For my junior year of college, I transferred to a university in the Bay Area of California. I shared a dormitory room with a fellow junior and premed, Dan Neighbors, neither tall nor imposing, who was built with the speed and grace of a mountain lion, his muscles taught in flexing tension. Given his long blond locks, his blue eyes, his graceful body, he looked rather like a languid southern California surfer, who one would find hanging back, just waiting for that perfect curl. Not even the steel-rim glasses he always wore took away that beachcomber look. But in reality, Dan had grown up in the slums of east LA. His feet never once touched a surfboard and rarely did he make it to the Coast where the Pacific waters churned. A full head shorter than Dan, possessing a rough spud for a face, no one could possibly mistake me for him. With his appearance, he caught more than a few coed’s glances, and even, dare I say, the gaze of even some male undergraduates. Despite the disparities, we got on well. Slaving away during the school week, we memorized organic chemistry formulas inking them in on blank index cards; contemplated the world according to the laws of physics; and strove to understand the abstruse canon of calculus. But at least one weekend night we set aside the pens and pencils, the index cards, and the spiral bound notebooks and went out together, unless he had a date. Those nights were set aside for movies or frat parties. We became as close as two brothers, except in one remarkable respect.
Being the hayseed from Colorado I was, there were aspects of the urban environment of the Bay Area with which I was unfamiliar. One of them was the gay scene of the city or the university. To me, it was a subterranean arena of which I had no knowledge. Neither particularly caring about it, nor disdaining it, it was a world that turned without me noticing it. But it wasn’t that way for Dan. He was the product of a world full of glories and depravities. Somewhere in Dan there was a devilish rage; homosexuals just happened to be among them. Once, every month or so, Dan would go out with friends, and beat up the hapless homosexuals of the Castro District in San Francisco.
The first time he disembarked with his pals for one of these skirmishes, it was a warm September night. I asked him where he was going. “We are going to the city. We’re going to re-arrange the looks of some faggots. Wanna come?”
I demurred. “Why?”
“Because that’s the way it is.”
“Because that’s the way it is? Just what did they ever do to you?”
“Those queens just rub me the wrong way.”
Without another word, wearing his signature faded Levi’s trousers, his spotless white T-shirt, and his torn Levi’s jacket, he’d depart with the others, heading for the dark, indiscernible dens of the Castro District in nearby San Francisco where they’d assail grown men whose only crime was the fact that they were gay. Returning in the thin hours of the morning that first night, he had spots of blood on the white T-shirt, but they weren’t his. One of his victims managed to strike him, though, for his metal glass frames were twisted. He immediately walked over to the small refrigerator we had in our dorm room and retrieved a Budweiser, which he tossed to me. Then he took out one for himself. He took the cap off before I did mine, taking a long slug of beer. “We showed them tonight. This big, fat fag – I broke his nose. I could feel the cartilage crunch when I tagged him.”
“What’s the matter? You some fag lover?”
“Let’s just say I’m a little more tolerant about people.”
“I suppose you’d like to take it up the ass.”
“That’s not it at all. I just don’t believe it’s right to beat up someone who’s not done anything to you.”
How badly these gays were hurt in Dan’t future forays into the city, I cannot say, for after that first night’s talk, it was a part of his life he kept from me. Though this predilection in Dan bothered me, I remained Dan’s friend and fellow classmate. One Sunday morning after he’d been out pummeling gays, he returned with a swollen eye after an especially tumultuous fray. For the rest of the week, I noticed he scanned the local section of the San Francisco Chronicle while we had our breakfast in the dormitory cafeteria. Suspecting that things might have gotten out of hand, that someone had really been hurt, I said, “Particularly rough night last Saturday.”
“You crying over some fudge packer?”
Then I took off for my biochemistry class. Usually, I went with Dan, who was in the same class, but he told me to go ahead, he needed to finish the paper.
It wasn’t as though Dan and his platoon of friends were into anything unique. Gay-bashing of one sort or another began the moment that San Francisco became the gay capital of the country. In November, the Chronicle ran a series of articles on the implacable physical violence against the homosexual community that was blossoming into an epidemic of assault charges in the stations of the city’s finest. More than a few were permanently disabled or killed in the dark alleyways and avenues across the metropolis. This led to gay-led demonstrations against the physical abuse that their numbers were taking. At the time, I was going out with a girl from San Diego. Her name was Maureen. Neither premed nor pre-law, she was the smarter of us two, not worrying about her GPA or what she was going to do after college ended. When I told her about Dan’s darker excursions into the city, she was horrified. “How can you put up with him?”
“He’s my roommate and he’s my friend.”
“You’re an enabler.”
I had no response; she was right. I was an enabler. Perhaps it was because I saw the positive things in Dan that I felt I had to defend him. When Maureen and I broke up about a month later, she used that as one excuse for the dissolution of our relationship. “I find your defense of Dan deplorable,” she said. “Absolutely deplorable. Those gays he’s beating up are human beings.” Then she was gone, never to come back.
But the pattern continued. Dan continued in his ways. He talked the talk. He walked the walk. Finally, on a Saturday in the middle of March, right after mid-terms, Dan gathered with his posse. It had been raining since the morning, nothing unusual for the San Francisco peninsula. But as the day progressed, the storm grew in strength, the sky without sky. The drizzle turned into thundershowers about seven. With the thunder and lightning, the wind tore at the Eucalyptus trees in the diagonal rain. Shortly after nine, Dan left for San Francisco in his old Datsun sedan. I went by myself to see a movie that was playing at a theater on El Camino Real. Upon my return to the dormitory, it was still raining. As I got out of my wet clothes, the phone rang. It was half-past midnight, so I wondered who could be calling. When I answered the phone, it was Dan. His voice sounded groggy. “Bill, I need a lift. I’m in the emergency room at UCSF Medical Center. Things got a little out of hand. Some fucking faggot worked me over with a baseball bat. I have some broken bones. They all had bats. They even took out the windows with their bats. I can’t drive; they gave me some Demerol for pain.”
When I picked him up, he was lying on a gurney, wearing a hospital gown. Both eyes were swollen shut, the right one more so then the left, his head was shaved in a small patch where they’d sutured his scalp back together. That was not the sole laceration. They’d had to anneal rents in Dan’s skin. Above his lip, there were blue, plastic sutures that looked like small spiders, approximating one blow of the bat.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“They were waiting for us. With baseball bats. One of them struck me a couple of times on the face, one of the blows shattering my right cheekbone. Then, someone struck me over the head with a bat that knocked me out. I don’t even know how I made it here. The ER doctor told me that I’d need surgery in a week or two for the broken cheekbone. Man, I hurt all over.” Ironically his white T-shirt was pink and wet with blood – his own.
I drove him back to the dorm. Not a word was said.
By Joseph Dylan