Queer's Progress, a novel      Author's Note:       Queer's Progress, a novel by Steven Key Meyers  
        ISBN 978-1-62646-647-0 (paper, 255 pp.)

 

 

This book comes largely from life, following my move to New York City in October 1978.

I’d spent the summer working mining claims amongst caribou and grizzlies in the Alaska Range, the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. Eating lunch on the slope of Red Mountain one August afternoon, my geologist boss and I watched a tornado sweeping back and forth in the next valley, quite possibly its sole human witnesses. Then, telling people I thought I’d give America’s other great wilderness a try, I headed for NYC, hitchhiking the segment from Bozeman, Montana through Wyoming to Boulder, Colorado.

Hitchhiking was something you could do in those days. There was a new twist this trip, in that several drivers found me my next ride via CB radio. Of course I encountered a glitch, too: Wyoming was enjoying a natural-gas drilling boom and when I arrived one sunset in Lander, no motel rooms were to be had. I presented myself at the jail. They took away my belt and shoelaces, but kindly put me up for the night.

In New York I stayed with my parents in Kips Bay until I found a job and apartment. In those days one particular pair of buildings on East 10th Street between Avenues B and C advertised weekly in the Village Voice; apparently they never filled up entirely. Part of the problem might have been the super’s appearance. He was a nice guy whose wife (ex-wife) had shot him three times in the face. Sometimes, chatting with him on the sidewalk as he awaited a prospective tenant, I’d see someone coming up the street catch sight of him and decide to walk on by.

But finding a rent-stabilized apartment for less than $200 a month in what was coming to be known as “Loisaida” (I preferred “Alphabet City”) was not the bargain it seemed, for, as the New York Daily News remarked, it was one of the worst blocks in the city. Unbelievable, perhaps comparable to London's East End in Jack the Ripper's time! It looked bombed-out, too, much like a part of Palermo I’d seen, but from arson, not World War II. Most of the buildings—walk-up tenements—were in ruins. On my block, which appeared to be the fiefdom of a burly sort always surrounded by prepubescent boys, only five of some 25 buildings were occupied.

Thus, I really witnessed incidents like the book's dogs and the aftermath of the death-by-hammock. I was mugged at gunpoint once, just like Andrew, and another time with a club held over my head. One morning before dawn I woke up to the touch of a knife; a man had flown through my fifth-floor window, the one well away from the fire escape. But compared to others I fared all right. If eggs were thrown at me in the East River Park, well, other people were shot to death there.

My new phone number turned out to be Mark Strand’s old one (I’m sure it was William Shawn whom I one day told had a wrong number). Alan Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky was rumored to live down the block. (Ginsburg gave a reading at CCNY a few years later, where I admired his technique in picking up young men, choosing beauties from the audience to crouch in front of him holding his zither music. I attended with “Eddie,” whom Ginsberg was on the point of choosing until he saw me glowering at him.)

Merely living in Loisaida was an education! I decided I’d seen everything the day I saw a woman masturbating on Avenue B. Then through a friend I met a sweet kid who during our blissful week secretly began seeing another man, and who moreover worked on the side as a hustler. Pablo's based partly on him, even unto Harvey Fierstein’s characterization and the Ruth Draper memorization (Draper had been a friend—so small is the world—of Caramoor’s Lucie Bigelow Rosen; see my books I Remember Caramoor, My Mad Russian and Another’s Fool) and based partly on several neighbors, one of whom, kicked out of his own apartment by a new roommate in 1979 or 1980, in retrospect was perhaps the first AIDS victim I knew, shivering his life away on staircase landings. In the summer of 1980, fully a year before the Times’ famous first story about what came to be known as AIDS, a young doctor friend doing his residencies told me about some dozen gay men dying in hospitals around town from an unknown, invariably fatal disease.

But the East Village proper had its charms. “Eddie” and I loved De Robertis Pasticceria on First Avenue, blithely unaware that it served as the daily collection point for John Gotti’s money; excellent pastry. There were good movie theatres, too—the St. Marks Cinema, where the audience talked back at the screen, and Theatre 80 St. Marks. The St. Marks Bookstore was also an asset. And I remember how the filming of Ragtime transformed 11th Street between Avenues A and B to the teeming Lower East Side circa 1900, hordes of extras dashing around in costume.

