Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Art by Joe Vega
Anyone who’s ever dyed their hair black knows that black dye is impossible to get out, you bleach and bleach but it barely even gets lighter. So when I went to interview for a porn video, and the director told me I had to dye my hair for the shoot, I figured I’d use temporary black dye, since my hair was green and purple, and I needed to get it back that way as soon as possible. But the temporary dye just turned my hair gray, so I wore a bandanna to the shoot, which took place in a fake alley in back of a South of Market warehouse.
The director told me the safe word was BLUE, and that was about all, and then right after the camera started rolling the other actors pushed me to my knees and dragged me through gravel, and in the process the bandanna fell off. Then my costars saw my hair and said: Let’s teach that punker a lesson. Now that I think about it, they were pretty good at improv, but at the time I was just scandalized that they decided to spray-paint the back of my favorite vintage red velour shirt without asking me—I was supposed to act shocked about everything, but actually I was shocked.
Then they put me on a leash and said bark like a dog, so I did, woof woof, but when they got ready to push my face into a bowl of dog food, that was my breaking point. BLUE, I said. I’m vegan. Which would have been the best moment in the history of gay porn, so of course they edited it out.
One of my costars was some guy who said he was bisexual—apparently this meant he had to look at straight porn to get hard, and afterwards he kept talking about how his girlfriend was coming to pick him up, his girlfriend would be there soon, his girlfriend. Now I’d probably think he was tired but still incredibly hot, but when I was 19 my ideals matched my desires, so I just thought he was incredibly tired.
Around then I met Luke Sissyfag at a protest—he was wearing bright red lipstick and pearls, and I was in awe. He was risking being a stereotype in order to become an archetype. We were both the same age, we were both in ACT UP, we were both obsessed with direct action activism and defiance, and I guess I was young enough that I thought this meant we should sleep together—I can’t remember whether the lipstick smeared all over my face, but of course that’s where it belonged.
"I didn’t always do porn just for the money, the last time I did it because I thought maybe it would finally be hot. This guy in New York recruited me from my escort ad, he gave me some of his videos and said I could pick my costars, porn would be good for business. But then somehow I ended up in a shoot with some ex-porn star who smelled like the end of the worst night of your life."
Luke lived in Seattle, where there was actually a politic about being young, which kind of confused me because why would anyone want to be young? I mean anyone who was actually young. Luke came to stay with me in San Francisco, and it was like he already wanted to be boyfriends, and remember what I said about how my ideals still matched my desires—or maybe I mean my desires matched my ideals. Luke was so clingy already, and I really didn’t know what was going on. I mean I knew what was going on, but I didn’t like it. The next time I saw Luke was at the March on Washington in 1993, right after I met Zee at another ACT UP demo, and Zee said something about how he’d dated Luke, but it was over, so why was Luke following us around, and I didn’t realize until years later that they’d just slept together the night before.
Once, when I was driving cross-country, I drove through Lawton, Michigan, where Zee’d grown up, and then I went to The Zoo, the gay bar in Kalamazoo. It’s hard to imagine anything that could make me as sad as a gay bar, except maybe a zoo. I don’t go to zoos anymore, but I remember those signs as a kid at the National Zoo in DC that would show a dead sea lion cut open, and you would see all the pennies inside—don’t throw pennies to the sea lions, this is what your hopes for good luck will do.
In high school, I went to The Zoo Bar across the street from the actual zoo, because they would serve teenagers pitchers of beer outside at the tables with vinyl red and white checkered tablecloths. For some reason the bar didn’t card you outside, but inside they’d ask for ID, which doesn’t really make sense because why did they want a bunch of sixteen-year-olds sitting outside and getting smashed? Except maybe then it would really be a zoo.
Sometimes I miss the sea lions in San Francisco—for years I refused to go to Pier 39 because I thought it was a scam—someone must have been feeding them to get them to stay there, right, it was just a covert zoo. But actually the sea lions took over the docks after the earthquake in 1989. They didn’t even know it was a tourist trap. I love how they jump up on top of one another, but they can always sleep. I can’t even sleep with someone else in my apartment.
The second time I did porn it was with Zee, when we were boyfriends, and I’d just remembered I was sexually abused, so I was taking a break from sex, but then Zee called me to do the video because his costar showed up too tweaked out—I did it because I needed the money, but then Zee got upset when I couldn’t come, and I felt like a broken toy. Which is how I’d felt with my father. When I walked out into the sun after that first video shoot I just felt totally lost, like I didn’t even know where I was and why was it so hot out, maybe that’s why I felt so dazed.
