Penny Arcade: ‘An Old Queen’s Tale’
Author: Edit Team
June 11, 2012
“No more Harry M. Koutoukas, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Robert Beers, Marsha P. Johnson, International Chrysis, Douglas Fisher, Ritta Redd, Tony Ingrassia, Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, Bunny Eisenhower, Frances Francine, Taylor Mead or the others—many others whose names even I have forgotten—names once famous in gay circles. They are mostly gone now, but I walk with them still and I know I always will.”
LGBTQ Pride Month is upon us and nothing quite says pride like New York City. With that in mind, this June the Lambda Literary Review will be running excerpts from the recently released essay collection Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City (Vantage Point Books) edited by Thomas Keith. The collection is composed of:
[…]twenty-eight original essays by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered writers include personal stories that span forty years of LGBT life in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, and together create a queer love letter to New York City. Chapters in this volume range from personal anecdote to memoir, reportage, history, herstory, and daydream, as well as tributes to people, places, and events.
In the following excerpt, “An Old Queen’s Tale”, the incomparable performance artist and writer Penny Arcade offers an elegiac, touching, and humorous remembrance of queer times now since passed.
An Old Queen’s Tale
Growing up in New England, New York didn’t figure in my landscape. There were occasional references to New York by my mother, about the carefree, single days of her 20s, attending Radio City musicals with her unmarried girlfriends. A coven of first-generation Italian American women, my mother the only Italian immigrant among them, traveled every few months to New York by train. All of them sweatshop seamstresses with the glamorous aspirations that the films of the 1930s had left them with; hats and gloves and red lipstick. Later, much later, when I was twenty-one, I interviewed these women—all of them unmarried—trying to unravel the mystery of my mother; the boxes of photos they had taken in the ’40s proved she had once been happy.
To me and the kids I knew, Boston, an hour and a half away, was the city. Closer to home, forty miles away, Hartford, Connecticut—with its tall buildings and in late 1959 a building made of blue-mirrored glass—to me and the factory-town kids like me, it was the future.
It was the gay bars of early 1960s Hartford that I was sneaked into as a fourteen-year-old.
Sneaked in is an exaggeration, really, because Natalie, the transsexual at the door, had never stopped me, not even on my first visit, accompanied as I was always by Larry Buscaino. Tall, skinny, as charismatic as he was alcoholic, Larry Buscaino was three years older than I. Obsessed with The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, he carried a guitar most places, and would play outrageous, percussive solo versions of Rolling Stones or Dylan songs anywhere he felt like it. In his unruly Beatles mop top, wireless eyeglasses, and mod suits he purchased in New York on visits to “the Jewish side of the family,” Larry was always dressed to the teeth, as we used to say back then.
Larry ruled Hartford’s only gay bar and the all-night coffee shops on the Berlin Turnpike, with an élan never before or after experienced in our nearby factory town, New Britain, Connecticut. On the streets of New Britain, Larry stood out like crazy—high on the diet pills he pilfered from his mother, silhouetted by that grey, bleak, brick town, shouting back at the passing, taunting cars, whose pompadoured occupants shouted out, “QUEER!”
“That’s right I’m queer!” he would shout back. “What about it?”
When we left the bar the first time, Larry had turned to me and asked, “What do you think of Natalie?”
“She’s very nice,” I said. “She let me in!”
“Anything else?” Larry pressed on.
“She’s very pretty,” I replied.
Then laughing at what he perceived as my coyness, Larry growled the next words that signaled that we were entering into a verbal duel.
“Notice anything else?”
“Well, she’s a boy.”
“And?” he rose to his full height and danced around me waiting for my next remark chanting, “AND? AND?” in an exaggerated way.
“And,” I replied in a half swoon, “She looks like Elizabeth Taylor!”
Larry gave me Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, the book that was the Bible for certain gay men in those days—actually for all the gay men and boys I knew—and it became a Bible for me too, till I replaced it with Genet’s Thieves Journal. Genet’s writing spoke directly to us. When I met Andy Warhol in New York much later, it was clear that he had patterned his look—black leather jacket, Marseille-striped sailor jersey, and jeans—on Genet, so great was the iconic criminal artist’s influence on the gay demimonde of the 1960s.
