In 1976, Timothy Barber set his sights on me. He lived across the street, watching my comings and goings, but I had never noticed him. He simply wasn’t my type. I would never have given him a second look if I had run into him on the street.
There I was, loveless and jobless.In my basement apartment in the urban jungle of Baltimore, I sat brooding. The last thing I wanted to do was move back to Portsmouth with my mom, who would have gladly welcomed me.My father was not an option. I had to pay rent and needed a solution to my financial dilemma. That answer came in the form of a letter slipped under my door one day.It read:
I find you very attractive and would love to get to know you better. I see you around the neighborhood and I finally got the nerve to tell you how I feel. Tomorrow I think I will go one step further and knock on your door. I hope you will open it.
Your Secret Admirer
I had already decided to open the door as I put the letter on the counter.It did not matter what he looked like. I needed a sugar daddy, because I did not want to have to go home in failure to my real dad.
I got a knock on the door around ten o’clock the next evening. Timothy sauntered into my place, surveying my collection of Supremes posters.Sugar daddy he was NOT. “Sugar Baby” was more like it. He was short and dark, with a broad forehead and a wide nose. He had long eyelashes and a protruding stomach, and reminded me of a bald, pregnant woman. Think Truman Capote, but black.His voice was nasal, high pitched, and irritating. He wasn’t at all physically attractive to me.
“Hi, my name is Tim,” he said as he extended his hand. “But you can call me by my middle name, Andre.I wondered what this basement apartment looked like on the inside.I live across the street with my mom.”
He pointed to a row house less than two hundred feet away. “Jesus,” I thought.“He lives with his mom. What can he do for me?”
Timothy then launched into a pitch that would have made any car salesman proud, thrilling me with tales of his recklessness. He told me he was nineteen, (a year older than I was), and was already causing a stir in his family. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and Tim had joined the church and had been helping her knock on doors and leave pamphlets about salvation. I laughed at this, thinking about all the times growing up in Portsmouth when we never opened the door for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our mother would make us stop playing and be really quiet, or would turn the television down until they gave up and went away. Tim told me that he would return to the homes later, after his mother had spread the word of Jehovah, and have sex with whatever man had secretly given him the eye. The scandal had gotten him expelled from the congregation, and his mother wanted him to leave her home.
That delicious bit of information was enough to make me curious, at the least.He sat down and we told each other our life stories. He revealed that he could sew, which fascinated me, since I had always wanted to be involved in fashion design. I pulled out my portfolio of watercolor and charcoal sketches that I had saved since junior high school. I had treasured those drawings, hoping to one day create some of my fantasy designs. Tim looked them over.
“These are really good,” he said with a smile. “I don’t draw at all. I take sewing patterns and change them around. You’re a real artist, you draw originals right out of your head. We could make a great team, I already see you modeling our designs. If you can draw it, I can sew it.”
He told me he used his middle name, Andre, as his designer name, and said that he was looking for a fresh start.By the time the sun came up the following morning, he had brought over his sewing machine and had made plans to move in by the end of the week. I had no idea that I was being manipulated by a master.
I nicknamed Timothy “Miss Get-Over” because he knew how to get through almost every legal system. He got me through the process of unemployment, and showed me how to get food stamps and a welfare check.
Timothy nicknamed me “Miss D.” Every gay man was a “Miss” in those days. I think it had to do with Bette Midler’s 1972 album, The Divine Miss M. I was young and scared of being out in the world, so I needed Tim.
Although he didn’t consider himself an artist, (or at least that’s what he told me), I thought Tim was a talented designer. I had always wanted to model, and he always had me looking good when I stepped into the clubs. He managed to gather a few of the club kids together as models, and we would do fashion shows in the local discos and local social organizations. It did not pay a lot of money. We mostly got free drinks and many of the models paid for the fabric in exchange for getting to keep the outfits. Everyone just wanted to be seen looking fabulous in the disco. My good friends Gregory and Raymond did not care that much for Timothy, but they too loved wearing new fashions in the nightclubs. We all put up with Timothy for our own selfish reasons.
