Mapping the Territory: Selected Nonfictionby Christopher Bram
Novelist Christopher Bram has been writing essays for twenty-five years. Mapping the Territory, his first collection of nonfiction, ranges through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s in Virginia, low-budget filmmaking with friends in New York, and the sexual imagination of Henry James. He describes the heady experience of seeing/i>… See more details below
Novelist Christopher Bram has been writing essays for twenty-five years. Mapping the Territory, his first collection of nonfiction, ranges through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s in Virginia, low-budget filmmaking with friends in New York, and the sexual imagination of Henry James. He describes the heady experience of seeing his novel Gods and Monsters made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave; and he discusses why he and his partner of thirty years don't want to get married. Bram looks both into and out of himself in these essays. He revisits the titles he read while finding himself as a gay man, and he also shows us Greenwich Village as seen from his front stoop. The book is not simply a collection of short pieces—it's an autobiography of ideas from one of today’s most lively and popular novelists.
Christopher Bram is the author of nine novels, including The Notorious Dr. August, Lives of the Circus Animals, and Exiles in America. His fifth novel, Gods and Monsters, was made into the Oscar-winning movie. He grew up in Virginia where he was a paperboy and Eagle Scout and attended the College of William and Mary. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York.
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Mapping the Territory
By Christopher Bram
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Christopher Bram
All rights reserved.
Perry Street, Greenwich Village
I'm out on the front stoop early one evening, talking with our neighbor Cook while I wait for Draper to get home from work. We're continuing an old argument about gay sensibility, something Cook believes all gay men share and I doubt even exists. "If there's a scene in a movie with a lamp in it," says Cook, "a gay man will notice that lamp where a straight man won't." I disagree, citing as evidence two recent conversations about Vertigo. The film has an inquest scene where everyone wears suits of the same peculiar shade of phosphorescent blue; nothing in Hitchcock is accidental and it's a puzzling detail. When Draper and I mentioned the suits afterward to the friend who saw the movie with us, that observant gay man said, "What suits?" When I talked about the movie a few days later at the bookstore where I worked, a straight man who'd seen it excitedly asked, "And how about that scene with the weird blue suits?" Cook patiently hears me out, frowns, and says, "I dunno. It'd mean what you think it means if it'd been lamps. Suits are an entirely different animal. Just how straight is this straight man anyway?"
On another night, Draper and I sit on the stoop after dinner, delaying the moment when we climb the five flights to our hot, airless apartment. A man hurries past, then doubles back to ask us something. He's four feet tall, built like a muscular fire hydrant, and grinning with a jumbled mouthful of crooked teeth. His mind races ahead of him on amphetamines. In the course of asking directions to Greenwich Street, he tells us about his happy childhood, unhappy adolescence, battles with a conventional-sized father, and a brief career in midget wrestling that ended when the manager skipped town and stranded the troupe in Florida. "Love to chat, love to jaw with you guys, but I got a hot date and I'm late already, three days late because I had to go to the bank and the cash machine said my mama's check hadn't cleared and I love my mama but her second husband lives out at the track and ..." He's already halfway down the block, continuing the conversation without us.
Or, on yet another night, very late, I sit alone on the stoop in shorts and black socks, reading tomorrow's New York Times. A few cars are backed up at the traffic light in the narrow street. The smoked window of a long limousine suddenly whirs down. "Hey, buddy! Buddy?" A hand comes out of the shadows to point disapprovingly at my feet. "White socks. Okay?" The window whirs shut, the light turns green, the limo drives away.
And so on. Most of my neighborhood life seems to take place on the front stoop of our building.
We live in Manhattan, in West Greenwich Village on a side street fifty yards off one of the main avenues. New York City for many people is not so much a place as an abstraction, a frenzied state of mind, an intersection of fast lanes. Home is just a room where you keep your answering machine and go to sleep, a space as private as sleep, often stacked in high-rises with a hundred other private sleeps. You'd go crazy knowing everybody who lives around you, so many New Yorkers prudently screen most of their neighbors out. But there are still real neighborhoods here and there, side streets off the fast lanes. Draper and I have lived here for eleven years. And our building has a stoop.
Seven brown-painted concrete steps climb from a cramped sidewalk to a vestibule full of mailboxes and buzzers. Flanking the steps are two fat concrete walls the color of old chewing gum. The cement flower boxes at the tops of the walls are filled with candy wrappers in the winter and petunias in the spring, diligently tended by our neighbor Peggy and her nine-year-old daughter, Regina. Above the door, caked in flaking nicotine paint, is a droopy stone face with deep-set eyes and a droopy moustache and, above that, the ubiquitous iron zigzag of a fire escape. A five-floor walk-up with sixteen apartments, our building was constructed in 1899, one year after the Spanish-American War and a year before the death of Oscar Wilde. Across the street are older, smaller brick townhouses, very neat and pretty between their cast-iron gates and Federal cornices. There's a similar set of townhouses to the left on our side of the street, thick oak doors shaded by ginkgo trees whose trunks are protected by iron cages. We're probably the ugliest building on the block, but we don't have to look at ourselves when we're on our stoop.
