Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hold Your Head Up

It was a run-down Victorian firehouse in an equally decrepit neighborhood.

Both would have been razed years earlier when the late and hardly lamented Robert Moses proposed running a multi-lane highway across lower Manhattan connecting the Holland Tunnel and various crossings over the East River to Brooklyn. God knows, no one wanted to live in Manhattan then, least of all in this godforsaken cast-iron wilderness.

Strangely, people actually did care that Mr. Moses was planning to ring this neighborhood's death knell as loudly as the one he rang for the Bronx and many said so, loud and clear. Somehow his plans were halted and the area between Houston Street and Canal Street languished; a moldering, vacant ruin.

Outcast artists, seeking space and cheap rents had been colonizing this area for the past decade. With no amenities to speak of, few other people wanted to live there.

During the days, the streets rumbled with the sounds of heavy trucks careening on cobblestones. At night, it was quiet as a church yard.

With the exception of a small corner where Wooster and Spring Streets intersected.

There, the Gay Activists Alliance had set up a community center, to be forever known as The Firehouse. Seemingly, no one cared that a few hundred hippie queers had elected to gather in this no man's land.

I first saw their listing on the back page of the Village Voice. Just two or three lines. Something to the effect of: Gay Dance! Every Saturday Night! Admission: $2.00! 99 Wooster Street!

Now, I was no newcomer to Gay Life. I'd been to a gay bar. Once. And I'd been haunting the bookstores and peepshows along 42nd Street since I was 16. My best friend's older brother introduced me to some of the finer aspects of male bonding when I was 12. A gentleman I met in the loge of the Oceana movie theatre during a showing of the film "Charly" was kind enough to help refine and enlarge upon that knowledge in 1968. I'd been to the Everard Baths, and had even stood on that little island created by the uptown IRT subway entrance in Sheridan Square until a man came by and took me home to spend the night. As I said, no novice I!

But dancing....somehow, that terrified me.

But not enough to keep me from trying to check it out. Hell, there were men there.

Of course, on my first attempt I realized that, while I thought I knew a good deal of Greenwich Village, I had no idea where Wooster Street was. I wandered up Sullivan Street and down Thompson, walking around Washington Square and finally asking a policeman. I was convinced he knew that only fags wanted to go to Wooster Street. In fact, the directions he gave me were so convoluted I gave up.

A month or so later, I was hanging out at a classmate's apartment. Tom had two room mates, Peter and Bruce, all living together in a large apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I was always cozy there. My grandparents had lived around the corner for many years before moving to Florida. We'd all finish our art classes, head back to their place, smoke and listen to the music of the day: Lou Reed, David Bowie and Bette Midler. She'd just released her first album, and we all joined in, high as kites, singing along to Leader of the Pack. It was a fun, giddy evening.

When I got home Tom called me, telling me that Peter demanded to know if I was gay. I gulped and told him to tell Peter I was. I'd never said those words before to anyone. Tom repeated my answer and I heard Bruce and Peter whooping in the background. Peter grabbed the phone and said:

"So, honey, you wanna go to the Firehouse on Saturday? "

Finally arriving, the Firehouse proved to be just that. A long, fairly narrow rather high-ceilinged room, paved in cobblestones, with a spiral staircase leading up to a second level, and a DJ stand where the pole would have been. A photo-mural covered one entire wall, depicting the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, held two years earlier.

If you successfully navigated the wobbly sprial stairs you'd arrive at a large lounge, where, if you were careful and minded the gaping holes in the floor you could watch the Joan Crawford movie that always seemed to be on the Late Show every Saturday night in those days, and talk with friends as the music wafted up through the floor.

If you crawled down the sticky stairs to the cavernous basement, you could buy a beer, or drink free flat warm soda. The various vapors accumulating in that fragrant old building condensed on the ceiling down here, dripping down, much to the dismay of the inhabitants, like rain. Most would flee out into the street to sit and smoke on the rusting corrugated loading docks. Now and then, a cry of pure pleasure would echo off the steep walls of the narrow street; a pent up spirit, newly released.

Peter and I spent little time in either place, confining ourselves mostly to the dance floor. We took dancing very seriously then. It was confrontational; two men dancing proudly together. We'd see the older men on the side lines nodding and smiling towards us, as if signaling their approval. We made a game of finding their faces in the mural above them. We'd stumble and shake across the cobblestones in our high-heeled platform stacked shoes, purchased at Flagg Bros. or Arrowsmith, all the while dancing to:

  • Girl You Need A Change of Mind, by Eddie Kendricks

  • Armed & Extremely Dangerous, by First Choice

  • I Like What I Like, by Everyday People

  • Suffragette City, by David Bowie

  • Rain, by Dorothy Morrison

  • Law of the Land, by The Temptations

  • Hold Your Head Up, by Argent
and many so other songs I can still hear to this day, all the while pumping our fists in the air, shaking the sweat out of our long hair and dancing our way towards liberation.

16 Comments:

Blogger David said...

I'm not that much younger than you, but reading that was like reading about someone who grew up on a different continent.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Another fantasic rememberance, Mark. Thank you.

11:31 AM  
Blogger lump said...

You should write a book.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Mike P. said...

I have more than likely passed by 99 Wooster numerous times over the years. I would have never known. That was brilliant. Thanks Mark. ;)

2:36 PM  
Blogger palochi said...

Dancing to "Hold Your Head Up" by Argent?

Surreal.

Oh the times they have changed, indeed.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

And Marvin Gaye "Mercy Mercy Me.."

3:14 PM  
Blogger MEK the Bear said...

Nice, that story gave me chills, a couple of times. I may have had a different experience but I can relate to being terrified of dancing with another guy.

My place was Menjo's, Madonna's old dive in Detroit, on my 21st birthday, and I'll never forget it!

4:45 PM  
Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

I love retro posts like this... Good that you have it published on the web... Sometimes I get all sentimental about old places and starta Google search...

Keep memoiring!

Cheers,

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's
Kitchen

And I Quote Blog

5:15 PM  
Blogger SteveSchalchlin said...

Great story. I grew up in the woods of east Texas. There was NOTHING gay anywhere within a hundred miles -- and if there was, I didn't know about it. Looks like I'm going to have to tell the story of hitchhiking to Nashville. Anyway, love your writing. JMG sent me.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Rey said...

I don't know any of the songs you listed, but I'm sure I've heard most of them.

Having a hard time figuring out what year that was, but I'd say mid seventies?

I came to NYC in 82, some eight years later, so it’s hard for me to place when this was?

I never liked dancing as a young person; I sort of picked it up as a habit in the last couple of years (middle age crisis?). But I used to go to this gay Colombian bar in Queens called the "Love Boat" where they danced salsa, and boy, that was really, really strange. Disco dancing was no big deal because it was kind of separate.

Cool stuff.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

You are amazing.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo,
Sent by JMG... the 'Penrose Club' in Philly and the 'LARK' in Norristown dancing to 'Hey Jude' by the Beetles... heaven, pure heaven...Geoman

10:44 AM  
Blogger circleinasquare said...

What Aaron said.

3:01 PM  
Blogger seymour said...

Thanks Mark,
you are an inspiration. thanks for being you.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Nate The Great said...

I love these stories, it's almost as though I've been there now.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Richard Prendergast said...

Great story and memories. My platforms were corkies (Kings Plaza Thom Mc Cann) with bright socks. When I tell the "kids" about The Firehouse and the times they glaze and think I'm story telling instead of relaying information. PS - dancing a conga line to "Love Train" on those cobblestone - oi!!

3:57 PM  

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