|Bill and me 1964 at his Pennsauken apartment|
Yes, today is our 57th anniversary. Fifty-seven years ago this evening I walked over to thank the anonymous gentleman who was sending me drinks across the bar for the previous three months.
The location was the corner of 15th and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, PA. The place was the Westbury Bar, my gay bar of choice in those furtive days of 1964, way before Stonewall liberation.
I've recounted this story many times before on this sixteen year old blog so I'll try and make it a little different this time, and shorten it.
The previous year I had got out of the Army after a three year enlistment. I would have made the Army a career for twenty and possibly thirty years but because I was a HOMOSEXUAL, that was not allowed. I barely got out of the Army with an honorable discharge anyway because I was station at Ft. Meade, Maryland and the National Security Agency. I didn't ask for that job but that was the job that was assigned to me after I finished six month of Army Security Agency training at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. To work at NSA one had to have a top secret clearance and being a HOMOSEXUAL would definitely disqualify me from serving HONORABLY. By the way, this whole thing about not having gays in the military (we weren't called "gay" back then by the way, HOMOSEXUAL was about the nicest term. I don't have to recite the other terms but we all know what they were - and still are to this day.
Anyway, to make a long story short (and not get caught up on that injustice), I departed the Army in January of 1963 and came out totally three moths later in April when my Mother caught me with my boyfriend of the moment in my apartment during a surprise Saturday morning visit.
From April 1963 to July 1964 I would make almost weekly treks to Philadelphia with friends to the Westbury Bar, in search of Mr. Wonderful, Prince Charming, The Love of My Life, etc.
I lived in a furnished one bedroom apartment in Coatesville, Pennsylvania; a steel town suburb forty-three miles west of downtown Philadelphia.
I was poor. I barely had enough month to "go into town." At that time drinks at the bar were .75 cents. I always gave a dollar, a twenty-five cent tip. That was understood.
I always took three one dollar bills in with me to the bar when I visited The Westbury with my friends Ron (yes, another "Ron" and Ed. Both of whom have since departed this earth).
I didn't have a car but both Ron and Ed had cars. They would take turns hauling me in with them. I guess I was good company (I hope).
One Saturday evening while Ron, Ed and I were engaged in some gossipy conversation (as was our wont) at our usual corner of the bar, Jerry the Bartender tapped me on the back of my hand that was on the bar to get my attention. He had a fresh glass of gin and tonic (my poison of choice at that tender age) and indicated by nodding his head in the opposite direction to a smiling black haired older man on the other side of the bar, near the skeet ball machine. He said that gentleman was sending me a complimentary drink. "Oh no" I thought. I had seen that "gentleman" often in the bar playing skeet ball with his friends, they were quite boisterous at times. Oh sure, he was good-looking and popular but not really "my type" (I prefer slight, nerdy guys with glasses). This gentleman was athletic, classically handsome and popular and older. NOT what I was looking for in Prince Charming. I nodded my head in acknowledgment towards his direction and resumed my conversation with my friends Ron and Ed. I said something like "Can you believe that? He thinks all he has to do is buy me a drink and I'll go home with him! NOT GOING TO HAPPEN."
Of course I took the drink, it was free and I was poor. And if this person wanted to send me a drink that was just fine with me but there was no way I was going to be just another notch on his gun (no pun intended).
Thus began a regular ritual that every time he was in the bar he would send me a drink. I would acknowledge his generosity then resume my air headed conversations with my friends Ron and Ed. And yes, those conversations were of no substance believe me. This was when I was very young (twenty-two) and all caught up in the new freedom of Gaydom and a Place Of Our Own To Be Ourselves.
My friends would often say "Why don't you go home with him? I would! He's good-looking!" But no, I had absolutely no intention of EVER going home with THAT GUY. Harumph! He thinks he can "buy my" with a drink? Besides, he wasn't "my type."
Then can July 3rd, 1964. Again, I was driven to Philadelphia by Ron and Ed (I forget whose car, probably Ed's). They had someplace else to go and left me at the bar. It was early Saturday evening, maybe about ten o'clock. Well, maybe that doesn't sound "early" but for gay bars at that time the real action didn't start until eleven or later. That's when everyone made their entrances, all carefully dressed to attract the most attention from the same sex in the bar that night.
I was standing at our usual spot, the far corner of the bar, deep in my thoughts. By this time I had gotten to know Jerry The Bartender pretty well. In fact I had a crush on him (who doesn't get crushes on the bartender?) but Jerry, while always pleasant, never gave me any indication of a mutual interest in me. Then came The Drink. Jerry pushed the glass of gin and tonic in front of me as he had so often the past three of so months. He didn't even have to say anything. He just smiled. I knew who sent the drink.