For Ned, see “Major Maybe” and Mackie on If I Had a Blog. Tia Luisa was inspired by a Community Board member I met at Charas, the amazing organization on the block that, years later, produced my adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. My through-the-airshaft neighbor—later photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe—stopped speaking to me after he came home from work one day to find cops in his apartment; I’d called 911 after seeing a man descend the airshaft on ropes and go through his kitchen window. A CCNY classmate who rented a room from a man he later found dead in the bathtub was investigated by police for negligent homicide (in the end they didn’t charge him). A friend got mugged at the 125th Street IRT station, a fat young man sitting down on his lap to immobilize him while buddies went through his pockets.

The Jeep roaring down the sidewalk to avoid 14th Street’s traffic was all too real. I rapped it as, parting a panicking crowd, it shot past, whereupon it stopped and the driver, yelling that he had a knife, leapt out and chased me round and round a wire trash can. “Shit color” is a direct steal from Charlie Chaplin’s classic My Autobiography. Once I overheard an old lady’s caregiver talking about her dying mistress’ direction as to her living will: “Tear it up!” I knew several New York cops, including a rookie who, told to stay until the coroner arrived with the body of a man sitting dead on his couch, helped himself to the man’s beer and sat down next to him to watch TV. Andrew’s black eye is based on the one I incurred remonstrating with kids from Jersey as they pushed a Dumpster into traffic. The landlady scene is a transcript from life (but she ran a good building; I was so happy to flee Loisaida for Hell's Kitchen).

The decapitation I read about in the Daily News, but in 1984 one of my students gave me an eyewitness account; the description is hers, I swear it. Angel Estrada, the young designer who achieved fame before dying almost overnight of AIDS, was a boyhood friend of “Eddie’s.” For a long time Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive so dominated airplay that one day I walked all the way to the subway to a relay of radios and boomboxes blaring it.

Ned’s calling Prof. Onorato “Prof. Pastrami” comes from my working as a waiter at a mid-70s seminar of AIG hotshots at C.V. Starr’s estate near Brewster: The phone rang, the executives looked at one another, then as one at the sole woman among them. With no good grace she answered it. The call was for Mr. Musto. Covering the receiver, she asked, “Is there a Mr. Pastrami here?”

For more on my doing research at the New York Public Library, see my Author’s Note on The Man in the Balloon: Harvey Joiner’s Wondrous 1877. Renovations through the 80s at one point left the light-board setup as I describe. (“Eddie” never worked there, though.)

I started as a playwright. My final play was Chesterfield to his Son, an adaptation of Lord Chesterfield’s once-famous letters. I was listening to O.J. Simpson’s trial on the radio (broadcast on several stations in Hollywood, where I was then living) while writing it, which might help account for the strictness of the adaptation, which incorporates not more than two dozen of my own words.

After completing Chesterfield, I thought I’d turn my hand to writing a novel; hence Queer’s Progress. From the start the writing went well, giving me the sense of having found my métier at last. I write in longhand but rewrite on computer, so bought a used one to help things along. An Apple aficionado until my Mac Classic burst into flames, now I acquired an ancient steel-cased Compaq running WordPerfect 5.1, a machine stickers indicated had belonged to the RAND Corporation. It was in every sense ironclad—never froze, never crashed, never presented any problem whatsoever, aside, of course, from the DOS file-size restrictions that meant having to save the book in twenty or thirty pieces.

And the writing routine was perfect: Coffee with the L.A. Times (then as now a much underrated newspaper), then work (on the radio, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic with Chris Douridas, the best interviewer I've ever heard), then a stroll or run up Canyon Drive into Griffith Park. Those steep park ascents, surging blood to the brain, are unsurpassed for working out plot points! Frequently I saw John Rechy walking along, and once the great actor Hal Holbrook. Usually I’d go on to the top of Mt. Hollywood; one January day a man in shorts and T shirt like myself turned and murmured, “It’s 17 below in Milwaukee.” Twice or three times a week I’d circle the park’s whole upper drive past the famous overlook, thus down to Los Feliz Boulevard and home; a little jaunt of ten or twelve miles, incomparably beautiful and rewarding.

Queer’s Progress comes in at 54,000 words. The first draft hit exactly my target of 100,000 words, though I showed it to no one until it was down to 86,000; sound criticism brought that down to 75,000. Originally I wrote it in three voices, including Andrew’s, but found his story could be told more piquantly through Ned’s and Edward’s. On the strength of Queer’s Progress, William Clark signed me up as his brand new literary agency’s first client. When he failed to sell it, Richard Derus gave it a try, with no greater success.

 

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