Sunday, February 06, 2005

Chapter 2, Part 2

Danny set off at a pretty good pace, a little put off by the clammy dampness of the night air; no one with curly hair and any amount of personal vanity can bear moist air with equanimity, no matter how much confidence one might have in one's hair-care products. He nevertheless enjoyed his walk down the well-populated and festively lighted streets enough to consider walking the whole distance; but it was a long way down to Civic Center and then up Polk, and his boots were made for dancing, not for walking two miles up and down hills.

Like many people who grew up in rural or suburban areas and learned to drive at fifteen, Danny had trouble adjusting himself to the vagaries of public transportation. He had enthusiastically explored BART and the various MUNI systems in his early days as a San Francisco resident, thrilled by the idea that one could get just about anywhere without a car; but he was soon discouraged by the noises, smells, and close quarters of the buses, trains, and streetcars, not to mention the often depressing people who rode them; he also discovered himself to be wildly claustrophobic, a phobia of which he had been entirely unaware until he got stuck in a crowded rush-hour Metro train that broke down in a tunnel on a hot day. And then there was the problem of waiting, something for which Danny had little talent.

Unfortunately, in San Francisco, public transportation is inescapable: parking a car is nigh-on impossible in many parts of the City, and unless you are willing to spend a fortune on parking garages and leave your car in the care of sketchy attendants, or budget an extra half hour or forty-five minutes to circle a nine-block radius scouting for a space, it's easier to just leave your car at home.

When Danny reached the busy intersection of Market and Church, he considered his options: a bus, or a streetcar, or a train? He briefly considered a taxi, but had never quite figured out how to attract the attention of a taxi-driver, and had wasted hours of his life waving at speeding cabs without getting any results... coming home from downtown, there would be bustling taxi-stands and helpful hotel doormen who could be tipped or flattered into using their magic little whistles on one's behalf, but there were no stands or doormen in the Castro; one could call a dispatcher in advance, of course, but if one knew that far in advance that one needed a ride, one could just as easily call a limousine service.

He naturally preferred to remain above-ground whenever possible, but taking the bus or the streetcar meant stopping every block along the way; waiting for the bus or streetcar on Market Street also meant standing on a narrow island in the middle of traffic where one clutched a railing mere inches away from speeding cars; one was furthermore left open to the possibly judgemental gaze of the people in those cars... though Danny loved being looked at, he didn't care to be looked at while waiting for a bus or streetcar.

So, swallowing a little clutch of claustrophobic anxiety, Danny descended into the noisy, subterranean confines of the Metro station, dropped his quarters into the turnstile and automatically reached out to pull the transfer that he wouldn't ever use, took the escalator down to the platform, and found a place against the ugly tiled wall to lean while he waited for an inbound train.

While he waited for the train, wondering why it is that time crawls so slowly in the environs of public transportation, he tried to make the best of the unpleasant situation by observing the other would-be passengers in the station. Though he noted the admiring looks he received from several of the men and women on the platform, some open and some clandestine, all of the people in the station were woefully nondescript and uninteresting. Danny put on his headphones and plugged them into his PDA to listen to music instead, cueing up a selection of Big Band favorites, but it wasn't enough to drown out the depressing visual aspects of the station.

The train came whooshing and rattling into the station in due course, a fairly empty N-Judah that didn't appear to have been cleaned at any time in the last decade; despite the sparsity of passengers, Danny clutched his still-gloved hands to a vertical bar near the door rather than wedge his ass and his expensive jeans into one of the grimy-looking concave plastic seats. Taking shallow breaths through his mouth and staring intently at his own reflection in the scratched plastic window, he focused on pretending that he was somewhere else as the train went clattering madly through the small, dark tunnels deep under the street, unable to think about anything except what would happen if there was an earthquake and the tunnel collapsed on top of him under the weight of twenty feet of earth and any number of tall buildings and God-knows-how-many cars.

Eventually the train arrived at Civic Center Station, and Danny sprinted up the stairs into the only slightly fresher air of the grubby, crowded little square at Larkin and Hayes, dodging past slower-moving pedestrians until he reached the wide open spaces of Civic Center Plaza and was able to breathe freely again.

