton smiled.

"Exactly. An hour with a butt-head is plenty," he said. "I do keep going back for more. Maybe I'm a slow learner."

"You're a man who craves the company of another man. You go the only place you know to go to find someone," I said.

"I know there's a sexual component to what I do, but I've never acted on that part" Carlton said.

"From fear, no doubt," I said, knowing why I didn't acted on my feelings..

"I take things literally?" I asked. "I'm naive, because of how I was raised. I have little to go on but instincts that taught me how to protect myself. I am like I am because I don't know anything about people, except I should be careful around them, and I'm sure that has to do with my attraction to men. You have an attraction to me. You mean you've never had a sexual liaison with another guy?"

"You do know, it's easier when we talk about you," Carlton said.

"No, I didn't realize that," I said. "You pick up hustlers, but you don't act on your sexual instincts?"

Carlton smiled.

"I keep hoping to find a nice likeable boy," he said.

"You mentioned that, I think," I said.

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