Larry turned me on to the thrift stores he frequented. It was because of him I started to understand why my mother had saved all her 1930s and ’40s clothes for me in neat garment bags in the back hall closet. I started to wear them to the bar in Hartford and soon, everywhere. Later, it was this extensive wardrobe of 1930s and ’40s vintage clothes and shoes that prompted New York Underground star Jackie Curtis to close every discussion about costumes in my plays with, “Penny Arcade has her own clothes.”
My mother was mortified when I started to bring home vintage dresses I picked up for nothing in the second hand clothes stores Larry took me to. We went thrifting nearly every afternoon but when I started to buy black old ladies’ shoes with big stacked heels, my Italian mama became really upset. “Somebody else’s shoes!” she would moan. “Old lady shoes! Dead lady’s shoes.” It was further proof to her that there was something really not right with me, something really wrong with me.
As we devoured Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Larry would offer suggestions on what Ma could sew for me. My taste expanded, and through Larry I saw that my long attempts at self-definition were not so unique, not as weird as they had seemed in that factory town with collegiate aspirations, and I stopped asking Mama to copy the John Norris of Norwich preppy, heather-colored clothes I saw the richer girls in my school wearing. Instead we copied clothes I loved in Vogue but rarely saw in any store, not that I could have afforded them. Ma made all my clothes. The only store-bought clothes I owned I shoplifted; an ability I showed prodigious talent for long before I met Larry, but further developed under his tutelage.
My mother could make any pattern out of newspaper. This process of pattern-making was one of the few ways I could distract her from what she felt was my intrinsic badness, my difference, my otherness. It always amazed me when I would see her drop her defensiveness towards me as she figured out how to make a pattern from a magazine photo and she would happily add my ideas to the patterns. Then there was her delight in choosing the material from her vast stores of fabric in our cellar.
Larry and I made quite a spectacle of ourselves without opening our mouths, although our mouths were rarely shut—not with Larry’s endless supply of diet pills pilfered from his mother’s medicine chest. Soon he introduced me to Aggie, a slight, first-generation Ukrainian-American guy, a little older than Larry, who lived with his widowed mother in the new suburbs that had started to spring up around New Britain in the early 1960s. Aggie had a car and he would pick Larry up each night and together they would drive to my house and turn the lights on and off to signal their arrival. I would climb out of my third floor bedroom window as everyone in my house slept. Eventually, one night, a few months before my seventeenth birthday, while all the factory workers in my neighborhood were fast asleep, Larry and Aggie, high on pot, pills, and whisky, showed up with a carload of queens we knew from Hartford, and pulled up in front of my darkened house. I climbed down the fire escape only to be told by Larry that there was a change of plans for this particular evening.
“Pack your drag. We’re going to Ptown!”
“What’s Ptown?” I asked
“Gay capital of America,” Larry hissed. “Gay capital of the world,” Aggie tittered, and I climbed back up the fire escape, threw a few things in a brown paper bag and left that town where I was born and where my difference had made me a public martyr since I was twelve years old.
In 2009, in San Francisco, I booked two performances at odd times over a weekend— 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and 3:00 p.m. on Sunday—to develop a new performance through improvisation called Old Queen. As the audience showed up I noticed an elderly man shuffling on a cane and I introduced myself, asking what had brought him to see me. He pointed to a younger man in his early 60s and said, “My friend read about you on the Internet.” I excused myself and went over to the younger man.
“Hi I’m Penny Arcade, thank you for coming and bringing your friend. What enticed you into coming?” I was really curious.
“Well, I read you had hung out in the gay bars of Hartford, Connecticut in the early ’60s. I did too. So I was intrigued.”
“I met your friend George,” I said, gesturing back to the older man, now seated, whose name was George.
“That man happens to be George Birisma, one of the greatest gay playwrights America has ever produced. He is my friend and my neighbor.” He took his seat next to George as I told George it was an honor to meet him. The younger man scanned my face and we spoke about Hartford’s gay scene in the early ’60s and he asked, “Did you ever know Inga? She was a transsexual. She was my best friend. She died seven years ago.”
