San Francisco Story No. 2

This story begins in Nebraska. Possibly even Pittsburgh. It starts when I was still in the closet, secretly looking at porn of men with other men, wishing both that this desire could go away, while also magically being allowed to be one of them. To this latter wish, and from all the insecurities I felt about myself, the men I liked to look at were capital-M Men: broad shoulders, beards, hairy chests, deep voices. I liked my men the way Americans liked their cars: big and stupid.

The biggest of these men was like a drug, a rush of endorphins every time I came across him. His name was Mack. Well: his “name” “was” Mack, and his vids (held on his website, macksf.com) usually involved slenderer and less hairy men worshipping parts of his body over the course of 45 minutes. Often he would selfishly fuck them, using them for his pleasure, which of course gave them their pleasures. Once he let a younger guy fuck him, and I found him to be an uninspired bottom.

Mack was a dom, was the thing, and when I put myself into the fantasy his videos created, I didn’t imagine myself submitting to him, so much as standing next to him. Being the kind of man that he’d consider a peer, a teammate, a brother. I imagined somehow getting access as much to Mack’s esteem as to his body.

Mack was a map to a land I never felt I could travel to, much less be a citizen of. Then I came out. Then, in 2013, we moved to San Francisco.

We knew only a few people when N & I moved here, and most of them were other gay men. San Francisco still has the highest per-capita gay population in the country, after all. I remember a night in our first couple months here, out at drinks or dinner with another gay couple who’d been living in SF for three years, and N & I pelted them with questions about what we could expect, where the best X was, and so on.

“Do you guys ever see any celebrities walking around?” I asked. “Or is it not that big of a city?”

They looked at each other, and one of them shrugged and said, “Porn stars, mostly. Half the studios are here and the rest of down in L.A.”

Makes sense, I thought. Gay men don’t just live here, they work here.

“Oh and Danny Glover,” the other guy said. “He lives in the neighborhood. I’ve seen him at the gym a couple times.”

Months passed. We settled in to the city. I found a barber at a shop on Market Street, down where the Castro starts to blend into the Upper Mission/Mid-Market area. When I had first visited San Francisco, on a campus interview, I went on an afternoon pilgrimage to the Castro, and I noted with excitement all the barber shops. My choices in getting a haircut all my life had been Aromatic Salon For Ladies, or Barbershop With Loud Sports On TV. The barbershop I chose had pics of all its barbers on its website, and many of them had the capital-M Manly look I’d for years given total value to.

One sunny afternoon, I’d just left the barbershop with a crisp haircut, and I walked up Market to the bus stop. At the intersection, I had to wait to get the walk sign, and Market being what it is, with three different streets crossing at each intersection, the cars on the street in front of me were stopped, too. The car right in front had its windows down, and the first thing I noticed in that entire busy visual field was the weight and thickness of the driver’s beard.

He looked like Mack. And then I saw the license plate: MACKSF. (He was always very good at branding.) It was him, in the flesh. He was real. I felt the same sudden transport as when I see in the living world any celebrity I only know from screens, but this one felt different. Usually it’s a mild dissonance of 2-D becoming 3-D. That afternoon, that dissonance was matched with a kind of harmony. I had, on some small but real level, “made it.” So Mack didn’t even notice me looking at him from the corner. Maybe he wasn’t about to welcome me into his friendship. But what Mack had always represented—untroubled living with one’s homosexuality—was, it seemed, now mine. If I wanted it.

It lasted seconds, that feeling, then the light changed and he drove off. I watched him go, noting the MACKSF plate on the back of his car. N always wondered at how I notice license plates of cars and not the model of the car itself, so I checked to see what kind of car he was driving. It was not big and stupid, I noticed, but a brick red Hyundai Sonata.

It was the exact same car my mother drove.

A Podcast Had Me On

Last weekend I flew to Portland and took a bus to Corvallis, Oregon, where three friends of mine live. One is Clay, who grew up across the street from me and who I’ve known all my life. I wanted, as the pandemic was loosening its grip on my life, to be with old friends and just spend time with them, and Clay was the oldest who’s the closest, so I flew up there when his quarter was done (he and Elaine, his wife, are math professors at Oregon State) to see him and Elaine and their son, Jack.

We went to a restaurant and a winery and a park, and we ate dinners on their back patio. It was the exact great vacation I needed.

My last day in Corvallis—which is a town in the western, central part of the Willamette Valley, one of the more verdant and fecund parts of the country, which was, Clay told me, and then highway signs confirmed, the end of the Oregon Trail, and so, for some, at a certain point in the violent history of this country, a promised land—I spent with my other two friends in town: Justin St. Germain and Elena Passarello, who teach nonfiction at OSU. They’ve got a podcast called I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, and on Saturday they let me sit down with them and talk about, among other things, essays about sex.

You can stream the episode here:

Those folks do a good job making a nervous man like me feel relaxed and welcome, though if you listen to the audio you’ll see I can’t help my run some of my words together, in a kind of almost giddy panic. What’s scary about being interviewed is that you can’t compose your thoughts, and you sure as hell can’t revise them, and though I understand this is the thrill of the live-recorded podcast it’s hell for a nervous man like me.

