Scrub Interview by Justin Yockel
Scrub was my contribution to a downtown gay zine scene that I found seductive and sexy, but was also conflicted about. So much of it seemed self-promotional and insular. I wanted my version to tell the stories of an underrepresented New York, whose stories are just as fabulous if one takes the time to listen. Scrub ended up being a one-off response. There was only one issue printed, mostly because I didn’t have a business plan. Printing is costly but I wanted the satisfaction of having a tangible artifact. Now, seven years later, I’m happy The Conversant has resurrected these interviews in an online format. It’s interesting so see how they hold up in a new context.—Justin Yockel
Interview with Michael Adams was conducted on August 14, 2005.
Michael Adams: I feel like I’m Dick Cheney or someone who won’t ever grant you another interview again.
Justin Yockel: I know. Getting face time with you is so rare.
MA: Right. Never.
JY: Well, where do you want to start?
MA: Well, the time when I was almost taken out of high school? Is that the one you have in mind?
JY: Yeah. I like that one and then there was a time where you and your friend came to New York, right?
MA: Yes, that’s right. Well, if you want to know chronologically, New York comes first.
JY: OK, let’s do New York first.
MA: I think all of this has to be told in the context of the time and the place, which was Midwest in the early ’60s.
JY: I forgot which town.
MA: Royal Oak, Michigan. And Royal Oak is a bedroom suburb of Detroit and its main claim to fame is that it had a very famous church called Shrine of the Little Flower—a Catholic church. It’s actually world famous because its pastor was famous—notorious, I should say. He was called The Radio Priest, Father Coughlin, who was chastised by the Church for having very popular weekly radio broadcasts, which turned anti-Semitic and anti-FDR.
MA: He was quite notorious in those days. But he was still alive and still preaching at the church. He had used a lot of the money he raised on the radio to build himself this beautiful, circular church. Anyway, it was a very conservative, Republican town.
JY: And your parents were affiliated with the church?
MA: Oh, yeah. My father was not Catholic but my mother was and we all went to that church. The town was Republican to the point that when President Kennedy was elected, my history teacher came to school wearing a black armband.
JY: [Laughs.] Well, Detroit being a big auto town, it seems like there’d be a lot of Union. But what? The managerial class was very Republican?
MA: Suburban, yes, exactly.
[Break in recording.]
MA: I’m saying this because I think it’s important to set the scene. There were no black people whatsoever. None. And the city was sort of proud of that. There was one black family that had supposedly lived on the property of some wealthy man, whose will stated that no other black people could live there. We took this as just a matter of course. It was not surprising to us. I mean, it was just the way it was and except for Hannah, I didn’t know any Jewish people, or maybe an associate of my father’s but we were very insulated. No Asians. I never met an Asian until I went to college. It was very white. My parents were Democrats, though. They were fierce Democrats. In fact, I was allowed to come home from school to watch Kennedy’s inauguration, but that didn’t mean they weren’t conservative.
JY: So, in that way was your family an anomaly?
MA: They were an anomaly as far as politics were concerned but not their social conservatism. Neither of my parents went to college so they had no sophistication and they were born in and around Cincinnati, which to this day is a very strange bastion of odd political views and strange goings on. So their ignorance about homosexuality was understandable. I can’t blame them for not knowing what they wouldn’t have ordinarily known. They were not great readers. They were just middle-class. My father was in sales. So I somehow started reading at an early age. As with many kids, it was an escape. Somewhere along the way in my reading I was able to take my identity and coordinate it with this idea of homosexuality. I don’t even know what the eureka moment was but I just knew that when I read about it, somewhere—and who knows where I was reading about it—it was like, Oh! OK that’s the word for what I am feeling. It was just like waking up and realizing that you’re blind or, or you have blue eyes, or suddenly you wake up and you’re in Egypt. I just knew I would have to deal with this. It wasn’t like, Oh my God, I can’t be. What can I do to change it? It was like, OK, These are the circumstances. What do I do now other than keep it very, very, very secret?
JY: Right. So what year are we talking?
MA: We’re talking about early ’60s. So—High school years were ’61 to ’65. I didn’t even know how to masturbate. My older brother did not instruct me in this. I was so sheltered and yet, intellectually, reading a lot of sophisticated stuff. And I think I maybe mentioned this: that I remember reading the term latent homosexual in a book. And I thought without having looked it up, that latent meant really, really, really [laughs].
MA: So I thought, I must be a latent homosexual ‘cause I know I’m really, really one. There’s no redemption.
JY: A magnitude of 10.
MA: Yeah, exactly. So, here I am with these feelings and hormones, going to high school, but not knowing what to do with any of it, hating gym class for all the obvious reasons. That was always a drag, like for so many skinny, awkward kids being made fun of because I wasn’t adept at those things and yet having a certain level of reprieve from total dorkdom because of my other activities in school. There were just a few pockets of cretins that would make fun of me. But we’re not talking about being beaten up or physically abused in anyway, whatsoever. It’s funny because this was such an innocent time that nobody even thought of smoking, I mean, literally there were no drugs.
JY: The girls weren’t smoking in the bathroom?
MA: No. Well, if they were, they weren’t telling me but I didn’t know anybody who did. I tended to hang out with the, you know—I was in the National Honors Society and a lot of those guys were jocks too, so because of that, that gave me a past. I wasn’t like the little sissy in the corner that everybody hated. I was just the pretty, popular, smart guy that didn’t play sports very well.
JY: Yeah, that sounds just like me actually.
