Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 24

Changing Fast

My life ebbed and flowed as each of the forces most important to me pulled in its direction, seeking my time. Meeting and discussions went on around me, but the men who were going to impact the lives of the boys didn't need me. They'd figured out what was needed on their own. I just witnessed the process.

There was to be a part-time medical clinic with various doctors offering care for more serious issues. There was to be a councilor for occupational guidance. He would expose the boys to jobs they expressed interest in doing if they had an aptitude for it. The number of volunteering teachers was overwhelming and each volunteer knew more who would. The clothes were already pouring in and I helped Adam carry a load to the church to keep the room where he kept them from overflowing.

I'd found the gay community a year after I went looking for it. There were some false starts and some not so nice experiences before I got someone to listen. What I'd gone looking for was surpassed by what was taking place after it was so long on my mind. There was an obvious excitement around the idea they could be part of the solution.

Seeing my roll diminish was not a disappointment to me. I never intended to be at the center of the problem, because what I had to offer had already been given. Seeing it all coming together was plenty of excitement for me. I got my biggest joy out of handing out meals on the street corners, except I was forever looking over my shoulder to see who might be close.

Being with gay men was a comfort. I didn't like all of them and in particular the naysayers were kind of a drag. These were my people and getting to see them in action, doing something about my crusade, gave me a great satisfaction. I was amazed at how swiftly things could get done, but even more was happening out of my view.

All in all these were good men who were sensitive to the constant barrage of negativism from people using Jesus to condemn them as a routine purpose of their religion, but in turn and in spite of the constant harassment, the gay community intended to take in the kids these same people threw away for reasons Jesus wouldn't understand. The reward for caring would come in the form of these same friends of Jesus condemning the effort to save their children as recruitment.

Watching men like Ben-Al and Rand wasn't much different from the men I grew up around in Minnesota. They saw things that needed attention and they attended to it with business like efficiency. I'd found the 'moneyed interests' or they'd found me and it was a matter of identifying the problems and solving them. It seemed effortless from my outside view but I spent enough time with them to know they wanted to be a force to make a difference.

What I saw as a hundred different overwhelming things that needed doing, they saw as a big problem you tackled at its center. Once the overall structure was in place, all the little things became incorporated into it. The doable was done immediately, while the impossible took a little time. I watched these stern imposing men I once saw as a mountain I had to climb, smiling pleasant satisfied smiles. What I'd seen from the bottom up they'd seen from a different view.

The women at The Center weren't a big presence. They handled some of the logistical roles and added their slant to things but it was mostly men most of the times I was there. The suggestion to have women in the middle of the residential facility seemed obvious and I sensed no acrimony but a different focus that gave the women credibility. We didn't need them to be fulfilled. They didn't need us to supply them fulfillment, but we needed each other to gain a more complete perspective.

These were the forces I'd encountered in San Francisco on my second visit to town. I was no longer invisible or helpless. What I'd gone in search of I'd found. The hole in my life was filled with people and activity.

I still hadn't forgiven Ralphie and perhaps I never could, but my quest had led me to Carl, Ty, Gene, Argyll and my boys. I couldn't have planned any better. My life was a joy and I made the most of it, knowing my presence there was winding down.

Although Christmas was closing in on us, it didn't seem like it. Argyll and I started each day with food deliveries. I met with different people two, three, and four nights a week. When I wasn't busy, I was with the kids, and when we were all together, Argyll often took us out to have an evening of exercise and some different food. The boys still favored hamburgers and fries above all else, but spaghetti, enchiladas, and pizza were close behind, and all three were good at the same time if it could be arranged.

When Adam was invited to tag along, he smiled and made a point of taking a backseat. It took a little time for the boys to accept him into our circle, but they slowly warmed up to him. He did his best to be helpful but not pushy. He was a terrific guy that Argyll and I liked equally. Well, equally in like but Argyll had more in mind than I did. Adam often blushed when Argyll greeted him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek before they ever got to know each other, but I supposed Argyll wanted to make his intentions known.

Carl came the weekend before Christmas loaded with gifts for the boys and me. They jumped all over him at the airport and one or another was climbing on him at all times. Even Donnie was among his admirers this time. Before he got into the gifts he broke out the fudge and Christmas cookies his mom made and the boys were in hog heaven, and Argyll let them go.

We went to Adam's for dinner on Christmas Eve, and Carl and Adam got along. I was worried that they wouldn't, but Adam told Carl about Wyoming and they were just a couple of country boys and really hit it off. Argyll wasn't too keen on Adam's hugging my man, but like most things, he got over it. When Carl caught Argyll scowling, he grabbed him in a bear hug, thanking him for keeping me safe and out of trouble. Carl was irresistible when he tried but I could be prejudiced on this point.

