Side by Side

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From November 21st to November 28th we’ll be posting writing from Ed Wolf documenting his trip to the Side-By-Side LGBT Film Festival in St. Petersburg. Catch up with Part One, Part Two.   

Part Three: Lost and Found 

Thursday November 21st—Friday November 22nd

I check my email one last time before turning off my computer. Gus van Sant, the director of “Milk” and “Good Will Hunting,” among other films, is going to attend the festival. This is good, I think. More attention, publicity, perhaps even more security.

The Homobile driver is right on time; he texts me to say he’s arrived with his town car. When I bring my bags down to the street, I see an enormous vehicle waiting for me. I get inside and it feels like sitting on a huge red velvet sofa with wheels. The driver’s caffeinated and friendly. His fingernails are painted black. He’s already done a roundtrip to the airport this morning and asks where I’m going. I tell him about the film festival in St. Petersburg and he, like everyone else, is already very aware of the oppression of the Russian queer community there. “I hope they don’t burn it all down,” he says and then, after a pause, “I hope they don’t arrest you.”

I reassure him that won’t happen, that it’s the Russian LGBT community who are in much more danger than I am, but still, I’m struck by his quick response and how it points to one of the worst case scenarios that’s been running through my thoughts these past few days: a giant fire and me behind bars.

I tell him about “We Were Here,” how it tells the story of the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. He tells me when he tested positive, the counselor told him he would live about ten years, that he should take care of his health as best he could, and not to see any sad movies. I tell him that the film is going to be screening at the Castro Theatre the following weekend, December 1st, World AIDS Day. He says he’ll probably be out of town.

And then we’re at the airport. I check one bag and keep a smaller one with me. It’s got my shaving kit, one clean set of clothes, and my laptop power cord. My itinerary is San Francisco to Washington DC to Geneva to St. Petersburg. It starts out well until I switch planes in Washington. The flight is so crowded that they have to take my bag and check it. They assure me it will be there in St. Petersburg when I arrive. I score an exit row and am actually able to sleep for some of the eight hours.

We hit some turbulence along the way, and are delayed landing. I miss my connection to St. Petersburg, but I’m quickly rebooked, heading back to Frankfurt, then reconnected to a flight there that will take me to St. Petersburg. No exit row this time. My poor knees are crammed into the back of the seat in front of me and I’m so close to the woman sitting there I can see over her shoulder. She’s reading Crime and Punishment in Russian.

We finally land in St. Petersburg. As I wait for my luggage to appear, that sinking feeling arrives, so common to anyone who flies. Everyone pulls bags off the conveyer but me. Within five minutes, all my fellow passengers are gone and I’m standing alone and empty-handed. I find my way to Lufthansa Lost and Found. Luckily, the woman speaks English and explains that I need to fill out six forms, describing the contents of my luggage, how much it’s all worth, and where I’ll be staying in St. Petersburg. The woman can see my exhaustion and frustration. She leads me behind the counter and together we fill out the forms. It’s very kind of her and I tell her so. She shrugs it off and then walks with me to the exit, where I go through customs.

Sasha, one of the volunteers with Side-by-Side is standing there, holding a sign with my name on it. He has waited for the hour it’s taken me to fill out all the forms. I’m so happy to see him I want to hug him, but shake his hand instead. He hails a taxi, one with a back seat that is too small for me. There’s a lot of activity with passengers coming and going and I’m not all the way in the taxi before it begins to move. I’m still trying to get my legs in when the driver pulls away from the curb.

I get in the front seat and we’re on our way to the hotel. I tell Sasha that my luggage is lost and he reassures me it will turn up. I ask how the opening night of the festival went. He tells me there was a bomb scare before the first opening screening. (The words of the Homobile driver flash through my head.) The audience had to leave the theatre and stand outside in the cold before going back in. He said there were some hecklers in the crowd, but it all seemed harmless. The screening went on as planned and police escorts were available afterwards to provide extra security.

When we pull up in front of the hotel, I see that it’s not the one I reported to the Lufthansa Lost and Found. Sasha reassures me that it can all be worked out. I know I’m rattled now, exhausted, worried about my luggage. When I finish checking in I turn and hug him the way I wanted to at the airport. Then I go upstairs to my room.

I quickly get out of my clothes. They may need to serve me for the next few days. I’ve got thirty-seven minutes of power on my laptop left. I’m exhausted. I lay down on the incredibly comfortable bed and turn the television on. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I watch Jackie trying to climb out of the limousine, and then I start to fall asleep. It’s been twenty-seven hours since I left home.

Image via Bar Tab SF.