Near the end of my first year at SCAD 1987-88 (Savannah College Of Art and Design) I moved in with my first boyfriend into the historic district I had always admired - just a skip away from the squares, bars and cobbled streets. I loved living there. I will always remember that house, sliced up into apartments, with dark red Victorian turrets on the outside and the granite and cherry wood interiors (Rent $275). I was definitely ensconced in the dream romance of my youth; I was all sensation. Every detail of that time was important to my self image and my style. I was 22 but emotionally much younger. Walking down those streets I took in the old city for the first time (a mix of sunlight and apparitions). I was a part of it as well.
Alvin Neely was our landlord and lived a couple of blocks over in a near identical house (except that his was a complete mansion). He was a very delightful man in his 60s and a good talker. As the new addition I was invited to his place for afternoon cocktails my first weekend. Being young and impressionable afternoon cocktails sounded like something out of a movie to me. The Sunday we went over I was not disappointed – his house was full of antiques and had a grand staircase (Tara!) and as he chatted with us we were walked back toward the screened-in veranda done up in Moroccan chic (or maybe just overstuffed bamboo furniture) and he took our drink orders. “Would you like a gin and tonic?” he asked me. I took a look at his face, ostensibly an old man to me, but with the wryest look in his eye, full of humor. We looked at one another very directly and I realized that this was my first contact with a first tier homo: a seasoned and wickedly intelligent gay man. He gingerly picked up the liquor bottle to show me. “It’s Gordon's” he said with a wink. “Much cheaper and well known in England”. I jotted this down mentally: okay to drink cheap booze if you know what you are doing. A greenish cool afternoon light poured through the screens as we plopped down and chatted. Much of the conversation went around me and this was okay. I felt very pleasantly inside of something.
Alvin was my introduction to some of the history that was soon to make Savannah very famous: he was Jim William’s best friend. They were actually vicious rivals, gay arrivistes always checking on one another’s status and accomplishments. I had heard a lot of nasty rumors about Jim; the only connection I made at the time between them was money and big houses. Alvin, however, was delightful and down-to-earth. He took me and the boyfriend for a supper way out toward the ocean to have catfish at Love’s Seafood; on the drive out the sun set on a golden marsh that spread out before me. I had lived my whole life in Savannah yet there were some finer points I had missed. He showed me how to flip the fried fish over and pull the skeleton clean out of it with his nimble fingers, never pausing for a moment as he cruised every male in the place and gossiped about this or that. Alvin had style. He was an absolute imbiber of all of the lusty pleasures that life had to offer, and he opened up the city for me almost by osmosis.
There was, of course, some considerable darkness underneath this education. At the afternoon parties there was always a strange house guest at Neely’s place, a young white guy with a skinny mustache who seemed to work there. He had an animal look to his face and in his movements - my first run in with a hustler. Alvin was very blasé about keeping 'houseboys'. He made it clear that Jim kept them too. They were paid to stay in the house, do odd jobs, and service them. I was (and am still) horrified by this. I knew it was human traffic even if the exchange seemed equitable on the surface. It had the taint that subtle racism does. It smelled bad to me. His “boy” was cagey as a tiger and it showed in a very nervous twitchy demeanor, but mostly in that his straightness stuck out in this crowd of gay men. He seemed trapped. Many years later the picture would complete itself when I saw Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil in an Atlanta theater and watched Jude Law's portrayal of Danny Hansford. It is uncanny to see something pantomimed that you have lived.
Well, so to speak. The seedier aspects of Savannah were always just out of reach during those years. They were merely a backdrop while I created a persona for myself from scratch. Unless you truly became part of a very tiny and incestuous downtown scene I doubt you really counted. Instead I became just another of the students slumming around the city and drinking in the local bars for pleasure. One night in the tiny bar called Faces (my favorite and now sadly gone) my boyfriend called me over to meet someone. “Mark I would like you to meet Jim Williams” he said to me. I looked up and stood very still. Something strange ran through my blood. He was tall with jet black eyes and asked me to hold out my hand. As I did so he put two very heavy objects into my palm and asked me if I knew what it was. “Son that is solid gold” he drawled. I may have smiled but I don't think I did. I simply handed the gold back to him and removed myself to the other side of the bar. I think a door shut at that moment, looking back. The town had suddenly become very small.
Living downtown was small indeed. Why I ever thought it was bigger was a part of my growing up. I did love those late afternoons walking from one square to another (the old city being comprised of small parks laid out on a grid); there was always a fantastic low country light year round surrounding those beautiful houses, churches, and oak trees. Once I had lived there a while I slowly began to perceive something sinister right underneath: the constant stillness of a graveyard. No one ever seemed to be around you as you walked - how lonely it was! As I reminisce it isn't those days I most recall but the inky nighttime when all the city really came out to play. Those nights were solid gold.