"You got a minute?" asks Cook when I come out and find him sitting there in a Hawaiian shirt, menthol cigarette in one hand, his walking cane hooked over the handrail. "I want to get your opinion on this movie I saw on cable last night—"
Conversation begins with movies, but goes on to political affairs or affairs of the heart or Judyism (Cook doesn't try to convert me to Judy Garland, only explain her cultural importance) or the old Pogo comic strips.
It's chiefly because of Cook and Fred that our stoop is a social institution. I like to think Draper and I helped initiate it, two transplanted Southerners using the front steps as a Yankee equivalent of sociable porches and patios back home. But it's Cook who provides the continuity. He lives on the first floor and the stoop is right outside his door. His narrow apartment is packed with knickknacks, posters, videotapes, books, a ceramic parrot on a perch, all kinds of ashtrays, and over four thousand long-playing records alphabetized by artist—Cook likes music. When he needs a little room to breathe, Cook goes out on the stoop. He knows everybody in the building and half the people in the neighborhood. Those who might be intimidated by Cook's forwardness or strange green eyes (contact lenses, although nobody's supposed to know) are put at ease by Fred. Fred is Cook's dog, a friendly mixture of collie and harp seal with a white face, short snout, and bushy copper coat.
"Sweet dog," say perfect strangers as they walk by and see Fred grinning behind Cook. "You wouldn't say that if you had to live with him," Cook replies. Many stop to pet Fred. By the time they leave they've gotten to know Cook.
Cook is a real New Yorker, Brooklyn bred and born, still lean and quirkily handsome after turning forty. When we first met him, he was a social worker, a city employee who worked with the mentally retarded. He visited families in the outer boroughs, counseling parents, arranging health care and schooling and, sometimes, institutionalization. Cook threw himself completely into his job, even taking kids without families home to his mother's in Brooklyn on holidays. This was before multiple sclerosis tore up his nervous system and damaged his coordination. The MS seems to have stabilized, but Cook walks with a cane now and tires easily. Although he had to leave his job nine years ago, he remains ferociously social. He founded EDGE, Education for a Disabled Gay Environment, a group for lesbians and gay men with physical disabilities, founded the organization because he suddenly wanted to join such a group and discovered no such thing existed. Betrayed by his body, he's more spirited than ever. Cook can get irritable, especially in hot weather when his muscles give out, but I've never heard a word of self-pity from him. He remains stubbornly independent.
One Sunday afternoon, a bedroom-eyed blond chats with Cook for five minutes, then moves on without Cook introducing us. "Who was that?" I ask.
"Crip queen," Cook says contemptuously. "The creep has a fetish for handicaps. He's sleeping his way through EDGE, and I refuse to be another notch on his bedpost. People sleep with me for my sparkling personality," Cook declares, prettily batting his eyes. "Or they don't lay a fucking hand on me."
We're sometimes joined on the stoop by Sam, a large yet graceful man who lives on our floor. Draper calls him Sam the Adult, to distinguish him from Sam the Baby, the two-year-old on the third floor. Sam the Adult smiles a lot with his gopher teeth and walrus moustache, but rarely says much unless the subject is dogs. Sam is enormously sentimental about dogs, far more than Cook. He owns a frisky white mutt named Blanca and is very good friends with Wendy, the equally sentimental dog owner who lives downstairs from him. Wendy was so devoted to her ancient German shepherd, she continued to coax and plead the poor rubber-legged beast up and down the stairs twice a day long after anyone else would've had the animal put to sleep. Wendy is quite old herself, a fact we frequently forget because of her energetic chirp and apparent alertness. She has a petite body and a large head of ghost-white hair. When her dog finally passed away one night on her kitchen floor, it was Sam who carried the bulky animal downstairs in his arms and rode in a cab with Wendy to the veterinarian, indulging her insistence they get an expert opinion before admitting the dog was dead. "Poor Wendy," Sam sighed afterward. "I know just how she feels. You think a dog is forever. Unlike a man."
Straight people are still the majority in the West Village, although just barely. Our landlord is gay, a retired New York City cop who divorced his wife after leaving the force and went at his new life with the fervor of a teenager fresh off the bus. "You are one of us?" he proudly asked the first time Draper spoke to him on the phone, about a leak in the roof. Our mailman is gay, I think (he's certainly friendly enough). Most of the people who join us on the stoop are gay, except for Ricki, who lives in the basement with her boyfriend, and Bill.
Bill is Peggy's husband and Regina's father, the family down the hall from me and Draper. Eleven years ago, Bill and Peggy were a bohemian couple, from two different bohemias. A balding, round-faced man with a goatee and motorcycle, Bill was a throwback to the Greenwich Village of the early sixties, coffeehouses and abstract expressionists and folksinging in Washington Square; he supported himself driving a cab. Peggy, with a mimosa stripe of pink in her hair, seemed positively New Wave, all anomie and intellectual paranoia. Everything changed when Regina was born. Bill sold his motorcycle and Peggy became a dedicated Greenwich Village mother, wearing the role like a suit of armor. "We're visiting Regina's friend in Staten Island," she'd tell us on their way out, suggesting her only social life now was her baby daughter's. We've seen Regina grow from a curious infant to a painfully shy toddler to an impossibly arrogant little girl who tromps through us on the stoop in roller skates as if we weren't there. "Regina, don't walk on people," Peggy says indifferently, and continues to water the petunias.
