Bill Wolf








*  *  *



            Late at night, I would stop the tractor on a bluff overlooking the San Joaquin Valley and stare out at the glittering lights of Fresno in the distance and say to myself that's where I'm going the first chance I get.


            We were sometimes in church five or six times a week.


            I woke up every morning seconds before my father would knock on my door, I so hated to be awakened by his knock.  I would hear his footsteps on the pavement outside my little garage-bedroom detached from the main house, and have my feet on the floor so I could say "yeah" even before he had uttered a word.


            I was called before the commission of the Fresno Fair Art Competition for the male frontal nudity in my collage "Father of His Country," a big picture about George Washington which I had submitted and which the commission agreed to show if I covered up the dick of a football player in the lower left-hand corner.  My mother insisted I agree.  Riding home with her from the confrontation she told me I had done the right thing.


*  *  *

My father's sayings:


            "Always use your own name and be proud of it."


            "The person who mistreats an animal is the lowest type of person

                        on the earth."


            "Always carry a clean handkerchief in your pocket."


*  *  *



            That November I hitch-hiked to Portland, Oregon, and, as all hippies knew, at that time you couldn’t hitch-hike in Washington state, so I caught a Greyhound bus to Seattle.  As I went further and further north, I could feel a great weight lift from my shoulders.  I felt free.  At the bus depot in Seattle I walked to the door of the waiting room and looked out.

            I was looking at a wide, grey expanse of busy street, beyond some grey concrete parking lots, further still rows of tall grey buildings.  It was raining.  Ever since last year in Portland, a little south, at school, where it rains all the time, I’ve been enjoying the rain.  I guess coming from a farm in the hot, dry Central Valley of California, and my father being a farmer, and it never rains enough for farmers and when it would rain my father would be very happy, and his neighbor farmers, and, I guess, their wives and kids, would be happy too, and, when I saw the rain coming down in Portland, I always said, Wow, this is great!

            And so when I looked out on the grey scene outside the Seattle bus depot waiting room and the rain coming down, I felt good.

            I bought a newspaper and looked at the want-ads.  I underlined a few small rooms for rent and went to a phone booth.  I walked to the first one who would see me and paid $25 down on a dark little green room in an old building not far from downtown.  I promised the kindly old couple who ran the place that I would pay the other 25 of the 50 dollars rent by the end of the week.  I moved in with my shoulder bag and arranged to have my trunk delivered from the train station when it came in.

            I lay back that night, in that room and smelled the old smells.  I felt far away from my old home.  I said to myself I could do anything I wanted and there were so many things I wanted to do.  I couldn't sleep that night waiting for the dawn.  My mind raced forward, filling itself with fantasies.  I saw myself striding through a hundred dark streets and alleys.  With thousands of dark men, in places I knew existed.

            Those days I filled with much to do.  I saw the city sights, I got a job busing dishes at the old Olympic Hotel and opened a savings account at the bank.  I went to the campus of the University of Washington across the river and snooped around the drama department.  I went to movies and walked on the waterfront.  I drank beer. And I waited for the nights.

            The nights were mine.  In the bus station rest rooms, in the porno peep shows, in the dark bushes near the water, I could act out my fantasies.  Young men and old.  The late night filled me with a heady romance.  All my senses tingled.  My life swirled around me like an old movie of some imagined exotic land.  The smells of the night were like the stale popcorn in an old theater.  The fleeting encounters like urine.

            In the mornings, the day was unreal too.  A harsh light breaking through a beer hangover, the hidden excitement of the night’s memories, the romance of the blistery, rainy northwest winter.  I was as happy as I could imagine.

            Most of the men and boys I met I would never see again.  Occasionally I would bring a boy home to my room, but seldom.  Sometimes I would have a fantasy that in this boy or that I somehow found a true love and a friend.  But the morning and the conversation would prove otherwise.  I had no friends for several months.

            I cooked macaroni and tuna casseroles in the few pots and pans that came with the room and wrote letters to my mother and my grandmother.  I asked the old couple who owned the place if I could paint my room.  I promised I would buy the paint.  I wanted a white room, it being some idea I had, and with not too glad a face, they agreed.


