THEY CAN’T STOP US
**Due to miscommunication w/ the series editor, the final version of “They Can’t Stop Us” wasn’t published due to miscommunication with the series editor. The final version differs from the published version in small but significant details. Still, it remains, by far, my preference. It is excerpted below.**
I’m waiting for the sun to set, for my shift to end, so I can pedal into my favorite part of Manhattan, an emerald oasis right in the center of all the concrete canyons. But I’m so not there yet. On Broadway, I steer my road bike between columns of men (and some women) doing the black-suit-shuffle, cut west to pick up my thirty-fourth package of the day at the World Financial Center, turn east to drop off at 120 Wall Street, and then north to an alley in Chinatown where I climb the stairs to the second floor and hand over a manila envelope to a man who kneads his hands behind a counter. As I wait for his signature, I inhale the incense from a candle-lit Buddhist shrine. Behind him, several rows of women move fabric through the stabbing needles of sewing machines.
I plummet back down the stairs, skipping every other step, and ponder the sheer number of daily encounters in this city, their anonymity and intimacy, how cultures clash, cavort, merge. Then I’m back in the streets jostling with vendors and taxis and tourists, everybody staking out a claim to space. Sirens scream. New sweat drips down the old sweat that’s caked to my face from the last seven hours of exertion and summer heat.
Sometimes, I hate that I get CEOs what they need, when they need it, in death-defying time, for semi-adequate wages. Maybe that’s why I scream a war cry as I near a crosswalk filled with commuters moving against the light. My voice and my barreling bike part them so fast that one fellow goosesteps. It takes me ten minutes to stop laughing.
Once I get through Midtown, weaving between cars that stop and go and shift lanes, I drop off my last parcels, radio in to say, Until tomorrow. I turn my bike from the four lanes of 59th Street into Central Park, where the city cacophony subsides to a hum. A dozen blocks later, on a footpath, I unhitch the Kryptonite chain from my waist and wrap it around the bike frame and a bench. Finally.
I peel off my T-shirt, stuff it into the messenger bag that’s still slung over my right shoulder, and plop onto the bench to watch the sun crouch down behind the Beresford, the twin-towered San Remo, and the other buildings of the Upper West Side. Then I slink along the dirt paths of the Ramble, around its oaks, maples, and glacial rocks, and stop near a footbridge spanning a brook. The minutes slip by, taking the last bit of natural light with them.
A clear night here turns strangers into silhouettes. But on a cloudy night, like tonight, the seemingly eternal lights of the city are captured and then refracted in an orange glow that peeks under tree tops and reveals glimpses: shiny Adidas pants with racer stripes hugging boy hips; a nipple ring glimmering in the light down of a defined chest; a knit cap above a square jaw.
Two guys stare each other down like gunslingers about to draw. I hear footsteps, glance behind me, see tousled hair, lips forming a soundless coo.
Come here often? A voice as serpentine as the fingers sliding through my bleach-blond dreadlocks. Snake Boy’s hand doesn’t stop at my shoulders, where my hair ends, but meanders around my messenger bag and then further down my back to where everything tingles. I suck in summer air, arch my back. His fingers burrow beneath my spiked belt and combat pants, snap the band of the neon yellow spandex shorts beneath.
Snake Boy leans in closer, till his chest hair tickles my back. I smell sandalwood and sweat. I turn toward him.
He’s asking if I like what I see by the way he tips his chin, the way he leans into a shard of that orange glow: stubbly cheeks, the tic-tac-toe of abs. He’s Middle Eastern, maybe Latino. Maybe both, but it’s never about where you’re coming from anyway, not out here.
His jeans are a fraying topographical map. I trace their contours, consider where we might go.
It’s never hard for me to get laid. I mean, I might gorge on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for breakfast and feel starved again before noon, but I stay as thin as a knife-blade. And I never tire of the prowling, any more than I would a fantastical, recurring dream, any more than the raccoon family I often encounter in the park would tire of their nocturnal foraging.
Snake Boy and I step off the path and back up against the rough bark of an oak. My hands glide across the sheen of his biceps. I lean in, exhale heat into his ear, massage it with my tongue. He purrs and then nibbles my pierced left nipple.
I unzip his jeans and he tugs down my combat pants, which land on the ground with a metallic thunk because of the spiked belt. His cock springs out and mine is still sheathed beneath the spandex until he reaches in and swings it around, my cock head brushing against the fabric for two seconds of too much sensation. And there’s that feeling of being naked outdoors in the summer, the languid swirl of air on skin, a reminder of the elemental dance in which two bodies in the dark play an almost insignificant part.
Snake Boy licks my neck, and maybe it’s just shadow play, but his lashes look as if he’d coated them with eyeliner.
Here, he says, breathe. He holds a small bottle to my nose. When I inhale, the pungent chemicals burn my nostrils, everything melts, and I’m just a flushed face and a beating heart. And a stiff cock. Which he slides a hand up and down. I’m jerking him off, too. With my other hand, I probe the almond buried behind his balls. I’m sucking his tongue and the whole world becomes a single heartbeat.
