My first stroll down Christopher Street was in 1988. If only I had known then what I know now about ‘the life’, I would have turned right on Bleeker Street and headed far uptown. Gay men who worked as waiters inside small cafes whistled as they swept sidewalks with push-brooms painted in every color of the rainbow. Even the dust that queers picked up in purple pans seemed scented with a touch of feminine powder. They watched every step I made as I carefully avoided their bristles.
I walked up and down Christopher Street at least twenty times on that August day in 1988. It was a boardwalk of bliss at the time. Lovers secretly hid in stairways of brownstones that clutter the neighborhood. Moans of men kissing on underground steps seemed no more unusual than the rats that one may encounter in the city’s subway system.
The guys were smiling on every corner and in every crack of the world’s longest gay road in 1988. So much has changed since then. It is all cleaned up and boring now…nothing like the Christopher Street that I came out on.
If the Castro of San Francisco had more than this to offer as a society, then I had no need to live there. This was what I was looking for in life– a street of my dreams. I could walk holding the hand of a lover and others would smile at us. I wanted to find a man on the street who would not be ashamed to hold hands with me in public while I was here. What great fun that would be to hold the hand of another man in public and maybe get kissed in front of the masses.
Freedom was all around, on every corner, even inside wire garbage bins that dotted street corners like window boxes stuffed with imitation roses. How liberating it was to stand on a plot of land like Christopher Street in 1988. Pubs lined the street like costume jewelry on a hairy drag-queen. The smell of stale beer drifted in the afternoon air. It was only 3 p.m. and already, fresh brew was being poured to cover the stale aroma of many spills from the night before. Outside many had urinated and the stench of intoxication permeated up and down the block. If only the rest of the world could be this way, I wished as I crossed Seventh Avenue at the corner of Sheridan Square. I skipped in front of traffic in a pair of All-Stars– one red, one bright yellow, so happy to just be alive and free.
“Where are you from?” A white- haired man who appeared to be in his mid- fifties asked as he tried to hide a beer behind a bright green pair of cut-off shorts.
“Where are you going?”
“Just walking around.”
“Mmmm. Mmmm! I bet you are.”
“Do you know where the big gay clubs are?” I asked.
“Oh, the big dance clubs don’t open until late at night. Places like this bar are better,” he tempted while pointing at the pub ‘Boots and Saddles’ just behind him. “They call this place Bras and Girdles,” he lisped in a seductive, drunken state.
I wasn’t the least bit interested in going inside the bar. The streets were alive.
“Come on in here. You’ll like this place.”
“No thanks. What’s that down there? Water?”
“Yes. Those are the piers. Don’t tell me you have never seen the Christopher Street piers?”
“I haven’t. Besides piers, what are they?”
“Queens everywhere, dear. Sunbathers and hustlers. You be careful going down there, you hear me? You are very cute and, well, never mind…”
“It’s dangerous down there? Why would anyone go?”
“All I’m saying is that they find bodies in that river every day. Some jump. Some have their throats slit and are pushed over, and others…well, others just fall in. Those piers are unsafe. Be careful of the holes if you walk out on them.”
“Thanks! I’ll be careful,” I insisted as I walked away, searching for what I needed.
My cousin Stephen really freaked me out. I needed to be outside for more fresh air and to let my head clear. I was glad to be alone on Christopher Street. He invited me to stay with him during my trip to New York City. I suspected that my cousin was gay too. We grew up together. Little gay boys who happen to be cousins do very naughty things when they are just eight or nine years old and I remembered everything I did with Stephen in front of his record player in his bedroom.
When he told me that he lived in the West Village of New York City, I put two and two together and came up for a visit. He picked me up at Penn Station and took me back to his place on MacDougal Street and pulled out a bottle of vodka. We finished most of it before I found Stephen on his knees in front of me, his own cousin, begging for cock. It was cool to learn that Stephen was officially gay, but I wasn’t ready for the pass from childhood. I didn’t want to ruin the free room and board so I let him help himself.