The walk up Polk Street was longer than Danny had anticipated... since he didn't know the name of the side-street on which The Brat was located, only the landmark where he was meant to turn, he couldn't plot the distance on his PDA as he ordinarily would; and since he stopped frequently to give quarters to panhandlers and to wait for cross-walk signals to change, and had to navigate clutches of smokers blocking the sidewalks outside of restaurants and rock-and-roll clubs, he couldn't quite gauge how far he'd gotten... but it seemed like an awfully long way.

The panhandlers here on Polk were more depressing than the usual run: there were no mere drunks or sad schizophrenics or even people spiritually incapable of living within the confines of society; these were without exception obvious drug addicts. And a number of them had quite apparently been beautiful boys not so long ago, before the drugs got them, and this loss of beauty connected to Danny's own worst fears and weighed heavily on his heart.

Though he was fairly sure that the panhandlers would use the quarters to buy more drugs, rather than to feed themselves or their mythical children as they often claimed, for Danny it was not an act of charity to distribute alms to these beggars; when he wanted to perform acts of charity, he would write a check at a nice well-catered fundraiser or volunteer his time at some clean and tidy service facility.

These alms were instead an exercise in caution: Danny forced himself to look these unfortunates squarely in the face when he handed over the coins, and remember that they were human beings like himself, their state separated from his by the most tenuous of circumstances... he had money, beauty, and intelligence, but he could lose them all to the drugs, insanity, and bewildering reversals that had robbed these people of their lives. The practice of physically handing them quarters kept Danny constantly aware of the pitfalls that lay in wait for all of us, and he believed it kept him from making certain mistakes that might lead him to such a pass.

Danny came upon the left-turn landmark suddenly, his view obscured by taller buildings and wide awnings along a populous block... it was every bit as ugly as Aunt Tittie had led him to believe, and Danny stood gaping at it for some time before continuing on to his destination. It was a typical Beaux-Arts building of pre-Depression vintage (not Art Deco as Aunt Tittie had described, but then so few people even know there's a difference), perhaps a trifle ungainly in its design, bristling with bay windows and vibrating with quoins and medallions and coursers and pilasters; but to make matters much worse, some ill-advised painter had done the whole thing in a number of brilliant colors, olive green and ink green juxtaposed with electric blue, teal, and aqua, interspersed with fuschia, peach, vermillion, and coral... a scheme that might have been charming on an elaborately millworked Victorian mansion, but was terrifying on a Beaux-Arts hotel, like a villain's lair out of The Yellow Submarine... one half-expected Blue Meanies to lean out the windows and drop apple bombs. And this was just what was visible in the flattering sodium lamplight of night: Danny pitied the people who would have to look at it in the full light of day, especially with a hangover.

Tearing his eyes away from the noisome sight, Danny scanned the side-street for his destination, spotting the curved royal-blue awning with yellow lettering three doors up on the left. Before entering, he stood back at the curb to take a good look at the place, memorizing the exterior for future reference and trying to get a "vibe" of some sort.

The Brat presented a rather bland face to the street, the plain blue and yellow awning stretched over a plain black door between two curved walls of glass brick; these were set with small, high windows, which were apparently meant to display neon beer signs rather than allow a view in or out; one received an impression of collegiate atmosphere from the varsity-letter font used on the awning, and an impression of light and movement behind the glass brick walls, but the facade of The Brat gave nothing away.

The interior was similarly typical and non-committal: on the left of the entrance was a little alcove with a pay-phone, a cigarette machine, and stacks of give-away magazines and newspapers; the bar curved out from here and stretched about thirty feet along the left-hand wall; on the right was a trio of arcade-style video games flanked by two rather brilliantly-lit pinball machines, and the right-hand wall was made up of carpeted risers instead of booths, running the same distance as the bar; in the backroom, more risers took up the wallspace on the right and left, facing in on a pool table and a small parquet-floored open space in which dancing might occur but which at the moment was filled with three cafe tables and a tangle of bentwood chairs; the back wall was pierced by three doors, two of which were marked as restrooms and one marked "Employees Only." The lighting was dim but not dark, flatteringly filtered over the bar but with widely-spaced pools of brigher light on the risers and the erstwhile dance-floor; the collegiate theme was carried out with a few posters of college-age models in scanty athletic attire, the occasional college pennant, and the pervasive smell of cheap beer.

