Photography and words by Paul Kwiatkowski
It was my final semester of high school, the last hurricane season I’d ever spend in South Florida and the skies were an endless toilet-hued white. I had just undergone my final transition from amorphous punk/freak, to hardcore kid/d-bag, to finally fixing up and putting in a decent effort to getting laid.
Before I could leave for college, I had to do community service for financial aid and probation. I saw it as the last in a series of ass-fuckings I had to endure before I could peace out on my shit-hole town and never look back. I could choose which charity I wanted to work for, so I picked the Comprehensive Aids Program (CAP). At the time I had just lost a family member to complications with HIV and had to watch another loved one suffering from it. The topic was a constant strain I couldn’t shrug off. For CAP, I figured at most I’d be handing out condoms, which wasn’t a complete waste of energy.
Instead, I ended up working at a second-hand furniture store. I had to drive a moving van to rich geriatric women’s mansions in Palm Beach, pick up furniture they wanted to donate as a tax write-off, and either deliver it back to the store or set it up in a disenfranchised family’s home.
This is where I met Cody, my supervisor. Cody was an old ex-drag queen from NYC. He apparently performed at a bunch of dance clubs in the ’80s and was estranged by a politician father. He had an outlandish sense of humor and reminded me of a saucier version of Rodney Dangerfield. He had buried 17 of his friends because of HIV and had himself been diagnosed. At the time it was healing for me to be around someone like him.
Cody’s work routine started by smoking a joint during breakfast. He claimed that the marijuana dulled his nausea and increased his waning appetite. While driving to furniture collections, he’d tell me stories about the gritty 1980s Times Square peep-show culture. He made it habit to introduce me to hustlers he knew who worked in the parks where migrants played soccer.
He showed me that, around lunch time, the drive-in movie theater parking lot would be peppered with guys in pick-up trucks and Lexuses cruising, rearranging the parking scheme until pairs formed and they could peel out together. We justified these excursions to our overseers by saying we were handing out condoms at “high-risk areas.”
Cody especially loved using these opportunities to show me that tons of straight guys acted like total faggots whenever they got the chance. At around lunch time, teams of regular-looking dudes on break would go to a hidden room inside a mobile-home-sized adult novelty store and circle jerk around a lone television set.
I remember he once dared me to peak into a gas station bathroom known for being a cruising spot. Inside the walls were pock marked with glory holes. A wafting mix of urinal cake, locker room musk, cheap beer, and cologne seemed to add to the nervous excitement of shifty townies looking to cheat on their wives and butt-fuck in the abandoned trailers out by the canals. Cody always got a kick out of how freaked out I was.
One afternoon after moving a huge wall unit from some day-drinking cougar’s mansion, we lit up a joint to accompany our Cuban sandwiches. Stoned to a point where the humid fumes above the highway flared and pixilated, Cody drove to a small strip-mall off the main boulevard. To the far side of the plaza was an innocuous-looking photo studio with heavily tinted windows. Around the corner, alongside a barbed-wire fence, hidden from the road, was a sign that said “All Girl Staff” with arrows pointing to a pink backdoor.
Inside we were greeting by a leathery woman with cosmetic tattoos that gleamed in the heat. She had on Wranglers, a pink bra, and a bathrobe with a badly embroidered dragon on the back. Her hair was done up in a bouffant and when she caught me staring, she pointed up and said, “The higher the hair, the closer to God.”?
I was speechless.
She and Cody already knew one another. She asked him if I was interested in renting a studio with one of their models. Inside, the rooms were all pastel shades of yellow and red — simultaneously gaudy, yet austere. I never fucked any of the “models” but asked if I could take pictures. Most of the girls were polite, but had the same sedated quality of animals in a petting zoo.
I never questioned how or why Cody knew these people and locations. I never asked and enjoyed not knowing. I saw it as being given a guided tour of a town that always felt like a mindless board game, a game I glided over but never actually played. Then suddenly I saw past the boring topography that had been etched into my mind since childhood.
After I fulfilled my community service requirements, I never saw Cody again but took comfort in having learned that, despite having HIV, life went on for some people.
I spent a majority of my last month at home, driving aimlessly, smoking out, imagining that behind every boarded up window in town was something grotesque and improbable. I saw people, homes, and culture in decay, but beneath the pastel husk was a pulsing mess of guts. At every intersection there were scraggly rednecks in Confederate baseball caps and SUV driving yuppies cruising for furtive encounters. Shadows became suspect, homely women staggering beside the highway hustled, and everyone seemed to have someplace secret to be.
Also seen on Street Carnage.