A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 15

"I survived my early childhood years by escaping inside myself. The chaos washed over me, but it never entered my hiding place. The year I turned 12, forces began pulling me out of my refuge. I had no idea how powerful patience and encouragement could be, and I let it carry me to a better place than I'd been before. It's what happened."

"I became accustomed to performing. First, in gym, I was performing for Mr. Q. In CORE, I performed for Mr. Warnock and for Tommy. Both men put me on stage. That became who I was. Until then, I had no identity. In a new school, I was left to swing in the breeze. I was simply another kid. No one encouraged me, and there was no one to perform for."

This was another brand new life I'd been handed by the whim of fate. Without a solid identity, or anything to go on, it was up to me to appear to be somebody. Who I didn't know.

My initial efforts were governed by what I could do. I could write respectable stories, and I was capable of writing fairly accurate appraisals of what was happening on the world stage. I knew the players, and where they played, and I could make my body do amazing things, when and if I felt like it.

There was no plan and there was no direction I wanted to go in, although I thought of hitchhiking to Florida, and making a stand.

I didn't have big enough stones to pull that one off. Maybe in another year or two, that was an option I would consider.

At 14, I was too young to get away with a move like that. Maybe I'd hitchhike to Florida next year or when I turned 16. It was something to think about.

Was it possible I'd be back in school with Tommy next year?

That was a thought I hadn't entertained, because things never worked out that well, if I even hinted I might want something. However, it was a thought. It was a very good thought. Did I dare to hope for it?

"I decided to keep my head down and go about my business," I said, as Carlton waited for me to finish what I started.

"I see how difficult your life was," Carlton said. "The safety those teachers provided you, gave you time to start believing in yourself. Losing that protection was a major setback at a bad time. I can see how your confidence might be shaken, but it was you making Mr. Q proud. It was you writing stories and going further faster than Mr. Warnock could have expected. They were your motivation to perform, and without Tommy, you were on your own," Carlton said.

"That isn't completely true. I wasn't without people who knew me from 8th grad CORE class. There were five or six girls who were in Mr. Warnock's CORE class with me. They knew all about me. They watched me perform in CORE. It was hard to miss me. I was always reading to the class. Mr. Warnock made me the center of attention in his early CORE class," I said. "Not everyone was a fan."

"No boys from Mr. Warnock's class?" Carlton asked.

"Not one, and the girls knew I was treated differently. They saw me as someone who got a lot of attention," I said.

"Because you had abilities no one else had," Carlton said. "How many other kids were writing novellas?"

"No, and Mr. Warnock wasn't reading them. He had me read them. He had me read them, because he couldn't read them, and my new teacher couldn't read them. She knew I was a fraud. The buzz from those girls, told her I had a starring role in 8th grade CORE. This alerted her to be careful around 6e. I was an Honor Roll student."

"I don't understand," he said.

"The teacher and I had some tension between us," I said.

"You don't seem like someone who creates tension," he said.

"It was her tension. I was the source," I said. "Because she was a woman, the girls gathered around her. They told her about me. Mrs. Maza had yet to form her own opinion about me. I handed my work in promptly. I could answer most questions on history, civics, and I was a whiz on current events. I'd spent six months reporting on current events, but it was early in the school year," I said.

"She knew enough about you to know you were smart," he said.

"You need to factor in, I was stupid until I entered 8th grade CORE. In that class, I was still stupid for the first grading period. I didn't get smart until Tommy showed me the Honor Roll. That was the third quarter of 8th grade," I said. "So I'd been smart for six months, when I entered the 9th grade. I'd been stupid for thirteen and a half years. Six months of not being quite so stupid, doesn't undo the years of stupidity," I said.

"I could have gotten ten A(s), and I still wouldn't have felt smart, or even halfway intelligent. My name on a list didn't register as any great shakes. So what! My name was on a list. Big deal," I explained.

"Maybe not, and the only experience I have in school is my own relatively ordinary experience, but you went from learning to read, to writing stories, to collecting, digesting, and knowing current events, which you broadcast to your class. I'd call that a big step forward." "I suppose," I said.

