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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

So Far Away No One Will Notice

Updated: May 10

A man sittin on the edge ofa bed. A man wearing glasses reclining on the bed behind the sitting man. To the left of the figures the title Fellow Travelers fillis the space.

And I want to thank him for how he brought me

And I want to thank God for how he taught me

Oh, thank my God how he kept me

I'm going thank him because He never left me 


Herbert Brewster, How I Got Over

Part 1

1. What Pain Has Brought Me


In February of last year, I developed what I believed to be a simple backache. I assumed it would be over in a week or so, so I went about my life as best as I could coddling my movement in the hope that would hasten the healing. However, the ache persisted into the next week and gradually became worse. I did some on-line searching and self-diagnosed that I probably had sciatica. All my research led me to believe that it would improve within a month. But, by the end of February, the back pain had progressed to the point that I could not sit in any chair without intense pain. The pain did not keep me from attending to the errands in my life but sitting for any length of time became problematic. I continued to believe that I had sciatica, so I didn’t feel a need to see a doctor, plus the idea of standing uncomfortably in a waiting room kept me away. I suffered with this pain, spending many of my days lying in bed, waiting for the pain to go away. One day in March, after coming home from an errand in New York City, I rested for a few hours in bed. When I rose to go to the bathroom, I felt a shooting pain down my right leg and basically lost my ability to walk. Every movement from then on became a torture. I was unable to walk even a few feet without the shooting pain limiting my movement. Walking down the stairs became an exercise in agony and endurance, often having to sit on each step to make the journey down. Going back up the stairs could only be achieved on my hands and knees. I live in a house with three floors, with the bedroom on the top level and the kitchen on the garden level making getting to each meal an ordeal. Despite the discomfort and awkwardness of the situation, I was determined to make the descent and the climb three times a day. The rest of the day I spent in bed.


I finally began communicating with my General Practitioner about what was going on with my health. He advised I come in to be examined, but I was still reluctant to see a doctor. I tried to explain that I could not walk, so an office visit would be impossible. It became a stalemate. It was also becoming an agony to simply bathe and dress in the morning, and then at night to undress and ready myself for bed. Standing caused such torture that it was nearly impossible to endure. We have no shower, and I was not able to sit in the bathtub. I had to figure out positions that caused the least torment. Each morning and evening presented a new tragic drama involving another method of inflicting pain. I began eating Tylenol at the suggestion of my doctor. This gave me some grateful relief, but I had to be careful not to overdose and destroy my liver. My husband Raymond became the dispenser of this meager balm. He took on the protection of my liver as if it were made of gold.


Then in May, I lost the desire to eat. It began with coming to the table hungry, taking one bite then totally losing my appetite. At first this was disappointing to me, because I wanted to eat. But after a few days of this behavior, I lost all interest in food. In fact, food became revolting to me. I also began feeling a general malaise. It felt like the onset of the flu. A flu that never broke through. My husband became alarmed. He could see the physical changes in me and worried me into eating something although no food appealed to me. I thought maybe I could stomach cream soup and rice pudding. These became my lifeline from starvation. I lost 30 pounds. Becoming more alarmed by the day, Raymond insisted we had to see the doctor. He had already been researching urgent care places. He had tried to get me to go on several occasions when my agonies became a frightening trial during the night. I always adamantly refused. I couldn’t justify the cost that our insurance wouldn’t cover. Besides, wasn’t I going to get better?


As my weight plummeted, there was another call to my doctor. He informed us that he would be going on vacation for 2 weeks, but I could come into the clinic as an emergency. Raymond forced me into an Uber and rode me to the clinic to see the emergency doctor. This doctor also assumed I had sciatica. He was not concerned about my loss of appetite, telling me that severe pain could be the cause. He prescribed oxycodone, a steroid series for the pain, and suggested I see the orthopedic specialist. He assured me that in two weeks I would be walking again.


While I waited for that miracle, we saw the orthopedic doctor. Even though he took a very elegant x-ray of my lower back, he still was going with the sciatica diagnosis. He prescribed physical therapy, which may have been the thing that saved my life. At this point, I could only walk a few feet and only with unimaginable pain. The doctors suggested that I practice walking daily. On my first try, insisted on by Raymond, I made it past two houses on my street. It was nearly impossible for me to get back to my house. The agony was so intense that I almost passed out. I had to grasp the neighbor’s railing to keep from sinking to the ground because my legs refused to support me. It was with Raymond’s strong shoulder and sheer grit that I managed to get myself back into the house.


The promised miracle in two weeks came and went, but despite the emergency doctor’s confident prediction, the medication he gave me had no impact on my ability to walk. Finally, my general practitioner returned from vacation. Raymond, and I secured an appointment as soon as possible. There was a look of alarm on his face when he saw me. He announced that he would order a PSA test (prostate specific antigen). The next day, the test came back with a reading of 600. I had no idea at the time what any of these tests and numbers meant. Yet, when the test came back with that extremely high number, my medical treatment kicked into high gear. I was told that because of this high rating it was mandatory that I see a urologist within three days. My medical team found me an appointment. I was examined, retested, and scheduled for a biopsy and given an appointment to see an oncologist. I was told that I had a high likelihood for prostate cancer, but they needed the biopsy to be sure. I was given the biopsy two weeks later. A week after that I was at the oncologist’s office. Up until this time, cancer was still only a possibility for me. All my doctors were talking in “maybe so” language. When I visited the oncologist’s office, the nurse who did the preliminary take in began her discussion with, “Well, the cancer has been detected in all twelve samples of the biopsy.” I was stunned. Not so much at the results of the testing being positive for cancer, but at the inelegant way it was delivered and the assumption that I already knew the bad news.


At the time of this news, I was actually feeling better. My appetite had returned. The pain had begun to subside. I was no longer relying on pain killers to get through the days. I had somehow rallied. The physical therapy was making a tremendous difference in my ability to walk. From February to April, the intensity of my pain had me wishing I would die. By June it had begun to subside. I needed the oxycodone less, until by late June I stopped taking it altogether. It seemed miraculous to me. In July the oncologist explained that all of my pain and walking issues were attributed to the cancer, which had metastasized to my spine, right hip, ribs, and lymph nodes in my groin. It had not spread to my liver, bladder, or colon. I was put on medication that would reduce my testosterone levels, since the prostate cancer cells were “fed” by the male hormone. I got a walker to facilitate my ambulatory movement. At first, I was resistant to the walker because I wasn’t ready to be an old man. But after leaning on a shopping cart in the market one day realized that the cart made it easier to sustain my ability to stand and walk. I was sold.


In August, I ended physical therapy, fully able to sustain my walking for about thirty minutes without needing the walker. By October I abandoned the walker. My PSA levels continued to decline to 300, then down to 4.0, and finally down to 0.2 in December. In December, my cancer was declared “undetectable” by my oncologist.


My medical team was elated. This was great news and an outcome that we were working toward. However, I read the term “undetectable” and couldn’t help but wonder what it meant. I fell into a deep depression. My oncologist replied to my question with, “it doesn’t mean that you are cured, but it does mean that the medication has been successful in halting the growth of the cancer and stopping its spread.” This did not ease my mind. I continued to be puzzled. Could I plan for a future five years from now – ten? Could I buy green bananas? I was perplexed and no answer seemed to satisfy the question I kept asking – what does undetectable mean?


2. Discovering a Connection


At the same time that I was puzzling over the implications of “undetectable,” my partner and I began watching a new streaming series named Fellow Travelers. I had been anticipating this series since I had read an article about its production last year. Based on the Thomas Mallon book of the same name, it depicts the tumultuous relationship of two gay male government workers in 1950’s, during the infamous Lavender Scare, and how they navigate the necessity of being in the closet to save their careers and maybe their lives. Somehow, my relatability to the plot of Fellow Travelers combined with being undetectable sent me into a spiral of depression and regret about my own past.


