Martin Padgett’s first book, A Night at the Sweet Gum Head, tells the story of Atlanta’s queer liberation movement through the alternating biographies of two gay men, runaway–turned–drag queen John Greenwell and activist Bill Smith. In the excerpt below, an underage Greenwell sneaks into a bar and discovers drag.
John Greenwell could stay in Huntsville and be the town queer, or he could run away and be free, so he ran.
He threw a couple of days’ worth of clothes in a cheap gray briefcase he’d had since high school, counted eleven dollars in his wallet, each bill worn down like him, and flew out of the house that he had never called home.
He had been born in Kentucky, the son of a mother he loved and an abusive, alcoholic father he grew to hate. The family moved whenever the military shipped them to another place: Tennessee, Texas, California, Germany, Alabama. By the time he finished high school in Huntsville, John Greenwell had already lived many lives.
He had been a good student, a Boy Scout, a member of the French club, an actor in a school film about poverty. A graduate. A heterosexual. When he braved the cold and walked to the bus station on the edge of Huntsville and put his dollar on the counter and found a seat on a bus headed east, he put that John Greenwell to death.
He dreamed of becoming a hippie, of growing out his short brown hair, of life with people like him. He wanted to see the world through psychedelic eyes. He wanted to touch the bodies of gods.
The bus rumbled to life. Its air brake hissed as it pulled away. Huntsville dimmed behind it as John’s eyelids flickered. He fell asleep to the urban lullaby he’d learned in eighth grade, Petula Clark’s escape fantasy, “Downtown.”
The bus crossed an imaginary line in the dark and Alabama faded into Georgia. John woke for a moment, decided he would never go back, then drifted off into the comfort of his dreams. Read More