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Finding Jesús on Christopher Street

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WARNING: This post describes a sexual experience using language that some might consider graphic. Reader discretion is advised.

The following is from an essay that appears in a new collection of LGBTQ writing about New York City, 'Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City,' edited by Thomas Keith, with an introduction by Christopher Bram, and published by Vantage Point Books.

AUGUST 1984, SCARLET STREET, DROGHEDA, Ireland. It's early in the morning and the sky is a gorgeous bright blue. I am aware of unwelcome and unexpected feelings. An unusual longing to leave is accompanied by the loneliness of knowing there is no turning back. I glance around the room, look at the icon of Mary from Sister Regina in Siena Convent, the photographs of family and friends, the poster of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the old picture of the Drogheda quays, the threadbare donkey Da gave me in Harcourt Street hospital when I was two, and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament stuff. I grab the letters from St. John's University professor Mike Warren. I'll never forget their impact and how much they meant to me; the long airmail envelopes from America with letters to a youth in Scarlet Street, Drogheda. Mike and Connie's typed letters to me told about their program of Youth for Peace and MA degrees. They quoted Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton -- ideas that seemed from another Catholic world. They urged me to apply and come to St. John's University, New York! On the Drogheda dole queue, I used to dream about what to do, I'd reread their letters, and look at the stamps and the New York addresses on the airmail envelopes. As I write today I'm filled with gratitude for the New York teachers who reached an Irish fella, and they remind me of what Graham Greene said: "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in."

Time to go. I tell myself it's only for a short time in America. I'll be back -- in a year. I couldn't imagine staying too long in Reagan's America. That's for sure. But I definitely need to get out -- out of Scarlet Street, out of Drogheda, out of Ireland, out of the closet.

So here I am to the neighbors: young Fay off to America. The lad from Scarlet Street. Pete's son.
"He's off to study religion or something."

"The Fay lad is shockin' religious, so he is."

"He's off to be a graduate student in St. John's University in New York."

I don't say much -- my head is swirling with delight and with doubt. The begrudgers have their say and remain like a chorus in the mind. Wait 'til they find out who you really are! Ye mad head banger, who the fuck do you think you are?

OH YEAH, THE BAGGAGE. THE other baggage: fear, anger, longing, silence, shame, guilt when I look in the mirror, hatred for my body, hatred for the person I was becoming.

I go into the parents' bedroom. Tears threaten to well up as I enter, I hug and kiss Mam goodbye. She makes the quick sign of the cross on my forehead.

The Da drives. I sit in the front seat. We don't say much, we never did anyway. He drives by Joe the Barber's and Campbell's shop, down past the medieval Lawrence's Gate, St. Augustine's on Shop Street. Just before we get to the airport we pass the Balheary -- St. Mary's Christian Brothers -- for four years my home, from September 1972 to June 1976. Age fourteen to seventeen, going to be a Christian Brother -- give my life to God. Then, in the distance, I see the towers of Dublin Airport.

Goodbye Ireland. Good friggin' riddance Ireland. Did I just think that? I need to leave, whether I want to or not. Most leave Ireland for economic reasons. Immigrants have left Ireland fleeing persecution or poverty, in the pursuit of dreams or on British prison ships. And there are the artists who made their way to Paris or London or Florence -- and the thousands of nuns and priests who left for religious reasons, centuries of missionaries.

So why am I leaving? I'm leaving to find a place where I can be myself. Sex. It's a huge factor with me. I never read about anybody leaving for sexual reasons. I want to go where I can breathe. I want to breathe. I want to be.

Where do you go if you're a gay queer, a fairy, a faggot -- the river, the seminary, the pretend marriage,
or the boat. Well, for me it's the airport.

The turbulence outside the plane, nothing like the turbulence inside. I can't wait to see New York with the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island. Ah, yes, land of the free: Fifth Avenue, St. John's University, Washington Square, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Bette Midler, the Flintstones, the Waltons, and Batman and Robin.

They warned me about America at Maynooth College. One said, "Beware. Don't become like the Americans, so open minded that your brains fall out!" I'll be all right; they love the Irish in America.

"KNOW ANY GAY BARS AROUND here?" I ask a police officer. (They carry guns here.) He points me to the Magic Touch in Jackson Heights, near Roosevelt and 74th Street. So I stay in Queens, going between the Liffey Bar, which is Irish, and the Magic Touch, which is gay.

