By Dan Valentine
THE PINK CIGARETTE LIGHTER — Part 5
Shortly after my little episode with Melody – y’know, the brigadier general’s daughter, so on and so forth, the one with the butcher knife, etc., etc., with the crazy ex-boyfriend – I soon found myself a studio flat of my own in downtown D.C.
The Westpark Apartments, 2130 “P” Street, just west of Dupont Circle and the Metro stop that took me straight to work at the Russell Senate Office Building. The Ritz-Carlton was just around the corner. My good friend Paul Smith, Orrin Hatch’s former press secretary, and I saw Peggy Lee perform there one evening. She had fallen shortly before the engagement and sang on crutches.
The residents at the Westpark were mostly students and professionals. There was a grocery store next door and some of Washington’s better restaurants nearby. Georgetown was a ten-minute walk.
Great location but noisy on weekends. Across the street, I soon learned, was a stretch of very popular gay bars: a gay dance club, a gay sports bar, a gay piano bar, a gay you-name-it. “The cutting edge of Gay nightclubs,” I later read in a local rag.
I lived there for some two years without incident.
Flash-forward half a decade. I had moved my folks from Salt Lake to Arlington, Va. A three-bedroom penthouse apartment, above the Balston Commons Arcade, with a view of the Nation’s Capital. It was to die for! Fourth of July, it was the best seat in the house. Fireworks galore sprouting above the Washington Monument. During Bush I’s term, when the troops returned home victorious from fighting in Kuwait and Iraq and the whole town celebrated, it was the best seat in the house. Fireworks galore.
One evening, shortly after returning for the second time to the District, I joined my bestest friend for a cocktail or two. We may have even had dinner.
You could smoke in bars and restaurants back then and, like many times before in the past, by the end of the evening, her cigarette lighter ended up in my blue sports coat pocket. She doesn’t smoke cigarettes; though, she’ll light herself a cigar every once in a great while. She prefers to smoke, well, let’s just say she likes to laugh. As I do. Laughter is a sound foundation for any relationship. (My ex-mother-in-law once asked my ex-wife, in front of me, “Why did you marry him?” “He made me laugh,” she said. Her mother sniffed and replied, “I’ve never thought he was funny.” I had to laugh.)
Anyway, the lighter ended up in my pocket when I used my last match and she lent me hers. It was pink.
Many a time I have sat at a table with friends and, by the end of the night, everyone’s lighter or matches or both have wound up in my possession. I’m infamous for it. And many a time, a friend during the evening has slapped his pockets or searched her purse only to find that his or her light is missing. “Where’s my lighter?! Where are my matches?!” Friends always turn to me. “Valentine! Not again!” I get caught up in the conversation at hand and, without thinking, I slip them in my pocket after lighting up.
We had met at a restaurant nearby Dupont Circle, close to my former residence. After bidding goodnight, call-you-later, I thought I’d save a buck or two – I was raised by Depression Kids – and catch a cab to Georgetown for one last drink before going home to Arlington.
In D.C., at the time, there were taxi zones. When I lived on “P” Street, I soon discovered if one wanted to save some cash one had only to stroll a few paces and cross the street at the end of the block to hail a taxi. Back then, every zone your cab entered cost you an extra-added fare.
So, I’m on “P” Street–familiar and friendly territory, or so I thought at the time–a few steps from saving a dollar or so, when I stop to light up. I pulled out my friend’s pink one. I lit my cigarette, pocketed the rest. It was then that someone head-butted me in the back like an NFL guard, plunging me face-first to the pavement. Another man, from out of the shadows, joined in the fun, kicking me in the head and ribs, both of them shouting, “Faggot!” and other slurs I suppose.
I can only suppose that the pink lighter offended them.
I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I opened my eyes to see two Pink Angels gazing down on me, one with a flashlight beaming on my face.
Every Friday and Saturday, near the stroke of midnight, a group of volunteers, dressed in black berets and jackets, pair off and walk unarmed up and down the gay sections of D.C., making sure gays get home in one-piece. They’re known as Pink Angels. Such groups exist from San Francisco to Greenwich Village.
The two helped me to my feet and guided me to the gay piano bar on the corner. Upon seeing me, the bartender immediately began dialing an ambulance. He didn’t have to pick up the phone book and thumb through its pages to look for the number. I told him to dial me a cab instead. Save a buck here, save buck there. I was raised by Depression Kids.
No doubt, the bartender poured me a drink on the house. And, no doubt, I lit myself a cigarette. Can’t have a drink without a cigarette, swollen-bleeding lips or no. And, without any doubt, I pocketed a book of matches with the bar’s logo on them. Can’t have a cigarette without a light.
The pink lighter was missing, glimmering in a moonlit gutter somewhere.
I was in the Men’s, cleaning up best I could, when the cab arrived. The driver took me to the Georgetown University Hospital emergency room for my wounds. Broken nose (again, for the umpteenth time), multiple bruises, battered ribs, fractured jaw. I may have even had a minor concussion. Can’t remember. That wasn’t meant as a joke. It’s just been that long ago.
Later on that week, I saw a specialist, etc. In all, visits, procedures, more visits, more procedures, it cost me some several thousand dollars. I was unaware at the time–no one volunteered the info–that there is some sort of city fund for such incidents.
The time was the late ’80s, but little has changed.
Just recently I came across a news story on the internet The head read: Wearing Pink Gets Straight Man Gay Bashed. The date: October 2009. The story: A straight man who wore pink to aid breast cancer charities was bashed by men at a Kansas City Chiefs game. The victim, a father of three, had volunteered to wear pink clothing to draw attention to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. He raised a few hundred dollars, vending pink ribbons and shirts and hats, among other things. Third quarter, he decides to call it a day. He’s heading out of the stadium when two men, drunk, began harassing him because of his pink clothing. One of them punched him in the face. The second threw him to the ground. Both began kicking him in the ribs and head. I can relate. Managing somehow to get to his feet, he scurried for his life, the men chasing after him. Dodging them in between parked cars in the stadium’s lot, he finally escaped.
Sometimes, looking back, I think it may not have been the pink lighter at all. Maybe they were simply hard-core anti-smoking activists. They could very well have been paid assassins hired by my ex-mother-in-law. They may have been Danes! One thing’s for sure: The two wanted to hurt somebody, badly–gay, straight, or Martian–and they did. Me. Wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of life is timing. You win a few, you lose a few.
For some time afterward, I smoked very little, if at all. Wired-fractured jaw. When I was well enough, I visited my bestest friend.
THAT didn’t make me feel better! She was seeing a cop. Upon hearing that, no doubt, I lit-up a cigarette. I left shortly afterward.
A few weeks later, I visited her again. Just happen to be in the area. Yeah, right! I asked how she and the cop were doing. She said she had broken up with the fellow. She had discovered he was gay.
This was at the height of the AIDS scare. AIDS was somewhere in everyone’s mind, in flats on “U” Street, where she was living at the time, and in dark, shadowed doorways on “P” Street.
“He told you that?” I asked.
“No. Not exactly.”
“So, how do you know?”
He, too, it seems, had visited one day, and after he’d left, she had found a book of matches from a gay bar.
“I know you’re not gay. So–.” She showed me the matches. They were mine. From the gay piano bar on “P” Street.
You win a few, you lose a few. One day you’re lying in a puddle of blood, your own; the next day, you’re soaring, eagle-like, high above the clouds, a big-big smile on your face, fractured-jaw and all.
TO BE CONTINUED