Le Hammam

8 02 2015
La Marais

La Marais

As I left the Paris Hammam there was one young man who drew my attention. He was of dark skin. Black. There was no doubt in my mind he was of African descent. He reminded me of my co-worker from the Grand Canyon…Mamadiou.

I did not speak to this young man as I dressed and gathered my belongings from the locker. He muttered something and I glanced over my left shoulder, but said nothing as I turned. It was at this time that I noticed a young build attached to a head with patches of gray hair coming in. This was not Mamadiou.

The Hammam had been an experience like none other. There were countless attractive, well built men, most in the prime of their lives. No one spoke, but everyone judged.

This was my last night in Paris before catching the Euro Star back to London.

The Hammam was not open 24 hours and they refused my American debit card, but the sympatheic front desk clerk directed me to the bank across Sebastionpol. There, he said, I would be able to withdraw cash, Euros of course. I diligently proceeded across le rue, to get cash, feeling slightly shameful as the guys in the que behind me chuckled at my confusion. What happened next was, dare I say, one of those moments.

As I withdrew my money from the French bank, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned around to find a teenage boy crouching behind a column in the lobby of the bank. I Immediately turned back to the ATM, completed my transaction — swiftly I might add — and took the cash and left. I let the boy, and his friend (another teenager) know in no uncertain terms what they were doing was suspect.

On the street, I approached the nearest men outside of the bank, strangers, but I felt compelled to let them know of the boys’ mischief in the bank.

“Those are Roma,” said one of the men. We know them as gypises. “They try to trick you,” the man said.

He then told me this was quite common in Paris. His friend, a Frenchman, agreed with laughter no less. I told both men if the Roma boys were intent on robbing me they would be greeted with a quick and forceful kick. I then demonstrated this kick to the men. The fat Frenchman found this to be especially funny. Much to my dismay, the other one asked for money. At this request I realized they were street people.

I scoffed and marched back across Sebastionpol to the Hammam, peeking inside the bank to see the Roma boys still hiding behind that column in the lobby. I paid the front desk clerk 15 euros and he gave me a small towel and locker number. I needed to relax after what just transpired. Had I been robbed, I would have been embarrassed, disgraced and humiliated. Unfortunately, there were just too many people at this Hammam to properly relax.

Adonis like figures waited for open spaces in the tubs and sauna. The sauna was especially cavernous. I worried of getting lost and unable to get out before shrinking down to nothing amid the steam. My confidence and self esteem were at all time lows inside this Paris Hammam. The feeling of guilt again sweeping into my psyche.

I walked all the way back to the hostel that night on the cold streets of Paris. My research into the strange subculture of Parisan men complete.

Advertisements




Chantel’s Story

16 02 2014

New Year. New Life. Much to be grateful for and humble.

I am working a lot. New York calls quite frequently now. I am living on a golf course where they host professional tournaments. Physically, I am in the best shape of my life. It almost feels like a dream.

But it’s not.

Chantel has yet to respond to my emails. We toured Art Basel together and dined on Lincoln Road where she granted me an interview. Balans, she insisted, would do. As we walked the outdoors mall in Miami Beach, I playfully teased her that the N.F.L. was looking to expand in the European market and I was not referring to soccer. She was having none of it.

Chantel turned into much more than I had bargined for. She was young — 29 as a matter of fact, but at first glance it would be easy for someone to mistake her for much younger. I had observed throughout the day that she was clearly a person who could get things done. She had such confidence when speaking with the gallery representatives at Art Basel. This, no doubt, instilled by her mother. Chantel spoke of her mother fondly, saying she was responsible for raising social justice awareness in the family, particularly those key issues on the continent of Africa.

“She told us which brands not to buy from,” Chantel said of her mother’s consumer advice.

We were in the convention center for hours. We talked about a lot of issues of importance in Britain and America. People stared at us. I was flattered to be in her company.

“I believe the human spirit is inherently good,” I said. Chantel was not as convinced. She seemed more interested in my taste of art and design than my philosophical views.

At Balans, Chantel proposed we dine inside so I could conduct the interview free of the hustle and bustle of Lincoln Road. She asked the manager if she could use her Balans card at this location. He said yes, but I took the the bill. Chantel told me she attended a prestigous university in London — a red brick school as I recall — and was on her way to Los Angeles in hopes of publishing a novella about sexuality. She also admited to having a girlfriend — confirming her bisexuality which she revealed during our walk through the convention center. She refused to give her name.