"Mr. Warnock let me believe I had become smarter, but I never felt any smarter. I don't know that I felt anything. I went through the motions. Mr. Q and Mr. Warnock told me what to do, and I did it."

"We're not even getting close to what I want to know. You were still writing?" Carlton asked.

"I stopped writing," I said. "The teacher told me I couldn't write."

"She what?" Carlton asked.

"I had somehow been fooling my teachers. I didn't fool Mrs. Maza. What she said was, "You can tell a good story, but you can't spell, and you don't know a verb from a noun. No one will ever be able to read what you write."

"Oh, my God. Some teachers aren't meant to be near students."

"She was telling me the truth. I knew I was still stupid. I didn't feel any different from when I was stupid," I said. I didn't fool her."

"So you stopped writing?" Carlton asked.

"Why write stories, when no one can read what I write?"

"You learn to write by writing. You learn how to spell and do those other things by doing them. Editors correct misspellings and straighten out faulty mechanics. No writer starts off being Earnest Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald. They write for years before they consider themselves writers. You need to work at it. It'll come to you."

"I suppose, but can you prove it. Mrs. Maza had proof I couldn't write. Mr. Warnock knew the truth, and that's why he let me read my stories. He couldn't read them. No one could read them," I said.

"You're a gifted story teller. I know that, because you are telling me your story. You can't ignore the fact you're a writer. Because some lame teacher decides to screw with your head, you can't stop doing what you're good at doing. You said, she said, 'You tell a good story.' You do tell a good story. You need to quit fighting the gifts you have."

"I suppose," I said.

"I corrected her in geography class," I said.

"You what?"

"Told you I was stupid. She was reading a list of exports from Ukraine. She left off a very import export, and I merely added it to her list. I wanted her to know there was another export."

"And that went over like a lead balloon," he said.

"Yes, it did. She said that the products on the list didn't include the product I said she missed. One of the girls from 8th grade CORE said, "You should listen to him. He knows everything."

"That was a ringing endorsement," Carlton said. "I take it those girls weren't your friend."

"I didn't have any friends and the teacher didn't like what she said. I knew I'd been put on the spot. I thought I should tell her what she left off the list. I wasn't trying to insult her, but she took it personal. Like I said, it was her tension, not mine,"

"And how long after this incident did she make the comment about your spelling and writing mechanics?"

"Maybe two or three weeks. She always acted a bit distant when I went around her. I don't think she liked me. Hey, no one did like me. Why should she be any different?"

"She was waiting in the tall grass for you. She marked down your impertinence, and she waited to ambush you. While she may have been telling you the truth, she could have been more tactful about telling you. She was a teacher, not a Goddamn Gestapo agent."

"She was young. She wasn't mean. I as good as called her out in front of the class. I know that now. I was trying to be helpful. I wasn't helpful, and what she told me was true, even if it lacked good taste. "I didn't hold it against her," I said.

"No, but she held it against you."

"She was giving me straight A(s) in CORE, but she kept giving me a B in geography," I said. "Geography is my best subject. I deserved an A in geography. Hell, she could have given me a C in CORE, and after what she told me, I'd have accepted it."

"Geography being the class in which you corrected her," he said.

"That be the class," I said.

"She was demonstrating her power. You might get over on her once, but in the end, she had the power, and you had diddly."

"Diddly and a B," I said.

Carlton laughed.

"You take it all in stride. I don't think I could have lived through what you were forced to go through," Carlton said.

"I didn't have a choice. It's what came my way. I dealt with it."

"I do remember when we moved from the Philippines to New York. I was going to a country school outside of Manilla, when my father told us we were going to move. I was seven," Carlton said.

"When we came to America, I went into public school system in 3rd grade. I felt like the world had been turned upside down. Everything is on the fast track. I have a hundred different things to do, and no time to do any of it. I couldn't figure out what the hurry was. I missed having time to think. I thought I was going mad, but by 4th grade, I was rushing around like everyone else. I still had a hundred things to do and no time to do them, but I stopped worrying about it," Carlton said.

"I doubt I could have done that," I said. "You had to go to school and learn a new language to boot," I said. I know I couldn't do that."

"I had to learn English, so I could teach my parents the language. By 4th grade, I was fairly fluent in English," he said.

