CHRISTOPHER STREET is like any other street in Greenwich Village now; in fact, it feels rather sedate. Walking west from Sheridan Square, for people who knew it in the seventies, is a bit like entering a theatre that’s gone dark, since in its heyday it was a gay runway like no other—a string of bars, shops, and restaurants that made the four blocks between 7th Avenue and the Hudson River feel like a hallway at the baths. With the Oscar Wilde Bookstore at one end and a dirty bookstore at the other, it seemed to stand for the entire spectrum of gay identity, so synonymous with gay culture that its name was taken not only by a literary magazine and an investment company, but also by Pride parades in cities and countries around the globe. By the mid-1980’s, however, Christopher Street had exhausted itself; young people from the outer boroughs were creating a scene at the west end, and AIDS was decimating the men who had started the gay businesses there. By the l990’s, the old post office had been converted to condos (in one of which Monica Lewinsky was supposedly living), the gay men who had blossomed in the 70’s had died, and a new generation was settling in Chelsea because it was cheaper.
That at least is one version of the brief history of the rise and fall of this iconic street. But in editor Thomas Keith’s anthology, we get the story from a more diverse set of viewpoints. With its more youthful contributors, women, and people of color, Keith’s collection is clearly an attempt to celebrate community. There are few clones here; in fact, many of the essayists have never even lived in the Village. Some of the memoirs are about visits to New York, portions of one are set in Portland, another is a remembrance of Staten Island, another views the street from the perspective of Harlem, still another from City Island, and Charles Rice-Gonzalez’ memoir is “A 1986 Bronx Story.” Felice Picano’s essay alone puts it all in context, taking us back to the Village’s origin as a bunch of farms, one of which belonged to a family that named the streets after their children (hence, Christopher Street), before fast-forwarding to an astonishingly long list of the gay bars and clubs that sprouted up in the 1970’s where colonial taverns had once been—some of them so kinky that, as he puts it, “I called it Beat Me Fuck Me Country. And I also called it home.”
Christopher Bram gives us a more recent history by simply describing the tenants of his apartment building on Perry Street over the last thirty years, and, in his introduction, some of the changes the rest of the Village has undergone. Take, for example, the genealogy of a lesbian bar called The Grove. The Grove amounted to salvation for the Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid when she came to New York from a country where there were no bars for women, much less anything like the Village. The Grove, which later became the Duchess, Bram tells us, is now a vitamin store.
The people who made Christopher Street a gay mecca in the 70’s were called clones because they supposedly all looked alike—men with moustaches in jeans and plaid shirts—and when people who didn’t look like them (such as young queens of color) began hanging out west of Hudson Street, some of them wondered if this was a cause or a symptom of the eclipse of the scene. But what makes at least three of the essays in this anthology interesting is that they’re by some of the youths who came down to Christopher Street to escape the homophobia of places like the Bronx. In G. Winston James’ “The Place I Parked My Car,” for instance, we learn just what it was like to drive in from New Jersey as a young Jamaican-American to find liberation at the Christopher Street pier in a sea of young people like himself.
The search for people like oneself may be the most common theme in these 27 essays. The writing may be all over the place, but what they all seem to share is the hope of finding friends—if not one friend in particular. “I’d moved to New York to make it as a writer,” Aaron Hamburger says in “My Gay New York: A Symphony in Four Acts,” “but I was also hoping to find a husband. I already knew the type I was looking for: handsome, kind, intelligent, interested in the arts, sensitive, a complex thinker. And a Keanu Reeves look-alike. The two of us would run away together from the city’s dirt and noise and settle down in a renovated farmhouse in Vermont, where we’d raise two dogs and sire children with a nearby lesbian couple.”
The goal that Hamburger and Mark Ameen (who begins his essay with the simple declarative sentence, “I was rendered speechless by the beautiful men”) had in mind is by no means the one that drives all these writers, however. Roughly speaking, Penny Arcade came to do drag, Amos Mac to change sex, Andrea Myers to be a rabbi, Michael Musto to be Michael Musto. Bob Smith’s perfectly honed memoir is about his career as a stand-up comic, David McConnell remembers the artist Joe Brainard, Mark Ameen his job as the receptionist in a straight whorehouse, Arcade the great drag queens of Manhattan, Nicky Paraiso the romance between a rice and a potato queen, Martin Hyatt his years on drugs, Shaun Levin his father. Picano recalls what Brad Gooch called “the golden age of promiscuity,” Jewelle Gomez her attempt to leave the closet, and Ocean Vuong his search for a place to sleep. (After bunking with the homeless in Penn Station he finally gets a room in Brooklyn in exchange for taking care of an old woman going in and out of dementia: what people do in New York for shelter.) Rev. Irene Monroe’s memoir views, from the vantage point of Harlem, the riot on Christopher Street whose anniversary we still celebrate.
