Ha, ha ha, stop getting excited. It’s not like that. But I did run into a gay couple in Burlington, IA who was more than awesome. Okay, all you straight (or gay) immature mother-f-ers, go ahead and make your gay jokes now: yes yes, good one, oh yes, Ryan, did you go up shit creek with a paddle? yes good one… okay, you done? No more? Good. These guys were super cool. I met Wes via text message at first.
SMS: hey ryan love reading your blog keep up the good work when you get to Burlington IA give us a ring Wes
SMS Reply: sure good deal if I ever make it 🙂
SMS 2 Weeks Later: hey ryan read your last entry just give us a call when you get to Burlington looks like ur close
Reply: yes hey hows it goin thanks again will do
SMS: hey Ryan, etc. etc.
Finally I just called him: “Hey, this is Ryan. I’ve got a few texts from you. You in Burlington?”
“Yes, Ryan, hi! How are you ! When you get to Burlington just call, and we’ll go out to dinner or something.”
He was using first person plural so I just assumed he was married. He had a very cordial, family-man tone; and, I must say, that at no time did I get a gay vibe. Oh, what, you’ve got good gay-dar over the phone? Yeah, bite me! Stop the gay jokes!
I had talked to Wes probably 2 times before our first meet-up and was thoroughly convinced he was a straight man, mid-forties, with two kids. He coached little league and decided to sport a beard last year. He really likes blogs about rivers and wanted to just “help a brotha out” by giving a lowly paddler lodging, food, and a ride to Wal-Mart. Boy was I wrong! This guy totally tried to hit on me and was, like, showing me sex videos and talking about – gasp – Liza Minelli! It was the worst experience of my life! NOT!
Wes was ultra cool. It was only my own paranoia I had to deal with when I realized he was gay; at no time did he or his partner do anything to make me feel anything but comfortable. Though I roasted Paddy (Patty, Pattie?) in the Prairie du Chien post for her unfounded imaginings of all the ways I would probably kill her in her bed, I have to admit that I was not the epitomy of rational thought myself; I indeed had to deal with some creeping homophobia.
Wes Picks Me Up
I had been trying out my new sail that my dad, Uncle Bob and Uncle Steve (thanks, guys!) helped me build. Waking up on Camp Island, just north of Burlington, my plan was to travel three miles to the lock and dam and meet Wes in his boat; however, lack of sailing skill and an overall retardedness (sorry, Mom, dementedness 🙂 – just doesn’t cut it, does it folks, um, overall… dumbnessness) made me skimmy around the water and I got only about a mile before I called Wes to tell him I wasn’t making the dam any time soon.
“Well, Ryan, I’m here with the boys and,” (ahhhhhh, such a fatherly, fatherly man, I thought, he has kids – that means a disposible income and a free room with soccer ball wallpaper!), “there’s a storm comin’, do you see it?”
I looked south; there was definitely a storm brewing south of me. “Oh shit,” Wes said, “it’s right on top of us, we’re going to put the top up and wait it out. It’s rough. Find some cover.” I hung up. I could see the thick fog of heavy rain about a mile away. I had about 10 minutes. I paddled 75,000 miles an hour… uh, my top speed is 4.5, to the shore. There “happened to be” (or was it fate?) a shelter where I could wait out the storm. I grabbed my essentials: book (Angela’s Ashes – thanks again, Jane!), electronics, “shit, I forgot my battery to charge my phone…. got it” battery, backpack with anti-heat-rash remedy: Gold Bond powder + Cortizone + Lotrimin + Lidocaine = Crazy Delicious, and I was set. The storm blew over, and Wes called me. “It’s kinda late now; we’re going to head in and come get you with the truck.”
“Okay.” More time to read Angela’s Ashes -score! Y’all should read this book; it’s freaking awesome.
Wes shows up and has 3 teenage boys in the truck bed and passenger seat. Huh? I think. Little old for our fatherly father of young kids. One in particular is eyeing me kind of weirdly (yes, that’s a word). “Hey, Wes!” I say.
