Stonewall and the Village

I lived on Waverly Place then, around the corner from the local cruising stretch of Christopher Street. The acquaintances I collected at the time thought I was somebody, had to be somebody to live in the center of Greenwich Village. But of course I was the nobody Rilke spoke of in the “Homeless Waif,” Ich bin niemand und werde auch niemand sein, who always would be nobody. Nevertheless, some of the Warhol crowd courted me. Andy was always on the lookout for another dubious talent to dub, “Super Star.” With my long hair and bangs, dark eyes, black turtleneck and green fatigues, I reeked “poet maudit.” With me ubiquitous in the streets of the Village, the white-haired ghost apparently thought I could be groomed to be another “super star.” To be possibly played with like a cat tossing a mouse. Who cared then? FAME, that was the game. But, a pity. I shattered that illusion by selling poems in the street like a common mendicant. A nobody.

That evening I had been over in the East Village, traversing the river of humanity down Eighth Street. It was still an early night, but the East Village had been tame, so I moved on. Staid and predictable as the West Village was to me, it was home. Not totally boring, however. I had met a flood of acquaintances there. And, as well, the healthy young studs from Jersey who cruised Christopher all the way to the trucks parked overnight at the docks. Action in those vacant trucks was legendary. It was a big step up to a slippery floor and silent groping fingers. Pleasant enough, but ultimately redundant to me. The East Village was more like a jungle, more hazardous and pleasantly drug infested. It had vitality. I felt alive there, hipsters hunkered down in their cave-like apartments. From Tompkins Square on, the East Village bloomed. The alphabet avenues. By the time you got to “C,” it was heavy. An element of danger electrified the air.

So, back I trudged my queer ass to a small West Village room that was home, possibly to connect with a Jersey boy. As I rounded the corner by the Women’s House of Detention, the regular cliff of voices screaming obscenities down to the “faggots” strutting by, was in full orchestration. But this time something else grabbed my attention. Further down Christopher, I heard a clamorous crowd of hundreds. I dashed to this new action, ignoring the ladies in their “castle.” They were generally disregarded anyway, unless they became creative in their invective, which was seldom. Off I scampered to this new action. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Christopher Street was packed; people everywhere, even backed up to the intersection of Waverly Place. My corner. I inhabited that corner quite frequently. The crowd overflowed into Sheridan Square, pointy little triangle that it was with its barely confining decorative but low iron fence. All eyes were directed toward the Stonewall, a noisy gay nightclub frequently “raided” by the police. I read later that in the hubbub that night, a famous folk singer who was in the Stonewall slinked out into the Lion’s Head next door not to be perceived as “queer.” The latter establishment was a basement hangout for writers of the Village Voice newspaper, and acceptably hetero. However, the slink did not pass unnoticed, and was mentioned later in the Voice by a gay writer who didn’t hesitate to “out.”

The crowd appeared festive. New Yorkers seem to enjoy spontaneous entertainment. Especially involving the police. Particularly at the expense of the latter. I quickly discovered the source of their merriment. Police were barricaded inside the Stonewall. With a discordant chorus of queens shouting, “Get the pigs,” and other unflattering epithets sprinkled with obscenities, the “straights” gathered there seemed delighted. They may have despised “faggots” or “queers” in separate dialogues at other times, but now they were cheering “gays” for displaying such cajones. I think a few even joined the shouting, infected with mob mentality.

I decided to feign being a reporter and interview a demonstrator or two. Made sense to me at the time, since I was generally an observer of the scene anyway. I found one young queen with flaming red hair who was engrossed in his vocal vilifications. I was hesitant to interrupt his soliloquy of “down with the pigs” and similar concise verse, repetitively declaimed in a rather high pitch for such invective. His arms would flay up, perhaps to give his meager chest more air. Who knows? It was dramatic. One can’t accuse us ‘faggots’ of not being dramatic. I tapped him on the shoulder and he flung around. If I hadn’t ducked I probably would have been hit in the face.

“What?” he screamed at me. “I’m not doing anything. It’s the pigs. You’re not a pig, are you?” His eyes were positively raging. It could have been frightening if he were any less fem. It was intimidating enough, as it was.

“No. I’m not police. I’m a writer. I’m one of you. Fuck, I’m gay. I was over in the East Village tonight. Just got back. Hey! What’s happening anyway?”

“They tried to grab one of our sisters. Enough is enough!” He then tossed a few copper coins toward the door of the Stonewall shouting, “Here’s money, pigs. You haven’t been paid off enough!”

“What’s this all about?” I continued.

“They wanted to arrest one of our sisters and we fought back. Finally. We just want to have a good time. They don’t need to do that. Raiding us all the time. Pigs! And we were dancing. It was lively, man.”

“Pigs!” he yelled again.

“You were in there?”

“Sure! I’m there almost every night. I haven’t seen you, honey. I’d notice you. You do look familiar, though.”

“I’ve been in there. Not much, though.”

“Butch thing like you must go to the trucks. That’s where all the leather queens are now. Scared of this, I guess. Dykes and us nellies. That’s who’s fighting the pigs.”

“Pigs!” He shouted. Mentioning the word set him off again.

“What happened?”

