When My World Was Young 1956-60   The Yellow Brick Road 1956-60    What a Wonderful Town 1960-61    
Wonderful Town (pt. II) 1962-66  The Gay Sixties 1966-70 The Juicy Life 1971-76 
  Juicy Life (pt. II) 1976-80   Losing Alexandria 1981-87   The AIDS Spectacle
Losing Alexandria (pt. II) 1987-1990's



1956 - 1960


1956 is the year that the Supreme Court strikes down segregation on public buses.  It is also the year that Alabama outlaws the NAACP, and in Clinton, Tenn. tanks are used to keep order during school integration.  Autherine Lucy, a black girl, enrolled in the University of Alabama and her attempt to attend precipitates riots that rivet the attention of the entire country.

I went to Syracuse University, located in the city of Syracuse on one of the Finger Lakes in central New York State.  The city had a population of 220,000, and the university had a combined undergrad-grad enrollment of about 12,000 as I recall.  The student body was almost exclusively white.  Tensions tended to shape up along religious lines between Christians and Jews, or Protestants and Jews against Catholics.  (Protestants were the religious majority - S.U. was nominally a Methodist school, but there were a large number of Jewish students, while Catholics were the smallest group.)  There was also a not unusual divide between those students who came from small towns or rural areas and those from the metropolises and suburbs of the Northeast.  (Most of the Jewish students fell into the latter category.)  The Greek fraternity/sorority system was a dominant presence in campus life, and Greek houses were almost always either exclusively Christian or Jewish (and for many the exclusivity was part of their written charter.)  Independents (those who did not belong to a fraternity/sorority) may have actually been a majority, I can't remember.  There was a passionate struggle among the Greek houses for control of student politics and organizations, but in my experience Independents didn't give a fart in a jug about their jockeying to be King of the Mountain.     

Freshman year was deja vue all over again, as they say.  My roommate is this incredibly good looking, polished guy with all the right Ivy League clothes, and an older brother, a senior, who was in the best fraternity on campus; across the hall is a Marlon Brando look-alike who lifts weights; next to him is this Italian macho jock whose body looks like he modeled for the Farnese Hercules...and on it went.  Or so it seemed because my roommate became the guy everyone wanted to know, plus he got a steady stream of his brother's fraternity brothers as visitors.  But where did I fit in the middle of all this??!  Of course I was probably surrounded by other guys who were feeling pretty much the same way I was, but when you're chewing your finger nails to the bone and sitting there feeling like it was high school gym class twenty-four hours a day, who gets beyond me-me-me? 

I found out real fast from my roommate that if you were the slightest bit cool you did not listen to R&B/R&R, you listened to jazz.  (I should have thought, Ivy League, Shmivy League - What can he know about music, he comes from somewhere in the armpit of New Hampshire.)  You did not get too friendly with Jews.  (My best friend in high school had been one of the three Jews in our school.  I could see already I was off on the wrong foot.)  Older Brother showed up a few times and made no attempt to hide the fact that he was inspecting me.  He - I was loftily informed after his first visit - was no longer living at the fraternity house ("never say frat!").  He had an apartment with a "woman," not a girl - a woman!  (Yeah, I get the difference.)  But I was impressed...more like intimidated, not just by him but by the whole nine yards. 

          Syracuse University quad

With a Farnese Hercules or a weightlifting Marlon Brando look-alike standing next to you, shower time was an exercise in embarrassment and eyeball control.  On the other hand, I was not only still going steady (and having sex with) the girl back home, we had it all doped out that we'd be married after I graduated.  (Right! "What fools we mortals be..." and so on, and so on.)  Meanwhile, I had some platonic dates with a very non-threatening girl in a freshman cottage where a classmate of mine from high school lived.   

And - because you were supposed to do it if you wanted to be really in the swing of college life - I rushed fraternities.  How could you not do it?  (I was too much of a sheep to actually entertain that question before I got involved in the rushing process.)  I got invited to pledge the fraternity that was the rival to my roommate's brother's Best-Fraternity-On-Campus.  I was told later that some of the brothers had thought that I was good-looking enough to become an accomplished "ass man," and thus a star in their crown.  (Good grief!)   I bridled at the enforced camaraderie and the clubby atmosphere. And I really loathed having to dress up in a suit and tie for dinner just because the House Mother was in attendance, and the unbelievable aping of something akin to country club elitism that was the heart of fraternity/sorority life.  I soon hated it.  But I was still very, very far from having any independence or self-confidence. 

I should like it.

Never mind that it was about nothing that mattered to me, and about some things I found disturbing.  And these "brothers" wanted you to dance attendance on the fraternity every free minute you had, they wanted to know who your friends were; were as demanding about my wardrobe and haircut as my parents, and wanted to know if you dated and who you dated - a little problem here, you see the girl I was dating at my friend's cottage dorm was Jewish.  This fraternity (as did most others on campus) had a no-Jews/no Negroes policy.  Some of these guys liked to push that even into the realm of dating.  A couple of days before initiation, in a sudden panic, I dropped out.

[In the autumn of 2005 Delta Lamdba Phi, a national fraternity of gay, bisexual and progressive men, had their SU colony formally approved as a campus fraternity.  To say that this is totally mind-blowing to me is an understatement.]    

I was now what was referred to as a GDI (God Damned Independent), a takeoff on the Greek letter identifications of fraternity people, like DKE for members of Delta Kappa Epsilon, etc.  Most of  the former fraternity "brothers" gave me the silent treatment after that, or barely acknowledged me with a hi or a nod of the head - except for one upperclassman, Andy, one of the most handsome and popular of the upperclassmen brothers, who continued to behave pleasantly when we crossed paths.   

The academic part of college life was a pleasure, and meeting up with Wallace Steven's The Emperor of Ice Cream under the guidance of Miss Sweeny, a grad student instructor in English 101, started opening doors for me.  But then I also took two semesters of geology in order to avoid having to fulfill a math requirement.  The lab instructor in the second semester was a slightly older than usual grad student named Hank.  He was nice looking in a somewhat rough and sloppy way, with a blunt and sometimes crude manner, and he had already been married and divorced.  The girls were wild about him.  When we went out on field trips those students who wanted to could go out barring with him after the class time was up.

          (right ) Chittenango Falls

One of Hank's favorite sites for field trips was Chittenango Falls in the country outside of Syracuse.  The village of Chittenango was the birthplace of  L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz...an appropriate place for the beginning of my own trip down the Yellow Brick Road.

The boozing sessions with Hank began as brief stop-offs at far-flung college hangouts or country taverns that he knew, but soon they stretched out and we would end up late at night in more offbeat places in the city, with only three or four of us still hanging on.  The Brown Jug was one of these, Syracuse's valiant attempt at a jazz bar, but then he took a couple of us to the Penguin Club in the black ghetto, which was the neighborhood that separated the hilltop campus from Salina Street, the main drag.  And one night we made a quick trip into a place called the Bell Room, a gay bar - though I didn't quite get what it was at the time.  I had an uncomfortable sense that he had some interest in or attraction to me - and I for him - but I pulled back from even trying to look at it.                                                                             

He asked for my home phone number at the end of the year because he was going to be manning an exhibit at the county fair near my hometown.  Late that summer he did call one night and was very anxious to get together, but my parents had a hair across their collective ass and I couldn't get away.  Was it about what I only half allowed myself to think it was about, or was it just going to be another night of bar hopping?   Don't know, never saw him again. 

Summer was factory work, R&B and DooWop music, and sex with the girlfriend.  It was not only a vacation from college studies, which I by and large liked a lot, it was also a relief from college social life, in which I hadn't found a comfortable niche.


1957 is the year the Russians sent up Sputnik - yikes!  You could "duck and cover" under your desk from a Red A-bomb (sure, you could), but how did you hide from one of these things?  Senator McCarthy, his career in rapid decline after his censure by the Senate, dies of the complications of  cirrhosis of the liver.  Governor Faubus's resistance to school integration requires the National Guard 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to enforce it.  The craze for pink flamingos as lawn ornaments begins in a small town in Oklahoma.   

Sophomore year I elected to live in one of the old turn-of-the-century clapboard houses that the university still used to house some students.  These were called cottages, and housed twenty to forty guys, and they had a far more pleasant atmosphere than the large dorms that housed thousands of students.  While I still had the girl back home, I started having a boozy affair with Carrie, a remarkably intelligent girl and an already published poet of works definitely not in the adolescent slush vein.  There was only one bar on our officially dry campus, the Orange, which was on a commercial street in the heart of the campus.

Me in Bill Curry's room, 57/58 (photo Bill C.)

We used to go there, and sit in a booth in the back room, which had a dance floor, sucking up cocktails and listening to current hits, such as Prez Prado's Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, and Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue and Mood Indigo.  (While not prohibited, women were discouraged from hanging out in the Orange's street level bar downstairs.)  We also visited her friend Casey, a grad student of hers, who kept a piranha for a pet.  Carrie and I sometimes shopped goldfish for its dinner at the five and ten cent store just for the malicious enjoyment of watching the store clerk’s reaction.


But I also started sleeping with guys again - actually just one.  I met Bill Kenner in one of my classes, and at some point a pass must have been made.  Soon every Saturday that his roommate was playing in the band at the football games, we were having sex in their dorm room - and for the first time I was kissing a guy!  Except that I don't remember the actual first kiss.  But with the addition of "necking" and "petting" as part of having sex with a guy, I knew I had crossed a very important line - though I tried to ignore that fact as best I could.   Bill lived in a wealthy suburb of New York City, and he had an older gay friend/sex partner that he used to meet when he was home, though they didn't go into the city often.  It was from Bill that I began to get some hints about "gay life," although he enjoyed doling his information out in tantalizing bits and hints.  Farther down the line I came to understand that he'd actually had very little involvement in it and was playing at being far more informed than he was.  Also, Bill was from a very, very wealthy social background, and it amused him to play on my lack of sophistication.

   Bessie Smith                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Billy Holiday 

But there was also another gay Bill in my life.  Bill Curry, the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, was one of the few black students on campus.  This Bill lived in my cottage, and he had a program of jazz music on the college radio station.  I spent a lot of time listening to music with Bill and talking to him, and we got to the point of cautiously admitting our homosexual inclinations to each other.  He was the first person I met who liked Bessie Smith, and he gave me the course in Billie Holiday 101. (I am at a loss to recall why after the year was over there was a hiatus in our friendship, perhaps because I moved to another cottage on different part of campus the next year.)                                                                                                                                                                                   


It was at Casey's apartment with Carrie that I first heard Odetta's great album, The Gate of Horn, as well as Leadbelly and the Weavers' Carnegie Hall album (and learned about the latter's troubles because of the Red Scare.)  Milhaud's La Creation du Monde bowled me over.  This may have been the year that Dakota Staten brought out her unbeatable vocal version of Erroll Garner's Misty.  And Billy Holiday again.  I can remember going down to Olmstead's record store on campus to listen to jazz and folk recordings with Carrie in the lean-in listening booths there.  She also introduced me to the recordings of female impersonator Ray Bourbon’s giggly, smutty comedy.  And it was from her and Casey that I first learned of the Beats. 

Although I'm not sure how it came together, I was getting an inkling of "gay" as more than a furtive footnote to "real" life.  Some of this had come from Bill Kenner, certainly, however my exposure to the literature and legends of the Beats also weighed in. The Beat Generation was broadly characterized by an identification with and romanticizing of the world of drugs (speed, marijuana and heroin); bisexuality and homosexuality; involvement with Eastern religions (though sometimes very poorly understood, I’d say); identification with Negroes (no "blacks" back then) and the oppression of Negroes and other fringe groups, including gay people.  Be-bop jazz (Charley Parker was a cult hero) was the musical taste.  The Beats loosely constructed, self-engrossed novels, and far better poetry were already commanding attention outside of bohemian circles. This movement started in San Francisco and Venice, Calif., and then found a home in NYC's Greenwich Village as well, most especially on the eastern edge of the Village, which was a Ukrainian and Polish neighborhood rapidly turning into a Hispanic ghetto.  Nevertheless, it's important to remember that it was about rootlessness and alienation, hence the importance of the "on the road" mystique.

The putative godfathers of the Beat Generation were William Burroughs (left), author of Naked Lunch, and Herbert Huncke (right), Times Square junkie and unknown writer - both were unabashedly gay.   


Publication of Kerouac's On the Road in 1957 marked the Beats debut for most Americans.  There was a tremendous outpouring of writing from the likes of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso - and many others then less well known.  Neil Cassidy, though not a very productive literary talent, occupied an iconic niche: a wild man/free spirit/lunatic/druggie ideal.  He was also bisexual.  Most of these men achieved their reputations as poets, though Kerouac is more famous as a novelist. Ginsburg's long poem Howl enjoyed great underground popularity (and was the focus of an obscenity trial) and the novels of Kerouac, such as On the Road, Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans  rattled a great  many

1959 cover, Signet paperback

 establishment literary critics.  Most of these works had bi- and homosexuality entwined in their plots.  I still have my marked up copies from these years of Howl and Kerouac's book of poems, Mexico City Blues, both of which continued the work started by Miss Sweeney with Wallace Stevens in English 101.

For many teenagers of my generation "Rock Around the Clock" and Rebel Without a Cause had made major impacts on our youthful selves, and for some of us Howl amplified their reverberations a few years later.  Of the Beats it is Ginsburg's work that has had the most staying power over the years - as did Ginsburg himself.  He sustained an interest in Buddhism, and more than three decades later, in the late 80s, I met him at Tibetan Buddhist gatherings in the East Village.    

This counter-culture was not politically confrontational, but was marked by individual lunatic bursts of sexual and social conduct contrary to the prevailing norms, indicative in part perhaps of drug paranoia and the frustrations of the 50's Cold War atmosphere.  This movement's influence on gay people was limited to college campuses and enclaves in NYC and San Francisco, as far as I know.  But it was out there, and its voice was liberating to many who heard it.  And its refusal to treat gay sexuality with shame gave something like a fragile "validation" to homosexuality.   It's probably the case that the Beat phenomenon was more widely accepted as an inheritance by gay men many years after it had peaked creatively, though the fictional world of Rechy's hustler protagonists that began with his 60's novels seems like an early gay descendent of the Beats.   However, for me at this time the Beats were something like the biblical "voice crying in the wilderness," or in this case "howling." 

     (right) Evergreen Review, issue 3, $1.00

This was the time that the Evergreen Review and the Village Voice (a far different journal then than the pretentiously intellectual publication of later decades) became part of my reading.....and later even One, the homophile magazine the Mattachine Society, which had begun appearing in 1953.   

Learning about the Beats, while sniffing around the edges of jazz and the incipient folk music revival, however interesting it may have been, was also part of a self-conscious search for a direction ("definition" or even "image" might be better) counter to my Freshman year attempt to conform to fraternity expectations and so-called Ivy League styles and attitudes.  There were some wardrobe innovations, as well.  I sent away for a catalogue from the Village Squire in New York - which had been confirmed as a gay store, which I had suspected - and I parted with a chunk of my summer earnings to purchase a few definitely non-collegiate items.  These were a couple of new style tapered tee shirts (one "tomato" and the other black), a blue and white striped, boat-neck French sailor's jersey and a pair of black jeans.  But if these purchases suggest "bohemian", it was definitely more by way of the Hollywood musical An American in Paris than the Beats.  Next, my very short cut, brushed flat hairstyle was allowed to grow out - and grow out -  until it came as close as I dared to being a length that suggested it could be combed into that most non-collegiate item of all, the DA or ducktail - pure high school and James Dean!  

And, as a more personal affirmation of my new, but not at all confident, outsider status, I attended a rock 'n' roll show in a downtown arena that fall.  Except for Big Joe Turner - and the no-show of Fats Domino, the headliner - this second, and last rock 'n' roll show of my life has left no enduring memories.  This event did bring me, however, about as far from my previous year's adventure in college and fraternity

      (right) '57 Buffalo event

conformity as you could get.  In addition to being too teenage from a college student's point of view, racially mixed R&B shows and movies were getting a not entirely undeserved reputation for violence. 

In the era of the button-down Ivy League look or the hardly less conservative campus alternative of "traditionally" styled clothes for the more provincial young adults, my Village Squire acquisitions stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.  They ended up for the most part, as I recall, being worn after classes to the dining hall or for hanging around in my cottage residence.  If these changes suggest that I should have been hooking up with the campus bohemian fringe, derisively referred to as "bohos," the most easily identified ones were from the New York City area and as remote and intimidating as if they'd stepped out of a UFO.  And despite my exposure to the influence of the un-conventional Carrie and Casey, or that of my two gay friends Bill Kenner and Bill Curry, I wasn't the stuff that flamboyant rebels were made of. 