            I had painted about half the room (poorly), when I met a guy one night who took me to his house.  His name was Steve Narland and he lived in a little apartment near the university and was in the drama department there.  He was sweet and sexy and took an interest in me.  He looked at me with intense, deep eyes and said I should move in with him.

            I felt a little embarrassed at telling the older couple I was going to leave, especially after starting to paint the room and I told them I felt obliged to finish the job even thought I would be leaving.  Evidently the husband had seen the job I was doing, because the wife said, “Oh, no, don’t paint any more.  My husband says don’t finish, don’t do any more.”

            Steve had a car and we hauled my few things up to his apartment in the “U” district.  We made love day and night.  I going off to my job at the Olympic Hotel, he to his classes.

            He convinced me I should try out for a play at the university drama department and tell them I was a student, and he said nobody would ever know I wasn’t.  I was  eager enough to believe him and I landed a real good part in Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood,” a graduate student production.  Steve got a part too.

            Suddenly, I found myself back in the theater, making friends and working.  My fate didn’t seem so different than the students in the play, perhaps even better.  I didn’t have to go to classes, and yet I could enjoy the benefits of the drama department.  I never minded the job at the hotel.  I guess I was thankful I had it, and it too was new and still sort of fun.  I always got along good with the waitresses.


            Steve said he thought the apartment was too small for us and he found another, the top floor of a big old house.  He had a cat and a certain amount of furnishings and liked to live a civilized life with a regular routine like dinners in the evenings and such.  I guess I hadn’t thought I would be so soon gone from the free, dark life I had found downtown when I first came to Seattle and I felt the first feelings of resentment.  I deliberately stayed out a few times late at night and didn’t call, testing, I suppose, the limits of our relationship.

            I liked Steve a lot at first, but I never saw him in the dreams I had of myself.  I guess I was using him as a temporary man to love when I wanted and to not love when I didn’t.

            He quickly confronted me with my behavior.  “What do you want?” he said.  “You have to eat.  Why don’t you want to eat with me?”  He was hurt, he said.  I said I needed my freedom.

            “Freedom?  Bill, you have it!  You have anything you want.  Just don’t shut me off like you do.  Talk to me about it.  Don’t just go off sullen.  You owe me that, at least.  Bill, I want you to have whatever you want.”

            I didn’t know how to deal with such love, such giving.  Later, I would think I never learned.  I said I needed to get away, just for awhile.  I suggested a weekend in Portland, visiting my old friends still at Lewis and Clark College.  I thought of my great friend Steve Knox in the drama department there and wanted to be with him.

            So Steve took me to the bus depot and said he’d see me on Monday.  I tried to be as nice as I could, and I was moved by his caring for me, but I was confused.  Things seemed out of my hands and made me nervous.

            When I got there I discovered that my friend Steve Knox was in a play that same weekend, at the college, Samuel Becket’s “Endgame,” he played Hamm, the lead.  As I sat with my friends from the year before and watched the performance, I fell into a deep state I had never felt before.  The play seemed to be speaking directly to me.  The words filled me with a deep dread.  After the show I sat with Steve in a little room backstage and wept.  For what or whom, I did not know.  I did not sleep that night, and when the light of morning came, I felt drained and exhausted, but somehow new, renewed.  I felt my life would never be the same.  I believe I was right.

            When a reasonable hour finally came, I lifted the phone and dialed my mother.  Steve said Bill, take care.  I don’t know why, exactly, I called her; perhaps I felt the night had been so important to me, that she would understand, and be glad, like I was.  When she came on the line, I really didn’t know what to say, I stammered around and explained a little.  I ended up making her worried and upset, and she started crying.  “But, Honey, we don’t have things like that in our family.”  I couldn’t believe she would say something like that, so entirely miss the point.  I said goodbye, sadly.

            Back in Seattle Monday morning, I walked into the Olympic Hotel and quit my job on the spot.  I tried to explain I was in a new space, and could no longer work there.  The waitresses were very understanding.

            “We just want the best for you, Bill,” they said.

            One even said, “I admire you, Bill.  I just wish I’d a had your nerve long ago, and quit this job.”

