Making a Sharp Left at the Stonewall

The Stonewall Inn

By the time I left Barnard, at the beginning of June 1969, I already had a new job lined up.

I had already done a few weekend typing gigs for a woman named Virginia Admiral. Her shop, Academy Typing and Typesetting, occupied a loft in Greenwich Village. Hers was the kind of small business where the work takes place in front, and the owner lives in the back. As I remember, the front room had 10 stations, some with electric typewriters, others with new machines that did cold type composition. These resembled typewriters but had little balls for different fonts and could justify the copy. You loaded them with sheets of shiny white paper. Two additional stations had light boxes for cutting and pasting the output, along with any photos. Once the pages were composed, they could be taken to the printer. This is how books, pamphlets, and newspapers were produced back then, before computers.

Virginia was 54, with white hair and pale blue eyes behind thick glasses, and smoked little cigars. She frequently rode her bicycle around the Village to pick up and deliver work. She was also involved in the antiwar movement and the local arts community. Her son—a kid my own age named Robert de Niro—was an aspiring actor.

Now Virginia was willing to take me on for three days a week at $3.00/hr. She immediately set me on one of the cold type machines. Around that same time, I found a place I could afford on part-time wages—a third floor walkup for $60/month, about a mile and a half east of the new job.

*          *          *

Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a neighborhood of decaying tenements. They’d been built in the mid- to late 1800s to accommodate a growing population, and then became home to the usual waves of immigrants. First came the Germans, next the Irish, and around the turn of the 20th Century, Jews, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans. Each group, in their turn, worked in the garment industry, until they or their descendants prospered and moved out to more comfortable quarters of the city. By the late 1960s the neighborhood was a mix of Puerto Ricans, Blacks, young artists, musicians, hippies, and political activists. (Today the area has been gentrified, and the section where I lived is called the East Village.)

The bedroom window of my new slum apartment opened to an air shaft. There was a shower, but the toilet was down the hall and shared with other tenants on the floor. If you left your toilet paper there, it would get stolen, so you kept it in your flat and carried it with you as the necessity arose. I hauled up the bit of furniture I’d managed to accumulate over the years. One sunny day, while walking around the neighborhood, I scored a prize: someone had abandoned a large wooden desk on the sidewalk, a plain, sturdy item that had likely belonged to a now-defunct business. I claimed it by sitting on it until a friend happened by who could help me carry it home. That was decades before cell phones.

A few days later Mom came to visit. She grew very distressed when I showed off my acquisition. Here I was living in the neighborhood she’d struggled to escape, during the years when she sewed in the garment factories. And scavenging furniture! She had felt humiliated, living in Havana, when Grandpa brought home a used dresser he’d found in the street. She was proud that now she could go to Macy’s and order a brand-new living room set.

*          *          *

One day Jean Powers, the de facto president of our Daughters of Bilitis chapter, phoned me. Two women visiting from Boston wanted to start a chapter there. They were staying at Jean and Eleanor’s apartment. Would I be willing to give them a tour of Greenwich Village on Saturday night? Of course, I said. I called Allison, my lover at the time, and told her I’d come to her place after escorting the Boston ladies around town.

It was the last Saturday in June, the 28th, and a typically hot summer night in the city—it had reached 92˚ that day. I picked the visitors up after dinner. One of the women hardly said a word and I don’t remember her name. The other, Pat Peterson, was tall, athletic, and full of funny stories. She’d been born in the South and raised Baptist. At adolescence, she started having sexual feelings for other women. Like other lesbians I’ve met, she thought she could squelch these troubling feelings by converting to Catholicism and entering a very strict order. Since she is naturally about as diffident as a locomotive, she managed to convince whoever was in charge that she had a real calling, and was accepted into a Franciscan convent.

Mother Superior picked her up at the train station. As they drove through the monastery gates, Pat looked up at a statue and asked cheerfully, “Who’s the guy with the birds?”

Mother Superior replied quietly, “My dear, you have a lot to learn.”

As the reader might expect, being confined with scores of other young women did nothing to subdue Pat’s lesbian tendencies—nor was her personality suited to convent life. Once day the novices were asked to collect windfalls from under the apple tree. Noticing that the branches were still full, Pat climbed the tree and began tossing the fruits into the other girls’ aprons. “It was like shooting baskets,” she recounted. Then one girl started waving frantically and pointing. Pat turned around. Mother Superior had come down from the house and looked furious.

Pat left the order and moved north. Now she was going to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to another all-female organization, the Daughters of Bilitis.

I don’t remember any of the watering holes or landmarks we visited, except one: we were walking along Christopher Street when we came upon a group of young men throwing things at cops. The visitors were taken aback. “What’s going on?” Pat exclaimed.

“It’s just a riot,” I replied, assuming that we’d encountered yet another antiwar demonstration. “We have them all the time.” Since I didn’t patronize gay men’s bars, I had no idea that we were passing the Stonewall Inn, or that such a place even existed. We turned aside to avoid the fray. I led my charges to the nearest subway entrance and delivered them to Jean and Eleanor’s place.

From there I took the #1 train north to the 181st Street station, expecting to catch the bus to Englewood, NJ, where Allison lived. But it was around 3:00 a.m., and the buses had stopped running. I decided to walk across the George Washington Bridge. It was very quiet, and still hot. The full moon like a brass shield hung in a pitch-black sky—you can’t see stars in NYC—somewhat to the southwest and directly over the Hudson River, an immense and equally black python gliding toward the sea.

*          *          *

Sunday afternoon Allison and I attended a DOB discussion group, but there was no mention of the rioting in Greenwich Village. Probably no one present had heard about it.

Monday—another hot sticky summer day—found me lazing around, trying to recover from a weekend of too little sleep, when I saw the story in the NY Times: “Heavy police reinforcements cleared the Sheridan Square area of Greenwich Village again yesterday morning when large crowds of young men, angered by a police raid on an inn frequented by homosexuals, swept through the area…”

I jumped up immediately, on fire, thinking this is our moment, and phoned Jean Powers. “We gotta have a protest march!”

“Why don’t you call Mattachine?” she replied. “If the guys want to do it, we can jointly sponsor a march.”

To be continued…

One Response to Making a Sharp Left at the Stonewall

  1. Mary McCarthy August 25, 2020 at 10:12 pm #

    Can’t wait for the next episode!

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