Bill, however, remains friendly and interesting. He started law school a few years ago but has kept his cabbie's gift for gab. He has street-smart opinions on everything under the sun, from the politics of dumdum bullets to the old Cinema 16 underground movie circuit. "Did I hear someone say Jackson Pollock?" he asks when he comes up and hears us talking about a recent biography. "That takes me back to days of yore." And he smiles, puffs up his chest, and delivers a well-informed verdict on action painting. As the oldest married straight man in the building, Bill often plays the role of being everyone's smarter, more practical big brother. If the subjects turns to anything gay, he politely listens a moment before excusing himself with, "Well, gentlemen. Time to trudge up to the wife and family."
Two muscular boys sashay past in those black spandex bicycling shorts that suggest old-time prostitutes in garter belts and hose. All heads turn, but the conversation about Outweek and outing continues without missing a beat. Attractive men walk by every hour of the day. A particularly striking one might elicit "Hmmm?" from someone, followed by Cook going, "Nyaah," but further comment would be superfluous.
I hate to admit it, but, when I first moved in with Draper, I was uncomfortable with the prominent numbers of obviously gay men on the street down here. My discomfort was not because of anything like self-hatred or even temptation. It was the unrealness of the situation, the fact that something once secret and rare could become as natural and commonplace as bread. It's not a normal situation, although it should be. I can flip through Torso or Mandate at the local newsstand (for the book reviews, honest) without fear of a snicker or slur from the Yemenite cousins who own the place. If I run into Draper on his way out and my way in and we exchange a kiss on the stoop, the only reaction we might get is Bill glancing skyward or Sam saying, "Isn't that nice?" as sentimental about us as he is about dogs. There's safety in numbers, and there's the safety that comes of custom. Surrounded by openly gay men and women, straight neighbors take homosexuality for granted and notice only if you're a good neighbor (quiet) or a bad one (noisy). What you do in the privacy of your bedroom is of no interest to anyone else, so long as the bass on your stereo is not turned up too high.
Well, no. Not even the West Village is quite as Arcadian as that. Our neighbors are fine. Visitors can be a problem, especially teenaged boys from Long Island or New Jersey who think the city is a jungle where anything goes. It's homophobia's trickle-down effect, beginning in smug moral pronouncements by clergymen and politicians and ending in insults and sometimes beer cans thrown from car windows late at night. It trickles down even to street people, who've become more numerous on our block over the past two years. Actually, most of the homeless are as indifferent to sexual persuasion as our neighbors with homes, and many are gay themselves. But now and then one sees an angry man scuffing down the sidewalk, muttering, "You faggots make me sick, you faggots make me sick," over and over. Unemployed and homeless, insane or addicted, he must know he's at the bottom of things. But he furiously insists there's someone he can look down on, too.
Other New Yorkers often dismiss the West Village as quaint and unreal, as if familiarity and tolerance were less real than anonymity and threat. Nevertheless, so-called real life comes here, too. There was a crack house on our street, eventually shut down by the police with the neighborhood's cooperation. Not even crack drove us from the stoop, only made us more careful about the strangers we talked to. Our building's garbage cans stand on the sidewalk beside the stoop and conversation is occasionally accompanied by the clink of bottles being sorted into a homeless man's grocery cart. These deposit collectors are too proud to ask for money, although they do sometimes ask for a cigarette.
Draper and I are sitting out front one afternoon with Ricki, who was the building's super before her career as a stage manager took off. A woman with a great swoop of hair above her dirty face stops in front of us, stares at Ricki, and hisses, "You horny little girl! One man isn't enough for you, huh?" Ricki throws her arms around our shoulders and says, "No and it's great!" But the woman has already stomped off to bless out two ten-year-old boys swapping comic books on another stoop down the street. A few days later, I see the woman again, sitting on the pavement outside the Yemenite newsstand, her shirt off and her arms folded over her breasts. "Go ahead and stare!" she screams at passersby. "You perverts! You animals!" A week after that, I spot her shouting at a perplexed Labrador retriever whose leash is tied to a parking meter outside a coffee shop. "You stupid animal! You think you're so smart!"
In such a world, the gender preferences of one's neighbors seem like very small potatoes.
People from other buildings in the neighborhood often stop to talk with us on the stoop. Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, owns a co-op in the new brick monstrosity on the corner. She's never sat with us (I wouldn't know her if she bit me), but we are joined by Michael, who works with SAGE at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center a few blocks away. Michael brings us the world of gay bureaucratic squabbles. Then there's Jim from around the corner, a veteran of the old Gay Activist Alliance who remains politically active and savvy, always good for an angle on the news one hasn't heard yet. And there's Tom from next door, an actor and singer who used to perform in children's theater. Now he gives most of his time and energy to the Community Research Initiative, doing staff work for a group of doctors who study alternative AIDS treatments.
Excerpted from Mapping the Territory by Christopher Bram. Copyright © 2009 Christopher Bram. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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