MA: So in the midst of all this—probably around sophomore year or so—a guy comes up to me in gym class. It was probably one of those classic shirts versus skins things. I’d be terrified that I’d be a skin. My mother was always saying, Go outside and get some sun! You’re too pale, You’re too skinny. But rather than equating that with good looks that might attract a man, I was equating it with my father and his world. His world was all about going to baseball games and getting out in the sun and running and doing stuff. [Laughs.] You know? I wanted to stay and read, go to the movies and go to the theater.
JY: You had a theater in town? Not a movie theater, a real theater?
MA: Detroit. Detroit—we moved there when I was 12—was like going from Little Rock, Arkansas to New York City. That sophisticated.
JY: Oh! So you moved from the suburbs to the city?
MA: No. I was born in Kentucky and moved to East Grand Rapids, which is a suburb of Grand Rapids, which is a sort of Calvinist, big small town and then we moved to a suburb of Detroit. That was like, Wow! Here was Detroit. And Detroit wasn’t the war zone it is now. It was really a cool city. They had a theater down there—The Fisher Theater. So, I wrangled from my parents a season pass to The Fisher Theater, which had a lot of professional theater. It had shows that started out there before they got to Broadway: Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly! So that was another entrée into another world, you know?
JY: Uh-huh. And they’d let you go at 12 into the city?
MA: Well, let’s see. By that time I was probably more like 14, 15. Yeah, in those days there was, there was no danger. You’d take the bus down, get off and take the bus back. And I loved—again, another cliché—doing plays. It was really a great escape and a circle of friends who were kinda cool, who weren’t always the nerdiest kids in the class. Some were football players. I was even president of The Drama Club.
MA: So, during this gym class, along comes this guy named Ron who said something to me like, Well, I guess you don’t like to take your shirt off either. And he kinda wooed me from that point on. I was skeptical of him, but he just kind of courted me as a friend and his instincts were far better than mine were. We became very close friends. My parents didn’t particularly like him. I think he might have been a little effeminate and I was probably was too, but they saw it in him more than they did me. He had a very dysfunctional family but he had use of a car. So that was a really cool thing when you’re 16. So we’d go down to the theater. We’d go to movies. We’d go to drive-ins. We’d just hang out and we had girls in our clique. It was, you know, a typical freaks and geeks kind of existence. I didn’t know the issues with his family, but his mother was sort of slovenly and his house was an absolute pigsty and he had like four or five brothers and sisters and um—We became best buddies.
JY: And he was kinda in the same boat as you? Kind of like—
MA: Not a jock.
JY: —a misfit?
MA: Well, he was a different misfit than I was. He was probably smarter than I was in many ways, but he was kind of self-destructive too. Underneath his report card it probably said: Did not live up to potential. I mean he had all these ways of screwing himself over for things. So he didn’t get in the National Honors Society and he didn’t get into advanced English but he did get into plays, so we did plays together. Things get fuzzy but somehow the progression was that—we were probably 15 or 16, hormones ablaze, not knowing what to do about them—at least I didn’t—we gradually let each other know. We had this really stupid game like: Well, what would you do if you, if you had an evening alone with a member of the football team. I don’t even remember now. All if-we-were-gay-this-is-what-we-would-do kind of stuff.
JY: Was the word gay even around?
MA: Well, that’s a very good question. I think it was probably homosexual. We might’ve even said, If you liked boys, what would—you know.
JY: Queer probably was too harsh.
MA: Absolutely. So, somewhere along the way he told me one night that he was homosexual. And it was the first time it had even been brought home to me that this was all reality. It was sorta like all theoretical when you’re by yourself. You know? And now it was even more of a secret—or more of a potent secret because if you entrust somebody with that knowledge, then that person could tell somebody else who could tell your parents.
JY: The stakes were raised.
MA: Yeah. So, I don’t think I ever admitted it to him. I didn’t have the courage he did by saying, Well, me too. But he knew very well. So once that cat was out of the bag, he was letting me on in his life. And he had a pretty active—well, active—I imagine it was more than what I realized at the time. He knew where to go in downtown Detroit to get skin magazines. He knew where the gay bars were. I don’t know how he managed them at the age of 16. In Detroit we were an hour away from Toledo where they had a policy where you could get “near beer,” which was like half beer and half not. I think you only had to be 17 or 18 to drink it. I don’t think they were that strict. And if high school kids who were 16—and we probably looked 14—came in, they were probably like Oh, boy! So he started educating me. I mean, he would just tell me things and I was both appalled and thrilled. I was just—
JY: Appalled? As in—?
MA: Yeah. I can’t do that! I can’t! You know? Well, then Ron told me too that he was having sex with his little brother’s friends who were like probably 12, 13 when they would stay over. Again, I was both appalled and thrilled. I was appalled and thrilled by anybody having sex!
MA: Some of this he told me after the New York incident so I might be throwing chronology out the window. I remember we were driving along one day and he saw a guy in another car and they waved at each other and he said that he knew this guy from the bars down in Detroit and that he was a rim queen. And I had no idea what that meant and then he told me and talk about appalled! I wasn’t even thrilled by that. That was just beyond the pale.
JY: He was trying to get a rise out of you!
MA: Oh, of course he was! He wanted to because this was at a time when I was not having sex with him because I was still so ashamed. He also wanted to show how experienced he was and that my disavowal of him meant nothing to him because he knew rim queens who drove past and waved at him!
JY: [Laughs.] It gave him a chance to show off.
MA: Exactly, exactly. Um, so here all this was going on. I mean with these magazines, these physique magazines. You’ve seen the classic ones with the posing straps?
JY: Like Physique Pictorial?
