Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 19

Keeping the Ball Rolling

That was the week an article documenting the progress of the church kitchen appeared and each Saturday thereafter. I checked the article for my name, but I wasn't mentioned. Father Flannery was quoted prominently. At first I felt a bit of disappointment. Realizing what we were doing wasn't about me made me smile. The emphasis was properly placed. People would soon forget an upstart kid but not a priest.

"There's a meeting at The Center Wednesday. Do you want to attend?" Argyll asked the following weekend. "I heard the board that funds The Center is meeting for the first half hour."

"You stay with the boys if I do?" I asked.

"We'll take them along. It won't be late and they don't get out enough. We're always doing something at the church and on the street. We'll be your moral support, Joe."

"Matilda has been a doll about it," I said. "She's great with them."

"She treats those kids like her own. They have a good home. They've never had it so good, but I still want them to know what we're doing."

"They're not at home," I reminded him.

"No, but some homes aren't worth being at. Look at the kids we feed every day. They aren't home. I don't think most of them would go home, Joe. They left because they couldn't take it at home. I'm glad you brought Denny, Danny, and Donnie home with you. If we didn't have them I'd want to take all the kids we feed home. I know I can't with our three boys there."

"I don't know. I must admit I had it pretty good. After my friend Ralph killed himself, I couldn't be there any more. Finding out he was gay, and me, not knowing he was. His best friend didn't know. If he'd known about me he'd be alive. I just had to find a way to avoid facing my guilt. Don't get me wrong, my parents are strange, but harmless. I didn't run away from home, I ran away from my memories of Ralphie."

"I'm sorry, Joe," he said, putting his arm around me. "Times like that, when your friend killed himself, you've got to understand you can only do the best you can. You had nothing to do with him killing himself. You can play would of, should of, could of, all you want, but it won't change anything."

"I know," I said, patting the back of his hand. "I never saw it coming, Argyll. One day everything was fine, he was fine, and the next I heard he was dead."

"It's pretty bad for these kids, Joe. You were the exception and got to go home. You've got something inside you that makes you want to correct the situation you found here. It's what I like about you. You're always looking for a way to make things better."

"Is that what I'm doing?"

"Ask those kids. Ask our kids. That's what you're doing. We might only be reaching a few of the kids that need us, but it's a few more that eat regular and have access to a doctor. Who knows, Joe, the San Francisco Chronicle goes all over the world. Other people are going to read about what's going on here, and they're going to say, I can do that, and you got the ball rolling. One kid got the ball rolling. You!"

"It's never enough, is it?" I said, knowing my contribution was getting out of Argyll's Jeep and handing someone a meal.

The people responsible for doing the work were back at the church—a dozen caring older women and their concerned priest.

"It's our job to make people aware, to find ways to help, to get other people to help, and then, you've got to stand back and let everyone do whatever they can do best. You've made a good start, Joe. I'm proud of you," Argyll said, giving me his largest smile before moving away.

"I couldn't have done any of it without you. You've been terrific, Argyll. I wish things were different. I wish I could…."

"You can't, Joe. I understand that. I admire you for it. I hope one day to find someone as true blue as you."

"Yeah, you've made all this possible. It's the people you know that have done the most."

"None of it would have happened if you hadn't been so passionate about it."

Argyll was a prince. I'd never met anyone so kind and gentle. My idea of God was in a constant state of change. The Christian God had a lot to answer for. Starving dying kids put him in a very poor light as far as I was concerned, but the God that guided me to Argyll, or him to me, was also a prince. Was it merely a random happenstance that merely turned out to be exactly what was called for?

Perhaps God was about putting people in the proper place to make a difference, as Argyll was placed there for me, but once done, it was up to them to make a difference? Maybe all the starving kids in the world got that way because the people who God put there to make a difference, didn't. That God I could understand and apologize to for our failures.

It was difficult not to consider a nation where life is precious, except, once born, you're on your own, every man for himself. Take all you can get, but life is only precious until you have a need you can't meet at which time you're on your own.

Monday Matilda was cooking and the tutor was with the boys, when someone came to the door. I left the library, passing the noisy kitchen and yanked open the door.

