Stone Age Gay History

It’s always bittersweet to gaze down the deep well of the past and spy ancient moments still fresh and vivid after many decades. That happened just now as I started reading a book by Jim Downs called “STAND BY ME, The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” Basic Books, 2016.

So far I’ve read only up to page 7 of the Introduction. In those first pages I was touched that a guy probably born around 1980 found it important in 2005 to research gay history from the 70’s—and amused how the author considered that decade “ancient” gay history.  Taking that view, I guess I came out in the Stone Age (1961).

In the next couple pages Downs immediately placed the libertine gay lifestyle of the 70’s in the context of the ensuing plague of the 80’s. My memories of the 70’s aren’t distorted by knowing what was to come.  I saw a future promising ever more joyful liberation.

My experience of that decade was hardly as wild—or sordid—as what the author read about, largely in New York. In DC where I lived, things were more civilized:  We lived exactly the kind of gay culture and community that Downs will probably describe in pages to come.  He wrote, “I wanted to show how the 1970s was more than a night in a bathhouse.” So I look forward to reading his view of the history I lived.

He included New Orleans in his research, which pleased me much, and after another paragraph hit me over the head with “the fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people on June 24, 1973.” I then noted that the Up Stairs Lounge is to be the subject of Chapter I:  The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History.  Tragically, scarcely a year after his book came out, that was no longer true.  There was that horrific slaughter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

I haven’t yet read beyond that mention of the Up Stairs Lounge because I’ve found myself once again staring down that well. Living in New Orleans in 1972, I hung out in the Up Stairs Lounge, but a year before the atrocity, I moved to DC…  I’m almost afraid to read Chapter I.

Already on page two, Downs had remarked that “…gay people across the country had a responsibility to document the past and to tell our own history.” For more than 30 years I’ve taken that responsibility quite seriously in two novels.  First drafted in 1985, one was rewritten a number of times and eventually became “Bat in a Whirlwind.”  About an unconsciously gay teenager in the backwoods in the 50’s, you might say it was set in the Jurassic era of gay history.

My second novel, “Divine Debauch,” is about the gay Stone Age, that decade before Stonewall, in the fairyland of the French Quarter. There was definitely some gay history going on even then.  I’m a veteran victim of the infamous raid on the Quorum Club in June, 1964.  Just like the episode in my recent post “Got Laid,” I marginally fictionalized that raid in the novel.

Briefly, my Quorum experience happened like this: A female friend Linda and I shared a horoscope, and that day in the newspaper we were stringently warned to stay at home.  We usually went out dancing in La Casa de los Marinos but decided to do as we were told and sat around my apartment listening to records and reading.

Getting rather bored later that evening, Linda convinced me to walk her over to the Quorum Club on Esplanade to look for our friend Gia. The club was a small, low-key coffee-house which scandalously also served black folks.  As a matter of fact, that evening a black musician named Babe Stovall was playing on his guitar.

Because of defying our horoscope, Linda and I walked in a bit apprehensively and looked around for Gia. She wasn’t there, but a (black) friend of mine mentioned that she might be upstairs at George’s party.  So we trudged up the stairs and mingled our way through those also racially mixed festivities without finding our friend.

We were standing out on the rear balcony when folks in the front room started yelling, “Police!” I made to escape by climbing down into the neighbor’s patio, but Linda was too scared.  So I gallantly stayed with her, and we nervously awaited our fate.

The cops herded us all out of the apartment (past poor George lying on the carpet with blood all over his face) and downstairs to the Club, where they separated the men and women and loaded about 75 of us into various paddy-wagons. At the jail they put the sexes and races into separate cells, whites on one side of the aisle and blacks on the other.

In my white guys’ cell I got into a bridge game with some others, including a drug dealer who was awaiting transfer to Leavenworth. Meanwhile, the girls started singing “We Shall Overcome!” and the black guys all stripped butt-naked and started swinging on the bars.

The cops kept yelling at us to shut up, to no avail, and then with a fire hose they washed us up against the bars. That ruined our bridge game and swept away most of the black guys’ clothes.  The pile of glistening black bodies was better than a wet dream.

