“Signs” by Hank Trout
The damned STOP TRUMP sign simply refused to remain on the long flat stick no matter how many staples Alex pounded into it. The sign pretended to be firmly attached to the stick, but every time Alex picked it up to add it to the growing stack of similar signs, it drooped forward from the top and pulled out every one of the staples. On his fourth attempt at affixing the sign to the stick, Alex slammed the damned thing down on the table, quickly lined up the sign on top of it, opened the Swingline 747 stapler, positioned the arm of the stapler on the sign, and using his clenched fist as a hammer, pounded another dozen staples into the sign. And again, like wallpaper curling away from a wall, the sign rolled forward and pulled out all the staples.
“You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
Alex turned quickly to meet the voice behind him.
“Here, let me help you.” Alex found himself face-to-chest with Michael, a tenor-voiced salt-and-pepper bearded man who was, and looked to be, just on the other side of fifty, fifty-two actually, who smiled down at Alex’s rather befuddled expression. “You’re using the wrong kind of stapler, for starters,” he said, raising a heavy-duty industrial-strength stapler between them. “Let me show you.” Still looking up into Michael’s face, Alex stepped aside.
He watched as Michael positioned the stick and the sign on the base of the stapler and pressed down on the stapler’s arm, driving a long staple through both and into slots that curled the staple’s points back up into the stick, securing the sign firmly in place. He slid the stick and sign eight inches down the base of the stapler and stapled again. He turned the sign over, face down, and positioned a second sign on top. Repeating the process, he secured the second sign.
“There.” Michael announced. “That’ll hold it even if it gets windy out there tonight. Now, you can use your stapler and hit all four corners so the two sides of the sign don’t flop apart.” Alex stapled each corner as instructed, then picked up the protest sign, pumped it above his head a few times, with a big grin across his face, and then tossed the sign on top of the pile.
“The other reason we fix two signs together,” Michael continued, “is for the photos. There are going to be busloads of photographers at this rally, and they’re going to be all around – in front of us, to the sides, behind us. We don’t want them photographing empty backsides of our posters! Blank white poster board makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“Thanks, man, I would have been here all night trying to put these signs together.”
Michael laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Nah, trust me, someone would have noticed the lack of signs piling up and would have come to check up on you! I just got here first with the right stapler. You didn’t answer my question — new at this?”
“At using a stapler?” They both laughed.
“No, no, I mean this,” Michael said, sweeping his arm around in an arc that embraced all of the work tables set up in this large room of the Women’s Building, “this rally-and-protest prep. Are you new at all of this?”
“Yeah, I am, I guess – well, no, wait – I mean, my mama used to take me with her when she went on La Raza protests, but I was really young then. This is the first time I’ve actually participated in a protest by myself, worked on the preparations.” Alex’s shyness was overtaken by pride when he thought of his mother and remembered why he was working on this protest.
“You look like you’re still pretty young,” Michael said, as he prepared another sign and stick, then indicated with a nod that Alex should staple them.
Alex positioned the stapler’s base under the stick and pumped the arm downward, hard, securing the first staple.
“I never know what to say to people when they say things like that to me,” Alex looked at Michael quizzically. “I mean, am I being complimented, or told that I don’t fit in? Am I supposed to thank someone for pointing out something that’s pretty much out of my control?” He pounded the second staple into place and then flipped the sign over and covered it with another one. He looked up at Michael, who seemed perplexed by Alex’s reaction. “Sorry, look, I’m 24 and I know I look like I should still be in high school and trust me it’s not a lot of fun.” The third staple put an exclamation point on his utterance. He brushed away the dark curly hair that hung over his forehead and smiled. “But I’m used to it. Most of the time. I’m just really kinda touchy right now.” The fourth staple went in more quietly, less angrily, but firmly.
Michael hesitated for a moment, not sure, after this young guy’s outburst, whether he really wanted to engage him in conversation. Or an attempt at one. Then decided —
“I think we’re all kind of touchy these days, don’t worry about it.” He smiled and extended his hand. “My name’s Michael, by the way.”
“Alex. Actually, it’s Alejandro, but everyone calls me Alex, it’s easier.”
“’Easier’? For them or for you? What’s so difficult about a beautiful name like Alejandro?” The handshake lasted several seconds, with laser-like eye contact. Michael smiled again. Nodding toward the signs and sticks on the table, he said, “Well, Alejandro, it looks like you’ve got work to do here. I’ll be running around, making sure everyone has what they need, so if you need anything just give a yell.”
