Meow

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Clutching my roasted eggplant veggie wrap and my hot coffee, I took a seat at the picnic table underneath the giant spider, setting myself in the shady part underneath the spider’s abdomen. The Santa Fe sunshine was perfect but bright, and I wanted to read.

A few minutes later, an older man, in his mid 60s, sat across from me. He was tall and thin, almost wirey, and he had a close-cropped grey beard and a floppy sunhat. He had a plate full of meat, rice, and potatoes, and a bottle of Orange Crush.

“Whatcha reading there?” he asked me through a mouth full of food.

I showed him the cover of my book, a mediocre autobiography by Elvis Costello, and smiled.

“Ah, he’s one of my favorites. And whatcha eating there?”

The conversation flowed easily from there as the man, overly friendly, asked several questions. He learned I was visiting from Salt Lake City, that I had a boyfriend and kids back home, that I had recently written a book, and that I was a social worker. He seemed astounded that I enjoyed taking little weekend furloughs for myself in unfamiliar places.

“Me, I never really planned on living here. It just kind of happened that way. I spent my career in California as an engineer, surveying land for big projects, and teaching at a few universities while my wife spent her time in education. We raised some kids, they moved away, and we wanted a fresh start. We came here for a visit, and we just kind of never left.” He took a large bite of potatoes and a swig of orange and kept going. “Now I spend my days doing stuff I love, and so does she. This place is weird, right? It’s perfect. She’s off painting this morning, and I just took an improv comedy class that they have down the road every morning. It’s all retired guys, and most of them are gay. Hell, most of Santa Fe is gay, which means we have the best neighbors.”

Then he seemed to remember where we were, and he indicated his fork at the giant spider above our heads, then over toward the other giant statues nearby, one a large metallic wolf, the other a building size robot smelling a flower. “And what do you think of this place? Did you go in? Tell me you went in.” I nodded, smiling. I always tend to get slightly quieter around those that are loud. He kept talking. “I’ve never been in. I’ve been meaning to. I just like to come down here on Saturdays after improv cause the food trucks are fantastic. But what was it like in there? What is Meow Wolf? I still can’t figure it out.”

“It’s… hard to explain,” I said simply, and I tried computing a way to explain it simply. “Have you ever taken your grandkids to McDonalds, to the play-land there? They climb up a series of platforms and end up in a big blocky room that has three different exits. One leads into a tunnel that winds up in a fake car with a plastic steering wheel; one leads into a room with an interactive tic-tac-toe game; the third has a slide in it that lands in a ball-pit at the bottom. Conjure that image, except multiply it by a thousand, and make it big enough for adults.”

The man listened intently as my voice rose in enthusiasm. “It was so weird. I felt curious and full of wonder the entire time, and I was in there for over three hours. They have this whole storyline that they tell you about a family that has gone missing, and then you go in to explore their house, except that their house has been hit by a reality-altering alien entity and all of the rooms are portals into little Twilight Zone dimensions. There were over 72 different rooms connected in the most bizarre ways, and all of them are interactive art displays.”

“How strange,” he said simply as I continued.

“Like I went in and saw the house and I read the family’s mail in their mailbox, then I went down a sidewalk and turned a corner, and suddenly I was in a passage of neon trees with fish swimming in the tops, and past that was an alien ship. Then a minute later, I found this narrow spiral staircase that I could barely squeeze myself through, and at the top I had to push this door open and it made a woman scream. Well, I climbed through the door and looked back and realized I had climbed out of the washing machine that was in the family’s home on the upstairs!”

The man listened as I continued describing the house. The family photo albums, the bizarre images in the mirror, the portal in the fridge, the room of robot hands, the cartoonish room, the mechanical hamster, the harp made of lasers that I actually got to play.

“But then about a thousand kids came in all at once, and I realized I was ready for lunch,” I laughed, noticing the four school busses now parked in the lot.

“It sounds like you need to bring your kids back here,” he laughed.

“Oh I had way more fun without my kids today,” I admitted. “But I would love to bring them back here.”

“You really seemed to have fun in there! I’ll have to bring my wife back next week.”

“You should!”

Out of words for a minute, we both cleaned up the last of our plates, A silence hung in the air, and I looked forward at the Santa Fe skyline, rolling hills in the middle of the desert. Despite how busy it was, I could see green everywhere, and I realized how many birds were singing.