I was raised in an Catholic Irish-American family, and my own religious faith and practice as I grew up were much stronger than that of either of my parents.  However, in addition to having a devotion to the ritual life of the church I also had a rather legalistically toned intellectual interest in it as well.  I had had doubts, of course, about points of doctrine or church history, and I was not afraid to bring them up - priests were not people I was raised to be afraid of.   As I was pretty bright the parish priests would let me borrow books from their libraries or would have informal discussions with me.  Up to this point I had been able to resolve my doubts, or live with them more or less comfortably.   

However, near the end of this school year I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was an ineluctable part of my nature.  Despite past years of confessing the sin of committing homosexual sexual acts and promising sincerely to attempt to avoid repeating them (followed at one point by an interval of over three years of having heterosexual sex exclusively - a far easier sin to confess to), here I was again screwing with a guy.  And this time - I think  because now it included kissing and caressing, plus an incipient understanding of "gay life" as opposed to the clinical gruntings of the "homosexual" - I knew that this was an essential part of me.  It clearly was not just the euphemistic "bad habits" and "bad companions" of past priestly counseling.  Nevertheless, it was indeed still a major sin in the Church's eyes, and the rules of the game were quite clear.   

Once I allowed it to sink in that this was not just about things I was doing, but about who I was, I also knew that it was impossible for me to go into the confessional and declare truthfully that I had sinned, profess contrition for those "sins" and affirm that I would do my utmost not to repeat these sins.  The alternative, of course, was to simply say nothing at all about sex with other males.  However, in this case I was hoisted on the petard of my legalistic bent regarding the Church.  If  having homosexual sex was a grievous sin, another was to withhold or lie about actions which one knew were ranked as major sins, and to deceive the priest in confession and receive absolution through deception.  To do this was to defile the Sacrament of Penance (the rite of the confessional).   And if one then received communion with the mortal sin of homosexual acts on one's soul, compounded with the major sin of defiling the Sacrament of Penance - well, you had now capped off this miserable progression with gross sacrilege against the Eucharist, i.e.., the Body and Blood of Christ.  Very, very heavy stuff for a believing Catholic - akin to using the pages of the Bible or Torah as toilet paper for a Protestant or Jew, perhaps.   

It is important to remember that this occurred in the mid-1950s.  There was no public discussion or questioning to provide a basis for doubting the traditional view that active homosexuality was one of the gravest of sins in the Catholic - and entire Christian - faith.  And popular culture certainly reflected that view in secular/profane terms.  There was nothing remotely like the gay or lesbian support groups, which might have helped people through the process of self-acceptance, including any spiritual dimension.  I was out there twisting in the effing breeze on my own.

R.C. confessional 

A Saturday evening finally came when I trudged to the Catholic chapel on campus and sat in the back until everyone else had gone to confession.   I went into the confessional, recited those offenses I recognized as sins; then - after a long pause - I told of having sex with Bill.  The priest did his best to counsel me against this sin, and then came the crucial words to the effect that I must express sincere contrition for these sins and promise to do my best never to repeat them.  I then put the elephant on the railroad track.....I replied, "I, cannot."  This little announcement stopped traffic, and I might have believed the entire world as well, so momentous was this declaration to me.  The priest was not a fire-breathing monster, and he did his best to explain the matter to me from the viewpoint of the Church.  But I could only respond that I was certain that being homosexual was "the way I am", and that I was not prepared to live a celibate life, nor was I willing to profess the required contrition for something I did not believe was a sin.  The priest, of course, could not give me absolution.       

In a subsequent discussion in his study he explained what I already knew: that I was automatically prohibited from receiving the sacraments, which most importantly meant receiving communion at mass - without committing damning sin.  But hadn't that been exactly the line of reasoning which had brought this confrontation about in the first place?  He strongly recommended therapy (with a Catholic therapist), but I demurred again.  Though I had been dealing with homosexuality in religious terms, it seemed immediately right when presented with this suggestion that just as there was nothing to be forgiven for, so there was nothing to be cured of.  (I have to say, for years I have been fascinated by how easily that second acceptance came, given that the religious confrontation took years for me to deal with.  It suggests to me that I had probably been giving sexual orientation - or however I thought of it - secret consideration for more years than I had ever been able to be honest about. )  At the end of my conversation with the priest we were in all respects back to square one, except that now  I looked to be turning in my game token.   

This stand would essentially reduce me to the position of passive observer in what for Catholics was the most important part of their religion, the mass.  I have always been grateful that this priest talked to me calmly and treated me with courtesy, by doing so I think I was probably saved from an enormous dose of personal resentment against the Roman Catholic Church, which, from what I have seen over the years, is an energy-sapping dead end for many ex-Catholics.  When I left he shook my hand, wished me well and said he would pray for me.  No, I have never thought that he was a closet case.  Just a decent person.

(For those few who might remember this era on the S.U. campus, this priest was not the Catholic chaplain of the time, Fr. Ryan.  Ryan was a witty, urbane man, but also more than a bit smug, extremely hostile to the "neo-pagan" influences on campus, and steadfastly opposed Catholic students having even the most superficial involvement in any inter-faith doings.  The priest who heard my confession was a visiting one from nearby Lemoyne, a Jesuit college.  Had I had this experience with Fr. Ryan I have no doubt that it would have been a far, far more negative one.) 

I can clearly recall leaving and walking down the street in a kind of daze.  But with my strongest feeling being one of immense relief.  Understandably, I think, I was reacting to this as a one off event, the "well, that's over with" reaction.  I had never intended to stop attending mass on Sundays, but sitting there the next time, I felt completely reduced to the role of an outsider.  I experienced sadness, relief, resignation, longing and more - totally confused currents of emotion. 

In the days and months afterward I felt an increasing sense of being uprooted.  Reaching the point where I had been able to cease denying the combination of Me & Homosexual had been, to some degree, a kind of romanticized expansion of myself - and, probably not entirely divorced from a prideful and masochistic enthusiasm for religious legalism.  I felt like there was a tearing in my life - in me.  I was pulling loose (or being shoved away, I was never sure which) from something which was a deeply embedded part of my life.    Very soon I was to endure another such event that was to be terribly painful, this time with my family.  It would take a very long time to find other landmarks to reckon by. 

I did not even think to "come out" to my family, of course.  The number of gay people who told their parents of their sexual orientation was miniscule during this era.  There were almost no tales of this news being accepted well, usually it signaled severe and long term ruptures in family relationships.  Most of one's energies went into camouflaging the fact you were gay - attempting to pass was the norm.  (In any case, the expression "coming out" as it was used in the late Fifties had a rather different meaning.  It referred to a person admitting their sexual orientation to themselves and beginning to participate in gay life - like a debutante coming out to Society.)  However, like other gay guys, I did confide in a straight friend.  My best friend from Freshman year, Dick, was a guy I was still friendly with.  I told him I had something important that I wanted to talk to him about, and we met in the early evening and went for a walk.  When I finally managed to get to the point and said I was gay, he said that he was afraid that was what I'd been getting at.  Dick's reaction was more strongly negative than I had expected.  I remember that he said that it was bad to be homosexual - a "sin"; "dirty" was the most painful word.  He was quite upset.  I had suggested we turn into a park, because I thought we would avoid bumping into anyone we knew.  Suddenly he seemed panicked, and said something like, "Let's get out of here.  I want to leave."  He practically fled from me.  Though I didn't see him often, we did remain friends - or at least friendly, though we never mentioned my being gay again.

It probably bears emphasizing that in the America of more than half century ago there was almost no maneuvering room in regard to homosexuality - and the same was true of pre-marital sex, unwed motherhood, and interracial dating/marriage among other things.  These activities were patently wrong as far as the overwhelming majority of people were concerned, and furthermore, they were deeply wrong.  Whenever possible people often preferred to deny that such things were true about people they knew even when it was blatantly obvious they were; the alternative was to ostracize the offender in ways which were so customary that they required no overt considerations or discussions of how to go about it.  Expressions of sympathy (rather than pity), much less anything so positive as to approach tolerance, provoked disapproval and censure, ensuring that most people wouldn’t stick their necks out.  To hear that so-and-so had "left town" was many times a euphemism for the exile that the offenders chose - or were forced into.  Good people "moved," bad people "left town."

I understand now what I had barely begun to grasp then.  And it echoes an observation that a Japanese woman made to Donald Richie regarding his lifetime in Japan:  I was to discover the benefits of being an outsider.  And I would not have had I not been excluded.  The stigma of homosexuality, I would discover, was a much a baptism as a burial.  And, I am inclined to think, it is exactly this that has made gay people outstanding contributors to the mainstream society - the empowerment of being in a world, but not of it.

      (right) Catholic Worker A-bomb protest poster

I think this was the year that I joined the SANE  chapter (Society for the Abolition of Nuclear Explosions) on campus.  There may have been a couple of dozen members, though I never saw that many at one time.  Organizations like this were suspect even though the McCarthy frenzy had peaked some years before.  My participation was close to nil; however, through it I was exposed to the life and work of Ammon Hennacy, the Catholic-anarchist-draft-resister-you name it.  (And Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement too.)  I certainly didn't follow in the footsteps of the master, so to speak.  But it was the first time, I think, that I had been attracted to any kind of political or social thought that was out of the mainstream.  I wonder, but there's no knowing, of course, had I not already felt myself moving beyond the pale by virtue of my homosexuality, would I have been as receptive to Hennacy - or to other thinkers and ideas in later years.  I doubt it, I think I would probably have been too eager for acceptance and approval.         

Summer vacation was back to factory work again, but this time on late night shift.   My schedule was a great stroke of luck on two counts.  First, it collapsed the amount of time I was with my parents to the minimum.   Since getting through the rocky adjustments of my Freshman year and settling into the less intense living situation of the cottage environment the next year, I was beginning to feel what was a nascent sense that "home" was no longer where my parents lived.  I had learned to live on my own and I was liking it - in fact, the change was wonderful.  I knew full well that I was in no way the person they thought I was, and far less so than before.  Second, there was no escaping that a big plus of this work schedule was that it pretty much reduced the time available to spend with my girlfriend to weekends.  The relationship had changed for me, of course.  The whole idea of marriage and family was a vanishing blur, and sex an obligatory performance.   After a lifetime of seemingly internalizing conventional views, I had forced myself to be honest with my church.  But the largely happy four-year relationship with my girlfriend was another matter.  How do you end something like that, totally trashing someone else's plans and dreams, without giving an honest explanation?  I was in a paralysis of cowardice.   

It seemed that I didn't have a secret as much as I was a secret.  I no longer felt at home in any aspect of what had been my community.  I liked working through the night, sleeping all day; getting up in time to have dinner with my parents, and glad as sunset neared to be walking down the tree-shaded streets to the factory again.


1958 is the year Pope Pius XII died.  This man had been Pope since 1939, and his austere figure had been a major presence on the world stage during WW II, and in the post-war period he had become a symbol of opposition to Soviet Communism.  And he certainly epitomized the Catholicism I was raised in.  In the more mundane world the first "gold" records are given out, stereo recording is in and the cost of a first class letter skyrockets to four cents. 

This year I moved to a Queen Anne style cottage complete with tower, in the commercial part of the campus.  The Orange was located just down the street on South Crouse Avenue. I began to suspect that some of the students who hung out there were gay.

Queen Ann style house 

One night when I was sitting at the bar alone another young guy sitting a couple of stools away looked at me a few times, and then he moved over and started a conversation.  His name was Joe Livorno, and though he was from Jersey City he was now only a part-time student and worked downtown as a ballroom dance instructor.  He invited me back to his room a few blocks away, and though we kissed and groped each other for hours we didn't have sex.  Not then or ever.  However, Joe turned out to be not only more worldly-wise about gay life than Bill Kenner of the year before, he was also a much more straightforward guy.  Joe was my first real gay friend.  (And to this day I remember him with gratitude and fondness.) 

It was about this time that I forced myself to face the fact that I must end the four-year relationship with my girlfriend.  There was nothing else to do, I was just postponing that horribly painful event.  Her expectations were the same as they had always been; mine had been overturned tumultuously.  It turned into a wretchedly, miserable breakup for both of us that extended over several weeks, and for me it was a guilt-ridden one.  She was extremely hurt by it, and baffled at how my affection for her could have just evaporated.  There was no way in the Fifties, not even the thought of it, that I could tell her what had happened with me. 

On my side, my life had been all laid out in my imagination - marriage to this girl, children (four or five, as I recall); quite possibly a job in a city near my hometown, but in any case, an adulthood and old age lived in a similar place, happy and securely middle class, as my parents had not been.   But now what?  I really didn't know.  Straight life - as I had learned about it, and accepted it - was full of slots, and by and large people found this one or that one without much problem, and even changed some of them over the course of time.  If one's life was not totally predictable, its course was usually socially acceptable - even if the sloppier moments caused strains. 

This reassurance disappeared.  Being gay erased almost all of the content of my future as I had imagined it, and there really was nothing in my head that gave me a clue what you did with a gay life.  The nearest thing to a clue was the life of a straight single person, but this was a melange of recollections of people I had grown up with, social stereotypes and romantic tales.  Once you discarded the Lawrence of Arabia type heroes, the everyday examples that were left were neither attractive nor particularly helpful.  Yes, I knew about the blackmail, gossip, criminality, etc. that circled around a gay life, but if you held that at bay - and the likelihood of life as a disaster has about the same reality to a young person as death - what the fuck did you do?  Where were the maps?  I still clearly remember that at this point I was quite puzzled by this, but sometimes it was more than that - something closer to intimidated, maybe awed.

   (right) Crouse College at S.U.

Not too long afterward that fall I had another encounter in the Orange.  This time a guy who was sitting in a booth with two friends kept looking at me.  Finally he came up to me at the bar and asked me if I wanted to join them.  His name was Tom R., he was a grad student.   He and his friends were from well-heeled families and tony suburban backgrounds.  They were totally involved in the Greek fraternity system, Tom even belonged to that best-fraternity-on-campus.  And as it came into the open through innuendo and in jokes that we were all gay, I learned Tom and his friends also had some experience in the gay worlds of  New York and Philadelphia, and they even knew about a gay club in London (the Rockingham?) and one in Amsterdam too.

(By the way, I have, rather surprising to me, seen the question raised several times in print - even by Larry Kramer of all people - whether "gay" and "gay life" were terms used in the Fifties.  They were certainly in common use by all the gay people I met during these years.)   

Later Tom asked me to leave with him, which I didn't get the drift of right away, and everyone burst out laughing.  After we'd had sex - which turned out to be an unsatisfactory business -  we smoked and talked in bed quite awhile, then he remarked as he got up to make coffee, "I'm going to get married, but you'll always be gay."  I did not need to call Daniel from the lions' den to tell me that I had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  But it seemed to have nothing to do with not-so-great sex.  I had gotten my first dose of what is now termed internalized homophobia.  It was never far below the surface in this crowd, and some of the other guys in this clique sometimes made passing references to lives that would eventually include a wife, kids and a house with a white picket fence, and the country club, of course.    

Tom introduced me to my first gay cry-in-your-gin album, and it was not Judy Garland, but Judy Holliday's Trouble is a Man.  And he also played Satie's Gymnopédies, which I had never heard before.  I still enjoy both, so this unpleasant one-night stand wasn't a total loss.  

Despite this ill-omened beginning I began joining Tom's clique when I went to the Orange and found them there.  Joe worked evenings so we couldn't often socialize at night.  One time, however, he came in when I was sitting in a booth with Tom and his friends.  Joe nodded hello, but took a seat at the bar,  I went over and invited him to join us.  He looked over at them, then said to me, "No thanks, they're not nice people."   Before I went back to join them he added, "Be careful of them." 

And he was right.  

At first I'd thought the group was Tom R.; another grad student, David B. (Tom's recent ex-boyfriend) and Reg R., who was a junior as I was.  However, I soon came to know that it often included two girls - L., who claimed to be bisexual and had the disposition of a scorpion enduring a root canal, and C., who was straight and had a crush on David and whose defense against L. was to fawn on her.  They too came from well-off suburban families with professional or business backgrounds.  The combination of Tom, David and Reg, especially when the two women were present always manifested a good deal of nastiness - a kind of free-floating maliciousness - which I never understood...and was often the target of.  Probably I was a natural magnet for it in this group:  I was the only one from a small town, the only one with a Catholic background and an unsophisticated kid who knew shit about the gay world.

In other words, a bubbling stewpot of internalized homophobia.

Though I don't recall that Tom, David or Reg had spent any time abroad, their gay lore claimed that in Europe homosexuality was quite accepted and open - in obvious, painful contrast to our present circumstances.  A couple of other grad student fraternity brothers of Tom's, Ed and Tim, would sometimes show up at the bar.  Both of these had lived for some time in Europe - Ed while studying and Tim in the army - and each of them had stories of gay adventures and boyfriends while there.  They were very easy-going, unsnobbish guys, and something else which set them apart was that neither one pretended to a future that included marriage and children.