MA: Exactly. They were so shocking to me and so delicious at the same time but they were this constant threat. I don’t even remember whether we just looked at it and that I was just too scared to even have one in the house. But I so loved that he would drive down to Detroit and get out of the car and buy them and bring them back. I mean, I wouldn’t do that. I was so pleased with that and yet, unfortunately, had contempt for him as well. It went hand in hand that I really hated him for what he was because I was that too. Again it was now something real and it had all been theoretical before.
JY: You could control it before and now it was beyond your control.
MA: Oh, yeah! There were other people involved.
JY: And he was doing things to you and—
MA: —and what did that mean? Because I still hadn’t had sex with anyone yet. I hadn’t even had an orgasm yet, ever! I’m not even sure I had a wet dream. So there’s all this stuff going on. That was the summer between junior and senior year of high school and it was in August so this is an anniversary of sorts. It was right before my birthday. I was a mad charter member of the Barbra Streisand fan club and I was in love with her—again, all the gay clichés: She was different. She was odd. She was unusual. She was outside the mainstream and yet she was popular. I mean, she was subversive in those days. It’s hard to believe.
JY: This is sixty. . . three?
MA:—three, four—yeah, yeah.
JY: So she was just starting out?
MA: Funny Girl—Funny Girl was the first. She had had an album or two and then did Funny Girl on Broadway, which was ’64.
MA: I don’t mean subversive in the way John Waters is subversive but in the popular culture she was unusual. And I was lucky in my pursuit of these cultural things because my father—I think my father was perhaps a closeted homosexual as well. That’s another story, but he also loved the theater. He loved singers of that time. He kind of got off on my being in plays. I mean, he came to see them. It wasn’t like I had this stigma because I wanted to do that. He grew up in vaudeville. His mother, my grandmother, was a pianist for vaudeville performers and the silent movies. He loved that world although I often wonder whether there was some sort of abuse he suffered backstage somehow. I don’t know, but it’s a wild guess.
JY: So he was around this theater growing up as a kid.
MA: Yeah, yeah.
JY: And it was his mother—?
MA: —who played piano for the silent movies and dance studios and Doris Day was one of her first students when she was a kid. I have old pictures of her with a lot of vaudevillians, including one woman who dressed as a man. That was her act. All the photos show her with her male name with quotes around it. My grandmother wrote right under the picture: Me, Gert and “Don” or whatever his name was. It’s so one of those regrettable things: Why didn’t I ask my grandmother? Why didn’t I know to ask her all about that? And why was this drag king part of the family? And there were tons of pictures of him. Tons of them. You know, just like, family portraits.
JY: “He” was an acquaintance from the theater?
MA: Yeah, exactly. I think my grandmother’s sister did an act with this guy. In the photos they are so cozy that you think, Was it—?
JY: Maybe they were a couple.
MA: Yeah, exactly. Although the sister, Gert, did get married and have children, but, as you know, that means nothing. So anyway, I desperately wanted to see Barbra Streisand and I wanted to come to New York. I just always wanted to come to New York and all the magazines that Ron had about gay life featured New York. Also at this time, which I think this is kind of interesting, is the novel, City of Night. Are you familiar with that?
JY: The novel? City of Night? No.
MA: City of Night. It was like one of the seminal books of its time. I think it was printed in ’65.
JY: It sounds like an urban underground. The seedy, sinful city.
MA: Exactly, exactly. It was a bestseller. We were able to buy it at Hudson’s Department Store and I think it probably had as much influence on me as anything in the world because—for bad and good, I think, mostly bad—because it was nothing but hustlers, dark alleys, violence, hurried sex, sex for pay. The seediest underbelly of what gay life was. And basically, when I read that book, I was like, Well, I guess—Sign me up! What other choice do I have? I mean, I didn’t think I’d meet somebody and we’d live in a cottage somewhere. Nobody ever talked about that. It was about how much you could do without anybody finding out.
MA: Yeah. So John Rechy, the author, is still alive. He wrote many things after that, including a book called Numbers. They’re all about anonymous sex and hustling. Everybody knows this book, of a certain age. Anyway, not only was New York about being gay, but also it was about going to the theater. Wow! And it was also the year of the World’s Fair.
JY: Oh, OK. ’64.
MA:’64 World’s Fair out at Flushing, Queens. So I was able to convince my parents that that would be a good enough reason to send me to New York.
JY: [enthusiastic, parental tone] It’s educational!
MA: Yeah, exactly and they were cool about my going to the theaters. They encouraged that. So, so it wasn’t like were grumbling, Oh, God, he’s going to go and hang out with those theaters. It was like, Great! At least they could tell themselves that the educational part was paramount.
JY: Wow! That’s exciting.
MA: So things were really, literally coming to a head with Ron. Something had to give. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him but I knew he was attracted to me and he was, you know, a sexual being. He was in my sphere. I didn’t know where to go to find a lot of these kinds of people.
JY: Right, he was your only choice!
MA: Exactly. So he was sent by his family that summer to German camp to learn German in Austria—and this won’t seem relevant but it will. Before he went to German camp he went to New York to stay with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey and he went to 5 or 6 different theaters to buy tickets for us. Each of these shows is one of the classics now, like Funny Girl, Richard Burton in Hamlet, at a time when he was woooorld famous because of his Elizabeth Taylor affair. A whole bunch of great things we were going to see. I couldn’t have been happier in my life. And I hadn’t really been—other than my birthplace and a trip to Florida—outside of Michigan. Never flown on a plane before.
JY: And theater tickets were cheaper in real dollars?