In the Liffey Bar immigrant construction workers sit on bar stools, Guinness is on tap, the juke box plays Dolores Keane, Christy Moore, Mary Black, Paddy Reilly -- sounds to make me proud, homesick, and sad. I drink Guinness and dream of my mother in Scarlet Street, Drogheda. I try to repress the mood and pretend it's great here. So who am I -- what am I doing here -- is this the tribe? I don't fit in here.

So over to the Magic Touch to try there: a bejeweled fella named Buddha serves bar, disco sounds, drinks and small talk, the glance of the eye, and the touch of the hand above the knee. More, "Love the brogue." I don't quite fit here, but it's more comfortable.

Sure it's not a village at all, Greenwich Village. I come in at the weekend on the subway. I'm here. I've arrived. I light up a Marlboro Light.

Washington Square is full of music, homeless buskers, and peddlers freely pushing Jesus Christ and pot. The pigeons and squirrels -- lovely like the Dublin Zoo never saw -- are playful, "cute," as they say here. People are hugging, holding hands, and making love. I circle and watch and feel warm inside at the wonder of it all.

I love the way people walk in the City -- with a spring in their step, going places -- there is a New York energy -- a swagger. I hope I catch the wave. For all the mad problems here, there is an energy like nowhere else.

The men of New York are gorgeous -- so beautiful to look at, to listen to, so fearless and loud, and brazen. The exhilaration. The anxiety. The fright of AIDS is on the front pages of newspapers here. I look. I gaze. The faces of the men. Their eyes are beautiful, their lips and the way they talk and move and sit and shift in their shorts or Levis -- I hope they don't see me seeing them, I hope they don't notice me noticing those legs and how sexy they look, how sensuous. I crave and long to touch and be touched. Not necessarily to have sex -- sometimes it ends up that way -- too nervous. AIDS is a deadly wrench in the works.

One thing is for sure though -- I'm so glad to be out of Scarlet Street with the damp days and depressing nights. Distant from family troubles and squabbles. At times there's a rush of guilt at having fled and left my sisters to care -- I wonder if I will ever be able to be like these gay men of New York, who sit so confidently and yak away so unconsciously, to their hearts content. Hey! I could be denied entry at JFK and sent back to Ireland -- it's a criminal offense in Ireland, and a sin there, and they want to cure me. I would have to face friends and the Charismatics and Father Enda and listen to my poor mother, depressed in the bed and reading who died and what horses were running, and my father on the chair in the corner by the fireplace. Traveling back and forth through Dublin and JFK airports between 1984 and 1992 always brought on the fit of anxious nerves, always the possibility of being sent back. I'm so glad I'm here in New York...

FROM WEST 4TH STREET I walk 'til I discover Christopher Street. I have arrived on Gay Street America. But it is number 15 Christopher Street -- home of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop -- that changes everything. Up the couple of steps and turn left into the shop, small, warm, cozy, welcoming sounds, music playing in the background.

Books. I always loved books -- God, the books, the authors, the shelves filled to the brim: Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Christopher Isherwood, there's the Catholic priest John McNeill, David Leavitt, Armistead Maupin, Audre Lorde, Carter Heyward, Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin, John Reid and Andrew Tobias' The Best Little Boy in the World.

Craig Rodwell, the owner, seems a little cranky initially; sort of busy, he hears my accent and asks if I know my gay Irish heritage. "No," says I, "not really." If I was terrified about my own being gay, why would I know about my gay Irish heritage? Unimaginable and impossible.

Soon Craig pulls out from under the counter a thick black book, a copy of The Black Diaries of Roger Casement. There's a shamrock inside, dried like a page holder. Roger Casement gay? And then he told me about his naming the shop after Oscar Wilde. Craig made me rethink being Irish and gay, and ever since I think differently about Oscar Wilde.

And then I met the other worker at the store, Jesús Lebron. "What's your name? Jesus, yeah, right." My life is never the same. People do that to each other -- why, I don't know. The gift of it really is all that matters.

He looks so gorgeous, so beautiful; brown skin and hair, and the shorts, and the torso tugging his shirt. I get the look. He's interested in me. He wants to see me after he closes the shop some day. What? Well I could have done summersaults up and down Christopher Street.

This good-looking, beautiful, attractive Puerto Rican New Yorker falls for me -- the short, unfree, gay gobshite from Scarlet Street?

Some nights later we are dancing around the bookshop to the upbeat rhythms of Cris Williamson's "Song of the Soul" -- "Truth will unbind you, then we can sing for a long long, long time."