Almost immediately the original trio taught me about something very strange called "camping."  Reg, though the youngest and most recently out, was its most eager practitioner.  Camping as practiced by Reg was a demonstration of stop-time choreography.  First, he raised his eyebrows to his hairline while rolling his eyes heavenward.  Next, he flapped his hands in what looked like an imitation of the pterodactyl taking flight in Prehistoric Women.   Finally, in a rasping kind of mantric invocation (it was the voice Bette Davis, when it wasn't Tallulah Bankhead, I learned later) he would utter, "Get-you-Ma-ry."   This, it turned out, was only camping's essence - something like Om in other contexts, perhaps  - and this style could be applied to almost any put-down to increase it's humor and sting.   

I also learned that camping plugged into something like a collective gay cultural consciousness, consisting of particular (mostly) female film stars and their movies and anecdotes and stories related almost exclusively to the world of entertainment.   A lot of this content was familiar to me from the hours and hours spent in the local movie theatre as a kid (plus the old films on late night TV), though I really wasn't quite "getting it" in this context.  Camping drew deeply on the stereotype of woman-as-bitch. 

Soon I heard about "Miss Eisenhower."   She was not a mad daughter Ike and Mamie kept hidden behind locked doors in the attic of the White House.  "She" was President Eisenhower himself!   Ol' straight-laced Ike!  Okay, got that one.   Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter were also "Miss," as were an endless number of other male Hollywood stars and celebrities, all of whom were really gay.  (Almost every famous person who came up in conversation, whether adored or hated, was  really gay I came to learn.)  And it seemed that every gay man was "Miss" So-and-so, whatever his surname was, and often blessed with a female sobriquet as well.  Finally, any man one disliked could be brought down with a "Miss" and a "she."  

Through this crowd I discovered there were other little cliques of gay students, separate groups of two to a half dozen friends.  These groups were diffident about each other in the bar and inclined not to mix.  I think there may have the notion at work that a few guys hanging out together drew less attention.  Whereas, if one or two guys were identified as gay and they were part of a large group, then everyone would be labeled.  Contrary to the popular saying, it seemed that in this case there was no "safety in numbers," but rather the opposite.   Thus, gay life on campus was very, very furtive.  The majority of gay guys went to some lengths to date and appear to be unquestionably straight, while a few dropped out of mainstream campus life to live as they chose to - very quietly - and avoid having to live double lives.  Joe had taken this latter route, and there were a few others I learned of.  

The downstairs bar at the Orange, despite its small size, was a favorite drop in spot for many students, and it was often extremely crowded; thus, the atmosphere was very uptight for gay students:  You had to be concerned about being overheard, and also, at any point someone's straight friends might come in and sit down with you and the guys you were with.  Either of these events killed the night for any gay socializing.  Often gay men who knew each other to be gay, e.g. through a mutual gay friend or from seeing each other in a gay bar in New York, took pains to avoid even the slightest mutual acknowledgement of their shared sexual orientation on campus. 

There were two bartenders, Harry, a plain-faced man in his forties or fifties with beagle-eyes, and Fergie, a Korean War vet, I believe, and while a student (as I recall), he was older than most.  Both were straight, but totally aware of the suppressed gay life that was going on in the place.  To this day Harry remains my picture of the consummate bartender -- affable, intelligent, always seemingly absorbed in one or more conversations with customers, but almost preternaturally aware and on top of every vibe in the room.  Fergie had not been the second bartender when I first started going to the Orange, but arrived on the scene in my sophomore year, perhaps.  He had intense, hawkish eyes and was a tall, big-shouldered, broad-chested guy, and to me he looked very on edge - and unfriendly - behind the bar at first.  However, his demeanor changed - under Harry's tutelage I suspect - and he acquired his own version of  bartender's "cool."   

Nevertheless, some extremely careful cruising and picking up went on at the Orange:  that was, after all, how I found myself in one of the gay cliques.  And despite the fact that this little group was often unpleasant and very caught up in money, social class and bitchery, I continued to join them because they were the only group I had an entree with. 


                                                                                                                         "Get you, Mary."

Forgive me, I cannot resist saying it: I was not a happy camper.   But camp I did...well, because that was what you did if you were gay. Right?   

This was not something that Joe had been into, though Bill Kenner I realized had come close to it.  I found it pretty disorienting.   One of the hardest parts of growing up had been the business of believing in myself as a guy (for lack of a better term) even if most of the details of the more aggressive images of maleness didn't fit me.  Possibly the last part of that business was to be able to be my own kind of a "guy," but a gay one.   But this group of gay men strongly reinforced the image the straight world had of gay men:  men who were, or wanted to be, women.   The arch "femaleness" of the argot brought the whole business into question again, in addition to which the unrelentingly negative tone of camping had a deeply depressing effect on me.  The last straw was that everyone in the group seemed to accept (though it was not discussed at length) the idea of homosexuality as something that had gone wrong, incurable perhaps and therefore to be lived out; but nevertheless, a kind of medical deviancy at least.  The assumption I had made while talking with the priest that if I wasn't a sinner, I wasn't sick either looked to have been a case of jumping to the wrong conclusions.  I mean, shouldn't these guys know?  

Reg seemed quite pleased with the Oedipus complex, and certain that it was the overweening influence of his mother that had produced his condition.  Several years later there was a graffito in the men's john of the Lion, a straight bar on Christopher Street:  My mother made me a homosexual.  Someone had written below it:  If I buy her the wool will she make me one?  Unfortunately by this time I had lost track of Reg.  Alas.

I mean, rilly, Madge, why is it called gay life?!   

The work of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, which began to undermine the medical profession's stereotype of homosexuals as sick people came out in 1957, however, I did not hear of it until the 60's; nor did I read Donald Webster Cory's (Edward Sagarin) The Homosexual in America (1951) until the 60’s either.  Either one would have given me a broader and more positive view of gay life than the one I was getting.

cover of '57 paperback edition 

Reg seemed almost obsessed with the "she-ness" of it all, and though Tom and David were a great deal less so, the  predominate tone of the group's modus vivendi was unrelentingly catty when not just plain bitchy.  The gay world looked to be a bizarre and mean-spirited place.  Over time I discovered that my experience and my feelings paralleled those of  many, many guys who had a similarly claustrophobic introduction to gay life in the Fifties.   


There were two gay bars in downtown Syracuse that we went to once, maybe twice.  One of them, Bersani's, was a dark, sleazy dive, and sometimes small groups of straight students (usually all guys) would go there to look at the queers.  But not a few times someone in the group was discovering his own homosexuality and really trying to get a sneaky look at the gay scene.  What a way to get it!  Bersani's gay clientele were living beyond the edge -- very effeminate men and a few butch women, drinking themselves into oblivion with flamboyant acting out that ping-ponged from misanthropy to self-hatred.  The other bar, the Bell Room, (the place Hank the geology instructor had briefly taken me into) wasn't dingy and was patronized by seemingly more together people in comparison. Perhaps because it couldn't as easily be distanced as a touristic carnival freak show this bar got college guys dropping in much less often and was, thus, safer to go to if you were a gay student. 

There was a third gay bar in town, a private "club" on the main drag which had all the appearance of having been a speakeasy or gambling club at one time.  The entrance was a metal door between two stores; when you opened it you were faced with a long flight of metal stairs, at the top of which was another metal door with a shuttered peep hole.  Opening the door downstairs tripped a buzzer as I recall, but in any case just walking up the metal stairs was announcement enough and the shutter snapped open and your approach was watched by a pair hard, dark eyes.  These belonged to Rose, a huge Italian-American bull dyke, who was always dressed in flower print house dresses.   

The place deserved to have been recorded by a Toulouse-Lautrec, but one with a good dash of Georg Grosz in his temperament, perhaps.   

The majority of its customers were working class lesbians, a group of whom worked in commercial laundries - and these were women not to be trifled with.  There were gay men too, a somewhat more varied assortment: some of the “flamers” from Bersani's, a few from the other bar and the occasional odd ones - like a couple or three wide-eyed college students, or some polished-looking slightly older guy with a professional job. 


And then there were the totally unique individuals, one Daisy certainly being the most memorable.  Daisy was probably what would have been called a bag lady decades later.  She spent a lot of her time in a cheesy cafeteria, and I am guessing that since little groups of the town gay guys would use the same place as a late night rendezvous point that that's how she found the club.  She was a very corpulent woman in her sixties, always under the weather or maybe just not "right in the head," but a gentle decent soul (for the most part), who was good-naturedly tolerated by everyone.   

She carried a clutch of shopping bags, and her scrap books.  The latter were filled with memorabilia from Daisy's days as a stripper in the 30's - and when the mood struck her she could be quite insistent about sharing them.   Daisy had another mood that could come over her.  

         (no, not Daisy herself, but similar to her photos)

The club was one large room with booths and a dance floor (dancing and privacy were its biggest drawing cards) and through a door in the back were the toilets and an unused kitchen.  This door was actually a small open archway, which on the side facing the bar and dance floor had an ornamental roof that projected out over it.   Perhaps its design suggested a stage to Daisy.  Whatever the reason, there were several times when she disappeared - presumably to the bathroom - only to slowly emerge from the darkness of the kitchen, undulating her way through the archway and the bright lights as she discarded her clothes.  I doubt that the legendary Sally Rand unleashed such delirium among her fans.  However, Jimmy the bartender was not a party to it.  But it was no easy task when Daisy was possessed by Terpsichore for him to bring her back to the world of shopping bags and scrapbooks.  Sometimes the two of them would get in a serious tussle before she could be forced back into the kitchen - and her clothes.


The first time I was there was when the little group of us from the Orange went downtown, and I was introduced to the city gay bars.  However, later on Reg and I went back by ourselves.  He got involved in a flirtation with the bartender, and I got to know the dykes.  Just how that began I can't remember, but after a while I was dancing with them - even little Dotty, who was Rose the Doorman's woman.  Dottie was often out of it.  I think working a hard manual labor job all day long and then trying to booze and stay up with Rose on her job was more than she could handle.  She usually dressed in jeans and a pea jacket, and often ended up collapsing into sleep in a booth.   A few times I saw Rose watching her from her post by the door, then come lumbering over in her huge flower print dress to bend over and literally lift Dotty out of the booth with both hands and hold her up like a doll.  She covered her with kisses, Dotty would briefly come to and smile, then Rose would plunk her back down in the booth and to sleep again.  

I don't know if the place was licensed or not, but it did serve hooch after hours.  I saw two uniformed cops come into the place one night (scared the piss out of me) and they went into the kitchen with Jimmy.  They came out very soon with a couple of small paper bags.  Sometime later Jimmy told Reg and I that the cops came in for "lettuce sandwiches."  Huh?  Sandwiches from a non-working kitchen?  Oh, right..."lettuce." 

Though Syracuse was more than a hundred miles from my hometown, one night in this upstairs place I ran into the brother of a young woman I had worked with during high school.  I was really surprised as I would never have thought he was gay.  Although he was big, brash Sicilian guy, at least half a dozen or more years older than me,  he'd always been friendly and I was glad to see him.  He, on the other hand, clearly wished he were dead.  Immediately he begged me not tell his sister he was gay if I ever ran into her.  I would never have dreamed of doing such a thing, and, of course, it would certainly say as much about me as him if I were to do anything that cruel.  I told him this, but he didn't seem very reassured and asked me at least twice more not to say anything to her.  My being there had clearly ruined his night and scared the wits out of him.       

Joe, who was a part-time student, didn't do well first semester, dropped out and went back to Jersey.  Later in the year I ended up meeting Dominick, an older undergrad student who had bowed out of the Catholic priesthood and was beginning his education all over again.  Once he sneaked me into his room at the Y downtown.  

        The Syracuse YMCA

I also got picked up in the cafeteria of the dorm I was eating in that fall by Ken, one of the grad student Resident Advisors in that dorm.  He invited me to his room, where we had nervous groping sessions.  (The first time it happened he was sitting in his underwear on the bed with a blanket pulled over his legs up to his waist.   When he took my hand and pulled it under the blanket, putting it on his erection, I was shocked out of my wits.  Not by what he did, but because I hadn't had a clue in the world that human cocks were ever that huge!  I had encountered my first donkey dong.)  We only had sex once, in a motel in Ithaca while we visited some friends at his undergrad alma mater for the weekend, and he was terrified we would be found out.  He was convinced that if we (two men) soiled the sheets that the motel would contact the university!  While both of these guys were very decent, they were extremely concerned with cultivating as straight-appearing a social life as possible - and in the case of Ken, the Resident Advisor, so paranoid about being discovered that he was literally developing ulcers.  The level of defensive play-acting that permeated their lives was unbearable to be around.   Without actually making a conscious decision, I was about to move rapidly move to the fringe of campus life.    

Nevertheless, at the moment I was hanging out in the Orange with a group of gay "friends" who treated me like a Mickey-the-Dope, and I'm going along with it.  Not good. 

There was one gay faculty member, a graduate French instructor, who hung out in the bar on a daily basis. John was known as a queer and took no pains to pretend to be otherwise or deny it.  He was a tall, pinched, unattractive man - very bright, but with a disposition like a rusty razor.  He was "popular," (e.g. with Harry and Fergie, the two bartenders who were older, hip straight guys,) but with only a few exceptions his was mostly the dubious popularity of a freak.  John was practically an exhibit, but he regarded the gawkers and fawners with open contempt, and sometimes he was involved in very nasty, nearly violent scenes - not a few of which he provoked.   

Some of John's friends from off-campus would stop in briefly to chat with him at the Orange once in awhile.  These guys had jobs in town, and perhaps for that reason acted as cautiously as we gay students tried to.  Once the four of us were invited to a party one of them was giving.  I was a bit puzzled by how concerned they seemed to be that I in particular would be sure to come.  When we arrived on the appointed night, the host immediately pulled me aside: there was a certain out-of-town guest he wanted me to play a kind of verbal cat-and-mouse game with for a few minutes as a joke.  It was the minister of the Baptist church in my hometown. 

John ommitted suicide in 1958 or 59 by throwing himself out of a window while on a visit to New York City. 

In retrospect the attitude of the two bartenders toward the gay scene has come to seem more curious to me than it did at the time.  The Orange was not, at least in my estimation, a routinely easy bar to handle, as a neighborhood tavern might have been.  The clientele was mainly guys in their late teens or early twenties, many dealing with an unlimited supply of booze for the first time in their lives (legal drinking age was 18 in NYS, but 21 in most parts of the Northeast), and often they were as full of bad attitude, insecurity and lack of judgment as they were full of booze.  Throw in, then, a couple of co-ed patrons on a night, some of whom seemed to really get off on playing vamp roles as corny as those out of a Forties movie, without quite grasping that they were perceived by most guys as nothing more sophisticated than plain ol' "cockteases."  Finally, add the occasional presence of some of the campus's more notorious malcontents and non-conformists, mainly from the drama department or the student newspaper.  With this mix, who needed queers!?   Provocative comments, loud arguments and hostile confrontations were not nightly occurrences, but they could be on tap in an instant - along with the much rarer sudden escalation to physical violence.  It was a crowd that often required deft handling - and a lot of watching. 

Why, I wonder, tolerate a regular trade of student homosexuals, or John - who was a true magnet for fag-haters, and even the few gay guys from the city (most of whom drifted in because they knew John) when nothing - but nothing! - inflames drunken straight men like "homos."  Though the total number of gay men on any night was usually a very small part of the crowd, the potential for a serious problem was high...was there enough money made off them to be worth it?  In an era when homophobia was the norm, these bartenders could have frozen out gay patrons very easily.  The University would not have objected, the police would not have objected, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would not have objected, nor would the straight customers have been likely to.  In fact, New York State ABC regulations forbid premises licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption from congregating "disorderly" patrons, among whom were homosexuals and prostitutes.  The usual penalty was loss of license.  My impression of Harry was that he was a very decent, and sophisticated, guy; maybe the answer was that simple:  He wasn't a shithead.  Still, 'tis a puzzlement.


I think that the metaphor of the closet - with the passivity of its prepositions locating one "in" or "out" - totally and completely mischaracterizes the situation of most homosexuals in the Fifties and Sixties.   It is one of the shortcomings of our own GLBT historians that they have failed to address and correct this misrepresentation.  Perhaps by the time these locutions became popular American society had changed enough in its view of gay people, and gay men and lesbians had changed enough in their view of themselves, that owning a public gay identity, however difficult, may have seemed like a simple matter of changing one's social location.  Not so in these earlier years, however. 

American society in the Fifties was virtually monolithic in its opposition to homosexuality, and prey to the frenzy of witch hunting as well. The power of custom and law was a mortar and pestle used to grind down the lives of homosexuals, escaping these required a fierce and unceasing energy.  It required work!  It was nothing less than the construction and maintenance of a phony you, with unswerving attention to the minutia of its factitious life so as to never betray the duplicity of that self that was not oneself.  The lives of most gay people were not about being passively "in" some comfy ol' closet.  For most homosexual men and women it meant the sheep putting on wolf drag every day and running with the bloodthirsty bastards fast enough that they'd never find you out and chew your throat open. 