Monroe’s essay, “Dis-membering Stonewall,” is about a young black man whose relatives fear that he has been hurt in the mêlée at the Stonewall Inn. Jewelle Gomez tells us why Christopher Street wasn’t welcoming to everyone when she got there: “The street was narrow, dense, seedy, noisy, crowded with men in tight jeans or short shorts—not a space that called out to most women, except, perhaps, those older ones who fulfilled themselves living through the beauty of young gay men. That was definitely not me.” (Then she discovered The Duchess.)
So what, one wonders as one sifts through these essays, is it about New York? Penny Arcade sees it before she has even set foot in Manhattan, when two people walk into a bar in Provincetown:
I walked over, to get a closer look at these New York queens, surprised that no one else was talking to them. Up close they looked like well-groomed horses in a Memorial Day parade. “Are you from New York?” I asked the blonde one. He glanced down at me, and murmured, “Uh huh.” Glancing back at the wave of crowd in front of him he said to the dark-haired queen, “This child is the only one who has the nerve to speak to us,” indicating me with his chin.
“Everyone thinks you’re dangerous,” I blurted out.
And he purred, “We are dangerous,” through a smile, but his eyes, ice blue and cold, didn’t smile. I checked out his makeup and it was flawless. Perfect false eyelashes marched across both eyes. His cheekbones looked like war monuments, lit at night from below.
As for Christopher Street itself, it wasn’t till I got to Charlie Vasquez’ line—“A bar door swinging open to reveal its contents—the stench of liquor and Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’”—that I was put right on the sidewalk. Presumably the idea here is that if a memoir is set in the greater metropolitan area, it’s about New York. But that’s not always the case. Some of the essays are really about aging parents, religious life, floating trees, writing, performing, opera, and other personal obsessions. Others are such personal monologues that the city itself is offstage. The sunnier entries are so upbeat as to read like a thank-you speech at some awards banquet—thank you for being in this anthology, or for having survived New York. It’s hard to tell.
Yet the book has both individual gems and a cumulative effect, chief among them the impression that for gay people (for anyone, probably) New York is a rite of passage. When Mark Ameen calls himself “the rankest amateur … adrift in a cannibal metropolis,” he’s describing the universal New York experience. Christopher Bram feels that the present-day Village has been ruined by the influx of expensive restaurants, Marc Jacobs boutiques, and rich folk like his neighbor, a fashion mogul who installed a swimming pool behind the house next door. The argument is that New York has lost its edge—and its affordability. Its sidewalk cafés, its umbrella tables in Herald Square, its cleaned-up parks, farmers’ markets, and riverfront spruce-up—Christopher Street itself is a prime example—has made Mayor Bloomberg’s Boston-like metropolis hard to criticize, since it has never been prettier, or apparently more popular. But the ragged, hair-raising experiences recounted in a lot of these essays are evidence that it is also a town whose difficulties leave one with a simple choice—sink or swim.
Of course, for some people, like publicist Michele Karlsberg, it’s the place they grew up. For those who just visited, like journalist Shawn Syms, it’s a sexual sandbox; for writer Shaun Levin, it’s a stopover. But for many it seems to have been a boot camp, a trial by fire, a place they had to go to get something they needed. Gay people move to many cities for freedom—but people use New York in a peculiar way, and get used by it—which may account for the after-effect of this book, whose subtitle could just as well be “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Once, someone at dinner suggested that all cities come with a slogan, and when I asked what New York’s was, a journalist whose name I forget answered promptly: “This is the greatest city in the world. Now how do I get out of here?”
One reads Love, Christopher Street to see how other people, like and unlike yourself, encountered and endured and learned from New York, and that’s why this extremely varied anthology is always interesting, even when tangential, and why it’s often moving. “There is a beauty here amidst the fierce, rough edges, where illness and poverty and struggle are in plain sight,” writes the transplanted Irishman Brendan Fay, “a wild embrace and cheering and celebration of the mad diversity and adventurous human imagination that is this rare and queerest piece of earth.” Amen! Even more succinct is Rabbi Andrea Myers’ closing: “I am who I am because of New York City. My heart is in New York, and New York is in my heart.” I suspect many people feel that way.
Andrew Holleran’s latest book is Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.