Suddenly everything turns bright white like the sun just pole-vaulted into Central Park. When my eyes flash open, I see that the light emanates from what must be an electric cop car, the kind with a silent engine. I yank my pants up as fast as I can. Way too fucking late. My hands shake. Red and blue lights flash behind the white. Snake Boy grabs my hand and says Run, and he runs and I stumble and then run. Next thing, sirens scream and hard-shelled feet clomp the earth behind us and our hands break apart so we can run faster—through brush, I feel stings, know my calves just got shredded, but it doesn’t even hurt; up over a steep knoll and slipping, tumbling down the other side; into more brush, Snake Boy’s still right in front of me. We’re long-stepping rock to rock along a creek and then running on the other side. We duck down into a gully. Angry voices, radio static, the crunch of foliage. These sounds get louder. And recede. My arteries throb, chest heaves, and Snake Boy has his hands on his knees as he draws in ragged breaths. We stay crouched for fifteen minutes until he says he knows a place where they won’t find us.
In 1999, when I was twenty-five and had just arrived in New York, I first stumbled into the Ramble. Since then, I’ve made it the finale to my evening commute. The Ramble is a micro-forest in the heart of Central Park. Paths grip cliffsides, double back, and meander along slopes. The dense brush and trees provide an infinite variety of alcoves. At its southernmost point, a cock-shaped peninsula projects into Azalea Pond, a topographical totem to the men who have been coming here for over a century. And still they come: uptown boys in do-rags, downtown artists in paint-spattered pants, married men from the Upper East Side. Just trees and rocks and sky and us.
And, obviously, cops. They patrol in vehicles or wear plainclothes to try to surprise us. Queers scatter under the beams of headlights or, after a big bust, line up in handcuffs.
It’s not like I wouldn’t have run. I just got totally startled. I mean, you should’ve seen what I did to the cops the month before I met Snake Boy. I’d just walked down the dirt path of the peninsula. At its proverbial head, a cop shined his flashlight in my face, deliberately blinding me.
Lose your dog? he asked.
I saw a poodle around here somewhere, his partner said.
I turned around to leave and they got into their souped-up golf carts and followed me, their headlights blazing on my backside. My face burned, not with shame but rage. I didn’t consider why I was trapped in their headlights and scorn, at least not that night. But who doesn’t know intuitively that authoritarianism, under the guise of public safety and moral decency, reigns throughout too much of the world? And of course quotas only make it worse.
The police and their lights and their scorn finally swerved away, and, as if I’d been rescued from icy waters, the night draped a blanket around my shoulders.
I remembered reading in The Earth First! Journal about a tactic that eco-warriors had used to save national forests from the jaws of timber corporations. They dragged fallen trees and other objects from the forest floor into the logging roads to create organic blockades. The feller bunchers and logging trucks that arrived the following morning wouldn’t be able to pass and would have to reverse direction back down the narrow roads; the forest lived another day.
What, really, is the difference between a cop in the Ramble and a timber corporation? Or, for that matter, the difference between the unruly roots of an oak and that which connected me to Snake Boy?
I began dragging rocks, branches, and decaying tree trunks into the paths. Some queers looked over at me with raised eyebrows or walked a wide U around my mounting fortifications.
We have to bash back, I said. Fuck Giuliani. My exhortations were accompanied by the sound of long branches splashing through fallen leaves.
A queen in a leather trench coat and a shaved head stopped and smiled. Girlfriend, she said, you bangin’ on the wasps’ nest tonight, ain’t you?
I prayed no undercovers would see or hear me, but I didn’t stop. Not until I’d erected three barricades along a path that was several feet wider than a car. Unplanned, these barricades went from smallest to tallest—the tallest stood at over eight feet (a dehydrated tree trunk with an umbrella of intact branches provided the base) and seventy-five yards behind it was the gazebo, the place the cops most love to surprise us—that’s where group scenes often happen.
Five minutes passed. Some cops in an electric car drove in to start another sweep of the area. They pulled up to the lowest of the barricades and…a crash, a scraping of rock and wood on metal.
Their lights started flashing and the vehicle remained stationary for a full minute before continuing forward. They were heading toward the next barricade.
Other queers stood in clumps, watching, waiting. Some of them snickered.
The cops hit the next barricade without seeing it, the sound of damage much louder. This time, the car didn’t move. Sirens blasted and they must’ve radioed for backup, because an SUV spun down another path, headed toward the gazebo, lights flashing. The driver slammed the brakes right before the third barricade.
Within five minutes, a sea of red and blue lights pulsed along the peripherals of the Ramble as dozens of backup units arrived, the usual, overzealous response to dissent in the city. Perhaps I’d acted selfishly—hadn’t I endangered others and been at least partially responsible for the tunicate that squeezed all pleasure from the park that night? But still, as I unchained my bike and pedaled away, sure by then that I wouldn’t get caught, I was all wicked laughter and no regrets.
I keep telling Snake Boy—actually, his name’s Ahmed—Thanks man, really, thanks so much, I just totally froze back there. He smiles and rubs my arm and says he’s more than delighted that we escaped. And what, I wonder, would a bust mean to him? Lost job? Deportation? Familial exile?
For a while, we stay in the matrix of shadows and trees. Luckily, so many guys are wandering down paths or moaning in the woods or standing there rubbing their crotches—we should be able to blend.