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Long, long before The Village People made “YMCA” — the song that would become the unofficial, persistent national anthem of Winter Olympian Brian Boitano – “Ys” played an important role. They were second only to gay bars, as places to meet available others of like-minded, body-mind-and-spirit, triune — me, you and the shower — persuasions.
In the ’60s and ’70s there were four YMCAs in the Metro Detroit area. (The long-gone Grand Circus Park YMCA dating to 1904.) There’s only one YMCA now, located on Broadway, in a totally revitalized, energetic, amazingly-changed, thriving new Downtown area.
It was understood in the late ’50s that the “C” in YMCA also stood for contact (among other gerunds of neo-pagan opportunity). And in the course of my wanderlust years, I’ve spent many pleasant (and, I’ll add, radiantly scrubbed) weekends at “Ys” in Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and, the subject of this reminiscence, New York City.
I recall only two mishaps. At Chicago’s exuberant Lawton “Y” in the 1970s, I decided to take a nap after a gin martini brunch at the nearby, crazy patchwork Haig Bar (leaving my door ajar with every good intention of do-unto-others, seventh-floor hospitality).
When I awoke, I was chagrined to find that someone, in an act of non-Christian self-serving, had taken my new shoes and left me with their floppy, five-sizes too small clogs. (I have no recollection of what I bartered for the exchange. If anything equally small or virginal.)
In the Detroit YMCA, when I was a young “looker” (and by that I mean I was always looking), I happened to be on the wrong floor at the wrong time. A passkey check was demanded.
“This is for two floors below,” said the burly security guy. “Why are you here?”
“It’s Sunday,” said I with a reasonably straight face. “I’m just checking to see if my friends are planning to go to church.”
As I couldn’t remember their room number, their names or, what’s worse, their religious convictions (and I was wearing nothing but a baptismal tea towel), I was told to leave the “Y” immediately!)
My name was placed on a list (rather sizable I learned from an attendant friend) of “transient undesirables.” But I remember New York City’s Sloan House YMCA, on West 34th Street, with much nostalgic, albeit transient fondness.
(Thanks “Jerry” — whatever nursing home you’re now in — for three memorable, if non-air-conditioned, 80-degree, romantic summer days.)
Arriving by train — 13 hours, 15 minutes, 35 seconds is a long time to spend on a confining, tepidly ventilated train playing gin rummy — and when friend Gary and I arrived at Grand Central Station we were both in need of a soothing shower (but not together).
We took a hectic cab ride to the Sloan House, where gorgeously blond friend Richard, who flew in the day before, had made our reservations.
Our stay during that hot, humid memorable July was for a week, at the cost of $50. (In the ’40s, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, of “Fahrenheit 541” fame, lived at Sloan House for $5 a week.)
Richard greeted us in the crowded lobby, eagerly telling us as we registered that he had met this “hot number” who was going to introduce him to his buddy Marlon Brando. Party time!
I hadn’t been in my room more than 10 perspiring minutes when there was a knock at my door.
“Hey, Alexander! You’re wanted on the hall phone.”
The call was from someone named Jerry.
“I saw you check in,” he said, quite directly. “If you’re available I’d like to, er, buy you coffee.”
Jerry — who proved to be a mature guy of 25 in contrast to my tenuous 19 — was pleasant, good-looking, all-around nice. He was from Sandusky, Ohio, staying for a three-day holiday weekend.
“If you like, I can show you around. We can hit a few of the tourist spots. Take in the bars,” he said. “It’s up to you. How about it? Please?”
As Brando wasn’t a viable option, I said sure. It was memorable (I think.) My “Y” stay was followed by a weekend at Fire Island that included a glimpse or two of Truman Capote, and meeting a lesbian couple who named their cottage — are you ready? — The Lickety-Split.