            I got on a local bus and rode home.  It was ten in the morning.  I remember the small, rippled pattern in the aluminum seat-guard in the back of the bus, like wavey lines one on top of the other in alternating directions, and I looked out the windows at the falling rain.  The drips of water were running down the outside of the glass.

            I had determined that I would do nothing ever again that I didn’t want to do.  I got back to the house and sat on the porch.  I sat a long time, testing my resolve.  If I thought of doing something, I would ask myself if I really wanted to do it.  I answered no, and remained sitting on the porch.  It was several days before I moved.

            I count that time still as turning point, and a creed of sorts; to have faith in what I want, to know what I want, to do it.  Many years later I would hear that my father said to someone, “Bill?  Well, he does what he wants.”


            Steve was very understanding and indulged me my experiment, bringing me food and drink and leaving me alone.  Soon I was able to take a walk.  I asked myself where I wanted to go.  I knew.  I went downtown and followed my old paths through the tall buildings of the night.

            To make some money, I began selling an underground, hippie newspaper called the Helix, on the street corners, in the University district, and in front of the movie houses downtown.  It was February.


            One night I went to a small, avante-guarde theater downtown, in the Pioneer Square area, long before it was cute, you know, called the Ensemble Theater, to see a couple of one-acts by Leonard Melfi, “Birdbath” and “Halloween.”  In the latter, an aging, bald drag queen sits in front of her mirror and puts on, then takes off her make-up, while delivering a long and strange monologue.  I loved the show and couldn’t imagine where they had gotten this drag queen who could act!

            After the show, I went backstage and introduced myself, saying I liked their theater a lot and wanted to work for them.  It turned out the drag queen was the director of the theater (!) and yes, they would be happy to have me work for them.  I went back the next day and got a part in an upcoming production of Brecht’s “The Clown Play,” a two-person one-act rarely performed; my co-performer would be a woman named Rhoda Eland.  In addition, I could help build the sets for the other one-act which would play with it, something about cowboys.

            That spring I worked at the Ensemble.  It wasn’t long before I became their main builder, technician, painter, and sweeper.


            Meanwhile, Steve was finishing his year at the University of Washington and planning his return to Chicago.  He would be giving up the apartment we had together and would be getting a teaching job next fall in Evanston, a suburb near his home.  I could do as I liked with the place when he left, he said.  Things had profoundly changed between us since the time he spoke so seriously to me.  I knew he was leaving, and I had been genuinely moved by his love since then.  We grew closer those months as we prepared to part.

            Yes, I would give up the apartment when he left in June.  I would stay in the back of the theater for awhile, until I got a place.  Yeah, it’s OK, I made the arrangements.  I would get a ten dollar hotel room in one of the flop houses in Pioneer Square to store my stuff, but sleep on the cot in the dressing room in the theater.  I had often spent the night there already.  I’ll be OK.

            He didn’t put up a fight, he couldn’t, but I could see in his eyes; he was afraid, afraid, I guess, for me, and sorry.  Sorry he couldn’t share his world with me, nor I with him, but he could hug me and wish me to be well.  Perhaps my more mature self would have seen in his face, and in his words and actions, the love he had for me, but I was very selfish then.  The art of living with my fellow man is one which has eluded me.

            It was a special time, that ride downtown to Pioneer Square, Steve and I, in his car; we spoke very little and then he helped me carry my few boxes of possessions up to a squalid, little room in a hotel near the water.  He would leave me there and say goodbye and we would not see each other again.  We sat on the little bed and he hugged me.


 *  *  *


             The director of the Ensemble Theater was a guy named Dale Meador, he who had played the drag queen in “Halloween” to such perfection.  He was tall, gangly, bald-headed man with a deep voice and intense eyes.  He had all the outward mannerisms of an old, effeminate queen, at least to my eyes.

            But I was soon introduced to his wife (!) and I observed that he was highly admired by the Ensemble’s large, loyal audience, who saw his long, delicate hands and effeminate gestures not as “gay,” but as “artistic.”

            I would soon learn, too, as all who knew him would, that Dale was a rare individual, unbounded by categories, in his sexual ways, in his artistic ways, and in the ways he loved his fellow men.

