Allen Synthesis Two: Thoughts on Place, Space, and Change

Throughout this week, the notion of space, queer and otherwise, has really impacted me. Maybe it is partially because I am not in my “normal” space presently, as I am a nine hour drive from home, but it is probably also because the concept of “home” and the space associated with it has been problematic for me for the last twelve years.

This is probably due to a variety of factors, including problems with my parents, lots of moving, and the feeling of being transient in many of the apartments that I have called “home” over the years. Whatever the reason, I feel like I have gotten further into every reading we’ve done this week than I did last week, and I found last week’s work fascinating.

The concept that has really adhered to me this week is that spaces change. Nothing is static. Sometimes, this causes nostalgia, like in Samuel Delany’s “Times Square Blue” essay from the book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Throughout the first essay, he describes how Times Square used to be, before AIDS, when he could go to the porn theaters there for sex. In Polymath, a set of interviews of him on DVD, he details how much sexual contact he had even without the porn theaters. “I’d write for a while, then I’d go down to the subway and have sex with three or four people, then I’d go write some more,” and the rest of his day would go in that fashion—some work, then sex with people, then more work, then more sex. He said that, because of this scheduling, there were days that he’d have sex with “twelve to fifteen people during the day, then come home and cook dinner.” When multiplied (even conservatively, using the lower number of twelve and discounting weekends because his wife was off work), this means that he was having sex with at least 240 people a month. To put this number into comparison, he also mentioned in Polymath that when AIDS first began getting publicity, there was a comment made about men making 300 contacts a year. Delany made this number seem ludicrously low for New York City, but I have to wonder several things: was his experience an average one? Would this have been possible in any other large city in the United States (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Washington, DC)? What about the urban areas?

This last thought was what made me consider Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. Set in the tiny town in rural Pennsylvania where she was raised, the graphic novel chronicles not only her experiences, but also some of her father’s. Bechdel talks about the fact that not only he, but most of the rest of his family, settled permanently in that small town. While her parents had spent time abroad during her father’s time in the military, once there were children and the need to run the family business, the idea of going back to Europe had “disappeared from [her] parents’ horizon” (34). The letters he wrote to her mother before their wedding showed his awe of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the sense of kinship her father seemed to feel to Gatsby, which leads to Bechdel commenting, “Gatsby’s self-willed metamorphosis from farm boy to prince is in many ways identical” (63) to the one her own father had. Her father was definitely a prince in his own world, with his own method of contact that was very different from that of Delany.

This difference in contact is what struck me—Delany definitely had more instances of contact with different people (the sheer fact that he estimates having slept with 50,000 people speaks to this) than Bechdel’s father could have in that tiny town, but her father seemed to have proportionally more long-lasting contacts. This is evidenced by the fact that several of her father’s partners were seen around the house at least semi-regularly, like the babysitter. Bechdel’s father made that tiny rural town his space, for his entire life, even with the changes that occurred. Nothing as dramatic as the shutting down of movie theaters impacted her father’s life, but it seems like no one is quite sure to this day if her father committed suicide or not.

The main change Bechdel’s father experienced was cyclical—he went away from the town, but then he came back. There was no getting away from that space for him, so he changed the space around him through redecoration. The old house her parents bought was completely remodeled inside, with large bookcases, furniture that was almost impossible to dust, and creepy-looking chandeliers. He was the one that redesigned this space to his taste, so he could live there. Is that what made it possible for him to exist in that rural area? That question is still with me.

How did he survive in that urban area? I don’t ask because of his obvious sexual queerness, but because of his other queerness. From Bechdel’s description, if he had not had to be the part-time funeral home director and full-time English teacher, it seems as if her father could have done quite well as a designer of some type in a larger city. He could have taught high school English in a larger city, gone back to graduate school, ended up teaching at a college or university somewhere. He could have sold the family business. He could have stayed in Europe.

Yet he didn’t. He seemed (at least mostly) content where he was, around the older generations of his family. Despite that, he wanted his kids to go find their own space and not stay in the area. This, to me, is the queerest part about her father: he was perfectly content (or so it seems in the novel) to be where he is, even after having been outside of the rural area, but he does not want that for his children.

My father said something similar himself years ago; he wanted me to get out of the area I had grown up in (I lived the first eighteen years of my life in the same house) and experience somewhere else. He encouraged me to apply to schools all over the country, but seemed happy when I settled on a UNC system school, as that mean in-state tuition. When the opportunity presented itself for me to study abroad, he did everything but fill out the application for me and physically place me on the plane.

Yet if I came back now, he would be happy. He would know that I came back because I wanted to. But even that space, my hometown, has changed drastically. Our old house has been demolished, and I can no longer even drive on the street that I used to sled down in the wintertime on the rare occasions we got snow, because it is now private. A private university now owns a previously public city street. I find this almost revolting; I can’t go home, even if I wanted to.

Spaces change, but when they are altered drastically, like what Delany described, the results can be physically painful to the people that loved the old space. Perhaps that is why Bechdel’s father makes no sense to me. He could, and did, go back to his old space. He changed it, in comparison to the experiences that Delany and I had of spaces being changed without our consent. Maybe that is what makes “home” such a foreign concept to me; I literally cannot go back to it. Nor can Delany ever revisit the theaters. Loss is painful, whether it is the loss of a person or a place.

One thought on “Allen Synthesis Two: Thoughts on Place, Space, and Change

  1. alexislothian

    I’m glad you connected so well with the readings for this week. I like the connections you make here between Samuel Delany and Bruce Bechdel, who seem to have lived such very different queer lives. Delany seems so liberated and Bechdel so repressed, yet, as you point out, both of their lives are the result of choices and Bechdel may not have preferred an existence more like Delany’s even if it seems obvious to him that he would have. Interestingly, Delany’s newest novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, explores rural queer men’s life, perhaps moving us slightly further toward Bruce Bechdel.

    The last past of your synthesis reminds me of a line by Ursula K. Le Guin, from her novel The Dispossessed: “You can go home again, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.” I wonder if the idea of queer time offers any new ways to engage with the feelings of loss that come from our homes changing unexpectedly after we have left them.


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