Bump ’n’ Grindr

“What do you think of this one?” Sam asks, passing me his iPhone.

A young bare-chested man smiles up at me from the phone, the image glowing against the dimness of the bar. Young, thin, hairless—he’s not my type, but that isn’t the point. This isn’t about me.

“He’s 400 feet away,” Sam says, yanking back the phone and tapping the screen to check out the next guy.

Grindr was the first app Sam downloaded to his iPhone. It’s become part of the ritual now, never out of sight.

I haven’t yet jumped on the smartphone bandwagon. I’ve always been in the second, sometimes third, wave of tech innovation. I didn’t get online at all until 1998 (I can still hear the irksome sound of my dial-up AOL account, followed by the oddly exciting Stephen Hawking-like “You’ve got mail”), and I resisted getting a cell phone until nearly 10 years after that. Now I find myself questioning the value of holding my phone up to the sky to identify constellations—or having it tell me just how close Mr. Right might be.

“You’re so twentieth-century,” Sam says—the ultimate put-down in the modern era. “You probably still read books,” he adds with a knowing smile.

As a matter of fact, I do read books. Real ones—the kind made of cardboard, paper, and ink. I write books, too—which is perhaps more to the point. I’m all for expanding my readership, but let me tell you, the royalties on an actual book (puny as they may be in this semi-literate age) are huge by comparison to a Kindle.

Sam used to meet most of his sex partners—and even the occasional boyfriend—in chat rooms, but Grindr seems to have eclipsed all that. It’s much more efficient, he says. It eliminates negotiation about who’s going to travel to whose house. You just limit the range to the immediate vicinity, and there’s no excuse for not getting together. It reminds me of the old-fashioned way of cruising: face to face. You know, the reason gay bars were created in the first place.

“You know what the next step is,” I tell him. “Holograms. It’s inevitable. You can just beam your electronic selves to some virtual spot and let them fuck each other. No conversation, no travel, no cleaning up afterwards. It’s win-win.”

“Sure,” he says. “You can afford to be cynical. You have a boyfriend.”

“Are you kidding?” I tell him. “That’s why I’m cynical.”

He just laughs and slides his finger across the screen. We haven’t made eye contact since we got here.

“Wow,” he says suddenly. “What about this one?” He flashes the screen at me again. The new guy looks just like the old guy. One thing I can say about Sam: he’s consistent.

At the bottom of the screen, below the photo, a little bubble reads, 20 feet away.

“Twenty feet,” I say. “He’s in the bar.”

“Cool.” And finally Sam looks up to engage with the real world—wood, air, cocktails, human beings. He scopes the place out.

I admit, I’m curious. I want to know if Mr. 20-Feet looks anything like his picture. So I scan the crowd, too. It’s a relatively quiet night, easy to see individual bodies rather than the mass of toned flesh you’d confront on a Saturday.

Except that I can’t see any faces. They’re all hunched over, staring at their own smartphones—playing games to kill time, texting, reading email, gazing at photos on Grindr.

In a virtual age, maybe it’s reality that’s unnecessary.

Thanks to E for encouraging me to write this, and to M for the research.

Location, Location, Location

Do you remember that scene in Annie Hall, when the Woody Allen character says no one ever believes him when he says he was raised in a house under the Coney Island roller coaster? Well, that’s how I feel about where I live now. No one would believe it. Hell, I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me 20 years ago that one day I would live not only in San Francisco, not only in the infamous Castro—but at the very epicenter of the gay universe. Someone I met at a party not long ago referred to my address as Fag Zero. I prefer to think of it as the corner of Queer and Gay.

Through my bedroom window, I have the world’s best view (second best, perhaps, if you count my upstairs neighbors) of the enormous rainbow flag that has flown over the Castro for decades now, as proudly as the Stars and Stripes atop the White House. If I open the window on a blustery day, I can hear it whipping in the wind—as if some heavenly drag queen were snapping her laundry on the line.

This corner, where Castro meets Market, is where the subway and the trolley spill out every gay tourist who makes the pilgrimage to our very own mecca. The first thing they see when they emerge may be the pink and blue neon sign for the Castro Theater, but the first sound they hear is the flapping of that flag over their heads. It’s a marker visible for miles around, a beacon pointing the way to the gayest neighborhood this side of Amsterdam.

In the world of real estate, location is everything, and now I know why. When you meet that special someone in one of the Castro’s many bars, the inevitable question “My place or yours?” is routinely followed by “Where do you live?” In my own cruising days, it was a question I looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure. “Around the corner,” I would say quite sincerely, and my companion would laugh with an I’ll-bet-you-say-that-to-all-the-boys smirk. Until we rounded the corner and I took out my keys. Then his jaw would drop and the inevitable exclamation would resound: “You weren’t kidding!” Which was often followed by, “I’ve always wanted to see the inside of this place,” or—still more dreaded—“Oh yeah, I’ve slept here before.” The building does have a certain George Washington quality to it, I suppose. If George Washington were gay. Okay, maybe it’s more of an Abe Lincoln quality, then.

So, suffice it to say that after years in the Castro, I’m a bit spoiled. When I walk through this neighborhood, hand in hand with my boyfriend, I don’t think twice about the fact that the streets are full of transgender pioneers and men in leather, that the occasional storefront window sports an assortment of porn DVDs and dildos of every size and color known to latex. The uniqueness of the situation doesn’t register for me anymore. This is the world as it’s supposed to be.

But not as it is everywhere. They say California is a bubble. They say San Francisco is an even smaller bubble. And the Castro … well, the Castro is a bubble butt.

Traveling virtually anywhere else on the planet gives me a dramatic reality check.

A few years ago, my then-boyfriend and I went on vacation in Hawaii. Our first mistake, of course, was deciding to stay in Waikiki—which, basically, is Indiana with palm trees and more interesting cocktails.

One morning, we wanted to catch the sunrise (correction: he wanted to catch the sunrise; I hadn’t seen one except under duress since … well, ever). So we ran out of our cozy little gay inn and, holding hands, raced past some of the bigger hotels on our way to the beach. As we passed by the Marriott, a deep voice snarled out at us: “Oh, are you boys in love?!” That last word, strung together from at least five drawling syllables, was almost unrecognizable. But John heard it pretty clearly.

He stopped dead in his tracks, and I would have careened into a fire hydrant if he hadn’t held onto my hand so tightly. I boinged to a stop a few steps ahead of him and turned around. The voice that had accosted us belonged to a beige beach ball of a woman who was still smirking in our direction. She was part of a small group waiting outside the hotel for a tour bus, and we were her entertainment until the official fun began.

“Yes,” John shouted, his face a provocative affront. “We are in love. Has anyone ever been in love with you, you fat cow?”

I wish I could say it was the first time John had ever admitted to being in love with me. Wouldn’t that be a sweet, romantic way to end the story? But alas (for the world of literature), it wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time I saw his spine in full force. John has been known to do drag from time to time, and as we all know, drag queens are the bravest souls on the planet.

While the woman just stared at us in disbelief, John yanked my hand again to pull me close, and planted a long, lingering, wet kiss on my lips. As we raced to the beach to beat the sun in its attempt to crest the horizon, I imagined the paramedics racing to the hotel to revive Mrs. Cheney from her latest heart attack.

So much for paradise. I’m as fond of palm trees and island sunsets as the next guy, but paradise for me has more to do with the way people relate to one another than the landscape in which they do it. I will continue to assert my right to march down any street as a proud gay man, and to kiss my lover full on the lips even where it will scare every horse in town. But after that, I will go home to the corner of Queer and Gay. As Dorothy Gale, our patron saint, has taught us, there’s no place like home.