When I was a senior in college, I visited New York City for the first time. I was still a boy. I had grown up in an Ohio pottery town of 16,000 on the banks of the Ohio River. I had studied English in a town whose population hovered around 7,000.
At the time I made that trip, on a train that took me from Pittsburgh into Manhattan's Penn Station, I was naïve, eager, and anxious. Most of my life, I had dreamed what New York would be like, and was certain that within its concrete canyons, I would find work as an editor at Knopf, Random House, or Simon and Schuster.
I was still playing the role of straight boy, and had recently gotten engaged to my college sweetheart. I didn't know that New York City, in the early 1980s, offered temptations that even the most closeted homosexual would be hard-pressed to resist. There was Greenwich Village, with its gay bars and legions of out and proud men. There was Times Square, with its neon queer promises in places like The Gaiety Burlesque, quarter peep shows, and other even more threatening venues with names like The Mineshaft.
By the end of the week, I had visited none of these openly gay establishments. But on our last night there, after having seen a Broadway play that featured Gilda Radner, I made some excuse to go off into the teeming crowds on Times Square. I didn't say I was going to an all-male, triple XXX movie house.
But that's where I went. Inside its dark and none-too-clean embrace, I witnessed the unimaginable: loops with cheesy music on the screen where men coupled with men, men going down on other men off screen … and a beckoning curtain near the front of the theater. I went through it and found myself in a dim room, packed with silent men. There was a press of warm shadows, crammed into the small space. I felt hands on me and tentatively reached out to grope an older man with a moustache. I was there for only a few minutes before guilt usurped lust. Striding up the aisle, I reached into my zippered coat pocket to make sure my wallet was still there. Of course, it wasn't.
Outside, in the cold bright lights, I found the man whom I had pressed close, thinking he had to be the thief. I begged him to give me a few dollars from my wallet back; he could keep the rest. Otherwise, I had no way to get home.
He had not been the thief. But he was what I had thought of as a jaded New Yorker, impervious to the cries of a stranger. He proved me wrong, and took me to his midtown apartment, with its Colette-inspired furniture, and let me use the telephone to tell my friends the story of being pickpocketed … on a crowded subway car. He gave me money for the subway and, when I explained I didn't know how to use it to get back to the lower east side, gave me enough for a cab. He could have done many things that night: shrugged me away on West 42nd, refused to let me enter his home, or taken advantage of a scared but pretty boy who sat on his bed, but did none of these things. He was a stranger … and he was kind.