            The theater had been in operation about ten months before I joined them.  It had been built into an old, single-story, narrow brick storefront that had probably been a bar or such, then gutted back to the brick walls and a sort of three-sided playing area on the original floor, surrounded by slightly raised, curvy platforms on which sat small, café-type tables and chairs.  The audience could drink coffee and smoke during the performances. Some sort of curvy walls separated the lobby in front as well as the (very) small dressing rooms in back.  The lights were made out of tin cans.  Their most notable production had been a successful, anti-war play called “Viet Rock” from the previous fall and there existed several silly-looking photographs still around to prove it.  One showed a fat, twerpy kid grinning at the camera and holding a picture of the atom bomb.  I never thought much about it.

            Dale had founded the theater as a non-profit organization and had recruited several local people to serve on the board of directors.  He had a fair-sized troupe of ten or fifteen volunteer actors and hangers-on to produce their shows, but I could tell they had a major lack of technical abilities.  The very first time I showed up to assist some guy who was building the sets, I ended up telling him what to do.

            It didn’t take long until I was in the theater every day.  I organized the few “tools” into a scene shop and cleaned up the few cans of paint.  I made repairs to the seats, lit the exit signs, and was soon in charge of the premises.

            And I loved it.  With my move back downtown, with Steve gone to Chicago, and with my time totally my own, I lived the life I had always wanted.  I worked hard and was excited by the work.  The people around me were creative and interesting and sexy.  Sexy.  Yes, it seemed everybody was sleeping with everybody else in those days.

            Here was the crossover crowd, hippie-artist-actor-gay-and-straight.

            My connections with the gay world were still very conventional and older; gay lib had not happened yet and I was confined to the bus station bathrooms, the peep shows all showing beaver flicks, and a few old queens’ dinner parties.  On the other hand the hippie crowd I had briefly joined selling the Helix, was loose-moraled and ran around naked all the time, but ultimately quite heterosexual and held little interest for me.

            At the Ensemble the two worlds came together.  There were a lot of gays and lots of hunky straights and girls, of course, and we were all a bunch of long-haired hippies, joined together, not by our sex, but by our love of our work, our love of the theater.

            Dale took an immediate liking to me and I to him and we spent many hours together in the theater.  While I was living there in the back, I would rise early and make myself useful at the few tasks needing done, until he would arrive a little later.  We often went out for coffee to a local greasy-spoon nearby and talked about the day’s schedule, or the week’s, or the far, far future’s.  He took me into his confidence and told me about the dreams and castles and dreams of castles in his head.  I felt myself in awe of this man.  And I would do anything in the world that he asked.


            Pioneer Square was a playground for me in those days.  The area comprised a dozen or so blocks on the wharf side of downtown Seattle.  The old brick buildings had been hotels or rooming houses, but were now for the most part deserted.  On the ground floor of some a few sleazy taverns and dark, cheap cafeterias clung to existence but the floors above had long been boarded up.  The neighborhood was peopled with bums and winos, old men staggering in the streets and sleeping in the alleyways.  These were not the grimly destitute homeless of later years, they were men who had lived their lives as the downtrodden and had managed to survive.  They often gave me a merry “hello,” and regaled the willing listener with cherry, endless stories of pure bull.

            They laughed together and drank apple wine in hip bottles and played “Chicago Circle” on the sidewalks.  This was a sort of game where somebody draws a circle on the concrete with chalk and everybody else sits around drinking cheap wine from a little hip flask and trying to get passers-by to throw money into the center.  When enough coins are collected for a bottle, one of them runs off and buys it and they all pass it around and the game starts again.  Stupid sort of game, I thought, but the fellows seemed to like it.  I guess if you don’t have anything better to do.  There’s probably a good story about how it got its name.  I never heard.

            To enter the smokey, loud, pungent poker halls and card rooms of these rough men was to step back in time.  Big, old rooms built when Seattle was a boom town on the Northern frontier and the dusty flop houses above were once glamorous and fancy new hotels for all to look up and see in wonder.  Now the bars and tables sagged and creaked under the weight of time and heavy dust grew from the cobwebs on the ceiling.  One bar, the B and M, had a little gas flame at the end of the bar near the street where you could step in and light your hand-rolled Bull Durham cigarettes.  We called it the “eternal flame.”  I was underage then but had no trouble buying beers in these bars.  They were and always had been restaurants and still sold a little bit of food, of a sort, so young kids could come in and play pool and smoke cigarettes.  They were a small minority, though, almost everybody was old, or sort of old, and down and out, and alcoholic.

