The Amazon Trail: The Territorial
It wasn’t possible in those days to be young and gay in NYC and not go to bars. One night I ended up at a place in Harlem called The Territorial. It greeted customers in the manner of prohibition speakeasies, with eyes peering through a window in a wooden door.
I was with Suzy, my first girlfriend and, by that time, my ex. Her lover Kenny was there too, a tough as nails old school butch who’d been Suzy’s original connection to the gay world. Kenny had given me a very hard time when I was still in high school because she wanted Suzy. Harvey, also white, was our escort, a nice gayboy who was known, with his slight, funny, darker-skinned boyfriend, at The Territorial.
When I think back to the 19 year old me boldly clubbing on 125th Street with this crew, Kenny and Harvey only slightly older than Suzy and me, it’s no wonder the night ended the way it did. Suzy and Kenny were high school dropouts who both had a long way to go before they got where they needed to be. Harvey didn’t live with his boyfriend, but with his mother in a small apartment in the Bronx.
This was a “bottle bar,” like The Stonewall Inn. You paid a cover and bought a setup, overpriced mixers, ice, glasses, to go with your own bottle. I used to cash $2.00 checks at a grocery store to get me through a week at college, so if I managed to bring had ten dollars with me, I probably spent it on dinner and the subway. Someone, probably Kenny, paid my cover and bought the vodka.
At the time, I knew no other gay people. I had a sort of girlfriend at college, but she knew no one either and was probably out with her boyfriend that night. What can I say; it was the sixties and everyone was experimenting. Except me. I only wanted to be queer, be with queers, in queer places.
My problem was, as isolated as I was at school, I didn’t belong with Harvey and Kenny at all. Suzy moved into their orbit after I left for school. I had a foot in both worlds, but there was no solid ground under me.
I’ve written about The Territorial before. It was a huge high-ceilinged space, probably a former warehouse, possibly owned by organized crime. The management kept the lights low and what light there was spiked the dark like flame. People sat on a balcony above us and across from us. It was typical of the hellish pits allotted to gays.
In those days, I experienced depressions so bad I could barely move. Light disappeared from my vision. I don’t know how I kept from killing myself. I’d been prescribed tranquilizers called Milltowns so I had the means and I frequently mixed them with alcohol. By this, my sophomore year, I’d added marijuana and hash and speed to the mix. I like to believe some kind of higher power kept me alive so I could perform good works for my people, for gay people, so I could put our world on paper with words.
That night it was vodka and Meprobamate. It was also fear — what was I doing so far uptown and with my nemesis, Kenny, and two strange men? I’d lost my ability to connect with Suzy, or perhaps Kenny intimidated her enough that she had to shut me out. I was lost, so lost, and no one was looking for me, no one even knew I was gone.
I drank the vodka straight, tipping it up and pouring it down my throat. I got blackout drunk. I tried to quench my fear and confusion, tried to douse the conflagration of my unmoored blazing soul with this flammable liquid. Suzy had invited me and I’d gotten out of control. Kenny told Suzy to let me, if I needed to, when I took another and another draught straight from the bottle. I’d hated the times my father came home drunk and my mother raged at him, but like him, I knew of no other solution. I didn’t even know what I was trying to solve.
Gay people are kind. In the end, we take care of one another the best we can. That night it was Kenny who nursed me when I was sick in the wreck of a bathroom. That night, it was Harvey who skipped whatever romantic plans he had with his boyfriend to, somehow, take me home, to get me past his mother, to give me a bed where I could sleep it off.
Goodness knows what would have happened if they’d let me loose in the post-midnight city, sent me off to Grand Central to catch a train back to school.
Goodness was what it took for them to keep me safe from a world that might not be kind to one more nearly wasted gay kid.
Lee Lynch’s most recent book is available for order October 1 at http://goo.gl/yg89zg .
Copyright 2014 Lee Lynch
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