Quietly, I said, “No.”
His face filled with sorrow. I didn’t know what to say, his pain was palpable, and the performance, which I was about to improvise, was about to start. Desperate, I blurted, “Did you ever know Billy Hansen?”
His eyes widened and he replied, “Inga was Billy Hansen.”
For years I had tried to find out the whereabouts of Billy Hansen, a Hartford hairdresser, who was quietly androgynous with a self-confident, casual, easy grace. Billy Hansen had earned my early devotion by walking in the big drag pageant barefoot, in blue jeans. The goal was realness and the queens spared no expense in devoting weeks of preparation to wigs, frocks, and extensive makeup.
The beauty pageant drew participants from all over the tri-state area of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Where the other queens walked on in bouffant wigs, heavy makeup, and elaborate gowns, Billy had brought the crowd to silence as he crossed the stage barefoot, in blue jeans, a loose white T-shirt, no makeup, not even lipstick, in his own pale blonde hair, holding a ladies’ wallet like he was walking to the corner store. Everyone knew Billy Hansen was the realest one of all.
I was stunned as this younger man, Richard, who had left Hartford for San Francisco forty years before, with sadness in his blue eyes told me the story of Billy/Inga. How she had died of “women’s cancer” years after her sexual reassignment. I was speechless, amazed, and grateful that I was finding this out at this moment. It made me feel so right about my instincts for this new show I had set out to create for Hot Fest at Dixon Place in just two weeks time.
“Well, “ I replied, hardly able to contain my elation, feeling Billy Hansen’s presence as palpably as Richard’s, “Billy Hansen has a big role in the story I am about to tell.”
Minutes later I was onstage telling the audience how it had come about that, unbeknownst to me as a fourteen-year-old girl, I had set out on a trajectory to become an old queen. How every night in those gay bars of my teen years, my goal had been to sit with the old queens, a very difficult invitation for a teenaged girl to get. The old queens knew everything about life, history, and culture. The old queens understood the human condition, something that baffled me, and I needed the comfort and the understanding that lay beneath their cruel barbs. The old queens recognized me by my curiosity, by my wit, by my recognition of them as superior to me. As I told my story on the bare stage that afternoon in San Francisco, each time I mentioned a name from long ago, Larry Buscaino or Aggie, this man Richard, from Hartford, Connecticut, sitting in the front row, would shout, to George Birasima’s growing delight, “Larry Buscaino! Oh no! Aggie! Billy Hansen!! Oh MY GOD!!!”
After my performance ended, I walked over to them and Richard looked at me hard. “I remember you now,” he said. “You had dark brown hair then. You were very young. I didn’t like you.”
I gulped, trying to remain poised. Frightened, I asked, “Why didn’t you like me?”
“You were very obviously underage, the only girl in the bar, late at night, wildly dancing and carrying on. I was afraid that you were going to get us all arrested.”
The weekend in June of 1967, when I left New Britain, Connecticut, the queens—Larry and Aggie and I—terrorized Provincetown, Massachusetts.
All of us had sneaked into the room Aggie rented at The Crown and Anchor and crashed there. I was a little shocked on Monday when they prepared to go back to Connecticut. “Why? “I asked Larry. “Why go back?” Larry and Aggie took the news that I was staying put in stride and piled into the car and waved goodbye with Larry yelling out the window, “Where are you going to sleep? How are you going to eat?” I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t thinking about any of those things.
So it came to be that I spent the 1967 Summer of Love in Ptown. It was during that summer I got to know Billy Hansen a little bit better, because Billy spent the whole summer there every year. One afternoon, I ran into Billy right in front of the Meat Rack and, not knowing what to say after “Hi,” I held up the ends of my long hair and said, ”Look, my hair is a mess! ” Billy laughed and said, “Come with me. I can fix that up,” and we walked to his house. In his tiny kitchen Billy lit a joint and started to cut my hair. I was in a glorious trance, happy to be sitting so close to Billy Hansen. I was trying to memorize Billy’s cheekbones and—between the weed and Billy Hansen inches away from me—I was in a swoon. I didn’t realize till afterwards that the drone I heard in the background was Billy Hansen buzzing off all my hair! “All done!” Billy said with satisfaction in his voice, a satisfaction that I interpreted as approval of me. Running my hand up the back of my head, it felt a little boy’s buzz cut! I was speechless. “Go wash your head,” he eventually said. He didn’t say hair, he said head. I went to the bathtub and, kneeling under the faucet, I found that I had no hair left!