Whenever someone says the weather in Seattle is the same as the weather in San Francisco, I know they don’t know anything about San Francisco. In San Francisco, it’s sunny every day for nine months, and then you get two months of rain if you’re lucky. In Seattle, if it’s sunny for more than a few days in a row at any time except the summer it’s like the biggest miracle of the century.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I would cross the street to get out of the sun—sometimes I even carried a parasol. In Seattle, I’ll take off all my clothes on a 55-degree day just to try to get some vitamin D. I lived in San Francisco for 14 years, but I don’t think I ever left the house in the morning unless I was up from the night before, walking through a deserted South of Market. No luxury glass towers yet, but it was already expensive in the early-‘90s—or, it felt expensive. I wrote a book called The End of San Francisco, so people in Seattle hear the title and say you’re right, it’s over. But San Francisco made me. It’s the only home I’ve ever had. I moved back at the height of the last tech crisis, and still I was able to find as much vibrancy as I’ve ever experienced.
I remember going to visit a friend at 7 a.m. at the county jail after a protest—okay, so there’s one time I got up in the morning, covering my eyelids in glitter to contrast the polyester plaid shirt and clashing plaid skirt, and then I was standing in line in a different South of Market, yes, here we are again, and I will say that the people in line were friendly, mostly women dressed up in their slutty best for their boyfriends or pimps, and I don’t know why I’m telling you this to describe how I could breathe in San Francisco, except that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to breathe like that again. The air in Seattle is better, but you need much more than air to breathe.
I didn’t always do porn just for the money, the last time I did it because I thought maybe it would finally be hot. This guy in New York recruited me from my escort ad, he gave me some of his videos and said I could pick my costars, porn would be good for business—the guys in those videos were pretty hot, and I did need more business. But then somehow I ended up in a shoot with some ex-porn star who smelled like the end of the worst night of your life. And then after that I was in a scene with someone about my age, 20-something, who already looked like he was trying to look young.
When I first started turning tricks it was so I could make art and do activism and survive as far from mainstream consumerist norms as possible, that was all, it made the most sense, but by the time I got to New York maybe it had changed me—no, it was New York that changed me. Suddenly I was all alone—there were only a few other hookers who even admitted what they did for a living, but they said they were doing it as a career. I’d chosen to be a hooker so I didn’t have to have a career.
In New York, the hookers at the top were the ones who thought they weren’t hookers—I never wanted to be a kept boy because I didn’t want to pretend that I wasn’t doing it for the money. Once I had this trick with the largest apartment I’d ever seen, an entire floor of a building in the West Village, and he spent most of the time telling me how he was trying to get rid of all the tenants upstairs, because there wasn’t enough room for his art. He invited me to the Hamptons, and I said sure, and named a reasonable overnight rate, and he said oh, I could never afford that, I was just inviting you as a friend.
So I didn’t go to the Hamptons. But then, later in the summer, New York had record-breaking heat, 106 or something, so I called him up and said let’s go. When I got to his place there was another hooker there, and we got in the BMW with this trick who drove so fast it was like he was trying to kill you. When I say trick, I mean someone who’s paying me, or in this case someone who I met when he was paying me, but I realize there’s another meaning in the gay vernacular and it’s always confused me.
Later this trick told me a story about how his boyfriend had died in a car accident, so maybe he was trying to kill us. Especially since he told the other hooker that his boyfriend had died in a pressure cooker accident. But actually the other hooker wasn’t a hooker—he was Nan Goldin’s assistant, not the one who developed the photos but the one who managed the studio, and I still have a photo he took of me in the Hamptons where I’m standing naked in the dark like a ghost with a towel by the pool that looks like it’s floating.
Like Nan Goldin, right? She became one of my heroes after I saw her show at the Whitney, photos of all her friends defying the American landscape and then dying because of it. But then I went to another show a few years later, and there were pictures of the gallery owner’s kids. So that was the end of it for me.
Anyway, the trick took us to a party in the Hamptons like we were two exotic pets, here’s the Dalmatian and here’s the poodle. Like Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, where the swans are all played by male dancers—another trick took me to that, the one who paid me monthly, and I smiled at the other kept boys but they were doing everything they could to pretend no one knew.
My last boyfriend said hands can be like pets, but you don’t have to feed them, and I thought that was romantic. That was about a hundred years ago. My relationship model has always been friends that are like boyfriends, but we don’t have sex, and then laughing after getting fucked against the wall by some stranger. But now I can’t figure out how to have sex with people who actually care about me.
Towards the end of my time in San Francisco, I thought I might write a children’s book about a vegan sea lion, one that doesn’t believe in conventional gender roles—you know, that tired tale that all these sea lions on the docks are male, while the women fly south to have babies. There is a children’s book for sale on Pier 39—it’s about a sea lion named Chippy that’s stranded on the highway a few hundred miles from the water, until it climbs up on top of a police car—see, the cops are always our heroes, even when we’re sea lions.
In Seattle there’s a program called Safe Place, where businesses put a rainbow police badge in their window to show that they’ll call the cops if you’re getting bashed. During this program, bashings of queers on Capitol Hill have only gotten more brutal, and it’s no coincidence that the program arrived while the Seattle Police Department is under federal oversight for violence against people of color. Let us save you, the cops say, so you can save us from oversight.
