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The Rent

At my first Gay Pride parade, it rained in Pittsburgh.

The whole city was one muddy, gray, pig’s pen and the rain vacillated from torrential downpour to a slow, miserable dribble all day long. I wore flannel because I had been to a few gay bars at that point and noticed that all the boys wore flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off and, by the time I arrived at the Fruit Loop, the sopping wet wool clung to my torso, chafing my nipples through my undershirt. My heavy boots sunk deep in the mud with each step and I was trying for all I was worth not to look terrified. I had arrived alone determined to go through with this. It was the early 1990s and I had recently fled to Pittsburgh escaping a house full of straight, white, boys after they told me they suspected…

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start with what’s happening right now.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2017

“Would you like a Jell-O shot? They’re only a dollar.”

A young woman has just approached me. The sun is blazing brightly behind her and I put my hand up and close one eye to block it out so that I can better see her face. She is wearing full movie star make-up with impeccably threaded eyebrows and holding a tray of multi-colored gelatin shots in tiny plastic cups. She is done up in high heels with garter belts and a tight half shirt with the name of a popular vodka company emblazoned across her chest. She towers over me in stiletto boots and, when I look confused, she asks again.

“Vodka shot, sir?”

Just over her shoulder, I can see that there are several other young women similarly dressed in cleavage revealing name-brand vodka tees with short shorts and high heels, hoisting the same trays. Mixed in with them are oiled, topless boys glistening in the sun with liquor-infused Jell-O shots held aloft and selling like hotcakes. The woman standing before me doesn’t appear to have sold any yet.

“I’ve never really liked Jell-O shots,” I tell her. “I don’t like the way you have to work your tongue around inside that little cup.”

“I think that’s why the lesbians love ‘em!”

I give her a dollar for the laugh and her quickness of wit but refuse the shot and she steps aside to “Jell-O shot?” the next person and, in doing so, opens up my full view of a street teeming with people and colors. There are the carnival smells of cooked sugar and the smoke from grilling meats. People cram the sidewalks laughing and drinking, and the bars to my left are filled to capacity and have people lined up to get inside. On the street itself, same-sex couples are holding hands, kissing and showing off their nuclear families replete with children and always with a dog wearing a bandana. There are leather-men couples, bare-chested and hairy, sauntering in full shiny, black regalia and chained to each other, each with his hand resting inside his partner’s back pocket. The noise is cacophonous with music coming from every direction and I’m standing here taking it all in. I look up to read the enormous flag dancing in the breeze and majestic as mountains — Pittsburgh Pride in the Street 2017.

I have come here to work for one of the festival vendors. For the rest of the evening, I will be in perpetual motion, handing out drinks to happy Pride enthusiasts. They are literally dancing in the streets. I am slowly wandering through full-tilt bacchanalian delight. A woman in a pink tutu has just grabbed hold of another woman round the waist and kisses her deeply, bending her backward a little. They kiss for a long time as their friends cheer them on. There is a DJ cranking out beats thick enough to shake my bones and, later, there will be a popular celebrity singer and actress performing on the stage not far from where I am right now. All this at Pride in the Street 2017 — all this and we haven’t even gotten to the marching part yet. I’m wondering how everybody got here. Being here makes me think of where it all started for me. I arrived at my first Pride march in a van that was falling apart and covered in mud. What’s happening now looks totally different. My path began in the rubber capital of the world.

Akron, Ohio, 1988

After I graduated from high school, I wanted desperately to leave Warren, Ohio, the small town where I grew up. It’s a small, mean, racist town and I knew that, if I stayed there, I would wither and die. It was my worst fear. So, I told my family that I was going to college. I was the first in my family to do so. My parents couldn’t afford it, so I got as far away as I could afford: 47.5 miles. I went to the University of Akron with my eyes wide and my heart open as youth dictates. I enjoyed my classes and had met a few people I liked. The only downside was my living situation.