“This is so much chicer on you than Mia Farrow,” Billy said, slouching in the doorway of the bathroom, puffing on another joint. “I cut it shorter, much more radical.” I believe that was the first time I heard the word “radical” spoken out loud. The Summer of Love was The Summer of Hair, but I turned seventeen that July in Ptown with my head shorn like Joan of Arc. It was a small price to pay for being close to Billy Hansen.
It was also in Ptown that summer that I met Jaime Andrews, who would change my life forever. One day, as I tried to cross Commercial Street in the butt-to-bumper traffic, a new sedan gunned its engine and jumped forward, just grazing my thigh. But there was no escape for him because the traffic wasn’t moving and I felt evil, so I draped myself into the empty passenger side window and crawled along with the car saying, “Very tacky to be killed by a 1967 Chevy, thank you very much!” The “very much” lasted about nine syllables. Victorious, I strode off, but I was followed by cackling laughter. I didn’t look back right way. The merry cackling continued to follow me. I turned on my heel and stopped, and what a sight: a beautiful man in a white linen suit. My eyes trailed him down and up. White shoes, three-piece white linen suit, white Panama hat, and white, white teeth, twinkling and laughing in a big smile. Big brown, twinkling eyes in the white, whites of his eyes.
I surveyed him, cocked my head to the side and haughtily spat out, “I need your elegance?” And the elegant one laughed more and I jumped, jerk-turned around, and then turned back because he was amazing to behold. But I was intimidated so I kept walking fast and he strolled, la-di-da, behind me, still laughing, and called out, “Hey, Miss Thing! Who writes your material?” And I slowed down thinking, Hmm, maybe he has a place to stay, and we walked and talked and he told me his name is Jaime Andrews. He’s half-Italian, half-Portuguese, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, a factory town like mine. He’s twenty-seven years old and he’d just graduated from RISD with a double major in photography and architecture. He said, “RISD” like I’m supposed to know what that means. “What’s RISD?” I asked and he replied, “Art school,” somewhat incredulously and went on to explain art school to me. We walked all the way to the house where he was staying and he went immediately to the record player and put on the Four Tops. “Bernadette” filled the living room and we danced all afternoon and smoked pot. He told me I made him think of a seventeen-year-old boy he had a crush on, Mark McCarthy. He asked me where I was staying, but I chickened out from telling him I was homeless and I made something up, and before I knew it I was back at the Meat Rack, looking for a place to crash. I was crashing in hallways and on back steps and, when I was lucky, in some vacationing fags’ hotel room. The boys came and went from all over the country and lots of them let me share their room for a night or two. I often went to parties where I was the only girl. One night I was at The A House with Jaime and the crowd he hung out with, which included a tall, thin man with a pencil mustache named John who stuck out in my mind because he was the only person in Jaime’s group not going to New York at the end of the summer—he was going to Baltimore to make movies. John was often with a beautiful dark haired girl named Marina who I thought was the most glamorous creature on earth. Later that night we went to someone’s house after the bars closed. I was, as we used to say back then, “carrying on for days,” and a young Asian queen hearing me talk asked Jaime earnestly, “Is she real? How come she talks like a queen?” Before Jaime could open his mouth I turned, one hand on my hip, and said, “I didn’t spend $25,000 and six months in Casablanca to have you ask if I am real!” Jaime just shook his head and crowed, “Miss Thing can out-dish us all! Is she not divine?”
The next night or soon after, I was at the Meat Rack wondering again where I was going to sleep and some skinny queen with bad skin from Milwaukee ran by yelling, “Queens from New York, Andy Warhol queens from New York!” and everyone followed him down the street, including me.
