We've just walked up and down the Montrose on an August day so hot you can hear the heat, and Big John is sitting in a bar with his shirt off. He leans back in a crappy chair, half-finished Busch in hand, and starts talking scars.
"Surgery," he says, tracing his hand lengthwise across his stomach. He's been laced up like a football, complete with a center stripe and two rows of dots. It's from a fight that started right outside the same dive we're sitting in. This is where John works his hustle, looking for johns, with a lower-case j.
It happened about six weeks before, with plenty of onlookers. A friend had come in asking John to find him a drag queen.
"He promises 40 fucking bucks cash money to me if I can hook him up," he says.
Lucky for his friend, there was a drag queen just across the bar, talking to some older dude John had never seen before. John wasn't paying them much attention, he says, but then the dude came around the bar and started shouting, "What's my name? What's my name?"
Now the dude was either crazy drunk or John did something to provoke him, and he's not telling. The world may never know.
These two took it out in the street, away from John's place of business. A bunch of hustlers gathered around as shirts came off and dukes were raised.
"I throw him up," says John. "The first time I hit the guy, he's dazed and he drops everything in his hand."
That's when he noticed the knife on the guy's keychain. The blade was open, and it was bloody. John had been stabbed twice, once in the stomach and once in the spleen. He would eventually end up at Ben Taub Hospital, after refusing the ambulance once -- "too expensive" -- and calling for it again. But at the moment all he wanted to do was kick that guy's ass.
John's boys had the guy surrounded when the po-po rolled up. A cop got out of the car and asked John who had stabbed him.
"The only motherfucker out there with his shirt off and a knife in his hand, screaming," he replied.
The guy with the knife told the cop he wanted John dead, guaranteeing himself an aggravated charge, and got hauled off to jail. John went to the hospital and was laid up for ten days.
"See, I don't have a belly button anymore," he says, flexing his sweaty abs.
Big John's got plenty more scars and plenty more stories to tell, but he gets distracted when a chubby guy walks up to the table and gives him a big wet kiss on the forehead. John groans and grabs the guy's upper thigh. They start licking and rubbing each other, and I can't help but wonder if some of this is for my benefit, to see if I'll flinch.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to the beginning.
The Montrose has been a bohemian neighborhood since the early '60s, back when a bunch of queer folks moved in and started fixing up the area's bungalows and other houses. With the arrival of the hippies a few years later, the place became the Southern Mecca of Never Say Never.
Street culture was a natural by-product of this freewheeling milieu, and gay and lesbian kids began immigrating en masse, a lot of them runaways or throwaways. They came to the Montrose for the clubs, but they often stayed for the drugs.
So it was for decades, until the urban real estate boom of the '90s, the boomerang effect of white flight. The yuppies rolled in and started "cleaning up the neighborhood," lobbying for something to be done about all the people on the streets and all the crime in their backyards.
For many purists, the final stroke came in 2000 when the Westheimer Street Festival was relocated to Allen Parkway after a dozen residents complained about trash and illegal activity. WestFest had been a Montrose staple for 29 years.
Now homeowners in Avondale, the subdivision smack-dab in the middle of the gayborhood, have obtained enough signatures to petition the city to enact a "civility ordinance." It would be similar to the measure passed three years ago for downtown and extended last year to Midtown, a tactic that basically just moved the homeless population down the road. What Avondale homeowners say they want to see is an end to the prostitution and drug-dealing.
These sentiments hit a crescendo two months ago when the owner of a Pacific Street apartment complex circulated a flyer saying, among other things, "We all share in the problems of litter, prostitution, drugs, and worse We need to STOP THE ENABLERS. Stop Interfaith Ministries, Covenant House, and other community services from enabling homeless young people to stay on the streets."
The flyer announced a town hall meeting, which was attended by Mayor Bill White, City Councilwoman Ada Edwards, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and several hundred Montrose residents.
At that meeting, representatives from the area's social service agencies said they were doing all they could, that they definitely were not doing more harm than good. They'd set up shop in the area because that's where the problems were, they said, and not vice versa. They couldn't understand how anyone could fault them for giving out sandwiches and offering free medical advice.
