Wagging Tails at Taliesin West

I don’t have much scheduled in Phoenix after my time at St. Mary’s Food Bank and know little about the city.  To find activities, I Google search “Top 10 Things To Do in Phoenix.”  On the fourth page of the list on some website, I spy a short blurb about Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright estate to the North of here.  I have never visited a Wright house – and love the Guggenheim in NYC – so figure it would be worth a trip.

Taliesin West in the Hills

I arrive in the late afternoon, intent on capturing the right light in photos.  Tours are required; no one is allowed to wander around the home unescorted.  A Brooklyn native working the ticket counter assumes I am with the man in front of me and offers two options. “You can take a 90-minute Highlights tour leaving in 5 minutes or a 60-minute tour leaving in 45 minutes.”  It’s a no brainer. Both the man in front of me and I take the earlier tour.

We each reach for our wallets.  He buys two tickets with an American Express Black Card.  When I try to pay for my own ticket, the woman comments, “Oh, you’re not TOGETHER?”  Her NY accent dominates the area.  “No,” I say, “I’m single.”  The other man laughs and walks over to his boyfriend who glares at me.  I cup my own credit card to prevent the men from seeing it and pay for my single ticket.

Taliesin West Courtyard

Carol, a goofy, brown-haired tour guide, invites “all red tickets” to join her in the courtyard.  I like her instantly and she brings Taliesin to life.  Outside, Carol introduces us to the “Phoenix landscape.”  It seems an odd place to start but makes sense soon as I realize that FLW buildings are all about context.  “Notice the hills around the house,” Carol says.  “Frank would never build on top of a hill because it would obscure, well, the hill.”  The main feature in Taliesin, based on the surrounding mountains, is a triangle.  It’s a shape, and non-shape, I might add, that repeats over and over in the structures here.

Mr. Black Card smiles and makes several comments to me about the architecture (“nice chair; it’s actually comfortable”) before introducing himself as Dave.  He and his “partner” are visiting from the UK for a Thunderbird B-School reunion in the area.  The boyfriend, also an amateur photographer, keeps his distance – and a close eye.  It’s a funny juxtaposition: Dave seems to be wagging his tail, the BF seems to be showing his teeth.

The tour enters Wright’s office where he drew and presented work.  Carol clears up any confusion about FLW’s height.  “The average height of a man back then was 5’7”, Frank was 5’8”, so he was actually tall for his generation.”  It’s one of those bits of information that adds to the experience and explains why the building’s clearance is low, and the chairs sit so close to the ground.  I try different seats along the way to get the full experience; some are quite comfortable.

Taliesin Chairs from Above

Next, we enter the entertaining room. “Mr. Wright and his wife had connections to Hollywood and often watched unedited movies sent up from friends,” Carol notes.  “His wife said that Frank would watch just about anything.”  Walking through the concrete tomb of an entertaining room, Dave comments, “It feels like I could build this myself.”  And, in a way, it does.  Taliesin makes modern architecture look years ahead, but also out of context and sterile.

The tour ends.  I thank Carol and say goodbye to Dave and his boyfriend, who smiles tightly at me, then looks me up and down before walking away.  I don’t dare suggest the three of us get together for drinks or dinner.  In the end, Taliesin reminds me to pay attention to the context, not only physical, but also situational.  I guess if I had a boyfriend with a Black Card, I might also squint tightly at the single dudes.

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My Book of Mormon, Part 4: Sacrament

Sunday Morning.  Salt Lake City, UT.  I wake late and stumble around the hotel room searching for clothes.  Fuck, no time for Starbucks.  My plan is to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir followed by Sunday Sacrament at the ward Sister Steigelmeier suggested.  “They’ll know you’re not from here anyway,” repeats in my head as I pull on my Sunday best: dark jeans, a blue and white plaid shirt, and grey and orange New Balance sneakers.  I look like some sort of gay lumberjack.  “I hope I won’t stand out too much,” I think to myself as I speed walk towards Temple Square.

Inside the Tabernacle

Arriving at the Tabernacle, a blue starch-suit woman with black and white name tag stops me: “no backpacks,” she says.

“But it has my laptop and camera equipment,” I whine, “where am I supposed to leave it?”

“Bag check,” she points back the way I came.

