Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Truckin’ at the Trucks

1970s picture of the trucks in the Village

I heard about the trucks my first summer in New York, in 1967. One of my older friends from Julius’s informed me that guys went to a certain street on the west side of the West Village “to suck cock. It’s sometimes called, ‘the Express,’” he informed me. So you might hear men say, “I’m taking the Express tonight.” Meaning, they were dispensing with all the folderol of going to the bars, and just getting down to business at the trucks. 

It’s kind of hard to imagine, in this age of the very yuppified West Village (we’re talking $7 mil duplex apartments on West Street) what the area was like when it was still working class, you could buy a whole building for $70,000 (the going rate in the mid-60s), and there were warehouses along the waterfront, which necessitated working loading docks for—what else?—trucks.

The interesting thing I always thought about the trucks was that they were left open at night after they were unloaded, so guys could play in them. I didn’t actually go to the trucks until somewhat later, after I had joined the Gay Liberation Front in 1969, when GLFers used to leaflet them. This was again another interesting aspect of “the trucks,” a generic term that specifically referred to these huge open empty Mack rigs where scores of guys went to congregate and have sex. (In other words, you had “the trucks” just like you had the “tubs,” another simple term for the baths.)

Anyway, another interesting aspect of the trucks was that lots of men went to them for social purposes as well as the obvious sexual one.


This was certainly a part of gay life in the 1960s and into the 1970s, when sex and being social commingled nicely. The hard-core ruthlessness of cruising had not become set in concrete, and one of the great side effects of any gay sex situation was that it was also a good place to connect with multitudes of queer men. Thus GLF and GAA (the Gay Activists Alliance, another early gay liberation group) used to leaflet at the trucks, passing out information about demonstrations, meetings, and other activities.

There were several locations for the trucks, but the one I remember most was off Washington Street, close to the West Side Highway, not very far from a large white-brick apartment building on Christopher Street that became known as the Leather Flats. The Leather Flats was a favorite home for guys into bondage and leather who liked to hang out at places like Kellers, one of the great lost leather bars on West Street, in the building that later became used for Bailey House, a shelter providing housing for people with HIV.

Kellers was also in the vicinity of another famous leather bar, called Dirty Dick’s, that had closed by the time I got to New York. Dirty Dick’s was one of the legendary bars of 1950s-60s New York queer life, and I’ve been told that a lot of equally legendary men liked to go downtown to “slum” there, including Leonard Bernstein. It was a guilty pleasure, and fun if you didn’t get too serious about it.

Kellers though was a serious bar. It was not for nelly posers who only liked to look butch. On my first trip there when I was 19, a guy in his forties in full leather approached me. He looked me over, and asked, “How d' you feel about being tied down?”

I told him I wasn’t interested in having a lover.

He laughed. “Lover? I just want to tie you down, squirt!”

I beat it out of there.

So the trucks were in proximity to Kellers and several other studly queer bars on the Village's far west side. By the early 70s, the trucks had become extremely popular. As in, there might be 100 + guys there on a Saturday night, either milling around outside the trucks, or inside them doing things. Catching diseases at the trucks became a concern, because unlike the baths, there was no place to wash up afterwards, and washing up after sex could prevent some STDs, like penile gonorrhea. “G.C.” as gonorrhea is called clinically was passed around like movie popcorn at the trucks, and it was not that unusual to see the same guys you’d notice at the trucks a couple of days later at the public health clinic in Chelsea on 9th Avenue, being treated for it. But in those days, the popular wisdom (always a mistake to believe) was that G.C. was an easy thing to get rid of, and something not to worry about.

A scene in William Hoffman’s 1985 play As Is takes places at the trucks, and I remember an earlier New York-noir Frank Sinatra movie from 1968 called The Detective with a scene at the trucks as well: so the fact and whereabouts of them was fairly established.

