West Village on the Hudson

by Andrew Sarewitz

Ghosts sometimes bring me comfort.  Invisible to most current passersby, but palpable when I walk the sparkling landscape of the downtown Hudson River waterfront of New York City.  Progress disguising and forgetting what came before. 

 

I spend too much time talking about the past.  But memories point to a more interesting autobiography.  That would annoy my mother, if she was still alive. People who live off the highlights of their bygone days ad nauseam pissed her off.  Though she wouldn’t return to certain significant places from her past because, as she confessed to me, it would be too painful. 

 

The history gets revised as it fades in clarity.  Looking back, even as a teen I tried to live in the moment and memorize the good, hard and interesting times.  I hope it got me to be a better person now.

 

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The AIDS generation.  I can’t forget when AIDS was a death sentence rather than life’s inconvenience.  It isn’t to propagate guilt.  If I’m preaching, I think about it like the history learned for my generation: understanding the significance of the changes brought in response to the Stonewall riots in 1969.  I would like younger persons,  particularly gay men, to recognize on whose shoulders they stand.  AIDS spread just as hordes of gay individuals were beginning to embrace self acceptance and pride throughout society.  One additional unforgivable truth: our American President at the time (whose son was a ballet dancer, by the way) not only did nothing about it, he wouldn’t even utter the word.  Apparently gay people and intravenous drug users were getting what we deserved. 

 

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Before AIDS surfaced, summers for some of us were a sunbathing banquet. Long before the western riverbank of lower Manhattan was gentrified, there was a privately public celebration going on out on the piers of the Hudson River. 

 

In the summer of 1979, Donna Summer not only represented the disco world, she ruled radio stations across the country.  Her album, “Bad Girls” had a spring release.  Soon after, “Hot Stuff” hit number 1 on the Top 100 music chart in the United States.  At the same time, she held the number 2 spot with “Bad Girls.”

 

Hear me out on this before you roll your eyes. I often place Donna Summer in a similar lane as Dolly Parton. I draw that comparison because at the time, a great deal of people either hated or knew nothing about disco Talent (with the exception of Donna Summer and arguably, Gloria Gaynor, due to the everlasting success of her 1978 hit, “I Will Survive”).  I knew nothing about country music  — or as it was classified back then, “County and Western” — but knew one notable act by sight and voice, even though I was completely ignorant to the genre.  Dolly Parton.  Probably because of “Jolene’s” success and her later crossover hit of 1977, “Here You Come Again,” which was not written as a country song.  Where Nashville created stars, disco was consciously murdered.  Ironically (or predictably) dance music rebounded and remained front and center: we just didn’t call it “disco” anymore.   

 

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Long before the Westside gentrification, the piers of West Village on the Hudson were a Mecca of gay society, particularly when the climate warmed up.  If you walked to the end of Christopher Street, crossed the highway and turned south for one block, you would find the Morton Street pier, jetting out into the Hudson.  There were two large ships permanently parked on the pier’s starboard side.  I can’t tell you why or if there was any useful human life on board.

 

Concrete over wood, broken and decaying, we would walk to the very end of the crumbling dock to lay out in the sun.  Even if the weather was unreasonably hot and the air stagnant, out on the pier, the river breeze made it an unlikely paradise.  Someone usually brought a boom box with them, playing disco music loud and deliberate.  “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” by McFadden and Whitehead, was an anthem in the summer of ‘79.

 

In the early 1980’s, city planning downtown was in full swing, due very much to the power of gay society and its money in West Village.  Low storied condos were built at the wide area of Christopher Street, with connected store fronts.  Bloomingdale’s planned on opening a Men’s Store in the commercial spaces.  At the corner of West Street and Christopher, a hotel was being built, with a pool on the roof, which was meant to be exclusively for men.  Then, everything collapsed.  The condos were completed as was the structure for the gay hotel, but everything stopped as AIDS devastated the community.  Bloomingdale’s withdrew from their commitment, and the hotel, which never opened, was converted into a subsidized ward for people suffering with AIDS.  Bars across the Village began to close, men were dying in noticeable numbers, with implications that the acceptance finally earned across the States would be reversed as city and national fear set in.  As hysteria infiltrated America, there was talk of sending people with AIDS to internment camps, isolated from the general public.  It hadn’t yet been confirmed that the disease couldn’t be spread by mosquitoes. 

