Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

3 Days on a Train

If anyone told me I would miss rural Alabama, I'd have laughed hysterically, but that was before I spent those weeks there in August with Carl and his family. It wasn't necessarily Alabama that had me feeling so comfortable. Carl's family lived on the edge of a town that had grown up around them, but they'd kept their little piece of paradise the same for them as it was for their ancestors with the exception of modern conveniences to make life easier. They could sell all but the small piece they actually lived on and gotten rich, but instead they passed their modest values on to a new generation.

Carl wanted to take me to Atlanta so I could fly. I'd have been in San Francisco in a few hours. I opted for the train and a little bit more time to prepare myself. Carl shook his head but agreed, taking me to Mobile where I caught a train that went all the way across the country to Los Angeles. I'd take a train north to San Francisco from there. He cried when I left him at the Amtrak Station. I hugged him and didn't look back.

In a few days he would be in Georgia and back to the Army. My absence wouldn't be as hard on him once he reported for duty. As much as I hated being away from him, this trip would allow me to close the door on my street experience. Then I'd go back to Carl with that weight lifted off my shoulders.

I promised I'd call him twice a week and write him a lot more often than the last time I went to San Francisco. Carl didn't seem that worried but he'd set me up with checks, his only credit card, and several hundred dollars cash I carried in my socks. I didn't intend to spend anything if it wasn't crucial, but having it allowed me to rest easy. I was determined the street wouldn't be able to swallow me again, but the money was insurance.

I knew I needed the time on the train to prepare myself for San Francisco. In the year since I'd been there I'd changed. Going home, after all those months away, was the hardest part, but it was the smartest thing I ever did. I'd lost myself in San Francisco. I'd gone looking for people like me and what I found was other kids with nowhere to go and no one who cared. I was going back to do something about it. People had to care if they only knew what those kids went through to survive.

There were people who protected me—Ty, Gene, and Walt. That was the difference in my making it, when some of them didn't. I could go home to parents who'd take me back, but the rest of them had no such option. Now I was back. I was lucky to be alive and able to look for some way to repay what I owed the boys who saved me.

The train rocked back and forth as I snacked from the bag Carl's mom had fixed for my trip. She'd make the most delicious cakes, cookies, and breads to give me a variety of flavors to savor. Each time I took something out, I inspected it as I ate. Each bite took me back to Decatur and a family rich in feelings for one another.

I thought about when I told Carl's mother goodbye. She hugged me like she hugged her sons. I'd given her Carl's credit card and told her I shouldn't have it where I was going, but during our hug she slipped it back into my pocket for me to find later.

"I've never seen Carl as happy as he is with you, Billie Joe. I can't say I understand it, but that's not my job. I'm glad you found each other.

"I don't know why you are leaving, but be careful. Remember we care about you and don't forget to come home to us and Carl."

She cried, and I couldn't help but remember all the kids I'd known and how they'd almost all done combat with their parents. I'd not heard an ill-tempered word spoken by any of Carl's people. I found it amazing, because I'd known so much discord in my own life. I felt at home there with his family. Leaving wasn't easy. Facing an uncertain future was a difficult proposition, but I intended to return.

No amount of money would make things easy. I just needed enough to keep going until I came up with a plan. As I figured out what I needed to do, I'd figure out how to do it. How long could that take?

I liked the train ride. I sat watching the scenery as we rolled along through the countryside. Mississippi was flat and without distinction. Louisiana seemed old, covered in Spanish moss and swampland. Texas was big, flat, sandy, and empty after the first few hundred miles. New Mexico was red and rocky. Arizona was less red and more rocky, and California was deceptive. California started off as a serious desert with enough sand to make the Sahara jealous. This lasted for hours. We were nearing Los Angeles before we hit some serious civilization, which grew and grew and grew, until there was nothing but one big city after another.

