Credit: Jade Zhang/Xtra
People Like Me
6 min

Blondie’s ‘Call Me’ launched my journey as a gay sexual outlaw

I wanted to be one who was called the American gigolo

My high school was partitioned like postwar Berlin, with musical genres — hetero-affirming rock versus anything sexually ambiguous — on opposite sides. If you liked new wave music, you were a fag. If you liked disco music, you were a faggot. I kept sides until the day I heard a song that knocked it all down. I was riding in the back of my mom’s car the first time I heard it playing on a Top 40 station, something edgy and fast, crashing guitar licks over a driving beat. It raised my heart rate and lifted my sweaty butt off the seat, like when you go fast over the bridge. The singer’s high-register seduction struck me with a direct signal.

In today’s terms, I was gagged.

“Color me your color, baby,” she crooned, “Color me your car . . .”

The DJ announced: “that was Blondie with the hit single, ‘Call Me.’”

The next time I heard it was in the discount department store on the other end of my Long Island suburb, with Debbie Harry cooing in my ear ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh appelle-moi, mon cherie. Stalking the racks of albums, I was too scared to ask for help. I’d seen enough “DISCO SUCKS” T-shirts under the leather jackets of the self-appointed enforcers of social order to know what would happen to me if the word got out.

Finally, I found “Call Me” on a single record at the shopping mall. The subtitle printed below the spindle hole read “(Theme from the Paramount Picture AMERICAN GIGOLO.)” The song topped the charts in 1980, the year I turned 16, while the film opened wide to middling box office.

This suggestive reference to an R-rated movie I was too young to see left a lasting impression on me. The word gigolo hadn’t been in any spelling bee, but the inferences were enough to fuel my adolescent fantasies of seductive power and ease at negotiating the social world, two attributes I distinctly lacked, and a longing that has bent the trajectory of my life.

I grew up in an insular suburban town. It was a majority white enclave, fugitives from Brooklyn. They’d settled in tract houses built on marshland, protected by red lines against social upheavals and racial strife. Did you know that Long Island is a glacial moraine? A huge glacier dragged its ass over a once-contoured landmass, leaving a big rut. I longed to pull myself out of this rut, but as adolescence raged on I felt it only deepening.

I hadn’t always felt this despair: as the first male child born to a traditional Italian family, I once had favoured status. My family held on to old-world values through the sexual revolution. I was treated like a prince, lavished with indulgences and favoured by my grandma with extra cookies. I had a seat at the big table for Sunday dinners, whereas little brother and the cousins were banished to a folding thing in the alcove.

But now I was lost in the wider world, barely able to form friendships, except with other outsiders. I was overly sensitive and often misunderstood.

The erotic demands, sultry cooing in two Romance languages, French and Italian, and whispered promises of Harry — Blondie’s lead singer — stalked my late adolescence. Her voice tuned out my disordered emotions, though the vocals confused me: Was this woman’s voice the inner voice of the gigolo? Who’s calling whom, and where did I fit into the picture? Could this sultry lady voice be an expression of my inner thoughts? Or was I the gigolo, whatever that may be? Card cheat, salesman, Italian vagabond?

Boys couldn’t sing along to Debbie Harry — that was suspicious — so I kept the song in my mouth and kept up my guard. Those crashing guitars pulsed at my temples as I stared down at my changing body in the shower, as I dodged the social enforcers, as I drifted through suburban nights. Blondie’s music flooded every situation with sensual promise.

Acceptance to art school in the city got me out of that suburban rut. In my sophomore year, I met a society decorator, an aristocratic Brit of some renown. He was a Romantic and I appeared to him his ideal: a pretty Italian youth, just rough enough around the edges. We went out for dinner, and over many more nights, the universe of kept boys and sugar daddies was revealed to me.

Throughout my 20s, I lived out a fantasy. The decorator took me to his tailor, and I was fitted for custom suits. We shared the wine at the finest restaurants, and visited European palaces and gardens. I learned to perform the role of outré charmer for his society friends in three romance languages.

Though the contours of my experience — the wardrobe, the obsession, the luxury — track neatly with those of the film’s protagonist, my Lauren Hutton was a drunken Englishman with ruddy cheeks and spats holding up his socks. It was whirlwind and glamorous, except when it wasn’t; the decorator’s drinking ravaged his mind and his body over time, while my sexual awakening was captive to his obsession. Debbie Harry’s seductive vocals were in my ear giving me the courage to play through the peril.

After that captive, drunken decade, one refrain rang out: I’d been rolled in designer sheets, and I’d had enough. I survived the decorator’s romantic obsession and all that wine we shared, though that particular combination proved fatal for him. It took me another decade to recover my sexuality from the cage of his dysfunctional longing.

In my 30s, I embarked on hourly sex work. I had bills to pay, and it was an effort to set my own terms, to understand my desirability beyond my late sugar daddy’s romantic lens. My clients called, and as they articulated their desires, I explored my own. I imagined myself a sort of qualified service worker, a mechanic of longings. Through the experience of setting my own terms, I managed to reclaim my sexuality.

Recently, I finally watched Paul Schrader’s stylish, uneven American Gigolo. It’s pretty obviously a gay story, straight-washed for mainstream audiences. The gigolo character has a gay pimp and alludes to dalliances with men while maintaining that he doesn’t do “fag jobs” any more. The villain of the story is a strung-out gay hustler; that pimp gets thrown off a balcony. It’s as problematic as many Hollywood depictions of sex work and as homophobic as many other cultural touchstones from the ’80s.

For all its lush imagery, and despite the ways my experience tracks with the film, I don’t see myself in American Gigolo. I see myself in “Call Me.” The song — and all that it conjured for me — was how I reckoned with my adult sexuality. I’d taken the lyrics as a sort of instruction manual in the absence of any other. Its beat, repetition, sultry coaxing, and charged inferences accompanied me as I navigated longing.

It was by no means a straight line, or even a winding path. It was more like a series of trap doors in a haunted manor, but I made it out. These days, I hear the song often — over chain store speakers, on throwback satellite stations, in city streets, in snippets from passing cars. Young people around me hear it for the first time and get into it freely, unbothered by genre conflict or haunted longings. I love them for it.

People Like Me