"Why don't you sing this song?"

I sing with the record, "Come to your life like a warrior -- you can be happy. Let in the light it will heal you." I am dancing. "Dancing along in the madness," I roar.

Where to go and be together is a challenge. A few times Craig Rodwell gives Jesús the keys to his Bleecker Street apartment. One night we lie on the bed and watch Jesús' favorite film, West Side Story. We just lie on the bed together -- this is new -- something I have been waiting for all my life. The chorus goes, "There's a place for us -- somewhere, we'll find a new way of living... " Arms touching, holding, caressing... I fall asleep.

I wake up. The lights are out. I'm in bed in New York with Jesús -- he is touching me and I am touching him and I like it and my body likes it and the guilt is nowhere to be found.

Rolling in sheets with no clothes on. Naked. Starkers. Sweat. Friction. I come so quickly. I want to say, "I couldn't help it. I'm sorry."

I think he is asleep. I'm not. I can't believe his name is Jesus. How will I tell them in Ireland that I'm gay, "Oh, and I met someone, and his name is Jesus." That's a far cry from your Liam, Mick, Sean, Paddy, and Willie Joe. But he doesn't say Jesus the way we do, he says, "Hay-Soos." I want to pinch myself.

GAY PRIDE, MY ARSE. I could barely whisper I was gay in the confession box and here we are on 5th Avenue with thousands dancing, leaping, hugging, and roaring for rights. At first Jesús coaches and coaxes me out of the closet. He also gets me to rallies against violence and to ACT UP. He tells me about Audre Lorde -- "Your Silence will not protect you." I am with Jesús in Washington for the National March. We silently weave among the quilts -- like walking around a graveyard where everyone died in the past six months. So AIDS becomes part of our reality, the language of the infected or affected. I want to live before I die -- that's what I take away.

We march against AIDS -- he shows me how to take passion and love from the sheets to the streets. It's the same love flow -- politics, feminism, the personal is the political -- he has that activist edge. I can be passionate about apartheid, El Salvador, Nicaragua, nuclear disarmament -- but gay rights? I'm more at home with shame and guilt.

Jesús also tells me about counseling and therapy. I have the Irish view: I could talk to someone in the pub on the bar stool. Or else I'll talk to the priest in confession. In America you get three things after a while: allergies, a therapist and a green card.

Shortly after we meet, Jesús says, "No taxi will pick me up. Brendan, you go ahead and get one." I'm puzzled. He's the citizen and I'm the foreigner. Bouncers check him at bars. He opens my eyes to color prejudice, raw racism, and the difference differences make.

I GO THROUGH THE SEASONS with Jesús. I hear of his Puerto Rican parents making their way to New York after the war. His mother brave and abandoned by an alcoholic father. Poverty grinds down, the projects come up. Italians and Irish move to the suburbs. She learns English, becomes a seamstress, and, with help of welfare, puts all the six kids through Catholic school. She goes to college. She is Catholic and Puerto Rican and loves her two gay sons.

Jesús listens as I tell stories of being a Catholic schoolteacher on the Lower East Side. I tell tales of nuns in Athy, Drogheda, the nineteenth-century Nun of Kenmare, and my father's work in the
asbestos factory. I tell him that my mother called and asked, "Do you have a woman in America?" And my answer: "Ma, the only women in my life are you and the Blessed Virgin."

Christmas Eve 1987, the elevator is broken and the smell of piss is strong as we walk up the stairs to the LeBron family's apartment in the South Bronx.

Inside there is a miracle occurring. Not for them, but for me. Like a candle can light up dark peace in a shadow world, they give me something that Christmas to change my life again. Much of it unspoken. In the midst of all the music and pastellas and pork and laughter and poverty, they have each other. (And, of course, they all seem to have the great teeth.) And here is the familia -- mother, daughters, sons, sons-in-law, kids, friends -- they are dancing together and I am in the middle. We dance to salsa and Christmas tunes -- Feliz Navidad, percussion instruments, güiros, maracas, bongos, conga drums, the jíbaro, and a cowbell. This family in the Bronx has embraced me as one of their own.

They make me feel the possibility of coming out of hiding -- the Lebron family is showing me how to do it. I leave there a freer man. I want what Jesús Lebron has.