MA: Well, relatively, yeah. They were, like what, 8 bucks apiece? But when you’re a high school student—I don’t know what it would translate to now—it wasn’t cheap. And so I saved up. I helped my brother with his paper route. I had a summer job. So Ron went to these theaters and got all these tickets, went home to his aunt’s house, left them in the pocket of his pants which he proceeded to wash—
MA: —and lost all of the tickets. Every single one of them. Like $80 worth. And my parents, who didn’t like him anyway, were beside themselves with fury. Now this was in the days before credit cards when they kept electronic records. This was even a day when you called the box office and said I’ll send you a check. Will you reserve these tickets for me? And they’d say, Sure! So, it was easier and but then harder in other ways. Anyway Ron went back to the box offices and said I think I know exactly where my seats are. But the damage had been done.
JY: The seat numbers? If he could remember the seat numbers, he could claim—
MA: Yeah, exactly. Some of them believed him! That’s the difference in our ages—not our ages, but the age. Can you imagine going to a box office now saying, I lost my tickets but I think I know where they are. Could you let me in? [laughs] So anyway, all during the summer he would send me letter, after letter, after letter. Sometimes 3 or 4 letters would come at the same time.
JY: Oh, wow! That’s like an epistolary novel! The morning and afternoon post.
MA: It was. I didn’t save any of them. I was very embarrassed because my parents were very suspicious. In fact, I’m surprised they didn’t know merely from the letters. And he was basically—you’re right—It was kind of like an epistolary novel because he was seducing me through these letters.
JY: He was Lovelace and you were Clarissa!
MA: Exactly! And, he would tell me about all the sex that he saw in this boys’ dorm at this camp. He wasn’t that explicit, but he would write, I woke up and there were six people in a bed—Or like, I saw someone get up and move over to so-and-so’s bed and suddenly his head disappeared beneath the covers. Well you might as well have just given me electric shock. It was like [inhalational gasp of horror]. And I was jealous at the same time.
MA: I didn’t want Ron but I didn’t want him to have something I wasn’t getting! You know? I was horrible that way.
JY: That camp was in—?
MA: It was in Vienna. Innsbruck, I mean. So, it was sort of a summer abroad for him. He did proceed to tell me that he had met this guy and that they had gone—I don’t even remember how he couched it—but that they had gone up to the mountains on a hike and it was pretty clear that they had had sex. To hear Ron tell it, it was like his first sexual experience. I don’t believe that now and I don’t even necessarily know that it happened, but clearly he knew the effect if would have on me.
JY: Right. He was trying to get you hot and bothered.
MA: Not difficult! Not difficult when you’re 16 and you’re completely inexperienced and reading all this stuff and seeing guys in posing straps.
JY: So he got the tickets, had the tickets and saved them until he came back from camp.
MA: Exactly. He left in May or June and by August we planned to meet and stay in New York City at the 34th Street Y for like 5 to 6 days. Now we had heard stories about the Y. We knew how it was notoriously gay and how it had the nickname The French Embassy.
JY: I forgot why. I think you told me this.
MA: See! That’s interesting because it’s definitely generational. In those days you were considered either French or Greek, depending on your sexual proclivities. And French was oral and Greek was anal. For example, you would advertise in a singles’ ad: French passive or Greek active.
JY: Wow. I’ve never heard that.
MA: I just remember reading somewhere in those gay rags: The 34th Street Y, also known at the French Embassy, for obvious reasons now. So I walked in and looked around and said, Wow, I don’t see any French people here.
MA: Oh. Before we actually moved there, we stayed at his aunt’s house in New Jersey for at least a night. I was completely torn: so thrown I was there and I was going to see those shows, so upset with him that I might miss some of them because of his stupidity and so sexually charged I didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t just cool, calm and collected. Plus, it was in August. It was sorta like this.
JY: Yeah. There was no air-conditioning in 1964.
MA: Not the same way. The theaters maybe.
JY: They put blocks of ice on a fan.
MA: Well, not quite that long ago! No! I think that you were just used to it in those days. So that first night in New Jersey, there was just this unspoken cloud over us. And I remember that when we were undressed, he was wearing fishnet underwear that he had bought in Austria and again, I couldn’t believe it. It was so horrifying and so tantalizing at the same time. I mean, these were days when most people weren’t wearing anything unusual in the way of underwear—and his were abbreviated!
JY: Most people wore boxers?
MA: No, I think most people wore jockey shorts. A lot of jockey shorts. That’s pretty much what I wore but anything that was outside of that paradigm was really risqué and really odd and just wasn’t done and here he was wearing these European briefs.
JY: You said fishnet? So it didn’t even have fabric underneath. There was just a net.
MA: Yeah, yeah. It was a type of net and you could see everything through it.
MA: Yeah. He was a 16-year-old kid, you know.
JY: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]
MA: So at one point—I can’t remember where we were—I knew the explosion was about to happen somewhere. I knew that something had to give and I just did not want it to happen even though I so strenuously did want it to happen. I said to him at one point: I’m just gonna go home. I just can’t do this. I can’t—I don’t care about the theater. I just can’t—
JY: Go home, meaning all the way back to—?
MA: —Michigan. Well, basically, he said, Nothing has to happen. I don’t remember, but it might have been unspoken, but it was definitely the issue that wouldn’t go away. Of course, the better part of my nature won and I knew it would be a lot more embarrassing to go home early, and at that age, I didn’t know how to change an airline reservation. Oh! That’s right, that’s right: We couldn’t afford to go home on a plane. We had to take a bus. I flew there but we took the bus back.
JY: Oh, OK.