The homeowners sounded off on the issues of crime and litter, being careful to portray themselves as compassionate human beings who cared about more than just property values. They knew the agencies were well intentioned, they said, but they felt these organizations were offering temporary Band-Aids and not addressing the roots of the problem.
Everyone agreed that the Montrose was a great place to live and that Jesus was a nice guy.
Amid this hubbub about street culture, only one homeless youth was given the chance to speak. She talked about how hard her life was and emphatically said that not everyone chooses to live on the streets. She was invited to participate in the task force meetings that were to follow in the coming weeks, but it doesn't look like she ever showed up.
After interviewing a lot of the players in the debate, it became evident that no one really had anything new to say about street culture. I wanted a fresh take on the issues, so I bought cigarettes and sodas for a couple of 19-year-olds who were hanging out one Sunday afternoon on the side of Kroger.
"I don't like being on the streets," one of them told me. "I want to do something with my life."
"Some of us want to go to school," the other said. "Some of us want to get a house and be legit."
These were heartfelt words, to be sure, but they were also a tad boilerplate. I needed to find someone who had a unique perspective on all the changes the Montrose was facing.
I needed a male prostitute.
Finding someone who'll suck your dick for money is no problem. What's difficult is finding someone who'll talk to a reporter about it, especially when you're not offering any kind of monetary compensation.
I loitered around Avondale on a humid Saturday night. I was familiar with these streets; I just wasn't used to walking circles around them with no discernable purpose.
After fending off several offers for rides -- Mr. Black Buick Skylark, how many times do I have to tell you no? -- I walked up to a preppie-looking guy at Pacific and Hopkins and asked him if I could talk to him for a bit.
"What about?" he asked.
"You know," I said, "about hanging out on the corner, waiting to get picked up."
"That's about all there is to it," he said with a laugh. "I just hang out on the corner and someone comes and picks me up."
We got to talking, and I learned he was 27 years old and had been hooking down there since he was 20. He couldn't get into bars back then, he said, and he didn't know how else to come out, so the prostitution thing was a way for him to get laid and paid at the same time.
And just when the conversation was about to get good, up rolled a piece-of-shit Oldsmobile and off he went.
Perhaps I'd have better luck finding my prey in captivity, I thought. I'd heard the Houston Police Department had been doing a lot of pickups in the Montrose (a call to HPD confirmed more than 50 arrests for prostitution in July and August), so I hit up the county jail, where I found myself face-to-glass-to-face with the man who would inadvertently introduce me to Big John.
This guy said his street name was Stoney. He had short brown hair and dark blue eyes. On his wrist was the yellow bracelet used by guards to identify inmates as gay. (To keep the prisoners safe or something.)
Stoney had been arrested a couple of weeks before for hooking in the Montrose. He admitted he hustles and has trouble keeping his nose clean, but insisted his last arrest was the result of profiling. He had eyeballed the john as an undercover cop the minute he got in the car, he said.
"I took out my piece and told the cop to touch it," he said. "And he touched it and asked me how much it would cost for a blow job."
When Stoney told him to wait until they got back to the apartment, the cop popped out the cuffs and took him downtown.
This wasn't his first time in the can, he added. During one particularly unlucky week he had been dragged in four times for various minor offenses.
I knew he was getting out that Friday, so I asked if we could meet somewhere in the free world. He suggested a sketchy bar near South Beach, and we both agreed to show up in the early afternoon.
But when I went to the bar three days later, my new friend was nowhere to be found. The bartender, a skinny old guy who wouldn't look out of place in a Montgomery County dancehall, asked me if I needed anything.
"Um, I was just looking for a friend," I said, backing out of the joint.
And that's when I was followed out by a muscular man with a shaved head and icy blue eyes.
"Hey, man," he said to me in the parking lot. "Whatcha looking for?"
I told him I was looking for Stoney, whom I'd met in the can. He told me his name was Big John.
John knew Stoney, he said, and he also knew about profiling. One day he was walking down Pacific when he saw a cop standing next to a patrol wagon across the way. The cop waved him over, he said.