“Look at her,” I argue pointing at a woman with suitcase-sized tote, “her handbag is bigger than mine.”

“No backpacks,” the starch-suit holds my gaze.

I squint at her, then walk the other way.  When I return she catches me again “I’m sorry about that, I realize your bag is smaller than many of the ladies’; it’s just we were told ‘no backpacks.’”

“It’s OK,” I joke, “just sexist.”  She smiles awkwardly.

Inside, I sit next to an older woman who recently lost her husband to a motorcycle accident; it’s still painful, I can tell.  She is about to embark on a mission, which, as a convert, she didn’t do in her youth.  She is excited I have come to check out the church.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for here,” she says.  After a brief pause, she asks “are you married?”

“No,” I reply wondering if ‘gay lumberjack’ is an accepted LDS look.

A smile crosses her face, “well, you should definitely stick around, we have many fine, young, eligible girls from all over the world here.”

I look at her twice – is she offering me women, I wonder – then just smile.

Awaiting our Exit - Tabernacle

The Tabernacle building is beautiful and the choir is amazing, if not slightly traditional for my taste.  After the program, I say goodbye to my neighbor and exit the building where I am greeted by a slew of young, beautiful women from all over the world; just as predicted!  They hold signs indicating their language of origin – Deutsche, Cantonese, Spanish, Armenian.    The hostesses offer to provide more information about Mormonism.  If I were a different kind of man in another lifetime, I might take them up on their offer.  But, I need coffee and breakfast.

Across from Temple Square I find a cheap all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, where I eat, uh, all I can.  The French toast causes bloating and gas, which makes my jeans tighter than when I left the hotel.  Now, I’m a gay lumberjack in skin tight jeans.  No time to change – it’s off to Sacrament.

Finding my way into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where the service is held, proves challenging.  I try three entrances, all of which were open yesterday, then decide to follow a young Mormon family.  Gaining access, a guard sitting in a lounge chair stops me: “May I help you?”  I watch as others in their Sunday best walk past unimpeded, “I’m here for the service at 11.”  “Proceed,” he says.

I don’t find Sister Steigelmeier, but sit next to a woman who, noting my camera, says “you can sit here if you don’t take my picture.”  I don’t want to anyway, I think to myself, then say “no problem, I’ll put it away.”  Ms. Camera Shy and I will become close friends over the next hour as she takes it upon herself to translate the service.  I scribble questions on the program and she writes answers.  We go back and forth like this for the entire Sacrament.

Books of Mormon

Mary – I learn her name later – points out every inside joke during the service, of which there are many.  “He’s a pilot,” she whispers after one speaker jokes about the safety procedure on a plane ride.  “He’s from North Carolina,” she notes in a hushed voice after another man jokes about the previous speaker’s mission.  I experience the same feeling as in the bar the previous night when I realize that everyone in the room know’s each other and likely knows I am from out of town.

At the end of Sacrament, Mary asks if I have any questions. I do and she sits with me for thirty minutes answering them. Before I leave, Mary finds the a Ward officer and tracks down a Book of Mormon.  Handing it to me, she says “I hope you enjoy this and find what you are looking for here.”  “Thank you,” I say as I leave her, Temple Square and the Mormons.

My Book of Mormon, Part 3: Excommunication

Saturday Night.  Salt Lake City, UT.  After a long day visiting the Mormons and Temple Square, I’m curious to experience this town after dark, to see the other side that I know is there . . . . and I am interested to get the ‘gay perspective’ on the church.  I Facebook a friend who used to live here: “any suggestions on places to eat?”  He recommends a vegetarian restaurant that happens to be within walking distance of the hotel.  I set out on foot.

Wide Avenues, SLC

This is a driving town, not a walking one, which is demonstrated by the fact that the streets are wide – wider than I have seen in other municipalities – and laid out in an almost perfect grid.  Along the way, other people smile and say “hi.”  It catches me off guard being from NYC; I guess that with fewer people on the streets it’s better to be friendly than not.  The restaurant friend suggests is no longer in business, but I notice an interesting spot on the opposite corner: Sapa.