Bellevue Wives Matter, a silkscreen by John Criscitello tells us, and that’s what the Safe Place program is really saying. Embrace us, and you can all become the wives of tech scions dreaming their suburban nightmares, as long as you leave behind black lives. And now it costs more to live on Capitol Hill than in Bellevue anyway—the ‘90s are just a fashion trend. My rent has gone up 70 percent in four years, I mean it’s gotten so high that people in condos in the same neighborhood are paying less on a monthly basis. Of course, they could afford the down payments.
But so could I, I realized, due to an inheritance. So now I pay my monthly housing ransom to a bank instead of a landlord, and I can stay in the only neighborhood that might work for me. I won’t pretend that this hasn’t changed my life, and I won’t pretend that it’s changed my life.
If you can’t be so vulnerable in your writing that you think you might die, what’s the point of writing? I might as well tell you about the guy in the park who stuck his tongue in my ass when I wasn’t looking, I mean I was on my knees sucking someone else’s dick, and at first I didn’t know who it was—but then I realized it was the guy with sores on his mouth who was in the dark on his knees when I’d arrived, waiting for anyone. It always scares me when people aren’t concerned about anything beyond their own desires, but it’s not like this tells us anything new. All pets become animals, eventually. Maybe it’s the same thing with humans.
Then his tongue started to feel really good, except that’s when I realized that it wasn’t his tongue anymore it was his dick so I pulled away, but afterwards I felt really gross. This used to happen all the time, some guy’s dick suddenly in my ass, without my consent and without a condom. How gay culture mimics the worst aspects of straight masculinity, but without the challenge of feminism. Will I ever escape? I don’t know.
"Patti Smith feeds us the same tired mythology about fame as a chain of coincidences, the one that says you can just go to the Chelsea Hotel with five cents in your pocket, and then suddenly you’re a star. She feeds us that nostalgia for the glory days of a New York that never existed, the one where you fuck some guy who just stole a steak and it turns out to be Sam Shepard."
A few weeks later some guy behind me on the street was mumbling something about whether purple is a pastel, and obviously it isn’t, but I knew he was talking to me, and random people in Seattle never talk to me—and it really breaks my heart, it breaks my heart on a daily basis. People call this the Seattle freeze like it’s some kind of cute local popsicle flavor, but really it’s just the gentrified gaze, the suburban imagination in the urban environment, the white picket fence in the eyes—people don’t come to cities for that surprising interaction anymore, they just want to redraw the borders from the places they aren’t even escaping.
When this guy, who turned out to be the one from the park with the clever tongue, at least when it was in my ass, but that’s not what he spoke about, it was the moment when we were on two sides of the same tragic guy, and how our hands met between that guy’s legs—and why did I reach for those hands, really, why? I love public sex because of the possibility for a sudden connection, but now no one even wants that, so I grasp for anything. To me that night was just the most obvious indication that I need to figure out something else, but what, that’s always the question, especially here, where fags won’t even talk to me.
This guy and I talked for an hour, on my morning walk through the park, and he was the classic example of someone who literally takes the same information as me, and develops the opposite ideas—and somehow he thinks this is what it means to connect. He went on and on about how you can’t break the rules as an artist unless you know the rules. You need the training first, and then you can do something new, right? Prop up the same old system, in order to develop a new system. What a great idea.
I don’t know why I didn’t try to escape, I think it was the way that it all felt so strange that I thought it might be interesting. He told me he didn’t read many books, but he read one that blew him away with its honesty, and of course it was Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
Patti Smith feeds us the same tired mythology about fame as a chain of coincidences, the one that says you can just go to the Chelsea Hotel with five cents in your pocket, and then suddenly you’re a star. She feeds us that nostalgia for the glory days of a New York that never existed, the one where you fuck some guy who just stole a steak and it turns out to be Sam Shepard, and sure, that can happen, but fame is not a coincidence, it is a vicious mechanism and in order to succeed you must be complicit. Patti Smith wants us to swallow the myth of the successful artist as some kind of pure soul, which is one of the grossest lies ever told.
It turned out this guy from the park had been following me for months, I mean he didn’t say it that way he just said he’d seen me around. But then I went to get my haircut, and he was the hairstylist in the next chair. He looked right at me, studied my clothes like usual so I smiled and said hi, Sam Sheppard—no, he wasn’t going to make me famous, he just stole my steak. I mean he stared right at me like I wasn’t there. I said hi the next few times, but then eventually I gave up. I guess he felt like I’d rejected him, because he’d given me his number and I didn’t call.
I’d already run into him again, before the salon, he was across the street and I yelled over. I said sorry for not calling—because even when I can’t stand someone I feel a responsibility to be friendly. I told him I’d been feeling really exhausted, and he acted surprised by the never-ending chronic health problems that have defined my life for so long, because of course he was only listening to himself when we were talking, just like in the park on the night we didn’t quite meet, the way no one quite meets in a cruising area but some not-quite-meetings are worse than others.
He said take care of yourself. So I did. By not calling him. Why was I trying to be nice to him anyway? Because everyone keeps letting me down. This is my romantic life, my romantic life right now. I want this story to have an ending, but also I want it to have a different ending.