Friday, January 16, 2009

Whalton Lane

I'm not sure why but Richard A Heyman is only tentatively memorialized as America's first openly gay mayor. I suppose it's possible there was some other person someplace else across the fruited plain who was out of the closet and elected mayor prior to 1983, but no one has stepped forward to make the claim so it seems safe enough to award the title to Heyman, then a resident at Whalton Lane, off the 900 block of Duval, a place that nowadays is an unremarkable alley: Heyman served in the days before the Internet became popular so there isn't much information about him. From what I can gather Heyman was an affable guy, well liked enough to knock a Conch off the pedestal for the top job, which must have been a shock to the not-yet-ready-for-gay-prime time crowd in the city. It seems quite a crowd gathered at Heyman's home for the announcement of his candidacy, but his home has been relabeled in line with uniform street numbering in the city. I cannot be sure but I think Number 1 Whalton Lane should have been around here: Though in the proper tradition of American political notables and their legends it might have been more suitable for Heyman to have lived in this picturesque garden shed, Key West's answer to the log cabin of political myth making:
I asked an acquaintance of mine who lived in Key West during Heyman's second term as mayor (1987-89) and she had no clue where Whalton Lane might be, so as is the way in a city that is in a constant state of ferment, struggling with change, the lane these days is just another picturesque back alley ducking out of the chaos of Duval Street:
With a resident alley cat of course, wary of the camera as all divas should be:

Whalton Lane reminds me of that poet with a wintry and tenuous connection to Key West, Robert Frost whose poem "Mending Wall" is often misquoted as a way to justify building fences in places where the poet worries more about giving offence than keeping out imaginary cows. Whalton Lane, historic seat of openness to change has become all fenced in:

Personally I wouldn't mind a fence around my suburban lot, and residents of the city will tell you that without fences heaven knows who will take up residence on your porch, because Key West is filled with people seeking a place to sleep it off every night. But I think of Frost's poem making gentle fun of the fearful:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."And that which looks at first glance like an antidote to fencing neighbors in, is actually a genuflection to another Key West claimed literary icon:Well, yes much better to name oneself after a man of literary action, a bull runner, a drinker and a serial spouse. Poor old Richard Heyman can hardly compete can he? All we've got to remember him by is the sewage treatment plant on Fleming Key, photographed here from high atop the Parking Garage, as Fleming is now a super secret Navy base and inaccessible to simple history buffs like you and me:I was forgetting because Heyman died in the 1990's of AIDS related pneumonia there is one other place he is remembered, other than his extremely valuable if unglamorous devotion to clean sewage. That is at the Aids Memorial at White Street Pier, from whose website I found this photo of his inscription:I wonder if the kid I spotted moving his belongings into the lane has any notion that America's first gay mayor lived here, campaigned from here and celebrated his win here. I didn't interrupt him to ask and perhaps he would have surprised me had I had the nerve.Whalton Lane is marked as far as I could see, not by a plaque to Heyman but by crass commercialism, a sandal shop gets a nice big oval, temporarily enhanced by the presence of a green Triumph Bonneville: There is currently a movie making the rounds with lots of Oscar buzz, "Milk" celebrating the life and marking the assassination of Harvey Milk elected to the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the same time as Heyman was elected to the Key West City Commission. I've heard rumors that there may one day be a documentary made about Richard Heyman but for now Sean Penn takes the title role in the Milk biography, coming soon to the Tropic Cinema:And as the lives of these two pioneers come briefly into view it is an odd notion to me that gays can't come out of the closet after all this time, except in small pockets of the country, like Key West and San Francisco's Castro district among others. I tried to convince my young gay colleague at work that he might want to see the movie to learn how it used to be, but he shrugged: "Its about old people," he said, reminding me that history is a much undervalued subject in America.