Luckily, I have this blog, which Elena and Justin were kind enough to plug. So I’m going to use it to revise or elaborate an idea I brought up around 41:30, where I talk about my usually feeling turned off or more shut out from most sex writing. The people who have this gift about not being ashamed, or those who assert that readers are sex goddesses, etc. I’m talking about a narrative I’ve read a lot, one that tells the story of overcoming sex shame, which almost always leaves out the middle.

Here’s the middle: “Slowly, eventually, through trial and error and progress and regression, I found a way to understand, and then let go of, the shame I have about sex.”

Is it because the middle is boring? Or is it not much of a story? Perhaps writers who write about being empowered by sex and their bodies, or who write about sex the way they write about walking into a room, all have the same middle: they just one day decided to stop shaming themselves, and there was nobody around to make them doubt that decision, and thus there’s no real dramatic weight to their middle. Or, as I surmise unfairly (and with no amount of insight on her life) about Maggie Nelson, that they were magically raised never to feel ashamed of their bodies or their sex.

A more informed surmising might be this: my favorite writers about sex have spent enough time held close by queer communities that any shame they may have had has long seeped out of them, light a bulb that gets dimmer and dimmer until you forget it was ever really on. And how do you write the experience of something unnoticed running in the background?

I’m reminded of a thing I see on social media a lot (I’ve written about this before), where people get a lot of likes when they give an unhelpful but important-sounding life tip, like this tweet I once screenshotted:

Many versions of that tweet are out there, and the most liked one has 23.1K retweets. People fucking love shit like this, and I’m calling it shit deliberately, because how, motherfucker? How do you propose people go about learning this wisdom you claim to just have?

It’s the teacher in me, perhaps, the educator Elena points to in the podcast. I get largely angry when knowledge is asserted to the uninitiated without any form of instruction or help, and so much sex writing asserts more than it instructs, or if it instructs it begins from what still to me seems like an intermediate/advanced position.

Examples, as usual, are failing me. But anyway: big sincere thanks to Justin and Elena for having me on their great podcast.

Various Writers Come Back from the Dead to Critique My Work for Citysearch.com

This is something I wrote 15 years ago for an end-of-the-year grad student reading, and I’m posting it now because of the Santa element and because it exudes a lot of grad-school odors. Odors? Let’s say aromas. These are 100% taken from work I did at my first full-time job, writing content for pittsburgh.citysearch.com based on what I was taught as “The Citysearch Voice” (I went to a training in Columbus, Ohio, one weekend and stayed at the same hotel they shot the pool scene from Little Man Tate in.)

The Santaland Diaries: Christmas isn’t all “ho, ho, ho” — David Sedaris shows you the dark side of Yuletide.

Overview
We’ve all considered the possibilities of annual department-store Santas being old, lecherous drunks in need of easy money, but what about the backstage lives of the helper elves? Usually younger and less in the spotlight, what sorts of delusional or hard-up art students flock to fill those pointy, green shoes? Perhaps most importantly, to what lengths will parents go to get snapshots of their kids on Santa’s lap? Actor Eric Woodall reveals the astonishing world of synthetic North Poles.

The Background
With “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris planted his feet firmly on the stage of contemporary memoirists. “SantaLand” started as a series of appearances on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and was eventually published in his first book, “Barrel Fever.” Both aforementioned books are nice collections of short, comical pieces, but it’s “Naked” (Little Brown & Co., 1997) that everyone should read—everyone who doesn’t mind laughing out loud in public places, that is.

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Willa Cather responds:

Years later, you can brandish the Citysearch Voice all you want as an excuse of why this preview is so achingly dreadful, but even this doesn’t mollify the fact that memoirists don’t have a stage any more than three uninspired questions make up a satisfactory overview. And what, pray, was the point of listing publication information after “Naked” (and not, notice, after the other two books you mention)? Do you honestly think anyone goes to their bookstore armed with Little Brown & Co, 1997 as a means of finding what they’re looking for? I’m dead, and have never stepped foot in a Barnes and Noble, but I can assure you, they didn’t in my day and they sure as heck don’t in yours. Whatever pretensions I had throughout my career, I wore on my sleeve, but watching you hide them behind helpful info in “The Background” makes me feel as humble as Mary. Pathetic.

Anal Cunt: They’re wittier than you think.

The Band
Eminem? He’s harmless. If you’re looking for offense, seek out Boston punk band Anal C**t. On albums with such titles as “Everyone Should Be Killed” and “I Like It When You Die” the band’s songs talk about gays, violence, loser bands, and everything else you can think of. Sample song titles: “Recycling is Gay,” “The Internet is Gay,” “You Play on a Softball Team,” “I Intentionally Ran Over Your Dog.”

The Catch
If you think A.C. is just stupid, take a look at “Having to Make Up Song Titles Sucks” and “I’m Not Allowed to Like A. C. Anymore Since They Signed to Earache” and “MTV is My Source for New Music.” A.C. is smart enough to know who it is and how the world perceives it, but it doesn’t care. What band embodies more of a punk spirit than A.C.? Their name is unprintable, their songs are fast and loud, and their lyrics are offensive. It’s just what we need in this era of Orlando-based bubblegum.

