Bryan R. Monte
Harry and Me: The Honeymoon
I met Harry Britt on election night November 1982 at San Francisco City Hall. I had just taken part in a victory party crawl with members and officers of the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club. One of our stops had been to Democratic Party headquarters to congratulate Phil Burton on keeping his US congressional district seat. Burton had also been one of the first, major heterosexual politicians to appear with the Milk Club contingent earlier that summer in what was then called the annual Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade.
In the age just before personal computers, I watched as the vote was updated on chalkboards in the City Hall basement. Sister Boom Boom, who had run unsuccessfully for a SF City and County Supervisor’s seat, nevertheless attempted to enter City Hall triumphantly on the shoulders of her supporters. (Sister Boom Boom was from a gay male order of nuns called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who wore full, traditional black habits with white wimpels, but also extensive makeup such as white face paint, very long fake eyelashes and dark eye shadow). Unfortunately, Boom Boom’s veil got caught in the metal work above the door, so they had to wait a few moments to untangle her before her supporters performed some sort of street theatre accompanied by music from a boombox. Boom Boom’s campaign had included various colourful, attention getting stunts such as a poster of her riding a broom above the city hall dome whilst skywriting in pink smoke “Surrender Dianne” referring to both Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco and the Wicked Witch of the West’s warning to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She also rode in the lesbian & gay parade in a car with another slogan ‘Am I Supe Yet?’ echoing a popular, national soup TV advertisement slogan.
This was in stark contrast to a very calm Harry Britt who wore a Harris tweed jacket, a buttoned-down shirt, a tie, and dark trousers, and who watched quietly, leaning against a wall, at the updated race results. We’d been looking at each across the room at the Women’s Building at the Harvey Milk Gay Democrat Club’s monthly meetings since last spring, but this time Harry was just a few feet away and, for the first time, I felt a distinct physical attraction to him. I found Harry attractive because was tall (6’ 4”), had a broad chest, a slight Southern accent and a full head of brown, curly hair. From time to time, some news crew would switch on their camera lights and film as they asked Harry questions about how various races were developing.
In between interviews, Harry asked me what I did. I told him I was a Berkeley student. He asked if I was a polysci major. I told him I studied English and semiotic textual analysis. When he mentioned he had studied hermeneutics, he really got my interest. After most of the Democratic Party candidates’ winning results had come in, Harry and I rode with Russell Fields to the Elephant Walk, a gay bar at Castro and 18th Streets. There we met Tim Wolfred, who had won a seat on San Francisco’s Community College Board two years earlier, and Bill Kraus, Harry’s political advisor. We had to leave a half hour later, however, because the bar was closing. As we stood on the sidewalk, I told Harry I wanted to see him again. Without hesitating, Harry gave me his card. He told me to call on Friday, because he was leaving on a three-day trip to LA the next morning.
I called him on Friday and left a message with Harry’s secretary. Then I went for a walk. When I returned, I discovered Harry had called, but left a different number than the one at city hall. I rang it and this time Dana van Gorder, Harry’s aide, answered. He told me Harry had just gone to the store and would be back in about five minutes. Ten minutes later, I rang again.
‘Hi. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment for a few days. What are you doing this weekend?’
‘Nothing much,’ I said. Then after a brief conversation, he gave me the address of the flat for a date the next evening.
I took the bus over to Arguelo and California Streets, near the Presidio. When Harry opened the door, I was floored. To my surprise he’d slicked back his hair so his beautiful curls had been tamed into evenly-combed rows. What have you done to your hair? I thought. He looked more like a middle-aged, Sunday school teacher than the attractive, intellectual politician I’d just met.
After spending an hour or so talking, (Harry was probably screening me before we went out), we drove to a gay restaurant called the Fickle Fox at Cunningham Alley and Valencia Street, just a few blocks from where I lived.
The restaurant had a baffle just behind its front door, so people passing on the street couldn’t see in. Inside, the dimly-lit restaurant seemed to be a remnant from the 1950s with its red-flocked wallpaper, a miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David and porpoise fountain. It looked like the gay restaurant time had forgot. It was quiet, though, which helped calm my first-date nerves.