“Hey, you made it!” Wes and I shake hands. He has on glasses that change shades with the sun. He has unbrushed teeth and is squinting. He is skinny and puts his hands on his hips palms forward. He moves his hands wispily in cirlces, and I do not control it, but my mind goes, Is he gay?
We load my stuff. He is an expert loader. The three teenagers aren’t so they stand around smoking and looking grim. One has a long goatee and weighs all of about 300 pounds. Ummmm, I don’t think these are Wes’s kids. Wes is practical, useful and has my boat and belongings loaded before I can say “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
In the car, Wes tells me that we’re going to meet Richard when Richard calls. The tone is not fatherly; it is relationship-y and I know… Oh my dear Lord!!!! I am in a car with a gay man!!!!!!! Ahhhhhhhhh somebody call Jerry Falwell! He’s dead? What! When? Fuck, oh don’t give me Pat Robertson – he’s f—ing USELESS! “Um, please Mr. Man, don’t try to rape me!” Okay, I didn’t say that. But my mind did kinda go into overdrive. It was like I couldn’t control it: Oh my god, he’s gay, oh my god, he might try to rape me, oh my god, don’t look at him, don’t look at his legs, that spooks them, then they eat you, oh my god, okay, so like, just remain calm, he’s like a degenerate or something he prays on small little boys… dude? Aren’t you 31? Shut up! I’m a small, little boy on the inside! He’s looking at me! Oh my god, that’s what happens, they look at your blog, and think you’re hot, so they contact you and want to rape you, this is all nicety so that he can get you!!!! Ahhhhh! “So you’re gay, Wes! Cool!” I say about as awkwardly as one can. “Huh?” he says.
“No, I mean, Richard’s your partner.” I smile approvingly. I am uncomfortable. Like I said, neither Wes nor Richard did anything that could have made me uncomfortable; it was me, or rather, my mind that was just going overboard. My heart started racing and the sides of my head felt hot. “How long you been together?” I ask Wes.
“Ooohhh, about 3 years.”
“Cool!” I saw as awkwardly as a bull ordering steak.
Burlington is a nice Iowa rivertown. My favorite Iowa rivertown has been Dubuque, but this is nice. Old, old homes. “We live in the ghetto,” Wes smirks and pulls into the driveway. Richard is tending the deck putting out chairs and rasing a sun umbrella. He has smart, stylized hair and is the cleaner, more preppy of the two. “Hi,” Richard says. He is slightly more reserved than Wes. Wes has been reading my blog and knows all about it. He quotes passages I wrote to me and makes me feel very important and celebrity-like. Richard just knows “of me” and says “welcome” and “oh, if I get a chance, I’d like to see your blog, what do you want to drink?”
“Water,” I say. The boys take their seats. Only David, the one I believed was eyeing me weirdly, goes inside the house. The rest hang outside. I learn that Wes had been on the water with David and the two other boys. I get absolutely no gay vibe from the three teens and am trying to figure this scenario out. Are they his foster kids? “You guys live in the neighborhood?” I say to the young’ns.
“Yeah, we live… here… here… there.”
“Oh,” I say still thinking. They’re neighborhood kids.
Richard tells me he’s going to see his two kids and that he’ll be back in an hour. My mind is about to explode. “Oh,” I say, “from a previous marriage?” Richard looks a little uncomfortable talking about this, but I think he’s used to it. “Yes,” he says. “My ex-wife lives down the road; my kids are going back in school tomorrow so I’m going to the Open House.”
“Oh.” Okay, gay man thought he was straigh, wasn’t… My mind, like every other mind within the human race, seems only to be able to rest when it can match up its external experience with preconceived data. Divorced father who is now in an openly gay relationship, is a story I know of, is a story I can accept; so, I hang Richard and Wes’s story on that mental hook and finally relax. Wes pours more water. Before I go Richard invites me inside and starts to show me where I’m going to sleep, and then a very very real obstacle shows its furry, little head: A CAT!!!
“I’m alergic to cats, guys; I’m sorry.”
“Ooooohh, what if we put kitty in it’s cage?”
“No, I’ve tried that; I’ve tried everything; I’ll be wheezing up a storm in thirty minutes. It’s okay; I can camp outside and use your bathroom.”