I saw many parallels between my life and the two main characters Hawk, (Hawkins Fuller, played by Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin, (played by Jonathan Bailey). Hawk has a personality that parallels his name – a keen eye for his target and a ruthless execution of his actions. Tim is more like his namesake in DickensA Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim; Tim being waifish and about a decade younger than Hawk, with an open tendency to see the good in people. They first meet at the Eisenhower election party in 1952. Tim is trying and failing to get a bartender’s attention. Hawk spies him down the bar and has an immediate attraction to Tim. What attracts Hawk to Tim can only be guessed – Tim is young, a little nerdy with his glasses and bow tie, and judging by his inability to successfully order a drink, somewhat socially awkward. The fact that Tim is trying to order a glass of milk at a bar somehow elevates Hawk’s interest – a real chicken for his talons.


Tim’s attraction to Hawk is also immediate, but more obvious. Hawk is strikingly handsome, and well-dressed. He exudes success and confidence. Tim is clearly not used to such a type finding him interesting. That he is flattered and somewhat perplexed shows on his face. What I found interesting was that in no time in the following eight hours of the series does Tim ask Hawk how he knew that he was gay. We the viewers are left to assume that the mysterious “gaydar” must be at play here. It is probably simply that Tim was more interested and flattered at Hawk’s prolonged smiling, lustful gaze (Matt Bomer does an amazing job here communicating all of this without any dialog) instead of being disinterested or even annoyed. Which is a reaction that a straight man would have. Our characters do not speak further to each other in this scene. Instead, Hawk mouths that he has work in the morning and leaves Tim bewildered about their moment.    



To be clear, I was not of the generation of gay men in the 1950s; those that lived through WWII and had to establish a façade of masculinity and faux straightness in order to hide their sexual attractions to men because of culturally accepted homophobia and bigotry. I am a few generations past and have benefited from the gay pioneers who fought for equal rights in the 1970s and beyond. I discovered I had an attraction to men during the summer when I turned from age 10 to 11 (my birthday is in August). That year of my puberty had me desperately interested in other male bodies. I began to spend more time in the men’s dressing room at my local public swimming pool than I did swimming with my siblings. Even before this, I had a keen interest in tracking down images that would offer me a glimpse at an unclothed male. I even searched out books on ancient Greek art to look at the images of nude male sculpture because an exposed penis was such a taboo image. During that summer I had my first experience with gay sex.


At the public swimming pool dressing room, it was my habit to sit on the bench that gave the best overall view of the changing cubicles. These cubicles, where the men would change into their swimsuits or back into their street clothes, did not have doors. This made viewing the naked bodies very convenient. After taking up my position on the bench, I would sit for a while and just enjoy the figurative scenery. One afternoon, a man, probably in his twenties, figured out what I was doing. I had not learned the subtleties of gay observation in public, so I expect it was fairly obvious what I was up to. He was tall and blond. He wore his hair combed into a high pompadour and sported tight chinos. When he caught my eye, he began gesturing by nodding his head to follow him. It took me a few seconds to understand his body language since this hadn’t happened to me before. As soon as I realized what he was suggesting, I got off the bench and walked toward him. I had no idea what he wanted, but I experienced a jolt of excitement run through me as if I were about to embark on a great adventure. I never once considered that I might be in danger. I was too delighted that a man was paying me attention. He walked into the men’s toilet, looking back to ensure I was still following him. He entered a stall, leaving the door ajar so I could see which stall he had occupied.


With all the confidence of a naïve youth and with no thoughts about the dangers of following an older stranger, I entered the toilet stall he had left open. I was nervous and aroused by the anticipation. I was going to have my first sexual experience! Once I was inside the stall, the blond man closed the door and slid the lock to secure us inside. He then crouched down in front of me, reached up, taking ahold of the top edge of my swimsuit and pulled it down around my ankles. The swimsuit was all I was wearing. He then put his mouth on my penis and began to give me oral sex. This was a new sensation. Although I had masturbated before and was fairly used to the pleasure I could give myself, this was so much more intense and heavenly. In that moment, I never wanted this man to stop what he was doing. But my body became overwhelmed with the excitement and passion of the sex. I orgasmed nearly immediately. I became embarrassed, but the stranger simply stood up, mumbled something that sounded like “thanks,” and started to leave. But I wanted more. He never exposed himself to me and I wanted to see and touch his penis. Embolden by desire and fearing that this might be my only chance to touch another man, I asked him as he stepped out of the stall, “Let me do it to you.” He shrugged and said, “OK.”


No longer a stranger, he reentered the stall, undid his pants, and dropped his pants. I was mesmerized and giddy. I could not believe that I was in such close proximity to another man’s genitals. I gingerly touched them. He began to get impatient. I wasn’t really sure what to do. “Hurry,” he insisted. I began to panic that he would leave, so I tried to imitate what he had done to me. I crouched down in front of him and put his penis in my mouth. It was ecstatic. It was magic. I tried to suck, but the man pulled himself out of my mouth and said, “Your teeth,” and put his magic back in his pants. I was disappointed. He hurriedly left me in the stall. I was still living the absolute enchantment of that encounter. I made a mental note that next time I had to figure out how to keep my teeth from being in the way. I had determined that there would be a next time.   


3. The Objects of Desire


The timing is not exactly clear when Hawk and Tim meet again. Certainly, some days have passed since the evening of the election party. Hawk is headed across the capitol park to a lunch meeting with Senator Smith. (As we find out later in the series, Senator Smith is a surrogate father and mentor to Hawk, while Hawk acts as his political fixer.) Tim is sitting on a bench in the park, eating lunch and filling out a form. Hawk, remembering Tim from the election party, sits next to Tim and starts up a conversation. Tim immediately recognizes Hawk and is very pleased to see him. Hawk manages to learn a lot about Tim in their brief conversation. Tim learns nothing about Hawk that he hasn’t already read in the Biographical Index. Hawk is very pleased to learn that Tim had taken the trouble to look him up, even asking Tim if he has memorized his entry. The entire exchange is very flirty and both actors say more with their facial expressions than they do with dialog. What Hawk is doing here is what gay men used to call “the long cruise.” We already are aware of Hawk’s capability for the “short cruise.” After the election party, he picked up a guy in a public men’s room, went home with him, and had sex. That’s what the short cruise is for – quick, easy sex, with no strings. The long cruise is used on “trade” who one hopes for something lasting. It is designed to extend the longing and desire so there will be a greater intensity in the pay off and after; the hope is that both you and they will want to see each other again. When I came out in Albany, NY, it was not common for gay men to date in a way that is traditional for heterosexual couples. The long cruise stood in for that ritual.


Hawk gets two vital pieces of information during their conversation on the bench: Tim’s phone number, and what Tim wants most – a job. Tim does not get Hawk’s phone number. Hawk will stay in control. Hawk also learns that Tim is a devout Catholic and is a little naive when it comes to the business of gay life – Tim was sitting in front of the cruisiest bathroom in Washington D.C. and didn’t know it. Hawk gives him this information and a warning about the park police. it takes Tim a moment to decode exactly what Hawk is communicating. Tim then shares that he is headed to mass. While gathering his things to leave, Hawk leans in and whispers to Tim, “I’ll spend the whole afternoon picturing you kneeling in prayer.” This both shocks and pleases Tim. For Hawk, Tim’s inexperience and devotion to religion make him even more desirable. The viewer will learn as the series progresses, that Hawk is a man who likes to raise his boys.

