Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: The Sloan House YMCA and the Old Vic bar

Perry Brass, painter Sal Monetti, and author Quentin Crisp, 1999.

It goes almost without saying that I left Jerry Borensky’s apartment on East Third Street quickly. He was in his forties, and fairly loathsome both to look at (he rather resembled a wart hog—snorts, warts, and all) and be with: the result I’m sure from being queer in a difficult time. Like Dick, he’d been in the Navy, but the experience drove him to a psychiatric discharge. After several explosive situations with him, I decided to get a place of my own. 

It was easy in December of 1966 to find a cheap place in the East Village. I quickly signed a lease for a 3-room railroad flat with a dingy bath in the back in a tenement on East 11th, between Avenues B and C. The building was disgustingly decrepit, a rat hole and cockroach pit; my rent was $73 a month. The tenement was owned by an ancient brother and sister team who had inherited it from their parents; the brother, Abe, was almost stone deaf, and his sister Maddy wore the same black wool shift year-round. She’d make unannounced blitz-kreig inspections of the apartments to make sure no one was doing things like putting up pictures with nails (against the rules) or painting the walls. I did all of these things, and after I moved in often ended up at shouting odds with her though she could do nothing about it.

But that was after I moved in.

Interestingly the apartment had not been occupied for several months, and Con Ed had turned off electricity for non-payment. After I signed the lease and was ready to move in, the utility told me that it would take four days for me to get electricity restored. It was the beginning of the weekend between Christmas and New Years, freezing, and I had no place to go. The evening I heard this news, I was in Julius’s and ran into Michael, a young man in his mid-20s I’d met during the year I lived in San Francisco, when I was 18. (I was now all of nineteen.)

Michael had been in the Air Force when I met him at a gay coffeehouse called Pearl’s, located behind the Gilded Cage, the legendary bar where Charles Pierce used to perform. Every night Pierce, in full Jeanette McDonald wig and dress, would signal the end of the show by belting out, “San Francisco, open your golden gates!” flying on a swing over the heads of the audience. I used to sneak in and watch him, until I'd be carded by the bouncer.

I liked Michael. He was dark, trim, Hispanic, and handsome. At Julius’s he told me his story.

He’d been thrown out of the Air Force after his roommate (in the Air Force, guys bunked two to a room) found some incriminating letters to a boyfriend. He was put before a court marshal, and went through total hell, being beaten up by Airmen, threatened with death, and discharged with a record that would follow him for life.

“I thought about suicide, but decided to move to New York instead.”

Smart decision. I told him about my problem with Con Ed. He immediately suggested I stay with him at the Sloan House YMCA on West 34th Street. He could sneak me in without a problem. Since Dick was now living Upstate with his mother, this seemed like a good solution.

The Sloan House was once the largest YMCA hotel in the country. Fourteen stories of red brick and more than 1500 rooms, it opened in 1930, and during World War II was a magnet for GIs. It was part of the Y’s mission to provide housing and a wholesome affordable environment for young men leaving home and on their own. Rooms at the Sloan House were, I think, about $12 a night; it had an international rep for being extremely queer, and even the geezers who had been living there for decades winked at what went on in the large communal showers, or the cruising in the hallways. Michael easily snuck me into his room for the period before Con Ed juiced me up again; after this he roomed with me for a while before deciding to leave and settle in with another guy he’d met. The Sloan House was easy to adapt to; it was filled with kids my age, many of them gay, and older men who often checked in for the weekend just to sample what was going on in the showers.

This was the era before bathhouses commonly came into use, and the Sloan House in certain ways operated as one, but without quite so much happening under the steam. The Sloan House (named for William Sloan, the chairman of the International Committee for the Army and Navy, during World War I) was closed in 1994, and sold to become a hotel, then completely razed to become the site of a deluxe condo. C'est la guerre New York.

The day my electricity was turned on, I moved into my apartment. Despite its condition, the building was filled with people living la vie boheme: artists, writers, actors, and even one lady who kept a ceramics kiln in her kitchen. The block was in full ghetto mode; most of the inhabitants were straight off the boat from the outback villages of the Caribbean. Some tossed garbage out their windows like they did back in the forests at home, and kids would pee in the streets or off the roofs. Cars that were parked overnight on the block and not owned by the locals would be stripped to bare axels by morning. The health department did a study of East 11th while I lived there, and reported that the average life expectancy on the block was 38. Since we were in the middle of the Viet Nam War, it was affectionately known as "Little Danang," the site of intense fighting.

(To put things into context, I'd heard that in the 1920's, the block had been so tough that it had been declared off limits to cops.)

I was now working for a large uptown ad agency, and had a regular, adequate (by my standards; penury by anyone else’s) paycheck. So on the weekends, I started going uptown. My favorite bar from this period was called the Old Vic on a side street off Second Avenue, close to the Fifty Ninth Street Bridge into Queens.

The Old Vic was both a singular experience and a classic Mafia gay bar, though in a prettier than usual neighborhood. You would enter a small antechamber where a very James Gandolfini-type scrutinized you. If passed, you’d go into a spacious room, which probably had also been a dining room at some point; there were side bars, and, ringed by small tables, dancing. Like real cheek-to-cheek moments when something slow came on, alternating with much faster stuff. (I still associate the Old Vic with songs from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Julie Andrew’s first movie. It seemed like the juke box was stuck on them.)

