MICHAEL LANE and JIM CROTTY
The Monastic Life:
Talking with Gay MONK Zine Icons
Michael Lane and Jim Crotty
By Owen Keehnen
(This interview originally appeared in Chicago Outlines, Out in Albuquerque, and The San Francisco Sentinel in July 1993)
In 1985 lovers Michael Lane and Jim Crotty took off in an Econoline 100 van for an extended journey and life on the road with their two cats, Nurse and Nurse's Aide. To pay for necessities such as food and gas they began 'MONK', a newsletter of their madcap of Kerou-wacky experiences to send to friends. Subscribers could buy a lifetime (and beyond) membership for $100. The newsletter/travelogue caught on immediately and soon MONK magazine had a slick format and mainstream advertisers. Today MONK is still the world's only mobile magazine, readership hovers around 120,000 and David Byrne and Yoko Ono are subscribers. Today The Monks are still living on the road, but now they drive a major RV.
Mad Monks on the Road is their story. It recounts the concept that sent them journeying and many, but certainly not all of their adventures. There's also a fair dosage of road philosophy tossed in for good measure. This uniquely told story of lives in transit is a funny, odd, sweetly humanitarian, and very queer tale. Straight men have been doing this cross-country odyssey and writing about it for decades. But the highways and byways were never really given an honest to goodness "monking" until Michael Lane and James Crotty hit the road.
Recently I had a chance to chat SEPARATELY with the two guys about everything from their groundbreaking zine and life on the road to the evolution of a lifestyle and capturing a dream..
What is the biggest plus of traveling without having a specific destination in mind?
Michael: It's only for people who love a total sense of adventure. If you're into living on the edge this is the way to live and if you like not knowing what's next this is really cool. It challenges a person to know who you are and use your resources. The other big plus is meeting people. It wipes out the idea that we're limited in who our friends can be. It makes you open up in new ways.
Is there a down side?
Michael: I get insecure at times and can feel rootless, like I have no mission in life.
Does that feeling ever cause you to consider changing your lifestyle or do you think you'll always be a 'fagabond'?
Michael: I don't think I'll always be a fagabond, but at this point I'm committed to it. Now there's a magazine with 120,000 readers. My reputation is built on traveling so I've created this sort of personal debt for myself.
So taking that into consideration do you think the magazine has helped or hindered the freedom of the Monks?
Michael: It's helped. The first couple years we traveled our sense of freedom was limited financially. Sometimes we could travel for a week but then we had to start dealing with making money. We'd be at the mercy of whatever small town we were in. That wasn't freedom. It was freedom to get behind the steering wheel and go, but when the gas was gone --- so was freedom.
What was the original vision or concept that sparked your lifestyle?
Michael: Jim and I were both living in San Francisco. We had friends, but felt really isolated. We wanted to go on a mystical journey to find our "family". That's magic when you start meeting people who become your family. That's our goal as Monks, to be open to whomever we meet and whatever we experience. That's why we call ourselves Monks, because by tradition it is a discipline to remain open-minded.
Mad Monks on the Road is an adventure/road story and it is also the story of you and Jim as a couple and as two men living together in a trailer. What exactly is your relationship to Jim?
Michael: We were lovers for five years and then in the middle of a journey we broadened our relationship and it doesn't include that anymore. It's unspoken, but we still know. Despite the hysterics of living in such a small space together year after year, there is a very deep connection between us.
As a rule in your travels are people accepting of you? Do you experience much homophobia on the road?
Michael: It's changed. In 1986 and 1987 when we were first traveling we had some very blatant experiences. Nothing violent, but definite threats. It's never really stopped, but I've noticed a change. Not so much people more accepting as people more exposed. Seven years ago we went some places where we were the first gay persons these towns had ever seen. Now we’ve become a very visible community so by virtue of that there isn't the sort of hysteria that there was. Now in most cases we just blend in. People can be pretty blind, so for a while I had bumper stickers all over the RV, just so people wouldn't have to question…stuff like 'Queers R Us', 'I Brake for Dykes', pink triangles, etc.
