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The Man from Lincoln, Part 3: Saving the Boom

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This is the third installment in a series of stories about my experience on the campaign trail with Fred Karger, an openly gay candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

This time, when I swung off the 405 onto Laguna Canyon Road, the strawberry fields were long gone, replaced by rows of single-family homes. Moreover, its two lanes were now four of Caltrans' finest, replete with a towering toll road cutting through the San Joaquin Hills above them. The town of Laguna Beach itself was bustling. Quaint oceanfront mobile home parks had been towed away in favor of five-diamond resorts, and the laid-back, youth-oriented surf culture had become just another set piece for reality TV.

The earthy charms that had made Laguna an oasis of inclusiveness on the Orange County coast had become its main draw and, with the financial meltdown of 2008 still over two years away, many people, the gays included, had been priced out of the market.

* * * * *

Conventional wisdom held that a business model based on beer busts, go-go boys, and drag shows could no longer support the current market value of the parcel of coast where the Boom Boom Room and the Coast Inn had stood for over 60 years. By the look of it, it couldn't support a fresh coat of wax on the bar's signature hardwood floors, either. The joint looked tired, like an overbred bitch with a greedy pup sucking at every tit tired.

And, Fred Karger wasn't buying any of it.

Something had definitely changed in Fred. Frankly, I was a little worried about him.

While Fred's family had been breaking bread at Glencoe, Illinois' exclusive Lake Shore Country Club, mine had been a few miles away heatedly arguing politics with door-slamming intensity. And that was just on Easter.

An alumna of Hunter College in New York, back when it was still called the Harvard of the proletariat, my mom instilled in each of her seven children a commitment to higher education and, as one of IBM's earlier female employees, a will to challenge convention. Coupled with the boisterousness of my dad's Germanic sea captain, it spawned a mix of unyielding convictions. Outspoken debate and criticism are how my siblings and I still express affection.

Fred, on the other hand, had spent his entire professional life in the closet, cultivating a façade of such oppressive heteronormalcy that I couldn't be sure how he would respond to his first taste of authentic public liberation. In his memoir, Fred Who?, he writes about his Leave It to Beaver childhood with a nostalgia that borders on wishful thinking.

The affluent neighboring suburbs in which we each grew up are, after all, Conrad Jarrett's turf, and the pressures Conrad felt are no fiction. Mary Tyler Moore's tour de force as Conrad's mother is so pitch-perfect that I still can't watch Ordinary People without sobbing at the end.

And my mother was nothing like that.

I'm not saying Fred's was, either.

I believe she really was the June Cleaver Fred describes her to be in his book, mostly because, if the Beav had had the chance to grow up, I think he'd probably be Fred Karger. Maybe it's a 50s vs. 70s thing, but there's more to the towns than avocado-colored refrigerators and the neat and tidy endings that come just in time for commercial breaks that Fred recalls, even when he's addressing his own closeted uncle Buddy's suicide.

* * * * *

Maybe it was just easier for me to be gay than it was for Fred.

I never felt like I belonged anywhere anyway, not even in my own family. By the time I was born, all the iconic family photos had been shot, framed, and hung on the walls. Count 'em: six kids. I'm the seventh.

I was the original lonely boy -- very middle-class, very Catholic -- growing up in a very upper-middle-class, Jewish town. Prep school on scholarship in very plaid, very WASPy Lake Forest followed. Instead of Waldorfs, I had Wackers. Think Barack Obama, only gay.

Or maybe that's just what it means to be a politician, and why Fred is one, and I'm not, because it turns out my concern was unwarranted. The demons I had first stared down on the shores of Lake Michigan, Fred was now engaging on the Orange County coast with surprising alacrity. Armed with an arsenal of strategies honed during a career as an operative for conservative candidates and causes, Fred took on the Boom's new billionaire owner, AIG, and even Brad Pitt and George Clooney. This was not your liberal, gay uncle's activism; it was targeted, expediently effective, with the potential for awesome or devastating effects (depending on which side of the fence you found yourself on), and fun.

When Fred Karger winked, I smiled.

* * * * *

Fred succeeded in extending the Boom's 60-year lifespan to 61. Documentaries have a way of hijacking a filmmaker's life, and this one was no different. Every time I found myself heading south for another petition drive, protest, or city council meeting, I cursed Fred and his moxie. His "Men of Laguna Beach" calendar contest was hatched, I'm convinced, just to keep me hooked.

It worked. Over the weeks that turned into months, I found myself rediscovering Laguna. People I had somehow missed my first time around were eager to share their own Boom histories with the audience my camera promised. And as I wrestled with a prodigal daughter elsewhere in my life, Saving the Boom gave me the opportunity to revisit places from my past, which I thought I had left behind.

* * * * *

Nestled on the bluff below the Boom, the Garden of Peace & Love is one of those places. I must have passed it a million times on my way to the beach, but the vagaries of youth had blinded me to a lot of things, and the Garden was one of them.

Founded by Michel Martinay in the 1980s, it began as an impromptu AIDS memorial. With the ocean surf crashing just beneath it and under the watchful eye of Michel, it evolved into a hallowed ground where Lagunans memorialize loved ones of every stripe.

I realized that my film was about not just a bar, but also a history, and the community that history had launched and nurtured.

It was also inexplicably about my mom. The small pine box where she resided had become an interesting if macabre conversation piece back home in L.A. Ironically, her only request had been that she not end up in my closet.

With the bar and dance floor shuttered already for months above us, my siblings and I gathered at the foot of Mountain Avenue with our mother one last time. We added her name to those who had come before, painted on rocks and etched in wood, and gave her the ocean view she had always wanted.

As the breeze carried her away, I caught a glimpse of the boy I had been. I pondered if he had become the man she had intended. I wondered if Laguna was still the town it wanted to be.

Up next: Part 4: A New Chapter in American History Begins Today