John Rabe, 46, and Julian Bermudez, 38, met at the close of a sunny day in Malibu in 2001, when separate afternoons spent sunbathing on the shores of El Matador beach led both to the Friendship on West Channel Road. The nautical-themed watering hole, one of L.A. County's oldest gay bars, was a popular alternative to the club-heavy scene in West Hollywood, Rabe recalls. You could go just to talk, not necessarily to hook up.
Established in 1937, the bar's history ran deep — most of the structure had been ruined in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but the original old keel, salvaged from a shipwreck in the 1930s, remained over the bar, carved with the names of men who'd shared drinks there. By the time the bar closed a few years ago, most of the names had been painted over in white — a ritual memorial to customers who'd died.
Long before Rabe and Bermudez met, Christopher Isherwood, who lived nearby in Santa Monica Canyon, depicted the landmark affectionately in his novel A Single Man, “down on the corner of the ocean highway, across from the beach, its round green porthole lights shining to welcome you.”
Rabe bought Bermudez a $1 burger, and they were a half-hour into their first chat when the friend Bermudez had arrived with decided he was ready to go home. Rabe insisted that Bermudez give him his number first. “And don't give me a fake one,” he said.
Bermudez's friend warned him not to get involved with the tall Midwesterner. He was obviously a hustler, he cautioned. But Bermudez ignored him. “You have a bad track record with boys in general,” he thought. “I'm not going to follow your advice. I'll go with my gut.”
The men dated exclusively from the beginning. Eleven years later and now happily married, “It's the world's longest hustle,” Rabe jokes.
For Rabe, a journalist and host of KPCC's Off-Ramp, and Bermudez, a gallery owner and curator, the city is both their office and their playground.
Rabe grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and moved to Southern California from Minneapolis in 2000, leaving behind a failed marriage to his college girlfriend, which ended when he met a man. When he arrived in L.A., he experienced not “culture shock,” he says, but “culture relief,” because “Minneapolis is everything that Garrison Keillor says it is.”
Petite and well-coiffed, Bermudez is a third-generation Angeleno and a fifth-generation American. Raised in South Gate, Huntington Park and Bell, Bermudez was living in West Hollywood when he met Rabe. He has never lived outside of L.A. County, and he can barely even remember exactly how old he was when he came out. It was somewhere around age 14, he says, and the announcement was hardly a surprise to his family.
Bermudez Projects, his small but capacious gallery, is on the eighth floor of the historic Anjac Fashion Building in the downtown Fashion District. Though Bermudez hosts regular exhibitions in this space, his work extends throughout the city; he's usually out discovering new artists and curating pop-up shows in alternative venues. This month, he'll host John Rabe's Acid Free, an exhibition of brilliantly colored, large-format prints of photographs that Rabe took with an iPhone. The images are sort of visual distillations of Off-Ramp — snapshots of Space Shuttle Endeavour parading through the streets of Los Angeles, spindly palms leaning into neon-blue skies — the city tinted by Rabe's beloved eye, from his beloved angle.
Just as Rabe's vision hangs on the walls of Bermudez's gallery, so Bermudez's hangs in Rabe's office building.
At KPCC headquarters, an exhibition of works by L.A.-based black artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Robert Pruitt, Miles Regis and Lezley Saar, inhabits the Crawford Family Forum. Bermudez was the curator.
Driving back to their house after showing off both spaces, Rabe's butter-yellow 1980s Mercedes is noisy. He instinctively reaches to turn up the volume on his idle radio because he can't hear what Bermudez is saying — as if even his husband's voice is naturally carried by the airwaves.
Tonight, Rabe has his frequent gig at Colombo's Italian Steakhouse, where he sings with the Bryan Miller band, “lustily and generally in tune,” while Bermudez has an art-world dinner to attend on the Westside. But when they're together, they're focused on one another.
According to Rabe, any member of his family will tell you how much happier he has been since he met Bermudez. And, although it has taken Bermudez's traditional Catholic mother a while to grow comfortable with his relationship, his family loves Rabe. Bermudez's father built the couple's kitchen, milling their cabinets by hand. They spend Christmas with the family at Bermudez's beloved grandmother's house in “The Comptons.”
Rabe often weaves the couple's adventures into his weekend show. “I don't talk about our incredible sex life or arguments, or whatever, but anything that's interesting. I don't think you can be effective on the radio if you're extremely private. There are anchors and hosts who keep it quiet, and you can sense that they're hiding something, and that creates a barrier. “
Rabe hadn't planned to reveal his sexual orientation on-air in Los Angeles when he did. It just happened. He was talking about a new movie and mentioned that he'd seen it with his boyfriend.
“I remember wondering, 'Well, should I say this or not?' As a reporter, you're supposed to just report the news and not infuse a bunch of personal stuff. But as a host, the point is to relate to people, to get the news out by relating to people, and you can't censor yourself like that because the public listeners have a very acute bullshit sensor. They will know if you say 'my friend' or 'we' — there are all these ways that closeted people get around it. And straight people never say 'my secret friend.' Larry Mantle would say, 'My wife and I went to see this and talked about this aspect of the movie' or whatever. So I decided that that's absolutely the way I should talk on the radio.”
He adds, “There was immediately absolutely no reaction. In Minnesota, listeners would have been, like, 'Oh, yeah, good for you.' Here, they're, like, 'Next.' 'What's interesting about this?' Which was kind of nice and made it a lot easier.”
On a Saturday morning, Rabe and Bermudez drink coffee out of Heath mugs at their kitchen table after staying up until 3 a.m. watching the extended version of the last film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Their modest house, off the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Mount Washington, is well-lived-in and warm. From the top of their terraced backyard, outfitted with an antiques-filled man cave, you can glimpse the U.S. Bank building downtown and Griffith Observatory. A couple of koi mingle with Morning Edition host Steve Julian's goldfish in a pond that Rabe constructed below. Three Irish terriers wag their welcome to any visitors.
They pride themselves on the harmony and fluidity of their lifestyle. For years after they started dating, much to the confusion of many of their friends, Bermudez kept his West Hollywood apartment as a sort of “steam valve” for their relationship. They wrote their wedding vows privately and didn't share them with one another beforehand. They travel with few details worked out in advance — yet they don't fight on road trips.
“To understand us is to understand our drive for exploration, our curiosity,” Bermudez explains. “We don't get a cup of coffee down the street and sit there for five hours. There's too much to see.”
Colorful magnets on their refrigerator chart their travels together: Yosemite, Paris, New York, Istanbul, Troy, Trieste. Large paintings adorn the living room walls, and little artworks accent most surfaces. Bermudez gets wide-eyed when he speaks about the artists, a combination of L.A.-based emerging talents and established names — among them Enrique Castrejon, Shepard Fairey, Camille Rose Garcia, Graciela Iturbide, Todd Schorr, Adam Silverman and Edward Walton Wilcox.
Rabe points out one of his favorites. It's a somber painting by a Cal State Long Beach B.F.A. student, Atsumi Okano, a sort of variation of the traditional cherry-blossom imagery in a minor key, painted in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
It's “a perfect example of how art intersects with news,” Rabe says.
Or, perhaps, a perfect example of how Julian intersects with John.