It was certainly established by the cops of the West Village, who could be a pesky bunch. They often raided the trucks, usually with the intention of breaking up what was going on, on the grounds of trespassing, without arresting people—although some arrests did take place. The interesting thing was that since the trucks were intentionally left open to be used for some sort of purpose, it was hard to establish trespassing—so again, it was left up to individual officers to decide how hard-assed they wanted to be about arresting anybody.

A favorite truck story of mine concerns myself and Jerry Hoose, one my favorite GLF brothers.

Jerry, like a lot of us, liked the trucks, and used to visit them often. I, too, liked them but not so much for sexual gratification (OK: I admit that did happen—who the hell am I, Laura Bush?) but I really loved the whole ritual of them: dozens of guys very quiet and seriously pursuing sex, and lots of sex going on very close by. There was the wonderful smell of it—sweat, cum, piss, heat, etc. (I am a big sexual smell fan)—and also the extended reverie of it: like you’re in a deep nocturnal dream, except it’s real. "Reverie," by the way, was a Victorian term for masturbation, and Victorian queer men often asked each other if they were "fans of reverie,” as a means of establishing who was approachable.

Anyway, I was there with my friend Jerry and we were at the back opening of the trucks with lots of guys “doing it.” I was perched on the ledge of the loading dock, either watching or just thinking about what a great night it was when the cops in a flashing squad car pounced. Suddenly a frantic rush of guys flew out of the trucks scattering into every direction, including Jerry. 

But I didn’t move.

I decided that if I wasn’t doing anything, what could they get me for? At the worst, trespassing—and I wasn’t even in a private place, just the ledge of a loading platform. So what could they do? A few cops bypassed me, shrugging, and left me alone.

Several minutes later, the cops were gone, and the guys came back. Among them was Jerry. He started screaming at me:

“You’re SICK, Perry Brass! SICK!!! Anybody who’s not scared of the cops is sick!”

All I could do was just laugh. Or, realize that Jerry might truly have had a point, but I felt at that time in my young life, why be bothered?

One moral of this story was that the trucks had a social dimension often overlooked when you talk about gay cruising areas. I know this must have gone back to ancient Greece, when the older hot guys got together at the gymnasium (remember: gymnasium meant a place where you went to exercise naked), to dish each other and ogle the ephebes (pretty young boys) and talk about what they’d like to do with them. I’m sure Plato and his followers were among them, so touching male flesh had a wonderful, philosophical aspect to it that is now pretty much lost, along with the trucks themselves.

Being a prima facie romantic, I wrote a story that was published in Gay Sunshine, an early gay underground paper from San Francisco, called “The Centaur at the Trucks.”

In the story the protagonist meets a lonely centaur who had just ambled in by accident from ancient Greece to the scene at the trucks, where everyone was so busy cruising and getting down to business (no socializing in this story) that they ignore him. He ends up at the dark back of the truck, where you could not see you hand in front of your face. So no one knows that from the waist down he’s a horse. This means that as guys feel him up in the dark, they find nothing immediately between his front legs, and reject him. (A usual story!) Until he meets the narrator, versed in mythology, who is overjoyed to find him, and who has a great time with him back there and then invites him home. But he has to get the centaur out of the trucks and into the subways—and even in New York, where people are good at ignoring you, this is not easy.

In the end, the centaur goes back to ancient Greece, and the narrator ends up missing him terribly—but I’m sure that does not keep him away from the trucks, where he is now up for anything: after all, you never could tell what you’d find at the trucks.

You can learn more about 3-time IPPY Award winner and gay activist 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. You can reach him at belhuepress@earthlink.net  if you have questions or comments you want to personally direct to him.

10 comments:

  1. I am always ambivalent when my peers wax nostalgic about those "good old days" of the piers, the Mineshaft, fucking in the balcony at The Saint and, yes, the trucks. It's what killed us in droves and, for the unwary, continues to do so. What's that number? Oh, yeah, 60,000 of us died during and after those good old days. I am now 73 and ALL of my current friends are in their 50's or younger...we are missing two decades of wonderful, talented men who partied hearty and paid the price.