“Noooo!” they say simultaneously. “We’ll get you a hotel room!”
What? I think. Dammit! Just when I turned off my homophobia, it starts going into overdrive again: Why do they want to get a hotel room? Are they going to gang rape me? (I could take Richard and Wes blindfolded, kinda like how Ron and Patty could have taken me with a shotgun blast to the face, but the mind won’t stop.) Why the hotel?
“You’ve been paddling such a long, long way,” they continue, “and it would be stupid to spend your rest day in a tent.”
“Really guys, it’s okay.”
“No, we insist!” I told you! This is how they get you!
So there I was – pinned against the wall. They tried to come at me with whips and chains and lube; but, I held them off with my paddle! …I really need help. No. They took me to the hotel. I knew… I mean, much as I wanted Patty to realize that there was no reason to be scared, I was telling myself that these men have not offered any reason to make me feel at disease. The monkey mind, however, resists. Wes checked me in under his name. Ah ha! To hide the evidence! Dude, he used his credit card! Duh! What’s he supposed to do – use your name and confuse the clerk? Yes, well… um… you never know! Richard and Wes accompanied me to the door. “Okay,” Richard said, “we’re going to go drink at the bar; just call us when you get cleaned up.” Was that smile a flirty, homo smile? “Okay, Richard, thank you.”
I closed the door behind me. The chain lock was broken. Aha! They’re going to get a new room key – that’s why they used their name – and come in here when I’m in the shower. The desk clerk knew these guys, knew that they bring helpless… Dude, don’t you weigh 215 pounds? Shut up! Listen! …helpless innocents such as myself. And then they try to get in the shower with you!
I got cleaned up, watched some TV, and no one tried to bust in with a strap-on. I met up with the guys at the bar. “I’ve got to go study,” Richard says. “I’m a full-time student now. I used to be a hairdresser, but now I’m studying to be a RN. The cool thing is that I’ll be able to see my kids every day when they come home from school.” God, this is a cool guy. “Well, Ryan,” Richard continues. “You’re going to go out to eat with Wes, and I’m going to study; so see you back at the house.” “Thank you, Richard,” I say feeling stupid for my homo-erotic-o-phobia.
Wes and I go out to eat. It is a dive-y restaruant called Paddy O’Sheas. It is the most cheesy Irish bar and grill I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if the owner knew that “Irish bars do well” and put up anything stock, stereotypical Irish he could. I ordered Chicken Marsala.
The meal is a little greasy and I let the waitress know. “Oh my god, sir, I’m so sorry!”
“Um, don’t be sorry… It’s just…”
“No, no, no…” She wipes her brow. “…This shouldn’t happen. I’m… Oh my god, sorry.”
She whisks the plate away before I can say “WTF.”
The bartender calls over to us. “Glad you guys are here!” he says. He has a long beard, with glassy, worried eyes. “Things have not gone well, you know, the economy and all; we’ll redo it till we get it right. We’ll do it a thousand times if we have to!”
Um, I just wanted some grease taken off. No need for the 5-star…
“Here it is, sir!” the waitress says and wipes her brow. She is fat and blond and excited.
“That’s cool,” I say.
Soon the cook has come out. The waitress looks aghast. Her eyes say “WWWWW TTTTTTTTTTTTTT FFFFFFFFFFFFF are you doing here?”
“Hey bro,” the cook says. “That all right? That Chicken Marsala is supposed to be with a squirt of olive oil. Sorry about that.” He has his wrists taped with duct tape. He smells as if he hasn’t bathed. I think this whole scene is funny. The Chicken Marsala is fine; it just needs less oil! “Dat’s… dat’s just the way it is, you know. Haw’s it taste now?” I taste it.
“It tastes fine.”
“Awright, right, I’m goin’ back. Right.” He goes back.
Waitress returns. “I’mmmm sooooo sorryyyyy,” she says.
“Sorry about what?” I say.
“Sorry you had to see that.”
Ummmmmm, I think.
Back in the Car
“What was she sorry about?” I ask Wes.