MA: That was the plan. So we checked into the Y and I knew that this was D-Day. I knew that if anything was going to happen it probably was going to happen there, because we had no parental supervision. We were in The French Embassy, for God’s sake! It was miserably hot and there were these twin beds in this tiny little YMCA room, we were like napping in our underwear and he just moved over to my bed and I, you know, I couldn’t resist. There was just no way I could resist—I don’t know how explicit you want me to get—but the first orgasm I ever had was when he kissed me. Oh! Sorry. I have to skip back.
MA: I told him, Whatever you do, there’s no kissing.
JY: Ooh! So straight of you!
MA: Yes! Because I knew that was gay. The rest, I didn’t even know what I was talking about, but that part was gay. Kissing was gay. I guess that hasn’t changed much in certain adolescents.
JY: No! I think it’s still alive. Otherwise you can’t just dismiss it as getting off.
MA: I just knew that anything that smacked of romance was gay. Well, he didn’t listen to me and as soon as he kissed me, that was it. It was my first orgasm. I had been waiting 16 years! I was sort of philosophic about it. I was like, Well, OK. Boy, I’m hungry now and I don’t think I ever need to do that again. That was interesting but I don’t feel like doing it now and I guess I never will again! And he was like, Well, that’s the way you’re supposed to feel. Satisfied, you know? And I said, Yeah, yeah, like he didn’t know what he was talking about. So then he thought all the barriers were down. He thought, Well, here we are. We’re having an affair. I got myself a boyfriend. But I had very different ideas because of so much guilt and so much unease about it. And, again, if it was somebody I had developed a crush on, I have no idea what it would have been like.
Anyway, one of the days we walked down to the Village from 34th Street and we were wearing these—I don’t know why we were wearing them. It was August!—these angora sweaters that we had bought and these two girls walked past us and they went, Ooh! How gay! And I knew exactly what they meant and I was terrified.
JY: It was still a coded word?
MA: No, no. They meant gay because here are these two kids in their little pastel sweaters and I was kind of thrilled to be acknowledged but also kind of embarrassed too, like, Oh, my God. Does it show!?
JY: [Laughs.] So the Village—Christopher Street—was already gay?
MA: Yeah, yeah. And I remember a restaurant we heard about in one of these magazines—I think one of their models hung out there—a place called Claire’s Pam-Pam. I still don’t know where that was. I’d love to find out. It was probably on 8th Street or maybe St. Mark’s, although probably the West Village was more likely. And I remember sitting there, watching this couple—two men who were clearly gay and knew they were gay—and I remember just staring at them and staring at them until one of them turned to me and asked, You wanna bite? [Laughs.] But throughout the rest of the trip, I refused to have sex with Ron although he sorta fully expected it every night back at the Y.
JY: Right. It was supposed to be a honeymoon.
MA: Yeah. And I just wouldn’t. I was like OK. I’ve done it but I didn’t want to do it, but I did it and now no, thank you. So that, of course, caused an enormous amount of tension between us. He was pissed off at me. I was pissed off at him. We managed to see all of the shows that we had lost the tickets for. The only one that he couldn’t get replacement tickets for was Funny Girl, the one I really wanted to see, but fortunately there was standing room available. So I immediately bought two standing room tickets. I think they were like $3 in those days. And we were standing back there and there was this little old lady usher. We told her our story pointing to two open seats, which were clearly ours, because the rest of the place was full and she said, You just go sit there, honey.
JY: Oh, nice.
MA: So we ended up getting our seats and I lived to see Barbra Streisand in the flesh and that was great. But there was also tension because of the money that Ron had lost for us. And he was running out of money because he had spent his on German boys in Austria.
JY: All that at 16! An international playboy!
MA: He was a mover. And so the issue of money: I transferred my own sexual frustration and my own self-loathing to him in terms of his running out of money but obviously it wasn’t about the money. At one point, we had an argument about it. I don’t remember the situation but he left the room at the Y for like half an hour. This Y was not subtle. I mean, you go get on the elevator and it would say, Be in the shower room at 4 o’clock. And, you know, a lot more blatant invitations.
JY: Oh, little notes on the elevator door, you mean.
MA: Yeah. It was very gay. I mean, it was very, very gay. I knew it was there, but it was scary—scary to have all that around you. It wasn’t scary to Ron. He then came back 45 minutes later and he tossed twenty bucks on the bed and said he been blown by some Asian man.
JY: [acting] This is the life I can offer you!
JY: Why aren’t you choosing it?!
MA: Right. So, we ended up literally running out of money and on the bus ride back, we had no food whatsoever. The only thing we had, is we had gone to this candy shop that was supposedly the candy shop to the Broadway stars. They had photos of Mary Martin and Robert Preston and all these people in there, and we bought these completely ridiculous candy raspberries and white chocolate, which I never had before and was really—for us—rather exotic candy. That’s all we had for like a 12-hour—I don’t know how long—bus ride from New York to Detroit. I remember somebody—and the bus was just jammed full—in front of me eating potato chips and I would have killed for a single potato chip after all that ridiculous, sweet stuff. There’s gotta be some sort of metaphor for that.
JY: So you didn’t leave early. At one point you said—
MA: No, no, no, no. The lure of Barbra and all of that was too potent for me. Plus, again, I wanted to have sex. I just didn’t know, once I had it, what to do with it. And I didn’t want it from him and the affection that came with it. I didn’t want to be his boyfriend. And, it’s probably the story of my life that I tend to like the people who don’t like me, but his feelings toward me were more than I could deal with because the emotional part was the hard part. That’s when you say to yourself, OK, Now it’s really kind of a “life” thing. It’s one thing to have quick sex somewhere, but to actually have somebody in your life? Not only did I not have a paradigm for that, but also what would I do about my parents? Nobody was going around taking same-sex dates to the prom. I’ll tell you that. I took a woman who had already left school because she was pregnant and already had a child and was ready to get divorced, only because I wanted to go to the prom. I was, again, sort of BMOC in my own little way and it would’ve looked odd—everybody went to the prom.