As a teen, I was much more precocious than Tim and probably closer to Hawk’s experience at gay sex. From the beginning of puberty, to about fourteen, I was adrift and lonely. I had no friends except my brother who was a year younger than I. But he was growing apart from me day by day. We had both been social outcasts at school. We were the weird, nerdy kids. We stood out as odd even among our peers in gifted classes. We both had a very difficult relationship with our father who was vociferously disappointed with his sons. Even though he had minimal input into our childhood rearing, he saw us as failures as boys. My reaction to my father’s perpetual dissatisfaction was to make him disappear from my life. I began to avoid him as much as possible in a household of six children. My brother took a different tact. He decided to do whatever it took to make our father admire him.


My brother and I were invited to attend a Boy Scout meeting by a suitor of my older sister. He was the leader of the troop and was disposed to do this favor as a way to get in the good graces of my sister. My mother encouraged us, even though I was reluctant. I didn’t need a new group of boys ridiculing and bullying me for my artistic and sensitive ways. But since my brother was going, I decided to give it a try. I hated the meeting. The whole militaristic manner in which the troop was handled antagonized me. I firmly decided this was not for me. My brother however became fully convinced that this was what he needed to counteract the weirdness factor that enveloped him. He joined up. As he became ever more deeply involved with scouts and earning evermore merit badges (he had set a personal goal to earn every merit badge the scouts offered) we drifted apart, and I was left alone. For my brother, scouts had an additional, more positive outcome, it brought him closer to our father. He was finally doing something that my father could recognize as masculine. My father even became involved in a few of the merit badge projects. This caused me to feel even more isolated from my brother and my father.


My need for connection with another man who could be the benevolent father that I didn’t have drove me further into trying to seek out male companionship. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to go about it. Instead, I developed a crush on the girl who lived next door, all the while looking for a man who would fulfill my fantasy. This never seemed to be a contradiction for my 13 – 14-year-old brain. At this point in my life, I still believed that I would marry a woman and have children, because that is what I had been enculturated to believe was in my future. Neither my parents, nor my Church (I went to public school and only received religious instruction until my Confirmation into the Catholic Church at around age 8) ever mentioned homosexuality. It was simply too remote a consideration to be discussed – it was something that happed to other people.


That girl next door ultimately told me that she didn’t see me as a boyfriend, which only briefly disappointed me. Although it did not help my self-worth. The next year, at 14 years old during my first year of high school I developed an obsessive crush on another girl. She was totally oblivious to me, and as I was subsequently to find out she identified as lesbian. And still, I was looking for men to have sex with wherever I could. In my meagerly successful searches, I eagerly followed graffiti references to cruising places left in men’s bathrooms, or rumors I had heard about the public park. The few connections I made had me desperate for more.


At this same time, I was reading and came across the word “homosexual.” I didn’t recognize it, so I looked it up in the dictionary. After reading the definition, I said to myself, “yup, that’s what I am.” This word clarified my attractions and gave me an identity that made sense to me. This was a simple yet momentous event in my life. I never again had any further attractions to women, and I ended any ideas that I would get married and have children. (Keep in mind, neither gay marriage nor children for gay men were considered possible at the time of my adolescence.)


4. Meeting Your Dream Man


In Fellow Travelers, a few days after meeting Hawk on the park bench, Tim is sitting in his room filling in, perhaps a crossword in a magazine, when he is called to the community telephone. Hawk is on the line with a job lead in the office of Senator McCarthy – one of Tim’s personal heroes. Tim ends the call with, “I don’t know how to thank you enough.” To which Hawk replies, “We will work on that.” Hawk has now progressed in his long cruise by providing Tim with what he wanted most, a job. All that remains now is for Tim to show his gratitude.


A grateful Tim shows up to Hawk’s office with the gift of a book – Look Homeward Angel. Look Homeward Angel is a book about a shy and repressed boy who leaves his provincial and stifling family life to make his way in the world in the hope of finding something greater. This is an allusion to Tim’s own search for meaning. It doubles as a symbol for Hawk. The deeply religious Tim, constantly throughout this series, compares Hawk to images of the divine. Hawk is the angel who helped him land a job in the office of his personal hero, McCarthy.


Later that evening, Hawk shows up unannounced at Tim’s studio apartment. For Hawk, the time is now right for Tim to show how grateful he is. Tim refuses Hawk’s invitation to go out to dinner. (This is amusing since in about a year, Tim will complain in an argument that Hawk and he have never gone to a restaurant together.) Instead, he had been heating a can of soup before Hawk had arrived and admits that wasting food would be a sin. This amuses and delights Hawk. Hawk in the spirit of teasing this very Catholic young man, asks if he kissed Tim, would it be a mortal or venial sin. Tim unsure of Hawk’s intentions says, “A mortal, I’m pretty sure.” Hawk coming in closer, asks, “Would you like me to kiss you?” Tim confused, but aroused by the prospect, tries to keep the formality by replying, “No Mr. Fuller.” Hawk unperturbed, backs off and says, “Well that has to be a mortal sin if you figure in the size of the lie.” Tim is struggling with his conscience. As a devout Catholic, he is at odds with what he has been taught is wrong by his faith, and what he desires. He finds Hawk handsome and sexy, but he is trying to fight the temptation of his carnal desires. The master of seduction, Hawk backs off for the moment. He makes small talk about the job, then casually drops the nugget into Tim’s ear that he would like Tim to keep him informed on what they ask him to research and type up at his job. Tim is taken aback as he realizes that the job was transactional. Hawk just as casually informs Tim that it’s the nature of working for the government.


As they eat soup, Hawk listens to Tim rattle on about his first gay encounter with bemused, but waning interest. When Tim asks about Hawk’s first gay encounter, Hawk has had enough. He believes that he has made Tim comfortable enough to get on with the main purpose of his visit. He ignores Tim’s question and stands close before the sitting Tim, with his crotch level with Tim’s chin. “Is this alright?” Hawk says seductively standing in his superior position. Tim sufficiently put at ease, and looking up at Hawk longingly, answers in a whisper, “Yes.”  This begins Tim and Hawk’s relationship. Their first sexual encounter is a simple masturbation, because Hawk wants to ease into this thing gradually. However, Hawk carefully sets the baseline for his expectations. Hawk sits back in the chair and undoes his trousers. He orders the besotted Tim crouching at his feet to remove the trousers Hawk has made ready. Then he insists Tim fold the trousers. Tim momentarily, silently questions the request, but faithfully complies. Then Hawk stands and pulls Tim up to a standing position. He then takes off the compliant Tim’s shirt and t-shirt. Finally seeing the cross Tim is wearing, Hawk asks permission to remove this last vestige of Tim’s defense and places it on the bedpost. During the masturbation that follows, Hawk asks several times, “Who’s my boy?” To which Tim lustfully proclaims, “I am!”  Hawk further asserts his dominance by renaming Tim “Skippy,” a name you might give a pet. Tim asks if there is any particular reason for the name. Hawk simply states, “Because it suits you, like the glasses.” In the novel Fellow Travelers, the reader knows that Skippy is the name given to the energetic, mischievous, and unseen “angel” on Bishop Sheen’s popular televised Catholic program, who erases the chalkboard off screen that the good bishop uses to instruct the viewers into the basics of the Catholic faith. Hawk in the novel finds this comparison to Tim amusing because he views Tim as a somewhat dutiful angel. In the series, Hawk’s explanation for the nickname remains enigmatic.


Hawk and Tim’s interactions continue with Hawk in the dominant role and Tim in the passive role. As their relationship becomes deeper, richer, and more complicated, these roles will be tested and will develop. As the series progresses, Tim grows beyond the naïf boy and into his own, never staying a milquetoast pushover. Because he is argumentative, not reserved about voicing his opinion, and constantly pushing for more emotional involvement, he becomes “not easy” as Hawk describes him in one scene. As Hawk begins to become ever more smitten with Tim, he begins to break his own rule about never getting emotionally involved with another man. This leads to Hawk growing ever more conflicted about the choices he makes for his life as they begin to negatively affect Tim in various ways. As this series spans 34 years, we will see how their relationship grows and morphs over time.