It wasn’t such a big deal. We are cousins by marriage. It wasn’t like what I let him do to me was incest or anything. Stephen had to go to work at the Tie Rack the next day. Thank heavens. It gave me time to explore gay New York, right outside his door.
There were rough looking young men down at the piers, the type I have always enjoyed being around. I safely made it across the West Side Highway. There were no traffic lights at the time, but cars seemed to slow to watch the colorful men make their way to the river. The gay men were naked. Almost all of them. Butt ass naked. Skinny and naked and some had spots on them– yes– black spots– sunbathers with you know what. Had to be careful. This was New York.
“I like that short hair,” the only man in jeans standing at the pier said to me. My heart fluttered for a while as he told me all about living in New York and how cute I was.
Evening came fast. It was getting dark so we walked all the way back up Christopher Street, crossed Sixth Avenue and entered Washington Square park. It was there where he showed me what he was talking about. He wasn’t joking. I wanted to go back to the darkness by the Christopher Street piers. We stooped briefly in a stairway until a woman yelled at us from her living room. He was butch and strong. I had nothing to worry about. Everyone else was doing it down at the piers. We could too.
I thought of AIDS, but didn’t care. I was going to do it. This was why I came to New York– not to see my cousin.
We waited to cross the Westside Highway again. Just as I was admiring him in his jeans, two strangers rushed towards us. One of the two men had a gun. He pointed it at my friend. My friend ran as fast as he could, back up Christopher Street. I just watched and thought this type of drama happens every day in New York.
A flamboyant sissy dressed in tight black jeans and a heavily starched yellow shirt ran to my side–
“Oh my! What are you doing hanging out with that trash? You could have been killed. Don’t you know that? He was probably going to rob you. Did you ever think of that? Christ, you ain’t even from here, are you?” He asked with a true look of concern in his brown eyes that were covered with fake green contact lenses.
“Hey, do you know where the big clubs are?” I asked.
“Of course. You gotta go to the Tunnel. I’ll take you there if you want. I know the guys at the door. I can get you in for free.”
The bouncers let me in free, but turned the queen away. I felt sorry for a moment and almost paid his way in, but suddenly was lost in the masses dancing at the club. It was the largest club I had ever seen. It was as glorious as Christopher Street but the music was loud and everyone was dancing.
I purchased an orange juice and sat in a corner and waited. Before I ate the first ice cube from the bottom of my glass, I had struck up a conversation with two black men who shared the tiny room with me.
In less than an hour, I was on my way to Brooklyn for the first time with two total strangers. Finally, something bad was going to happen to me, I thought. New York City is supposed to be so dangerous, yet I always manage to be out of harms way. What was with these two men. What would happen when we got to Brooklyn. They said they were best friends. Neither looked gay. We got out of a cab. The men stood alone and argued for a moment. They nearly started to fight. I just smiled when they kept looking at me and fought.
“Do you believe that mother fucker? He thought we was gonna do a three way? The nerve. He’s my best friend, but how dare him. What makes him think?” The stranger that won me asked. This was his place, obviously. His friend caught another cab.
I didn’t say anything, until much later that night after he had made me very sore.
“May I use your phone?”
“I’m staying with my cousin. I don’t want him to worry.”
“Feel free to call who ever you want. That was so damn good, boy?
“Thank you, very much,” I said in my country accent while dialing my cousin…
“Stephen, It’s Charles. I will not be home tonight. I’m staying in Brooklyn?”
“You met a black guy, didn’t you?” My cousin asked. “Yes I know all about big black dicks. Have a good time,” he said as he slammed down the phone.
“That was my cousin. He’s gay,” I explained to the stranger.
“How long are you staying in New York?”
“A week or so.”
“Want to stay with me? I’ll lock you up in my bedroom while I go to work if you want,” he tempted while holding up the handcuffs that we had been playing with.
For a moment I was nervous, but not nervous enough to run back to my cousin’s.
“What if I have to pee?”
“You’ll have the key. Just please, have yourself locked to my bed when I get home. I’m living a fantasy,” he explained.
“Yes. I am too. Sure. Yes, sure. I like you.”
He kissed me and went off to work at a café on Christopher Street.