"In the closet" fails utterly, completely and totally to capture what was going on in these years. 

It was the fearful task of a life of passing.  In the 1950's several movies - Imitation of Life, Pinky, Lost Boundaries - had dared to gingerly touch on this highly charged topic.  Those people of black African ancestry, with a physical appearance sufficiently similar to European-Americans, who chose to take the chance of passing for "white” opened for themselves a multitude of doors that were shut to them as "Negroes."  The negative side of this venture demanded high costs in self-loathing, separation from "Negro" family members and friends, the vigilance of preserving a duplicitous autobiography, bending to the ultimate hypocrisy of joining in the mechanisms of racism and oppression, and finally, the great fear of discovery - the unmasking, which would not only destroy whatever had been gained by passing, but which could call forth extreme punishment.   

     1957 paperback, "The man she loved was abnormal!"

It is likely that only a small proportion of people of African-American ancestry were able to consider passing as an alternative in their lives, and probably even fewer who chose to do so.  However, during the Fifties and Sixties passing was, without a doubt, the modus vivendi attempted by most gay men and lesbians.  The majority of gay people did their best to appear to conform to the prevailing societal norms because most of us felt that we had far too much to lose by asserting our deviancy from those norms.  

The ultimate passing strategy was marriage to a person of the opposite sex.  This was often done in the spirit of denial rather than deception, or in the mistaken belief that there was a kind of mystical coital cure for homosexuality in the act of  heterosexual screwing.  However, a few gay people did quite calculatingly marry for the protection it provided against accusations of homosexuality.  

A very small number of people went clear in the opposite direction and repudiated the appearance of conformity.  

If you couldn't or wouldn't get involved in trying to pass what life seemed to offer was a few occupations which were more or less safe for "fairies," e.g. hairdresser, dancer, sales clerk positions in a few chi-chi stores.  Then there was always the very limited field of waiter or bartender in a gay establishments.  Finally, there were the guys in the lowest level office jobs, and often not visible to the public, who got to enjoy being the company fag for life – in addition to being targeted as a homo or queer outside the relatively safe work environment.   

Losers at the passing game, the folks who tried and were not successful at it, on the whole probably fared worse.  They found themselves fired or dead-ended in their work lives, and the recipients of whatever other humiliations the straight world chose to deal out to those who had evaded its rules through deceit.   

Then there were the people like John in the bar:  Those who refused to try to pass, but who demanded a place in mainstream society anyway.   This was rarely a promising route.  John's one-way trip out a window seemed an object lesson in what came of it. 


Though there was no political activity in Syracuse at all in regard to "gay rights" - an unheard of term to me then -- there were two groups on the scene elsewhere, I learned. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (women) - limited mostly to the West Coast and NYC as far as I knew -  did have social and political objectives.  The Mattachine Society had originally been founded by some gay ex-Communists who left the party when they realized that it was determinedly homophobic.  These organizations had miniscule memberships and about an equal amount of overt influence - either amongst gay people or straights.  But their courage for this era was incredible.  Each one of these people at least figuratively had a bull’s eye for a head, unlike later gay activists who could count on safety in numbers in a turbulent era of social unrest and a far, far more liberal social climate. 

And there were books:  Giovanni's Room (1956), James Baldwin's first novel, which had an explicitly gay plot and protagonists, - my first gay read - and a handful of other mainstream gay literary efforts, e.g. The City and the Pillar.  A previous, less successful novel was James Barr's Quatrefoil  (1950), unknown to me until later, and then there was the famous lesbian-themed pioneering effort, The Well of Loneliness (1928), by Radcliffe Hall.                                   

    (right) 1959 paperback of Baldwin's novel

There was also a little magazine called One, which attempted to discuss gay issues in a serious way, it had a very small circulation. Most newsstands didn't carry it, and the postal authorities considered it pornographic......and then in those times, who would want his name on a subscription list in the event the police raided a gay publisher?  I found it for sale in the back corner of a bookstore on campus (Manny's (?) not the college run bookstore!) next to Baldwin's and Vidal's books and bordering on some shelves of Beat stuff.

     a 1954 issue

The first sentence of Christopher Bram's quite wonderful book Eminent Outlaws declares: "The gay revolution began as a literary revolution."  Despite my great liking for his book and my respect for the work Bram has clearly put into it, I have to take this sentence as  attention-getting hyperbole.  Gore Vidal was not our George Washington, nor Tennessee Williams our Thomas Jefferson.  The gay revolution began in the post WW II era with more and more young men and women having the courage to uproot themselves and relocate to America's major cities, where they increasingly dared to live public gay lives.  This is not to disparage or dismiss the important role of the fiction and poetry writers about whom Bram has written so well, Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, et al.  Far from it, because for many gay people they supplied more substantial credentials for gay people than the gossipy hollow tales of "Well, such-and-such-movie-star is really gay, you know," which gay men (and women) proffered as a kind of evidence that it was in the end okay to be homosexual..........after all, if a great actor such as so-and-so is, it must be.  Right? 

These gay literary works were something substantial and visible.   The fact that major publishers brought out the gay writing of these (and other) authors, and that they were dealt with in nationwide critical forums seriously - even if with hostility, meant that for some gay people these works were something akin to our gay passports and visas.  They proclaimed our territory, and their recognition were our credentials......How could Allen Ginsberg's Howl not be seen in this light?  [I say this fully realizing that many of today's GLBT's would flee in shame and terror from his incantation.  But I am talking about then, not now.]

Granted there were undoubtedly definite limits to this appropriation.  For the well-educated, and/or those gay people with literary interests such an appropriation could come easily; but for gay people with neither of these or from a significantly different cultural background  the impact of these writers might come much later and with a different or lesser impact, or perhaps never.  However, having said that, I remember that in the next couple of years I learned of Edward Albee's plays from a clerk in a curtain store who had no academic education beyond high school, and it was a Korean War vet, who had gone into the military straight from high school, who introduced me to Genet's plays The Balcony and The Blacks...probably I have wandered into the controversial territory of "gay sensibility," and should have smarts enough to move on.

This was also the era of the gay beefcake magazines, of course.  These were small pocket-sized numbers like Bob Mizer's famous Physique Pictorial, and Vim, Tomorrow's Man, Adonis, et al, which showed muscular guys in posing straps, and in the case of the PP sometimes pairs of men in poses that would have given even Helen Keller the picture of what they were interested in.  A couple of large format magazines of the same type, but with color photos,  (Demi-Gods, etc.) flourished later on, attempting to present themselves as "artistic" offshoots of bodybuilding magazines.  The Grecian Guild Pictorial, one of the pocket-size magazines, even had a formal "creed" invoking its connection with the Classical world that it included in its issues in an attempt to cover its legal ass.  I used to buy my copies at a hole-in-the-wall magazine store downtown around the corner Dey's Department Store - and still approached the buying process as if I were purchasing heroin next to a police station.                   

Muscle Boy, published in 1959, is something of a cult classic.  It was written by a very modestly successful author of straight novels, Derek David Stacton, under the pseudonym Bud Clifton.  It is ragingly homophobic, concerning the adventures of a teen age bodybuilder who is lured into posing for beefcake photos and then becomes involved - reluctantly of course - in a world of bodybuilding sleazebags and  S&M psychos of every description. 

1959 paperback edition

One of them, a painter, is considered to have been modeled after George Quaintance, famous for his erotic paintings.   The tone of the novel is a shade of silly purple and in each scene Our Hero is just barely saved only to fall into more dire straits.  It has a kind of Perils of Pauline quality which is unintentionally funny overall, and yet there is also such detail and accuracy about the milieu that you can't help wonder if Mr. Stacton wasn't as much fascinated as repelled.  It reads like an over-eater's losing battle with cherry cheesecake.  A U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, in an article on Stacton in a 2013 issue stated that he had "acknowledged his homosexuality" in college.  He died of a stroke in 1968, while in a serious decline from colon cancer.

"The Sustaining Stream," an article in a February 1963 issue of Time magazine, was a reading list of recommended authors whose first works had appeared within the last few years.  This is the comment on Stacton (referring to his straight books):

"David Stacton, 37, is a Nevadan who wears cowboy boots, is fond of both Zen and bourbon, and is as nearly unknown as it is possible for a writer to be who has written, and received critical praise for, 13 novels (all have been published in England, five in the US.). His books, most of which have historical themes, are masses of epigrams marinated in a stinging mixture of metaphysics and blood. Mostly they resemble themselves, but something similar might have been the result if the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had written novels with plots suggested by Jack London."

[And after decades in total oblivion, the April 5, 2013 issue of the prestigious Times Literary Supplement (London) announced in a page and a half review that Stacton's work (or at least the mainstream portion of it) is available again!  His publisher, Farber, debuted its Farber Finds print-on-demand series, "which aims to rediscover forgotten classics and neglected authors," with seven Stacton novels.  Muscle Boy, of course, is not in the lot; however, the reviewer singles it out of Stacton's pseudonymous pulp novels as "very entertaining."] 

If the weight of the repressive and claustrophobic atmosphere surrounding homosexuality seems unbelievable, consider that there was a virtual war still being waged against rock and roll music.  For example, as he testified before a Senate subcommittee regarding the Smathers Bill of 1958, Vance Packard, author of the best-selling Hidden Persuaders, said that rock and roll was "inspired by what has been called race music modified to stir the animal instinct in teenagers. Its chief characteristics now are a heavy, unrelenting beat and a raw, savage tone. The lyrics tend to be nonsensical or lewd, or both. Rock and roll might best be summed up as monotony tinged with hysteria.”  [Note:  With the reference to "race music" Packard is harking back to what had been until 1949 the music industry's official commercial term for music made by black musicians for black listeners.  In '49 the term was changed to Rhythm 'n' Blues (R&B).  Packard is ringing the same racist bell that columnist and book author Lee Mortimer and collaborator, Jack Lait did repeatedly in their Confidential exposé book series.  It was the familiar alarm that the influence of black Americans was on the verge of undermining White America.  (Forgive me, I cannot resist:  The more things change, the more they stay the same.) 

Packard's comments before the senatorial committee were a hymn of praise when compared to crooner Frank Sinatra's testimony.  Ol' Blue Eyes Sinatra howled: "Rock and roll is the most brutal, ugly, desperate vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear. Rock n' roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd -- in plain fact, dirty -- lyrics . . . it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth."  And who would know better about "cretinous goons" than Sinatra, who loved being chummy with Mafioso bosses?  It is also worth noting that Frankie's popularity had taken a major dip at this point with the rise of Elvis Presley and rock n roll, and it would be several years before he successfully re-invented himself.

And so, as the U.S. Senate was supposedly reconsidering the Federal licensing regulations for American radio stations, it plunged into a hot and bothered worry-fest about rock n roll and race!


Bill Kenner and I hadn't picked up our sexual relationship after our sophomore year, however I did see him almost every day as we had the same major and were in many of the same classes.  Shortly before our Easter break he asked me if I'd like to spend it at his home.  Bill's father was an oil exec and they lived in Scarsdale, a wealthy suburb north of New York.  God.  New York! And with a gay guy.  I jumped at the chance, and my parents with much complaining allowed it.   

    (right) 50's NYC signature: the Midtown skyline

When I came to New York for the first time on that spring break in 1959 one of the bars I went to, not a very popular one, was Le Faisan d'Or.  I was told that it was the single remnant from the old Bird Circuit era, the bars that I had read about long ago in that Esquire magazine article.  (While it may possibly have dated from the same era, It was not actually part of the circuit, which I read much later was located on Lexington and Third avenues in the upper east Forties/lower Fifties.) But as far as I knew then, I had seen the last gasp of 1940s/early 50s gay life.  After that time, once in a very great while, I would meet someone who was old enough to have frequented the Bird Circuit in its heyday, and it would give me the same "tingle" of awe I used to get out of Civil War veterans when I was a little kid!  A comparison I had sense enough not to make out loud.  [Of course today the shoe is on the other foot!] 

Our first night of that Easter break Bill and I went into town together to see my first Broadway show in New York (of which I, surprisingly, have zero recollection) and take in a bar or two.  But in the next couple of days I took the train in by myself.  (The real live New Yorker's commuter train!  Just like in the movies.)  That night I met a guy in the Old Colony on 8th Street, and since he was staying with a friend in his studio apartment we shacked up in the Hotel Earl, which was a shopworn place near Washington Square in those days.  The next day we took in a matinee, and I got to see Geraldine Page, Paul Newman and Rip Torn in Sweet Bird of Youth.  (The "Wows!" were really piling up.) 

I did not visit Mary's, the bar that Donald Richie had taken Yukio Mishima to in 1952, which was only a few doors east of the Old Colony.  I was warned not to as it had not improved over the dismal description that Richie gives it in his Japan Journals.


A night later I went into the city with Reg from the bar clique at college, and we connected with Clem and Sam, two young gay guys he'd met who worked in the city.  We went to the Mais Oui, a dance bar in what was then New York's extremely seedy Upper West Side.  When we left the other two stopped on the way out, and Clem and I sat in the back seat of the car waiting for them.  Suddenly the door was ripped open, lights were flashed in our faces and we were dragged from car, and accused of having sex.  The cops were raiding the dance bar we had just been in.  We were ordered to empty out our pockets and give our names and addresses, then we were ordered to stretch over the hood with our hands up.  I was numb.  The cop in charge threatened to notify my parents when he saw I was a college student from out of town.  He was suddenly distracted by some fleeing patrons and ran in their direction.  Among the things I’d pulled out of my pockets was a small Irish souvenir rosary.  The young officer picked it up, and said, “Are you Catholic?”  I said, “Yes,” very timidly, afraid that this would bring on a storm of outrage.  But he told us to pick up our stuff and get the hell out of there before his partner came back.   

Luckily, Reg and Sam showed up right at this point.  They had been hassled as they were leaving the bar, nothing else, but when Reg heard that the cops had taken the license number of his parent's car he was afraid they would be notified.  (They weren't.)  Nevertheless, we all headed back downtown to another bar, bantering back and forth and desperately reworking what had happened into a campy adventure. 

It had been frightening, but it was no more than all of the cautionary tales made real, and, after all, it hadn't been the worst it could have been.  So, I was really seeing all of "gay" life...just short of getting arrested.  

When I went back to the Old Colony a night or two later the guy on the door remembered me, motioned me over and let me in ahead of the waiting line.  (Right. "Wow.")  That night I got picked up by the guy who would become my first "boyfriend."  (Unfortunately, the pocket calculator had not been invented yet.)    

Bob Manahan was in his late 20s.  He originally came from a mill town in Massachusetts, had been in the Air Force in Korea and had a divorced wife and two kids back home, whom he supported on his salary as an airline telephone reservations agent.  This was a job field that had a lot of gay men in it, and one in which gay men could often get by "masking" their sexual orientation rather than actually attempting to pass.  However, your professional future in these "masking" situations depended upon how close to actual passing your act was.  Bob was part of a large Irish-American, working class family and had the mercurial wit and temperament that that background might suggest; in addition to which he had acquired a nasty tongue that passed for "campy," along with an obsession for Broadway and the world of celebrities and the doings of High Society which seemed to mark many gay men that I first met in New York.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                    New York's famous Checker cabs

After that vacation I made frequent bus trips to the city from Syracuse to spend weekends - or longer - with Bob.  We used to go out in a group of four or five guys, piling into Checker cabs and hopping from gay bar to gay bar around Manhattan.  Sometimes we ventured to other places -- to hear the famous cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer,

Mabel Mercer      

a great gay favorite (at the RSVP, I believe); a trio of straight female performers (accordion, bass and sax, as I recall), at a (very unwillingly) gay bar, the Floradora, in Jackson Heights, Queens; cocktails at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel (an incredibly stiff, tight-assed place) and even a swing through the Irish bars in Rockaway with some straight immigrant Irish girls Bob worked with.    It seemed every bit as magical as all the old movies about the Big Town I'd seen on  the Late Show, "...the hip-hooray and ballyhoo, the lullaby of Broadway...the rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis...."  Many times I was as dazzled as if I had stumbled onto the set of one of those old films.      

Although Bob lived an unspectacular sort of life and on a shoestring budget, he had been to Phil Black’s famous affairs in Harlem and to Small’s Paradise, and he also knew the gay black singer and emcee, Jimmy Daniels, and had been at parties where aviation tycoon Grover Lohning and other wealthy and influential men were guests.  The assertions of the trio in the campus bar about historical figures and celebrities who “really are…” had been too distant and smacked enough of wishful thinking, I guess, for them to have mattered to me.  However, Bob’s anecdotes opened the door a crack onto a New York gay life and gay past that was about real people and a verifiable past.  I was fascinated and eager to know more. 