Jaime had given me a raccoon fur coat to wear, and even though it was summer I wore it. Feeling very fabulous, I followed the pack of fags to The Terrace where I never went because I had no money. But I was there in my glory until “Babbo,” the gigantic queen who ruled Ptown from his table at The Terrace, called out to me, “Careful, daughter!! That animal wasn’t trapped—it was beaten to death.” And everyone laughed, even me, because funny is funny no matter who says it. The place was packed and tres gay with the lights, and the night, and the laughing.
Then Babbo stood up and announced, “Those queens from New York look evil and dangerous.”
The skinny queen with the bad skin tittered, “Dangerous but glamorous like thugs with make up.” Then suddenly it was very quiet. Everyone looked at the gate and there they were, just two of them, and I thought, Wow! That’s a lot of drama for just two queens! But they were like no queens I had ever seen. They were wearing tight, tight black leather jackets, tight, tight. No, I mean like painted-on tight black jeans, and super mean, pointed-toe, Puerto Rican shit-kicker black boots. They were very, very butch but only up to the neck! The taller, skinnier one was blonde, more than blonde, platinum, with bouffant hair like Marilyn’s. The other was a bit shorter, a bit stockier, with black hair in a fabulous upswept French twist and looked like Suzanne Pleshette. Both of them had on full makeup. Pretty makeup with at least three pairs of false eyelashes each and big, red, pouting, lipstick mouths. They were in Technicolor from the neck up and black leather, butcher than anything, from the neck down. No one moved, no one said a word; everyone was holding their breath.
I walked over to get a closer look at these New York queens, surprised that no one else was talking to them. Up close they looked like well-groomed horses in a Memorial Day parade. “Are you from New York?” I asked the blonde one. He glanced down at me, and murmured, “Uh huh.” Glancing back at the wave of crowd in front of him he said to the dark-haired queen, “This child is the only one who has the nerve to speak to us,” indicating me with his chin.
“Everyone thinks you’re dangerous,” I blurted out.
And he purred, “We are dangerous,” through a smile, but his eyes, ice blue and cold, didn’t smile. I checked out his makeup and it was flawless. Perfect false eyelashes marched across both eyes. His cheekbones looked like war monuments, lit at night from below. He turned to me and ran his index finger along the end of his eyebrow and softened slightly as he asked, “How long have you been here?”
“Most of the summer,” I replied.
“Do you have room for us where you’re staying?”
“Well?” I braced myself and said, “I’m not staying anywhere.” But this was not a bombshell, not to them.
The other queen, Suzanne Plushette, spoke for the first time, “Most of the summer? I wouldn’t give this town two days. We’re going back to New York tomorrow. I’m Randy by, the way. He’s Johnny.”
Johnny rocked back on his Cuban heels. “Lets blow this joint. Care to come along, hon?” I glanced around but there was nothing to hold me there and I walked out the gate with them.
We walked along Commercial Street and Johnny turned to me and asked, “Have you been to New York?”
And I said, “Not yet.”
And he said, “You’re a natural for New York. Believe me, you are wasted here. You can come stay with us.” And I couldn’t believe my luck!
We stopped at the dark edge of a driveway and Johnny let air out softly through his lips and said, “Ooh, Look at that bus.” I looked in the driveway and there was a big beige luxury tour bus parked there, dark inside as the night itself.
Randy walked alongside it. “Hey, I guess we found tonight’s digs.”
That made me nervous. It was a bus. Busses have drivers. I preferred porches, hallways, and back steps for passing the hours between 2:00 a.m. when the bars closed and 11:00 a.m. when it was okay to be seen back at the Meat Rack without calling into question your living arrangements.
I braced myself and said, “I don’t think this is a great idea.”
“Why not?” demanded Randy, kind of meanly.
“Well, for one thing it’s….” I drifted along, trying to think of something to say, dragging on the last syllable.
“It’s what?” demanded Randy, losing patience with me, along with one false eyelash that drifted to the ground.
“Well it’s…too beige,” I blurted out.