During my fourth week of collegiate freedom, I returned to the house I shared with four college baseball players to find them all sitting in the living room area. I had classes all day and was lucky enough to land a nearby cashier job at a 24-hour gas station and mini-mart at night. I was still wearing my humiliating smock when I returned to the house. It was a rarity to see all my roommates in the same room together. They were usually scattered about the messy house: One would be draped over the couch staring dumbly at the television. Another would be locked in his room with a giggly girl. The third would be drinking and playing cards in the basement with his friends. Finally, there was Buddy, who was perpetually behind the bathroom door on the toilet, grunting.

I’d rarely seen them all gathered together until that night and, as I entered, I said hello in passing as always. They said nothing. This was also typical. I didn’t break stride as I kept on up the stairs. They didn’t ever really speak to me, and that suited me just fine. I lived a wholly separate existence. I always went directly to my room upon entering the house and only engaged them regarding the one thing we each had in common — the rent.

I found myself here because I had taken too long to find student housing in my first year at college, and this was the only accommodation left that I could afford. I found them in the newspaper and took the room immediately with two days until classes started. I decided that it was the price I had to pay for not knowing what I was doing, for being too slow. I’d do better next year. I decided that, for one year, I would endure.

I started up the stairs

“Brian, we wanna talk to you.”

This was unheard of. They were monosyllabic. I couldn’t imagine what they’d want to talk to me about. They never wanted to talk to me. I could feel them avoiding me at all times in the house. I had heard them through the walls at night telling their girlfriends how weird I was. How I was black and seemed to know nothing about sports. I ignored the “inside” jokes they made at my expense that were so transparent I sometimes filled in the punchlines for them. They wanted to talk to me, but I rarely understood a word they said through the wads of chaw that lived always between their bottom lips and gums and ended up spat into the empty beer cans littered throughout the house. I turned to face them from the top of the stairs.

“Talk to me about what?”

“Can you come down here? We just have some stuff we wanna talk about.”

I descended the stairs eyeing them with concern and curiosity. They couldn’t possibly pin any mess around the house on me. I stayed in my room and I never complained about the cans of viscous brown spit everywhere. I knew my last rent check had cleared. None of them looked at me. Buddy, the Toilet Grunter, sat hunched over with his elbows on his knees and his cranium in his hands, his chin nearly touching his chest to avoid my eyes. When I reached the bottom step, I sat on it. There was a dry, clock-ticking silence for a while that I broke by asking: “What’s up?” trying to sound casual while they all looked back and forth to one another. It was finally Sam, the clean-cut one, who spoke first. He looked at the floor.

“Look, man. We know you’re gay and we just don’t want you bringin’ any of it into the house.”

A plate glass window shattered inside my chest. He went on, finally looking me directly in the eye. My silence emboldened him to speak further.

“We know, alright. So, we just want YOU to know that we don’t care as long as you don’t bring it into this house. We live here too.”

“I want him to move out.” Buddy the Toilet Grunter didn’t look at me and spoke only to the other men in the room. “I want him to move out right now. I don’t have time for this! Tell him to get his stuff. He shudda told us up front!” The plate glass window had given way to a wave of frozen water that burst through my breastplate to freeze my circulatory system. My stomach abandoned me entirely and, had I not been sitting, I would have fallen through the floor. The room tilted. My extremities belonged to someone else now. Fingers, toes, all gone. I was a throbbing head atop a torrent of raging sea and the denials came fighting their way to the surface for air like passengers thrown overboard.

“What are you talking about.”

I tried again to sound casual while catching my breath. I tried to sound jovial, but the words fell out flat and atonal sounding nothing remotely like a question.

“See! I knew he was gonna DENY it!” Buddy was in a full rage now, ready to fight. He stood up and showed me his back, putting up a barrier between me and the rest of the group. He addressed only them once again.

