Erasure on the Steps of the American History Museum

Michael G. Williams (Durham, NC)
On April 25, 1993, I sat on the steps of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and watched a troupe of drag queens and a column of Roman Catholic nuns pass delightedly through one another as they walked in opposite directions. I was at the National March on Washington and I was waiting to meet my Internet boyfriend for the very first time.

His name was Brian and we were both residents of an online community called LambdaMOO. In the early rush of our conversational relationship he told me about having gone to see his favorite group at the Beacon Theatre in New York the previous autumn. I had never been to New York, had no idea what the Beacon Theatre was or who Erasure might be, but I loved reading the words he wrote about going to see them perform two nights in a row. In the absence of being able to meet in the pubescent flesh, our passions were poured into introducing each other to all the things either of us wanted to share with our minds. We talked about all kinds of things – my love for Southern cooking and experiences as a trumpet player across a spectrum of performance styles and scenarios; his love for dance music and New York urbanity – but nothing made an impression on me as great as that left by his talk about this gay music star who was out and proud and unabashedly living the life he desired.

Ultimately, the overlap in the pop culture romance Brian and I were sharing boiled down to music and British comedy and as first year college students that was all we really needed. I mailed him cassette tape copies of symphonies in which I’d performed. He mailed me a VHS rip of the LaserDisc version – look it up, it was an awesome format – of Monty Python and the Holy Grail so I could see its extra features. The very best thing he did, though, was send me mixtapes assembled from every Erasure cassette available at the time. I listened to them on an old green Walkman knockoff with big disk-shaped earpieces encased in gray foam.

I had to split up from the collegiate activist group with whom I’d ridden to DC that day so I could meet Brian. He and I both knew where the American History museum is because we’d both been there in high school. To be precise, we both thought we knew how to find it. I had to stop and ask directions of a motorcycle cop who was parked in the middle of the street, arms crossed, watching the flood of queers young and old stream by. He had a toothpick sticking out of one corner of his mouth and he nodded at me from behind aviator sunglasses. “I’ll tell you where the museum is if you’ll answer one question,” he said. “Why are you here?” There were any number of ways to answer that but I nervously said, “Because for one day I want to get to experience what you feel all the time: what it’s like to be a part of the majority.” What I did not tell him was that I also wanted him to feel what I felt all the time: what it was like to be on the outside. The word “privilege” didn’t have the social currency then it does now, but that’s a pretty good approximation of the resentment I felt at the time for straight society and its authority figures.

The cop, true to his word, gave me the directions I needed.

Brian showed up after I did and the moment we laid eyes on each other we knew we were destined to shake hands and walk away. It was the opposite of love at first sight: disinterest at first sight. We just weren’t into each other. We had written extensively, talked on the phone twice (long distance calls were not in our budgets), exchanged packages but never photos. We were each simply not the other’s type. We’d been fast friends and we’d both chosen (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps consciously) not to give ourselves a chance to dispel the perfect other we’d assembled in our own imaginations. I remember we hugged, sat down on the steps overlooking Constitution Avenue and waited to think of something to say. Eventually he asked if I had, on the bus ride there, listened to the Erasure tapes he made me. I said yes, of course I had, and produce the player from my backpack.

That one archaic act – his arrangement of 90 minutes of Erasure on a Memorex tape, inserted into the cassette player I carried with me everywhere – was the proxy for a physicality unavailable to us when we wanted it and unwanted by us the moment it became available. Brian asked if we could listen to it together. I said yes. We each held one headphone to one ear, side by side while the queer world flowed past us, and listened to Andy Bell sing to us. I can’t remember what song we played. I was too busy experiencing the moment to record it.

When it was over, we both started making excuses about needing to go back to the groups with whom we’d traveled. We shook hands, walked in opposite directions and never met again.

Brian and I did some token keeping up via LambdaMOO. We still loved to converse, we just knew it was no longer a sexual or romantic thing and we were on the hunt for one or the other at the first available opportunity. Later that year, he dropped out of MOO life after a real-life friend and neighbor of his was the villain in one of the first publicized cases of online bullying (see “A Rape in Cyberspace”, http://bit.ly/1mtJQvL, for the original Village Voice piece from December, 1993). I thought at the time he might be embarrassed because he’d introduced his neighbor to LambdaMOO in the first place. Maybe it was unrelated. Maybe he simply moved on to other sites or other pursuits. Maybe he just thought there were more interesting ways to use the Internet as it became more widely adopted and adapted.

On LambdaMOO, disconnected players are listed as “asleep”. Brian slept for years. He logged in once in the late ‘90s and sent me a message to say hello. I sent him a message back with an updated email he could use to contact me. The phone number and mailing address I’d had for him were inherently impermanent, attached to being a student at NYU. I never heard from him. Eventually Brian was “reaped”, the equivalent of being cremated and having one’s estate liquidated. The tapes got eaten by the old cassette player when it finally started to die and I mourned them like lost loved ones. Life moved on, though, and on and on: just tons of living piling up between the me in any given moment and the kid who sat on the steps of our nation’s scrapbook and listened to Erasure with his boyfriend of five minutes before and five minutes hence.

That moment has stayed with me: more than that moment, in fact. That cop, that whole day, that whole time in life, are all treasured memories as vivid now as when they were made. Erasure became one of my favorite bands. In the two decades and change since that time, I’ve bought every Erasure cassette (and then CD, and then download) as they came out. iTunes tells me I have more hours of Erasure in my library than even I might have believed. I’ve listened to a couple of those hours writing this. The countless times since 1993 when I have heard Erasure – dance floors, road trips, in the background at a coffeehouse, alone in the deepest corner of the night – I have thought of that boy and that meeting and what it felt like to be in the majority for the very first time.

I can feel the foam speaker pad against my ear. I can hear the tinny music. I can see the drag queens and the nuns. I remember spotting those same nuns again later, walking around the National Mall wearing buttons that read VAGINAL POWER, thanking queers for being there, spreading love and gratitude I wanted so badly my Generation X reflexes refused to let me believe they were sincere. I’m still not entirely sure.

I don’t know where Brian is now, but I hope he is happy. I hope there is joy in his life. He gave me a lot of joy just by telling me about one band. I will always love Brian for that gift of Erasure and for shaking my hand in a moment we wanted to share before we grew up.

Michael G. Williams is an engineer, award-winning novelist and activist living in Durham, North Carolina, with his partner, their dominating cats and more and better friends than he knows how to describe. He’s an athlete, a geek, an outrageous flirt and a brother in both St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. Information about his writing can be found at www.theperishablesproject.com

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