   (right)  Jimmy Daniels, bust by Richmond Barthé, circa 1933

Sometime later Bob introduced me to Jimmy Daniels at Julius's.  He was a friendly, witty man, and he radiated charm and polish without for a moment seeming like a phony.  I was as impressed as any hayseed could have been.  And yet he treated me as if we were old acquaintances catching up on each other after an interval apart.  He was then the emcee at the Bon Soir cabaret at 40 West Eighth Street, a place where well-known performers appeared, and where the standing room was notorious for groping.   Jimmy Daniels had been a figure in the nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance era; he had been photographed by the celebrated Carl Van Vechten and the famous black sculptor Richmond Barthé had done a portrait bust of him in the early Thirties.

 On the down side, while Bob and his friends clearly lived in a bigger and more sophisticated gay world than the guys at college had experienced, the tone of their social life was still brittle and tinged with the same mean-spiritedness.  Bob, the oldest in his crowd, and his best friend, Jimmy, routinely regarded the world through the lorgnettes of waspish queens.  But some of the younger guys, I noticed, would sometimes try to squelch them.

Judy Garland, I had already learned, was the paramount gay cult figure.  Without a doubt she was one of America's most talented and best-loved entertainers.  However, for some gay men the appeal of her incomparable talent was deliciously enhanced by the prolonged disintegration of her professional and personal life, sometimes to the point of maudlin, if not abjectly mawkish, identification - the “gin and Judy” syndrome.  And surprising, to me, some of her gay "fans" reveled in making non-stop bitchy comments about every misstep and slip-up - both real and imaginary - that she made in her live performances, attributing them to the influence of alcohol or drugs, and seeming to take a perverse delight in them.

However, gay New Yorkers - and straight ones too - were also very much attracted to performers of a different type, ones whose style was considered specific to New York - cooler, intimate and more sophisticated (and whose undisasterous personal lives encouraged no morbid performance expectations.)  Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms, Blossom Dearie and Bobby Short,  for example, always attracted gay audiences.  The series of musical revues created by Leonard Sillman, called New Faces were eargerly awaited

     (right)  Album cover of a Julius Monk review at the Plaza Hotel

And the Julius Monk Revue (music, comedy and satire) at the Upstairs at the Downstairs and other venues was enormously popular with gay men too.  It was in '58 or '59 that I saw what may have been the last - or one of the last, at least - of Monk's reviews at a space in the Plaza Hotel.  The post-WW II era of cabarets, supper clubs and jazz bars had not yet completely faded into history.   


            Sylvia Syms, Blossom Dearie and Bobby Short.           

The regulation bar costume for Bob and his friends, when not wearing a jacket and tie, was chino pants, button-down dress shirt (preferably blue Oxford cloth) and crew-neck sweater -  the Ivy League look.  This was the first gay uniform I became aware of.  Then there was the ultra-conservative Brooks Brothers suit look.  Jeans did not have a leading place in their wardrobe.   There was another style of dressing that other groups of gay men wore:  very tight pants, often with no back pockets, a short rise and straight-cut legs (or specialty shop jeans in faded blue, wheat, black or white, cut in the same manner) combined with colorful print shirts and a variety of sweaters in much bolder colors than the Ivy League Shetlands.  The fashion was exemplified for me in the clothes worn by a loosely knit clique of gay men who worked in the display departments of leading Manhattan retailers.  This style of clothing was sold in shops that catered primarily to a heavily gay clientele - Cromwell, Casual Aire and the Village Squire.    

   (right) 1959 advertisement for the Village Squire.

(I'd seen small ads for the latter in the back columns of Esquire, along with those for mail order houses that sold men's bikinis, e.g. the straight beefcake model Glenn Bishop's wrap-around semi bikinis.) 

   Glenn Bishop modeling one of his "wrap-around" bikinis

And these stores also sold a line of men’s colognes called La Bottega, produced by a young gay, black entrepreneur, Robbie Campbell, a former dancer.  The clothes were often described in their ads or in their window displays as "Continental" or "Italian" or sometimes "French."   If your crowd didn't favor them for street wear you called them "faggy," even if you had some in your own closet for barring in once in a while.  Nevertheless, Bloomingdale’s – a department store with a large gay clientele – ventured a bit into the same territory in addition to its more conservative men’s styles.   

When Bob’s and his friends would run into the guys who were part of the display crowd, there would be an exchange of hellos.  However, he and his friends would make viciously caustic remarks about them when out of earshot across the room, mostly to the effect that they were “faggy.”   (And later I heard other guys with “straight jobs” do the same.) While their style of dress may have made these guys easily identifiable as gay, I didn’t find their actions or mannerisms any more faggy than those among Bob’s friends -- or my own. 

I think the problem may have had at least some of its roots in the phenomenon of passing.  Bob and his friends all worked in environments where one was expected to be straight, and although I’m sure that some probably couldn’t have passed for straight if they’d been strapped to a ruler, still, they were expected to play it that way.  The guys who worked in display were in a field that was practically a gay republic, and being able to be safely openly gay at work, they could also be that way in the rest of their life in New York without worrying about the consequences of being discovered.  I have to wonder if the dislike may have sprung from envy.

"Oh, he has curtains," was a cautionary remark I overhead a few times.  I had already learned from the college gay crowd that I could be thankful for being "cut."  Having "curtains" (i.e., foreskin) was less of a drawback than having your nose sprouting from the middle of your forehead, but it was definitely not a plus.  However, infant circumcision at this point had been the prevailing medical custom for many decades in the U.S.  In all of my years of undressing in locker rooms I might have almost been able to count the number of uncircumcised boys I'd seen, and so most guys probably felt little necessity to observe a moment of silent thankfulness.  But I had not been one of those guys.  Having been brought into the world by an ancient doctor, I was not "cut," and then medical reasons unfortunately required that it be done when I was age seven.  Not fun!  However, standing on the threshold of gay life, I was now grateful for having shed my blood and my prepuce late rather than never. 

Music in the bars was provided by a juke box, of course, although there were a very few bars that had a piano player too. 

   1955 Rock-ola jukebox

Beer was about 35 cents a bottle and you were offered a glass to drink it from as well - and some people actually used it.  The days of unabashed swilling from the bottle may have just begun, I think.  But it was a custom too redolent of lower class/blue collar habits for some people, especially if you were decked out in that ultimate status symbol, the Brooks Brothers suit, and had just come from the Oak Room.  A few bars had dancing, but always in a back room not visible from the front entrance.   The cruise bars I was taken to had extremely few blacks in the crowd, but a small number of Hispanics; however, the dance bars had larger proportions of both, and the 415 might have had more Hispanic than white or black customers. 

The music selection in NYC gay bars had a heavy dollop of  Broadway show music -  Ethel Merman belting out  Everything's Coming Up Roses from the musical Gypsy certainly got to be pulverizing after a very short while.  Aside from the show tunes and a few up-tempo numbers, most of the music was ballads.  There was always an obligatory array of Judy Garland songs, however, I can remember hearing her records hissed in Lenny's Hideaway because they'd been played too many times in an evening.  And there were often audible groans in a bar when some new arrival played a Garland song yet again.  By the time I hit the New York bar scene steady favorites in these years were Johnny Mathis (Chances Are), Dinah Washington (What a Difference a Day Makes) and Frank Sinatra (I've Got You Under My Skin), who were always represented by two or more records, and there was that recording of Misty by Dakota Staton, which didn't leave the juke boxes for years.   You'd also find a few sides by Billie Holiday without fail, and La Vie en Rose and Autumn Leaves by Edith Piaf.  The Marc Blitzstein Off-Broadway revival of the Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya and Bea Arthur (yes, the same one), put Lenya on some jukeboxes.  (The show played at the Theatre de Lys across the street from the Café de Lys, a gay bar.)

Male singers were rather thin on the juke boxes of gay bars, most of the vocal music was sung by females.  I have always assumed that the principal reason for this was that song lyrics as sung by women spoke directly to and for gay male romantic interests.  They didn't require gay men to turn on their automatic "gender adjustors," which took the she's that male vocalists sang and blanked them out or understood them as he's

       A very popular (and superb) '59 Dinah Washington album  

Life in NYC seemed so incredibly open compared to Syracuse, and relative to Syracuse it certainly was.  The number of bars astounded me and the fact that they were not all buried in deserted streets or in horrible neighborhoods surprised me.  The bars appealed to quite an array of "types", often characterized in terms of ethnicity, style of dress or income.  The 415 was a mostly Hispanic dance bar, Lenny's Hideaway and the 316 drew guys in button-down shirts, Shetland sweaters and chinos, the New Colony was called a "wrinkle room," Regents Row was "piss-elegant," etc., etc. 

There were only three bars I saw in 1959, all on Third Avenue, that could have been called "leather" bars - the Big Dollar being the most so.  These were the predecessors to the more well-known and very popular leather bars of later years.  Nevertheless, knowledge of these places managed to reach Europe!  In its March 21, 1959 issue the Dutch newspaper Lekvarder Courant, as part of a series of articles on the U.S., included a short and not negative, account of these three leather bars.  At this time, however, leather as a form of dress or a subculture within the overall gay subculture, in my experience, was very definitely looked at askance by most gay guys.  On the other hand, a reality check of the era says that all those drawings by Tom of Finland, Etienne and other leather-oriented artists wouldn't have been in the gay beefcake magazines if at least some guys weren’t into it, and many more happy to feed their private fantasies with it.   

There was extremely little mixing between gay men and lesbians in New York. Having to spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week playing life by the straights' rules, I think most gay men and lesbians had zero interest in spending their personal time with the opposite sex.  Furthermore, despite the common ground of same-sex preferences, gay men and lesbian often seemed to march to quite different drummers.  Most of the rare mixing I saw occurred at dance bars, and even there women were a tiny fraction of the customers.  Although, one of the bars at this time, the Grapevine, had a front room for straight people (in which you would occasionally find a very timid gay celebrity who was still passing), a back room behind that where lesbians danced, and a room for gay men to dance downstairs.  The rest of the dance places had only one small floor.  Slow dancing (the cheek-to-cheek stuff one sees nowadays mainly in films from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties) was the most popular, and lindy-style dancing to upbeat music pretty much cleared the floor.  There were, of course, no DJs in dance bars - only juke boxes, as I recall you could play one record for a dime, three for a quarter.  The juke box leasing industry, like the gay bar business, was in shady hands in New York City and many other urban areas.    

Same-sex dancing was a risky business as dance bars were much more likely to be raided and closed. My recent experience outside the Mais Oui was a good example of that.  Thus, in dance bars there was a higher element of tension than in the non-dance bars. If you were dancing in a gay dance bar and the lights flashed on to full brightness that was a sign that the police were entering the bar - or worse, that they had already entered in undercover fashion and it was a raid.  Everyone stood around nervously waiting to see what would happen next, hoping it was just harassment (or a false alarm) and not a full-fledged raid.  (This had happened in the Mais Oui a short time before the raid occurred.)  But then the cops also seemed to enjoy periodically stopping by non-dance bars to walk through the crowd to confer ominously with the bartenders.  These occurrences scared the bejesus out of me - which, of course, is exactly what they were intended to do. 

A surer way to stay open as a gay bar was to run a restaurant that turned into a drinking/cruising place circa eleven p.m. or so.  Sometimes it was very disconcerting to have made it late to dinner (e.g. at Lenny's Hideaway) and find the area around your table beginning to fill up with men standing over you drinking.  Some places, like Aldo's on Bleecker Street, or the Finale just south of Sheridan Sq. at 48 Barrow St., were primarily restaurants and their drinking crowd was pretty much confined to the immediate bar area all evening.  And then there was Regents Row, the ultimate in gay dining piss-elegance on the East Side.  It had the reputation as being a place where older, well-heeled men brought their young dates to impress them and to be seen with them; however, despite that not unfounded reputation you did see tables of guys who didn't fit the stereotype. 

Almost any excuse could be used to close a gay bar by the police - and ultimately no gay place was immune.  Numero uno was the fact that it was illegal in New York State to serve homosexuals in a licensed premises.  (This denial of public accommodation had been clearly confirmed as legal by the court in the verdict against Gloria's bar in the early 1940s.)

Exceeding the legal capacity allowed by the fire laws was a frequent accusation (and probably often true.)  Some of the more popular bars had "doormen" who kept a head count of the occupants so that if the police came they could not be accused of violating the fire laws.  On a weekend especially this often meant standing on the street waiting for admission, sometimes passersby would realize that this was a gay bar and make remarks about the guys in line and ridicule them.  I can clearly remember having this experience in front of the Old Colony on 8th Street on my first trip to New York.  The charge of serving minors was another accusation that could snuff out a gay bar.  At this time the legal drinking age in New York State was eighteen, and there as a heavy influx of teenagers into the city from Jersey and Connecticut, where the legal age was twenty-one, and these kids were often armed with false ID.  Soliciting for sex on the premises was a real zinger (this did not just mean offering sex for money, i.e. prostitution), which gave rise to the charming practice of police entrapment.  And then there was always the charge of being "disorderly," a catch-all term which covered any hint of what used to be referred to as loose (sexual) conduct or violation of middle class standards of socializing.   

When the police did come into a bar and take the head bartender aside, that little show of force always generated a jolt of fear.  People would shuffle around trying to decide whether to stick it out and hope the cops were bluffing or try to slip out quickly and go somewhere else.  Sometimes trying to slip out you would find there were cops waiting outside too, who sometimes made a few ominous remarks but usually did no more than that. (I remember this happening at Lenny's Hideaway once, when having sneaked quietly up the stairs to the street we ran right into more cops.)  Once in a while a bar really was raided and the people hustled out, these were usually the dance bars -- sometimes no one was taken in by the police other than the employees, sometimes not.  As I recall hearing that the Artists and Models ball had been raided more than once too.  You could never be sure what was going to happen -- or when -- or how far a raid would go.  The ultimate reality was that you were always taking a chance when you went to a gay place.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Plaza Hotel

Straight bars and restaurants were very uneasy if they began to get a gay clientele, and they would usually reach a point of deliberately making their gay customers feel uncomfortable if they felt they were in danger of "getting a reputation".   The Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel was reported to have once resorted to quietly passing out cards to suspected gay customers which read: "The management invites you to have a drink, and leave."  It may be only apocryphal, but the story was believed. And why not?  It reflected the way things were.  There was, in the mid-Sixties, a bar in the East Village did post a sign disinviting gay customers. 

                 At several places in Manhattan there were "meat racks" where guys loitered through the night to cruise each other.  There were several in Greenwich Village, the railings on the west side of Washington Square for one.  Other popular cruising grounds were the Sixth Avenue end of the concourse under Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park behind the main branch of public library on Fifth Avenue, the downstairs men's room at Grand Central Station and the subway station around the restrooms of the Times Square Stop on the IRT 7th Ave. line (the men's rest room there was referred to sometimes as the "Sunken Gardens.") 

     A guy in Bryant Park, late 50s  (photo: Edward Melcarth)

 If you preferred a more bucolic atmosphere there was the Rambles in Central Park,  and along the lower end of Central Park West in the 60s and 70s and the area around the Soldiers and Sailors monument up on Riverside Drive.  In 1959 the entire east side of Third Avenue from the lower 60s down into the 30s was a notorious area for heavy street cruising.  The Upper East Side had a lot of gay men living in it.  It had become rapidly upscale after the Third Avenue El was torn down in 1955, and new apartment buildings were sprouting up everywhere.  However at this time Third still hadn't a lot of  late night businesses that drew large milling crowds of straights, and it was lined with low-rise 19th century/early 20th century buildings.   Despite the supposedly less "obvious" lifestyle that living in this neighborhood presumed, at night the cruising on Third tended to be abundant, and far more blatant than I would have expected in an area favored by many gay guys who didn't want to be labeled by living in the Village.  It was in this area of Third (below 59th St.) that the only "leather" bars (probably better described as a little leather-ish) that I knew of were located.  

Meat racks were harassed, also raided, while police entrapment in tea rooms was a regular part of the repertoire.  What fun for the kiddies!

 Even so, New York was big and exciting, and it was intoxicating to be in an environment where the quantity and visibility of gay people seemed almost unbelievable.  It was obvious that other gay men had been similarly impressed.  Most of the guys I met in the city on my first visit had moved there from out of town, except for a small clique of Irish-Americans who were born and raised in the Bronx, and on visits over the next few months that continued to be the case.  If the city was a gay magnet, it was also a refuge.  It was in New York in 1959 that I first heard of the infamous Johns Committee.  Johns was a state senator in Florida who had launched an ongoing widespread gay inquisition and witch hunt at all levels of the state's educational system.  One of Rob's friends had been a student at the Gainesville branch (or was it Jacksonville) of the State University, and he had to drop out of school and flee as a result of these investigations.   

Despite my experience at the Mais Oui and the obvious uneasiness and stories that everyone had about police harassment and raids, I was conjuring up New York City as an annex of the legendary (and highly exaggerated) gay freedom and joie de vivre of Europe.  After life in a small town and a fairly provincial city, the fact that even in New York City gay life was a highly contingent world wouldn't register with me .  In truth, it was as much an "underworld" as the demi-monde my imagination was making out of it.  The term "gay underworld" is one I have come across occasionally, and it is a description that has much to recommend it considering those times. 


