Rick Bowes on Stonewall at 40

Knowing Rick Bowes is a privilege for many reasons, but one of my favorites is that he is a wonderful historian of New York City. Walking the streets with Rick becomes a magical tour through the wondrous and terrible changes the city has seen over the centuries. Having lived in Manhattan for most of his life, Rick has also sometimes been an eyewitness to history, including the history made in the early hours of June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village: The Stonewall Riots.

Richard Bowes is the author of such books as Minions of the Moon, From the Files of the Time Rangers, and Streetcar Dreams. He has won the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Million Writers Award, and been nominated for the Nebula Award. He reportedly likes writing but hates being a writer.

via Wikimedia Commons

In History's Vicinity
by Richard Bowes

It's odd to be old enough to remember history. The Stonewall Riot always makes me feel like a citizen of Concord awakened by musket fire on that crisp April morning and wondering what the commotion was.

In 1965 when I was 21, I came into Manhattan from college on Friday afternoons to see a psychiatrist on the Upper East Side.

On my way back to Penn Station and Long Island, I'd walk down Third Avenue. In the East Sixties, guys stood casually on street corners, paused significantly in doorways, gave sidelong glances: all very discreet. Eyes tracked me from the windows of the bird bars: The Blue Parrot, The Golden Pheasant, The Swan.

In those bars Piaf sang on the jukebox, men in suits sat at the bar. The legal drinking age was eighteen, but in straight places I still got carded and sometimes was refused service. Gay bars were much less fussy and the patrons could be generous.

The first gay bar I ever went to was one in Boston called something like the Tea Cup or the Sugar Bowl. I was sixteen and the drinking age there was twenty-one. They wouldn't serve me but didn't care if guys gave me their drinks.

Down the Avenue from the bars at Fifty-Third and Third was a world famous chicken run. Young boys stood in the cold in sneakers and thin jackets, waited under awnings, stared out the windows of seedy coffee shops and knew just who I was.

Those bars, those coffee shops, were criminal enterprises subject to police raids and being shut down. The men cruising and boys loitering could be arrested on a whim. Serving minors and serving as a place minors could be had for cash was no bigger a crime than catering to a gay clientele.

Mart Crowley's The Boy's In the Band was the first American play to deal overtly with the lives of the kind of men who drank in the Bird Bars. It opened on April 15, 1968. By the time the movie came out in 1970 its world of gay self hatred and closeted sex looked like a period piece.

Between the play and the movie's openings the Stonewall Riot had occurred. If I'd known the Stonewall was going to become an historic site I'd have paid more attention. In fact, it was one bar among many. Gay kids poured into Greenwich Village from all over the city, the country, the world. The nation was all on fire and every oppression but ours got protested.

The Stonewall Bar was badly ventilated, crowded, and filthy, the toilets were an abomination, the bartenders were hostile and the drinks were watered. But that was true in all the Village gay bars. Manhattan ran on methadrine, speed was easily obtained there, and the drags danced like furies. The crowd was very young. The scent was beer, sweat, amyl-nitrate, and cheap cologne.

My grandfather from Ireland used to say that if every man who boasted he'd fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 had actually stood at the Dublin Post Office, James Connolly and Padraic Pearse would be sitting in Buckingham Palace at the moment he spoke. In my case around three o'clock on that famous Saturday morning I was walking down St Mark's place with Allan, a guy I'd recently met. A kid we both knew rushed up and gave us a garbled story about The Stonewall. That's when we became aware of distant sirens.

In that time and place civil disturbances were what bullfights were to Hemingway's Madrid and we were all aficionados. The kid ran off to spread the news. Allan and I headed west, crossed Astor Place and went down Eighth Street, which was still the heart of the Village.

The book and music stores were dark but the bars were just closing and the after-hours clubs were opening. The street was full of people all looking west.

Near the corner of Sixth Avenue was what we recognized as the rear area of the riot. In the doorway of the Nathan's, a blond kid in short-shorts and mascara held a bloody towel to his forehead and a friend held him. From the upper floors of the massive, darkened Women's House of Detention across the Avenue, some inmates were yelling, "The fucking pigs are killing all the faggots."

Police cars with flashing cherry tops barred the way. All along Sixth Avenue, firemen hosed down piles of burning trash. Paddy wagons and Tactical Patrol buses were parked two deep and the riot cops were angrier than I ever saw them.

Here coherent memory breaks down. From Sheridan Square I looked down Christopher Street and caught a glimpse of the front of The Stonewall Bar. Broken glass was everywhere. A car had been turned on its side.

The riot had broken down into guerilla tactics: roving bands of kids chanting slogans, burning trash. That weekend I saw a cop smash his club across the back of a guy who I think was just coming home with groceries, I heard people shouting from their windows at the cops to go away.

By Monday it was over. But events in this tumultuous city in that time of war and turmoil very soon began to be defined as having happened before Stonewall or after.

And it was kids like the ones on Fifty-Third and Third, not the suit johns in their uptown bars, who had given us those nights.

Men with powdered hair and silk britches could have signed declarations and petitions to King George forever. But on that Concord morning it was men and women, not the most attractive or socially poised, not with the purest of motives or the loftiest of intents, people like me and perhaps like you who found themselves pushed one unendurable time too many.

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