New Kid in Town

What confused me was that straight guys in L.A. look and act just like gay men in New York

The author and Tommy.

I had lost my partner and many of my friends to AIDS over the 37 years I lived and loved in New York City. It had gotten so that half the buildings I passed loomed like large tombstones. In addition, the ad agency I worked for had just merged and, having just turned 60, I suddenly became redundant.

My life needed major resuscitation and the idea of the Left Coast had always been very appealing to me. So, my Jack Russell Tommy (named after the rock opera) and I flew to L.A. — the first time ever without the security of a return ticket in hand.

Surveying what I thought was a surprising number of gay men at baggage claim (certainly more than Kinsey’s 10%), I found myself thinking I had a small window where I’d be fresh meat on the scene. Several virtual fiascos with online dating led me to believe that my best chance of meeting a guy in this town would happen organically. This was L.A., after all. My strategy? To treat every time I got out of the car as an opportunity to meet someone. To put it simply, I dressed for every errand. Plaid for the dog park — it went well with the wood chips. Assorted bright colored T-shirts for the supermarket — which complemented the bounty of colorful, fresh California fruit at Gelson’s. And, of course, black for going to the FedEx store to print — because black signaled "writer."

And so it was that my first experience with fuzzy gaydar occurred at the FedEx store on Sunset. What confused me was that straight guys in L.A. look and act just like gay men in New York. They work out. A lot. They wear all sorts of bracelets and sport expensive haircuts. They drive non-family European cars and primp in their rearview mirrors at stoplights. They dress well. Very well. Mostly by dressing down. Great glasses, too. Oh, and they also talk to you …

“Tommy! No Ninja!” I yelled, as my dog did his part by jumping up onto the good-looking man behind us in line.

“Cute dog,” he said. All I could think was, “Cute guy.”

“I’m Jeremiah,” he introduced himself, extending his hand. Yes, a shake was in order. I did the first thing any single gay man does and looked for a wedding ring. There wasn’t one. On either finger.

He went on to offer that he was from New York City — “Bleecker & Perry,” indicating to me that he had lived in quite the gay neighborhood. As a matter of fact, I’d often thought of that particular corner as "the intersection between desire and availability." He came to L.A. to be a personal chef (a man who cooks!), but was printing his résumé for a job at a four-star restaurant in town.

“How’s the rest of your crew adjusting to the West Coast?” I asked, purposefully using “crew” as it was a gender-neutral term and could apply to a family of any composition.

“No crew," he answered, "I came out here alone.”

Taking in his appearance, noting the dog tags around his neck and array of leather and string and metal bracelets on his wrist (never mind the skinny jeans and work boots), I was picking up some seriously strong signals.

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It was my turn at the counter. The girl inserted my thumb drive into the computer and printed my stuff. I nodded to Jeremiah, feeling like a 60-year-old chicken as I quickly left the store and got into my car. I started backing out of the lot. Then I pulled back in. Wait. What was I doing? No, I couldn’t possibly approach him. I pulled out again. Then back in, pronouncing to the dog, “Where are we going to meet someone? Right here, that’s where! And right now!” I jerked the car into park, grabbed Tommy and marched back inside.

“Hey, Jeremiah.” He looked up, a tad confused, lost in the hypnotic thump-tha-rump of a copier.

“Listen, I hope you don't take this the wrong way,” I stammered. “I mean, don’t get offended if I’m barking up the wrong tree. You know, don’t beat me up or anything … but would you be interested in having dinner sometime?”

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“Um, no?” Jeremiah replied, his head tilted, clearly perplexed.

Jeremiah, of course, was straight. My gaydar? Obviously, still tuned to some AM frequency of yore ... when the Village People were on every station.

It was while in a writing class at UCLA that I had an epiphany. The teacher was cute and he didn’t wear a ring. But he made sure to mention his two daughters within the first five minutes of the first class.

I realized then that with marriage equality, gay adoptions and shake-and-bake babies, being married, having kids and wearing a ring (or not, forget about on which finger) doesn’t really say anything about your sexual orientation. Not any more, say, than the professional sport one plays.

I’ve come to see that my fuzzy gaydar is less a L.A./N.Y. thing and more a shift that occurred while I wasn’t looking, a shift in how gay people have assimilated over the years. What once distinguished us gays — a certain sense of style — now belongs to everyone. Gay culture once stood counter to. That’s how we defined ourselves. That’s where the fun was. Today, gay culture is one of inclusion in. What was once code and subtext is now the stuff of network sitcoms and the narrative of our everyday lives.

Sussing out the right guy used to be easy back in the day when sex was the gay handshake. Who doesn’t remember the hanky code? Finding someone who was looking for the same thing as me was as easy as spotting the guy with the robin's-egg blue hanky in his back right pocket.

But hankies aren’t in today, on either coast. Besides, I just checked the Gay Hanky Code online and there isn’t a color that says, “Gives love,” nor does it indicate which side you’d wear it on to signal “receives same.” The closest I could come for now was Calico colored on the left side. That means "new in town."

Tags: memoirs