A black youth will most likely live with a black family, and thus, to the extent that he or she is subjected to racism, will likely be supported by his or her family through that experience.  A gay youth is rather unlikely to live in a gay or lesbian family, and the insult and stigmatization found in the exterior world are likely to be found in the family as well.  Such young people will frequently be obliged to disguise themselves from their "own" as well as from "others," and the kind of "racism" they are subjected to is as inherent in family life as in the outside world.

                                                                   Didier Eribon

I told my parents that I wanted to go to New York and get a job for the summer, as that was where I would undoubtedly locate after graduation.  They flatly refused to hear of it, and when I brought it up again I got a browbeating, thundering, pin-your-ears-to-the-wall tirade about the evils of New York.  Well, I knew that! but of course I could hardly have used it as a selling point.  So, I sneaked some of my favorite books and records out of the house on a couple of trips back home, convinced that when I went my parents would disown me.  After most of my exams were over at the end of the year Reg drove me to New York with my things on way home to the suburbs.  Before I left I sent my parents a letter telling them that I was going to the city for the summer, and however they decided to deal with it I was prepared to live with it. 

 When I returned a week later to take my last exam I found that my father had stormed into Syracuse U. like a hurricane.  He had left a note on my desk, pleading that I call them and come home just once before going to New York.  However, he had ransacked my room, and in going through everything in my desk had come across letters from Bob.  And he had obviously had no compunctions whatsoever about reading them.  My mother was to later protest that he'd only been "looking for a piece of paper."  My parents had always been inveterate control freaks and snoops, and even the F.B.I. doesn't toss a room to find a sheet of paper, so who was zooming who.  Given a number of incidents that occurred over the years prior to this I am quite certain that there were uneasy feelings sometimes on my parents' part concerning my sexuality, harnessed to an even stronger will to denial and self-deception.   But now here it was:  my paramour a man, and he a Catholic (i.e. not some debauching neo-pagan outsider.)  And he had two kids!  It couldn't have been worse if he'd had two pricks.

 My father, I found out, had browbeaten Bruce,  the grad student who was the Resident Advisor in the cottage, and he'd questioned any of my dorm mates that he could corner.  There was no doubt from their reactions that he had made a major scene.   Then he'd gone to the Dean of the college I was enrolled in, demanding to know where I was, and evidently accusing him/the university of something like dereliction of duty.   While sympathetic at first, the Dean lost his patience with my father's bullying approach.  Dean Clark  informed him that college wasn't high school, and the university did not monitor its students as if it were.  And my father was asked to leave. 

 I did call my parents, and I agreed to go back there for a few days before going to New York.  My father drove down to pick me up - any evidence of the man who had taken the pleading tone in the note he'd left was gone, he was all smoldering anger:  "Get your stuff.....(after seeing that I had only one small overnight bag) where's the rest of your stuff!?"  When I said, "New York," he looked as shocked as if this was the first he'd heard of it.  As soon as we got in the car he told me we weren't to talk to each other, "Until we get the hell out of here."  After roaring well over the speed limit almost the entire way he finally pulled off into a deserted rest area. 

 He turned off the car, gripped the steering wheel and looking straight ahead not at me, asked:  "Are you a homo......................

(at least a three beat pause) sexual?"

"Yes, I am."

 He was gripping the wheel so hard I thought it would break and tics were shooting down the side of his face like lightening:

"....................are you a Communist too?"


Though I was petrified of him, this was a moment I almost laughed - I knew we were lost.  We had just slipped into Rod Serling's Twilight Zone and I was sitting next to the captain of the Titanic.

When I entered the house my mother confronted me in the dining room: "It's not true you're a homo................(same pause) sexual, is it?"

 "Yes, it is."

She ran into the living room, threw herself full length onto the couch and cried out, "That means I'll never have any grandchildren!!"

"Fairy" I might have expected.  But this:  CommieFailed stud bull?

I was ordered to sit down in the living room with my parents and my aunt.  She was my mother's widowed sister who had lived with us until she had remarried when I was nine.  My father began a shouting tirade and worked himself into a fury.  I was certain that he was about to leap out of his chair and beat me to a pulp.  I was shaking.  I had nothing to lose now.  The worm turned...and the sonofabitchin' thing had fangs.  I shouted at the top of my lungs:  "I hate you!  And I've always hated you!" 

My father looked as if he'd been hit in the face with a baseball bat.  He put his hand over his eyes and sank back in his chair.  Too many times he had been a terrifying bully - I was not sorry.

Curiously neither religion nor morals seemed to figure in their dismay.   In the years to come that continued to be the case.  To my father it seemed to be almost too much to even put into words, but I can remember that he sat there in the living room that day and said, very emphatically," I know it's nothing I did.....," then after a long pause he rushed to add, "and it's not your mother's fault either."  Considering the content of  many of his past battles with her, I seriously doubt that he was honestly convinced of the truth of the latter. 

In these early days my mother's focus was almost exclusively on my destiny as a breeder.  My mother loathed the body, and was obsessed with "dirtiness" in every form imaginable; sex horrified her as if it were like having a tarantula in your underwear.  Despite an unceasing lament about not having other children, she refused as often as possible to have sex.  It was not surprising, therefore, that my expected production of a litter of kids loomed very large in her thoughts.   In a very bold statement, considering my mother and father's sex life, she asked, "How do you know you don't like sex with women?"  (I had not made any such declaration.)  "When you get married you'll like it."  I told her that I'd done it many times and that I knew I preferred it with guys.  Her mouth dropped open and she snapped, "With who?"  With who?  Four years with the same girl, and she can't guess?  When I said her name my mother let go with a series of gasping whoops and her eyes began to bug out so that I was afraid that she was having an apoplectic fit.  Then matricide could have been added to my bill of indictment. 

My aunt was the only one who thought about what being homosexual might do to my life.  She had listened as my parents and I had shouted, accused and threatened, and then she said with a sad look on her face:  "I worry that people will want to hurt you because of it."  No dummy she.

In retrospect my father's fear that I might also be a Communist as well as a homosexual were hardly as ridiculous as I thought at the time.  I was young enough during the McCarthy era to have paid only superficial attention to what was going on, and, thus, was ignorant of the extent to which a gay witch hunt was part of it.  However, even in the late Fifties, newspaper columnist Lee Mortimer was able make hay with the same association.  So, in the twisted way of the times, my father had not been off the mark with his question in the car on the way back home.


 Dr. Edmund Bergler!  A detour on the road to the Promised Land.

The doctor's chief claim to fame was his adamant insistence that all homosexuals could be cured -- by his therapy, of course --  if they wanted to be.

My parents had gotten a referral from the family physician to a shrink in a nearby city.   They pleaded that I see him before departing the bosom of the family to live as an adulteress in New York's evil Green-witch Village (as my parents called it.)  To give us all some peace I went, naively believing that this shrink might actually know something about homosexuality.

Image result for dr. edmund berglerWrong.  He was an anointed disciple of Bergler -- of whom I had never heard until then.  I got a five minute précis of Bergler's theories. 

   Dr. Bergler: "...deglamorizing homosexuals"
    Certainly not an issue in 50's America, doctor.

 I told him, yes, I understood perfectly, and he could be of great help to me and my parents.  He smile was so beaming I was the dental equivalent of snow blinded.  I went on with the same naive logic that had marked my discussion with the priest.  As I had no interest whatsoever in being cured that was that, of course, and clearly the best thing he could do would be to explain to my parents that I was, therefore, incurable -- which would resolve everything.  Lo, these many, many decades later I can still see his reaction.  He couldn't have been more stunned if I had pissed in his face.  Somehow we had failed to communicate, I could see that much, but damned if I knew where I went south and he went north!

I was given a reading list of Bergler's books for my edification and left his consulting room.  As I went over to my parents, my mother eagerly asked, "Are you better now?"  I think she was hoping it was like having a wart removed.

Then they had their turn with Dr. Bergler's disciple.  When we were driving home my mother volunteered that he had said that I did not have "a mystical type of intelligence like most homosexuals."  This was a real kick in the kimono because for years I had gotten the highest marks in Christian Doctrine in both Catholic parishes in town...so much for following in the footsteps of Theresa of Avila; evidently I wasn't even to be the 20th Century's answer to Marjery Kempe.

A year or so later I learned that Bergler was about as close to a cult as it gets, and that his reputation in his profession was getting to be that of a megalomaniac crank.  He croaked, none too soon, and his wife made it her life's work to carry on his they-can-be-cured crusade.  Seems his wife bit the dust only a few years ago still clutching the by now thoroughly discredited banner of her late husband.   His book is lavishly quoted on Religious Right web sites where his half-century plus old work is their last word on homosexuality.

A sad family footnote:  This good doctor's one piece of advice to my family was "Never give even the slightest indication that you accept anything about your son's homosexuality, fight it all the time."  They stuck to it ferociously, and it completely destroyed our family.  Also, it caused a vicious antagonism on my mother's part toward her sister, because my Aunt made an effort to understand.  Thus, whatever fragile bonds in my family that had survived the terrible strains in my parents' marriage were destroyed.  Such were the fruits of Dr. Bergler, one might say.


And so I arrived by Greyhound bus at the downtown station (there were two Greyhound terminals on the west side of Manhattan then, one on 50-something street and one on 34th,  I don't recall such a thing as the Port Authority terminal.)  Bob was moving out of a large studio in the London Terrace apartments on West 23th because his roommate had decided to return to Texas.  He took a sublet for the summer from Barbara Jones, an actress working on a straw hat circuit.  It was on the top floor of a dilapidated four-floor building on Eighth Avenue, just below Jane Street.  This was old time Greenwich Village:  a tiny, triangular-shaped room that overlooked a gay neighbor's garden in the back and in the front faced a row of  stubby 19th century buildings across Eighth Avenue.                                                       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Me, in Greenwich Village apt., summer 1959

What this flight to New York was ostensibly all about was that Bob and I were "in love."  Neither of us had given any serious thought to what I would do to earn money.  Get a job of course...but beyond that nada.  It became obvious after a couple of weeks of looking that the time to have hunted down a summer job in New York City was a good three months before at least.  So, I changed my approach and presented myself as having quit college and looking for a permanent job.   Nothing doing!  I was draft bait.  Every able-bodied male between eighteen and thirty-five had to be registered for the draft and serve two years of military service.  Upon leaving school you  lost your student classification and usually ended up being inducted into the Army very quickly.   Furthermore, I kept getting heartfelt advice from interviewers to return to college and get a degree. 


An old White Tower in Milwaukee, however, it is exactly like the one on the corner, of 14th St. and 8th Ave. - right down to having having a parking lot next to it.


This left me eking out the small amount of money I had left from working the previous summer.  "Dinner out" usually meant walking up to the White Tower at 14th and Eighth. We did go out once in a while to Aldo's, where Reg was now working as the salad boy, with his hair dyed "champagne beige."  (I thought it looked kinda pinkish myself.)  We had the cheapest spaghetti dinner on their menu. Less than two bucks, if I recall right.  And we went to bars for a beer or two and to a few parties.  These latter occasions sometimes led to accusations and arguments.  I was good-looking and a new face and people did a lot of looking, and for my part I was totally thrilled by the attention and would sneak looks back against the miniscule amount of better judgment I had.  Bob worked a rotating schedule as a telephone reservations clerk, which meant that I spent odd hours of the day and night alone.  Days by myself  I might go to a museum or take the subway and bus to Riis Park beach, but more often I just walked up and down the streets of the city.  Nights when Bob worked I sometimes went to the streets where I knew heavy cruising went on, or even to a bar for a beer - and once I actually had sex with someone and didn't just look. 

The guy was playing the villain at the time in a revival of a hoary old melodrama The Drunkard - a real live working actor. 


One of my strongest impressions of that summer was the death of  Billie Holiday.  She was one of the legendary Greats of jazz.  When Billie's version of the song Strange Fruit, a harrowing musical description of the lynching of a black man, first achieved public attention in 1939, Time magazine sniffed at it as "A prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People --  in 1999, the same  magazine would vote it the Song of the Century. But her personal life and career had been scarred by heroin addiction, and in recent years local laws kept known heroin users from getting a cabaret license to perform.  I'd read her brief autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, but it was too hard and brittle for me to connect with.   It was her voice - that unique voice - and her phrasing and intensity that cast a spell.

December 8, 1957, Lester Young, the legendary tenor sax player whose life and career were on the skids, had appeared with Billie and other jazz greats on a TV jazz special.  Young played Holiday's tune Fine and Mellow. It was a reunion for the two old friends who'd fallen out of contact for years.  Billie was also in decline, nearing the end of her career, and the occasion brought forth especially moving performances from them both.  Young died on March 15, 1959 of the effects of alcoholism and malnutrition.  Leonard Feather, the famous jazz critic, took a taxi with Billie to Young's funeral, according to Feather she turned to him during the ride and said, "I'll be the next one to go."

 On May 31st she had collapsed in her apartment and was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem where she was diagnosed as having a liver complaint complicated by a cardiac failure. Amazingly she rallied, but on June12th police raided her hospital room and found a small tin foil envelope containing heroin. Round the clock police guard was stationed outside her room.  Early on the morning of July 17th I turned on the radio and heard she had died.  She was 44.

When her body was examined they found $750 taped to her leg. Her bank account registered an additional 70 cents.  By the end of the year a further $100,000 was deposited into her account from record sales.

                       ...a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
 leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
 while she whispered a song along the keyboard
 to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Frank O'Hara 
from The Day Lady Died

                                                                                                                                                                       Billy Holiday/Lady Day

Much quieter and far less touristy than it was to become in the late Sixties, the Village in 1959 was witnessing the passing of its Golden Age as a world famous Bohemia, at the same time as its old Italian immigrant neighborhood was shrinking as well.  But going was not yet gone.  The pervasive and abrasively cutsie Continental shtick and the wrapped-in-plastic chic of the present day Village were virtually absent.    

Despite the wide north-south avenues which pierce it, most streets are narrow and often pursue their courses quite contrary to the vision of Manhattan's hoary grid plan of 1811.  Many of its buildings had been erected in the 19th century, and scores of them in its early decades – and they often looked it.  On the whole it had a tidy but comfortably worn, if sometimes slightly grubby, appearance, and at night the street lighting was soft and yellowy.  There was an inoffensive charm that came from ageing that stopped short of decay, and improvements that had usually been marked by restraint as much as innovation.

We lived on 8th Avenue in a small, old building between Jane and West 4th.  Gay village hangouts were nearby – Lenny's Hideaway, the Café de Lys and Julius's (the homophobic watering hole), as well as Clara's Pam Pam and Rikers in Sheridan Square, and the popular, though not gay at that time, 17 Barrow restaurant. 

(Right) PamPam east side of 7th Ave. South just below Sheridan Sq., later the
             Limelight as in this photo.

(Left) Bleecker, site of Aldo's in 1959, later Clyde's, now Manatus Restaurant

The gay-friendly Blue Mill on Commerce Street was also popular.  The Finale, just around the corner from Bleecker Street where it crossed Seventh Avenue South, was a more expensive gay restaurant, and then there was Aldo's a very popular, and cheaper, gay restaurant at 340 Bleecker where my friend, Reg, from college was the new salad boy.  Eighth Street, in the block east of Sixth Avenue, had more gay bars.

Along the axis of Bleecker Street, which ran at a crazy angle through the Village from Eighth Avenue in the west to Bowery on the east side, you got snapshots of the many facets of Village life. 

Aldo's and the Finale were gay places, both with Mafia connections, but even this far west the Bleecker Street Grocery store and Italian bakeries were still a part of the street scene.  In the blocks around Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue, near Father Demo Square, Our Lady of Pompeii church was a monument in the Italian village – it was the church attended by Mother Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint.  Nearby were John's Pizza, Zito's Bakery, Faicco's Sausage Shop (which still remain) and scores of other decades-old Italian neighborhood eateries and businesses, including Perazzo Funeral Home, which buried the Mafia dead and thousands of less notorious Village Italians.  South of Bleecker the neighborhood remained heavily Italian, and Little Italy between the central Village and Chinatown, was home of the annual festivals of Saint Anthony and San Gennaro, which were celebrated with all the carnival noisiness and the fervor of Sicily or Naples – but without the extra thousands of tourists who now clog the streets for these events.  Gay composer Gian-Carlo Menotti based his opera The Saint of Bleecker Street, which had premiered in New York in December '54, on life in this part of the Village.