JY: What is BMOC?
MA: Oh, Big Man On Campus. So then it proceeded: Ron and I would still hang out together and he would continue to court me. He would bring me records and one time he picked me up and brought me flowers and I was like, What the fuck am I supposed to do with flowers?! What am I going to tell my parents? Who gave me flowers?! I was just infuriated and we went somewhere that night and I cruelly tossed them out the window. I just didn’t want him courting me. I didn’t want this to be on an emotional level—Although, you know, there are probably lots of people out there I would have loved to have courted me, it wasn’t Ron, though.
JY: You were already being selective!
MA: Exactly. Well, you know, I would love to apologize to him for it because I just did not know how to accept love of that kind. I really feel terrible about that, to this day. Not guilty, because that’s all I knew. That’s all I was able to do with this stunted emotional life I had, but it still was unfair to him and must have hurt him. It’s not guilt. It’s just discomfort. My friend Judy nearly succeeded in tracking him down but I have very mixed feelings about seeing him again. Part of me really wants to say, Boy, I hope you understand what a little shit I was because I was so scared and so young—But then part of me is like, I don’t know if after all these years whether I want see my own mortality mirrored in somebody else.
But nonetheless, we would occasionally have sex. I would just not be able to stay away from it. One time on my parents’ bed. Other times, he knew some fields somewhere where we would do it in the car but it was always very one-sided, for the most part. Once in a while, my passions got the better of me, but basically I would really treat him with contempt. I remember we’d go to the drive-in and I wouldn’t speak to him until he blew me.
MA: Along the way, he started getting tired with my routine and we were becoming estranged and somehow he let me know that he had been going down to Detroit and meeting people. And that of course got my old, competitive nature up, like, Fuck. Why can’t I meet people too?! Hey, wait a minute! I don’t want him but I don’t want him having sex! So, little by little he introduced me to some of these guys from the Detroit area who were probably in their early 20s. Once, we went to a bar in Toledo. It was the first time I had ever seen two men slow-dancing. They were wearing suits. It was the first time I ever saw anything like that. And that was sort of my first glimpse of, Well, maybe it isn’t all sordid. It seemed sordid because these places were so secret. I then began to meet guys and sneak out of the house. Mostly they were more about making out than they were full sexual things. I still was very, very naïve in that way. But the world started to open a little bit and then I started to see the scope of the whole gay thing and it’s during that period Ron started to point out the rim queen and talk about the people he had met down there. I suspect he had a pretty active sex life during that time.
JY: And so this is senior year now?
MA: This is senior year.
JY: You came back from your trip in New York that summer—
MA: —and we started our senior year. And that’s when he started to say, Hey, you know this guy, who’s on the football team? Don’t you think that he’s attractive? Don’t you think he’s cute? I think he’s gay. Ron was giving me a lot of this, insisting that there was a lot of closetedness going on in the high school, you know. And this guy was one of them. And, of course, at that time, he was a real hunk. He was really beautiful. So Ron said I think we should try to let him know we know he’s gay. So that’s when we concocted this scheme of “outing” him although that was not a term we knew.
JY: “Outing” him? Getting him to admit it to you guys—?
JY: —or publicly?
MA: No, no, no. No. Letting him know that we knew that he was gay so that we could probably have sex with him.
MA: We aimed high! Let me tell you. Why not? But that too is lost to me, the way that we got into this thing. But we always did talk about the football team. The guy’s name was Craig. That’s about as much as I will tell because he’s probably still alive and who knows? He could be a drag queen, by now. That would be sweet justice. To this day, I have no idea. I doubt whether he was gay. So we started to send him letters and I don’t know if we ever actually used the U.S. mail but we definitely would leave them on his doorstep. I was the writer so I wrote all the letters and they were all, you know, If the Greeks had a god of male beauty, you would…. Now, I think, well, the Greeks did have a god of male beauty, idiot! It was stuff like that: purple, florid, teenage, gushy prose. I pray to go that those letters have been burned.
JY: What if you found some!? We’d have to put them in this.
MA: I don’t know if I could manage that. It would be—It was—I’m sure they’re burned. Anyway, we then would give him little hurdles. These were days when men actually wore cravats to high school. I didn’t, but some people did and Craig did. We would notice what he wore, so it was like, If you are interested, wear the green cravat on Wednesday. This is very Dangerous Liaisons, isn’t it? I mean, really. So the next Wednesday, there he was, wearing the green cravat. And of course, we were really like, Whoa! OK. Well? Ron may have had a point. I don’t know how many letters we wrote. There must have been a handful.
JY: Over the course of a couple of weeks? Months?
MA: I don’t know. I’ve blocked a lot of it out because it was so painful, but it was probably a few weeks anyway. So then we realized that there was an endgame coming. We had him on the hook but how were we going to reel him in? And Ron said that we’re going to have to sign one of our names. We didn’t say we were two guys. We just said we were one guy. (We didn’t want to scare him off.) So greedy as I am, I thought, I’m not going to do all this work. I wrote all the goddam letters! I’m not going to let Ron get the prize. So, I signed my name. At one point I think we even gave a phone number—my phone number, of course—because there’s at least one phone call—maybe only one—in which Craig was going along with it. Not in any real way, but like Uh-huh, yeah. Got your letters. Blah, blah, blah. And then he said something like, Your name is Adams, isn’t it? Well, I didn’t know whether to be thrilled or terrified. I was a little of both.
