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City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s – Edmund White

April 14, 2016

CB 2Having enjoyed several of his books, wanted to know more about the author, even though there’s lots of autobiographical material in his novels.

One reviewer criticises constant name-dropping. He must be unaware that if you belong to a subculture like his, you meet lots of people that ‘normal’ people would be unlikely to encounter.

New York, in seedier times, is brilliantly captured. You slept until noon, put up with seemingly interminable strikes, and wore a whistle around your neck in case you were attacked in the street. The YMCA was seen as ‘a fairy place’.

I can’t believe, about his book The Joy of Gay Sex that: no one tried to ban it except in a province of Canada where a lady had thought she was buying The Joy of Cooking and was so horrified by what she found under “chicken” that she convinced the local bookshops to withdraw it from their shelves,

There’s a vivid and somewhat disturbing encounter with William Burroughs.

The author admits to selective memory. He is ion his late sixties writing about his life in his twenties and thirties.

It’s a bit repetitive in places but, overall, I enjoyed reading it.


Our apartment was robbed once, despite all the gates on the windows and the police lock (a stout metal standard that fitted into a socket on the floor and braced the door against intruders). Everyone we knew had had his or her apartment burgled. We would just shrug and say gallantly, “Oh, well, private property is a crime anyway.” One evening at six o’clock my friend Stephen Orgel and I were robbed at gunpoint on Christopher Street while other people streamed around us. The thief had torn the inner pocket out of his overcoat and was able to point the pistol inconspicuously at us, the gun shielded from view by the bulk of his coat. Not that anyone would have helped us in any event, even if he or she had seen the weapon. The man told us to give him our wallets and to walk to the end of Weehawken Street without looking back; if we called out or looked back, he’d kill us. Once we were out of sight and around the corner, we saw a cop car and told the policeman what had happened; the cop just laughed and shrugged and asked with a weary chuckle, “Wanna file a complaint?” We didn’t….. We made sure we had at least twenty dollars with us every time we left home so that a robber wouldn’t shoot us in frustration, but were also careful not to carry more—nor to be too well-dressed. Whenever we went out in the evening, we always left the radio and a light on to discourage thieves. As we approached our apartment building we prepared our key in our pocketed hand so that we wouldn’t fumble at the door a second longer than necessary. We walked in straight lines down the sidewalk and only at the last moment did we veer off toward our door, not wanting to signal our intentions or our vulnerability to a watching mischief-maker. On the subway we didn’t look at other passengers.