          (right) One of many live albums recorded at the Village Gate

As Bleecker continued on its way east just south of Washington Square, there were the San Remo,  the Café Borgia and Cafe Figaro, Italian cafes that had become bohemian gathering places.  The San Remo's customers included William Burroughs, Miles Davis, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Jackson Pollock, W.H. Auden, Frank O'Hara, Gore Vidal, etc. and it had a small gay clientele.  (The San Remo had delicious homemade soup!)  The Village Gate was along here, a celebrated jazz place, and a rival of the Five Spot at St. Mark's Place, where Billie Holiday and Thelonius Monk had performed.  Farther along Bleecker was the Café Au Go Go, where comedian Lenny Bruce appeared and had been arrested for obscenity. 

Just off Bleecker, down Sullivan at 208, was the Triangle Social Club, the seedily unimpressive headquarters of the Genovese Mafia family, which would be the headquarters of their godfather, Vincent "Chin" Gigante, in years to come.  Mafia hands reached into all parts of life in the Village not least, into its gay life. 

        208 Sullivan

I arrived in June '59, and in a June ten years later the New York police, the Mafia and gay men would engage in a three-way struggle in the Village which would become legendary - though it would be almost three decades after the event before an accurate history would be written.   

Julius's on West 10th St., a Village landmark dating back to the Prohibition era, provided a meeting place for a small family gathering one evening this summer.  An older cousin from upstate was doing a special residency in a New York City hospital, and he and his wife were living in Manhattan while he completed it.  The bar, while it drew gay patrons, also pursued an active anti-gay policy.  Whether the management did not like gay men or whether it was just that they feared losing their liquor license, the end result was the same -- they harassed their gay customers and did everything in their power to make the place uncomfortable for them.  Nevertheless, gay men in varying numbers were always part of the crowd, especially at the end of the bar by the main entrance.  However, at this time any gay atmosphere in the place was so low-keyed, if not almost clandestine, and the number of straight customers (including tourists) so large that it was okay to drop in with straight friends, particularly if one hung around the other end of the bar where there was a very small area with tables.  My cousins' evening in the Village was a success, and nothing about Julius's caused them to raise an eyebrow.  

Not surprisingly as the hot summer wore on my relationship became more martial than marital.  A just out, not very savvy or mature twenty-one year-old and an angry twenty-eight year-old guy with an ex-wife and two kids had never been the makings of a stable relationship.  But in retrospect it seems that a lot of gay men in these years needed to inflate a plain ol' crush and the desire to rut into a love story of Hollywood proportions.  Perhaps these serial fantasy projections of walking hand in hand into eternity at the drop of their underpants helped some gay men compensate for the immense sense of contingency that marked the lives of gay people.

Late in August an unexpected telephone call from Barbara Jones threw everything into a state of chassis.  She would be in the city the next afternoon, and we were to be out of the apartment, no ifs, ands or buts.  Goodbye.  When she arrived with a fellow actor in tow, she told us that she had gotten pregnant and they didn't know what they were going to do.  (No legal abortions then.)  Bob and I ended up in the Chelsea hotel. 

   Chelsea Hotel ( G. & M. Hoberman)

It was clear to me that without finishing college I was going nowhere but the Army, and besides...the bloom was off the rose as far as the relationship went.  It had been about college kid, an older "ex-straight" man and New York, New York! and it had been over as soon as it had to become something else.  I called my parents and told them it was finished and I wanted to come back to finish my senior year.  I think I thought, despite the horrible scenes when they had found out in May that I was a ho-mo, that I would just be able to go back to Syracuse without a fuss, finish my last year and then quietly go bye-bye.  Talk about stupid.  I could have taught stupid. 

No way.  They had convinced themselves that Syracuse had somehow made me "that way" and going far away to a good (in the moral sense) = Catholic school would unmake it.  There were rushed consultations with a very influential brother of my father.  A phone call from him got me approved for admission to Marquette University in Milwaukee without them seeing a scrap of paper.  This was going to magically make me heterosexual.   I was stunned.

I was taken on a dashing trip out there, driving through the ugly, dying tobacco fields of southern Ontario.  We crossed Lake Michigan on the overnight ferry from Waukegan to Milwaukee in a terrible storm.  I slept through it in a lounge chair and woke to find windows smashed, the ship in disarray and my parents white from puking the night away.  Such, however, is the repose of the innocent.  At Marquette I went to a clerk in the Registrar's office who gave me a form to fill out and reminded me that the registration fee was non-refundable.  For some reason that snapped me out of my daze, the lousy non-refundable fee - I knew I'd never stay in this place.  It was all a waste.  I filled out the form, but when I had to sign my name at the bottom I said, "I can't do this."  My father in a barely controlled rage said he wouldn't contribute anything to sending me back to Syracuse so what did I think I would do.  I said I was going to hitchhike to New York and get a job as a waiter.  Soooooo....we got in the car and drove like demons were chasing us back to Syracuse, where I had the two scholarships anyway. 

My summer in the Big City had been an adventure that fizzled out and ended with an ugly family drama, but I did land my feet.  It had been a worse summer in New York for someone else I knew.  A little while after returning to S.U. I learned that John, the waspish gay French instructor who hung out in the Orange, had committed suicide by throwing himself out a window while visiting New York that past summer.  


 1959 is the year that the Dalai Lama flees from the Chinese Communists in Tibet.  At this point he is simply an exotic curiosity to most Americans, as evidenced by being mislabeled a "god-king."  Dr. Fidel Castro and his rag-tag rebels manage to chase dictator General Batista - one several Latin-American dictators beloved by the U.S. government - out of Cuba.  One of my journalism professors, a priggish horse's ass, denounces our class out of the blue one day in a wild harangue in which he accuses us of all probably being Castro sympathizers.  What comes out is that he has relatives (Americans) who had gone to Cuba to spread some brand of Protestantism, and had been able to come into possession of a nice chunk of real estate.  He is afraid their land will be expropriated for distribution to peasants.  The righteous professor may have made twenty vaguely anti-Batista kids into Castro supporters.    

 I was back in the same cottage on South Crouse as the previous year, and managed to get myself the room in the tower, which was rounded at one end with large windows and great views of the neighborhood - including down the street to the Orange.  Almost all the required courses for two majors I'd managed to cram into the previous three years, so I had a fairly light load with some interesting electives.   I had my hi-fi and a small record collection, now augmented by a couple of Broadway albums.  And come hell or high water - and they had for sure! - I had lived in New York.  (Right. Another wow!)  

    Queen Anne style house with tower end

Any money I'd had was gone:  For the first time in almost ten years I was totally financially dependent on my parents.  (My tuition and my room, however, were covered by the scholarships I'd been won.)   My father intended that my allowance would be so small that it would cover only my basic needs.  However,  I was surprised to be able to convince him to let me go off college board and buy meal tickets at a cafeteria restaurant just down the street.  (I must have laid it out as being cheaper.)  This meant that I had control of my food money, and  if I ate the cheapest items and only twice a day I could rake off a small amount of money for myself.  This regime meant a fried egg sandwich and a large container of lemonade for dinner - it was if I were trying to make anorexia look like gluttony in comparison. 

So, I sat there listening to Gypsy or Fiorello or West Side Story ..."tonight, tonight, won't be just any night...."   And wondering:  Now what?

  (right) Lou Reed 1959

Lou Reed started started at Syracuse this year, where he became friendly with guitarist Sterling Morrison.  Reed used to hang out in the Orange with Delmore Schwartz, who was an instructor at Syracuse.  Reed had an affair with another male student.  In a later interview Morrison characterized gay life on the campus in this era as being "really repellant."  No arguments from me.

Early in the fall Bill Curry (from my sophomore cottage days) came by for a list of bars in New York as he was making his first trip to the city.  At that time, as I recall, I was able to list over twenty bars in Manhattan alone. 

The ones I remember now were:  415 (dance bar) on Amsterdam Ave.; Mais Oui (dance bar) west 60s; Faisan d'Or, Westside midtown; the bar of the Astor Hotel in Times Square; 316 on the Upper East Side opposite El Morocco; Annex, Third Ave. in 50s; Tic-Toc, Third Ave., Big Dollar, Second Ave. (?); Grapevine (dance bar) Second Ave., Lenny's Hideaway, 183 West 10th St. around the corner from the Riviera, a jazz bar; Julius Bar, West 10th St.; Cafe De Lys, Christopher Street; Cherry Lane, Commerce St.; New Colony, Greenwich Ave.; Old Colony, West 8th St.; Mary's, West 8th St.; Main Street, West 8th St.; Aldo's (restaurant & bar) Bleecker & Christopher; Fedora's (restaurant & bar) nr. 7th Ave. & West 10th; Finale (restaurant & bar), off 7th Ave. South, Regents Row, as well as the Floradora, Jackson Heights. Queens and two in Brooklyn Heights.  (There were also the Duchess and Page Three for women, and perhaps others.)

An elegiac comment on the list of bars and restaurants in the previous paragraph:  Fedora's restaurant remained in business through all the years and decades after my first meal there.  It had opened in 1952, and through bad times and good it remained a hospitable place - in the era when nearby Julius's was desperately trying to keep out gay customers, Fedora's was welcoming them. 

Sure, she made money at it, but Julius's was not going bankrupt either.  The difference was that Fedora was not a homophobic scumbag. 

Her place had an unchanging decor of cluttered memorabilia, presided over every evening by the gracious, and gracefully aging, Fedora herself.  However, at age 95 painful back problems finally forced her to let go of the place.  Her final meals were served in the last week of July 2010.  For many years every evening as Fedora entered her restaurant to take her place behind the bar, she was greeted with applause from her customers.  She certainly must have gotten as much of a thundering ovation on her last night as the size of the place would allow.   

But meanwhile, back in Wonderful Town, Lee Mortimer, a columnist for the NY Daily Mirror, had started an anti-gay bar crusade.  Mortimer and Jack Lait were the co-authors of a popular series of yellow journalism expose books -- New York: Confidential, Washington: Confidential, etc. -  which sold in large numbers throughout the 1950s.  (Mortimer wrote another doozie, brought out in 1961, Women Confidential.) 

As Will Straw described them in the Culture of Cities Project, "Lait and Mortimer were conservative, syndicated columnists for whom the topography of the large U.S. city was one of uncontrolled sexual deviance and racial miscegenation, both of which were seen to foster the communistic sympathies which are the books' underlying preoccupation."  Thus, when Mortimer raged in his newspaper column, "...whether it is in the best interest of American traditions to encourage the degenerates who roam our streets at night," he was singing one of his favorite songs.  He would name gay bars in his column in the Mirror, and the police would dutifully padlock them.  Then he'd publish these closures and name other gay bars.   He also published threats in his column to straight bars that were attracting gay patrons -- Allen's, a popular theatre bar, was one of these -- warning the establishment that he was watching them.  I think he may have also mentioned the famous P. J. Clarke's on Third Avenue in the same way.  Almost every gay bar I knew of at that time would be closed down by the end of the next summer (1960.) 

Mortimer sometimes disingenuously claimed to harbor no ill-will toward the "dainty hand-on-hippers," rather his only motive for columns larded with demeaning epithets for gay men, he asserted, was to attack the Mafiosi who ran the "queer dives."  This ignored the fact, of course, that the business of running gay bars in New York State had been handed to the Mafia on a silver platter by the State Liquor Authority, who controlled the licensing of bars, taverns, etc.  The SLA code of regulations considered selling drinks to homosexual clientele a violation worthy of closure and loss of license.  What squeaky clean, average-Joe licensee would take that risk?

Recently, Mortimer has even been characterized as enjoying his sometime visits to "daffodil dens" (gay bars.)   But it seems he did so in the venerable tradition of the white folks who in another era went to Congo Square in New Orleans to gawk at the Darkies dancin' -- "Tourists come to gape (I did.)" he wrote of the "homo joints."  How much clearer could his what's-new-at-the-zoo attitude be?  The revisionist picture of Mortimer as a selfless gang-buster with a little soft spot for the pansies he routinely slimed in his columns and books just doesn't wash.

In October or November of '59, when Bob came up to Syracuse for a weekend visit he brought news of some gay bars being padlocked.  He wrote to me later, and mentioned that the popular Lenny's Hideaway, the 316 and more bars had been closed.

        Entrance to Lenny's Hideaway, much later here as Small's, a jazz club.

I began to replay the memory of being dragged out of the car during the raid on the Mais Oui over and over again in my mind. It became a defining - or perhaps better,  redefining - moment in my life.  The fact that we could be - and had been - treated so highhandedly and with such abusive contempt simply because it was assumed we were "homos,” now eroded any campy interpretation of the event, along with self-serving images I had of my own sangfroid.  I had been scared - almost literally - shitless, and nothing less.   And it may well have only been a young cop's quirk of religious sentimentality that saved Clem and I from being charged with public indecency, which most certainly would have meant that my parents would have become involved.

But, of course, they had become "involved" only shortly afterward anyway.  And the result couldn't have left an uglier mess if they had found out as a result of the Mais Oui raid.

This year I was elected president of the cottage.  There was a new Resident Advisor, Ernie, a much older and definitely non-Ivy League type, but he felt obliged to follow the rules and insisted on trying to organize life in the cottage.  When he began pressing that we have formal social events with the girls' cottage dorms, we arranged an anarchist coup. One of my fellow spirits made a motion that we dissolve the cottage government, another seconded it, I called for a vote -- it was passed unanimously. The rest of the year, despite the RA's threats and later wheedling, I refused to play the cottage president.  By year-end, he had abdicated all responsibility and asked us just to keep a lid on things so he didn't get screwed by the college administration.  My part in this may have unintentionally inclined my straight dorm mates to later ignore some of my suspect behavior.

As for Ernie, the Resident Advisor, he was really a decent guy - and he seemed a bit hard-pressed as an older, working class Italian-American with no tweedy pretensions to fit into the scene.  But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the poor s.o.b. took a knife in the back from me as a surrogate for parents, cops...and the whole edifice of straightdom.  


The first few weeks I went down the street to the Orange with guys from the cottage.  The gay clique of last year was gone - finished their degrees, or in Reg's case (like Joe) dropped out of school.  Considering what my role in the group had been, this was surely a plus, but I was soon hankering after gay company - and maybe s-e-x, now that I was used to getting it on a steady basis. 

   (right) University College, S.U.

I had a class one night a week at  University College.   This was something like the continuing education part of the University, a dingy, old building located close to downtown.   After a couple of weeks I told myself that one night after class I would have to check out the local gay bars.

I was less than happy with the prospect of doing it by my lonesome.  But the alternatives were maybe finding some claustrophobic gay clique on campus (not again, thank you)...or a year in limbo.  My limited experience in New York had given me at least a small measure of self-confidence that I'd lacked before, so it was on down to the Bell Room after class.

   Downtown Syracuse

This move was very unusual.  Most gay college students were too uncomfortable to hang out in these bars, for one thing, they felt unsure about police harassment, though in fact I think it rarely occurred. But also, students were not adept at fitting into the gay life of the city, and for that matter the gay guys from the city weren't very at ease with out-of-towners whose lives were centered on "the hill."  College guys as a group (I came to learn) were rather disliked by the gay men of the city:  the straight students came in to gawk of course, but the gay ones who came in were seen as very aloof, essentially tourists with a demeanor not vastly different from their straight counterparts. 

It came as quite a surprise to these guys after a few weeks to realize that downtown was where I intended to make my social life.  While most of them had no education beyond high school and many had low level white collar jobs or were laborers, I was much more comfortable within a short time than I had ever been with gay guys on campus.  Most of the guys downtown lacked the academic sophistication of a college education.  But this was counter-balanced by the fact that their origins were very often similar to my own, which gave us a deeper shared ground of a different sort.  Syracuse was a heavily Roman Catholic city with large ethnically oriented groups of blue collar people in its population.  I fit in.

I had learned growing up that being "American" wasn't a clear cut matter, and that some of us were other things (Italian, Catholic, black, etc.), and that these other identities/loyalties were sometimes not looked at very positively in the predominant WASP view.  Despite the ambivalence that might arise, these other - conflicting - identities were often sources of pride and reassurance. 

In retrospect, I think this experience was probably something that made my transition into "gay life" somewhat more comprehensible to me, and a bit easier.   While this previous knowledge and experience (of counter-identities) did not reduce the pain and fear that anti-gay hostility and discrimination would cause, it did make the plain fact of being part of an unacceptable minority far less remarkable than it must seem for many young white Americans today, most of whom probably lack the experience of having a counter-identity.  At this point in U.S. history the younger generations of white Americans descended from European immigrant ancestors are thoroughly "mongrelized."

With the fading of specific European ethnic identifications and the declining appeal of ethnic religious orthodoxies, I wonder if today's younger white queers might not sometimes feel more put upon by American society in some respects - despite the academic doctrines and reassurances of Queer Theory - because they lack any personal pre-coming out experience of sustaining identities outside the mainstream.  Perhaps this may explain in part why assimilation and the compulsion to emulate hetero-normative lifestyles became so pronounced in the post-AIDS era.  