There was no mention made of the threat from Page Cross, but there was no point. It had been a couple of weeks and Argyll was sure he'd hit the road. It's what he said should happen after he'd been roughed up by the law. I didn't like thinking about it. I didn't like the thought of someone suffering on my account. It still bothered me that Argyll was capable of doing what he did.

"It's wonderful seeing two people so in love," Adam said as Carl and I held hands after dinner. "I understand more about you now, Billie Joe. I wouldn't want to risk losing anyone as hunky as him either."

"Oh, you talk about me?" Carl asked.

"The boy never shuts up about you, Carl. He knows a good thing when he has it."

The boys were yawning and half asleep before we got them in bed on Christmas Eve. Argyll had set up the Christmas tree in the dinning room but the smell of pine permeated all the rooms. You didn't need to turn on the chandelier as the eight-foot tree was lit up like Times Square. All the colors blended into a sparkling glow of beauty.

We were up at six a.m. the next morning, when the boys couldn't wait any longer. Carl didn't mind dragging himself out of bed, even though we hadn't had any sleep yet. The boys were all over the presents in childish amazement. On each of our chairs was a stocking, hung by Carl, whose mother took care to mark one with each of our names. The most scrumptious homemade candies and cookies came out of mine. I was giddy with delight at each new flavor I discover inside.

The boys went quickly onto the presents piled high under the tree. Each had an area of his own and each squealed with glee each time they discovered what was inside the colorful wrappings. I got them all gold chains with their names engraved on a disc that hung down only slightly. It got me a great hug and a kiss from each of them.

Carl had gotten each boy camouflage sweats and an Army T-shirt. They had to put on the T-shirt before going further into the gifts. Argyll got them each two books, two pairs of jeans, two dress shirts, socks, and underwear. It wasn't exciting but then each got a watch exactly like Argyll's, which had them all squealing and delighted and the rest of the gifts waited as they modeled and set them properly with all of us assisting.

Carl frowned when Argyll handed him an identical watch but wasn't as insulted once he saw mine. They were expensive and too high priced to wear for every day, but I knew Argyll would be insulted if I didn't wear mine. Carl left his with me to keep safe, because he didn't want it with him on base.

I'd had all my Christmases at home with my parents and most with my brother. There was always a tension at my house. I liked getting presents and I liked the food, the decorations, and the celebration. It was better than every day at home, but it wasn't happy the way we were happy at Argyll's that Christmas.

Maybe it was the joy of the kids, having a home and people who could do for them. Maybe it was my lover Carl, holding my hand as we watched the openings, laughing and smiling together. Maybe it was all that had happened since last Christmas and all the gifts I'd been given. Especially my happiness over the success of my crusade to help the gay homeless kids had me as happy as I'd ever been.

"When will you be done here, Billie Joe," Carl asked his last night. "I want to start looking for a place. The barracks is starting to close in on me."

"April, babe," I said. "The residential facility is scheduled for opening then. I can't leave before it's done and there are a lot of things to do between now and then, but I'll be ready in April."

"It's a date, Billie Joe. I'll give you to April."

I knew it was more than a date. I knew what Carl was telling me. I'd feel free to hand off my responsibility once the doors of the residence opened. My job was to sound the alarm and it was working out far better than I could have imagined. It was now up to the gay men of San Francisco to take care of their entire community, while I went home to take care of my man. Having a timeframe was good, even if there were people who might not understand.

The day after New Years day we were at the airport waiting to put Carl on his plane. We all went because no one wanted to say goodbye any sooner than necessary, especially me. In the car and in the airport waiting area, the kids wrestled and tormented Carl. He hoisted one and then another up on his shoulders as he was just another big kid, and maybe that's why the boys enjoyed him so much. Carl was very much our fourth boy, not that he wasn't all man when necessary.

As the kids wore down and his departure was near, they listened to Carl talk about Alabama and his parents and how the boys were coming to spend the summer with us. They were due to finish their studies in May, so the idea of my leaving was made easier by the knowledge they were coming to stay with me the following month.

Carl's final words to me as he left us behind, "See you in April, Billie Joe."

We all knew what that meant. Carl wasn't returning to San Francisco. He'd made that clear. He seemed eager to have the kids come stay with us, which didn't surprise me because it gave him someone to play with. I couldn't tell how Argyll took these conversations but he never said anything about it.

After Argyll had done so much for me, I wanted to make it as easy on him as I could, but I didn't think easy was possible in this instance. I knew it had to be done. The boys were as happy as I'd seen them, even though one or the other was already giving me long distant looks. This was not going to be easy on any of us but once the summer came they'd realize I was there for them..

