Excerpt from Notes from a Queer Noisemaker: A Memoir of Coal Country and Beyond
by Edward Moran
The day my kid brother was born, my father strangled the cat in the coal cellar. Delved her with a shovel. Consigned her to the furnace. For, as old wives know, “a cat will take away a baby’s breath.”
It was just the two of us, then, in the kneadless kitchen. Mom away in labor and Father away from work. Man’s country, this kitchen today, where spear and shovel reigneth. No sign of flour or baking powder, no fresh Irish soda bread this morning, just a few stale crumbs from yesterday that my mother will fling from the back porch to feed the birds, but she is not here today, and there are no birds. Just my father’s sleek Smith Corona portable, enthroned on the table where the breadboard had been. A sleek, black appliance, with red-and-black ribbon the only female frill, The carriage held but just ourselves. . .
My father, now upstairs after his nefarious deed underfoot, was plugging away at the keys, his fist dragging the carriage like a plow delving the wordless earth. Words would blossom in the absence of birds, literacy for hungry creatures. There was no litter for the cat, for she relieved herself in the ashpit in the cellar, residue of the coals that once burned blue in the furnace beneath our feet. Hearing the pipes hiss as the steam rose through the house, I turned my wonderment to text as, one by one, with my right index finger only, I plied black keys.
DADdy cAN i sEe YOUR P P?
It was all I had to say, or could, caught in the shards of morning light that dusted through the blinds on ashen wing.
And then, his fingers that had pressed her throat—cat’s or mother’s I cannot tell, or both—he replied, with ribbon shifted down to red, replied with silent reproof there to me:
NO. YOU ARE A BAD BOY.
It was my first sentence.
. . .
We were a poor family. Except for the phone directory, we had no books at home, so I indulged my passion for reading by devouring the handful of volumes in my parochial-school library, which furnished a never-ending supply of uplifting Catholic literature like The Lives of the Saints, which were always good for the scenes of mayhem and marytrdom I craved . The first time I ever saw my name in print was when I was eight. It was the fall of 1955, and one of my juvenile paragraphs, “The Queer Noise,” was deemed worthy of publication in the Leorian, the St Leos school newspaper. To this day, I remember that prentice paragraph by heart. It began, “The other night, as I was doing my homework, I heard a queer noise in my closet.” I doubt whether Sister Corona or I were then aware of the cocksure prescience of those words.
After this early publication triumph, the consciousness dawned on me that there was such a place as a public library. One Saturday, when we went downtown for our weekly shopping trip, I insisted that my mother take me there. To this day, I remember its Gothic architecture, its hushed cathedral-like setting (the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre was in a converted 19th century Presbyterian church), the miles and miles of books stretching forever, the newspapers and magazines propped on sloping shelves, piled like delicacies in a candy-store window. For some reason, I gravitated toward the reference room, which had fluted columns, soaring slate mantelpieces, and oil paintings galore (well, reproductions galore, probably) of dead white males like Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson
Soon, of course, I was spending whole Saturday afternoons there, yanking books off shelves, a dozen or more on a given visit. When you are young, you read for dear life–as I certainly did–seeking in solitude the answers to questions that we could never ask our parents or teachers: questions about our bodies, especially. Gus, the life-size human mannequin in the biology classroom at St Leos, had no organs in the nether regions beneath his lower intestine. It was whispered by the older boys that Gus had been installed there not for education, but for edification–a cautionary tale of a deposed princeling devoid of his crown jewels to warn us of the perils of manhandling our own. One of my most vivid memories is that of sitting in the Osterhout reference room when I was twelve or thirteen, hormones raging, huddled over the SET-SEY volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica , one eye glued on the book and the other warily scanning my surroundings for the ever-hovering librarian. I had to be ready to flip the page back to the entry on “Sewage Systems” in case Miss Pedigo swooped too close for comfort. Such is the staccato of a coal country puberty, its young men unable to distinguish between the sound of their own heartbeats and that of the coal cars rumbling underground The beat of a different drummer, in the key of Q, without ornamentation.
Those who do not grow up in mining country cannot understand the pervasiveness of coal, how it gets beneath your fingernails, creeps into your dreams, shapes your playtimes, orders your days. Carbon underfoot is the somber sign of a tragic human drama, a drama of woundedness, for hardcoal does not yield its warmth and life without demanding the lives and lungs of men and boys and the lamentation of widows. In hardcoal country, carbon, the very stuff of organic life, is the most recondite of elements. In coaltowns where we sing our songs, we do so atop a vast storehouse of compression, where vital, exuberant energies from millions of years of existence are pressed, wound tight as a helix or mainspring, ready to uncoil at pluck of pen or pickaxe or piano key.
