With nothing to hold me, I ran from this place. I packed my car and drove to Seattle, the city that saved my life when there seemed no hope for a wretch like me. I would have more difficulties in Seattle, living closer to the streets than I ever had in Utah. But at least in Seattle, I was free to express myself, my art and my sexuality; Seattle is where I really grew up.
I found a counterculture where I was free to be anything I wanted. For the first time in my life, I felt the unconditional love of community. My new friends and I rebelled against everything—even the gay stereotypes we were saddled with; we embraced freakdom. I began wearing skirts and smudgy eyeliner every day. Not as drag or in any way to look like a girl—quite the opposite. I wanted to look like a boy wearing a skirt (and not a kilt). I wore Catholic-schoolgirl skirts and deconstructed umbrellas with combat boots and torn-up T-shirts. I became an unabashed, but appropriately modest, exhibitionist. We weren’t the only young people rebelling against fashion and social norms, but we certainly were the most visible in Seattle. If only I had discovered the power of freakdom when I was younger because it proved a very effective technique for warding off creeps and bullies.
Our group of uberalternative, mostly young, gay men, became a scene on First Avenue. I was still a teenager but was getting whisked into the trendy clubs by the doormen. At my favorite bar, I would get shuffled into a broom closet in the women’s restroom when the ID-check patrol would come through, holding my breath until the coast was clear for me to resume tearing up the dance floor. It was the only time in my life when I was free of care, responsibility and guilt. And it was glorious. After about five years in Seattle, and what seems like a whole lifetime lived, I found my way to California, where for more than 25 years, I have been living a very quiet life in Oakland.
This summer, I came back to Salt Lake City for a three-week visit to help Dad and Mom around their Marmalade house they’re selling before they move to Big Sky Country. While here, I also planned to have a reunion with two girlfriends from high school and even reconnect with two girls from the deepest past of first grade—one who told me I was her first kiss!
It turns out running away has been my modus operandi for some time. She and I ran away from Burton Elementary in Kaysville during recess in the first grade—found later that day by our teacher searching for us in her car. We were too young to know what we were running away from, but I am sure it was the earliest beginnings of the hostility, disapproval and even hatred that I would live with for the rest of my time in Utah.
Crossing Nevada by pickup truck gave me time to ponder my youth here. Approaching Utah from the Western desert, my melancholy memories were overtaken by the natural beauty of this place. Thirty years ago, I didn’t see it, as some of you who live here do not, but someday, if you leave for any length of time, you will. The craggy alpine heights of the Wasatch Front, holding a lacing of snow well into summer, are a vision. The wide, tree-lined streets of Salt Lake City proper are, as ever, simultaneously easy and confusing to navigate but are always comfortable for a U-turn in a pickup truck.
That is where the similarities of the Salt Lake City I recall from 30 years ago end. Now more cosmopolitan, the city’s few new, nearly sky-scraping buildings make it much more of a “city” nestled between mountains and a saline lake and less of a “town.” Downtown, I found Sur La Table and an Apple store and lots of galleries, sushi bars and neighborhood coffeehouses. The only thing this queer man can imagine that Salt Lake City still requires to be a hub of consumerism is Tiffany & Co.
Salt Lake City is walkable—a trait I consider necessary for urban exploration. To be sure, the blocks are long and not particularly dense with attractions. But, from my dad’s house on Wall Street, I can walk downtown for tacos and tequila shots (without having to join a club!) or just to stroll amid the historic architecture of Temple Square that, for better or worse, is the city’s heritage and legacy. I explored the Capitol complex and Memory Grove, two remade spaces that are stunning achievements of historical restoration and preservation. I was delighted by the beautiful home gardens and community-based urban farming I found as I walked the shady neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, the Avenues and all around town.
But I didn’t have to walk. More than a decade ago, I started seeing light-rail lines here and was impressed then that Salt Lake City was far ahead of my own larger city in building a sustainable transportation system. That UTA TRAX is lauded as one of the top urban transportation systems in the nation is doubly impressive when you consider that during my youth in Utah, UTA did not even run on Sundays.