It’s Love Week with Ray: (You Haven’t Finished Off All Those Chocolates Yet Have You?) So Let’s Start with George …
.. who I’ve been partnered with longer than most American marriage have survived, George, a Syrian-American, who obviously has influenced a great deal of my writing and has ended up on the pages of my books in one form or another. But the real surprise is how and why we stayed together.
It was 1971. I had been in L.A., completing my master’s degree at the University of Southern California, but unable to find a job on the Left Coast, ended up back living with my overbearing folks back in Jersey. Well, Sunday afternoon beer busts in Manhattan’s West Village were perfect for gay boys like me who still lived with their parents. You could hit the bars around 5 or 6, and if you got lucky, connect with a guy with a place nearby and be home like a choirboy by 9.
I think we all know the type of guy who turns us on from the first nanosecond our cock stirs when we see him, and for me Club Med men were my drug. Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, as long as they were shorter than taller, beefier than skinnier, with plenty of dark body hair and at least a Mark Spits moustache to match.
And for me on that balmy August Sunday evening, that guy’s name was George, the man who I would spend the next two thirds of my life with, even if those years were far from perfect.
I spotted him in the back of the Roadhouse, a popular guy’s bar, munching peanuts from a barrel and bullshitting with some other guys who looked like buddies. Average height, he had a face that was a cross between a young Omar Sharif and a young John Stossel, black curly hair, thick black moustache, with square shoulders and a beefy demeanor like James Caan and, if his half unbuttoned flannel shirt didn’t lie, just as hairy.
I kept staring his way, off and on for the next half hour, as did he, that is, once he realized I was looking his way. But no grin or smile or dead stare to tell me he was interested. I guzzled another beer, and when I saw he was all alone, I swallowed my pride, and took off my two dollar K-Mart red T-shirt to see if all my fur would get his undivided attention.
Then, pretending I was on a movie set doing a scene with the crane camera following me across the bar, I walked right up to him with a pick-up line he never let me live down:
“What’s a good looking guy like you doing in a place like this?”
He laughed, I think more at my unoriginality than anything else, introduced himself and, in a Brooklynese accent that made my Jersey twang sound like the King’s English, asked if I wanted to go for coffee across the street. He was all guy – no nelly handsome hunk here – and I flipped my T-shirt back on as out we strolled.
For the next half hour or so over coffee, we chatted about the things two strangers chat about. George worked in the back offices of one of Wall Street’s brokerage firms, and lived with his older sister, Jeannie, in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood populated by second and third generation Syrians just like him. It was Jeannie who with his brothers raised him, a change of life baby and ten years younger than his youngest brother, after their parents died in a one-two punch when he was 5.
But all that kept going through my mind as I stared at his hairy, hairy chest and into those deep, brown eyes was that I wanted him, wanted him bad – even that fucken Brooklyn accent was a turn-on – and there was no place for us to go.
Finally, I popped the question.
“Listen, sexy man, you interested in playing?”
“Maybe,” he replied with a sly but hesitant grin.
“Well, since I live at home and you live at home, maybe we can sneak down to the trucks.
I hear sometimes one of them is open and guys will go down there …”
Those were the days when the trucks lined the Meat Market section of West Street on the river, not the sleek sterile condos of today, and I had gone down there a few Saturday nights but hadn’t been courageous or stupid enough to explore what all the moaning inside in the shadows was all about.
“No, not for me.” He answered strongly back, almost as if I had insulted him.
“I’m sorry, I just thought … ..”
“Listen, give me your number, I’ll call you during the week. There’s a flophouse hotel in the twenties I’ve taken some girls to. Maybe we can go there.”
“So you’ve seen both sides of the fence?” I replied, me a guy who had never even dated a girl.
“Yea, I gotta be honest with you, I’ve only been out a few years, still kinda closeted, and frankly most of this fucken life you can shove down the toilet. But I’ve fessed up to myself that I like guys more than girls, and like Willy Sutton once said, I rob banks ‘cause that’s where the money is. I go to gay bars ‘cause that’s where the men are.”