Johnny, who had been pulling on the door handle of the bus, started laughing “ Too beige!! Too beige!! Touché! Touché!” Randy bent down to lift the eyelash off the tarmac drive and Johnny pulled the door open.
“Oh my God, it’s open,” Randy screamed and all three of us scrambled inside. It was plush, clean and soft. We lay back in the rosy interior and I sank deep into sleep.
The next day Johnny and Randy headed for the bus back to New York and we stopped in the middle of the meat market. With everybody looking, Johnny stabbed his index finger into the watch pocket of his jeans. But the pocket of his jeans was so tight he could hardly get the top of his index finger in. He stretched up, arched his back, and leaned back further and further and wiggled his finger around like he was baiting minnows and finally he pulled out a matchbook. Then, with his eye on the crowd, he pulled out a yellow stub of a pencil from the inside pocket of his motorcycle jacket. He scrawled his number on the matchbook and had me read it back to him, out loud, and then he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You better get out of this hole as soon as possible, or you’ll end up boring…like them.” He pointed to everyone on the Meat Rack, turned on his heel and they walked away without looking back once. Then everyone turned and stared at me as if they were seeing me for the first time.
Two months later—in a story that is too long to go into here—I found myself in a telephone booth on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson Streets, with Mark McCarthy, a beautiful blond boy from Worcestster, Massachusetts. Mark was seventeen, too. Yes! It was the same Mark McCarthy that Jaime Andrews had told me about in Ptown. I had met Mark in a crash pad in Boston when I left Ptown. We left Boston because, as young as we were, we both hated living in a student town. The matchbook Johnny Pepin had given me was in my hand and I called that number, holding my breath, hoping that the number was still good.
Johnny answered the phone completely unsurprised that I was calling, then asked, “Where are you?” I asked Mark and repeated Mark’s words into the phone, “Bleecker Street and Thompson Street.”
“No! No! No!” He said, “All wrong! Get into a cab and come to the corner of East 7th Street and Avenue C. Call me from the corner when you get here.”
This is how I came to fall in with the most infamous set of criminal, intellectual, psychedelic queens. Soon I was living in shooting galleries and hotel rooms populated by what was called the “A Set.” A for Amphetamine.
These shooting galleries floated between apartments and different hotel rooms around the city. One early morning I was alone in a room in the Broadway Central Hotel, known locally as the Heroin Hilton, when I saw someone climbing into the window. He had long brown hair and a hooked nose of some architecture. “Don’t worry,” he called out as he folded himself under the half-open window from the fire escape, “I’m Joel. Everyone knows me.” He pronounced it Jo-ell. He was Joel Markman, famous from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, considered by many to be the true star of the film because of his infamous lipstick scene. It was Joel who had brought amphetamine to Warhol’s Factory and, as any student of things Warhol knows, The Factory, along with Andy Warhol, was fueled by Amphetamines in the early years. Through Joel I came into contact with the anarchist speed freaks and junkie queer artists who roamed the East Village intent on “A and art,” as they put it, including the great Ondine, subject (and only subject) of Warhol’s infamous A, a book-long document of one of Ondine’s Amphetamine fueled rants. Instead of coffee klatches, there were Amphetamine and Methadrine klatches that lasted whole days, if not weeks, without sleeping. I spent long hours listening to these singular, extraordinarily larger-than-life queens, whose values had been formed at the outskirts of humanity, when homosexuality was still a way to differentiate yourself from polite society, when homosexuality was still part of the criminal demi-monde. They spent hours elucidating different operas, opera singers, movies and actors, and the lives of artists and poets from long ago, centuries ago, whom they seemed to know in intimate ways. I was given a context for a greater cultural world that dwarfed the world that had rejected me. Most days I would walk from the East Village to Christopher Street: one never knew who one would meet up with there, and one day Larry Buscaino reappeared. Christopher Street was the first place anyone went trying to find their friends—for decades it has been the crossroads of the gay world. Larry and I took up with one another again without missing a beat. He was crashing at the apartment of a male nurse who had painted his two-room East Village, bathtub-in-the-kitchen slum tenement to look like Versailles, all pale champagne and ivory moldings, and every stick of furniture in the sparsely furnished apartment was white and gilt French provincial. This thin-lipped, prissy queen worked nights at Beth Israel Hospital, but his good will towards Larry soon evaporated when Larry moved me and then a boy, another seventeen-year-old runaway, there to crash, sleeping, when we did, on the bare floor. Still, we managed a couple of months there, eating mayonnaise sandwiches with the refrigerator door open for the cool air, and clearing out before the nurse got home. We’d head for the West Village, where Larry played his guitar and sang on the stoops of Christopher Street and we carried on as we always had; then at night we would repair to The Stonewall and dance the night away smoking cigarettes and joints in the very back corner of the bar with the Black transexual street whores like Marsha P. Johnson, who everyone called Black Marsha in those days. Then the next day we would start all over again, walking to the West Village to sit on those Christopher Street stoops and wait for our friends to show up. Eventually Larry replaced speed and booze with heroin. Soon after, the nurse demanded his keys back and Larry and I went our separate ways, finding new places to crash. And one day, just as he had appeared, Larry disappeared. It would be forty years before I heard from him again.