There was a two-hour wait before I caught the train that would carry me on the final leg of the journey. The trip from LA to San Francisco was the most beautiful. It still didn't match the miracle of the Snake River or the prehistoric canyons in a tiny corner of Utah, but we often went along beside the Pacific Ocean. It appeared and disappeared from time to time. It could be amazingly rugged with dense wilderness one minute, followed by a heavily populated area a few miles later.

I suppose where the train came into the city was the lowest point in San Francisco. We were down under the freeways near the waterfront, facing Oakland. I wasn't the only one on foot, heading up the steep hill with other passengers strung out behind me. The walk up to Castro took me more than an hour. I stopped for breakfast at the first open diner I found. After three weeks of Carl's mother's cooking and three days on a train, the food was incredibly average. It merely quelled my appetite.

I went back out to the street carrying the single bag I'd carried since meeting Carl. It was early and the city wasn't completely awake yet. The traffic was all downtown and I walked up, and up, and up, with the unusually clear sky overhead and the sun warming me along the way. The heat was unusual but Alabama in August is no picnic. The morning air was still fresh and cool, which made the walk easier.

A chill ran through me when I first returned to The Castro. I was back. This time I came armed with a plan and a familiarity for the streets I once more walked. I'd brought some self-confidence with me and that made a big difference in my mind. This would be a challenge but it was a challenge I was ready for.

The Castro was closed in the early morning. The streets were empty, except for random cars transitioning to somewhere else. The business day during the week started here in earnest after dark. Some shops opened earlier than others to serve the foot traffic as it gradually increased during the day, but for now it was quiet.

It was like I'd never been away but my feeling about it was new. The hold it had on me the summer before was broken. What I was going to do now that I was back remained a mystery. I'd figure it out as I went along.

When I left, I left as a kid, my father having me in tow. Now, I was a man. There was a measured difference in how I thought. I couldn't be arrested simply for not being at home, which eliminated a lot of the worry. I was independent and on my own. The streets were dangerous, because people were dangerous. But the truths I knew about them would help to keep me safe and out of trouble, which would in turn allow me to formulate a plan.

Even on the train I had to keep telling myself, I'd know what to do when I got there. Now that I was there, I figured I'd know what to do when the time came. Would I recognize when the time came? If not, would my opportunity pass me by? I tried to keep that kind of idea out of my head. There was nothing apparent to me on my way back to The Castro, but it was early and maybe the time would come soon enough that I could be on a train home at the end of the week.

I decided what I needed to do first was find the softer side of The Castro. Find people who might be interested in helping street kids, without wanting them. I wasn't sure where to start. It was the beginning of a plan.

I felt the downgrade in my steps as I focused on the diner. It had been in the center of the streets we haunted. I went inside, taking the last booth, tossing my bag in before I sat down.

"Coffee. Large water," I said, still feeling the rock of the trail and not certain real food of the greasy spoon variety was all that good an idea.

"Water's a quarter," the gruff voice advised; it was the same guy who was always there.

"Better make it two waters," I snapped, noticing his still greasy apron.

I wondered if it was the same one he was wearing last year.

"Two bucks fifty. When you empty the water I'll refill it for you," he said, sloshing the coffee cup down in front of me.

"Two fifty," I said, laying out two ones and pulling two quarters to set in the center of the bills. "…And for you my good man," I said in my perkiest voice, putting a quarter in his palm.

He examined the quarter, once he swept up the two fifty. He trained his stare on me, going back behind the counter to wait for another customer to enter. It was a bit early for foot traffic in The Castro.

"Don't I know you?" he questioned after a few more minutes of mock mopping of his counter.

"Me, my good man? Me thinks not. I've come fresh from Alabam. I've come to your fair city for… my health."

"You came here for your health?" he said with disbelief in his voice. "Bad move unless you're partial to fags and pervs."

He took little time to think about the advice he dispensed, or maybe it was opinion. Whatever it was, he followed it with curious looks. It was easy to see my presence troubled him, but I had money, and that was enough to buy me a pass.