One early summer day, in the year I turned from 15 to 16, I met a man named Sam. Sam was older than I was. He admitted to being in his thirties. Sam didn’t ask my age. I willingly went with him to his top floor apartment just across the street from Washington Park. I spent the afternoon with Sam. The most indelible moment of that day was laying comfortably in bed with Sam as the day darkened into night, until only the blue lights of the stereo illuminated the room, while Gladys Knight and the Pips crooned out Neither One of Us. I don’t believe there was any hidden message in the song, it was just something slow and romantic to fit the mood and that moment remains vivid right into the present. I felt a sense of belonging and a closeness to a person that made me feel like I never felt before. I felt liked, something foreign to me outside of my family members. I began to have regular meetings with Sam on Sundays. I would often have to sneak out of the house. My standard ploy was to tell my mother that I was going out in the yard, then hop the fence and disappear. It was better to sneak out and keep my secret, than to concoct some lie or have my mother tell me to take the dog. Walking the dog was a tactic my mother used to ensure that I would not be getting into anything suspicious. I decided hopping the fence was worth any punishment I would get on my return home for the rewards of the closeness with Sam.


One Sunday, while my mother was loading the washing machine, I told her I was going out. My mother asked, “Where are you going?” “I’m just going out,” I said. “Don’t tell me that, where are you going?” she countered. Then she dropped her bomb. “Who is this man you have to see every Sunday?” “There is no man I have to see every Sunday,” I lied. She shot back, “Don’t tell me that, I followed you. I have asked everyone I know, but no one knows him. Now, who is this man you have to see every Sunday? The way you’re acting makes me think you’re one of those funny people.” Anger rose up in me. My mother FOLLOWED me! Why can’t I have any privacy? But I felt cornered. I looked at my mother straight in her pleading eyes, and as evenly as I could, said, “Mom. I am one of those funny people.” My mother burst into tears. I rolled my eyes at the theatrics. “It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault!” she bawled clinging dramatically to the side of the washing machine to keep herself from sliding to the floor. “Mom, it’s nobody’s fault,” I impatiently replied. My mother’s performance was getting to be a bit much, plus, at the time I had a list of reasons of just why it was both of my parents fault I was gay. Now, I don’t remember any of those reasons. Through her tears, she pleaded, “Promise me you’ll change!” “I promise I’ll try, Mom,” I said flatly and unconvincingly. Then, as if she realized that her request was just her hope, she added, “Whatever you do, promise you won’t ever bring any of this home, and we won’t tell your father, he will never understand.” Those last two demands were easy. I never had any intention of mixing my gay life with my home life, and since I was still ignoring my father in those days, I knew he would never hear anything about my private life from me. I was free to go and hurried out of the house to the freedom that was promised outside. I was still angry that she had followed me. That seemed such intrusion on my privacy. I learned to be more diligent in my secrecy.


It turned out that the cozy evening I spent with Sam was an anomaly. Sam’s apartment was a hub for many of the gay community to drop in on. The usual Sunday saw an impromptu party break out, always with drugs, drinking and sex. Sam took to promising me to men who expressed an interest in me, or he believed I had an interest in. He would lock me in his bedroom with the interested party and tell me to “get it out of your system.” This was always some paranoia that Sam had devised in his mind. But my youth had a certain currency, added to the fact that I refused to do drugs or drink alcohol, Sam had to figure out something to do with me. A guest staying sober always brought the party down. These men and I never had sex. They would be frighted at being locked in, without any idea of when we would be let out and embarrassed at Sam’s behavior just because they complimented Sam about me. After an hour or so, to our relief, Sam would let us out, saying, “I hope you got that out of your system.” I always left after this happened. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know how to make it stop. Not going to Sam’s apartment would have been the logical decision, but I found the parties exciting, and I was being introduced into a new community that I had never known existed before. I no longer thought that I was the only queer person in the world. I was enjoying meeting these new and often outrageous people. They acted in a way I had never encountered – flamboyant, unselfconsciously feminine, not ashamed to be out and gay. I saw Sam twice more. Once more, he locked me in the bedroom with a stranger. After that I definitively decided that I needed to end it with Sam – I wasn’t sure how. I had never ended a relationship before – I never even had a relationship before.


The last time I want to Sam’s apartment, still puzzling out how I was going to end it. I climbed the three flights of stairs in trepidation. I knocked. Sam opened the door as far as the chain lock would allow. He saw it was me. “Oh. It’s you,” he sneered, then slammed the door in my face. I was relieved. I didn’t have to end it at all. Sam ended it for me. I retreated down the stairs happy it was over and that I had escaped this exploitative situation.


5. Further Romantic Developments


Tim in Fellow Travelers was being exploited by Hawk. While Tim was initially dismayed to discover the ulterior motives of his job in McCarthy’s office, he became a willing, even eager participant. Trading information on Joe McCarthy for sex with Hawk seemed a small price to pay. Tim got his dream job and his dream man. Not a bad deal in his estimation. What comes out of this situation is Tim’s realization that his sexual favors have currency. Hawk wants Tim as much as Tim wants Hawk, but when Tim eagerly turns up unannounced at Hawk’s apartment to offer Hawk some interesting bit of information under discussion in McCarthy’s office his unexpected appearance is met with Hawk’s irritation. “How did you get my address! Next time you call from the phone booth on the corner!” he barks at Tim. Taken aback by this seemingly unwelcome response; Tim establishes his boundaries right away. He will not be reprimanded by Hawk, even if in sex play Hawk calls him his “boy.” Tim counters with, “I’m going to leave.” Hawk’s quick acquiescence with “Relax. relax.” tells Tim that he has some power here. Despite his bluster of trying to control the situation, Hawk wants him there. Tim is impressed with Hawk’s rather posh, Art Deco apartment, which also comes off a bit over decorated and gay for a man like Hawk who is trying to keep closeted. But Tim came to hold up his side of the bargain. Tim asks the half-dressed Hawk if he is going out. Hawk casually replies that he is. Tim’s ears prick up. Hawk sits in a chair commanding Tim to take off his jacket, then pats his bare thigh indicating where Tim should sit. While Tim relates the private office information to Hawk, Hawk is tweaking Tim’s nipple under Tim’s shirt. After Tim relates his news, Hawk pats Tim’s thigh and says he has to get ready. Both aroused, Tim makes his move now. Instead of getting up, Tim leans in close to Hawks face, and in sultry sotto voice coos, “I want to go to the party.” Hawk gives some feeble excuses about Tim not being dressed for it and not having a date. Tim coyly says, “I’d be with you.” Although this excites Hawk, he responds pragmatically, “This is the real world, Skippy.” Tim maneuvers himself between Hawk’s legs. “I’m your boy? Right? And your boy wants to go to the party.” “Well, well,” sneers Hawk, delighted that his boy is learning. “How much does he want to go?” Tim begins to lower his head toward Hawk’s crotch. Hawk corrects him by gently pushing Tim backwards with his foot. If Hawk is going to let Tim go to the party, he is going to have to do something special. When Hawk has manipulated Tim to where he wants him, he puts his foot on Tim’s chest. Hawk nods, Tim understands. He pulls off Hawk’s sock and begins to suck on his toes. “Open up” Hawk moans. Tim complies, stuffing his mouth with Hawk’s foot. “Now show me what my boy really wants,” orders Hawk. Tim drops the foot and lunges for Hawk’s crotch. Next, we see Tim ambling through the party, with a satisfied smirk on his face.