JY: You hadn’t signed that letter yet.
MA: No, no. I had. First name, not my last name.
JY: Oh, OK. So he figured it out.
MA: So I didn’t know what to do with this information. It didn’t take too long because subsequently, I was sitting in history class and in walks somebody, The principal would like to see you. It wasn’t that unusual for me to be pulled out of class in the middle of the day. For at least 5 minutes, I tried to tell myself that it was something about one of the clubs I was involved with. But there was no question that underneath, I was going like Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck! So when I went to the hall he said, I’m taking you home. And then I knew for sure (or not for sure) but I knew pretty much knew that that was an unusual move in the middle of the day. He was asking me questions, odd questions like, Do you go to church? And, What’s your relationship with your parents? It all became very clear when as we were driving the very short distance to my house, he turned the corner and the contents of the manila folder placed between us on the seat shifted slightly and I recognized the letters, all the letters I had written to Steve! I guess it was Steve. Yeah, God! And that’s when my heart, my stomach tightened and my heart froze and I just didn’t know what I was going to do. He hadn’t called ahead so my mother didn’t know I was coming. At our house any small distraction from the routine of the mundane day was considered something of a crisis.
MA: So she probably turned pale when we walked in the door. And I was immediately sent to the family room where I sat in front of the television and just stared at it, thinking, How am I going to get out of this? What excuse could I possibly have? knowing that the only thing that was forbidden for me was the truth. The only thing that I couldn’t possibly, possibly say was, Well, yes, I’m gay and I’m attracted to this guy. So what? What are you going to do about it? And, it would have been lovely to have been a rebel in those days but I wasn’t because it would have been disastrous, although, who knows what would’ve happened? I would’ve been kicked out of school. That’s what would have happened, because clearly that’s what was told to my parents. My father was called home from work and it was explained that until I satisfactorily could prove that I was not homosexual, I would have to leave school. So, before I was called back to the living room where my mother was talking to the principal I thought the only way of making this plausible in any way, was telling them that Steve had embarrassed me in front of a girl that I liked and that this was my revenge. The only excuse I could think of that might work was to prop up my heterosexual bona fides by talking about a girl and my relationship to her. And because we were hanging out in a crew of girls and stuff, it was pretty easy for my parents to believe that.
That night Ron called and the only phone was in the family room. I couldn’t sneak away because there was this shroud of gloom over the household—and anger. I know my parents used it to beat up on each other, especially my father on my mother. I’m sure he blamed her in some ways. I even think to remember—I’ve probably blocked this out too—listening in on a conversation, where he was just quietly destroying her for creating this problem somehow.
Anyway that night on the phone Ron said, I’m ready. I’m ready. I’ve got pills. I’ve got rope. I’ve got—And I was on the phone, in a room probably this big, standing on the phone going, [tight-lipped] I think I’ve gotten us out of it. Don’t do anything rash. I think we’re OK. I just did it. Without actually telling him how I did it. I told my parents Ron was involved but that I wasn’t going to rat him out, that I didn’t think it was right. They were actually pretty good about not doing it either, although they didn’t like him. They were able, again, to use that as well. It was two kids conspiring, rather than the one horny, queer teenager that they’ve got. Somehow Ron’s involvement mitigated it for them a little. They were looking for any excuse.
JY: And what about this ultimatum, that you had to go this psychologist and be tested? Did that ever happen?
MA: Oh, yeah. That was the only proof the principal would accept. He said, Why don’t you tell your classmates that you are going looking for a college. You’re not in class because you’ve gone away for a few days. My disappearance, so to speak, from school would have been noticed and if I had been expelled it would have been a huge scandal because, again, I was kind of popular. I was well known and you just didn’t do that: fall of senior year and all of a sudden go to another school without explanation. He also recommended a doctor. My parents wouldn’t even have known where to begin. I mean really, for them, someone who saw a psychologist in those days was truly sick. It wasn’t as if they said, Oh, let’s call ol’ Doc Rogers. He’s treated your mother for schizophrenia. You know? No. No. There was just no way that they would even have known where to begin.
So I went to the doctor and I tried to be very wily about giving him every possible answer except the truth. I wasn’t even going to admit to him the truth because I doubt there was any patient-doctor confidentiality in a situation where you’re a kid and your high school life is on the line. So he was asking me questions about my relationship with my parents and, again, I had done some reading and knew that the classic homosexual was mother-bound and father-adverse. I skewed everything to talk about how close I was with my father and just sort of did the reverse and basically talked my way out of it. Again, I don’t know if he was the world’s worst doctor or—I hadn’t even thought of this—maybe he was sympathetic. Maybe he knew that his verdict meant my future. Funny. That’s the first time I ever thought of that. I just always assumed he was stupid but maybe he was like, This kid doesn’t deserve this. I’d like to think that now but he reported that he was sure that I was not gay. Again the word gay was not there, but rather, I was not homosexual and that I had—I think the phrase was—increased tendency towards self-punishment.
JY: —towards self-abuse! [Laughs.]
MA: Yeah, right, exactly! And so I was let back into school but the caveat was—from good ol’ Principal Jackson—that if any of this gets out, to anybody, any of the students, I’m out.
JY: The reputation of the school’s on the line, Godammit!
MA: Exactly. I remember him saying to me and my parents that he had never seen anything like this in his career as a teacher. He was not a young man so he had been around—including a British boarding school.