I learned later George had almost walked down the aisle twice but, unlike a lot of guys pressured by family or friends, had managed to escape the ring boy.
We shook hands like two str8 guys, then I went on my way and he on his. I hit a couple of more bars, felt both elated and depressed, and drowned that bittersweet ache in my stomach with a few more drinks before I aimed my Chevy Vega for the Lincoln Tunnel and home.
I didn’t expect to hear from him again, but was pleased I had not stood like I usually did, like a cigar store Indian all night, cruising, wondering, hoping but doing nothing. At least I had made a move.
But two days later in the office, I got the call.
It was George. He gave me the address of the George Washington Hotel and asked if I could meet him after work around 6 the following day in front of the place.
“OK, once I know the room number, I’ll come down in about ten minutes and let you know, then we both go in acting like we don’t know one another and go up the elevator.”
These were the days before cell phones, and Gay Liberation was still in diapers.
Inside, behind the locked door and windows shaded in plastic shower curtains, George went from hesitant to horny, enjoying my fur as much as I did his. We sixty-nined on a bed with yellowed sheets smelling of urine and a thousand musty johns. He lit up a cigarette when we were done – he wouldn’t give up the weed for another year when his asthma got the best of him – then gave me a kiss which I didn’t expect from a guy who was a fart from being bi-sexual, and said energetically, “I think I just might fall in love with you, cute guy.”
GW became our default address for a few more romps – oral sex was fine by G, who even loved to rim but never brought up the f word. Then came a weekend at a gay resort in upstate New York called Roundtree which, while not exactly in terrific shape, gave us a chance to be together for more than a few hours. It was at Roundtree that I also met Charlie, G’s lumbering beagle, who would be the first in five generations of dogs we would own, love and bury in the decades ahead – all told an even dozen.
By now we were talking about getting an apartment together, G to get away from his clinically diagnosed schizophrenic sister Jeannie who he was left with after all three of his brothers had moved out of their Bay Ridge, Brooklyn walk-up and married; and me from my hyperactive, slightly psychotic Jersey parents.
So what was a middle of the road place to move to for a guy from Brooklyn and a guy from Jersey? Well, of course, NYC’s forgotten borough, Staten Island, which I had never heard of before. And we landed a two bedroom, two bath apartment with a terrace and a to-die-for view of the Verrazano Bridge for just six hundred dollars a month. And the landlord even allowed pets. It seemed perfect.
I had less of a problem cutting the apron strings since my parents were about ready to sell their house in Wallington and take early retirement in a 55 plus community in South Jersey. But though G’s sister was stable, on meds and collecting SSI which her brother had fought hard for her to get, George still felt a ting of guilt about leaving her all alone and made his weekly visit to her a given til the day she died, prematurely at 57 and alone, from I what still believe to this day was a fucked-up combination of heart meds and psychotropic drugs her docs never picked up on. I saw her frequently and found her to be a very quiet, deeply introverted woman, almost an echo of myself years before I broke out of my shell. Over the decades ahead, we would share in the deaths of his brothers, their wives, my parents and my aunts and uncles. Til no one was left but his adult niece and nephew and my sister, brother-in-law and their kids.
Which meant quite simply there was no one we could really count on but one another.
Just before we moved to SI, G coaxed me into taking a long weekend to P-town which he had apparently gone to almost religiously every July Fourth week with some gay friends from work who he claimed were the ones responsible for bringing him at least half way out of the closet. I found the drive, particularly those last miles on Rt. 6, to be an eternity and the quaint seashore town a bore by the second day. But that weekend did give me an opportunity to find something out I had been meaning to ask G for a while but didn’t have the balls to.
So one afternoon, while he was taking a nap, I snuck into his wallet and pulled out his driver’s license.
