Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Love at First Sight & The Walk Between the East & West Village

Peter Orlovsky & Allen Ginsberg, mid-60s.By Richard Avedon 

About six weeks after I moved into Jerry Borensky’s apartment in the East Village (still trying very hard to escape Borensky’s constant efforts to get into 19-year-old pants), I was at Julius’s one very packed Friday night. Suddenly from the depth of the crowd in the back of the bar, a young man emerged uttering the oldest pick-up line in the human race:

“Don’t I know you from some place?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. I looked at him. He was about six-foot-one, handsomely built, with very sweet regular features, blue-green eyes, dark silky hair, and a deep voice. I didn’t care where he knew me from; I smiled and he smiled back. But his next question was more direct.

“Can I go home with you?”

I did a slight double-take. I was used to men trying to pick me up—when you’re nineteen and been sneaking into gay bars since you were seventeen, you expect it. But this was fast. He was slightly older than I, maybe twenty-three.

I just shrugged. “Sure.”

So we left Julius’s, and I realized that I didn’t know his name, so he told me.

I smiled, and told him mine. He told me that he was in the Navy, on leave in New York; I saw that he was walking with a pronounced limp and using a cane. It had been so crowded in Julius’s that his cane had hardly registered on me. I didn’t think that much more about the limp until we had advanced a few more blocks to the subway.

He stopped.
“I have a confession to make,” he announced.

“What is it? Your name’s not really Dick?”

He paused, looking at the ground.

“I was just in a motorcycle accident. The reason I’m walking this way is that I lost my leg. I hope that doesn’t make a difference to you.”

Since I was from the Deep South, and we were taught always to have manners before truthfulness I said, “No,” and left it at that.

But the truth was that I was nervous: I’d never been to bed with anyone handicapped before and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.

We went back to Borensky’s apartment; he was sound asleep in his back area of the place with a set of closed sliding French doors between us. I turned on a low light, and we started to take our clothes off. I could see that above the waist he was beautifully built. He told me he’d been a skier back home in upstate New York and he looked it, with a beautiful muscular chest and powerful shoulders and arms. He also had the kind of deliciously smooth, silky clear skin that drove me crazy.

I was OK, until he tried to get his pants off and deal with his prosthetic. This was in the day when artificial limbs still looked like something out of the cabinet of Dr. Frankenstein, and what the Navy had outfitted him with was . . . well, the only word for it was gruesome. It was attached to his left shoe, and looked like it had been fashioned out of painted wood, epoxy, and concrete. I couldn’t make myself look at it. He removed it, exposing a stump just below the knee, where his leg had been amputated. I felt I shouldn’t stare at that, and looked away.

We got into bed and started kissing. As long as I either pretended there was nothing below his left knee that bothered me or tried hard to ignore it, we were fine.

I did that, and we spent the next few hours very happy with what was going on. In fact, I don’t remember what went on, but felt good about it. Even though he was only a few years older than I, he seemed incredibly more mature, like he already had some rigor of depth to him and I knew it. I liked the sound of his voice. It was deep but still had a lovely tenor quality to it; his body was so beautiful that he reminded me of a piece of fine Greek sculpture that had been terribly damaged. Like one leg had been destroyed, and then really badly patched up.

I was about ready to go to sleep, when suddenly he sat up in bed and switched the light back on again.

I asked him if anything were wrong, and he said, “No, I just want to look at you.”

I said that was OK, and turned the light off. A few minutes later he turned the light back on, and said to me, “I love you, Perry. I want you to know that.”

I smiled and didn’t say anything else.
No one had ever said that to me, certainly not in that way—maybe in the way that a favorite aunt might say it, like the way you might see it on a greeting card, but never like that—unexpectedly, with that kind of feeling.

I was tired and wanted to get to sleep, but he kept telling me that he loved me again and again, often with the light snapped back on.

The next morning I had to help him re-buckle his leg, so he could use the bathroom. He took a bath without me, and then said goodbye. He was still living in Philadelphia, after his discharge from a naval hospital there, and he had to get back to his base. He would be completely discharged in a few more weeks from the Navy, and we promised to write each other. We did. I still remember his letters. They were sweet and affectionate, with lines, like “You’ve been really good for my morale.”