"Well, hell, I just went across the street. This is a fucking officer of the goddamn law. What do you do? Go the other way?"
The cop cited him for jaywalking and threw his ass in the wagon. After a night in the tank, he was given two options by the judge: Either plead guilty and get time served, or go sit back down and wait for trial. John went the guilty route.
"I'll take you to Stoney," he told me, and off we went down Fairview, the start of a zigzag journey through the Montrose.
A couple of blocks later, John pointed to two guys walking down the street. "There he is."
"Man, he sure looks different in street clothes," I said, but then I realized he wasn't looking any more familiar as I drew near.
"Stoney, this guy's looking for you," John said, and I put out my hand and grasped the palm of someone who was definitely not the guy I had talked to in jail.
"You Stoney?" I asked.
"Yeah," the guy said.
"There must be some kind of a mistake or something," I said. "The Stoney I'm looking for is a dude whose real name is Shane."
"That dude ain't Stoney," I was told. "You got played, man."
Shit, I thought. Back to square one.
As John and I headed back to where my truck was parked, he asked me once again what I was looking for.
"Basically, I'm just looking for a male prostitute who'll tell me about his life and who'll talk about how the area has changed over the years," I said. "You know, shit like that."
"You got a pad and a pen?" he asked.
"I got this recorder," I said.
"All right," he said. "Let's do it."
Big John's been hanging out in the Montrose since he was 13 years old. He's now 37, but looks younger and tells his johns whatever they want to hear.
He doesn't have much to say about his father, except that his old man bolted when he found out John's mom had a terminal illness. After his mother passed, John moved in with his grandparents, although he spent most of his time hanging out at a stepbrother's place in Avondale.
"I started getting my eyes full," he says.
It was in those early years that John made a name for himself on the streets.
"There used to be this guy, man, he would cruise around keeping his passenger window open just a little bit," he says. "He'd see guys walking down the sidewalk and he'd pull over by them and try to talk to them and he would have a $100 bill lying in his seat. And that was the enticement. He'd never roll down his window any more, and he'd never open his door to let them in. He was always popping his lock, you know, whacking his tallywacker."
So one afternoon the guy pulls up next to John and starts chatting and patting. John tells the guy he can't hear him, and down goes the window a little bit more. John says he still can't hear him and walks back to the sidewalk. The guy pulls up and pulls over, and down goes the window even more.
"He rolls down his window, and that fucker is more than halfway down, right, so I lean over," he says, "and I grabbed that $100 bill, man."
Like a young King Arthur yanking the sword from the stone, Big John had done the unthinkable: He had snatched the C-note from the perv's seat.
The next year he found out one of his cousins had been dating a transsexual. Even though John had met her many times, he had had no idea she was packing -- "The bitch was fine" -- until the moment when he visited them both in jail and discovered "she was on the same fucking floor as him."
It was then that John started exploring his gay side. (He's technically bisexual.) This was the early to mid-'80s, and the Montrose was a wild place. People on motorcycles roared down Westheimer, running red lights and stopping for trannies. The gay clubs were hopping, even though the specter of the AIDS crisis was looming.
There were several places where all ages could go, and John often found himself at QT's, the Game Room and the Chicken Coop. It wasn't long before he was picked up by a sugar daddy, a fellow by the name of Bobby who lived with two other chickenhawks.
"They all had this fucking bad-ass goddamn house," says John, "and they all had different preferences for their indulgences."
Bobby always treated him right, says John, and the Montrose was pretty much a peaceful place, save for the occasional lovers' quarrel.
And the gay-bashers.
One night John was walking past the apartment of a guy he knew -- who, incidentally, liked to wrap people up in cellophane and put them in coffins -- when a truckload of dudes rolled up.
"These two guys jump out of the back, and one of them's got a chain hanging out of his hand and one of them's got a bat," he says.
Bat Boy took a swing at him, but John managed to deflect the hit with his forearm, knocking the weapon out of the guy's hand. He then picked it up and started beating the shit out of Chain Male.
