Jim hardly sees the black and orange streamers which decorate the lobby for the costume ball, or the dish of pumpkin-seeds laid out in welcome on the table there.
There are three light-sources in the room he is approaching. Behind the beer-table at far left stands a traditional jack-o-lantern, carved and prepared by the Education Officer, who is now a purple dragon with only a beard and a paper cup showing beneath its papier-mâché snout. The Dragon-Officer scorns the low-caste pumpkins sold in town, piled outside the supermarkets like misshapen beachballs. Every year he drives out into the country and prowls around pumpkin patches till he finds his phrenological ideal, every bump and lobe perfectly defined.
Back home he observes the simple rules of the operation:
1. Make sure you cut an irregular lid so that you can see right away which way it goes back on.
2. Hold the knife at a shallow angle when you cut the lid so it can’t drop thru.
3. Carve the features on the bevel to help the light spread out.
The resulting jack-o-lantern is almost Apollonian, in spite of the carefully-etched scar and the thread of pumpkin-pulp dangling from the edge of its mouth. The mild golden light and the high pondering forehead make it a downright reassuring bogy. Similarly the ferocity of its maker’s dragon-outfit is compromised by the soulful eyelash-fringes he has given it.
Placed at centre-left of the back wall is a day-glo midget of orange plastic, with a pumpkin instead of a head and a top hat perched above it, politely half-raised. He is lit up from inside and throws a miserly ellipse of orange-red against the wall.
Given pride of place on top of the TV is a second authentic jack-o-lantern, but this one’s face is a crude piece of work, suggesting idiocy not menace. Mounted inside it, wedged into the flesh, is a strobe-light which gives off a bone-white flash several times a second – a lightning to match the thunder of the sound-system. The scooped-out skull, with its out-sticking pieces of metal and wire, looks like propaganda against electroshock therapy, so a sun-hat has been used to conceal them.
Stroboscopes have been known to trigger off petit-mal attacks, even in subjects with no history of epilepsy: the stuttering flashes interfere with the brain’s own dance-rhythms. So the organizers of this event have instructions to look out for any jerks and seizures which go beyond permissible disco. No one pretends this will be easy.
Jim hardly sees the black and orange streamers which decorate the lobby for the costume ball, or the bowl of pumpkin-seeds laid out in welcome on the table there.
Pumpkin-seeds make a popular and tasty party snack: just soak a few hours in salted water, then dry off in the oven. The seeds Jim has been eating are less traditional, though by the standards of his friends they mark him as an anachronism.
The earth’s metabolism turns pumpkin seeds, when planted in the normal way, duly into plants; but in the human body they act as mild psychotropics. They ‘alter consciousness’. They screen an hour or two of eyelid movies. They rubberize a few perceptual grids. The US Government dislikes these effects, and arranges for the seeds to be sprayed with a preparation which multiplies their slight natural toxicity. They are then rejected by birds and bugs, and by the digestive systems of thrill-seekers.
Jim’s source, though, has promised him a purity of one hundred per cent.
Jim makes final adjustments to his headdress. His handsome features, including green stupid eyes and a dark-blond moustache, are dimly visible through the coarse mesh of a veil which suggests both a vamp and a beekeeper.
He is as old as sin, if sin is twenty-six.
Arriving at the desk, Jim pays the entrance fee and receives on his wrist a purple lambda in Magic Marker, which will qualify him for re-admission if he leaves and comes back. Lambda is the symbol of international gay liberation. T-shirts with a mock-fraternity logo, tri-Lambda, are currently in preparation. The faint-hearted opt for a more abstract wrist-mark, since the dye takes some days to wash out.
Here at the desk Jim receives the first of many routine compliments on his costume. He wears a pale-green jump suit, its sleeves short, a large corn-flower embroidered down one leg. His slightly convex stomach looms a little through the fabric, confident like Snoopy’s of being liked for itself. Rustling wings are formed along his arms by wide feathers of tissue paper, in shades of green. An effect of ethereal vigor is achieved.
Once inside the Informal Lounge, Jim weaves his way across to the beer keg, though several drinks are already contributing to the impure flux inside him. The music It’s fun to stay at the YMCA drowns out extended conversation, but there is much nodding and smiling.
A passing GI asks Jim whether he is Oberon or Titania. Jim shakes his head and leans across to shout ‘Fellini-Satyricon’, through his veil, into the military ear.
Maybe two dozen people are dancing. Twice as many watch them, or pretend to watch, while jockeying for position or edging up to each other. The secret is not to expect a welcome. Instead you should materialize just inside your target’s peripheral vision as a rampant sex-object. Moments ago you were furniture; now you are sheer tantalizing Other. Keep saying this to yourself.