I knew I didn’t love Timothy, but I did love the excitement he brought into my life. But with the excitement came the drama.One night we were in Washington, D.C., at a nightclub called The Washington Square. While Timothy was in the bathroom, a really sexy guy asked me to join him on the dance floor. I was extremely attracted and enjoyed flirting with him. As we danced, I could feel the energy getting hotter.Suddenly, without warning, my admirer turned and ran from the dance floor. When I turned around, Tim was standing there with a crazed look on his face.
“Miss D,” he whined, in that nasal tone, “What the fuck you doing dancing with some guy when we came to this club together?”
Flustered and embarrassed that he caught me enjoying myself, I answered, “He asked me to dance -- I didn’t see any harm in it.”
“Well, you have a lover and that’s me and I ain’t playing that kind of shit up in here. Do you hear me?”
He turned to leave and I followed. I figured I had to, since I did not even know how to drive. An invisible chained pulled tightly around my neck and I could feel the stares as we left the club. Do I really need to say that I was his Mahogany and he was my Tony Perkins? Or do you already get that? Oh, the sweet taste of freedom from my father was turning pretty bitter by then.
I grew to despise Timothy. On top of his possessiveness, he continued to have sex with other men. I discovered a discharge in my underwear one morning and confronted him.
“Look what you have given me -- a fucking venereal disease!” I screamed, as I threw the underwear in his face.
“That motherfucker,” Tim whispered to himself. He was slightly irritated, but not with me. “Oh, Miss D -- I did it for us. I let this dude fuck me in order to keep that temp job in the real estate office. Chile, all we gotta do is go up to the free clinic on North Avenue and get a couple of shots. You will be fine. I should be a bitch and not tell him, see if his wife figures it out.”
“I am sick of this shit,” I blurted out.“We need to end this mess of a relationship.”
That’s when he outright threatened me.“You ain’t going nowhere, Miss D.”
I hated the name he’d created for me, after years of wanting a nickname.“Vincent” was the nickname I’d created for myself as a child; my best friend had called me “Big D” and now this queen was calling me “Miss D.” I’d had enough. I just wanted to be Dale.
“Oh, yes I am!” I yelled.“I’m outta here!”
Before I could finish my last syllable, Tim pulled a kitchen knife on me. We struggled and I scratched him so deep that my fingernail broke off in his chest. I was scared of what I had done, afraid that I really could have killed him at that moment. Never before had my anger caused me to injure someone. I was such a sissy in school that I had never stood up to the bullies. But Tim had pushed me to my limits.
Tim used my fear to control me. I stayed with him to attend to his injury and to ease my guilt. A keloid scar grew over the place where I’d stabbed him with my nail. He loved to show people the scar and brag about how he carried a bit of “Miss D” in him all the time. Nevertheless, I kept waiting for my chance to leave.
My mother and sister came to visit Tim and me once, and they were so impressed with our home. My mother was very accepting of our relationship because she only saw it on the surface. She was also indebted to Tim because he had sent her some needed money when my then seventeen-year-old sister had faced a pregnancy scare.
In less than a year, Tim and I moved out of my basement apartment near the Pimlico racetracks and into a beautiful one-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking a hillside in Northwest Baltimore. Yet neither one of us had a real job! We had credit cards in every major department store, but they were all in my name because his credit was shot. We bought new furniture on credit, hosted parties, and lived like the rich.
What I started to realize was that Tim had noticed a young, naïve boy recently out of the closet, (me), and thought he could make me into anything he wanted. Tim lived to control everyone’s life. He was all into his sister’s relationships and he wanted to control who my friends were and what I did. He was extremely jealous of my buddies Gregory and Raymond, and watched me like a hawk when they were near. He integrated himself into my relationships with them to exert more control. I became very rebellious and, on the rare occasions when I could get away, Greg, Raymond, and I ventured to Druid Hill Park and went looking for trouble down the “yellow brick road”; this bricked strip of roadway was behind the snake house where cars would drive through slowly and men would pick up men to have sex in the park bathrooms.
