Someone did a beautiful job of creative wheatpasting last week. They covered most of a billboard ad for the new Spiderman movie with info for last Saturday's demonstration. But they left just enough of Spidey's head and arms so it looked like he could be throwing rocks instead of spinning webs. Except for that funny outfit, he could have been part of the Intifada.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the book Caucasia and why I picked it up in the first place. I found another book the same way, Terminal Bar by Larry Mitchell. Like Caucasia I picked it off a library shelf and checked it out because it was about Left culture and people trying to survive while partially overwhelmed by the lack of choices they have.
Set in 1979 the book starts with one of the main characters trying to remember what year Allende was assassinated, talking to his cat about the slaughtering of gays in Iran during the revolution, and daydreaming about kidnapping Henry Kissinger* and putting him on trial. All while trying to find the Quaaludes that his cat knocked off the table.
In many ways, this is what the book is about. Set in New York City the characters are Lefty dykes, fags and drag queens who, to varying degrees, see that things are about to get a whole lot worse. Enemies are everywhere: gentrifiers, hyper-masculine clones, gay-bashers, mysterious black limousines, environmental disasters and a changing political climate to name just a few. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to hunker down and wait out the coming storm without disappearing completely. Though they still do activism, they do it with lowered expectations and fatalistic moods. A pro-homeless shelter rally has them chanting "Bums, bums, we’re all bums / Keep the rich on the run!" but they all know it’s just a matter of time before the "bums" are moved out and the rich move in.
In one passage that sets the mood, people are attending a party/art exhibition at a friend’s apartment where every wall is covered with images of South African apartheid:
"Staring at a picture of terrified Black children being gunned down by white policemen, Emma says haltingly, ‘These pictures are eerie. They make me feel guilty for being here having a good time.’ ‘Are you having a good time?’ Robin asks. ‘Well, no, not really. I just got a headache and my stomach is queasy. Actually, I feel rotten. ‘So it’s perfect. This is the right place to feel miserable and guilty.’"
One of the things I found fascinating about this book, written in 1982, is the community of gays and lesbians centered around the bar. One of the claims of ACT UP and Queer Nation in the late ‘80s was that they were creating a queer, mixed gender community for the first time. Terminal Bar represents a hidden history of a similar community years earlier. I wouldn’t claim that it was common, even the characters in the book occasionally say it isn’t, but it is a counter argument to one seamless version of history.
It’s also a book about gay life before AIDS. Everyone is fucking everyone. No one is sick, except for hangovers, and everyone is doing drugs. It’s a sign of a huge cultural change how striking it is NOT to see the word "condom" anywhere in a book with this much male/male sex. (Mitchell also wrote a book called Acid Snow which is his AIDS book. It sets itself apart from that genre** by being incredibly unsentimental.)
Before I re-read the book, I had forgotten that the first 50 pages or so (out of fewer than 200) can be a little clunky at times. Some dialogue is a little forced, more speechifying than conversational. But it’s a great book for a glimpse into a certain time and place that you don’t hear about very much.
*Weirdly the SF Chronicle had a big article in last Sunday’s paper about the possibility of Kissinger going to trial for, among other things, his role in the assassination of Allende and the coup in Chile. In Terminal Bar, the character’s fantasy about this is a sign of disconnection from actual possibilities and something of a bitter joke. Not that I really think Kissinger’s going to trial anytime soon.
**OK this reminds me of a great cartoon I saw once in one of those free gay weeklies. The movie "Longtime Companions" had just come out and it was the first AIDS-oriented gay movie. A heterosexual couple was walking out of the theater. The man says, "Wow, I didn’t realize all gays were so wealthy." The woman replies, "Me either. I knew they were all white though."