A Young Man's Search for His Father Delves Into LGBTQ History In This Exclusive Excerpt from The Edge of Being

Books Features James Brandon
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A Young Man's Search for His Father Delves Into LGBTQ History In This Exclusive Excerpt from <I>The Edge of Being</i>

Author James Brandon is making a name for himself in the YA genre space not just for telling LGBTQ stories, but using his books to provide much-needed history and context for the queer experience in America. His debut, Ziggy Stardust and Me was set in 1973 St. Louis, when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. His latest novel, The Edge of Being, turns its focus to San Francisco in the 1960s, a haven for LGBTQ Americans, but one where police harassment of queer people was widespread and many resented the increasing visibility of these groups.

The Edge of Being delves into the story of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, an event that took place in August 1966 in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in response to the constant harassment of drag queens and trans women by police officers. A precursor to the Stonewall riots, the event is considered the first full-scale riot for trans and queer people in U.S. history. Yet it’s still a story that is not as well known as it should be. With this story, Brandon aims to change all that.

A contemporary coming of age tale, in which Isaac retraces the footsteps of the father he never knew on a cross-country road trip to California mixed with historical vignettes about his father Alex’s life in 1960s San Franciso, this is a heartfelt tale of secrets, grief, and the found families that help us survive. And, like Brandon’s first book, The Edge of Being also thoughtfully explores a rarely represented part of LGBTQ history, and reminds us why it’s important to remember where we’ve been, as we look toward where we want to go.

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

Isaac Griffin has always felt something was missing from his life. And for good reason: he’s never met his dad. He’d started to believe he’d never belong in this world, that the scattered missing pieces of his life would never come together, when he discovers a box hidden deep in the attic with his father’s name on it.

When the first clue points him to San Francisco, he sets off with his boyfriend to find the answers, and the person he’s been waiting his whole life for. But when his vintage station wagon breaks down (and possibly his relationship too) they are forced to rely on an unusual girl who goes by Max—and has her own familial pain—to take them the rest of the way.

As his family history is revealed, Isaac finds himself drawing closer to Max. Using notes his dad had written decades ago, the two of them retrace his father’s steps during the weeks leading up to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, a precursor to the Stonewall Riots a few years later. Only to discover, as he learns about the past that perhaps the missing pieces of his life weren’t ever missing at all.

The Edge of Being hits shelves on October 11, 2022, from Nancy Paulsen Books. But we’re thrilled to be able to offer an exclusive excerpt from the story now, timed to the 56th anniversary of this important—and often overlooked—historical event. (The exact date of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot is not known, but it took place in August of 1966.)

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It’s after midnight and Mom has long gone to bed, so we tiptoe up the attic stairs. When we reach the landing, the moon casting shadows on the floorboards through the small round window is our only source of light. My eyes try adjusting to the darkness, but after some time I give up. I scan the wall for a switch, when Christopher, from somewhere in the middle of the room, whispers, “Here,” and flips on a lamp.

It’s a sparse and tiny space. Cobwebs and a thick layer of dust and old memories blanket the loft. Boxes of tax forms and old scripts are stacked high in the corner. Bins of Christmas decorations with silver tinsel streaming out. A plastic Santa as tall as me when I was four years old waves. I haven’t seen that in years.

“I found them,” Christopher whispers. He creaks over to the other side of the attic and opens the few boxes labeled the first tomorrow. Soon, he’s trying on tight polyester pants and satin shirts covered in flowered prints and saying, “Far-out, man,” flashing peace signs. I can’t help but smile.

I walk over to the once-towering Santa. The colors have faded, muted and dull like me. I blow away dust. Sneeze. Grandma gave this to us when I was little. I used to sit in the corner and share secrets and wishes with them as if Santa were my dad, just as mythical and magical.

