James Croteau

Section 4 - About Place Journal Volume III Issue II Voices of the Human Spirit November 2014 aboutplacejournal.org
James Croteau
 
The UpStairs Lounge
 
My feet were in the same sneakers that squeaked
the St. Francis gym floor, when I first stepped
off the sidewalk of Chartres in August of ’75,
crossed Iberville Street, near
 
the wooden stairwell where men once climbed
sixteen steps through a steel door to talk
that’s telling: lovers’ new jobs, cute guys in the square, people
who know. The simple spoken freely, a lounge where men
found their own stories in the faces mirrored there.
 
On long study breaks, walking the Quarter, how many times did I pass?
I’ll never know, I never saw, I never let myself dream
there were steps I could climb carrying stories like mine.
But what if I’d heard of the lounge, how it ended
 
on a June Sunday in ’73 during pride on parade in cities
less Southern, less Catholic? The stairs turned wind tunnel,
an inferno ascended. Sixteen minutes to extinguish
the fire and thirty-two lives. What if
 
I’d heard in my sixteenth summer walking home after practice? The news
on my radio, its single earphone and the tied strings of my sneakers
tangled in the sweat on my neck. What if I’d heard? What if I knew
 
what followed the fire? Answers weren’t sought.
The newspapers reported:
    Bodies stacked
    like pancakes,
    mass of charred flesh,
    literally cooked.
Faggots like food, not people that counted.
 
But what if I’d heard? Back when I’d twirl a bottle of pills in my hands,
quietly drunk on the tile floor by the toilet, after parties with friends
who didn’t know me. Would hearing have been enough water to douse
my doubts, make me swallow? What if I’d heard
 
all the jokes that rushed through that city
those days in late June: Did you hear the one
about the flaming queens? At first no church
offered burial. Instead the city’s punch line:
bury them in fruit jars. What else would you do
in New Orleans back then with the bodies of gay men?
 
Before I face my first stairs, my youth’s burning had turned ember.
But what if the fire’s story was told? Maybe an empty bottle
and my body on the floor by toilet? I’ll never know.
 
But what if upon knowing,
I had marked my forehead with their ashes,
like a Lenten reminder– let outrage flare into courage.
 
I’m haunted
by what I might have become–
a young Phoenix, beautiful, fierce.
 
 
[The UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, was destroyed in an arson’s fire on June 24, 1973. It was the deadliest fire in the city’s history and the largest mass killing of LGBT people in the United States. The information about the fire and its aftermath is taken from news stories of the day and historical accounts.]
 
 
Blessed Be The Boys
 
We Catholic boys were
shoots among thick
weeds that no one parted.
The black coated roamed
obscured by incense smoke.
 
I felt like the only boy who stained
his sheets with thoughts
of other boys. Alone and cornered,
I knelt, throat exposed.
Bless me Father for I have sinned.
Father Randell bit, sharp
nail teeth, tearing
out the details–
Where?
With your hand?
Were you naked?
Was it “to completion”?

 
My lacerations were minor,
other boys were mauled.
 
Brother Channing taught in suit and tie.
Clothed, sheep-like, in music’s mastery,
he mentored the talented. Mark was his
protégé, their bond shone like a violin,
well varnished by a master luthier.
Mark stripped the shine by hand.
Ten years of sanding brought
a midnight phone call,
my musician friend’s voice
vibrato, revealed the raw wood
of rooms shared on concert trips,
school doors shut for one-on-ones.
 
Each boy, now man, with the telling
performs the sacramental–
parts the weeds, vents the incense smoke.
 
Popes and Bishops, old and new, paint
apologies, with no accountability
for the holy men of our youth
who swung the censers, made
the smokescreens, sanctified
the quiet retirements, the reassignments.
 
But we boys of a Catholic God
were not totaled. We’ve hammered,
sanded, painted–body-worked
some healing. We now can hear
Blessed be the unprotected.
 
We’re off our knees.
God wants us standing.
 
 
 
James M. Croteau lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with his partner of 29 years, Darryl, and their two Labrador retrievers. He grew up gay and Catholic in the southern United States in the 1960’s. His poems have appeared in New Verse News, Right Hand Pointing, HOOT a Postcard review of {mini} poetry and prose, and in the anthology Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South. A series of his poems appear in the July 2014 issue of Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry. He sometimes blogs at talkingdogsholymen.blogspot.com.
 

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