Sunday, May 23, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Uptown and Downtown: Caffe Cino and The Old Reliable

Author Perry Brass, 1971

In October of 1966, after I had been in New York only 3 months, and was struggling with a dirt-pay job as a messenger at an art studio and going to art school at night at Cooper Union, my 42-year-old roommate on Central Park West Bob Schwiller asked me to sit down for “the talk.”

“I’m gonna have to ask you to leave,” he announced.

I was surprised.


“I don’t like your attitude,” he said.


I was in disbelief. I had thought I had a good attitude. At least as far as I could see, it was good. For a 19-year-old kid it seemed good. I was a polite Southerner and most people saw that. New York had been difficult for me to get used to: it was crowded, abrasive, and pushy. I was not and didn’t want to be.

“Your attitude. You think you’re better than other people. I can tell it. You’ve been rude to my friends. Damn snotty if you ask me. And you don’t bring guys home. Wha’s th’ matter? Think you’re too good for guys on Central Park West?”

I tried to catch my breath. This came as a shock; I’d felt so alone in New York and now I’d be thrown back into the cold again.

Bob’s world had been pretty alien to me: the bitchy queens of his generation did not get my own, who were listening to the Beatles and the Stones and not tossing back cocktails to Frank Sinatra. It was true: I brought every few guys back, but then Bob’s place was pretty much a revolving door; he changed his phone number every other year because too many tricks ended up having it.

I was silent, trying to figure out exactly what Schwiller meant, until his friend Larry’s words came back to me: “Bring home any nice new numbers for Bob?” A light flicked on in my head: I was there to lure other young men and their friends to Bob’s pad, toss what I’d already used to him, or refer their also studly young pals to him. Obviously, Bob Schwiller wanted not just sloppy seconds, but lots of firsts, thirds and fourths as well.

Schwiller picked up the conversation.

“I ain’t gonna throw you out, Perry, but I’ll give you til the end of the month. That’s a little more than two weeks. A nice lookin’ young man like yourself should have no problems finding somewhere else to stay.”

I looked around Cooper Union, where I was going to art school at night, and put up notices in all the bookstores and bulletin boards in the area, roughly the East Village. This was what you did then: you put up a notice on a bulletin board and not on Craig’s List. A few days later I got a call from another “old guy” in his 40s who lived on East Third Street, way down town. I was getting desperate and feeling very out-of-place at Bob Schwiller’s as he interviewed my successors, trying to find more young bait for his cocksucking on CPW. Jerry, the gent in the East Village, told me how to get to his apartment, taking subways I was unfamiliar with; I nervously ventured down after work at night to see his place.

It was between Avenues B and C. I got off at the Delancy Street stop, and noticed wary men hanging around warming their hands over oil barrel fires. The East Village was dirt cheap and wild. People blew joints on their stoops and tough kids looked at you murderously if they didn’t know you. But Jerry’s apartment was in an old gracious building that had once housed professionals like teachers and social workers, who had moved up to more genteel surroundings after living on teeming, overcrowded Allen, Hester, or Orchard Street, the classic Jewish Lower East Side slums. The apartment was on the third floor, in the quiet back, and it ended with a continuous line of windows looking out on a yard planted with trees. Seeing any tree in New York was always good; I was cheered up by that.

Jerry Borensky, chubby and balding with hair growing out his ears, quickly got down to cases: he was looking for a roommate, “for company,” preferably one he could sleep with, but if that didn’t happen, “Don’t worry, we can be friends.”

I was fairly traumatized: I had no money at all, no family to call on, and no prospects beyond being a messenger at an art studio. I looked at him in alarm, but agreed to move in on the condition that I slept alone in a fold-out couch in the living room. Jerry would keep the back room with the windows overlooking the trees all for himself.

I quickly learned about the Lower East Side from Jerry. The LES was friendlier and more bohemian than anyplace in New York, but it also could be violent at times. You had to watch whom you eyed, but you never could tell when a pair of friendly eyes might meet you. It was also very integrated racially. Jerry was into young black men, and there were several bars where black and white guys could meet easily: something that did not go on Uptown, not at least until you got to Harlem.

Across the street was a wonderful old bar called the Old Reliable. It was run by a Russian Jewish couple, Margie and her husband Speedy. They cottoned to gay men as long they behaved themselves. It was extremely dark, and Speedy would often take a flashlight to shine into the booths to make sure that no hanky-panky was going on in the stygian recesses of the front bar. It was thoroughly, completely mixed gay and straight; black, white and Latino; and class-wise, too. Adventurous Uptown gays came down for a little action, so you never could tell whom you’d end up with. Because it was mixed, it was my introduction to what were once called “hand-holding bars.”

In other words, you could go in with a woman, hold her hand, and then end up holding hands with a man in the next booth, or even at the same table. If the cops came in and questioned two guys getting close to one another, then one would retort: “I’m really here with Jane.”

Or Mary.

I learned later than in many parts of the country, hand-holding bars were preferable to gay bars. Gay bars could get you the customer (or the barkeep) in deep trouble. But if the rep of the bar was mixed, then you could get away with things you could not get away with in a gay bar. Like you could kiss a man in a hand-holding bar and you could not in a gay bar. Unless it was Mafia to the teeth (translation: paid off a lot to the cops), you’d be quickly thrown out.

