Saturday, June 2, 2007


I just watched Johns, a film directed and written by Scott Silver, about two hustlers in L.A., played by Lukas Haas and David Arquette. There were some things that didn't quite ring true, seemed too self-conscious maybe, but there was plenty of humor and sadness and beauty, the things I look to films for. If you like your movies to be perfect, don't watch it; otherwise I recommend it. Heartbreaking performances by both lead actors, and some beautiful photography of seedy L.A.

I think, like most people, from time to time I romanticize prostitution. A certain type of prostitution, young kids on the street living by their wits, keeping their own hours. Whatever it really is, it looks like freedom.

Now that I'm older -- and desperate sometimes to possess something capable of generating income for me without much sacrifice or effort -- I look at young hustlers with some envy. I suppose it is because I'm older and experienced enough to apparently put very little value on sexual intimacy that I can see prostitution as not involving a great deal of sacrifice or effort. I guess I'm saying that if I could I'm not so sure I wouldn't.

My second job in New York, after I dropped out of Parsons, was in the stockroom of the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was 22. I made $4.35 an hour. My rent was just under $300. I got by, but it was tough. One of my supervisors was a very fat man, in his thirties, bitchy, dry sense of humor. A huge flirt.

I wasn't attracted to him, but I was very attracted to the effect I had on him. He was closeted in that disorienting way men seldom are any more. He was a big queen, but whenever he talked about his dates or boyfriends, he would use "they" or "she" when he meant "he."
He knew I was gay, I didn't hide it, and he purposely set up situations where we would be working together alone. It didn't bother me at all. I liked him, and I had some sense of the power the situation gave me. That is, I didn't have to work too hard.

He told me about the hustler bars he frequented. There was a notorious place called Rounds in the east fifties. I think it was sort of a piano bar for well-to-do businessmen and their rent boys. Definitely not street hustlers, these were well-groomed boys in polo shirts and chinos. I asked a lot of questions, about the boys, about the way it worked. It was new to me. At that age, I wasn't what you would call naive, but there were things I didn't know yet. I was unshockable, but there were still quite a lot of things waiting for me to be unshocked by.

He'd say things like, "You'd be very popular there. We'll have to work on your image a bit, artsy doesn't go over well with that crowd. But you've got a pretty face." I told him that I was curious, but intimidated, since I'd never done anything like that before. He said that, in that case, it would be best to try it out with someone I know first and see how I like it. I was a little freaked out. Turned on, but freaked out. I dropped the conversation and he didn't push.

But a few days later, he offered me a ride home in his car, and he made it clear that there could be a stop on the way, and that there was cash to be made, if I was up for it. I said no. But I doubt that, had I stayed at that job making so little money and being so strapped all the time, I would have resisted his offer if it had come again. Very soon after that I got a job waiting tables in the cafe in the basement of Bloomingdale's, the first of many New York restaurant jobs. My life changed completely. I left work every day with pockets full of cash, and I forgot all about that guy and his offer to make me a star.

It's impossible to speculate. I think back then sexual intimacy really was something precious, despite my jaded pose. This was before my first real boyfriend, before my heart had been broken. And I know for a fact that -- though the prospect turned me on -- I didn't see myself as someone sexy enough to pay for. So who knows how it would have turned out if I hadn't got the Bloomingdale's job? What I do know is that I had that option -- then, when I didn't have the confidence or savvy or detachment to take advantage of it -- and I don't have that option now.

Friday, June 1, 2007

I'll Do Some Stupid Things for Money. The Question Is, How Much?

I've been doing these drug trials to pay the bills since last fall. It seems like I've done dozens of them, but it's really only two. I've gone through various levels of the screening process for several that I didn't end up going through with. My penicillin allergy excluded me from a couple of them, and once it was an arcane heart rhythm thing. Once I bowed out because the drug was an anti-depressant with psychosis being one of the possible adverse effects, and I figured I'm already fucked up enough to risk that.

