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Cruising, acrylic, 23" x 17," $350

 


COMMENTARY

Cruising, Cape Town , South Africa, 1976

     The house was of flesh-colored brick with pillars that carried a domed roof, and as I knocked at the door I felt slightly apprehensive; for the story had it that Ms Patterson, a Leftist groupie, had hot pants for anyone even slightly radical.  Her flame-colored hair swept into a tower, she greeted me effusively and ushered me into the living room whose walls were thing-packed with about a dozen little nuggets of erotica.  As I was examining the collection, the second dinner guest, Byron, round and fat as a pat of butter, burst out into a bray of laughter upon entering the room.

     "Once in a blue moon I come here just to look at the collection.  How do you do.  It is always a pleasure to meet an American.  Compared to us South Africans you Americans are so-- how should I put it?-- liberated."

     Ms Patterson put her hand on her hip.   "I say, you're looking super, Byron."

     "Yes.  I have been riding high.  A trip to Durban where the lightening of madness struck."

     "What happened?"

     Byron smiled puckishly.  "An adventure, Ms Patterson, an adventure of the first order."

     "Tell us about it."

     "I don't know if it would be at all proper, especially in front of someone I don't know.  But then you Americans are so liberated.  You will never believe what happened.  To think that I of all people should be thrown out of the Grand Hotel of Durban!"

     Ms Patterson looked aghast.  "What in the world were you doing in that flophouse?"

     "For the benefit of your American guest I must describe the Grand Hotel.  Only then will you appreciate the nuances.  The Grand Hotel is the oldest hotel in Durban.  From the outside it is exquisite, straight from the Left Bank of Paris.  But within-- well, let me only say that at the height of the season the hotel charges fifteen rand a week with breakfast.  The window in my room was broken and the cockroaches had to be seen to be believed.  But to descend each morning the staircase of the Grand Hotel over moth-eaten carpets and past light fixtures hanging by their wires from the walls, to enter the lobby and to see the derelicts lounging in the midst of such total dilapidation-- it was worth every bit of discomfort."

     "But what were you doing there?"

     "I'll come clean, Ms Patterson.   Cruising.  I know, the worst is the corruption of the best.  Durban gave ear to my prayers.  Who would ever have thought that I would strike gold?  It was the sixth evening and with my night-owl habits I was strolling along the esplanade when I spied the Angel on the beach.  His hair was tousled.  He had a black eye and he had two front teeth missing.  A Hell's Angel, perfect brutehood on earth.   He made my soul topple over.  I could not resist.  I sat down and asked, 'Do you know where I can buy some dagga?'"

     "What's dagga?"

     "What you Americans call marijuana.   The Angel was most accommodating.  We went to an alley near the hotel where this tough customer sold the Angel the dagga and then I invited him back to my hotel to smoke.  Of course he might have taken me for every cent I had, but I wanted so much to cradle him in my arms.  Oh, it was so marvelous!  He took off his jacket and I couldn't believe my eyes.  The Angel had sixteen tattoos.  He was the Minotaur of my dreams.  And so stupid too.  An Afrikaner, he could barely speak English.   I remember it step by step.  When at the Gate of Paradise who could forget details?  It was all carnality.  You see, the Angel had no money, not a cent since he had just been robbed.  I propositioned him, offered him ten rand."

     "But what happened?"

     "You'll never believe what he said.  As he was getting undressed-- and how he shook his soft curls!-- he muttered, 'In Jo'burg this is the latest thing.'"

     "Is it?"

     "Why, of course."

     "But how did you get thrown out of the hotel?"

     "At seven in the morning I told him to leave, but when I went down at eleven to renew my week's rent the Coolie at the desk said,'Your room has been reserved.  And there are no others.'  They must have smelled the dagga.  And this despite the fact that the hotel was half empty.   They must have heard us or smelled the smoke or seen the Angel leave."

     "So what did you do?"

     "I checked into another hotel."

     "You're lucky you didn't get arrested."

     With an air of conspiracy about him Byron continued, "In the second hotel there were warm gusts of comfort and the Angel joined me."

     "You mean you saw him again?"

     "There was a majesty almost Papal about the Angel.  And besides, we decided to go into business together."

     "Business!"

