Thursday, September 18, 2003

Meet Me At Penn Station: My Unexpected Afternoon in New York

Jack Parsons, at Toronto Pride, 2003

:: Wednesday night I was supposed to be doing laundry and getting ready to visit my friend Jack, in Asheville, NC, but as usual I was having many qualms about going on a trip. I first met Jack at the Kirkridge gay christian men's spiritual retreat in Pennsylvania in January, 2003. He came up to Toronto for a visit in February, and again for June Pride, and had invited me down to his home in late March. With the Iraq-US war hostilities in full flight at the time, we delayed the visit till now.

Hurricane Isabel was about to cut a swath right across my flight path (Toronto-Newark, Newark-Asheville, NC) but I did get on the flight early this morning. The adventure began as I was packing at 6:30 am for a 6:45 exit from Maitland St. Checking the web, my reservation could not be located. In their wisdom, Continental Airlines had done a re-org in May and, according to the nice woman at the 1-800 number, they had "sent an e-mail" last spring; my flight was now at 9:30 am and the stop-over in Newark would be eight hours instead of 53 minutes. Welcome to the new realities of today's improved airline industry.

I managed to get to Toronto's Pearson International airport and be checked in by 8:30 am. The arrival in Newark shortly after 11 am was uneventful except that all available staff were busy closing the airport; many people were sent home early to avoid Isabel, "just in case"; Laguardia was already closed. In the end, Newark remained open with a skeletal staff, and, appropriately I suppose, it resembled a wind-swept ghost town (not unlike Pearson since SARS); I expected to see, but didn't, a tumbleweed or two drifting by in front of me as I strolled around deciding what to do next. After some inquiries (thank you, Jeff Weber, of Terminal C's Group Reception Lounge), I determined it was a relatively safe option to spend the day in New York City, assuming the rail line was not shut down later as well. My back-up plan was to stay with a friend in New Jersey who happens to work for Continental (at Newark, in fact) but he was in Houston for the day and would not be returning till nearly midnight, if at all that day.

For $23.10, I bought a round-trip train ticket from the airport to Penn Station at 8th and 33rd (underneath Madison Square Gardens); I also got $16 as change in US dollar coins from the ticket machine. I thought we were the only ones with loonies. Go figure; it may have been an omen. Fortunately, my calling card worked and, after a long distance consultation with DJ, my Toronto roommate, a strategy for the next few hours was worked out.

It's not exactly Michelangelo, is it?

Amazingly, I have never been to New York and as this opportunity came up suddenly, I was not prepared, and in any case had no spare money, and was concerned about being back at the Newark Airport by no later than 6 pm. So I did what any self-respecting homo would do -- I asked nice people passing by on the busy New York sidewalks how to get to Christopher Street. As one lad shoved a pretty green Gideon New Testament bible into my hand ("It's free! God protect you, brother! Head that way, three blocks south of 7th and 14th, you can't miss it!"), I knew someone was watching (over) me.

A view of the very park bench I was chatted up on at Christopher Park in Greenwich Village

:: I figured that if I saw nothing else in New York this day, I ought to check out Stonewall Place and, thanks to the guidance of the green bibled street man of God, it wasn't long before I was standing in front of this historic spot. 51-53 Christopher St is where the famous Stonewall riots (more resistance and hissy fit according to contemporary accounts) took place outside the Stonewall Inn. In late June, 1969, the police chose the wrong night to harass the local queers. We were in mourning over the death of Judy Garland, eternal keeper of the flame of Oz, and this raid was one too many. Thirty-four years later, there is a lovely plaque and sculpture garden located in a parkette just opposite. (Christopher St is only two blocks long and this stretch has been renamed Stonewall Place in honour of the event. The also famous Oscar Wilde Bookshop is just down the road and a quick trip there was equally spiritually uplifting.)

(Younger readers may not know that marking these riots, which in fact occurred over more than one night, is why we celebrate Gay Pride Weekend at the end of June every year instead of more practical times like college reading week.)

As I bowed my head in silence, conjuring up in my mind's eye what must have taken place right here and trying to calm the voices in my head, I realised there actually was someone talking to me: he appeared, by his dishevelled garments, and noticeably toxic odour, not to mention blood shot eyes and sudden jerky nods of his head, to be a slightly-elevated-state-of-mind street person. Before I knew it, we'd been formally introduced to one another. Gerry was about medium height, probably about 30, curly hair, and, after a bath (or possibly two), likely quite attractive.

In any case, he soon forgot that his original interest in me was in obtaining 37 cents -- a sum to be used for nefarious purposes, no doubt -- and for the next 20 minutes or so we were engaged in a lively discussion about art, travel, politics, the New York City parks department and its logo which looks suspiciously like a rip-off of Air Canada's, life in Toronto and Weyburn, and stern advice that I refrain from "too much" alcohol.

Sheridan's Statue, the one in Christopher Park in Greenwich Village

I also had the pleasure of meeting some of his friends. These included a 30s-something str8 couple visiting from Connecticut (who seemed much less interested in random conversation and fled quickly); another chap in Gerry's vaguely alarming condition (I am speculating here); the four white statues which make up George Segal's "Gay Liberation" monument (there is more at Greenwich Village online tour); and an older stone one of Civil War General Philip Sheridan who, for reasons not entirely obvious, resides in this 1837-built parkette and not around the corner in Sheridan Square.

As the conversation waned, I recalled Teddy was in my Maxell bag, which by now I was clutching with a probably noticable hint of trepidation, and I wondered how to gracefully end this encounter. As I was considering various diplomatic Canadian-style options, events began to move quickly. Gerry frowned suddenly and, with a fiery, intense look in his eye, growled "make a wish" as he reached forward, his fingers now millimeters from my trembling Adam's Apple. "Your medallion is turned around, Alexander" he sighed and proceeded to adjust my necklace with touching tenderness. Nonetheless, I decided my nod to history had come to an end. I bid the collected characters, living and dead, adieu and sauntered back across town wondering where the possibly safer and also modestly historic Carnegie Hall might be located.

Lisa calling for an emergency fur coat delivery from Saxs

:: Manhattan, it turns out, is a big place. I later discovered the famous musical mecca was a scant 30 or 40 blocks away. I opted to stroll along a section of Fifth Avenue not too far from the neighbourhood of Penn Station. In spite of Eva Gabor's Green Acre's optimism, this end of the strip is not entirely my idea of high class -- certainly much more sex is in evidence than Saxs. I returned to Penn Station around 4:15 and, in checking with the attendant in the Continental booth which happens to be in the station, discovered my flight had indeed not been cancelled and, after downing a not-so-cheap (but well-earned) Happy Hour draught beer, I has onboard New Jersey's North East Corridor train headed back to Newark.

(Update: I also read that two lesbians were involved in a stabbing a couple of days after my New York adventure -- at the same Stonewall Inn I had stood in front of admiringly -- so my Thursday timing, Isabel notwithstanding, turned out to have been propitious. Of course, the altercation took place in a woman's washroom so it's not likely I would have been there, but these days, given the signage in gay washrooms, it's not entirely unthinkable.)

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