Santa knew how scared and excited I was after my first kiss with Bobby Jones on the jungle gym, how it felt like I was climbing a never-ending hill on a roller coaster. And a few years later, when Jamie Jones and I made out under the school’s big oak tree—the same one she broke up with me under—Santa knew the tingle in my tummy was just as exhilarating. I didn’t know it was possible to love girls the same way I loved boys, but Santa did.

And Santa always smiled, too, when I told them what I wanted to be when I grew up: first a teacher, then a cartoonist, then a writer like Mom. Every step of the way Santa would say, You can be anything you want to be, Isaac, if you set your mind and heart to it.

And each year I’d wish for my plastic friend to come to life so I could finally feel their embrace.

I lift them up to say hello, and that’s when I see it: a small box tucked deep in the alcove behind them. I pull it toward me.

My heart stops.

Breath stunts.

Sitting in front of me is a cardboard box labeled ALEX.

Is this real? How is this even—

“What’d you find?” Christopher peeks over my shoulder. “Who’s Alex?”

“My dad,” I whisper, my voice trembling.

“What?”

“At least I think it is. Remember that letter I found?”

“At Christmas, you mean?”

“Yeah, and I’ve been looking for Dad ever since and—”

“What do you mean? I thought you said you gave up.”

“I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Why?”

“I felt embarrassed—”

“Why?”

“Because . . . I don’t know! You wouldn’t understand!”

“Okay. Sorry.”

We don’t move.

“I can’t believe . . .” How long has this been here? If I hadn’t moved Santa, I would never have seen it. That’s how far back in the shadows it was hidden. Like Mom shoved it into the darkness to completely forget.

Christopher whispers, “Open it, Fig.”

I slowly lift the lid. It takes me a minute to realize the moisture on my cheeks is from my tears. I push them away.

Staring back at me is a framed black-and-white picture of a vintage version of me. Alex Griffin stands among a group of drag queens or trans folks—it’s hard to see—their fists in the air, screaming through the glass, holding a broom and protest signs that read 1966 VANGUARD CLEANUP.

“Fig, what is this?”

“I don’t know.”

Underneath the picture, some folded-up clothes: A green turtleneck cashmere sweater. A silver chain with a dangling Gemini pendant. A yellowed copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. A black leather jacket.

I hold the coat to my nose. After all these years, it still smells like clove cigarettes. I wrap it around my shoulders. The crinkle and scent of old leather embraces me. I close my eyes. And feel Dad hugging me for the first time in my life.

“Fig,” Christopher whispers.

I catch myself. Tears again. Shove them off.

“There’s something in here,” I say.

I unzip the inside pocket and pull out a thick envelope. Scrawled on the front is written: A piece of my history. Follow me.

Over the years, I began to lose faith in signs from the universe, but if this isn’t one, I don’t know what is. The envelope is still sealed. Maybe it was meant for Mom, but I don’t care. I rip it open.

Inside, a stack of folded notebook pages. Dad’s handwriting. I recognize it from the love letter.

I unfold them and begin to read.

May 17, 1966

I stepped off the Greyhound bus in some part of town called the Tenderloin. I immediately thought, You’re not in Kansas anymore, then laughed and thought, Being a friend of Dorothy and all. I hated myself for thinking that. Groovy. One foot on San Francisco soil and I’m already becoming one of them. But I guess that’s why I’m here.

Too bad I smelled like one big, unwashed sweat stain, mixed with whatever powdered soap they use in those bus toilets. Too scared to get off along the way. Scared they’d find me, cart me away.

I had a duffel bag thrown over my shoulder. Filled with whatever I could shove in there before running. It all feels like a dream. One minute I’m putting on Momma’s lipstick and heels and Maidenform bra, singing, “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love . . .” and the next minute Momma’s beating me with her hairbrush. When she left to get Daddy, I ran all the way to the bus station and didn’t look back. Didn’t think it would happen when it did. So fast. So sudden. But I always knew I had to get out of there one day. My only chance to become a real writer. My only chance for survival. My only chance to be me.

And the minute I stepped off the bus, someone yelled, “There you are!”

