Rich drove fast. We were cruising on occasion at 95 MPH. He is a superb driver. Some people can do it. Some even like it. He loved to take the curves at high speed. Had his IQ been twenty points lower, he might have hung his head out the window and yelled. As it was, he drove with caution, but always held a joint between his lips. All I had to do was to keep them rolling. I learned how to do it without spilling. All this while we listened to Coppola’s thumping helicopters and mad Wagner. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Mikey and I were in a history seminar together taught by an insane Italian Stalinist who invited us boys to his basement apartment to play chess. Calabria used to pound the table and demand to know why we hadn’t completed the assigned reading of Braudel’s 900-page history of the Mediterranean. When we got to his apartment, our professor was already manic. He started crawling around on the floor and pulled the garbage can down on himself. He was enraged that at 37 he was still living in student housing and couldn’t afford to take a woman out on a date. He was just one of the many radicals I came to know who secretly wanted to be rich.

“That’s Cambodia, Captain.” Willard was our hero, not Brando. We were not even half way to Vegas when the fog descended. The bullet-riddled Datsun was now crawling at less than 30 miles per hour. I was into my third joint. Rich was having the time of his life. Mikey had fallen asleep. We were right there with the boys as they went up river. “Never get out of the boat.” That became our anthem. We knew intuitively what that meant. One never knew what one might find out there in the jungle.

“Terminate with extreme prejudice.” Those were haunting words of instruction directed at young Willard. He had been given a lot to think about. He carried pictures of the uniformed Kurtz in a file but had trouble matching the man of great military accomplishment with the maniac in the jungle. I think of this now as I read The New York Times. It’s been nearly forty years. If you’ve seen this movie, the man in the White House today may seem somewhat familiar, a type whose methods many find as unsound as Kurtz’s. Of course, forty years ago, the man in the WH was not Marlon Brando but an actor held in what many might say was less high regard. But this is now, not then. I don’t recall thinking at all about politics as we plowed through the thick pea soup fog of California’s Central Valley.

“Disneyland? Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland!” That’s how I felt about that long drive to Vegas. I can understand sweet Lance’s enthusiasm for his cruise up the Mekong. We turn mayhem into glory. How, I can’t say. Why? Who the hell knows? All I know is that I will never forget breaking out of that dim soupy tunnel and seeing Oz on the horizon. But those were the pre-MGM days of Vegas when the place was still run by the mafia from Central Casting, not Bugs Bunny but Bugsy Segal.

By this time, we were getting hungry.  The pot-smoking didn’t help. We had all eaten before departing, but Rich knew a weird place off the highway, so he headed along an old postal route from the days of the stage coaches. At a distance, we could see some lights. Rich suggested we put on our shoes and things and try to make ourselves presentable. Evidently, this spot was popular among the wealthy ranch set and wouldn’t be too excited about serving scraggly college kids reeking of weed. We parked between a Mercedes-Benz and one of those luxury pickup trucks with all-leather interiors.

Actually, the place was nearly empty. It was well past dinner time, of course, but they were still serving. We sat at the window which afforded a magnificent view onto the valley. It was some sort of weird health-conscious native food eatery, maybe best described as high-end Southwest cuisine. Our neighbor was sipping desert mint tea sweetened by hummingbird saliva and the man with her lapped pomegranate wine. Mikey ordered the same. Rich and I got a cactus drink, a divine concoction of pine sap sweetened by cactus rind and desert rosehips with a drizzle of wild honey. The menu said it had been harvested not from the hive but from the beaks of mountain owl. Even if the chef wasn’t a genius, we decided the restaurant’s publicist was, because the menu was very clever if at times over the top.

We gasped as the fresh concoctions reached our lips. We traded glasses and burst out laughing. We closed our eyes as the waitress told us our orders’ providence. We would be dining on ingredients enjoyed by the Native Americans, she promised solemnly. We should imagine we were Hopi for the day. I told Rich I wanted to wear beads on my genitals. Mikey said it made him want to drag his wife around by her hair. Rich went out for a smoke.

