Growing Up Gay in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

In those days, Borough Park didn’t know much about fine wines, haute couture, or homosexuals

One of These Things First

One of These Things First (Cover Art: Courtesy Steven Gaines)

In 1962, when I was 15 and lived with my parents above my grandmother’s bra and girdle emporium in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—think Grover’s Corner meets Anitekva—I was tormented by terrible secret. I was a homo, in the parlance of the day before the word gay was invented. I thought I had managed to conceal my homosexual desires when I was outed by two bullies who owned the corner candy store, and who continued to torment me—right into a suicide attempt. It was just about then that I fell in love for the first time—with a nameless boy mowing a lawn that I glimpsed only fleetingly from the back seat of my father’s car, a boy I would chase for the rest of my life.


LAWNMOWER BOY

Funny thing was, although the D train right on the corner connected us easily with Manhattan, we went there only for special occasions, like going to see a Broadway show for a birthday or to eat at a famous restaurant like Mama Leone’s or Luchow’s. Otherwise Brooklyn had everything we needed or wanted, all of it happily lacking in the complications of “the city.” They called Brooklyn “Manhattan’s bedroom,” because so many of the people who worked there during the day went home to Brooklyn on the train at night. So Brooklyn wasn’t exactly provincial, but I’d guess that most people in Borough Park in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, didn’t know much about, say, international diplomacy, or fine wines, or haute couture. Or psychiatry. Or homosexuals.

Well, there was one homo I knew, to use the lingua franca of Brooklyn in the 1950s. He was a freak, nature’s mistake, like in a science fiction movie where a man melds with a woman, a creature that didn’t deserve to live. It terrified me just to be in his presence. He rented the basement apartment at Aunt Gertie’s house on Avenue F, and sometimes at big family dinners he helped serve and clean up for five dollars and I got to look at him, but I avoided making eye contact. I figured he knew about me. All nature’s mistakes recognize each other. Michelle, as they called him—he let them call him that (his name was Michael but he seemed to think it was okay to call him Michelle)—had manicured nails and plucked eyebrows and he walked like a girl. Once he said he watched wrestling on TV when he folded the laundry, and my father called him a fairy and a homo behind his back.

And there was one other homo I heard of, Christine Jorgensen. My parents and Big Rich and Tina were joking about it one night, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in Tina’s kitchen. They said that Christine Jorgensen was a homo who went to Sweden and had his dick and balls cut off.  I didn’t want to have my dick and balls cut off. So I kept it a secret that I was a homo as best I could, and I watched how other boys moved and walked and talked, and I tried to look and be like them. But I guess it was already showing, after what Arnie and Irving said a month before I tried to kill myself.

Arnie and Irv, I had known them my whole life. They were okay guys, I looked up to them. They owned the Culver Luncheonette, nestled into the side of the Culver Theater, and I was in there every day. We all were. The whole neighborhood was in and out of that place all day. It was just five doors down from the store, and the salesgirls went there for coffee and an English muffin. The soda fountain had large plate glass windows facing the street, and everybody sitting on one of the twelve stools at the long counter could watch what was happening on street, like watching a movie on a Cinemascope screen. I must have eaten a million cheeseburgers sitting at the counter, absently staring out the big window at the world going by, while my grandmother Rose had her afternoon English and coffee, and kibitzed with Arnie and Irv and the other customers.

The whole neighborhood knew Rose, who owned the bra and girdle shop. She was a neighborhood luminary. She was barely five feet tall, honey blond, with hair teased like cotton candy sprayed with shellac. Her jokes were corny, but she kept them coming. She had her following too. Customers dropped into the store just to say hello. She always had some cheering advice, usually, “This too shall pass,” and a few stories. She could be touchingly sweet, even as she told dirty jokes. Every day she wore the same immaculate outfit—a blouse, a skirt, white nurse’s shoes, and a freshly pressed, spotless smock with a folded, clean handkerchief in her pocket she often used to dry my tears.

One afternoon at the Culver Luncheonette I was sitting with her at the counter, savoring an onion bialy with butter and tangy American cheese, along with a tall glass of ice-cold chocolate milk made from U-Bet syrup. It was so good I absently whistled. Twice.

Arnie, balding, doughy, in an apron behind the counter, called to his partner, “Hey, Irving! What whistles besides birds and fairies?”

So I took a big sip of chocolate milk, one time, two times, as if I didn’t hear what was just said, and I pretended that sipping the delicious, cold, thick chocolate milk was all that mattered in the world. It was a stupid joke because people whistle, birds chirp and sing, and who knows what fairies do? But I got the point. They just said it, out of the clear blue, with immunity. I guess you have to hate a child to say something like that. I dared not look at Arnie and Irving because acknowledging them with even a glance would make me complicit in their taunt, but I couldn’t stop myself, and when I peeked they were both snickering.