Shit, he was 35!
Older than he looked and almost 10 years older than me. At that point, I thought it wouldn’t make any difference, but as we co-habited I found this generation gap was a serious canyon to cross in our relationship.
For you see, I had come out on the cusp of Gay Liberation and had no real hang-ups about being gay or about the gay scene. Meanwhile, George had had his first fuck – with a woman – when I was still in grammar school, and had entered young manhood in the ‘50’s when “The Life” was still hush-hush, a stigma he never outgrew.
Then there were our differences in interests. He was a fanatical New York Mets fan, and when he was watching a game, (often 5, 6 times a week), I couldn’t say a word. I, being the nerd, found sports, particularly baseball, and a yawn and, interested in infant technology, gravitated to collecting mechanical antiques like Edison cylinder phonographs, turn of the century typewriters and old cameras. All of which G thought was junk.
After we had just moved to SI I, by luck and timing, landed an assistant director’s job in the PR department of a local hospital, St. Vincent’s, which cut my commute from an hour and half by ferry and subway to fifteen minutes in my car, a reality G, wedded to Wall Street, envied. And as I began to make some real money, I decided to pursue long time wanderlust: travel. Ah, but while couples would automatically travel together, I soon realized I was with a guy who among his many phobias couldn’t eat foreign food (not even a cake made in Canada), nor fly. In the beginning it was awkward and a little scary to travel alone to strange, often forbidding places, but as I got more seasoned at it I came to prefer the solo route. During the 70’s and 80’s, when it was still cheap and airport security was a kiss on the wrist, I went all over the world, playing strictly tourist -no sexual dalliances – in Egypt, Greece, Russia, Italy, Europe, Central and Latin America, Australia, even Slovakia, the land of my grandparents birth, when it was still Commie and your life was neatly laid out for you. All while G munched pretzels watching his beloved Mets, Jets, Islanders – name the season, he had a team.
About the only quirk we had in common, besides a conservative political streak, atypical for two gay men, was that we were both Type A’s, all CAPS, which didn’t always work well either if we didn’t agree on what was worth getting Type A’d over.
Now if sex were still in the equation, maybe the rest wouldn’t matter that much. But by six months into our cohabitation, George showed less and less interest in me or frankly anybody else though in our later knock-down arguments about my fucking around he would admit boldly to a tryst or two along the way. Saturday nights he preferred watching TV to going out, but I, who had worked all week in the burbs, needed the decadence of the West Village streets. So I went out alone.
Picking up a gay rag one night in the Eagle, an iconic Village levi/leather bar, I noticed an ad for a place called “Man’s Country.” It was a bathhouse in the West 20’s (easy parking) and for two bucks on a Tuesday night you could get a locker and play for four hours.
I had never done the bathhouse scene before, not even in LA, but used the excuse of running evening community seminars at the hospital as my cover. And there we were – all of us young, virile gay boys, in the prime of our sexiness, screwing like there was no tomorrow – all for the price of a light bulb. It was there that a trick introduced me to poppers which to this day I am psychologically addicted to and associate with good sex. He also gave me the tip on how to avoid a headache if you did too much of the shit – drink plenty of water.
Had I known about the baths before G and I had met, we probably would have lasted two weeks. Looking back now, I was never the marrying kind.
And raising the issue of an “open” relationship or even just a plain buddyship was never in the equation with G who abhorred gay culture and would take an argumentative stance on almost everything. Most guys – and str8’s – would argue about money and infidelity. We would argue about what plants to put on the terrace. It was either G’s way or the highway.
But stay with G I did, maybe because he was responsible and did his share of the shopping and cleaning and all the other shit that goes along with living; maybe because we’ve buried family and ten dogs, and gone through health care crises together. Or maybe because we shared financials which just made it easier.
Or maybe because, to this day, I never met a more str8 gay man or more real guy than G.
And after forty three years, I know I never will.