 

I wonder why I am alive, remaining HIV negative through it all.  One reason could be that a small percentage (about 5%) of persons have a natural immunity to the virus, according to scientists who were studying the disease in Belgium.  By the late 80’s, almost every man I dated was HIV positive.  Refusing to allow fear to dictate my behavior, condoms became a way of life.   

 

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I miss the pastime of “cruising.”  Now, almost everyone walks while looking down at their phones.  It makes me nuts.  The afflictions change but the symptoms aren’t new. I remember parents being concerned their kids’ lives were being ruined by too many hours spent hypnotized by television screens.  And way back when, I’m guessing there were young readers so engrossed in books, they were seen as anti social dreamers. 

 

From airports and suburban malls to country paths.  Cruising could happen anywhere. But it was a way of life in West Village. It was, for lack of a better word, fun (verb and adjective). Walking the length of Christopher from Sixth Avenue to the river, surveying the sidewalks to catch the eye of another man.  Stare at someone who’s staring at you from a close distance.  Look down or away as you pass each other.  Then turn around to see if he was looking back.  Sometimes you’d get together.  I don’t deny it was great for the ego — as long as you got some attention. 

 

The definition of a gay bar was a clarion experience, socially sexual.  It’s not that we didn’t hang out with our friends, but bars and clubs were safe places to be how you wanted to be seen, and to meet other men who could possibly be a partner (or just get you laid, if that was the aim).  The years cascaded into the MTV era.  Bars began to put large screens over head and on blank walls, projecting music videos.  The backlash was eyes caught up in the addiction of watching back-to-back mini-rock operas, rather than looking at the crowds of individual men. 

 

There were unspoken rules when meeting a stranger in bars.  When I have described this to others, they often think I was a snob and total asshole for this behavior.  But I still stand by the etiquette.  If you stare at someone and they don’t look back at you, you shouldn’t approach and start up a conversation. 

 

Still a bar fly, it’s now a completely different social system.  With total immersion into iPhones, meeting a match in person is no longer how things are done.  I fight it with everything I am.  I’m not only in a minority, I realize I’ve become one of those old geezers who actually says things like “remember when…?”.

 

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The edge of the Hudson River in Manhattan has been cleaned and beautified.  Old structures have been renovated and new glass towers built. Now there are new parks and elevated walkways, bike lanes, green grass and flower gardens.  The Morton Street pier was destroyed and the two ships vanished, with no evidence they were ever there.  I sometimes imagine the ships were scuttled, sunk and rusting beneath the murky water, docked permanently in the polluted mud at the bottom of the Hudson. 

 

Some of the gay bars survive and some new ones opened, taking advantage of the long stereotyped thoroughfare still thought of as the “Gay Way” by non-New Yorkers.  Apartments in West Village have become more expensive than those on Park Avenue and the city’s gay world, arguably no longer needing to survive as a ghetto, has spread far and wide.  Hells Kitchen houses a majority of bars servicing gay men all within a few blocks, though most will welcome packs of straight women, no matter how much it annoys older men like me.  But it’s not my time anymore.  I’m a relic that still finds polite acceptance within this replica of my world.  I hope the young adults that now shine in the free light of what it is to be gay in New York City at least respect history.  Not so long ago, a rainbow flag was waved and set on fire and came out the other side, singed but still in tact.  In fact, flying high.

About the Author

Andrew has written several short stories (links to published work at www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. Mr. Sarewitz is a recipient of the 2021 City Artists Corp Grant for Writing, helping to fund the completion and a reading for a new play based on Andrew’s previously published Creative Nonfiction story of the same title, The Other Side of the Coin. His play, Madame Andrèe, (based on the life of Nancy Wake, the “White Mouse”), garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights series in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival in August of 2019. The script for his play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s spec script for his sitcom, The White House is a Finalist in the Pitch Now Screenplay Competition.