Soon our entrees were brought to us as if we were royalty, on hand-woven platters of hardened straw, made by local artisans using techniques perfected thousands of years ago. They were even unwashed, the waitress explained, stained with the juice of berries and the blood of squirrels. The hostess boasted that no detail had been overlooked. A lack of water in the desert makes washing impossible. We were invited to partake of the riches. “Enjoy.”

We dug in. What a feast, even if it was doubtfully “genuine” Hopi cuisine.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of some local children on bicycles who were hanging out in front of the 7Eleven located just across from our restaurant at the Antelope Inn. They were not Caucasian but I supposed Native, possible residents of the nearby Reservation. Their skin was brown and their hair shiny black. I’d guessed they were twelve or so, maybe 13. I wasn’t sure. They departed the store, eating hotdogs and swilling orange soda. Their pockets were filled with candy. One of the kids held a bag of BBQ chips and shared them. They ate on the sidewalk below an incredibly bright security light. I could see them but they couldn’t see me.

They caught my eye just as our Navajo tamales were set before us. We shared a basket of roasted blue tortillas accompanied by cactus relish. I had ordered the quail and my companions tried the Antelope Valley red squirrel, which they had been assured tasted like rabbit. Their dish was garnished with grasshopper and some sort of steamed pine cones Teddy Roosevelt was said to have loved. Mine came with fried cicada larvae cooked in local peanut oil. We ordered a local wine, but not made from European vines. This wine was taken from an assortment of native plants, including the fruits of desert cacti and tiny wild blueberries.

I eyed the boy across the way who was eating what I thought to be a Hostess cupcake. He gave his little friend a bite. She got some whipped cream on her nose. They laughed in the sun. It was hot.

We enjoyed our meals and finished up with an assortment of local cheeses made from mountain goats.

When we stepped outside, the kids on bikes had ridden away. It was still dark.

We took off. Rich drove like a bat out of hell. A couple of hours later, we pulled into the parking lot at Circus-Circus and got a room for three at less than $25. In those days, everything was essentially free, including the food; all you had to do was gamble your life away. “The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.” This may or may not have been true of Vietnam, but it certainly was of Las Vegas. By the time I was old enough to want to return, the whole thing had been taken down and sold for scrap. The days of Las Vegas as it was once known to millions were coming to an end; soon it really would be no better than Disneyland.

The boys ran off to play cards while I sat in our room and brooded. I’d been reading Georg Lukacs and Habermas and now had trouble facing reality. Marxism is poor preparation for slot machines, let me tell you. I may have thrived in our Berkeley seminars, but in this land of chips, German thought didn’t count for much. It wasn’t long before I got the town’s central message: I was worthless. Nobody wanted to know what I thought. Here, for the first time since I was ten, I was made to understand what a man’s life is really worth.

I found the cinema just minutes from the casino tucked in the back of a strip mall. There was not a soul in sight, but I was nervous. Amazingly, it was raining, so I carried an umbrella. I was sorry I had it when I entered. I was afraid to put it down because I didn’t want to risk having it stolen. I liked the soiled posters lining the walls; wonderful 1950’s erotic noir. I went immediately to the window, where I was greeted by a silver-toothed little guy whose boyish grin reminds me somehow of a Japanese Mickey Rooney. He was middle-aged and leering. He was prince of his little louche kingdom. A porn theatre off the Strip.  His teeth glistened with silver and gold like the Mexican lady serving my favorite burritos back in the Mission.

He didn’t look up. He reached for my ten-dollar note with two hands extended. He smiled wildly, perhaps idiotically. He pulls out some bills. “Just one? Is that right?” “Yeah.” His furrowed brow suggested deep thought. He looked at the fiver I had handed him. He struck a few buttons on his calculator. Suddenly, he hesitated and then reached into a little drawer beneath the counter.  “It’s $5 at this time, you know. Early-bird special.” “Yeah, I know.” He opened the plastic pouch to his right, folded the bill, and tucked it away. We didn’t make eye contact. I thanked him. He nodded, still grinning from ear to ear.  His glistening lips made me sick.

