It’s like all the other junk that comes in the mail, but a bit less . . . self-evident. I can’t just throw it away without opening it, the way I can the credit card offers (I already have three Visa cards, I don’t know why), the cable-TV pitches, the “emergency appeals” from charities and political groups. It might be a packet covered in black cellophane with only my name and address showing. Indications of its origins are sketchy, cryptic. An address in rural Maryland. A PO box in La Jolla. I’m sure it can’t be anything, but not quite sure enough to toss it, not without checking. So I tear it open over the wastebasket and–sure enough, somebody wants my money. It’s what I expected. But the question being asked of me is not “What would you say to three books, three bucks, no obligation?” or “How can you sit by while extremists in Washington threaten our most basic freedoms?”

The question is “Are you hungry for fresh men?”

I get this kind of thing all the time. Invitations to special gay-only cruises of the Caribbean and Mexico. Gay fashion catalogs. Pitches from gay video-and-novelty vendors with names like “The Dirty Ol’ Frenchman.” Introductory subscription offers from gay porn magazines, with return cards labeled “For You” and “For Your Friend.” And, more often than not, some discreetly worded notice like this: “Occasionally we make our customer list available to other highly reputable and carefully selected companies whose products, we believe, would be of interest to you.”

My wife thinks this is funny. She sees the humor. I don’t. What if the mailman misdelivered something like this? Say, to my next-door neighbor–the retired steelworker? Could I still borrow lawn tools? What if a dog started nosing around my garbage cans on pickup days, and this spilled out where the whole world could see it? Wouldn’t that be just like a dog?

Or suppose somebody were to search my garbage? Are you telling me that’s not a standard surveillance technique?

OK, what about this: I am nominated, someday, for some high office. I am to be–I don’t know, drug czar. And my wife will be the czarina. The hearings have gone beautifully up to now, everyone has been shamelessly sucking up to me, my approval is in the bag, when some aging Republican lion of the Senate leans into the microphone and rumbles, “Suh, I have just one question t’ask you befo’ the Ame’can people: Aw you hungry fo’ fresh men?”

I know what the mature, enlightened, secure-in-his-or-her-own-unique-sexuality reader is thinking right about now. Hmm. Or even possibly: Uh-huh. And I deny this. I deny it with all my powers of–denial. I am solely concerned with the principle of the thing. A mistake has been made. I have been psychographically miscategorized–segmented into the wrong life-style cluster–and the error is constantly replicating itself, even as I sleep. It’s obvious that somewhere, sometime, some anonymous compiler misjudged my sexual orientation–or more likely, and even more anonymously, I was caught up in some kind of general sweep–and now my name is being bandied about. I could write to the individual businesses that are soliciting me and ask to be taken off their mailing lists–and I have done that in some cases–but how do I get myself off the Ur-list?

My wife advises me to relax. Take a deep breath. Enjoy it. I am being afforded, after all–at no expense, without risk or obligation–a rare glimpse into another world. And it is interesting. I have some gay friends, but quite frankly the one thing I don’t ask them about is sex. And they hardly ever volunteer anything. They certainly aren’t as forthcoming on the subject as, well, FreshMEN magazine, an LA-based monthly that promises to put me in intimate touch with the culture of “boner boys, tough gymbots, college guys, humpy go-go boys, club kids, streetwise art punks, and the So. Cal. special: totally tan surfer dudes,” through regular features like “NewSEX” (“If it’s new, funny, kinky, weird, queer, or cute”), “Major Meat” (“Each issue we profile a big-time porn star”), and a comic strip called “Junior Jock Jack-off Jizz Juice Journal.” If I were to subscribe, I’d no doubt learn much more, but even the invitation is illuminating. (Gymbots. I get it.) Of course, there’s a certain amount of distortion built in here. It’s a little like “glimpsing” straight culture through the medium of a come-on for Juggs. The insinuating tone, the leering puns, the obsessive preoccupation with Topic A, are part of a universal language.

I assume the same caveat applies to any literature that can be traced to a seller of “adult novelties,” “lubes,” “douches,” and of course “etc.”

What interests me is the extent to which even products that have no obvious connection with sex are pitched to gay consumers as though they were French ticklers. When the only fact that retailers know (or think they know) about you is that you are sexually attracted to men, they simply can’t let go of it. They seem to be afraid that if they wandered off the subject, even for a moment, they’d lose you. So, in a clothing/”accents”/doodad catalog, the “treasured photograph” for which an advertised picture frame is supposed to provide a “perfect setting” is not of Mom, or even of a handsome, romantic-looking guy–it’s a standard neck-down, soft-core beef shot. As though this were the kind of thing gay men kept on their nightstands!