I had never been in love with anyone before, although I’d had some intense crushes on guys, but had no idea what it would actually be like to be in love. That is, in this case, what Dick was feeling. But I did somehow understand that he loved me. I was crazy about the undamaged part of his body and liked his military qualities—that sense of squareness and discipline that appeals to a lot of gay men. Dick came back to New York two weeks later, and stayed with me. Jerry Borensky was plainly jealous; he told me that he was sure Dick was a flake, not to believe anything he said, that he was, underneath it all, pretty “nelly,” and a drunk. Jerry had been in the Navy himself, and had got out under a psychiatric discharge. He hated the Navy and didn’t like sailors. “They’re all drunks,” he informed me seriously.

There was unfortunately a certain grain of truth in the alcohol part, but that is at the end of the story when Dick and I broke up a couple of years later, due to his drinking. But I like to remember that he had fallen in love with me at first sight, something I believe in. It’s unexplainable, but like any other miracle it does happen.

Since I was living in the East Village, and would live there for most of the next year (I left Jerry’s apartment after only a few months; I got too tired of being chased around it by him, and ended up in another tenement on East Eleventh, between Avenues B and C), I got used to the walk between the East Village and the West Village. The main thoroughfare was Eighth Street, which was called St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. At that time, St. Mark’s Place still had a magical, twinkly Slavic village aspect to it, with little Russian stores, butcher shops, and barber shops. It had not become hip and psychedelisized yet. Often I remember on my walks spotting an interesting male couple holding hands walking either in front or behind me. They were Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who held hands every place and who seemed to have no fear about doing it. They became like a beacon to some gay men: you could be this open, if you dared. But being cautious, I didn't dare. I got used to seeing Ginsberg around, but never really spoke to him since I was shy and he was already famous.

(Peter Orlovsky died last week in Vermont, another lost piece of Lost Gay New York.)

Around the same time Andy Warhol opened The Balloon Farm, his club on St. Mark’s Place near Third Avenue, in a location that had once been The Dom, a Polish club that started to have jazz and rock bands. The Velvet Underground played at the Balloon Farm, led by its very blond monotonal singer, Niko: the Moon Maiden. Niko was drop-dead hip and very stylish, in a Warholian affectless way. It took me a while to understand that Warhol’s seemingly refrigerated heart came from the fact that his real feelings were too scary for a good Polish Catholic boy to expose in any obvious way. I went to the Balloon Farm a lot, but it never felt very gay to me—for the same obvious reasons. So at that time, gay meant walking to the West Village, to bars like Julius’s and the Stonewall, with a few others thrown in.

There were also many functioning gay restaurants. The idea of the gay restaurant is pretty much extinct now: why would you go to a restaurant that was gay? Isn’t food just . . . anyway, the main reason was that at straight restaurants, a crowd of men—only men—as in, say, four or five guys together, would not be seated. And if you were on a date with only one other guy, you might be turned away unless you both looked so butch you could butcher a steer at the table and eat it raw.

One of my favorite gay restaurants at the time was a small place on Greenwich Avenue called Tor’s. It was, I believe, where the current Grano is, at the corner of Greenwich and Tenth. It was tiny and the food was dreadful (many queer restaurants had famously bad food: the idea was that you were a captive audience and they could open up a can of dog food and spoon it out for you and you’d love it), but its main draw was a waiter named Francis. Francis was short, gray-haired, and neatly built. He wore very tight clothes and had a mouth like a machine gun: he could insult you at 200 wpm. But his insults were usually fun, and deep at heart he was a nice guy.

He always called me “Darling,” as in, “Wha’cha want, Darling?” and he’d tell me what on the menu was genuinely unstomachable. I still remember various fried cutlets with origins from God-knows-what, served with cold canned peas-and-carrots. Prices were rock-bottom low. Most gay men open enough to go there made no money, or were broke. Some other restaurants I went to were the Finale, on Barrow Street, which was much classier and in a basement, so its male clientele was not seen from street level, and Fedora’s on West 4th, also in a walk-down. Fedora continues to this day as a kind of museum of mid-1960s gay life, although rumors about its closing come up every week.

There were also some high-queer restaurants, but these were usually on the Upper East Side, and not in the Village where truck drivers still ate at cheap diners next door.

Speaking of the Upper East Side, I had friends there also, and I’ll talk more about that soon.

You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, www.perrybrass.com . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction 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 recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. It is also a finalist for a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award. He will be signing copies of The Manly Art of Seduction at Harlem Pride on Saturday, June 26, the day before Gay Pride Sunday in New York. For more information, please go to http://harlempride.org . You can reach him at belhuepress@earthlink.net .


  1. Lovely First Love memory, Perry. I went to "Tor's" too.

    And that's a "c" rather than a "k" for Nico.
    Remember who was playing guitar for her? Jackson Browne! He was 15 year's old and Nico was his first girlfriend. He wrote "Thes Days" and "Fairest of the Season" especially for her.