When Sam slammed the door in my face, I did not feel upset, or embarrassed. I experienced a sense of relief at having ended a very dangerous and unhealthy situation, even if I was a willing participant in it. As I descended the stairs, and headed for the door to the street, I heard on the stairs above me the footsteps of someone hurrying down. I was intercepted by Felix, someone I recognized as a friend of Sam’s. He had been in the apartment when Sam had slammed the door. He had witnessed the entire scenario and had rushed to catch me before I left. He chattered on hurriedly in the vestibule about how awful Sam had treated me and how I must feel terrible, wouldn’t I come in his apartment and calm down? Felix indicated that he lived in the first-floor apartment, adjacent to the vestibule. I was skeptical about his empathy, but still charmed by his feigned caring. I was beginning to get an inkling of my own currency – my own sense of desirability. Making decisions about my own boundaries and realizing that I had something people wanted ignited a feeling of empowerment in me. As with Sam at our first meeting, this was only the second time in my life I felt any sense that I was wanted by anyone outside of my family. The years of being bullied, ridiculed, and considered the weird outsider had had their toll. I had a brief respite when I had attended gifted classes and had found my tribe, but now at 16 and in high school, I was the weird outsider again. Too smart, too sensitive, and too quiet for any one to consider me interesting. In a school that was 90% African American, I was too white and culturally apart to feel I belonged. Sam had manipulated my feeling of being desired and corrupted it into something I couldn’t accept. In that brief instant, before I left the building and put the sexual exploitation of Sam behind me as an intense life lesson, I began to lean toward Felix’s dubious kindness. I craved it. I was happy to enter Felix’s apartment when he opened the door and invited me in. Felix’s seduction was masterful and subtle. Like Hawk with Tim when he first goes to Tim’s bed-sit, he asked questions that allowed me to talk and open up about myself. But he also managed to explain that Sam had slammed the door on me because, Sam had seen me in the park sometime the previous week and decided I was cheating. The irony of Sam’s offering me to others, yet him not wanting me to seek out others didn’t escape me. I decided that Sam was just tired of me – all the better that I was out of it. Felix’s ten year’s greater experience had me entranced. He got what he wanted that day and I wanted more. That afternoon was the beginning of a relationship that would last until I was in my late twenties.


6. Finding Out About Love


In Fellow Travelers, the party that the ambitious Tim traded favors to attend, was not the most exciting event Tim would experience that night. Before the festivities even ended at the tony D.C. soiree, Hawk and Hawk’s journalist friend Marcus cut out to “somewhere way more exciting.” They take Tim to the Cozy Corner, a newly integrated gay bar that is an inside secret among the gay community. If Tim’s eyes, as bright and wide as headlights are any indication, this is his first experience in a gay bar. He is delighted. At the Georgetown fete, he had to have a fake date (the always accommodating Mary, Hawk’s lesbian secretary, confidant, and keeper of his dark secret). During the party, Hawk wouldn’t even let Tim talk to him directly or look at him in a straightforward way. At the Cozy Corner, they hold each other and kiss openly. Tim is becoming more smitten with Hawk the more time he spends with him. As an assurance that his ardor for Hawk is mutual, Tim asks Hawk for the second time during the few weeks they have been together if Hawk is going to marry Lucy Smith. Tim had noticed that Hawk spent the majority of his time at the earlier party, wooing Lucy. Tim realizes that he is falling hard for Hawk and wants to protect his heart. Hawk gets annoyed at the question and storms off. Tim rushes after Hawk asking what he’s done wrong. Hawk makes it clear that Tim’s budding emotions and the dreams that they conjure, are only a fantasy and that’s all they can be. Tim makes it clear to Hawk that he sacrificed his most dearly held beliefs for Hawk, his spirituality, and moral convictions. Hawk dismisses Tim’s emotional confession also as a fantasy ­– grand ideas he does not believe in that only get people killed. Tim calls Hawk a coward because Hawk refuses to make an emotional connection with another man. Tim storms off heartbroken. But Hawk is also feeling things for Tim that he does not want and is trying to suppress.


They are separated for a few days. We see Tim in church, praying, and deeply conflicted. His intense religious beliefs tell him that the pleasures and feelings he shares with Hawk, another man, are a mortal sin. A priest approaches him and offers to hear his confession. Tim refuses and states that he cannot make confession since he is not in a state of complete contrition. The priest persists, reminding Tim that all God asks is that we be sorry for our sins. Tim weighs the offer and decides to admit that he has had carnal relations with a man. The priest, momentarily taken aback, offers more sternly, “even for the gravest of sins, if you are truly sorry, God will forgive you and make you pure.” To which Tim retorts, “That’s the problem. When I committed this sin, I felt pure, more pure than I have felt in my entire life, so how can I be sorry for it?”


Like the others of the big three world religions, Catholicism is tough on homosexuality. It leaves no vagary, no escape from its totalitarian doctrine in this matter. Tim who has been brought up on the Catholic tenets and has been trained to strive for his place in heaven, struggles with how exploring his sexuality contradicts with the Church’s unassailable heteronormality. To him, he cannot be Catholic and gay. He must choose one or the other. Hawk has opened him to something latent that he has suppressed within himself that he finds more freeing than the finger of shame and the indifferent comfort the Church offers. He wants Hawk and all that Hawk offers. But the question of sin and the rewards of heaven weigh on him.


On the night President Eisenhower signs the executive order that allows investigations into sexual perversion among government workers, Hawk tries to ease his guilty conscience. He had given a colleague who was being investigated for sexual deviancy the name of a young man he had had sex with who was looking like he might be a problem for Hawk’s cover since the man worked in Hawk’s office building. He is told by that colleague that the person he named tried to commit suicide. Hawk, to assuage his conscience leaves money for the young man. Hawk then goes to Tim’s apartment building and waits for Tim to come home. As Tim arrives in front of his building carrying a bag of groceries, Hawk steps out of the shadows. Hawk finally answers the question about his first lover that Tim had asked about the first night Hawk came by. Hawk tells Tim about a schoolmate who was killed in WWII. Hawk obviously has deep guilt and regret about how this relationship ended. Despite his best efforts not to, we can now see clearly how deeply Hawk has fallen for Tim. He asks Tim if he can come up to his room and hold him. Tim is at a crossroads here: to take a chance and be hurt by Hawk, or to take a chance and continue to feel the freedom and purity that Hawk has exposed him to. Tim voices his conflict. “Hawk, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of you. I don’t know what to do. What should I do?” Tim is expressing to Hawk that if he allows Hawk up to his room, that Hawk has to accept the emotions Tim feels and needs to give, and that Hawk has to return them. Tim does not want to be a casual, but steady sex partner. Hawk counters, “My advice, go inside, shut that door, and lock it behind you.”  In other words, if you want guarantees in the matters of the heart, it is better to hide yourself away from them and forget about love. Tim however is totally aware of Hawk’s desire for him. It is right on the surface. Hawk’s face and demeanor betray him. Tim decides to use his newly recognized power over Hawk to toy with him. He turns silently toward his apartment building, walks up the steps, allowing Hawk to think that he is going to do just as Hawk uncommittedly suggested. Hawk watches Tim with concern. As Tim approaches the door still silent, Hawk shows on his face the fear that Tim will carry through his cavalier suggestion. Tim stops at the door. Having made his point that his terms for emotional honesty are unnegotiable, turns and says glibly, “Unfortunately, the lock on the door is broken.” Tim gives a little grin and a shrug and enters the building. A relieved Hawk follows behind.


Felix was totally different from Sam. First, he was kind. He was also gregarious, funny, and personable. He had a wide array of friends, most of whom were college educated, although he himself did not have a college degree. He was a veteran, spending most of his tour in the service in communications in the Far East and Panama. He had a deep interest and love of nightlife, especially the gay demimonde. And, as I was to learn, a functioning alcoholic.