The waiters wore traditional white shirt and black trousers. They gave us gold tassled menus and asked if we wanted something to drink. When I asked for a soda, the waiter raised an eyebrow as if I might not be old enough for a place with a liquor licence. Harry said the sirloin was good, so that’s what I ordered. I hadn’t eaten sirloin since I had returned to college at Berkeley, more than a year and half ago. Money was always tight for me then. My most extravagant restaurant forays were limited to once a month lunches at La Fuenta’s on Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way where I ordered chicken and cheese flautas with a bean soup or salad and water for $4 on the rare days I’d forgot to make my lunch. It had been a long day and in addition to being nervous, I was tired, hungry, and afraid I might faint. However, I didn’t ask for coffee to stay awake or alcohol to relax because I wasn’t used to stimulants or intoxicants. (There had never been any coffee or alcohol in my family home). I knew that drinking alcohol to soothe my nerves would make me fall asleep. On the other hand, coffee would keep me awake all night. This complicated things either way because I had to get up the next morning at 6 a.m. for my weekend guard job at a senior citizens’ tower block in Oakland.
Harry observed me looking around uncomfortably and told me that even though the restaurant’s décor was dated, the food was good. He told me used to have lunch at the restaurant when he’d worked nearby first, as a mail carrier and later, in an office. Harry was right, and I enjoyed the dinner. Afterwards we drove down to Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoyed the view, until a lit cigarette, dropped from the fort above, fell onto the ground a few feet from us. Harry thought it would be best to leave before a brick came down on one of our heads.
During the next two and half weeks, Harry and I saw each other regularly at least at the weekend and sometimes once or twice during the week, usually after a Board of Supervisors meeting. The more I got to know him, the more I was attracted to him. Physically, he was the exact opposite of who I was. He was tall, broad and looked like he could take on anyone whereas I was so thin, friends joked that if I turned sideways, I disappeared. I frequently put on a coat and a hat before I went outside. Harry hardly ever wore more than his Harris tweed jacket. He didn’t seem to feel the cold fog as I did. He also bragged about winning at playing ‘King of the Hill’ on the dirt hill behind his Duke University fraternity house because he was: “bigger and stronger than anyone else.” Harry gave me a sense of security on the street. Alone and a skinny 5’ 8”, I bobbed and weaved to avoid the panhandlers and drug dealers between the 16th and Mission Bart station and my apartment at 20th and Guerrero. However, when Henry walked the same route with me, people gave us a wide berth and left us alone.
Once I even flinched when Harry went to put his arm around me on the #14 Mission Street bus on our way downtown. Instead of sitting in the front of the bus near the bus driver as I did, Harry sat in the last row right in the middle so everyone could see him. ‘What are you worried about?’ he protested. ‘Nobody is going to bother you—not with me.’
In addition to his physical strength and size, Harry wasn’t affected by bouts of illnesses or weakness as I was. These had begun the summer before my senior year in high school when I got scarlet fever. That fever left me weak and since then I had been afflicted by periodic, mysterious illnesses that would cause pain and then disappear after a month or two before the doctors could make a diagnosis. (This continued for the next 25 years until I was diagnosed at nearly 50 with MS). Due to my vacillating health, I worked and finished reading assignments and papers as soon as I got them because I never knew when I would be too tired or ill to study or to go to class. The week I met Harry, though, I was walking on air. I got a 90 on an English midterm and spoke with confidence in my literary criticism class. The next weekend, Harry and I went out to various gay bars, but ended up at Amelia’s, a lesbian bar, because the patrons left us alone so we could dance together.
Despite our physical and health-related differences, however, there many things we had in common. Harry was also a bibliophile and an intellectual. One of the things that won my heart was his city hall office bookshelves stacked to the ceiling with his own book collection, not just legal books. Another was that Harry had studied at Heidelberg University in Germany. I had worked in Hanover in 1978 for six months as a Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints service missionary, so we could compare notes on what we thought of Germany’s social, economic and transport systems.
However, even though I was happy to be dating Harry, I kept it a secret for as long as I could for three reasons. First, I wasn’t sure if our relationship and our attraction to each other would last (What’s Harry doing with a guy like me?). Second, I feared someone might intentionally try to break us up. Third, I was afraid of gossip and unwanted interest.
My secrecy, however, led to an embarrassing situation for my roommate, Rob, as he ran into Harry in the hall one night in his underwear on the way to the toilet. ‘You dog!’ he said the next morning after Harry had left. ‘Spill.’ I did share when and where we’d met and how long we had been going out, but not much more. Rob was a good roommate and he didn’t press me for more.
A few weeks later Harry and I spent Thanksgiving at Yosemite National Park as part of a Milk Club leaders’ campout. We stayed in a cabin heated by glowing-red coils behind metal screens powered by the nearby hydroelectric plant. It was the first holiday I celebrated in San Francisco with friends. It felt good as I got to know Harry better.