To keep me happy, Tim arranged for me to meet some directors who were with the Arena Players.This theater group, once called The Negro Little Theatre, was formed in 1953 to provide acting opportunities for African-Americans where there were none.Today it is known as America’s oldest, continuously operating African-American regional theater group.Upon my introduction to the group’s directors, in 1977 I landed the lead in a one-act play called Shoes.It was the first play I did outside of high school.Two other one-act plays ran on the bill with Shoes, and during that run I met two actors who would become significant to my life.The first was Kay Lawal -- she would pop up again ten years later to help me form the troupe Actors Against Drugs. The second was Vernon Blackstone -- he would become the first man to truly satisfy me sexually and give me the courage to leave Tim.
Vernon was playing the role of a boxer in the second play on the bill. He was muscular with the most beautiful, dark, smooth skin. He was also several years older than I was. One night, he asked me to rub baby oil on his body so it would shine. He reminded me of melting chocolate ice cream. Soon I was in his dressing room, giving him oral pleasure. We later retreated to his apartment and had mind-blowing sex. I called my friends Raymond and Gregory.
“You guys have got to meet this man I met at the theater. He did things to my body that still have me cumming!”
You would think I’d have wanted to keep Vernon all to myself. That was not the case, given my “free style” sexual attitude of the 70’s. I encouraged Raymond and Gregory to have sex with Vernon because I wanted them to experience the same great sex I’d had, just as I would want them to sample the same great meal I’d enjoyed at a good restaurant. Vernon was so easy going to be with because he did not pressure or try to control me. Our meeting arrangement was convenient because we were working in the same theater. Once the play ended, I dared to meet other men for pleasure.
When the unemployment checks ran out, Tim got a permanent job as a secretary in a rental office and I found a summer job as a teaching assistant at Langston Hughes Elementary School, down the street from where we lived. Then Tim found out about a guy I was meeting in the park. We got into another knock down, drag out fight. As I tried to walk out the door of the apartment, Tim held on to my legs to prevent me from leaving. I'm sure the spectacle of a grown man attached to my leg as I tried to pry him loose looked like a scene from a bad Joan Crawford movie. I was a prisoner in my own home and Tim was the warden. I don’t know why I let that little beady eyed, ugly man control my life. Greg and Raymond called us "beauty and the beast" behind Tim’s back. Where did Tim’s “beast” strength come from? Where was mine?
Later that night, after we had make-up sex, I looked at his disgusting body and became more disgusted with myself for even being there. I stood up wondering, "Why am I living this way? "Leaving with just the clothes on my back would be the first step in taking back my life. His body stirred. Before his eyes could fully open, I walked out of the apartment barefoot and into the cold, and ran about half a mile to my father’s place. I asked him if I could spend the night. For once, he didn’t ask any questions. Tim telephoned, but I refused to answer his calls.
The next day, I called Greg and Raymond and they helped me gather a few of my possessions. Then I called Vernon to tell him I was finally free of Tim. He made a call and within days I moved into my own apartment in Vernon’s building. My new place would take me out of the “urban jungle” of Northwest Baltimore and into beautiful historic downtown Baltimore in the heart of the gay community. I lived within walking distance of all the gay clubs and was close to the theaters and art museums. The place was not much. That first week, I had to put my lunchmeat on the windowsill to keep it cold, until I got a refrigerator. However, I had a bed, my clothes, a stereo, a television set, and my Diana Ross and the Supremes albums.
I made many missteps during my first “real world” relationship, and I cannot blame Tim for the choices I made .I had used him for room and board and was eventually forced to pay up because nothing is free. It’s like selling your soul to the devil -- the price is high to pay to get out of the contract. Yes, I had "sold my heart to the junkman," but now I was free. Or so I thought.
“When you go into a relationship to use someone, the real person who ends up getting used is you.”