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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 6

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Flambé’s Story, So Far

Flambé—Franklin Bernard Wilkerson—who was born in 1984, grew up in public housing in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His mom, JoAnne, was a housecleaner, and supplemented her income with a modest SSI stipend of $100 a month, to which she was entitled because of a blind left eye. There was no father, or, rather, Franklin had a father, but JoAnne didn’t know or much care where he was.

They struggled financially, but their Western Addition neighborhood was tightly-knit, a village where people took care of each other, despite the violence that often plagued it. The Sweet Honey of Jesus A.M.E. Church, where JoAnne was a dedicated parishioner, provided additional support. Little Franklin in fact had found himself in the Choir at the age of eight, with a ringing, pitch-perfect Soprano people said came from Heaven.

In the neighborhood, he’d always been “that way.” The other boys called him sissy, but let him be, because he was sweet. He was a loner, often losing himself in fantasies of being an archeologist as he wandered the groves of Buena Vista Park, finding “treasures”: a crushed beer can became the remnants of an emperor’s crown, a sparkly rock the pendant that had hung from a priestess’s neck.

Franklin became sexually active at 12, intermittently for the first few years, then with increasing relish. By 2002, when he was eighteen and a freshman at San Francisco State, he was familiar with many of the haunts in San Francisco where a young man finds pleasure with his own.

Franklin knew of, but was too young to have been greatly impacted by, the AIDS crisis. Over the years, he’d gotten himself tested for the virus, always with negative results. This miracle, he attributed to God. He was a religious man, his mother’s son, and always had a Bible by his bedside.

In the second half of his freshman year, he’d met a senior, Devon, a computer science major, to whom he became greatly attached. Devon was a man of the world, or so it seemed to Franklin’s eager eyes. Equally adept at break dancing, throwing clay, track and field, knowing his wines, or reciting the poetry of Langston Hughes, Devon was a Renaissance Man.

Franklin always felt something disquieting inside himself. Just what it was, he did not know, except that it concerned his very essence. He knew he was not really male, but he obviously wasn’t female, either. He’d been aware of this contradiction ever since he could remember, and knew he dare not tell anyone, especially his devout mother, JoAnne. There had always been a few men in the neighborhood who also were “that way,” to judge by how they walked, or dressed and spoke. Reggie, from Fillmore Street, for instance: everybody knew he was Reginald Shinwell, the son of Doris and Ray Shinwell (who was a cop), but Reggie told people to call him “Rayon,” and would go about in women’s clothes.

It never occurred to Franklin that he might have something in common with Rayon. He was too isolated in his own reality, too cut off from San Francisco’s pervasive gay and drag cultures despite his furtive explorations, too straddled between clashing worlds in which it was impossible to find a foothold—until Devon.

Devon was Franklin’s doorway to the world beyond the Western Addition, beyond SFSU’s stultifying commuter culture. The glamor, the excitement, the fulfillment and drama Franklin had always sensed suddenly became available. He loved being with Devon, absolutely adored their time together, so, on that hot June night, a Saturday, when Devon told him they were going to a great bar, Franklin was thrilled.

The temperature had hit 101 degrees, a record for the date. Franklin spent most of the afternoon in Buena Vista Park, reading hip hop magazines, listening to music on his Walkman, or just lazing on the grass, face to the sun, feeling the heat pervade and relax his body as he smoked a joint. Devon picked him up that night in his T Bird at 10:30. As Devon drove across town—Golden Gate to Tenth, south below Market toward Howard–Franklin lowered the window on the passenger side and smelled the smells of the tropical city: spices, jasmine, barbecue, asphalt, human sweat—heard the babbled voices of a dozen cultures–music spilling from every bar and car: rock, salsa, hip hop, blues, jazz, Sinatra, classical. The night breeze cooled his skin. Devon found a parking spot, and led Franklin down an alley to the club and bar called, suggestively, The Headquarters.

Years later, Franklin, now Flambé, would recall that night as his “Ascension,” the allusion to the Biblical prophet Isaiah deliberate and informed. Although Moira was long since dead, a victim of AIDS, she was one of his Stations of the Cross. In fact, wherever Franklin/Flambé lived for the rest of her life, she kept a photo of Moira, in a frame of pink and turquoise cloisonée, beside her bed, next to her Bible, in a sort of shrine.

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