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  2. This is a delightful look back on "The Trucks," a jumping late-night "joint" in New York back in the early seventies. I myself tend toward vanilla, so never went beyond having sex (once!) in "The Piers," the piers that jut out into the Hudson River only a couple of blocks from "The Trucks" (now shut down, like every other fun sex venue of the post-Stonewall era). But I did include The Trucks in a walking tour of The Village for good friends visiting from other countries. I concur with Perry that it was the atmosphere of male connecting and interaction and discovery that made The Trucks so special. True, whatever companies owned the trucks had to be co-conspirators, because, after all, they left them unlocked after they went home, a virtual invitation to expanding their functionality.
    But beyond the trucks on Washington, trucks that were interlopers also played a role in the scene. One friend of mine, who worked in the Socialist Workers Party's building on West Street, used to have sex regularly with mostly Italian-American truck drivers during his lunch hour, who parked their rigs under the West Side Highway on West Street. These were ostensibly heterosexual men, and, according to my friend, they mostly wanted to get fucked because, after all, their wives and girlfriends couldn't pleasure them in the way they desired. But technically, such truck activity was not part of "The Trucks." It did, however, show how far and wide the grapevine went.
    None of this activity would be acceptable these days, of course, to the goody-goody-two-shoe "LGBT" crowd, who police the gay subculture for the hetero world.
    David

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  3. peebstuff

    I can understand your deelings but The Trucks, The Anivil, The Mineshaft, The Saint Marks is not what killed us. Lack of Goverment intervention and response to the epidemic did. To blame AIDS only on the on the places and the sex instead of the lack of resources, medical research, and information that was available to us is not complete.

    I am almost 50 now. (Jesus) I came of age in 1978 and dove right into the lifestyle. Worked as a waiter at The Ninth Circle and then Uncle Charlies. I remember Crisco's, The Anvil, The Christopher Street Bookshop, The Piers, The RamRod, Peter Rabbits, all the places. And I lost so many friends myself. But I will never forget the good times and the great friends I had. I remember and morn them everyday. But I doubt if they would want us to forget or hide the good that came with the bad. The fun, the laughs, and the freedom before our world went to hell.

    I will remmebr them and cherish the times that w had together. And I thank Perry for posts like this. Like it or not it is our history and its becoming all but forgotten.

    Will/Wolf
    www.back2stonewall.com

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  4. I want to share a wonderful comment that a friend of mine, the writer Eugene Kahn, sent to me, and agreed to have published here. Gene is the writer of DEEP WATER, A Sailor's Passage (Haworth Press, 2005). You can learn more about it at www.deepwaterbook.com.


    "You may recall a single thumb -like tenement right on the corner of West 11th at 423 West Street, next to what was back then a temp'y Federal Prison, and empty truck docks on the other side. I lived there my first NYC apt, along the old West Side Highway. Loved it. Loved the isolation, and it's where I finally CAME OUT!

    For me it was the piers across the street: fancy that, right opposite my little building. What Providence!

    Yes, it was both scary and exciting, but in the end, I grew fed up with the sleaze and stink (shit, piss, beer, cum) but mostly the whole sense that I had to love men only in this kind of underworld - not that I didn't "love" lots and lots of men despite the tawdry atmosphere!

    I have often wanted to conduct tours of the W Village and the new Chelsea Art District, (ha!) and point out all the back rooms where I used to get fucked.

    Oh my, oh my, waiter...there's cum in my mimosa!

    But you did touch on that amazing sense of bonding that I felt back then, back there.

    To wit, once I recall getting a fantastic blow-job, and I was young, and could really come like the best of them, and I felt all these strong manly loving arms supporting me as I my body rose up and up. And, God, that sense of joyous SHARING, when I finally shot out everything I was made of then at 28. What a ritual, maybe only the priesthood can still indulge in today. How I felt all those men's brotherhood with me at that moment.

    Where can you dare to talk about that kind of stuff now?

    Shit, I am lucky to still be alive.

