Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
Earlier this evening they had all been together for dinner, with the two kids noisy and happy as if Grandpa Ken had never been, and after dinner, in the oncoming letdown that seemed to lie in wait for mourning people as they began to think of going home, Margie came up with the inspired idea of taking Lynnie and Jeffie to their first night movie, a Disney oldie running in a small theater on Broadway near them. The kids went wild at the idea of going to a movie when it was
outside, and even though Grandma Tessa pleaded fatigue, they both ganged up with such fervent insistence that they
had to go, even Marta, that everybody did go. It was only when the movie had ended that Tessa announced she was taking a cab alone, urging Jeff to go along to Nate and Margie’s for a final nightcap before flying West tomorrow.
The final nightcap had turned into two final nightcaps. They talked of the two weeks just past, and they agreed that Tessa had been great since Ken’s death. This second week, she had gone back to work, leaving each morning for the office as if it were newly essential to her, returning each evening with the familiar oblong boxes bearing manuscript, making it seem to Jeff, who made it a point always to be there at about five in the afternoon, that nothing more than an interlude had taken place, an unhappy interlude, yes, some sort of normal interruption in life’s routine, but one that would be accommodated before too long. He never told Margie and Nate that twice he had waked in the middle of the night with the certainty that he had heard her crying; there was always the chance that he had dreamed it. Once he even wondered whether he had dreamed that he himself was the one crying. That rather interested him. For the first time in a long while he wondered what Dr. Dudley or Dr. Isaacs would make of it if he were still spilling his guts out about dreams.
Impossible, he decided, impossible even in a dream, that he would be crying about his father’s death. He had for too long been alienated from the poor guy, maybe forgiving him, maybe even accepting all the semantic explanations his father had later dredged up. But under all the forgiving, there still remained his own knowledge that to his father he had spelled tragedy. People who looked at you and saw you as
tragedy could never see why they became inevitably your tragedy.
“So I’m holding it open,” Nate was saying, “until I do get down there. The second piece.”
“Down where, Nate? Sorry, I missed that.”
“Down to one of the gay bars in the Village. Not that I expect anything much different from the one I took in uptown, but I don’t want to fake it, either.”
“Any special bar?”
“There’s one near Sheridan Square, named Stonewall Jackson or something. Do you know that one?”
“No, but then, bars haven’t ever been my bag.”
“They raided this one a few nights ago, over their liquor license. I thought maybe I could get one of the owners to open up about the cops hassling them, that sort of thing.”
“Liquor license!” Jeff jeered. “Wouldn’t you think they’d come up with something more original for a change?”
“Why waste gray matter?” Margie said. “When it serves them so handily.”
“Was the raid in the papers?” Jeff asked. “I didn’t see a thing about it.”
“Nor did I,” Nate said. “I got it from a friend of mine.”
“How’d he know?”
“He was there when the cops showed.”
“He was, hey?” Jeff looked at him, amused. “Some of your best friends are fags?”
“And some of my worst enemies.” Nate glanced at his watch.
“Look, Jeff,” Margie said sharply. “I wish you’d cut out the word ‘fag.’ When somebody else says it, it’s hateful, so what makes it okay for you to?”
“Sort of an
privilege,” Jeff said casually, “Shop talk.”
“Well, I hate it,” Margie shot back. “I hate it when a black calls himself a ‘nigger’ as a joke and thinks it’s okay for him to say it but not for anybody white. Or when a Jew says ‘kike’ or ‘Hebe’ sort of as if they were
“Actually, I agree with you,” Jeff said amicably. “It’s like trying to defang the snake by using the venom first, before he can spit it into you.”
Nate glanced at his watch again. “Say, Jeff, about this bar. How’s for going down there for a drink?”
“If you want to.” Jeff didn’t move.
“It’s one A.M.,” Margie said.
“I might get me a new lead for that.” Nate waved at his typewriter. “Or a better windup. It needs one zinger to make it right. I can always tell if it’s not right.”
