Pentimento Weekend

I finished Hari Kunzru’s brilliant novel My Revolutionsthis weekend. It’s about a 60’s radical named Chris Carver, renamed Michael Frame forced to go underground – 25 years or so later. He’s not in his 50s, living a quiet live married to a New Age herbal cosmetics entrepreneur, and he’s been found out. The chapters are these intricate folds of memory: now, then, before then, last week, now. Again. Ultimately, the main character has to come to grips with where his is now. The only way to be true to himself, his own personal history, the ideals of his youth is to not stop taking risks. And of course the hardest risks can be the emotional ones you take with the people who you care about.

As an aging radical myself, but of course not one who has gone underground, I could relate to the lead characters trying to come to terms with the past. Last night I went to my former lover’s birthday party, and encountered people who I haven’t seen for ten years, at least. I believe I’ve changed in those ten years. Even, I would say, a lot. I cooked the food – a really good vegetarian spread, if I do say so myself. Winter squash gallettes. Mixed green empanadas. A kicking spicy peanut dip for a platter of crudites. All recipes from Deborah Madison’s book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Also I made a red lentil pate from Annemarie Colbin’s The Natural Gourmet.

But I digress.

Cooking, gardening, activism have been a constant. But the lovers. The jobs. The residences. The friends. The political projects. Some have changed. Some have remained constant. But they’ve all changed. And they remain present

Then I saw Milk with Juniper. What a strange experience that was. I went to school with Cleve Jones. He and I were in the gay student union together. He was the president. I was the shy young guy new to everything, including any sense of personal freedom. But I lived that candlelight march. The nights at Toad Hall. The flannel shirts, tight jeans, and Adidas. (I tried to grow a moustache, but dammit, you know, I still can’t.)

And I remember the feel of the time. I was terrified of my body and my budding sexuality. The guys on Castro Street were all older than me, or at any rate they seemed older. I fell in with the ‘Gay Left that had a critique of “mainstream gay culture” which Harvey Milk and his circle represented. Democratic Party — pfeh! That critique talked a lot about commodification, which the ‘Castro Clone’ look epitomized. So I avoided the bathhouses and the bars. Mostly because I was terrified of them. But then I had this ideology to back it up.

AIDS hit in the early 80s, and everyone started running for cover. Early theories included the breakdown of the immune system from taking too many antibiotics. Or having too much sex using poppers. At any rate, there seemed to be a connection with sexual adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I did have boyfriends. But well, at the end of the day, it was all the luck of the draw. Certainly others with similar sexual patterns ended up dying. All it took was one encounter, after all. Yeah, survivor’s guilt is a real thing.

I’m washed over with memories of looking over the weekly death notices in B.A.R., which was like the neighborhood newspaper of the Castro. You’d see faces, and recognize them from having lived down the block, or working at the cheese store, and having been at a meeting. Of course, friends were dying too. Many friends.

I think my generation of gay men are still connecting to the trauma. It’s interesting that Milk has the first big movie about gay San Francisco of the era is set basically right before the crisis started to hit. It’s like memory recovery. Where were we when all this stuff started to happen?


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