Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lost Gay New York: Lost Lingo, Park Queens and Department Store Queens

By Perry Brass

“The rent is $69,” my roommate on Central Park West, Bob Schwiller told me. “A lotta people make something of that. It’s actually $16.80 a week, but to make it easy, I’ll ask you for $69.”

I asked him what he meant by “people make something out of it,” and he told me that “69” was code for gay sex. “So if your rent was $69, people just put two-and-two together, and that’s what they get,” he added. “Their minds are always in the gutter. Sometimes I don’t mind being there myself.”

After I moved in, I met many of Bob’s friends. They were all older guys who’d been in New York for a while, remembering queer New York during World War II, when the city was “wide open, not like now when everything’s closed up still because of the Fair.”

This was 1966, remember.

One thing I got out of meeting his friends were that gays were often “specialized,” and had a lingo of their own. They needed the lingo, because you had to be able to talk about something very forbidden, queer sex and its devotees, in a way that straights could not decode.
You were known, very much by where you cruised. And a lot of gay New York never went to bars. Bars were still being raided all the time, and many gay bars were stacked with hustlers, johns (guys who “rented” rentboys), screaming queens who were too obvious for daytime tastes, and rip-off artists who felt gays were a good mark. Unlike the bars in San Francisco, often either gay-owned or at least managed, New York bars were still in the pocket of the Mob.

So I learned about specialized guys. Besides Central Park West queens, there were park queens, who cruised Central Park; street queens who did their cruising on certain routes in the city, like Third Avenue, or parts of Broadway in the West 70s (known to be cruisy); restaurant queens who knew half the menus in New York and liked to socialize and sexualize in them (some restaurants were notoriously cruisy: especially cafeterias, a now extinct form of eating in New York, left over from the Depression); and my favorite: department store queens.

I met fussy but funny Ralph Wilson, a cunningly bleached blond, through Bob. He was a prima-faciedepartment store queen. He hung out at Lord and Taylor and Saks, and a raft of stores now only memories: Stern’s on 42nd Street; Arnold Constable, tres preppy on Fifth; swanky De Pina’s further uptown; stately old B. Altman’s; and elegant, refined Bonwit Teller, now a raucous Niketown, and then the haunt of the very chic. When Ralph stopped by Bob’s on Central Park West, he could recite what sales were going on where. Since I was too broke even for sales, I could still enjoy the news that this week chino slacks were a great buy at Altman’s.

Later I became interested in the phenomenon of department store queens as I learned more about the lore of New York stores.

Queens (a generic word for gays pre-Stonewall) went to department stores to cruise because most of the men employed there were also gay. So the sales queens winked while customers “worked” the aisles.

This tradition of gay men in department stores went back to the nineteenth century when the stores employed armies of young unmarried girls as low-paid clerks. They often slept in dormitories above the store (Saks’ upper floor once housed them; Stern’s, on 42nd Street, was one of the last of these stores to still have dormitory rooms on its top level: it’s now part of the State University of New York) and the stores were supposed to be their protective “foster parents,” keeping lecherous dirty old men away.

You can of course guess what went down from there: most of the men who worked as salesmen were either flaming Franklin Pangborn types, or a bit deeper into the closet but still able to find the door. Also department stores were frequented mostly by women shoppers, and rarely by the kind of hyper-butch men who’d take most unkindly to a friendly advance. Butch men, in fact, prided themselves on never going into department stores. They let their wives do that.

Few department store queens cruised the bigger stores like Macy’s or Gimbels. From what I gathered, they had larger forces of plainclothesmen who might arrest you for “loitering,” and they did not have the refined charm of Fifth Avenue establishments where, as in the old B. Altman’s, you could dash into a real tea room, called Charleston Gardens, for refreshment between cruising the aisles and going from one department to another.

The story of park queens in New York is also fascinating. I learned that Central Park has been a cruising paradise ever since the time of Walt Whitman, and the area around the lake was considered especially noteworthy for its cruising value. I'll talk more about the Park and cruising in it, as well as other New York parks in other parts of this series.
You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, www.perrybrass.com. On April 29, he and Jerry Kajpust will be leading a workshop on The Manly Art of Seduction, based on his book, at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street. You can learn more about this at http://manlyartworkshop2.eventbrite.com

8 comments:

  1. So interesting....can't wait for more.

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  2. This is absolutely fascinating reading. I'm finding I'm more and more interested in the history of gay culture, not just from a political perspective but the actual culture for men who didn't have the openness and venues we almost take for granted today.
    I really appreciate your stories and what you're adding to QNYB.

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  3. Macy's and Gimbel's most certainly lacked charm, particularly down in Macy's basement. A high school friend of mine and I used to browse in de Pina and other upper 5th Ave. stores because they were close to the Donnell Library which is where the record collection was (we were both plunging deeply into opera). When we were up there, we'd frequently stop into St. Patrick's for a look around. The opera collection, de Pina's, St. Patrick's -- that itinerary wasn't TOO gay, huh? :-)

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  4. of course we had tearoom queens (tea room being a euphimism for john) and we called the department store queens "ribbon queens."

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  5. This has been a most interesting series of articles. Gays have never had a lack for inventive ways to meet each other. I lived at one point on 84th and Broadway ('68) at a place called Hollywood Studios. I never ate there because my roommates were thousands of cock roaches but the benches on the sidewalk that divided Broadway proved to be an excellent place to meet gay me. I almost never went without when I lived there.

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  6. Bryant Park, against the library wall
    Standing room at the Metropolitan Opera
    Third Avenue in the fifties
    The grind houses along 42nd St.
    The Penn Post Hotel, at 31st and 8th
    The 63rd St. Y
    Virtually every men's room in the subway system
    Coney Island, on the boardwalk & under the boardwalk
    The men's rooms at NYU
    the Metropolitan Theater, 14th St. bt. 2nd & 3rd
    The Variety Theater on Third Ave. & 14th St.
    Riverside Park
    The Soldiers & Sailors Monument
    The Rambles
    The docks, the piers, the trucks in the Far West Village
    Washington Square Park, west fence
    The Everard Baths
    The old St. Marks baths
    Way back, East 86th St.
    Carl Shurz Park
    The path between the East River and East River Drive
    The men's rooms of many neighborhood theaters
    8th Ave. for hustlers
    Third & 53rd for hustlers
    The lower level Grand Central Station men's room
    The underground arcade & men's room in Rockefeller Center
    and on
    and on
    and on
    and on
    The city used to be a sexual playground

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  7. A very good friend of mine who grew up in the city in the '40s and '50s referred to dept store queens as "ribbon clerks."

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  8. Thanks for your site. I'm reading Isherwood's, "The Forgotten Years." Department Store Queen is used a great deal in different circumstances and the history you provide here has helped my understanding a great deal.
    Excellent!

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