2018 Writing Contest Winner:
My sister points to a Manhattan high-rise as we drive along, and with an edge of authority in her voice declares, “They live in buildings like that.”
From the backseat I lean forward, strain my neck as I look through the front windshield, trying to catch a glimpse at the high-rise in question—find nothing. “What are you talking about?”
“They live in buildings like that one.”
As the car passes yet another building, I quickly turn my head, look out through the back window, hoping to spot what she sees, find the clue, but cannot; I have no idea how she knows a building is “a gay building.”
My brother-in-law, behind the wheel, looks over at my sister, smiles.
“Well, it’s The Village, a lot of gay men live here. So a building like…that one (she points to some gothic piece of architecture) is sure to be filled with gay men.”
She never pointed to where the gay women lived, but then she never made any mention of gay women at all. Then again, when I think back on it today, she didn’t need to point to buildings in which gay women lived, after all there I was, clearly not in any gothic high-rise, but in the backseat of my sister and brother-in-law’s car; a young girl who knew she was attracted to girls her own age, who wondered if there were others out there like herself…
It was the mid-Sixties. My sister, already married, living away from home, would arrive periodically unannounced at our parent’s house in Queens, march into my room where I’d usually be watching TV, stand in front of the set, and issue her directive like a gym instructor, “Get your sweater, we’re taking a ride to The Village to look at the Hippies and the Flower Children, come on.” Within five minutes she’d have me in the car, and we were off; my brother-in-law and sister in the front seat, and I in the back.
The first place my sister and her husband had ever taken me in Manhattan was the circus at the old Madison Square Garden; then Macy’s at Christmastime, and later on: The Village. Even though the circus and Macy’s seemed magical, it was The Village I came to love the most, viewing it through the back and side windows of my brother-in-law’s Ford; small winding streets, old brownstones, crowded sidewalks filled with a sea of peace signs, and long hair—the flower children--looking stoned, handing out flowers to all those who passed. It seemed as if this were the place where anything could happen, was allowed to happen. Just sitting in the backseat of the car, I could feel the energy of the city run through me, an energy of incredible possibility, something I had never sensed in the borough of Queens.
And there my sister and brother-in-law sat in the front seat, two people who had been influenced by the Fifties, viewing all this through the windshield of a Ford. This world was much different from the one they had grown up in; there were no rules, no formulas already set in place to follow--they were curious, though they never joined in. It was as if they knew their place in a time warp. My sister: silver-blonde hair done in a beehive bubble, her thick false lashes, Maybelline-mascara eyes, bauble earrings; my brother-in-law, in control behind the wheel of the car, captain of his own ship, a ship that carried monthly payments, that he could one day “own.”
Theirs was a life of Makasaware and dinette sets, Swanson frozen dinners, Minute Rice, instant pudding; of women who found their man, got married, had children; men who held the job for thirty years, who stayed married to one woman—all this in the Ford. And I in the backseat, this was what I was supposed to emulate, was supposed to want and dream of, what my world presented to a young girl growing up in Queens during the Sixties.
Little had my sister and brother-in-law known that I had in some way already chosen the world beyond the windshield: the city, the people who were “different,” the “gay buildings”--I was barely an adolescent. They had no idea that I had already decided, had not known that I had a longing for women already. Inadvertently, they showed me what I otherwise might have missed—a choice: the possibility of living life differently.
I sat in the backseat as my sister pointed the way.