Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jerry Weiss is a writer and semi-retired consultant with the political section of CNN. These are survival costumes, however; he considers himself, now and forever, a gay hippie.
It was late on Christmas Eve, 1971, in San Francisco, and I was on my way home to Berkeley, to join my man Bob in our little rented cottage. I was coming from a party my friend Steve had invited me to, in some richly appointed digs near Ghirardelli Square where he was staying. The owner was a kind of wealthy hippie and always had a house full of new age hangers-on, old friends, assorted young men chosen for their spectacular looks, and dope dealers. We'd been smoking his Maui Wowie and listening to Virgil Fox's album "Heavy Organ," and the St. Matthew Passion while tripping on the holiday decorations, the geodes and the moving op art he had projected on the walls.
I myself, a former doctoral student and sometime actor, was currently on the very fashionable at-the-time ATD (Aid to the Totally Disabled), California's gift to the well-educated, proletarian leisure class who'd copped to "going crazy" on LSD as a way of getting out of working while we toked up, had lots of sex, and studied the Bhagavad Gita, St. John of the Cross, Buddhist sutras, Carlos Castenada, Black Elk, Sufi texts, the Kabala, and anything else we were turned on to by our fellow Age of Aquarians.
I took the Polk St. bus, passing a few desultory hustlers, last minute shoppers at Walgreens, and drunken customers of gay bars making their way home, and decided to get off at Eddy St. and walk the rest of the way to the East Bay Bus Terminal on Mission St. (BART wasn't open yet.). Eddy St. is the main drag of the Tenderloin, an old last-chance district mainly consisting of cheap hotels, seedy bars and those who had hit bottom, San Francisco's version of the old Bowery in Manhattan. At the time, many of the city's gay bars were still located there... some were dives, others were hustler bars or drag show bars all gussied up for the holidays with lots of tinsel and twinkling lights.
Coming down from my high, I was thinking of the Presbyterian church I had been to that week, where I had heard they were granting small stipends to the down and out. I had pleaded the same case I had to the state - I was out of funds and couldn't get myself together because I had screwed up my mind with acid. The female minister had given me a hundred bucks. Was I scamming her? Was I really fucked up? There certainly were a dozen communes where I had friends and could easily get a meal, and shit, I had just been to a mansion on North Point where I'd been served champagne and canapés.
Musing on these contradictions, as I neared Market St. I passed a gay bar, and lying in the gutter was a maybe thirty- or forty-something man with a gash on his forehead. The fog had turned to a slight drizzle, and he was also wet. Had he been in a fight in the bar and gotten thrown out on his ass? Was he just drunk and fallen and hit his head? In any case, he was the picture of misery. What other pedestrians there were were passing him by and ignoring him.
It being Christmas Eve and all, I was feeling a bit holy, even though I considered myself a Buddhist Jew, emphasis on the boo, and thinking about the sincere young minister who'd given me the $100, I asked myself what JC would do. The gutter was no place for this guy to spend the night - he'd probably gotten stinking drunk out of loneliness at Christmas.
I reached down and helped him up. "Where do you live?" I asked, "I'll take you home." He looked at me dazed and confused. "Wha..?" He looked pitifully into my eyes. I tried to look kindly.
"Mission and Fifth"
"C'mon, let's get you home and clean up that cut." I offered him my arm. He looked at me like I was Jesus and leaned into me.
I did kinda look like Jesus at the time - I had hair past my shoulders and a beard. Muscular and short, I was still thin at 32 and had a baby face which made me look younger. Sometimes I would clean up my act, put on a suit and turn tricks in front of the St. Francis Hotel - more for kicks than for a steady income, but that's a story for another time.)
We stumbled down the streets in relative silence, me steadying him when he was about to fall, him leaning into me, and occasionally looking at me like I was an angel. Eventually we arrived at the kind of dusty, creaky, rooming house smelling of decades of accumulated booze, cigarettes and dried cum that so typical of the Tenderloin and the South of Market neighborhood (at the time) of San Francisco. There was an attendant behind a desk who looked at me quizzically, like maybe I was a hustler who was gonna take this guy up to his room to rob him.
"It's okay," I said, "He's my friend. I found him lying in the street with this gash in his forehead, I'm going to take him up to his room and clean him up and put him to bed." The attendant went back to his newspaper and we trekked up three flights of stairs to a tiny room with a bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, and a single bulb on a chain hanging from the ceiling.
I sat him on the bed and wet the towel hanging on a nail by the sink in the room. "This may sting a little," I said, and carefully washed his wound. It was superficial, he'd be okay as long as it didn't get infected. He sat there and let me do my thing, all the time looking at me like a little boy.
Finishing up, I lay him down on the bed, and brushed his hair from his face. "What's your name?" I asked. I don't remember what he said. "I'm Jerry..... what happened?"
He mumbled something about being out drinking because he was feeling bad about it being Christmas Eve and he had no one to be with. I brought the chair over, and held his hand and caressed his hair.
"I'm going to sit with you for a while.... then I have to go home, the last F bus for Berkeley leaves at 1:10, otherwise I'll be stranded." He looked at me with such disappointment. He didn't say it, but I know he wanted me to stay and maybe lie down beside him.
"You be sure and go to the emergency room tomorrow if this looks bad," I told him.
After about a half hour, it was time to go if I was going to make the bus. I got up to leave.
"You...can't...stay??" he mumbled. Such a devastated look.
"Gotta make my bus."
And I left, after caressing his cheek and telling him to take care.
Should I have stayed? Did I make things better or worse? Should I have left him in the gutter? What happened to him? Is he still alive? Does he remember this episode? Did he get AIDS? Did he sober up and go back to, I don't know, Oklahoma, and enter into a loveless marriage? Was he a great writer who was buoyed by my kindness (?) and went on to write great books? Did he get drunk again on Christmas Day and end up in jail or the hospital? Who was this stranger that passed through my life that evening?
As I write this, it's 37 years later --- I'm an old man now, though like almost every gay man I know, I can pass for ten years younger. It's Christmas eve, I'm alone and about to make dinner. The TV and the net are my companions ... although I do have a wide circle of friends, they're not here tonight. I'm just thinking about this little encounter and wondering what happened to the guy.
Peace on earth, good will to men, y'all.