Monday, November 07, 2005

Olvera Street Turned Me Queer

So last week one of my co-workers had his birthday, and we decided to celebrate it by heading to Olvera Street for lunch. It was the Day of the Dead, and Olvera Street is Los Angeles's restored alley of old colonial buildings, anchored by an ancient-for-L.A. Catholic church, where you can find the modern equivalent of tourist tchotchkes; little stalls selling framed posters of the recently deceased pope being welcomed into the busom of Mary, right next to a poster of Usher with his shirt off.

At the El Pueblo we tipped the Mariachi players and ate enchiladas and drank Negra Modelos. As I sat at the end of a long table with my friends, I realized that something about this place was making me nervous, and I sipped my beer a little faster. Looking around, my eyes came to rest on the two tiny bathrooms nestled into the adobe wall at the restaurant's South end. In one of those backstory flashes that hack directors love to put in the "emo moments" of their films, I remembered a day whose dark memory had not bounced about my brain for at least twenty years. I remembered the day that turned me gay.

It was all because of that fake fucking Mexican tourist bullshit. The day had been going wonderfully; Mr. Kercheville's fourth grade class had descended upon Olvera Street like Visigoths, terrifying the docents who were trying to teach us a little about L.A.'s supremely boring colonial history. They never had a chance. There were simply too many distractions. The pungent candle shops. The fake six-shooters hanging in the souvenir stalls. The hot churros that you ate in a few mouth-crammed bites. And for me, best of all, my own souvenir of California's rich Spanish heritage: A switchblade. One that contained instead of shiny steel, a small black comb.

I don't imagine I would be allowed to buy such a toy on a school field trip today.

Switchblade in my pocket, I headed down with the rest of the students for our lunch break in the courtyard of Olvera Street's restored Casita. Set into the adobe wall were the two dark carved wooden doors that led to the bathrooms. One marked Caballeros, the other Caballeras.

Did I mention that I'm the whitest person on the planet?

As I stood there in the Retrete De Caballeras washing my hands, I was startled by the presence of a large, well-made up older Latina woman who looked down upon me suspiciously from the doorway. I thought immediately of the incomprehensible signs I had seen outside of the door, and the moment's hesitation while I had made my choice. I had chosen, and this lady, obviously, had not needed to. She was well aware of what Caballeras meant. A tingling of embarrassment crept up my spine. I knew that sometimes boys did strange things to get near to girls, and I desperately wanted this woman to know that I was not one of those boys. No, not at all. But I couldn't say it with my suddenly thick tongue, and so instead, I darted past her for the freedom of the door.

And right into the loving embrace of 28 hysterical ten-year-olds.

Someone had spied me when I entered the restroom. The hesitation at the door, the mistaken entry, the approach of the old woman. By the time I shot out into the sunlight of the Casita's elegant square, the whole class had been alerted. They were waiting, suppressing their peals of laughter for the moment, the payoff, the money shot.

My switchblade knife drooped and melted in my pocket.

Mind you, nothing turned me gay. Or rather, everything did. Genetic predisposition. The amount of hormones in my mother's womb. The psychology of my parent's relationship. Too much exposure to the Love Boat. I don't think that any one thing or moment made me gay, any more then any one thing or moment made my politics, or my language skills, or my truly weird ability to always wake up one moment before my alarm goes off. It's just me. But hack pop psychologists, and the culture warriors who enable and magnify them, love to say that there are just such formative moments when gender confusion arises. This is why ex-gay movements like to teach guys to love sports and girls to wear makeup. They want to re-create gender rituals that they believe gay boys and girls missed out on. If I was in "Conversion Therapy", my Olvera Street memory would be given a portent weight, as a key to my deformed psyche.

As it was, I tipped back my beer with a laugh and thought of that horribly embarrassed blond-haired young Mormon boy, and the way that day had float painfully in his consciousness for years.

What a fucking pussy!


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