I moved to New York City in the fall of 1980 and quickly landed a job at a top corporate design agency, making $15,000 a year. It wasn’t much to live on, but, fortunately, my rent was only $250 a month for an Upper Eastside tenement—a 3-room railroad flat, complete with bathtub in the kitchen.
My first boyfriend, Jim Fragale, was turning 40 and I was 27. It was 1979. He’d moved to NYC from West Virginia in 1963 at 24. When we began dating, I couldn’t believe he’d lived in NYC for such a long time. I remember saying to him “I hope I’m not still here after 16 years (As it turns out, I’ve now been here 41 years, though I had a 2-year break in Tokyo working for a bank).
In 1979 and with no gay life to speak of, I scrimped to save a few thousand dollars, negotiated my departure from my firm, sublet my Manhattan apartment, and took off for California in my little Toyota Celica. In retrospect, I had to leave NYC to “learn to be gay.”
2004ish – I was staying in a friend’s apartment on 17th Street off Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, then Manhattan’s gayest neighborhood, while visiting NYC from Miami in 2004 or so. I returned from a day spent running around town to find the block cordoned off and a number of NYC firemen standing nearby preventing bystanders from getting too close.
It was mile two and a t-shirt passed me by that was imprinted with “First Name Last Name 196X – 199X.” I did the math. Mid-30s. “Wow. How young,” I thought. … and then another passed … and then another … and then I realized … these are all young men who died from HIV / AIDS. This is a run for a charity that delivers meals and those meals used to be for men living with HIV. I cried.
At Lafitte’s, the bar was made of thick old bayou cypress planks polished by thousands of men leaning, cruising and drinking on it for over 45 years. Underneath these planks was a cheap burlap skirt and not much else hiding the jockey boxes and equipment. The bar was a large and amorphous island, open on three sides. In the center of the bar was a tree shelf of liquor—a rough triangle attached to 3 poles. Each bartender, working their stations, on each side this tree of liquor used it. This was the call liquor.
1979: The crowds were still in full force around the stage for the Bourbon Street Awards and the only space available was under the balcony where the stage itself blocked the view but gave a bit of space to hang out. Clyde and Al and I watched the very end of the Bourbon Street Awards here under Lafitte’s beefed up balcony- it was closest to the front door where there was at least breathing room. It was just the 3 of us. Huge cheers had gone up for the last of the award and Ed Smith was winding the awards down. I was buzzed and very happy because I was hanging with my two favorite daddies and I know they were as buzzed as I was. I saw Al looking at me and just smiling. He grabbed me with both hands and gave me a big ol kiss on the lips.“I’m so happy to be here with you for your first time,” he said. “And I’m proud of you.” I choked up as this was a pretty huge for him to say. Clyde put his arms around both of us. This was a big moment. We 3 relished it. Then Al turned to me and Al said quietly, “Bobby I’m leaving on the redeye back to San Francisco tonight.”
1979: A thunderclap woke me up and then loud voices. I hadn’t gotten much sleep but wasn’t hungover. I felt a buzz all around me, I had no idea what time it was but could hear guys laughing in the courtyard and then the door was opened and in came Louie and Clyde. “Get your lazy ass outta that bed boy, we got some people to meet.” It’s Mardi Gras day an nobody sleeps through that! “Downstairs now, get in that shower.” Clyde bellowed. Louie just smiled at me and laughed. “You have a good time last night Curtis?” I smiled. “Get ready and meet us at the gate and I’ll fill you in on anything you don’t remember,” Louie said as he closed the door.
1979 – “The rules of this house during Mardi Gras are” as George South proceeded to tell all of us hung-over guys at about 11am on Saturday morning of Mardi Gras weekend in his large double parlor “if you got keys it’s your house—no tricks—but if you fall in love then I’ll be watchin! Everybody’s ass is home for dinner at 7pm every night.” “No excuses, even for bartenders. Now, ya’ll get out on them streets or on the stoops and have some fun!
1979: Getting to work at Café Lafitte on the second night of Mari Gras was tough, even though 1132 Bourbon Street was only a couple of blocks away. The crowds of Mardi Gras revelers started at St. Philip, just a block from the house and it was body-to-body up Bourbon Street all the way to Lafitte’s. Then, it was in the front door and just push and shove my way through the bar, past the fireplace, and into the alleyway to get to the backroom. The jukebox was blaring “Mardi Gras Mambo.” No one had a shirt on anywhere and I was lucky to get to the back with my shirt on too. The backroom was also packed, but with bartenders and barbacks. I only knew a couple of the guys– Jason, who’d be working with me upstairs, and another guy Craig. Steve, who everyone called “the Ayatollah,” acted just like the despot he was named after. He was a good-looking, blond-haired, blue-eyed man who was very self-assured, strong and in supreme command. He began barking out orders to us like we were his guards. I stood there taking my orders.