I looked up and saw this old lady, in her forties maybe, wearing a brown pin-striped skirt-suit. Form-fitting. Businesswoman type, I thought. Her hair looked like these burnt wheat fields back home.

She waved in my direction, but it couldn’t be for me. I knew no one here. So I kept walking.

“Where you going?” she yelled again in a thick Hispanic accent. I looked up.

“Yes, you! I’m here!” she shouted, running toward me. “I’m so glad you made it back home!” She looked over her shoulder a few times before finally reaching me. Then she kissed each one of my cheeks and whispered, “Just act like you know me, for Chrissakes. Give me a hug.” So I did. When I looked behind her, I saw a few cops walking toward us and pushed myself off to run.

She clutched my arm. “They’re not after you, honey. Not yet. They’re after me. About to arrest me for loitering, and I ain’t going back to the hole. Just act like you know me and smile.” So I do. She talked gibberish about sales at Woolworth’s or something; I couldn’t catch a word because it was all happening so fast. The cops were coming closer. Through a gritted smile, she said, “Laugh,” which I did, until they slowly walked past us.

When they rounded the corner, we both exhaled at the same time.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “They mostly leave white kids alone, especially when you’re new. Follow me.” She dragged me down the street with her. “Keep looking forward. Act like you got purpose. First rule: You get arrested for obstructing the sidewalk here, so don’t.” Then she stopped and said, “You can trust me.” Her eyes oozed kindness, melting over me, and for some reason, looking in them, I believed her.

Up close her makeup was caked on, more forced than natural, revealing a relief map of wrinkles. And she smelled like menthol cigarettes masked with Chanel No. 5.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Sixteen.”

“Where’d you come from?”

“Oklahoma City,” I said.

“Figured as much. You saved my life back there. Now it’s my turn. First: your name.”

“Alex.” Guess that’s my name now. I made it up in that second. I didn’t want any part of the old me in this new land.

“Honey, you’re gonna have to use your voice around here, or they will eat you alive. That’s rule two.” So I said it louder. “Better. I’m Esmeralda. Esmeralda Esperanza.” She rolled her r’s and held out her gloved hand for me to kiss. I did. “First time meeting a transsexual woman, I presume?” She winked.

“First for everything,” I mumble.

She hurried on. “Well, now that we’re friends—hey, keep up, or you’ll end up getting caught. We can’t dawdle in the streets.”

I skipped up to her. It felt like I’d entered some alien land that was covered in a layer of soot and smelled like a burning landfill. Had to step over piles of trash and used needles and unspeakable other things more than once. Flashing neon lights. Cable cars clanging. And the people. Oh man, the people. A few kids my age caught my eye as I walked past: crouched in the caves of glass storefronts, leaning, smoking, smiling.

“You’re fresh meat to them,” Esmeralda said. “And competition. But not if I can help it. Keep going.”

Some people sat under tents muttering to themselves. Some offered me every colored pill imaginable. Some said, “Hey, girl,” to Esmeralda as we passed. “Feds are thick tonight. Be careful.”

We walked into a hotel where everyone knew her, treating her like the Queen Mother. Men were draped over each other like clothes on a line. Waving free. I’d never seen anything like it. We took the elevator to the fourth floor. Inside her room, dresses hung like a Penney’s catalog, a vanity covered in powders and paints. And a white man, smoking, sitting hunched over a desk.

He looked up. “Hello there.”

“This is my Tommy,” Esmeralda said, kissing him on the cheek. She sat on his lap and slipped a pair of glasses on that were slung around her neck, paging through some paperwork on the desk.

“Newbie, eh?” Tommy said. I shrugged. “Welcome aboard the Cuckoo Train. Choo! Choo!” They laughed. I didn’t. “You must be pretty damn lucky to have this one find you.” He squeezed Esmeralda around the waist. She giggled and cooed.