"You don't sound like you're from Alabama. You are foreigner?"

"To many, my good man, I would be foreign."

"Yeah," he said, starting a new series of endless circular motions.

'Now what?' I wondered as time passed.

Sipping my coffee, I watched the morning traffic pick up. I drained the glass of water and true to the man's word, he refilled it. I didn't bother to insult him further. I'd be back there for food sooner or later, and insulting someone who wasn't clever enough to recognize the insults was no challenge.

It seemed like the time to give some thought to securing a place to stay. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on housing, because the money would be gone in no time. I needed to keep my eyes open and I was sure I'd stumble on to an acceptable arrangement that would be cheaper than a motel room.

I'd made a promise to Carl that I wouldn't go back to the streets. This would call for creative thinking, because of my promise not to let myself become sexually involved with anyone else. While that was an easy promise to keep, because I had no interest in anyone but Carl, it was still a concern because of my location. I'd need to be sure not to take up with someone that could tempt me.

Sitting there, I remembered something Ty said to me: "I want to think I got someone off these streets alive."

Indeed he had. I hoped he'd saved himself and was now living the good life with his mother. I thought about the day Walt had his heart-to-heart chat with me. He'd taken out that green box and showed me how he'd leave Ty well taken care of. He used that knowledge, believing I wouldn't take Ty away from him, but knowing he cared that much for Ty made an even bigger difference. Walt thought he'd be dead by the time I was eighteen, but he thought maybe I could come back then and do for Ty what Ty had done for him.

Walt was a wise man. It was Walt who had planted the idea of coming back to do some good in my head. The idea lived on beyond him but Ty was lord-knows where. I was back and I was ready to do something to help the people who had helped me stay alive until Walt talked me into going home.

I'd gotten out alive the last time and I didn't plan on putting myself in danger this time. How I would avoid it was still in question. I felt I was on the right path and I stretched and breathed in the fresh air as I left the diner. I looked up the hill and started walking until I reached Walt's. I checked the mailbox to see who lived in their apartment. It was blank. Someone wanting anonymity lived there now. I walked around the white five-story building and looked up at the window Walt once looked out of so he'd stay connected to the world he could no longer access.

Time passed quickly as my mind wandered over my previous experience with the city. I walked past the hotel that was no longer there. Some of the boards that had once blocked entry to the building were still strewn along the side of the next building over. The black scorch marks told the tale. The party hotel had burned. I walked down to the motel and stood in the driveway looking up at the room where I began my decent into hell.

'My name's Jake. I thought you should know it,' I remembered, thinking about Donnie's brother, another military man I could have loved. I figured he still had a year in prison before he'd be free to walk these streets again, but he made out better than Donnie, even if it didn't seem like it at the time.

I wondered about Gene, remembering our flight for life over the rooftops of San Francisco. I recalled Jesus in his white sheet, ranting and raving and shaking his fist at the sky. Was he really Jesus? I wondered if Gene might still be around. He would never recognize me. I'd grown, matured, hardened to the indifference of much of the world where I lived.

Tony and Tim had gone to work for some gay contractor in Santa Rosa. If anyone made it off the streets and into productive lives, it was the two of them. Like Carl and me, they'd found one another unexpectedly and simply fell in love. Tony was gay but Tim never was. They simply met and became inseparable. Carl had adamantly defended himself against that label, saying, "Billie Joe, I love you. I don't love guys in general. Hell, I don't even like most of them, but I love you and I'm not gay."

Therein lived the ambiguity that filled all the area between what people believed they knew and what the reality of living made true. Love isn't so incredibly certain about who should be in love and who shouldn't. In the great cracks and crevices of life, man's knowledge isn't nearly as clear cut as some would like us to believe. There are many more ways to be than is allowed by popular culture, but popular culture has never been too influenced by the facts of the matter.