From the time of the World’s Fair in 1964 to the beginning of gay liberation, the Stonewall uprising in 1969, the city was repeatedly being cleaned up. Subway toilets were always being locked shut. Bars were constantly raided. I remember one, the Blue Bunny, up in the Times Square area near the bar where they first danced the-twist. There was a tiny dance floor at the back. If a suspicious-looking plainclothesman came in (supposedly you could tell them by their big, clunky shoes), the doorman would turn on little white Christmas lights strung along the ceiling in back, and we’d break apart and stop dancing while the music roared on. I can remember a two-story bar over near the Hudson on a side street south of Christopher that was only open a week or two. When the cops rushed in, we all jumped out the second-story window onto a low, adjoining graveled roof and then down a flight of stairs and onto the street. I used to go to the Everard Baths at 28 West Twenty-eighth Street near Broadway. It was filthy and everyone said it was owned by the police. It didn’t have the proper exits or fire extinguishers, just a deep, foul-smelling pool in the basement that looked infected. When the building caught fire in 1977, several customers died. There was no sprinkler system. It was a summer weekend. …. In the 197os New York was so shoddy, so dangerous, so black and Puerto Rican, that the rest of white America pulled up its skirts and ran off in the opposite direction. Tourism was way down, and guests on talk shows would quite regularly laugh when New York was mentioned, as if that querulous, bankrupt cesspool should be pushed out to sea and sunk. ……. “The Big Apple” campaign and the slogan “I Love New York” (with the icon of a heart standing in for the word love) were invented to take the curse off the city. The opposite was true. No one loved New York except us, the gay and artsy misfits from the Midwest. Native New Yorkers hated their own city and were saving up to move to California. Corporate officers who were transferred to New York demanded hardship allowances and barricaded themselves in expensive suburbs such as Greenwich, Connecticut, and forbade their children to go into the city. Sometimes at the chemical company I met pink-collar workers from Staten Island who took the subway and the ferry back and forth to work. They were extruded from the subway directly into the building and had never dared to wander the Manhattan streets around them. Columbia students were advised never to walk south of 110th Street, and of course never above 125th into Harlem. Schoolchildren from the other boroughs were brought in virtually under guard in buses to the Metropolitan Museum, quickly herded through the vast collections, then driven straight back home to the Five Towns on Long Island. Darryl Pinckney, the great black novelist and critic, describes how when he walked down the street, in order to reassure a lone white woman just ahead of him that he wasn’t going to rape or rob her, he would brandish his copy of Heidegger, but to no avail. She still looked back, panicked, and almost ran….. New York was a mess by the late 1970s. The city had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. It was from time to time incapable of paying teachers their salaries. Graffiti covered every square inch of the interiors of subway cars, which were awash with garbage. Passengers were subjected to the intolerably loud music coming out of boom boxes. Crime had risen faster in the sixties (and was continuing to rise in the seventies) than in any other American city since the 1930s. In 1975 Mayor Beame had furloughed thousands of city workers, including cops and garbagemen. When Beame asked President Ford for federal assistance to meet the payroll, Ford told New York to drop dead. New York had been called Fun City. Now it had become Fear City and Stink City. Garbage left on the streets would go weeks without being collected

In common with many others at the time: “There was no “gay pride” back then—there was only gay fear and gay ‘isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred….. When I was fourteen, a plainclothes cop had entrapped me at the urinal of a movie theater and threatened to arrest me. At last he’d let me go, but I had grasped the lesson—gay desire was illegal. The most fundamental thing about me—my desire to sleep with other males—was loathsome to society, even to other gay men, as much as pedophilia would be today. Many of the gay men I picked up made it clear that what we were doing was dangerous. If I could have stopped my “acting out,” as my various psychiatrists called it, I would have……. My shrink, Frances Alexander, convinced me that I’d never get “better”—go straight—unless I moved away from Stan. I took the plunge and got an apartment of my own on West Thirteenth Street just off Eighth Avenue. As I left, Stan looked stunned and sat around listening to a 45 called “Seven Rooms of Gloom.” I loved him so much but back then no one could defend a homosexual relationship; it was by definition “sick,” spiritually impoverishing, infantile, doomed to repeat itself in a horrid circle of compulsiveness…..I resented my shrink for pushing me in this direction. Yes, I agreed that homosexuality was second best. But what if I never found a woman as kind and funny and loving as Stan?”

“Much of my spare time was devoted to sex—finding it and then doing it. In those days before online hookups and backroom bars and outdoor sex, when there weren’t even very many gay bars, we had to seek out most of our men on the hoof. Back then people glanced back over their shoulders, though few do it now (or do I say that only because now I’m old and uncruisable?). …… Typically we’d walk up and down Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street—not with friends, which might be amusing but was entirely counterproductive. No, only the lone hawk got the tasty rabbit.

If you looked back and he looked back as well, you’d pretend to scan the contents of a shop window. He’d do the same thing twenty yards down. You’d keep exchanging reciprocated glances at an ever-increasing rate. Then you might just smile simply and stroll toward him and he’d pull away from his window and the two of you would form your little conversational duo. If you were still afraid of being rejected or arrested or beat up, you might ask him the time or for a light. It was considered especially cheeky to ask for a light while you were already smoking. Usually you’d just say, “Do you live around here?” If he was willing, you’d invite him back to your apartment, which in your mind you’d refer to as your trick pad, since he was the trick you’d just scored. Sometimes you’d trick more than once in an evening (“Oh, God, last night I was a real nympho, I tricked three times in a row, my cooze was oozing, must have been the full moon”). The way you could tell the difference between your friends and your lovers is that you never camped with a trick. When discussing him the next day, you might refer to him as “she,” but never to his face (“I thought she was so butch, but within seconds !she had her legs in the aid”). As one of my friends said, “If God I had wanted men to be fucked, he would’ve put a hole in their ass.”