Then Harry left for a fundraising tour Back East. It is this tour that provides the first personal documents of our relationship, where I have words he wrote to accompany my memories. For about two weeks, Harry travelled from Montreal down the East Coast via Boston, Albany, New York City, Hoboken and Philadelphia (at least from what the cards and the postmarks record). Harry sent cards with series of teddybears dressed in various gay drag—leather, construction worker, hustler—probably purchased from a gay store in San Francisco or Montreal.
Harry’s written messages in these cards and their frequency (seven cards and one letter in two weeks) demonstrated his continued interest whilst on the road. From Boston, the second stop on his eight-city circuit, Harry sent a card with Sister Boom Boom being mounted by a giant stuffed panda bear on a wooden bench in Buena Vista Park. Inside Harry wrote that the trip was ‘barely tolerable’ only because ‘he would see me again at the end of it.’ He also wrote that he ‘really need(ed) to hold me.’ Hold is written three times over so it looks fuzzy. On his way to New York City, Harry regretted he didn’t have a photograph of me to show to people who seemed ‘happy I have a Bryan in my life.’
One day after Harry had been on the road for about two weeks, I lost my patience waiting for him to return. I telephoned Van Gorder, at city hall and asked him where Harry was. He told me he could not only pinpoint Harry on a map, but he could also give me a number where I could reach him at that moment. I dialled the number and got some guy with a Jersey accent, who quickly gave his name and the name of a restaurant. I asked for Harry and he put the phone down, during which I heard banging pots and pans, sizzling meat, and a swinging kitchen door. A minute later, Harry picked up the phone. ‘How did you find me?’ he asked. ‘I’m very smart, remember,’ I said. We talked for no more than five minutes, but it meant more to me than all the cards that he’d sent. He told me he’d be home in a just a few days. I hoped that was true.
The last written communication I had from Harry from the East Coast was a letter on Supervisor Harry Britt stationery headed “Wednesday night” in an envelope postmarked 9 Dec Philadelphia. He wrote that when I called I had reached him: ‘in a crowded clam house, … like Spengers in Berkeley’. He added: ‘knowing you cared enough to call was a big deal.’ He also reassured me that: ‘After Philadelphia, it’s Baltimore, Washington and home.’
Another reason Harry might have been feeling low and wanting to get home was because Mayor Dianne Feinstein had just vetoed his first domestic partnership legislation, which had been adopted and passed by the Board of Supervisors by an 8 to 3 vote the month before. With such a majority, Feinstein didn’t need to act on the bill for it to become law. However, she did, choosing to veto it. Harry telephoned from the University of Pennsylvania to tell me about the veto and the protest rally planned for the City Hall steps that evening. Harry said Feinstein had been pressured by Roman Catholic Archbishop John R. Quinn who was quoted in The New York Times on 10 December as saying that ‘domestic partnership…is injurious to our legal, cultural, moral and societal heritage.’ After talking to Harry, I went jogging and saw two protest notice signs taped to the walls of the Bank of America at Castro and Market and the Hibernia Bank at Castro and 18th. The one at B of A read: ‘Feinstein Betrayal / Protest Rally 5 O’Clock Tonight, City Hall.’ People were also passing out leaflets at the Castro Muni Metro Station that were printed so quickly that Feinstein’s name was misspelt as ‘Fenistein.’
That evening, 400 protestors gathered on City Hall’s Polk St. steps. Randy Stallings from the Alice B. Tolkas Democratic Club and Paul Boneberg from the Stonewall Democratic Club (the Milk Club’s two rivals) addressed the crowd. According to my journal, Boneberg said that Feinstein had finally shown her true colours and demonstrated she couldn’t be trusted by the gay community. I also recorded that he said he’d been in a relationship with his domestic partner longer than Feinstein had been with her current husband. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver said that Harry’s ordinance was not tearing at the seams of the social fabric, but rather reflected the reality of a society in which single parents were the heads of households. Boom Boom denied wanting to tear the social fabric by adding humorously: ‘we are (just) letting out the seams of the social fabric, so society can grow a little.’
After the rally, one of the sister’s cornered me saying she’d heard Harry was a real dud in bed. I looked up at the bearded man in a full black nun habit and white face makeup and said: ‘That’s not been my experience.’
Whilst I was anxiously waiting for Harry to come home, I wrote the poem: ‘To Harry in Hope of your Speedy Return’ with its nightmarish, anti-ascension ending.
nor which hotel room bed holds you between its sheets
like a business letter slid into an envelope
But cards sent to mark your departure
sit like phantom songsters in my mailbox
and whisper at my neck and ears like cologne
against the dirty tread of faces and voices on the subway
that smudge the (memory) slight weight(lessness) of
your arm against my shoulder.
