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Late-night quests for lust—and love—in Malcolm X Park

Photographs by Charles Steck

My First nocturnal visit to Malcolm X Park, that shadowy, moonlit haven situated between Euclid and W, and 15th and 16th Streets NW, took place five years ago, when I was 20.

I had heard many warnings and cautionary tales about this fragrant secret garden from friends and college advisers alike:

“Man, don’t get caught in Malcolm X after 10, Shawty! That’s when the freaks come out!”

“Students, in the backs of your orientation binders you will find a list of hazardous sites surrounding the school’s properties and buildings…”

“Y’all heard about the girl who had a train run on her in Malcolm X. I heard it was four or Þve dudes who straight ‘curried that girl…”

This couldn’t be the same park where I went on Sundays to jog or to hear the djembe, conga, and talking drummers play. Were they really talking about the park with the huge fountain, the one where the Mount Pleasant abuelas paraded their tricycling grandchildren like show ponies, where the men gathered to play soccer or chess? The former private garden of John Quincy Adams, encampment of Civil War Union troops, semiprecious jewel—listed by its official name: Meridian Hill Park—in the crown of the National Park

Service?

The answers could be found everywhere I roamed that first humid and curious night. Outcasts and chameleons leaned coolly into the corners on the park’s upper level; they crouched tight against the railings of the landings alongside the fountain; and if, in the enveloping darkness, you strained your eyes’ focus, you could make out their juxtaposed bodies down in the garden’s valley. On all sides of me were men gathered or alone, strolling or walking briskly as if late for an appointment, only to reappear minutes later on the opposite side of the grand fountain, as would a shark or vulture tightening its circle around tempting prey.

Truth be told, I checked my watch to make sure it was really 11 p.m. and not 6 p.m. Did this many people hang out in a moonlit park this late at night, even if it was a Saturday in the middle of summer? I pulled the bill of my dark baseball cap farther down my forehead to ensure my anonymity. After all, I reminded myself, I have only come to watch. I had to know if any of the strangely arousing urban legends I had heard about this infamous place—stories that portrayed it as a rare haven where gay black men could search each other out—were true.

The first approach came just five minutes into my cruise along a broad walkway.

“‘Sup, young?” slurred a gravelly voice from the shadow of an oak. He was young like me—his Nikes and peach-fuzz goatee gave him away. His sagging CK denims, cut off at the shins, exposed striped boxers, and his black sleeveless T-shirt boldly asked the question “You Down With O.P.P.?”

“Yeah, B. Wassup?” I responded, in my toughest urban brogue.

“What are you trying to get into?” he asked. I knew exactly what he meant, but did not immediately respond. This only happened in really bad pornos, right?

“Nothing, yo. I’m just chilling,” I said. He had the whitest teeth, smooth skin the color of wet sand…

“Nah, nigga,” he hissed from behind that damn toothy grin. “What you doin’ out this time of night if all you doin’ is chillin’?” He slid his hand into his pocket and made no secret of his long, deliberate strokes.

Here, I remember him motioning me to follow him down into the valley. I remember that we scaled a stone wall, stooping as we walked between the brush of a gardenia and hibiscus bushes. I remember a clearing in these bushes with low, scooping branches that

created natural benches. I remember the half moon, and I remember that we ravaged each other that night. I never saw him again, never knew his name.

I’ve irregularly cruised this park since those college days, and I’m now into my professional years. At times, I go stoned, drunk, or aroused with specific objectives in mind: oral sex, voyeurism, conversation. Other times, I go with friends to see who can catch the best “date.” We synchronize watches, check cell-phone batts, and confirm Plans B and C should Plan A fail—or, rather, should any of us not make it back to our designated rendezvous point at the end of the cruise. On these nights, it’s fun to walk the walks. There is a load lifted when you’re accompanied by cohorts: Security risks are minimized, and you do not feel alone.

Unfortunately, these nights are rare, for very few of my boys share my enthusiasm for outdoor casual sex. The occasional crack smoker or deranged derelict who drifts into the park for shelter reminds all of us of the dangers involved should we decide to venture deeper into the world of midnight cruising. And it is here that my struggle resides. Half of me enjoys the after-dark activities. That self appreciates the possibility of meeting my soul mate by moonlight in a formal garden, imagines the love story’s valiant hero fending off evildoers and whisking me away in his white Land Rover.

Then there is my earthbound muse, who fears for both my safety and my sanity, who is not nearly as confused on the issue as his host is. “What in Dante’s hell are you doing? Get out of this devil’s den while you still are ahead!” the latter self insists.