Wes is laughing. He’s always laughing. When I ask him in 45 minutes whether he worried about what I was going to think when I realized he was gay, he will laugh. He will shake his head, squint, and laugh again as if I was the absurd one… because I am. “I think,” Wes says, “she was more sorry that we saw the cook than the dinner being messed up.”
“Ha ha ha,” I laugh. “I knooow! It was like, ‘Sorry you had to see our crack-addict cook,’ not, ‘Sorry the Chicken Marsala was not to your liking.’ Is it like that in this town? Are people worried because of the economy, thinking they have to go overboard worrying about you to keep your business?”
Wes just shrugs. He could care less about the economy, what I think about his sexuality, what Burlington thinks about the economy or his gayness, or anything in general. He just laughs again and takes a drag off his cigarette. What a good natured guy, I think. I have defeated wave #2 of homophobia.
Wave #3 of Homophobia Never Comes
I have settled into my relationship with my new friends. I feel comfortable. I realized that I’m not always hanging around gay men, and that some latent, growing-up-in-racist-homophobic-Memphis bullshit is bound to surface. I don’t let it get to me and I don’t take my thinking personally. The thoughts, after all, aren’t even mine, are they? We get home and Richard is dilligently studying. They break out Pepsi and hors d’oeuvres. I pull out the camera and Richard looks disappointed. He puts his books away and looks a bit serious. I want to ask them a little about being gay in a small Iowa town. Wes laughs and will gladly tell me anything I want. Richard seems reticent. I understand. This is, after all, his life. I’m just making a movie. Once again, the balancing act of the documentarian: How do you get people to talk? How do you get compelling footage, emotional truths without coming off like a dickwad? Without intruding too much? I’m not exactly sure how, so I just go for the gold – I ask the tough questions. Gettting a gay perspective on the River is too important, so I’m not going to blow my opportunity.
“What’s it like being gay in Burlington?” I ask.
Wes laughs again. Richard turns serious. “I don’t really think about it,” Richard says tight-lipped.
“Well, I mean, do you ever have any negative experiences here… being gay?”
“No,” Richard says. Wes laughs. Wes tells me that David is the only neighborhood kid that feels safe coming into their home.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“I dunno; they’re afraid we’re going to do something to them.” He laughs again. “This is kinda the neighborhood hang-out; and, they’ll stay on the deck, but (laughs) that’s it.”
David, I find out later, was eyeing me weirdly because he was impressed with me. He was wanting to do something adventurous like me and had read a little bit of my blog. Those were oh-wow-a-celebrity eyes, not gay-stalker-homo eyes. ….Ryan, dude, seriously, you need help.
I finally had to give up on the gay questions after a while. These men were normal, ordianary Americans just trying to survive, just trying to work, just trying to enjoy themselves on the Mississippi River, just trying to be.
“Thanks guys,” I say after I finish my questions. There’s nothing really left to say. It is in fact… normal to be gay. There is no question to ask.
Richard offers me his hand when I say thanks. I try to hug him and he hugs back a little reluctantly. I have intruded into his life. I still don’t know how he feels, his life being fodder for my film. Wes, of course, couldn’t give a shit and gives me some more pearls for the camera – some are gay related, most are not. He just laughs and smokes and takes me back to the hotel.
Richard meets me at the dock in Burlington where the newspaper is interviewing me the next day. This time he offers me a hug and means it. For however much I was worried about him, he was worried about me, and now shows genuing affection that says ‘you’re one of us now; you’re cool.’
Wes drives me down a little further south and puts me in where I can paddle over the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois. “Hey Wes,” I say getting into my boat. “Thanks for everything.” He just laughs and takes a draw off his cigarette. He has his squinty glasses on now and is planning to take the boys out on the boat today. David has convinced four or five of them to go along. Wes and I hug, and we mean it. It’s great. I feel like I accomplished something. I don’t know what… but something. I don’t know if the gay question will even be used in the movie. I don’t know if it is even important. And if you ask Richard and Wes, being gay in a small rivertown in Iowa… isn’t even a question at all.
Current location: Hannibal, Missouri!!!!! Birthplace of Mark Twain and it’s my birthday! Does that mean anything! I hope so.
Love you guys,