Unfortunately it’s too cold to eat on the back patio – a reincarnation of a Thai palace, complete with small wooden huts, buddhist statues and bamboo.  The woman seating me seems surprised that I don’t want to sit at the sushi bar – I prefer to dine on the main floor where I can breath in the atmosphere and people-watch.  I order their homemade Gyoza and the veggie Chapchae dish.  They are both delicious, especially the Gyoza.

Mentally, I divide the patrons into two groups – those with cocktails I assume are not Mormon, those with only water are; it appears to be a 50/50 split.  I spy an obviously gay guy working in the back.  Walking up and glancing sideways, I ask “are you family?” in a hushed voice.  It’s the secret gay handshake that allows us to identify one another in strange towns.  “Yes, honey.  What’s up?” he responds quickly.  I wonder if he is snorting cocaine.  “Where’s a good place to go out tonight?” I ask.

Street Art, SLC

Taking me by the hand he leads me through the restaurant to the entrance where he locates Q Salt Lake, the gay newspaper.  Thumbing through he talks to himself and me at the same time: “I know it’s here somewhere.”  Flip, flip, flip go the pages, which all seem to scream “gay this!” or “gay that!”   A group of six pink-cheeked Utahans walk in, looking both me and him up and down.  “No, that’s the bathhouse – do you just want to get laid or actually go to a bar?” he asks.  “A bar,” I reply.  One of the guys waiting with his group smiles at me.  I look at the floor.  Mr. Fabulous gives me two recommendations; one is within walking distance.

TryAngles is one of the few bars in the city that remains a private club.  These clubs are how bars got around the Utah prohibition laws, which only two years ago were abolished.  It’s an unassuming saloon with parking lot and entrance in the, uh, rear.  I pay the $2.00 membership fee, find the bar, and order my standard mocktail: cranberry and soda with a lime.  The waiter shakes his hand when I offer to pay; the man behind me in line comments that I must be from out of town.  I smile.

I find a position from where I can observe the room.  Only it’s not long before I notice that I am the one on display.  The men in the room are staring at me, hard.  It’s like I have arrived on the set of the Twilight Zone; their stares make me somewhat uncomfortable.  Are they judging or cruising?  Probably both.

Downtown SLC

I reposition myself in another area.  Guys look me up and down and then whisper to one another.  I make up things in my head about what they are saying.  Then, standing near the pool table, which not in use tonight, I start to laugh.  It’s one of those uncomfortable, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening, laughs.  I walk away to recompose, performing a mine face-swoosh with my hand, then decide to break the ice by walking up to one of the main stare-ers.

He’s a little drunk – beer glasses in this bar are – comically – the size of footballs.  The men hold them and look almost like children with play steins in their hands.  We exchange niceties then he asks me “you in town for business?”

“No,” I say, “here to check out the Mormon church.”

A lopsided smile crossed his face as he asks “why would you do that?”

“I want to move out of my comfort zone,” I reply.

“I’m not LDS, but my roommate is,” he says pointing to a drunker dude next to him, who leans, err falls, into me.

The roommate’s story is touching and I am taken aback by what I hear.  He grew up in the Mormon church and, like many young LDS’s, served the organization and even went on a mission.  When they found out he is gay 12 years ago the church excommunicated him.  He says “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” but the expression on his face betrays other feelings.

“They threw you out just for being gay?” I ask.

“No, they threw me out because I don’t want to change who I am – they will allow you to stay if you’re willing to be reformed,” he says.

“Reformed?” I ask.

“Yeah, you know, reprogrammed.  You have to give up any gay friends and they will set you up with someone who will check on you to make sure you are staying on the straight and narrow,” he says putting air quotes around “straight and narrow.”

A moment passes while I digest this information.  The he says, “I am happy with who I am – with being gay – I don’t need the church in my life.”

As the evening progresses, I learn that many of the gay men I meet have either been excommunicated or simply drifted away because of the church’s anti-gay stance.  It seems to be a common point of pain that they are distanced from both their family and community.  Mormons are incredibly close-knit and to be on the outside of that is hurtful.  The pain of trying to live a lie of who they are, however, is greater.  These are, it seems, men in limbo.

I get the sense that if the church were to change it’s stance that these guys would return and become active and valued members.  In the meantime, they have found their own zion in a close-knit, imperfect community around a pool table in this private club within walking distance of the Mormon Temple.  I leave the bar, alone, well after 12am and well after my bedtime.

To be continued . . .