I don’t remember where I had to go, but I was happy to be taking the subway. The route I took is a route I’ve been taking for more than thirty years now, going back to when I was a teenager and I would come on my own to visit my grandparents, who lived in the building next to the one where I live now, or to work at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights catering hall, which was owned by Max Weber, a good friend of the family. He gave me my first job as a busboy when I was probably younger than was legal, and I continued working for him well into my teens, eventually becoming a waiter and (underage) assistant bartender. The Jewish Center, which at that time was on 82nd Street just south of 34th Avenue, was very familiar to me. I went to nursery school there, when Miss Muriel was my teacher, and I took my first Hebrew School classes there; it was where I learned to pray. My grandparents were very active and so a lot of people knew who I was; I was Bob and Ann’s oldest grandson.
I think I made fifty dollars the first night I worked for Max. I remember because my grandmother was shocked that he had paid me that much, while my mother was thrilled that I now had money I could use to buy some of my own clothes. I don’t remember if that’s what I spent my money on, but I know that our financial situation was such that it would have been a big help if I had.
Usually, when I had to work late on a Saturday night, I would sleep at my grandmother’s and go home the next day, and the route I walked to the subway always took me past what was then the Earle Theater on 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets. My mother tells me that when she was a kid growing up in Jackson Heights, the Earle was called the Eagle, and it was an art movie house where she went to see all the latest foreign films. When I was a teenager, though, it was a porn house, and I remember walking past it time and time again wishing I had the courage to buy a ticket. I never did, and then, according to The New York Times, in 1995 — by then it was showing gay male porn only — after health inspectors shut the Earle down, the theater was bought by three Pakistani businessmen and turned into a venue for the latest films to come out of Bollywood. This was not surprising given the “Little India” that is located on 73rd and 74th Streets between 37th and Roosevelt Avenues. I never went to see any of the Bollywood movies that played there either, and now I’m kind of sorry that I didn’t because the Earle/Eagle has gone out of business, done in, as I understand it, by a film production strike in Mumbai.
There’s no way to stop change, I know, but this theater, even though I never set foot inside, is part of my internal map of Jackson Heights, part of how my memory structures the meaning of this town I live in, and so it makes me sad to know that it’s been replaced by a food court.
Not that there’s anything wrong with food courts, but this area is already chock full of Indian restaurants, Pakistani restaurants, Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants, Desi Hallal Chinese restaurants; and right across Roosevelt Avenue there is a very good Korean restaurant next door to a Vietnamese place – not to mention the more standard fare: pizza places, Dunkin Donuts and more. So it’s not like there’s a paucity of places for people to grab a bite to eat, but even if there were, the closing of the Earle removes from the 37th Road the last landmark connecting this place to who I was when I as younger.
Just a couple of storefronts down from the Earle/Eagle was The Betsy Ross — which was later called The Magic Touch — one of several gay bars that were in the neighborhood at the time. (There was also The Love Boat and Billy the Kid, which I vaguely remember walking past at the time, but I have no memory if they were also on 37th Road or if they were somewhere else in the neighborhood.) I didn’t know this — there was no way I would’ve known this at the time — but 37th Road was apparently known at the time as “Vaseline Alley.” I don’t remember which of the storefronts to the right of the theater was The Betsy Ross, but this is what the block looked like just before the Jackson Heights Food Court marquis went up. (The image is from cinematreasures.org and was uploaded there by KenRoe.)
The Betsy Ross was the first gay bar I ever went to; indeed, I think it was the first bar I ever went to period, since I was underage — I was sixteen; the drinking age at the time was eighteen — and the people I hung out with at home just didn’t go to bars.
I ended up there because John — at least I think I remember that was his name — the newly hired bartender at the catering hall, whom I’d been assigned to help at the party that night, asked me if I wanted to go. I was asking him what his job was during the day.
“Well,” he said with a smile, “I used to be a cop, but they kicked me off the force.”
“They had their reasons,” was all he would say, though I asked him one or two more times. Then he changed the subject, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s her name?”
“How long have you been going out?”
“About six months.”
“At sixteen years old,” he responded, “that must seem like an awfully long time.”
I agreed that it did.
When it was time to leave, Michael said, “If you want to talk some more, I know somewhere we can go.”
We walked out of the Jewish Center, and he led me to The Betsy Ross, where we took a booth on the far side of the dance floor. I know we started to talk about Beth, and I know that another man joined us in the conversation, but I don’t remember anything from the conversation. What I do remember is the two men who got up to dance, weaving their bodies together far more smoothly and erotically than any I’d ever seen a man and woman dance together. It made me think of water moving into water. John reached across the table and tapped me on the shoulder, “Richard, you realize you’re in a gay bar, right?”
“I do now,” I said.
“And that’s okay?”
“I knew you’d be cool about it,” he said, and then he reached out and put his palm flat against my right cheek in a touch that was so soft and gentle I caught my breath a little. “I’m not a cop anymore,” he smiled sadly, “because I’m gay and I refused to hide it.”
I don’t remember what I said in response or even if I felt particularly sad or angry for him, though I have no doubt that I thought it was unfair. I was much too interested in watching the dancers, who must’ve seen me staring because they waved as they sauntered by when the dance was finished, and then John raised his glass to them and smiled, and I did too. Then, at some point, I told John and the other man we’d been talking to that I needed to go home. We said goodbye and I don’t think I ever saw either of them again.