Lucky for me Adam and Argyll were hitting it off. Adam returned the watch at Christmas, saying it was too expensive, but he was wearing it on New Years Eve, when they couldn't get enough of each other, dancing every dance together at The Center's party. They danced beside Carl and me and my love never ceased to amaze me. He wasn't in the least self conscious dancing in front of a room full of people he didn't know.

Early New Year's day, when it was time to return home to the boys, Adam couldn't seem to let go of Argyll. I didn't think Argyll minded, but he did blush when I mentioned it on the drive home.

"He's a nice fellow," Argyll told us in the understatement of the new year.

"Nice fellow," Carl agreed with a Cheshire cat size smile.

"Very nice," I said, thinking I'd seen this scene in a movie.

Argyll's jealousy about Carl wasn't the least bit diminished. He liked him. He admired him. He didn't like that I was with him. I reminded him how lucky he was to have someone, as popular as Adam, interested in him. This always altered his mood but my hope was we could depart friends and stay that way. I was happy for him and Adam and I wanted him to be just as happy for Carl and me.

I hadn't forgotten my anger over Argyll's violent streak, although I'd never seen anything resembling that kind of behavior otherwise. I did watch him around the boys. Maybe cops knew what they were doing but violence always disturbed me. I refused to accept it as a necessity.

One morning before he left for work he came into the kitchen and asked Donnie to accompany him to the library, which he did obediently. I stood at the library door in plain view, wondering what this was about.

"Where are your books?" Argyll inquired.

"TV room. I read when the shows get boring. Denny and Danny like the kid stuff," he advised.

"Go and get them," Argyll ordered, and Donnie moved past and was back in a minute with his Christmas books.

Argyll stood and took him over to the corner of the bookshelves where three shelves stood empty.

"You're the tallest so the top shelf is yours. We'll go to the bookstores once a month and you can get the books you want and you can keep them on your bookshelf."

"Cool," Donnie said, looking up at Argyll as he placed his books on the designated shelf.

"Send Danny in when you get back to the kitchen," Argyll said.

That was the day I stopped watching him around the boys. Argyll was quite a guy. The boys were something too. The idea of leaving them was made no easier by these intimate moments but each time Carl left me it was harder. I wanted to get on with my life with him, knowing the boys would be a big part of it.

There were phone calls that came more often from Georgia. The meetings at The Center came more often as well. I sat in with the teachers, when they came to discuss how best to find where each student would start in on his studies and where each stood with what he most needed to learn.

I sat in when the doctors discussed giving each boy a complete physical to deal with any STD or condition that might require chronic care. These were interesting discussions on how best to get ahead of anything that wasn't serious now but could become serious if not treated. The health hazards coming from being homeless and eating out of dumpsters were endless, but they were also easily cured.

When Ben-Al called on restaurants owners to contribute something, they discussed feeding them at the residence. They fussed with Ben-Al who wanted everything they had to give. They were reluctant to take on more than they could handle, but they decided they'd be able to feed the residence of the house as well as any street kids who weren't in housing yet.

By the time the meeting was over, each restaurant was making available their kitchens and staff, along with donating food that was perfectly good but couldn't be sold to customers. They knew Ben-Al well enough to argue with him, but in the end they agreed to pick up any slack on feeding the kids. With a little thought and some fresh ideas everyone left happy.

The day after the meeting with the restaurant owners, Adam took me on my first tour of the facility as it was taking shape. All the plumbing, electricity, and fixtures were either in place or ready to be installed as the rooms were being readied for the two students that would live in each. They weren't large rooms but the plan was for two single beds, two desks, and two chairs in each room. The clothes closet was barely adequate for two boys and with all the clothing being collected it would be a tight fit, but when did boys use closets?

On the nights I wasn't meeting with the people actually coming up with ideas far beyond my imagination, I was home with the boys so Argyll could go to Adam's for a late dinner and….. The boys were surprisingly flexible and didn't ask about the obvious. They probably knew more than I did.

By February the three shelves set aside for the boys in the library had a set of bookends the boys picked out. Donnie had a half a dozen books, Danny had four, and Denny had an even dozen, favoring picture books with things that popped up if not out as he read. He also had a stack of comic books that didn't require the bookends. They sat to one side and showed signs of wear from frequent use.

By February all the scaffolding on the outside of the residential building was gone and it looked very nice after a good cleaning for the bricks and many fancy carvings that must have been fashionable in the early part of the 1900s when it was built. The biggest chore left was to name it as we waited for the arrival of the furniture and the kitchen fixtures.