    Ah Youth!

  2. You have a wonderful writing ability! I have never been to any of the places you mentioned, having spent those years in Westchester County, but you hooked me in and took me with you on your journey. Thanks. Sally Miller

  3. Thanks, David. Sorry about the spelling error. I guess I confused with it a Greek friend of mine who spells his name Nikos. Another friend gave me yet another bit of gay archeology: the restaurant on Bleecker Street that is now called Manatus used to be Clyde's, a very gay restaurant in the 70s (it was called "the clone museum" by the time it closed in the 80s). But before it was Clyde's, it was Aldo's which I remember back in the 60s. Aldo's was also gay, but pre-clone, very old-school queer, with Italian waiters in dark uniforms, instead of actor/singer/dancer/model waiters in polo shirts.

  4. Perry: That was a lovely bit of writng - very evocative. I too am a firm believer in love at first sight. It has happened twice to me - once with Norman and after he passed away,once more with my dear Mike. In neither case have I ever looked back and and questioned my first feelings. Now, I'm seeing it happen for some of my adopted sons and their boyfriends and it is beautiful to watch. I don't know if it will last forever, as it has for mike & me - but it is real for them right now and after all, right now is all we ever have

  5. You evoke a time I barely remember having moved to NYC in 1970 and being too frightened to go to any of the places you referenced anyway, but thanks for the beautiful recollections and reminders of being first in love.

  6. Perry, this is so beautiful. I wish someone with your ability would write something like it for San Francisco, which had similar places in the early 60's which now seem like a distant planet.
    You're so wise to get this all down in writing NOW.

    John Vermeer
    the Other coast

  7. Perry, I remember the gay restaurant you talked about that became Aldo's at one point. When I knew it, it was called Aldo's. One of my roommates from the Upper West Side near Columbia University, worked there as a waiter at the time and a casual acquaintance worked there as a hat check girl. This all happened in late '68 or early '69 before I joined GLF. I arrived in NYC in early February of '68 just before Martin Luther King was assassinated as well as Robert Kennedy. I remember that it was fairly easy to pick up men at Aldo's, but since I was in my early '20's then, everything was easier. Your articles here bring back very pleasant memories. Tim

  8. I really enjoyed this -- thank you.

  9. Ah, love at first sight. Often derided as fantasy, but as you, Toby and others have pointed out, it is oh so real.

    This was a wonderful recollection of old gay NYC, first love, and even an interesting meditation on dating someone with physical disabilities. I had that experience once, though I was less evolved than you at the time, sad to say.

  10. I really want to thank all the people who've commented on this section of Lost Gay New York. It seems to have struck a beautiful chord with many readers. If you'd like, please forward it to others. I think it's important for us to keep some kind of record of the gay past. It disappears too fast, and we need to preserve this part of our lives for what it represents in our passions, struggles, and hopes.

  11. Another interesting comment, from gay author and educator Wayne Dynes:

    I first came to New York City (from California) in 1956. I was too
    poor to try gay restaurants; the automat (alas they are now all
    vanished) was about all I could afford. I would save up my pennies
    though to go to a gay bar now and then, because I knew no other way to meet people. The first one I patronized was the San Remo, a landmark supposedly, but a redoubt of the mob. Beers were one dollar each (as against 25 or 35 cents elsewhere). The bartenders were rude and contemptuous, but I patronized the place until I discovered other
    spots (on Eighth Street) that were a little more tolerable. They were
    still expensive, because the bars had to pay off the police. I
    suppose that there was a kind of advantage to those expensive drinks:
    I didn't get drunk because I couldn't afford more than one.

    At any rate, on my first visit to the San Remo I was picked up by an
    older man who was a senior editor at Time Magazine. He struck me as
    the essence of sophistication (and he actually took me to some nice
    restaurants too!). I saw him a number of times for sex, not being
    really attracted to him but charmed by the awareness that he thought
    me attractive. Later I learned that he had become a Catholic priest.

    In 1968 I returned to NYC after several years of liviing abroad. I
    was astonished by the improvement of the atmosphere of the bars. Most of the old ones had been closed with the coming of the World's Fair in 1964; that kind of thing was common. When the new ones opened afterwards, the people who ran them were actually nice! But then of course there were all sorts of alternatives: the baths, the trucks,
    the piers and so forth.

    Enough said.


  12. wonderful writing.

    & add me to those who recall Aldo's with fondness.