Though the decor and design didn't give anything away, the people in the bar illustrated The Brat's raison d'etre quite clearly: all along the bar, older men sat with their cocktails, a dozen or so of them, taking advantage of the flattering lights, some talking to each other but most observing the twenty or thirty much younger men, who sat or stood in groups under the stronger lights around the pool table and on the risers... except for three older/younger conversational pairings, two at the bar and one at the video games, the inhabitants of The Brat were strictly segregated with johns on the left and hustlers on the right, leaving a fairly broad open space down the middle. And though the two separate groups interacted with the people on their own sides, the energy of the room flowed distinctly, almost visibly, from side to side.

Immediately upon entering (during an unfortunate silence in between the elderly disco tunes that habitually poured out of speakers in each corner), Danny realized that he'd grievously miscalculated his wardrobe for this adventure. The johns were practically in uniform, almost exclusively decked out in bland sportshirts and uninteresting chinos. The young men on the right were dressed in a modified hip-hop fashion, with tight t-shirts and wife-beaters over their thinly muscled torsos, and oversized jeans or sweatpants hanging low on their narrow hips; puffy jackets or oversized hoodies were the outerwear of choice, and enormous unlaced sneakers were the only acceptable footwear. Huge and elaborate-looking watches strapped to thin wrists were the standard jewelry, though cheap-looking silver rings, gaudy thick-linked neckchains, and glaring chrome eyebrow piercings were fairly common. There were a lot of large and colorful tattoos, strangely stylized facial hair, watch-caps with sports logos in the center, and insectile sunglasses with gleaming metallic lenses perched on the forehead or hanging under the chin.

There were no tight jeans, no leather jackets, no peek-a-boo tops, and certainly nothing nearly as high-quality as the immensely expensive couture Danny had on. And even beyond the clothing, he was separated from the crowd of boys by his apparent physical prosperity... though Danny was considered slender among his cohorts at the gym and the circuit clubs, he was a lot beefier than any of the boys in The Brat, due mostly to having a healthier diet; for though all of the boys were in good shape, and evidently worked out as much as their circumstances might allow, theirs were the tight underfed muscles of late adolescence preserved by the low-protein, high-starch diets that are the portion of urban poverty.

Their hair was exceptionally short or completely shaved, most likely cut with a pair of electric clippers in the bathroom; none of them had the resources to maintain a halo of pampered curls filled with high-priced styling products. Their skins tended to be spotty and dull, or else flushed and glowing unnaturally, but nothing as clear and healthy as Danny's.

And not one of them was beautiful. Most were good-looking, in one way or another, and some of them might have been much better-looking if they were happy, well-fed, and properly groomed... but for the most part, they had mean mouths and empty eyes, and were posed in aggressive but ludicrous stances meant to give them an appearance of toughness but ending up making them look gangly and belligerent. Each and every one of them stared openly at Danny as soon as he entered, sizing him up as possible income or competition, glaring resentfully at his radiant beauty or gaping enviously at his dazzling clothes, and either way completely baffled by his unexpected appearance.

The older men turned to stare, as well, and were just as baffled as the young men by someone so beautiful and so expensively dressed wandering into this specialized and out-of-the-way bar. Danny simply and obviously did not belong in this place. And if he had obeyed his initial impulse to turn around and leave, his life would have been very different in the coming months. But he was far too obsessed with this adventure to turn back, and was determined to see it through.

Danny walked up to the service rail at the bar as if it were the most normal thing in the world, smiling politely at the people he passed but not acknowledging the undivided attention he had drawn from every corner of the room, took off his gloves and opened his jacket, and waited patiently for the bartender to address him.

"Bombay martini, very dry, two olives," Danny said to the bartender, a remarkably ugly middle-aged man with a shaved head and elaborately tacky Chinese dragons tattooed all over his thick arms.... he was dressed in a black muscle-shirt and jeans, and looked like a cartoon of a retired boxer with his squashed nose and tiny porcine eyes.

"We ain't got Bombay, sweetie," the bartender practically sneered, "is Tanqueray OK?"

"Sure, why not?" Danny smiled as pleasantly as he knew how.

"You want that up, or on the rocks?"

