Two Decades Ago

It’s always fun, or at least interesting, to look back over the decades of our lives and see where we were when and what we were experiencing in those bygone days. Not long ago I took a look back a mere decade to a thriving and exciting situation.

Now I want to step back yet another decade and talk about that fascinating time capsule. From September, 1996 to September, 1997, when I was in my mid-fifties, was a year of remarkable transition, though perhaps a stereotypical mid-life crisis. Two decades ago brought the end of my sixth personal era (the Mature Gay Gentleman) and heralded the birth of my seventh persona (the Grandfatherly Gay Character).

That mid-September morn, standing on the sidewalk on Montezuma Avenue outside the La Casa Building (note the poetic persistence of the Aztec and La Casa themes in my life), I watched a huge U-Haul truck drive away with its institutional load. It was hauling the whole of the Western States Arts Federation off to Denver, leaving me and twenty more professional administrators unemployed. Thank you, Newt Gingrich, and your Contract on America. You don’t want to know the gory budgetary details.

As Director of Administration, I’d dutifully organized this planned exodus but also looked around for a commensurate position. I even went to San Francisco to interview with the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies. But shortly before that interview, after considering the whole San Francisco city/California thing, I decided I didn’t want to leave Santa Fe. Back home that summer, I applied and made the finals for the heads of the McCune Foundation and SITE Santa Fe but lost both bouts.

So that September I went on unemployment and ground out the requisite applications for a certain number of jobs each week, knowing all the while that nobody wanted an overly mature, upper-level, nonprofit arts administrator—with reasonable salary expectations—nor were there any such openings in the first place. As I said before, stereotypical. However, rather than agonize, I decided to go on vacation. After 15 years of hard work, I could take a sabbatical.

At the time, I was driving a silver 1985 Plymouth Horizon and headed west. First stop was the Grand Canyon. In the 70’s I’d hiked down from the North Rim, and in the 80’s from the South Rim. This time I camped on the South Rim and just stayed up there. Still I managed to waste as much film as almost anybody on the unimaginable spectacle. I love this shot from the rim (inner gorge in foreground). Look, 20 years ago you could still see through the pollution to the far North Rim.  Imagine  that.96 grand canyon

Grand Canyon, 1996

Westward-ho, this middle-aged man went on to see the boggling Hoover Dam and then went for a hike at Lake Mead at a spot reputed to be a nudist area. Feeling liberated from work and societal stuffiness, I tromped nude though the scrub willows along the lake. I saw only one odd naked fellow with a tent, whose kind invitation to tea I politely declined. From there I climbed to the top of a low hill to a giant tamarisk tree which served obviously and odorously as rookery for several unkindnesses of ravens. A malevolence of ravens?

Next stop was San Diego. I pitched my tent at the Campground on the Bay in view of Sea World across the water but didn’t go there till a couple days later. Instead, I spent my days at Black’s Beach near La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Park. An honest-to-John nude beach, you get down to it from the high bluff (at least back then) via a fragmented and dubious wooden staircase. Safely down, I shucked clothes and explored the lovely but sparsely populated (late-season) beach, my first time to the actual Pacific. (Puget Sound doesn’t count.) I noted the waves were understated, more like the Gulf than the Atlantic, eponymously pacific surf.

Spreading my towel back near the cliff out of the constant up-draft wind from the sea, I lay there in my splendid nakedness watching the hang-gliders take off from the bluff top and float around in the rising columns of wind like so many colorful seagulls. In skinny strolls along the beach I encountered only a few other bathers enjoying their own private leisure. I’d been advised that gay shenanigans went on back among the occasional dunes, but sandy sex wasn’t and still isn’t my bag. On one of my walks along the water I encountered a guy who was impressed by my cock-a-doodle, even though it wasn’t a Prince Albert.

While in San Diego, I did indeed visit the wonderful Sea World and go to the Zoo, which was almost more than I could handle. Most sentimental was my walk in Balboa Park where some years before my dear old friend Charles ended his troubled days on one of the park benches. Wandering around the city, I found a Kwan Yin to add to my collection, a beautifully brocaded figure riding on a fish-dragon, a good omen for my unemployed future. On the way home, I went by Joshua Tree National Park and took an illegal buff hike among rocks and Joshua trees. Isn’t it odd that only people care about clothes?

Well vacated, I returned to Santa Fe and got back into the swing of making futile job applications to get my meagre unemployment checks. That fall, with the luxury of not working, I started pulling together a draft of my book on ‘get’. (It would take another decade to reach its final form.) By December when public assistance ended, I really had to do something for an income. So I went to work part-time helping my daughter’s young man Rich in his woodworking shop. A totally new experience for me, the complicated job of making cabinets and doors was actually rather relaxing. The sanding and finish work was less fulfilling and far more tedious.

With the New Year and the unaccustomed leisure, I took a trip to Carlsbad Caverns—where I’d once gone with family in like 1953. I think it was an early Monday morning, January 7, when I got there and found the parking lot empty. As a matter of fact, beyond a couple workers at the food service, no one was there. I mean no one. I did a totally private tour through the caverns. It was almost mystical. You could even hear the distant drip of water from stalactites. Around noon, just as I was leaving, another car pulled into the parking lot. Afterwards I took long drives along the eastern and northern escarpments of the Guadalupe Mountains around to Dog Canyon on the west. How marvelous to think of that vast coral reef now thrust up as mountains.