I was attracted to his extroverted personality. It contrasted well with my introverted self. He fell into the very role that my mother and sister held throughout my childhood, he often spoke for me when I wouldn’t or couldn’t speak for myself. He respected me, took me seriously and thought I was special. I don’t know if any of these reasons, or all of these reasons were why I wanted to hang around him. But I did. By the time I was 17, I was spending most of my nights with him.


My mother didn’t meet him for many years. True to our understanding, I did not bring home my personal life. She learned of his existence but chose to think of Felix as just a good friend. This was convenient for her. In my senior year of high school, my mother began an affair with the tenant in our basement apartment. She welcomed my relationship with Felix and my time spent away from home as a way for her and her paramour to have privacy. When I was at home, she believed that I was trying to spy on them. Despite her attempts at deception, I knew what she was doing. The affair made me lose all respect for her. I cannot know the inner most thoughts of my mother. She was in an abusive marriage. My father was violent toward her. My mother wanted more out of life, some excitement, some kindness. She did not want to leave my father, no matter how badly he berated and beat her. Still, she seemed to want to know if the attentions of another man would be gentler.


What I did know was that Felix was an excuse to get me out of the house. To her thinking, he was older, probably more responsible, he seemed to treat me well and I liked being with him. He was the friend I had always wanted and despaired I would never get. She blocked from her mind any sexual involvement that may have been going on. As long as she could convince herself that Felix was just “your good friend” my spending all of my time at Felix’s apartment was fine with her. By the time I had begun my first semester of college, I was essentially living with Felix. Not to excuse my mother of her dubious motivations for her poor parenting but, there would have been no punishment or action on my parent’s part that would have kept me from Felix. I wanted what Felix was giving out and I was determined to get it. Just as I had used subterfuge to visit Sam, I would have devised something similar for Felix. The only possible course of action that may have worked, was to initiate legal proceedings against Felix since I was a minor. Rightly or wrongly, this never happened, and we were both spared that nightmare.


Felix introduced me into the gay nightlife of Albany. The epicenter of the gay community was a bar named the Central Arms. The Central Arms, for a brief while, became the premiere place for gay night life in Albany, NY. Similar to the Cozy Corner in Fellow Travelers, but much smaller in scale, the Central Arms boasted an integrated clientele which mostly self-segregated. It provided a haven for the gay community to socialize, free from fear, and in camaraderie with each other. When I was 16, the Central Arms was one of the few places where gay men or women could safely congregate to meet. There was no Gay Community Center or support groups. Gay men found each other at the bar or at house parties. While there were such places as public bathrooms, parks, and the public baths, they were used by men to meet other men for sex, often in clandestine and anonymous encounters. The gay bar offered a place to build friendships and perhaps long-term relationships. The dominate heterosexual community did everything it could to discourage and make it difficult for gay men to meet. Every place that was determined by the authorities as a possible meeting place for gay men was policed. In order to keep the idea that heterosexuality must be the only choice for men and women in a decent society, any suspicious activity in a public place was subject to scrutiny by the civil authorities. Men caught engaging in sex with each other, or even suspected of wanting to, were routinely arrested, humiliated, and then publicly outed in the media. The intent by the authorities was to warn the gay community that their actions would not be tolerated in a decent society. It also drove home that homosexuality was a criminal act and that every man that engaged in gay sex was a potential criminal. Even the Central Arms was subject to raids by the police department. Only steady bribes to city officials and beat cops kept the bar from being subject to the whims of the enforcement of the rules of public decency.


The Central Arms was set up within its narrow space with a long bar on the right of the entrance and an ell shaped, black upholstered booth running three quarters the length of the room on the left. Tables were situated at intervals in front of the booth. In the back, beyond the booth and the bar was a decent sized dance floor dominated by a multicolored lighted jukebox. The bar was ruled by Cookie, the manager and chief bartender. Cookie was loud and mean. His corpulent body and porcine features suggested a menacing nature, hiding his softer, feminine character. He hid a thick, hefty stick behind the bar, which he bashed loudly on the countertop when patrons got rowdy or out of hand. He could never be swayed by a sad story; you either paid for your drink, or you got out. To stay at the bar, you had to buy a drink. He gave me an exemption because Felix drank enough for us both. Or maybe because I was underage, and he didn’t want to add serving alcohol to a minor to the list of laws the bar was breaking. At the end of the night, he would whack his stick on the counter and announce, “Last call! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” It was usually at this time, when the red mood lighting was replaced by the blinding and truth telling white lights, and while the patrons were gathering themselves together and pairing up with their human comfort for the night, Cookie, deep in his cups, would bawl to Felix how unfair life was to make him so fat and ugly that no man would want him. Felix often commiserated, allowing Cookie to vent his feelings of inadequacy without judgement.


I always found the Central Arms sad. Everybody seemed desperate for human contact and defeated by the rampant homophobia that constantly reminded us that we were less in a society of heterosexual dominance. Older men drank to forget that they were sexually undesirable as gay men among their own people. The gay community valued beauty, youth, and at least the appearance of straightness which these older men did not possess. But every September, the scene brightened with the prospect of new blood when the incoming college boys arrived in town. The possibility of new bodies and grand adventures created a festive mood that briefly brightened the gloom of their oppression. The bar became filled with exuberant, pretty young men in their prime, which made even the least likely to profit from these new and energetic arrivals flush with anticipation and the fresh ardor of spring, ready to throw off the misery of their bitterness to try and seduce a boy, knowing they would fail again. I always felt a deep melancholy and despondency at all the men who were victims of their own unhappiness. Whether it was the old longing for the youth, the unappealing lusting for the unapproachable beauty, or the feminine hoping with desperation to catch the attention of the masculine, none of them were satisfied with themselves. A whole crowd of seekers trying to attach to themselves to what they lacked without ever understanding that loving oneself was the key to being attractive. The self-loathing for what was missing in themselves brought out the compassion in my sensitive nature. At times it became unbearable for me. It made me think that as a budding artist, that somehow being in this world of the lonely, the outsiders, and the dispossessed, I should focus my talents on depicting this misery. I had not yet had enough education to realize that this has been a major subject in art for centuries. I was just the latest victim of such sentimental thinking. Pathos was a constant in the world. That it moved me was more a testament to my sympathies and less to my genius.


Felix thrived in this environment. He loved the characters that inhabited the Central Arms. His gregariousness and campy humor made him a favorite. Everyone knew him, and he made certain that anyone new to the bar felt welcome. Felix had an extensive roster of friends, all of them from the demimonde. They were always welcome at his apartment, and he often threw after hours parties there. He hated to end his weekend nights. Still, he kept a steady job and a decent income, which was a rarity among the crowd he moved in. His own personal sorrows fueled his need to lose himself in the wantonness of nightlife and erase his guilt with alcohol.


7. Rolling in the Deep


The importance of Tim and Hawk’s interaction outside of Tim’s apartment building in Fellow Travelers, lies in their declaration (however veiled), of their growing feelings for each other. After this, the story moves forward to 1953. Tim and Hawk have been seeing each other for a year. What we learn now is that Hawk has a five-year plan; to get a position with his department overseas, buy a villa, quit his job when he is called back to the United States and live without scrutiny into his personal life. Hawk comes from a family of wealth, and he is depending on inheritances to finance this dream. Tim, who receives all this information from a sexually sated Hawk, mentally notes that at this point in their relationship, he is not included in Hawk’s plans. Even so, at Hawk’s insistence, Tim still promises to take that information to his grave. It is a sign of their deepening intimacy that Hawk is opening to Tim.