I had no such ambiguity. I was gay as a goose and can't remember being "normal." I always knew, although I didn't always know what it was I knew. Once I was old enough to be clear on the sexual stuff, I knew where I fit. That's what I knew in spite of the objections that I was too young to know that.

My friend Ralphie killed himself because he was gay. I was sixteen and so was he. I don't know why he decided to do it, but that's why I left Minnesota, already knowing I had to do something to keep myself from ending up like my stupid best friend.

I was still pissed off at him. He robbed me of the security and innocence that would have accompanied me to adulthood. He robbed me of my best friend. He was the reason I ran away, and he likely had a lot to do with me coming back to do something for the boys I left behind, even if none of those boys were still around. There would be replacements. Of that I had no doubt.

I met Carl before I got to my brother's and that's when I made up my mind I had to find out what was out there for me. I did my searching from the highways and streets. It was never what I expected. Like popular culture, what I believed didn't match up with the facts of the matter. My search for a warm and accepting community that embraced its younger brothers with hope never matched up to what was real on the street.

Now I was back with the idea I could change it. Ideas are simple things. The truth is complex and involved. I was back to do some good, but where to start? What could I do? I was but one person and the streets came alive each night with the lost and lonely gay kids and the gay adults who cannot see them. I would need help.

I was back and maybe for the next kid that came looking for gay America, there'd be something more than I found. The gay men were willing to exploit the street boys but not so willing to take responsibility for them. Maybe I could guilt them into incorporating gay street kids into a social system that provided safety and shelter for kids forced out, thrown away, or simply unable to live in the world in which they lived.

I was older, wiser, eighteen, and a high school graduate. Man, I had a lot going for me. What was I going to do with it?

What I did was waste a day, thinking. I walked up to Golden Gate Park. It was far enough from The Castro to give me some perspective on things. The fifteen or twenty minute walk was enough to clear my brain. The park was usually quiet with people coming and going at their own pace. I liked to sit there and enjoy the peace and quiet.

I sat among the lunch crowd, wondering how to connect with a world that never allowed me to do anything but stand on the outside. How do I get in with someone? There was no offer and little aside from casual glances to check out the merchandise. It was San Francisco after all.

I needed to get the attention of good people who cared and who might want to help. Finding a proper place to start would be important. My first time around I'd found what I was looking for without really trying, but it was what I was looking for without any connection to people who could make a difference. This time I would connect with people who could make a difference.

I remembered the couple Earl had left me with. Dennis and John were middle-aged men. I really thought I hated them for what they were, but they were only middle-aged men trying to hang onto the idea they could still get their sexual urges met, even when they needed to pay for it. It still didn't make what they did with Harvey okay with me—it wasn't—but those guys could help street kids as easily as exploit them. Had they ever given it a thought? Would they help if they knew they could? How complicated would it become if men like that tried to help?

These were people I'd given little consideration to in over a year. They came back as clear as the day I'd first met them. I didn't know why. At the time it was all cut and dried. I hated easily, loved almost as easily, and I followed boys I had no reason to trust, but I trusted them anyway. I'd fall in a deep pile of dodo, always ending up smelling like a rose. I was lucky. I was alive. I was back to try again. I knew there was a gay community around me, but I didn't know how to get its attention. This would be the key.

The street-lamps coming on kept me from noticing fading daylight. The business suits and ties gave way to tank tops and jeans. The look of indifference that came in the suits gave way to more hungry looks that came in the jeans, as they checked my eyes for interest and some degree of recognition. If I could harness that there was a sea of potential helpers around me.

I walked back toward civilization, looking for a market, where I purchased a ready-made but pregnant looking sandwich, a soda over ice, and a San Francisco Chronicle so I'd be informed.

It was a gourmet meal and I carried it back to Golden Gate Park. I ate on an empty bench off the beaten bath, enjoying each bite of the fresh ingredients. I flipped through the Chronicle and sipped my soda. I'd never read the paper before. I was most interested in the local stories about life in the city.