The moon is full, and this endless day is the longest of 2000. Tomorrow, I will begin my first vacation in three years. What to do? Stop by the park. Living a five-minute walk away, I do not need to drive. I begin my ritual by separating office, car, and house keys, pocketing only the last. I then dig through my mahogany dresser for loose-fitting, easy-access clothing. A low-slung cap completes the ensemble. I retrieve three or four roaches from my Felix the Cat ashtray and roll a thin, anemic J. A pat of my Ecko T-shirt’s breast pocket confirms that I have not forgotten my lighter and squares, and I walk out onto the street. My route from my building to Malcolm X leads me south down 15th Street.

As usual, I ignore the warped and faded signs that greet you at the 15th Street north entrance. Instead, I choose to marvel at the century-old trees that stand as would a congregation of women waiting riverside for a baptism. This is the allure of the place, the sense of patience that the natural elements exude here. And I will need to extract patience like sap from the trees because tonight it is Wednesday, the hump of the workweek, and not many have come out.

The most shocking discovery I have made—having cruised here for the last five years—is the diversity of professions that the midnight inhabitants represent. There are construction workers, checkout clerks, lawyers, the day trader, the DJ, the Supreme Court clerk, the bartender, the preacher, the congressman (not a real congressman, but a fancy word for drug dealer), barbers, the ER nurse.

There is even the legendary Park Service officer with the “really blue eyes” who, I hear, if given some decent head, will save you from taking a trip down to jail. The Park Service officers enforce the law on Meridian Hill, driving their cruisers onto the grounds along one of the upper-level walkways, or up and down 15th and 16th Streets panning searchlights across the brush to see who and/or what might be hidden away in there. This decidedly Orwellian procedure is used to strike fear into the hearts of those bold enough to get busy on public property. Unless it is midnight, the time when the park is officially closed, the searchlights have about as much effect on visitors as a camper’s scowl on a hungry grizzly bear.

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There are no officers to be found on this warm solstice, and very few shadow-walkers populate the formal garden. Then, as if on cue, he appears. He is attractive. Indeed, his muscles are well-defined—he has what black gay culture would call “wounds”—his athletic gear is fitted and iridescent, and his demeanor suggests someone who is not wanting for much in life. His confident posturing is one of the many unspoken rules self-imposed and enforced by cruisers. Poker faces are necessary commodities in the Secret Garden. Night vision as sharp as a puma’s is crucial as well. Time and space do not permit me to share the many conversations I’ve had using eyesight alone. I size up the ghetto-fabulous feline and decide to seduce him.

Speaking first, I ask, “‘Sup, player?”

“What’s up, dude?” he answers. “Just hanging out.”

“Word, word. Yeah, thought I’d come out myself, and get some air. How ’bout yourself?”

“Just trying to get some—”

“Some what?” I interject. This is always when the earthbound muse shows up. Poof! It materializes, and all of that Oprah-Remembering-Your-Spirit-ABC-AfterSchool-Special-Inner-Soul shit begins.

“Well, I just met you, man,” he says. “How we supposed to do this?”

This banter continues for some time. Although we find each other attractive, and would not mind taking a stroll together, we decide it is best that we do not hook up. Our rhythms are off, and things seem too forced.

It will not be obvious to me until I return home that what he sees is not undesirable, but rather a soul who’s lonely and impatient. Admittedly, I am horny. I am not even sure as to why I about-face and begin retracing my steps back home. I only know that on this night I will not defile a riverbank of sisters waiting to trouble the waters.

Home again, I sink into my favorite chair. The light from the ceiling fixture casts my inescapable reflection onto the bay window. I ask myself: Why all of this lurking? Why risk life and liberty for some bush head? I begin to review the chronology of

this fetish.

I have always enjoyed emotionless sex. No meetings over coffee, no dinner, no names even. Just the sex, please. My attitude toward homosexuality used to be nonexistent. Homoeroticism was something others acted out, a peculiar star I left burning out in the far reaches of my mind. Most of American culture, every level of education along with its institutions, unabashedly promotes heterosexual values. Aside from the prerequisite shower-room peeks and the two bold androgynous cross-dressers on my college campus, I was left with little more than that distant burning star and discounted gay Puerto Rican pornographic contraband to help sort out my true self.

But the lurking? Easier asked than answered. It is difficult to meet men, black or otherwise, “in the life,” anywhere. This is not the only reason I visit the park, nor do I use this as my sole justification for what happens while I am there. Washington, however, can be a tough town to play in. I do not enjoy the gay bars and clubs, because young black men there are often considered hustlers and thieves no matter how smart the tie is tied, or how Italian the cut of the shoe. This ignorance often leads to comical and downright racist treatment in these establishments, most of which are located in the Dupont Circle part of town. There are black clubs, but they offer little remedy for what’s ailing me. Unlike centrally located Dupont Circle clubs, many black clubs are on the outskirts of town and are difficult to travel to, or come home from if you have been drinking—unlike the Dupont clubs, whose endless stream of taxis keeps this lily-white-owned Oz teeming with patrons. Even at the one or two accessible black clubs, too often I find myself engulfed in dialogue with men several years my senior who wax poetic about the “way it was.”