“Tommy’s my husband,” she said to me. “Well, in spirit. He’s a beautiful man, isn’t he?” She grabbed his cheeks, kissing him on the lips again. Then she turned to me. “First things first. You need to shower. Back there. Towels are in the first drawer.”

*

I stepped back into the room after my shower and Esmeralda was smoking, sitting on a love seat shaped like a pair of big red lips. “Much better,” she said. “Tommy left. He’s meeting us at the cafeteria. But first, come here and sit. Let me break it all down for you.”

I questioned nothing and did everything she said.

“You heard all the rules, right?” I nodded. “Good. Because those aren’t rules like some board game. They’re for your survival. This may be 1966 with all that peace and love bullshit. But for us, mess one of them up and you’re pretty much dead. Even here.” She wasn’t kidding. Not even for a millisecond. “I’m not going to have another one of you killing yourselves on the streets. And I know this is the first stop in town from that bus, but you aren’t staying here. I have a place I’m going to send you, okay? Just met this sweet hippie chick who’s opening her house up to help us out. She’s lovely. I’m sending you there.” I nodded again. “So, let’s be clear: You’re homosexual, right?”

Hearing those words, so blunt, so strong, I almost burst into tears right in front of her. Never heard them said back to me before. “I’m not sure . . . exactly.”

“Well, either way. Welcome home. You made it.” She winked and smoked. “So, now that you’re here, you gotta keep it to yourself, okay? You’re not going to find work even in this town if people know who you really are. And you especially aren’t going to find work in this part of town. I’m not letting you. All clear so far?”

“What’s wrong with this part?”

She laughed, showing half of her back teeth were missing. “Nothing at all, honey. It’s my home. But we’re the outcasts of the outcasts here. This isn’t where you start out, it’s where you end up. Now, I’m a respectable woman. I run this hotel with my beautiful husband, make a decent-enough living. But I’m lucky. I’ve done my time, trying to spare you from doing yours.”

“Why me?”

“You can still make something of yourself. That’s why I wait at the bus station. I don’t want you kids getting lost before you even have a chance to be found.” She lifted my chin. “You got this one chance, you hear me? I just gave you your Get Out of Jail Free card. That’s it. Your only one. Don’t you waste it, now. And don’t you forget who gave it to you.”
I nodded again.

“Good. Now let’s go grab you a bite and send you on your way.”

*

We walked down the street another block to Compton’s Cafeteria, with a sign over the front door that said ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. Well, we sure did.

A bell dinged. And life on the other side whiplashed me: a menagerie of wigs and crinoline skirts and intoxicating perfume and angora sweaters and hairspray and a sea of laughter and chatter swirling in smoke.

“Welcome to Wonderland,” Esmeralda said. I followed her to a corner booth by the front window, where a gaggle of girls sat with Tommy.

“What’ll it be, sugar?” the waitress asked. She looked like an ironed white linen napkin, crisp and clean, with plastic butterfly barrettes bouncing through her hair. She pulled a pen attached to a long chain out of her pocket.

“Adam and Eve on a raft. Stretch me a redhead and hold the ice,” Esmeralda said. This made sense to the waitress: She nodded, scribbled, and walked away.

I spent the rest of the night devouring eggs on toast and Cokes with cherry juice and no ice, listening to the girls gossip as they paid me no attention. From the latest word on the street: “Did you hear Louise ended up in the hole?” to Vietnam drafts: “Honey, I just said I was as queer as a three-dollar bill and they x’d me out right there,” to secret woman tips: “You can fill nylons with birdseed to make boobies.”

This is where I sit now, listening and writing in my spiral notebook (my only safe place), because I don’t want to forget anything Esmeralda told me. And I especially don’t want to forget Esmeralda before she sends me off to Aunt Luna’s.

CALL AUNT LUNA
421-7070
JERSEY AND CASTRO
XOXO ESMERALDA ESPERANZA

The Edge of Being will be released on October 11, 2022 from Nancy Paulsen Books.



Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.