My buddy Mickey, a nerdy, goofy Jewish guy who lived near me in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, decided to give me a tour of where he hung out when his family thought he was working late.
He borrowed his sister's Oldsmobile and drove me into Manhattan. He parked the car near Sheridan Square, and we walked down Christopher Street. I'd never seen anything like it: Gay bars with blaring disco music, the street so full of gay men that cars couldn't get through. It felt like the after party for gay pride, but it was just a Wednesday night in spring.
At the end of Christopher, we walked to West Street. Some seriously macho-looking guys in leather congregated around two bars, Badlands and The Ramrod. Even the names made me feel as though I was in the Wild West. The Ramrod had a double R on its awning that looked like a cattle brand.
"Come on!" Mickey said, pulling me up West Street. He smuggled me into a joint that was so dark all you could see were the floating orange tips of cigarettes. It was so dark, no one noticed I was a girl.
I had just turned 17 and was trying really hard to be 35. Underneath it all, I was just a runaway kid from Jersey. When he said there was a glory hole in the back of the bar, I asked if he meant a urinal. Mickey laughed his ass off.
As we pushed our way through the bar, a huge, muscular man with a bushy handlebar mustache yelled, "Get out!" No girls allowed.
So Mickey took me to Badlands to shoot pool, but the men at that bar started banging their beer glasses on the bar chanting, "Fish, fish, fish" until we left.
Back on West Street, Mickey introduced me to "Blondie," a 13-year-old he had taken in for awhile.
I didn't ask.
"Hi, honey, nice to see you! ... I'm sooo busy tonight, honey!" the adorable little boy with the blond hair said. He had a half-dozen Hispanic boys running errands for him.
"Go get me some cigarettes!" he asked the eldest, who couldn't have been more then 16.
"He brings in the money. They don't," Mickey explained.
A station wagon full of Chasidic men pulled up to Blondie, and the long-bearded Chasid in the passenger seat called him to the window.
"Are they trying to convert him?" I asked Mickey, sending him into fits of giggles. Man, I was naive.
We crossed the West Side Highway to sit on a concrete slab and watch a group of a about 20 gay men, some in drag, some homeless, dancing to a boom box blaring Donna Summer. "Bad girl. You're such a naughty bad girl!"
I wanted to explore the rotting old piers and dock houses that Mickey said were home to a crazy scene of cruising, trans* hookers and drug dealing, but Mickey shook his head.
"It's dangerous over there at night."
In Jersey, being out and gay could mean a beer bottle thrown at your head. I'd had Chasids throw rocks though my window in Crown Heights just for wearing Levi's. I didn't want to think about what they might throw if they knew the woman visiting me was my lover.
Dangerous? That night was the first time that being who I was had felt safe. None of those men were interested in me or the details of my sex life. And they weren't cowering in fear from bashers. They were letting it all hang out, quite literally.
I had no idea that it was all about to end. Soon after that night, I started hearing about "the gay cancer" and "gay pneumonia." Businesses began to close on Christopher Street. The sex clubs got shuttered for "health violations."
Even Mickey stopped going to West Street, as though he might catch it from the air.
Then everyone started dying.
Robbie, the adorable red-headed boy I hung out with, just disappeared. Adam, my beloved friend who we all thought looked like Adam Ant, dwindled from body-builder size to 90 pounds. He quietly passed away after making himself a dish of ice cream and morphine. Alex maxed out all his credit cards went to a hospital in Virginia to be near his mom. In his last weeks, he couldn't speak. "Love you!" I said petting his hand. He nodded and smiled, then wrote, "Strawberry yogurt, please," on his sketchpad.
Affected as I was, I was comparatively just a tourist in the worst plague of my lifetime.
"You lost two people," my friend Steven reminded me one day. "I lost a hundred."
A few years later, Steven made three, or four, depending on whatever happened to Robbie.
The ragged Wild West piers off Christopher Street are now pretty, green parklands filled with baby strollers and bike lanes. The gay boys still come to sunbathe or cruise, but they are surrounded by tourists and dog walkers. There's a place nearby you can kayak. Even the water is clean now -- well, clean-ish.
There's a goddamn Starbucks in Sheridan Square.
When I walk down Christopher Street to the Highway, I feel the ghosts of that night in 1981, when I felt I was in the center of the greatest party in the universe. I didn't know it was last call.