            Some of the bars catered especially to Indians, that is, Native Americans, and there were a lot of them up there in Seattle.  They would stand in the doorways of the bars and hotels and yell gross things out into the streets.  Later, when I had a dog, there is a sort of terrible story about my dog, and some of the things the Indians said about him and what finally happened.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

            They had names like that, the bars, that were just two letters: the B and M, the S and J, the S and H.  And a lot of them were open all night, serving coffee and eggs after the bar closed.  There was a place called Tommy’s Joint right in the middle of it all on a corner.  It had a bar too, but mostly it was a food counter.  On the grill was a big pot of hot grease that they would ladle over the top of all the dishes they served, hamburgers, eggs, chili, whatever.  You had to pick up your sandwich real quick or it would be soaked through, I tell you.  Tommy’s was, I guess, my favorite place for a while.  I would read the paper there in the morning and drink coffee and eat pancakes, the sun filtering through the stale, smokey morning air and think it the most romantic place I could imagine.  I lived a heady existence, my senses tingling, and I viewed the world around me as the flickering images and dark surroundings of an old movie.  At night I filled the dark with sex in the alleys and holes along the waterfront in the cold and rain.

            In the middle of it all was the Ensemble Theater.  Though I personally thought Pioneer Square was the greatest place on Earth, it was not very good for business, as most people, I guess, didn’t feel like going clear down into the worst “skid road” in the nation was really a nice evening out at the theater.  Certainly it was largely responsible for the theater’s eventual demise.  But for the time being, we reveled in the place.  Directly across the street was a bar called the Oasis, where the cast often went.  The Chinese owners laughed a lot and made a big deal over us.  I guess I was the first, really, to expand to other establishments in the area.  I took Dale and a few others around to the B and M, and so on.  He loved it.  Of course he always dressed so crazy and with his bald head and sort of grizzled appearance, he could fit right in.  We drank beer and scotch and smoked Pall Malls and laughed into the afternoons.

            There was another population in Pioneer Square then, much smaller, and a little intimidating.  I wanted to get to know them but didn’t know how.  They were the artists.  Mostly guys, mostly straight, and had a few girls hanging around.  They were sometimes in the bars, disappearing up the stairways of the old, deserted-looking buildings at the end of the day.  I thought them very romantic and wished to emulate them.

            And on Sundays a very special thing would happen.  Every Sunday morning a small chorus of big, fat black ladies from a church around there would stand out in front of Tommy’s and sing gospel music and preach to the bums.  It was a glorious sight and many of us sinners would get our seats on the curb, our flasks of apple wine in our pockets, and clap our hands and shout Hallelujah in time to the music.  I felt I was present at a special time, a time most people could never see, and felt honored, and oh so lucky.


            The theater company had worked hard in their little space, building the stage and seating and the place looked great, with only one major task remaining to do.  The ceiling had never been painted and was a glaring eyesore hanging over everything.

            Well, they were strapped for funds, as always, but I assured them I could get some good deals on paint if I really looked around in the old, junky paint stores nearby.  So they said, do it, Bill.  I headed out hoping to find some colors that I might mix together for the nice, dark midnight blue on which we had decided.  In my effort to save money, I found a few old cans of paint covered with dust.  They were cheap all right, but I learned later that they should never have been mixed together and they resulted in a mirky, bluish goop with almost no covering ability at all and we had to give the ceiling about three coats.  Dale’s wife, Vivian, said, “That’s some paint you got there, Bill Wolf.”  The ceiling looked OK when it was done but it was no fun, let me tell you.

            Vivian was a hard-smoking, deep-voiced pregnant woman when I met her, who didn’t mince words.  She always called me Bill Wolf, from the day I met her.  It was Bill Wolf this and Bill Wolf that.  A little later she would say, “I see you got yourself a handsome new boyfriend, Bill Wolf.”  But that was to come.