EVENTUALLY I TELL MY SISTERS. Mary says to me, "God help ye it's not your fault if ye were born that way." Joan is insistent, "There must be a woman out there somewhere in America that could get it up for ye." Carmel tries to reassure me, "Well at least you're in America -- it could be worse. Whatever ye do, Brendan, don't tell the mother or father -- we're the sisters, we can handle it." So it's done. I'm out -- sort of. Now the parents.

SUMMER 1989. I'M HOME IN Scarlet Street for the holiday. There are just two days left before I fly back to New York. I'm in the sitting room, The Da is in his usual armchair. It's a bright evening. The only sounds are the pages of the Sunday newspaper turning and the ticking of the clock on the mantlepiece.

Da turns the pages, the glasses on his nose, and looks up every now and then from the page -- his huge eyebrows are so prominent, his thick head of white wavy hair -- we catch a glimpse and few words are exchanged. I'm sweating. And then I do the unimaginable.

Dad knows something is going on. I never just sit anywhere that long. I'm sitting in the armchair opposite. I look at him, he at me. I say, "Da, there's something I have to tell you." I speak about going to America to do the masters in theology. "Well, there's another reason I left. Da, I'm gay... " My body temperature changes -- I feel a rush of heat, blood swirling, mind racing, heart thumping and jumping. Da looks at me.

"Brendan, I been around the world. I've traveled a bit," he says, referring to his time in England and his stint in the RAF in Libya and the Suez. "I've seen a lot in my time. But, knowing you, Brendan," says he, "I see trouble down the line." It's 1989 and we both know he's referring to my health and my activism.

"No, Da. Not at all -- thank you, Dad."
He goes back to his paper. I can say no more. The sisters said not to tell the Da or he might have a heart attack. Right now I'm feeling like I'm the one having the heart attack.

That's it. Bells ring out. It's Christmas, my birthday, and the New Year all in one. I am present with my Da and he accepts me. I am out. I did it. We did it. Me and the Da. I feel the tears well inside. I don't want the Da to see me. I run out the back door past the mother's rose bushes towards the garden residence, the tears well and flow and will not stop. I look up at the sky. I am happy.

THE N TRAIN. ANOTHER HOT summer's day in 2011 on my way from Astoria to Times Square where I'll change for the 1 train downtown to Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. I have a cup of coffee from Maussaud's in one hand and the paper in the other. Across from me sits a young Mexican couple with a child and a stroller. They smile a lot -- eyes to eyes. Then I see his hands waving and her hands waving back. Fingers and hands dancing, guttural grunting sounds, sounds that begin to sound as beautiful as speech. They are deaf. They are communicating with hand waves and finger movements. The child between them stands on the seat, gazing delightfully out the train. They touch her. She looks about five. The cheap stroller is a pink color. I sip the coffee.

My gaze travels from subway ads above their heads to the rows of seated humanity and faces of the world that make New York home. Beside me a woman reads a book in Japanese. On the other side is a Bangladeshi man, Muslim. Opposite a fella in hugging jeans fashionably ripped here and there. He simply looks forward. I see someone reading Nouy Dziennik, the New York Polish daily. These N train riders clutch coffee, Bibles, iPods, iPads, novels, Spanish novelettes, Catholic prayer books, and the New York dailies. Here we are, humanity pressed together upon each other, snaking our way through tunnels, borough to borough. I let go with the rhythm and hum and daydream, sip coffee, plan events, gaze admiringly at men, and wonder, and wish I got more done in the day, in life.

I reflect on the city I have grown to love as it loves me back, shaping who I am. There is beauty here amidst the fierce, rough edges, where illness and poverty and struggle are in plain sight. Ah, yes, New York, since I first laid the immigrant eyes on you for real I smelled your smells from sidewalk food carts, coffee shops, and diners. With time you slowly seduced me and webbed my gay Irish immigrant heart till one day I declared I am neither Irish nor American. I'm now a New Yorker. New York's my hometown!

I see disease, and poverty to make me weep and despair. I join defiant protests -- against war, injustice, and violence -- that make me proud. Here, street theater, puppetry, subway singers, dancers, and gymnasts make me pause even when I'm in a mad rush. Sounds of Shakespeare in the park and opera in the subway send me soaring. In New York streets, shelters, and soup kitchens I have seen the capacity of the human heart for terror and tenderness, unimaginable greed and utter goodness. But here, too, I have seen and come to know firsthand a wild embrace and cheering and celebration of the mad diversity and adventurous human imagination that is this rare and queerest piece of earth.

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