I was all set to do one from June 5 through 15, which was really stretching my cash reserve beyond the breaking point. I had passed the first series of screening tests, and I had an appointment for the final screening physical this morning, but they called yesterday and told me I had been excluded. I had already decided that if I couldn't do that one, I would screen for an $8,500 study that runs from June 19 through July 31. Six weeks.

I'll admit, it seemed daunting. I would be locked up in a cold, sterile clinic for a month and a half, with no sunlight or exercise. I would miss the best part of the summer harvest in the garden. My life would be completely disrupted. I would miss my planned trips to Nashville and Indiana in June.

But, for six weeks I would have hours and hours, days on end of time for writing, reading, thinking, and re-writing. I would be in an air-conditioned complex for six weeks in the middle of summer in Texas. And, I would get a check for $8,500. That much money would make a big difference in my life. I could get new glasses, get my teeth fixed, and pay off about half of my debt, which would make my monthly expenses thereafter much lower.

The first screening visit was this morning at 8 a.m. I had to get up at 5:30 to catch a 6:45 bus. The buses here are clean and reliable, but it takes forever to get anywhere because they run so infrequently. J is out of town, or I would have asked to borrow his truck, in which case I could have left the house at 7:30.

I was up till almost 2 last night. I haven't been sleeping well lately. I took a nap yesterday afternoon, and last night I had coffee at about 9 with our friend S from Nashville. I don't what I was thinking ordering a large iced coffee at that hour. I guess I just wasn't thinking.

At the first screening visit for these things, they walk you through a pile of paperwork, and they read word-for-word a consent form which explains the study in detail. This is where you find out exactly what will be expected of you. I like the ones -- like the second study I did -- where you just take the drug and then they take blood samples and monitor vital signs periodically.

But some studies, like the first one I did, are designed to measure the drug's effect on heart activity, so you have to wear a portable heart monitor for hours on end, sometimes sleeping with it on, and most of the day you're lying down while they hook wires onto adhesive pads on your torso and connect you to a computer. It was exhausting, left little time for anything else, and at the end of the study my hips and back ached from lying on the ECG table and the pads left itchy, red spots on my flesh that lingered for weeks afterwards.

The study today looked fairly easy. Mostly dosing and checking blood levels. But then he got to the side effects. Usually the list includes headache, nausea, sleeplessness, stuff like that. Sometimes there are nastier things like diarrhea, vomiting, bloody stool. Icky, but, I don't know, I figure I can deal with diarrhea for a few days if it comes down to it.

But in one of the previous studies of this drug, a certain number of study subjects had heart attacks and strokes, and some of them died. Hm. I asked if they could give us a percentage. I was wondering about the odds. I mean, even Tylenol has pretty scary possible side effects, but statistically speaking your chances are pretty good that it's just going to get rid of your headache. But heart attack? Stroke? Suddenly it all seemed very vivid.

I actually sat there for a few minutes and pondered the question. New glasses, getting out of debt, peace of mind for a couple months of my life. What kind of risk will I take for that? A heart attack? Is it worth it?

But I got up and left. One other guy left too. There were a few scared faces in that room. Some people who do these studies do them because they want to buy a new car, or couch, or pay off a credit card, do some Christmas shopping. Some people, like me, do them because whatever it is they have chosen to do, feel called to do, doesn't compensate them with money for their time and effort. Some people do them because they have no other way to support themselves or their families.

How poor am I? I am almost poor enough to risk a heart attack for $8,500. Very close.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dinner and Losing Sleep.

An old friend from Nashville is visiting Austin this week with two friends. They're all students at Bard College in New York State. We haven't seen our friend, S, in a couple years, maybe longer. We had them over for dinner tonight.

When J. and I lived in Nashville (1998 - 2000), we made friends early on with S's family. They went to our church. Her parents are a few years older than us, S was 13 at the time, and her sister was 11. Sometimes I find myself referring to the girls as "our friends' daughters," and other times I call their parents "our friends' parents." They came as a unit; it was more like being friends with a family than having individual relationships with them.