Equally important about downtown, the pervasive and palpable fear that marked gay life on campus was considerably less here.  Granted, gay people downtown were still subject to the whims of a hostile society, but these bars were true gay territory at least, and that - as in New York -  meant there was such a thing as gay life.  As a gay man you could not truly belong in the Orange, but you could belong in the Bell Room.  As far as I recall I was the only college student in the local bar scene. When I was seen in the Bell Room a couple times by groups of touring straight students it scared me a bit, but not enough to keep me out of the downtown gay bars.  

The Bell Room was a long narrow bar, with a piano up front by the window (which was played sometimes by a much older, white-haired man, Don) and a juke box of pop music and old standards.  The gamut of customers ran from guys in their late teens (the legal drinking age in New York then was eighteen) to men in their forties (though there were far, far less of the latter), and while many of them had white collar jobs from clerks to professional salesmen, some did not.  Some guys came in jacket and tie, but more in the popular crew-neck sweater over a dress shirt or sport shirt and chinos.  Even here jeans were not as popular as they became a few years later.  I don't remember ever seeing any women customers in the Bell Room -- nor do I recall seeing black people in any of the bars.

The bar was owned by a middle-aged straight woman, Connie, a loud-mouthed homophobe who often tended bar and enjoyed baiting her customers.   A few customers would quietly slip a low-keyed sarcastic remark back to her, but Johnnie, one of the older guys had no compunctions about engaging her in brutal duels of mocking insult, especially if he'd had one too many - these were never conducted quietly.   The fact that she didn't throw him out (that I can recall) even though she was inevitably made a fool of, says to me that she realized that she was operating a gold mine.  I don't know how well the place did during the day (when it was probably straight), but at night in this retail neighborhood she would have been dying without a bar full of gay guys.  In her manic moods she presented herself provocatively, even pulling her skirt more than halfway up and jiggling her boobs, however the amount of pork she carried on a short frame and an over-estimation of her feminine charms made this a no-class act.   One time when she was yelling at Johnnie because he had used some language she didn't like, she made the mistake of saying, "I'm a lady, and don't you talk like that to me!"  He looked at her with abject hatred written all over his face and spat out, "Pull your skirt over your head and say that!"   She went berserk, but he just kept repeating his remark.

There was also another bartender, a straight man in his forties or early fifties.  He wore an expression of martyrdom all the time his boss was there, as well he might, poor bastard.  Though he struck me as a bit befuddled by the surroundings, he was congenial in a quiet way, and the customers though they might kid him a little about gay things liked him and treated him with respect.

Johnnie, Connie's adversary, and Don, the pianist, had a repertoire of anecdotes about past gay life in Syracuse.  One of them concerned Ada Keep.  According to them, she had run a "whorehouse" in the city, which had a bar that was patronized by gay men.  One of her older customers was nicknamed "Washroom Alice" from his habit of hanging around the entrance to the men's room and following customers in.  At one point some of Ada's bar customers got in trouble with the law.  When their court appearance was announced Ada, dressed in her best - and probably with a wicked gleam in her eye - attended and took a seat in the very front of the courtroom.  So the story went, as the judge entered and everyone rose, Ada said in a loud voice, "That's Washroom Alice!"  The case was dismissed.

Then wonder of wonders, another gay bar opened directly across the street!  The Downtown Show Bar was run by Beryl, an older woman who was the spit and image of the actress Ethel Barrymore, even down to the voice!  Sometimes one of her young straight sons would help her at the bar.  The whole family was at ease with their gay customers - and more than that they were actually friendly.  The place itself was very dark, and a basic dump with cases of beer bottles stacked around rather than in a back storeroom.  But the social atmosphere was a 1000 percent improvement on the Bell Room.  I can remember several evenings that winter, when I'd stopped down after my evening class at University College, sitting at the bar and having a pleasant chat with Beryl. 

I'd drop by the Bell Room first, but if there was no burning reason to stay, I'd go across the street to have a couple of beers at the Downtown Show Bar.  As far as I can remember, I never went back to Bersani's after my bar tour of the previous year, and most of the people who patronized these two bars rarely went there either.  Sometime early this year, as I recall, the upstairs club got closed up by the cops.   


If last year’s “most unforgettable character” in the Syracuse gay world had  been Daisy, this year’s was Midnight Mary.  Mary was a legend in her own time, and I heard her story before I ever met her.  She liked to dress in drag – always black outfits, hence her nom de drag – and sometimes came downtown in the evening to stroll around.  On one such excursion, wearing a smart sheath dress, hat with veil and patent leather purse and high heels, she boarded a bus heading down to Salina Street, the main street.  She rang for her stop and got up to exit from the front door, however, she was unable to manage stepping down as her dress was too tight and her heels too high for her descent to the sidewalk. The bus driver got out of his seat, slipped past her down to the street and gallantly assisted her.

I was introduced to Mary in the Bell Room.  She was a very slim man, pale and gaunt-faced, probably in his late thirties, but possibly older. Mary’s hair was a brassy chemical blond, slicked back and very long for a man’s haircut of that era.  While her eyebrows were plucked and she wore mascara, she was of course not in the bar in drag - though even her non-drag outfits were usually all black.  Connie seemed to waver between fascination and incredulousness where Mary was concerned, and she would engage Mary in rather loud conversations from behind the bar, which usually ended with Connie shaking her head in disbelief.

Surprisingly, I think now, I was not put off by Mary and we always chatted awhile when she came into the bar.  Perhaps it was the fact that she had a rather “hard” demeanor which lurked not far beneath the feminine mannerisms, or maybe it was that she owned and operated a small truck line. (My father did the same thing, so perhaps Mary was emerging as some kind of Oedipal alter-lodestar on my psychological horizon.  My father must be spinning like a windmill in his grave at this thought.)

One winter night after my class at the University College we ran into each other in the Downtown Show Bar.  A blizzard had started late in the day, and by the time we left the snow was knee-high everywhere and drifts were piling up in the streets.  We decided to walk together toward the Hill as Mary lived in the same direction.  The streets were empty until we saw a guy trying to shovel his car out of a drift he’d swerved into.  Mary said if we could push him out, he’d probably give us a ride.  “Butch it up,” she admonished me as we approached him.  We did manage to get him free, and as she had thought he gratefully offered us a ride. As we went around to the passenger side, Mary said, “I’ll sit next to him and do the talking so he doesn’t know we’re gay.  You just sit there.”  I did.  She did.  And I cannot imagine what he thought.  The freezing cold and howling blizzard reminded Mary of Montreal, which is where she went on her annual shopping trips for women’s clothes.  Mary got so carried away she didn’t even have to say the words “drag queen,” as she sounded like a recording of Women’s Wear Daily for the blind.

 The man looked over at me finally, and asked, “And what do you do?”

My shopping was considerably less interesting, of course, so I simply said, “I’m a student.”

He looked at me, he looked at Mary.  I disobeyed her order and asked him what he did.  It seemed like an overdue courtesy as Mary hadn’t asked him jackshit about himself.

 “I’m a policeman.”

A very weak, “Oh,” was all I could manage as Mary had wedged six inches of her elbow between two of my ribs, and I could feel my left lung collapsing.

When he let us off, Mary gave me a furious look.  “I told you to keep your mouth shut!”  And she turned on her heel (fortunately not a high one this snowbound evening) and stalked away, looking like a black egret picking its way fastidiously through the drifts.


I had two "boyfriends," during my senior year.  During the first semester I went out with Danny Kaminski, a 17 year-old of Italian and Polish extraction, a former bag boy who had recently become assistant manager in a supermarket.  Later in the year I went with an Irish-American guy, Leo Riordan,  a 20-year-old short order cook at one of the big college beer joints. Both were far more sexually experienced and at ease being gay than anyone I'd met on campus, even though the latter had taken part in the NYC or Philly bar scenes.  Danny and Leo were easygoing, down-to-earth working class guys, and I was much more comfortable with them. However, both lived with their families. 

After one night in a cheap hotel and another "quickie" using a borrowed apartment - where we picked up crabs from the host's bed - I took the chance of  bringing Danny back to my room.  The guys I was friendly with in the cottage picked up on the fact that Danny was often there on weekends, and very early on Sunday mornings for someone who'd just dropped in...and he was not a college student, but a local...and there was only a single bed in the room.  The realization of what this probably meant embarrassed them, and although there were hinting questions no one made an open issue out of it. 

The later appearance of Leo actually smoothed things over, I think.  Whereas Danny had been (understandably) cautious in the dorm situation, which tended to draw attention to the fact that he didn't fit in.  It was the opposite with Leo.   He was a husky Irish-American, very outgoing and used to college students from his job in a college hangout.   I remember one time he nonchalantly wrapped a towel around himself and went to take a shower.  But he didn't come back for what seemed like an eternity.  When I went down to the john - a "homey" affair with a toilet, one small sink and a stall shower - Leo was showering and having an enthusiastic conversation about cars with a guy from down the hall who was shaving.  He was by nature a friendly person and unaffectedly interested in "guy stuff," so I think for any of my dorm mates who were bothered by what they thought they had figured out about Danny and I,  Leo  supplied what might called "denial material."  

In addition to the guys in the cottage, who had some pretty strong circumstantial evidence to go on, I believe that any reasonably savvy person would have realized I was gay.   I don't think I put on a convincing straight act, and I'm sure I was probably labeled a "queer" by some of my fellow students. Or suspect at least.  One incident very late in the year makes me think so.  I was walking down Marshall Street, the main drag of the campus, and Steve Levin, the Marlon Brando look-alike from my freshman year, was lounging against a car and hailed me over.  We'd continued to be friendly whenever we saw each other after that first year, and always exchanged a few words when we ran into each other.  But nothing prepared me for the fact that after a couple of polite remarks Steve launched into a lecture about how I was hanging out with a bad crowd and getting a lousy reputation.  I was dumbfounded - he had named a notoriously gay theatre teacher and his clique - because I'd never been in their company even once, and didn't know any of them even to say hello to.  Steve brushed off my protests, and delivered a big brother lecture on keeping my nose clean, etc. and not getting "known."  But the campus was large enough - and I had become one of the gay loners - so the sheer number of  students afforded an opportunity to be lost in the crowd.  As long as the guys I was in close quarters with were pretending it wasn't so and making no trouble for me, then among thousands of students no one was likely to give a shit if I was a "fairy." 

Leo knew my money situation, and he'd stop over some nights on his way home from work to bring me huge roast beef or ham sandwiches from the place he cooked in.  I sure would have been hungry real often without his care. 

Once he and I went to a strange party in one of the old wooden tenements in what was known as the "Polack" part of town.  It was given by a quiet  middle-aged man who might have had a yen for younger guys perhaps, but more than that a need for some gay social life.    There were maybe a dozen people: some gay guys, a lesbian, a young straight guy just out of prison and a tough straight (or maybe bi) girl.  The booze flowed, then Leo and I broke up a fight when a bunch of dykes from Utica dropped by to bash the local girl, and finally he and I ended up having sex on a mattress on the living room floor while the straight guy and the girl screwed beside us.  Talk about a far cry from my hometown life. 

Leo was very, very serious about me and thought we'd go to NYC together.  But though I liked him a lot, I knew that was not what I wanted to do.  He was a very kind, decent person, and ended up being quite hurt by the relationship.  Some years later I heard from someone who'd heard  from someone who thought Leo Riordan had gotten married and had kids.  If it was true, I hope it turned out to be the right route for him.   As far as I saw he had plenty of qualities that would have made him a good spouse and parent. 


Though I've said little about my academic career, I'd done fairly well as a student.  I'd had fulfilled the requirements for two majors, one in journalism and the other in anthropology, and most semesters I'd gotten on the Dean's List.  But second semester of my Junior year, taking off on the bus down to New York a lot and running around had made for an academic disaster though. 

    Hall of Languages, S.U.

Senior year, however, despite my social life downtown, I bounced back and did well again.  On the other hand, taking two majors had left me little room for acquiring anything like what is intended by the term liberal arts education; in the areas of philosophy, history and arts and letters I had had no courses other than at the introductory level.      

A two semester elective in World Religions, however,  had been so broadly conceived and beautifully taught by Dr. Harlon Bro that it proved over the years to be the single most valuable course I took.  Many of the courses in my anthropology major undoubtedly gave me a broader and more accepting worldview, but, still, I didn't know shit in the basic humanities.  

As a social creature I was immature, and self-conscious to the point of being feckless.  Decision-making and "courage"  had developed as a pattern of acting in a burst of  impulse after being pushed into a corner, and then doggedly sticking to whatever that trajectory was despite the consequences.  

Not least of all, of course, I had discovered that I was homosexual, or in the argot, "gay." 

Gay life as I had found it during my college years was governed by great fear of discovery on the college campus, and in the city there was also an uneasy atmosphere.  Discovery in either place would have meant expulsion from school or loss of employment, perhaps legal charges if you were from the city.  Heavy drinking among gay people was the norm, and drunkenness in gay bars was not uncommon.  Few gay people seemed truly at ease with their lives, and a caustic pseudo-feminine cattiness was often in the air.  But small wonder, "gay" life was not terribly gay.  A threat always hung over it, even at the best of times.  That threat may only occasionally have turned into reality, but when it did it swept all before it.  To be gay in this time was truly to be outside of the law.  Living as a homosexual put you on the wrong side of the rules, and as a result you were a creature from whom the ordinary protection of the law was routinely withheld as a token of the contempt with which you were regarded -- if you were gay you were as likely to be abandoned or even preyed upon by the police as protected by them.   The local and state governments and legal systems were in a personal sense experienced as mechanisms for keeping gay people in their place.

Given the bribery, intimidation and humiliation that gay people routinely experienced as their usual personal engagement with "the law," it is no wonder that it was perceived by many as a criminal power.  And the gay, black author James Baldwin in Fire Next Time argued that the U.S. legal system was just that.

While gay life in New York had not been as claustrophobic as that in Syracuse, there was still an ever-present quality of vulnerability about it. From nine to five most people had to pass as straight or at least keep a very low profile even in a tolerant environment. 

   Brooklyn Bridge & Downtown Manhattan in the late Fifties

But from five to nine - when one could supposedly be oneself - gay life was contingent upon forces and whims quite beyond the control of gay people.  It existed by an informal sort of permission, and the sight of a policeman was a reminder that really you were just "allowed" to be gay and to have any public life which reflected this.  And I think this directly contributed to what I saw as widespread excessive drinking and the heavy amount of antagonism and scorn that gay people often exhibited toward each other in these years.  

Nowadays the much celebrated "transgressive" aspect of camp is part of  the orthodoxy of Queer Theory.  To my mind that's at least 50% academic horseshit. What's ignored is that camp was based on an unrelenting cynicism not just about the straight world, but about everything -- not least the gay world.  Twenty minutes of relentless camping, and it was like the air had been sucked out of the room.  Ultimately there was nothing - and no one - that couldn't be ridiculed and demolished in the spirit of camp.  If the bitchy heroines of camp were ready to sail out defiantly with all flags flying against straights, they were also happily willing to rip gay life and their gay friends to shreds with just as much fervor.  But then, why not?  Internalized homophobia - self-loathing, to put it less antiseptically academic terms - was so prevalent that it could have been in the beer. 

Much of the temper of the gay life I had been exposed to was cynical to the point of misanthropy.  While psychologists, sociologists and gay commentators have written endlessly about the reasons for the pervasive negativity in gay life in these years, the bottom line was that I found it thoroughly ugly and demoralizing to live with, whatever those reasons may have been. 

As for New York, New York!: the police were bent on eradicating gay life there. 



mail to: nycnotkansas@gmail.com


 CONTENT-RELATED LINKS - checked 27 January 2020

(Each section of the site has its own links)

James Baldwin - short article about James Baldwin's career

Gore Vidal - article by Vidal about The City and the Pillar

The Beats - good site for its many links

Pulp Friction - review of Michael Bronski's book on gay pulp fiction

Eminent Outlaws - superb book on the development gay literature from the early post WW II to the end of the century. 

Mattachine Society of New York - brief comments, index of archives

Dr. Bergler's reaction to Kinsey - a brief article by Bergler from a professional journal focusing on homosexuality, Bergler's obsession

Dr. Evelyn Hooker - early article by Hooker on her findings re male homosexuality

Vintage Physique Photography - a truly excellent 50's/60's male erotica site - membership site, but has good preview pages 

Like the Sun Rushing - novel of 60s and 70s gay life, the Amazon.com page


GENERAL INTEREST LINKS - checked 27 January 2020

Syracuse vintage photos

New York - truly excellent site by James Lileks, Times Square section is terrific - mostly old photos and postcards

Forgotten New York - a terrific web site

Lou Reed (go to the bio section of site)  - comprehensive Andy Warhol site by Gary Comenas

Recordings available from Amazon.com and other sources: 

Trouble is a Man, Judy Holliday 

Some Other Time, Mabel Mercer

The Riviera, Blossom Dearie   

Imagine, Sylvia Syms 

I'm a Fool to Love You, Billie Holiday 

Johnny's Greatest Hits, Johnny Mathis