More people are arriving all the while.
The tape fades out ‘YMCA’ and starts on ‘Fire Island’. A ripple of pleasure passes across the floor. This song has won many fans with its cheery out-chorus of ‘Don’t go in the bushes’.
Mighty Mouse, a correction officer from Harrisonburg, is the first to ask Jim for a dance. His costume – cape, T-shirt, shorts, running shoes, and super-hero tights – is designed to turn his littleness to good effect. Mighty Mouse asks all his acquaintances in turn for one dance, coaxes wallflowers out onto the floor, speaks well of everyone. He respects the Personal Space of those around him.
The community reels from his reckless good-mouthing.
There are several styles of dancing already competing on the floor. Dwayne, wearing the Dancing Queen T-shirt he premiered at last year’s Marathon, leads a line of followers through an intricate routine. He is as grim as a commando barking telepathic orders, and resentful of anyone who gets in the way of manoeuvres.
The guys with the wild elbow-language, doing the splits and high kicks, watched Soul Train this afternoon. They are hoping that natural-sense-of-rhythm will turn out to be their birthright too.
A hard-hat and a cowboy are ignoring each other at point-blank range. In butch dancing of this type, the priorities are strutting and stamping. The music’s rhythm becomes something to be resisted and brought to heel. To surrender would be as bad as failing a chromosome test. Feet turned out, these masterful slobs rebut, second-by-second, the world’s accusations of exquisiteness.
Established couples step and spin with practised smoothness. Issues of leading and following are settled by tiny signals, eye-sent and eye-caught, and tiny pressures of hand on waist or hand.
Unaccustomed pairs, like Jim and Mouse, bob and stride in each other’s direction, free-style.
Jim’s eyes close as he dances, and his lips shape themselves into a gruff pout. He appreciates his steps ungrudgingly.
Punk-rocker dances with Dracula, dragon with convict, Tin Man with Straw Man. Cowardly Lion has presumably backed out at the last moment, and will not find his Courage tonight.
Inexperienced and poorly-coordinated, Mighty Mouse moves his feet but not his body, as others on the floor immobilize their hips or arms or shoulders. He watches Jim, who is showing the ceiling a clenched fist, all the time they are dancing.
The GI is now dancing with an enigma in black tie and gorilla-mask. No one knows who is under the costume, only that it must be hell in there. Someone may be curious enough to go home with him.
When the song ends, Jim says, ‘Wonderful,’ and Mighty Mouse thanks him. Jim returns to the beer table. Mighty Mouse looks around him.
The eyes beneath his ebbing hair-line are radiant with fun-hunger, but when he stays behind each week to help clear up he seems perfectly content to be escorting no more than a broom. Maybe drinking a few beers satisfies the animalistic outsider in him; for of course in Virginia, the statutes of the Alcoholic Beverages Commission prohibit the supply of alcohol to homosexuals. A little liquid wrongdoing may amount (in the mind of a correction officer) to a potent flirtation with his pariah status.
Notice the similarity to the Wild West, where the White Man – speaking with forked-tongue – kept the Red Man well away from the fatal fire-water. And the history of the Indian offers a cheering precedent. Survivors of purges can become wonderfully fashionable.
A glistening Indian, fresh from tangoing with a sheikh, nods to Mighty Mouse’s smile and is asked to dance.
As Jim refills his cup from the keg, he notices a youth with a beautiful uninhabited profile standing awkwardly by the soft-drink cooler. He wears a Jacobethan doublet and hose. If this stranger hopes to stay within the law as a teetotaler, he is deluded. Alcoholic Beverages Commission statutes in any case forbid the serving of alcohol in a place where homosexuals ‘congregate’ (to plan their colour-schemes, hen-parties, orphanage-raids).
Jim smiles and gets going on a little small-talk: ‘What’s your costume?’
‘Uh…Formal Faggot, I guess.’ The boy smiles back. ‘Hamlet in Act Two. You?’
‘Fellini-Satyricon.’ Jim’s genital brain tells him a little more charm is called for.
This will be his last wholly conscious move of the evening.
‘Reel Three,’ he says. ‘Like to dance?’
Jim’s dancing is much more purposeful now that it is a matter of erotic reflex. His strategy is to follow, but aggressively; moulding himself to his partner’s steps, but forcing him backwards. Hamlet is easily wrong-footed. When his steps are brought to his attention in this way, he remembers he has no idea what he is doing. In self-defensive embarrassment, he raises his hands to Jim’s shoulders. Soon they are dancing close.
Jim’s romantic involvements last three days on average. He blames biorhythms.