The children of coal thus learn to live in a queer, liminal world, on the fringes of two cultures, shunned by both and never at home in either.
Years later, in New York, secure in my affectional orientation, I learned there was an establishment in the lower West Side called the Mineshaft, into which men descended nightly to mine their carnal appetites in a darksome splurge of Whitmanian adhesiveness. I never succumbed to the temptation of going there: It was mime–not mine. To my sensibility, this Mineshaft was nothing more than a theme park, a feeble attempt at ersatz Gemeinschaft that welcomed wingtipped accountants or thrill-seeking salesclerks for a night of sensual slumming, a pale simulacrum of the real mineshafts that devoured the youngmen of coal country–and my grandfather–in a perpetual orgy of Moloch. When you grow up with mineshafts underfoot, there is no need to role-play at ruggedness or rage. I hate the annihilation of passion in coal country, the exiling of ardor, how the youngmen of the mineshafts are unsexed. I hate all these things because they are laid on the flesh of the fresh youngmen of coaltowns everywhere who have been born within heirshot of the colliery whistle. Growing up, we often used the terms for the sizes of coal to taunt (or admire) each other’s developing sextools: so-and-so is just a “pea” or “barley” runt, while his strapping cousin over there proudly sports his “nut” or “egg” endowment. You never escape coal, even in your hormonal glory. Kids elsewhere carried marbles in their pockets, but our treasures might be pieces of coal that, when split-crackled in the fire would reveal a skull, coals that would glow white-hot in the furnaces of youth only to be cast out as ash. This is why our cellar coal bins were our jackoff palaces in the days before peepshows and online porn. In these cramped masturbatoria, starved for breath and light, we learned how to be men, tossing off our dreams half-dreamt before we grew to pursue more manly pursuits: carburetors and drink and wives.
St Leos Church in Ashley provided its own kind of dark, airless space, with its cloaked confessionals and baroque artwork. By the time I reached puberty, my attention had shifted from the remote Transfiguration scene on the church’s ceiling to the more accessible, and noticeably gorier Stations of the Cross, those fourteen images that are typically found in every Catholic church in Christendom as a memorial to Christ’s passion and death. My two favorite stations were the Sixth and the Tenth: Veronica’s veil and Christ stripped of His garments. Each in its own way responded to the fever pitch of youngmen at prayer. Since we were told nothing about the mechanics of sex, I could only imagine that reproduction took place in a kind of mystical transfer of Christ’s image to a woman’s veil. I had read enough Greek mythology to know that the daughter of Zeus had been impregnated by a shower of gold, so why not imagine it could happen to the Ever Virgin Mary herself, her poor Joseph cuckolded by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit? How can anyone measure up as a youngman with the power of the Most High arrayed against you? The Tenth Station, “Christ Stripped of His Garments,” was even more sexually charged for me. Just as Yukio Mishima fell in love with images of the martyred St Sebastian, I fell in love with the agonized Christ, scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, at once a source of the most exquisite pain and the most agonizing pleasure. In our church, Christ was a tall, bare-chested Adonis, abs and pecs dripping with passion. How I loved contemplating His pure white garment, strangely unbloodied, pulled down to just above groin level. Here again was Gus, the hapless mannequin in our biology class.
. . .
In the weeks after high-school graduation, I was supposed to have been enrolled in a summer Latin class in preparation for my entering the diocesan seminary. But instead of translating Aquinas, I spent a summer of bliss-content mining the paperback racks for every book I could find that addressed the major issue in my life, what our catechisms euphemistically termed the “concupiscence of the flesh.” I am grateful that, in those days, x-rated bookstores did not exist in the puritanical coal regions or I would surely have drowned in their ecstasy of excess. At the Osterhout Library, I knew that there were several dozen books cloistered behind an iron grille, each with a hand-painted “X” on its spine, and with another red “X” in the card catalogue. But here they were, free for the browsing in The Book and Card Mart, far from the probing eyes of bluestockinged librarians.
What would Bishop Hannan have thought of me, at supper in his episcopal residence in Scranton? Here he was, thinking that I was diligently learning to read the Summa Theologica in the original tongue, but I was really devouring the jigglier passages from Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. And not just the innocuous Irrawaddy passages, but Dirty Gerty herself, she of the Roman candles and the nainsook knickers. I was prescient enough to take the precaution of not wearing khaki-colored trousers to my substitute Latin classes.