“I told you. We were dancing. Having a great ole time, and the pigs come in, grab one of the dykes, Sheila, who was giving them lip and were going to arrest her. That’s when we started fighting back. ‘Don’t you touch our sister’, I yelled at ‘em. We’re getting tired of this. We don’t have to take it anymore. They raid us every week. Almost. I know the Stonewall pays them, but they still raid. Damn pigs.”

“How’d you wind up out here?”

“They chased us out like they always do when they raid and were going to hold that sister, but we fought them and brought her out with us. Then they closed the door and then we started yelling. They’re barricaded in there. Behind that door. Chicken shit pigs!” He then gripped a parking meter and tried to rock it back and forth.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to pull this fucker out and get at those pigs.” I envisioned his using the parking meter as a battering ram. But his efforts merely succeeded in loosening the meter a bit. There was no way he was pulling that thing out of the ground. It was just as well. I found out later that the police had their pistols pointed at the door and would have shot anyone trying to get at them.

Coins got tossed more regularly now. Apparently the crowd received the message, it was all a matter of payoff to the police. Not getting enough payoff, holding up the owners for more. And for once the “cocksuckers” fought back. Oh, it wasn’t that Mr. and Ms. Straight thought the ‘faggots’ weren’t sick, but this was a fun way to begin a weekend. A pleasant June evening, and who knows, it might be in the papers. The time the queers had balls. And those damn police, they always carried things too far.

Everything continued for a while that night but eventually the police radioed for reinforcements. These newcomers in blue first cleared the streets, then rescued their comrades cringing inside the bar. On a subsequent night it was announced that the police would clear Christopher Street to prevent any further disruptions. At that time I lived around the corner (my corner, remember) and followed the events daily. Christopher wasn’t a particularly wide street, with brick buildings of modest height and occasional little shops and residences. It felt old. Old New York. With faggots cruising up and down the sidewalks. It was, after all, their street. Except, with the rosy fingers of dawn and the bustle of people making a living, queers faded into the walls, to only materialize much later like vampires.

That next night a phalanx of police in riot gear and big plastic shields marched down Christopher completely filling the area between the buildings. As they marched, a little group of queens fearlessly did a can-can in front of the police line singing, “We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls, we wear no underwear … to show our pubic hair.” Not the cleverest of lyrics, but the dance itself was a spectacular display of joyous contempt. Those precious daring fairies. “Fuck you!” it said, as only a faggot can. One can imagine the response of the police personnel inside their helmets, their stoic belief in masculinity threatened with this affront and their authority mocked by “fairies.” My old Village compatriot, Harry Koutoukas, claimed he orchestrated the can-can. I didn’t believe him then. Who knows? It happened. That was what mattered.

The next day as the police marched down the street in a scene reminiscent of a war movie, I was with an acquaintance, Willane. She was trying to interest me in a friend of hers from Texas after she not too cleverly discerned she was not my type. Her friends said she had a real knack for selecting faggots as potential mates, an unfortunate honing device that amused and was useful to her gay friends. Of the latter there was no scarcity since most of her friends were in the arts in one way or another.

“Sweet boy,” she told me, referring to the young Texan she had in mind for me. They were all part of a contingent of Texans who decided to invade New York. They had done Austin and were preparing for a larger playing field. Several were in theatre, several in music. Artsy as I said, but Texans, nevertheless. Willane, who like most Texans dripped with money, had an apartment right on Christopher with a balcony from which we could observe the incredible passing scene.

Sometime during the Stonewall events we were stuck on the street, Willane and I. And the police were advancing. “Willane, dear, do run,” I said and took off like a deer myself. She followed but gleefully chided me afterwards, implying cowardice on my part. “Do run,” she mocked. I figured she could certainly take care of herself and I had not been brought up in the “protect the gentle sex” mode like I have observed the Texans do, regardless of their sexual persuasion. Her particular Texans had, thank God, advanced to the state where they found my reaction droll rather than reprehensible. As for myself, I found a Texan to love for a few years, which is sometimes all we can ask for.

The Stonewall incident brought a kind of solidarity among the Village queens. And tourists. In particular, gay tourists. Gays who hadn’t visited the Village much before. I remember one outlandish black queen, Nova, who was slim and rather pretty with cute little breasts. “Estrogen,” she’d say, explaining the bumps. “Feel them. They’re real. I don’t even wear a bra.” That was obvious, of course. I didn’t feel the necessity of taking her up on her generous offer.

Nova was saving up for “the operation.” Occasionally one would hear that in the Village those days. Being poor and basically untalented except for her candor (a quality often underappreciated), Nova hustled. But it could be a precarious existence. Adding to that, she had to traverse Spanish Harlem at night to get to her home uptown. The Puerto Rican men she encountered in the streets must have been threatened by her blatantness or thought she was a real woman and thus vulnerable to their charms. So, she carried a hatchet in her purse.

One time, a cop stopped her and discovered the hatchet sticking out. “You can’t do that. It’s a deadly weapon. It’s against regulations.”

“But what is a poor girl to do? I’ve got to protect myself. I go through Spanish Harlem every night to get home.”

“Well, I suppose you could carry a hammer. There isn’t any regulation against that, or at least it’s less obvious.” So, Nova did just that.

“But what good is a hammer, Nova?” I asked.

“I may be a lady but I got muscles. Feel these.” And she flexed her arm to demonstrate a smallish but very hard bicep. “Let them spicks bother me now. I got my little ball-peen hammer right here. And I can do some damage.” She patted her purse. I didn’t need to see how she could protect herself. Her will demonstrated that.

