"I'm workin' tonight," says the lanky, 30ish man who looks like he hasn't slept for 60 hours. We are waiting outside the men's room at Cruisin' Central, waiting because the door is held shut from the inside, and both of us have to piss. "I can always get some cash off the old fags, but when I saw that girl over there, I didn't know what to say."
The girl he's talking about is my girlfriend. Ten minutes prior, Lanky had offered her a Long Island iced tea while bumming smokes and scoping a possible hustle. On a better night, he would be good-looking, with ruffled Ken-doll hair and thick, too-soon-to-be-there cheek lines that look like parentheses around his mouth.
He says he's been on a roll. After 15 months clean, he is now in the middle of a down, a three-week bender. It looks to me like speed and booze are his drugs of choice, and the resulting synapse lapses in his speech are glaringly meth-obvious; stuttered speech, broken sentences, jilted phrasing and that cow-in-the-pasture glazed stare.
"I jus' need enough . . . I mean . . . tonight, that is, to get more," he continues. Then, laughing oddly, "I sound crazy."
Cruisin' Central is a murky, narrow neighborhood bar on Central Avenue just north of Roosevelt. It's known generally as a gay bar, and some have said that Cruisin' makes the around-the-corner transvestite club 307 look like Disneyland by comparison. It is also said that the uninitiated should not enter here solo.
The main entrance to Cruisin' is off the alley in the rear, and its staid exterior reveals zilch about the inside; there is no neon, no sign and no logo. On the front brick façade, a weathered wreath still hangs from the Christmas holidays, slightly lopsided, offering an oblique greeting to all who come.
A small disco ball and red and green strings of Christmas lights go lengths to seed a blithe ambiance in Cruisin's otherwise somber interior. Cigarette-smoke-stained walls and flimsy tables and benches prop up its Seventies bad-cop-show veneer. The night's in-house security guard, Jay, floats about wearing shades, a smirk and a phony cop badge. And like any shadow, Jay lurks accordingly with an eerie and a disarming presence, watching, then disappearing.
A sign behind the bar reads, "SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT 3:30 OUR NEW STRIP SHOW." The man bartending tonight is Rhonda, a short guy with a pleasant face and a hearty laugh. In the room there's a pool table and two dusty dartboards.
The disparate crowd of 30 or so is a concoction of Anglo, black and Hispanic men and few women. A balding middle-aged gent is standing and kissing a seated, younger guy. Another couple gropes each other at a table. Two thick-ankled transvestites in layers of cheap garb occupy space at the bar, their drinks half-gone, their expressions lifeless.
A low murmur of conversation rises between juke choices of antiquated disco hits and the clicks of pool cues and balls.
After a piss, I make it back to my table and notice the lanky hustler with the hiccup speech has found another on which to hang his sad brogue.
We start talking to an older guy, a man named John David. And I mistakenly call him John.
"Not John," he corrects me, laughing, "John David."
John David is dapper, meticulously dressed, even; manicured nails, big, genial smile, and a remarkable coif like a sandy-haired Jack Lord's. His build, though slight, is trim and well-kept; his gestures are graceful and fluid. He gives his age as 54, and he is eager to talk.
Over the course of a few drinks, John David's tale unfolds. He says he was house boy to actor Will Geer for some years in the Seventies during the actor's stint on the family-valued hit TV show The Waltons. John David was a Chippendale dancer, and even fathered two sons by different women. Of his two sons, one is straight and the other is a gay porn star. John David is an artist, a painter. He is also HIV-positive.
"I met Will Geer on Will Rogers State Beach," John David explains of the man whom he says took him in and gave him a job taking care of his house and garden. "I was sleeping under the boardwalk, he came along, and it was like 5:30 in the fucking morning, and he bent over and he scared the shit out of me.
"Will was six-foot-three; he was a big man, a big, healthy guy. And he had with him a great big purse. He had this huge shoulder purse and a floppy hat. He always wore hats. Loved hats. He had a collection of hats. He came down there, I guess he was off from shooting. This was before The Waltons started."
John David was a kid then, fresh off the boat from a failed teenage marriage in Wisconsin. When he speaks, a tinge of Wisconsin dialect slips through, putting a twist on an otherwise queeny cha-cha.
"Oh, jeez, I had just turned 21. I was just a little bitty baby. Will Geer was a real plain guy, a down-to-earth guy. He was an environmentalist. . . . He was an old hippie, a lot of fun. We went to a lot of places."
Later, he says, Geer set him up with the guy who owns Chippendale's, the world's first all-male, cabaret-style dance act. There John David danced for two and a half years, entertaining countless hyper women and pioneering a modern dance move.
"I was one of the guys who brought in the slow dance, a slow motion dance, the adagio. The adagio is almost like the tango--now it is a lost art. You know when somebody gets adulation, there's always a copycat."
In front of us, John David's obligatory young gay pal, Scott, is dancing with a peculiar life-affirming urgency, his bony frame bending and gyrating in time to the disco thumps. Scott grabs his crotch with one hand, puts the other behind his head and rolls and thrusts his hips forward as he glares and pouts. Scott's face is sharp with tiny, yellowy eyes. He looks bruised somehow, almost wounded. His dancing seems a cathartic release.
John David continues, "Then I met this gal from Hawaii, Randy Lee. She picked me up. She was a transsexual. In fact, I don't even think he had the operation, his penis was so little. Gorgeous person, absolutely fucking beautiful. Black hair all the way down to her ankles.
"She said, 'I'm doing a show around the country, and we are gonna open in San Francisco. Would you join my troupe?' I said, 'Oh, okay,' and we danced behind her, doing back-up vocals."
A move back to San Francisco was next, and there he met a woman named Carla and stayed with her long enough to produce a kid together.
"We had a son, Ryan, and Ryan turned out to be a porno star. I don't know what name he is using now as a porno star. I see his pictures around once in a while. He's buddies with Ryan Idol [gay porn star], I know that."
John David says the first time he was in Phoenix he was with Geer on location for the film Jeremiah Johnson. Now, he lives downtown and is a Cruisin' Central semi-regular. He came back to Phoenix for his health.
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"I found out I had HIV," John David says, his voice rueful and dropping in volume, almost cracking. "And that sort of like put the blanket on everything. Yeah, that was a real bummer. I had moved back to Wisconsin, and I found out I had the virus. I couldn't take the cold temperature up there anymore. I came back to Phoenix; I like it here. And I have been here since. That was in 1990."
"You look great," I say.
"Yeah," he says, laughing. "Pretty good for a 54-year-old fucking faggot!"
Despite its rep as a place to get rolled, Cruisin' Central has had just a few minor liquor violations in the past half-dozen years, and the cops are needed about as often as at any other neighborhood bar. According to a few patrons, Cruisin' Central is just an old watering hole for working-class queens.
Walking out, I ask Jay the all-in-black shadowy security man if he has to break up many fights.
His answer: "Only when the moon is full.