Saturday, November 22, 2008


I know only one person who’s truly a member of my generation – Yanks on the high side of 60 – who claims not to know where he was or what he was doing the moment he learned, 45 years ago today, that John F. Kennedy had been shot. This friend is a former member of the rock band, the Beau Brummels.

In my case, I was attending Latin class, a senior at Albany High, when someone came to the classroom with a note to send me to the principal’s office. The teacher read the note aloud. Since I was a member of the stage crew – where all the geeks-before-our-time hung out – and thus responsible for converting the school gymnasium from a basketball court into an auditorium for a school wide assembly, I was needed downstairs at once as the president had been shot. I was in the school’s front office when word came that he had died.

I know also where I was & what I was doing when I first heard of the mass suicide in Jonestown 30 years ago this month, as I do the instant someone on the Mission Muni turned their boom box up full blast so that we heard that George Moscone & Harvey Milk had been shot & killed, also thirty years ago this week. I was actually on my way to City Hall where I had planned to buy my monthly Muni pass for December, which I then did. They hadn’t even closed off the building as a crime scene by the time I got there. I have a memory of watching deputy mayor Rudy Nothenberg in a grey three-piece suit sprinting across the large rotunda on some terrible mission, and you could hear the total chaos up the grand flight of stairs that led to the mayor’s office & those of the board of supervisors. Later that morning, after I got to my job at Central City Hospitality House, just a few blocks away on Leavenworth, the staff at “HH” and more than a few street people who used its drop-in facilities chipped in so we could purchase a bouquet of roses that we took as a group to lay on the steps of City Hall.

I can remember also the last time I saw Moscone alive (at a Basque restaurant on upper Market Street a few weeks earlier), even the last time I saw his killer Dan White – I was having lunch at a restaurant on Golden Gate Avenue called Knights with a young lady who was a secretary for criminal defense lawyer Charles Garry, whom I knew from his work with the prison movement. At that very moment, Garry was with his latest client, Jim Jones, in Jonestown (Garry escaped by running into the forest). I don’t have a memory of where I was the last time I saw Harvey Milk, but that’s because the peripatetic Milk seemed to be everywhere all the time. Until suddenly he wasn’t.

When I was boy, my grandmother would talk about the two great public tragedies in her life – the attack on Pearl Harbor & the death of FDR – she was in the kitchen for both events & the radio figured heavily in each tale. And anyone who can read this knows what they were doing September 11, 2001.

Such moments are burned into our memories and become part of a secret rhythm of our lives. They blend in with the more gradual horrors of daily life – like when in 1982 I realized that Dick Gamble, the housing agency bureaucrat I sometimes worked with who would be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, was really sick. Off hours, I would see him dressed to the nines in black leather, quite a change from the suits of his day job, and I ran into him on the bus one day after I’d returned from teaching at UC San Diego. He’d already left his job because he was suffering from what was then being called “the gay cancer.” He looked so pale & fragile & so incongruous in the assertiveness of his leathers. In just a couple of weeks he was gone.

This is the nightmare side of Joe Brainard’s great poem, I Remember, himself a victim of that plague. Once you “get it,” the literal words of Brainard’s poem almost don’t matter. What counts is how the specificity of things, what the French poet Francis Ponge would call their nature, construct our own identities. And these large scale tragedies turn out to be the details we all share.

Now most of my neighbors here in Chester County could not tell you just who Harvey Milk was, let alone George Moscone or Dan White. Maybe the forthcoming Sean Penn movie will change that for awhile, but I rather doubt it. I wonder just how many of the kids attending Bayard Rustin High School in nearby West Chester understand, or have even heard of, the difficulties the great civil rights leader had because he was gay at a time when that simply was illegal. Not so long ago. Indeed, I wonder just how many know that Rustin was a great civil rights leader. I can recall also just where I was the day Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech & am aware that it was Rustin whose hard labor made that event happen.

Because of how all these hinge events fit together, one recalls details that would otherwise be lost. That lunch in Knights in 1978 was the only “date” I ever had with that woman – she’d seen me on the bus reading History and Class Consciousness, we’d had a short conversation &, after she got off, she ran after the bus to shout her phone number up at my window. But over lunch it became clear enough that she thought I was too serious & political, and that I thought rather that she was not serious or political enough. (And to work in the office of Charles Garry?!?) She’s a country & western singer now, living in Nashville, with a few albums out on her own label. Her husband is her manager, or maybe vice versa. Would I know any of this had not Dan White walked in just then with an entourage. He was, at that moment, trying publicly to persuade Moscone into reappointing him to the post he’d resigned from just a few weeks before. Milk was openly advocating that the mayor appoint anyone but the homophobic ex-cop.

I would like to think that such moments might be behind us, but I know they aren’t. Humankind’s brief journey on this planet has never been easy. The state of California is still arguing over the civil rights of its gay and lesbian citizens. This is one argument that Pennsylvania hasn’t even yet begun. And the forces of bigotry haven’t abated so very much. Maybe that’s why I feel the election of Barack Obama may yet prove to be more important symbolically than politically. After all, when he was born, his own parents’ interracial marriage was illegal in roughly half the states of this union. And what were they afraid of? They were terrified of babies like Barack Obama.

Labels: ,

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?