One day when I encountered Nova, she informed me that she had met our local national celebrity, someone whom I really did admire: “Miss Allen Ginsberg,” and “I told her a thing or two.” I smiled at the female address she used, as many fem gays do when referring to any gays. I myself regarded Allen as relatively masculine and certainly much too hairy to be a “she.” His friends would be appalled. That alone elicited an extra dimension to my grin. I loved Allen, he did a lot for gay awareness and beat poetry. But his pedestal was getting wearisome.

And yet. Where would gay liberation be without Allen Ginsberg? Oh, it was amusing, those first few weeks of gay liberation to this cynical observer. The meetings of Gay Lib served with less-than-sophomoric Marxism, with a dash of strident calls for “Robert’s Rules of Order.” An obvious attempt to imitate the black and women’s movements and more established organizations, but generally we were not an orderly or overly rational group. It was our charm. Ultimately, our strength. But I couldn’t take it seriously. However, I do applaud their efforts. They made it. WE made it, I guess I should say. But no way was I about to take part in meetings. Just not my thing despite the eventual amazing outcome of it all.

There was one young gay-lib enthusiast we christened “Miss Boston” in honor of that person’s port of origin. A slight boy with strawberry blonde curls. You’d think of him as Irish. Not one of the Back Bay elect, I would guess. More likely of the great “unwashed” multitude issuing from that more reserved city north. “She” referred to her hometown regularly as a place to be avoided at all costs. And with the onset of liberation, she spread her wings here in Manhattan, and flowered in alleys … unlit doorways … and between cars. One could say she was an unbelievable slut. I myself had my moments, but she put us all to shame.

“C’mon, honey. Right in here,” as she both pointed to a doorway right on the Christopher stroll and grabbed at my zipper. I pulled away.

“No, Boston. It’s right out in the open. Everyone can see.”

“Who cares? They don’t. Just jealous. Why don’t you? I haven’t had you yet?”

“No Boston. I just don’t want to. I got a friend.”

“Everyone’s got a friend. I have several, but that doesn’t stop me. Besides, as tall as you are, I bet you’ve got a big surprise for me. I’ve seen it swinging,” she nodded glancing quite shamelessly somewhere below my midsection. To be honest, I think she was deluded there, but who was I to pop her fantasies.

“I said, NO.” She was starting to annoy me. Persistent little soul.

“It won’t take very long. I’m very good. They all say so. Come on,” as she tugged on my shirt trying to pull me into the doorway.

“NO. And that’s it… honey,” I added to sweeten the rejection. She shrugged her shoulders and we continued down the street, Boston cheerfully ready to take on the next customer. She’d have lots of opportunities with people much less squeamish than me. Though I did enjoy the hussy’s company. So unaffected in her way.

The Village was definitely a unique part of the city. When I looked toward Manhattan the few times I ventured into the wasteland that was Jersey, it was so apparent that there was a continuous elevation, a base line of about 5 or 6 stories that comprised the island from which the numerous skyscrapers loomed. I guess the reason for that base line was that 5 or 6 stories was the highest a walk-up would dare grow. Otherwise one would require an elevator. And that was what gave the rise to skyscrapers, of course. Elevators. However in the Village, sometimes, there would be buildings of only two or three stories. I lived on the upper level of a three story brick nineteenth-century dwelling. The first floor was actually below the level of the street. Spent quite a few hours on the tarred roof of that Waverly Place residence looking over the adjacent chimney pots. It was my Paris. Though that implies a fantasy world. New York was very real.

And, my god, you could meet the most fabulous freaks. One of my favorite besides Nova was “Terrence.” I don’t recall his real name. He was a legend in his own way, the fellow with four tits. He wandered into New York from vagabond San Francisco. Actually he originated from some meaningless-to-him town in Washington State. A musical comedy queen. His world was that stage, and he lived it as thoroughly as any street person could. Often, when he could pan-handle enough for a night, he resided at a flop house on Bleeker Street with the wretched and perpetually potted. More fortunate times, he would spend the night with a trick he’d pick up in the street. Terrence conveniently was very democratic. Not fussy by any means. And he was tall and lanky, kept himself clean, and had impressive genital credentials. Many moments, I found him singing songs from all sorts of musicals. And relate them to his life. As miserable as that might have seemed to others, Terrence was ever-cheerful.

The four tits came in handy too. “Wanna see my tits. I got four.”

One day he came up to me, almost blissful. “You won’t believe who I met. Slept with too.” Then he sang a few bars from a song.

“I give. Who?” Although I recognized the song I didn’t have his knack of knowing the complete Broadway repertoire, composer, choreographer, director, even some individual singers and dancers. He was a veritable encyclopedia of Broadway trivia. When he told me the person’s name, even I recognized it. And then, of course, wondered how the hell he connected. But that, of course, was the marvel of New York at that time, certainly of Gay New York. You never know who you’re going to meet in the street and what might ensue. And Terrence did keep himself presentable.

Sort of. Terrence, being perpetually broke and enjoying a regular smoke, would pick up butts from the street to smoke. “It’s the same as bumming a smoke from somebody.” I was wary. Then, Terrence, ever cheerful, informed me, “I got trench mouth. I don’t know how I got it.” I didn’t bother to try to explain. He went to the clinic and got healed. Until another time, I guess.