"Todd!" I said surprised. "Mr. Walker," he said in a non-friendly voice. "I thought I told you I never wanted to see you on my streets again."

I used my arm to highlight the entryway, "Does this look like the street to you?"

"You know what I mean," he said, continuing to act annoyed.

"Want a cup of coffee," I offered, ignoring his annoyance. "This isn't a social call," he said.

"I see no business you have with me. I'm an adult. I assume you're still working for social services?" I said as he followed me into the kitchen. "We have any coffee left, Matilda."

"No, Mr. Joe, but I's can fix up a pot in a few minutes."

"I said, I don't want a cup of coffee," Todd argued. "You haven't answered my question."

"Nobody asked you nothin'," Matilda spat in Todd's direction. "You be sittin' yourself down there and mind your manors.

"Todd looked surprised as he followed her orders, taking a good look at Matilda, probably making certain she wasn't armed. "How the hell did you know where I was?" I asked.

"I supervise the woman that is responsible for the boys' case," he said, as Donnie, Danny, and Denny glanced over at him.

"Oh, and where's Ty?"

"That's a privileged piece of information. He's fine and passing in school. He doesn't need to hear from anyone that might tempt him back to my town."

"He's living with his mother? He said she was back in touch with him."

"Yes, but don't you dare go looking for him. He's doing fine and he doesn't need to be distracted. Leave him be."

"He playing basketball?" I asked.

"Billie Joe, we do things other than play basketball."

"He liked basketball. He was good at it. I just wanted to know if he was playing."

"I don't know. His mother hasn't mentioned it. If he likes it he can play. I'm sure he will."

"Here, if you tone down some, I'll serve you a cinnamon roll when I set them out for my boys," Matilda said, slapping the cup and saucer down in front of Todd.

"All right," Donnie said, smiling at Matilda.

Ms. Cho tapped her finger on the counter in front of Donnie and he quickly went back to writing in his composition book. Todd smiled at the discipline. His coffee was still moving back and forth in his cup from the way Matilda had set it down.

"Is he healthy?" I asked.

"Ty? T-cells are staying in the high two hundreds and he has an undetectable viral load."

"He hasn't been sick?"

"He's healthier than I am. Hey, this is good coffee. Thanks."

"You thinkin' Matilda don't know how to make coffee? I just might be skippin' you when I set out the rolls," she said, keeping her back to us as she worked over the stove.

"No, I just meant it was good coffee."

"You planning to stay with us a while?" Todd asked in a less strident voice.

"Until I'm finished," I said.

"You have more in mind than feeding them?"

"Yes, we're doing some medical, clothing, looking for ways to house them without running foul of the law. You came prepared?"

"I can read. I figured it was time to visit you. You've done all right for yourself," Todd said, looking around the sterile kitchen.

Matilda set out the rolls as soon as Ms. Cho collected the books the boys wrote in. We were all speechless, eating magnificent cinnamon rolls.

There was more coffee before we all went back to what we were doing once Todd left. I was satisfied, even happy. I knew Todd wouldn't lie to me about Ty, and my one worry was that he was sick or alone; knowing he wasn't improved my disposition.

I placed calls to Adam at The Center on Monday afternoon and again Tuesday. He didn't answer and I told him I was coming to the meeting Wednesday. There was a hot discussion going on when Argyll, the three boys, and I made our entrance. The meeting stopped until we'd taken seats in the background. The meeting continued.

It took about twenty minutes for the financial end of the meeting to be concluded. A good looking young man stood and announced my arrival.

"We've got a guest speaker this evening. Mr. Walker is here to tell us about the progress he's making in his crusade to help homeless kids. Mr. Walker, would you care to speak."

I sat Denny off my lap and I stood at my seat.

"Why don't you come up front where everyone can see you and hear what you have to say."

I didn't like leaving the comfort that Argyll and the boys gave me, but I moved to the front of the room. There were nineteen or twenty people spread out over a fair size room, not counting my group.

"I'm Billie Joe Walker Jr. While I haven't had any experience with the 'gay' community, I am gay. As far as I know I've always been gay. I was here two summers ago and I lived on your streets."

"But you went home," someone reminded me.

"Let him speak," the man who introduced me said.