"I'm out of high school and I'm not fluent in English," I said.

Carlton laughed.

"You kept writing in 9th grade?" Carlton asked.

"I did until the teacher ambushed me in CORE," I said.

"Writing was an important part of your identity," Carlton said.

"True, but it was a temporary identity. I began writing in December, and I left that school for the final time in June. Six months of academic success hardly creates an identity. Not after not having an identity for so long. I didn't know who I was."

"You were on the Honor Roll in 9th grade?" Carlton asked.

"For all four quarters. I spent most of my time studying," I said.

"Your success was hardly temporary then. You have the heart of a writer. You're telling me this story, and I'm not only following it, I can't wait to hear what comes next."

"That makes one of you," I said. "I can't be sure what I am, or what I might become. It doesn't matter that much to me," I said.

"If you aren't a writer, you couldn't write one story that captivated your CORE class and had the teacher asking you to write more, and you wrote more than one story, no matter the reason why."

"I suppose," I said. "Than, I became a writer who didn't write."

"Mr. Warnock did nothing but encourage me to write more. Everything he did, concerning me, was about him getting me to read and write. He wanted more stories. As far as I know, he made up that current events broadcast to get me to read and write, and it worked, I put in a couple of hours every night after dinner learning current events, and I learned about the workings of governments and countries. I wrote a script every week that took up an hour, which was the time he allowed me. One period, about fifty minutes. I didn't copy what was written in the papers. I used my own words, using the facts I found in the newspapers. Once I wrote those facts down, I usually remembered them. Like remembering the export my teacher missed."

"How can you doubt your intelligence? That's amazing. You're amazing," Carlton said. "You went from nothing, and in 7th and 8th grade, you'd captivated two teachers. Did they know about each other?" Carlton asked.

"Neither mentioned the other. One was a gym teacher. The other was a CORE teacher. Did they associate? I don't know," I said.

"The 9th grade wasn't a bad year. I got 5 A(s) and a B on every report card. I was on the Honor Roll each quarter. It was a good year, I suppose, but I set out to get straight A(s), and I knew why I failed to do that. I knew why," I said.

"The teacher you crossed wasn't going to let you get straight A(s)."

"No, she wasn't. I knew that when she gave me the second B in geography. I aced all the tests. I answered questions in class. I knew as much as almost anyone in that class. I deserved an A."

"She shouldn't have been allowed to do that to you," he said.

"I did it to myself. I should have just kept my mouth shut. I was too smart for my own good, and that wasn't very smart. Anyway, I figured that no matter what I did, someone had the power to limit me. Had I been encouraged in 9th grade the way I was in 7th and 8th

grade, no telling how excited I'd have been about high school, but I wasn't excited. I'd gone as far as I could go in 9th grade, and I wasn't working that hard again. I'd slide through high school, making little effort."

"I don't know what to say," Carlton said.

"It got worse, before 9th grade ended," I said. "I would have gone to the same high school with Tommy, until my parents bought a house in another school district," I said.

"They did what?"

"My parents wanted a house. At first they were looking in Morningside, which was in the same school district with Tommy, but they bought a house eight miles farther out. It was in another school district. I would never go to that school. I was prepared to take off if I wasn't able to reconnect with my best friend," I said. "I'd gone as far as I wanted to go, and I thought about going to Florida that summer, and not coming home," I said.

"You were an Honor Roll student. You needed to finish school."

"In your America, maybe, but I wasn't going anywhere. I was a faggot. No matter what I did, there was someone who was going to hold that over my head if they found out," I said.

"You didn't have to let them know you were gay," he said.

"You don't have to let anyone know about what you feel, I do. I will not go through life hiding in the shadows. When the time comes, I'm going to do something for, or maybe with, my people. People like me. It's the only thing that's important, because it's all that's important to this bigoted society I live in," I said. "They hate me, and I'm not all that fond of them."

Carlton laughed.

"You will write," he said.

"I may write," I said. "I don't know yet."

"When the stars align against you, they certainly do a complete job of it. Were you ever able to reconnect with Tommy during your school years?" Carlton asked.