But the night was dark and I was still far from home, at least until I discovered John Rechy’s City of Night in the paperback racks, the suggestive Grove Press edition with the noirish Times Square scene on the cover. I learned I was not a priestly candidate at all, but a youngman. A youngman on the prowl. For what or for whom I did not quite know. For fulfillment? For affection? For authenticity? For the wood of the True Crotch? For a blessing on all the rampant emotions cascading through body, mind, and soul?
At the end of that tormented summer of ‘65, I knew in gut and gonad that I had to decline any hopes of priesthood. I longed for the imagined camaraderie of being a blue-collar worker. I longed for the remembered heartbeat of the coal mines, the cigar factories, the knitting mills that surrounded us. I wanted to live in the real world, not the artificial world of the intellect, or of the hothouse of the seminary. Seminary comes from the Latin word “semen” for seed, for the seminary is believed by Catholics to be the seedbed of the priesthood.
. . .
I arrived in New York City for good on the third of June, 1969. Thanks to the Village Voice, I found an apartment to share in Staten Island. Tompkinsville, Eighty dollars a month. The camaraderie of men somehow attracted me. My roommates were a 21-year old Afro-coiffed brother named Jimmy, and Keith, a 23-year-old white skinhead from Yonkers who worked for Western Union. Other people wandered in and out of the apartment, since the door was perpetually unlocked. It was a crash pad for assorted druggies. One morning a woman in the kitchen told me she had just had her second abortion and was looking for her boyfriend, a recent refugee from the hooches of Nam. This was the stuff a writer was looking for. Instead of my father’s Smith-Corona, I had my Olympia portable. Day after day of that torrid summer, I dutifully sat in my room typing as the denizens of my flat tended to their mostly nocturnal activities.
One night Jimmy emerged from the bathroom freshly coiffed and with a silk sash around his waist. He was off to Danny’s, a disco for “fairies” located somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike. The term “gay” was not then in common use to describe youngmen who fancied other youngmen. Jimmy asked me to join them.
“No, I don’t have the right clothes,” I said, pointing to the 99-cent dress shirt I’d just bought at Modell’s.
The next morning, I heard on the radio of a raid on a bar in the Village called the Stonewall Inn.. This time, the patrons had fought back. After being in Paris and Prague the previous summer, I felt this was something I could handle. I didn’t know what the Stonewall was all about, really, but something deep within my gut told me I belonged there.
Early Saturday evening, around five o’clock, I made my way down to Christopher Street. In the late 1960s, protests were fairly common in New York, so seeing police barricades along Christopher Street, with trash and broken glass in the streets, was not at all unusual. It was part of the grittiness that defined New York in those pre-Giuliani days. A group of people were in the little Sheridan Square triangular park chanting “off the pig” slogans and handing out mimeographed flyers. Gay is Good, they shouted. It was the first time I’d heard those words.
“This is me,” I thought, still not quite convinced of the notion. With all the nerve of Ibsen’s Nora, I marched up to the door. It was locked. I pushed and pulled on the handle but nothing would budge. Then the peephole slid open and two beady eyes stared at me.
“What do you want?” came an annoyed voice from within.
“I want to come in,” I replied timidly.
The beady eyes started at me for a long moment.
“Do you know what kind of place this is?”
I didn’t really, but I certainly wanted to find out.
“Yes,” I replied, half lying.
The eyes stared another long moment, then the peephole was slammed shut. “We’re having a private party!”
I left, dutifully, and went home. Catholic school graduates are well-behaved.
In retrospect, it was fortuitous that the hapless police had chosen the Stonewall for their raid that night. What if they had raided one of the other places that dotted the Village in those heady days – the Snake Pit, the Strap, the Toilet? The word Stonewall has a gravitas worthy of a movement. I doubt that rioters would have gotten very far promoting the “Snake Pit Riots” or the “Toilet Movement.”
. . .
My first real job in New York was with Bee-Line Books, a purveyor of pulp “adult” paperbacks based on West Twenty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. I was twenty-three.
“We want you to run a kind of “Bee-Line Book of the Month Club.” my supervisor told me one day. “Get people to sign up, send them a book, bill them a dollar for every one they buy.”
What I enjoyed most was reading the requests. In the days before instant porn online, if you wanted a dirty book, you had to write away for it.
I got tons of letters from horned-up men around the globe. Sometimes they told me a little bit about themselves, telling me how their wives would not do certain things. The letters were usually dashed off in ball-point ink, with bad penmanship. One day I opened an envelope, a blue aerogramme soaked in cheap perfume. It was from Buenos Aires. A man wrote in flawless Spencerian Script, in broken English mixed with Spanish: Estimado Bee-Line, please I desire…
One day, I got a message from a man in Kansas named Harold.
“Send me some dirty books. I love b and d.”
In the next day’s mail came a letter from Harold’s mother.
