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.
“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.
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.
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).