A premature slow-dance follows the fast one on the tape. Jim grips Hamlet firmly and sways to the new tempo.
Once we were lovers
Can’t they understand
Closer than others, I was you
I was your man.
Without a deejay to bully them into cooling it down whether they want to or not, the masqueraders at first hold back from the floor. Then figures from the edges of the room move in for a provisional kill. Their smiles are a little more authentic than the letters-pages of magazines they hide at home.
Don’t talk of heart-aches
I remember them all
And I’m checking you out one night
To see if I’m faking it all
Jim murmurs incoherently in Hamlet’s ear through the beer-sticky webbing – listing and exploring the hiding-places of cuteness.
There is a species of mantis whose female bites off her husband’s head during early foreplay, leaving him to administer the conjugals on Automatic Pilot. She has sound evolutionary reasons for this, but her lover can’t hear them. He continues to go through the motions, and here among the higher primates, so does Jim.
So many others
So many times
Sixty new cities and what do I
What do I find?
As the dance goes on, more and more of Jim’s weight is transferred to Hamlet’s shoulders. By its end, Jim’s knees are near the floor and Hamlet is barely able to move.
Devotees of the Latin Hustle have by now tracked beer across the floor in sticky swirls and arabesques. It is like dancing on fly paper. Torn-down streamers of orange and black get wet and bleed their dye. Broad fronds of green tissue from Jim’s moulting wings are trampled, down among the cigarette-butts.
In his desperation, Hamlet catches the attention of a tall man standing nearby, who carries a fan and wears a kimono. Hand-painted characters adorn the panels of the fan and also his ethnic undergarment, not now on show. On his feet are the traditional wooden sandals, thick rectangles supported by four blunt wooden pegs: they look like little coffee tables.
Between them, Hamlet and the stranger get Jim to a chair, and then the Kimono-Man brings him a cup of water. After a couple of sips he says, ‘Bathroom.’ Jim is supported along the corridor to the men’s room. He pulls up his veil and is immediately, effortlessly sick into the consoling bowl. His escorts leave him propped up against a stall, taking it easy behind closed lids.
In these special circumstances the men’s room is a DMZ. The fluorescent strips over the mirrors are no competition for the flash and glow of pumpkin light. No one would cruise here by preference.
The players come here to take time out from the game. Only a merry-maker left over from the Trout Day banquet down the hall, flushed with fine wine and the excitement of the fishing-tackle auction, makes eye-contact of any kind; and looks down at his feet for the rest of his visit.
Here away from the music, a little pure conversation is carried on. A sweet-faced Pierrot with a disconcerting crimson codpiece removes his make-up and murmurs ‘Zit City next stop’ to the mirror.
Two of the Andrews Sisters practise their cross-talk: ‘All David wants is a husband.’
‘Don’t you believe it. He’ll settle for two legs and a pulse.’
‘Now isn’t that the pot calling the kettle beige?’
But drag is wildly unpopular here in the late seventies, and the Sisters will have to work hard to get laughs. Forbidden minorities develop their own exclusion-principles. They catch on fast.
Jim gets up off the ground and washes his face. As he wanders along the corridor back to the Lounge, his way is blocked by a small group of people. Two blacks are interrogating a piratical figure who wears a delicate mask of feathers. This is Mother.
Mother is a veteran and a long-time spokesman for the group. He belongs to the Old Guard of zapping. This confrontation is kid-stuff for him.
Jim leans against the wall to give moral support.
‘Thar women in thar?’ asks one of the blacks.
‘Gay women, yes,’ Mother tells him.
‘See what I mean,’ he says to his friend.
Mother is used to more abrasive encounters. His latest suggestion for the group, roundly defeated when it came to a vote, involved a poster that read:
HEY STRAIGHT WORLD! HOMOSEXUALS IN CHARLOTTESVILLE GAVE X (a figure preferably in millions) PINTS OF BLOOD LAST MONTH. DON’T YOU OWE IT TO YOUR LOVED ONES TO DILUTE THIS FILTH BEFORE IT SAVES A LIFE?
The other members are happier Earning The Goodwill of the Community.
The second intruder tries his hand. ‘Thar women in thar?’ he asks.
‘Gay women, yes,’ Mother tells him.
‘See what I mean?’ his friend says.
Mother outstares the two of them without any trouble. It is a small triumph now that the great days of zapping are over.
Mother affects a truckeresque beer gut which is hopelessly out of date. He is anachronistic enough to enjoy dope even now, and to own the big bike his style of dress suggests.
