In an earlier post I wrote about my first job, as a clerk-typist with the federal government. It was the summer of 1960, and I was 17. That September I returned to my sophomore year at City College of New York, having learned two things: I could earn enough to support myself, and I wanted to leave home.
In 1960 my net pay was $76 per week. A month’s rent on a small apartment in one of the city’s shabbier neighborhoods would be somewhere around $80.* It wouldn’t be anything fancy, but not a rat-infested slum either. However, when I brought up the idea of getting my own apartment, my parents nixed it. It was too dangerous, they said, for a girl to live alone.
My dream of independence went dormant until mid-October, when I came across a two-line notice in the New York Post. The first all-women’s judo class in the city would be held soon at the YWCA on 53rd & Lexington. The initial series of ten self-defense classes was $27.
The thought of learning self-defense wasn’t completely new to me. Among the books my father had stashed in the basement was a military text with a chapter on hand-to-hand combat. The drawings and descriptions fascinated me, but I couldn’t imagine when I’d find it necessary to sneak up on an enemy sentry and garrote him. Now the training that would enable me to survive on my own was practically at my doorstep—and I wouldn’t have to enlist in the military!
I was somewhat apprehensive. I’d never been inside a YWCA. Would I have to be a Christian to join the Y? Would the staff try to convert me? The other issue was that you had to be at least 18 to register for this class. I wouldn’t hit that mark until winter break. I decided to take the chance, and luck was on my side. The lady who registered me didn’t ask to see ID when I filled out the form, setting my birth date a year earlier. I was in.
Those ten classes were a revelation. We started easy, learning how to escape when someone grabs your wrist, then both wrists, then how to escape from a choke or an attempted rape, and eventually progressing to defenses against knife attacks. No matter how large your opponent, you could still defeat him using leverage and the body’s weak points. Each lesson built on the previous one, and then at the end we had a test—the teacher would launch a surprise attack, and the student had to counter. Once we had passed that test, we could sign up for regular judo classes. I was completely hooked. The rest of my life seemed dull by comparison. During judo my body came alive.
I loved the judo uniform, especially the loose trousers and the low gusset in the crotch that permitted such freedom of movement. I thought it insane that people didn’t dress this way all the time—that women had to wear girdles, nylons, and high heels.**
In the second series we were taught to fall correctly in order to practice throwing each other. A second revelation: I could hurl myself into the air, or be hurled by someone else, and come down unhurt. It was like flying—at least for a second. We paired off by size and wrestled each other on the mat, learning pins and escapes from pins.
By then something dormant in my soul also came alive. I began to fantasize about the instructor—despite the fact that she was married and her husband was the “fall guy,” the large male who was kind enough to let us practice techniques on him. My infatuation must have been pretty obvious because Laura, the student I paired up with most often, made disparaging comments about it when we rode the subway home after class. Our teacher didn’t deserve that much admiration, she said. She was no genius. Her clothing was way out of date—she still wore seamed nylon stockings. And so on.
Laura’s apartment was on the upper west side. She exited the train at 110th Street; I continued to the Bronx. During our conversations I learned that she was 23 and, like me, a student at CCNY. She had married right after high school to escape an abusive family, and had enrolled in college after her husband did his military service and they returned to NYC.
I was delighted to find another judo student who shared my intellectual interests. We began to meet in the campus cafeteria and then, as the days grew longer, on the lawn. We compared notes on our classes, rated our professors, and shared our ambitions—mine to write books, hers to paint or make films. Laura confessed that she’d never been in love with her husband and was now having an extramarital affair with Mike, another CCNY student with an interest in hypnotism.
I too had started an affair. My boyfriend of the moment was Patrick, a young man I’d met at a party. Green eyes. Very handsome and very Irish. My mother was appalled when she heard about him. Of course I insisted that I was still a virgin. She took to listening in on the extension phone and searching my dresser drawers. Life at home was becoming more uncomfortable. Meanwhile, sex with Patrick was pleasant, though not especially passionate. Like most young women of my generation, I knew the mechanics of reproduction but very little else.
One evening Laura invited me to her place for dinner. The appetizer was camembert cheese on crackers. Cheese at home was always the processed kind, American or Swiss, bland and rubbery. I hadn’t known that other varieties existed, certainly none so fragrant, sensual to the point of decadence. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but shortly after the table was cleared Laura’s husband came home. A civil engineer, he had been on the job since 5:00 am. He went to bed immediately, exhausted. Laura and I continued our conversation in the living room. She suggested practicing the hypnotic techniques Mike had taught her.
We stretched out on the carpet. She tried to put me in a trance, and then I did the same to her. I had no idea whether we were successful, but when she was “coming out of it” I asked what was on her mind. “I’m in love with you, you nut!” she exclaimed.
Lips met and opened to hot wet tongues embracing, exploring the caves of our mouths. Kissing boys had never been anything like this. We fumbled under each other’s blouses, down each other’s trousers, not daring to strip, whispering so as not to wake the husband. It was still only an appetizer, not a meal, but I went home on fire, unable to sleep that night, understanding at last what it felt like to be in love. And understanding—a third revelation—that I was a lesbian.
* To put things in historical perspective, the commonly accepted rule in those years was that housing should take no more than 25% of your gross income. The current version of that rule raises that figure to 40%. Across the nation people spend an average of 37%. It’s much worse in NYC, where in 2016 tenants paid around 65% of their gross income. Since then, rents in New York have continued to go up—from an average of $3,178 in 2016 to $3,449 in 2019.
** To this day I spend most of my waking hours in martial arts trousers.