Finally they let us each make our one phone call. I called my apartment and asked my lover Eric to get my stash of money and come bail us out.  When he got there, he said, “I can’t believe you hide your money in your bedpost!”

The next day the story was on the front page of the newspaper. It began:  “Last night the New Orleans Police raided a noted center of communist, homosexual, integrationist activity…” and reported that we were ridiculously charged with “being loud and boisterous.”  Ironically, at the time I was a student (and teacher) of Russian at Tulane, and so the cops figured me for the translator for the local communist cell.

For the next couple weeks till our hearing I lived under police surveillance as a suspected commie. They apparently didn’t care that I was a flaming faggot.  Cop cars tailed me down the streets of the Quarter, but I’d walk on the wrong-way streets to evade them.  And they didn’t dare follow me into my sailor dives on the “Wild Side” of Decatur Street.

Just before our hearing, miraculously, the Civil Rights Act passed, and the DA Jim Garrison (remember him?), quickly got the charges against us dropped. Apropos of Jim Garrison, in the summer of 1963 when my then lover Alphonse got thrown in jail, I had to call up his father’s friend Clay Shaw to spring him from the clink.  That was only about three months before the Kennedy assassination, another of my close brushes with fame, or infamy as the case may be.

While maybe not strictly gay history, this tale was definitely the historical experience of a gay boy in the Stone Age. You’ll find another, the story of my getting finessed back into the closet, in my first memoir “There Was a Ship.”  The second, set in the fabled 70’s, will be the story of my second coming-out into that newly liberated world.

I guess I’m now ready to read on in Jim Downs’ history book.

Got Laid

My new online friend Walter recently posted about his basically traumatic “coming out” experience and made me realize that I had sunken that piece of my history in my novel and memoir, which so few folks will ever read. So I’m going to follow his suit and give you the following brief narrative of my deflowering.

GOT LAID

            In the upside down year of 1961, there I was:  19 years young and a student at wonderful Tulane University in incredible New Orleans, but—to my immense regret—with my cherry still intact.  In fact, my cherry was not only intact but immaculate and overly ripe.  I was getting sick and tired of the whole boring condition.

During my freshman year I’d gotten to know a guy down the hall in my dorm.  David was a good-looking blond kid from Houston, who let me in on the secret that he was “gay” and introduced me to his lover Paul, a florist.  Once they invited me to dinner at Paul’s apartment in the Garden District along with some other gay guys.  They all seemed so normal except for calling each other ‘dear’ and ‘sweetheart’ a lot.

The concept of two guys loving each other was utterly new to me, though not particularly disturbing.  Telling myself to be open-minded about it, I recalled the confusing love I’d felt for my best friend in high school.  After the party, reasoning it through as logically as I could, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I too must be gay.  Suddenly I appreciated all the cute guys around campus with different eyes.

After some months of waiting impatiently for true love to find me, my newly awakened longings soon became torments. Soon, I told myself, soon I will meet a beautiful boy, fall in love, and kiss him. The fantasy played like a rock and roll romance.  Many were the imagined scenarios I spun around naked guys in the showers and infatuations with angelic classmates, but all spring semester and into summer school, no beautiful boy ever showed up to love me.

One Wednesday evening late in sweltering June, I went with my roommate Roger and a couple other dorm guys to see Ingmar Bergman’s movie “Virgin Spring.”  It was traumatic for a sensitive college student like me, and the brutal images of the rape of that young girl haunted me on the sidewalk back to our dorm.  My friends were all quiet too.  Riding up in the elevator with them, I finally decided emphatically that I didn’t want to be a virgin anymore.

Once back in our double dorm room, Roger immediately went about his mathematical studies, which consisted of playing solitaire.  I showered, shaved, and put on my green corduroy jeans and fancy blue nylon shirt.  This was as fashionable as a country boy could manage.  Without looking up from his cards, Roger asked, “Got a date?”

“Maybe,” I replied mysteriously and left.