“I KNEW he was gonna deny it!” He finally turned to face me directly and I was sorry he did. His face was contorted to an apoplectic crimson. He pointed his finger. “We KNOW, OK? They act like they don’t care.” He gestured toward the others. “But I do! I’m not gonna live like this and I don’t want it AROUND ME at all!” The two other roommates, who were so indistinguishable from one another that they blended into one person and had remained silent up until this point, mumbled in agreement with Buddy. They began to argue with one another as though I wasn’t there, and I sat on the bottom step as their voices became the sounds of static and barking dogs. I had been so careful. I had kept my voice at a respectable baritone at all times. I monitored my walk, making sure that it was stiff, straight-backed and manful. I had answered them with all the appropriate three-word maximum masculine retorts and been flawlessly evasive when asked about girls. I kept to myself. I stayed in my room. I had been so careful and yet here I sat, undone. Clean-Cut Sam spoke again.

“Look, Brian, we just know, and we don’t want it in the house. We suspected it and now we know. We don’t even care as long as you pay the rent. But, just so you know, we don’t want it around us anywhere in the house. We don’t want you making any kind of big deal about it around here, cool? Are we cool?”

I spat up a few more denials which landed like dead birds falling out of the sky. They remained stone-faced. In the end, I told them under my breath that we were cool and left them to talk more about me in hushed tones. I walked up to my room under a thin layer of sweat and deep shame. When I got there, I sat at my desk and stared down at the flier I’d gotten from the University of Akron Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I had screwed up all my courage just a couple of nights before and attended my first meeting. I had met some nice people and was looking forward to attending another. The flier sat slightly askew from where I’d left it so carelessly behind an unlocked door earlier in the day. I picked it up and shoved it my pocket, cursing it and myself. You would think that I had learned my lesson about fliers, those little handbills promising sanctuary and fellowship. You would think that I would never, ever pick one up again. But, I’ve always had a weakness for printed hope and, a few years later, I would let a flier lead me into the lion’s den once again.

Pittsburgh, 1992

The flier was from a group called BIGALA at the University of Pittsburgh. The march it promoted was just a few days away. I had been in the city a little while and had only visited gay bars on a fake ID to stand in the shadows alone. The flier said that a group of people were meeting at the Fruit Loop. I snatched the flier off a light pole and shoved it in my pocket. The Fruit Loop was this area in Schenley Park on Prospect Drive. It was a place where gay people, mostly men, used to hang out sunning themselves a long time ago. I have heard tell of other, more lascivious activities that went on in the surrounding wooded areas. The end of Prospect Drive loops around in a circle, which gave the area its rather clever name.

By the time I arrived at the Fruit Loop on the appointed day, it was a mud pit, and people weren’t in the best of spirits. It wasn’t dark like it was at Pegasus or The Holiday, two bars that I’d been to. This was the cold light of day and there weren’t enough people in attendance to hide me. Everyone seemed to know one another. I stood under a tree on the periphery, trying to strike poses that made me look like I might be a part of things. People smiled at me weakly from time to time but didn’t seem to want to approach. This was the largest gathering of gay people I had eve seen whose faces weren’t hidden in shadow. Everyone was busy fighting the rain and the mud, covering one another with umbrellas while they readied their homemade signs. There was a small group of lesbians with bongos strapped around their necks and a few cars displaying signs that read “GAY RIGHTS NOW” and “QUEER AND PROUD.” I decided that this was all too much, and a familiar shame filled me. I couldn’t be like these people. I turned around ready to run back. All I knew how to do was run. Running was the only way I knew of to deal with a bad situation.

Akron, 1988

I waited in my room for all the noise downstairs to die down. I sat on the edge of the bed with my breath coming in shallow bursts and fighting back tears. I flinched at every loud noise fearing that, at any moment, Buddy would burst through my door. I heard my roommates’ doors close one by one. Running from shame was the only way I knew how to deal with shame. I quickly grabbed up a random assortment of underwear from drawers and papers from surfaces not knowing or caring what I was throwing into the bag. I snatched clothes from the closet so fast the hangers were left swinging and naked on the rod in the closet.