Meanwhile, the federal government has decided to accelerate its investigation into sexual deviants working in the government system. After a work meeting that clearly delineates this direction, Hawk immediately sets up a lunch with his mother with the purpose to access his financial future. The uncle he was counting on inheriting money from has become insolvent, so that hope has vanished. Unfortunately for Hawk he has an estranged and contentious relationship with his dying father. His father knows about Hawk’s homosexuality and wants an assurance that Hawk “has changed.” His mother pleads with Hawk to apologize to his father for Hawk’s past indiscretions, “even if it’s insincere.”  She is certain that this will appease his father and put Hawk back in the will, which will provide Hawk with the lifestyle that he has been brought up in. This is a major plot hole for me. If the mother inherits the money, she could easily provide Hawk with the share Hawk would receive or provide him with an appropriate income from the estate after the father’s death. During Hawk’s conversation with his mother, she makes it clear that Hawk is an only child (“I’m so tired of my siblings, always the same complaints. Aren’t you grateful that I didn’t burden you with any?”) This makes it clear that he would not have to share a divided inheritance. Of course, the viewer is not given the confidence of the entire will, so we have just the barest idea of how this significant amount of money will be divided. What we are expected to believe is that Hawk’s financial future will take a huge hit and as his mother says, “The state department doesn’t pay you nearly enough to take that principled stand.” Hawk’s principled stand is his refusal to accept being lesser because of his sexual orientation. He refuses to surrender to his father’s deep homophobia and attempts at manipulating Hawk with his money in order to control Hawk’s private life. This has caused the void between them and is the reason for Hawk’s disinheritance.


Hawk agrees to attend a family gathering at his boyhood home and to attempt to bridge the chasm between him and his father. As expected, the meeting doesn’t go well. The father, even on his deathbed continues to be controlling, unrepentantly homophobic, and vengeful toward Hawk. Hawk starts out trying to be cordial and apologetic as his mother pleaded for him to. The hateful control Hawk’s father wields becomes too much for him. In the end Hawk give this apology, “I’m sorry. That you’re dying, and not a single fucking soul gives a shit. And that you didn’t knock first.” As a final ‘it means nothing to me gesture,’ he runs his hand over his hair and leaves the room. The reference to ‘knocking first’ was to the way that Hawk’s father had discovered his son’s homosexuality. He opened the bedroom door on Hawk and his high school friend Kenny and caught Hawk performing oral sex on Kenny.


We the viewer have no real idea how much time has passed while Hawk was trying to access his financial future. A few days, perhaps a week or two at the least? During this time Tim has been waiting expectantly for Hawk to call or visit. He becomes distraught, bored, and questioning what he has done wrong. He reluctantly attends a house party given by Mary, Hawk’s secretary, Tim’s beard at D.C. social functions, and ultimate friend. Hawk set them up to keep the questioning eyes off of Tim. At this party, Tim realizes that there is a gay community that socializes, and it is possible for two gay people to actually live with each other since Mary has a lesbian lover she cohabitates with. Just as he was when he first went to the Cozy Corner, Tim is saucer-eyed and grinning with the wonder of all of these queer people socializing and freely being themselves. Being gay does not have to mean sneaking, hiding, and lying, at least when you are enjoying your private life. After experiencing this party, he begins to formulate plans of his own about what a gay life can be. The only word that Tim gets regarding Hawk during this absence, is a discouraging word from Marcus who tells him that he saw Hawk at the Cozy Corner looking for trouble and adds some unasked for advice, “which is what you’ll get if you don’t let him go.” Tim is not happy at this bit of news. But after Hawk’s disastrous meeting with his father, Hawk seeks out Tim in his tiny sanctuary. A sleepless Tim, with his mind racing with thoughts about the absent, uncommunicative Hawk, hears a knock on his door. He opens it to a breathless Hawk who is more than grateful to see his Tim. “Where have you been?” questions the bewildered Tim. “It doesn’t matter. I’m home now.,” gasps Hawk, partly out of desire and partly from running up the stairs.


This is the dichotomy that is set up by the writers of the Fellow Travelers screenplay. The Hawk that Tim knows as a caring and loving partner, is not the Hawk that his friends and colleagues know. To those outside of Hawk and Tim’s private world, Hawk is ruthless, selfish, and power hungry. He uses people to get what he wants and to advance himself in his career, as well as satisfy his desires. Everyone that knows about Tim’s infatuation with Hawk has warned Tim to leave Hawk alone to avoid heartache. But Tim knows Hawk’s love, which makes all of what the others are saying about Hawk just incoherent babble to Tim. Tim is a true romantic and sincerely believes that their love will overcome all the obstacles that may come their way. What Tim doesn’t know is where Hawk has been and what he’s been doing during his absence. Hawk keeps this from him. Hawk still must find an income that will keep him in among the old money of Washington, D.C. and finance his dream of a life abroad. He requires a certain status for himself. A life with Tim cannot provide him with this. Love cannot keep one from poverty.


Felix never really had future plans. He lived one day at a time, without thinking too far ahead. He never assumed he would live a long life. He had a decent job which afforded him a lot of leisure time and covered his few desires. He spent most of his income on alcohol, whether at the bars or for at home consumption. It was me that had the plans.


Just as the Cozy Corner and then Mary’s party were revelations for Tim, I had my own discoveries to make throughout my life. For Tim and for me, these discoveries were all the more potent because they had been hidden and yet to be discovered. There was so much I didn’t know or understand because of the limitations of my family and the narrowness of my world view. Like Tim in Fellow Travelers, as I experienced life beyond my family and the confines of my community, I began to realize that there was a more interesting and exciting world that I began too long to be a part of. That dream of experiencing something more first began for me with my entry into gifted classes during 4th grade. Gifted classes opened me to a new world of academic rigor that could lead to the possibility of a college education. No one in my family had ever gone to college. My father was against boys being intelligent. It reeked of effeminacy to him. From his own experience (my father was actually incredibly smart) he believed that boys who were smart became targets for bullying, taunts, and ostracizing. He was not wrong. I experienced all of that and more growing up.


In the third grade I was recommended and tested for academic giftedness. My teacher recognized my boredom in class as something more than disinterestedness in learning. Because of my performance on the test, I was offered the opportunity to attend the gifted program. Unfortunately, the program was only offered in a school on the opposite side of the city from where we lived. This meant either I took a bus to the school, or I had to be driven. My father refused to drive me, since he would not participate in the plan to turn me into a nerdy egghead and my mother couldn’t drive.


I tried taking the bus. I hated it. I was not at a stage in my life where I wanted to do things on my own. I was shy and frighted of the unfamiliar. Add to that, my soft nature soon attracted an older boy who would lie in wait for me every morning to bully and torture me. The culmination of his torments came when he tried to physically restrain me and force me to eat a donut that he picked up out of the gutter that had spilled from the garbage. For my mother, this was the last straw, she began to take driving lessons against my father’s wishes and soon had her license. She then began to drive me to school. It became apparent that she needed her own car, since my dad began to make it difficult for her to use his. Somehow, she managed to acquire a blue Rambler station wagon, which became our chariot to freedom. With transportation resolved, I was able to settle into the gifted program. I had found my tribe.


The transition was not smooth. There were cultural differences that my teacher refused to recognize. I did not come from a family that believed in owning books. Books were an unnecessary expense that should be borrowed from the library. Despite my father’s ridicule that reading was a waste of time (he thought I should be out playing sports) I went to the library as often as I could. I was sponge for knowledge. In grade school I always read our primers ahead of the assignments and became bored and restless as I waited for the rest of the class to catch up. But books were the least of my problems. One of the requirements of the gifted program, was the research and presentation of research papers. These could be on any topic that we chose, but they had to be presented in front of the class.