This was my first trip to a gay porno theatre. I was completely lost. Where was I and what was I doing? But I was determined not to let on that I was a novice. It was strictly softcore; it showed genitals but the sex was simulated, the actors naked, but the sex acts hidden. Lots of aggressive men forcing themselves on younger boys. The movies were forgettable and boring. Little to attract one’s attention. They ran without interruption, about twenty minutes long. The men were in suits. They were not young. Close contact ensured the illusion. The younger guys came in for job interviews and were taken by force. The guys, shocked, let out distressed cries, but no crying. They didn’t fight it. Their faces were shown instead of their genitals. There was old-fashioned agony and ecstasy. These films, thinking back, were metaphysical. The message was basically that gay sex is sick. They illustrated American thought of the time; they affirmed a world view, an ideology of distress, a recognition of the need for relief, the denial of love, an affirmation of the inevitable loneliness that sexual perverts must suffer. Sex is not a life force, but a premonition of death. This was back before the great liberation, before AIDS, too.

It was an incredibly seedy theatre. The heavy plastic curtain, the tinted-glass ticket booth, even titty posters. And then, once in the auditorium, rows of reclining, oversized chairs without armrests, guys standing around, at all four corners of the room, and the odd customers, like me, who enter in their suit and ties, carrying briefcases and wearing glasses. They looked like middle-aged Clark Kents, each and every one of them. They entered, sat down, and then were approached as a sparrow might alight on the hindquarters of a fallen buffalo. They became couples instantly. They sat silently. Eventually, there was some whispering, inaudible, a negotiation maybe, and then if the little bird is lucky, some sort of invitation: for a HJ, BJ, caresses, full contact—who knew? How was all this negotiated?

What was fascinating was the odd group of regulars, mainly over fifty, I’d say, who positioned themselves around the room, pressed against the walls but watching carefully to keep track of the newcomers as they entered in the dark. These guys popped in, sat, pretended to sleep, slumping down in their chairs, as on a recliner at home, and seemed indifferent to the presence of one of the regulars who then proceeded to undo his trousers. The stuffed chairs were lined up, no space between, soft, relaxing, like a continuous sofa as long as the theatre was wide. You had action galore, discrete and nearly silent. The young and not-so leaned back, pants open or down to their ankles: hand jobs and more, a quiet sort of sex mania.

There was a marvelous sort of Fellini-like madness on display, but instead of fat women with baggy eyes and broken teeth, you had mainly white guys and Hispanics in their fifties, old queens offering contact. The seediness and desperation make me think now of Almodóvar, perhaps, or of the now-deceased German film-maker, Fassbinder. It’s the harsh reality of urban life, once on display in Times Square in New York, or on Hollywood Boulevard in the time of   Charles Bukowski, long before they tidied the place up; back in the 70’s, when there were numerous used bookstores on the Boulevard and old women wore collapsed beehives, hot pants, and crimson lipstick to the grocery. Not rough, but seedy. Seedy was just right for Las Vegas. It was a remnant of the old town, before the great corporate makeover, before Vegas turned family-friendly. Now it is one extensive Century City, bloodless, with organic coffee. Some would say soulless. Seedy is the key. Seedy is life, reminding one of repressed obscenity, a hidden world of escape.

I like rituals. The ritual was this: one enters, surveys, and sits. The spotters checked out the merchandise and then pounce, standing nearby, behind or next to the newly-arrived. Either they and their services, whatever they had on offer, were accepted or rejected. They were welcomed or invited, one might say, or they were sent packing. This was accomplished nearly in silence. I certainly heard nothing, perhaps light lip smacking. Once accepted, the stalker sat real close and began his ministrations. There were clothes to be removed; some stood and stripped themselves, right in the middle of the auditorium. It was shocking to see such brazen acts. Then the action would begin, but discretely and quietly; completion was followed by a nap; finally, one departed while the others stayed, readying themselves for the next “guest.”