I raked my cassette tapes off the shelf and into the bag and bid farewell to this room I had known for only such a short time. I said my goodbyes to it and to higher education. I said goodbye to Grace Jones whose “Nightclubbing” poster I’d only installed on the wall a few days ago. She stared at me as I stood there giving the room a final once-over. Her cigarette was tucked neatly into the corner of her blood red lips. Her eyes called me a coward and stared me down the whole time I closed the door until she slowly disappeared behind it.

Pittsburgh, 2017

“Gurl, Down!!”

I was just pulled from my memories by a drunk drag queen at Pride in the Street who has just fallen on her high heels while emerging from a bar. Her friends are helping her right herself and laughing. To my right, a familiar Pittsburgh company has erected a booth where they’re handing out tiny rainbow flags for free, and I walk over to get one. Inside, there are smiling young people, some of whom seem to be transfixed by what they’re seeing. They’re all wearing Gay Pride tshirts issued to them by their employer. “Can I have two?” I ask a handsome young man standing there. “Take as many as you want!” he says, and steps aside to show that they have boxes full of them. He grabs a handful and thrusts them in my direction. He has a nice smile. Clean cut. He asks me if I’m enjoying the festivities and I tell him honestly that it’s all a bit much. I just work here. He feigns astonishment adorably and then tells me that I need to “get into the swing” of things and points to the bar across the street. He then raises his cup and winks signifying that it contains alcohol and, as we’re laughing, a young woman, his co-worker, comes up behind him and slides her arms around his waist resting her hand on his hip. He kisses her on the lips and gives her a sip from his cup. They smile meaningfully into each other’s eyes because they are so openminded. She offers me a rainbow bracelet and I take it but leave the flags. Too much to carry. As I walk away, I hear the young man behind me yell out, “Happy Pride!”

I wave back without turning around.

I need a pack of cigarettes before my shift, and there is a minimart just up the street. On my way, I weave through the straight couples who move unencumbered through the streets — straight people who don’t know anything about the fear that gripped me back at Akron. It’s a fear they’ll never know or understand. I walk through the door of the mini-mart, setting off the bell just above the door alerting the staff that someone has just walked in.

Akron, 1988

I had run to the mini-mart where I worked and set off the bell just above the door alerting my coworker Denise that someone had just walked in. “Good Lord, Brian, what’s wrong? You look like somebody just died.”

“Can I use the phone, please?”

The mini-mart was a ghost town at 2 a.m. There was just me and Denise. I liked her. I liked working with her. She slowly reached under the counter, knitting her brow at me the whole time. She handed me the phone and I called the only person I knew to call in times of crisis. She heard every word of my pleas over the phone and, afterward, I could not handle her eyes on me. Full of concern and questions. I told her that I’d just had a fight with my roommates and that was all I said about what had happened. She told me not to worry. We’d all be made up by tomorrow. I went out and sat on the curb just in front of the store beside the ice machine, and she came out occasionally to check on me. She gave me a Mountain Dew. “Mountain Dew is for white folks,” she said, “but I drink it when nobody is here.” And in that moment, she created within me that odd sensation of laughing through a deep ache. It’s that feeling that confuses your body so that the tears come faster and the laughter and pain become all mixed together so that you wind up just a yarn ball of emotions.

She sat with me on the curb until customers came in and she had to go back inside. She came out and went back inside all night and we talked about things as if she was ever going to see me again. She went back inside a final time and I sat alone until I saw the familiar headlights of the vehicle that had carried me to place weeks ago. My mother in our ratty, old Buick had come to save me. When she pulled up alongside, I threw my bag in the back and climbed in. She was wordless and angry — the kind of anger borne of having been woken up in the middle of the night by your hysterical son and driving an hour only to find that said son is still, in fact, in possession of all his limbs. As we drove away from the rubber capital of the world for the last, last time, Denise emerged from the mini-mart in the rearview mirror. She waved goodbye high over her head and I waved back weakly when I was sure that she was far enough away that she couldn’t see me, because hiding was the only other way I knew how to deal with a bad situation.