We'd been talking for over two hours. Carlton hadn't said much, but each time he asked a question, it churned up more memories. The memory of events I hadn't considered since it happened. I sifted through them to select how to say what I wanted to say in response.

I sipped my Coke, discovering that memories of my past weren't nearly as painful as I assumed they would be. In some ways, I was enjoying catharsis, as I spoke, a word I didn't know at the time. I'm not saying I didn't need to pull some of the facts out of their hiding places in the recesses of my mind. I did, but the power they had when the memories were made, had been diminished. Living through a life with no childhood, was more distant memory, than a forceful living thing.

It was surprising how much I remembered, because I was absent for a lot of it. Memories collected in unexpected clarity. There was the recording device inside my brain. It was effective in recalling details.

I long ago accepted that there was nothing I could do about wetting the bed. In spite of my parents' insistence to the contrary, I didn't do it to spite them. Who, in his right mind, pees on himself? We'll set aside fetishes, because this was real life, and whatever gratification comes from peeing on oneself, is of no interest to me.

Being an outcast, and having no feeling that my parents wanted me, because they were so devoted to forcing me to obey them, brings a different set of problems with it. Could my childhood make me crazy, it's a question I considered, while I was still quite young. Maybe my parents were right, and I was simply the bad seed. I didn't know.

I was literally, and figuratively, on my own, and I grew up early.

I stopped wetting the bed at about the time I was going through puberty. It was about that time that I had an experience confirming I was a homosexual. I'd suspected it several years earlier. While not being sure of what it was I suspected. It went back to no longer wanting to be at my house more than necessary.

Being punished for something inherent within you, is no less maddening when society does it. That brought me to the conclusion, either I was crazy, or society was. It didn't really matter which. Crazy is crazy. Either way, if you aren't crazy when it begins, can being punished for that which you have no control over, make you crazy?

Maybe a shrink needs to take that one on. I can't be sure.

Society wouldn't be interested. Society is society, and if you don't like it, there are ways to deal with that too. If you go along quietly and don't make waves, who will know if you're nutso or not? If you make waves, society has places for you.

Unfortunately, as time went on, and as I encountered more and more people like myself, the idea of remaining silent didn't appeal to me. Even when society determined to make people like me remain silent, I intended to speak up in favor of people like me. Which meant speaking up for people like you.

What I understood while sitting in Carlton's living room, a man like me who had taken a completely, and not that unusual approach to being homosexual, I understood that I was unacceptable, and Carlton found acceptability by not acting on his secret feelings.

I couldn't do that. With issues around trust, how trustworthy would I be if I used a woman to make myself look like something other than a queer man. At the time we spoke, and I was sorting through the maze of feelings, thoughts, and ideas that was my life, I had no plan. Because of my past, I looked straight ahead. I'd fooled people, since I was 12, and if I continued to fool them, so be it.

What I appeared to be doing at any given time, had no relationship to my feelings. I took it a step at a time, being careful not to look back. To look back was certain to mire me in muck so deep, I would never escape it. Looking straight ahead was the easy way to go. Looking ahead, while not seeing the hatred for you, is tricky.

There were certain facts I knew. If I wanted to eat, I needed to work, which exposed me to people who would hate me for my nature. I kept my blinders on, and I went about making each job into an affair with as little human contact as possible. I wanted no more to do with them, than they wanted to do with me.

I had an advantage, I knew who they were. They only knew what I allowed them to know about me.

I hadn't been unwanted by my parents. I survived that. I would find the people most like me, and see if we could forge an alliance that served us better than what society approved for us.

Carlton's wife and daughters were a new wrinkle to me, but most irregularities were. I grew up hearing only about the happy home, with a husband, a wife, two point seven kids, a dog, and a cat. I knew nothing about gay men marrying, and having families. I would meet as many irregular gay men as regular ones, over the years.

For now, Carlton represented a new wing of what would be the LGBTQ world. At the time, I knew about the L, the G, and B. These were our acceptable, and we rarely came together.

As I dipped my toe into the undercover world of gay life in Washington DC, I was amazed by the feelings gay people had toward each other. It was as baffling as the meaning of being gay was. How was I supposed to fit in with people who hated each other, almost as much as they were hated. It made no sense.

