Sunday, May 9, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: I Almost Get Caught in a Bar Raid

I guess it was inevitable that I’d end up in a raided bar. Back in 1966, during my first few months in New York, bars were raided all the time. This was despite the Mattachine’s successful “action” only a few months earlier, called “the Sip-In,” modeled on the black civil rights movement’s Sit-Ins, to open the bars legit-wise to gay drinkers. Before the Sip-In, barkeeps could have their licenses revoked by the New York State ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Commission) just for serving “known” homosexuals. The Mattachine staged the Sit-In at Julius’s, the hoary old one-time speakeasy, on West 10th Street near Waverley Place, which is now a prima facie gay bar. But back in the early and mid-60s, Julius’s had every hope and pretension of being an all-guys sports bar, and they had a sign in front of it that said: “If You’re Gay, Stay Out!”

The sign was put there because the bar had been raided a few times when the owners did not pay off to the local precinct, a standard part of doing business in the city then. So the bar’s owners, who were not actually all that anti-gay, put the sign up to keep the cops happy.



Julius’s was the first gay bar I’d ever been to in New York, but back then that was a constantly repeated story. The bar was welcoming and warm, without the pissiness (very much a word from Lost Gay New York: “pissiness” referring to “piss elegant” queens with huge pretensions, often much bigger than their bank accounts) of so many Uptown bars. It was also not “officially” a gay bar; in fact you could not sit at one of the tables in the small back area without a date of the opposite gender.

I’d stumbled on Julius’s by accident in a quick trip to New York in early April of 1966, which would have made it close to the date of the Sip-In. I was still 18, but had been sneaking into gay bars since I was 17. In New York you could drink legally at 18, a fact that made me cheer. No more sneaking into gay bars, no more fake ID, but the problem was . . .

I was at the bar at Julius’s, when a nondescript-looking guy in his thirties walked up to me. He looked me over and walked away.

I was used to being looked over by guys in their thirties, and thought nothing of it, until a moment later when another gent approached me.

He whispered into my ear: “Don’t mean to scare you, but we think that guy's a cop. He’s trying to bust people here. So be warned.”

I froze.

I did not like this.

Two other guys suddenly appeared. Warm, friendly; sweetly queer. They started gossiping about bar raids, plainclothes cops, and other such novelties of the Gay World.

“The problem is you never can tell what they’re going to look like,” one informed me.

“Yeah, they can be minty as Pepsodent, and still be cops.”


“Minty” was a great word from Lost Gay New York. It referred to guys who were fairly obviously gay: not flamboyantly swishy but with just enough “hint of mint” to let you know something was going on. The mint part might have been a reference to stingers, a drink truly beloved by queens of  regal bearing. In my one-act play, “Bar None,” set in 1966, an “obvious” character orders a stinger in a bar modeled somewhat on Julius’s. It’s a dead give-away that he’s a friend of Dorothy’s. (Another dead give-away: any reference to Miss Garland.)

“Funny way to make a living,” the first guy said wistfully. “You arrest your fellow man for doing what you’d probably like to be doing yourself—except you don’t have the balls to do it!”

So that was my intro to Julius’s. I wasn’t living in New York at the time, but came back to stay in August and returned often. By then it had become much more . . . well, much more something.

It was still not officially a gay bar, but the owners were more than willing to wink at what went on. My fave story from those early Julius’s years was that they had an old fat German working behind the sandwich counter in the middle of the front bar area. He mainly fried hamburgers, which were always freshly pressed from ground beef (not made from frozen patties) and served on toast, never buns, along with wonderful grilled onions. The old German, quite jolly and gemutlich with a cigar dangling from his mouth, stayed for several years after the bar switched to completely gay, sometime around late 1967, and everyone was sure that he had no idea that it had switched.

One hot muggy Saturday night in mid-September while I was still living off Central Park West with Bob Schwiller, I walked into Midtown to a fairly swanky bar called the Red Raven I’d heard on the QT had dancing in the back. It was in the West 50s close to Central Park South. At the time, other gay or gay-friendly bars were re-opening in that neighborhood after being shut down for the World’s Fair: it was where you went when you didn’t want to socialize downtown, which still had a bad rep—uptowners never could tell what was going to happen in the Village, as in being arrested or beaten up.

I passed the built-like-a-Mack-truck Mafia doorman up front, went through the softly-lit formal bar area, was OK'ed through a back doorway by yet another hefty son of Sicily, maneuvered my way along a long series of stairs and finally opened a closed door to the dancing.

Ear-splitting music hit me. But no dancing.

Who could possibly dance? Black as a cave, this secret area was packed back-to-back an belly-to-belly with young men. You could barely breathe. An obnoxious waiter was trying to aggressively push drinks, and even he was having a hard time. Dancing must have been the big draw here: there were few dance bars for gays in the city, and this one was uptown, in what looked from the outside like a presentable place, instead of in some slime-pit near Christopher Street, which was the usual venue for all male comminglings to music.