Pittsburgh, 1992

“Would you like a sign to carry?”

The rain was falling so hard that she had to yell. I heard her clearly but asked her to repeat herself just to buy some time. “Would you like a sign to carry?” she asked louder. “We’ve got extras!” She was smiling at me. One of the lesbians with the bongos. Her face was almost perfectly round which was accentuated by her completely shaven bald head and smooth, brown skin. She had kind eyes and was struggling with a few poster board signs that had gotten wet. We continued to shout over the sound of rain battering the tree over our heads.

“I’m not really sure I’m gonna go at this point!” I yelled back.
“Oh, but you gotta go! It’s gonna be so much fun!”
“I don’t have any way to get to the…”
“We’ll give you a ride! I’m Annette!”

She thrust out her hand and I told her my name. She handed me a sign and I took it. I don’t know why. She told me to follow her. She was authoritative and direct. She was also one of the few black people I saw gathered there. As we trudged through the mud to her ride, she told me that she was a member of BIGALA at the university and that they were looking for more people to join. She was glad that she ran into me, she said. She talked endlessly about how much this march meant to her. How much we were going to shake things up. I was only listening to the voice in my head telling me to escape. I followed her because I was afraid not to. I followed because, I felt if I didn’t, I would be lost forever. I followed her because she was the bravest person I’d ever met, and I was ashamed to be as afraid as I was in front of her. We arrived at an old van into which several other people were loading up. She introduced me around quickly and we all piled in. The only seats were in the front, so most of us sat on the floor in the back. The ride was damp and silent. People made nervous chit-chat from time to time. But I could tell that these people with whom I’d found myself were all just as afraid as I was. Nervous. The van hit bumps and rattled all the way to downtown Pittsburgh, and we sat there shoulder to shoulder wondering what to expect next. For most of the ride, we drove in uncomfortable silence.

Warren, Ohio, 1988

My mother drove down Route 76 from Akron, Ohio, without a word. She was still wearing her slippers and she looked tired. She did not ask me what happened to make me call her in the middle of the night begging to be picked up. But I could see the questions forming just behind her lips, banging on her teeth. In the end, I think she knew but didn’t want to know. When we arrived at home in Warren, I went straight up to my room and stayed there. I hoped to rot. I spent weeks on end withering away. She brought food up to me and, when I wouldn’t eat it, she turned to Jesus. She came to my room and prayed over me and sang “This Little Light of Mine” in the middle of the night. I repaid her by drinking bleach the next day in an effort to put my light out forever. I heard her pacing the floor in the hallway outside my room. She never asked if I wanted to go back to Akron to retrieve the rest of my things. She knew better. After several days, she came to sit on my bed one night and asked me softly what she could do. I didn’t want to cause her any more pain by haunting her house. I didn’t want to be the burden that I so obviously was, and I didn’t want to bring her shame. I looked up at her from my bed and, in a voice I hadn’t really used in weeks, told her that I wanted to either die or move to a brand-new place.

Months later we drove to Pittsburgh and when I saw the skyline from a distance, I had hope that I could get lost somewhere within it.

The skyline of the city looks different when you approach it with hope as opposed to dread.

Pittsburgh, 1992

We approached downtown in the van and, as the buildings got larger and larger, the rain changed its mind again and faded to drizzle. More people had arrived from other places, but there still weren’t many. We were sparse. We were all young: mostly college-aged, carrying our own homemade signs. Everyone was wet and grimy. There were no bright colors to speak of, just denim, gray, brown. I was exposed, and my legs carried me forward despite everything else in my body imploring me to turn back. There was no giant flag, rainbow streamers or balloons. Our parade was made of flannel and mud, drab, and monochrome. The women led the charge, chanting slogans and banging their bongos. Fists became airborne and voices were raised. We were marching from the Civic Arena down to The Point where there was to be a rally. I looked down and realized that I had forgotten my sign in the van and, therefore, couldn’t use it to cover my face. The street had been reluctantly blocked off by the city, and it was just us vagabonds shouting into the void.