We tried to trick every night, if we could do it efficiently, but we reserved the weekends for our serious hunting sorties. ……. if you were a real “senior girl,” with a stainless-steel insertable nozzle attached to the shower. You’d buy eggs and bacon and jam and bread for toast, if you wanted to prove the next morning that you were “marriage material.” You’d place an ashtray, cigarettes, and a lighter on the bedside table. You’d lower the lights and stack the record player with suitable mood music …… Once you’d landed a man, there was no way to know what he liked to do in bed. No frank discussions about who was a top and who was a bottom. Not yet any color-coded hankies in back jeans pockets or keys on the left or right. You usually walked home with the minimum of small talk, sometimes in total silence. … You could tell his intentions pretty quickly by whether he felt for your ass or I your cock—but even that wasn’t done instantly. A slight pretense of romance was still required, some closed-eyed necking and French-kissing before his hand would drift down into the exciting zone. With any luck he’d claw your clothes off and shed his own in one quick shrug (“My dear, you could hear the Velcro ripping!”). If he folded his trousers neatly and looked around for a hanger, you knew he’d be a bore (“She turned out to be an accountant, of course. I could see that by the way she fussed over that pleated skirt of hers. Betty Bookkeeper . . .”).”

Of his father’s respectability: “An older girl might look good to you now, Ed, but women don’t age well. If you don’t watch it, you’ll be stuck with an old bag. Better to marry someone seven years younger.” I was offended at his butcher’s way of sizing up a side of beef. But I was amazed that after worrying himself sick over the shameful reality of my homosexuality, he didn’t rejoice in any approximation of heterosexuality I might come up with. The bourgeoisie! I thought indignantly. They don’t really care about the happiness of their children, only about respectability in the eyes of others…. gay men were not competitive in the way straights were; it was no accident that gays played individual not group sports. Nor were gay men awed and half in love with their fathers. Most gays I knew had rejected their fathers and despised them.

Smoking was ubiquitous: when you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another….We all smoked all the time (I was up to three packs a day). We didn’t have big showboat muscles or lots of attitude. Our shoulders were as narrow as our hips. We didn’t look hale, but we were healthy—this was twelve years before AIDS was first heard of and all we got was the clap. (Someone) was “allergic” to cigarettes. In fact, he probably just didn’t like the smell of smoke, but in those days the smoker had such unquestioned rights that people who objected had to invent a medical excuse. Howard had stopped smoking two years earlier but still sucked a plastic cigarette all the time, a sort of pacifier. I, who smoked three packs a day, would become so desperate that I’d have to lean out his window—and pull the guillotine-style sash down to my knees, so that no smoke would leak back into his rooms. Even on freezing nights at midnight I’d be hanging out his window; now  smokers would have to go down to the street.

Dress codes crept in: The unisex look of the sixties, though it didn’t represent a serious change in attitudes, nevertheless made it easier to sneak in a dangling bracelet on a man’s wrist or a big turquoise brooch on a striped red velvet vest (it wasn’t an era known for its good taste). During the fifties it had been illegal in many communities for a woman to wear more than two items ) of male clothing—jeans, sweatshirt, and a cowboy belt could get a woman arrested; now they could wear T-shirts or boots if they wanted.

On Stonewall: Then there was the raid, the whimper heard round the world, the fall of our gay Bastille. On June 28, 1969, the bar was raided, and for the first time gays resisted. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms staged the raid, since they’d discovered the liquor bottles in the bar were bootlegged and that the local police precinct was in cahoots with the Mafia owners. As the patrons and workers were being led out of the bar and pushed into a paddy wagon, the angry crowd that had gathered outside began to boo. Then some of the queens inside the van began to fight back—and a few escaped. The crowd was energized by the violence.