It was already a long day and my eyes were heavy and burning. I set my bag down behind me on the bench where I relaxed after eating. I watched the foot traffic as it passed. I looked for a familiar face or for someone who might recognize me, but I'd grown two inches and gained fifteen pounds in the year since my departure. I looked nearly as manly as I felt. Someone would have had to take a good look to put today's Billie Joe together with the one that left here the year before.

My eyes grew heavy as I drew comfort from resting my back on my bag, not realizing how tired I was. The initial excitement that came with being back in the city had worn off. I'd wasted away a day and now I was in Golden Gate Park, alone, after dark. They'd found Sharon's body in Golden Gate Park. She was fifteen and six months pregnant with a child that would never experience the indignities of life her mother knew. There were extra risks that came with being a girl on the street, but Sharon couldn't worry about those anymore.

Sleeping there wasn't recommended, and when I woke to the emptiness around me, I seized my bag and headed for the street, scared shitless of the shadows, the time, and my ability to leave myself completely vulnerable. At first there were few people on the street, but then, as I got closer to the open shops and businesses, there were more and more people still moving about. My heart calmed down and my feeling of foreboding passed. I was already making mistakes. I wouldn't do that again.

I found a clock in a store window. It was after 1:00 p.m. I'd slept for four or five hours. I hadn't really slept on the train, more dozing around my overactive mind. I suddenly missed Carl more than I had missed him since we last parted and I started a journey that led to this one. By now he had reported for duty and he was too busy to worry about me.

I felt my pants for the checks he'd given me. They were taped inside my underwear. Maybe that wasn't all that safe a hiding place in this city. It's the best I could do.

I kept walking until I was across from the motel and I crossed the street between cars. I'd spend some of the cash to get off the street for the night. It's what I told Carl I'd do. I stepped inside the door and waited. A fat man I recognized came out after about five minutes, buttoning his shirt over his hairy body.

"No rooms," he said, inspecting me closely and in places that might have made me blush if not for the nausea he gave me.

'Be nice,' I reminded myself. 'You may need to come back one day.'

"Thanks anyway," I said.

"Wait! I'm not supposed to do this. Well, I have a couple of rooms that are out of service. It's late and you shouldn't be on the street. Maybe we could think of something you could give me for letting you use one of those rooms. Maybe something you need taken care of or relieved."

"Thanks! I don't want to put you at risk," I slipped out the door as I spoke, making sure the door was shut tight before he could make me even sicker.

I breathed in the cool San Francisco night air, trying to get his smell out of my nose, and remembered how we'd gotten the motel room last year. All it required was one willing boy who would let the lecher leer and slobber over his youthful delights.

I hadn't given it a second thought last year, but I hadn't been the boy who secured the room. Someone else paid the price for my good night's sleep. There wasn't going to be any more sleep this night. The Castro was starting to close down, and I headed for the Mission District where I remembered an all-night diner. They kept the lights low and the coffee wasn't half bad. I walked with purpose in my step.

A car slowed down as quickly as I turned off the busy boulevard. I ignored him as he drove at the same speed I walked. He drove away after a minute of bird-dogging me, as Carl would call it. It left my heart pounding and I breathed easier once I was alone on the street.

I thought about going in search of the street kids, but I'd slept the prime time away. They'd have already been on the street and the ones who hadn't made out were thinking about where to crash before daylight caught up with them. I had plenty of time and I wanted to get off the street, inside, with other people. I hadn't expected to be scared my first night back. But I was.

I wanted some hot food and a cold drink. I wanted my heart to quiet in my chest. I didn't want to feel like I was being stalked. I turned several times until I was on a well-lit street again. I looked at the sky and wondered what time it was.

It took half-an-hour to get to where I was going. The diner was busy but not full. I sat at the counter rather than take a seat in the booth where several people might sit. I ordered a roast beef sandwich and a Pepsi. It was five dollars. Everything was five dollars if you wanted to sit in the diner. A cup of coffee, five dollars. A glass of water, five dollars. I'd have paid three bucks for the sandwich in most places but I'd have paid twenty to sit inside this place tonight.