One fellow, however, couldn’t seem to pull himself together. His affectionate visitor had moved on, but he just sat there in his shirt and socks, playing with himself. He was alone. His glasses were back on, but couldn’t manage to get dressed. He pulled at himself. It was among the saddest sights I’ve ever seen. I was not in the least turned on. But I felt drawn to his forlorn state. Could anybody offer solace? I couldn’t. Nobody could. Curiously, I noticed he kept looking down as he pleasured himself. What was there for him to see? The downcast face made it all the more pathetic.

As I witnessed up close, one visitor sat and was almost immediately joined by a stalker. Then silence. Stillness. The visitor moved away. Just one seat. Gradually but eventually, the stalker left, however reluctantly. Now a “sparrow” (vulture?) appeared. There was eye contact, an invitation. The second stalker sat; he was not shooed away. The visitor’s fly was lowered.  He reached further. What a job, down and about. Deep and then to the hilt, but then discouraged, drawn away, “pulled” away to join at the lips so soon. Great action, great rapport, great fitting, great urgency, passion even, arms about, an embrace, melding and connection. That was the high point, a sighing cheer, a moment of quickening, joy. And he had so much hoped to hold it forever there. And then it was hot, sweaty, humid, and even sticky.

I departed for some fresh air. When I returned, a fellow was sitting directly in front. He looked back. A sparrow descended. The newly arrived scoots over. This is no doubt a rejection. The bird flies off. He is alone now, in the row in front but to the left. He looks back again and sort of winks. That low-slung position becomes uncomfortable. He has his pants open. He lowers his fly. I don’t feel like working, so I just rest my hand there alongside it. I finger his silky hair. I fiddle. But I am bored. I am tired. Can’t I just let my hand rest here for a while, I wonder, just nestle. What a cozy place to be, I think. And he seems content.

It is hard being next to someone without going after them or being gone after, probed, poked, and urged on. Sometimes it is nicer to find someone who will let you do nothing. What’s erotic about sitting next to a stranger with your hand down his pants? Men are very soft down there. All of them and that’s comforting to know. All that oily muscle power and then, quite suddenly, the grassy patch. The softness in women simply deepens, but with men, a secret is revealed, their womanly side is exposed in their male parts. They’re vulnerable down there.

That kiss so soon. Licking, sucking, slurping, plunging, absorbed. That odor. His? Mine? The wetness, too close. All of it, and from a stranger. Who is this? Do I want to know? “Oh,” he moans. We met ten minutes ago. I stop to catch my breath. “Nice to meet you.” Time to think.  Evaluate. “I love you.” He must be mad. “It’s hot,” I answer. Too close for too long. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? Now I am really lost and at a loss. “I love you.” He must be out of his mind.

After a rather substantial sampling of what he had to offer, I say, “Nice to meet you.” He laughs. He offers his name. I, mine. No fake names. He gives me his business card. I have none to offer. I tell him it is hot. He laughs again. “I better be going.” “Ok, ok.” I go. He doesn’t follow. It is raining. There is local flooding reported in the news. A dam has broken in the hills. Dead bodies have been found floating in the local creeks. Helicopters arrive to rescue a desperate family. I run to the train station. I look down to find that I’ve forgotten to zip my trousers. Once out, I headed down the street to meet at the old, by now long-extinct Flamingo.

We took the sunny roads back. No one was in the mood for more fog, not even for listening to the Doors. We headed for Los Angeles and then took the 5.  Rich really stepped on it and we were back in no time. We pulled up outside the commune and let Mikey out. He’d had a good time, I guess. I didn’t see much of him after that. Rich and I graduated, eventually, and went our separate ways. He, into banking and other forms of lucrative gambling, and I drifted toward another part of the river. I often think back, though, on that drive, listening to those opening lines: “Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” I wonder what Habermas or Lukacs would have made of that.


For all installments of “By the Bay, By the Bay, By the Beautiful Bay,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1