One day, Terrence came over completely beside himself. It was as though he were levitating. “I met her. At a party some trick took me to. It was her for sure. And you know what? She’s going to introduce me to ‘Mama.’ Imagine! Mama!”

“Slow down, Terrence. Who did you meet and who’s Mama?”

“You’ve got to guess. I can’t say her name. And Mama.”

Well, I’m very poor at this game. It might be anyone. Show biz, of course. But anyone. Yet at this juncture I could tell that before long Terrence would not be able to hold back. And he couldn’t.

“Liza. Liza Minnelli.” Well, this time I was certainly surprised. She wasn’t that big then, but Mama was alive. No one was bigger. Not only to a show-biz queen, but to many people, for that matter. I envied him. Terrence, though, was able to ingratiate himself with people. It was a definite talent. He would gush like Old Faithful. Yet with him it was genuine. Or at least I couldn’t tell the difference. I could see how he might manage to get an introduction to the lady from the Wizard.

“I’m happy for you, Terrence. Very.” Though I was, of course, extremely jealous. “Maybe you could introduce me to her. Judy. Mama.”

“Oh you know, Paul, I will. But I’ve got to meet her first. You know.”

Well, I was green. That’s for sure. Much as I appreciated his good fortune, there’s no way I didn’t wish it had happened to me. “Now don’t forget, Terrence.”

“O.K.” Well, as fate would have it, he never met Mama. She died first. But not before I reminded him often to introduce me. Ah, what fools we appear in hindsight. The actual intriguing encounter, of course, was Terrence with his four tits. He did tell me he was invited to the funeral with James Mason officiating. James Mason of A Star is Born, you know. They must have kept in touch, James and Judy (not that I was really aware of Judy’s inner circle). I gave Terrence a poem I wrote after viewing Judy’s corpse at Campbell’s Funeral Home uptown, where everyone gets laid out. I was just inches from her head. You could see the blackness under the make-up. They say barbiturates do that. And her fingers were surprisingly worn. I went to Central Park afterwards where the lines of my poem came to me. I instructed Terrence to give it to James Mason:

Leaves clap in Central Park at dawn while a bird who sang flew over the rainbow.

There was more, but that’s all I remember. Really liked the leaves clapping metaphor. I laid it in Terrence’s hand. “Now be sure to give it to James Mason. He may read it at the funeral.” Well, wouldn’t you know it, Terrence never made to the funeral.

At least that’s what he told me.

“I overslept.”

But that’s not the only tidbit about Terrence. It seems that my landlady had developed an aversion to Terrence due to a little incident. Apparently, one night he couldn’t rouse me and managed to get in the building. Of course you just needed to buzz another buzzer if your friend wasn’t answering for one reason or another. Or follow someone in. Terrence may have been a little under the weather or he would have climbed the stairs to my little room and knocked until I came to the door. As it was, he lay on the cool tile floor at the entrance against my landlady’s door and slept. The floor must have been pleasant on that hot summer evening, though hard. Terrence was used to varying accommodations anyway. But Mrs. Dougherty, fierce little chubby soul that she was, was not accustomed to having to step over bodies to get out of her doorway in the morning.

“Paul. That friend of yours slept on the floor at my front door last night. That tall bum. I almost called the police.”

There was no doubt who it was. I was rather pissed off at Terrence. Such presumption! My existence in that particular building was getting tenuous anyway. I did have visitors at all hours. That’s the way life was for us then. But not for Mrs. Dougherty. Terrence could have really screwed it up for me, once and for all. I believed I had to make her think of Terrence as someone special.

“He really is a Broadway creature, you know. Knows all sorts of people.” That was certainly true.

“I’ll bet. He knows you.

“But really. He’s probably going to be someone someday.”

“Harrumph.” And she slammed the door behind her.

Oh, yes. You probably want to know about the four tits. Sounds better than it was.

He had two regular nipples where they should be and a few inches lower on his bony chest were two brownish bumps, too light-colored to be moles, but still you had to be told they were nipples. However, by the time one would question their authenticity, Terrence had his pants off and treated the viewer to an impressive fleshy member adequate for all sorts of play. I admit that although I admired the abundance and his willingness to share, I eschewed the pleasure of indulging. His whorish history tainted the appendage in my eyes. And though immense, it lacked beauty.

So, Terrence with your four tits. Nova with your new tits. And Boston with your unabashed élan. Where are you dancing now? It’s been so many years. Amazing how that small event at the Stonewall mushroomed into a worldwide movement. The night those “candy-assed faggots” fought like tigers. Being gay I can claim kinship, but not as an active participant in the events of that night. Being here to tell the story is all. Now, despite AIDS and the persistent conflict with the malicious right, GAY is here to stay. Stonewall has become a significant part of history. And our stories still float in the air there on Christopher Street.

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Special Guest Judge, Sharman Apt Russell:

“What I loved about ‘Stonewall and the Village’ was its jazzy immediacy, its knowing and rambling voice, its rambunctious details—all evoking a sense of being there, that place, that time. The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 are said to have launched the gay liberation movement. But for the narrator of this memoir/essay, they are just the background to his life, the context of being young and brash and in the streets. Mrs. Dougherty is a fierce and chubby soul, and Terrence has four tits, and the black queen Nova carries a hammer for protection in Spanish Harlem. These characters seem perfectly real and cheerfully at home as the winds of cultural change swirl around them. The urban, name-dropping energy of Paul Thiel’s prose reflects and resonates with his subject matter, and this makes for a compelling read.”

