I have always found it fun, that when I met people that had grown up in New York City, we would always share our “alma mater list”.
For instance my brothers would be:
PS41, St Bernards, Cardinal Hayes High, and Fordham University.
PS41, IS70, Stuyvesant and Fordham University.
Everybody that grew up there had a list of their own. .
At each of those establishments, there were groups of friends and usually one “best” friend; someone you hung out with more than anyone else, spent time with after school, knew his or her parents….you get the idea.
Now I will be changing real names here for good reason, but sometimes it was the same best friend that you had through most of those schools..
This is a memory of one of mine.
Mark and I went to PS41 together, IS70 together, and finally we both attended Stuyvesant High School, at the time located on East 15th Street. Stuyvesant High School was and still is considered a Specialized School; there were five public high schools with this distinction, ones considered to be where you would get the best education and credentials for the future. One of the different aspects of Stuyvesant was there was an entrance exam to get in, something all the other schools in the city (except the other four), did not require. It was coined an “intelligence” test, the idea being they didn’t want you if you had attained a certain level of stupidity that they felt couldn’t be overcome even by their fine teachers. If you were really dumb, you might infect the other kids in your class!
I didn’t feel very special in High School though; I didn’t make any new friends I can think of, and just stuck with the crowd I came in with. The school was heavy on Science and Mathematics and of course I was in love with History and Literature. Enough said. I can’t say I liked my time there.
But at least I was there with Mark. As I mentioned we knew each other since Kindergarten; my parents knew his parents, we spent time together playing ball after school or helping each other study. He came from an old world Italian family that lived in an apartment on Christopher Street in the Village. When I say Old World I mean Old World; Mark’s father was a strict and unhappy looking man, who tolerated very little dissent. Tradition was everything, the Church and the absolute rules of Italian masculine behavior were paramount
Now a little history: Christopher Street was indeed in the traditional sense part of the old Greenwich Village settled my many immigrants, a lot of them Italian. But in the 1950’s and 60’s it was also ground zero for a blossoming Homosexual lifestyle. It was one of the first streets to have gay bars, and attracted people from all over the city (there weren’t all that many specifically gay bars at the time, at least not many that openly advertised it). But on Christopher Street they did. It was on that street that a bar called The Stonewall Inn was the site of what many believe was the birth of the Gay Pride/Rights movement. Back then the NYPD would regularly roust bars like the Stonewall; it was an easy way to pad a quota book, catching someone smoking weed or having what at the time was considered “deviant” sexual relations. There was very seldom if at all any pushback from the clientele who became used to the Police routine.
Until the night of June 28th, 1969.,
On that night the cops arrived to do their usual arrest charade, but this time someone decided they had had enough and resisted arrest. That was enough to prompt others to come to the aid of the harassed person, and soon besides the problems the cops suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves having inside the place, a huge crowd had gathered on the sidewalk outside the bar, also sympathizers. The four or five cops inside had called the Paddy Wagon as they always did on these raids but it was held up allowing the crowd of angry people to grow. It got so big that even when it arrived the cops inside were afraid to venture out into the street, suddenly hostages of their own making. When re-enforcements came and tried to load a few people into the wagon, they made the mistake of roughing up a regular, who promptly looked around to the way larger crowd and said something like “you gonna stand there and let them treat me this way?”
No, it turns out they weren’t.
A riot ensued, and for most of the night the cops were losing. A pent up anger had been unleashed, a demand for respect, and a determination that this kind of harassment was ending here and now.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the NYPD gained control of the street, but that is all they were in control of. A whole movement had been launched and whether they knew it or not, through their own misguided efforts, they had helped launch it. Things would never be the same.
Ok back to Mark; bear with me, it all comes together.
It was becoming clear to me that Mark was questioning his own sexual feelings, and found himself drawn to the alternative lifestyle he saw on his own street every day and night. We had other gay friends in school and there was never any kind of judgment as to who they were. They were who they wanted to be, or I at least hoped they were. But I knew with Mark it was going to be different, and more difficult. As his friend I wanted to support him in whatever he did with his life, but also as his friend I didn’t want him to get killed which is what I am sure would happen if his nutso Dad ever found out what was beginning to dawn on Mark. His Dad wouldn’t understand it, tolerate it, or believe it possible that any son of his could be anything but what he thought a man should be, which basically was a mirror image of himself.
I began to worry about Mark as he clearly had a lot on his mind, and I was guessing I knew what it was. One day as we rode the cross town bus to the West Side, I tried to break that particular ice.
“Mark, you doing ok lately? You seem kinda down”
“Is anything the matter? Anything I can help you with?”
“Listen if you ever want to talk—“
“I think I’m gay” he finally said.
A moment passed. I knew I should be careful with my next words.
“Yea, I know”.
He looked shocked.
“Huh? How..did I do anything…what do you mean you know….are you too?”
Ok that one I wasn’t expecting.