     "After we played out game of dreams, the Angel said he needed fifty rand to buy dagga to sell in Jo'burg.  There, he claimed, he's quadruple the price.  How could I refuse him?  The Angel was of the order of supernatural creatures.  And what animal magnetism he had!  I gave him the fifty rand and waited three days for his return, as we agreed."

     "Did he come back?"

     "No.  I was blue in the face.  But love 'em and leave 'em, I say.  It was only pin money."

     "So you've had a spree, Byron, you perfect Dirty Old Man."

     I addressed Byron with some hesitation.   "Is there really a gay scene in South Africa?"

     "By and large only in Jo'burg and in Cape Town during the summer.   South African males are so aggressively heterosexual that it's not quite the rage despite what the Angel said.  Here in Jo'burg there's one bar in Hillbrow, a Turkish bath, and three discotheques."

     "I went to the Anaconda the other night."

     "Did you, Ms Patterson?  We must take our American friend to the Anaconda."

     "What's the Anaconda?"

     "The new gay discotheque. It's just marvelous.  The latest music.  Everyone goes there.  The in-place."

     Suddenly Byron's eyes widened.  A black servant in an open-weave shirt entered with a tray of whiskey sours and quickly left.   Ms Patterson excused herself.

     "Are you aware of who that was?" whispered Byron.

     "No."

     "Not a word or it will spread like wildfire.   But they live a deux."

     "Who?"

     "The black servant and Ms Patterson."

     "I don't believe you."

     "Shhh.  Mum's the word.  Ms Patterson is so trendy.  I do love her so much."

     "Do these things actually go on here?"

     "How naive can you be?  Of course.   But it's all hush hush.  The Immorality Act, you know.  Occasionally it makes the news, but throughout South Africa there are couples living together who have crossed the color-line, living in cellars, in odd places.  Why, I once had a black gardener.  But shhhh....."

     Ms Patterson entered.  "I do wonder where my other guests are."

    "While we wait let's have another drink and I'll tell you how I was recently almost murdered."

    "Byron, what happened?"

     "First, let me say that there are two stories, the official and the unofficial ones.  Only the unofficial one is entirely true.  But how divine your new painting is.  I only just noticed it.  Where did you get it?"

     "Byron, you're playing games.  Let's get back to the murder incident."

     "Sit tight, Ms Patterson.  At Skyline, the gay bar in Hillbrow-- a dangerous place, by the way.  Remember the person shot in the loo last year?--  I spied amidst the odds and ends this perfect number, a boy cherub, and tattooed too.  Ah, these lukewarm unions!  How I dream of something permanent.  I bought him a drink.  The Pearl of the Antilles I called him.   But when I got to the point of offering him twenty rand for the night I was actually having the shakes.  How he cocked his head to the side and smiled!   Together we made a bolt for the door and headed to my flat in Berea."

     "Byron, I didn't know you had moved."

     "No.  Berea is just my flat for assignations.  On the 16th floor of the Metropolitan too.  After all, I wouldn't want some trick to strangle me for my Renoirs in Parkhurst."

     "I should say not."

     "So far so good.  We're walking along when the son-of-a-gun takes out a knife from his leather jacket and says, 'I want you to know I have this knife.  Don't be afraid.  If you want to hold it you can.'   That should have been the tip-off.  But I was perfectly delirium tremens for the rascal and told him I trusted him.  Meanwhile back at the Metropolitan I went off like a rocket.  I asked him if he could get me some dagga."

     "Again!"

     "Ms Patterson, the vices always go together, don't you know?  Besides, dagga is a marvelous hormone cocktail."

     "Too much so."

     "Ah, you've tried it.  Dagga is all the rage.  Everyone smokes dagga in South Africa.  In fact, an American once told me we have the best dagga in the world.  'The Devil's own medicine.' he said, 'And only three dollars an ounce!'"

     "So what happened?"

     "Cock-a-doodle-doo, I've lost the thread of my story.  When I gave him the twenty rand he agreed to get me the dagga and return the next day.  At midnight he left.  Only now does the official story begin.    Appearances, you know."

     "Appearances are everything in South Africa."

