In the first chapter of writer Brad Gooch’s new book Smash Cut, a vivid and searing memoir of gay bohemian life in New York City in the '70s and '80s, he visits the apartment of his soon-to-be lover, film director Howard Brookner. The year is 1971, the weather is warm, the mood heady, the real estate cheap.
They arrive on Brookner's block -- the last on Prince Street before the Bowery, “a burnt-out district, full of inky purple shadows tinged with even more of a sickly yellow cast than the West Village, and a smell of gas, rather than dog s--t, in the air. Few lived around here, except the street people, occupying empty eye sockets of windowless apartments across the street; the only business, a pizza shop one corner away.” Brookner’s “vast” loft apartment costs $100 a month in rent.
Today, a one-bedroom apartment on the same block goes for $5,650 a month, according to StreetEasy. On a recent visit to the block, I saw a willowy brunette examining a pair of leather “sweat pants” that retailed for $1,095 at Helmut Lang. In front of a candle shop across the street, the chalkboard advertised three varieties of flower-scented candles -- Moroccan rose, Indian jasmine and Japanese peony.
Gooch says he can’t help but feel nostalgic for the old New York, despite its bad smells, its roaches and muggings. In Smash Cut, he seeks to unearth the ruins what he describes as a sort of lost Atlantis. The blocks and buildings still stand, but the spirit of that era was wiped out first by AIDS (which killed Brookner in 1989) and then, in essence, by progress -- by the mainstream acceptance of gay life in America.
Gooch -- now 63 and married to Paul Raushenbush, executive religion editor at HuffPost -- recently sat down with me to talk about his latest work. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why write this book now? What was your seed of inspiration?
We moved to Chelsea Gardens on 23rd Street [in Manhattan], Paul and I. And then every day when I would go to the gym down the street, I would look up at the Chelsea Hotel and see the apartment where Howard and I lived and where I had my 30th birthday party next to the 'O' in the 'Hotel.' When we moved there, I wasn’t really thinking about this. It wasn’t really weighing on me. I wasn’t thinking that Howard had died two blocks down the street at London Terrace. Somehow when we actually moved there, it sunk in.
Part of why it wasn’t sinking in was because everything was so radically different. It was like another planet. I mean, my life was completely different; Chelsea is unrecognizable from what it was. So I think the daily seeing these same locations and, at the same time, having the eerie feeling of being completely dislocated from them caught my attention.
I loved the line in the book where you write that “the '70s had a romantic aura because of so much first love among grown men.” But I couldn’t help wondering, do you think that part of that romance becomes clear only in retrospect? That it was such a romantic time because of the AIDS crisis that followed it?
Well, possibly. Meaning that it’s the lost continent of Atlantis. It’s a very distinct time and it really ends, and it really now is history -- and that’s so startling.
It's true, as with great historical events, you wonder, "What if the South had won the Civil War?" What if Robert Mapplethorpe was alive? What if Keith Haring was alive? How would our culture be different? How would gay liberation have gone differently? And we don’t know the answers to these things. And because of what happened, which is like going through a war and all these people were killed, it just becomes its own moment.
I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the theme of "haunting" in the book. There are many references to ghosts and haunting. Was this a conscious decision? Did this happen organically?
I would like to say it was intentional because people have pointed it out and I think it’s wonderful, but I wasn’t really aware of it when it was happening. But that’s the thing of writing, too. All of this stuff, if you’re in the zone, there’s a natural structure and natural imagery to it. So there was always a feeling of being haunted, that’s true, and the Chelsea Hotel seems kind of haunted so it works. I didn’t contrive it.
Can you tell me more about your writing process and what objects and images you looked at while you were writing?
I hadn’t been precious about saving things particularly, so it was interesting to me that I had the chopsticks wrapper on which Howard had written his number the first night we met. At that point we didn’t have iPhones, so if you met someone, you’d write down their number. You would have some place in your house where you’d put all these numbers, and when you needed to call somebody, you’d go through them. There would be so many that you’d throw them away. But somehow I’d kept his number, and I had transferred it, and at this point it becomes almost amazing. And there was a poem I had written to Howard and ripped out and left out on the table, and it amazes me that these things somehow had made it to here.
Do you think you feel differently about this period of life now that you’ve finished writing about it?
In terms of Howard, I do. There was a sense of responsibility to write about him and to record him, and also in a way a responsibility to record that period and that time -- because a lot of the people who were the eyewitnesses weren’t around and it was special, particular, an antidote to the present in a way.
Tell me more about that -- “an antidote to the present”?
Not at all to be snotty about the present, but I just think in terms of gay history, gay culture. ... Back then, there really wasn’t a gay identity yet and we were part of this first out generation. There was an intimacy to it.
Then it was very cheap and that’s why you could have artists and you could have underground clubs. Real estate was nothing. This allowed a lot to happen, but it was also very difficult. I was mugged; everyone was mugged, attacked, robbed. Apartments were full of roaches and the subways didn’t work. People didn’t have answering machines yet. Now it's much safer and I’m benefiting from that because I’m older, but it’s not the same place. It can’t be.
Thankfully, now we have all these legal protections of gay people and marriage, which I’ve benefited from. And also a place like Chelsea -- you have a gay identity to come to. There are gay gyms, gay restaurants, but identities can be confining. There’s a way that New York has become a brand now.
Some gay men who lived through the peak of the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s talk about survivor's guilt. Have you experienced that?
I don’t think so. I wrote in the book that at the time, I told Howard I was HIV negative and I cried and he was so happy. To me, that was about separation, that I realized I was going to go on and that we were going to separate and I would face life without Howard. It took me a long time to recover from that.
What do you notice when you return to your old neighborhoods and streets?
It’s funny, you go to some fashion store and you know that that was the Mineshaft [an underground gay bondage club that Gooch once frequented]. People were being whipped where that purse is hanging. I guess there’s something about aging, but you know, it's more than age because of the way it happened. It accelerated ages. People weren’t all supposed to die when they were 30, and I wasn’t necessarily supposed to still be here.
There are some great celebrity encounters in the book. Of those mentioned, who would you pick if you needed to chose three for a dinner party?
Certainly Robert Mapplethorpe I would really like to see and Andy Warhol. William Burroughs kind of scared me and creeped me out. I don’t know about him. Does Howard count as a celebrity? Those people would make a good dinner party.
If gay marriage had been legal and supported by society back when you met Howard, do you think he would still be alive and the two of you would be married and having kids?
We thought about it in the 1970s and I remember talking about it with my shrink. Howard had kind of a conservative side to him, too. He wanted to become his grandparents in some way. He definitely had a part of him that would have wanted to get married and he definitely wanted to have children.
Do you think society’s lack of acceptance of gay people played a role in Howard’s death?
A big part.
We’d all lived through this incredibly repressive "Leave It to Beaver" world. And very rare was the gay man who didn’t hide and lurk in his high school because of this. The cork pops in some way when you come to New York. It was part of the energy of the period -- this extended adolescence and there was love and longing. But at the same time, there was a dark side to all of this. There was a danger to what we were playing around with.