She then turned the tables as I hurried to jot down her words.

“John, have you ever written about human trafficing?” Chantel asked.

I was stunned. The burger I had woofed down just minutes before suddenly felt like coming up.

“Pardon me,” I said.

“In your writings, John, have you ever covered sex workers?” she asked again.

I had not. It was just not the kind of topic I was assigned while working the sports desk back in Dothan, Alabama. But I was not naive about the subject matter. Chantel, it turns out, had done the research, extensive research, in Britain, America, Thailand and Africa. She then asked me if I had ever been a “rent boy” ?!

I said no, of course. This conversation began to make me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say next. The interview was over.

We hugged as we parted ways outside of Balans.

“Be well,” she said.

I have yet to receive any e-mail from Chantel acknowledging our meeting.

Her story is now a mystery.

Ghosts

Ghosts





Art Basel Introductions

28 12 2013

Miami and I have battled to a stand still.

Some — actually probably most — thought I could not make it here. The traffic, the people, all the realities that come with living in a metropolitian market. It has been a different change of pace than sleepy Panama City and certainly worlds away from what I experienced in Yellowstone.

David is on the mend, recovering from an invasive procedure. His surgeon reminds me a little bit of Albert Einstein. He’s from the North and now practices at a Catholic medical center in Broward County, Florida. Needless to say, he is a busy man.

The doc has also been educating me on the realities of ObamaCare — the good, the bad and the ugly.

“They didn’t consult a physician when they passed this thing,” is his biggest complaint.

No matter how you slice it, whoever has the most money will always come out on top in capitalistic America, because the best drugs cost the most money. This we are painfully learning.

But alas, there have been good times here as well.

My work is getting published a lot. One of my Instagram photos even appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. A few of my stories have gone national, including a fun little preview of the Gay Ski Week in Aspen, Colorado.

But it was Art Basel where I wanted to make my mark. I had my eye on this event for quite some time. It has a reputation in art circles for gathering elite galleries together from around the world to showcase groundbreaking modern art. I attended the first installation in Miami Beach years ago as a wide eyed young features writer for the Panama City News-Herald. I remember it being pretentious beyond belief. Little has changed in that regard.

David and I drove down to Miami Beach in the Beamer on a Saturday afternoon. Although just 24 miles away it took nearly two hours with the traffic. We chose to take U.S. 1 (or Federal Highway as it is also known) and I was pleasantly surprised with the gentrification taking place in North Miami. Once over the causeway and into Miami Beach, parking became the issue as we circled the streets looking for a spot to land. Parking was never an issue in the Panhandle. Here it is part of everyday living. I’m getting used to that.

Chantal at the Co-Op

Chantal at the Co-Op

Once on foot we strolled through several exhibits, including the “public” portion of Art Basel erected on the lawn outside of the Bass Museum. There were interesting pieces, but rarely did I find something I would display proudly in my home. It was a lot of message and shock art. Eventually, we found our way into a Lincoln Road co-op … and that is where I met Chantal.

She was volunteering at the co-op, visiting Miami from Great Britain, a tall slender young lady of mixed features with a delicate British accent. I informed her I was a journalist looking for a story. And, oh boy, did she have one for me.

Not long into our discussion, Chantal revealed she too was a writer and her subject matter focused on sexuality. I took her picture and she introduced me to a few of her newfound friends. All was quite cordial. “Have you been to the convention center?,” she asked.

I had, but refused to pay the high dollar entrance fee. My press request had been denied two weeks eariler. The Swiss, I was told, were being quite stringent with access.

“I have two VIP passes for Sunday, would you care to go with me?,” Chantal asked.

The offer surprised me. I glanced quickly at David, emersed in conversation across the room, but realizing I didn’t need his approval, I accepted Chantal’s offer and quickly made arrangements to call her tomorrow. I would be returning to Art Basel for one more day with a lot to prove and a story to tell.





Saving grace from Singapore

19 06 2012

As I sit down to type another blog entry, it has occured to me that life is indeed grand.

I was down for so long and had been trying to climb out of a hole, that admittedly, I dug for myself. In the process of working diligently to rebuild bridges, repair relationships and regain status, I failed to realize that I might have climbed higher than ever before.

“Is it difficult to accept someone so young as your boss?” was the question posed to me recently by one of my newest Grand Canyon friends, Justin, a university student from Singapore.

This is where humility pays off. As difficult as the last four years of my life have been, my walk through humility has made me a stronger, wiser and all around better person. Of this, I am convinced.

So, yes, I can take orders from a 21-year-old glamour girl who hasn’t the slightest idea which countries are in the European Union or what austerity means.  When she asks me to fold t-shirts or mop the floor, I oblige because all work is honorable and as the old saying goes, “be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll see them again on the way down.”

This I know all too well.

Justin and his fellow Singaporeans have become my saving grace in the Canyon. They arrived at a time when I was considering heading back to Florida, unable to find anyone who I could connect with beyond the usual pleasantries of “Good morning” and “Nice weather today.” Much to my surprise, I found camaraderie with a group of college kids from Southeast Asia.

The Singaporeans, hailing from a former British colony, speak the Queen’s English, albiet with their own distinct dialect — Justin calls this “Singlish” — and even more impressive is their thirst for knowledge and success. We connected early through the social networks of Facebook and Twitter and soon I was hanging out with Justin and his friends every day — meeting for breakfast at the employee cafeteria, going on day hikes into the Canyon and riding the bus to the general store for groceries.

Justin was intrigued about my run for office, particularly challenging the establishment. Apparently this is rare in Singapore — as is any sort of objective media. Still, the country is prosperous and it was quite easy to tell upon their arrival that the Singaporeans were a cut above the rest of the international workers at the park.

Most of the internationals are placed in the kitchen, housekeeping or as cafeteria line servers, where their contact with the public is limited. But of the five Singaporean guys who dared cross the Pacific Ocean to reach American shores for the first time, two were rewarded with retail jobs in gift shops.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to cross the globe into a different culture, a different climate and then learn to count a different currency.

But Justin and his crew have done just that and in impressive fashion no less, reinforcing stereotypes of strong mathematical skills and loyal work ethic that are often associated with the Asian community.

They also figured out how to get out of Victor Hall much quicker than I did, convincing the Housing Dept. to placed four of them in a cabin. As one of company’s human resources managers noted, “They are very good negotiators.”

They are also very good friends and I am grateful to have met them. I only hope my future is half as bright as theirs.

 

 

 





Retreating into the Heart

25 10 2011

The word ‘retreat’ has always bothered me.

I don’t like the whole concept, really, as it puts one into a defeatist attitude. Nevertheless, I went on a retreat this weekend — deep into the North Florida woods — where a group of gay men gathered to talk about their past, present and clouded future.

Baggage was brought and left and I am much more enlightened for the experience.

The group was assembled across generational lines. I wasn’t the youngest there, but not nearly the oldest. Some of the men were accompanied by their significant other, partner, lover or husband. Whatever term you prefer.

Others came alone and it showed.

We were assigned cabins and received three meals a day inside a mess hall style kitchen that reminded me of my summer camp days as a happy go lucky youth. I was so care free then, unaware of the issues awaiting in grownup life. Now those issues were staring me in the face.

Each day of the retreat featured a ‘heart circle’ in which the participants would gather under one roof and talk about whatever came to mind. Sometimes, the confessions carried tears.

As legend has it, men are supposed to be strong, especially men of the wilderness, but, true is, we are all granted a few tender moments. As I listened intently to each man tell his story, I searched for empathy and, at times, it was difficult.  The last few years have hardened my heart and I wonder if I have lost the ability to grieve. Or maybe, I have grieved too much. Is this what a doctor experiences?

Death and mortality, subjects of popular discussion during the weekend, and yet I came away from the retreat feeling more alive and empowered than ever.

On the final night, we were asked to gathered around a fire pit. A cold front had sweep into the Florida Panhandle over the weekend making conditions unusually chilly this time of year. Such made the fire pit an even more welcome venue.

The facilitator asked each of us to write down something that we wanted to give up on a notecard and throw it into the fire. David had passed me his note just after dinner. He would not make it to the fire that night, but both of our notes went up and flames and, God willingly, we are both free of weighty problems.

