Battle Scars

Big John hustles on the streets of Montrose. He's been there since he was 13. For now, there's no plan B.

When he can't find a trick, he sleeps at his uncle's house on Dairy Ashford, near where he's enrolled in bartender school.

"He really wants me to do something with myself," says John. "But this is so fucking easy."

If only there weren't constant harassment from the police.

He says he never picks up tricks on the street -- "Is there a better way to get in trouble if you're trying to?" -- but he's often stopped by the cops for the most random of reasons, such as jaywalking, solely on the basis of his appearance. He's even been barred from his buddy's apartment complex because the owner doesn't like that he sometimes wears a do-rag.

"What they're doing is pushing this community out," he says.

"What the fuck? These guys who are in the position to call the shots and make the bills to create the laws, they fly all over the goddamn country. What the fuck do they do when they're in another goddamn city or state and want a little action? Or have had a few libations?…It's just beyond my belief and acceptability that they're not going to fucking try to fulfill their desire."

Right about now is when I realize I've had quite a few beers on an empty stomach. (Okay, so I realized that a few hours ago, but right now is when I'm really starting to feel it.) I begin gathering up my things, thank John for his time and ask him what his plans are.

He tells me he's working on getting a hundred bucks for his school fees.

"I've just got to find the right person and come in with my bad-boy grin," he says, neglecting to mention his icy blue eyes.

We get up and hug with the Simply Red version of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" blaring in the background.

But we aren't quite done yet.


Big John walks me out the door and whispers in my ear, "Hey, man, you think you can swing ten bucks?"

We're really not supposed to pay sources, but, I mean, come on, what's ten bucks among friends?

The thing is, I only have a 20, so off we go to Hollywood Food Store to break it. And by the time we get there, John has already convinced me to talk to his buddy, the one who lives in the nearby apartment where the owner doesn't like people who wear do-rags.

"Am I gonna be safe?" I ask.

"Sure, man," he says. "You're with me."

In a matter of minutes we're walking through the gate and he's banging on the door. And we're in.

Damn, the a/c feels nice. Standing inside this small one-bedroom flat with minimal furniture in front and a single sheetless bed in back is Old Man Carl, a 71-year-old who says he's about to get evicted for hanging out with street people.

"He's not allowed here," he says, pointing to John. "Why? Because he's stereotyped as Montrose trash."

We all sit down and Carl tells me his deal. He used to be a drug counselor, he says, and that's how he knows everyone on the street.

"I don't smoke dope," he says. "Most of the guys who come here are homeless and say, 'Hey, Carl, I'm stuck out. Can I chill out for a while?' "

He continues. "I don't give a damn what they do. I don't give a damn if they're eating pussy or eating dick."

I ask him about his own sexual preferences.

"I'm a little bit of each," he says. "If the moment commands, I'm there to meet the requirement."

But then he pauses to move into the light so he can read a note John has given him. And it occurs to me that John has been scribbling down notes and showing them to various people the whole time we've been together.

"I want to know," says John. "What's anybody's beef with me?"

"Montrose trash," says Carl. "Come on."

"The only problem I've ever had with anybody was not letting them trick me," says John.

"It doesn't matter what you're doing or who you are," says Carl. "It's the appearance. It's the perception. And for most people, perception is biased."

That's the ticket, I'm thinking. A lot of it does come down to perception. This isn't exactly the most original philosophical idea, but it's perhaps the best way to think about a lot of the issues in the Montrose. Relative newcomers to the area like to think they're bohemian, but what they really want is a gay Epcot, a sanitized version of the freewheeling lifestyle. And they don't like the look of people like Big John, whom they perceive to be doing all kinds of wrong.

I want to keep listening to these guys talk, but I suddenly get distracted by the swig of water running over my lips. I stare through the glass's clear bottom and wonder if I really should be accepting a drink from someone I hardly know in the apartment of someone I don't know at all.

My mind flashes to a hypothetical future: It's three days later and I'm tied up with a rubber ball in my mouth. And damn, my butt hurts.

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