Jeff still did not move. Here it was again. The key point, but even a Nate missed it. Every time you showed at a gay bar or a gay beach or a gay hangout of any sort, you risked being seen by somebody who then had you tagged. If you were in a job you had to hang on to, if you were on the verge of a medical degree—God, why didn’t straights ever understand that you couldn’t go looking for trouble? They thought gays were so damn promiscuous, probably thought every gay in the world was a nightly cruiser, but if they ever saw it as it was, they’d know that gays had to keep to a life style of solitude, except when the rare exception came along, somebody who knew about solitude too.
Nate had gone over to his desk, rummaged about there, and now was fastening a blue plastic shield to his shirt pocket “Come on,” Nate said, his voice a bit slurred, “I’m
see, and you’re a cub reporter on assignment with me, maybe a stringer.”
“If Jeff doesn’t feel like it,” Margie said.
Jeff jumped to his feet. “Sure, I feel like it,” he said with too much vigor.
“You’re both nuts,” Margie said. “This hour of the night.” As they left, she slid the bolt in the safety lock and heard a taxi roar away.
As their cab approached Sheridan Square, Nate and Jeff both leaned forward in a sudden excitement. Something was wrong. In the street outside the bar, a crowd was shoving and jostling, mostly a young crowd, mostly male, a shouting jeering crowd, perhaps two hundred people in all, spilling over from the square into Christopher Street As Nate paid off the driver, his professional eye registered the fact that the name of the bar was the Stonewall Inn, that its front was red brick, that its windows were boarded up as if in a state of siege, and that a sign outside its entrance proclaimed, “Private Club. For Members Only.”
The crowd, at first glance, was a typical Greenwich Village crowd on a hot summer night, in jeans or chinos, in sport shirts, no ties, the usual long hair, beards, sideburns, the whole gamut. Another glance showed some men in women’s clothes, others in leather, some wearing medallions on chains on bared chests, all looking like any unruly, excited crowd in a big city in the last year of the Sixties, the Seething Sixties.
“What the hell’s going on?” Nate asked somebody near him, but at that moment the door of the bar opened and two men shoved a struggling youth out of the place, while the crowd outside roared louder than before.
“The pigs, the goddamn plainclothes pigs,” a voice next to Nate and Jeff shouted. “And the two dames in there—plainclothes pigs too.” A beer can whizzed through the air, landing against the closing door of the Stonewall Inn. This was followed by a bottle, then by stones, sticks, coins.
“Watch the glass, Nate,” Jeff shouted, and as if they were yoked, they simultaneously pushed forward, a team attacking an unyielding mass.
“How long since this started?” Nate asked the person nearest him.
“An hour, hour and a half. They figured we’d slink off, but we’re fighting the bastards.” A ring of pride sounded.
“You sure are,” Nate shouted back.
Just then, off in the distance, sirens began to whine, screaming closer with every second, and lights of approaching police cars sent rotating beams through the night. Both whine and light acted as signals for an even more frenzied energy in the heaving mass of people.
For a moment Nate paused and looked around, seeing, noting, wanting to remember. The crowd had thickened and he guessed that the newer arrivals were largely weekend tourists from other Village bars and cafés, come to see the excitement, hoping for rough stuff, even hoping for the bloody violence their television screens taught them to expect.
Suddenly an arc of light swept across Jeff’s face and he heard one of the approaching patrol cars screech to a halt somewhere beside him. Blue uniforms poured into view, the first he had seen. He said, “Nate, the cops—look there.”
In the same instant he thought, My God, I could be pulled in, I could be jailed. My degree, my M.D. …
Unwanted, detested in the very forming, the thought struck like a fist: Get out of this, there’s only a year to go, you can’t kill the whole thing now, you goddamn well can’t fuck up all of it now.
“Nate,” he said. “I’m getting out. I can’t risk …” At that moment, something lurched into him from behind and he turned toward it; it was a man, a young man falling, falling backward and away from a nightstick whistling down toward his head, missing his skull, landing on his shoulder, while the policeman wielding it shouted, “You goddamn faggot, you’re under arrest.”
Instinctively Jeff buttressed the falling body with his own. Again the nightstick plunged through the air, this time horizontally, in the extra room made by the crowd backing off from the flailing weapon. This time, like a sword of wood plunged at the young man’s stomach, the blunt end landed and the young man doubled over, a grunt of rage and pain torn from him. Jeff’s right arm shot out; he straight-armed the attacking cop.
