The Way We Were: How the L.A. of the Sixties Shaped My Writing
Whenever I see a gray-haired, pony-tailed biker or eighteen year old John Denver-look-alike hippy, complete with backpack and guitar strung over his shoulder, I think back to the heyday both are attempting to relive, the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Those were the years when we who were just coming out benefited as the first generation of homosexuals from the new won openness of the gay liberation movement. For me, that very formative, impressible time was spent not in NYC that I could practically see out my Jersey window, but a continent away in L.A. where I went to complete my master’s degree at the University of Southern California, a socially acceptable reason for an X-rated movie. You see, living at home (I went to a commuter college for my B.A.) had become impossible, with two well-meaning but overbearing parents who called out the cops if their boy wasn’t home by midnight. L.A. offered me not only freedom, but an unbridled opportunity to play the scene for the first time in my fresh gay life.
When we talk about the L.A. scene today, we think of Silver Lake, by extension Palm Springs, and, of course, West Hollywood. Ah, but before there was glitzy, pretty boy, overpriced West Hollywood, there was Hollywood, not the mythical Hollywood perpetuated even today by entertainment pundits, but a seedier version of the town that by the late ‘60’s was still pretty with its blocks of pastel colored garden apartments, but pretty like a sixty year old whore with a good Max Factor make-up job. I found it ironic that Hollywood as a municipality technically didn’t even exist, and was just a section of the City of Los Angeles. But my studio apartment off Melrose was cheap and, at most, a brisk twenty minute walk from the best of the scene of that day, an important consideration for someone who couldn’t afford a car and relied on L.A.’s joke of a bus service. (These were the pre-subway days.)
Now, in those days, before cell phones and iphones and Manhunt.net’s, you met guys the old fashioned way, mainly in the bars and the baths (the latter of which I didn’t discover until I was back in NYC). One other approach, a path less taken, was the “male-seeking male” personals that only appeared in liberal, quasi-commie, anti-establishment, anti-LBJ pubs like the Los Angeles Free Press. You were assigned an anonymous “mailbox” by the newspaper that forwarded any responses (of course, unopened) to your real address. Heavens, there were no dick or bare ass shots up there for the world to gawk at (you hoped the guy would send you a pic of what he looked like, at least), just four lines and out, thank you ma’am. All by snail mail, which meant it often took weeks to cement a contact, versus the technological miracle of virtually instantaneous e-mail (so why do we go back and forth today with endless e-mails and still end up nowhere? Have things really changed?).
And just like today, guys, well, they lied. Sent pics taken at their Confirmation or descripts that had to be written while the guy was high on grass or LSD. Now I must confess I met some great sex partners, bless you, Free Press, but I also had my clunkers like the guy who told me he was 25 (when I was 22) and who I took two buses to rendezvous with at some gas station only to spot his toup from my seat on the bus. (Yes, I went through with it anyway. Young or old, when you’re horny, a dick is a dick.)
A neighbor in my very gay complex, Tommy, personified the new old Hollywood. A Cincinnati transplant and beautician by trade, he had been a wigmaker for one of the studios but had recently lost his job and was living on unemployment. His hobby? Collecting match covers from whatever club or cheap motel he had been in and covering his bathroom wall with them. He soon became my tour guide to the Hollyweird club scene.
There were plenty of bars to choose from in the Hollywood of the 70’s: levi, leather (mainly in Silver Lake), and nelly (they weren’t called twinks then), all filled with mostly young guys. Just like me. But the two clubs I remember most fondly were Gino’s (named for its owner), a dance bar on Melrose that I reminisce about every time I hear the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back;” a super hit at the time; and The Farm, a ranch-motif bar with sawdust on its dance floor, where I fell in love with half a dozen handsome, rugged guys, again, young and hot, every time I went.
And after the bars closed, just about everybody ended up at Arthur’s Diner off Hollywood Boulevard which was almost as cruisy as the bars and sported more pretend women than the genuine article most nights.
But for those of you gay men under 30 who romanticize the ‘60’s, not everything was rosy. Remember, it was the height of the Vietnam War, and every one of us dreaded opening our mailboxes to find that love letter from Uncle Sam. I naively thought I would be exempted from the draft because I was continuing my education, but I was dead wrong. The prevailing notion at the time was that admitting you were a fag could mark you for life, career wise. But through a lesbian neighbor I made contact with a physician who got guys off, a libertarian who even resembled Timothy Leary. For a hefty fee, he morphed my nervous stomach syndrome into a full-fledged bleeding duodenal ulcer that earned me a 4-F. It’s still the best $800 I ever spent in my life.
So, why, you ask, did I ever leave this wet dream of a lifestyle, after getting my M.A. degree, for cold, bleak New York and my parents’ outstretched tentacles?
I was broke, living on Campbell Soup towards the end. To this day, I’ll never use Bank of America that, in those poverty-stricken days of my youth, charged me a fee every time I withdrew money from my quickly dwindling account.
I also suffered from the chicken or the egg syndrome. Without money, I couldn’t buy a car, and without a car, it was hard to land a decent paying job. Desperate to keep my long Beatles style hair, I even bought a short hair wig at a Hollywood novelty store for interviews. I finally managed to land a part-time gig in the basement of the now defunct Broadway Department Store on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from the still very much alive Roosevelt Hotel, gift-wrapping other people’s stuff. Not exactly a career goal for someone with two degrees.
I did apply for one job connected to the old Hollywood, the position of “title writer,” whatever the hell that meant, at glorious MGM. Taking the bus out to Culver City, however, by then ghettoized and resembling more a dingy warehouse district than the sacred home of the “dream factory,” my idealizations of a glamorous L.A. were abruptly blown, and not getting the job, I realized my own fantasy of living and working here was not to be.
My only real friend, out-of-work neighbor Tommy, left in desperation for his hometown in Ohio, hoping his old beauty shop would take him back. His sacred matchbook collection ended up on the curb in the garbage
Finally, Mother Nature reared her ugly head. Living in L.A., you get used to tremors anytime of the day or night. But when the earthquake of ‘71 hit, – my apartment was spared any serious damage but businesses like Broadway suffered broken windows and ruptured pipes, and a hospital in “The Valley” collapsed – I took it as a sign that it was time for this gay boy to head home. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, too, for me, was L.A.
Yet, in all my books, I have tried to recapture that easy, breezy lifestyle I once enjoyed for a brief blink of my life when responsibilities were someone else’s game.
Wednesday: The Way We Were – NYC’s Leather Scene, Gone But Not Forgotten