Clothing, of course, is connected with sex, at least in our collective imagination. A glossy fashion catalog I received from an outfit called “H.I.M.” (“The Look. The Lifestyle. The Catalogue”) could not be steamier if it had come from the Dirty Ol’ Frenchman himself. It isn’t so much the pictures. There is no grappling or nudity. And the models are the same level-gazing, self-possessed, slightly bitchy-looking types you see everywhere, wearing the same clothes. (For the most part. I guess you could look long and hard through a Sears circular without coming across a “Backless Bikini” or a “Keyhole Thong.”) But the accompanying text simply drools. No entendre is left undoubled. If a jacket has a zipper, then it’s “to zip as you please, to unzip as you dare.” Everything is “enticingly sheer,” “shape-loving,” “cut to reveal.” In one dreamy caption–“8 a.m. You like it strong and dark; his has to be sweet & blond”–they’re talking about coffee, I think.

Here again, I’m reluctant to lean too hard on all this pillow talk. This is, after all, the world of ad copy. Where a shirt never comes in colors, always in “get-seen colors”–or “watch-out black”–for “follow-me impact.” Where even a clock is “more than just a timepiece.” It may be that I’m just uncomfortable with the possibility that somebody else’s sexuality is more intense, more all-devouring than my own. But my guess is that gays are no more preoccupied with sex than anyone else. Or, to put it more accurately, that the curve describing their preoccupation over time is the same sharply-rising-then-sadly-drooping one that applies to the rest of mankind.

I had another, much better look at gay culture once–and that is no doubt where this whole mix-up began. For a couple of years in the 80s, my wife and I rented an apartment in San Francisco’s Castro district. It was one of the nicest places we’ve ever lived in: a sunny, well-maintained one-bedroom with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a spacious kitchen, and beautiful views through bay windows. It was conveniently located–right on the subway line, in fact–and cheap, by San Francisco standards. The neighborhood was safe, lively, prosperous. And about half of the city’s huge population of gay men lived in or near it.

Believe me, I worried about that, especially at first. I worried that I was unwelcome there. I worried that I was too welcome. I avoided eye contact. I stayed out of bars. In two years, there was only one place in our neighborhood where I ever stopped in for a drink: a quiet, smoky, seedy place called Dicks. And before I set foot in it, I made damn sure that the apostrophe wasn’t missing for a reason.

All my precautions turned out to be unnecessary. For one thing, I had underestimated the basic decency of gay men. I wanted to be left alone; they knew how that felt. But there was another, sadder reason. By the time I got there, the gay men who lived in the Castro had other things on their minds. There were only two that I had any routine contact with: the frail young man who managed our building, and an older man who kept a store on the ground floor. They were friendly enough, but both of them seemed far away, preoccupied, most of the time. Far from forcing their attentions on me, they seemed to have some trouble keeping me in focus. This was especially true of the young manager, who often looked as though he had just been crying. Every conversation seemed to cost him an exhausting effort; he was like a sick man who struggled up in bed to be polite. Maybe he was sick. Or maybe he was grieving. I never asked.

The Castro I lived in was not, by all accounts, the real Castro, the wide-open gay Mecca of the 70s. But traces of that lost city still remain. A practiced eye could find some, I suspect, in the catalogs and come-ons that show up in my mailbox–which seem to come from a younger place, where everyone is sassy and healthy and buff. And longings have no complications. And you can depend utterly on the kindness of strangers.

I remember a better, truer remnant of the old city. He used to turn up on our corner every Sunday morning, weather permitting, in roller skates, hot pants, headphones, and a kind of butterfly mask. Nothing else. He was hairy, paunchy, middle-aged. The rest of the week he may have been, for all I know, a plumber, an accountant, a cop. But on Sunday mornings, he was–well, I don’t know what he was. A chorus boy with the Ice Capades. He skate-danced in ecstatic silence in front of a vacant store on Market Street, and I never saw anything break through his absorption. And yet there was something welcoming about the sight of him. He was a symbol of the neighborhood, a friendly flag. The music on his headphones wasn’t audible, and I always assumed, from his movements, that he was listening to Swan Lake or something. But once I heard him singing under his breath, and it was “Staying Alive.”

I wish I could send him my catalogs. He would, I think, know how to take them in the proper spirit. And he might even like to order something. In which case I would call his attention to the Kama Sutra Weekender Kit. For $22, you get Pleasure Balm, Oil of Love, and Honey Dust.

And that comes, of course, with the feather applicator.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.