Ben Platt
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Exclusive | My Desert Mirage

Remember the end of Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, having inspired his doormat dad to stand-up to Biff the Bully, returns to the present day and barely recognizes it? That's kind of how I felt on my recent trip to Phoenix where I attended Arizona State University in the Brat Pack '80s (Go Sundevils!) I felt turned around and out of sorts the whole time, kind of like Paula Abdul at your average American Idol taping. These were my old stomping grounds, yet I couldn't find my footing.

The dislocation mind-trip would be understandable if I was a big partier in college but I was a clean teen. So I'm blaming the Phoenix metropolitan area, AKA the Valley of the Sun, for changing so dramatically. First off, The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, where I got my degree, isn't even on the main ASU Tempe campus anymore. So if I were ever asked to speak there -- not that I would be -- I could begin my talk like this: "It's so great to be back here ? wait, where am I?"

The journalism department is now in downtown Phoenix, along with a modern, new convention center and hip, new eateries like Hanny's, which is named for the menswear store that used to occupy the building. I loved the onion rings and pizza there, but my favorite thing was the vintage d?cor, like the vertigo-causing, Plexiglas-covered elevator shaft.

Getting around Phoenix has changed dramatically as well since my glory days as a Sundevil. Locals spout unfamiliar freeway numbers -- the 202, the 101, the 303 -- like they're playing Big Bucks Bingo and I'm still stuck on Candyland. At least the just-opened Metro light rail is new to everyone. And it happens to have some gay clubs on its route -- Amsterdam and Charlie's. This is good news for pub-crawlers who don?t want to drive, as well as proponents of Risky Business-style train shenanigans. You know who you are.

The first gay bar I ever went to in my life happened to be in Phoenix. It was called Hotbods and it disappeared decades ago, along with parachute pants and the actor who played Jake Ryan in 16 Candles. I was what I like to call "pre-gay" at the time and went "on a lark" with my roommates who were slightly less pre-gay than I was. I remember the light-up dance floor where I saw two guys kiss for the first time. I tittered like a teenage girl, like I had gone to see some exotic wildlife exhibit. Alas, this was before camera phones.

I hit two bars on my recent trip, the popular, multi-room two-step emporium Charlie's in Phoenix and the contemporary video bar BS West in Scottsdale. They were both fun and friendly -- once I got inside. At both places, I had a hard time finding the entrance and wandered around like Spinal Tap looking for the stage. In both cases, I ended up going through what felt like a secret back door. Fitting, I guess. Gays love their secret back doors.

Part One | Part Two

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