This morning I was in Penn Station waiting to board the train I take to work. The train was delayed once again due to yet another amorphous Amtrak problem. Delays are a usual occurrence with the train to New Jersey, so while waiting I was looking at people arriving into the city, seeing who was cute and who was not in order to pass the time.
When I am in public, I try to be invisible and go unnoticed. I look but I rarely interact. I am sort of like a flâneur without the sartorial display who wanders the city, observing, scrutinizing, participating in urban life while simultaneously separating myself from it. I adopt a "blasé attitude" in the sense of the sociologist Georg Simmel.
Then, in an instant, a man wearing a mint green, periwinkle blue and pink plaid shirt and a bright pink fleece vest suddenly entered my world. "Kelly is that you?" Panic. "It's J_____ W_____" After my momentary confusion, I recognized the intruder. Of course, J_____ W_____. We went to school together from the 3rd grade through high school. We talked briefly discussing today's train delay, I told him I live in Chelsea, he told me he lives in Chatham, New Jersey.
Yet while we are talking, I am not really there still dazed by his sudden presence. Instead I am remembering J_____ in 5th or 6th grade as the leader of a posse of boys who stole hood ornaments off of cars. They then hide the ornaments in a box in the woods of the local arboretum. I know this because at some point I was asked to join the gang of petty car vandals. I saw the box in the woods filled with the booty of their exploits. In order to join the group I would have to steal an ornament too and thus secure entrance into this desperate, yet privileged suburban band of 10 or 11 year olds.
I didn't join the posse. I was scared, not of stealing, but of the boys in the group. At that point in my life, my relationship to other boys was changing. Since the age of 5, I had felt though didn't quite understand my attraction to other boys, yet I was still friends with them. Then, at that crucial almost puberty moment, it seemed that the gulf between me and them widened into a vast chasm. It was as if they had a secret handshake among themselves that I did not know and I could not figure out. I had realized my difference. And looking back at that moment in Penn Station, I thought that perhaps if I had joined J_____ W_____'s suburban hoodlums, I would have learned the hidden code and entered the rarified realm of sanctioned masculinity.
J_____ W_____ shook my hand firmly and said goodbye and added, "You look exactly the same" which was a nice compliment and a testament to my use of organic facial products for over 20 years and the fact that I haven't really been in the sun since the age of 16.
As he walked away, I wondered if the hood ornaments were still buried somewhere in the woods of my hometown. I also thought for a brief moment that perhaps J_____ was himself a 'mo like me (but not like me). He was after all wearing a bright pink fleece vest that coordinated with his multi-colored plaid shirt. Is that just suburban preppy or could it be suburban homo? Maybe J_____ lives in Chatham with his partner (both of them straight acting of course) in a house with a white picket fence and a little Chinese girl named _____. They decided to live out the dream of consumer culture and have everything that heterosexuals have, even marriage, only with more style (or perhaps not when one wears a pink fleece.) As Leo Bersani says, "Sex between 2 men is not inherently the basis for a radical political movement."
My imagined life of J_____ W_____ brought a smile to my face, but I was a bit melancholy as well. Even now, I still don't know the secret handshake that other men whether straight or gay seem to possess and use to great effect. I often feel like the Other's Other. This morning, in an instant, I remembered a bit of my past and realized at the same time, how that past is in many ways still my present. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”