Exponents of Zapping-à-la-mode are much too cosmopolitan to stay in town for this dance; they are up in DC on the weekend, where they can find the international set and a wide range of 3-D movies. Nouveau Zapping goes to a gym, keeps its hair and beard trimmed, and buys those tough hardwearin’ clothes from specialty stores (Chez Gomorrah, The Dude Ranch) advertised in the Washington Blade.
Blocking the pass, the Old Guard relives old victories: days when society was brought up short. Face to face with its contradictions. Shocked into a new awareness. Days when the world stirred in its sleep. Days when men were men, and the future was pure Frontier.
Mother lays down the law. ‘The women here don’t go for what you’ve got,’ he says with show-down flatness. The two blacks retreat to the end of the corridor.
‘Nothing personal you understand,’ Mother calls after them as he and Jim return to the music and the beer table.
On the way they pass two Fat Schoolboys with Measles sitting nervously near the desk. These two have come here, where the wild things are, to get themselves an authentic frisson. A jack-o-lantern no longer gives them chills, so they have chosen a more advanced bogy. Right now they are too scared to go in any further. They have greatly overestimated the candle-power of deviance. But if they are lucky a swaying hairdresser will accost them.
Back in the half-dark, Mother pats most of the bodies he passes. Old Zapping spreads itself just as thin as New, thin as fallout or gold-leaf.
Almost everyone is dancing now, responding to the plaintive aggression of the current anthem.
Mighty Mouse dances with Anonymous Gorilla, Straw Man with Tin Man, Hamlet with Gertrude Stein of all people. The Kimono-Man dances with Dracula, flinging his clogs about like a berserk geisha.
(I gotta be a) macho macho man
(I gotta be a) mucho macho man
The vocal group performing this piece was recruited by an advertisement in the San Francisco Advocate. The wording stressed looks (HOT HUNKS WANTED); singing voices (NO MUTES NEED APPLY) were not a priority.
I am (I am)
What I am (what I am)
What I am – I’ll be.
You could filter out the music and concentrate on the complex soundtrack left behind. Synchronized handclaps and finger-popping on the beats. Regular stamping of feet, the Kimono-Man’s wild clog-clatter above all. The raucous sniff of a nose flooding its tissues with fun, from a bottle marked Liquid Aroma. The tearing sound of soles pulled from a sticky floor. And a communal whisper of wish-fulfilment as the crowd sings softly along.
I did not choose the way I am
(but) I am what I am….
After a long fade-out the last dance is announced. Jim makes his way over to where Hamlet is standing. Hamlet shrugs, and they dance.
Soon poor Donna Summer is in the grip of an asthmatic orgasm on the tape. Couples rotate unsteadily, or lean against each other like tent-poles. Many of the dancers continue to drink over their partners’ shoulders. Mighty Mouse slow-dances with La Verne Andrews, Tin Man with Straw Man, Gertrude Stein with Isadora, Patti Andrews with Maxine Andrews.
Again Hamlet seeks out the Kimono-Man for help with Jim. When they get back to him, he is sitting on the floor and can only gasp ‘Difficulty breathing.’
In this crisis the Kimono-Man is suddenly Hemingway. Telling Hamlet not to worry, he staggers with Jim out of the lounge, into the cold air and across to his little Japanese auto. They are only a few minutes away from the hospital by car.
On the way Jim starts muttering something about kidneys. The Kimono-Man steps grimly on the gas. He jumps several sets of lights in his hurry.
Then he realizes what Jim is saying. Jim is searching weakly through his costume, the words are ‘kidney donor ard’, and he is doing his best to distribute his body after death as extravagantly as he has been doing in his life. Jim falls silent for a few moments, but his breathing is easier. The Kimono-Man returns to obeying traffic lights. Then Jim starts to speak again.
‘If anything happens to me,’ he says, ‘tell my friends…my good friends at Unitarian Church….’ At this point he falls silent again, and is snoring by the time they reach the hospital.
Nobody in the Emergency Room is surprised by the arrival of a towering Oriental supporting a bedraggled sprite. At Halloween, everything is weird, so nothing is weird. Why else would it be the major gay festival? This October is National Hobbies Month; November will be devoted to Mental Retardation. Poised between them is a mildly distracting, mildly deranged celebration; one in which the family has little or no stake. Strangeness goes briefly unnoticed and unresented.
Jim is detained overnight as a precaution. The man in the kimono returns to the Informal Lounge to help clear up.
The mess is astounding. Mighty Mouse, working wonders with a broom, sums up the feeling of the helpers. For a bunch of supposed interior-decorators, we do great demolition.
Next day, Jim is discharged from hospital in good time to round up some friends for an almighty brunch. They put themselves outside huge platefuls of Steak’n’Eggs. They have themselves more than a few beers. Because people are wonderful. And when it’s people you want, nothing else will do.