"I don't see the point. He's feeding those damn kids and they'll never go back to where they belong. It's not our job to babysit someone else's kids and this is The Center for all of us, not just for the feel-good crowd. What can he tell us we don't know. We've got to step over the little… those kids every time we want to go in or out of a shop. I don't need him to tell me they're out there."

"Excuse me, I think I have what you want," I said directly to the objector. "There are 1.3 million homeless kids on the street of the cities in America tonight. Forty percent of the homeless kids are fifteen or under. Twenty to forty percent of the 1.3 million homeless kids on our streets tonight are LGBT children. Our children."

"Oh, come off it. Our children? Hey, I'm aware of all my kids, and there ain't none. I'm gay. I don't need to hear this. What's with twenty to forty percent? That's as close as they can get? How bogus is that?"

"It seems children thrown out of their homes for being gay aren't likely to tell strangers they're gay. We all faced coming out. How many of us did it at twelve or thirteen? We waited until it is safe. Throw away kids rarely feel safe."

"Oh, please, you don't know how many are gay. It's simply statistics to make us feel sorry for them. They should go home and tough it out like the rest of us did. What you want brings us back to our having an agenda to brainwash the right winger's kids."

"One more statistic just for you, and this one might be one you like," I said angrily, directing my venom at the mean man who had all the answers. "Thirteen, that's thirteen, homeless children die each day on the streets of America. I don't expect you to give a damn but I want you to know that statistic. I want that little tidbit to pop into your brain each night before you fall asleep."

The audience was stunned dumb. When I glanced at Argyll, he was smiling in an appreciative way. He knew I'd read the books he'd given me. I was using the statistics of "Standup for Kids," a non-profit dedicated to finding homes for homeless children.

I broke the silence myself, finishing what I'd come to say.

"I confess, I do have an agenda. I don't want another gay kid thrown out of his home. I don't want another gay kid threatened, beaten, bullied, or buried prematurely. I don't want another gay kid to kill himself rather than put up with the hatred this culture nurtures. I want gay street kids to live long enough to grow up to make a difference, and I want each of us, each of you, to aspire to make a difference, only then will my agenda succeed. Is it too much to ask?"

"What do we do?" someone asked anxiously.

"You like your parties, bookstores, bars, and gatherings. I don't know what you can do but if you talk it over I bet you'd come up with your own ideas."

"You mean like feeding them," someone else said.

"That's what we do, but there are dozens if not a hundred or more homeless kids in The Castro area. Certainly you have the resources to establish an outreach for them. I venture to say most of the kids who come to The Castro are gay. They come here for the same reason I came, looking for the gay community."

"You didn't find us until a few weeks back. That is disappointing," someone said.

There was a brilliant flash that blinded me as I looked over at the speaker. When I regained my vision, the photographer at the church was now at The Center. Who was this guy?

"Yes, I did and I must apologize for my last appearance here. You see, I came looking for you, the gay community. My best friend had died, committed suicide, and all I could think of was finding people like me, who would know about what I felt. When I finally found you a few weeks back and stood in front of you a year and a half after I needed you, I realized why I had come to San Francisco in the first place. I came looking for you so my dead friend didn't kill me. You didn't impress me once I found you, I'm afraid."

"That's terrible. No one helped you?" someone said as a second flash caught me by surprise.

I really wanted to go grab that camera and shove it up his….

"No," I said out of sorts. "Just the other homeless kids. They kept me alive and taught me how to survive. The only interest gay men had in me was… well, that's not important. I needed to find you and once I did, my friend's death overwhelmed me. It was a long journey and I didn't realize how much of it was about his suicide."

"I'd be willing to give up a night a month at the clubs to help fund a safe place for them," someone spoke out.

"My public expects me to appear. I can't deny them my presence even for a single night a month," another man said with a superior air to his voice.

"Do them a favor, Ms. Thing, keep your ugly ass home one night a month, they'll love you for it," someone yelled out and everyone laughed, including Ms. Thing.

