These are pages from my old diary. They detailed the few days I travelled from my school town to New York City in search of one of the first gay community I discovered, decades before the internet and dating apps started connecting us. I decided to leave the grammatical mistakes in, because I wanted to retain the authentic tastes of those moments.
I hope you’ll enjoy this little time capsule:
1st August. 1989.
11:00am. New York City at last!
Some taxi driver kept pestering me, “Wanna go some place hot?” A Black policeman told him, “Get the fuck outta here.”
“What for?” asked the taxi driver.
“For being a wise-ass.”
I sat down on a bench to get orientated with the map I bought at the station news stand. But a White cop and a Hispanic female cop just escorted a topless, skinny, Einstein-haired guy and told him to sit next to me.
“Sit there where I can see you!” So the cop’s on the walkie talkie checking the Einstein guy out and the female cop’s asking him questions in Spanish. I think he’s stolen something silly cos the cop’s laughing. Two minutes passed and I’m scribbling away here and a police truck parks beside the bench.
Two kids were giving their mother a hard time and one went, “it’s on his hands, not Mine!“
So there’s all this commotion with the Einstein and kids playing aside and I wonder whether I should clear off from here. But no one else seems to notice anything strange and went about their business so I stay here till the topless Einstein’s packed inside the police truck.
It gets boring when one merely observes and not participates in the event, I read somewhere.
New York City seems quite a scary place to explore all alone, and I’m having second thoughts. Maybe I should get on the next Greyhound and head back to Oklahoma before I get killed or mugged or something.
12:00am. Found a place in the Youth Hostel downtown for $7 a day. Have to share the room though with six other lodgers. But the hostel provides lockers downstairs to keep valuables.
4:00pm. Woke up. Went down to get dinner, then entered a nearby porn shop. The basement was for gays, but I wasn’t attracted to anyone because they all looked solemn and old.
Got two dollars worth of quarters and went inside a phone booth-sized box. The television screen showed different porn movies on different channels. Stayed till I ran out of coins.
7:00pm. Visited Doubleday bookstore. A pudgy store assistant asked me if I needed help. I mumbled ‘No’ but changed my mind.
“Do you have anything on homosexuals?” I asked him.
He couldn’t remember where, so he went over and asked a female assistant who was chatting with a guy assistant. The guy assistant looked amused and the girl laughed. But when she looked at me she stopped. I tried a smile but I think my nervousness and embarrassment showed. They weren’t sure where the books were either.
So I went downstairs and eventually found a section with some. There was one that was especially interesting – it has a cover of this topless guy smirking at me. It’s about a dead playwright or something.
The woman at the cashier stiffened visibly when she saw the cover of one of the books I bought. But she managed to calm down and offered, “Catching up on our reading, aren’t we?” I asked if she accepted traveller’s checks.
As I flipped through one of the books, it mentioned Christopher Street down at Greenwich Village. I shall be going there tonight to check it out, since it’s what I came to New York City for.
3rd August. 10 am. Took the subway to Christopher Street at 10 last night. Strolled up and down and up the street to make sure it’s the right one. Two gay politicians stopped me at a corner and asked me to sign a petition for something. I gave them a donation of $5 instead.
Went into a bar called “Two Coconuts” and asked for a Coors beer. The bartender said, “This is a gay bar (as if I don’t know), we don’t sell Coors beer!” Seemed like there’s some boycott going on – the beer company must have done something to anger the community. So got a Heineken instead.
Sat down near the dance floor and watched the mostly Black crowd dance. A long-haired guy who looked like Pete Burns from the androgynous group ‘Dead or Alive’ did some Spanish dance steps and smiled at me and said, “Loosen up! Enjoy yourself!” He must’ve noticed my discomfort, so I tried to smile. His dance partner is a cuddly and cute guy so I stared a bit. The partner seemed to enjoy the attention and danced even harder. After a Madonna song ended the crowd thinned and I went back to the hostel.
4th August. 4:45am. I’m just back from Christopher Street again and would write this down before I forget some details.
Went back to “Two Coconuts” again. There was a ‘fan party’ going on for the owner of the bar. A transvestite was singing a very shrill ‘Send in the Clowns’, much to the delight of the on-lookers. I bought a Heineken and sat down like last night.
‘Hi, Oriental!’ a black guy brushed past flirtatiously and I tried to smile a little. Then I caught sight of a friendly-looking Hispanic fellow with a petite fan in his hand. He’s quite likeable, so I went up to him.
‘Erm . . . Hi! Where did you get the fan?’ I asked.
‘They give it away to the first 50 customers,’ he said, ‘but there’s no more, though.’
Silence for a bit. I couldn’t think of what to say next. Real smooth, I was thinking to myself.
He looked at me up and down, then said, ‘you can have mine though. After the party.’
I took it as a cue that he wants to know me too, and we shook hands. He said he’s ‘Wheeling’ but turns out it’s ‘Willy’ but he has a heavy Puerto Rican accent. We stayed till the show ended.
‘The drag queens make me laugh,’ he said.
We walked along Christopher St. and I gathered he came to America with his family three years ago. He has five brothers, but recently he met one of his brothers in “Two Coconuts”. He’s still a Christian and showed me the cross of Jesus Christ on his neck. He got slightly upset when I said I don’t believe in god.