“Thanks, Michael, I’ll come find you if I need anything.”
“I certainly hope so,” Michael said, briefly eyeing Alejandro up and down. “Any time.” He walked off to another table at the opposite end of the large auditorium, glancing back twice, and smiling, catching Alejandro watching him.
Later that night, relishing the gloriously warm moonlit San Francisco evening, a crowd of thousands marched in unity – LGBTQ folks, young women, undocumented immigrants, elderly straight folks, young trans kids, African Americans, Latinos – all the marginalized people who face threats from the Trump administration. From the Cable Car turnaround at Powell Street, up Market Street through the Castro to the Mission District, they marched and chanted. They held each other, they commiserated, they cried and laughed, they pledged to support each other and to work together against the forces of racism and bigotry that seemed to have taken over their country. They pledged solidarity.
The night was entirely peaceful – not one violent incident, not one arrest. It was a diverse, dedicated, inspired, shell-shocked but determined group of people. And right at the front of the thousands, his angry tenor rising loudly into the warm clear night air, marched Michael. “Act Up!” he yelled with others at the front of the march, and the crowd behind them responded, “Fight Back!”
As he marched at the front of the crowd and chanted, Michael thought he heard a familiar voice behind him in the “Fight Back!” chorus. He turned and walked backwards briefly to look over the crowd behind him. Sure enough, some fifteen or twenty feet behind him marched Alejandro, hoisting his double-sided sign held high, yelling his full-throated “Fight Back!” response like a man marshaling the will to fight.
Michael smiled when he saw Alejandro, caught his eye, and waved for him to push through the crowd and join him at the front.
“Alejandro! I’m glad to see you!” Michael gave Alejandro a quick hug-while-walking and continued, “You did a terrific job with the signs. Just look around you.”
Alejandro looked around, and indeed, he saw many signs he had stapled together earlier at the Women’s Building. He looked up at Michael and grinned, his deep brown eyes twinkling, his pride glowing. “Yeah, thanks to you, they look great!” Alejandro looked over the crowd as they marched along, chanting, and his eyes began to well up with tears. “I just wish my mama could be here to see this.”
Michael put his left arm around Alejandro’s shoulders and drew him close. “You mean, to see you, don’t you?”
Alejandro wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked up into Michael’s light blue eyes. “Yeah, you’re right, I wish she could be here with us, to see me here. I know she’s proud of me – she knows I’m here tonight – but she can’t come out to march with us. I wish she was here – she’d be yelling loud enough to drown out all of us!” Without thinking about it, Alejandro slipped his right arm around Michael’s waist.
“Where is your mother? Why can’t she be here?” Michael asked.
“She’s afraid,” Alejandro answered. “No papers. She came here twenty-five, twenty-six years ago from Guatemala. Things were fine until recently. She’s been really active in the Mission with La Raza and La Casa de las Madres for many years. But now, since the election, she’s been scared. She’s afraid to leave the apartment; she goes to the grocery store and to church and that’s it. She’s afraid to go out in public for very long, afraid that ICE will grab her off Mission Street someday.” He looked up at Michael again, gave him a half-smile. “I’ll be okay. I’m legal – I was born here, at SF General. But mama….” He looked back down at the pavement beneath them, then turned his face away from Michael.
Michael squeezed Alejandro’s shoulders tighter against him. “Hey!” When Alejandro looked back at Michael, the concern and, yes, the love he saw in Michael’s face was almost too much. The tears flowed freely down Alejandro’s cheeks now. “You’re going to be fine and your mama isn’t going anywhere! I promise. This is a sanctuary city and we’re going to stay a sanctuary city no matter what the orange fascist says or does!”
“I hope you’re right.” Alejandro wiped his face, snaked his arm around Michael’s waist again, holding tighter this time.
“Stick with me, Kid! We got this!” Michael bent slightly and kissed Alejandro on the forehead. He hesitated a moment, then pulled Alejandro in tighter and kissed him on the mouth.
Leaning back from Alejandro, surprised at himself, Michael said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.” He regretted having let his emotion overwhelm his better sense. Kissing a kid like that! What was he thinking?
“Why?” Alejandro looked truly perplexed. “I’m glad you kissed me. I’ve wanted you to. I want you to kiss me again.”