++++++++– Sharman Apt Russell, author of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and ++++++++Other New Ways of Engaging the World , the young adult novel Teresa of the New World, ++++++++and the forthcoming speculative fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (due this January, ++++++++2016).

Paul ThielPaul Thiel received his AB from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MS from the University of Montana. He decided that he would rather be a minor poet than a world-famous geologist, so on he went to San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury in the sixties, which inspired his play, Ode to the Queen Serene. Later, in New York, he published a long experimental poem in Extensions. He was a finalist for Columbia University’s Frank O’Hara Award, and gave a reading in the “Decadent Poets of NYC” series at Hunter College. Now, in St. Louis, he recently published and promoted a book of short stories by St. Louis writers, titled Under the Arch, and is currently working on autobiographical sketches.

Judy Bolton, Girl Detective, Girl Thief

I was six years old the first time I saw a mystery novel on my older cousin’s bookshelf with my own name, Judy Bolton, on the spine. I couldn’t stop my finger from tracing the letters boldly printed across the front of that hardcover book. I like to think my father chose the name for me for a reason, and that the appellation Girl Detective inspired me to construct my own clue-imbedded world.

Judy was a fictional detective in the 1930s and ’40s. She spied for the good of her family and community. Four decades later I took a different approach. Mine was a darker brand of sleuthing: I stole and manipulated my way into creating and solving mysteries, in part to get closer to learning about the secrets that lurked in my own house.

I was persistent, though never quite successful. Fictional Judy’s cases had neat endings, while my work was more of a scavenger hunt during which I stole objects that didn’t cohere into a full story for me. I went through my father’s wallet, thick with dry-cleaning slips, receipts and dollar bills. I pretended to smoke his fat, unlit Dutch Masters cigars, and tamped down tobacco in his pipes. When I flash back to Dad’s rack of pipes, silent and stony atop his highboy, I think of the artist Magritte. “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist wrote below his painting of a pipe. He called the work The Treachery of Images.

There were some deceptive images connected to my father, like the photograph of him in flowing khakis and a pith helmet, labeled Guatemala 1952. There was also the heart-shaped box stitched in red and blue, curiously soft and feminine, that stood out on his dresser. The box was another souvenir from Guatemala in which he kept a silver ring, serious and dense, stamped with his initials KHB, for K. Harold Bolton. I loved to spin that ring around my middle finger. I loved to put it under my pillow at night—a talisman that fueled my own imagined adventures.

My role as the girl detective also masked my role as a thief, a part I began to play in earnest at Edward Morley Elementary School in West Hartford, Connecticut. This was a school heavily populated with pretty Nancy Drews. I planted red herrings in their fifth grade classrooms, full of glitter and glue, to indicate there was a Frito Bandito at large.

I was the clever thief who knew what mattered most to my shiny pony-tailed classmates and gladly took it away from them. I was the phantom thief who struck after yet another birthday party or sleepover from which the Nancy Drews excluded me. In reality, I was short and chubby; I was the Spic ‘n’ Span Baby whose mother with the Cuban accent didn’t allow to walk home alone from school.

I kept some of their sweet little change purses and hand knit scarves and returned the rest, triumphantly, as if I had recovered them. Magritte’s pipe was not a pipe, and I was not a thief. At best, I was an indispensable sleuth; at worst, a slippery suspect in the eyes of my teachers.

When I had stolen all I could in school, I moved on to the most portentous place of all for me as a girl detective: my parents’ bedroom, a place filled with the soundless noise of too much stuff in too small a space. The bedroom was a staging area where I could perfect my thieving skills. I pocketed fake pearl necklaces and matching clip-on earrings from my mother’s vanity—a rickety desk she had transformed with speckled contact paper, gold trim and crepe skirting. It was as fancy as she was when she went out with my father on a Saturday night.

I rummaged through my mother’s closet, even though she made it clear that playing dress up in her best clothes was akin to stealing them. But I couldn’t help raiding her walk-in closet for slender high heels, sequined dresses and my father’s sister’s hand-me-down cashmere sweaters. That closet was an island of eternal twilight and forbidden possibilities. In particular, the very adult possibilities of love and beauty were embodied in a dress my mother bought from the Siegel Shop, a tony store in West Hartford Center. She carefully hung the beautiful fuchsia sheath she intended to wear to my uncle’s wedding in plastic wrapping. The sheath was delicately embroidered with roses and went over a long slip dress in a slightly darker hue. There were pointy, satin shoes dyed to match.

A few days before the wedding I stumbled around my parents’ bedroom trailing fuchsia and turning my ankle in the dyed heels until I came face to face with my father. He stood in the doorway, brown-eyed like me, staring with wonder and dread.

“Don’t let your mother see you in that dress,” he whispered.

It was the same tone he had when he came home from work, his tie undone, his shirtsleeves rolled up. “What kind of mood is your mother in?”

On those occasions we were co-conspirators.