I already knew where to meet somebody.  David and Paul had once taken me into the wicked French Quarter to a dark little bar on St. Peter St. called the Gaslight Inn.  (One of the most marvelous things about New Orleans back then was that the legal drinking age was 18!)  So I hopped on the Freret bus to Canal Street, intent on finding a guy to cure my acute virginity problem.  Walking into the Quarter down noisy Bourbon Street through the jostling crowds and ignoring brief glimpses of bare, gyrating dancers in the strip joints, I felt my whole world turning upside down.  I was stepping off into the unknown, and it was exhilarating.

The Gaslight Inn was nestled right next door to the bustling collegiate bar Pat O’Brien’s.  When there before with David and Paul, I was nervous at first, but it turned out to be not at all intimidating.  The strangest thing had been a Hawaiian boy called Pineapple, who looked and talked just like a girl.  After a moment’s trepidation, I walked alone into the bar.

It was dark and full of smoke with men milling about.  No Pineapple.  How very dashing I felt walking right up to the bar and ordering a vodka and tonic.  Without looking directly at anyone, I took my drink over to a stool along the wall under the window—with no idea of what to do next.  Even though I was a nice looking kid with a good build and big blue eyes, no one seemed to be paying any attention to me.

Maybe I should just watch for someone attractive, I reasoned, and go up and introduce myself. No, that’s too forward—and too embarrassing.  It’s not very easy to see anyone in the dimness anyway.  By the time I’d finished my drink, my courage was definitely flagging, and I thought sadly of heading on back home to the dorm.

“Need another drink?” a voice asked from my blind side.  I turned to find a young man in the shadows, smiling at me.  “What was it?” the fellow asked, taking my glass.

“Vodka and tonic,” I managed to remember.  He went off to the bar before I could really make out what he looked like. Probably just a waiter pushing drinks, I figured.

Soon he returned with a drink in each hand.  Apparently he wasn’t a waiter.  Now I could see that he was pleasantly good looking, with dark hair in a crew cut.  After a polite thanks for the drink, I hadn’t a clue what to say.

In my silence, he said, “My name is Harry.”

Actually, I hadn’t thought about having to identify myself.  Not to give out my name in a gay bar, I lied, “I’m Roger.”  Meanwhile, I looked Harry over some more:  fairly tall, grey-green eyes, older—at least in his mid-20’s.  My next lie was that I was visiting my aunt here in New Orleans and lived out in the woods in Mississippi.  With that basic adjustment, I told him about things from back when I was a kid in Arkansas.  Harry told me he worked in an insurance office and used to live in Pensacola on the beach.

At his insistence, we each had another drink.  I was already feeling a buzz.  We engaged in further pleasant conversation, but it didn’t look to me like Harry was interested in me romantically.  And while I liked his company, there wasn’t that crazy kind of desire I’d felt for certain gorgeous guys at school.  I started to feel a little put out.  All this talking had kept me from watching out for a pretty boy.  I began to have more disconsolate thoughts about going home. Can’t catch a fish every time you go fishing.

Then Harry asked, “Can I take you home with me, Roger?”

Taken aback by the strange name and surprised to have come so suddenly upon this Rubicon, I forced back the fear and said, “Yeah, that would be nice.”

“Then let’s go!” Harry left his half-finished drink on the windowsill and pulled me by the hand.  I followed him out the door onto crowded St. Peter, not even checking if anybody at Pat O’Brien’s might have seen me coming out of that shady little place.

#

            Amidst the slumber of the late-night city, all was quiet, candlelit amber and cool in Harry’s apartment at the Claiborne Towers.  The room was full of plants with only a low light in one corner.  I lay naked on the sheets beside Harry, by no means asleep.  He was definitely dozing, draped over my arm.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt I really had to go home to the dorm—it must have been 3 or 4 o’clock, but I had no desire to move.  The warmth of Harry touching my shoulder and thigh was so new and delicious.  Finally, I’d tasted a man’s body, smelled his cinnamon fragrance, and it was far better than I could ever have imagined.