“Beating up faggots,” he roared at him. “I’m a faggot too, so come on.”
The cop swung toward him in surprise and fury. Again Jeff’s arm shot forward, but this time his stance was better and his whole shoulder and back went into the thrust. The impact was solid. For a crazy moment he remembered football and Placquette. A roar of elation swept through him, a wildness in it, as if he in his own body were that whole stadium up there shouting out in a frenzy of victory.
Officer,” Nate’s voice suddenly sounded behind him, naming his newspaper, Nate’s voice with a new note in it, a note he had never heard. Authority. That was it. Nate, with the sound of authority. “Here’s my press badge—this guy’s with me, a cub reporter, we’re on assignment. Do you want to make a statement?”
The officer glared at the blue plastic Nate was extending toward him, but at that instant a new roar came from the crowd, and a sound of splintering wood. A yell of delight arose and a shout, “They tore it out of the ground.” Ahead of them two men were battering at the door of the Stonewall Inn, their rammer nothing other than an uprooted parking meter.
“Come on, kid,” Nate said to Jeff, still in the voice of command. “We’re for the precinct now, for some quotes.” He shoved Jeff ahead of him, past the cop, who seemed transfixed by that rhythmic battering thrust of the parking meter.
“Some quotes, you bet,” Jeff said, heaving his way through in unison with Nate. He knew that the precinct and the quotes were pure improvisation, that Nate had no intention of leaving. With a stab of exultation he knew that neither had he.
They had stayed down there until it was over. A paddy wagon arrived soon after the prowl cars, people were yanked and pulled and shoved in, some thirteen arrested. Nate had finally reached one of the Stonewall’s owners by phone; it was a smashed-up mess inside, the jukebox smashed, the phone booths wrecked, the cigarette machines, the mirrors, half the plumbing. “Like the atom bomb hit us.”
Now it was nearly daylight and Jeff was at home, but he could not sleep. He could not read, he could not calm down. Nate was going to write his piece, but there was no such help for Jeff. He could not yet believe it.
To fight back, he thought, to fight the cops back. To fight the world back. To forget all the reasons and stand there and fight. That fantasy of some sort of new free life, free of the old nightmares of being discovered, betrayed by a Hank, being branded. Those increasing reports of people fed up with hiding, people who had come out of the closet, who said
yes, we are.
Tonight he had said it with them. Tonight at a place he had never heard of, tonight gay people had stood their ground when the cops came, hadn’t gotten the hell out in the fear of a police blotter, but had made a stand and attacked their attackers.
I’m a faggot too, so come on.
It rang out in his mind again and again, a shout, a roar of assertion. Never before, not even once in his life had he flung it at the air, at authority and power. Tonight he had. It was that crowd that had done it for him, that had caught him up in their collective will, that had showed the way before he joined them. They had not accepted the age-old stage direction for frightened people,
and made for the nearest exit, had not thought of jobs and careers and their secret .They had stood in the open and fought back.
And by that fluke of timing he had fought too. He would never forget it. He might never repeat it, might never know it again, but for now it was his.
He flung himself upright and got out of bed. It was dawn, summer dawn. He went to the telephone. In California it was four in the morning. He would call—
There was nobody to call. This was one of the arid stretches, where there was nobody of any importance. Since Roy, Roy with his Beethoven and Bach, Roy with his political meetings and picket lines, since Roy there had been nobody lasting, which meant about a year of living alone. He had never been one of the people who easily found a man he could love; sex was another matter. If he were straight, he’d be one of the men who didn’t easily find a woman he could love. Nate didn’t; he’d bet on it. Nate might have sex if he were off on an out-of-town assignment, but Nate wouldn’t confuse that with the amalgam of nuances and importances that earned the name love. If Nate were gay, Nate would be like him.
The thought had never crossed his mind: if Nate were gay. He accepted Nate as he was, loved him as he was, just as he accepted Margie as she was and loved her as she was. They were great people, and that was the whole of it. What they did about sex never entered into it for him, and what he did never entered into it for them.