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As a teenager I learned the lay of the land from word-of-mouth publicity given from those who had navigated the watering spots years before me. I did, however, venture — daringly — on my own into the Greyhound Bus Depot to check out noonday comings and goings. I was cautious. I had been forewarned.
“Miss Tillie — vice cops — goes there all the time. Mind your business, child. If you have to pee, just pee. Don’t look anybody straight in the eye!” said Miss Bruce (alias Bruce Kendall Johnson).
Stories of arrests for merely glancing at a vice officer were many.
“It’s your word against theirs, Mary. Case closed.”
Just behind the Greyhound Bus Depot on Washington Boulevard was another hangout for gay teenagers called Mama’s (one diner star rating over the Famer & Bates Streets’ gay Hub Grill’s none). Mama’s was owned by the mother of 30-something, Butch Jimmy (“BJ”), who had as lovers his share of impressionable teenagers, including, in the early stages of my all-too-willing acquiescence to all things macho, yours truly.
Mama — short, stocky, ruddy, roly-poly-faced — was of ethnic heritage, possibly Hungarian, Latvian or Romanian. She wore her hair in a tight bun and dressed in basic black (no pearls). She got her sense of humor probably by osmosis from gay kids, greeting regulars with a hearty wave of the hand, yelling “Kud-de-vahs! Kud-de-vahs!” (“Whores! Whores!”)
As a teenager I had no gay-positive role models. I learned how to survive from more-experienced gays and lesbians who on their own learned the ropes by trial and error: encounters with “Tillie,” the medical establishment (“Mary, I’ve got the name of a good gay doctor!”) and queer-hating employers (The police often reported entrapment gays to their bosses.).
I also came to realize that sensing or knowing a professional, boss, teacher or professor who was gay could be used to my advantage by letting them know that I too was gay. It was done by looks, hints and “dropping hair pins.” Very rarely directly. Gaydar circa late-1950s nonetheless.
Unlike today, the general public then knew very little about gays or lesbians. We belonged to what essentially was a secret organization — the Gay Masons! — with passwords, special looks and hand signals. The better gay bars had back entrances. Keep it secret! Survive! Don’t get caught! But enjoy yourself!
Yes. It’s been a long journey for me. It wasn’t always easy. But, then again, it wasn’t that hard either (The journey, not the sex.). I’ve survived, and I like to think I’ve made something of myself as an artist, a writer and human being who just happens to be quite gay. Contentedly so. Reasonably happy. Most of the time. That’s life (I’d gladly do it all over again.).
Come to think of it, life might have been a helluva lot better for me and for others like me if the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had been around back then to help us out, in both senses of the word. For today’s LGBTQ teens, NGLTF is a godsend — in spite of Trump, Pretty Boy Pence and the Rebiblican Party.