When I moved to the city of Detroit back in the mid-nineteen-eighties, I was twenty-one and didn’t know a soul. I’d moved to attend graduate school, though, and from long experience I knew the easiest way to make new friends in a university setting was to hang out in the graduate library restrooms with my pants around my ankles and my mouth ready to suck cock beneath the stalls.
And that’s exactly how I got my first ‘boyfriend’ in the city that would prove to be my home for the next quarter-century. I’m using quotes around the word because it was a one-sided relationship. The guy wanted me to be his boyfriend. I just wanted him to fuck me. I know, I know, that sounds callous, but the fact is that the guy already had a long-term boyfriend at the time. He owned a home with a guy that he’d been involved with for several years. They had two dogs. He was unhappy in the relationship and said he wanted out, but I suspected, and I think he knew in his heart that it would take several more years for that to happen.
In the meantime, I wasn’t willing to be called a boyfriend by someone who was already attached, and especially to someone with whom I had lousy sex. Oh yeah. The sex was lousy.
I met Tom in the second-floor library men’s room near the periodicals. For a couple of years this out-of-the-way restroom was the hottest place on campus to get dick. The stairwell was quiet, so that you could hear from quite a distance anyone who happened to be approaching. Though the restroom was only a two-seater, it was U-shaped in layout, so that anyone walking in wouldn’t immediately be granted a view of everything going on there. There was a strategically-placed mirror above the sink so that someone sitting in the first stall could see quite plainly the faces and build of anyone walking in. And best of all, there was a huge, inch-and-a-half-wide gap in the first toilet on the side where the partition met the brick wall, right at about the spot where one’s knees would be when sitting down, so that anyone walking in could look through and see if the guy inside the stall was masturbating.
I liked the gap because when I occupied the stall (and I often occupied that stall for hours at a time) if the guy walking in was an ugly troll, I could just close my legs and lean forward and obscure any sign of my goodies. If he was hot—and the men who knew of that restroom usually were—I could just sit back and stroke and see if the guy showed any interest at the flash of big hard young dick that he couldn’t miss as he passed by.
And Tom was hot. He was a tall black man with a muscular build who not only craned his head as he walked by me stroking, but stopped to put his eye to the partition gap and check me out. Given that encouragement, I didn’t even bother to wait until he was in the other stall. I didn’t need to toe-tapping to confirm his interest. I opened the stall door, stood up, and let him look me over. He made me turn around and show him my ass—which excited me, since I was still mostly bottom then. He ran his hands over my skinny white boy ass, made sounds of appreciation, and then suggested that we go to a quiet spot he knew where he could, and I quote, “fuck the shit out of me.”
This is pretty much where things went off the rails with Tom and me. If I’d just sucked him off or bent over for him right there and then, I’d probably have a hot memory of a one-time thing with a good looking dude. But no, he convinced me to follow him to his car, where he drove us both to Henry Ford Hospital, less than a mile away. Tom was in his final year of residency there at the time, it transpired. Somehow he managed to get me into the area of the hospital where the male residents slept, changed, and bathed, where we drew the curtains to a shower stall and got naked together.
I know that the setup sounds hot as hell. It really wasn’t. The library restroom was at least quiet. We could’ve fucked there uninterrupted. Trying to fuck in the resident’s changing rooms was like trying to fuck on Sixth Avenue during the Macy’s parade. Guys kept coming in and out. Someone was snoring from a cot at the end of the hallway. Two residents had a lengthy conversation about their girlfriends over the tops of two other showers. A janitor came in to mop out the area. Anyone and everyone in the hospital trooped through that shower room during the hour we were trapped in that shower. The only thing missing was a Volkswagen full of clowns.
Finally we reclaimed our clothing and tried to take it to a toilet stall. I’d long before lost the urgency and lust that had made me attracted to Doctor Tom in the library, and by the time he bent me over the toilet and worked his dick into me, what I was feeling was more along the lines of impatience and shame.
The fact, racial stereotypes aside, that he had one of the world’s tiniest dicks didn’t help. Nor the fact that his idea of fucking the shit out of me was to insert himself, wiggle around for two or three minutes, then pull out his dick and cum a quarter-teaspoon of semen into his palm.
Doctor Tom was friendly, though, and for two or three weeks I let him take me out. He introduced me to the food phenomenon that is the Detroit Coney Island—basically a hot dog on a bun covered with chili and onions. He toured me around some landmarks I’d never before seen. And he introduced me to the hobby of salvaging. But one of the other reasons I didn’t want to be his boyfriend was that I found him sexually controlling, and not in the fun way. When I’d show up to meet him, he would reach down my pants and squeeze my testicles, hard. It wasn’t a show of dominance, or anything, but a masturbation check.
It was a scientific fact, he told me, that it was possible to tell by the density of a man’s testicles if he’d masturbated in the previous twenty-four hours. If they were hard and tough, they hadn’t shot sperm. If they were softer and larger, the subject had shot a load. I kind of resented the fact that this (already committed) man was trying to control the frequency of my masturbation—which was really none of his fucking business. I also had a sense that if he was this controlling so early in the relationship, it certainly was unlike to get any better as it went on.
Salvaging, though. I’d never heard about it before, but there were plenty of people in the Detroit area who indulged in it. The city was a nasty mess when I moved there. (And not much better when I left.) Blocks upon blocks of neighborhoods were nothing but empty and abandoned houses, lying in ruin. A lot of these homes had been crap to begin with, but in the older sections of Detroit were some formerly very grand estates that had gone to ruin. Many of them had the austere and haunted quality of old castles, gutted and left exposed for decades.