"Up, please," he replied, but wished immediately that he'd ordered something else entirely when he saw the bartender pull a double shotglass from the drainboard instead of a martini glass. He was further dismayed when the bartender poured off-brand vermouth with a heavy hand into a dented metal cup with some ice and gin, then shook it much too vigorously before straining it into the wet room-temperature glass.

Danny thanked the man and left a good tip after paying for his drink, but the first sip confirmed his worst fears... the thing was practically undrinkable, bitter and sloppy, with little chips of ice floating around a pair of sad elderly olives stuck on a wooden toothpick.

The transaction with the bartender, however, completely altered Danny's status in The Brat: the johns had seen that, even if he was for sale, he was far out of their pedestrian league, with his Bombay gin and his educated diction, and they pretty much struck him off as a potential purchase; the hustlers, on the other hand, had sized up his clothes as if the price-tags were still attached while he stood under the strong light at the service rail, had heard him order an expensive brand-name alcohol and settle for a slightly less-expensive brand as if it were a terrible sacrifice, and saw him pay for the six-dollar drink with a ten-dollar bill and not even touch the resulting change... this could be the break they dreamed of, a beautiful young man with whom it might be a pleasure to have sex, and who apparently had money, who could take them away from "all this." So while the older men's energy devolved from potential patrons to interested specators, the younger men started posturing and posing in earnest, trying to catch Danny's attention.

Danny was aware of this change in his status, but wasn't sure what to make of it. He stood at the service rail with his undrinkable drink, not knowing where to go... should he take a barstool among the johns, or find a place on the risers with the hustlers? To whom should he try to speak?

Scanning the boys on the right of the room again, Danny tried to choose the most attractive of them, or perhaps the most vulnerable-looking of them; but they all seemed strangely repellent in their shiftily armored sameness. He eventually found one, though, who looked different and therefore interesting, a healthy-looking youth with a square jaw and delicate bone-structure, dressed all in black and featuring luxuriantly floppy hair dyed a peculiar shade of dark purple. He was wearing pale-lensed sunglasses, too, which gave him a mysterious air, and though he sported a sparse and silly-looking fringe of hair along his chin, he was really quite attractive.

Making him even more attractive was the fact that, unlike just about every other boy in the place, he wasn't posing and posturing, or even looking at Danny; he seemed to be avoiding the light, avoiding being seen, and he was either completely unaware of Danny's presence or else making a really good pretence of ignoring it.

But just as Danny was about to launch himself across the left/right divide to strike up a conversation with the boy, that boy noticed someone else at the far end of the bar, an enormous middle-aged man in a loud Hawaiian shirt, strikingly tall and fat but strangely featureless and vague-looking for someone so large, and went over to talk to him. The newly united pair started arguing quietly, the older man apparently scolding the younger and the younger man condescendingly placating the older, their interaction bespeaking a relationship of some standing.

Playing pool then struck Danny as a good idea, a natural and neutral activity in which he would be able to meet at least one person over the table and use that meeting as a wedge into the mystifying social structure of The Brat. But just as he was about to head over to put his name on the chalkboard between the restroom doors, a man sitting at the bar laid a gentle hand on the sleeve of his jacket.

"You look lost," the man said; he was smirking a little, apparently amused at Danny's discomfiture, but seemed otherwise friendly.

"I've never been here before," Danny allowed, taking a moment to study the man closely. He was younger than most of the men at the bar, in his late thirties or early forties, medium of height and build and coloring, with a full head of neatly combed light-brown hair and a trim-looking body, very nearly handsome in a generic, WASPy way... a square, well-boned face, unremarkable brown eyes and low, straight brows, a long straight nose, long thin-lipped mouth, and tanned healthy skin.

But Danny realized immediately that this man was much better-dressed than he appeared from a distance; near-to, the practiced eye could tell his boring striped button-down Oxford shirt was from Turnbull & Asser, without having to see the label; his plain tan chinos were most likely Brooks Brothers, beautifully but unostentatiously tailored. The slightly scuffed brown loafers were handmade and English, and the Piaget wristwatch was antique and meticulously maintained, probably a family heirloom. To cap it all off, Danny spotted the plain gold Yale class ring with the insignia of an exclusive hereditary fraternity worked into the design.