There were no supporters along the sidelines. No people cheering us on. There was only the usual downtown Saturday foot traffic of people doing Saturday things. A smattering of people sneered and, even worse, laughed at us. Straight boys pointed and then doubled over with laughter. We were curiosities at most, bane to the rest. In a moment of bravery, I turned my head just in time to see a woman mere feet from me retrieve her Bible from her purse and wave it at me angrily. But, I was not brave. I walked just at the outskirts of the parade proper. One of Annette’s male friends grabbed my hand and held it. I wanted more than anything to wrench it from his grip but didn’t. I was not proud that day. I was anathema to what that pitiful little parade was supposed to be about. I was scared, and not just of the people on the sidelines and what they thought of me. I was afraid that this was the beginning of a whole new world. I turned my head again to take in the open and shouting mouths of my parade companions. Their resolve was complete and filled with fearlessness. Something had kicked in with them that hadn’t with me. They were determined, shouting at the world. Many of them became friends after. Some died of a disease that the mainstream media barely talks about anymore. So, I walked with my head up, facing stiffly forward for most of the time. It was the best I could do. And, as the parade marched on, I felt a little better. I felt a tiny bit stronger in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone. I looked over at Annette in mid-bongo strike. She looked up at me, winked and smiled. She was wearing denim overalls with no shirt underneath. No bra. Her chest was showing, but for far different reasons than the woman who, had been using hers to try to sell me Jell-O shots.

Pittsburgh Pride in the Street 2017

The celebration has banged on all day. Traffic has been redirected and stages have been built. I have been working non-stop at the booth where I sell sandwiches and drinks. I tell my boss that I am going for a little break. I walk past other vendors. They are selling everything from cotton candy to ice cream to shelter animals. I get caught in a spray of confetti that someone has just flung into the air. On the next street over, another DJ has taken over and house music is blaring, and people are dancing wildly with abandon and joy in rainbow feather boas and festive hats. I walk on to see the booth from another local Pittsburgh company closing down for the day. I wonder how much rent they had to pay to be here. All around me, everyone is drinking it all in, but I can’t settle into it. With all this going on, I can’t help but think wistfully of my first parade. Not just about who I was then, but about who we were then. I miss it. At first, I make the mistake of believing that I miss it just because I was young and we all go melancholy thinking about youth when it has passed. I am well past my “sell by date” in gay years. Maybe I miss it because we were less hedonistic, more focused, nobler, and driven by our convictions. But, I know that’s a damn lie. We partied hard too.

I just miss it because of what I thought it was.

I thought it was a really a place of togetherness and support where we were all equal brothers and sisters of Sodom. I thought our internal differences were negligible. I have since been disabused of this fantasy of our Great Gay Movement. Women like Annette have long since split off and created their own celebrations. I guess I just miss what I thought it was: a spirit I thought was present before all this…tolerance.

I watch another company close up their booth for the night and I’m reminded of the words of my old roommate, Sam the CleanCut. I can still hear him.

“We suspected and now we KNOW. We don’t even care as long as you pay the rent.”

I think this is what these companies think of us now, now that we are manna from heaven. A new way to pay the rent. I wonder if they truly support us or are just afraid of the repercussions if they don’t. I wonder if we are still supporting those in our community who need it. Are we including everyone? All of us?

I have my doubts.

The spectacle of people and partying plays on all around me and I sit on the curb of the sidewalk in front of the convenience store as the sun goes down. I crack open a Mountain Dew and light a cigarette, confident in the fact that I have earned my front row seat to watch as our future unfolds.

Brian Broome is an author and M.F. A. Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. For more info, visit brianbroome.com.