It had been nothing at all like the struggle and violence in that disturbing movie.  Funny how easy everything was when I’d worried so much about what to do.  Like a bumpkin at a banquet, I’d simply done whatever Harry did—which meant a lot of incredible caresses on tender, secret places I’d never touched before.  All that symmetry naturally led to the infamous sixty-nine position.  I must have done it right because we came together, and I didn’t even choke.  Stunning, the sheer reality of sucking on a guy’s cock.

I was glad, too, that there hadn’t been any kissing. Kissing is something for being in love, I figured, and all this with Harry was simply sex.  Still, he’d been tender, and so I was too.  Now I felt so amazingly happy having this wonderful connection with another guy and holding him close.  After a bit, Harry awoke, and I said, “I’ve got to go home.  My aunt expects me back.”

Harry didn’t protest, probably used to strange boys leaving in the night.  I got up on the window side of the bed.  The man still lay there, lithe in the shadows and amber light, the plants vague, soft masses of light and dark around him.  There was a tiny glint in his eye as I stood there naked—oddly without shyness.  “Roger, you sure are hot!” he sighed.

Embarrassed by his compliment, I dressed while Harry watched me from the bed with appreciative smiles.  I wondered about telling him that this was my very first time.  Tying my second shoe, I decided not to. Better just a pleasant goodbye, I decided, and drift out into the night like all the other boys who must have been hot in his bed before me.

While Harry still lay there naked, I gave him a friendly handshake and let myself out the door.  Out in the hallway, I chortled to myself, Well, that was that—another virginity nicely disposed of in the Claiborne Towers.

After Harry’s great air-conditioning, outside on the street the New Orleans night startled me with its sultriness.  On the empty early-morning bus I dozed contentedly in the heat until my stop at school.  Only when stumbling down McAlister Drive did the full import of it strike me right between the eyes with a blow of wonder and happiness. No longer a virgin! I rejoiced.  That painful, troublesome barrier is now behind me!”

As I tiptoed into our dorm room, the real Roger rolled over on his side in his narrow bed, waking enough to mumble, “What you been doing?”

Walking out of my clothes on the way from the door, I answered, “Got laid.”  Then I crawled into the sack, and there wasn’t another peep from the miserable virgin.

I never saw Harry again, nor did I ever go back to the Gaslight Inn—largely because it closed down soon after.  Instead I went out to Dixie’s Bar of Music on the opposite corner of Bourbon and St. Peter or hung out in the Latin and Greek sailor dives on Decatur Street, where my carousing was a depraved combination of Fellini’s movie “La Dolce Vita” and the novels of Jean Genet.

###

Two Decades Ago

It’s always fun, or at least interesting, to look back over the decades of our lives and see where we were when and what we were experiencing in those bygone days. Not long ago I took a look back a mere decade to a thriving and exciting situation.

Now I want to step back yet another decade and talk about that fascinating time capsule. From September, 1996 to September, 1997, when I was in my mid-fifties, was a year of remarkable transition, though perhaps a stereotypical mid-life crisis. Two decades ago brought the end of my sixth personal era (the Mature Gay Gentleman) and heralded the birth of my seventh persona (the Grandfatherly Gay Character).

That mid-September morn, standing on the sidewalk on Montezuma Avenue outside the La Casa Building (note the poetic persistence of the Aztec and La Casa themes in my life), I watched a huge U-Haul truck drive away with its institutional load. It was hauling the whole of the Western States Arts Federation off to Denver, leaving me and twenty more professional administrators unemployed. Thank you, Newt Gingrich, and your Contract on America. You don’t want to know the gory budgetary details.

As Director of Administration, I’d dutifully organized this planned exodus but also looked around for a commensurate position. I even went to San Francisco to interview with the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies. But shortly before that interview, after considering the whole San Francisco city/California thing, I decided I didn’t want to leave Santa Fe. Back home that summer, I applied and made the finals for the heads of the McCune Foundation and SITE Santa Fe but lost both bouts.

So that September I went on unemployment and ground out the requisite applications for a certain number of jobs each week, knowing all the while that nobody wanted an overly mature, upper-level, nonprofit arts administrator—with reasonable salary expectations—nor were there any such openings in the first place. As I said before, stereotypical. However, rather than agonize, I decided to go on vacation. After 15 years of hard work, I could take a sabbatical.