My mother always aspired to have more, to be more. When she was seventeen, she wanted to be the first in her family to attend college. She struggled with an alcoholic father and depressed mother as she waged a fierce battle that left her slapped and bruised. But she saved enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola to get to the University of Havana. On the first day of classes she registered for only one course with money my seamstress grandmother had skimmed from the household budget. When my mother met my father a few years later in New York, he exuded the financial success and social class she so desperately wanted, though that pipe dream disappeared once they were married.

*     *     *

As I went through Dad’s crowded drawers, I unearthed things as disparate as shot glasses from his Yale 1940 graduating class, pieces of Dentyne gum, golf tees, dehydrated snow globes picked up on family vacations, and outdated calendars from insurance and fuel companies. I found a package of condoms and a well-thumbed paperback of Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses.

I intently studied the unpaid bills my father piled on his dresser. I fanned through canceled checks carefully bundled in their original bank envelopes. I liked my father’s neat, primary school print so much that I kept random checks to start another collection of things that didn’t belong to me. I coveted his elegant check registry as large as a coffee table book. Its brown leather was embossed in gold with KHB. I paged through lists of checks my father recorded, searching for signs of the bankruptcy towards which my mother screamed we were headed. My father, an accountant who organized other people’s finances, oddly enough had little success marshaling his own.

Stashed in his sock drawer, I found elaborate budgets he worked up with words like mortgage and heat floating between asterisks. On pieces of cardboard that came from the dry cleaner with his freshly pressed shirts, he printed the names of stores my mother frequented in red capital letters. It was as if he was symbolizing that her shopping was bleeding us dry.

“The doctor can prescribe something else for your nerves,” my father murmured.

But shopping was a balm for my mother and me. On Saturday afternoons we ended up in downtown Hartford. My mother went to get her eyebrows waxed at G. Fox & Co., a utilitarian, yet elegant department store. When the elevator opened onto the eleventh floor, everything smelled of beauty. Afterwards we rode down on the escalators, stopping to buy sale dresses and support hosiery for my mother. Shopping at G. Fox came with the distinct privilege of bringing home the store’s crisp navy blue shopping bags. Yet my mother always pleaded poverty when I asked her to buy me something. Mamá no tiene dinero was her constant refrain. In response, I surveyed the terrain and stashed forty-fives or jewelry in the bags.

J.J. Newberry, a five and dime store, was easier to steal from. Newberry—all linoleum floors and plastic bins—had a hectic array of lipsticks and eye shadows through which we sifted. By the time I was interested enough to pocket makeup for myself, few of us from the suburbs still ventured downtown. One Saturday, I watched a pair of Puerto Rican girls, slick and confident, shoplifting nail polish and lip gloss from Newberry. Their technique was flawless. Their next move? To filch my mother’s wallet.

Mira esa vieja, que fea. Pero ella tiene plata.

They didn’t expect a lady fresh off the A1 bus from West Hartford to understand them. As soon as my mother turned around, they knew they had underestimated her and her ire over being called old and ugly. My mother pulled the hair of the younger teenager, who was just a year or two older than I. The older one ran away.

“Say it again,” my mother said. Dilo otra vez que yo soy vieja y fea, she said, crazed and up close to the girl’s round face, “and I will take you to the policia, you ladrona.

Though I never doubted my mother would turn me into the police, too, if she caught me stealing, I continued my petty larceny. I moved on to steal mostly drugstore makeup that I applied in the girls’ bathroom in junior high school. But as hard as I tried, I was not the effortless beauty my mother was. When I was little, I watched her put on her armor for a Saturday evening out. She began with a pointy bra and a heavy girdle with fasteners that snapped onto the reinforced tops of silky, shiny, shimmery stockings. She wore a glittery minidress and completed the ensemble with black boots that appeared as if they had been poured on her legs. She was the envy of my father’s friends with their plain older wives. And to me, she was simply the most beautiful woman in the world. “La mas linda della familia, said my besotted father.

I often spied into my parents’ bedroom though the sliver of light and space between the door and doorjamb. There was a twenty-year difference between them—a gulf, a bay, maybe the Bay of Pigs— but the age divide always vanished when they danced a smoked, stoked cha-cha in the blue noir of cigar smoke and the stink of beer. Later that night as my father pulled off my mother’s boots, Mom on the bed, dreamy and sleepy, whispered, “Too much dancing.”

*     *     *

Forty years later, my father has been dead for a decade. I am once again in my mother’s closet. I am once again a detective, a thief. The clues I’ve been collecting for a lifetime have led me to the recent discovery that my father had been on the ground helping to engineer a coup in Guatemala in 1952.

The Treachery of Images. Nothing is a coincidence.

Treachery may be an extreme word for my father’s silence about his time in the CIA, a secret he took to his grave. I wish he had entrusted me with the lives he lived before I was born. But I was the all-too-curious kid who stole, and I think he knew that.

Although, officially, I am looking for papers I requested to prove my mother is eligible for Dad’s veterans’ benefits, I am also on the lookout for any evidence of my father’s presence in Guatemala. My mother does not know Dad was in the CIA. How can I tell her my father wed her on an assignment? His mission was to place himself in Cuba and marrying a Cuban national seemed a natural way to do that. But history went awry and my mother became pregnant with me on her wedding night. My father had to sit out the Bay of Pigs.