All in all, despite a somber feel, this weekend was a good experience inside a valuable support group. I learned a lot, but above all, I learned that gay men face many battles throughout life and because of that, a retreat, however difficult, is required.

 

 

 

 

 





Writing for Courage

29 09 2011

Thursday morning listening to Adam Levine’s “Moves like Jagger” and writing cover letters to editors. And it goes like this:

Physically I have never been stronger. Wisdom, from years of surrounding myself with mature friends, is starting to pay off. My social network has opened doors that were no doubt locked a few years ago.

A recent trip to Philadelphia opened my eyes to the current climate of the media business. Newspapers continue to cut staff and lay off journalists, while the blogosphere gradually grows and builds influence.

David, my stalwart companion, has been preaching this tune for some time now.

“You have to free yourself from that ‘working for a paycheck’ mentality,” he continues to say.

Meanwhile, David continues to carry the load for the two of us financially and while this has always bothered my manly, independent pride, it has also allowed me to regroup, rebuild and demonstrate that I am, indeed, capable of producing again.

On the political scene, I’m still attending meetings and staying active in the community. My presence as a voice on the Left is very much needed in Panama City, if nothing else to contrast the chorus of angry rhetoric from the Right.

In that respect, I have established my niche here. My Twitter profile says it all: “I’m a Kennedy-esque Liberal living in the belly of the GOP beast. Send food and help, please.”

It’s amusing to most and by using not-so-subtle humor, I have found a way to reach people as my following on Twitter continues to rise.

“You need to be writing more,” David says.

And, of course, he is right. Writing is what I was born to do. The block, however, is hard to overcome sometimes.

I never want to offend anyone. My inner Libra is all about balance and in the current political climate, writing to not offend can be a difficult chore.

And then I am reminded of that oh so familiar line, ‘You have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”

What I stand for is Compassion, Honesty, Caring, Community, Family and Faith. Easy subjects to get behind, sure. But to articulate those views one must first have Courage.

And with that, I’m off to see the Wizard. Let’s hope he’s read my cover letter.

 

 





Spring Broken

31 03 2011

The throngs of students is thinning along Florida’s Gulf Coast. I have just returned from a pleasant drive through Panama City Beach. There are still some young bucks and pretty fillies roaming the resorts, but for the most part, the college crowd has returned to their respective campuses. In their wake, is what, my partner David refers to as the “spring broken.”

These are the people who flock to the Beach to cash in on the partying with no intent on furthering their higher education. They usually go the way of the homeless.

Sitting outside of McDonald’s the other day, enjoying my smoothie drink and soaking up the sunshine, I was confronted by one of the Broken. My mistake was making eye contact, which gave him the green light to proceed.

“Hey Brother, can you spare a few dollars so I can get something to eat,” said the Broken man.

It always begins with “Brother.”

During my campaign, I encountered many homeless people. Such was the state of affairs in area crippled by a disastrous oil spill and weak economy. I made it a priority to shine the light on their struggles and to visit organizations dedicated to lending a helping hand.

Sadly, I also found that not every “Broken” person wants a way out of their situation.

“My wife and I are on the street,” the man continued, although their was no sign of this ‘wife’ and he didn’t appear to be starving.

I looked at the man again in the eyes — without uttering a word.

He read my mind and moved along, mumbling to himself all the way. I felt uncompassionate at first, but knowing the street life, I realized he had the ability to find shelter and provisions for his family, if they did exist, and my two cents would have little affect. There are those who are truly in dire circumstances and this man was not one of them. Broken maybe, but still capable of pulling up his boot straps.

Balancing compassion with security has become a major theme of Panama City’s municipal election. What voters need to hear now, more than anything, is a success story. We know the causes of homelessness — mental illness, substance abuse and poverty just to name a few. And we have seen the Broken walking the streets, gathering at the Mission and sleeping on park benches.

What we, as a community, need to see now is the ones who made it out alive. The ones who pulled themselves up by their boot straps and with a little help from Uncle Sam, the Almighty or an unsung guardian angel, graduated to a productive life.

My walk through humility forever changed how I view society. It gave me a unique perspective on the plight of the less fortunate. I can voice my observations and opinions confidently because I have walked in their shoes.

To me, the bottom line to getting out of the bottom of the pit is recognizing where you are.

There is help out there. The first step is seeking it.