At the time, I was driving a silver 1985 Plymouth Horizon and headed west. First stop was the Grand Canyon. In the 70’s I’d hiked down from the North Rim, and in the 80’s from the South Rim. This time I camped on the South Rim and just stayed up there. Still I managed to waste as much film as almost anybody on the unimaginable spectacle. I love this shot from the rim (inner gorge in foreground). Look, 20 years ago you could still see through the pollution to the far North Rim.  Imagine  that.96 grand canyon

Grand Canyon, 1996

Westward-ho, this middle-aged man went on to see the boggling Hoover Dam and then went for a hike at Lake Mead at a spot reputed to be a nudist area. Feeling liberated from work and societal stuffiness, I tromped nude though the scrub willows along the lake. I saw only one odd naked fellow with a tent, whose kind invitation to tea I politely declined. From there I climbed to the top of a low hill to a giant tamarisk tree which served obviously and odorously as rookery for several unkindnesses of ravens. A malevolence of ravens?

Next stop was San Diego. I pitched my tent at the Campground on the Bay in view of Sea World across the water but didn’t go there till a couple days later. Instead, I spent my days at Black’s Beach near La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Park. An honest-to-John nude beach, you get down to it from the high bluff (at least back then) via a fragmented and dubious wooden staircase. Safely down, I shucked clothes and explored the lovely but sparsely populated (late-season) beach, my first time to the actual Pacific. (Puget Sound doesn’t count.) I noted the waves were understated, more like the Gulf than the Atlantic, eponymously pacific surf.

Spreading my towel back near the cliff out of the constant up-draft wind from the sea, I lay there in my splendid nakedness watching the hang-gliders take off from the bluff top and float around in the rising columns of wind like so many colorful seagulls. In skinny strolls along the beach I encountered only a few other bathers enjoying their own private leisure. I’d been advised that gay shenanigans went on back among the occasional dunes, but sandy sex wasn’t and still isn’t my bag. On one of my walks along the water I encountered a guy who was impressed by my cock-a-doodle, even though it wasn’t a Prince Albert.

While in San Diego, I did indeed visit the wonderful Sea World and go to the Zoo, which was almost more than I could handle. Most sentimental was my walk in Balboa Park where some years before my dear old friend Charles ended his troubled days on one of the park benches. Wandering around the city, I found a Kwan Yin to add to my collection, a beautifully brocaded figure riding on a fish-dragon, a good omen for my unemployed future. On the way home, I went by Joshua Tree National Park and took an illegal buff hike among rocks and Joshua trees. Isn’t it odd that only people care about clothes?

Well vacated, I returned to Santa Fe and got back into the swing of making futile job applications to get my meagre unemployment checks. That fall, with the luxury of not working, I started pulling together a draft of my book on ‘get’. (It would take another decade to reach its final form.) By December when public assistance ended, I really had to do something for an income. So I went to work part-time helping my daughter’s young man Rich in his woodworking shop. A totally new experience for me, the complicated job of making cabinets and doors was actually rather relaxing. The sanding and finish work was less fulfilling and far more tedious.

With the New Year and the unaccustomed leisure, I took a trip to Carlsbad Caverns—where I’d once gone with family in like 1953. I think it was an early Monday morning, January 7, when I got there and found the parking lot empty. As a matter of fact, beyond a couple workers at the food service, no one was there. I mean no one. I did a totally private tour through the caverns. It was almost mystical. You could even hear the distant drip of water from stalactites. Around noon, just as I was leaving, another car pulled into the parking lot. Afterwards I took long drives along the eastern and northern escarpments of the Guadalupe Mountains around to Dog Canyon on the west. How marvelous to think of that vast coral reef now thrust up as mountains.

