I always thought Billy Wilder’s film SOME LIKE IT HOT was funny, until my next-door neighbor asked in his basement, “Who you think is prettier as a woman? Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis?”
“Neither.” This was 1964 and men in dresses weren’t supposed to be funny to 11 year-old boys on the South Shore of Boston.
“Yeah, but if you were on a deserted island and there were only you, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and they were wearing dresses, who would be your wife?” Chuckie sometimes wore his youngest sister’s underwear. He looked nothing like Addy, but more like Tony Curtis.
“I would kill myself before marrying either of them.” The Bible considered men dressing as woman as an abomination, however the priests wore long black cassocks. They called them robes. We knew better and kept our distance.
Chuckie and I remained best friends throughout the 1960s. Our knowledge of drag queens expanded with the Kinks’ hit song LOLA. “We walked like a woman and talked like a man.”
“You ever see a man walked like a woman and talk like a man?” Chuckie was a little hesitant about broaching this subject.
“Once at the Greyhound Bus Station.” I had been buying Levis at Walker’s Jeans on Boylston Street. “But he was obviously a man. Even had stubble like a man. And you could tell the high heels hurt his feet.”
“I tried walking in my sister’s shoes. They were murder.” Chuckie obviously had continued his closet cross-dressing.
“I only have trouble with new sneakers.” They put blisters on my heels.
“Oh.” Chuckie sensed this was as far as we could go.
We grew apart after I went to university at Boston College. I drove a taxi to pay for my apartment near campus. My last fares came out of the Combat Zone. Drag queens, go-go dancers, and drunks. They were all good tippers. None of the queens were attractive and I couldn’t understand why any man would take one home or to a hotel or a dark park.
Lou Reed’s WALK ON THE WILD SIDE had to be a lie.
“In the backroom she was everyone’s darling.”
I didn’t know what a back room was. My move to New York in 1976 taught me the meaning. I became a punk. Sexual frontiers were blurred in a city where people changed their names to suit their desires. I went to gay bars to pick up fag hags. My gay friends told these girls I was queer. They wanted to convert me to being straight. I played hard to get, but they always had the cure.
One night I was at the Anvil, waiting for my friends to finish their excursion to the back room. No girls were allowed in the bar, so I was surprised when an attractive brunette sat next to me. She looked like a top fashion model, except skinnier in a pink tube top and hot pants. She touched my shoulder with a long lacquered nail. “Can you buy me a drink?”
Her faux falsetto betrayed why the bouncer permitted her into the Anvil. She was not a woman, only the closest thing in this bar.
“Do I have to beg you?” She twirled a strand of long brown hair around her finger with a mockery of feminine guile. I almost laughed. She frowned and asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, just thinking back to an old song.” I wouldn’t be able to get LOLA out of my head for days.
“Something you want to dance to? I’m a good dancer.” She wiggled her shoulders like a go-go girl. This move sold the mirage and I signaled the bartender to give my barmate a drink. “My name’s Dove. How you like to go in the back room with me? You can do anything you want.”
“Why, you think I’m unattractive?” Her lips pouted with disappointment. “I know you’re straight. That’s why I sat here.”
“I thought it was to hustle me for a drink.”
“Fresh.” She slapped my hand. “I have my own money.”
Dove explained how a US senator was her sugar daddy. She wouldn’t say which one. Her stories about going to the inaugural ball for Jimmy Carter were funny. “No one thought I was a man. At least none of the men seemed to care. Especially the Republicans.”
After an hour my friends were still buried in the Anvil’s snake pit and I settled my bill to leave. I almost kissed Dove good-night, but shook her hands instead.
“So I guess this means you’re going home alone?”
“Don’t be sorry, one night you and I will get it together. I’m patient.” She waved good-bye and stood up to twitch a hip as a calling card for later.
Dove was not only patient. She was persistent, despite my continual refusals to push our relationship any further than friends. I told her no at the Mudd Club, Studio 54, CBGBs,
Hurrahs, Xenon, the Kiev, Dave’s Luncheonette, but she kept asking and I kept saying no.
One evening in 1980 I was at a Paloma Picasso party. It was black tie. I was bored after the first hour and went to get my leather jacket from the coat check. A young man fell into me and I turned around quickly since he had stepped on my foot. The thin gay boy’s clumsiness was not from too many drinks. A brutish six-footer was shaking him by the lapels. The stitching was giving way and I slashed my arm down on his aggressor’s wrists. This broke his grasp and the gay boy ran away.
“Why’d you do that?” The thug demanded with red eyes. He was on something. My guess was speed.
“Because I didn’t feel like being bumped into while you beat up on a fag.” My brother was gay. My friends were fags. I didn’t like bullies.
“And what are you going to do about it?” His hands clenched into fists.
Boys from Boston didn’t back down from fights and I wanted a right to his mouth. The punch seemed to stagger him, then he spit a tooth in my chest. This was going to be a fight and not a good one. I threw lefts and rights faster than his counters, but he outweighed me and I backed up to the wall. Luckily the security broke us up. They knew me and threw him out. Two ballerinas thought I was a hero for standing up against this gay basher. I felt like one too and accompanied them into the street, where I waved down a taxi. My hand never reached the air, because something hard struck the base of the skull.
I fell into the gutter and pulled my arms over my head. A second later I was unconsciously floating through a green emerald which pulsated with lightning every second. This was not a good sign. Finally someone asked with a Jersey accent, “Have you had enough?”
I had had enough after the first sucker punch. It was the thug. A chain was wrapped around his fist. I nodded yes and he strode away the victor. I got to my feet. My teeth were intact and my nose was unbroken. I looked at my face in a car mirror. Blood was dripping from a dozen cuts and for the next week I resembled a welcher on a bet to John Gotti’s gang.
New York’s a big city, but the night life then was a small scene. Maybe 3000 people. I would run into the thug again and carried a long stiletto for that moment. It wasn’t long in coming.
A transvestite trapeze bar opened in Times Square. GG Barnums. Dove was part-owner. Her senator the secret other half. We were sitting at the bar. She bought me drinks. Dove had heard about my beating. She thought I was a hero.
“Heroes don’t get the snort beat out of them.”
“Well, you’re a hero to me and I’d love to show you how much.” She was wearing a Chanel dress cut to show off her Mia Farrow figure.
“Thanks, but I’m not really in a romantic mood.”
“I could change that in a second.” Her hand caressed my thigh. I knocked it away. She was hurt. “What’s wrong?”
“That guy who beat me up just walked into the bar.” I grabbed the knife in my pocket.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Dove stopped me from standing and lit a cigarette. “I’ll take are of this.”
She moved through the crowded bar like a serpent seeking its prey. She puffed hard on the cigarette. The ember a bright red. She tapped the thug on the shoulder. He turned around and Dove stuck the cigarette in his eye. He dropped to his knees on the floor. Dove returned to me and said, “Will you go home with me now?”
“I don’t think I can refuse.”
Nothing really happened between us. We kissed a little. Nothing more and she said that it was our little secret. GG Barnums lasted a half-year. Trapeze transvestite shows went out of vogue. Dove moved to DC. I didn’t see her again, except in my mind every time I heard WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. Dove was everyone’s darling in the right mood and beat out Tony Curtis as choice #1, but I couldn’t have foreseen that in 1965. Not even in my dreams.
Open City declared Peter Nolan Smith an underground punk legend of the 1970s East Village. He spent many years as a nightclub owner and doorman in New York, Paris, London, and Hamburg. More recently he has worked in the international diamond trade and the film industry. He is a constant traveler and has lived for long periods of time in Tibet and the Far East; although recent rumors have him located in Palm Beach.