Doctor Tom always carried a toolbox and crowbar in the back of his car. Late at night, he and I would drive through neighborhoods where vagrant fires smoldered unchecked, under freeway bridges where the homeless slept behind shopping carts, through neighborhoods where the weeds in every direct grew shoulder-high. He’d select a home, park his car a distance away, and then the two of us would creep toward it. Brandishing crowbars and flashlights, we’d walk through these deserted stretches of inner city blight, disappear through the weeds onto the appointed property, and then carefully, very slowly, work our way through the house.
This was totally illegal, of course. If we’d been caught, we would’ve been fined for trespassing, or charged with burglary, or worse. At the time, the city was the murder capital of the world. Dead bodies were found in these houses all the time. The floors were rotted, the staircases dangerous. But oh, the riches one could find in these old houses, if one knew how to look.
I knew one salvager years later who’d managed to pry out an entire Pewabic ceramic fireplace from a ruined home. I knew a couple of others who had gotten gorgeous leaded glass windows, or elaborate plaster fixtures. Doctor Tom had never found anything so grand or so intact, but he did have most of a chandelier he’d salvaged before meeting me in his garage. On the three or four occasions he took me with him, the most he found were a few antique light switch covers and a glass doorknob. After creeping through these abandoned spaces, I would stand by and hold the flashlight steady as I watched him pry off his desired prize. Then we’d run back to his car, giddy, scared, and pulses racing.
It was my last salvaging trip with Doctor Tom of which I was reminded recently, though. It was the next-to-last date I had with him at all, because after that, I simply told him I couldn’t see him any more. We were in a terrible neighborhood east of downtown on a night that was so radiant with moonlight that we didn’t need our flashlights, even inside the gothic revival house to which Doctor Tom had led us. The upper floor of the house had suffered a fire at some point. On that dark and moonlit night, the faint tickle of rancid old smoke made our progress across the litter-strewn first floor an even more foreboding affair.
The place had been more or less picked clean. Some enterprising salvager had removed a good deal of the hardwood flooring from the dining room, so that when we looked through where double doors had once been, we could see straight into the dirt-floor basement. The fireplace was brick, so that was no good. Even the copper wiring had been pulled from the walls. The stairs were fairly sturdy, though, so we went up to the second floor very carefully, to see what might be up there.
And that’s when we stumbled into the room. A corner of it was open to the elements, burned away by fire and worn by weather and winters. There was moonlight enough, though, to show us what a grand parlor it must once have been; the wallpaper remaining was elaborately printed and gave the impression of flocking. There was no furniture left. Nothing on the wall save a thick and almost phosphorescent accumulation of bird poop in the corner that was open to the sky. It was a crisp December evening and I remember being able to see my breath curl in lazy whorls in front of me. When I followed their journey upward, I saw the cages hanging overhead.
Bird cages. Large ones. At least seven or eight of them. They’d been suspended from hooks in the tall ceiling, and were high enough that only the most determined salvager would ever attempt to claim them. Doctor Tom took a look at them and wrinkled his nose; they were no good anyway, he declared. All the cages had their doors open; one of them had either decayed in a strange manner or gotten tangled in its chain and hung at a distinct angle. None of them were entirely intact. They all had absences where bars had once been before they’d turned to dust. On the floor, in the exposed corner, I could see the remnants of a rusted cage mouldering away in pieces.
I turned. Doctor Tom stood inches away from me. “Drop your pants,” he whispered.
He’d done this before when we’d gone salvaging. His dick seemed to get harder—and shoot even faster—when we were in a potentially dangerous situation like this, when we could be discovered by cops or the homeless or other enterprising Detroiters armed with a crowbar. His hands slid down the outsides of my thighs, and squeezed my balls. I resented his touch when he yanked at my testicles, testing them. But I bent over, and felt wetness against my hole, and then his cock inside me.
I reached out to brace myself against the wall. The whole house seemed to shift slightly when I did, and then the room was suddenly alight with motion and the heart-stopping noise of flapping wings. Neither of us had realized that the room was occupied by birds. In my crouching, bent-over position I looked up above me to see them stirring in the decaying cages.
A few woke up enough to flap with annoyance through the large gaps in their bars, or out the open cage doors to the exposed corner through which moonlight streamed. They were ghostly pale. Pigeons, probably. Doctor Tom didn’t seem to notice or care. He was too busy banging away, bringing himself to orgasm, paying no attention to me or the motion around him.
I looked up at the flurry, though, and listened to the birds’ subdued scolding. I turned my head as one returned from a perch on the ruined exterior and fluttered into a cage, then watched as it pulled its wings to itself and disappeared into sleep.
I remember thinking to myself with sudden clarity, When it has the freedom to fly anywhere, what kind of bird chooses a cage?
In large part, that moment is why I broke up with Doctor Tom, the next time I saw him.
Now that I’m older, I see we all choose our own cages. We cage ourselves in homes we can’t afford, in relationships we think hold us back. We cage ourselves in misery, and built bars of self-doubt around ourselves. We look for situations with walls to surround us, and a dome to keep us from flying, where we alight and pull the door to—and then we complain of our captivity.
But like the rusted contraptions I saw that night, hanging overhead like shadows in the moonlight, those cages are rarely fully intact. The doors are never tightly shut. We’ve merely forgotten that these coops are what we chose for ourselves because they’re familiar, they’re small, they’re contained.
What we need to remember is that just because something has the vague shape of a container never means that it is completely restricting. We need to remember how and when to fly.