     "It must have been 1:30 A:M:.  There was a terrific knock at the door.  I knew it was he.  I decided not to answer.   The knocking continued and I heard, 'Byron, I've got the stuff!'  Vain entreaties, alas! from my better side.  I got up and as I opened the door my blood froze.  There were three of them.  Not a grunt by the way of greeting.  And you should have seen how they strong-armed their way in, taking possession of the place, pulling the telephone chord out of the wall, opening drawers, the refrigerator, the stove, everything."

     'What did they want?"

     "My money, of course.  But I had only five rand.  Then something unusual happened.  One of them claimed to discover a safe in the wall behind a curtain.  I had never even noticed it.  I insisted it was not a safe but a heating apparatus.  Then they got violent.  One of the Holy Terrors actually threw his knife into the door and warned, 'That's what will happen to you if you don't give us the combination.'  I cried out it was not a safe.  Two of them were on the floor trying to pry the thing open with their knives, the third in the bedroom searching the mattress.  Then I had my moment of inspiration.  While the thugs were trying to pry open the safe, I noticed they had left the keys in the door.   So with great presence of mind I rushed lightening fast to the door, opened it, and locked them in."

     "Byron, how daring!"

     "It was a stroke of genius.  You see, there was no way for them to get out except by breaking the kitchen door.  Too terrified even to wait for the lift, I raced down the sixteen flight of steps.  At the eighth floor as  two people were leaving the lift I shouted,  'There are three murderers in 1607.  Call the police!'  Oh, you should have seen Yours Truly in the lobby.  After all, I had only my underpants on.  The Zulu at reception, thinking I was drunk, whisked me into a back room where I explained things and he then phoned the police."

     "So you saved the day."

     "On the contrary.  My problems just began.  When the first squad car pulled up-- nine squad cars with eighteen Afrikaner cops eventually breezed in-- I explained how the rascals pulled knives on me.  So we went up the lift, entered the flat, and there they were stretched out with an air of nonchalance on the divan, swilling Coca-cola, everything in order as if nothing had ever happened.  'Search them for the knives!' I screamed half-hysterical.  But there were no knives.  They must have thrown them out of the window.  I was shaking in every bone.  You  should have seen me as the room filled up with cops.  I was a mess, half-undressed, ranting and raving about the knives.  Then when they all began to speak in Afrikaans I was finished.  One of the cops addressed me and I answered, "I speak only English."

     "You mean after twenty years in South Africa you don't speak Afrikaans?"

     "Who wants to speak kitchen-Dutch?"

     "But it has a great literature."

     "That's what they say, but I don't believe them.  Anyway, I couldn't get a word in edgewise as  they babbled on with the toughs in Afrikaans.  Then a cop said to me, 'We're throwing the book at you.   They claim you made sexual advances to them.'"

     Ms Patterson struck a pose of horror.   "Oh, my goodness, you can be deported."

     "That's what they said.   I felt the sweat rolling down my back.  After all, in South Africa a Sexual Leftist has to mind his p's and q's."

     "So what happened?"

     "The atmosphere was darkening more and more and I had a case of the jitters as the cops wrote down the details.  The sergeant then snapped, 'We don't believe your cock-and-bull story about the knives.  Don't let this happen again or you'll be in hot water.'  Finally they stomped out with the three thugs trailing behind."

     "Byron, how terrible.  What's going to happen?"

     "I don't think anything.  The cops are vicious only when they discover people of different races having sex.  It's the violation of the Immorality Act they're concerned with, not people like myself."

     After dinner and more drinks and more talk the three of us then drove into the bowels of Johannesburg to the Anaconda, a facsimile of ten thousand other gay pick-up points around the globe, where the brain-hammering dissonance of rock immediately reduced us to an embryology of mind.  Here in the semi-darkness of Johannesburg, Citadel of Calvinism and Mammon, the lavender in-crowd danced themselves into a fit of orgiastic purgation.  Beneath the strobe lights half the archetypes of Gaydom from spit-polished machismo bully-boys to transvestites in swishing code-like gait whooped it up.  But the really tantalizing spectacle was not the ruckus on the dance floor but the three black janitors outside the men's room who ogled the Masters exiting and entering in denim tuxedos and drag.  What did the slaves think of the meat parade at the Anaconda?  Of the masquerade-like clothing?  Of the glares and insignias?   Of all the paraphernalia of sexual extremism in the white man's world? (c)

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