I looked across the bar towards the skeet ball machine where The Gentleman Who Sends Me The Drinks usually was stationed with his friends playing skeet ball. There was no one there. Jerry saw me looking and he nodded his head to the gentleman sitting at one of the tables to the left of the jukebox.
Tables you say? Yes, back then there was a smattering of low, round tables with one of those cheap netted glass bowls that held a flickering candle.
I looked towards the direction to where Jerry nodded. There HE WAS. Sitting by himself. I never saw him sitting by himself before. He was always with his posse of friends.
There weren't too many people in the bar. I nodded to him in acknowledgment of the drink he sent to me. He must have send me a couple dozen drinks over the previous three months.
So there we were. Him sitting by himself at that low table with the candle flickering in that cheap Italian restaurant candle holder. I'm standing at the corner of the bar, BY MYSELF.
I thought to myself, because I was feeling a little bit guilty of accepting ALL THOSE DRINKS, I would at least thank him. And that's what I decided to do.
I left my coveted spot on the corner of the bar (one had to stake out coveted spots in gay bars in those days) and walked over to his table. I wanted to thank him for the drinks and nothing else. I swear NOTHING ELSE. I certainly had no intention of going home with him THAT night. I just wanted to be decent and thank him for all the drinks he had sent over to me the previous three or so months.
Now, I was fully prepared to an exit. I expected him to put a LOT OF PRESSURE on me to go home with him because he had bought me all those drinks. I had an exit plan. I was going to thank him and walk out of the bar to the gay bar across the street, The Allegro (no longer there by the day, now it's the Kimmel Music Center).
I walk over to him sitting at the table; and still standing I looked down at him and said "Thank you for the drinks and all the other drinks you have sent to me." He looked up at me, smiled and said "You're welcome." And that was it. No jumping on me with heavy, desperate, aggressive behavior as I expected. I had often experience that behavior from other men who tried to pick me up, sometimes with a complimentary drink (they think they own you then) or just trapping me in the corner of the bar (which happened a few times too, I literally had to get rude and bust out of being physically blocked from walking around the bar). Yes Virginia, this was what it was like back in the Bad Old Days when gay bars were routinely raided around election time. When one feared being "outed" by having one's name in the paper for being arrested during one of those raids. This was even before disco came to gay bars and straights found out gay bars were a cool place to dance. These were serious, cruising days folks.
Well, I was a bit surprised by his gentleness and lack of aggressiveness. And to be quite frank about it, he wasn't at all as I expected. Oh sure, he still wasn't "my type" but he was handsome and masculine. Not a feminine bone in his body, which I found immediately attractive. In fact he had a deep masculine voice. I liked that. And his body, which of course I did a quick visual check, was ......nice. Hmmmm.
Anyway, I decided to sit and talk awhile. He seemed like a nice guy and I found out he was a nice guy. And of course I went home with him that evening after he asked me if I "would like to stop over at his place for a drink." (standard operating line in a gay bar pickup folks, sorry I couldn't relate a more original pickup line).
He lived in the opposite direction of Philadelphia, to the East. He lived in Pennsauken New Jersey which was across the Ben Franklin Bridge.Twelve miles to the east of Philadelphia.
When he asked me over to his place I told him that I didn't have a ride home (I had been stranded before and wasn't about to be stranded again). He said he would take me home the next day. My apartment in Coatesville was fifty-six miles from his apartment in Pennsauken, New Jersey. That impressed me. And I trusted him. By the way, I did finally "score" with Jerry the Bartender (before I met Bill) and HE STRANDED ME after we had our intimate encounter. I was left wandering the streets of center city Philly in the early morning hours of Sunday morning until I could catch the first train to Coatesville, and this after I had to wait until Jerry closed up the bar at 3:00 AM or so. I didn't like Jerry so much after then. HE was the scorekeeper and here I thought I was in love with him. Just goes to show you. Anyway, back to Bill.
I stayed that night with Bill at his two bedroom, garden apartment in Pennsauken, New Jersey. And yes, I did have a drink. In his refrigerator he had just about every kind of juice drink you could imagine. No food, lots of juice drinks. Apparently I wasn't the first guy Bill took back to his apartment. Oh well.
Thus began my relationship with Bill.
Over the next seven months Bill would pick me up at my apartment in Coatesville, which remember was FIFTY-SIX miles from his apartment in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and take me back to his apartment for the weekend. We did that almost every weekend. Bill always had something planned for us to do. I liked him and he liked me.
Then came a time he wanted me to move in with him. Initially I turned him down. I told him that he wasn't the person I was looking for. I liked him but I didn't love him. I told him it wouldn't be fair to him or me because if I moved in with him I would still be "going out", looking for Mr. Right. Without hesitation he said, "If you moved in with me you can still go out, just be discreet about it." He said "A caged bird never sings." And he would never want to "hold me back." He also said he traveled a lot (he worked for RCA then General Electric as an electronics technician) and would be gone for months at a time and I would have that time to myself to do whatever I wanted.