One afternoon, months after arriving in New York, crashing from speed, hungry from not eating for days, and worn out from late night wrestling with sex-hungry guys in the crash pads where I passed the nights, I wandered along 2nd Avenue, and there under the marquee of the St. Marks Movie Theater, a voice called out to me. It was Jaime Andrews. His eyes searched me up and down. Taking in the tracks on my arms and my exhaustion he declared, “You don’t look so good. I think you need to come and live with me.” I demurred, embarrassed. I was not used to kindness, but I walked away with his phone number in my pocket. I fought my way through another sleepless week, fending off unwanted sexual advances that were the price of being a homeless girl in New York’s East Village, before I finally called the number Jaime had pressed into my hand. Soon I found myself ensconced in Jaime’s one-room studio on East 9th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. He pointed out his sleeping loft and offered me his drawing table for my bed. “You are small. You fit there just fine.” And I began yet another orientation, drugless except for LSD and the pot plants Jaime grew on his windowsill.
Jaime’s phone book was filled with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of famous artists he hadn’t yet met.
“But why do you have their phone numbers?” I’d ask.
“Well, how do you expect to meet the people you want to know if you don’t know who or where they are?” he would answer. Jaime worked in market research and left each morning at 7:00 a.m. I would slowly wake up and make the pilgrimage across 8th Street to Christopher Street where I would meet up with other queer kids, and spend the day knocking around, slowly meeting the people I would come to know for the rest of my life. Jaime worked with John Vaccaro, whose Playhouse of The Ridiculous was the other game in town besides Andy Warhol’s Factory. It was at Jaime’s one night, coming down from LSD and desperate to entertain my patron, that I named myself Penny Arcade. Jaime brought me to John Vaccaro’s loft on Great Jones Street. John had amazing parties attended by the brightest and the best of downtown New York’s art world as well as by some of the most notorious members of the queer underworld. One night after Jaime told John Vaccaro I had changed my name to Penny Arcade, John asked me to join the Playhouse of The Ridiculous on the strength of my having changed my name alone!
“You know,” John whispered to me conspiratorially, “I read a chapter of Moby Dick before I go to sleep every night without fail.”
I didn’t understand where Herman Melville fit in with drag, theater, and the best pot, LSD, and music collection in the East Village, but I was completely seduced by his statement. Jaime was delighted when John told him I was joining The Playhouse.
“Fabulous!” Jaime said. “Now we are going to channel all that talent.”
Today when I speak to young queers who want to know the differences between today and back then I say quietly, “Show me one twenty-seven-year-old queer guy who is going to take in a homeless seventeen-year-old girl. Back then we knew we had to take care of each other. You didn’t have to be a card-carrying homosexual. It was beyond identity politics. It was humane and inclusive, not exclusive. Everyone recognized their people intuitively. We knew how to form community.”