"I waylaid him," he says.
Big John's a tough dude, and it's easy to believe this story is true, but his fuck-yeah attitude is also what eventually landed him in trouble.
At the age of 19, he got busted robbing a drug dealer -- "No one was supposed to get hurt" -- and ended up going away five years for aggravated assault. He went back shortly after that for a drug charge.
When he got out four years later, the Montrose had changed. A lot of his old haunts were gone and a lot of new town houses had popped up.
And his sugar daddy had died.
This is getting old. / I can't break these chains that I hold. / My body's growing cold. / There's nothing left of this mind or soul. / Addiction needs a pacifier. / The buzz of this poison is taking me higher.
We're back in the dive bar, and Big John, when he's not busy kicking my ass at pool, is singing along to Three Doors Down's "Loser," a song I've never particularly liked but which he apparently loves. He's even got its four-digit code on the jukebox memorized.
We came here after our sweaty search for Stoney, looking to sip some beers and hang out in the a/c. And it was all pretty chill until John went to the bathroom and came back energized. Now he's banging balls around the table, rarely missing his mark.
The dude can put it in the hole.
"So are you gay, straight or bi?" he asks me, and I tell him I have a girlfriend.
And he tells me about his ex-wife.
They have two daughters together, both conceived when they were teenagers, the first one before John was even old enough to drive. His mother-in-law raised the girls; he and his wife were too busy growing up themselves to be able to handle it.
"I'm not a proud man, and I'll tell you why, because I haven't been a father to my children," he says.
John and his wife were officially divorced in 2000, while they were both serving time. He says his mom-in-law saw it best to forge her daughter's signature on the papers.
"If I would've tried to stay with my wife after we got out, it would've been till death do us part," he says. "That bitch would've killed me or I would've killed her."
One of the last times he saw his ex, John says, she asked him for a little action, even though she had genital warts and hepatitis C. He did it, knowing full well what the consequences could be.
He says he always tells his johns about the hep.
"I'm really honest and straight up about that, because I wouldn't want anybody giving me anything. I don't want it on my conscience."
But his honesty extends only so far.
"If I'm on a date with one of these older guys who doesn't appreciate any drug activity and doesn't really want to see that, I'm not going to rub it in their faces," he says. " 'Let's go have sex so I can get high' -- they don't want to hear that shit. It really turns them off."
I ask him how often he hooks up, and he says, "Whenever they have money."
I ask him how much is enough, and he says, "Usually I'm not even going to go home and spend the night with somebody for less than a hundred. Like, I'm not a bottom at all. It's not that anything can't be bought, you know, I'm not going to lie and say I never have, but, uh, I don't get offered that very much."
What he does get offered is just about everything else. Maybe someone wants to get jacked off in the bathroom. Maybe someone else wants to get sucked off in the yard. And maybe someone else wants Big John to bang his wife while he and her slave watch from separate closets, after which John and the husband will watch while wife and slave go at it with large black dildos.
"But I try to get it in bed if I can," he says.
"There's no shortage of people who would want to make me their lover, man, but I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to blow smoke up someone's ass and go, 'Oh, yeah. My dingle feels weird. I'll be waiting for you, Daddy.' I'm not going to do any of that shit. I get bored easy."
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.
I set down the glass and stare at the TV for a moment. There's no sound, but The Simpsons is on. Homer is mouthing something to Marge.
I don't know about you, but I think it's about time to go.
John and Carl accompany me back to Hollywood Food Store, where Carl takes his leave. He goes to bed kind of early, so it's dinnertime.
Halfway back to my truck, John asks if he can get a ride to bartender school.
"If it's really just a ride, sure," I tell him.
"That's all it is," he says.
We crisscross a couple more blocks, trying to stay in the shade along the way. But just as we near my vehicle, John mumbles, "I'm really feeling irresponsible. I think I'm going to pass."
"You sure?" I ask.
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He gives me a prolonged hug, flashes his bad-boy grin and walks away.
And all I can think is, he was feeling irresponsible? What did that mean? Should he have come or shouldn't he?
The world may never know.