Each morning six days a week, Argyll and I were out and up at the church loading meals and delivering them to the areas we'd identified as most likely to be where we'd find takers. For the first time, Argyll's boundless energy ran out. Many times I'd come back from delivering some food and spending time talking to the kids and Argyll would be asleep at the wheel.

He'd relaxed from his full-on attention the presence of Page Cross required, and by February the alert had subsided with Cross not making any more appearances anywhere near where we delivered the food. This relaxation of tension along with Argyll's need to stop to see Adam each evening after work and before coming home, lengthened his days considerably and he often wasn't home and out of the shower before 10p.m. He wasn't likely to be in bed until one or two in the morning and we were up before eight.

A couple of nights a week he came in and showered and dressed for his date with Adam, and on these night he didn't leave the house until nearly ten and might not get home and in bed until two or three in the morning. After date nights Argyll was particularly tired and he caught up on his sleep each time we stopped and I got out with some food.

I never knew how the boys took our relationships. We did our best to keep the overt displays of affection out of view. Hand holding and kissing seemed okay in a house where people obviously loved one another. It took the boys differing amounts of time to come around on Carl and I wasn't sure how they'd accept Adam as it became more and more obvious that he was in love with Argyll and Argyll was in love with him.

One evening when Matilda stayed late to cook a nice dinner for Adam's benefit we all sat and chatted in the dinning room with the boys coming and going from the television room once they'd gotten enough food. When Adam was ready to go home, Argyll walked him to the front door where they embraced and kissed, which is apparently the moment the boys had been planning for.

I heard them singing a little ditty about their other father having a boyfriend. The laughter and giggling had me smiling broadly. I was delighted for Argyll and Adam and if the boys accepted their relationship, then it was going to be easier on them to let me go. I'd yet to find a way to sit down with the boys and explain what was about to happen and why, but they'd probably have an easier time with it than I.

Everything was falling into place in a way that had me at peace with my life. For the first time as far back as my memory took me, I wasn't at war within myself. I was letting life be and it in turn was letting me be.

The day the kitchen fixtures arrived, Adam called for me to come down to see it. They'd removed the two glass front doors to get the huge freezers, refrigerators, ovens, and ranges in through the lobby. Each item was stainless steel and it sparkled like Matilda had just given it a good cleaning. A pile of cardboard and blankets were stacked in the middle of the lobby floor when each piece was unwrapped before being put in place for the installers, who supervised the unloading.

For the first time in well over a month, George Carroll showed up, snapping pictures of it all and shooting pictures of the newly painted interior and me in jeans and a T-shirt. Several times when I turned around, the flash of his camera blinded me. Before I could tell him to stop, he was gone, popping up a few minutes later, after I'd relaxed again, repeating his technique of surprise journalism. He'd stopped talking to me again and I was reluctant to say what was on my mind as the sneak attacks always caught me unaware.

"You're a celebrity," Adam told me, when I complained.

"I am not."

"George's journalism created an interest in you, Billie Joe. In turn your story has been told. None of this would have happened without you. People need a point of entry into a cause, and you're it for your kids."

"I didn't shave and I look like shit?" I said.

"You look fine just as you are," he advised.

It was a few days later Adam called to tell me there was a dinner to honor the contractors, suppliers, and investors who helped get the residential facility open. It was being held at one of the nicer restaurants in the area. He wanted me there to see the people who had contributed most to the project. It was a dinner I was honored to attend. I wanted to thank each of them.

"Call me when you're ready to come home," Argyll told me, as I slid out of the Jeep.

2001: A Space Odyssey was on at 9p.m. and he'd promised the boys he was going to watch with them but he thought it would only take ten minutes to drive down and get me if he kept the Jeep out front. I assured him I'd call and kissed his cheek before he left me.

There were probably thirty or forty men attending the dinner. At first there were drinks and I had something mixed. I'm not sure what I asked for or what I settled for. Adam sat with me at a table off to one side. Most of the men being honored and thanked sat at two long tables facing another long table where Ben-Al sat in the center with Rand, Horst, and Claude all seated beside him. It was quite an energetic gathering.

"Thank you isn't enough, gentlemen. This humble offering doesn't begin to express my appreciation for your participation in this project. This is some of the best food in town and since I'm going to let Rand pay for it…," Ben-Al said with a broad smile, glancing back over his shoulder at Rand as the audience laughed. "He's got deep pockets.

"When my Foundation took this building it was under the agreement that it would be in service within a year. That was five months ago. The hard work you've done has me in good stead with the city. They had in mind I provide a big tax boost with a business or businesses. Won't they be surprised?