Everyone was so pissed off over that particular police raid because once the World’s Fair was over, the cops seemed to forget about us and lots of new bars had opened. There were raids, but only once a month and usually early in the evening, so as not to spoil the later, serious hours of cruising and dancing and flirting and drinking. … GLBT leaders like to criticize young gays for not taking the movement seriously, but don’t listen to them. Just remember that at Stonewall we were defending our right to have fun, to meet each other, and to have sex.

A Black Maria had carted off half the staff and a few kicking, writhing drag queens, while the rest of the policemen waited inside with the others. I’d been walking past with a friend and now joined in, though resistance to authority made me nervous. I thought we shouldn’t create a fuss. This was bad for our image. I said out loud, “Oh, come on, guys.”

Yet even I got excited when the crowd started battering down the barricaded door with a ripped-up parking meter and when someone tossed lit garbage into the bar. No matter that we were defending a Mafia club. The Stonewall was a symbol, just as the leveling of the Bastille had been. No matter that only six prisoners had been in the Bastille and one of those was Sade, who clearly deserved being locked up. No one chooses the right symbolic occasion; one takes what’s available.

Two weeks later I wrote a letter about the event to Alfred and Ann Corn, a young married couple I’d only recently met and who were away for the summer on the West Coast. I obviously had no idea how serious the uprising was or would prove to be, how it would usher in a whole new era of gay consciousness. It would turn out to be as epoch-making as the 1934 Nazi raid on and destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, which ended the first gay liberation movement in history. In the late 1980s I concluded a novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, with a lengthy description of the event….. For the first time I realized how much New York gay life had gradually been changing all along. Now it seemed as if ten times more gays than ever before were on the streets. With ten times as many gay bars. After the furtiveness of feeling up married men in the Roman cinemas, here were go-go boys dancing under spotlights and hordes of attractive young men crowding into small backrooms and abandoning themselves to each other’s mouths and arms and penises. Although people still talked about quick sex as “disgusting” and “filthy,” I thought of it as romantic. The idea that I could spot a pair of broad shoulders above narrow hips and mounted below a perfect column of a strong neck crowned by black hair and follow this prodigy into a dark room and within seconds be feeling his muscular, hot arms around me and his tongue in my mouth—that I could taste him and instantaneously know him—struck me as a miraculous but strangely easy transition. The intimacy that one would before have had to work for during months of courtship was now available for a whistle and a wink and a ten-step walk into the shadows.

Relevant to the current debate: Back then we had no notion of “gay marriage,” partly because so many of us were equally opposed to marriage for straight people….. Back then, in the 1970s, these questions of fidelity and couplehood didn’t come up and we wouldn’t exactly have known how to respond to them. Introducing the issue now slightly falsifies the quiet, natural way in which we assumed everyone would have multiple sex partners, that jealousy was definitely not cool, and that new people could be regular fuck buddies or part-time lovers, that the molecule could always annex a new atom. Of course everyone tacitly feared that a new dalliance might take a lover away forever, but this seldom happened. It was as if the three elements (love, sex, friendship) that straight people centered on one other person we gays distributed over several people and this distribution was a more solid form than companionate marriage…. gay men of my generation had earlier always assumed that sex would come to a screeching halt at age thirty, but now that we’d long before reached that landmark age, it seemed just to go on and on, as did one’s youth. People of my parents’ generation had been married at twenty-two, had had children two years later, and were worn-out and paunchy by forty, but we kept working out and staying up late and falling in and out of love, “immature” but weirdly youthful.

We wondered where we were all heading. We assumed that gay life had branched off from normal family experience, sort of like Homo sapiens evolving in a separate direction from Homo erectus. We thought that gays had a separate destiny, that we were meant to point the way to more elegant and comprehensive models of adhesiveness. We were hostile to the idea of assimilation since we knew that would mean resembling straights, whereas we felt we had something better to offer.

Other minorities were scapegoated or at least looked down on: we always assumed that a bisexual (especially, for some reason, a bisexual man) was really a homosexual in the cloiet. We would wait with amused smiles till he eventually declared his true colors, which we naturally assumed would be pink and mauve. But as I learned a decade later in Paris, the world is full of genuine bisexuals, though most of them keep a low profile, not because they’re ashamed but because everyone distrusts and fears them. ‘Tribes have only two ways of treating interstitial members; they either make them into gods or banish them.