“Um…no… I don’t think so……but who knows?”
And thankfully this made him smile. Ok so far I had said the right things, important not to blow it now. A stupid thing to say next would have been something like “Gee, what are you going to do?” So instead I said something really profound like:
“Mark- it’s ok. A lot of people are gay”
But I knew that wasn’t his concern. I knew it because we were both thinking the same thing, but he said the words out loud:
“My father’s going to kill me.”
Now I have always been a coward who wasn’t a fan of violent confrontation so my gem of advice was:
So don’t tell him.”
He lit a cigarette (you could smoke on buses then, or at least we did anyway). I saw tears in his eyes; I reached out not knowing what else to say, so did another:
“It will be ok…you’re his son….he loves you…it’ll be ok.”
We were nearing the end of our ride, and now I was worried. As we departed the bus, I said:
“Mark, don’t do anything dumb ok- you need to talk, please call me.”
He nodded but didn’t say a thing. As he started to walk south on 8th Avenue, I called to him one more time:
“It’ll be ok”.
I found out later that in an act of pure bravery if not questionable judgment Mark called together his parents and announced his new found sexuality. For his honesty, he got slapped in the face so hard by his father it broke his eyeglasses and chipped a tooth. And then his father threw him out of the apartment.
He wasn’t at school the next couple of days, and to be honest I was scared to call the apartment; I didn’t want to talk to his parents. I did see him again, as I rode that same cross town bus. As we passed Union Square, he was standing with a group of other guys, all dressed in leather, and smoking cigarettes. He didn’t see me.
A few weeks later, there was a knock on the door of our apartment on 17th Street. When Mom opened it, there stood Mark’s parents, his father clearly agitated. They evidently had come to talk to me, to ask if I knew where their son was, as he never ever returned to their apartment after the night he was thrown out. Dad quickly made an appearance from the bedroom, as Mark’s father demanded to speak to me. Dad strode up to him, his right arm pulling Mom aside and behind him, protecting her as always.
“I am the only one in this house who questions my son. Not you, not now, not ever”.
Well as crazy as Mark’s father was, he immediately knew better than to challenge Dad, especially in his own home. Dad’s words resonated with the old Italian who quickly started to apologize for the deep disrespect he had shown in his tone and his demand. Mark’s mother remained silent by his side.
The father was sputtering apologies, but was clearly concerned:
“Please help us… my Markie…he no come back…we don’t know where he is…if he is ok.”
Dad continued to look the man straight in the eye and asked:
“Why isn’t he home? Why did he leave?”
Mark’s father bowed his head, answered in a whisper:
“I throw him out”.
Now this was beyond Dad’s comprehension, God Bless his beloved soul; he was confused, said:
“You threw your own son out of your home?”
The tone was enough. Mark’s father started babbling about “Mark hanging around with the wrong crowd on the street….you know… the limp wristed….the fairies…”
Dad held up his hand. He had heard enough. I am sure he was still grappling with a father tossing his own son onto the streets. He called to me:
“Rob come here”.
I got there as fast as I could, standing in front of Mom and Dad and Mark’s parents. His father started to talk again but this time, his wife shushed him into silence.
Dad looked at me.
“Rob do you know where your friend Mark is?”
I shook my head, answering honestly:
Dad turned to Mark’s father.
“If my son says he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know. My son doesn’t lie.”
Defeated in more ways than one, Mark’s parents turned and walked down the hallway to the elevator. Dad closed the door, said nothing and went to sit at the kitchen table; Mom started to make coffee. I started back to my room, but Dad called me over to him. I went and stood there, not quite sure what was coming.
“I want you to know that I will never turn you away from this family and this home, no matter what, never, for anything…do you understand?”
I nodded, feeling tears of pure gratitude at how lucky I was to have been born into the family I was, to have this wonderful man as my father.
“You ever have anything, anything you want to talk about, you come to us to talk. Don’t ever be afraid to come to us. We love you and always will”.
He shook his head, still unbelieving the sadness he had just witnessed. He looked at me again, this time he had tears in his eyes too.
“You know I love my boys”.
I heard a sob from the kitchen as Dad got up to hug me.
Someone told me Mark had moved to San Francisco but I wasn’t sure that was true or not until a year or so later when a letter arrived with a California postmark. He sounded good in his letter to me, happy with his new life, and that made me happy. He promised to keep in touch and let me know where he was as he was planning on doing some traveling.
That was the only letter I ever received. I tried writing but never heard back. A few years later the AIDS Epidemic ravaged the gay world, and many lives were lost. I knew I would not hear from him again. My fears were confirmed by mutual friends.
I think of him often, the older I get. I hope his life for however long it was, gave him the happiness he deserved.
I hope he found it in his heart to forgive his father. And against all logic I hope they got it wrong. I hope right now, he is lying on a sunny beach with the Pacific Ocean in front of him, and his true love by his side.
Hey, I can hope can’t I?