Sitting down to watch the debut episode of HBO's Looking, I feared I might be opening Pandora's Box. What sort of memories would fly out? Where would they take me? After all, I lived my own uber gay San Francisco life for over 30 years. How close to the boner would the show cut? Then right up front, in a scene at Zuni Café (one of my old haunts), I recognize a former boyfriend working as an extra. Yikes.
I have to give Looking high marks for verisimilitude. Zuni, El Rio, Esta Noche and the streets of the Castro are all recognizable -- as are the casual hookups and the easy camaraderie between men orbiting the San Francisco gay scene. Jonathan Groff plays a ridiculously naïve video animator from the Midwest. This was once me, a Michigan refugee, working as a systems analyst in the 1980s. There are a few 21st century variations. Personals ads and the back pages of the Bay Area Reporter have been replaced by online hookup sites like Grindr and Scruff. But the baths are back, and the boys and bars of San Francisco are the same. It appears nothing has changed in this milieu since I gave it up in 1989 for an enduring relationship. Does Looking reflect the urban gay male experience or the cultural intransigence of a subculture refusing to look beyond its own vanity and self-absorption? The answer to both questions may be "yes."
It never ceases to amaze me that today's young gay men think they're the first human beings ever to lead this life. I suppose that delusion keeps things fresh for them. But at this point in time, there are at least two generations of adult gay men who have been openly gay their entire lives. My generation was the first and we did the heavy lifting - before the Nautilus machines arrived. We cleared a path. The rest followed. That's "just what's so," as Werner Erhard might put it. Most of my generation has moved on - one way or the other. And let's face it; moving on is the unspoken leitmotif of Looking.
The show assembles an easily identifiable collection of gay male archetypes - all variations on a theme. They are attractive, available, and sexually driven. Some are in relationships, like the bi-racial couple who moves to a basement flat in a sketchy section of Oakland. In my day, this was the equivalent of moving to Siberia. Your name would instantly disappear from the little black books of the City crowd, even if the relationship was open, like the one portrayed in Looking. Seeing a group of gay men who are constantly searching for sex is not a stereotype. There are periods in every gay man's life when nothing matters as much as the next dick. The only remarkable thing about it is the fact that it's finally being portrayed on television. How many guys have the sense to know when to leave the party - or recognize when the party has left them? Few things are more tragic than the 45 year-old party boy. We won't even talk about the 55 year-old party boy. The challenge for the creators of Looking is that the life they have chosen to portray is, at its core, banal. I realized this when I was living it. But for a time it was just so...easy.
In the second episode of Looking, a mustachioed Zuni waiter hooks up with a twink and acknowledges, "I'm such a cliché." He's still hot at 40, but after waiting tables for 8 years, he faces a dead end. Inertia can be deadly; and the beautiful room is empty. As he and his BFFs stroll the Castro and Noe Valley, they are part of a movable feast. It is tougher now. The city is impossibly expensive and the currency of creative expression which once fueled life there has been replaced by the currency of cash - cash generated by the robber barons of the new technocracy. In the opening episode at Zuni, where my former boyfriend portrayed a techie diner, the waiter observes to a fellow staff member, "I don't like them any better now than I did in 1999." Amen, sister. My San Francisco friends agree the dot-com second coming is even more off-putting than the first. Shout out: Hey, Armistead, how are things in Santa Fe? I got out, too.
The most important character in Looking is a background player who silently orchestrates every scene and each choice. It is the city of San Francisco. Cool and gray; less welcoming than ever; plagued by homelessness and tremendous income disparity; San Francisco still hypnotizes. I fell under its spell 40 years ago when it was gay Disneyland. And like the men of Looking, I became addicted to the rhythm of the fog spilling over Twin Peaks. Maybe it was the bracing damp air hitting my face as I exited a club or restaurant, or the available men, or possibly the sense of "whatever" that still permeates social discourse between San Franciscans. When you are relatively young, attractive, and gay there is no place like it. But you end up living for the city. You circle endlessly searching for parking; you fight to keep the rent-controlled apartment that will someday be pulled out from under you; and you surround yourself with those who have made similar life choices. But if you can pull yourself out of your trance long enough to see it, you will realize you have become a slave to the rhythm. You do not own San Francisco. It owns you. No other place steals souls so effortlessly.
Some people break out, others do not. Those who stay find themselves unable to answer the question, "After a life in San Francisco, where do you go?" But it is now true that anyone over the age of 55 in San Francisco is less treasured than a bitcoin. The sad finales of older gay men exiting the city side of the Golden Gate Bridge are not likely to appear in Looking. But they do appear in headlines of late.
On the occasion of my 50th birthday I went out to dinner with a handsome single friend of mine, three years older than I, and still trying to insert himself into the dance. As we walked through Cole Valley, heading for our favorite sushi restaurant, he observed, "In case you have any doubts, I just want you to know: it's over." That was not something I wanted to hear. But I got his point. Unlike my friend, I had already moved on. Every week, as I watch my past life unfold in Looking, I find myself wondering if any of these characters will ever acquire the ability to separate the dancer from the dance.