My first thought was that I wanted to get the hell out. Then I got used to the darkness and realized that the closeness of so many good-looking guys with none of them acting like they had coat-hangers rammed up their butts (a regular attitude in too many queer bars of the period) was refreshing. So I managed to squeeze myself in, gazing around through the crowd, and suddenly saw a familiar face which seemed almost impossible. I’d only been in New York for a few weeks, but there was Daniel, a  tall quiet tense young man I’d met when I lived in Hartford, Connecticut, where I’d managed to land a job working in an aircraft factory (through outrageous lying about my age and qualifications), cranking out jet-fighter engine parts and paying me, due to the Viet Nam War going full tilt, a generous salary. I’d lusted after Daniel, who was pale-skinned, dark haired, and beautiful, on first sight, and there he was, emerging in his own glowing silkiness, from the dark confines of the back room.

He approached me, and asked me formally if I’d like to dance.

I laughed then the loud music stopped, and a buzz raced through the crowd. Cops were out front in the bar; any second they’d be in the back room. The pushy waiter elbowing his way through ordered guys to be cool and not get excited. The lights popped up full glare.

About a hundred strangers were left eyeballing each other and trying to figure out what to do next. Some started racing toward the front.

To my surprise a locked back Exit cracked open behind us; Daniel grabbed my arm and we headed for it. We emerged outside in pouring rain, into a hidden garbage-strewn passageway and from there managed to get back onto the street.

I decided I didn’t want to know anything else, like exactly what were the cops doing in the bar—it was considered almost S.O.P for them to barge in in New York, more so than in California or Connecticut, places I had lived briefly, and the best thing to do was not question it and just go on. I asked Daniel what he was doing in New York.

“Just visiting,” he answered grinning. “You get bored in Hartford, so I drove here.”

I decided right there to relieve his boredom by inviting him back to Bob Schwiller’s apartment off Central Park West. He was so good looking and had one of those neatly muscled, ice-creamy bodies that I’m still crazy about, even though he was fairly wooden in bed, except for his own “woody” equipment which popped up immediately. After that night, I never saw him again but can still see his beautiful face with his dark forest-green eyes and deep, knife-sharp dimples, when I think about him.

You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, www.perrybrass.com . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction, How to Meet, Talk To, and Become Intimate With Anyone, IPPY Award Winner from Independent Publisher, 2010, from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle . You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords , the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. The Manly Art of Seduction was also recently named a finalist for a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award.

10 comments:

  1. '"You get bored in Hartford"
    No truer words have ever been written.

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  2. Even though I lived in the 1960s on Lower East Side I never even thought of going to the West Side, just to the Village park a few times. What a waste my life had been but in those days you stuck close to home. Till the end of '69 I made it into Frisco with all that it entailed, making it back in to NYC and never looking back again. Still it's a pity now that NY has undergone so much development...a pity and a shame. I miss it very much.

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  3. And everyone in the bar was called MARY at some time or other by some one or other. Loudly and shrilly, as I recall.

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  4. I remember "Julius'" in those days too Perry. Lots of "rules" for how to "behave" in there. Feh!

    I preferred the street.

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  5. Perry,

    These articles in this series get better and better with each successive one that you write. No wonder you're one of my favorite writers.

    Tim

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  6. vjbanis@verizon.netMay 10, 2010 at 6:00 PM

    Interesting - the Red Raven was a very popular bar in L.A. in the sixties - handsome guys who posed. Red Raven guys. You wound them up and they leaned against the wall and cruised the other guys. Le plus ca change, le plus le meme chose.

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  7. I love Julius my friend Freddy Lutz owned it and lived upstairs. What a party man this was, I remember so many good times there. I still picture it in my head everytime I hear its name.
    Terry Le Grand

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  8. I got this wonderful recollection from Philip Bockman, a friend of my friend Patrick Merla. I felt I wanted to share it with the readers of this series, and Philip agreed to it. Thanks a lot, Philip.

    "Thanks. This is a nice piece. I remember another element too. The Cherry Lane Theater building had a gay bar--a dance bar, no less--that for a while was the only place open (that I knew about). When the cops came in, the lights suddenly went on and tables were brought out. Everyone sat down. Later, even into the '70s, I remember following the vice squad cops around from bar to bar once we recognized them. Everyone would yell "vice, vice!" and point to them. There are a zillion stories like this. I hope there are places where people can tell them, compare them, etc."

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  9. Although my coming-out salad days in the 60's took place in San Francisco (I didn't hit the sidewalks/gutters of NY until 1971) I suffered through mostly humiliating experiences with the "lingo" of my queer elders. A different coast but the same mentality...witty but mean; wherein the tone meant as much as the words. The words "get her" or "who's she?" makes me cringe to this day. On their own turf those guys were liquor-addled bullies and, although I understand them now, in those days I hated them. In groups they were hatefully insular and I ran like the wind when they heaved into view.

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  10. Perry, I love your topic. After '69 it became politically incorrect to go to gay bars. However, bars were more fun than politics. I first attended my favorite bar in '69. I had heard of "The Square" from Imogene, a butch whom I had met in my bldg on nosebleed-East 9th Street. Imogene said I should ask for her to get in. I walked over to 3rd St. and Bdway and knocked on the door. A man with a black patch over his eye looked out the slit in the door with his good one. I said, "I am a friend of Imogene." The man who looked like a pirate said, "You don't want to come in now as we are being busted." Curious, I walked across Bdway and waited. Soon a crowd of mostly drag queens came out talking, laughing, and partying. I couldn't wait to return. When I did, I had many more adventures.

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