It was a great evening. I almost always find people in their twenties fascinating, but S and her friends are especially interesting, funny, smart. It's such a great age to be. Pretty often I feel like I have much more in common with people in their early twenties than I do with most people my age.

The food was delicious and easy, since I had everything ready to throw together at the last minute. Or, I should say, it was easy to throw everything together at the last minute, because I spent the afternoon getting everything ready.

We had a panzanella with grilled asparagus, fire-roasted red and yellow peppers, arugula, picholine olives, manchego cheese, with a spring onion red wine vinaigrette. And then pasta with green beans, English peas, and gremolata (which is garlic, lemon zest, and Italian parsley minced very fine) with parmesan cheese. Everyone ate heartily and had seconds. (Hungry college students.)

The panzanella was outstanding, I thought. I'd like to do that one again soon, just for us. I started with a recipe from Everyday Greens, but substituted asparagus for the artichokes and altered the dressing a little. The pasta was very tasty, but I wanted it to be saucier. I was afraid to add too much water, because I didn't want to dilute the flavors. I love the combination of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley.

(I also thought the green beans were a little overdone and the peas a little underdone. J. would say I'm being silly, which, of course, is true, because the food was really very, very good. Still, I fret over the doneness of beans and peas. It'll be on my mind for at least several days.)

For dessert we had a store-bought apple pie with Blue Bonnet vanilla ice cream. I can't remember where the pie came from, but it was a great pie and there's still half of it left in the fridge.

I broke in the grill with the asparagus and peppers. We bought it last week at the hardware store, just a small, inexpensive table-top grill, no more than we need. It did a fantastic job, and I managed to get a nice fire going without using lighter fluid. Since I had such a nice hot fire still going after I'd done my grilling for tonight's dinner, I roasted some poblanos to peel and freeze for later. I like to have roasted poblanos around for sandwiches.

I didn't sleep at all well last night. I was running through tonight's menu in my head, over and over. I hate when I do that. Cooking, especially cooking for guests, is something I enjoy almost more than anything else I do, but for some reason it can also bring me anxiety. I want so badly for the food I prepare to be delicious, beautiful, perfect. Some of my most painful memories are of meals gone wrong, guests smiling and complimenting food that I know is not good. Humiliation, failure.

Speaking of humiliation, failure, and losing sleep, the other thing that kept me up last night was anticipation of my appointment this morning at the city STD clinic. This is the third time since I moved to Austin last fall that I have had to be treated for an STD. And yes, I know, I have been promiscuous lately. But Jesus, this seems really out of proportion. When I lived in San Francisco last year, I was having just as much sex, probably more, and I never caught anything.

By itself, it's unpleasant enough. Feeling morally corrupt, unclean, deserving of the punishment of the symptoms themselves as well as the unique discomforts of the clinic visit, all the things we're supposed to feel. It's hard to escape the neat God's-wrath justice of it. Have sex with too many people, and I'll make your penis hurt like a motherfucker. Show you.

But for me, the hardest part of the ordeal is the HIV test. No matter what you go in for, while you're there they want to take blood and run an HIV antibody test. Now, I just had an HIV test last week when I screened for the drug trial, and it was negative. So I shouldn't have been worried. But it's nerve-wracking every time.

I'm irrationally terrified of this test. In my head, as I try to sleep, I force myself to imagine over and over the moment of being told that I have tested positive, make myself feel that horror, make myself run fast-forward through the rest of my life with a horrible, stigmatized affliction, make myself feel the blunt, stupid shame of having a preventable but deadly disease, telling J., telling my family, taking on the pain and sorrow they feel for me. It's a fucking nightmare.

I put off my first HIV test until 1990, even though it was available years before that. Of all people, I should have been tested early. I moved to New York in 1981. I discovered the bathhouses in 1982, and I had a lot of unprotected sex during that crucial window: before anybody knew what AIDS was but when lots of people were infected. Back then, I justified my reluctance by saying that there wasn't much one could do. For a while, this was true. And back then (once we heard that "the AIDS virus" was transmitted sexually, around 1985) I was religious about condoms. We all were. No fucking without condoms. No question. That was just what one did. I was in a relationship from 1984 through 1989. My partner and I did not use condoms, but, when we had sex outside the relationship, we did. Neither of us got tested before we separated.