I came to San Francisco to save the kids and I was scared of my own shadow. How the hell was I going to help anyone?

At four forty-five the counterman was putting a cup of coffee down in front of me.

"I didn't order this," I said, taking a quick sip of my empty Pepsi to prove I deserved to be there.

"Nah, it's on the house, kid," he said, sounding like he was a million miles from home. "New to town, huh?"

He looked like he was twenty-two or three. I wasn't big, but he was way small, he needed a shave, and his apron needed an oil change. It must have been a common problem among the counter men in the city.

"Thanks. Yeah, I'm new. Got in yesterday. Couldn't find a motel that had a room. Bummer, huh?"

"I'm off in little more than an hour. I got a couch. You look like you could use one right about now."

"Yeah, I don't know if I should. I mean I'm not…."

"Neither am I. It's a couch. It isn't even comfortable. Take it or leave it. Can't beat the price and it beats the hell out of this dump."

Sal was Greek. At least his father and mother were. They'd come from the old country, had a restaurant, and just retired to Ensenada. I understood a little more once he opened the door to his apartment.

"Sally, you didn't bring another one home?" a broad-beamed woman shouted harshly.

"Take it easy. Take it easy. A few hours on the couch. He's new in town. My parents always helped new people. They were new people once upon a time. You were probably a new someone once."

"I'm not a new people. I want to walk around in my apartment without my clothes whenever I feel like it. I want my husband should want to fuck the shit out of me when he comes in after we been apart all day. I don't want an audience, Sally."

"Agnes, this is… what's your name, kid?"

"Billie Joe. Maybe I should go, Sal. I don't want to cause you any trouble."

"Fuck no. Stay right here. We're selling tickets for the morning show. Watch us swing from the light fixtures and screw. Sally, this has got to stop," the woman argued.

"Yeah, Agnes, now you done your "Streetcar Named Desire" routine, shut the fuck up and get us some coffee."

"Come on, Billie, she only acts like a bitch," Sal said, leading me past an ironing board complete with three feet of laundry stacked on top, and a number of cardboard boxes filled with papers and trash. "We recycle," he admitted as we passed.

Sal and I were both delivered a silent cup of coffee. Agnes went back to whatever it was she was doing before we arrived. The coffee was good. The apartment was cluttered and looked to be the size of a large postal stamp. There was one window so heavily laden with curtains and drapes that it might have only been a mock attempt at making it look like they had a window.

"Where you from, Billie?" Sal asked as friendly as ever.

"I came here from Alabama," I said.

"Oh," he said, looking distressed. "It as bad as it sounds?"

"No, actually parts are quite nice. Nice people."

"Really! Not the way I heard it. Do they still lynch black men?"

"I don't think so," I laughed nervously and coffee came out of my nose. "Not while I was there anyway," I explained further.

"Need a napkin in here, Agnes. You should have brung one with the coffee for Pete sake," Sal complained as a fresh roll of paper towels sailed toward his head. "Thanks, Agnes. If I need a hammer I'll come get it. She's a little temperamental," he apologized, finishing the comment with a wink.

"Go ahead and stretch out there. I'll take care of her and she'll be satisfied for a few hours. I'll rustle us up something to eat once you get up."

"Hey, Sal… thanks," I said, feeling safe there if not completely comfortable.

As I pulled off my shoes a pillow came flying at Sal's head. He knocked it down into his lap just in time.

"You been working on your curve ball, I see," Sal said. "I think this is for you. Little woman thinks of everything."

I cracked up and was glad I'd finished my coffee.

"Thank you," I said loud enough for Agnes to hear.

I figured she could probably kick my ass, so being nice seemed like a good idea. How Sal put up with such nonsense, I wasn't sure. I remembered Carl's sweet mother and I realized I wasn't in Alabama any more.

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