Back in the day—the late 1900s—Seattle had coffee carts. And bike messengers. And grunge music.
As a new arrival to the city in the fall of 1993, I was drinking it all in. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder sang the angst and restlessness and search for freedom I had been wallowing in since leaving Buffalo. I grew my hair long, wore flannel shirts purchased from Kitchen Soup Brigade thrift shop on Capitol Hill, and was cast in plays that no one ever came to see at Pilgrim Center for the Arts.
In The Beginning was my first Seattle acting gig. Our cast–four men, four women, all white–dressed all in black and used rain sticks and masks and scarves to recreate creation stories from a variety of cultures. In one touching moment, I knelt on the floor gently fluttering a blue silk scarf that became, through the magic of The Theatre, the vast waters covering Mother Earth. One night, performing to our largest crowd yet (7 audience members; we still outnumbered them) I gently wept, wondering if this was truly the reason I had packed all my earthy belongings in a car and traveled West.
During the day, I worked as Seattle’s least-qualified and most-sober bike messenger. I was dumb enough to apply for the job in December, when someone smarter had undoubtedly gone on to a career in coffee, and I was left to navigate the hills of downtown (and that hated, hated trip from downtown to Interbay that I’m sure dispatch loved to assign me on a regular basis) through the winter, Seattle’s dampest, most depressing and gloomy months.
One of my frequent stops was a coffee cart on Stewart and 8th, across from the old Greyhound station (torn down now, and soon to be replaced with a high-rise 1,300-room hotel). Peter was the barista, and his charm, dreamy hazel eyes, and unwashed good looks were all the intoxicant I needed to sustain me through the cold wet hours when I wasn’t dreaming of the meatloaf sandwich I would eat for lunch at Three Girls in the market or the steak I would broil for dinner in my basement room on Queen Anne hill (back when a bike messenger salary could afford a room on lower Queen Anne).
Like many baristas before and since, Peter was smart, intensely interested in pulling the perfect shot, and able to hold forth on any of a variety of topical topics of the day. Oh, and he was intensely foxy. Long hair, a goatee, and a finely-toned right bicep from pulling shots. And those eyes. Eyes to get lost in. Eyes to drink up like a fine cappuccino foam. Eyes so hazel and dreamy it was easy to overlook that he had a sometimes boyfriend in Bellingham, and that the line between charm and psychopath is sometimes difficult to distinguish when you’ve just meet someone for the first time. Especially when you’re 25 and in the middle of an existential identity crisis.
It was my infatuation with Peter and the subsequent trips to his family’s vacation home on the Hood Canal that solidified what I had known and successfully denied for years: I like men. I really like men. I’m a man who likes men. Oh crap: I’m gay.
Those were the words I had somehow managed to blurt out to my parents when I went home to Buffalo in March of 1994. My grandfather was turning 80, and there was a party. The timing seemed both so right (I was dating someone; I wanted to do this face to face) and in retrospect so wrong (How did I ever think it could be a good thing to come out to my mother four hours prior to when she and my aunt were hosting a party for 50 guests?). Such is the blinding folly of a self-obsessed 25 year-old’s existential crisis.
My brother knew what was happening. I had come out to him via phone a few weeks prior, sitting in my damp and dingy Queen Anne basement room, reveling in my slacker grunge existence, all full of freedom and confidence: “It just doesn’t matter here.” I guess he was stunned. He’s pretty mellow, so it was difficult to tell, and although he did say that he couldn’t quite bring himself to say that it didn’t matter, he did say he loved me no matter what. He was sure our parents would feel the same way. And “Good luck. Glad I don’t have to do it.”
In my memory, as vivid and flawed as it is, Mark was reading the paper at the kitchen table of the home we grew up in when I returned from breakfast with Dad having just spilled the beans. He raised his eyebrows in question, and I nodded and got mom. She was next. I was clear in my head that I should tell them separately. That was the manly thing to do. Not force mom to smooth things over for dad. Get an honest reaction from each. Let them know that I would be the same son they knew and loved, and would continue to want and seek out an individual relationship with each of them, no matter my sexual orientation.
The conversation with dad was a struggle. I had no road map to figure out how guys talked about sexuality in general, much less this. Again, my memory recalls a few tears, on his part, and Mark was right: “I love you no matter what.”
It was Mom who shocked me. The first thing she said was “Just promise me one thing. Promise me you will have kids.” At least that’s how I remember it. I said something like “That’s the first thing you have to say?” It wasn’t until years later that Mom recalled it differently. “I was grieving,” she said. “I always thought you would make such a great father, but was worried that was not going to be an option for you anymore. What did I know? I didn’t know many gay people, and certainly none with kids.”
I quickly retreated to Seattle, found safety in Peter’s arms and eyes, and cried myself to sleep every night for the next week.
Then the letters started to arrive. Over the next few months my parents and I wrote back and forth, the distance and ancient art of letter writing smoothing over warranted and unwarranted fears. Answers brought on new questions, my end of the conversation clouded with concern that they feel no guilt or shame, and their letters always ending with “Love always.”
I returned that June for a summer visit to Buffalo. Dad’s twinge of reservation seemed completely erased, and he talked about feeling confident that there was nothing about me that should be hidden from anyone (his 80 year-old mother excepted). Mom spoke about the books she was reading, the PFLAG meetings they attended and my bravery.
I still have the letters. They are artifacts now, primary documents of a different time, reminders of a beginning.