*     *     *

My mother has on contact lenses. Her frameless face reflects her desire to capture her once-upon-a-time beauty. But her green eyes now float among broken blood vessels. She wears black flats and leans on a cane. She stares at me sprawled on the floor and I am instantly reduced to the little outlaw girl playing dress up in her mother’s closet. The little girl who appeared so much smaller when she wore her mother’s heels or glimpsed herself in the reflection in her father’s aviator sunglasses.

Que carajowhat the hell are you looking to take this time, Judy Bolton?” My mother uses my full, original name—my detective name—when she’s furious with me.

“I’m not sure.” All I know is I need to piece together a paper trail to prove she was married to Lieutenant Commander K. Harold Bolton. I’ve already written away for their marriage license the same way I filed a Freedom of Information Act for my father. But the CIA would neither confirm nor deny his affiliation with the agency.

I rifle through yellowed tax returns in brown accordion folders, financial information conveyed in Dad’s straightforward green-inked print. I sort through the uncharacteristically sugary, fancy long-ago birthday cards he liked to send us. I examine the credit card bills my mother accumulated from stores that are now shuttered. I hear my father’s echo: “The doctor can prescribe something for your nerves”

I steal a black and brown tweed shawl with a matching skirt. It’s a mid-century relic from my aunt, but Mom always wore it with verve and youth. I continue to rummage through the glamorous wreckage of clothes and the dust sends me on a coughing jag. This closet has become all past, with no touchstone to present or future.

I find the fuchsia sheath, tattered and streaked with neglect. The matching shoes are now stained; one of them has a broken heel. I can’t get the ragged slip over my chest, but I try anyway. My mother once starved to maintain her figure, never setting a place for herself at the kitchen table. Instead, she’d stand at the sink and eat scraps off our plates.

J.J. Newberry is gone, but the makeup we bought from its bins, now dried out and flaky, still crowds my mother’s ancient vanity. As a kid, I sat at that vanity, brushing circles of rouge on my cheeks and applying dark red lipstick until it looked like a scar slashed across my mouth.

The leather checkbook registry, stashed deep in my mother’s closet, is cracked. KHB—the initials once so stately and regal on its cover—are faded into near oblivion. It looks like time and condensation have blurred my father’s meticulous entries.

Just as Magritte declared his picture was not a pipe, this house is not the one in which I grew up. And yet the embroidered roses on my mother’s sheath—though wilted—are beautiful to me in the same way that a man who has loved a woman for decades stills sees her as young and pretty.

I fold the sheath and pack it with the shawl and skirt in a creased G. Fox bag. I grab some of the papers and cards, just to have my father’s inimitable handwriting near me again.

I still sleuth, I still steal.

I am, after all, Judy Bolton, girl detective and thief.

Judy Bolton-FasmanJudy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Salon, 1966: A Journal of Creative Non-fiction, Brevity, Cognoscenti and other venues. She has also written a memoir, currently unpublished, entitled “The Ninety Day Wonder.” Judy lives and writes with her family outside of Boston. Find her at  http://thewritewaytocollege.com and at http://thejudychronicles.com.

Sailing into Saigon

It’s still dark, 0500 on a December morning. From our ship out in the harbor we see the lights of San Diego sparkle on the horizon. We are excited by the lights. Because for so much of the last four months the horizon has merely blended with the blue of the ocean. Nearly one thousand of us—students, faculty, some family members—have been sailing around the world on a university study abroad program known as Semester at Sea. Now we’re coming home. It’s been a long voyage.

At 0500 a month earlier, we were entering another port, winding our way up the wide Saigon River on our way to Ho Chi Minh City. Our small cruise ship moved slowly, churned up the sandy river bottom. The sun was just starting to rise on our starboard side. It was foggy, which made the little fishing boats, with big slanting eyes painted on both sides of their swooping bows look eerie, like ghosts down there on the water, materializing out of the ethers.

We passed rice fields—all harvested by then—and miles and miles of jungle where the trees looked like they, too, were recently harvested. The trunks were spindly, the leaves wan and thin in many places. The sight of this sparse, sickly jungle made me sad. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the woman who poled the little painted boat being buffeted by the waves of our wake. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the family in the wobbly wooden house teetering between the trees and these muddy waters. Because as an American, I felt responsible.

I have no direct connection with the American War, as it is called in Vietnam, except that I grew up during the ’60s, was in high school in the early ’70s. Our government had stopped giving college deferments by then. Every one of my male classmates knew he’d get a draft notice along with his diploma. The war was like a pall.

In 11th grade English class, Mr. Trosan asked us to define irony. Some of us tried. Some of us were surprised when the stoner in the back of the room raised his hand. His sandy hair lapped at his collar bones. He wore dirty, faded blue jeans so long he walked on them, the hems all ratty and frayed. He slumped around school like he couldn’t care less about being there or what people thought about him. Sometimes I think teachers held his attitude against him. He was smart and they wanted him to care, wanted him to put forth some effort. But Monk’s hooded eyes were clear; he could already see what was waiting for him.

Mr. Trosan liked Monk. Mr. Trosan’s thinning hair hung over his ears too. A bushy mustache drooped over his lips, and he had a habit of playing with it with his tongue. Mr. Trosan lived down the hill from me and drove a little blue sports car. I saw his wife a couple of times. “Hippie” was what people thought when they saw her. She was tall and skinny and had very long, straight hair like Cher. She wore big glasses and bell-bottom blue jeans. I tried not to admire this couple. In my working class family, we weren’t supposed to like hippies. But I couldn’t help it; Mr. Trosan was one of the coolest teachers I ever had.