“I am Harold’s mother. Please don’t send him any more books. He is 47 years old and it is no fun here when he gets all hopped up.”
Good ex-Catholic that I was, I had to comply.
One day, toward the end of a stifling August heat wave, I received another blue aerogramme. I always read them first because they were most exotic. This one came from Bangkok. Writing in neat script, a man named Sampson asked me if I could send him any titles about men. His English was quite good, but sufficiently quirky to give me a little jolt of pleasure.
“I am liking of men.”
Always the pedagogue, I send him one of our few all-male titles, with the helpful note, “In English, we say “I like men.” or “I have a liking for men.”
About ten days later, I received a reply and this time five American dollars.
“Thank you for your grammar lesson. I am living here in my shop. We sell of buttons and thread.”
Five dollars exhausted all of our male titles, so that afternoon after work I took the EE train up to Times Square where I bought him “Times Queer” and “Men Unbuttoned”. I placed them in a brown wrapper and mailed them off.
Another week passed. This time I got not an aerogramme but a letter with a magazine pictures of a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Inside the neatly wrapped packet was a crisp ten dollar bill and a request for any photographs of men. Beneath his signature, he had traced the outline of his erect member in dotted lines. He added a shy, teardrop-shaped projectile at the tip.
“It is lonely here in my shop and I thank you and the lord Buddha for your kindness.”
Fear started gripping me. Was I going to be arrested for distributing pornography across national borders? Was I an unwitting accomplice in this?
I never heard from Sampon again. One day, in a fit of guilt, I tore up all his letters. Today, I am sorry I did not save them as an archive of what things were like in those turbulent times..
It was time for a change. A few weeks later, no doubt in a cycle of catharsis, I became the editor of Laundry Cleaning World magazine.
. . .
On my thirty-fifth birthday in 1982, after my traditional repast of coquilles Saint-Jacques–I was born on the feast of Santiago de Compostela–I stopped for a post-scallop drink at The Bar, a gritty watering hole on the corner of Second Avenue and East Fourth Street in Manhattan’s East Village. It was to prove a turning point in my life.
Though The Bar was surely the last establishment in North America to install air conditioning, it was always packed to the scuppers, even on torrid summer midnights, with the sweltering denizens of the Eighties demimonde. Before the Giuliani era, this section of town, louche, noirish, and ungentrified, was the epicenter of bohemian libido. Nearby, on the very day I moved to New York City in 1969, I had taken in my first x-rated fim at the Andy Warhol Garrick Cinema on Bleecker Street, then wandered through the neighborhood in search of the holy shrines of the schizofrantic Sixties: the Electric Circus, Fillmore East, and W H Auden’s apartment.
I had first wandered into The Bar about 1978, when fifty cents would get you a gin and tonic. In those days, The Bar was not your run-of-the-gin-mill kind of place. It was a semi-sacred tabernacle where I could commune with the ghosts of Whitman and Wilde, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Brassaï and Genet, and their more contemporary incarnations. One night, from my usual spot just to the right of the front door, I spotted a glambag of aging Warholians from the old Factory perched on the rickety stools, clustered around Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet. I could not resist asking the bartender to send over a bowl of mead and a Purple Cow to the duo.
Far ahead of its time, The Bar had a unisex restroom–n name only, because all of the customers were male, at least by the definition of those innocent binary days before genderqueer, neutrois, and cisgender. (Today, no fewer than 56 gender-identity options are now available on Facebook). One night I entered the restroom just as a bespectacled nerd was exiting, zipping up. On the black wall above the urinal was a freshly chalked drawing of two morsels of ziti engaged in mutual frottage. I realized that I had been the first to behold one of Keith Haring’s signature graffito that was sprouting in East Village dives and subway walls, like the words of the prophets.
I felt I had found my secular haven at last. Here was my new pantheon of ancestral spirits that had, by then, replaced the communion of saints of my Catholic childhood. When I was a child, I thought as a child. Why light a candle to St Sebastian any more when that smouldering and muscular Japanese expat on the next barstool could procure for you a relic of the fundoshi Mishima was wearing when he was drafting Confessions of a Mask? Why remain mesmerized by the Tenth Station of the Cross back at St Leos when you could have all the stripping qnd flagellation you could endure at the St Marks Baths down the street? I convinced myself that I was not irredeemably decadent because I insisted on distancing myself by maintaining an intellectual, if pedantic, hauteur in these settings. In chatting with my fellow debauched denizens, I always felt compelled to make literary or spiritual allusions, as if that would somehow elevate the raw erotic energy, transubstantiating it into something more refined. That’s what Catholic school will do for you.