"It's not a joke," a woman said. "That's our problem. We are too quick to laugh off injustices directed at us," she said in a soft sympathetic voice. "He's been out there and seen it. He's not from here but he's come back to make a difference. I can't speak for anyone else, but my lover and I spend far too much pampering ourselves. I've never given a thought to those kids. We pass them. I've given them my spare change. I walk on past like there's nothing else I can do. Now I see I must do more. How can any of us sleep tonight knowing what he's just told us? He said, many of them are LGBT kids. We need to take responsibility for them. We can do something to help them."

"Well, this is way big for an open meeting. I'm convinced we need to take this up in committee and see what we can come up with. The Center is here to deal with gay issues. I can't imagine a more important issue. It is one we can do something about," the man who introduced me said.

"You better start lining up the lawyers," someone shouted out. "You get this Center involved with anyone under eighteen and there's going to be such a howl from the right wingers, you'll think the hounds of hell are after us. Whatever you think about doing, you best have a dozen lawyers running interference. That'll cost ten times what it costs to take care of all those kids."

"Perhaps," the moderator said. "Perhaps there are attorneys who will donate the time to see to it we don't risk legal exposure. I know some attorneys. We need to think it over and see what we're best suited to do. The board will meet next Wednesday for this discussion. It'll be closed to everyone except for our advisory board and people with specific ideas. Can you join us at 7:30 next Wednesday, Billie Joe?"

"I'd be happy to attend," I said, and everyone seemed glad once I moved back to my seat.

I was just glad it was over. Argyll grabbed my forearm so I'd look at him. He smiled, nodding his approval. The boys yawned and Denny sucked his thumb. I kissed the top of his head.

I'd never felt as though I was in control of myself before. In front of the church ladies I'd been measured, using their questions to formulate the message. In front of the people at The Center, the place where I'd made such a big fool out of myself a few weeks before, I got a hold on who I was. My message and my mission merged into a cohesive dialogue, where I could answer the questions thrown at me without losing my cool.

There was enough of a foundation under me that I knew where I was and why I was here. It took me back to the senior play and my impromptu speech. While my purpose for being at The Center was a lot more specific, I'd come up with the answers I needed for a more comfortable exchange of ideas. I hadn't accomplished anything yet but it was a start and I had been invited back.

The Center had more business to discuss and it was time to get my boys home. I carried Denny and Argyll held Danny and Donnie's hands as we started down the steps. As we got to the bottom of the stairs a familiar flash blinded me and a familiar anger rose up inside me.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I asked.

"I'm baiting the hook, Mr. Walker. People won't be able to resist you once they see you with your kids."

"No way no how. You write anything you want about me. That's up to you. You leave my family out of it. You never, ever photograph these kids again! Understood?"

"Man, you drive a hard bargain. Okay, I'll destroy the negative, but I want a sit-down interview in exchange."

"You could have asked me for an interview before you started bird-dogging me."

"It wasn't time," he said, walking fast to keep up with us as Argyll walked ahead with Danny and Donnie.

Denny fell back to sleep on my shoulder as we haggled.

"What has changed?" I asked, losing my hard edge toward the noisy newsman.

"You've changed, Mr. Walker. At first it was the waves you made that was the story. Now, you're the story. You were an annoying noise people tolerated and now you're the face of the crusade you lead. I can't let go of that. The readers have become fascinated by the 'boy crusader' and his transformation. It's time to introduce them to Billie Joe Walker Jr."

"Keep the kids out of it and I'll give you all you want about me, no one else. My family, all of it, everywhere, is out of bounds," I emphasized.

"Done, Mr. Walker," he said as we stopped beside the limo.

"How about tonight?" he asked as Argyll put the boys in the car.

"We've got to put the boys to bed," I said.

"I'm in no hurry. This won't hit my editor's desk until Friday. You are my Saturday morning human interest story. Can you give me a ride? We'll get started tonight."

"You don't know where we live."

"Of course I do. I knew that the first time you went to talk to the Board of Supervisors."

"Good, you can come up after the boys are in bed. See you, Mr. Carroll," I said, closing the door on him as he stood speechless on the curb.

I had a feeling Mr. Carroll was seldom speechless and I felt a little evil making him find his way to Argyll's place. I didn't know much but I knew better than to let him think I was being flattered by his attention. George Carroll was in it for his own reasons and as long as I could use him to help promote my mission, he was fine with me.

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