To say that a racial divide does not exist in the gay community is to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to an issue that has been a sore spot for years. One need only look back on last April’s Millennium March on Washington for further evidence of this chasm. The march’s board, participants, and platform were overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, with a few token minority and fringe groups sprinkled about the event to satisfy the organizers’ collective WASP guilt. Blacks and whites in the District unofficially even have separate Prides, the annual events held by gays worldwide to unify their local community ties. Tell me, how can an army defeat its enemy when it is forced into battle with segregated pride?

In Meridian Hill Park, however, there is no hovering pretentiousness when standing beneath the towering statue of James Buchanan seated on his God-stool in the garden’s valley. Every man knows every other man’s intentions, or at least has a pretty good idea. The fear of being assaulted by a black brute is something of a moot point, because 90 to 95 percent of the men cruising are the dreaded exotic primitive. There is no drink minimum, no cover charge, no cramped parlor space with intrusive video screens hurling Donna Summer, a Day-Glo-painted Cher in headdress, or any other type of eye candy at you 40 frames per second. Here in the park, there are only stars, and bigger stars, and cranberry-colored crape myrtle, and benches where blossoms and seeds fall into your lap, and tall trees with deep roots. There are quiet conversations beneath a watchful bronze Dante; there’s the soothing sound of a fountain running over. This bucolic hideaway allows brothers to act like brothers, to wallow in this uncommon fraternity.

The problems arise when our sensitivities fail to coincide with our common sense. I am guilty of having unsafe sex at Malcolm X Park. More often than not, I come first and worry about safety later. “He was clean,” I think. “He’s a restaurant manager….” The risks involved are as intoxicating as the act itself.

To the sensible reader who has never been to this park late into the night, this must all sound tragically dangerous. One need only read the stats dropped annually by the Centers for Disease Control to fully grasp the horror being courted. Cruisers are fully aware of these risks, but, of course, they often ignore them in favor of the quick-fix euphoria experienced after a successful cruise. For there are no strings attached to these encounters, no awkward moments afterward; the old rules no longer apply, cannot apply. After you have ejaculated, you wonder if this could have been done in private quarters, if these personal acts could have remained classified.

But as quickly as these thoughts flash through your head, they are walking away from you, like your momentary beau. There are times you hope never to see him again. There are other times when you want to take him home in a jar like a genie, or download the hottie onto your hard drive. Enter the impetus for my endless loneliness: This inability to close the deal, to make something happen—one way or the other—is the reason I return to Malcolm’s Garden time and time again. Lurking.

But to say that the only thing that occurs in the park during the wee hours of the morning is rough jungle sex is to discredit the power and therapeutic majesty of the place. Even if you have come for sexual promiscuity, there are times you find yourself entrenched in conversations about everything from “the silence of God being God” to how to open a bottle of sauvignon blanc without a corkscrew. I’ve gotten advice from would-be lovers on the current state of the Union, the best lube, and even how to deal with a micromanaging parent. I’ve given good advice, too: I helped change the mind of someone contemplating suicide, and I’ve shown newcomers where the best clearings are hidden to avoid detection by police or the inhabitants of houses and apartment buildings surrounding the park.

These conversations bring me back to the park as much as the free love. They are evidence that, if given an accessible, open platform, cruisers would gladly trade in these late-night liaisons for something more indoors and intimate. We are Langston Hughes’ “forgotten brother,” sent into the kitchen by our employers “when company comes.” We are the fraternity within the fraternity whose invisibility drives us to the sanctuary of night, to a city block figuratively and legally owned and operated by us, the forgotten people.

I have not returned to Malcolm X at night since the summer solstice, when my earthbound muse chased me home. I discovered after an irritating rash and unseasonable cold that I had contracted crabs. Although this STD is curable, a slap on the wrist by medical standards, it opened my eyes for good to what was really at stake on these excursions—life, death, and the delicate balance in between.

On occasion, I do return to the park by day, when it looks like a Degas painting in the sunshine. I write or join a game of pickup futbol. I walk along the paths and take in panoramic views of the immaculate grounds. So many memories, so many secrets hidden just beneath the surface, so much patience exuded….

Somewhere a man is thinking about visiting the Secret Garden. To him I quote former Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton:

i entered my mother as most saints

enter a church; for the rest only

but there, even there from the belly of

a poor woman i was forced into a tangle of

birthdays without my permission.

listen eavesdroppers,

there is no such thing as a bed without

affliction. the bodies may all open wide but

you enter at your own risk CP