But at the time I was trying to sort it out, I realized, gay women, lesbians, wanted nothing to do with men, or a man's world. Who could blame them? What woman got an equal shot as any man?

Gay men were horrified by drag queens. Drag queens were the bane of a gay man's existence. They were the reason for all that hatred. Not to mention, gay men believed bisexual men were queers in denial. There was no attempt made to cover any of it up. We were as hateful as anyone, and that's why we made no progress.

We went undercover into gay establishments to meet other men who were undercover, and we all wanted to find love. I don't know about you, but if that ain't crazy, nothing is. We were basket cases.

How would such a disjointed group ever unite, under one banner? How can gay people hate each other, and expect to gain any acceptability with people who hated us all, and thought we were better off dead, a popular religious view.

I kept my distance, while looking for people like me. Being gay was more complicated than the lives of people who weren't gay. Everyone had a different identity for when he was being gay. Men's alternate realities went to town. No one was who he seemed to be.

No way such diverse people could ever unite, but if we didn't unite, our lives wouldn't be worth living. Sooner or later, we had to be honest with other gay people.

Our society believed in the straight, white, religious, male dominated culture. Cultures that sprang from war, conquest, and religious fervor, and white men ruled in almost every case.

Women had only had the vote for fifty years. Blacks still weren't allowed to vote in some regions, even after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became laws five years ago. People were literally dying, trying to register black people to vote.

If you weren't of the white persuasion, you needed to keep your head down. If you were of a different persuasion, all you needed to do was hush up about it. Just don't mention you're gay, black, or a drag queen, 'and you'll be just fine, honey child,' but nothing was fine. We were all different, and in theory, we were all equal.

No one told the people who thought they were in charge.

I'd heard about the riots in Greenish Village, at a place called Stonewall. While the papers were careful not to make much of anything gay, this was different. The gay riot lasted from Friday night, until Monday. I didn't know what a gay riot was. I wondered if it had to do with shopping.

When I discovered that the modern gay rights movement had begun, I hardly knew what to say. When I asked, who was rioting against New York Cities finest, I was told, it wasn't the leather boys, the bears, or even the cowboys who pulled us into the modern gay movement. It was the drag queens.

They'd had enough, and when the police came to beat them down, they rioted, and when drag queens riot, you need to pay attention, and when all was said and done, the police got in their cars and drove away, leaving the Stonewall and Village in peaceful bliss.

I immediately thought of George. He'd have been right up front.

I didn't tell anyone that I was gay, but the year before the night I sat in Carlton's living room, I was sitting on a bench in Lafayette Park, facing the White House, determined to find someone gay in the most notorious gay spot in DC, when I saw a guy entering from the southeastern corner, heading my way.

Phil walked directly toward the northwestern corner, where I had been sitting on a bench for about twenty minutes. He glanced at me as he passed, and then, he looked back over his shoulder at me, as he was about to leave the park.

"Do you want to go to a gay bar, or what?" He said, and he kept on walking.

I fell in behind him. I'd made first contact. It was novel, but everything was the year I went in search of people like me.

No one persuaded me to be gay. Carlton wasn't persuaded to marry and have a family. We were what we were, and our society was in denial about most people in it. If you kept quiet, and if you appeared white enough, religious enough, polite enough, who would ever know you were different.

People who weren't white might run into a little trouble there. The people in charge didn't allow no trouble. No siree.

They were good at pretending everyone was white enough, male enough, religious enough, and suitable enough for them, as long as there was no trouble, and I was no trouble at all, but I was seeing the truth about how people managed to appear acceptable.

I did that, but our silence gave credibility to the idea preached from pulpits everywhere, 'You'd be better off dead,' and I wondered who fell for that one. Was anyone really better off dead?

I had no proof about most of what I thought, while sitting in Carlton's living room, presenting the facts of my life in a way I'd never done before.

I had no doubt, after reviewing the direction my life had taken, the breaks had gone against me, and there was a very good reason why I didn't speak. When you are a tiny fish in a big sea, no one sees you. When the people you are most like, don't speak, nothing is revealed.

I didn't speak, because I had nothing to say, yet.

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