Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cute Nerd or Creepy Old Guy?

Rock Island, August 1979

The summer after my freshman year at Augustana College.

There were no gay organizations in town, no gay books in the library, no gay dating sites on the internet.  There was a gay bar, but I was only 18 years old, and you had to be 21 to get in.

There was no way to meet gay men -- or straight men on the downlow -- except randomly, in the course of your daily activities.  Of course, neither of you would come out, for fear of violent reprisal.  So you played a game.

You made eye contact for a little longer than usual.
He glanced at your crotch, and made sure that you noticed.
You glanced at a hot guy passing by, and made sure that he noticed.
He asked if you had a girlfriend.
You asked if he lived in the dorm or with his parents.

When you were quite sure, you got him alone and made an undeniable move: you touched his face or his basket, or leaned in for a kiss.  But you were never completely sure.

He might jump away and yell "Whoa, man!  That's not my thing!"
Or call the Dean and have you expelled.
Or kill you.

During my four years at Augustana, I only met two or three guys that way.

One was a cute nerd.  Or maybe a creepy old guy.  I couldn't decide which.

In the main reading room of the Augustana Library, there was a bookcase filled with discards and donations.  You could get a hardback for fifty cents and a paperback for a dime.  Many students browsed there, sometimes a faculty member, but rarely anyone from the community.

I had a part time job in the library, and I often noticed Trevor (not his real name), a slim, rather cute guy in his 30s or 40s, with brown wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses, who always dressed formally and spoke in over-grammatically correct English.  He came in most Tuesday afternoons at 3:00, just as the new books were put out.  He bought at least three, sometimes four or five, week after week.

When he came up to the circulation desk to pay, we made eye contact for a little longer than usual.  I glanced at his crotch, and made sure that he noticed. He glanced at a hot guy, and made sure that I noticed.  I asked if he lived in the dorm, and he said, "Oh, no, I'm not a student.  I live in town."

I, not we.  Not married.  Maybe gay, maybe interested.

But there was only one way to be sure.

One day he found a treasure: a ten-volume set of the works of Martin Luther in German (the library had just received a new edition).  "I'll take the first five volumes now, and come back for the others."

"I'll be happy to help you carry them to your car."

"I don't have a car.  But don't worry -- it's just five blocks."

I thought for a moment.  "Hey, we're running a special for our best customers -- free taxi service.  My car's parked out back."

He hesitated.

"It's 90 degrees out there.  You can pay me back with a bottle of pop."


Trevor lived five blocks from campus, where 5th Avenue turns industrial.  There was a factory across the street and an Irish pub next door.  No neighbors.

"Do you live alone?" I asked.

"It was just Mother and me until she died five years ago.  Now it's just me."

Suddenly I thought that this might not be a good idea.  Serial killers always lived alone, or with Mother.

Or with Mother's corpse.

Trevor piled the books on the enclosed front porch and fumbled about for his key.  "Your payment awaits within -- one bottle of pop," he said with a weird lunatic grin.

Besides, in a big house isolated from all the others, if he got violent...

Today I would never set foot inside that house.  But I was 18....


Trevor opened the door onto a large, rectangular parlor with parquet ceilings and two old chandeliers.  And books. Books and books. Wall-to-wall bookcases crammed with books.  Books piled on the sofa, on the coffee table, books in neat piles stacked near to the ceiling.

At a glance, I saw Modern Astronomy, Reading Norwegian, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Look Homeward Angel, Murder on the Orient Express, five Complete Works of Shakespeare, and about a dozen paperback copies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

"I run a rare book service for collectors," he said, noting my surprise. "This is some of my inventory."

He pushed aside a pile of books from a 1950s-style couch, invited me to sit down, and disappeared down a book-lined hallway.  A grey cat appeared out of nowhere and jumped onto my lap.

Other than purring, the room was utterly silent.  I imagined the terrible emptiness at night.  There wasn't even a tv or radio.

Trevor returned with two A&W root beer mugs filled with soda and a plate of cookies. The tray depicted a weird scary Santa Claus drinking a Coke.  "The cookies are homemade.  My secret ingredient is allspice," he said with a nervous giggle. "I see you've met my roommate,"

"Your roommate?"

"George the Cat."  He put the tray down, sat next to me on the couch, and started to pet George, his hand coming perilously close to my crotch.  I began to redden.  "You're quite athletic, aren't you?  How many push-ups can you do?"

"Um...I don't know.  I never checked.  Don't you get lonely here?  Or do you have friends over every night?"

"No...I'm afraid I don't get many guests.  Sometimes a client stops by.  But usually it's just George and me, and my books."

I wasn't worried about Trevor being a serial killer anymore.  I was worried that he was me in the future, going through life alone, with no friends, no lovers, just a cat and piles of books, the only gay person in a world of husbands and wives, a creepy old guy trying to pick up college boys.

Suddenly a phone rang.  I jumped a foot -- I hadn't noticed it behind a pile of books on the end table.  Trevor excused himself and answered.  "No, I haven't started yet...chocolate fudge, I suppose....ok, then, lemon...."

He hung up.  "Sorry about that. I've been drafted into making a cake for a birthday party tonight. You're welcome to stay, if you like.  We can talk while I bake."

A life devoted to cats, books, and cooking. Even worse. "Thanks, but I have to be going."

I didn't stop to ask who he was making the cake for.  I figured a nephew or neighborhood kid.

Trevor continued to come to the library book sales, but in the fall my schedule changed, and we rarely saw each other.  Two years later Professor Burton, who held the famous handcuff parties, "introduced" him as one of his gay friends.

I heard about his wide circle of friends in the Cat Club, the Iowa City Rare Book Club, the Friends of the Library, the Celtic Heritage Society, his cooking classes at the community college.  Male, female, gay, straight.

Trevor had carved out quite a nice life for himself.  Even though he was rather weird.  And lived in a small town full of heterosexual husbands and wives.


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