When I finally got tested, I was shocked when I found out I was negative. It didn't seem possible. I saw it as an undeserved gift. I had taken huge risks and avoided infection. I vowed to be safe always. If I had made it through my most promiscuous period in the early eighties in New York without contracting HIV, I owed it to myself to stay negative.

And that's a vow I have repeated to myself every time. Every time I have broken my rules, crossed a line, taken a risk I promised myself I wouldn't. Every time I contract some other STD and, while at the clinic, have to take an HIV test, I make the same deal with myself: "If I'm negative, I'll never do anything risky ever again." It's a bad deal. Any deal involving sexual abstinence is a bad deal. Sexual desire cannot be subjected to contracts.

This morning at the clinic they told me I didn't need to do the HIV test since I had tested so recently. They treated me for the other thing and sent me home feeling like a disappointing child.

I want to give up sex. For a while. I don't want to feel that feeling again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not Hardly Worth It.

I harvested our soybean crop today. Five plants, about 30 beans. I boiled them and J. and I ate them with a little sea salt. They barely covered the bottom of a ramekin. Not exactly high yield. More of an experiment than a crop. Even before the bugs got to them, they didn't seem happy. Maybe it was the partial shade, or the soil. I'm thinking no soybeans next year.

About a third of them were destroyed by the big black bugs. It turns out they're suckers, not chewers, so I couldn't see the damage they were doing. It looked like they were sitting there doing nothing, so I left them alone, but, while I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, they were enjoying soybeans through a straw for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Speaking of the bugs, I relocated about 8 of them this morning. I've become very brave, chasing them up and down the tomato plant, grabbing at them with my fingers. There were a few on the Thai chile plant. Now that they're done with the soybeans, they're on to the next course. I guess they like spicy food.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Moving Day.

J. was in Houston and didn't get home until late, so I had to be a man and deal with the bugs myself. I knew I would lose sleep if I let them stay there until the morning.

I waited for a break in the rain and then I went out to the garden with a plastic shopping bag. The ones on the soybeans were fairly easy. I held the bag open underneath the leaf they were huddled upon and shook the plant until most of them fell into the bag. I saw a few fall to the ground and scurry away. "I'll be back," I said.

The tomato colony was trickier. The fruit they were congregating on is nestled in the branches of the plant so that I couldn't get the bag under it easily. By the time I got the bag situated, a lot of the bugs had left the green tomato and hidden under leaves. And these ones were holding on more tightly than the ones on the soybeans; they didn't fall when I shook the plant.

So I swallowed hard, took a breath, and started slowly picking the bugs off the plant with my fingers. After the first one I touched didn't fly into my face and start burrowing into my eyes, or jump on my arm and dig a hole and lay eggs, or even bite me, I became braver. They're not real fast, these bugs, so I was able to grab most of them and fling them into my plastic bag.

Then what? I didn't have a plan. When we've removed caterpillars from the bean plants or snails from the climbing spinach, we've just tossed them over to the other side of the yard, which is a chaotic, mostly feral garden of assorted perennial flowers and vines and ground cover plants, a cactus, and a few tropical tree-like plants that J. planted, which we haven't given a whole lot of attention after J. cleared the dead brush in March. A sidewalk up the middle of the front yard separates the two sides, and I'm sure eventually the snails and caterpillars can make their way back to the vegetables, but I guess we hope they'll find something over there to munch on, and, if they come back, at least the sidewalk will slow them down. But I wanted to get these black bugs farther away.

Eventually I set them free around the side of the house, almost at the back, in the grove of bamboo that shades my bedroom windows. I don't know if they'll find anything to eat back here. I also don't know that they won't easily make their way back to the garden. If they do, I'll have to take them on a longer trip next time.