Michael looked down warily at Alejandro. He had to admit, his arm around Alejandro’s shoulders and Alejandro’s arm around his waist felt really good, felt right. Still… he knew he was more than twice Alejandro’s age. The way some people sometimes imagine their lives as scenes from a movie or lyrics to a song, Michael, the writer, often imagined his life in terms of the headlines he might generate – Local Writer, Advocate Wins Pulitzer Prize for Insightful Criticism – or – Veteran Queer Activist Inspires Thousands at Anti-Trump Rally. But in the brief moment he imagined himself and Alejandro together in some way, the headline he envisioned was, Old White Queer Robs Cradle, Steals Young Guatemalan from His Mama.
“We’ll see,” Michael said, trying to smile down on Alejandro. He went back to yelling “Act Up!” and waiting for Alejandro’s and the crowd’s “Fight Back!”
“That was fun!” Alejandro drained what was left of his Corona and leaned back against the bench on El Rio’s patio. The rally had proceeded down 18th Street from the Castro into the heart of the Mission District. The speeches were wildly cheered, and then the crowd dispersed into the warm night. Alejandro had practically dragged Michael up the street to El Rio for a beer.
“That was exhausting!” Michael corrected him. He tilted his beer toward Alejandro in a kind of salute. Alejandro laid his hand on Michael’s thigh.
“But aren’t you excited?! What a great night!” Michael smiled at Alejandro’s enthusiasm.
“Y’know, Alejandro,” Michael began, laying his hand atop Alejandro’s, “I’ve been rallying and marching through the Castro and the Mission for more than thirty years, starting in the early Eighties – years before you were even born! And yes, this was a great rally and march – you gotta love the diversity and the dedication of all these people who showed up. But sometimes I wonder why we bother.”
Alejandro was having none of it. “Whattya mean, ‘why we bother’? We have to protest! We have to show up and be counted and stand up to these bastardos! We have to!”
Michael sighed, collected his thoughts for a moment or two. He explained, slowly.
“What I mean is, thirty-five years ago, I marched down Castro demanding money for AIDS research. Thirty years ago, I marched down Castro demanding money to make medications available. I’ve marched through the Castro and the Mission demanding ‘gay liberation,’ demanding the right to marry, demanding an end to racial discrimination, demanding an end to deportations, demanding the decriminalization of HIV, demanding affordable housing for long-term AIDS survivors,… And as we were out there this evening, it hit me – here we are again, fighting the same damned fights we’ve fought hundreds of times over the last thirty, thirty-five years, fighting the same bigots and short-sighted politicians, fighting the same stupidity.” He gave Alejandro a weary smile. “I guess I’m just tired of fighting.”
Alejandro listened intently, watching Michael’s eyes as he seemed to recall each protest he had marched in over the decades. He slid his arm around Michael’s shoulders and pulled the older man toward him. He kissed Michael on the cheek just above his beard line. He leaned back just a bit so he could look Michael directly in the eye. “That’s why you need me! I’m not tired, I’m ready to fight, and I need you to show me how. All of us young folks out there tonight, we all need you. Hell, I couldn’t even staple a sign onto a damn stick without your help! But together? Damn! We would make a great tag-team!”
Michael was tempted to let himself get swept up in Alejandro’s enthusiasm. He gave Alejandro’s thigh a squeeze. “A great tag-team, eh? What makes you think so? You realize, of course, that I’m more than twice your age!”
“Yes, I know that – it just means that you’ve probably done twice as much and learned twice as much. I can learn so much from you – and not just about rallies and protests!” Alejandro’s eagerness was downright palpable. Without labeling or questioning it, he was falling in love with this older man, this veteran street warrior. He wanted desperately what Michael could give him, could teach him. His hand cupped the back of Michael’s neck and drew him in for a long, hungry kiss. They parted; Alejandro continued fondling Michael’s beard; Michael put his hand on top of Alejandro’s.
“I don’t know, Alejandro… Do you think I can keep up with you?”
“Hmmm, I dunno…” teased Alejandro. “You’ll just have to take me home and find out!” He kissed Michael again, then stood up, gave him his hand, and pulled him to his feet. They walked out of El Rio and into the warm Mission night, hand in hand.
About the author:
Hank Trout is a 64-year-old HIV+ gay writer and activist. In the early 1980s, he edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom Magazines; currently, he is an Editor-at-Large for A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine. A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor (diagnosed in 1989), Hank lives in San Francisco, California with his fiance Rick Greathouse.