First, I had no idea what to write about. For some reason, at this place in my development, I had compartmentalized my life. At home, without the need for approval from adults, I was incredibly creative. I developed many interests and had a vivid imagination in my play. When it came to school, I became frozen and indecisive because I was afraid of the disapproval or ridicule from adults and peers. Added to this was my extreme shyness. I would talk to no one except my mother, my older sister and my brother who was younger by one year. These were people I deemed safe. I never talked to other adults. I could not go to a store and buy anything I had to ask for. In any transaction involving an adult, I needed my mother, or older sister to intervene for me. My father hated this aspect of my personality and tried to beat it out of me. That drove me further into myself. The thought of standing in front of class to present a report I had written terrified me. My teacher was unmoved by my reticence. She believed it was time for me to grow up. She dismissed my mother’s appeals for understanding as overprotection. She assigned me a topic – cats, because she got out of me that we owned a cat. My mother assisted me with the entire process of research and writing. Neither of us knew where to start or knew what we were doing. Instead of starting at the library, we actually started at a pet shop, because that seem logical to my mother given the topic. With my mother’s encouragement, coaching and rehearsals at home, the presentation of the report, despite my extreme agitation and inability to look at the class, was a success. “Tell you mother she did well,” said my teacher after this ordeal was over as if I had no part in the process.


After the adjustment of fourth grade, the gifted program opened me up to a world that was so much wider than my ethnic Italian, Elm Street neighborhood in Albany. Despite my always being the weird kid among the intelligent outcasts I thrived, even excelled in the program. When it was time to choose high schools, my mother decided that I would go to the lesser of the two high schools that Albany offered. My Middle School guidance counselor tried to dissuade my mother from her decision. It was explained to her, that Schuyler High School did not have the gifted program that had been so important to me and that it would not be a good environment for me to excel in. Albany High had the academic standing and the continuation of the gifted program. My mother was not persuaded. She chose Schuyler High because it was closer to our home, it had been her alma mater, and my older sister was already attending. Besides, by her warped logic, I would just blend in among the other gifted students attending Albany High, while at Schuyler High my brilliance would cause me to stand out.


Schuyler High when I attended was the official “ghetto school” of Albany. It boasted a student population that consisted of 90% + African American. As one of the minority white students, l stood out because of my race. It was also a school that was slated to be phased out and folded into the new high school campus that was being built. My class would be the final graduating class of the school. Owing to that plan, the administration decided to not have an official principal for Schuyler High, instead they appointed the guidance counselor into the dual role of principal/guidance. I hated this decision that my mother made for me. I was not immune to the animosity and tension that arose between the majority African American population and the minority white population. This was acerbated and intensified as the various separatist and Black cultural awareness movements that began to take hold and spread during the years I was in High School.


Several things thwarted my academic career during this time. I loved art and was desperate to take art class. Every year I went to the acting principal/guidance counselor who decided all of the student’s class schedules during the three years I attended high school. At these meetings I always asked for the art class. Every year she told me the class was full. I didn’t find out until years later that the reason the art class was always full because she was filling the class with the basketball and football players so that they would get an easy A and keep up their grade point average to stay on the team. No matter how hard I tried to convince her that I wanted to go to college, she ignored my aspiration. She never asked what my dream career was (at the time I wanted to be a botanist) so she could construct a course schedule around it. The last insult came when at graduation it was announced that I had the highest grade point average in the school. But the principal/guidance counselor hid this information from all the teachers and students. She promoted Henry, the second highest as the valedictorian. He received all the accolades, awards and assistance with college applications, financial aid resources, and college selection. I received none of these. She wouldn’t even give me an application to State University at Albany, the local state university, which she was handing out in the hallway one day. My mother had to call her and demand that I be given one. And again, I received no assistance with filling out the form, no guidance on what documentation I needed to provide college admissions, no information on any financial aid sources. Nothing. She reluctantly handed me the form and that was the end of it.


I was angry and disappointed at this betrayal. I believed that I did the work, so I achieved the reward. It was a difficult lesson. I had been taught all through my schooling that hard work and merit are recompensed. Now, as I was graduating into the adult world, I received my first harsh blow of reality – life can be cruelly unfair. I learned years later that the principal/guidance counselor made this decision to exclude me for political reasons. She was afraid of the optics of a white student representing as valedictorian for a school that was 90%+ African American. She had groomed Henry to be the valedictorian at all costs, including compromising my dreams for the future.


The State University of New York at Albany was a personal goal since I was a child. The white marble campus sitting on the outskirts of Albany was a gleaming ideal of academic achievement for my mother and myself. Every time we passed it in the car, my mother would remark that someday I would be attending college there. Its cloistered quads became my private quest for my educational dreams. Getting a college degree had been an aspiration encouraged by the gifted program. SUNY at Albany became my utopian place to achieve that degree.


Since I was not given any other guidance on the matter of other potential colleges, SUNY was the only college I applied to. I wasn’t aware that it was a gamble to apply to only one college. I later learned an applicant should have several options in the event your primary choice does not accept you. SUNY Albany was my one and only application to college – and amazingly I was not only accepted but offered a full financial aid package. I was on my way to fulfilling that dream that had begun in the 4th grade.


It would have been helpful if I had guidance in high school to understand that as a potential biology major, I needed chemistry and beginning calculus. I took neither as my guidance counselor ignored my interests and the aspirations I had for my proposed career. When I began attending college classes, I found my preparation was severely inadequate for a biology major. I was in a remedial chemistry class where I was simply lost. My professor was charging along while I had absolutely no understanding of the material, leaving me far behind. I was failing every exam. I knew that I had to give up this trajectory. I had kept my strong, unrealized interest in Art since high school, so much so I had made it my minor in college. The next semester, I made Art my major and the entire direction of my life changed.


When I first met Felix, he lived in a tiny studio apartment. It had been the receiving room of a grand Victorian townhouse. It was a beautiful room, every wall of its hexagon shape covered floor to ceiling in cherry wood paneling. One wall had a columned fireplace with a built-in mirror above it. Unfortunately, as it had only been the receiving room of the house, adding a tiny kitchen and bath made the living space cramped. Added to that, the landlord was a nightmare. Soon after I met Felix, he moved to a larger apartment across Washington Park. This 5-room place was much more spacious, even if it had far fewer details. I spent a lot of time there my summer between high school and college. Love Me Like a Rock by Paul Simon dominated the airwaves and seemed to be the only song that played on Felix’s tiny transistor radio. That song and the smell of fresh enamel paint take me right back to that time and place.


Felix was a major help to me when I began attending my college classes. he was a first-class typist given his experience as a telex operator with the Associated Press. He would type all of my papers for me on the little portable typewriter I had. When I transferred to SUNY Buffalo, he drove all the way there and back. I lasted one semester at Buffalo. I had transferred there because I was pursuing a degree in Art Education (my mother’s idea, not mine) and SUNY Albany had discontinued that program. The extremely frigid winters and the immense amount of snow tested my fortitude. Buffalo was very far from home for me. While I was at SUNY Albany for those two years, I was living with Felix. In Buffalo I was alone, and the loneliness and distance began to get to me. I even began to ride the bus home every long weekend to be with Felix.


Felix always assumed that I was going to head off to college, get involved with people closer to my age and educational aspirations and forget about him. For a while he even encouraged it. But I persisted in coming around and hanging out. While he would tell me to go out and enjoy being young or admonish me for wasting my life and youth being with him, he never kept me from staying with him. He was always supportive of my education and always willing to help with transportation, typing, even with bus money for trips home and back to college. He was a major factor in achieving my five-year plan of getting a degree and becoming a college graduate.

Arthur Bruso © 2024

Fellow Travelers image courtesy of Paramount.

Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

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