I remember this specifically when I nuzzled a man on the cheek in Julius’s in the West Village and he warned me: “Watch it. You never can tell who’s looking.”

All I was doing was simply nuzzling him, not even kissing him briefly.

On weekends and Sundays the Old Reliable starting showing plays in its back dining area, so the place became frequented by actors, playwrights, and directors. Robert Patrick (the author of “T-shirts” and the ground-breaking Broadway play, “Kennedy’s Children”) had his plays done there. So going to see plays in the backs of saloons, exactly as it was done in Shakespeare’s era when plays were performed in the back courtyards of inns, became accepted as part of the creative foment of the times. I didn’t see any of the plays at the Old Reliable, but Jerry Borensky soon introduced me to the Caffe Cino, one of the most exciting and influential places in New York theater history, on Cornelia Street in the West Village.

The Cino was run by Joe Cino, who was not an actor or playwright, but who loved actors and playwrights and set up his tiny cafe to showcase them. Starting as early as 1958, the Cino was the birthplace of the Off-Off Broadway theatre movement that is still in action today. The number of actors, directors, and playwrights who were launched at the Cino was legendary. They included Tom Eyen, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, and Doric Wilson whose early Cino plays, from 1961, “Now She Dances” and “Pretty People” can be described as the first gay-positive plays to be produced in New York. There were also Tom O’Horgan, who later directed the first production of “Hair”; Robert Heide, whose play “The Moon,” with its delicious gay encounter, mesmerized me; Diane di Prima; and the brilliant actor/playwright Jeff Weiss whose one-man play “A Funny Walk Home” could be described as drop-dead radical in its assessment of the families queers came from, and one of the first plays to truly intertwine sex and politics.

In Steve Susoyev and George Birimisa’s anthology Return to the Caffe Cino, I described going into the Cino as “like entering an Aladdin’s cave of treasures.” It appealed to every aspect of the senses and imagination: the sights, the smells, the sounds, and most remarkably the wonder of sexual secrets being opened and honored when for the most part no one wanted even to admit that real guys went after each other. In most of America, if you did, you were “unreal” and pushed under the rug or down the toilet. The Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street is definitely a part of lost gay New York, as much as the bars, standing room at the Metropolitan Opera, and the close-to holy action in night time cruising areas.

Speaking of which, Jerry my roommate, liked late night trawling through Stuyvesant Park. At that time, it was a pretty rough area, close to the old Stuyvesant High School, and men “did it” in the bushes that lined the park after they met on the benches. Like Bob Schwiller, he was not a bar-type. He told me, “After 40, going into the bars becomes pathetic. You’re ignored, or you look desperate. It’s OK, if you’re paying for sex, but for me it’s easier to meet guys in the parks or on the streets. The East Village is great for that. No matter what they say, you just can’t beat the Lower East Side.”

You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle. His books are also available on the Nook  format. You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords, the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon . The Manly Art of Seduction was recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. It is also a finalist for a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award.


  1. So did jerry get more than just a housemate?

  2. When I read your post I fondly recalled that decade. Similar to when I saw rent on Broadway and laughed as I knew many of the characters. Nice post. Have you ever read Ken Shakin's work , we went to HS together.

  3. Answer to questions. About Jerry: no, although he tried very hard and chased me around the apartment a lot. We didn't last very long either, but that will come out in the next installment of Lost New York.
    I am afraid I have not read Ken Shakin's work, but will look him up. You're right: living on the Lower East Side is a like seeing Rent again.

  4. LOVED the Cafe Cino. I'll never forget seeing "Ondine's Christmas Carol" there among many other things. Jeff Weiss was a joy!

  5. I saw that, too. I thought Jeff Weiss's one-man play "A Funny Walk Home" was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life. I was 19 when I saw it, and went back to see it again. It was like everything I had felt as a lone, totally alienated gay kid, up on a stage. Now we are a lot less alienated, but there are still moments in any gay kid's life when you feel like you're out there all by yourself, no matter what age you are.

  6. I remember so much queer theater in those days - T.O.S.O.S. and The Glines, Hot Peaches and plays done in bars...Poetry was important, including street poetry like Emelio Cubeiro's or Jimmy Centola's, street zines like "Faggots on Faggotry" and "Gay Post." A non-drinker I was never much for bars. More an old-fashioned street cruiser. Love the memoir, looking forward to more!

  7. Thanks, Anonymous, for this great comment. I was actually talking with a friend about Emelio—we were wondering what ever happened to him. I did several readings with him. He was wonderful! And I'm glad you remembered the Glines, Hot Peaches, and TOSOS. A delightful sweet friend of mine, Arthur Brady, did costumes and sets for Hot Peaches, way back in the early 70s. Arthur was one of the first tragic deaths in the AIDS Crisis—he was a beautiful guy, and is certainly part of my Lost New York.

    1. Arthur was a charmer and I remember him well. I believe you can see a photo of him on the Hot Peach website ( Emelio Cubeiro moved up to Vermont a few decades ago but had a serious hep C incident and died as a result, I am sorry to say. We were very close and I miss him and his wild sense of reality. Very much enjoyed reading your book.