I think he is wrong when he says: Before they were “liberated” and given an “identity,” they were everywhere and nowhere. As long as the word homosexual was never pronounced, many boys and men slipped across the border of convention and had homosexual flings and then hurried guiltily back into heterosexuality under cover of obscurity and anonymity. The past saw many more casual experiments in same-sex love than later, when the category was finally clearly labeled and surrounded with the barbed wire of notoriety. It became easier in certain milieus to come out, but at the same time the stakes were higher (especially after the advent of AIDS in the early 198os). In places like contemporary Greece fewer and fewer men and boys were willing to have sex with another male. (I don’t think younger people label themselves at all and are not afraid of something different.)

Of other gay writers: I never took to Forster’s combination of closetedness, snobbishness, and blending of fable and Edwardian morality…. Poirier was cordial enough but soon began to tongue-lash me for the duration of the meal, furious because I’d said I thought there was such a thing as gay fiction, even gay poetry—worse, a gay sensibility!—and that at the very least works by gay people could be read in a special light, to illuminate them. Richard was enraged that I would even propose to isolate gay writers from the literary mainstream. He had a rough, gravelly voice, a strong, virile face, and one eye that wandered, and he relentlessly pursued his thought without ever smiling. I felt as unprovided with arguments as I had when I’d told Maitland Edey about feminism.

Frankly, I couldn’t see what the big deal was with the idea of “gay literature.” I said, “Well, there’s no reason the same text can’t be read from several different perspectives. It’s just that for us gay writers now, it’s fun to—”

“Gay writers!” Richard thundered. “I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. It’s obscene!”… “But things do change,” I said confusedly. “There are always new movements in fiction, aren’t there? The word novelty is contained in the word novel. Why not have a gay school of fiction? Is there any harm in that? At least it’s exciting and new.”

“Exciting! But it’s a betrayal of every humane idea of literature. Have you never heard of universalism?”

Now, all these years later, when “gay literature” has come and gone as a commercial fad and a serious movement, I can see his point. It’s true that as a movement it did isolate us—to our advantage initially, though ultimately to our disadvantage. At first it drew the attention of critics and editors to our writing, but in the end (after our books didn’t sell) it served to quarantine us into a small, confined space. Before the category of “gay writing” was invented, books with gay content (Vidal’s City and the Pillar, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Isherwood’s A Single Man) were widely reviewed and often became bestsellers. After a label was applied to them they were dismissed as being of special interest only to gay people. They could only preach to the converted. The truth, however, was that gay literature was every bit as interesting and varied as straight literature….. There was a moment, before the market became saturated, when an ordinary straight first literary novel could be expected to sell five thousand copies—and a gay literary title would sell seven thousand. For a long while gay readers had a greater hunger for books than did the ten-times-larger straight public for heterosexual literature.

On incompatibility: he didn’t smoke, took long hikes ‘n the desert to photograph bison, and got up every morning at six to go jogging around the Reservoir. With any luck I was just rolling into bed at that hour, putting out my seventy-second cigarette of the day. I felt sooty and superficial next to Doug—and soon he found a serious lover he’s still with after these many years.

On the gulf between diary-keepers  and others: . Like most intellectuals, these men and the occasional woman didn’t want to make engagements far in advance—not in the usual busy-busy New York fashion. They never knew when inspiration might strike, and besides, socializing wasn’t part of their idea of themselves. They weren’t the sort of frivolous (or conventional) creatures who knew what they would be doing a week from Thursday. But since they were apt to get lonely like anyone else, especially after dark on a cold February night, they could always drift over to Dick’s house, where it was okay just to ring the bell. Whereas most New Yorkers were barricaded in their apartments and could be seen only by carefully arranged appointment like ministers of state, and then only after two cancellations and three postponements and a change of meeting place, Dick was always available.

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From → Biography, Sexuality

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