Dad died when I was six. The rabbi who lived in the apartment below took over for him. I’m sure he wanted to do Mom. They packed us off to an evil Hasidic summer camp where everyone made fun of us because we didn’t know their crazy prayers. My brother was four. We would secretly meet in the woods, hug each other and cry. We couldn’t understand why our father died and our mother sent us to this terrible place. I learned to hate all religion and still do.
Mom was a dark-haired, curvaceous looker, juicy, and in her prime. She liked sex but decided that all men had to pay for it. The butcher brought steaks; the florist, flowers; the bagel man left fresh hot steaming bagels by our door every morning for months. Leon, the ice cream man left ice cream. My younger brother and I were quickly dispatched to get the stuff into the house, so they couldn’t see Mom. And not to forget Abe, the jeweler, who brought, well, jewels. They all tried to get inside. Some did. When Mom met the man who brought it all, she married him.
We lived in Borough Park, in Brooklyn. Until I ran away, I thought everyone in the world was either Jewish or Italian. I was intimidated by all the dark, Brooklyn-rough Italian boys in my class.
Busing started, a few black kids filtered into school, and I made a new friend, Eric, who took me home to meet his mom in Bedford Stuyvesant, thought to be a dangerous black ghetto. I went to their 1965 New Years Eve party, where they played Chubby Checker and I learned how to dance the twist. I was the only white person there. Eric’s mom made tons of yummy fried chicken; I passed out drunk on their living room floor and in the morning ate lots more chicken.
Steven was in my history class. Handsome and fair-skinned, he was a Neapolitan boy with curly blond hair. He was kind of sweet and wasn’t aggressive. I sensed something different about him, so I asked him if he would like to come over to do homework together. After we hit the books, I took out my piece and showed off: “Did you ever see anything as big and hard as this?”
Yes, he had—his junk was twice the size of mine. After he held my head down and forced me to swallow his spunk, he said: “You’re a faggot, and if you don’t blow all my friends, I’m gonna tell everybody at school.”
Every Friday afternoon, after class, Steven brought over dark, tough-guy Brooklyn-Italian, thirteen-year-old boys, to fellate. They came sometimes two or three times. Steven sometimes came over alone. He sexually teased and tormented me. I was under his thumb, scared, ashamed, and aroused.
In 1964, I turned thirteen. I was a wild child, filled with a bursting curiosity about the world out there I wanted to explore. Craving adventure like the feral, ferocious horn dog I would soon become, I was on fire for something more in my life.
In my Catskill Mountains summer camp, just before my thirteenth birthday, Robert, who was twelve, looked over all the boys; then he hit on me. We spent most of the summer hiding in a secret treehouse, having sex above the forest. He was my first lover. When he put me into his mouth, stars exploded and my senses reeled. He asked me to reciprocate. But his flesh was salty, I didn’t like it and spit his piece out. The third time, I tried again. His mouth unleashed the hungry monster caged up, deep inside me.
Mark, the coolest and most handsome guy in summer camp, told me where to buy a nickel bag of pot from a waitress called Bridget in Greenwich Village. After summer ended, I came into the city for the first time by myself and found “the Village” after a long search. I was alone in the city. The feeling was electrifying. I walked along McDougal Street looking for the underground club Mark wrote down. I descended a steep staircase, leading into a cellar, and entered a strange world.
A man in a beret with a Van Dyke beard was sitting on a small stage pounding bongo drums, reciting poetry. These were beatniks! hep cats! The crowd sat at small round tables sipping tiny cups of espresso surrounded by brick walls. I’d only seen these places on TV. I was in the last beatnik coffeehouse in the Village. I was lucky to be in this last vestigial remnant of the Beatnik culture that was fast being swept away. I loved being there.
I ordered an espresso. It was black and bitter—not to my taste—but I liked the pot. And Bridget’s tits! Wow, I remember thinking, Bridget has crazy, gigantic, epic tits. Though newly into guy-sex, I still thought about big tits. A balding bearded man read his poems. I liked them a lot. He came over, and sat down. His name was Alan. He was smart and handsome, in his late thirties, and lived on the Lower East Side. Alan invited me home. I thought we would smoke my pot and listen to music. After we were high, he dosed me with LSD and screwed me in the butt. I didn’t know what was happening.
When I was thirteen, all the daddy types wanted to bugger me. I was a runaway living here and there, hooking up with daddies who wanted sex with a sweet-looking, hot, street boy. They brought me home, gave me hippie drugs and great clothes, and took care of me.
One guy took me to the Stonewall Inn. He bought me a tan Carnaby Street suit with giant Edwardian lapels and a ten-inch hash pipe. I could neatly break down the pipe into three pieces and tuck it inside my suit. “Daddy” bribed the Stonewall’s Mafia doorman to get me in. I remember leaning against a brick wall, smoking hashish, and feeling totally hip and very adult. I had never seen a drag queen before. The sight of my first, garishly done in frightening makeup with giant fake tits freaked me out and made me feel that turning into a drag queen was the logical result of gay activities, and that if I kept on being gay, I would become a drag queen.
I went back home to Brooklyn. I ditched school, but it was no big deal. I was in the special placement English class and I loved the books we read. Beowulf in Old English was my favorite. It was unearthly and melodic. I liked Henrik Ibsen’s plays, which were so dramatic; and Upton Sinclair made me socially conscious. But learning from the streets of Manhattan was by far the best classroom in the world.
Phil Tarley is the only fellow of the American Film Institute ever inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame for producing and directing art porn, as Phil St. John. Tarley also made AIDS activist and queer ethnographic videos, many of which are housed in the archives of the New York Public Library. His queer, political, adventure book, Crazy For Cuba: Notes from an Underground Traveler, is currently seeking publication. He can be reached on Facebook..