Because The Old Vic was so accessible to Queens, a lot of young guys from Sunnyside came over either on the bus or by taxi. This included a number of young queens from Queens, who’d arrive either in semi-drag (girls’ blouses; boys’ jeans; maybe with wigs or their actual hair in a tease-up) or full drag. I got to know some of these queens and liked them a lot: they were sweet natured and not at all bitchy. Very working-class lasses, they often worked as messenger boys during the week, or did hair. Some of them were also on-the-downlow girlfriends of the Mafia machos who kept the place secure from both the cops and the local toughs who still roamed parts of the Upper East Side once you got past Third Avenue.

One of my favorites was named Chrissy, a pretty up-swept blonde with very fine, pale clear skin. Looking like a 20-ish Marilyn Monroe, she wore ruffled low-cut pastel blouses and jeans, and was girly until she opened her mouth. Her voice was as deep as a truck driver’s, although she never swore. She sometimes worked as waitress at the Old Vic, went out with one of the Mafia studs, and got her heart broken by him intermittently when he had to cast her aside for the R.G.s (real girls) he also saw.

Weekends at the Old Vic were wonderful. The dance floor was crowded, and the mix was both Upper East Side gentlemen, the girls from Queens and their more butch boyfriends, and also young guys like myself who had just arrived in the city.

On Sundays in good weather long tables were set up in the concrete garden area behind the bar, food was served, with pitchers of beer. The Mafiosi had a very paternal attitude toward patrons, and if you gave them no problems they could be extraordinarily sweet, as in on Thanksgiving providing a complete turkey dinner for “the boys,” resided over by Chrissy and the other girls from Queens. I met many guys who were in my age bracket, teens to early 20s, who lived on the Upper East Side, and had the full complement of Upper East Side preppy pretensions (as in never wearing anything not from Brooks or Bloomingdale’s) but who adored the Old Vic. I also met “dees, dohs, and dems” lads from the Bronx or Brooklyn, who’d heard about the bar from the grapevine, and loved it, too.

I don’t know if it was because I was young, or the character of the times, but I don’t remember anyone not talking to me.

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. I loved the Sloane House. You could roam all the floors, and a shoe wedged in a doorway meant the occupant of the room was receptive to visitors. If what was going on in the showers on one floor was not particularly interesting, you could visit any other floor.

  2. I lived briefly on E. 3rd, between C and D, during the period when gentrification hit it like a freight train. When I moved in the crack and heroin dealers still ruled the streets, though they were always gracious when I politely declined their offers. When I moved out nine months later, twee little restaurants and high rises filled with million-dollar condos had begun springing up like mushrooms. It's great fun getting your perspective on the same neighborhood. And your sketch of the Old Vic is fascinating. Funny to think of the Mafiosi looking out for 'the boys' like that.

  3. You've done the impossible: make me long to be slightly older (albeit briefly) so I might have sampled these places myself! Thanks, Perry.

  4. I was on E 9th between C & D (1968-70) It was as as you described 11th. And the "mafia" was protective of me in gay bars.

  5. Ah yes, the days when "Living at the Y" really meant something.

  6. Loved these stories. Keep em coming. I think the Sloan House is talked about in the "Gay New York" book. Did you ever visit the Charles Theater on East 12th and Avenue B?

  7. Please add tags to this post to include it in the series. I just linked it in a comment on Joe.My.God. (More people need to be reading this.)

  8. The answer to that is, yes, I did go to that theatre. It was quite something. There was so much dope-smoking going on it's a wonder the balcony didn't levitate. They had fantastic movies, ones you could not see uptown. Sometimes though they simply showed movies like "Fantasia," that were "trip movies." That term in itself is a blast from the past.

    A wonderful friend, a reader, Dr. Kenneth Dobson, sent this comment to me, and has allowed me to forward it to readers of Lost Gay New York.

    "Your stories are evocative. They draw things out of the recesses of a reader's memory. Some of those things aren't even really in there to begin with. I was thinking as I read, that in the 1960s I was somewhat intimate with the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago. But I was always an outsider. I didn't do bars, I didn't stay at the YMCA. I was a farm boy living tentatively as a student and part-time social worker in the city. I was in the city but not of the city. You and I were different that way. Then I was thinking as I read, that I wonder if I could write about my life like you did, evocatively. But I didn't have a life. I was in denial about life. I had something that was a mirage of life, a fantasy that passed as real, but flitted away when real farm-boy lusts and cravings were aroused. So I'd have to write about NOT having a life, or write a novel. And my writing professor always insisted we write about what we know about. So even my novel would have to be about not having a real life.

    "That's what your story evoked in me. Not disappointment, though. I am not disappointed not to have been in NYC until about twice, for one day at a time, in the summer of 1965. I was on my way to Thailand. And that was the beginning of a life. That is something I could write about, and I have. I need to get it out and look it over."

  9. i love the stories. well done. i lived at the sloane house from 1982 to 1983 and led a gay life in the west village and every once in a while in the sloane house showers. during this period i enjoyed slumming it (and it WAS a slum then)in nearby times square. sex and drugs. dangerous and naughty. a risky blast for a connecticut kid. i was in and out of all the gay theaters of that time. then moved to the east village nearby the block you describe and with the same aesthetic. i enjoy this blog! - bobby cormier