"This goes beyond that. They get plenty of money. What we've built is something that can make everyone in the city proud. Tax dollars can't begin to provide what we've built.

"This will be the start of taking responsibility for some of the least among us. We have our eyes on another building, so I'm going to feed you real well tonight so you feel good and start thinking of ways you can once again step forward to help us get a stronger foothold on this problem. I hope you brought your checkbooks."

Everyone laughed; Ben-Al was in rare form. The men I'd suspected of something other than being honorable, reminded me I wasn't as sharp as I might have thought I was. They were thorough and not too quick to make decisions, wanting to know everything before they did anything.

One day I hoped to have their patience and dedication. I laughed at the proper places and enjoyed watching the wheels in motion. It was kind of Ben-Al to want me there but I didn't belong with those men. They all were successful in their fields and shared their success when they found something in which they could believe. I felt lucky to have gotten the ball rolling so they could feel comfortable with the cause they were tackling.

I'd just about finished my drink when I became a little more than a spectator. I never saw it coming.

"There is someone here who is a bit more responsible for why we are here than you or I. We'd be ignorant of the seriousness of the problem we're attempting to correct if not for the warning he sounded. Once he sounded the warning he went about giving us the detail of what we couldn't have imagined without him coming to tell us. For this we should all be grateful and I want Billie Joe Walker Jr. to step up here and say a few words before I'm going to let the food start coming.

"Billie Joe, please come up and say a few words."

Ben-Al stood back and began to applaud. As soon as I stood up, everyone started to applaud and then they stood and applauded. The camera flash startled me, keeping me from freaking out but I couldn't find the source. I walked from my table behind the big table to stand next to Ben-Al, who shook my hand and then stood back, applauding until everyone had sat back down. The quiet was unnerving.

I had chills and my knees shook and there were two flashes, but this time I was dressed for the occasion. I was even wearing one of Argyll's silk ties, but I had nothing to say.

"I didn't do anything," I said. "I came here nearly two years ago. I ended up on the street. We didn't eat in any place like this. I won't describe where our food came from, because you're about to eat. What you're doing will save some lives. What you are doing will put some throwaway kids back on their feet. Your effort will point them in the right direction, after people who should have loved them, threw them away. Some of them might follow in your footsteps and become builders and contractors.

Each of you would make excellent role models, so don't just stop with donations and labor. Let them see who you are and what it is you do, so they can aspire to reach the heights you've reached in my heart tonight. You may be surprised by what you can achieve and it won't cost you a dime.

"I can assure you that giving them a safe place to lay their head at night is the beginning. The residential facility is like a palace, once you've lived on the street. You can't imagine the good it will do for kids who have been seriously damaged by people who should know better.

"You can't imagine their pain, once betrayed by their own parents. You should feel very proud of yourselves for letting them know that you care and that you will protect them until they can finish school and go out on their own.

"I'm so happy I can't think of anything else to say, thanks. Thank you Ben-Al, Rand, Horst, and Claude for listening to me. Especially thank you for hearing me. You are my heroes. You are good men all. Thank you," I said, looking at their faces as tears ran down my cheeks.

What was I doing there? Even feeling very much out of place there was happiness running through me. I couldn't stop myself from crying. George Carroll stood in my way this time, flashing a picture as I moved back toward my table. He snapped another from the side as I passed.

There was more applause. Adam was smiling and crying as I had to sit back down to hide what I felt, which was more like being overwhelmed. I'd never suspected what was in store for me.

Everything calmed down and there was talk and laughter coming from all the tables. I was quiet and ate only a few bites of food. My stomach wasn't going to tolerate it and my nerves were all on edge. As the guests of honor drank and ate, I was no longer on stage or part of what they'd come to do.

"Adam, I'm leaving. I need to get home. We're watching 2001: A Space Odyssey tonight."

"I'll drive you," Adam offered.

"No, I need some fresh air," I said. "This was more than I expected."

"Call Argyll. I'm sure he'd want to come get you, Billie Joe."

"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," I lied, wanting to get out of there.

As quick as the cool night air hit me I breathed it in deep gulps. I'd been waiting for this minute. I'd accomplished what I'd come to do. I didn't know how to feel about it. It was only March and I felt like I was finished in San Francisco.

I faced needing to alter my life one more time. I thought of Carl as I walked. It had rained and the sidewalk was wet. I encountered fewer and fewer walkers as I turned up some of the lesser traveled streets to take the most direct route home. The hard-soled shiny black shoes pinched my feet.

I picked up the pace. I needed to be with Argyll and my boys. My heart ached for them as I faced leaving. It's a revelation that comes, even when you've considered it before; there is the moment when the reality hits home.

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