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Oscar Wilde responds:

This … “orlando-based bubblegum” as you call it is all very new to me—I only now, after a thrilling and shameless obsession with Take That, just started paying attention, now that they’re all tabloid fodder—but it seems to me that “just what we need in this era,” as you say, is something more than noisy Yanks with an odd obsession with pederasty. Recycling? The Internet? Is everything gay to these men? I’d give them my number, but something about their name makes me think I’d lose my … well, I’ll just say interest.

One more thing: I’d like to draw your attention to the phrase, “gays, violence, loser bands, and everything else you can think of.” Everything else you can think of? Am I to understand that gays and violence are the alpha and omega of your contemporary experience, with maybe “loser bands” thrown in for a bit of flair? Look, I’m dead, and even I knew you were gay when you wrote this drivel. Yes, it’s a shame you didn’t yet, but does it excuse such laziness and harm to our cause? It doesn’t. Pathetic.

An Evening with Dave Eggers: An entertaining reading from the country’s most exciting young writer.

The Author
If Dave Eggers is on a crusade against irony, skepticism, and derision, you should probably pay attention, because isn’t it time we got past these things? Aren’t they tired? They are, and Eggers should know. After 2000’s autobiographical “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (the work, here, is the genius, not Eggers himself as so many assume) made dozens of top ten lists, critics across the country labeled him as “ironic” and “Gen-X’y” when he isn’t either of these. What you get in “A.H.W.O.S.G.” and Eggers’ quarterly “McSweeney’s” is the most direct and genuine writing we’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Event
Past Eggers readings have included Panda costumes, audience requests, kung-fu demos, puppet shows, and guest appearances by writer friends, firemen, drill sergeants, and lots of scientists. You will have a good time no matter how familiar with Eggers’ writing you are.

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Dave Eggers responds:

I’m not dead, actually, but um … thanks, I guess, for the write-up. I remember you at that reading, I think, sitting in like the 4th row, a little bit to my left. You were laughing way too much. Practically at everything I did. You were even laughing at Neal Pollock’s embarrassing slam poetry, which made nobody else laugh. When I stood up there on the stage and looked down at your open mouth, I could think of the word “cavernous” and I could think of nothing else.

I also seem to remember you wearing a McSweeney’s shirt that was a size or two too small for you, but maybe I’m imagining things. If not, it was pretty pathetic.

Oh and speaking of which, don’t think that by doing all this you’re disassociating yourself from the McSweeney’s fanboydom of your past. You and I both know you’re stealing your use of the word “pathetic” here from that piece about Ezra Pound we published on the Web years ago. Years ago.

Overkill: At least give them credit for being around so long.

The Skinny
Overkill has a name like Overkill and boasts a 15-year existence. The band plays straight-up metal, the audience for which has waned to the point where you yourself might be thinking “Overkill is right.” But give the band credit for doing just what it wants. Starting in basements and garages after singer Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and bassist D.D. Verni met each other through music-mag help wanted ads, the band has released over 12 CDs. Here are some great album titles: “F*** You and Then Some,” “I Hear Black,” “The Years of Decay,” and “Necroshine.”

Starting as a cover band, and inspired by the bands (AC/DC, Judas Priest, et al.) it covered, Overkill naturally adheres to the loud and chunky metal sound. Enjoy as  relic or as something refreshingly different.

The Crowd
Metalheads too cool to read this far down into the piece.

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Emily Dickinson responds:

You insinuate that metalheads are illiterate. You use the term “metalheads.” You begin immediately with a superior attitude that is carried through to the final word. You use the band’s name against itself. You begin a sentence with a dependent clause three times the length of its independent complement. And once again, you let a band’s titles stand in for your own writing. What am I to say to all this?

How about: Bravo?

Let me ask you this: Can you imagine a good 250-word preview for Overkill? What would it look like? I’ll tell you: garbage. I’m dead, and have never seen the Internet, and even I know it would be garbage. A writer is an artist and an artist has a singular vision, and writing in service of a national company owned by the man who inspired this “Mr. Burns” that everyone of your age loves is no way to go through life. My dead colleagues are too proud and too dead to tell you this, and that makes them cowards.

So buck up, tiger. Just because all these previews are pathetic doesn’t mean you are. But in the future, might I recommend avoiding Web publishing altogether? Try fascicles. For me, they did wonders.

On Feeling Sympathy for Jeffrey Toobin

First, the news. Vice, fittingly, broke this story:

The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.

“I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers,” Toobin told Motherboard.

“I believed I was not visible on Zoom. I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added.

One way to react to this news is with distrust. Oh yeah bullshit he didn’t know his camera was on. Another way to react is with indignation. Grown-ass men shouldn’t have to be told not to jerk off during a work meeting! But I’ve been Jeffrey Toobin, I probably still am Jeffrey Toobin, and I’m here to react with sympathy, if only because somebody has to.

And why does somebody have to? Because there are millions of Jeffrey Toobins out there—female and male, queer and str8—who’ve read all The Takes, and feel sick with fear and self-loathing right now, and I’m here to say: You don’t have to hate yourself.

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