Randall Mann

Walk of No Shame

I recently took almost a year off from work to travel and to make headspace for writing differently, maybe more expansively. I spent many of my days in San Francisco just walking around, all over the city—to clear my head (to fill it too). And thinking about poetry, because even when I’m not, I am. Same with desire, or sex, I suppose; I never knew whom I might run into.

On these jaunts, I started thinking about the walks themselves (I clearly had a lot of time on my hands), and poets who have talked the walk of desire. Thom Gunn, the great British/San Francisco poet who wrote cool, formal, queer, sexy, heartbreaking poems, comes to mind—he’s never far from my mind. His friend the poet August Kleinzahler wrote, in the essay “Thom Gunn,” “For Thom, the city seemed to exist as a complex of erotic sites, assignations, stews.” Thom, who didn’t drive, was often wandering around the city, which is to say in his poems, and often up to no good (good for him, which is to say, us). In one of my favorite poems, “Sweet Things,” he’s running humdrum errands on foot—“toothpaste, / vitamin pills and a book of stamps”—when a “scrubbed cowboy” named Chuck sidles up, and just like that, the walk becomes a cruise, and the poem’s argument turns: Chuck “took [his] mind off toothpaste, / snatched it off, indeed.”

Indeed. “Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them without saying hello?,” the poet D.A. Powell writes, in his essay “Promiscuous Notes.” The medium? Body language. I still use a form of the cruise, on the street, where one sometimes makes eye contact with another, walks and turns, walks and turns, and then one of you stops, and the other stops, and then you walk toward each other. (Anymore, with a load of sex and dating apps, their sterile gratification, cruising feels like a forgotten form.) Often poetry is like cruising: it presents an argument, stops, then turns back on itself in order to go forward.

I have an attraction to strict forms, which are themselves movement: they offer a prescribed path, but for me, it’s sheer freedom, comfort, and mystery. I also have an attraction, or once did, to sex spaces: the given, sexual freedom; the content, flesh. Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a sestina, a form that repeats end-words of lines in a prescribed pattern, about walking around the first sex club I visited, Eros. Sex spaces are as much about the walk, or the stalk, as they are about the sex act; foreplay is the wandering, the sizing up. These places are nothing if not a foray into hopefulness (hopelessness too): the tease of the towel; the code of deep, cheap connection. One meanders, round and round, round and round, in search of something—and thus a sestina seemed the right vehicle. Here’s the poem, called “Eros”:

          Giving the man behind the counter my money,
          I take from him a fresh white towel
          and walk into the sex club—the safe
          one—called, mythically, Eros.
          I go there, as one does, to kill an hour
          or two in the hopeful dark.

          Out of my clothes, I step into the dark
          of the back rooms, where not money
          but flesh is the currency of the hour.
          I wrap my torso in the towel
          and grab a condom: at Eros,
          the only sex allowed is safe,

          management insisting that we “Play safe
          or be thrown out” into the outer dark.
          Life’s much simpler inside Eros,
          where for a little money
          I find what I need, in my towel,
          cruising the sticky floors for an hour.

          But it’s been nearly an hour,
          and nothing—I am not going to be safe
          with just anyone! Then a man without a towel—
          beautiful, in the dark—
          puts a hand on my chest. He smells like money.
          This is why I go to Eros.

          (It’s hardly my first Eros
          experience: there comes an hour
          when, in spite of the money,
          no matter how unsafe,
          I find what I need only in the dark.)
          The man without a towel

          removes my towel:
          I fall into the arms of Eros;
          that world, an underworld, dark
          no matter the hour.
          And it is good. And we are safe.
          It is good to have more sex than money.

Sex is good, all right, but it only goes so far. As of this week, I’m employed again, so poems will have to come at lunch, after hours, on weekends. Arguably, the great contemporary poet of dashing off lines in between work is Frank O’Hara, who wrote irrepressible pieces while working at the MoMA in New York, many of them on his lunch break—or branded as such. This great flâneur may seem an obvious choice, but I love his work because a remarkable number of his “I do this, I do that” poems are still so fresh when most other poems of the period, over fifty years ago now, seem long past their sell-by date. Here’s the last stanza of one I like a lot, called “Steps”:

          oh god it’s wonderful
          to get out of bed
          and drink too much coffee
          and smoke too many cigarettes
          and love you so much

I admire the exuberance and vulnerability, but also the beautiful ambiguity of the addressee. Is it the city? A someone? Doesn’t matter, really, what’s wonderful is the excess—and love.

In my last week of freedom, I took my time walking around San Francisco’s re opened MOMA, and isn’t it heartening how cruisy and unbuttoned such a relatively buttoned-up space can be. I was getting checked out by this hot guy at moments his boyfriend had an eye on those exquisite Ellsworth Kellys, bad boy, and I saw that he had a pink handkerchief hanging out of his back left pocket; I thought, hmm, hanky code, that old-school, fashion declaration of fetish. On the sly, I said hi, I forget, what does the color pink mean you’re into? He whispered, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I use it to blow my nose, and slunk away. He was young. Pink means dildo fucker, I learned later, searching online. All righty then. I thought about turning this little moment into poem, but instead, I wrote this. One must chasten oneself at times. One never gives up on desire.

“Walk of No Shame”: apt, December 17, 2018.