Would you classify your Monk lifestyle as a form of outreach?
Michael: There are some caravan people who are true outreach folks and do education to the hilt. They speak at schools and things along those lines. We're not like that, we're just visible in and of ourselves, but yes, I think there’s some form of outreach in that.
Did you ever envision the MONK newsletter turning into "The World’s Only Mobile Magazine" with a readership of over 100,000?
Michael: No. When it started we mapped out we were going to visit seven parts of the country, write seven newsletters, photocopy them, and send them to our friends. That was all we had in mind. From the very first one it took off to another level.
How would things have been different if you hadn't met Jim in 1985?
Michael: I would have gone the road of the pseudo performance artist/poet/struggling computer nerd looking for a way to bridge it all together and not sure how to do it.
And instead you found the answer.
Jim, why specifically are you called The Mad Monk?
Jim: Because I'm totally insane and it's a well-known fact that craziness and brilliance are Siamese twins.
Let's start with something light. Are you progressively evolving towards your dream lifestyle by doing what you're doing or is what you're doing the dream?
Jim: I've always wanted to have a totally self-sufficient lifestyle, like a turtle in a shell where all my needs are met very simply. I like to think of it as my astronaut in training program. I was living out of a backpack when I met Michael in San Francisco and the evolution continued. If the book goes well and everything falls into place I'll probably have the financial means to create simplicity. That sounds like a paradox, but they always say Gandhi needed fifty million people to live simply. To break away from this culture but still live in it you need lots of money. When Michael and I met we merged and created a business out of this lifestyle and in making a business about a simple lifestyle we created a very complex lifestyle. That's the necessary door to go through where we can live totally on the road and have things like a mobile phone and a mobile FAX -- a lot of the things that would make a completely high-tech mobile lifestyle possible. Right now we're pretty low tech about it so that's the next level in terms of the evolution of the vagabond. That is the space capsule, my dream when we started out. Now I've been on the road ten years, seven of them with Michael. I'm burning out on it a little bit.
What's something everyone should be aware of about The Monks?
Jim: That we have a number. 1-800-GET-MONK is the Monk travel update line with the travel info and subscription info and also people can just leave messages if they want to and we'll call them back.
What city are you doing now?
Jim: Los Angeles.
When are you going to give Chicago a featured Monking?
Jim: It could very well happen this fall because we're traveling across Canada in late August. I had my first gay experience in Chicago.
Oh really. One of the interwoven themes of Mad Monks on the Road deals with your emerging sexual identity. How do people on the road respond to that?
Jim: We're very disarming in a good sense. There's definitely homophobia there a lot of times, but you just dance around it. You don't bring out your Act-Up self in Huntsville, Arkansas. There are just aspects of your personality, not everything, but parts, that you put in the closet. Michael on the Kinsey scale of 1-6 says he's a 5.98, almost completely homosexual. I, on the other hand, am a tri-sexual: I'll try anything. No, maybe on a Kinsey scale I'm more a 3 or 4. I go for the persona and worry about the equipment later…that's my basic operating philosophy. But community-wise I feel much more aligned with the gay community than I do with the straight community.
You're a Monk of travel. What is the spiritual aspect of being on the road?
Jim: The lifestyle. Being on the road itself is a spiritual experience. Anyone who's hitchhiked at least 3-6 months, living such a raw and bare bones existence knows that it puts you in touch with your real priorities in life. It tests your mettle as a person. It makes you appreciate what it means to be alive, little things become beautiful to you and you have what is known as beginner's mind. That's why when Kerouac, William Least-Heat Moon, and Steinbeck write it has a spiritual quality to it, because the spiritual life is often described as a journey. That's the metaphor almost always used so metaphorically--you are living out this spiritual journey everyday. The road is a great teacher.
Thanks Jim, and happy trails and all that to the both of you.