‘You will go to hell if you don’t!’ He lectured. I thought that was odd – almost as odd as the black girl I saw in a restaurant this afternoon who kept saying ‘Faggot, faggot, faggot’ loudly (I wanted to say, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’ back but she wasn’t addressing me).
We came to a motel and I asked if there’s any room. The owner looked at me and Willy and said ‘I got nothing for you.’
So Willy took me to an adult bookstore. We paid $15 to get into the backrooms. It was dark and there were many small booths along the corridors, and most of them were occupied by someone waiting for someone else at the door. We finally found a deserted booth and closed the door behind us.
He said I was the first Chinese he’d ever met.
It was close to 4am when we came out of the bookstore, sweating and hungry. So he took me to a neighbourhood cafeteria and bought me an egg sandwich. The waiter knew him, apparently, and asked, ‘is this your new boyfriend?’
He told me a bit about his hometown, although I had to make him repeat a lot of things because of his accent. Says he wants to be a campaign worker and ‘do something great to make (his) family proud.’
We held hands in the street all night and we squeezed each other’s hands. When it came time to say goodbye, we stood at a busy corner and kissed for the first time. A man and woman couple walked past and stared a bit. Willy said only on this street a guy and a girl kissing would be stared at disapprovingly.
‘I’m glad we met,’ he said to me. We stood smiling at each other, not sure what else to say or how to say ‘goodbye’.
I didn’t want a long-drawn, uselessly dramatic parting. I know, sadly, we’ll probably never meet again. So I told him to ‘shoo off’ in a friendly tone.
I watched him disappear into the dawn before I headed for the subway station.
Romantics aside, I spit a lot on my way down to the station becos I was worried I got his saliva and it may not be ‘clean’.
5th August. Pittsburg, 45mins. rest stop.
I fell asleep on the Greyhound on my way back to Oklahoma, cos last night something happened again.
I went down to Christopher St. on my last night in New York City. This time I walked to the end and came to the pier. Beside the big river, a police car patrolled the area deliberately as groups of people wandered in the shadows. It felt as if violence could erupt anytime, and the tension constantly high. Probably there was drugs being passed around like candies, and probably there were some pretty screwed-up people there.
A sign told me I was at Hudson River, which was disappointing. Billy Joel sang about the Hudson in his song ‘New York State of Mind’ – I didn’t find the river particularly romantic at first. But before the night is over, I would.
I went into another pub called ‘Ag’s’. It’s mostly middle-aged white males but none I took interest in. A pleasant-looking Canadian approached me but I left the pub after he’d gone for more beer. Went back to ‘Two Coconuts’ and decided to behave myself and just enjoy the music and the mood.
A black guy called Jean Claude, a civil engineer aged 30, started to talk to me. Like Willy, he was also an immigrant. (I have a soft spot for immigrants – they’re like me, trying to fit into a new world). He said he rarely goes to bars until after he broke up with his native boyfriend of ten years.
After a few dances I asked him if he wanted to go outside as it is hot. He said yes. We strolled down the street until we came to the Hudson. We chose a less-crowded pier and sat at the edge peering into the murky black river. He tried to kiss me but I didn’t want to. Instead I undid his pants and played with him a little. He didn’t respond.
‘Maybe becos I’ve had a long day,’ he offered as explanation.
So we just sat there in the breeze and chatted about his life in the West Indies. He told me someone once showed him a penis and a vagina. I didn’t know if that could be possible.
‘Look what you’ve done to me,’ he smiled, ‘getting me here with my pants on my knees.’ He said he’s never ventured into the pier before.
All the while people walked past us and glanced at Jean and me. They didn’t care. A hand-held stereo set blasted so ghetto rap music in the distance but it was not threatening. In fact, I began to understand the lure of the river – for all the low life that infested it, two strangers that just met each other could sit there telling each other about their lives.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered I was downtown earlier and saw a woman speaking through a microphone downtown holding a card up saying, ‘AIDS is a punishment for our sins!’ and someone in the crowd shouted at her to shut up.
As we walked back from the pier he had his arms around my shoulder. It was a little awkward because he was shorter than me, but I didn’t mind.
6th August. 11:15pm. Columbus Ohio.
I went into a Burger King and a chubby Black guy said ‘Konichiwa’ to me.
‘I’m not from Japan,’ I was slightly unhappy that to Americans, every Yellow-skinned guy is Japanese, ‘but Hi anyway.’
‘Doesn’t matter where you come from,’ said the Black guy cheerfully.
8th August. I forgot what time. Stillwater, Oklahoma.
I woke up to familiar streets. I was back. It was sometime at night, and the place is deserted. I started to haul my bag full of smelly clothes and new books home.
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
Part 3 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-the-grand-canyon/
Part 4 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-all-my-lovers/
Part 5 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-gay-teacher/
Part 6 of OTTOBIOGRAPHT: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-tale-of-two-dogs/
Part 7 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-letters-from-students-and-a-parent-2007/
Part 8 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-mother/
Send in your scoop to firstname.lastname@example.org