The postmarks read: Montreal Boston
a map of the places you no longer are
your handwriting as if at sea
or on a commuter train
the h’s falling back on themselves
the t’s crossed lower and lower.
And I sleep in a tangle of sheets
running through a landscape of too much sun and sky
the ground disappearing beneath my feet
as I become weightless
not sprouting wings or fins
to swim through these deep skies
but floating higher and higher past the clouds
suffocating in the thinning air.
(Thom Gunn, my poetry instructor at Berkeley from the year before, commented a few years later that this poem reminded him of Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Boat Man Wife’s Letter.’)
After returning to San Francisco in the second week of December, Harry and I had another two and half weeks together before he left for Texas to see his mother who was having health problems. Since I had moved to San Francisco, I had always wanted to spend Christmas and New Year’s with a partner (instead of alone as I had my first two years in San Francisco), but I also understood why Harry had to go. (This would be his second of three absences during our first four months together. The third was a journey to Australia as the headliner of the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in mid-February 1983.)
Harry tried to make up for his Christmas absence by buying me three gifts—two practical and one extravagant. The practical ones were a purple and pink, thick terry-cloth robe from Joseph’s near Polk Street and a white comforter decorated with yellow, red and blue tulips, (which I still have), to keep me warm in my then cold flat. Either from earthquake settling or poor construction, none of my flat’s windows closed completely, so wood wedges and/or rags were pushed into the open corners to keep out the draft. In addition, my flat didn’t have heating.
The extravagant gift was a large box of Godiva chocolates. My roommate wasn’t as impressed with the gifts. ‘He’s treating you like a like a hausfrau’, Rob snapped. Then he went back East for the holidays so I was home alone.
I tried to keep myself busy with more guard or temporary office work (I worked Christmas and New Year’s and kept the television and radio off as Steve Abbott had told me, the year before, to avoid hearing Christmas music). I comforted myself by saying the extra workdays were a good way to take care of my precarious financial situation and to stay out of trouble.
So I stayed home and read ahead in my course syllabi and interviewed Steve Abbott and Steve Benson for material for my Berkeley honour’s thesis. I attended Christmas Anonymous at John Norton’s house in Pacific Heights and saw Steve there but had just missed Harold Norse, who had left early wanting to be home before dark.
Sometime after New Year’s, I finally got to see Harry’s place in the Nob Hill District on Sutter or Pine. Before he took me there, however, he told me that until recently he’d shared a house with some men on 16th Street between Market and Castro. He said he had liked that place, but for some reason, the household had disbanded and Harry had had to move. Through a friend he’d got his present flat, which was just temporary. His friend was going to renovate the caretaker’s quarters in the building’s basement for him.
Harry opened the door to a small, three-room studio apartment, with a living room/bedroom straight ahead and a bath and a kitchen on the right and left respectively. Harry’s flat also had extension cords running from the living room to the kitchen to provide power for a refrigerator, a Dutch oven and a hot plate on the kitchen counter. The kitchen had a large, gas stove that took up a lot of space. There was also a wobbly, wooden bookshelf blocking most of the kitchen window. The shelves held a motley collection of cast iron skillets, pans, pots, and silverware, community award plaques and trophies, and books including James Joyce’s Steven Hero and Maurice Eliade’s Shamanism.
Most men would have run once they discovered Harry’s living situation, since happiness, in even then in high-priced San Francisco, required three “R’s”—romance, rings and real estate. However, Harry’s “bohemian” apartment didn’t put me off. I was in love with him and also lived simply and economically. I drank out of recycled jam jars and bought second-hand clothes and housewares. Occasionally I adopted furniture—night tables, chairs, etc.—abandoned on the street—for my own flat. So the things Harry owned didn’t matter to me; what he was doing with his life did. I also knew that City Supervisors then made around 10K a year and were expected to have second jobs as the source of their real income. Harry, however, devoted most of his time to his constituents. I found that admirable.
I slept over that first night and found his flat warm and comfortable. Within a month, we had exchanged keys. We also made sure we coordinated when and where we were going to sleep together. In the era before cell phones, one evening we ended up sleeping at the other’s flat the entire night—alone.
Usually Henry or I would arrive at the other’s flat late at night, startling the other awake, but then receiving a warm welcome nonetheless. At my flat, Harry usually let himself in after a late night political meeting. At Harry’s, I usually arrived at 2.30 a.m. after spending the evening typing my honour’s thesis at Harry’s office on an IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter (the closest thing there was to a PC in those days). I’d find Harry asleep with the television on. One of the things I looked forward to, no matter where we were together, was going to bed and putting my head on Harry’s barrel chest after which I almost immediately fell asleep and wouldn’t wake until he got up the next morning.