For many years the trek from Avenue A across East 8th Street, then St. Marks Place, then East 8th Street again, then West 8th Sreet to Christopher Street would be a daily pilgrimage. Even now, on days when I awake and don’t know what to do with myself, I find my feet leading me there. Christopher Street, the great queer Rialto of my youth, is no longer populated by the greats that once cruised there, lingering on those stoops. No more the eye-opening conversations, no more the bent-over doubled-up laughter. No more Harry M. Koutoukas, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Robert Beers, Marsha P. Johnson, International Chrysis, Douglas Fisher, Ritta Redd, Tony Ingrassia, Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, Bunny Eisenhower, Frances Francine, Taylor Mead or the others—many others whose names even I have forgotten—names once famous in gay circles. They are mostly gone now, but I walk with them still and I know I always will. I know what Walt Whitman was talking about when he spoke to us across the great distance of time, “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
A few years ago, my phone rang and a muffled voice asked, “Do you know who this is?” The voice sounded very familiar but blurred in a way I couldn’t really make out completely.
“You sound so familiar,” I said. “But it is hard to understand you. I think we have a bad connection.”
“It’s because my jaw is wired shut!” he shouted.
“Your jaw is wired shut?” I asked, not quite sure that was what I heard.
“Yeah, I fell down, face-first on the glass coffee table, Marilyn Monroe-style.”
“Larry Buscaino!” I cried out. No one else phrased a sentence like that! It could only be Larry.
“So, you remember me?” he asked.
“How could I ever forget you?” Then Larry told me a long saga of being a male nurse in Florida, of alcoholism and jail, with many repetitions made necessary by his wired-shut jaw. “Jail?” I asked him. “Five years. I just got out. There were some misunderstandings with my employers,” he laughed.
“Do you remember all those days and nights on Christopher Street?” he asked eventually.
“Oh yes, Larry, I remember us on Christopher Street.”
“Do you ever walk over there now?” He asked.
”Yeah, Larry, I still do.”
“I suppose the scene has moved somewhere else,” he said, a bit mournfully.
“Not really, Larry,” I replied. “All the homeless, queer kids are still on Christopher Street, that hasn’t changed—only now there aren’t any cheap diners for them to go into.”
On the night of ACT UP’s twentieth anniversary event in 2007, I walked up toward the LGBT Community Center and saw a bunch of kids huddled outside the front door. As I got closer, I saw they were all girls, mainly black, a few Latinas. They were smoking cigarettes and laughing and screeching as I approached them.
“Hey! Could I get a cigarette off one of you?” I ventured.
There was something feral in the way the girls turned towards me. “Are you gay?” the girl closest to me asked, as a challenge, waving her cigarette in my face.
I froze. But then a rage whipped up my spine. “Do you know that people fought and died so that question, ‘Are you gay?’ would never matter?” I wasn’t sure what the response would be and I sucked in my breath, but then the whole crowd seemed to suddenly see me as one of them. The energy shifted and a cigarette was offered and we started laughing and hanging out there on the street in front of The Center.
It turned out their weekly dance party had been cancelled to make space for the ACT UP benefit. I asked them if they knew about ACT UP, but they shrugged their shoulders. I said, “Come with me.” Eight street kids and I went inside The Center and I asked the doorkeeper if I could bring them in. “It’s $20 a head,” he said, unmovable. I spotted Bob Kohler, the sage, handsome warrior and lifelong advocate of queer youth, ran over to him, and explained the situation. “Ridiculous!” Bob exploded, walking to the front desk. “Of course! These kids have to come in.” And in they came, but the energy of the evening didn’t reach them, and to the older gay men who made up the bulk of the evening’s audience, they were invisible. After forty minutes the kids left, before I even performed. Tahesha, who had given me the cigarette, waited for me by the door as the rest poured out. I went over to her.
“I want to stay but my peeps want to go up to Christopher Street,” she said. “Can I have your digits? I want to call you sometimes, run my shit by you. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said giving her my number, “remember to call me.”
Tahesha was seventeen then. She lives in a group home in Brooklyn. Sometimes she calls me. Sometimes she texts me. Sometimes she emails me. Sometimes I run into her and her peeps on Christopher Street. It’s nice to run into people I know there again.