Danny felt immediately at his ease with this man, who was so patently of the same social class as himself... in fact, his uncle Charles Vandervere and his grandfather Marcus Vandervere had belonged to the same fraternity, though at Harvard, and wore similar rings. Though he didn't care much for his uncle or his grandfather, finding a little bit of familiar iconography in this bizarre place was like finding an old friend in a strange country.

"My name's Marshall," the man said, reaching out a square, strong, manicured hand in greeting.

"I'm Danny," he took the offered hand and was impressed by the strength of the grip and the heat of the palm.

"Why don't you sit down, and I'll get you a new drink," Marshall offered, indicating the empty stool beside him, "Ivan here couldn't make a proper martini if his life depended on it."

Danny agreed, stepped around to the offered stool, and slipped off his jacket to drape over the seat... sparking a sudden ripple of excitement throughout the bar.

"God damn," Marshall breathed, ogling Danny's magnificent torso, artfully displayed in its sheer silk casing, "you're too good for this place. Hot!"

Danny suddenly found it funny that this man of his own class thought he was a prostitute; and in a flash, a wicked little idea burst full-bloom in his mind.

It had of course happened before that an older, wealthy man in whom Danny showed interest had slightly misconstrued Danny's purpose, and assumed that he was a professional prostitute rather than an amateur courtesan. The first few times it happened, when they asked his price up front or offered him money afterward, Danny was offended by the assumption... and after that, he simply pretended to be offended, because in order to soothe the imagined hurt of assuming that Danny was a whore, the older, wealthy gentlemen would always buy Danny a really expensive gift of some kind, usually taking him to dinner and the theatre as well, and were thereafter enrolled in his roster of doting daddies.

Disappointed in the way his hustler-bar adventure had started out, Danny decided to salvage the evening by playing this game with Marshall, encouraging the man to think that he was a professional, but then pulling his Injured Pride act as soon as the matter of payment came up, just to see what he could get.

Marshall ordered a pair of fairly fool-proof Tanqueray tonics as soon as Ivan came back to their part of the bar, and Danny turned on the charm at full wattage, smiling and flirting while asking a host of small-talk questions about Marshall's name (Marshall was in fact his last name, but he thought his first and middle names, Drayton Holyfield, too fruity for casual usage) his profession (he admitted to being a lawyer, but wouldn't say in what field) and his origins (he had been born and raised in San Francisco but was schooled at Groton, Dartmouth, and Yale).

Eventually, Danny's conversation wound down a bit, and Marshall turned back to the bar to order another pair of cocktails; and in the sudden quiet, Danny swore he heard Aunt Tittie's unmistakable laugh somewhere at the other end of the room. He shot a look toward the sound, and spotted the tall fat man in the loud Hawaiian shirt at the far end of the bar; Danny had never seen Aunt Tittie out of drag, and had no idea what she looked like under the wigs and paint, but the man at the bar was about the right size, and there were tell-tale parrots among the hibiscus flowers of the shirt. But the man was looking to his right, in conversation with the man on the next stool, so Danny couldn't be sure.

But as he was looking in that direction, his gaze was arrested by the strange purple-haired boy, who was drinking a bottled beer and leaning against the large-man-who-might-be-Aunt-Tittie, his arm draped across the older man's shoulders; though his stance was casual, his face was rigid with attention, and the object of that attention appeared to be Danny himself.

He forgot all about Aunt Tittie and was just puzzling over why the purple-haired boy was staring at him, but even that thought was driven out of his mind when a cold, wet finger was suddenly thrust down the back of his jeans, deep into his ass-crack. He nearly jumped out of his skin, and whirled around to face the intruder.

"Nice," Marshall leered at him, withdrawing the finger and licking it suggestively, "smooth and hot."

Danny just blinked at him for a moment, too startled to react; but once he regained his senses, he decided that two could play at that game... he grabbed Marshall's hand and drew the offending finger into his own mouth, savoring the taste of the man's skin along with his saliva and a trace of the gin and tonic in which it had been dipped. With the finger held firmly suctioned in his mouth, Danny looked into Marshall's eyes and smoldered for a moment, then winked and curled his lip in a naughty little half-smile.

"Let's get out of here," Marshall said throatily, plainly aroused on by Danny's bit of stage-business.

"Yes, let's," Danny agreed, sliding off the stool and throwing his jacket over his shoulder.