After living in my shared flat for about four months, Rob announced one day that he was moving in with his boyfriend in Oakland. I was flabbergasted. Having lived four different places in one year, I was not about to move to a fifth. I decided to remain in my present flat as long as the landlord promised not to raise the rent. Then, I began to interview flatmates via a listing at Community Rentals on Castro Street through whom I had found my shared flat. The first guy came to his interview with a tall can of beer wrapped in a paper sack. The second, who was younger than me, wore very tight jeans. Less than a few minutes into his interview, he let me know that if he was ever short on the rent, I could take out the difference in sex! The next interviewees must not have been much better. That weekend I decided to keep the apartment and, for a time, not look for a roommate. I was worn out from nearly two years of working two or three jobs while attending university with little time for breaks or holidays. I was tired of choosing between buying groceries or textbooks or about paying tuition or rent. I decided to drop out of Berkeley for a quarter and work full-time to build up my savings and keep my flat.
When Harry and I got together that weekend, I told him my plan. He didn’t say anything then, but the next time we talked on the phone, he said he didn’t want me to drop out. ‘I’ll move in,’ Harry said. ‘You shouldn’t drop out, because sometimes it’s very hard to go back.’ I didn’t agree with Harry right away. I wasn’t sure it would be good for us to rush into living together. I mentioned this to my gay friends who knew about our relationship.
‘Six months!’ Rob said. ‘That’s the equivalent of six years in straight relationships.’ Other gay friends, who knew Harry and me, echoed this sentiment. So I told Harry I would like him to move in.
Harry and I spent five evenings the last week of April moving his belongings out of his apartment and from his building’s basement, where more of his things were stored, into my flat. Whilst he was moving one box, a copy of St. Anselm’s Proslogion split out onto the dusty cement floor along with past issues of the Gay Atheist Newsletter. I was not disturbed by this philosophical contradiction, but rather thought it was the stuff of T. S. Eliot’s negative capability and another indication of Harry’s voracious reading habit.
The first few months, having Harry as a roommate gave me the social, economic and emotional stability I had never known before in San Francisco. It was comforting to have Harry as a roommate because we agreed on bill paying and apartment cleaning. Rent and utilities were split down the middle and we bought and prepared most of our own meals separately because we were hardly ever home together for dinner. If we thought something needed cleaning—the toilet, bath, kitchen—and we had the time, then we cleaned it. There were no long, drawn out discussions, no weekly rotas of what needed to be done and when. In addition, sometimes when we went to the supermarket, we bought things for each other—ground beef and lettuce for me, popcorn and oil for Harry—if we saw the other needed it. Finally, neither Harry nor I used non-prescription or recreational drugs. Many of my past roommates had been addicted to marijuana or other substances, one of the reasons they had moved to San Francisco. Harry and I didn’t use any and we rarely had a guest who did. (The one exception to this, our first months together, was when I came home after unknowingly eating two, mushroom-laced brownies at a Channel Magazine reading at Newspace, which I described in detail in my Steve Abbott memoir. Harry, to his credit, lay down next to me on the bed and kept me calm through the night as non-existent green, gold and purple comets shot across the bedroom ceiling).
In early May, I went to the UC Berkeley administration to see how many more quarters I had to go before graduating. I was finishing up two incompletes in a William Carlos Williams course and in a Latin language class due to an operation the previous year. I learned I still needed to complete a freshman science requirement.
‘What about the physical anthropology course I took at Bryn Mawr while at Haverford, where I measured cranial capacities of humanoid skulls and sketched strata in rock beds?’ I asked. The woman at the administration counter told me that might qualify, but I would need to get the course description from the college and it would need to clearly indicate that my year of anthropology had included a full semester of physical anthropology. I called Bryn Mawr the next day to request the courses’ curricula. A week or two later I received them and I went to Berkeley to deliver them personally. I met with another administration clerk who said she needed to check with her boss. I waited in the office for about twenty minutes. Then, the next thing I knew the door opened and the woman happily announced: ‘You’re graduating in June. Congratulations! Go down to the ASUC and get measured for your gown.’ I couldn’t believe her words. I was in shock all the way down the hill to the student centre and during my fitting.
A month later my mother flew in from Ohio to watch with Harry as I walked across the ASUC auditorium stage. As I received my diploma, I turned to the audience and called out both their names to thank them, causing the audience to laugh. My mother took a photo of that moment and also of Harry and I standing down the road from the Berkeley Campanile and in our flat’s living room. It was my happiest time in San Francisco.