I still hesitated because that wasn't my idea of a relationship. I had pictured meeting Prince Charming and living happily ever after, monogamous to one another. Not still hanging out at the bars looking for Mr. Perfect.
Bill got angry. The first time in our relationship that I saw his anger. He said if I didn't move in with he I would never see him again.
Now I had a real dilemma. I liked Bill, really did but I was just afraid of being trapped. He insisted that I wouldn't be "trapped." He said "Do whatever you want to do just be with me."
And that my friends was the beginning of my life long love affair with Bill.
During our fifty-seven years together I can remember at least a half a dozen times I was going to leave him for someone else (thank God I didn't do that). We've had our share of battles, all verbal. Nothing physical. If there was anything physical I would have been one the first times.
During our fifty-seven years together we've lived in two apartment, purchased one townhouse in center city Philly (all so I could walk to work and the gay bars, yes I continued to go to the gay bars on the weekends). We built two houses. One in Pennsylvania near my parents where we lived for twenty-five years until the high Pennsylvania school property tax forced us to me to the more tax friendly state of Delaware fifteen years ago, where we live now and where both of us will finish out our lives.
Bill worked until he was fifty-five years old at which time he took early retirement because his company wanted to send him to Africa for a year. At that time I was making enough money at the bank to support both of us so I urged him to take early retirement (which he got a lump sum payment) and stay at home with our Pomeranian dogs. Of course the best laid plans often go awry and a few years after that I lost my job at the bank (bank mergers) but I managed to keep us afloat with other jobs. Nimble Ron here.
We have had an extraordinary life folks. I will always be so grateful that Bill send me those drinks and persisted until I finally gave in. By the way, he told me later "I knew I would always get you!" I told him "If I knew that was your attitude I never would have come over and thank you for those drinks."
|Bill and me on our wedding Day July 3, 2013|
But fate has been good to me folks. Even now as Bill is fading here from the after effects of his two strokes in January (he's on home hospice care). Bill may not be the strapping endless energy driven man that he was fifty-seven years ago when I first met him on that rainy Saturday night in July, but he still loves me in spite of all the aggravation I've caused him over the years. All the drama that I've had with affairs and my jobs, and through it all Bill has stuck with me. That's true love folks.
I never thought I truly loved Bill until one of those times I was going to leave him for Another Man ("Harold" was his name, God I'm glad I didn't do that). When I informed Bill I was leaving our home and getting an apartment for me and "Harold" (God, I'm so glad I didn't), there were no histrionics from Bill. Just after I told him, he looked to the ground then up at me and said "Please don't leave me." This was after one of our big fights again folks. Every time I was going to leave him was after a fight.
At that moment he looked up at me from his lowered eyes and said "Please don't leave me" in his lowered voice I realized at that time I LOVE THIS MAN. What was I thinking? How could I ever LEAVE him? If I did I would spend the rest of my life wondering about what happened to him.
Over the years Bill had become so dependent on me. For one thing I couldn't imagine him living on his own. But more important I couldn't imagine my life without him in it.
And that my friends is where we are today. I doubt this time next year we will together to celebrate fifty-eight years together.
Bill is getting weaker every day. He needs me to feed, bath and dress him. His eyesight is gone, he can't read or do any of his projects of things that give him pleasure. He has profound hearing loss and has to wear a hearing aid which he can't even put in his ears now, I have to do it. His cognitive abilities are slipping, which is so said. It frustrates him that he doesn't know how to control the volume on his hearing aids, the heat control on his heating pad or even how to use the remote control for the over head fan. But he knows who I am and is not in physical pain. And that's what I keep telling myself. He knows who I am and he's not in physical pain.
I lavish him with attention every day. Even though his speech is slurred and I have a hard time understanding him, I sometimes have conversation with him about The Old Days. We can't talk about our dogs (total of five Pomeranians), too sad.
These days Bill like to sit under the awning of our back deck. He goes out for a walk once or twice a day down to the cul de sac in our development. I take him out for a daily ride.
We've had a good life folks. He still have some time life. One day this will end and I will be sad beyond my comprehension. I had a preview of that feeling when I thought I had lost him after they had air lifted him by helicopter to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia for a week's stay in their ICU unit. I thought I lost him and felt so devastated because I didn't even have a change to say "goodbye." But I've been given a reprieve. After a week's stay in Philadelphia and a two week stay in a rehab hospital, Bill has been at home with me. And now we are living the final chapter of our wonderful lives together.
Oh how many times have I thank the Gods above that I went over to him that Saturday night fifty-seven years ago and said "Thank you for the drinks."