‘Let’s go chest to chest,’ I would whisper to the lawnmower boy as we embraced and melted.

The author.

The author, as a child, in Brooklyn. (Photo: Courtesy Steven Gaines)

My grandmother got very quiet. She looked deeply aggravated. I knew she would have stuck up for me except that calling attention to it would probably only make it worse. Anyway, she wasn’t much for confrontation. So we stared straight ahead out the window, one bite, two bites, and then Muna frostily asked for a check. At the cash register she raised herself to her full five feet and said to Irv, “I’ll never come back here again. Never.”

But she started going back in a week. You couldn’t blame her; it was the only place to get an English.

From then on, every time I walked past the big glass windows of the Culver Luncheonette, Arnie and Irving minced around inside and curtsied to me like a girl. I prayed they would get tired of it, but it continued to amuse them. I considered telling my father, but I was too ashamed. What could I say—they tease me for being a homo? And then what would he do? Storm the ramparts of the luncheonette to complain that his son was being mocked for being a fegele? I had to stop walking past the luncheonette altogether. I began to cross to the other side of the street, and I walked with my face turned away, toward the wall. Even when I went to the Culver Theater, which was right next door to the luncheonette, I walked all the way around the block to get there.

If Arnie and Irving could tell, I suppose everybody knew. I promised myself that I would make it untrue. I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch, trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside, desperate to find a place to jerk off, mind-wrestling to keep my thoughts away from rubbing my chest against the chest of another boy, which was as far as my stifled sexual expression had progressed. “Chest to chest,” I thought of  it. “Let’s go chest to chest,” I would whisper to the lawnmower boy as we embraced and melted.

The lawnmower boy was a deity in whom I invested all my yearnings. I glimpsed him one Sunday out of the car window from behind the Franconia Notch decal, as my father was driving us randomly around the Five Towns, Long Island’s repository of new-money, second-generation Jews in the 1960s. We spent many weekends gawking at the spoils of postwar, split-level prosperity on Long Island and became connoisseurs of model homes. We strolled through scores of them over the years, oohing and aahing over fireplaces and in-wall ovens, debating the virtues and deficits of the layouts and landscaping, then got back in the car, sighed, and drove off to another house we would never be able to afford.

He was a real boy, not a fake boy like me, and everything about him was normal.

My dad was proud to have his master’s in education from New York University and to be a tenured teacher and guidance counselor with the New York City Board of Education, but teachers made lousy money back then, and even though he held down a second job teaching at night school in Manhattan, we were always scrimping to get by. One year my mother stuffed envelopes for a mail-order business for two cents each so we could pay installments on our living room furniture. My dad knew he’d never be able to buy us one of those houses in Hewlett Bay Harbor, or Lawrence, or a house like my grandfather, Gog, had in Freeport, with its two-car garage and celebrity bandleader who lived next door. Still, we dreamed and drove.

The Lawnmower Boy was mowing the lawn of a house in a development in Lynbrook. I saw him fleetingly, no more than a slow camera pan as he passed in and out of frame, but I knew him so intimately from that moment that I can still smell the sun on the nape of his neck. He was bare-chested, his white tee shirt hanging out of the back pocket of his blue jeans, and his black high-top sneakers were unlaced. He was a real boy, not a fake boy like me, and everything about him was normal—the peach fuzz above his upper lip, eyebrows bleached blond from the sun, brown nipples the size of dimes, an electrifying trail of dark hair that began at his navel and disappeared into the elastic band of his Fruit of the Loom underwear. Chest to chest with me.

He was with me every day after that, the ectoplasm of my desire. I called him Nathaniel when we talked, but in my mind, like God, he had no name. When I didn’t pay attention to him, he jealously intruded into my thoughts and made me hard. He was a show-off. Mischievous and endlessly entertaining. I masturbated thinking about going chest to chest with him half a dozen times a day, and every time I finished I was so filled with remorse and shame that I would beat my head with my fists until there were red bumps across my forehead. I would swear to Adonai that I would banish him, but I didn’t know how to make him go away, and anyway, I really didn’t want him to.

***

One of These Things First will be released on August 9.

Steven Gaines is a bestselling author and co-founder of the Hamptons International Film Festival. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and New York Magazine, where he was a contributing editor for 12 years. For seven years his weekly radio interview show, ‘Sunday Brunch Live from the American Hotel in Sag Harbor’, aired on a local National Public Radio affiliate. Gaines has lived in Wainscott, a small hamlet on the East End of Long Island, for 40 years.

Growing Up Gay in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn