Talking in my last post about 'coming out' to the music of Carole King brought up some memories of what happened after I admitted to myself that I was gay.....
I began some tentative research, being rather naïve to say the least as to what 'being gay' actually involved on a practical level. I'd seen all the stereotypes of course but somehow I didn't think I'd fit comfortably into the costumes worn by the Village People, either physically or metaphorically.
I'd grown up in a less than conventional family, more about which some other time, but nevertheless I had become, through my environment, what in the trade is called 'straight acting'. So nobody would necessarily expect from seeing me that I was gay. Of course, delve just a little deeper and my love of Abba, Hinge and Bracket and female torch singers might have given my secret away.... but for thirty odd years my taste for camp music and drag acts had not betrayed me. However, here I was, coming out fast and not knowing quite what to do.
I soon felt like a character of two halves. I was leading a double life which was a real juggling act - daytime acting the straight role and night time playing a different part, drinking in gay bars and exploring the often seedy night-life – but gradually, as I came to terms with my identity, I found myself more of a one dimensional being.
Until I remembered, I do have a second identity - I'm Jewish.
Targeted by missionaries...
My Judaism was something I had returned to recently, though it had never gone away just retreated to the background while I sorted myself out.
But before I had fully started to acknowledge my true identity and travel the new road I found myself on, Christian missionaries had swooped in on me. They perceived me to be an easy target as I wandered around, appearing for all the world, to be a lost soul. A nightmare followed as they proceeded to use all the manipulative tactics they knew to force me to 'befriend Jesus' and 'save myself', though from what exactly I was saving myself I never did find out. The bizarre experience proved to be a turning point in my life eventually but not the one they had in mind for me. While they raised their hands to the sky, praising and beholding as they went, I watched nonplussed at their odd ways and less than honest attempts at 'conversion'. That's all a tale for another day but suffice it to say that I extricated myself from their hold and ran back to Judaism without turning back.
And finally I began to fully embrace who I truly am.
So it was that I found myself Jewish and gay, 'twice blessed' some call it, though at the time it didn't necessarily feel like a blessing, more like another complication in an already confusing life.
A Friendly Stranger...
I turned to a website called Gayjews. The title said all I needed to know. They had a picture on their rudimentary website of a friendly looking Jewish granny who promised to find someone nice for me. I took the plunge, it was free after all. I signed up, though I was very careful to close the curtains before I logged on, lest some peeping tom see me through the window. I was still, after all, living in an area where being an undercover gay was probably safest.
Trawling through the profiles, I was disappointed to see that nearly everyone on there was in North America, not many in the UK. There were about three people in Manchester - without photos - and a couple more in London. But that was okay with me, I didn't want my first online communication to be too close to home.
I spotted a photo that made me stop. The man in the picture seemed friendly, he looked trustworthy somehow. He was in Atlanta, USA. Not ideal for an easy commute I know, but before I knew it I had pressed the button and sent a 'wave'. Gulp. I switched off the computer and went back to my 'real' life. But it wasn't long before I logged back on and read this man's profile in a little more detail. He sounded open and decent. So I dropped him a short note, explaining my situation. Naturally that ended up rather a longer note than I had intended but it was good therapy for me if nothing else.
And that's how I began to correspond with a man who was to help me take my first steps into my new life. His name, well let's call him T. He was pivotal in changing my life for the better.
On a plane to New York City...
This was never going to be a romance, but it was a learning experience for me. He proved to be a best friend just when I needed one but it couldn't have happened had I not got on a plane to New York, a rash decision that I made on the spur of the moment and never ever regretted.
Most gay men will tell you that they have been prone at some point to being reckless, most of us have found ourselves in a 'nothing to lose' situation, where almost any risk is worth taking because it couldn't be worse than where we found ourselves at that point in our life. So I got on the plane and crossed the Atlantic to meet a stranger in a hotel. I had made an equally snappy decision in our choice of hotel, T had entrusted the booking of the accommodation to me and I'd found it somewhere online....cheap.
I had chatted with T for some time prior to this, we had spoken on the phone and we clicked, made each other laugh and knew instinctively that we could well be friends. But strangers sharing a room in a New York hotel, never having met before, smacked potentially of a plot for a comedy farce at best or a murder mystery at worst. I mean the Gayjews website didn't guarantee that the profiles were genuine, you just had to trust instinct.
T arranged to meet me at the hotel in New York. He had lived in the city for four years in an earlier incarnation, while studying, so he knew his way around. He had also been 'out' since the age of eighteen so was the best part of twenty years ahead of me in being openly gay.
The very few people who knew about my plan were worried to say the least. It seemed more than likely that this stranger would turn out to be an axe murderer. And as I got off the plane in New York I suddenly had the same feeling. I later discovered that T did too but we both still turned up at the Hotel Malibu on Broadway as planned. Reckless.
Staying at a homeless hostel....
Now Broadway is a long thoroughfare it turns out, and far from being in the heart of theatre-land as I had imagined, this accommodation was miles out in a somewhat seedy area, but in for a penny..... so, as I had arrived at our rendezvous first, I checked in.
I later learnt that according to local reports, the Malibu was a shelter for homeless adults with AIDS and had, according to locals, become something of a centre for drug dealers and prostitutes. That was not hard to believe......
Meeting T for the first time was strange. We were both slightly uncomfortable to find ourselves here, what had seemed so right on the phone across thousands of miles suddenly turned into something more awkward and uncertain. But we decided to go with the flow and so began a friendship that has stood the test of time.
The Malibu 'Hotel' was a real dive, filthy communal bathrooms, dubious beds, fungus growing from the carpets and an atmosphere that was straight out of a gritty movie where it was easy to imagine the illicit goings-on in the corridors and even worse goings-on in the bedrooms. But it certainly made for an adventure. Each time we returned to the hotel our belongings had been moved to a different room. And on each occasion the room was worse until we felt like it might be safer on the streets.
Breakfast at Tiffany's - and the adventure really begins.....
However, T was a marvellous tour guide and educator. Over the next few days, we experienced the best that New York City had to offer. We travelled the subways, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, saw La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway, strolled though Central Park where I imagined being Charity Hope Valentine in my own version of Sweet Charity, my favourite musical. The bittersweet story fitted my life at the time and in Central Park I recalled scenes from the movie as I followed in the footsteps of Shirley Maclaine. We ate at Second Street Deli and even had Breakfast at Tiffany's, or at least wandered in there all Audrey Hepburn-like at breakfast time much to the obvious distaste of the immaculate staff. We stood under the clock at the Waldorf Astoria, the famous rendezvous point from the movies and then T took me to Greenwich Village. This was legendary in the gay world, the site of the Stonewall Inn where gay rights were born and where a real vibe buzzed on the streets. We ate excellent cake at one of the many trendy coffee shops there.
One day over breakfast T asked me a question. It was one of those questions that came from out of the blue and carried with it a profound realisation. He looked at me and asked, “do you think you would have been a good father?” I had often wondered what my life would have been like if I'd been straight, settled down with a nice woman and followed the whole family route. “Yes” I answered, “I think I would have made a great Dad”. He didn't even look up from his breakfast and just said to me “tough”.
Soon it was time for T to leave. He had to go home but I had a few days left before my flight back to the UK. We said farewell, arranged to phone on my return home and then he went. I waved him off on a bus and that was the last time I saw him.
I returned to the Hotel Malibu. My booking here had ended and I wasn't sure where I'd wind up until my flight home in three days time. I laughed to myself, there was always Central Park, that couldn't be worse. As I was making my decision whether to leave or take my chances at the Malibu, I discovered that T had paid for me to stay on, but this time in one of the Malibu's rare ensuite rooms, for the next three days. Compared to the other rooms, this turned out to be a luxury, not only was it quite clean, there was even a private, albeit basic, toilet and shower. T's generous gesture in paying for this room confirmed to me that I had, by some unknown hand of fate, met a gentleman and quite possibly a real life angel.
And during those next three days, I wandered New York a new man, I returned to Greenwich Village on my own and I began to find my feet, confidence bolstered and ready to go back home to England and begin the journey of the rest of my life....
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