When Monk raised his hand, it was like Mr. Trosan knew he’d have the right answer. He held off calling on him to give the rest of us a stab at irony. When Mr. Trosan nodded at him, slouched in the back of the room, Monk twirled his pen around his fingers then flipped it into the book of O. Henry stories lying open on his desk. And here was his answer: “Irony,” he said, “is living through your tour in Vietnam and coming home and getting hit by a bus.” Wow, I thought, how did he know that? Behind his big mustache, Mr. Trosan just smiled.

I wish I could say I had been an anti-war activist. I wish I could say I had been a member of SDS and campaigned for George McGovern, even though I couldn’t vote. I wish I could say I had been informed and outraged and wrote letters to members of Congress and participated in protests down at the University. But the truth is, I didn’t pay attention to the war in Southeast Asia. Mine wasn’t the kind of family that had conversations around the dinner table about current events, or anything else for that matter; children were to be seen, not heard. My father had been in the Army for two years during the Korean Conflict. Even though he spent his whole tour of duty shoveling a pile of dirt from one side of the road to the other at an outpost in Germany, he still believed in the U.S. military. In high school, I just kept my head down, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to get from one day to the next. I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion about my country’s little police action on the other side of the world.

It was The Deer Hunter, the 1978 film that won the Academy Award for best picture, that showed me what I missed. Three steelworkers from the same ethnic neighborhood near Pittsburgh, friends who went deer hunting every fall, who could bring down a deer in one shot, who got drafted and returned from the war changed, if they returned at all; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep; the contrast between those two rites of passage, marriage and military service, and what happens to a man when he learns to bring down people in one shot and to play Russian roulette. The movie made me a pacifist. It shocked me. It saddened me. It angered me. In part because of the political message, yes, but the thing that pushed that message in under my skin was that I knew those people. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Those guys shooting shots at the bar were just like my cousins. I had driven by that Russian Orthodox Church, or one very like it, and those streets were my streets. My grandfathers were both steelworkers. Half the men in my town wore steel-toed shoes and hard hats and clomped off to the mill every morning with identical black lunch buckets. Guys in my class thought that the first day of deer season was a school holiday.

Decades later, in graduate school, I would learn that the most effective teaching tool for changing someone’s attitude is film. I was a nurse then, and the teacher was talking about changing how people thought about their health: how to get teenage girls to believe that doing self breast exams would keep them from dying of cancer; how to get diabetic patients to commit to pricking their finger, testing their blood sugar six times a day, and shooting themselves with insulin. But I thought about The Deer Hunter—the guy from down the street who danced at my cousin’s wedding and came back from ’Nam without any legs—and I knew this teacher was telling the truth.

So as I sailed in that cruise ship up the Saigon River in the early morning fog, seeing the jungle that forty years ago my country turned to hell with napalm, I imagined what it might have been like for guys like Monk to prowl these waters in a navy patrol boat with two fifty-caliber rotating machine guns mounted on the bow, a grenade launcher on the stern, and two crewmembers poised on the deck, pointing M-50 automatic assault rifles toward the shore; and I wondered why those people in their little painted boats were waving at us. Don’t they hate us, I wondered? Don’t they hold a grudge against these selfish Americans who destroyed their land, their villages, their country, because we just couldn’t let the Commies take another pawn?

But here’s the irony: we sailed up the Saigon River waving at all those people in pointy straw hats, armed with oars, rowing little boats with eyes on the bows. But a month later, as our journey around the world ends and we sail into San Diego, our home port, the boats that greet us really are those patrol boats, and the men in military fatigues, standing on the deck brandishing automatic weapons, are U.S. Coast Guard. None of the soldiers in those boats are waving to us. For more than two hours, these armed patrol boats circle our ship and escort us all the way from the mouth of the harbor to the pier where our ship will dock. Maybe I’m just disoriented from being abroad for four months, touring countries where we knew we weren’t safe, where we knew we didn’t have rights. But right now my skin is prickling and I don’t get this. Why is the U.S. Coast Guard riding around our little ship full of college students and professors, pointing their guns at us like we’re the enemy? We’re Americans. This is our home. Shouldn’t they be welcoming us?

Then I think of Monk, the stoner who couldn’t care less, who just wanted to get high, because who wouldn’t with war in his future? What if he were here, standing at the rail on deck seven of our ship as we approached this city, this American city; this place we think we know; this place we think is all about freedom and justice; this place where we think we don’t have to worry about our government coming after us with guns because we stand for liberty? What would Monk be thinking if he were standing here, in his ratty blue jeans, his long hair flying in the wind, watching these guys in fatigues circle our ship in a patrol boat armed with automatic weapons? I think I know. I think he’d shake his shaggy head at the irony of it all and turn away. “Fuck it, man,” he’d say. “It’s all a game, and we’re the pawns.”

Linda KobertLinda Kobert teaches creative writing in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Her creative work has appeared in Postcard Poetry & ProseSmall Spiral NotebookAnnalemma, and Spirituality and Health, and she has had several essays broadcast on a local NPR affiliate. She also reads submissions for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction and serves as prose editor for Hospital Drive magazine.