The first season I spent in Utah, two years ago, I lived in an old RV that was parked on my friend's yard (when I moved there, she was just my boss and landlord, not a friend yet) under a stand of blue spruce trees. It was a little idyll, a perfect home for a long summer. The only problem was that all the ducts and storage spaces under and through this RV were the winter home of a city of field mice.

When I moved in, we cleaned the RV thoroughly which scared away most of them, but I moved there in March, and it was still very cold until almost June, so they weren't ready to give up their nice warm digs. They kept coming back. Every night I put out a live trap, and every morning there would be two or three mice in it. I carted them on my bike to a field about a mile away and set them free.

This went on until the weather was hot enough that they didn't want to be inside anymore. (I didn't blame them -- neither did I.) I wondered as I relocated mice every morning whether it was the same few mice coming back every day because they enjoyed their morning bike ride.

Anyway, this morning I went back out with my plastic bag and removed another dozen or so bugs from each location. I don't know if these were the ones that hid from me yesterday, or if they're the ones I moved and they found their way back.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Update: Bad Bugs.

I identified the bug. It's the leafrooted bug or Leptoglossus phyllopus. It turns out they're up to no good. Strange that they haven't started eating anything, but maybe they don't need to eat right away. I probably don't have much time now, though, since they've been there a while and they're obviously growing up and I imagine will need to eat something soon.

If it weren't pouring down rain, I'd run out there right now and get rid of them. But how? I hate to just kill them, but if I move them, how far do I have to move them to keep them from coming back? And how do I get them off the plants without touching them (because I will not touch the bugs)?

I'll ask J. when he gets home what he would do. He's more consistent than I about not killing things as a matter of principle. He won't even kill mosquitoes, whereas I'll kill one and feel good about it, thinking, "I just saved myself about 8 big itchy red welts!" Lately, the mosquitoes are light, maybe one or two will bother me when I'm sitting on the porch. I'll get a few bites on my ankles. However, when it gets warmer, there will be swarms of them biting every unprotected bit of skin, even my scalp. When it gets like that, killing one or two doesn't have the same emotional payoff because it doesn't have a noticeable effect on the number of bites I get.

Those fucking bugs better not eat my tomato!

Garden Horror.

About a week ago, maybe more, I noticed a gaggle of red bugs on one of the soybean plants. Maybe I wrote about it, I can't remember now. There were probably about fifty of them, the size and color of ladybugs, but differently shaped. They were mostly on the beans, not so much on the leaves. I couldn't find anything resembling them when I searched the Internet bug-identification sites.

I kept an eye on them all day and decided to leave them be, since they didn't seem to be eating the beans or the leaves. I know there are good bugs and bad bugs -- despite the fact that all bugs are creepy -- and maybe they're hanging out there because they like to eat other bugs that are eating the plant.

Still, they seriously creeped me out, all of them just sitting there. What were they waiting for? Even though they weren't moving around much, their little legs and antennae twitched. I just shuddered even as I typed that last sentence.

Days and days go by, they're still there. A couple times they moved en masse to a different part of the plant. Every once in a while I spot one brave little red bug separate from the herd, even as far away as the next plant, but mostly they're huddling together. It has rained on and off for several days, but they don't seem to be affected.

Then one day I see that one of them is larger and grey. Did she just appear, or did I just now notice her? And where did she come from? Was she, until that day, small and red, and she underwent a metamorphosis? She is always in the center of the cluster. Maybe she's the queen. Do little red bugs have queens?

Yesterday I noticed a bunch of them on one of the green tomatoes, the biggest one, the first to appear. The tomato plant is several feet away and on the other side of a large tree from the soybeans. This is a good sign, that they're hanging out on the tomato. It convinces me that they're eating bad bugs, probably aphids. Anything that eats aphids gets amnesty in the garden.

But when I went to check on them today, from afar the tomato they were hanging out on looked mottled with black, and my heart sank. I thought they had eaten it, or shit all over it, or somehow destroyed it. But, instead, the creepy but cute little red bugs have morphed into big, black, extra-creepy, not-at-all-cute bugs. The ones on the soybean plant have done the same thing.

I'm going to have nightmares tonight for sure.