After that special getaway, I returned to Santa Fe and my lot as a part-time carpenter’s helper. It was actually sort of fun work, the only pressure being to do it right, and I enjoyed long talks with the young fellow who had already been Aimée’s main squeeze for ten years. While warm and friendly, he was seriously amused by his girlfriend’s father being a gay man. Life rolled on smoothly for a few months with no other professional prospects, but I must admit that I found the physical labor tiring. So I got the idea of finding someone to share the work with me.

I mentioned my search for relief to an old friend, Peter Igo, a great silk-screen artist, and he suggested a young fellow who’d done some handyman chores for his place in Eldorado. (Peter’s remarkable “grow-hole,” a six-foot deep ditch covered with plastic, is what inspired my digging the “greenhole” several years later, and when he passed from cancer, I salvaged his many plants through Babylon Gardens.)

marc portrait

A posed portrait of Marcelo.  He spoke spectacular English.

When I met in early May with Peter’s handyman, a tall, attractive Brazilian named Marcelo, he seemed interested in the work. The next day, May 10, I took Marc to my special spot on the Santa Cruz River in the Caja de Cundiyo, where we splashed and played in the rushing stream.

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This is moi in the Cundiyo waterfall. 

Back at home that afternoon, I didn’t decline Marc’s intimate proposition. After all, it had been at least five years since I’d gotten physical with anyone. Well, it turned out that Marc didn’t relieve me of any woodworking duties, but against my better judgment, we entered into an amorous liaison. As liaisons go, this one lasted longer than necessary—enough said. Marcelo is now back in Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve got good reason to think that he regularly checks in on this website. I hope he appreciates this fond mention.

Meanwhile, on May 16 Aimée and Rich got married—after ten years together.

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 Aimée and Rich, May 16, 1997

The affair was in the garden of our local posh hotel, La Posada de Santa Fe (to whom long before I’d sold a huge Eastlake walnut over-mantle mirror which I’d brought from DC and painstakingly restored). The whole family from both sides showed up for the festivities, and I met Rich’s father Harvey for the first and only time. He looked exactly like Ernest Hemingway. I was resplendent in my tuxedo (not as much as Rich), and still have the rose (like his) that I wore in my lapel. Safely cushioned in a little jar, its pale pink has turned all golden brown after these 20 years. 

Actually I didn’t need any help with the woodworking after all. In June, some old professional friends offered me a job as Business Manager for their cultural nonprofit, Recursos de Santa Fe.  After only a week or so on that job, with great chagrin (for the first time in my life!), I told my friends that I was unable to do the job. What they really needed was an accountant.

No matter—the next week I snatched up another job as assistant to the Dean of the College at the College of Santa Fe. (Both he and the institution are now defunct.) No sooner did I report for work than the Dean took off for the summer to care for his ailing mother. With absolutely no job description and even less orientation, I had to figure out what I was supposed to do to run the academic show. It was fun, not to mention a snap, dealing with the closed universe of students and faculty, and rather pleasant having great clout. Big fish in tiny pond.

So the summer of 1997 turned out to be exceptional. I’d weathered my mid-life crisis and for that matter come out on the other side with a new professional niche—and what’s more, a young boyfriend. (Marc was only 32.)

As soon as the Dean got back, before the fall term was to start, I took my guy from Brazil on a grand tour of our western parks and landmarks. We hit Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Hopi-land, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, and Aztec Ruins. Talk about a lot of film! I wish I could post a whole travelogue of photos of me and my Brazilian, but there simply isn’t space or time to do so.

Of particular note was the morning Marc and I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, making the descent by 10:30. Shortly after a kindly hiker took this shot of us crossing the bridge over the Colorado River, when we were at Phantom Ranch wading in the creek cooling off our tired dogs, I remarked that we were just about as far from civilization as one could get. Not a minute later from over by the restroom shed a hiker, who had ironically been using the emergency telephone, hollered to his nearby friends: “Hey, guys, Princess Diana was just killed in a car crash!” So much for escaping from civilization. Within mere hours of its occurrence, that earth-shattering news had reached down to us at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon.

bridge over Colorado

Marcelo and me in the Grand Canyon, 1997

When we’d recovered from that culture shock and appropriately mourned the royal passing, Marc and I set off on the ascent. On the climb from Indian Gardens, we stopped frequently to breathe, etc., and made it up to the rim by early evening. We marveled at the 16 miles, the uphill half of which had felt more like 20. Marc said I was in terrific shape for such an old man. (Note the minimal middle-aged spread. I’m proud to have an even smaller paunch now—and to be in even better shape.)

When we got back to Santa Fe, it was high autumn, and my rocky mountain asters were in full spate. In this sweet photo of Marc and me you can also see the golden maximilian sunflowers. Eventually, I’d make hunks of money at the Farmers Market selling them. Also eventually, I’d turn the hillside behind us into a bunch of terraces to display my found-object assemblages which I cleverly call Yard Art. However, I have not yet discovered another boyfriend.

97 asters Marc and me hip-deep in asters