After that special getaway, I returned to Santa Fe and my lot as a part-time carpenter’s helper. It was actually sort of fun work, the only pressure being to do it right, and I enjoyed long talks with the young fellow who had already been Aimée’s main squeeze for ten years. While warm and friendly, he was seriously amused by his girlfriend’s father being a gay man. Life rolled on smoothly for a few months with no other professional prospects, but I must admit that I found the physical labor tiring. So I got the idea of finding someone to share the work with me.

I mentioned my search for relief to an old friend, Peter Igo, a great silk-screen artist, and he suggested a young fellow who’d done some handyman chores for his place in Eldorado. (Peter’s remarkable “grow-hole,” a six-foot deep ditch covered with plastic, is what inspired my digging the “greenhole” several years later, and when he passed from cancer, I salvaged his many plants through Babylon Gardens.)

marc portrait

A posed portrait of Marcelo.  He spoke spectacular English.

When I met in early May with Peter’s handyman, a tall, attractive Brazilian named Marcelo, he seemed interested in the work. The next day, May 10, I took Marc to my special spot on the Santa Cruz River in the Caja de Cundiyo, where we splashed and played in the rushing stream.

97 water games

This is moi in the Cundiyo waterfall. 

Back at home that afternoon, I didn’t decline Marc’s intimate proposition. After all, it had been at least five years since I’d gotten physical with anyone. Well, it turned out that Marc didn’t relieve me of any woodworking duties, but against my better judgment, we entered into an amorous liaison. As liaisons go, this one lasted longer than necessary—enough said. Marcelo is now back in Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve got good reason to think that he regularly checks in on this website. I hope he appreciates this fond mention.

Meanwhile, on May 16 Aimée and Rich got married—after ten years together.

97 Rich and Aimee

 Aimée and Rich, May 16, 1997

The affair was in the garden of our local posh hotel, La Posada de Santa Fe (to whom long before I’d sold a huge Eastlake walnut over-mantle mirror which I’d brought from DC and painstakingly restored). The whole family from both sides showed up for the festivities, and I met Rich’s father Harvey for the first and only time. He looked exactly like Ernest Hemingway. I was resplendent in my tuxedo (not as much as Rich), and still have the rose (like his) that I wore in my lapel. Safely cushioned in a little jar, its pale pink has turned all golden brown after these 20 years. 

Actually I didn’t need any help with the woodworking after all. In June, some old professional friends offered me a job as Business Manager for their cultural nonprofit, Recursos de Santa Fe.  After only a week or so on that job, with great chagrin (for the first time in my life!), I told my friends that I was unable to do the job. What they really needed was an accountant.

No matter—the next week I snatched up another job as assistant to the Dean of the College at the College of Santa Fe. (Both he and the institution are now defunct.) No sooner did I report for work than the Dean took off for the summer to care for his ailing mother. With absolutely no job description and even less orientation, I had to figure out what I was supposed to do to run the academic show. It was fun, not to mention a snap, dealing with the closed universe of students and faculty, and rather pleasant having great clout. Big fish in tiny pond.

So the summer of 1997 turned out to be exceptional. I’d weathered my mid-life crisis and for that matter come out on the other side with a new professional niche—and what’s more, a young boyfriend. (Marc was only 32.)

As soon as the Dean got back, before the fall term was to start, I took my guy from Brazil on a grand tour of our western parks and landmarks. We hit Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Hopi-land, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, and Aztec Ruins. Talk about a lot of film! I wish I could post a whole travelogue of photos of me and my Brazilian, but there simply isn’t space or time to do so.

Of particular note was the morning Marc and I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, making the descent by 10:30. Shortly after a kindly hiker took this shot of us crossing the bridge over the Colorado River, when we were at Phantom Ranch wading in the creek cooling off our tired dogs, I remarked that we were just about as far from civilization as one could get. Not a minute later from over by the restroom shed a hiker, who had ironically been using the emergency telephone, hollered to his nearby friends: “Hey, guys, Princess Diana was just killed in a car crash!” So much for escaping from civilization. Within mere hours of its occurrence, that earth-shattering news had reached down to us at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon.

bridge over Colorado

Marcelo and me in the Grand Canyon, 1997

When we’d recovered from that culture shock and appropriately mourned the royal passing, Marc and I set off on the ascent. On the climb from Indian Gardens, we stopped frequently to breathe, etc., and made it up to the rim by early evening. We marveled at the 16 miles, the uphill half of which had felt more like 20. Marc said I was in terrific shape for such an old man. (Note the minimal middle-aged spread. I’m proud to have an even smaller paunch now—and to be in even better shape.)