    You know. You know

    Gene Kahn"

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  5. Being both stoic and pragmatic....I am assuming the trucks were left unlocked at night to prevent any locks or closing mechanisms they DID have from being broken. The management wanted those who would be thieves to know they were in fact empty trucks.

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  6. Gays may enjoy more rights today than at that time, but being in my early 50's (thankfully I don't feel it or look it) I recall it was a wonderful and exciting time, especially the mid to late 70's as I was still underage in the early 70's. Maybe because it was the new found freedom that gays were experiencing but I remember the piers with the abandoned buildings, the movie theatres like the Adonis, Eros, David, Gaiety, and the Jewel, the great bathhouses like the Club on 1st avenue and the bars and danceclubs. In a way when I think back it feels like yesterday but so much has passed and happened since then and I feel lucky I came through it okay ( I hope, LOL)

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  7. My own perspective during that heady 1970s-early 1980s period was that of Washington DC. My favorite haunt for a couple of years was a place called the Eagle in Exile ("the Exile"), located in a seedy, bombed-out area that has long since been replaced by the Washington Convention Center and its sterile conventionality. The Exile was a smallish place with two floors, the main upper floor where you entered and a sort of cellar with a bathroom and another bar down there. This club would be packed on Saturday nights, I mean utterly packed with men, so tightly you could hardly turn around, and with a line out the door. The air would be close to unbreathable. The Exile had a leather flavor but welcomed all types. There was a little dance floor made of plexiglass with colored lights flashing underneath it. And a couple of tiny ledges where the extroverts and the drunk and the drugged danced by themselves. The music was an event, the booze flowed like water, the noise was so loud I learned to wear little earplugs I made from wet toilet paper. You could feel the music from the big black speakers shivering your body hair. I was so young, so fit and so handsome then, I felt like a movie star. I was too shy to get into the sex that happened downstairs, but I still had enormous, flirty fun (my shyness saved me from HIV and a lot of other diseases). Oh those summer nights, the scent of cigarette smoke mixing with honeysuckle. Oh that music, so alive. Oh to be young again. This was a magical period not only in gay history but in American history. It should not be forgotten. And you know what? I think some of the ones who died were some of the best of us, some of the best people anywhere.

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  8. Good posts!!! My only query (I'm a nitpicker, sorry) was that are you certain the building where Keller's was is now the Bailey Holt Hospice? I believe the Bailey Holt is the building that used to be the Cockring (first floor) and then above was the Hotel Christopher (later became the River Hotel or something, with a wannabe fancy restaurant at its top) and then they changed the Cockring bar to Uncle Charlies if not mistaken. I could be. Last time I was in this area (couple yrs ago -- I'm in Chcgo now) I believe the old Kellers bar was simply sitting there vacant, boarded up with x's spray painted on it in various spots and maybe some graffiti.

    But yeah all these places are so changed today and it's a real mind-bender in a sense to see them in their current incarnations. The Mineshaft at 835 Washington Street in the MPD is now a pretty sleek and chic yuppie'ish Thai restaurant and nightclub / lounge for the 20 and 30-something set (they have no idea what went on there as they sit and eat and drink...). If those walls could talk, really. The site of the old Anvil perhaps stayed closest to its "roots", in a certain sense; today the whole place is part of the Liberty Inn -- which is still kind of a no-tell motel type of place but it used to be the Strand back then I think. I guess to visit the Anvil proper, so to speak, or the "site" of it today, you'd be more or less in the little lounge / bar area off the lobby of the Liberty. It's also kind of grim that the site of the old Fillmore / then the Saint is now a bank (the Saint lobby) and the insides of the club are now expensive apartments. It seems like people just want to gloss over that 7 or 8 yr period when it was the Saint. They usually just call it the old Fillmore East.

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  9. Fantastic article!

    1. Before Stonewall: http://youtu.be/1v2qPdd9TyI

    2. After Stonewall: http://youtu.be/0osCx7aZxnQ

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  10. Maybe it's sweet nostalgic memories for the older gents (I'm 43) but these libertine places were doomed for extinction.Just get on with life. Happy 2014!

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