*  *  * 


            During that time Dale got the rights to de Jean Claude van Italie’s “America Hurrah,” a particularly heavy comedy of anti-Americanism that was rather controversial in New York just then.  We slotted it in to follow the Stein and began designing the poster.

            The guy who did all the photography for the posters decided to take a picture of a long-haired hippie without any clothes on and superimpose an American flag on his body.  They decided I should be the hippie.

            I wasn’t into politics much in those days, so I guess I didn’t think much about the poster photo before I posed for it.  But it was one of those strange times when national events coincide with our everyday life.

            The photo session happened to be scheduled on the night of the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, when the hippies and antiwar demonstrators rioted in the streets and Mayor Daley made his disgusting appearance on the floor of the convention.  We had the radio on in the theater, as I stood shivering in front of the camera.  Listening to the live convention coverage, a strong feeling came over me, and all of us, I think.  While the students and hippies rioted outside the convention, I, too, was doing my part for the revolution, helping to make this very anti-war piece of art.  I felt akin with them and proud.  The call to activism and protest is one which has generally alluded me, and I feel sometimes the less for it.  But that night I was doing my part.




*  *  *


            So it was August, and the theater was producing Albert Camus’ “The Misunderstanding,” a long, heavy piece with Dale and Rhoda, and I was living in the dressing room behind the stage.  Being in a theater for long periods can be a dark experience.  We had no windows or skylights, of course, the walls and ceilings were painted black and the work lights were meager.  As it was usually raining, the big back door of the theater was seldom opened.  The stage area was generally a bright pool of light and all around it was darkness.

            We generally partied late and I generally slept late the next day.  The day I met Billy King was no exception.

            I shaved in the little cold-water sink in the men’s room and decided to step out the back door of the theater to get some air.

            The first shock was the sunlight.  No kidding.  It was a beautiful, sunny day.  In Seattle this causes a double-take, usually followed by a period of childish delight!  This was my state when I got my second shock.  All around me was activity.  Dozens of people were scurrying around doing things in an alley where I had never seen a soul!  Not only that, the alley itself had been transformed.  The old brick buildings with their lacy networks of rusting fire escapes were, today, a blaze of color!

            All around me bits and pieces of drainpipes, balconies, windows, overhangs, fire escapes and individual bricks were being painted in a mirread of colors.

            I stumbled into the little alley and looked up in awe.  I asked an old wino with a can of green paint what was happening and was told to “ask that guy up there!”  High above, one of the workers was enthusiastically painting away and barking orders.

            “What are you doing?” I shouted.

            “I’m painting the alley,” a big, blustery fellow called back.  “Give us a hand!”

            “You bet!” I said, and started up the fire escape.  Then I thought of the big back door of the theater standing open.  “Let me just close up my theater first, huh?”

            “You with that theater there?”


            “Hey, come on up!”

            I closed the door with a jam so it wouldn’t lock behind me and climbed up a rusting old fire ladder.  There I sat and talked and laughed with my new acquaintance, high above the city. And I savored a special moment, that moment of the first meeting of two people who would become great friends through many years, who felt even then the awakening of a friendship.

            Together, we painted, and talked, and crawled across the surface of the buildings.  He was an artist, he said, who lived on the alley and had organized this thing with a few of his artist friends and they had enlisted the help of the ever-ready ranks of winos and bums who inhabited all of Pioneer Square.  They had begun early and the morning had gone well and the results were clearly showing.  But soon, he mentioned, they would run out of paint.

            “Hey, I got lots of paint!” I said.


            “Yeah.  In the theater, of course.”

            It’s not often in life we’re given such opportunities.  To cement a friendship, to solve a problem, to better the world.  We must act on them at once!  I brought out the Ensemble’s cans of paint.

            That afternoon in the sun stretches out long for me now, as do only those very special times in our past.  They are like windows on the long wall of time, where we see the details of our life.

            The same can be said of those moments of terror and darkness, with their details of the world turn sinister and terrible.  But on those rusting old balconies of Pioneer Square in Seattle that Saturday morning I met Billy King, the windows are all of sunshine and light.


* * *