When we got back to Santa Fe, it was high autumn, and my rocky mountain asters were in full spate. In this sweet photo of Marc and me you can also see the golden maximilian sunflowers. Eventually, I’d make hunks of money at the Farmers Market selling them. Also eventually, I’d turn the hillside behind us into a bunch of terraces to display my found-object assemblages which I cleverly call Yard Art. However, I have not yet discovered another boyfriend.

97 asters Marc and me hip-deep in asters

 

The Gin Mill, a Greek Sailor Bar

Once an elegy gets going, it’s not easy to shut off.  I can’t help but reminisce about another sailor bat in New Orleans.  I danced for years in the early 60’s in the Gin Mill, a supremely dissolute Greek sailor bar on the second block of Decatur across from the monumental Customs house.  For a change of tone, we carousers would stagger nightly up the street from La Casa de los Marinos to this Dionysian temple of dance.  The ancient place won’t be found anymore, even on the Internet.  If you remember, upstairs was the Acropolis Restaurant.  Maybe that’s still there.

You entered the Gin Mill between a long bar and a row of booths, past a bellowing juke box, and then came to the larger room with more booths and tables around the dance floor.  Only ghostly traces of a former grid of tiles remained on the worn concrete floor.  The place was generally overflowing—if a ship was in port, and there usually was one—with swarthy sailors, friendly ladies of the night, and at least one equally friendly faerie.  Yours truly.

The landmark of the Gin Mill was its barmaid (and bouncer), Jackie, who weighed in at well over 300 pounds and had a lover on every Greek ship.  (Greek sailors loved fat women—and skinny boys.)  Jackie kept a motherly eye out for the safety of my skinny Tulane student body, but I still managed to put it in many delicious positions of jeopardy.

The great attraction of the Gin Mill, besides the seafood offerings, was the fact that Greek sailors would dance alone—or with each other.  Even before the incredible “Zorba the Greek”  hit the big screen, I was doing those fantastic Greek dances  and feeling like a gay Melina Mercouri , but I’d do it on Sunday too.

The song I found most poignant for some reason was “Thessaloniki mou, but just those first evocative notes of Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorba suite can bring me to tears.  (I’d give a link to it, but the computer god won’t let me.)

I learned so long ago in the Gin Mill to cut that rope and soar free.  In La Casa I was initiated into the ecstasy of dance, but it was in the Gin Mill that I learned its philosophy and experienced its liberation.

This seems to have turned into an elegy for the fantastic New Orleans that once was, that bawdy old river port with its international culture of sailor dives along waterfront Decatur.  In my own time, the river still ran right behind the levee at the front of Jackson Square, and there were wharves along behind the French Market.  The beautiful Jax Brewery was in full, fragrant brew right across from my beloved La Casa de los Marinos.  The Gin Mill just up the street…

How terrifically blessed I was to carouse then in those legendary dives, how privileged to know the joy of pristine debauchery worthy of a novel by Jean Genet Back then I felt just like Our Lady of the Flowers.  But that wild world has been swept off away down the eternal river.  Sigh.  During the 70’s the glorious old city finally got transmogrified by twentieth century commerce, and the historic waterfront became one huge shopping mall.

A few years ago, for old times’ sake, I escaped from the cold New Mexico winter and spent a few warm months in a slave quarter apartment in the Vieux Carré.  It was just up St. Peter Street from what used to be Dixie’s Bar of Music, a legendary gay bar where I’d met a number of paramours (now a deafening karaoke palace).  Only later did I learn that while I was there, Miss Dixie herself passed on at 101.  [link]  The sentimental sojourn proved very graphically and painfully that the past only exists in my mind, and it’s uniquely my own.  That’s what makes it so precious.