JY: Uh-huh. Phhhsch!
MA: Yeah, exactly. So come on! That’s what I—even I—at the time thought. Come on!
JY: He was playing a game too, trying to heighten the dramatics just to scare you.
MA: So to Steve’s credit, he never said a word. And I have to say, that says something about him, because—Well, no. He was probably ashamed. He was probably ashamed of the whole incident because even the straightest person is going to say, Why do these queers pick on me? Why of everybody, do they try to seduce me? So he wasn’t going to say to his cronies, Hey! Guess what? Look at these letters!
JY: But he did come forward with the first letter to the principal—
MA: —with all the letters to the coach. And the odd thing is that later on in the year, Steve started to date a friend of mine and I would see her with him and later she would say, He doesn’t like you. I don’t get it. Everybody likes you. So, again, he could’ve been a shit and said something, but he kept his mouth shut.
I think if you have certain turning points with your parents, this was definitely mine, the breaking point where I think it’s probably still damaged me in some way. They basically were ready to say, not: No matter what, we still love you. Whatever we discover, if this turns out to be true, you’re our son, but rather, If this turns out to be true, we’re shipping you off to another school and then we’ll deal with the consequences. And who knows what those are? I probably would’ve gone to a doctor. I probably would’ve gone to a shrink. Who knows? I just have no idea. Later in college I admitted, I have gay friends. That’s what happens when you go away to college. Blah, blah, blah. In response, it was my father saying, You’re judged by the people with whom you keep company and, Why are you friends with these people? and, If it ever turns out that this is true, I will disown you. And his kind of irrational anger made me wonder whether or not there was a reason for him to be so angry. Not just the typical, Oh my God! My son is gay. I don’t know what happened! But, his was more than just normal disappointment.
JY: Like a fear.
MA: Yeah. Because he would say things that were sort of gay. It was the Kennedy era, and he’d say things like, Boy, that Teddy Kennedy! If I liked boys, he’d be the one I like.
MA: Things were just a little off. An actor in a movie without his shirt, he would take it upon himself to say things like, Boy! That guy has muscles he hasn’t used yet! And most straight men probably don’t comment on the physique of half-naked actors in the movies. So all those things made me wonder whether or not there was something going on with him that was under the surface. But this whole episode put a permanent wedge in my emotional life with my parents. Again, they came from an era and a place and a level of education that excuses them in lots of ways, but still you want your parents to step up, and say, No matter what, we love you.
Maybe I even told you this too, but it makes an interesting footnote about my father and his anger. His father died in mysterious circumstances. I have the obituary somewhere. It recounts the story. He was in a hotel bar and he and another guy went into a shed behind the hotel and my grandfather had a heart attack and died.
JY: It sounds like a riddle!
MA: Yeah. It sounds to me like you can read it as they were fucking or something back there. It’s, it’s so ambiguous. Why would he be in this hotel bar? So, I began to think, Well, was there some sort of like gay context with my grandfather’s death?
MA: It could be yet another reason for my father to think, Oh my God! I’ve spawned a bad seed! Or, you know, Here it comes again!
S: Meaning you.
[Break in recording. Back to Detroit days…]
MA: In those days, even with those stupid physique books, you never saw any dicks. So size didn’t get, you know, didn’t—I didn’t imagine. It was all just sort of amorphous, the whole sexual thing to me. I didn’t know what I wanted. I would have sexual encounters with guys where nobody even came. I kinda didn’t know enough to—because for me it was so spontaneous. All Ron had to do was punch me.
JY: A volcano!
MA: Yeah. And generally I wasn’t very reciprocal. It took me a long time before I actually learned how to satisfy somebody in that way. Anal was like, No way! That was saved for college. And rimming for graduate school!
MA: I remember Ron would take me to downtown Detroit and we’d hang outside clubs and there was one parking lot outside The Fisher Theatre where gay guys would hang, just sitting on their cars and The Supremes were very big in those days because it was Detroit and Motown was the city soundtrack and there was a song called Nothing but Heartaches. Well, somebody was standing up in their car singing Nothing but Hard-ons and I thought that was the most decadent, most amazing thing I had ever heard. The blatancy of it knocked me out, that there were these people who were so open about it. Once, we were driving along, and this guy started flirting with us and waving—and again, we were like 16, but looked younger than we were. We must have been real chicken to these guys. One of them got in the car and fooled around with Ron. I just didn’t have the gumption to be fooled around with or fool around. Now it’s like, What a waste! That could have been so much fun. I remember Ron saying he had a real big—who knew what we called it in those days?—cock, and I was thinking, Is that good? Is that something people like?
JY: So what you’re saying is if you had some more positive experiences maybe, it would have helped pulled you through this intense outing?
MA: Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m just saying that had I not been so wracked with guilt and shame and fear, I would’ve had a lot more fun. The secrecy of it when you’re a teenager, keeping stuff from your parents was part of the fun, but it didn’t make up for the pain and guilt. It didn’t stop me. I remember some Arnie—His name was like Arnie Leskowitz or something and Ron introduced me to him and I would go down and try to meet with him and we would make out in his mother’s living room. I literally had to drive 45 minutes to get somewhere in Detroit and then get back and then try to explain why I had been gone so long and why there was no gas in the car.
MA: So it was not like I was shy about pursuing it but there were so many other things that I could’ve been doing and getting blown in the back seat of a car by an older guy who was probably 25—and he seemed ancient—would have made a lot of nice memories! I think some of the most—Who was it that said something to the effect of: The most potent sex is the sex we didn’t have?