Then the man burst out with one loud laugh. “God, Santa Fe is weird!”

“It really is!” I laughed back, excited to explore more.

“And it’s perfect just the way it is,” he said, excusing himself shortly after. He got on his bike and rode off, past the flower-smelling robot and into the dusty roads beyond.

I don’t dance like I used to. Partly because I’m in a relationship with a guy who doesn’t like to dance much, and partly because I’m a little older now and I vastly prefer going to bed early.

But there remains something so magical about a dance floor in a gay club, full of loud beats that shake the floor (and my own bones), where men (mostly gay) and women (mostly straight) shake their asses and throw their hands in the air while they scream out the lyrics to their favorite songs. It is a beautiful space to celebrate life and leave the world behind.

I don’t fit with the standard gay club culture. I don’t use drugs, and I don’t like getting drunk. I enjoy one drink, perhaps two, enough to loosen the wires in my brain and let it all go, perhaps just dipping my toes in the world where my head spins slightly and I get a dopey grin on my face. But I stop there. I don’t like getting drunk, or sloppy. It results in nausea and headaches, and I’d much rather live with energy the next day instead of a hangover in bed. On top of that, I’m the guy that gets to the club before it’s really busy, and I prefer to leave when I get tired, generally around midnight, which is when a lot of the crowd starts to arrive. I’d much rather wake at 7 the next morning, and I’m certainly not equipped to sleep until noon.

Every gay club has its own character and flair. Some seem to cater to youthful crowds, where long lines congregate at the bars for cheap or overpriced drinks, people pack into the patio or outdoor areas to talk loudly or smoke, and others cram into the dance floor in hard packs to strut and perform, or to shuffle from foot to foot while they sip on their drinks. Some clubs are huge, with upstairs levels or basements, cages or dance poles, tiered stairs to dance on, and multiple bars, indoor and out. Others are simple, a section of floor around a bar, with stools and standing room early. Some are seedy, with old porn photos on the wall, trophies for the latest Mr. Leather contest winner in glass cases, and long dark hallways where, in earlier years, gay men might venture for anonymous sex.

I’m currently staying in Phoenix, Arizona, for a few days, and whenever I travel to a new place, I’m always curious about the local gay culture. (A few months ago in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I discovered two gay bars, one that was very trendy and was, literally, empty of people on a late Friday night, and another that had multiple levels and was filled with people who looked like they’d stepped out of 1995). Within a two mile radius of the place I’m staying in Phoenix, I discovered no less than seven gay clubs, knowing I’d likely see none of them, or maybe just one. Some had normal names, like Charlie’s and Stacy’s, and others more trendy names, like Kobalt, but there were a few holdovers from the days when gay clubs had, well, gay names, like Cruising’ 7th, and the Rock. Each club tends to have its own feel and vibe, and its own crowd that it caters to. (Note that in some cities, gay people just frequent regular bars, there being no real separation in the communities, everyone equally integrated).

So on Thursday night, I headed over to Kobalt to watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, one of my favorite pass times in a crowd of gay men who tend to scream, applaud, and laugh raucously at the screen. There were multiple tables full of congenial, and mostly white, men in their 20s and 30s, and we had drinks and laughed together. It was wonderful.

Friday night, I walked past Cruisin’ 7th, and popped in out of curiosity. I found a small seedy space with about 12 men propped on bar stools (keep in mind it was 6 pm). One of them aggressively flirted, clearly very inebriated, offering to buy me ‘just a shot or two’ as I casually turned him down.

“I’m just here celebrating because I’m finally out of a terrible relationship. I supported his fucking ass for too long and he fucking left me anyway. And he thought was was so special, he made me grieve for two months before I got on with my life. And he couldn’t even finish medical school! He thinks he’s so smart, but he didn’t even know what an ampersand was! Come on, just one drink!”

Later that same night, I sat through a mediocre play on the campus of Arizona State University, about three employees who swept up popcorn in a movie theater. In it, one of the characters, a young black man, struggled with his homosexuality, which had resulted in depression and a suicide attempt in his past, and another young woman admitted to being bisexual, causing her to fight off rumors that she was lesbian. And somehow, more than anything else, the play, and the very brief experiences with the gay community in Phoenix, left me with thoughts of how the world is changing for queer kids, and how grateful I am to witness that firsthand and peripherally all at once.

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